ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE

Summary: A funny thing happened to Jenny on the way to the train station at the end of "Easy J"… instead of heading straight to Grand Central, she stops for a burger and fries and runs into someone unexpected… Nate, confused by Juliet's web of lies, worried about his parents, and wrestling with unresolved feelings for Serena. Another road to N/J. Goes AU after 4x06.

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.

Chapter 3 – For the Longest Time

If you said goodbye to me tonight
There would still be music left to write
What else could I do?
I'm so inspired by you!
That hasn't happened for the longest time...

Blair

"See, B! I knew this would snap you out of it! Who better to play Glinda the Good Witch on Halloween?"

Blair rolled her eyes at her BFF Serena as she filled bags merrily at Dylan's Candy Bar. Today, the very sight of S irritated her. She was so happy that she looked as if she was going to burst. And no one should be wearing a John Galliano original with a distressed leather jacket and uncombed hair. (What was wrong with her?)

"Do me a favor, S."

"Anything."

Blair smirked. "Are you serious about that?"

"Of course."

"If I'm ever as cheerful as you are right now about anything? Shoot me."

Her sharp remark wiped the smile from Serena's face. Good, Blair thought. How dare her so-called best friend be happy when Blair was miserable? Her war with Chuck was at a ceasefire, Columbia had yet to be subjected to her royal rule, and Gothic Barbie had traipsed in and out of her city without permission.

All was not right in the world of Queen B… even if she was bringing Givenchy back with her adorable mélange-print dress.

"Whatever," Serena murmured, with an elegant eyeroll. "You'd better appreciate me now because next weekend I'll be heading out of town."

"I really don't care that you're consummating your disgusting affair with our professor…"

"Not while he's teaching our class, Blair!" replied the blonde indignantly. "We've already had one instructor change thanks to you and Chuck…"

"Touché," murmured Blair, examining her nails (perfectly painted in Chanel's newest red).

"We don't need another. No, I'm heading upstate to celebrate Rufus and Lily's anniversary."

"What? How dare you, Serena?! My twentieth birthday…"

"…is being celebrated next weekend," Serena informed her. "It worked out because the orchard we're going to was booked solid on the actual date, which is when you're having your party."

"The orchard you're going to? What kind of people have parties at orchards?"

"I think it's going to be more of a family gathering. Last of the apples, hayrides, and a bonfire… it sounds fabulous! Dan, Eric, and I are going to head up next weekend."

Blair examined a display of lollipops, looking at them as if they were radioactive. "Have fun with your deranged stepsister."

"Actually, being banished from Manhattan is probably the best thing that ever happened to Jenny. Dan says she's got auditions with RISD and some school in London…"

"Stop your mouth from moving," Blair sniffed. "I do not care what that troll does or where she goes. Jenny Humphrey is dead to me, and good riddance. On to other matters. Attire for my twentieth?"

"What do you mean, attire? I thought you picked out your dress months ago! I was with you…"

"Not for me, Serena, for you. The dress code for the evening is classic and tasteful. As we leave youth behind, we must also leave behind our former vices. For me, that's scheming… for you, well…"

Her brown gaze fell on her bestie's exposed décolletage. Serena shook her head.

"If you wanted to go shopping, B, all you had to do was ask."

"Let's distinguish 'want to go' and 'need to go.' Remember, I've seen your closet recently. You need all the help you can get…"

"And it looks as if she isn't the only one."

Both girls turned around. Chuck was standing right there behind them, looking incredibly dapper in a pinstriped gray suit. Blair could only wonder how long he'd been standing there before alerting them to his presence…

Or why she couldn't sense it the second he walked into a room anymore.

"I don't know what you mean, Chuck," said Blair, clutching her empty bag seconds before whirling around to face him. Damn, he looks fantastic today, she couldn't help but think, taking in his dark gray suit and purple tie. Good enough to… no, stop! He doesn't look perfect, look at that tie… wait, I think I remember that tie.

The last time I saw that tie, it was wrapped around my wrists. Tied in a bow. As he leaned over and…

She had to compose herself before continuing. (Serena had turned away from the pair to take a phone call… of course.) Blair told herself that she wouldn't be flustered. Whatever had existed between her and Chuck was gone. If there had been any embers left, the war they'd just subjected each other to had cooled them completely.

Perhaps, somewhere in this demilitarized zone, they could revive the easy friendship they'd once had again.

"There's nothing in your bag," Chuck observed. Blair focused on the words, trying not to think about how much his deep voice reminded her of cream.

"I can't help that," she snapped. "Serena dragged me here. She invited the entire building's brats up for Halloween, then says she's bailing for some Humphrey hayride! Figures…"

She trailed off when she realized Chuck had pulled out his Blackberry. At first, Blair thought he was ignoring her… and was caught between wanting to throttle him… and wanting to sink through the floor. But she waited.

Chuck looked up. His lips were set in a line, but in his hazel eyes, Blair detected a smirk.

"As it turns out, I have no plans for the evening of October 31. If you must host Hansel and Gretel with their grubby hands, I would be glad to help you think of more enticing treats."

Blair cocked an eyebrow. "For kids?"

"For the children in your building? Yes."

Serena rushed over. "Guys, I'm sorry, but I've got to go. Dan's sprained his ankle, so he can't drive us to the orchard anymore."

"Sis, if you need a lift…"

"No, I've already texted Nate. The thing we got for the hayride was so big it would only fit in the Lincoln Hawk van, and I know how you are about your limo's leather, Chuck. Nate can drive us up there, then take the train home."

Blair shrugged. "Have fun on your bridge-and-tunnel field trip to the hinterlands. Maybe it'll distract you from your mission to violate every student code of conduct ever with our professor."

"Whatever, B… here, take this candy," said Serena, waving Blair's insult off and dumping the mound of treats into Blair's empty bag. "Bye, Chuck. See you guys next week."

They both watched her go. Neither wanting to be the first to look at the other.

When Blair turned back around, Chuck's eyes were on her. Unbidden, a line came from years before, from that infernal Age of Innocence play they'd done senior year…

Each time we do this, you happen to me all over again.

He held out his hand. "Shall we?"

He didn't have to say another word. Setting the basket down on one of the ledges, she knew they were heading somewhere that was more their style.

"We shall."

And as they headed out the door and in the direction of Laduree, Blair took his arm, feeling oddly as if she were back where she belonged.

XOXOXOXOXO

I'll take my chances,
I forgot how nice romance is!
I haven't been there for the longest time...

XOXOXOXOXO

Jenny

At Constance, the studio classes had been a big deal. All of the kids still in art after ninth grade were super serious about it, had been taking classes forever, and were planning to make it their career.

Yet Jenny had never minded the pressure. In fact, she actually kind of loved it. Although her preferred media were fabric, yarn, and thread, she was the daughter of a professional painter. Drawing and painting always helped her relax. Here in Hudson, she was easily one of the best in her class, and didn't have to worry about competing to keep up.

They were on (yet another) still life exercise, this time, a mixed bowl of fruit and flowers. Jenny, who got bored pretty easily, finished sketching hers first, then began transforming it into a full-fledged botanical illustration, looking up the Latin names for pears and grapes on her phone. Now she was carefully penciling in the descriptive calligraphy, enjoying the precise way that her pencil tip rendered each letter.

Maybe I'll give this one to Lily and Dad as an anniversary present, she thought idly.

Wait, what am I saying? There's no way my stepmother would put this on her wall next to her Richard Phillips.

A tiny frisson of anger spiked through Jenny's chest. While she could hang the painting anywhere in her mother's house, and her father would've proudly found a place at the loft for it, her work just didn't feel right in the elegant van der Woodsen home. There Jenny and her work had been like a pretender among royals. It was part of the reason she'd gotten rid of her sewing machine early junior year.

Yeah, I couldn't exactly be Queen J with handsewn clothes, she thought ruefully, smoothing down the folds of her form-fitting patchwork skirt beneath her paint apron. Originally something she'd stitched for Vanessa, it was the kind of garment she wouldn't dare wear anywhere near Constance or St. Jude's.

But Hudson was different. She stopped wearing her designer threads after coming back from New York this last time. Anything so that the Hudson kids would forget where she'd come from…

"Hey, Jenny. Got a minute?"

Jenny looked up and smiled. It was her lab partner Brenton Orsini. Brent was a really cool guy, the captain of the basketball team at Hudson. Brent was very cute in his own tall, lanky way, but more of a geek than a jock when it came to his personality. He was a crappy artist, and confessed to Jenny early in the semester that he'd taken studio for an easy A.

"Hi, Brent. How's your still life coming along?" She looked, but Brent's easel was turned so that she couldn't see it.

"You do not want to know." He stared at her work. "You're making the rest of us look like amateurs. As usual."

She giggled. "Yeah, well, you know how that goes. Especially since I have you to thank for my A in physics this quarter."

"You're a lot better at painting than I am at physics."

Jenny turned back to her painting, thinking that Brent would walk back to his stool and easel. When he didn't, she turned around, hands folded.

"Orsini, your attempt at foiling my still life isn't going to work."

He was staring at her, confused. "What?"

For such a cute guy, he's refreshingly awkward. She couldn't help but giggle.

"You're blocking my light…"

"Oh," he said, but still didn't budge. "Um… I was wondering, Jenny… I've been meaning to ask about something."

"What is it? And before you ask, no, I haven't finished my problems yet. That's what lunchtime is for, right?"

Brent just looked at her. Jenny felt guilty. How many times had he bailed her out with the homework already this semester?

"Ugh, just blame senioritis. I mean, it isn't like I'm going to be majoring in it or anything like that..."

"Are you planning to ask anyone to the Sadie Hawkins dance on Friday night?"

Jenny blinked. She didn't think she'd heard him clearly. "Huh?"

Brent seemed flustered. "Hey, sorry if you're already going with someone… didn't mean to make it seem like you had to…"

"No, it's not that. I'd forgotten all about it." And she had. That was the weird thing about transferring into a new high school as a senior. You were so used to the rhythms of the old school, and didn't quite know the social calendar of the new one. "It's my dad and stepmom's anniversary weekend. They're coming up Friday night, and…"

"I get it. You have other plans."

Was that her imagination, or did he seem… crushed? Jenny was flattered. Cute boy is cute, she thought. He's so awkwardly adorable.

"Brent, stop. You're coming to the dance with me. Pick me up at a quarter to eight."

His eyes widened. "Are you serious?"

In response, Jenny stood up from her stool, put her hands on Brent's shoulders, and brushed her lips against his.

"Is that serious enough for you?"

Brent's geeky, confused look disappeared. His arms tightened around Jenny in a relieved hug…

"Mr. Orsini! Miss Humphrey!" their art teacher, Ms. Andrews snapped. "Break it up, now!"

But she could barely be heard over the cheers, whistles, and catcalls celebrating Hudson High School's newest couple.

XOXOXOXOXO

Maybe this won't last very long
But you feel so right
And I could be wrong
Maybe I've been hoping too hard
But I've gone this far
And it's more than I hoped for...

XOXOXOXOXO

Dan

"So how did you sprain your ankle again, Dan?"

Daniel Humphrey frowned, adjusting the phone against his ear and looking up and down Water Street through the windows of the loft. Sometimes, little sisters could be the absolute worst.

"I told you. Pulled an old soccer injury."

His sister laughed over the miles between them. "Dan, you played soccer for a few short weeks last fall! Old injury my eye… did you fall up the building stairs again?

Shut up, Jenny. "Anyway. How's Mom handling us coming up this weekend?"

"She's handling it. She's really glad you're coming… and Dan, you really need to spend some mother-son time with her. She misses you."

Dan didn't say anything. Things hadn't been the same between Dan and his mother since the Alex affair… especially since their mother was still dating Alex. In fact, there were many mornings when the man was seated at the breakfast table that their parents had once shared. Dan didn't get how Jenny could stand being around the man who'd helped their mother cheat on their father.

"Anyway, I'll miss all the fun Friday night, so I probably won't see you guys till the morning. Mom says she'll bring me over to the hotel in Albany early enough so I can ride to the orchard."

"What? You dodged Scrabble a few weeks ago… what's so important that you're willingly missing yet another Humphrey game night?"

"I have a date."

Dan's mouth dropped open. "A date?"

"Yes, Dan. It's when a girl gets all dressed up, and a boy comes over, and picks her up, and…"

"Ha, ha. Very funny. I just thought… you put all that behind you when you came to Hudson, Jen."

Snort. "Dan, I'm seventeen, not seventy. Brent's a nice guy. A nice, normal guy who's nothing like the Upper East Side crowd. I'm actually kinda… looking forward to spending some time with him. We're going to a school dance together."

Dan tried not to worry. Jenny was right. After all, his little sister was seventeen, not seven. So what if all her dates had been disasters back in the city? Maybe a regular kid was just the sort of person Jenny needed in her life.

"Okay, but if he tries anything…"

"If he does, you'll be the last to know," Jenny assured him. "I'll make sure of it."

"Huh. Doubtful if someone posts it on…"

"Gossip Girl? Thankfully that stupid website of yours doesn't even exist up here." There was a note of satisfied arrogance in Jenny's tone. "If I'd known high school could be this good, I would have come to live with Mom years ago."

A knock sounded on the door of the loft. "Wait, Jenny, hold on…" He put the phone down. It was Nate, coming in with a pizza and his backpack. "Ah, it's Nate. Listen, I should probably go. See you this week..."

A dial tone sounded on the other end of the line. Dan frowned at his phone before setting it down on the table. It wasn't like his sister to hang up without saying good-bye.

Shrugging it off, he looked up at his friend. "Hey, how's your dad doing?"

"He's on the mend, thanks," Nate said, bringing the bags and drink carrier over to the sofa. "How's that ankle?"

"Not great. Listen, thanks for agreeing to drive us up. It took me and Eric forever to do this, and it would just get crushed on the train."

He indicated the two life-sized paper scarecrows that he and his stepbrother had created from Jenny's design. They did look eerily like his father and Lily, he reflected. The paper mache would light up perfectly in the bonfire, and embedded sparklers would create a shimmery effect…

At least, that was the idea.

"Whoa, did you make these?" said Nate, after circling the figures a couple of times.

"I did, it was all me… actually, I have to admit, it was a joint effort," said Dan proudly. "Jenny designed it, Eric figured out bamboo wires for the skeleton, and Serena got the clothes from a vintage shop. All I had to do was stuff the thing with old newspaper."

"Must be nice to have brothers and sisters."

Dan looked at Nate. The Columbia sophomore had plunged into one of the chairs nearest the sofa, staring at the scarecrows for a while. Then he reached for the nearest Jimmy's bag, pulling out a few French fries.

"Everything okay with your Mom?"

"Yeah, she always liked the Hamptons better than the city. Now that I'm done with St. Jude's, she can spend more time out there."

"Is she going to sell the townhouse?"

"Not that I know of. It's just sitting there. I crashed there sometimes when Chuck was still with Eva. Penthouse felt kinda… crowded at times." He frowned Dan's way. "Hey, you know you're welcome if you ever…"

"Nah, I'm just a few stops on the line away from school here. I can go weeks without heading anywhere near the Upper East Side these days. Must be the same for you… the Empire's closer to Columbia than your parents' place." Dan stretched his leg out on the sofa. "What time does the game start?"

"Eight, I think." Nate had come over to watch the Knicks preseason game, and Dan, never really one for sports before befriending Nate, had purchased the all-sports package.

The two friends ate in silence after Dan switched on the newly purchased TV. There really wasn't anything on except pregame commentary, which they listened to idly. Dan's thoughts were on several things. Foremost on his mind was how he was going to make it through the weekend hopping around on crutches… and whether he should call Vanessa up in Vermont so they could have it out about her issues with Serena.

Serena. Thinking about Vanessa these days inevitably led him to how he really felt about Serena. Once his girlfriend, she was now (and for the foreseeable future) his stepsister...

His stepsister he'd kissed again one spring night he couldn't forget.

His stepsister he'd almost chased all the way to France.

What's that line from Byatt that always reminds me of her? Dan thought. Oh, yeah, that's right…

Grabbing his notebook, Dan scribbled it from memory.

"I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed."

Serena was still his fire. Try as he might, Dan couldn't shake her from his mind, his soul, his very consciousness. She warmed, she consumed…

She burned.

"What was that?" Nate said, not turning away from the television.

"Hm?"

"You were mumbling something to yourself." Nate reached for his soda. "Need some more ice or something? I think I want something stronger."

"Nah, man, I'm good. And you still haven't replaced my dad's Jack."

"Oh yeah, right. Sorry about that. I can do a beer run if you want…"

"No need. There's plenty of beer in there. Just throw me one."

Dan stared at the line in his Moleskine notebook, trying to capture the image it evoked. Lately it seemed as if the girl he'd spent all of high school trying to capture on paper completely eluded him. He wasn't sure why. Was it the "she's your stepsister" thing, or was it because she couldn't decide between him and Nate?

As if Nate Archibald will ever be a real option for Serena van der Woodsen…

At least, not if I have anything to say about it.

"Hey, heads up."

Dan looked up to see the can of Pabst Blue Ribbon flying in his direction. Setting the notebook back on the end table, he sat forward slightly and opened the tab, watching as the foam bubbled up and spilled over the sides.

Nate had already gotten his open. He took a few swigs before he spoke again.

"Listen, there was something I wanted to ask you about." The Vanderbilt scion spoke hesitantly, not looking directly at Dan, but staring off into space.

Dan shrugged and went back to his notebook. "Shoot."

"That Gossip Girl blast a couple of weeks ago. About the real reason Blair didn't take Chuck back, and banished Je… your sister."

Ugh. Dan threw down the notebook, rubbing his eyes with frustration at the memory.

"Yeah. What about it?"

"No one ever said anything to me about what happened, dude. I just had to read between the lines."

Dan stopped rubbing his eyes. "Yeah, it's not exactly like talking about the weather. 'Hey, guess what? The biggest lech and loser in Manhattan deflowered my baby sister.' It still makes me… not only did I want to rip his arms off, I'm upset that it was the guy who tried to force himself on her at the beginning of freshman year. I hate that I couldn't protect Jenny from Chuck."

Nate didn't say anything for so long that Dan looked up at him. The Golden Boy of St. Jude's, usually transparent, now wore a face like a mask.

"Maybe she didn't want to be protected."

Dan set down his beer. "What do you mean by that?"

"Well, didn't your father tell her to go to Brooklyn after she tried to ruin our scheme to uncover what Serena's dad was doing? Instead she came to the Empire and…" He trailed off.

"And?"

"She spent the night."

"She couldn't have. Remember, she took that picture of me and Serena."

"We got up early. She must have gotten back here and seen you before you woke up."

A vein twitched in Dan's neck. This was something he didn't know.

"What do you mean, we got up early? Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

Nate refused to look at him. "She came to the Empire, wanting to talk. I tried to listen, but I was drunk and fell asleep. We got up early the next morning and…"

"So what you're saying is that Chuck didn't deflower my baby sister. Did you?"

As Dan watched him carefully, Nate tore his eyes from the indeterminate spot they'd been fixed on to face him.

"No, I didn't. She slept on one side of my bed. I passed out on the other. I didn't lay a finger on her. I was still with Serena and I don't do that."

"Oh, yes you do… come on, Nate, do you expect me to believe that line? You slept with Serena while you were still with Blair. You slept with Catherine while you were trying to get back with Vanessa. You bounce from girl to girl, and as much as it pains me to say this, I know my sister didn't just go to the Empire to talk that night!"

Nate sighed. "Jenny's different… at least, she was. She knew she had no chance with me. I told her that I was in love with Serena, that I only ever saw her as a friend…"

"Really? Yeah, that was probably true last spring, but what about senior year when you were living with us?"

Another huff. "That was different."

"No, the way I see it, Nate, it wasn't different. You broke her heart," Dan accused.

"Dan, look…"

"I don't have to look!" roared Dan. "Ever since she sneaked into that stupid masquerade party freshman year, and you kissed her, you've always brought out the worst in my sister! My dad grounded her freshman year after she stole that mean girl's mom's dress, and whose house did she sneak off to? Yours! She decides she's going to quit her internship and start a clothing line with a drug addict, and who helps her? You do! She decides she wants to party with the college kids and while she's at it, steal you from Serena, and who actually let her go? You did!

"And now you're telling me that you actually let Jenny, who's had a crush on you since she was in middle school, sleep with you…"

"What the hell are you accusing me of, Dan?" Nate snapped. "We didn't do anything but sleep! Nothing happened!"

"Was that the first time she'd slept over?"

"Dan, this is crazy… I've never done anything to your sister!"

"WAS THAT THE FIRST TIME?"

"I'm not answering that!"

"So it wasn't the first time. I see. Then you're just as much to blame as Chuck was for what happened that night."

"WHAT?!" Now it was Nate's turn to be furious, springing up from his seat. "CHUCK'S THE ONE THAT-"

"Yeah, I know. But if you hadn't led her on, if you'd just told her to go back to Brooklyn, she would have never come back to the Empire the next night!"

Nate sat back down and ran a hand through his hair. Clearly frustrated.

Dan felt his anger dissipate at the sight of him. What was done was done, and there was no undoing it.

"Hey…"

"I'm sorry, Dan."

"For what?"

"For not being there to protect her. It would have never happened if I was there."

"I know. And it's why I forgive you. But it's not enough."

Nate looked at him, puzzled.

"You've got to forgive yourself."

As Dan watched, Nate closed his eyes with a frown.

"You know, I think it's for the best. She's doing way better in Hudson. Mom loves having her up there, her fashion's going great, and she's making friends." Chuckle. "She's even going to this senior dance with some guy you and I will have to kill this weekend."

"What guy?"

Dan shrugged and stood up, grabbing his empty can and Nate's to take back to the kitchen. "I don't know. Some local yokel who she said was refreshing after dealing with the Upper East Side."

"And you're okay with that?"

"Well, I'm not crazy about the idea of her dating anyone, but I recognize that's the protective big brother in me coming out. Jen's seventeen now. She's going to be an adult in a few months. At some point, I guess I have to let her out of the proverbial tower, even as much as I don't want to." He looked up from the fridge. "Another round?

Nate was turning up the TV, seemingly losing himself in the ESPN commentary.

Dan doubted he'd heard a word that he'd said.

XOXOXOXOXO

I had second thoughts at the start
I said to myself
Hold on to your heart
Now I know the woman that you are
You're wonderful so far
And it's more that I hoped for...

XOXOXOXOXO

Jenny

The fun part of a Sadie Hawkins dance at Hudson High School was that everyone was encouraged to wear 1950s and early 1960s attire. It was to celebrate the time when the custom of girls asking boys out became popular. (Rumor had it that the school administration also felt it would ensure that people's Halloween costumes wouldn't be too overly gory or slutty.)

Best of all, there would be a costume contest, and Jenny really wanted to win. The task of finding and designing appealed to her creative nature.

There hadn't been a lot of time to plan her costume for the dance, so the only original design she'd made was a poodle skirt. It took dragging Alison to resale shops all over the county before she found a petticoat that was usable. Even then, it was about ten sizes too big for her slender frame. But when she was finished altering, the effect under the denim-and-lace confection was perfect.

A crisp white shirt with three quarter length sleeves and a fitted, pale pink sweater over it completed her outfit. She didn't have saddle shoes, but leather paint on a pair of Alison's old oxfords created the same effect.

Satisfied with her appearance, Jenny docked her iPod, and cued up a song to get her in the mood. Carefully planned outfit aside, her heart still wasn't in it.

Oh, oh, oh
For the longest time…
Oh, oh, oh
For the longest time…

Jenny whistled a little under her breath as she styled her hair into a high ponytail. She'd removed the dramatic extensions a week or so before, and used her mom's old hot curlers when she made it home from school that day. All in all, she thought the effect made her look a lot like Olivia Newton-John at the beginning of Grease… except a real 1950s sock hopper would have had bangs. Jenny didn't have bangs, and didn't want to cut any, so that was that.

As she started to put on her eye makeup, a knock sounded on her open bedroom door. Using the mirror, she glanced at her mother, who was wearing a paint-flecked smock.

"Haven't heard that song since I was in eighth grade," laughed Alison, removing the smock and tossing it on the floor just outside the bedroom. Then she went to sit on her daughter's bed. "I didn't know my punk rock loving daughter was into Billy Joel."

"I'm not," admitted Jenny. "But this is the closest to 1950s stuff I have… 1980s sock hop revival, courtesy of Dan Humphrey."

"Yes, my son who thought 'Uptown Girl' was his personal theme music during freshman year of high school." Alison reached out a hand to tuck one of her daughter's blonde curls deftly into place. "I'm so glad to see you getting out and having fun, sweetie."

Jenny sighed, taking the cap off her lipstick. "I'm not sure how much fun I'll have. But it's Brent. I'll have a good time for his sake."

"Yes, you will… I've watched you two, you know, when he's come over to study. He seems really nice."

She wanted to agree with her mother, to tell her just how endearingly cute Brent's clumsiness when he wasn't shooting hoops really was. But instead, she just sighed.

"What's that all about?" Alison probed. "Tell me."

"I don't know, Mom. Brent's a great guy. But how can I be sure he's the right guy for me? If he isn't, I don't want to lead him on." Under her breath, she murmured, "Because I know what that feels like."

"You know that something's right by the way he makes you feel when you're with him," Alison told her. "How does Brent make you feel?"

"Safe," Jenny replied without hesitation. "He's safe. I know I can trust him… and I don't even know him."

"Then that tells you something, doesn't it?"

Jenny didn't say anything. She reached for her eyelash curler instead.

"Of course, if this is about the rich guy you left behind in New York…"

"It was never about Chuck and you know it, Mom," Jenny snapped. "I told you all summer I don't have any feelings for him."

"Yes, I know. I know that I wasn't around while you were going to Constance, but you did fill me in on some of these people, and Dan's shared the rest. I wasn't referring to him and you know it…"

"Then I don't know who you could be referring to," her daughter replied shortly, curling dark blonde lashes over pale blue eyes.

"You're so much like me." Alison chuckled to herself. "More than you could ever know… it's like looking into a mirror sometimes, and seeing my younger self reflected back. Because you know, the first guy I ever slept with was when I was trying to get Rufus' attention, too."

Jenny hadn't known that. Skipping over the completely disgusting part that was her mom sleeping with anyone, she shrugged her thin shoulders. "So?"

"So moving on to the best friend of the guy who rejected you and broke your heart? Classic Alison Stevens move, circa 1989. Like mother, like daughter."

"Mom, that's not what I was doing," Jenny said shortly. "You and Dad did all kinds of crazy things when you were younger. You've told me how many boys you dated before you dropped out of art college freshman year to follow Dad around! I got drunk and slept with someone just once… it's not like it's the end of the world!"

Alison's tone was tender. "It was the end of your world, wasn't it?"

Jenny set the eyelash curler down and turned around. "Mom. I'm really not in the mood for one of your heart to hearts. I'm trying to forget that there is an Upper East Side. I just want to prepare for my night with a really amazing guy. Okay?"

"I think that's a good idea, Jen. Just remember this: Brent is not Nate."

Jenny's breath caught in her throat when she heard the name she'd been avoiding for months from her own mother.

"That's why I like Brent so much," she replied flippantly. "He's different."

"But if you're not over Nate, it won't matter how different he is."

"Mom…"

"No, honey, I want you to listen to me," Alison interrupted. "The reason I bring up how alike we are is because I don't want you making my mistakes. I don't regret marrying Rufus, because you and Dan are the best things that ever happened to me. But the last thing you want is to let a guy into your heart who isn't as into you as you are to him."

"Mom, Nate isn't…"

"You can't lie to me, Jenny. Not after all your visits here while you were at Constance, and his name was the only boy other than Eric you mentioned consistently. Now, Dan and I talked yesterday, and he told me how you ended up doing shots with Chuck. You went looking for Nate that night, didn't you?"

Jenny folded her arms. This wasn't a conversation she was going to have willingly.

"Nate doesn't deserve another thought from you, Jenny. He's been in love with your stepsister since they were children. From what Dan's told me over the years, he's still pining after her. It reminded me so much of your father and Lily that it was painful to hear."

Her hands, still flecked with dried paint, closed around her daughter's upper arms.

"Any boy who leaves you on the shelf and goes to Lily van der Woodsen's daughter? That is a boy you don't need to give the time of day, sweetie. Let him go."

Jenny closed her eyes. Remembering a dog-eared slip of paper, tacked up on the loft's bulletin board, that Dan had carefully copied and attributed to Mark Halperin the summer after he broke up with Serena:

What happens when you let go, when your strength leaves you and you sink into darkness, when there's nothing that you or anyone else can do, no matter how desperate you are, no matter how you try?

Perhaps it's then, when you have neither pride nor power, that you are saved, brought to an unimaginably great reward.

"I have let him go."

"Jenny, are you sure?"

"Mom, I'm not interested in Nate anymore. He practically called me a slut when I went to New York for that Parsons interview and ran into him at Jimmy's. He told Eric I threw myself at him and Damien. He's an awful, disgusting person, so trust me, I don't need the pep talk."

Alison stroked her forehead, visibility attempting to smooth away her worry. "Maybe you do. Because Dan called to tell me Nate's driving him, Serena, and Eric up here since he sprained his ankle."

Jenny shrugged. "So what? I won't see him. Eric texted me about it already. Nate's going to drop them off at the hotel in Albany this evening, and take the train back to the city. I won't meet them until tomorrow morning. It's not going to be a problem."

Alison frowned. "I thought Dan texted you this afternoon. He must have forgotten. Oh dear."

Jenny shook her head. "What's wrong?"

"There was a mix-up with the hotel reservation. Rufus and Lily made it in, but they ended up taking the last room… apparently, there's some sort of state convention, so all the rooms are booked solid."

"So Serena and Eric crash here… and Dan's got his old room," Jenny shrugged. "How does that affect anything?"

"Well, they can't leave until after rush hour. And the last train back to the city, as you know, leaves at…"

"Seven-thirty pm," said Jenny miserably. "Aren't there any hotels in town?"

"I felt the same. And honestly, Jenny, had it been him last spring and not Lily's stepson, I wouldn't have allowed him to stay here. But Dan says it'll be no problem. Nate will crash with him, and Eric and Serena will have the pullout sofa. By the time you get in from the dance, they'll be asleep, and Nate will be on the first morning train before you wake up." Alison bit her trembling bottom lip. "I hate to lay this on you, honey, right before your big dance."

"No, it's better that I know," she said slowly. "Don't worry, Mom. I am so over Nate Archibald. I'm so over him that he could tap dance naked right in front of me, and…"

"Okay, okay, I get the point." Alison patted her daughter's knee affectionately, then stood up. "Forewarned is best. And you're so much better than he is, anyway. His loss, Brent's gain."

Alison turned to leave, then turned around and gave her daughter a last sweeping, appraising glance.

"By the way, you're going to be the best dressed girl at the party. Be sure to take pictures… your grandma will love seeing what you've done with that new sewing machine she bought you."

Jenny watched her go, staring at the doorway for a long time afterward. She snapped herself out of it. Brent will be here in a half hour.

She turned back to finish her makeup, trying to put a quote she'd just read in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay out of her mind…

You'll never be able to let him go. You'll always feel wrong about being with me.

No, that was fiction. Not fact. Never fact.

Her mother was right. Nate wasn't the guy for her. And Jenny Humphrey was done believing in fairy tales.

As if on cue, her phone rang. She let out the breath she'd been holding, and picked it up.

"Hi, Brent."

XOXOXOXOXO

Once I thought my innocence was gone
Now I know that happiness goes on
That's where you found me
When you put your arms around me
I haven't been there for the longest time.

XOXOXOXOXO

Serena

It had been a long time since Serena had taken a road trip. It was a shame, because she always forgot how much she loved them…

Even if she'd much rather be taking this road trip with her hot new professor Colin.

Even if she was stuck in this roadie van with a couple of weird-looking scarecrows, her kid brother… and two of her exes.

Serena considered them as they drove. First, there was Eric. Poor Eric and his motion sickness on long road trips, something that they'd discovered when their mother was with German Klaus, and the lout insisted on "motoring through the continent." Serena wouldn't allow him to yell at Eric for ruining the seats of his stupid Fiat.

She'd discovered Dramamine then, and always remembered it. She wasn't winning any World's Best Big Sister prizes, but she at least was good for that. It had been waiting for Eric when they'd picked him up from St. Jude's that afternoon.

Serena used the mirror to glance at her brother. Although he was slight for his age, he was no longer a little boy. She couldn't believe he would be starting college in the fall. His grades were very good, and right now, he was gunning for class valedictorian. Serena was very proud that at least one member of the van der Woodsen family actually (how did Lily put it) "lived up to their potential."

She hoped he'd find a great boyfriend. Ever since his breakup with Jonathan Whitney the year before, she hadn't seen him really date much. Which was unfortunate. Eric was an amazing guy.

Speaking of amazing, the guy right in front of him in the driver's seat could also described that way. Serena gazed at Nate's profile as he concentrated on the road. In his brown leather jacket, fitted dark blue t-shirt, and jeans, he looked good enough to eat. The fitted clothing emphasized the firm muscles of his arms and legs and torso, and yet as always, Nate wore clothes and athletic perfection with an easy, casual grace that only those who took their physicality for granted could. Serena recognized it in him, because so many said the same thing about her.

But today, Nate wasn't Nate, and she couldn't figure out why. His eyes, usually so earnest, were covered with shades. She remembered that he'd just broken up with Juliet Sharpe, and good riddance… Serena had no idea what he saw in the girl anyway. Perhaps Juliet saw right through Vanessa's tricks at the party the month before, but Serena still didn't trust her.

Nevertheless, if one counted good looks and kindness alone, Nate Archibald was the most desirable guy in all of New York. He'd been an incredible boyfriend. Unlike Dan, he didn't have many hang-ups or insecurities. He'd adored her and had been faithful even during the confusion around Carter, then her dad. He'd even been faithful even when her stepsister - pretty, attentive, and willing - had practically thrown herself at him.

Serena remembered how furious she'd been with Jenny for the lying and scheming she'd done. But she hadn't come between Nate and Serena in the end. Although Blair blamed Jenny for her two blonde friends breaking up, for once, Nate hadn't cheated while in a relationship. He'd kicked Jenny out of his apartment. He'd explained the younger girl's ruse. They'd talked it out. Then they made love until they fell asleep in each other's arms… until Serena's need to have her father in her life came between them.

If only we'd met at Columbia, Serena thought idly. Maybe I could have forgiven Nate for understanding why getting to know William was important to me. But I couldn't. He didn't get it. And I really needed him to get it. He's known me all my life! Why couldn't he understand?

But for all that, I can't help but feel badly. I know Nate still cares about me. There will never be another woman who measures up to me in his eyes.

And… well, he's just perfect. He's handsome, strong, athletic, kind, considerate, and fantastic in bed. But I don't know. He makes me feel so… how can I put it?

"Restless."

"What was that?" asked Dan, looking up from whatever he was scribbling in his notebook. How he could write during a road trip, Serena had no idea. But that was her Dan. Come hell or high water, Daniel Humphrey was going to write.

"Nothing," Serena replied. "Just thinking."

"Ah, I get it. Long car rides make me restless too."

That was just like her Dan. Her Dan. The thought came to her, unbidden. Where she'd felt guilty where Nate was concerned ever since she could remember (and long before the Campbell apartment, because of the longing she saw in his eyes), she felt secure with Dan. So secure, in fact, that if they weren't in the car, she'd spill to him her entire train of thought. About Nate, Colin, her father, everything.

Because Dan would understand. He might judge her without mercy. He might say something sarcastic, bruising, or insufferably superior. But he'd get it.

Unfortunately, Dan was now her stepbrother. And sleeping with a stepbrother was Deliverance levels of ick, wasn't it? Dueling banjos and all. They already shared married parents and a brother in Boston who was biologically related to them both…

Perhaps they shouldn't share any more bodily fluids again, ever?

Sharing bodily fluids. Serena tried her best to tamp down the memories of making love with Dan Humphrey. She'd loved many, but Dan had been memorable even though he'd been the most inexperienced of them all. As she'd once told Blair (who pronounced her a harlot for even thinking about sex so casually), every guy was different in bed. Some were duds, to be sure, but she could find something to enjoy about most. Whether it was their stamina, their head game, or their dirty talk, most guys had their specialty.

What kept Serena coming back to Dan was that his specialty…

…was her.

The first thing that had floored Serena was how attentive Dan was, how utterly in tune with her every flicker of emotion. She should have known when he was content to just cuddle and hold her, schooling his own body to be patient when he probably was ready to explode. But still, she was amazed by the way he chose to use his initiation into lovemaking as an opportunity to study everything about her body.

It was worship, yes, but it was also devotion. Ritual. Rite. That first Christmas night, Serena lost count after the sixth or seventh time he'd brought her to completion. He used everything at his disposal: fingers, tongue, teeth, cock, breath… even his damned eyelashes, for heaven's sake! By dawn, there wasn't a square inch of her body that had gone untouched... untasted… or unsatisfied.

But Dan was always like that, she reflected. For him, Serena always came first. Even when he was furious with her, when and if they ended up between the sheets, he always made sure that she was so sated that she couldn't move by the time he was done with her.

And he wasn't much for dirty talk. No. Not her Dan, knight errant and would-be writer. It was always some quote from a book, some verse from a poem. She couldn't help but remember a random Paulo Coelho verse he'd whispered against her skin two years ago as they made love on Coopers Beach after the White Party.

Kiss by kiss, I cover your tiny infinity,
your margins, your rivers, your diminutive villages,
and a genital fire, transformed by delight,
slips through the narrow channels of blood
to precipitate a nocturnal carnation,
to be, and be nothing but light in the dark.

It took a lot to make nineteen-year-old Serena van der Woodsen blush. But that memory set her aflame. Daniel Humphrey drove her absolutely crazy

But of course, that was all over between them. She didn't need to dwell on their shared past, but to look toward her future. And that future was with Colin Forrester.

"What's the sigh for?"

This time, it was Nate asking her. Serena blinked to snap herself out of it.

"Nothing. Hey, do you mind if I plug in my iPod? We could listen to some music."

Nate slanted a glance in her direction, flashing her a brilliant grin. "Nah, I don't mind."

"If you're playing music," Dan said, warm breath tickling her ear as he leaned forward, "then you've got to take my mp3 instead."

"Why?"

"Because you like girly music, that's why. Your taste is questionable at best and you know it."

"Hey!" Serena protested, even as Nate and Eric laughed… because it was the truth.

"And," Dan continued, "because I have my handy-dandy Humphrey road trip sing-a-long playlist already cued up."

Serena shook her head. "Yeah, Dan, whatever."

"Exactly. And what's more, I assure you this is the greatest road trip playlist ever compiled in the history of mankind… or at least, in the history of iTunes."

Nate scoffed. "Dude, we're not trying to listen to that weird experimental jazz stuff you like to play. I get enough of that from my mom's parties."

"Understood. But I had help this time. Remember, Dad and Jenny often accompany me on these road trips on America's scenic highways and byways. I assure you this list is Lincoln Hawk approved."

Eric tittered. "So what you mean is that it's been vetted by normal people."

Nate and Serena laughed. Dan, as always, was hurt.

"Fine, then. Listen to your Florence + the Machine, your Maroon 5, your girly heartachy stuff. I have earbuds…"

Serena thought in that moment Blair was right about her. Because Dan's peevish sniping rarely bothered her unless she was the target. When he was in a mood, she always wanted to lighten him up.

"Give me that," she said, twisting to lean over the seat and snatch his mp3 away. As she did so, their fingers brushed.

Whatever, she thought, that wasn't a spark. It was static electricity.

"So each of us would pick a song in turn," Dan explained, brightening up again. "Dad first, then Mom, then me, and finally Jenny. And there were rules! It had to be a song that we could shout at the top of our lungs. Because our grandma's place in Florida is a long way from New York. And Dad doesn't believe in stopping, unless it's for gas."

"Don't you have to stop to eat?" Eric asked.

"That's what picnic coolers are for," Dan answered smugly.

Serena giggled. "What if you had to pee?"

"That's what empty gallon jugs are for… Dad kept a two-liter in that Big Gulp cup holder."

"Are you serious?" Nate yelled, snatching his bottle of Gatorade out of the cup holder in question. "No wonder that thing's sticky!"

Serena laughed and nudged him. "I have some wipes if you need them, Mr. Clean," she teased. "It's a roadie van, what did you expect?"

Dan chuckled. "Exactly. Urine is probably the least questionable fluid that has touched this upholstery."

"Ew," Serena protested. "Dan, stop!"

He was still leaning over her shoulder. "So where's the music, DJ?"

"Okay, impatient much? Here we go… song one…"

"Don't blame me for this one," warned Dan. "This is all my Dad…"

At the familiar introduction, Serena began head banging as soon as the percussion came in. "Dan, Rufus has awesome taste! This is one of my Guitar Hero songs!"

Eric shook his head and curled up into a little ball. "Yuck, 80s hair metal. No thanks."

"I can't tell which one this is from the intro," shrugged Nate.

"Nate, what rock are you living under?" asked Serena. "Remember that summer I made you guys dress up as Bon Jovi? We put on a show for our parents… okay, really for the nannies and au pairs, but Dorota still talks about it."

"If I did, I'm sure I've blocked it out."

Dan was drumming on the back of Serena's seat. "Wait for it… I'm gonna be Jon…"

We've got to hold on to what we've got
'Cause it doesn't make a difference
If we make it or not
We've got each other and that's a lot
For love - we'll give it a shot!

Serena joined him on the chorus. She couldn't help it.

Whoa-oh, we're halfway there!
Oh-oh! Livin' on a prayer!
Take my hand and we'll make it, I swear!
Oh-oh! Livin' on a prayer…

They sang at the top of their lungs, and Nate joined in on the chorus. And when they got to the best part, both Dan and Serena shouted together, "KEY CHANGE!"

WHOA-OH, we're halfway there!
OH OH! LIVIN' ON A PRAYER!
Take my hand and we'll make it, I swear!
OH OH! LIVIN' ON A PRAYER!

The next selection that Dan proudly announced as his. Serena knew what it was before he even said what it was.

So did Nate. "Come on, man. 'Let Down' is depressing…"

"It's beautiful!" Serena exclaimed. "Radiohead is great, Nate!"

Eric sat up with a lopsided grin. "Yeah, good choice, Dan. I love this one, too."

"That's because Radiohead is sonic perfection," Dan swore. "And I have perfect musical taste. Come on, sing with me…"

And Serena and Eric did.

One day I am gonna grow wings
A chemical reaction
(You know where you are)
Hysterical and useless
(You know where you are)
Hysterical and
(You know where you are)

Let down and hanging around
Crushed like a bug in the ground
Let down and hanging around…

"That song always makes me want to twirl around and around," Serena said. "Very much like The Birds. 'Turn, turn, turn…'"

"Yes, I know you love the 60s. That's why I chose a Beatles song I know you love," Dan said, satisfied. "Just for you."

Serena glowed. Dan knew how much she adored George Harrison. He always told her "Here Comes the Sun" reminded him of her. That and "Light My Fire" were her favorite songs from the Sixties.

Whenever we're fighting, whenever we're not speaking, whenever we're apart, I listen to that one and it makes me feel better.

She snapped out of it. No, that's my past. Dan is the past. So is Nate.

Colin's my future.

As if her thoughts called it up, Freddie Mercury's unforgettable voice filled the van's speakers.

Can anybody find me somebody to love?

"So the next song's Jen's…"

"Okay," Eric yelled, excitedly, "I'm gonna give you the full Jenny Humphrey-at-karaoke experience."

"You'd better not mess it up," Serena said, mock seriously, even as Eric hit the introductory "ooh ooh oohs" perfectly.

"He won't," Dan said, as Eric sang along with the radio to the first lines "She taught him well… and it's Queen, how you can mess it up?… wait, here comes our part!"

Take a look in the mirror and cry
Lord, what are you doing to me?
I have spent all my years in believing you
But I just can't get no relief,
Lord!
Somebody, somebody -
Can anybody find me somebody to love?

Serena noticed that Nate wasn't singing. It wasn't like him to brood. Perhaps living with Chuck was rubbing off on him.

As Dan and Eric continued the song, she nudged him again.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

Nate just kept looking at the road.

"Natie…"

"Nothing. I just… don't really like Queen."

"Um, hello, sports fan? 'We Are The Champions?' 'We Will Rock You?'"

Nate glanced her way. But this time, he wasn't smiling.

Then he looked back at the road.

Serena knew something was up with him. Nevertheless, it wasn't in her nature to pry. She supposed Nate was irritated about having to spend the night in Hudson. Perhaps he had plans with Juliet that he had to cancel? She suddenly realized that she didn't know much about what Nate was up to these days.

Perhaps going to Hudson would give them a chance to catch up.

Resigned, Serena jumped right back into the epic song.

(He works hard)
Every day (every day) I try and I try and I try!
But everybody wants to put me down
They say I'm going crazy
They say I got a lot of water in my brain
Ah, got no common sense
I got nobody left to believe in
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!

Oh Lord
Find me somebody to love, find me somebody to love...
Can anybody find me somebody to love?

Chuck

"There," Blair said, voice sounding more resigned than irritated. "Twenty-five boxes of freshly made Laduree macarons, and the last of the trick o' treaters are done."

Chuck watched her from the divan. A glass of his favorite Scotch was in his hand, or at least, what remained of it. She was not in costume and neither was he. But the midnight blue Waldorf original halter dress she was wearing suited her… and everything about her. Everything about Blair was breathtaking, but the sight of her in form-fitting blue was otherworldly.

Deep within his broad chest, the heart that he never knew he had until he was seventeen?

It twisted as he drank in the sight of her.

"I suppose I should offer you my gratitude for helping me out today," she sighed. Much to his displeasure, she did not sit next to him, choosing the piano stool instead. "I do appreciate it, Chuck."

"Don't mention it. I consider it a gesture of goodwill. Since we're finally at peace." He stood, went to the little table in the foyer where decanters were kept, and poured her a glass of the Sauvignon he'd uncorked while fixing his drink. Pouring himself another neat Scotch, he walked slowly back into the sitting room.

"Thank you," she said, graciously accepting the glass. "It's been so long since I've had anything other than cocktails and champagne. I'd quite forgotten how to savor a sip of wine."

"Yes," he returned softly, sitting next to her on the piano bench. "Some things are best… savored."

Blair almost remained totally still. Almost. As always, Chuck was so in tuned to every nuance of her body that he caught the miniscule shiver that ran through her body before she stopped it cold.

"So. Now that your war with me is over, are you going to still continue taking courses at Columbia?"

"Perhaps in due course," he replied. "Right now, I'm concentrating on keeping Bass Industries afloat. My summer hiatus wasn't exactly good for business."

"Oh," Blair said, very quietly. Chuck knew she didn't want to unearth the bad feelings that had existed between them during the previous six months. But when you didn't think about the history… when you ignored it….

"Isn't it strange, Chuck? Sometimes, when I'm with you, it feels as if we're still together. As if we're still a couple."

Did she really say that? Something electric shot through Chuck's veins. Could she – after everything that had transpired – could she really be saying what he thought she was?

"But then the moment passes. And I remember, Chuck. I remember everything." There was something sad but sweet in her voice. "Have you ever wanted to turn back the hands of time? To stay in the past… and never leave it? Have you…"

Chuck couldn't help it. In that moment, she was everything. Beautiful, fragrant, soft, like a lyric. He had to kiss her or die.

As always, she melted into his kiss. Chuck angled her softly so that she was half sitting on his lap, and he marveled at how light she felt, as if she weighed nothing.

Her lips were sweeter than any macaron. And her skin…

Love never goes
Once it has touched your heart
Just like the strength of wine that's left
As two lips part
A taste of love will linger after.*

Blair broke away from him with a start. Her deep brown eyes were wide with surprise.

"I thought you hated me."

"No more than you've hated me."

Her lips parted as if to say something else. Then he saw a shadow pass over her eyes.

She stood up then, back ramrod straight. The young Queen of the Upper East Side, in all her glory.

"Thank you for helping me with the Halloween treats, Chuck. Good night."

"Good night, Blair."

He watched her ascend the stairs. Neither making a move to follow her, nor to leave.

Instead he opened the grand piano…

…and began to play her a beautiful Rachmaninoff melody.

If he couldn't hold her at night, he could at least help her have the sweetest dreams.

XOXOXOXOXO

I'm that voice you're hearing in the hall
And the greatest miracle of all
Is how I need you
And how you needed me too
That hasn't happened for the longest time.

XOXOXOXOXO

Nate

It was raining when they arrived at the Humphreys' house in Hudson. Before Nate could turn off the engine, a woman who looked a lot like Jenny was running out the front door, and down the walk toward them. She was followed by a man whom Nate had never seen before. The man was attempting to hold an umbrella over her head, but Dan and Jenny's mother seemed not to care much about getting wet.

"There you are," said Alison Humphrey as they climbed out of the van. "I've been calling for over an hour. I was worried that you'd gotten caught in the rain."

"We ran into traffic on the thruway," Dan explained, eyeing the man behind her as Nate helped him down, and Serena came around to hand him his crutches. "Hey, Alex."

"Hello, Daniel," Alex replied. "Glad you guys made it here safely. I was hoping to whisk your mother away to this new Korean film at the art theater, but your sister left her cell phone at home."

"I honestly and truly believe that girl of mine would leave her head if it wasn't screwed on," sighed Alison. She pulled Jenny's phone out of her purse and waved it. "I left you a note. We're going to have to take it to her."

"No, Mom, that's fine, I can take it to her… ouch," Dan hissed, stumbling a bit and coming down on his foot the wrong way. "On second thought, if you give me her new boyfriend's number, I can call him and let him know to come out to the van."

"I don't have it. She said she'd text me Brent's information from the car, and of course, forgot because she would've realized her phone was here."

Brent. Standing on the other side of Dan, Nate took in the stranger's name. Sounded like the perfect name for the douche he probably was. When it came to guys? Jenny Humphrey's taste left a lot to be desired.

Alison was staring down at her son's wrapped foot. "Honey, you should get off that foot. Your bandages need to be changed, too, because they're getting soaking wet in this rain. We can take her the phone."

"You don't have to," Eric spoke up. "Nate can take me over to the high school, and I can run inside and find Jenny. Serena can stay with Dan."

"That's actually a great idea," Dan replied. "Serena can help me change these bandages, and we can order pizza or something…. Nate, do you mind?"

Nate actually did mind. Even the couple of minutes they'd been standing out in the rain had plastered his leather jacket and jeans to him like a second skin. But he didn't say that.

"Yeah, that's cool. I mean, it's not a problem."

Alison Humphrey glanced at him. It was almost as if she was seeing him in a new light. (Before he'd spoken up, she seemed to be completely ignoring his existence.)

"Thanks, Nate," she said slowly. "That's really nice of you."

Serena laughed a little. "Nate is the nicest guy you'll ever meet, Alison," she said cheerfully. She threw a wet arm around his neck and shoulders, and kissed him soundly on the cheek. "He's a real sweetheart."

In spite of himself, Nate glowed. There was nothing like the scent and feel of Serena van der Woodsen…

Idly, he wondered if he'd ever get over her. Or even wanted to.

Thirty minutes later, Nate tried to remember that kiss as he shivered in the van, trying to get dry and warm… but to no avail. There was nothing to listen to except Dan's cheesy iPod selections as he waited for Eric to emerge from the school. He tried surfing the web using his phone, but here in the middle of nowhere, it was difficult to get a consistent signal.

Frustrated, he looked up at the school. Hudson High was nothing like Constance and St. Jude's. It reminded Nate of the schools that he saw on television shows and in movies. The parking lot backed up into the athletic fields, and beyond that, there was nothing but forest.

His phone rang. It was Chuck.

"Hey, buddy. What's going on?"

"Planning my exploits for the evening." It sounded as if he was walking outside, which was unusual. "What's your ETA?"

"Morning. Missed the last train. I'm stuck here in the wilderness till then."

"Pity. I'm heading to a new hotspot frequented by models and Scandinavian nannies. Or so the new Bass intern tells me."

Nate chuckled. "Whatever, man. Where are you? It sounds like you're in a wind tunnel or something."

Before Chuck could answer, Nate heard a familiar voice in the background.

"Chuck? You forgot your umbrella…"

Blair? Since when were Chuck and Blair hanging out?

"You'll catch your death in those pajamas." Chuck seemed to have forgotten that he was on the phone with Nate. "Allow me to escort you back inside."

Seconds later, a dial tone sounded in his ear.

Nate shook his head. What were Chuck and Blair on about? Why was he over her house, and why didn't Blair sound as if she was going to murder him? Nate knew about the ceasefire they'd declared, but this was definitely something he'd have to talk over with Serena. They needed to make sure their best friends didn't kill each other… with the entire Upper East Side as collateral damage.

Serena. He closed his eyes and thought of her. Not even Juliet could compare to the way Serena had felt in his arms. No other girl could. He'd spent the summer sleeping his way through Chuck's black book. Still, the memory of being with her in every way had the power to take him completely apart.

He thought about Dan and Serena. Not for the first time, he resented Dan as much as he liked and appreciated his friendship. If Dan had never come to St. Jude's, Nate reflected, he was sure he and Serena would have dated junior year of high school. He supposed it was because girls liked the mysterious new guy. And Dan had a way with words.

Nate wasn't great at saying the things that girls liked to hear. He never had to. Girls always were just… there. They'd always liked him, even way back in preschool. And until he was eighteen, there was Blair to consider. There were times when Nate still couldn't believe that he didn't have to marry the Waldorf heiress. Especially when their mothers had been planning that wedding almost since their conception…

If he had to choose anyone, he'd choose Serena, he thought. But Serena always slipped through his fingers. She never chose him.

What's wrong with me? How come the girl I've wanted my entire life doesn't want me?

He looked at his watch. Eric had now been inside the place for forty-five long minutes. What on earth could he be doing in there? Maybe he'd gotten caught up talking with Jenny and lost track of time…

Jenny. Unlike Serena's image, which was hazier and tinged with longing and regret, conjuring up Jenny raised a different set of feelings. Anger. Frustration. Indignation.

She'd tried to come between him and Serena. She'd actually slept with his best friend…

And now, she was probably going to end up in bed with some stupid upstate guy named Brent.

In spite of his attempts to stop his brain from going there, other images spun into his mind. Blonde hair, which at first had been a lot like Serena's, but now changed with the seasons, her moods, and her whims ("shorter… blonder… I was bored"). Enormous blue eyes that could promise mischief or shine like twin stars. And a mouth that said infuriating things, crazy things… things that were unlike things he'd heard from any other girl.

Nothing's wrong with you. Don't you know how great you are?

You know, I just want to thank you for last week. I don't know what would have happened.

Is it wrong that trying to kill you is the best time I've had in months?

Stop pretending that you care about me.

Why would you take romantic advice from a guy who has a Cabbage Patch doll?

You've come to my rescue enough times. Let me help you for once.

I'm looking for my escort… he's sort of this year's, I guess… you.

It would really mean a lot to me if you stayed.

I just really don't want to be alone on my birthday.

It will only stop when you stop it.

As her voice filled his mind, a thousand different memories of Jenny Humphrey floated into his memory. Around Constance, around the loft, in the Empire… just around. And while few girls on the Upper East Side had Serena's generous, mouth watering curves, he remembered Jenny's surprisingly soft and delicate hands, long and lithe limbs, and firm, high, and round delectable breasts that had just shown up one day on the doorstep of the Empire, encased in a black evening gown, then hidden by one of his shirts… breasts he never really noticed…

Hello. He was a nineteen-year-old guy. Of course he'd noticed. He also knew that despite what her eyes had promised him back then, beneath it all, she was innocent. Maybe that's why he liked her so much. Maybe it was because Jenny reminded him of another innocent girl who'd believed herself to be in love with him…

Looking back, he realized that he knew exactly when Blair was no longer his, but Chuck's ("sorry, sorry, sorry! My cappuchino was decaf, and I couldn't find my phone"). Three years later, he recognized that the innocence in those brown eyes had been replaced with secrets…

The same secrets that Jenny's blue eyes now held.

His phone rang again. Realizing that he had a headache now, he picked it up. It was Dan. The TV was on in the background, and Serena was chattering away, engrossed in another conversation.

"Hey, Dan."

"Hey. Thought you two would be back by now. Pizza's been here almost twenty minutes and it's getting cold."

Nate shook his head. "I'm still waiting on Eric."

"Well, why don't you go find him? He's been up here to visit a few times since Jenny moved. Maybe he's talking with one of the neighbor kids he knows or something. Anyway, hurry up, or I'm eating this entire pizza by myself."

As if in protest, Nate felt his stomach growl. "Be there soon."

Of course, there was no umbrella in the van. So of course no matter how fast he ran, he was going to get soaked. That was just his luck lately.

According to the signs taped to lockers, the event was in the gym. Sadie Hawkins Dance. Wear your 50s and early 60s attire! Prize for Best Costume. Friday - Halloweekend. In spite of being wet and chilled to the bone, Nate was intrigued. This definitely wasn't the kind of thing that Upper East Side kids would go for… Blair would have fits over something so pedestrian. Of course, that made it all the more interesting for him.

He heard the local band before he saw them. They were doing a rousing rendition of an ancient song he'd heard before on some TV show.

Now your Daddy won't mind
And your Mommy won't mind
If we have another
dance
Yeah, just one more time, one more time…

Oh, won't you stay
Just a little bit longer?
Please let me hear you say
That you will…

SAY YOU WILL!

The gym had been totally transformed. The lights were dimmed, with spotlights flooding the court, which was now a dance floor crowded with dancing teen couples. The bandstand was set up under the visitors' basket, and under the scoreboard was a buffet crowded with food and punch. Older adults whom he assumed were chaperones hovered around the drinks, and there were more adults here and there. Nate found it pretty weird. He couldn't remember the last time any parents he knew chaperoned any of their parties.

Won't you place your
Sweet lips to mine?
Won't you say you love me
All the time?

It took a while for Nate's eyes to adjust to all the activity in the gym. He found Eric first. When he did, his jaw almost dropped. Serena's little brother was in a far corner of the gym, completely distracted from his mission as he slow-grinded with a tall redhaired guy who was alternating between whispering sweet nothings in his ear… and kissing his neck.

Keeping to the sidelines, he waited until the song ended to applause, then cleared his throat as another fast song began.

Oh, life could be a dream... sh-boom!
If I could take you up in paradise up above... sh-boom!
If you would tell me I'm the only one that you love
Life could be a dream, sweetheart!
Hello, hello again, sh-boom and hopin' we'll meet again...

"Um, sorry to interrupt…"

The redhead looked up with challenging eyes. "Eric didn't tell me he had a boyfriend."

"No, I'm not his boyfriend," Nate chuckled. "We were looking for his friend."

Eric seemed extremely flustered. "Oh, I'm sorry, Kevin! This is Nate. I've known him forever… he used to date my sister. Yeah, um… what were you saying, Nate?"

"Jenny's phone."

"Oh, yeah! Can you wait here a sec, Kevin? I've got to give Jenny her phone." He took it out of his pocket. "Kevin here was helping me look for her earlier, but we couldn't find her… someone said she was in the bathroom, but I don't know…"

Nate plucked the phone out of his hand. "Never mind, I'll look," he said, shaking his head. "I'll come get you when I'm done."

He half expected Eric to protest. But the younger guy didn't.

"Thanks!" he simply said, then turned back to Kevin. In that moment, Nate knew Eric had forgotten he existed. Laughing to himself, he turned away as the song was wrapping up.

Life could be a dream
If I could take you up in paradise up above
If you would tell me I'm the only one that you love
Life could be a dream, sweetheart!
Hello, hello again, sh-boom and hopin' we'll meet again... boom sh-boom!
Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang... sh-boom!

The cover band finished the swing classic with a flourish, then struck up a slow and sexy tune. Couples who had been dancing fast slowed and began to sway.

Great, thought Nate. This will just make it harder to find her. Grumpy even though his clothes were slowly starting to dry, he began to make his way through the dance floor.

It actually didn't take very long, perhaps less than a moment. It helped that pale blonde hair seemed to be pretty rare here, and Jenny was pretty tall. Nate caught sight of her platinum ponytail first. The guy she was dancing with had on a letter jacket, and he was a giant of a kid. Nate guessed this Brent was at least six inches taller than he was.

He couldn't see her face, but Nate was sure it was Jenny. He tried to get to them, to drop off the phone, but was caught in a knot of dancing couples and had to take a less direct route.

Jenny and Brent swayed. He'd thought her face was buried in his shoulder, but the moment the couple turned, she looked straight up… and directly at Nate.

My love must be a kind of blind love
I can't see anyone but you!

Are the stars out tonight?
I don't know if it's cloudy or bright
I only have eyes for you, dear…

Nate's mind went completely blank. He couldn't blink or move. He couldn't feel his hands or his legs. It was a little like being hit by lightning. Because suddenly, nothing else existed in that gym except for a pair of exquisite pale blue eyes… and the girl they belonged to.

He had no idea how he ended up standing a few feet away, but the next thing he knew, he was tapping Brent on the shoulder. He didn't even say he wanted to cut in. He didn't have to. He just looked at the giant… and when Brent seemed as if he was going to refuse, his eyes narrowed just the slightest bit.

Brent muttered something about getting drinks. But Nate didn't care. Neither did he care if Jenny was indignant or upset that he'd interrupted. All he cared about was folding her in his arms… and pressing her close to him in a way that he'd never dared dance with her before.

Despite all the anger that had passed between them during her last visit, Jenny didn't protest, stiffen, or anything else. She let Nate hold her closer than close…

And held him too.

The moon may be high
But I can't see a thing in the sky
I only have eyes for you.

Jenny shivered against him.

"What?"

"You're cold."

His response wasn't in words. Instead he stroked smooth circles from the base of her neck to the small of her back. Soft… yes, the sweater she was wearing was soft, but there was just something about her… something...

This time, when she shivered, he knew it wasn't from the cold.

I don't know if we're in a garden
Or on a crowded avenue…

He felt her breath on the side of his neck as she spoke again.

"What on earth are you doing here, Nate?"

"I should ask you the same thing, Jenny. What are you doing?"

What the hell, Archibald? Just give her the phone. You're hungry, you're wet, the pizza's getting cold…

"Moving on with my life." Chuckle. "But I knew you'd come. Every time I try to forget you, you never let me."

"Maybe I don't want you forgetting about me."

His brain clearly had no control over his mouth. Or his arms. Because how was he supposed to let her go?

He didn't want her going anywhere.

"Are you serious? You've gone around telling the entire Upper East Side that I'm the world's biggest slut. I can't show my face in Manhattan ever again because of you and your friends. Of course I want to forget I met you. I want my life back."

He drew back a little, just so that he could lift her chin to face him. And the truth that he'd refused to acknowledge for weeks was written in her beautiful eyes.

She was innocent after all. So damn innocent, in fact, that he could taste it…

So he did. Tasted her, that is. Pulled her into a long, sweet kiss, coaxing her lips to part and grant access to his seeking tongue. Somewhere through the fog that was snaking through his mind he felt her sink into the kiss, her hands tangling in his damp hair…

A sharp jolt of pain streaked through the delicious kiss. Nate tasted blood as Jenny tried to pull away. But he was stronger than she was, and held her fast.

"What, you bit me?"

"Yes!" In place of the deer-in-headlights look, she seemed frustrated. "Nate, this is the middle of my school's dance! You can't just kiss me here!"

He glanced over his shoulder. Most of the couples were still dancing, but a few had stopped to gape at them. Turning back to her, he pulled her off the dance floor and out into the hall, right by the spectators' restrooms.

Jenny released his hand, glaring as she shook off his touch. The fingertips of her other hand were pressed to her lips.

"Thanks for ruining my one shot at having a decent boyfriend before college."

"Decent? He couldn't be that decent if he let some guy he's never seen before in his life steal you away. He isn't worth your time."

"And you are?" She folded her arms. "You have made it clear that you're not interested in me, Nate. You've let me know how much you don't want me, over and over again, in every possible way. And yet, you seem to care more about who I'm seeing than my own brother does!"

"This guy doesn't deserve you!"

"Neither do you," she scoffed. "But I get to decide who I'm with, not you! And that just burns you up, doesn't it?"

He cut her off by pressing her into the wall next to the water fountains with his body, and kissing her as he'd never kissed her before. If she'd protested, he would have let her go, because he knew he was going too far. But instead, a mewling sound escaped her delicious lips, and it sent all the blood that had left his brain straight down.

Even as he hardened against her, she didn't flinch as she had at fifteen, during another rainy night long ago. Instead of pushing him away, her grip on his shoulders tightened, and he felt her voluminous skirt brush against his jeans. He felt her shift a little against him, parting her thighs to find a more mutually comfortable position as he kissed her breath away.

You are here and so am I
Maybe millions of people go by…
But they all disappear from view
And I only have eyes for you.

He nipped at her lips, repaying her earlier bite in kind. That just made her deepen their kiss, exploring his mouth as he'd done with hers, laving the shallow wound she'd created on the dance floor. A moan escaped her lips as he cupped her hips through the poodle skirt… hips that were a perfect handful… hips that were clearly made for crushing her close to him as they continued making out.

We fit together. We fit.

Now her lips were traveling over his jaw softly, scooping down to kiss his neck, still a little dewy from the rain outside. When she reached his clavicle, Nate pulled her away and sought her lips again. He enjoyed her taste so much. The feel and the scent of her was incredible.

Serena who? Never had Nate felt like this before in his life, not even in the Campbell apartment. He didn't know it was even possible to feel like this… and be fully clothed.

He had never wanted a girl as much as he wanted Jenny Humphrey.

Jenny finally broke their kiss. Nate looked up. A gaggle of girls on their way to the lav were gawking at their tableau. They disappeared into the bathroom before dissolving into giggles.

Whatever, Nate thought, reaching for Jenny, wanting to continue making out with her…

"No, Nate. Stop."

He drew back, shaking his head.

"You don't want me to stop."

"Yes, I do." Her voice was sad. "Nate, you're only doing this because of Chuck."

"Huh? What does Chuck have to do with anything?"

"Because if I were still pining away over you, if nothing had happened between Chuck and me last spring, you wouldn't be kissing me like this and you know it." She looked away. "This isn't happening because you like me. It's because you don't like that I'm letting you go."

"Jenny, that's not true."

"It is. Which is why I have to let you go, Nate. I have to. Maybe you've ruined my chances with Brent Orsini, but trust me, someday I will find a guy who loves me just as I am. Who would never set me aside for the Serenas of the world. And when I do? You'll just be a faded memory."

She pushed past him to return to the dance. Nate's arms felt suddenly empty.

"Jenny!"

She stopped, but didn't turn around.

"I want you," he said. It felt like the most true thing he'd ever said. "Only you."

That did make her turn around. Looking at Jenny Humphrey in that moment, Nate Archibald knew he'd never wanted anything more in his life. The makeup that she'd painted on her face like a mask against the Manhattan elite was nowhere to be seen… she'd lined her magnificent eyes and he supposed she'd been wearing lipstick when he first saw her, but no traces of it were left.

She was slender, gorgeous, and he wanted nothing more than to peel off that too-tight pink retro sweater and ridiculous poodle skirt, and press kisses against her soft skin from head to toe…

To begin with. In the seconds and the inches that stretched between them, his imagination ran wild. His body ached for her.

And his heart?

That ached, too. Nate felt like a dam had suddenly burst. All the pent-up feelings for Jenny that he had been determined to keep at bay because of reasons were welling up from the depths, rushing over him, overwhelming him. He knew that there was no going back. There could be no satisfaction for the ache he felt except making her his…

And his alone.

Breaking their locked gazes, Jenny closed her eyes.

"I've always known a part of you wanted me, Nate." She opened her eyes and looked at him again. "That may be news to you, but it's not to me."

He stopped breathing. Was she really saying that she felt the same?

"But I've decided it's not enough. I deserve more than what you have to offer. Much more. I just hate that it's taken me this long to realize how much I'm worth."

"Jenny, wait!"

"Good-bye, Nate."

Without sparing him another look, she returned to the dance.

How long Nate stood there afterward, he never knew. Kids streamed in and out of the lavatories, went for water, and soon, the crowds passed him by. He didn't shake out of it until Eric, closely followed by Kevin, tapped him on the shoulder.

"You're still here." It was a statement, not a question. "I thought you'd left. Did you give Jenny her phone?"

Nate put his hand in his pocket. Slowly, he extracted the offending device.

Eric's eyes widened. Then he turned to Kevin.

"Text you later, babe?"

Kevin whistled. "Guess it's true after all. Wow. Just know I'll be wide awake until I hear from you… don't leave me hanging."

He ran a caressing hand along Eric's jaw. To Nate, Kevin simply said, "I've been there before. Good luck."

Eric clapped a hand on Nate's shoulder.

"Come on, old friend. There's this backwater pub with incredibly greasy burgers and $2 drafts. Let's go get wasted."

Nate nodded dully, following Eric out the door. Knowing that all the beer and burgers in the world wouldn't erase the taste of Jenny from his mouth. He doubted if anything… or anyone… could.

Because suddenly, Nate Archibald only had eyes for Jenny Humphrey.

And she wanted nothing to do with him.

XOXOXOXOXO

I don't care what consequence it brings
I have been a fool for lesser things
I want you so bad!
I think you ought to know that
I intend to hold you for the longest time.

-to be continued-

A/N – I'm terribly sorry for the long delay. Life has been a whirlwind for many months. I've had to steal precious time to work on this. (You can thank an epic two-day rainstorm here on the East Coast for getting me back in the mood.) And a very special thanks to my lovely beta extraordinaire Nese who went through more than 40 pages lightening fast!

The rain put me in a sentimental mood, so we've got a road trip, a moment of Upper East side benevolence, and an old-fashioned sock hop. The songs helped me break through writer's block, and how… I didn't want to stop writing by the end!

Except for the first chapter, the titles for AYNIL will be songs with significance to the plot. Billy Joel's "For the Longest Time" seems like the kind of thing Jenny would play in order to get into the Sadie Hawkins mood… it's not a Fifties song, but it sounds a lot like one. Her parents would have remembered it from their childhoods. But the lyrics really fit all the characters in this chapter. They're used as scene markers, and I chose carefully. I think you'll be able to tell which character's thoughts are being represented each time.

The car sing-a-long really seems like something the Humphreys would do on long car trips. The first scene that came to mind for this chapter shortly after 2 was finished was Dan and Serena head-banging to "Livin' on a Prayer," and was the working title for this chapter for the longest time (ha ha!). Dan would enjoy Radiohead like any self-respecting hipster. (By the way, Derena darlings, did you notice your fanservice? You're welcome!)

The epic Queen anthem is a nod to Jenny (and Taylor of course). I think it really fits where Jen is mid-chapter. She really does want somebody to love, and for now, I think she believes Brent could be that guy.

At the end of their scene in the Waldorf penthouse, Chuck is playing John Barry's "Somewhere in Time" theme for Blair. It's based on a Rachmaninoff rhapsody. I recently watched the movie and cried my eyes out. It totally fits them, and if I wrote AU fics, I'd so write a Chair version of that story. The verse I starred is from the sung lyrics, but I greatly prefer the instrumental version. Search for the piano version, imagine Chuck playing that downstairs as Blair undresses for bed… and know that won't be the last time he plays for his fair Queen in AYNIL. ;-)

The songs from the school dance are Maurice Williams and the Zodiac's "Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer" that you might remember from Dirty Dancing, the Chords' swinging "Sh-Boom," and the Flamingos' amazing "I Only Have Eyes for You." The last selection is a fantastic and timeless slow ballad. There's something that feels so classic about the Nate and Jenny pairing to me. I always want to play out their love stories against a backdrop of classic rock. The lyrics are just so them. In this story, it represents the moment when Natefused Nate finally figures out that he has feelings for Jenny.

Next time, we finally get to the orchard anniversary festivities. We'll start with Eric's point of view… he's got a hot new guy, but he also cares a lot about his best friend/stepsister, and now knows how Nate feels about her. We're not done with Juliet or Colin, either. We're still somewhere between 4.06 and 4.07. Serena still is using Colin to avoid her "Dan or Nate?" question, and Juliet isn't going to give up Nate without a fight. But Jenny is now a new monkey wretch that she isn't accounting for… yet.

Then we'll move into the NJBC's Chair "truce" in this AU, as well as Blair's birthday party… which will end slightly differently than it did on the show. (Put those pitchforks down, Chair lovelies! I know piano sex is sacred! Don't worry your pretty little heads off. Trust me. )

As for Nate and Jenny, I haven't decided whether Jenny makes it to the Upper East Side to crash Blair's party, or whether Nate decides to "stay just a little bit longer" in Hudson. What are your thoughts, my jewels and my nonpareils? Tell me in your reviews.

Speaking of reviews, thanks to the reviewers of Chapter 2: benjaminwhite1890, theMyMylove, kemina0309, BaskingInTheSunshine, David Fishwick, Krissie, mylove24, derena love, .stark, hsds, nlizzette7, Moozanna, bassempire, Donna L. Crawford, browneyedgrl061, Where's Waldorf, Trosev, varietyofwords, and Lili y Connie. You guys are amazing! Thanks for all the reviews, Tweets, notes on Tumblr, faves and follows.

Hope to update again pretty soon! Until next time…

XOXO, Dr. Holland