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plum season

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This is the plum season, the nights

blue and distended, the moon

hazed, this is the season of peaches…

The air is still

warm, flesh moves over

flesh, there is no hurry.

Late August, Margaret Atwood 

 


 

A list of things Blair Waldorf used to not believe in but does now: God, astrology, juice cleanses, karma. 

A list of things Blair Waldorf used to believe in but doesn’t anymore: love.

Blair had thought her life was a romance, and saw fit to center her career around it, and centered her life around her career, as she always intended to. 

(Although, there was the four-year stint where she thought she would devote at least part of her life to getting married and having two children. And then there was the six-year stint where she actually was married and did devote most of her life to it and, well —)

Suffice it to say, she doesn’t believe in love anymore. 

Now, she thinks everyone is just fooling themselves, some better than others. But eventually everyone, some sooner than others, will wake up with the startlingly bright but clear realization that love absolutely does not exist — in any lasting, romantic sense, anyway. 

She sounds bitter. She sounds like a bitter divorcée from a broken home who’s been wronged one too many times, which, to be fair, is exactly what she is. But it doesn’t make it any less true. 

Bitter is perhaps an understatement for how she feels as her cab stutters over the expanse of dirt leading up to the lake house — a large home with a beautiful view, not unlike the one in the Hamptons she summered in for most of her childhood. Not unlike it in that she would be spending her summer in it now — so dreadfully far away from her childhood, from the fantasy that encompassed it. Not unlike it in that it was her father’s.

Unlike it in that she had never been here. Unlike it in that it was a secret.

The cabbie helps her unload her bags and carry them into the house, and she watches as he drives off with her hefty tip and his light flicked back on. And then it’s just her and her bags and this haunted house, the heat thick and suffocating inside it, her joints ready to succumb to the pressure.

Blair cannot pinpoint the exact moment in which her life fell to shit, having the startling realization on the ride over here that it was never really not shit in the first place, that everything was a smoke screen, a bandage wrapped over a bruise, hiding the internal bleeding from view. To say it started a year ago would be outright inaccurate, but to say it started when she was sixteen feels cruel, dimming the bright moments since then in an unfair light. 

But she’d done the math in her head. She would’ve been sixteen when her father met Roman, which was around the time Nate broke up with her because he had to figure some things out . She was seventeen when he bought this house, which was around the time of the summer in the Hamptons she found Nate in bed with her boyfriend Marcus. She was twenty-nine when he told her, which was just when she had started to speak to her lawyers about the divorce.

Maybe it didn’t start a year ago, but it was like, all at once, everything she knew about love had shattered.

And now she’s standing in the dark, well-decorated living room of the lake house her father had lived in with his lover of fourteen years — a house of which he spent half of those so-called business trips in, a house of which her mother knew about and hid from her. 

Alexandria Bay is the perfect place to hide from a scandal, or in her case, rebuild after one. As she takes stock of the house, she thinks they should put that on the brochure. Alexandria Bay, for secret lovers and women left with nothing because of a prenup they didn’t think they’d need!

Her phone vibrates in her pocket as she circles around to the back porch, sliding the door open and stepping out into the languid heat of the night. Her breath hitches as she answers it, catching sight of a group of fireflies dancing in the dark. She watches them as Serena launches into a breathless array of questions, doing her best to keep up as she moves around the back porch, studying the wicker furniture. Once she’s satisfied with Blair’s answers, Serena starts to divulge the details of her first day in London, and Blair is thankful for the shift in subject, Serena’s giddy-talk of her crush on her client putting her mind at ease for a moment. 

“Okay, ew. When did you start listening to him instead of me? Mhm. No, not even a blowjob. Yes, that does count. Yes, that counts too. Yes it does! I don’t care what Nate said, S. It definitely counts. Good girl. I love you too.”

Blair freezes in place as she lowers her phone, her breath hitching for the second time as she’s met with a figure on the porch next to hers. A mess — mop, would be more accurate — of dark curls perches on a lounge chair, facing away from her. The neighbours porch is bathed in darkness, the only light source a ring from a small reading light. After her heart settles from its minor cardiac incident, she calls out, “Sorry if that was loud!” 

“It was,” comes the response, flat and gruff. 

“Why are you sitting out here in the dark like a serial killer?”

“Porch lights broken and I haven’t gotten around to fixing it,” the man says, standing suddenly, the shadowy figure of him retreating back to the house. “I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner.”

“Well, I’m living here now, so I’d appreciate it if you could get it fixed so you don’t scare the crap out of me every time I come out here,” she says. “And I got that reference.”

“Good for you,” he says — and, okay, weird and patronizing. “I’d appreciate it if you consulted your friends on blowjobs at a lower volume next time.”

Blair bites her tongue, puts on her prize-winning composure, the saccharine voice that lulls even the most dreadful of Ladies Society patrons and intrusive people of the press: “Well, it was very nice to meet you.”

The man lets out a snort as his door slides open, grumbling, “Liar.”

 

*

 

While the couch isn’t ideal — one night on it and she can feel her spine contorting — it’s her only choice. The master bedroom is off limits, nightmarish flashes of a thick French accent and her father's cologne coming to her whenever she so much as walks past the door. The guest bedroom would work in theory, but she’s gotten no sleep in an empty bed, feeling like the butt of some cosmic joke when she rolls over and feels no one there. 

She’d slept in Serena’s bed for months after the divorce, and her mother’s for a few months after that, and Serena’s again when her mother insisted it was time to get up and on with it. That’s what she’s doing now, she thinks, getting up and on with it, but every step she takes still feels like a tiny shard of glass is lodging itself in the skin of her foot. Blair is a dropped wine bottle in a grocery store aisle, elegantly shattered, spilled out blood red across the floor. Even though she’s cleaned herself up, the stain is still there.

When they were kids, the morning after a sleepover, they would sit on the edge of the bed, backs straight like proper ladies, and watch Anne Archibald brush her hair, the cut crystal that was supposed to one day be Blair’s like a pendant of hypnosis. As long as you have your beauty, Anne would say. And as long as you have your wealth. And finally, as long as you have your husband.

Blair wanted to be Anne more than she wanted to be Eleanor. But that was before, of course. 

Dr. Van der Woodsen left and never looked back. The Captain was dragged kicking and screaming from his townhouse. But Harold — Harold was perfect. Blair’s life was perfect. It felt prophecy fulfilling — digging through the rough to reach her own diamond ring, no family roots keeping it buried in the misery of broken marriages and scandalized women. Magazine covers and brand deals and the youngest billionaire in New York. Blair’s life was perfect.

She hated Anne more than she wanted to be Anne. Bitterly and in secret, watching her cry as the handcuffs like the tennis bracelets he would buy her clicked into place on his wrists, Blair would think, you deserve this, probably. She was still too young to know for sure. 

Blair looks around the empty house, down at her bare hands, the reflection of her bare face in the dark marble around the fireplace. She thinks, you deserve this. Probably. 

This house provides no comfort, the whole place wrapped in secrets and lies like some toilet paper prank. She’d left most of the lights off the night before, tossing and turning on the couch in a fitful sleep, but after she unpacked her belongings into the guest bedroom, she took a closer look around and found enough pieces to the puzzle to make her feel lightheaded — nausea and nostalgia going hand in hand. Not surprisingly, the bookcases display multiple copies of all six of her best-selling novels, her name (the name her father gave her, she’d been sensible enough to only publish under the one) proudly brandished on the covers. But she’s taken aback when she comes across another name, too-familiar, her old college rival. She’s almost just as offended to find out that her father has read the dreck Dan Humphrey published as she was to find out about his affair. 

On the mantle above the fireplace sit three photos, all of which she turns face down, the sight of them like an unhealed wound, tender to the touch but fresh enough she can’t bring herself to throw them out. The first of him and Roman in cable-knit sweaters, sat at what must be this very fireplace. She wonders when it was taken — the holidays, by the looks of it. She wonders if it was around Thanksgiving, if she’d been waiting for him to come home so they could start that year’s pie. She stops wondering after that, not really wanting to know. The second of her wedding, the father-daughter dance. And the third of him, her, and Chuck — her father's 65th. She was glowing, light reflecting off the highlighter on her face, the sequins of her dress, the diamond on her left hand. She looked perfect. They looked perfect. 

Are you going to be okay by yourself? Serena had asked, as Blair filtered through her double-doored closet scavenging for summer appropriate apparel that she would fit into. Blair had always wanted for her sartorial genius to be memorialized somehow — outfits framed and glass-cased to be pointed at and admired, the way her entire life had become. This, however, wasn’t what she had in mind; her own closet becoming something of a museum for herself, every fabric moulding handprints in it like clay. She had to dig through the back burner to find things to pack: sundresses and sunhats and strappy sandals, and when she ran out of options, she delved into Serena’s treasure box of perpetual sunny weather clothing.

Everything is louder in an empty house, like bumps in the never-ending middle of the night. Every corner is a focus point of a house once fully lived in that now stands hollow with only her to flit through. It strikes her that she has never, not once in her life, existed in a completely empty home. There was always someone — her parents, Dorota, the other staff. Nate or Serena or Chuck. She always had someone to cling to when she felt like she was drowning. She always had someone to drag down with her. 

Are you okay by yourself? Serena asks again. 

No, she thinks. But she has to learn how to be.

While not as good as a scalp massage or a back rub, the sound of Serena’s breathing on the other end of the phone manages to finally lull her to sleep after what felt like hours of trying to find the most comfortable position.

And then the music starts. 

It takes a moment to realize that it’s coming from the house of the grumpy-weirdo next door and not some nineties rock fuelled nightmare, but once she adjusts to her surroundings she’s clicking off the call and marching across the property, banging on the door with a vengeance.

In the moment that the door swings open, Blair realizes her life isn’t a romance, it’s a divine comedy.

Daniel Humphrey, top of his class (just behind her) at NYU, two time best-selling novelist and the bane of her existence for four years, steps out barefoot, hair wild and brows furrowed. She stalls, searching his face for any sign of recognition, and maybe it’s just the dark, but she comes up empty. She’s not sure whether she’s relieved or offended. 

She’d known more of Dan Humphrey than she’d ever needed to — Nate being his pot dealer and inexplicable friend, and there was the few week stint where he slept with her hell on heels roommate Georgina. 

(And that one night with too much to drink. Blair doesn’t think about that night.)

“...Hello?”

“What?”

“You knocked on my door,” he says, mouth drawn and jaw set like he’s clenching his teeth.

Blair snaps back to reality, deepening her scowl. “Do you have people over?”

Dan — maybe it’s not even Dan, just someone who looks exactly like him but scruffier and with longer hair — looks over his shoulder into the dark house, then back at her, head tilted.

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Okay, well, sorry to interrupt your sad-boy-angsting hours but some people come to stay by the lakeside for peace and serenity.”

She is completely aware that she looks and sounds insane, her hair quickly falling from the bun on top of her head, her voice several octaves higher than usual, but she would appreciate it if maybe-not-Dan wouldn’t look at her like she’s insane, considering he’s the one in the wrong here.

“That’s funny, because I was enjoying some peace and serenity myself when you came out on the porch yelling about blowjobs like the town crier.”

Blair’s hands ball up tight, her nails biting the skin of her palms deep enough to bleed. He seems to notice this, swaying back a bit, like he’s afraid she’s going to deck him in the face with her tiny fist. She could stand here in her pajamas and argue endlessly with this figment of college rivals past, and that’s exactly what she plans on doing, but when she opens her mouth to speak, she finds her voice cracking.

She takes in a shuddered breath, her chest suddenly feeling too heavy to stand upright. “I am so tired.”

He pulls his phone from his pocket, the music ceasing and leaving them in almost-silence, the buzz of cicadas and the chirp of crickets both far off and right there.

“I’m not used to having people around,” he says, which seems to be his way of apologizing. It sounds so honest that she almost forgives him. “Um, I’m Dan, by the way. Dan Humphrey.”

Okay, there goes that. Does he really not remember her?

“The writer,” she says.

“That would be the one.”

“Blair Waldorf,” she says, hoping he doesn’t pick up on the note of hesitation, as if she’s unsure herself what her name is. It’s the first time, she realizes, introducing herself to someone since her name change went through.

“The writer,” he echoes. “Romance, was it?”

“That would be the one.”

His mouth slants up into a smirk, and that she would’ve recognized whether he’d introduced himself or not. 

“My little sister’s read your books,” he says. His tone is unreadable but she chooses, on a whim, to take it as an insult. 

“I think I’ve seen yours at the airport,” she says. “ Hudson News bestsellers.”

Dan laughs, ducking his chin, and she’s more than a little annoyed that he was unfazed by the jab. “What are the odds? Two writers living next to each other.”

“Probably very likely. This is exactly the kind of place people imagine when they think of writer’s retreat.” 

“So that’s why you’re here?” he says, leaning a shoulder against the doorframe. “You’re on a writer’s retreat?”

“I’m sorry, you woke me up at three a.m. and now you’re interested in conversation?”

“It’s the least you could do to reciprocate after interrupting my sad-boy-angsting hours.”

She narrows her eyes at him, his brows raised expectantly. From somewhere behind him, a kettle whistles through the dark. 

“Saved by the bell,” he says, that same crooked smirk she spent four years wanting to smack off his face. “Oh, I fixed the porch light, just so you know.”

At another hour, Blair might be above childish antics. But alas, she screws her face up. “Good for you.”

 

*

 

The blank white slate of the empty document taunts her, the line of the cursor flashing like the mechanical beep of a heart rate monitor, waiting for her to flatline. Her emails from Epperly are piling up, all along the lines of Sorry about your shitty life! Don’t forget your deadline!

She does have an idea, a vague idea, an inkling of an idea. One of the main reasons she took her father up on his offer was the chance to draw inspiration from Boldt castle, to bathe herself in its tragic romantic history. But every time she sets her fingers to the keyboard it’s like pulling at rotted teeth. Romantic love was at the center of every universe Blair had created, but now that her own life had cracked through the middle, leaving behind a hollow center, it was proving to be more and more difficult even to pretend. 

This house is so different from the penthouse she grew up in, from the penthouse she spent six and a half years in; there was a sense of disconnect, cold marble hanging above the city, an ephemeral cloud nine. Different even from the house in Lyon she spent two weeks in last summer, as she stood amongst the ruins of the life she once knew, a trip that was meant to, A) get her out of bed, and B) acquaint her with the man her father really loved, the man her father kept from her. This house feels like a house, a Hallmark movie house, wood-burning fireplace and quilted blankets, backdated issues of Architectural Digest, wine glasses with the barest bit of permanent stains, mugs with tiny chips that would mark them as unusable in the Waldorf household. There’s no television, the soap all smells like jasmine, the pillows are all embroidered. It’s lived in. It makes Blair want to vomit.

She pulls out her sixth novel, flipping it over to the author bio at the back, met with the smiling image of herself, hair pinned and lips glossy, ever-regal. #1 New York Times best-selling author Blair Waldorf. The accolades write themselves, everything she’s published garnering a list of awards. And then, right there, the last line: Blair lives on the Upper East Side with her husband, hotel and nightlife industry giant Charles Bass, CEO of Bass Industries.

Published six months before the first meeting with her pushy divorce lawyer, who sat next to her and clasped her hands in his to stop them from shaking. It won’t be easy, dear. But I can see that you’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. 

Begrudgingly, because she’s had an irritating seed of curiosity planted in the back of her mind that’s started to flower its way to the forefront, she sticks her own novel back on the shelf and thumbs out the black hardcover labelled Amazon and New York Times best-selling. Daniel Humphrey.

She skips over the abundance of awards he’s got to his name, having spent enough time in the past silently fuming over all the ones he had that she didn’t, and goes straight to what she really wants to know — Dan resides in Brooklyn. He probably needs to get out more.  

She bites the inside of her cheek, sliding the book back on the shelf. She’d assumed, considering he was vacationing alone, but the development interests her in a morbidly curious way. She wonders, despite herself, what he’d been doing in the seven years since she’d last spoken to him. She’d gotten married and divorced, Nate had ruined a marriage and won a Pulitzer, even Serena had been engaged for a torrid two months. And then there was Dan, clean-cut and grinning in the photo on the back cover, self-deprecating Brooklynite, like nothing had changed for him, like he hadn’t gone from no one to literary darling almost overnight.

Obviously he’d done enough to completely forget about her. 

They had shared most of their classes over the four years and Humphrey had apparently made it his mission to make her already uncharacteristically unsuitable time at NYU that much worse, always catching up to her in the halls or sticking around after class to pick apart something she’d said during discussion. During peer review, he insisted on exchanging with her, his criticism brutal, albeit, at times, helpful. 

He thought she was a little girl, plain and simple, blinded by trying to romanticize her life. Why does everything have to have a happy ending with you? he’d said once, and she didn’t let it sting her, just kicked his chair out from under him and sent him toppling over. 

And then there was Halloween. One night with too much to drink. So much to drink he doesn’t even remember it? 

Blair was under the impression that she was unforgettable. She’s not about to change her mind on that. 

 

*

 

With her relatively newfound belief in God, came the relatively newfound belief in Heaven and Hell, and while Blair had always been peripherally aware that she’s done nothing to solidify her place in the former, she found it beautifully ironic when the real brochure had read, Like Heaven on Earth. 

Because amongst the heat, the sun simmering on the lake, the days seem to bleed together, nothing to punctuate the boredom except for another email from Epperly or phone call with Serena — who informs her that, deadlines aside, she is on vacation , and some fun is integral to the healthy development of her rebuilt life. 

She hasn’t really gone out since New Year’s, which found her and Serena stuck in the back of a cab in traffic at midnight, mascara streaks like chemtrails on her powdered skin. A bad New Year’s Eve is good luck, Serena said. But Blair had never believed in luck, and she was never going to. 

She calls a cab, which takes all of an hour and twenty minutes to get there, more than enough time for her to talk herself out of going and talk herself into changing back into pajamas and just drinking whatever was left of the wine she brought with her. But she knows she needs to get out of this house of horrors, and the little blonde devil on her shoulder insists that she should do that someplace with lots of alcohol. There were plenty of beautiful restaurants, but if the empty bed makes her feel like a joke, a lonely candlelit dinner surrounded by vacationing couples might actually make her lose her mind. She’d passed what seemed to be an adequately respectable bar on her trip here, but upon second look, she can’t help but pinpoint all the ways it’s not a Bass establishment: the dart board and pool table, the female bartender in non-form fitting clothing, not a suit in sight. It should be a comfort, but it just feels like a downgrade.

She’s sitting at the bar for less than ten minutes before Clive — coincidentally the name of the male lead in her third novel — offers to buy her a drink. 

If she hadn’t grown up awkwardly kissing Nate Archibald, the most genetically gifted person in the five boroughs, she would probably think this guy was a pretty boy. Hazel eyes and a smile that seemed to catch the light, glinting when he brings his glass up to it, throat pulsing while he drinks down his scotch. Blair feels absolutely nothing at the sight of him. 

Clive leans in to whisper something into her ear, something she doesn’t hear because the stench of scotch on his breath makes her stand up from her chair so fast she almost blacks out, and the hand that comes on her waist to steady her makes her entire body go cold. She mumbles some semblance of an apology, hoping she made any sort of coherent sense, and makes a beeline for the restroom, hardly having time to check if she’s alone before she’s doubling over, vomiting into the toilet, completely involuntary but familiar enough to make her want to slump against the dirty bathroom floor.

She doesn’t, instead reaching for her cell to call Serena — better than any doctor she’s been to at talking her down — but the numbers on the screen stare up at her, and she knows it’s the middle of the night in London, Serena either somewhere too loud to hear her phone or already passed out. 

The bathroom mirror is small, cracked and dirty, the image of herself distorted in its reflection, far away from powder rooms past. With a steadied, practiced hand, she blots at her eyes, cups her palms under the cold stream of water and rinses out her mouth. She’d rather sit in the bathroom until closing than walk back out through the bar, but luckily for her the cool breeze of the night air makes its way through the hallway to the restrooms, alerting her to a propped-open back door. Her legs are still shaking when she steps out, a haze of smoke blurring the air, a small white car occupying a single parking space.

“Blair?”

She clutches her bag tight to her before she even turns around. Apparently, the God she just started believing in is big on the cosmic-joke bit. 

Humphrey leans against the grimy outside wall of the bar — which, gross — his phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. 

“What are you doing here?”

“This is a bar,” he says, slow, like he’s talking to a child. “It’s Friday night. I’m –“

“I get it.”

He flicks the cigarette to the ground suddenly, taking a half-step towards her, stepping it out in the process.

“Hey,” he says. “You’re crying.”

“No I’m not,” she says — sniffles. Dan’s brows raise, his hand reaching forward then stopping, dropping back to his side. 

“You’re crying,” he says again, then nods, mouth open for a beat before speaking again. “And you smell like vomit.”

There’s something in his face that tells her he’s been here before. She almost winces. So has she.

“I drank on an empty stomach. It makes me sick.”

“Let me drive you home,” he says, cautious, like he doesn’t believe her.

“I’m fine. I’ll catch a cab.”

“This isn’t the city, Blair, you’ll be out here forever trying that.”

She turns, and he does reach for her now, touching her wrist gently. She throws him off, harsher than she meant to, taking a step back then freezing in place. He blinks at her, the headlights that caught the deer. 

“I’m not getting in a car with a stranger,” she says.

“We’re not strangers,” he says, shrugging lightly. “We’re… neighbours.”

She glances at the car, recognizing it as the same one she’d seen parked behind his house. A breeze sweeps over them. She shivers. 

“Look, I’m going to wait out here with you, so if you want to get rid of me it would probably be quicker to let me drive you.”

She lets him hang there for a moment, deciding how long she wants to continue to argue. Her legs are still weak, the putrid taste lingering in the back of her mouth. 

“Fine, Humphrey. But you should know I have pepper spray in my purse if you try anything.”

Dan looks unamused, stepping over to open the passenger's side door for her. 

The radio blares to life the moment the car starts, electric rock at full blast. Dan glances at her, sheepish, and turns it off. The silence only lasts until they’re part-way home, the empty stretch of road allowing Dan a bit of leeway, unsubtle in the way he’s watching her cautiously.

“Do you want to stop and get something to eat? There’s this great place just up here that does take out.”

She shakes her head against the cool glass of the car window. “I’m not hungry.”

“It might make you feel better.”

“I feel fine,” she fiddles with the clasp on her bag, then the switch for the window, letting in a bit of the wind. 

“If something happened back there you can tell me,” he says. “The townie’s here give me bad vibes.”

“Says the guy from Brooklyn.”

Even in the almost-dark, Blair can see the way his mouth slants up. Fuck. 

“How do you know I’m from Brooklyn?”

“How’d you know I was from the city?”

“Because everyone here for the summer is from the city,” he says, clicking on the turn signal. “And you’re Blair Waldorf.”

“Meaning?”

“You know,” one of his hands comes off the steering wheel to make a vague gesture. 

“I don’t, Humphrey.” 

He glances at her again and then back to the road, turning onto their shared street. “Everyone in the city knows you.”

She hums, her stomach churning. She’s about to give up trying to get it out of him when she catches his small grin.

“That’s the second time you’ve called me Humphrey.”

“It is your name, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but usually people I just met, or who only know me from my books, just call me Dan.”

“What are you getting at?”

“You remember me, don’t you?” 

“From?”

“Come on, Blair. It wasn’t that long ago. And there was… Halloween.”

(Halloween had always been an excuse for Blair to go all out, to put down whatever role she was playing at the time and pick up a new one for the night. But Serena had just broken up with her art school boyfriend and Blair was deigning to go to this trashy college party for her sake, and they were going to dress as slutty and get as drunk as they could manage. 

They did a pretty good job on both fronts.

“He’s looking at you,” Blair said, Serena’s arms around her waist while they danced to some bad remix of Monster Mash. That Humphrey guy has not stopped looking at you since we got here, she’d whispered, breath already tequila-soured. “He hates me.”

Serena shrugged, like maybe it was true, and a surge of jealousy had sprung in Blair like an electric shock. It wasn’t a far off assumption. Everyone was looking at Serena. 

She lost Serena the way she always loses Serena, to the music, to the booze, to the spotlight other people put her in. The room was spinning and then it wasn’t, because his hands were on her hips like they were there to steady her, and then it was spinning all over again as she rocked back against him, all hot palms and hot breath and hot mouth, landing sloppy on her neck. 

Blair still burns at the thought of how they must’ve looked, two people who had never been around each other without erupting into an argument caught in some excuse for a dance, greedy hands groping each other like they couldn’t wait to get out of there. 

Which they did. Just not together.)

“Fine. Fine! Yes, I remember you, Humphrey. Why did you pretend you didn’t remember me?”

“I didn’t mean to, I just… When I introduced myself and you still didn’t say anything I thought you didn’t remember me. But I had a feeling… you always liked your games.”

“I don’t play games anymore.”

Dan pulls into the expanse of dirt road separating their houses. He shifts in his seat, studying her in a way that almost makes her self-conscious, unbidden eyes raking down her. Finally, he says, “You’re different now.”

“Humbled,” Blair says. 

“No,” he says. “Sad.”

“I’m not the one listening to Everlong in the middle of the night.”

His mouth turns up for a moment before setting back in place. “Evasive. Red flag.”

“Sadness is a feeling that would naturally occur to someone who’s newly divorced,” she says. “White flag.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she says. “I left him.”

“Well, then... congratulations?”

“Would be in order, yes.”

“I guess I don’t have to point out the irony of the situation,” he says. “Romance novelist gets a… yeah, you – you get it.”

“I suppose it hasn’t been great for morale,” she says. “Ever since I’ve had this…” she grits her teeth, hissing out, “writer's block. And it doesn’t help that my agent feels the need for daily reminders of my contract.”

Like she needs constant reminders of all the parts of her she’s signed away. Her entire life seems to exist within words written by other people with her signature printed neatly at the bottom. 

“I know what you mean. I came here with this whole outline but it feels like I’ve outgrown everything I know.”

It might just be the darkness scribbling over his features like a charcoal sketch, but he looks different, too, from the charming photo on his book jacket, from the boy who would tug on her ponytail when she purposely stepped a stilettoed heel on his toes. He’s started to grey around his temples, dotting in the shadows of his scruff. His mannerisms are still what she remembers, his hands unable to keep still, but there’s something resigned about it all, the way he holds himself.

A hush has fallen between them, and she’s not sure what it is about him that compels her to say, “My best work had him, us, in between all the lines. And now that there isn’t an… us, it feels like I don’t fit anymore, the way I used to.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing.”

“Excuse me?”

“It gives you a chance to try something new,” he says. “You don’t think it’s gotten a bit formulaic? The genre in general, I mean. Girl meets boy, they flirt, they fuck, there’s a third act conflict, a proposal in the end, and they live happily ever after.”

“That’s the point,” she says. “I like knowing how things are going to turn out.”

Dan softens a little, his argumentative exterior letting up. God, he must think she’s pathetic. 

“And I suppose the four hundred page drivel that boils down to rich people are bad is completely original?”

“Have you read them?”

“Have you read mine?”

Dan only stares at her, which she takes to mean she’s won this round. 

“It’s not about being original. I know commentary on high society has been used across genres for hundreds of years, it’s essential to some of the greatest works of romance – Austen, Wharton –“

“Yes, Humphrey, I know you read books written by women. You hardly shut up during Women in Literature. I became accustomed to the grating sound of your voice behind me.”

She flushes a little. Maybe it was odd that she remembered something as menial as that all these years later. She’s not even sure why she does. 

“I became accustomed to the sound of your scoff in front of me,” comes the response, and if she smiles a little, so what. “As I was saying, I write based solely on experience. I watched my sister get taken advantage of by men with money and connections, I was going to Yale before my dad made an investment with a guy who took off with his money, then spent college getting stoned with a guy who’s dad was in jail for doing just that. If my books boil down to anything – and saying that in itself is an oversimplification – it’s that, people who think they’re untouchable do bad things.”

Blair blinks, and for a flash she sees the fluorescent red light lurking behind her lids, leaving a rusted, metallic taste in her mouth. Quietly, she says, “I was supposed to go to Yale too.”

Dan slumps back in his seat, rubbing a hand over his face. “I’ve had to defend my books and my place in this business more times than I can count. It’s not as easy as publishing another storybook ending to the open arms of a loyal fanbase.”

Any shred of sympathy she felt for Dan Humphrey vanishes as quick as it appeared. 

“You think I have it easy? That I didn’t have to work for everything I have?”

“Like you’ve ever had to work.”

Blair is awfully quick to anger these days, rising like bile up her throat from her teenage days. 

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“I thought writing was a hobby for you,” he says flatly, unfazed by the outburst. 

“Like how being a judgemental prick is a hobby for you?” 

“Yeah,” Dan nods. “Like that.”

“It takes work and talent to stand out in an already stacked genre. I’m number one at what I do for a reason.”

“I don’t think you can really measure writing like that.”

RITA, RoNa, and Goodreads beg to differ. And while I don’t have time to sit around and read Daniel Humphrey’s attempt at the next great American novel, I have bedtime stories that could put anything you’ve published to shame. I’m sure you can’t say the same for me.”

“You’re saying you don’t think I could write a romance novel?”

“I’m saying that with the things I’ve seen, I could easily write something worth twice what you’ve written, but you’d be lost trying to write an engaging romance.”

“Yeah, so you’re saying you don’t think I could write a romance novel.”

“Considering you write solely from experience...” 

Something flickers over Dan’s face — hurt, maybe. There we go, she thinks, having finally struck a real nerve. But it’s gone just as soon as it appeared, Dan relaxing back into that easy smile. 

“Third year,” he says. “You remember?”

She knows where he’s going with this, but feigns ignorance. “You’ll have to be more specific.”

“When Vanessa and I applied for a grant to finance our short film, and you said that you’d give three hundred dollars of your own money if we were able to get a respected institution to pay for our arthouse absurdity and when we got the money –“

“You used the three hundred to acquire a video of me singing karaoke while drunk and play it in front of everyone before the premiere,” she says. “I tried getting you expelled after that.”

“I may have gone a little far with that one but, in my defence, the video was pretty adorable.” 

They seem to have fallen right back in line, like no time has passed, settling into the oddly charged but familiar layout of an argument that was always on the edge of being something else, both of them bringing knives to a gunfight.  

“Competing with you made me a better student, you know,” Dan continues, eyes trained out the windshield, tracing the pad of his finger over the worn leather of the steering wheel. “Which I think, in turn, made me a better writer. It was nice… not being friends with you. So what do you say?”

“About what?”

“Putting your money where your mouth is,” he turns to lean in over the console. “It’s a lot of money and a big mouth.”

She steels herself, leans in just as close, and it takes her back to leaning over a table in an inner city lecture hall, planning his downfall, back before she was damaged goods.

“Humphrey,” she says. “Pepper spray.”

His teeth sink into his bottom lip, turning it white with pressure as he leans back slowly, his hands raised in mock surrender.

“What did you have in mind?” she says.

“The first step is admitting you have a problem, so now that we’re both past that, why don’t we test out your theory? I prove that I can write an engaging romance and you write… the next great American novel.”

“Sounds unfairly stacked against me.”

“Okay, if you’re not confident in your abilities, just four hundred page drivel will do. Whoever sells theirs first, wins.”

“Wins what?”

He shrugs. “Bragging rights.”

“It sounds like a lot of work for bragging rights.”

“You really have changed.” His fingers drum against the steering wheel, head tilting from side to side. “Okay, the loser will promote the winner’s book, write an endorsement for the cover, recommend it in interviews, all that.”

Blair had hit rock bottom a while ago, and after tonight, it feels like she’s laid out with her skull cracked open, digging herself even deeper. Dan had a point, she was always better when she felt she had something to prove. She’d gotten so comfortable making up happy endings. Maybe it was time to face the truth. 

The worst that could happen is that Epperly would think she’s lost her mind but publish it anyway, and she’d still make at least a little bit of money. She has about as much to lose either way. 

“And if you really aren’t confident in your abilities, I could help. Walk you through my process. I have an interview on Monday with Derek Walsh, the –“

“I know who he is. He’s here?”

“Writer’s retreat,” Dan smirks. “Since I’m not technically a journalist anymore he agreed to talk to me for the novel I was supposed to be working on. You could come with me, see how I work.”

“While I am completely confident in my ability to outdo you in your own genre, that still sounds… interesting. And considering you’re a poor lost lamb, I could shepherd you in the art of romanticism. Superficially, of course. Just to give you grounds for inspiration.”

“Sounds like I’m being led to the slaughter,” he says. “I like that. I’m in.”

She sticks her hand out, chin held high. “No games,” she says. “No playing dirty. Deal?”

“I think I like you sad and humbled, Waldorf.” His hand slips into hers. “Deal.”

His eyes peel a pit in her stomach. If there was one thing she never felt when faced with Dan Humphrey, it was small. It’s nice to be reminded of that feeling. 

The engine splutters off like a bad cough, Dan’s gaze moving just past her, out the passengers side window. 

“Do you want to come inside? I could make some ginger tea for your stomach.”

“That is the most grandmotherly proposition ever.”

His eyes catch hers again, nervous in the midst of her sardonic grin. He rolls his eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“My stomach’s fine now.”

“Okay,” he says. His fingers curl around the top of the steering wheel, clenching then letting go, his palm running flat over it. “But I kinda meant in general.”

Blair lets out a short breath, her hand meeting the cool metal of the door handle and clicking it open quickly. She doesn’t say no, but she does say: “I will be.”

They’re both on the wrong sides, needing to pass each other to get to their respective houses, swimming through the glow of white-gold headlights. She pauses, wringing her hands, their shadows large and looming parallel to them, echoing their awkward dance in the dirt. 

“Um.” She swallows. He turns, eyebrows lifted, waiting. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Of course,” he says. “Any time.”

“I look forward to not being friends with you again.”

Dan nods, smiling, and for a flash, she sees him — younger, inexplicably lighter. Then, the headlights go out. She wonders what he sees, and tries not to worry about it. 

“Blair?” he calls, once he reaches the bottom of his steps. “I kind of lied earlier, or not lied, but I didn’t tell the whole truth.”

“You really are a serial killer and my days here are numbered?”

It’s too dark, and he’s too far, but she can hear the soft chuckle, and she can imagine that upturn of his mouth that comes with it. If she smiles a little, so what. 

“I read about your divorce.”

“I assumed as much,” she says. “I am Blair Waldorf.”

From his doorway, he calls out: “And another thing, I have read your books. All of them.”

 

*

 

“No way,” Serena croons. “Is he still hot?”

“He’s –“ Blair pinches the bridge of her nose, as if Serena can see her exasperation. She must be able to sense it, at least, because she lets out a self-satisfied sigh. 

“B, I love this for you. You’ve never had a summer fling before!”

“I have, actually. He ended up in bed with Nate.”

“Well, N’s in Berlin, so you don’t have to worry about that this time.”

“That isn’t – it’s Dan Humphrey. I’m not going to sleep with him.”

“But you just said you almost –“

“I was drunk on gin and attention!”

“You’re single now, B. You deserve to have some fun. After everything.”

“I don’t know,” Blair says, but she’s not quite sure what she’s saying it to. 

 

*

 

“You’re gonna have to change,” Dan says, looking her over as he makes his way to where she waits expectantly, leaning against the passenger's side door. 

She frowns down at herself. “Excuse you. What’s wrong with this?”

“Nothing, you look… incredible. But Walsh’s house is on the top of a hill, and we’ll have to walk part of the way. I don’t want you twisting your ankle and making me miss this interview.”

She ignores the compliment, continuing to stare down at her shoes. “I only brought heels.”

Dan nods, a finger tapping at his lip. Then he turns, and she follows him wordlessly back to his house, where he opens a small closet next to the front door, digging out a pair of white sneakers, speckled with paint.

Blair picks at one, turning it over, disgust evident in her voice. “Why do you have these?”

“It’s my mom’s house,” he says, gesturing for her to hurry up and put them on.

“I don’t wear other people’s shoes,” she says, which is a blatant lie, considering a quarter of her closet is shared with Serena, but she draws the line at dirty sneakers. Not to mention how horribly they would clash with her dress. “I’ll take my chances.”

Dan blinks at her with poorly hidden frustration, before moving past her and back outside. “Fine, but if you break a heel I’m leaving you behind.”

 

Okay — so Dan had the foresight to get her to change, but not enough foresight to predict her stubbornness and force her to change, so it’s actually his fault that she’s barely able to make the walk up the steep hill. Her feet tire out fast, the path uneven, and by the time Blair accepts the fact that she should change into the shoes she caught Dan tossing into the backseat, they’re already halfway there. Despite his previous statements, Dan stops every time she needs to pause and collect herself. To his credit, which she is giving him little of, he keeps the comments to a muttered minimum. 

It’s breathtaking, though, the gaps of sunlight through the lush green trees and the buzz of honeybees like a surround sound cinema. Derek Walsh — an entertainment lawyer who went into hiding after he was revealed to have been behind a gossip website — lives in a brown-brick, ivy-covered cottage, a rose garden dream. It’s only when she pushes her sunglasses to the top of her head, Walsh’s eyes landing on her, that she realizes she’s made more than one mistake. 

“Mrs. Bass?”

She sucks in a sharp breath, says meekly, “Sorry?”

“Aren’t you Charles Bass’ wife?”

Blair grits her teeth. Six best-selling novels later and still. Still, that’s all she is. 

“She gets that a lot,” Dan interjects after a beat of strained silence. “Personally, I don’t see the resemblance.”

Dan’s hand comes between her shoulder blades, and she can feel the drag of his thumb through the thin fabric of her dress. She relaxes visibly, clasping her hands behind her back, nails digging into her palms. Walsh, who looks older than she expected him to, smiles, eyes lined with crows feet creasing. 

“My apologies, Mrs. Humphrey.”

It’s Dan’s turn to stall, and Blair resists rolling her eyes. 

“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s quite the compliment.”

Walsh gestures for them to enter, but Blair catches Dan’s wrist, tipping up on her toes to whisper in his ear: “I’m going to wait in the car.”

Dan shifts to look at her properly, the dent between his brows deepening. “I’ll reschedule –“

“No, I’m fine, really. Go do your interview.”

Dan nods, squeezing her shoulder, and the gesture makes her feel oddly comforted and pathetic as fuck at the same time. 

 

As if she couldn’t feel like the clouds were parting and God was pointing and laughing at her enough already, her heel gets caught in a divot in the path on her way back down, and —

Well, it snaps like a twig.

The shriek she lets out as she tumbles over and into the dirt is loud enough to startle a nearby bird from a tree, the tiny thing fluttering out and doing what she can only assume is a mocking impression of the high-pitched sound she’d just made. She sits amongst the cloud of dirt she kicked up, her head in her hands, trying so hard not to cry that it makes her hiccup. The pretty florals of her dress are sullied by an actual patch of crumpled flowers, and there’s bugs, and this is Dan’s fault. He jinxed it. Jinxes are now a thing Blair believes in.

It’s two hours and fifty layers of sweat under her dress later when she hears Dan finally return to the path, turning over her shoulder to look up at him with wide, wet eyes.

“Holy shit,” Dan says, rushing up to where she sits pathetically on the ground, the corpse of her broken heel gone cold in her lap. His smile drops when his eyes land on hers. “Oh, Blair.”

“Shut up,” she sniffs.

“Blair. Have you been sitting here the whole time?”

“No, Humphrey, I went down to the car and then decided to climb back up and sit in the dirt for a little while.”

His mouth twitches, but he’s smart enough to keep somber. He crouches down next to her, prodding the broken heel with a finger.

“Go ahead,” Blair mumbles. “Get it over with.”

“Are you hurt?”

She sniffles again. “Only my pride.”

“Well, that could to take some bruising,” his hand slips into hers, pulling her up, his arm sliding around her waist to steady her as she teeters on one foot.

Dan’s thumb comes on her cheek, wiping away a smudge of dirt. She looks up at him, embracing the fact that she looks and feels like a stupid little girl, her lower lip jut out and trembling. “I hate you so much.”

He nods solemnly, lips twitching up again. “How do you plan on getting back down the hill, Cinderella?”

“I don’t,” she says. “I’m going to die here.”

“Refusing to walk barefoot in the dirt is the hill you’re going to die on?”

She covers her face with her hands, a morsel of amusement blossoming in her chest that she doesn’t want him to see. Then, all of a sudden, her world tips over.

“Dan!” she cries out, half laugh and half shriek, disturbing the bird’s peace once again as Dan bends, arm tightening around her waist and the other scooping her up behind the knees. “What’re you doing?”

Her hand clutches to the front of his shirt, staring at him as he holds her up. Bridal style. He’s stopped biting back the smile. Finally, he says, “I told you so.”

There’s a moment before her learned instinct kicks in, where she feels lifeless, like a limp rag doll in his arms. But Blair had spent years being backed into corners, and her body reacts despite herself, corpse-like rigidity taking over, muscles so tense it feels like she could tear something.

His smile dissipates, that divot between his brows making a reappearance. “Do you want me to put you down? I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“I’m okay,” she says, but she doesn’t even fool herself anymore. “I just don’t want you to drop me.”

“Jen’s got a few inches and the deadweight of being black out drunk on you, and I only ever dropped her once.”

“Jen?”

“Sister,” he says, hugging her closer as he peers down the steep expanse of the hill. Blair swallows the lump she hadn’t realized had formed in her throat. She lets her arm slip around his neck, fingers brushing the hair at the base of his skull. He shifts her in his arms a little, the hand at his chest rumbling under the resonant groan he lets out.

“Way to make a woman feel good about herself,” she huffs, her chin dipping. 

“It’s not you, it’s my back.”

“You are a Pandora’s box of early aging.” 

He grins at her again, and she sinks into his embrace a bit more, trying hard not to focus on the firm grip of his hands. He says, “Feels like we’ve found ourselves in the middle of a Blair Waldorf novel.”

Her mouth is sandpaper dry, swallowing around nothing. Blair had never thought of herself as a child, always waiting for the day she would live at the top of a tall tower and look down upon everyone beneath her. She’d wanted Nate and the life they were going to have together since the moment she could conceptualize wanting, and Nate had wanted that too, up until he realized what wanting really felt like. But everyone is a child once, including Blair, and when she was she would fall asleep in the armchair of her fathers study as she read the browning pages of hardcover classics, and she would pretend to still be asleep when her father scooped her up in his arms and carried her up the winding spiral staircase to her bed.

They weren’t even married yet, when he bought the penthouse. But he carried her over the threshold anyway, and she only fell more and more in love with him. Chuck was all three-piece suits, classically handsome, crisp and tailored. All cigar smoke and ambergris and old scotch and the taste of blood. 

Dan just smells like deodorant and laundry detergent. 

“You’ve really read them all?”

He nods. Her heart and her head and her stomach all feel like they’re contracting, like hypnic jerks while she’s wide awake. She mumbles, “Then I suppose you can guess how this scene would end.”

Dan coughs, a noise not unlike the one the ancient engine of his car makes. She wrinkles her nose, turning her face away from him. 

“Did you get what you needed?” she asks, trying for conversational despite her position.

“There’s a lot to process,” he says. “Sorry if that was overstepping.”

“No, you did me a favour,” she says quietly. “I wouldn’t have been able to handle the questions.”

“I have another meeting with him scheduled but obviously you don’t need to come.”

She shrugs. “He thinks I’m your wife.” She grimaces, shutting her eyes. Still. 

“Yeah, that’s not gonna hold.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Come on, Waldorf, you’ve lost your edge. I left the door wide open for you.” He sighs, as if to concede. “Marrying a Humphrey is as embarrassing as carrying a fake Birkin.”

Her head lifts, turning to him with wide eyes, unable to control her laughter. “What the fuck?”

“Sister,” he reminds her. “You pick up a thing or two.”

“Tell me about her,” Blair says. 

“She works at this atelier” — his pronunciation is awful, but he soldiers on with confidence as if it isn’t — “in London. She’s...” he laughs, shaking his head. “I was going to say she’s a sweet girl, because that’s usually what I say to people. But she’s not, really. She’s... like you, kind of.”

Blair arches a brow. “A bitch?”

“Yeah,” Dan laughs again. “But I like it more on you.”

“And she’s read my books.”

“She’s obsessed with them. I mean, like, she waits in line on release day obsessed. I don’t even think she’s finished one of mine.”

“Sounds like she has her priorities straight.”

“She asks about you, what you were like in college.”

“And you told her I was an uptight evil snob?”

“Yeah,” he says, not a beat missed. She laughs despite herself. “She asked if you had a really commanding presence, if you demanded attention just by simply being in the room, because that was how you seemed in interviews.”

“I like that,” she says, and then, coyly: “And what did you tell her?”

He takes a moment, letting a short breath out. “I told her that when you were in the room, I wasn’t looking at anyone else. 

The sweltering summer heat and the press of his arms around her take her back to that night, to his eyes following her around the party, to his hands finally taking hold of her. She watches Dan lick his lips, watches his Adam’s apple jerk as he swallows. A vein on the side of his neck strains a bit with exertion, just enough to be appealing, just enough to make Blair suck her tongue on her teeth.

She clears her throat, blinking away. “Do you still live in that stuffy Brooklynite loft?”

“You remember?” he says. 

“It wasn’t everyday I ventured across the bridge.”

(Always with Nate, cornering Dan in the kitchen the first time to ask him, very seriously, if they were sleeping together — because she refused to have a repeat of the disastrous Carter situation. Dan had looked at her like she’d grown a second head.)

“I sold that place. I do live in a different, slightly less stuffy Brooklynite loft though.”

Finally, they reach the car, Dan setting her down to sit on the front hood, her knees brushing his abdomen as he moves away. He ducks into the back of the car, producing his mother’s once-white sneakers.

If she had written this, her dress would be ripped. If she had written this, there would be a break in the trees, a meadow full of wildflowers. If she had written this, he would take her now, or in the open meadow, her already dirtied dress further defiled.

It’s not terrible. She files it away for later. 

She kicks the sneakers off the moment she sits in the sunken leather passengers seat, folding her feet under her. She catches Dan watching her, catches the way he blinks hard at the empty stretch of road. With her hands in her lap, Walsh’s voice cuts through the thick heat of the car, replaying in the back of her mind. Mrs. Bass. After six years with that name, six years without a bare hand, it still feels odd to find those things missing.

Not missing, she reminds herself. Left behind.

“My father’s a fan of yours,” she says, studying the rippling water running parallel to them. “He has copies in his bookcase here.”

Dan’s elbow moves out to nudge at her shoulder. “He ever ask about me?”

“My father and I don’t talk about anything, apparently. Just shallow conversation for the last thirty years.” She picks at the hem of her stained dress. “The house was his with his... lover. His male lover. My mother knew the whole time.”

“Shit,” Dan says. “You weren’t kidding. You really do have better material than me.”

“Is that what everything is to you? Material?”

“No,” he says. “Of course not. That was… insensitive. I’m sorry.”

She’s momentarily startled by the car hitting a pothole, creaking out a suspicious noise as it jostles them. “Is that what this is?” she says. “Is the bet an excuse to

spend time with me to gather material?”

“No, not at all,” he stalls at a stop sign, turning to look at her. “I wouldn’t do that. And I never would’ve brought you along if I’d known that was going to happen back there. I like spending time with you. The bet…” he turns back to the road, shaking his head. “I don’t know – it’s like old times, when I was always a little afraid I was going to get taken out by a sniper on campus for getting a better grade than you.”

“Didn’t happen often,” she mumbles, relaxing back into the seat a bit. 

Dan’s mouth curves like he can’t help it, then sets back into a straight line as he says, serious, “If you told me about something that you saw, or experienced, I wouldn’t put that in any future works without asking.” 

She doesn’t know why she trusts him. She knows she shouldn’t, that she shouldn’t trust anyone — not even herself. So when he says softly, “What about you? Whereabouts in the city are you now?” and she pauses for a brief moment, the truth sinking in, she’s not sure what compels her to tell him.

“Nowhere, I guess. I’m officially a drifter.”

“Oh?”

“I lost anything that was under the Bass company name.” 

“He left you with nothing?” 

“I left him,” she says. “He didn’t owe me anything.”

After a beat, Dan says, “The Midas of Manhattan. It couldn’t have hurt to give you something.”

She smiles, tight-lipped, venomously bitter. “Whoever coined that obviously never made it to the end of that story.”

She rolls down the window, watching in the rearview mirror as the wisps of hair around her face lift and flutter with the wind. Peripherally, she sees Dan glance from her to the road and back again. 

“Basstard Industries,” he says, startling another one of those surprised laughs from her. “I coined that in high school. Turns out, so did, like, ten thousand other people on the internet. I thought I was really clever though.”

“Let me guess, you were one of those kids protesting outside the Palace everyday?”

“I wish. I was too much of suck up, I didn’t want to miss my Chem test. Vanessa got arrested at one of them, though. I think she threw a shoe at someone.”

Something nags at her, a bothersome itch crawling through her gut. She never minded having all eyes on her, being just left of the center of attention. It was better than still being in the shadows. She was successful before him, had created a name synonymous with glamour and windswept romance that she will make sure carries on despite the dissolution of their marriage, the stronghold of the media lifting off her. She was always determined to not just be another piece of gold on his shelf, to not just be the wife. The thought that no one would care about her without his hands around her waist, around her neck, leaves her mouth bitter as bile. 

But amongst those eyes was Dan, reading through every one of her books even though he knew how they would end. She never even bothered to pick up one of his. 

“Whatever you’re feeling right now, you can use it.” Dan says. “Don’t be afraid to use it.”

“I’m not afraid,” she says sternly. “I don’t want to write about him.” It burns her, the way it all comes out in a whisper.

“Then don’t make it about him,” Dan says. “Make it about you.”

When they get home, she stalls, the car door half-open, dropping the paint-speckled sneakers onto the dirt and settling back into them.

“Can I keep the shoes for the summer?”

“Of course,” he says. “But you’ll have to trade in a pair of Louboutins.”

 

*

 

Blair sits on the wicker chair with her feet propped on the railing of the porch, an incredibly un-Blair-like way to sit, but it’s the way she sees Dan sitting sometimes. The thought makes her swing her feet down, stand up, lean her elbows against the railing instead. 

Sometimes, she watches Dan from her window, sitting at the counter in front of his window or on the porch, with his laptop or a book. He wears glasses now when he reads, round and horned rimmed, which coupled with the scruff and few streaks of premature grey, only work to make him look older, even though she’s pretty sure they’re the same age. He doesn’t sleep much, which Blair knows because she doesn’t sleep much, seeing his kitchen light turn on at odd hours, milling around, hovering over the stove. 

From her position now, she sees him stretched out on the porch couch, in just a pair of sweat shorts, the kind Nate used to wear to pick-up games. It’s the most she’s seen of him, the greying extending into his chest hair, a scattered handful of silver coils. He’s reading, glasses-clad, brows drawn together in concentration. She is not thinking about handfuls and she is not staring, because there is frankly nothing to stare at. Dan Humphrey is just as unattractive as she had thought he was in college, more so now, even more stray dog-like, the scruff and the greying and too many tattoos — well, three that are visible, but that’s too many for Blair’s liking. 

Blair hated tattoos on principle, even though she had one herself — the thought of needles and ink and permanent fixtures on skin forever tied to nightmarish memories of Serena’s drunken expenditures; losing her to the city at night on trips to Kyoto, Cabo, Vegas, Berlin. Blair’s one and only, a small crescent moon on her right ankle to match Serena’s sun on her left, hurt like a bitch, drunk only on the romanticism of another person wanting something that would tie themselves to her permanently, even if it was her best friend who she’d spend the rest of her life chasing, never quite eclipsing. 

Dan’s too far away for her to make out what the tattoos really are, something on his chest, over his heart, a line of cursive on his ribs, a blackbird on the lean muscle of his bicep. Lean muscle all the way down, actually, although she’s not sure where that came from — the Dan she remembers taking the starving artist thing to heart, always seeming like all he did was sit around and drink craft beer and smoke (depending on the day — or night, like the one she doesn’t think about — he smelled either like an ashtray or a dispensary), and the Dan-of-today, the Dan-of-right-now, doesn’t seem much different. Not that Blair has thought about the Dan-of-college much since college, except for whenever his name popped up on awards lists or bulletins for book events, or that one time he was on a morning talk show, and she was in the middle of a particularly bad fight with Chuck, locking herself in the master bedroom and horny as all hell and remembering how his hands had felt on her waist that night, his stubble scraping her neck, his low voice when he’d said —

“Enjoying the view?”

Maybe Blair was staring just a tiny little bit.

“You’re awfully full of yourself for someone who listens to Everlong at full blast in the middle of the night.”

He props up on his elbow, pulling his glasses off and folding them politely, carefully, and squinting at her with that infuriating fucking smirk.

“I was talking about the sunset.”

Blair is blushing about as much as she was staring. She shrugs. “I’ve seen better.”

He settles back, slinging his forearm over his eyes. “Where?”

“What?”

“Where’d you see better?”

At first she thinks he’s challenging her, but after a moment she realizes, from his demeanour, the vanishing of that wry little smile, that he’s just making conversation. 

“Over the Arno.” He’d left her in the hotel after a fight and she’d had to fly home alone. “Lyon.” Roman’s house last summer, sunrise and sunset bleeding into one after getting no sleep in another house of cards. “You’re asleep.”

“Nope. Just listening. You’ve got a nice voice. Do you narrate your own audiobooks?”

“No.”

“You should.”

“And you?”

“Nah, I don’t either.”

“I meant the sunset.”

He drops his arm back to his side, shifting his head to squint at her again. “This is as good as it gets for me.” 

Her gaze follows his hand as it scratches a spot on his stomach, veins in his forearm tensing. She is not hard up enough to admit her mouth is watering a little. She just hopes the encroaching darkness is covering the flush on her face. 

Suddenly, he stands, making his way down the steps of his porch and around to hers. She stares at him, rather stupidly, saying, “What’re you doing?”

“It’s kind of awkward to have a conversation from that far away,” he says, that same slow tone he’d used the night outside the bar.

“If you’re going to talk to me like I’m an idiot I’m going to make you stay down there.”

Dan raises his hands in surrender. “Force of habit. I am constantly surrounded by idiots.”

“You have a hall of mirrors at your place?”

He laughs, shaking his head and taking the porch steps two at a time. Dan exudes a casual kind of confidence, effortless, the kind she’s seen in Nate and Serena, born out of being told your whole life that you’re good enough. He stretches out on the wicker couch, and she takes a seat next to him, politely, carefully, pressing her lips together and keeping her eyes on his. Blair was a master of small talk, able to fill an entire night without a break in conversation while still never having to dig too deep. But Dan is so different from the people she’s used to entertaining. Where Blair grew up, everyone had a role to play — and you played it without complaint, turning a blind eye to the fact that no one was really who they said they were. But she watches him here, with parts of his life drawn into his skin, out in the open for her to see.  

“What do your tattoos mean?”

He twists so the ink on the side of his ribs is facing her, tracing a light finger over it. She doesn’t look at the way the muscles of his abdomen contract. She doesn’t look at the thick, soft-looking hair that trails above his waistband. Her mouth doesn’t water.

“This one’s Lincoln Hawk lyrics. My dad’s band.” He stretches his arm out to show her the blackbird. “My dad got this and I liked it so I got one too. And this –“ he taps on his heart, “it’s a line from a Wordsworth poem. The Waterfall And The Eglantine.”

“Pretentious,” she chides. 

“It’s for my sister. It always reminded me of her.”

“So, pretentious but sweet.”

He nods. “They could put that on my headstone.”

Blair doesn’t laugh, because Dan Humphrey is not endearing, not in the slightest. Before she can think about it, she finds herself asking, “Do you have more?”

The sly curve of his mouth burns hot between her thighs. She wants to roll him off the couch and designate him back to his side of the property. 

“One more,” he says. “A drunken mistake. But if you want to see that one you’ll have to buy me dinner first.” He gestures to the little crescent on her ankle. “That’s cute.”

“I got it with my best friend Serena.”

“Ah, yes. I remember Serena.”

(His hands on her waist, stubble scraping her neck, his low voice at her ear saying, You wanna get out of here?

She’d reached back, curling a hand in his hair, a small exhale of Yeah. 

He’d spun her to face him, strong hands pressing their hips together as his mouth came down hot on her throat, whispering, We can go to mine.

Then Serena came stumbling out of a back room looking for her, throwing up in the middle of the floor and getting them kicked out.)

A new wave of heat floods over her. There’s no way it’s dark enough to hide it. 

“She’s hard to forget.”

“So are you,” he says. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Locked in the master bedroom, that not-smile on the stretch television, like he knew that you knew he was the smartest person in the room. But he’d been nervous too, fingers fidgeting, hair run through, messing up all the hard work it must’ve taken to keep it in place. She could hear Chuck’s movements from downstairs, heavy and deliberate. She let herself, for just a moment, sink into that not-smile, sink into the thought of what could have happened that night, sink back into the bed and muffle her moan in a pillow.

She stands abruptly, black spots dotting her vision. “Do you want a drink?”

“Got any lemons? I’ve got something to make us some hard lemonade.”

“There’s a joke in there somewhere.”

 

She meets him back at his porch with the few lemons she’d bought at the farmer’s market, taking a seat on the couch while he goes back inside to make them the drinks. She finds herself shifting restlessly, tying her hair up in a bun and wrestling with the loose strands. She’s relieved when Dan reappears t-shirt clad, with a pitcher of lemonade and a small cup of sugar, in case it was too bitter for her. 

“I take it Serena was the one you were offering advice to on your first night here?”

“Her whole job is to help people avoid scandals, but she’s drawn to them, and God knows they're drawn to her. It’s not that she goes looking for them, she’s just… already in the middle before she realizes it’s begun.”

“I got that reference,” he says, pointing at her with a small smirk. “Tell me more. I’m invested.”

“She never listens to me on things that actually matter,” Blair says, mixing a spoonful of sugar into her glass. “She says it was just a blowjob.”

“A blowjob is never just a blowjob.”

“For you, maybe,” Blair says, waving her hand at him. “But these Hollywood types…”

Dan laughs, runs a hand through his hair, making it stick up all over. Part of her has the urge to fix it, the other to run her own hands through it, mess it up even more. 

Most of her just wants to stop this line of thinking.

He’s closer than he’d been before, the fading light softening his features, his shirt worn-in and horrendously wrinkled. He takes a gulp, his Adam’s apple rising and falling in his throat, a large hand wrapped around the glass. 

She clears her throat. “You said this was your mom’s house?”

“She’s teaching in California this summer so I jumped at the chance to get away. The city was getting kind of suffocating. I guess when you’ve lived somewhere your whole life, the places you love start to feel worn out.”

“Yeah,” Blair says, gulping down an inordinate amount of lemonade, holding the glass tight enough to shatter. 

Dan’s brows draw together the way they did when he was reading. “What are you thinking?”

She’s taken aback by the question. She doesn’t think she’s ever really been asked that before. Vulnerability is weakness, she reminds herself, a mantra embedded into every interaction from home. But she’s not at home. 

“I just – it’s the same for me. Chuck, uh, my ex-husband, he proposed at the top of the Empire State Building, so every time I looked out my window it was like he was there.” 

“Lame,” Dan says. “That’s like, every touristy proposal ever.”

She shakes her head, oddly defensive all of a sudden. “It was special for us.”

“You and ten thousand other people.”

And there it is again, that bile-like anger churning in her stomach at a moment's notice. “God, you’re insufferable.”

“They could put that on my headstone.”

“Just because you’re a sad lonely hipster who thinks marriage is a sham doesn’t mean other people can’t find things like that special.”

He rubs a hand over his face. “I’m sorry. I just say things without thinking. I’m an asshole.”

The thing she hates the most about Dan Humphrey, more than his rumpled clothes and his mop of hair and his smart ass grin, is his unwillingness to engage with her in a fight in any substantial way. Blair knew how to navigate raised voices and shattered glass, knew how to power through until the darkness reached its apex, knew what it was to be scared. 

Dan Humphrey is irritating like an itch she couldn’t scratch. She doesn’t know what to do with him.

“That’s been established.”

“I don’t think marriage is a sham,” he says. “I think it’s – I think it’s beautiful. We make our own fairytales, ” she jerks as if doused in ice water at the reminder of the dedication left in her second novel. Dan continues warily, “how you said… you made mine come true. That was the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I didn’t take you for a romantic,” she says, hoping her breathing sounds as levelled as she’s forcing it to.

He shrugs. “You didn’t know me.”

“I just assumed because you jumped from girl to girl pretty easily in college.”

“College,” he repeats, and she blinks at him silently as to not concede. “It’s not like I didn’t want a serious relationship. Love is most likely the meaning of life. Your novels say as much.” His brows knit together. “What is this? What’s your face doing right now?”

She makes an effort to make her face stop doing anything, and then shrugs, a little too exaggerated, taking another lengthy gulp from her lemonade. 

“Love fucking sucks.”

Now Dan’s the one to blink at her, slate-faced but growing curious. 

“Blair Waldorf thinks love fucking sucks,” he says, his mouth turning down. “Can I quote you on that? Like, as a puff on the cover of your next novel?”

“If there is a next novel,” she says, and then, “a next romance novel. I’m absolutely winning this bet.”

Dan’s mouth doesn’t let up, like he’s not really listening, the gears behind his eyes looking to have trouble moving. 

“I didn’t know you felt that way.”

The truth is that whichever version of Blair he had come into brief contact with however many years ago had not, at all, believed that. The truth is that Blair is afraid that he’s right, that love is the meaning of life, and now she doesn’t know her place in it. 

She’s getting increasingly irritated that his mouth has suddenly set into a permanent frown. She’s getting increasingly closer to doing something stupid, like kissing him or smacking him or taking her shirt off, just to make his face move. 

“How would you do it?” she says, voice coming out softer than she meant it to. 

“Do what?” 

“Propose,” she says. “Since you’re such a romantic.”

“It would depend,” he says. “On who I was proposing to. I’d want to make it special.”

The word choice seems to slip from him, because his face changes into something uneasy, apologetic.

“Me,” she says, before she can stop herself. “If you think what Chuck did was lame, how would you do it?”

He looks at her curiously, lip catching between his teeth, like maybe he’s weighing the pros and cons of answering the question. It horrifies her how fast he’s able to think of something.

“I’d put it in a book,” he says. “In a draft or in the acknowledgments. Somewhere at the end. And then I’d ask you to edit it for me. You’d probably roast the shit out of my writing and then feel really bad about it after.”

“Bad enough to say yes?”

“That would be the plan.”

“What would it say?” she presses, because every word coming out of his mouth is making her feel more drunk than she is.

He doesn’t miss a beat. “Please marry me so I’m not a sad lonely hipster anymore.”

She laughs, light and airy, then catches herself, clearing her throat. 

“That’s –“ she clears her throat again, ignoring the flushing in her cheeks and chest. “Pretentious but sweet.”

“I think I have too much anxiety for grand gestures,” he says, sincerely contemplative in a way that pulls another weightless laugh out of her. She’s not sure when Dan stopped smiling, watching her intently with those dark eyes, fluttering those dark lashes. The way he’s looking at her feels like a touch. “Do you think that it's possible to love someone too much?”

“Yes,” she says quietly. 

“That’s what I always do. I spent a lot of time blaming other people, like it was their fault that I loved them too much. It’s overwhelming, I think. I don’t know. I’ve never been in a relationship that was equally fulfilling for both of us. Maybe I’m just hard to love.”

“Maybe you just need to find someone who wants to be loved like that,” she says.

“Or maybe, love does suck.” His chin tips up as he finishes off his third glass. “I think I might be a little drunk.”

“I think you might be right about that,” she says. “But you’re a very eloquent drunk.”

“It’s the bit of Bukowski in me.”

“I hope it’s the only bit.”

He stands abruptly, swaying a little. “I should go.”

“This is your house,” she says, trying and failing to hide that she’s laughing at him. He laughs, too.

“Oh – fuck, okay, more than a little.”

He fumbles with the sliding door of the porch, then turns to her, brows drawn together. “Do I need to wear a tie for our date?”

“Not a date. Do you own a tie?”

“I’m a thirty year old man who’s been on a nationwide book tour. What do you think?”

“You really don’t want me to answer that.”

He moves to lean into her, almost falling over. “To tie or not to tie?”

“You’re an idiot,” she says, and when he pouts, it only makes her smile more. “No tie. But now that I know it’s an option, I will keep that in mind.”

“Go home, Waldorf.”

 

*

 

“We are not lost,” Dan grumbles, leaning forward in his seat to look up at the passing road sign. 

“You were supposed to turn back there,” Blair says, arms crossed, lips pursed. “You’ve ruined this pseudo-date before it's even started.”

“Okay, princess, you can start backseat driving when I see a license.”

“Princess,” Blair bites. “I never thought I’d relate to Cinderella but it feels like my carriage has turned into a poorly-oiled pumpkin.”

“There’s a reason fairytales end when they do,” he says. 

Blair’s hands drop to her lap. “Fuck you.”

“What?” Dan laughs, the car stuttering as he turns abruptly to look at her. 

“You think you have me all figured out. Blair Waldorf and her stupid storybook endings –“

“I have never called you stupid.”

“It was implied.”

“God, Blair, I never meant – that was just a joke. A bad joke,” he shakes his head. “I think you’re the most intelligent person I’ve ever met.”

“Other than you.”

Dan’s eyes soften, corners creasing slightly despite his continued lack of smile. “Other than me.”

She looks out at the fading light, the sun drooping low behind the trees. 

“Why does everything have to have a happy ending with you?” she says. “Do you remember saying that?”

Dan sighs, a hand coming off the steering wheel to run through his hair. “No.”

Quietly, she says, “Everything ended awfully for me. So I suppose you were right to think I was being naive.”

Dan stays silent, that clenched jaw look, lost in thought. She’s surprised when she sees the ferris wheel, the lights on but lost amongst the pink sky, cotton candy clouds inching over the expanse of the carnival. He pulls to a stop in the dirt parking lot, a row of cars already lined up. Slowly, he shuts off the engine, turning to her. 

“I’m sorry that I ever made you feel that way. It was never my intention. I’d never met someone so strong-willed before, you’d get so worked up but you still defended yourself and your work with a kind of eloquence that I’d never heard. I loved getting you riled up because I didn’t know how else to engage with you... I didn’t think we had anything in common, but for the first time I had met someone I felt really challenged me.” She watches as he swallows, looking out through the windshield. “I liked you, Blair, and I didn’t know what to do about it.” He laughs uneasily, scratching at his chin. “I guess I still don’t.”

They sit in silence, Blair needing a few moments to process what he claims to be four years of bad communication. Finally, she lets out a long breath. “That’s a very good apology.”

“This isn’t the end,” he says. “For you, I mean. I know things have been hard but you can still have a happy ending. You have lots of time.”

Blair bites her tongue, blinking away the burn of tears. “Come on,” she says, opening the car door. “If we spend any more time in here we’ll die from carbon monoxide poisoning.”

 

The walk to the carnival grounds is long, and she’s glad she wore sensible shoes — one and a quarter inch, ankle strap — although Dan still shakes his head and offers his hand (which she pointedly ignores) as she struggles to hide her struggling on the uneven dirt lot. It’s not as hot as it has been, the wind warm and comfortable along her bare shoulders, her mostly bare face, slathered in sunscreen. Just a sundress and no jewellery, an embroidered yellow headband pushing her hair from her face, all so far away from the hard exterior of cold vinyl and cut diamonds. 

Dan looks… good-adjacent, surprisingly put together, his hair having looked like he actually spent time on it before running it ragged once again on the trip over. It was exciting to have something to plan again after so much time of doing nothing, and while this was for his benefit, and her options were already limited, she didn’t want a repeat of the scotch and seedy bar, needing to work her way back up to candlelit dinners and walks in the park, anything that could reflect back the image of Chuck. The carnival seemed like a safe bet, on the right track to romance that she was going for while steering clear of any memories. 

As they step past the gates, the overbearing smell of mini doughnuts and gasoline threatens to make her vomit for a completely different reason.

“I’ve encountered our first problem,” Dan says, a hand on his hip, the other shielding his eyes as he looks around. 

“This place is less rom-com and more Carnival of Souls?”

Dan smiles, the hand at his eyes moving down to pat her on the back. “You’re not gonna be tall enough to ride any of these rides.”

She swings her purse out, knocking him in the stomach, and he doubles over with a startled cough. 

“Perfect height for that.”

 

She returns with a bag of cotton candy bigger than her head to find Dan leaned up against the side of a food cart, a cigarette pressed between his lips.

“You really shouldn’t smoke. They –“

“Cause cancer. I know, Mom.”

“I was going to say give you wrinkles.”

He lets out a puff of smoke, and unless she’s having a stroke, she’s pretty sure tobacco doesn’t smell this sweet.

“Herbals,” he says, smiling around it. “Still not great, but I quit the real stuff years ago.”

He leans in suddenly, and she’s overcome with the vanilla sweet smoke, the pink of his lips.

“See?” he says, voice low. “Wrinkle-free.”

She gives him an exaggerated once over. “That’s debatable.”

He laughs, ripping a chunk of cotton candy out of her bag and sticking it in his mouth. She knows that she’s staring, the sugar melting in his mouth, tasting what she tastes, the same artificial sweetness like from the not-cigarette. 

“What do you wanna do, Waldorf?”

“Everything here looks like it could kill me,” she says, looking around. Her eyes land on a carousel, it’s tinny music and the squeak of its spin harmonizing. “Except that.”

Dan straightens, squinting out to where she points. “That’s debatable.”

 

“That one’s the highest,” she says, pointing at a chipped-paint carousel horse as they step onto the ride. “Perfect for you.”

“Very funny. Too bad there’s not one with a stick up it’s ass.”

She sticks her tongue out, and his face lights up with a laugh. She looks up at the mirrors above them, tongue still hanging from her mouth, to find it stained blue from the cotton candy. She narrows her eyes at him, knowing the whole menacing thing is probably being outdone by the fact that she’s having a little trouble clambering onto the carousel horse.

“Look at you,” Dan says, lifting himself sideways onto the horse across from hers. “You’re adorable. Your feet don’t even touch the ground.”

“A comment on size coming from the guy who drives something that’s one classification away from being a toy car.”

“You’d be surprised by how much room there is in there when you need it.”

“Ew! You’ve had sex in there?”

“Jesus, Waldorf, I meant for luggage.” He bites his lip, throwing her a sidelong grin. “But…”

She moves to kick him, and his head knocks against the pole in an effort to dodge it, her heel connecting with his knee. The toddler in front of them twists in his seat at the sound of their laughter, all light brown curls and round, red cheeks. He smiles a gap-tooth smile, a tiny hand coming up to scrunch a wave. Dan waves back, puffs out his cheeks and sticks out his tongue. Her heart clenches with the rise and fall of the carousel horses, watching them contort their faces at each other until she’s doubled over with delight, red in the face and hardly able to breath. By the time they make it off, Blair feels like she’s floating, coasting along amongst the rainbow fluorescent lights. 

“What next?” Dan says, his own expression giddy, childlike in a way she’s never seen on him, in a way she likes on him very much. She points out a row of tents set up with cheap looking carnival games. Dan lowers his voice conspiratorially, “I thought you were done with games?”

“Afraid I’ll beat you?” she says, walking backwards toward a tent set up with dart boards, small balloons hanging off it. The way he’s smiling at her makes her feel dizzy, adrenaline-filled, like she just got off a rollercoaster and not a carousel. They nudge each other back and forth like little kids while they wait in line, and it’s pumping through Blair’s veins like a sugar high, how much she likes him. She can’t remember the last time she felt so decisively happy.

“This is the part where you put your arms around me and show me how to do it properly,” she says, shuffling her darts. She lifts a brow. “Are you gonna make your move or what?”

Dan grins down at her. “You look like you know what you’re doing.” He leans over, his hand ghosting over her hip. “Which prize do you want me to get you when I win?”

She shivers, feels that wicked grin mounting at the base of her spine, spreading heat all over. “You’re going down, Humphrey.”

She realizes soon after that darts were probably a bad choice on her part — having never actually played, but she supposed her archery streak in the ninth grade would do her some good.

It doesn’t.

Dan is competitive to a fault, a quality she could always somewhat admire, even begrudgingly so. He doesn’t hold back, beats her each round, and rubs it in her face. She decides that this, too, is something she likes on him.

“The gentlemanly thing would have been to let me win,” she says, licking stuck on sugar from her cotton candy off her finger. He won her a stuffed plush rose. She threw it in the garbage. 

He shrugs. “Chivalry’s dead.”

Dan comes to a stop suddenly, poking her on the shoulder and saying, “Hey.”

She looks up at him, his tongue stuck out, blue from his shaved ice. By the time Blair realizes she’s smiling, spread wide across her face, it’s too late. She’s already been caught in the act. 

“Since I won, I think I should get to choose what we do next,” he points without breaking her gaze, without moving anything but his hand. “And I want to go on that.”

She follows the path in which his finger points, chin tipping up, up, up to the surely fatal ferris wheel, the creak of its spin loud even over the twinkle of carousel music. 

“I’m good.”

“Blair,” he says, lowering his voice and sliding his arm around her shoulder. It’s unassuming — the kind of gesture Nate would make as kids before rubbing his knuckle on the top of her head, the kind of gesture that earned him a slap on the wrist from his mother. She thinks Dan must’ve done that with his sister, too, without the consequences. The idea both bothers and comforts her. This is safe, she thinks, this is charted territory. Solid but unsuffocating. “Are you afraid of heights?”

“No. I’m just averse to situations where I’m not explicitly in control. And that mess up my hair.”

Dan hums, thumb dragging over her shoulder. “Sounds like a wuss to me.”

“I’m not!” she tips her head up again, swallowing as she squints at where the top of the ferris wheel blends into the night sky, multicoloured cars swinging ominously with the wind. “It’ll be cold up there.”

Dan brings his arm off her, shrugging his jacket off and placing it over her shoulders. “Problem solved,” he says. 

 

There’s something that feels uncontainable about him, all nervous energy, bouncing on the balls of his feet, his hands squeezing her shoulders, rambling on about the view from the top of the London Eye last summer; although she’s not really listening, too focused on the way his hands run up and down her jacketed arms, like trying to warm her up even though they’re still on the ground. His chin hits the top of her head, swearing under his breath, and when she laughs, he tickles along the side of her neck.

She thinks it would be quite easy to love Dan, all of him, just as much. She can’t imagine how anyone would think differently.

The car creaks with the weight of them, the plastic of her almost empty bag of cotton candy tight in her hand. They’re quiet as they stir into motion, but as they scale through the air, higher and higher at an achingly slow pace, each creak adds traction to the knot in her stomach, the lump in her throat.

“You need a distraction,” Dan says, and when he shifts it rocks the car, the mouse-like squeal she lets out making him smile despite her glare. “Twenty questions?” he says, then, off her eye roll, “Okay, I’ll start. Favourite Halloween costume you’ve worn?”

Blair’s laugh startles her, like the wind being knocked out of her, and she covers her face with her hands, shaking her head. 

“What were you even supposed to be?” she says, out loud, which, fuck. 

She peers at him over her hands, and he’s frowning, and she wants to suck the words back into her mouth instead of having to clarify, wants some freak accident to topple the ferris wheel over and —

“Mr. Darcy,” he says. “The, uh, Colin Firth one.”

She blinks at him. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not,” he says, but his brows are furrowed and his mouth is slanted into that smile. “It was last minute. Vanessa put it together, it was supposed to be a joke because I was always picking on you but I –“ he stops, and she thinks that slanted smile might’ve just turned sheepish. 

“Mr. Darcy,” she repeats. She feels drunk. 

“Jordan Baker,” he counters. She looks away, proving to be the wrong move, a cold intake of breath cutting into her lungs as she shuts her eyes. 

“We were going for generic flapper girls.”

“Oh. I guess I just assumed. Jordan and Daisy.”

He slips his hand into hers, squeezing lightly. Blair can count off the top of her head the people who’ve touched her in the past year — all of them the same way, afraid to cut themselves on her jagged edges. 

“Look at me,” he says, and she does, blinking tears from the harsh wind away. “When was the last time you rode on one of these?”

“I think I was thirteen. Coney Island with Nate and Serena. I sat between them, and I was so afraid when we got to the top, but we were all holding hands, and –“ she turns away, taking in a sharp breath when she realizes they’re almost at the top, looking out at the terrain spotted with golden flecks of light.

Stop that,” Dan says, tugging at her hand. “Look at me. And?” 

“You’re awfully pushy, you know that?”

“So I’ve been told.”

Blair sniffles. Her nose is running and her eyes are watery and her hair is everywhere. 

“And it was the most loved I’ve ever felt.”

Dan licks his lips, the cold chapping them quickly. She wants to tell him it’ll only make it worse, but the words get stuck in her throat. She pulls her eyes back up to his, his brows drawn together, reading between the lines. Instead, she says, “Why’d you quit smoking?”

“Because I wanted my sister to,” he says. “She said she would if I did, but it wasn’t really a challenge, because she didn’t think I could do it. She said I have a hard time letting go of anything.”

“Did it work?” she says. “I mean, did she quit?”

“No,” he says. “Sometimes even your best effort to love someone isn’t quite enough.”

Blair shivers, her free hand moving up to wipe her running nose. “Is that one of the big revelations in your books?”

“If you read one maybe you’d find out,” he says. The car jerks then stalls as they reach the top, Blair tightening her grip in his hand. When he speaks, his breath is just barely visible. “Why did you leave him?”

When asked in the present tense, the voices were always hushed and worried, like she was hatching another one of her juvenile plans. But the first time she said it — to speak it into existence, had shattered her heart like a crystalline glass against a wall. I have to leave him.

Out of all the questions she waited to come, Serena’s first was the least she expected. 

Okay, Serena said. Where do you want to go?

But Blair was not Serena. She was not going to run away.

“Things weren’t always great, but they weren’t always awful, either. And that was enough for me. But… I guess I didn’t just want enough anymore.”

“Good,” he says, with a small resolute nod. “You deserve more than enough. So much more. Forget skyscrapers, you deserve stars.”

Blair wants to brush off the skipping stone beat of her heart, answer with an eye roll and a scoff. But all that comes out is, “Thank you.”

Dan licks his lips again. She says, “You know –“ just as he says, “You’re –“

They both laugh, the sound carried away by the wind. He says, “Go ahead.”

“Nothing,” she says. “What were you saying?”

“You’re beautiful,” he says, simple, just stating a fact. 

“Like this?” she laughs, the finger at her nose drawing a circle in the air around her face. He nods again, dark eyes heavy against the night sky, all of it like spilled ink. After so many months where she could hardly wash her hair, she stopped feeling like it. She supposes it’s nice to be reminded.

Suddenly, Dan leans forward, just as the car jerks back into motion. She startles, his kiss landing scratchy on her cheek. 

“Sorry,” he says, and for the first time, he slips out of that easy confidence, like it was all an act in the first place. “I – um, that felt like a moment.”

She smiles, but slips her hand out from his, squeezing her knee. “Fast learner.”

Dan laughs again, uneasy, looking away. “So I’ve been told.” 

 

She feels lightheaded and weak-kneed on the walk back to the car, Dan’s strides longer than hers, keeping him a half-step ahead of her as she struggles to maintain her balance. Cautiously, she links her arm through his, still wearing his jacket, anchoring herself to him. He glances down at her, his smile seemingly stuck in its timid state. It occurs to her that he might’ve gotten just as good at pretending as she had.

 

His arm comes around the back of her seat, stretching to look behind him as he reverses out of the gravelly parking lot. Her eyes rake down him, the cut of his cheekbones and the sharp edge of his jaw softened by scruff, the tendons of his extended neck, the pop of his bicep next to her head, the slice of exposed skin at his waist as his shirt rides up. The jacket feels like being wrapped in his arms, and she pulls it over her tighter. The ride back home has her sleep-drunk and car-heater warm, the tips of her fingers tingling like they’re waking up while her eyes droop low. Before, a silence like this would have felt deadly. To be wrapped in a jacket that wasn’t hers, that smelled of cologne and lingering musky soap, with her head leaned against the cool car window, driving through the dark. Always just before or just after a fight, the tension in the air either ready to shatter, or already fallen around their feet, making her feel helpless and alone even with someone next to her. 

Now, Blair can’t think of another word to describe how she feels other than safe.

“That night at the bar,” she starts slowly. “I wasn’t sick because I drank.”

Dan glances at her questioningly but doesn’t say anything.

“He drank scotch,” she says. “My ex. Half a bottle a night. Well, on a slow night.”

Dan nods, a quick jerk of his head. She’s bordering too close to the whole truth here, and she’s afraid that in typical Humphrey fashion, he’ll see the whole picture before she even wants him to.

“There was a guy at the bar drinking scotch, and he bought me a drink,” she says. “The smell…”

“I understand,” Dan says. 

“He cheated on me,” she says, because she’s started and now she can’t stop. “I mean, I don’t have any proof. Maybe it really was all in my head. But he had a reputation before me, and I thought that I could get him to settle down, and at first I think I did. But he travelled a lot. I don’t know what he did when he wasn’t with me and I didn’t want to know. But sitting at that bar took me back to the way we met. And I thought, how many other women did he do that with? That moment I thought was ours, when it felt like out of everyone else there he only saw me. How many women in how many bars in how many countries had him lean over them, with that smell of scotch, and thought they were special?”

Blair lets out a long, slow breath, afraid that she might vomit again. “I don’t know why I told you all that.”

But she does. Because Serena already knows, was there for it all. Because Nate doesn’t want to hear it. Because her mother stayed with her father while he lived with another man just to keep up appearances, and never tried to find happiness for herself.

“I’m so sorry,” Dan says. “You deserve so much better than that.”

“I know,” she says, but it comes out a little unsure. “That’s why I left.”

Dan makes a sound like a sigh, muttering something under his breath. His fists are tight on the steering wheel. He’s mad, she thinks, and she’s not sure what to make of that.

“What?”

He shakes his head, another quick jerk. “Nothing. Just – he had you. You’re –“ he exhales sharp through his nose. She waits for him to continue, heart hammering against her ribs, a mallet on a xylophone. “I can’t imagine needing anything else.”

There’s a long stretch of silence on a long stretch of empty road before Dan’s grip on the steering wheel loosens. He fiddles with the stereo, only coming up with static. Through a yawn, she says, “Were you planning on driving home drunk that night?”

“I never leave a bar drunk,” he says, serious. “That’s how bad things happen. That’s how you end up with a tattoo of a butterfly on your ass.”

Blair’s laughter comes to her in hiccups, unable to stop herself, leaving her writhing in the passenger's seat, blushing and breathless. Dan brings a hand off the steering wheel to push at her. “Don’t laugh. I’m very insecure about it.”

“Now that I need to see,” she says, curling up so her knees knock against the slim glove compartment. 

“Hey, you had your chance.”

They freeze in sync, and she can see the regret roll over him, his lip catching between his teeth. She says, “Georgina’s tramp stamp.”

Dan tilts his head, brows drawing together. Blair continues, “Did you get it the same night Georgina got her tramp stamp?”

“Oh – yeah. Georgina was...wild.”  

 “That’s a polite way to say clinically insane,” she says. “It didn’t seem like you’d learned your lesson about bad things happening when you drink too much.”

Dan coughs, clears his throat. “Why would that have been bad?”

“You were going to cheat on her.”

“Georgina and I weren’t in a relationship –“

“Someone should’ve told her that, because she was obsessed with you.”

“– and I had ended things with her when that happened.”

“I saw you with her that morning.”

She should maybe be embarrassed that she remembers, and so clearly too, him standing in the doorway to the dorm room to pick her up. But Dan shows no sign of surprise, and she knows it’s because he remembers too.

“Yes, but because we went to school in New York City and not Amish country, I did have a cellphone.”

“You broke up with Georgina over the phone?”

“We weren’t dating.”

“Why would you do that?”

The headlights of an oncoming car flash over his face as he glances at her then back at the road, the muscles in his jaw tense. “Why do you think, Blair?”

We can go to mine, he’d said, and she was going to, with those hands gripping her hips just right, wanted to know what that stupid smirk would feel like on her lips, between her legs. Her face burns hot at the memory, grateful that it’s too dark for him to see. 

“Oh.”

Dan smiles. That stupid fucking smirk. “Yeah. Oh.”

“She used to call me Snow White,” Blair says, artlessly unsubtle in changing the subject, fiddling with the switch to get her window down. “Georgina. I never got it.”

“She thought you were kind of... prim,” he says. “Stuffy. Straight-laced.”

“Thank you, thesaurus.” She crosses her arms, the withering leather of his jacket bunching up around her. “I am not prim!”

“Don’t need to convince me,” he says, and if he wasn’t controlling the hunk of metal she is currently placing her life in, she would smack that smirk off his face. “Or your very enthusiastic reader base.”

Her face burns hotter than the car’s tiny heater working overtime. She’s not sure why that wasn’t the first thing she thought of when he told her. Mostly, she’d just felt like she won some sort of prize she wasn’t aware she was competing for.

“You keep them hidden under your mattress for material?” she says, her laugh sounding foreign to her ears, so full of air it’s like a sound coming from the wind rushing in through the open window and not being squeezed out of her ribs. 

Dan laughs too, shaking his head. “No need to hide. I live alone.”

She doesn’t have the chance to try and unsuccessfully change the subject again, because he’s clicking the turn signal and pulling into the shared expanse of dirt between their two houses. The motion sensor of Dan’s porch light buzzes to life, melting into the harshness of the headlights, casting everything in a yellow-orange glow. Her own house stays dark and skeletal, more haunting than ever. She can’t think of anything she wants more than for Dan to scoop her out of the passenger’s seat and carry her to his bed, make her feel this warm and safe all night.

He makes his way around the front of the car, opening the door for her, and she feels the cool air on her bare legs right away. 

“Now you’re kind of overdoing it with the gentleman act,” she says.

He holds out his hand. “Shut up and get out of the car, Snow White.”

She takes it, stepping out wobbly onto her feet. He doesn’t let go as he swings the car door shut. Neither does she, and before she knows it they’re walking up to the bottom of her steps hand in hand. 

“Sorry for being weird,” he says, his voice so low she has the urge to lean in to hear him better. “When we were, um, up there.”

“As opposed to when you’re weird all the other times?” she says. He laughs, looking at the ground, and it hits her the way it had a hundred feet in the air, the way it had at the slow spin of the carousel, her stomach flipping like a phantom drop in a dream.

“What do you say, Humphrey?” she says. “Feel like a moment?”

And that does it — face falling flat save for a quirk of a brow, smirk ironed out into a straight, intent line. He takes a half-step closer, free hand drawing over her jaw and lifting it to him. She sucks in a deep breath, and before she’s able to let it out, his mouth comes soft on hers, kissing her slow. 

It takes everything in her to kiss him back, to give in and give herself something. She can taste just the barest bit of sweetness like a sugar-rimmed glass, knowing there’s more where it comes from, that syrup-stained tongue. He hums against her, hand sliding from her jaw to curl firmly around the nape of her neck. That’s when it comes: the caution sign that plagues her every move.

She freezes, she must, because he stops, pulling away to scan her face, like she’s one of his beaten up books, worn out, cracked open, being read by him.

She lets go of his hand, twisting her face away so he’ll drop his hold on her. He does, getting the message, taking a step back and clearing his throat. She touches him lightly on the wrist, between sleeve and pocketed hand, before withdrawing again. 

Just as the lock to her front door clicks, he says: “Blair?”

“Yeah?” she says, turning on her heel, her heart lodged in her throat. His head tilts to the side, the light from his porch backlighting him in a warm orange halo. 

“I always took you for more of a Maleficent.”

She laughs, melting like cotton candy on the tongue. 

“Goodnight, Humphrey.”

 

*

 

She pries the black hardcover off the shelf, running her finger over the raised white lettering of his name. When she flicks the switch on in the guest bedroom, she finds the light burnt out. The darkness feels oppressive, hard to move through. Still, she settles under the covers for the first time, laying the old leather of his jacket next to her, the smell of his cologne keeping her in a comfortable limbo, close to him but still at arm's length.

Blair dreams that she takes her hands off the handlebars of a bike and spins headfirst down a hill. When she lands, her knees are skinned, bleeding. 

Blair dreams about kissing Dan Humphrey, and then a little more than just kissing Dan Humphrey, and then a lot more than just kissing Dan Humphrey. She wakes up in need of a cold shower. 

 

*

 

Something about last night; the kiss, the adrenaline of feeling like she was close enough to touch the stars, the headlights glowing circles down the long dark road; something flips a switch in her, turns the dial until she’s boiling over with a story, curled up on the couch and typing away — regular meticulous planning and outlining and note-taking be damned. When she finally comes up for air, it’s not even eleven yet, but she feels drained, an IV stuck in the chords of her heart, drawing out the bits of misery and pain she’s kept tucked away, all that’s left of the love she had. She has the urge to turn herself completely into a divorcée cliché, curl up by the fire with a good book and a glass of wine before noon.

She realizes rather quickly that she has no fucking idea how to work the fireplace. So there goes that.

She can’t help but think of the life that was being lived in this house long before she ever knew about. Grasping the poker, nudging around the fireplace, she thinks of her father’s large, gentle hands, creating warmth for himself and the man he loved. She thinks of him sitting at the same spot on the couch she’s at (he always favoured the left side of the couch at their home; would it be the same here?) his eyes crinkling as he smiled up at the photos on the mantle. Dog-eared magazine pages, the whistle of a tea kettle, snow or rain or sun out the windows. 

She flips the photos back up, but doesn’t look at them long before she slips the third one out of its frame and tosses it into the garbage under the kitchen sink. Never in her life has she “taken out the trash”, but Dan definitely has, and she supposes he won’t mind doing it for her.

Out the window, she notices his door open, the car pulled out of the driveway a bit.

She ventures outside, finding the car empty but the door unlocked, slipping inside and sinking into the seat, tossing his jacket into the back. It’s only a moment before Dan’s head is ducking down through the driver’s side, brows drawn together, the corner of his mouth twitching. 

“Going my way, Miss?”

Miss Goddess to you.”

“Okay, Miss Goddess To Me.”

She catches her stupidly wide smile in the rearview mirror, making her chin duck, her cheeks warm. 

“Where are we headed?” she says.

“Back to Walsh’s for me,” he says, glancing at her tentatively. She lifts her knees to show off the paint-speckled sneakers. 

“I come prepared.”

Dan laughs, the car straining to life. She’d been worried that the kiss would ruin things between, this kind of friendship she’s never really had before, and the only real friendship she has in this town. In the state, really. Hell, the country. But the silence between them feels the same as it did last night, nothing awkward about it. Blair can’t remember ever being so fond of silence. 

“As loathe as I am to admit it, you may have been right. It feels oddly exciting to write something without knowing how it’ll end. Just… seeing where it takes me. How about you? How are your adventures in romancing going?”

“It’s been… eye-opening, I guess. I used to have all these ideas, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Mystery… but my publishers were so surprised after the success of Townie, they just wanted more of that. And I did it, even though it wasn’t what I really wanted, because I was just happy to be paid for writing full time. I mean… I look at my sister, moving across the world despite all the stable opportunities she had at home, because that’s the one she wanted. I’ve never been brave enough to take the risk.”

“Humphrey,” Blair says, dropping her voice conspiratorially, raking a finger over his knuckle, resting on the console between them. “Are you writing a dystopian sci-fi mystery rom-com?”

Dan laughs, his pinkie brushing over her bare knee, light enough to be an accident. “Not exactly. But if I was I bet it’d be better than what that dunce Nelson Thompson’s been shitting out.”

“Dan!” she squeals, slapping his hand. “You’re just as big of a bitch as I am.”

He shrugs, his finger dragging over skin her again, slow and intentional. A question. She answers by sliding her hand into his, holding it loosely.

“Not my fault he’s wasting his talent. How do you go from writing some of the most heartrending prose I’ve read to… alien sex? Not even good alien sex. Mediocre at best.”

“Have a lot of alien sex to compare it to, do you?”

“I’ve done my research, yes.” He smiles, his tongue playing at his lips. “Also, I might’ve stolen the scene on the hill. If you wanted to use that at some point.”

“Scene on the…? Oh.” She bites the inside of her cheek, as if that’ll stop the blush that’s burning through her, lighting up her palm under his. “And did you… end it the way I would’ve?”

Dan grins, that same shy grin from last night. “Something like that.”

 

She links her arm through his as they trudge up the path to Walsh’s house, her sneakered feet kicking up dust as she skips along to keep up with his strides. Walsh ushers them to the garden behind the house, where a large pitcher of iced tea awaits on a dainty white table. White arches with twisting wisteria hang over the seating area, bushes of red, white and pink roses swaying slightly in the warm breeze, like a Parrish painting in motion.

Without meaning to say it out loud — or only meaning to say it to Dan, she whispers: “I would’ve loved to be married here.”

It’s so far away from the grand hall, the flashing photos. It’s intimate, magical. Walsh smiles, patting a light hand on Dan’s arm.

“You’re welcome to come back if you ever renew your vows.”

In another life, maybe, Blair will get another chance. Until then, she supposes she’ll keep writing them. When she looks up, she’s surprised to find Dan watching her, looking as on edge as she feels. 

She manages a smile. “What d’you say?”

Dan kicks at the grass, shielding his eyes from the sun. “If it gives me the chance to ask you again, I’m all for it.”

 

Blair opts to stay out in the garden while Dan moves into the house, the less time spent together directly around Walsh the less chances of him seeing through the farce. She’d listened to the recording of their last interview, and found it admirable the way Dan could make questions that from anyone else would feel intrusive sound gently inquisitive, his kindness carrying through the speaker.

She’s drunk down half of the pitcher by herself, propping her foot on the wire chair, picking at the multicoloured paint specks, when her phone chimes. 

non judging breakfast club

Serena (11:45 AM): <photo> 

Serena (11:45 AM): miss ur faces. send one back

Blair swipes away the photo of a smiling Serena with smudged glitter eyeshadow, opening her front camera to snap a picture of herself under the wisteria.

Serena (11:52 AM): are those my sunglasses? 

Serena (11:52 AM): u bitch

Serena (11:53 AM): i was looking for those

Serena (11:55 AM): B did u and dan have fun last night 

She curses under her breath, clicking out of the group chat and into a solo text with Serena.

N doesn’t know about Dan.

We haven’t talked since summer started.

Serena (11:57 AM): oops! but u didn’t answer 

Regular fun yes. Your fun no.

Serena (11:58 AM): nothing? 

Well we kissed.

Serena (11:59 AM): yay!!! 

Serena (12:01 PM): i need a play by play

Two voices drift through the screen door, freezing Blair in place.

“She was telling me how much she likes it,” Dan is saying. “And my wife is known for her great taste. Makes you wonder what she’s doing with me.”

She hears Walsh’s deep, resonant laugh, not unlike her father’s. Their footsteps grow closer, and she finds herself a little weak-kneed when she stands.

She remembers the way Chuck would bite off the word, at first a surrender, and later a triumph. 

She likes the way it sounded in Dan’s mouth, like it’s safe there. He said it the same way he says her name — like it’s something precious on his tongue, like communion.

Serena (12:07 PM): B??

Call you later.

“Hi,” Dan says, stepping out into the garden, clearing his throat. “Honey.”

Blair suppresses the immediate urge to raise her eyebrows, instead reaching out to curl a hand around his wrist.

“All done, sweetheart?”

Dan’s eyes shift to Walsh, jaw set, nodding. Blair thinks he’s awfully pretty like this, blushing red. It’s the driving force behind her tipping up on her sneakered toes, kissing him light on the lips, wanting to watch him bloom brighter than Walsh’s roses. It works, on one hand, but on the other, the hand not in hers slides easy around her waist, and he kisses her back like he’s forgotten Walsh is even there, chasing after her mouth when she parts. 

Blair’s pretty sure they’re the same colour now.

“It was nice seeing you again, Claire.”

Blair bites her tongue, her hand twisting in Dan’s. She’s afraid that if she opens her mouth she’ll burst out laughing, so instead she just nods.

“Claire?” she says, once they’re safely out of earshot, brows finally free to shoot up to her hairline. “Honey?”

“He said he forgot your name, and I realized it was because you never gave it.” He wrings a hand on the back of his neck. “I’m not good on the spot.”

“You sounded like what a robot thinks marriage sounds like.”

Dan shrugs. “Marriage is what you make it. Walsh doesn’t know us, he just sees what we show him.”

She trips over a rock on the path, Dan’s hand finding her back to steady her. She pauses to catch her breath, and when she closes her eyes, she sees the photo from the mantle.

“But what do I know? I’ve never been married.”

“Never been divorced, either.”

Dan’s hand smooths up between her shoulder blades, resting there for a moment before withdrawing back to his pocket. Stupidly, she wishes Walsh would trail behind them, giving her an excuse to feel his kiss again without having to commit to it.

She brushes the hair from her eyes, tucking it behind her ear, then curls a careful hand around Dan’s bicep. “Do you know some place I can get kitschy souvenirs?”

 

The town looks like a Christmas village wiped of its snow and dropped into a sweltering summer, quaint and charming. While it can’t compare to the pairs of shoes Serena is returning with for her, Blair knows she’ll love the bag of touristy junk anyway. Dan tugs her into the open door of a bookstore, ducking in to escape the heat. It’s about the size of the towel closet in her childhood home, but it’s dressed up just like her father’s old study, low lighting and stuffed shelves. Tripping over stacks of books on the floor that Blair scrunches her nose at, Dan heads to the modestly sized romance section (a shelf and a half), grin spreading wide over his face as he plucks Christmas at Capote’s out from the W section (two books). 

“That’s objectively my worst one,” she says. 

“First ones usually are,” Dan shrugs. “But I thought it was clever.”

She begins walking backwards, careful steps and a mischievous little smile. The way Dan licks his lips and follows her, one step at a time, makes her heart ring like the bell on the top of a high striker, like she’s won the big prize. She comes to a stop, neck craning. Her plan runs into an impasse when the H section in Fiction is at the very top shelf. 

When he crowds into her space, effectively pressing her back to the shelf as he reaches up, producing a copy of Townie, the mallet strikes between her legs, the puck shooting up her spine, her ears ringing.

They amble around the tight, twisting corn maze of shelves. She spots an old picture book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit — Pierre Lapin, as she knew him. She pulls it off the shelf and cracks it open, and it takes her back to sitting in her fathers lap in his grand armchair, turning the pages as he read, picture books and great classics alike, his low, resonant voice changing pitch for each character to make her giggle.

She remembers the puffed cheeks and stuck out tongue of last night. She thinks Dan would do the same, and it makes her heart swell like a healing wound.

She holds it up so he can see over her shoulder, his arm coming around her to point at one of the tiny bunnies. “You,” he says, his breath warm on her cheek. It’s so silly she can’t help but laugh.

Dan disappears out the door as she’s paying for a stack of postcards, and he’s nowhere to be found on the street outside. This was routine for Blair, being left behind to worry after where one or another has gotten off to. Nate used to call her overly maternal, that it was sweet how much she cared. Blair never liked the way he said it.

She loiters at the newspaper rack outside the bookstore, flipping through the first paper on the top. In her purse, her phone buzzes.

Nate (2:04 PM): <photo> 

Nate (2:04 PM): Pretty girls!

Nate (2:05 PM): Who’s Dan?

Her fingers hover over the keyboard uncertainly, clicking off her phone and clicking it back on a second later, typing out, It’s not important. S is just being annoying. 

On the paper below, she catches sight of an inked ghost, out of focus until she blinks at the page, the words coming into the clear. Stocks are plummeting. A spokesperson for the company says they’re just having a bad quarter, that they’ve hit rough patches before, and they always come out bigger and better.

A chill runs up her spine, replacing the heat that had trickled there moments before. Rough patches had always meant the house would become a minefield, one wrong move and it was her that would bear the brunt of the bad quarter. She hopes, with her gone, he has no one to take out the frustration on. Then again, better her than someone not as strong, not as deserving.

When her phone chimes again, it’s a smiley face from Serena. She clears it away, met with her lockscreen photo: the two of them in Bali, loose braids and twin tans and a rare moment, for the time, of pure unadulterated happiness.

“I think those shoes are really working for you,” comes Dan’s low voice from behind her. “What’re you reading?”

She flips quickly to the back of the paper. “My horoscope.”

“That stuff's bull.” She feels him sidle up closer, the current of warmth that emanates from him magnetic. “What’s it say?”

“When was the last time you did something nice for yourself?”

“That’s not much of a horoscope.” 

She wants to turn around and kiss him speechless, grated by the argument and turned on by the way each word flutters the hairs around her ear. But she’s fulfilled the horoscope enough already. Too much. More than she should’ve.

“What’s mine say?”

Blair clears her throat. “While your compassion is admirable, other people’s burdens are not yours to bear.”

“Jesus. Why was mine so much meaner than yours?”

“It’s true,” she says quietly, dropping the paper back on the rack.

“It’s bull,” he says. 

When she turns, she finds him with his hands full, two ice cream cones waiting — vanilla-chocolate swirl and mint chip. 

She’d purged her way through the proceedings, and stopped eating altogether after, until Serena loaded her into a car under the guise of retail therapy only to drop her off at her actual therapist. She’s mostly avoided the foods from that time, but Dan’s grin is so wide, hand outstretched with two scoops of melting mint chip. 

“My beach body is not going to appreciate all this,” she says, taking it from him. His face screws up, like he’s deciding between rolling his eyes and saying something too sincere, something she doesn’t want to hear right now.

She snaps her fingers in his face. “Still with me?”

“Just trying to think of something to say that doesn’t make me sound like a creep.”

“Well, hurry up. Your ice cream's melting.”

They make their way down the narrow street, past bakeries that waft out the scent of fresh baked pie and shopfronts selling handmade dolls and tablecloths. As her tongue prods at a chocolate chip between her front teeth, she says, “How’d you know I like this?”

Dan stalls, licking the trail of melting ice cream that drips down the side of his cone. She averts her eyes, hoping the cold searing at her lips and teeth will counteract the heat rising everywhere else.

“Is there a statute of limitations on being mad about something?”

“I’m a Scorpio, so I’m going to say no.”

“You kept the mini fridge in your dorm fully stocked,” he says.

She stops abruptly in the middle of the street, and he ushers over to make room for the people passing by. “You were eating my ice cream while fucking my roommate?”

His eyes go wide, a few heads turning, his cheek indented like he’s biting at it to stop from laughing. 

“I was going to say not at the same time, but I think there was actually one night we –“

She groans, and he does laugh then, stumbling a little as she pushes at his shoulder. 

The only way to survive with someone like Georgina as your roommate was to ignore or repress the majority of things she told you, but it’s been brimming in the back of her mind since last night, the ghost of Georgie’s haughty whispers recounting all the things Humphrey let her do to him. She’d assumed it was all fantasy fodder, some warped attempt at making Blair jealous, or just sticking the images in her mind as some sort of torture, the way everything Georgie did was some sort of torture, but now she’s not so sure.

“I never understood what you were doing with a girl like her,” she says. 

“I would love to hear you expand on that.”

She paints the flat of her tongue mint green as she considers him. “She was Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, and you were… James Stewart in everything.”

Dan laughs, the kind that seems to take him by surprise. “Fair enough,” he says. “But don’t you think there’s something attractive about unpredictability? Someone taking you out of your comfort zone?”

That’s what men had always seen in Serena, what Blair had always seen in Serena. Blair had spent her adolescent life hating Serena for something or other, sometimes warranted, sometimes not — it was just how they worked. Serena had always been more adventurous, had always been the one to strip Blair of her hard oyster shell to uncover the pearl underneath. Skinny dipping and jet setting and table dancing.

But that was exactly how she found herself in an underground burlesque club, getting on stage and stripping down to her slip, to the lust at first sight and the tunnel vision that followed, to blood between her teeth.

“You do?”

“At twenty-one, yeah.” 

Blair had thought about the things Georgina told her more than she cared to admit, charging every interaction with him afterwards with a new found spark, like she wanted to take him out at the knees and keep him there. 

“It’s not like you were all sunshine and rainbows either,” he says. 

Like she needed a reminder. Like she hadn’t spent a majority of her life trying desperately to rock climb up to Serena’s height on her glittering pedestal, like she hadn’t fallen without support every time. It was why when she looked out into the darkened club and saw him seeing her, only her, despite the spotlights ricocheting off of every surface, she knew she had to love him. 

“But you never asked me out.”

“Yes I did.”

“That doesn’t count.”

“No, not that. I asked you if you wanted to go to the Comedy of Remarriage presentation at Film Forum with me and you said no. Your exact wording was probably harsher, but I blocked that out. You don’t remember?”

“I thought that was a joke,” she says. “I thought you were setting me up to make fun of me.”

“What?”

“I thought it was another dig at my happy endings,” she says. “You were an ass to me ninety five percent of the time, how was I supposed to know when you were being serious?”

He shakes his head, taking a bite out of his cone. “I went by myself, you know.”

“So did I,” she says.

“I wish things had worked out differently,” he says. “Is that wrong of me to say?”

“No,” she says. “Just useless.”

 

The sun shimmers across the lake as they drive home, the wind whipping harshly through each open window. She rests her cheek on the warmed leather of the seat, facing him.

“Were you glad when it wasn’t yours? When Georgina…”

Dan’s jaw ticks. He glances at the rearview mirror and shrugs. “My life would have had to change a lot if… if it had been mine. I would’ve had to drop out. Everything would be different.”

“It wouldn’t have to be. You wouldn’t have had to do anything.”

“But I would’ve. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if it was mine, it’s not that I wouldn’t be glad, it’s just that I probably wouldn’t be here right now. And I’m really glad I’m here right now.”

Blair’s hair is a mess, let loose and wind-blown. She shifts to rest her forearms on the open window, the paint palette sky rushing overhead. She feels more free than she ever has, weighed down and controlled by nothing. Quietly, she says, “Me too.”

 

*

 

She rubs at her sandpaper dry eyes when she hears the knock, making her wobbly way to the door. Black spots invade her vision; she hasn’t eaten anything, has already gotten up to use the bathroom, the words coming to her faster than she can type them out. 

When she opens the door, Dan spins on his heel to face her from the bottom of the stairs, hands stuffed in his pockets. 

She arches a brow. “Need help burying a body?”

“No, but you are definitely the first person I would come to if I did.” 

He beckons her to come out, and she does, amused by how jittery he seems, like he’s hopped on caffeine. His breath doesn’t smell like coffee, though, and it’s then she realizes how close she’d gotten before coming to a stop.

Wordlessly, he turns, making his back to his place. Wordlessly, she follows.

On the coffee table, a bottle of wine and two glasses, a couple of blankets and pillows strewn around the couch. It would look comfortable if she wasn’t already sweating through her thin sundress.

“I felt really bad about you thinking that I was making fun of you when I asked you out in college, so I… recreated it.”

He looks at her, nervous, and it turns ash into soil, growing wildflowers for fluttering butterflies in her stomach. 

“A date,” she says, raising her brows. “You’re honing in on my side of this bet?” 

“This isn’t for the bet,” he says. “Unless you want it to be.”

She circles the coffee table. She doesn’t know why it feels like she’s tip-toeing. 

“You know, Humphrey, I’m getting the idea you never really needed my help in the romancing department.”

“Maybe you whipped me into shape in record time,” he says. “What do you want?” 

What does she want? That’s not a question she’s asked herself in a long time, not since the heartbreaking realization that what she didn’t want was Chuck. Blair has skated through the last year of her life without touching on the subject.

What does she want? She wants to write a good book. A really good book, her best yet. She wants to feel Serena’s sun-warmed arms around her, smell the salt spray of her hair. She wants to hear Nate’s laugh, kiss his smile like she used to every New Year’s eve. She wants to talk to her mother without crying after. She wants to have sex, until night bleeds into day and time passes without notice. She wants to have sex without crying after. She wants to let herself be in love again. She wants, one day, to be married again.

“Blair?” Dan says, waving the take-out menu for the pizza place. “What do you want?”

“Gourmet, I suppose.”

 

A row of photos lines the mantle, many more than her father had, each one depicting a different setting — the mountains, a lake, Central Manhattan, the Brooklyn bridge — but all quite the same, Dan’s sister — fair and stunning, her stature small but her eyes large and bright, a summer’s sky blue — and Dan himself. One with Jenny on his back, one with him trying to press a kiss to her cheek while she held him away, another with their father — just like him, kind eyes and an unruly mess of dark hair — knocking their heads together. He seemed so different with them, every photo like a snapshot of the version of him she’d seen that night at the carnival, and something she can only describe as longing brims in her rib cage when she realizes she’s only really known him for just less than a month. It feels so much longer, like she’s known him her whole life, like the nineteen years before she first met him ceased to exist, like the seven before she’d met him again did as well. But here she faces the proof that they hadn’t, that he had — still has — a life completely separate from the one stretched out between their two summer houses. And so did she.

“Wow,” she says, reaching out to trace over a dark wooden frame. “She’s so beautiful. You don’t even look related.”

“I know,” Dan says. Then, “Thanks.”

“No, I didn’t mean...” she turns back to him, shaking her head at his wry smile. “She must have a line of men falling at her feet.”

“Yeah – uh, not anymore. It was easier when she dated guys, cause I could just threaten to beat them up. Or actually beat them up. Not that it ever did her any good, but it made me feel like I was doing something about it. Now I just have to say make good choices! and then watch her... not do that.”

“I’ve been there,” she says, taking a seat on the couch. “Where you are, I mean. I didn’t have siblings, but Nate and Serena came pretty close. It was like I was the grown up so they didn’t have to be. It still sometimes feels like that.”

He seats himself with enough space between them for another person, and it irritates and endears her in the same breath.

She continues, “We were inseparable when we were younger. You never found one without the others. And now… we’re not even in the same countries most of the time, let alone the same room.”

The day the divorce was finalized. That was the last time. Blair wonders how she could’ve gotten everything so wrong.

“I was so busy criticizing their continuous stream of bad choices I never stopped long enough to see my own.”

Dan’s eyes crease, but not with a smile. Quietly, he says, “No one was looking after you.”

She’s not sure if it’s a question, but it doesn’t sound like one. She can feel her heart on her tongue, her fingertips tingling. She wants to strangle him for making her think about this.

“Speaking of bad choices,” she says. “You never slept with Nate, right?”

(The Carter disaster was that Blair had wanted to fuck Carter, but Nate got to him first — then fell in love with him for a total of two months before getting heartbroken and left in the dust. Blair should have maybe read into her anguish a bit more.)

Dan grins. “Why do you keep asking me that?”

Blair thinks it’s funny that he says that like it happened yesterday and not seven years ago. Funny and sweet. Funny and sweet, and a little sad. 

“Because Nate had a habit of sleeping with guys I like,” she says, because she was thinking about how it was funny and sweet and sad and hadn’t had the chance to formulate a response that wasn’t the truth. “It’s kind of why we broke up.”

Dan’s eyebrows jump with intrigue. 

“Because he didn’t want to sleep with me,” Blair clarifies. 

When Dan laughs, she catches the deep pink stain on his inner lip, from the wine. She doesn’t think she’s ever drank anything that wasn’t from a merchant, properly aged and aired. It’s not very good. 

She thinks, briefly, that it might taste better from his mouth to hers.

She thinks, briefly, of Clive from the bar; his placidly attractive face and tamed hair and dazzling smile. Blair had fallen for boys like him before, and in her sex-drought state could’ve easily, if she’d felt strong enough to, fallen under him. But she hadn’t felt this, what she feels right now watching Dan, a pool of heat rippling in her stomach, her fingers itching, wanting to touch.

She thinks, briefly, of Chuck; his broodingly handsome allure and slicked back hair and dangerous sneer. 

“Daniel,” she says, darkly serious. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“No,” he says firmly. “I absolutely did not sleep with Nate. Although –“ he raises a finger, “he did kiss me once. In his defence, he was very high.”

Blair’s eyebrows raise, mirroring his intrigue. “Did you kiss him back?”

Dan flashes her another grin, a hundred yard stare at the TV. “Have you seen Nate?”

Blair’s laughter jolts her, quick and startling, the kind of laugh only he can get out of her; this odd man so unlike every other man she knows, that waltzed back into her life and made everything a little warmer, a little brighter, a little funnier.

“Not in a while, actually,” she says, and then, quiet, “I miss him.”

Nate was like Serena in many, many ways, but mostly in that he was never really around even when he was, always one foot out the door, you never had him even when you did. That, and that they had made a vow to each other that they kept long after they realized they would never actually get married. For better or for worse. Til death do us part. 

He was unlike Serena in that his decisions were less distinct. He had taken her side in the divorce — she jokes that she got custody — but something had changed between them. He never mentioned it, acting aloof, like after being married for six years Blair and Chuck had just decided to not be anymore. He was always off and away and even when he wasn’t Blair didn’t make the effort, didn’t make it for anyone this past year, and their conversations always ended up shallow. When Blair became a caution sign, Nate didn’t know how to handle her anymore, could only watch his step and keep moving. 

Her eyes wander back up to Dan, coming to the realization that he’s been staring at her as they sit in silence for several moments. She means to meet his gaze but she gets stuck at a roadblock on his lips. The stubble surrounding them, how pink they are, made crooked by that half-smile of his, always on the line between saying something sly or sweet. 

Nate kissed Dan before she did. It makes her want to call him up and start a fight like she would’ve when they were younger. It makes her wish the last seven years would disappear and it really was just yesterday. 

“You should call him,” Dan says, making her eyes and heart skip. List of things Blair doesn’t believe in: psychics. Although, she thinks the way Dan sees her comes pretty close.

She narrows her eyes at him, prods him with her toe. “Why? You looking to change your answer?”

“You like me,” he says, a raise of the brow, a small, self-satisfied smile. So much, she thinks, and turns back to the movie. 

At some point, after the bottle reaches its last drop, Dan moves to rest his cheek on her shoulder. She brings a hand up, heavy and weightless at the same time, and runs her fingers through his hair, twisting a curl, scratching his scalp. He hums, pleased, and leans into her more, his hand setting on her knee, large and so warm. He shifts to press his mouth to the side of her neck, lips parting, tongue punctuating a kiss to the skin over her pulse. Despite herself, her body goes rigid, like all this time she’s been actively willing herself to be alive, any slip resulting in the true corpse taking over. “Sorry,” Dan mumbles, pulling away, his hand coming off her. “I didn’t mean to –“

“It’s okay,” she says, catching his arm before he can delegate himself back to the other end of the couch. She guides him back to his spot, his head on her shoulder, and lets out a long, slow breath. Quietly, she says, “I haven’t been with anyone since my ex-husband.”

Dan nods, his curls tickling her cheek. After a moment he says, “Do you still think I’m Jimmy Stewart?”

“A little,” she says. “But I’ve grown to like him a lot more than I used to.”

 

*

 

When she calls Nate, he doesn’t answer, but she leaves him a voicemail, which is more than she’s done in a year. He calls back the next morning, voice rich and smooth like the first sip of coffee when he says Hey, babe. 

From out her window, she sees the flash of red flannel, brown curls. She says, “Do you want to hear something utterly insane and absolutely mind-bending?”

“You can bend my ear but I’m not sure my mind can handle it,” comes the response. 

“Do you remember Dan Humphrey from college?” she says. He does. “I may be falling in love with him.”

Two time zones over, Nate cancels his next meeting. 

They spend hours talking about everything and nothing; about the guy Nate’s been seeing, about the guy Serena shouldn’t be. 

“What’s the problem?” Nate says, as the conversation veers back into Dan territory. 

“I never said there was a problem.”

Nate hums. “But if I know you, and I like to think I do, I know you’ve already come up with a list of problems.”

She tucks her knees against her chest, pressing the phone harder to her ear, like the proximity of his voice will somehow bring them closer. “I can’t do it again,” she says quietly. 

“Do what?”

“Give myself up.”

That night, she makes the short trek across the way to Dan’s house, mulling over the last things Nate had said before he had to go.

I couldn’t help but feel it was my fault. I was the one who introduced you, who brought Chuck into your life. I didn’t want to see it for what it was because it would mean having to face my part in it. I opened the door to someone who hurt you. I didn’t want to have to live with that. I’ve always been so selfish with you, haven’t I? You always take me back, and I always take that for granted.

I love you, Blair said. Always have –

Always will, he finished. I’m so sorry, babe. 

“Need help burying a body?” Dan calls before he’s even opened the door, smile growing when his eyes drop to the stack of DVDs balanced in the crook of her arm. 

“My father’s lovecave has no television,” she says. “I was hoping I could have another unsanctioned date with you.”

 

*

 

 

I run through the halls as if they are mine and only mine, as if I am a child. But there was no running in the halls when I was a child. Still, sometimes, I would give in and push my luck, just to see what it would be like. It never lasted long. My father would grasp me and lift me above his head and call me his darling, his baby bear in these marble woods. There is no running in the halls of my own home, but still, sometimes I push my luck. Now, it is him that grasps me, and bounces me off the walls. 

Look at this ring that he gave me. It means that he loves me. Look at this necklace that he gave me. It means that he loves me. Look at this cut on my cheek that he gave me. It means that he loves me. 

Maybe this thing of ours isn’t for you to understand. I want to leave him just as much as I want to love him. It is, most nights, the latter that wins.

Blair stops, taking her hands off the heated keyboard and planting them in her lap. The backs of her hands, each divot of her knuckle, is damp with tears, the cracks in the keyboard gathering up like a salt lake. She blows her breath out slow, and makes a determined stride to the fridge. It’s empty. 

The bathroom has two light switches, and she flips on the wrong one, bathing the small room in fluorescent red in a blink. It’s like the dream she has, where she clambers up the Empire Hotel sign, right to the top of the H, until she can see nothing but red and taste nothing but metal, then she falls. Manhattan’s Peg Entwistle. 

When she steps out onto the back porch, the world is lit green. She pads down the steps and up Dan’s, finding him spread out on a lounge chair, one ankle crossed over the other. His chin is covered over by an open book, and as she gets closer she makes out the print on the front, a copy of Keats’ letters and poems. It rises and falls rhythmically with his chest. There’s freckles over his nose, on his cheeks, dotting his tanned skin. His hair curls around his ears, over the lenses of his reading glasses. Blair remembers the bronze head of Alexander that she’d stare up at as a little girl, always a little wistful, full of longing. 

She thinks he’s quite lovely.

Carefully, she reaches out to place a light hand over his. 

It comes to her in flashes, like the memory of an old recurring nightmare. There, when her hand lays over Dan’s, nudging him awake, she thinks of the stench of day-old vomit, of breath soured by scotch, of an apology at the ready — his voice softened for her benefit, a routine plea for forgiveness. 

But Dan’s eyes open slowly, dark lashes fluttering as he takes her in, mouth turning up. 

“Hey,” he says. “Must’ve dozed off.”

She points at the book that’s slid down to rest on his chest. “Homework?”

“Something like that,” he snaps the book closed without marking his page, and moves to rub the back of his hand on his eye, laughing lightly when hits the lenses. “What’s up?”

She gestures to the lounge chair. There isn’t really enough space for two people. She’s not sure exactly what she’s asking. “Can I…?” 

He nods, shifting over. She lays down next to him, their legs pressed together, settling her hands on her stomach.

The back of the chair is warm on her cheek. She watches him slide the end of his glasses between his teeth, the marks on both sides deep. Oral fixation, she thinks, developed after quitting smoking, something to do with his hands and mouth. She tries not to think about all the other things he could occupy his hands and mouth with.

“Everything okay?”

She counts her breaths, in and out, trying to create constellations out of the bits of pigmentation dusted over his face, few and far between, connecting the dots in her mind. Finally, she says, “I am not a good person.”

Dan sets his glasses down, mouth drawn into a pout. “Where’s this coming from?”

She lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “I was the one that leaked that Meredith Cotillard was having an affair so it would delay her release.”

She shuts her eyes for a moment, feeling dizzy even though she’s lying down. Dan’s silent next to her, but when she looks back at him, he’s fighting a smile. 

“That’s on her for having an affair.”

She allows him a small smile before closing her eyes again. She can feel his steady breathing next to her, the soft sound of it. He says, “I don’t think it’s a matter of good and bad. I don’t think any part of human nature is that binary.” 

“I didn’t get into Yale because I hazed a teacher in high school. I hurt people because it makes me feel in control. And I always need to be in control.” Her stomach rumbles under her hands. If Dan heard it, he shows no signs of it. “Like, for example, when I TA’d Lachmann’s creative writing class, and your short stories where you rewrote the Grimm’s tales to be about modern teenagers never got handed in, it was because I shredded it.”

Dan’s laugh startles her. “I fucking knew it was you! Lachmann wouldn’t believe me, ‘cause he had a thing for you, and I kept saying, you know – she might be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, but she’s also fucking evil.”

Blair blinks at him for a beat, then says, “He’d ever seen.”

“What?”

“Prettiest girl he’d ever seen.”

“That’s what I said.”

“You said you’d ever seen.”

“Oh,” Dan says, a note of surprise in his tone, although his face gives away nothing of the sort. A raise of a brow, a turn of his mouth: “Freudian slip.”

She presses her lips together, pinching the bridge of her nose. “It was really good,” she says. “Your paper. I still... I still remember it. It was so... dark. That was why I had to get rid of it.”

“Because it was too dark?”

“Because it was too good. I had to be at the top of the class, and if Lachmann had gotten his hands on that, it would have ruined my chances.”

“It was about my sister. I mean, all the stuff in it... really happened. And I guess, at that point, I was just really angry at myself? Because it felt like I didn’t do enough. She was always... My dad always called her his little princess. And so I...” he makes a vague hand gesture, shifting a little. “Well, you know. You read it. You were the only one who read it, because Lachmann didn’t allow late assignments.”

“I’m sorry,” she says instinctively, and then stops to reassess herself for a moment, because that had never been an instinct before. “About all of it.”

He shrugs, drawing her attention to his shoulders, the appealing slope of them. 

“My father used to call me that, too. His little princess.”

Dan smiles, looking off instead of at her. She knows there’s a joke coming, can already feel herself straining to keep a straight face. 

“It’s awfully pedestrian,” he says, brows drawing together, right on cue. “If I have a daughter, I’ll call her, like, my little dragon slayer or something.”

And it’s futile, of course, and she gives in, laughing at him. It’s better, she supposes, to just laugh, better than all the other things she wants to do. 

“I loved it,” she says. “When he called me that. He was – he really was my first love, you know? And he was my worst heartbreak, too. Worse than all the others.”

“I’m sorry,” Dan says back. 

“You would make a very good father,” she says, and regrets it the moment she does, not sure if she’s ready to dredge up this line of conversation. She doesn’t understand it yet, this effect he has on her, like a metaphorical shock blanket, there to soak up the static she has encompassed all these tried and twisted things, the double helix running through her still-open wounds, and make them easier to digest, to lay out and look at.

His smile brightens at the addition of his teeth. “You think so?”

“I do. You’re just pushy enough,” she says, adding in a murmur, “And you’re very kind.“

“Thank you,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s enough, though. Pushy and kind. That’s exactly what my dad was and it didn’t save my sister from a single ounce of shit she went through.”

“Parents aren’t protectors,” she says. “Or saviours.”

“What are they, then?” 

“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe you have to be one to figure it out.”

“I can’t wait,” Dan says, head rolling back against the chair. “I never understood how my dad could give everything up for us, but two books in and – fuck, I’m ready to leave it behind. Start a family, you know, something real.”

“You don’t think this is real?” 

“It doesn’t always feel like it. Feels like it could all slip away, like I’ll wake up and I’ll just be broke with no legacy. But kids? A wife? That’s solid. I used to think there was nothing I’d want more in life than this. But I’d give it up in a heartbeat for that.”

Dan shifts to look back at her, his eyes widening as they land on her face. He reaches forward, his palm on her cheek, his thumb wiping away a tear. It’s only a moment after, a moment in which she leans into the touch, she realizes the absence of the knee-jerk reaction. 

“Hey,” he says — voice cautious, uncalculatingly soft. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, it’s –“ she sniffles, wiping quickly at her eyes, as his hand moves to her shoulder. “It’s stupid. I don’t know why I’m even –“

“It’s not stupid,” he says. “It’s you, it couldn’t be stupid.”

The chair creaks as he moves closer, guiding her head to his chest. Blair doesn’t remember the last time she really cried — past a few fallen tears, past a soaked through pillowcase. Cried like this — sobs racketing her ribs without her control. The position is awkward, her head tilted to him but their bodies trying not to touch, and she’s well past composure, can hardly stop crying to get a breath in, so she shifts to bury herself against him better, hole up and hide in him. For a year she’d been holding herself together, albeit barely, and she’d grown so weary of it, exhausted from the energy it took to not fall apart. 

His fingers draw over her temple as her breathing levels again, tucking her hair behind her ear. The tip of her nose runs up along the vein on the side of his neck, drawn to him like a current of the lake, until her mouth is in line with his, and she kisses him, soft but insistent. He doesn’t kiss her back.

When she pulls away to look over him, his eyes drop to where his hand covers hers. Her stomach sinks like a stone. Her shattering had lost its elegance, and all that was left in its place is the sickly crimson of a ruined woman. Why would Dan still want her after this? Why would anyone?

She tenses, withdrawing, her spine wound so tightly it could snap. Dan looks back up as quickly as he had away, his brows knit together. 

“Blair,” he says. “Not like this. You’re upset. We shouldn’t...”

Her face still turned away from him, she says again, “I’m sorry.”

Dan brushes his thumb over the inside of her wrist. “What do you have to be sorry for?”

“Well, your paper, for one. And the snot on your shirt for another. I didn’t think it could look any worse.”

She doesn’t hear him laugh, so she looks back at him. He doesn’t smile, but he seems to try to. “Come inside,” he says. “I’ll make you some tea.”

 

When the whistle of the kettle dies down, Dan says, “You’re not a bad person. You’re just a person.”

“A good person wouldn’t have stayed with someone like him,” she says. Dan slides her cup to her, two teabags turning the clear water into a murky red. “You know Wuthering Heights, whatever souls are made of his and mine are the same? – that’s how I saw Chuck and me. Because growing up with Nate and Serena... they were instinctively kind in a way I never was, all this warm light radiating off of them. But me, I liked hiding behind my name, behind my coldness. Keeping myself apart was so much safer than being like them. I think... for me, at least, people could only really hurt me if they loved me, and I loved them. So it was safer to be hated. And then I met Chuck and it was like... I felt like I finally fit with someone. We were cut from the same cold stone, like two pieces of shattered glass that fit together. And I thought that he didn’t want me to be any kinder or warmer because he accepted me as I was. But that wasn’t it. I had to always be as cold as him, because if I tried to be anything else, he would have to try too. And that’s still hiding.”

“And did you?” Dan says. “Try?”

“No,” she says. She presses her lips to the rim of her cup, but doesn’t take a sip. “But I wanted to. I want to.”

“For the record, I never thought of you as unkind.”

“You thought I was evil.”

“You contain multitudes,” he muses. “Was he…” Dan stalls, like he’s choosing his words carefully. “Was he not kind to you?”

“He was romantic. And he was passionate. Kind… That’s just not who he was.”

It breaks her a little, the look on Dan’s face. He says, “The other stuff doesn’t matter if he wasn’t kind to you.”

She swipes the heel of her hand over her eye, coming away with a dirt path of brown eyeliner and black mascara she forgot she was wearing. There are no mirrors in Dan’s kitchen, except for the silver surface of the toaster, too far for her to make out her reflection. She can’t imagine how awful she must look, how messy and pitiful. She holds the hot tea in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. 

“It was a love story,” she says. “And I tried so hard to give it a happy ending. But there was no way to write this one out of tragedy.”

Dan takes a seat at the kitchen island next to her, but he doesn’t say anything. The presence of him, sure and steady, is enough to unravel her.

“I had a miscarriage.” It slips out of her mouth and into her cup on an exhale, quiet enough she’s not sure he heard. But when she looks back up at him, the expression on his face is unmistakable, the dark of his eyes, the part of his lips. “During my – our fifth year of marriage.”

“I’m so sorry,” he says. She can’t look at his face any longer and instead focuses on his hand, which clenches, relaxes, flexes again. He’s holding himself back from touching her, she thinks, and the gesture and all that it means makes her chest well up like she’s going to cry again. “I know that’s a stupid thing to say but I am.”

She nods, still watching his hand. “I don’t think he would have been very good at it,” she says, which is not what she meant to say, which was, It’s okay. “Or maybe it would have changed him. I guess now I’ll never know.”

Warily, she reaches out, needing the anchor of him. He complies, twines their fingers together and gives her hand a squeeze. The well in her chest stays there, but doesn’t flood over. She says, just as quietly as she had started, “I don’t think I’d be very good at it either.”

“You would,” Dan says, more like a promise than anything. “You really would.”

 

*

 

Tipping her chin up to take in as much of the view before her as she can, Blair stops in her tracks. Dan’s hand slips in hers, giddily rambling about the architectural history and a million other things that go right over her head because it’s just so magical. Grand, breathtaking beauty. She feels like a little girl in a way she hasn’t in a long time, maybe ever. Full of wonder and awe and that sparkling in her chest that makes her want to believe that magic, that love, does exist; that it’s unfolding right in front of her. 

Suddenly, Dan’s thumb comes on her wobbling chin. “What’s wrong, Snow White?”

“It’s so beautiful,” she says, ducking her chin with a shaky breath. “And I’m so pathetic!”

“None of that,” Dan says, pressing a kiss to her temple and squeezing her hand before pulling her further along. 

They trail along like that, through the stone walls of Boldt castle, him dragging her along every time he conjures up a fun fact about something they see, her dragging him along every time something takes her breath away. They come out onto a landing overlooking a garden, the kind that puts Walsh’s to shame, standing back as they watch a conveyor belt of couples taking photos with the Monet-esque backdrop of periwinkle sky, emerald hedges. 

A man around the same age as them kneels before his girlfriend, turning her into a weepy mess the moment his knee hits the ground. The crowd of tourists break out into a round of aww’s on cue, as if practiced. Dan scoffs. Blair clutches at her chest.

One of the tour guides asks if they’d like a photo. Blair thrusts her phone at him before Dan can protest. Then, she tips up on her toes and kisses him, full on the mouth. Dan’s response is enthusiastic enough for her to forget how many people are watching. 

“Cliché romantic displays are a real aphrodisiac for you, huh?” Dan says, palming the small of her back as she flips through the foray of (no doubt Serena-approved) photos. She sends one to the groupchat, then shuts off her phone. 

She cups a hand on his cheek, drawing his face to her again. 

“You know, I’m really starting to see the appeal of these gimmicky tourist traps.”

 

As the car slows to a stop in the driveway, the notebook Blair had taken along laying empty in her lap, Dan says, “I hit the farmer’s market this morning. Got these really great peaches. You wanna try one?”

She bites back a remark about how that’s the most grandmotherly proposition she’s ever heard, instead just nodding with a little smile.

She hops onto the kitchen counter (a very un-Blair-like position), switching her phone on to a row of text messages with varying degrees of expletives and exclamations, then promptly shutting it back off. He slices into the flesh of the peach, just ripe enough, juice spilling out and running a trail down his hand. He peels out the first slice and holds it out to her, then takes the second into his mouth straight from the knife. Her eyes fixate on the way his throat pulses when he swallows. 

“That night,” she says suddenly, the heel of her foot connecting with a cabinet. Dan shifts his weight as he leans against the fridge. 

“That night?”

“What...would you have done?”

“I’m not following.”

“Serena didn’t throw up,” she continues. “We didn’t get kicked out. You take me back to Brooklyn. Your mattress was on the floor. Is that...” she lets out a short breath, eyes flicking up to meet his. “You would’ve had me there?”

He shakes his head. “You deserve better than that.”

“So we would’ve stopped at IKEA and gotten you a bed frame?”

He laughs, setting the knife and peach pit on the sink with a shrug. His fingers are slick with juice, and he brings them up to his mouth, sucking them clean.

“I guess I didn’t have the logistics figured out,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to –“

He stops. She raises her brows, prompting him to continue. 

“When we would argue, you would get all flustered, your face would go red, and I would watch it spread down your neck, your chest. And I wanted to know how far down it would go.”

She admires that Dan can still somehow look sheepish as he speaks, his gaze dropping every few words like he can’t quite keep eye contact. She licks her lips. And then she undoes the first button on her top. 

She takes it slow, ignoring the way her hands shake slightly, exposing flushed skin down to her stomach, lit red as if irritated. Blair has been starved of so many things for so long now, but this especially, this good kind of attention, the kind that welds itself on the inside of her stomach.

There’s one step, and then another, and then his hipbones nudge against her knees. He touches her in the center of her chest, featherlight, then draws his fingertips up and over her collarbone, her shoulder, down her arm, raising goosebumps in their wake.

“You know how turned on I would get?” he says, tracing over the strap of her balconette. “When I got you all worked up like that?”

In answer, she parts her knees wider, making space for his hips to settle in place. If it was anywhere near how turned on she was, then she has an idea.

He leans in, pressing a kiss to her collarbone, his thumb rubbing idly on the lace over her breast. She can smell the peach on his breath, his hands running up her legs to her hips, gripping them just right, the way he had all those years ago — like her body is a heat map and he knows just where the spots burn the reddest.

He kisses the side of her jaw, so light it’s barely there, and when he speaks, his words flutter over her in a shiver, quiet like they’re barely there either. “I’ve wanted you for so long.”

And then his mouth is on hers, soft and exploratory, a kiss and a break and a kiss again. Then deeper, his tongue coaxing between her lips and sliding past her teeth, his hands propping under her knees to urge her legs around his waist. There’s an ebb and flow to the kiss, pushing together and pulling apart, breathing sweet into each other's mouths. Dan is relentless, his tongue twisting on hers, his touch seemingly everywhere at once; mapping her inner thighs, skimming the sides of her breasts, stroking over her throat. Her hands slip under his shirt, nails biting the skin between his shoulder blades, tasting every low noise he hums out. It’s the kind of kiss that feels like more, the kind of kiss that feels like fucking. 

Every part of him that presses into her feels so good, but she’s stuck, crashing against the waves of a whirlpool. His hand threads into her hair, tugging to extend her neck, and her lungs fill with water. She gasps for air, trying to swim back up to the surface. 

“Stop,” she hears herself say, then again, and again, stopstopstop , even though Dan has already backed up, no part of him touching her, cold air over her hot skin.

“Are you okay?” he says. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, you didn’t, I’m just – I need a minute.”

“Of course,” he says, “We can stop, if you want.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” she says, trying hard to catch her breath. Dan is trying equally as hard, hunched over and holding himself up with a hand propped on the counter opposite her, his chest heaving. Her eyes drop to the rigid outline of his erection through his pants, and she winces. “I’m sorry.”

“What? No, you don’t have to be sorry. It’s okay if you’re not ready.”

Her breath comes out shuddered, crossing her arms over her chest. “You don’t understand.”

Dan runs a hand through his hair, shifting back against the counter uncomfortably, forehead creasing, half curious and half concerned. “What do you mean?”

She thinks, after everything, she should know how to navigate vulnerability better. Instead, the exposure hits the heat in her stomach like ice water, making her shiver. Dan bends to pick up her shirt from where it had fallen to the ground, slinging it carefully over her shoulders. 

“There’s things I haven’t told you.” She wrings her hands, crossing her ankles as the pool of blood that accumulated between her legs drains, leaving her feeling ghost-white and numb all over. “About me and Chuck.”

Dan stands up a little straighter, and she keeps her eyes on where his hand tightens slightly on the edge of the counter, not able to bring herself to look any higher.

“He told me that I was only his. That no one was going to love him the way I loved him. That no one was going to care for him. I was all he had... And when I tried to leave him, he would get mad. Really mad. And now I can’t help but... but think about him when you touch me. Like I’m doing something wrong even though we’re not together anymore.”

Dan’s fingers reach out hesitantly, coming light on her wrist, and it happens again, the phantom pain of a harsh tug in the middle of a fight, when he’d kiss her to make her stop yelling. But Dan’s touch stays gentle, brushing over her pulse point, her heart rate shaking her skin. He locks his fingers with hers, stepping closer, his other hand coming up to cradle the back of her head, pressing his lips to the crown.

“The entire time,” she says quietly, more to herself than to him. “Things didn’t get bad all of a sudden. They were like that the entire time. But it always got really good after it was really bad, and I was always chasing that – that really good. So I kept going through the really bad.”

His arms envelope her, urging her off the counter. “C’mere,” he murmurs, picking her up and setting her back on her feet. 

Blair lets out a small, shaky laugh. “I know this isn’t what you wanted. I’m a mess. I don’t expect you to want to clean it up.” 

“Trust me, I didn’t think I’d ever get this lucky,” he says. “I’m ready when you are, and if you’re never ready, then that’s okay, too.”

 

*

 

“No,” Blair says, arms crossed and lips pursed, to drive the point home. “Nuh-uh.”

“Come on,” Dan whines. His bare feet are sand covered, his shirt hanging open around him, lake water matting the hair on his legs down. He’s got that stupidly infectious grin beaming up at her. She wants to screw him senseless, but she opts for glaring daggers instead. “Don’t be a wuss.”

She narrows her eyes. Then, she raises a finger. “If my hair so much as gets damp I will drown you.”

Dan nods solemnly, looking like it’s taking everything in him to not laugh at her. When he holds out his hand, she takes it, the water startlingly cold, a shock to her system. She tries to remain unamused with him, but it feels clarifying, the water sending shivers up her spine, his hand in hers, the total serenity surrounding the lake. It would be surprising that she’d waited so long to finally come here, if she didn’t take a staunchly hateful stance against natural bodies of water.

He wades through the water until his arms encircle her from behind, lifting her up as her bare feet kick out futilely, splashing them both in ice cold water. He’s the only heat source in her vicinity, strong and stable as he swings her around like she weighs nothing. The setting sun filters the sky in pale pinks, the same shade as the walls of her childhood bathroom, the kind of room made fit for a little princess. Her stomach aches, laughter coming out of her harder than she can stand it, and it’s like she’s fifteen again, in that pink bathroom with the greatest loves she’d had in her short life, a moment that she wished she could keep in a locket around her neck, to open and revisit the unadulterated happiness, before everything was cast in that fickle light. Now, in the cool light of evening, she realizes that this is it. This is the happiest she’s ever been.

 

Dan busies himself with lighting the fireplace as she strips out of her wet clothing, down to her underwear, right there in his living room. There’s a discarded hoodie on the back of the couch that she slips on. It gets more of a reaction from him than the lacy bra and panties he’d averted his eyes from. She thinks he does a very good impression of a blushing schoolgirl. 

They curl up like that, her bare legs twisted up with his covered, her covered chest atop his bare, dark except for the crackling of the embers. His hands are still cold, raising goosebumps when they touch her bare skin, but the rest of him is warmer than any hearth. He taps her temple, places his palm over cheek, a flight of shivers running over her. “What’re you thinking?” he asks. 

She has never, not once, let anyone look at her, inside her, like this; unspooling herself like a roll of film before him. Even in therapy, she kept little things, fleeting thoughts, menial and dark ones alike, for herself, never uncovering the whole picture. 

“My father was never a man of many words. Maybe I should’ve known he was keeping secrets from me. This whole time… I never knew him, and he didn’t even give me the chance to.”

“He was afraid of what you’d think.”

“Did he really think I was that horrible? I know I wouldn’t have taken it well but I wouldn’t have hated him. I wouldn’t have even been as hurt as I am now. It’s the fact that he kept it from me.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t think you’re horrible. I think it’s just… complicated. Weren’t there things you didn’t tell him?”

(The photo on the mantel. Concealer and powder caked over the cut on her cheek from the night before the party, when she’d tried to leave him and he punched the glass wall behind her. He’d kissed the cut, then her. She can still taste the blood. 

Her father had held her face in both his hands and kissed her forehead. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him that she wasn’t who he thought she was.)

“Blair?”

She brings a finger to her nose, stifling a sniffle. “There are things I haven’t told him.”

Their cat and mouse game had quickly evolved into huntsman and doe. She had lived in a house with a man who took what he wanted when he wanted it, because he could. She made herself believe that it was normal. It was easier that way.

“It’s hard to imagine my father being afraid of anything,” she says. 

“You two sound a lot alike.”

“I don’t know. I’m afraid of so many things. Most of all that I’ve become someone no one else will be able to love.”

Dan blows his breath out slow, thumbing at her cheek.

“That’s not true,” he says softly. “Look at me.”

She does, waiting for him to continue. He doesn’t. It takes her a moment to realize it wasn’t a command. It was an example.

“Tell me a secret,” she says. She’s given him more of herself than she ever planned to give someone again, and she wants something from him that’s just for her. “Something you’ve never told anyone else.”

Dan tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I hate everything I’ve ever written,” he says. “All of it. And I don’t get how anyone else could like it.”

She leans back to get a better look at him, feeling a chill when she sees the simple sincerity in his eyes. 

“Because it’s you,” she says. “Because it‘s... witty and intelligent and cynical but still has this... hopefulness to it. It’s you. I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.”

“You read them?” he says, the start of a smile edging at his lips. She nods, and it dislodges the strand of hair he’d tucked, falling along her face. He twists it around his finger. “Thank you. But I don’t think it’s about the writing.”

She burrows her face into his neck, the spice of his soap pricking at her eyes. His arm slings around her easily, the hand in her hair threading firmer as she shifts up to press a kiss to his lips. 

“Do you want to stay?” he says, barely a whisper.

“I do,” she says.

For the first time all summer, Blair sleeps through the night. 

 

*

 

She presses one ear against his chest, the thrum of his heart like rushing water, and her phone to the other, thinking of when she was a little girl, holding a conch to her ear in the Captain’s study, listening to the hand-held sea. The sun bears down hard on them, his lips on her forehead, breathing steady, not asleep but just barely awake. Her breath catches when she hears the click of the receiver pick up, and Dan’s arm around her tightens a little, a half-hug. She traces a blunt nail over the ink along his ribs, her voice levelled with strength when she says, “Hi, Daddy.”

Little by little, Blair is reclaiming ownership over her body. Her knees, her knuckles, the tip of her nose, when Dan kisses her it burns in the best way possible; not a brandishing of property, but a wax seal, a promise to cherish. His careful, considerate attention twines through her ribs, like wisteria around the cold, metal cage of her heart. 

It’ll be harder with her mother, both of them well-versed liars, good at pretending to be unwithered. While her father thought her to be strong and resilient, her mother expected it of her. But she doesn’t blame her mother for trying to save face. One of these days, she will have to find a way to voice that.

 

*

 

“You know, the person who’s driving should probably know where they’re going.” He glances over his shoulder at the large bags she packed in the backseat, and then at her. “Is there a body in that bag?”

She shushes him, pointing right. After another ten minutes, she jumps in her seat, telling him to pull over. 

They trudge through a gap in the trees, Dan bitching about twisting an ankle as he struggles with the bags, until she takes them from him and drops them onto the grass, lacing their fingers together, her free hand held out in a silent Ta-da!

“What,” Dan says flatly. “What am I looking at.”

She points up, his eyes following her finger. His mouth drops open.

Thousands of stars swimming in the almost-black sea of the sky, reflecting in the dark of his eyes, all of it absolutely endless. She unzips the bags, one a seemingly unused tent she found in the basement, the other with folded knit blankets. When she looks back at Dan, he’s not looking at the stars anymore.

“I haven’t done this in forever,” he says, helping her with the tent and blankets. “My parents used to drive Jen and I out in my dad’s van until we could see the stars.”

“I know,” Blair says. “You wrote about it, in one of those stories I marked. I thought it was so… romantic,” she waves a hand, fighting a blush. “It didn’t at all match with the image of the Mr. Cynic I knew. I kind of... thought you’d made it up.” She’s embarrassed, suddenly, but Dan only continues to watch her. “But after... well, everything, this summer, I realized you didn’t and...”

“It’s perfect,” he says, and when he takes a step forward, she catches the glint in his eyes, not from the reflection of the starlight, but something else entirely. “For someone who hated me in college, you sure remember a lot.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I have a good memory.”

“Is it possible that you were carrying a little torch for me?”

“Absolutely not,” she says. His hands settle on her hips, and she sways towards him, the tide kissing the Earth under the force of the moon. “And if I was, it was nothing in comparison to the whole damn bonfire you were carrying for me.”

His head tips back up, that simple childlike awe overtaking him. With the column of his neck stretched out before her, what overtakes her is something else entirely, too.

“Feels kind of like a fairytale,” Dan says. She presses her lips to his Adam’s apple, following its rise and fall as he swallows. 

“I’m done with fairytales. I want something real. And I want it with you.”

Dan is watching her with the kind of intent she had grown to hate from men — as she had grown to hate all things that made her feel as if her body was not her own, but simply something to be thrown around, stuffed in a closet with the rest of the skeletons and taken out when you needed something shiny to look at, to get off to, to make you feel better. But, she knows, this is different. She can see it, quite clearly, that the focus stems not from wanting to hold her under him — under and under until she was six feet deep — but from a desire to make her feel wanted in itself. She’s made him happy, and the thought alone flicks flames up and down her spine, curls around the crown of her head, the apex of her thighs.

He holds her face in his hands like she’s something that deserves to be handled with care. Blair is starting to believe that she is. He whispers, his voice tight, like if he speaks any louder it’ll break, “I don’t want to scare you away.”

“Why would you?”

“Because the way you felt at the top of the ferris wheel at thirteen, that’s how I feel right now.”

Normally, Blair would never deign to sit in the grass willingly, let alone set up a hideous cave of nylon. But it feels like she’s getting to step inside one of those pictures from his mantle, experience that other life, the kind she never had, the kind Dan so clearly longs to go back to. Blair thinks that a part of getting up and on with it is creating new memories, not to outshine the old ones, but simply to cherish alongside them. Swathed in blankets and bathed in moonlight, they kiss for so long Blair’s surprised it isn’t daybreak already. His hips rock against hers, an involuntary thrust, and she answers with a tug on his hair, catching his bottom lip with her teeth and biting softly. She wants to swallow the groan he lets out, wants to hear it again and again and again. She holds his face in her hands, looks him in the eyes and reminds herself who he is. Breathless, she says, “I want you.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to?”

He laughs, a tight noise with no air in it, tipping his chin down. “I think that much is obvious.”

His cheek burns under her hand, and she replaces her palm with her lips. “You’re too old to be embarrassed about that.”

“I just don’t want you to feel like you have to do something you’re not ready for.”

She tips his chin up with a finger to kiss along his neck, teasing with her teeth where his pulse beats fast and hard against his skin. She slips a hand between them, cupping him firmly through his pants, earning her another groan. “I’m doing exactly what I want to.”

She palms him slowly, delighting in the way his mouth goes slack before he’s dropping his forehead to the crook of her neck, breathing in her hair. “There’s no condom,” he says, his voice thicker than she’s ever heard it, like molasses against her mouth.

“I brought some,” she whispers.

He manages to prop himself up, grinning down at her. “You planned this?”

“I plan everything,” she says, with a wet kiss to his jaw. “Well, almost everything.”

“If you want to stop, just tell me, okay?” 

She nods, moving in to catch his mouth again, but he stalls, his hand on her cheek this time. “You’ll tell me, right? Any time.”

“I’ll tell you,” she says. The buttons of his shirt come apart quick under her fingers, and then it’s all him — warm, tanned muscle and those pretentious tattoos. “Can I be on top?” 

His breath hitches, hands coming over her hips to turn them over. “God – yeah, please.”

She laughs, catching the tip of his tongue between her lips and sucking on it like a fast-melting popsicle. “We’ve taken to begging now, have we?”

His hands melt down her back, taking the zipper of her dress down slow, mouthing over her collarbone. “Can’t hear you. No blood left in my brain.”

“You know all of this has just been one elaborate scheme to finally see that butterfly,” she says, helping him guide the straps of her dress off.

“Only you would bully me while I’m trying not to lose my mind over how beautiful you are.”

The dress drops off, pooling around her hips, leaving her bare. His warm breath raises goosebumps along her breasts, the colour that starts at her cheeks spreading down all the way to her belly button. 

“Still okay?”

Her hands slide from his jaw to the curls at the base of his skull, gripping tight, tugging his mouth to her chest, his moan muffled on the swell of her breast.

“I’ll tell you if I’m not,” she says, breath hitching as the tip of his tongue teases her nipple, circling over it. “So shut up and do as I say, Humphrey.”

He snorts against her, kissing the space between her breasts. “Romantic.”

After some adjusting, she feels him pressing up against her, hard and hot even through layers of leftover fabric. It’s all lips and tongue and teeth, and now Blair’s the one grinding her hips on his. He remains steady, kissing every part of her that he can reach, tweaking her nipples between thumb and forefinger. 

“Dan, I’m so –“ she’s out of breath and they’ve hardly even started, catching his hand and guiding it between her legs so he can see for himself. His eyes drop shut for a moment before sliding back open, gaze half-lidded and honeyed as he strokes her gently, his fingers slick to his knuckles. His eyes don’t leave hers, only leaning in every so often to kiss her, full and hungry, working her so slowly, so carefully, squeezed under enough pressure that she bursts with a high-pitched whine, consumed with heat, like the birth of a star. 

He brings his fingers to his mouth, her stomach swinging like a ferris wheel car under the weight of his gaze as he closes his lips over them, lids dropping with a low moan.  

Her chest flush against his, the patch of hair rubbing against her smooth skin as soft as the grass that tickles her toes. She rests her forehead on his, levelled with each other, completely equal. 

“You’re sure?” he whispers, and amongst the fog of lust lodged in her throat, rising like steam in her belly, she manages to nod. But she still feels it, buzzing from his chest to hers, running up through his veins, that nervous energy. 

“Stop that,” she says, pressing the words into a kiss on the high plain of his cheekbone. His hands come off her immediately, but she clutches on, pulls him back closer.

“What?” he says.

She taps him on his forehead, then kisses the spot as if to soothe it. “Thinking.”

“I just want you to be comfortable,” he says. “I want you to feel good.” 

“I do.”

He locks her in another long, dizzying kiss, her first climax just a taste of something sweet she’s been craving all summer, too much and not nearly enough. She’s not sure where it starts and where it ends, all one long supernova. That’s what it feels like, as she lays in his arms, the slickness of salt everywhere, her nerve endings lit aflame; the death of one thing to birth a million little new ones.

 

*

 

Dawn breaks over the lake in slow progression, light leaking out over the water little by little until it reaches the shore, kissing the sand good morning. She finds him on the porch with his laptop, one of his herbals wedged between his lips.

“Hey,” she says, running a hand through his clearly already run through hair, scratching at his scalp, behind his ear, like he’s a cat. The way he leans into it doesn’t do him any favours. “I woke up and you weren’t there.”

“Sorry,” he says, sweet smoke inching around his mouth like the cotton white clouds above them. “I wanted to work but I didn’t want to wake you.”

She picks the laptop up and replaces it with herself, his arms curling around her waist. 

“If I hadn’t found you, would you have Howard Hughes’ed yourself to death?”

“Who says you found me?” he says. She receives her own good morning kiss, and she thinks the sand should be quite envious of her. “Maybe I found you.”

“I literally walked in on you doing the same thing on my first night here.”

“You have done a very good job of disrupting my life, Blair Waldorf.”

She clicks around his email, pulling up an unread document. “I sent you something,” she says, shifting so he can see over her shoulder. 

“You’re done?” he says, stamping out the herbal and scrolling through the document, eyes lighting up as he reads the title. Breaking Down the Walls You Built Around Me.

“You’re not?” she says. “I kind of assumed you’d finished weeks ago but didn’t want to brag.”

“You think if I finished before you I wouldn’t want to brag? That’s like, the entire point of finishing before you.”

“Forgive me for thinking there was still a gentleman in there somewhere.”

“He’s gone, honey. You lost him the second I saw you naked.”

She rolls her eyes, but he doesn’t see it, engrossed from the first line. 

When Cornelia Carlyle becomes trapped in the Metropolitan Museum overnight, she is forced to re-examine her life, her career, and her marriage, as she explores each room and the vast histories existing all in one place.

Blair makes them coffee, then makes them more coffee, milling around the kitchen, aimless and anxious, making them some more coffee, until, hours later, she peers over Dan’s shoulder to find him at the epilogue.

 

I am still rebuilding myself, and I think I've lost pieces of me, somewhere along in his empire. He can keep them, cut himself on them when he thinks about me too hard. What I do know is, he has not touched me in a long time, and he never will again. 

 

*

 

His skin is more than sun-warmed under her hands. He’s left her sleepy-eyed and satiated, wedged between her legs, lazy kisses along her thighs. From his bedside table, his phone rings, and he groans as she shifts to grab it, suffocating him momentarily. 

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” he says, clicking off the phone and pressing his lips back on her stomach. “She can wait.”

“She?”

“Vanessa,” he mumbles. “I don’t need a lecture right now.”

“You’re doing that thing,” she says, scratching at his scalp. “Where you’re talking in fragments and expecting me to understand.”

He sighs, resting his cheek on her stomach. “I told her about us and she remembers how much I liked you before –“

“I’m sorry, you were able to adequately express your feelings for me to everyone except for me?”

“That’s about right.”

His fingertips draw over the slope of her breast, palm covering her and kneading softly, pressing a kiss to the crease of her hip. There’s a reverence in the way he touches her, like he’s in awe no matter how many times he sees her bare. 

“I’d leave my pens at home so I could ask you for one. I’d run around the halls hoping to start up an argument with you. I made sure to get to class after you so I could choose where to sit based on where you were,” he says. “Vanessa never let me live that one down.”

“But why would she give you a lecture?” 

“She thinks this is just for the summer, and…you know…I’m going to need adequate time to prepare for getting over you. Apparently seven years wasn’t enough.”

She wonders how much cruelty she could have been spared if it had been him first. But she decides it’s no use to dwell on the past — because she’s looking at Dan right now, and he looks like the rest of her life. 

He’s smiling a little, and his tone implies he’s joking, but he looks more shy than anything. Her heart drops into her stomach like a pebble into water. She brushes her thumb over his lips, receiving an answering kiss in return. She says, “It’s not just for the summer.”

He shifts up to kiss her chin, her mouth. Between his lips, on his tongue, she tastes the sweet-salt of summer air. His weight on top of her still makes her seize up, and he’s careful to keep some distance, even as she arches against him. But she’s getting there, and she still has lots of time. 

“So I can finally take you back to my stuffy Brooklynite loft?”

“You’ll have to, I’m homeless.” She presses kisses to the side of his nose, one for each dim freckle. “Is your mattress still on the floor?”

“Okay, maybe I won’t take you there right away.”

 

*

 

As the mid-August sun begins to set, Blair opens up the first page of the first draft of Inside. A petty private eye in 1950s New York hires a secretary, a woman coming into the city for work, needing money to care for her ailing father, to help him go undercover to investigate the murder of a wealthy businessman he suspects to be an inside job.

I stared at the back of Ella’s head as we entered the grand lobby. She was always one step ahead of me. Her curls, let down along her back and draped over her shoulders, the same colour as my corduroys but in much better shape, had a life of their own. She stopped abruptly, turning to face me with her candy-red lips, her cheeks gone the pink of chewing gum in the cold. She was technicolor when the rest of my life was black and white. She caught my hand, and it struck me then what had been bothering me all day; Ella had carved herself as an indelible part in my life. I couldn’t even make out what she was pointing at, because I couldn’t take my eyes off the slender finger held out in front of me. I was in love with her. It was going to become quite a nuisance. 

She tears through it like she’s a little kid again, like she’s curled up in her fathers armchair, heart hammering with adrenaline. 

 

 

Ella’s train took off at noon. She had already stayed in the city longer than she had planned to, but selfishly, I wished for longer. I tucked the letter between the pages of her novel. I knew her, and so I knew that she would settle into her seat with a drink-cart brandy, her stockinged feet slipping out of her shoes. I wondered, as the nylon rode down her thighs, if she would think of my hands rolling them off. I wondered, as she sucked on the cherry from her glass, if she would think of how her syrup had tasted on my lips, like burnt sugar, bitter and sweet. I knew her, and so I knew she would. I imagined her thin, careful fingers prying open the envelope. I imagined the city she loved disappearing like dust behind her, the brandy creating a well under her tongue. My love, I wrote. I could almost hear her scoff as I wrote it, and it made the sentiment all the more true. You have taught me how to live. How to enjoy everything the world has to offer. You have brought out this side of me that I never thought existed. Before you, I didn’t truly know how to live. I was expected to be a certain kind of person, and that person was someone I didn’t actually like all that much. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t have fun. He didn’t fully participate in life. But once I met you, things have been different. I have been different. You have allowed me to stop for a moment and breathe, and to not just be an onlooker who watches others live. The person I am when I’m with you is one I actually like, one who I am proud to be. It’s your love and lightness that has changed me for the better. Marry me, Ella, and we will care for your father together. Let your troubles be mine, as mine have been yours. I am going to live, and I want you by my side every step of the way, as my friend, my partner, and my wife. 

Her train had been gone an hour and a half when I heard the knock on my door, instantly recognizable. When it opened, there before me stood Ella, my Ella, in all her limitless beauty, her stockinged feet in her heels, her dark hair and dark mascara slightly askew. Ella smiled slowly. And then she kissed me. 

When she shuts the laptop, Dan nudges her aside so he can take a seat, pulling her into his lap. 

“So,” he says. “What’d you think?”

She twists to nuzzle into him, wet lashes brushing the warm skin of his neck. “This is the first thing you’ve written with a happy ending.”

“The concept’s grown on me.”

 


 

18 MONTHS LATER

Snow catches on the windowsill, gathering along its edge and melting against the glass. The whistle of the kettle rings through the apartment, echoing down the hall into the bedroom. She’d won the bet, a landslide, but he insists on being the real winner here. All she knows is that the only one to lose was the head of a fallen empire, his name hardly etching itself on screens and papers nowadays. She can hear every footstep, every click of the stove and run of the tap. From two rooms over, she can picture the way he shuffles through the kitchen, takes his first sip too soon and burns his tongue. She flips a page. From the living room, the scratch of needle on vinyl starts up, filling the air with a French tune, something he picked up in a street-side bin in Paris during the summer. She already asked him first, in a cobblestoned alley in a city she thought she knew well enough to not get lost in. He’d wiped at his eyes and said, very seriously, no fair, you stole my question. I’m not even done with the first draft yet. He’s taking his time making his way down the hall. She flips a page.

“So?” he says, a shoulder leaning against the doorframe. She watches the steam rise from his cup, diminishing before it reaches his face, disappearing like the snow on the window. The room is warm but his hands, wrapped around his mug, will be warmer when he touches her, any minute now, his mouth even more so. She’ll taste the bitter earl grey on his tongue.

“Bad font choice,” she says plainly. “And it needs some serious trimming.”

He smiles. She lets him hang there for a beat longer.

“And yes,” she says. “But only because you asked so nicely.”

The mug meets the dresser without so much as a spill, but just barely.