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Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man

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The divorce is amicable but painful.

Dan signs the documents and feels like he's attending a funeral, laying to rest the dreams of a teenage boy from Brooklyn who fell in love with a golden-haired apparition that seemed unattainable. He can't help hating that boy a little. Put someone on a pedestal, and they're bound to fall off; he knows that now.

He knows a lot of things now.

He moves into a hotel at first, to bridge the time until he finds a place of his own, just for a few days. But days turn into weeks, and then it's almost two months and he still hasn't even looked for a new apartment.

*

Blair stages an intervention.

Blair Bass, thirty-eight years old, head of a multi-million-dollar fashion empire, and eternal bane of his existence. Dan doesn't know what surprises him more: that they're still friends after all those years, despite their history, or that Blair and Chuck are quite possibly the most functional couple he knows. Then again, he supposes that says more about the people he knows than about Blair's relationship with Chuck. He's happy for her – for them – he genuinely is. That doesn't mean that he wants to live with them.

"Look, Blair, I can find my own place—"

"Well, you haven't so far. And you can perfectly well find your own place while living in our guest room. It's not like we're using it."

For a moment, Blair's voice falters. The guest room (rooms, really – it's about as big as his dad's old loft used to be) was originally supposed to be a children's room, once upon a time. Now, when they talk about it, it's just the guest room and no one ever mentions that it wasn't always that.

When she continues, she has collected herself and her voice is brisk again. "Honestly, Dan, I don't know how you can live like this. You haven't even unpacked your stuff except for your laptop, and you're wasting all that hard-earned money of yours on an ugly room that probably has bed bugs."

Dan rolls his eyes and doesn't tell her that she's exaggerating, that it's a Hilton and it's perfectly clean and adequate, and he can easily afford it nowadays. In all the years he's known Blair, he's learned one thing about her: she always gets her way.

*

He moves into their four-storied townhouse the next morning. Chuck smirks and refuses to get up from the couch and help him with his luggage.

"This is a terrible idea," Dan says, to himself more than anything, but loud enough that Chuck will hear him.

Blair appears in the doorway. "It's an awesome idea and you know it."

"Suck it up, Humphrey," Chuck calls after him. "Blair will have her way no matter what. The sooner you give in to her, the less she's going to gloat afterwards."

Blair turns and beams at him. Chuck blows her a kiss. They're ridiculous, and Dan hates them, so much.

*

He doesn't unpack.

The corners of Blair's mouth get a disapproving downward tilt whenever she looks at the empty drawers and his messy, opened suitcases next to the bed, but she never says anything.

*

During those months since he moved out of the house he shared with Serena, he'd taken to living like a hermit. Buried himself in what he still hopes to be his new novel eventually, even though all he has now are a dozen Word files with less than twenty pages each, all abandoned before the story took shape. He ordered room-service when he was hungry. Went on long walks early in the morning or late at night when the city was at its quietest. Let every phone call go to voice-mail and only ever called back when people started yelling at him or sounding worried enough that he thought they might fill in a missing person's report over his absence.

It's nothing he did deliberately. He didn't sit down and think, I'm going to minimize all social interaction from here on out; it was just something that happened, and he never really noticed until he moved in with Blair and Chuck and they started dragging him back into some resemblance of a social life.

When he asks Dorota to bring breakfast to his room, she tsks and unapologetically tells him, "Sorry, Mr. Humphrey, Miss Blair tells me all meals must be taken in the dining room."

She breezes off before he can protest, and he realizes that he'll either eat with Blair and Chuck, force himself to go outside and find his own food, or starve to death. Tempting as that last option is (secretly, he fantasizes about Blair's distasteful expression when she finds his dead body shriveled up in her guest bed and complains about the messy business of getting rid of it), it seems a little extreme a measure just to spite his pushy friends, so he sucks it up and joins them in the dining room.

Chuck doesn't look up from his iPad when he enters, and Blair busies herself with her fruit salad. All the food on the table looks untouched, like they've actually waited for Dan to come and join them, and Dan can't decide if that's touching or annoying. If they're being controlling or concerned, and if there's maybe not much of a difference between those two in the Bass household.

*

He spends hours in the guest room, staring at empty Word documents. Writes fives words, deletes two. Those are the good days. On the bad days, he starts with one of the works in progress and deletes five words for every two he writes, the file size shrinking and shrinking until there's literally nothing left and hitting the delete button is a mercy killing.

It's one of those days, a Wednesday afternoon, and suddenly someone coughs behind him. Blair sits on the bed, watching him. He wonders how long she's been here. He never heard her come in.

"Making progress?" she asks, and her tone suggests that she already knows the answer, that she's watched the words being swallowed up by the backspace.

"Depends on your definition of progress," Dan quips, which is either really deep or evasive, he can't quite make up his mind about that.

Blair puts on her I know you're bullshitting me and I'm not amused face. "My afternoon meetings were cancelled. I thought I'd go out to the park and feed the ducks. I could use some company." When Dan makes no move to get up, she says. "Come on, Humphrey. Some fresh air will do you good. You never know, maybe leaving this room and actually watching living human people interact might help you get over your writer's block. Presumably your novel is going to be about humans, right? It's no wonder you can't think of anything to write, you've probably forgotten what they're like."

It's too good an opening to resist. "Point taken. Spending all my free time with Satan and his wife is probably counterproductive."

"Don't let Chuck hear you," Blair warns, smiling congenially. "He'll take it as a compliment."

"God forbid we inflate his ego anymore," Dan mutters under his breath, but he stands and gets his jacket, following Blair outside.

It's a nice, sunny day, and they make a stop at a quiet, fancy bakery to get coffee-to-go for them and bread for the ducks before heading for Central Park. They sip their macchiatos and leisurely stroll down the same paths they used to walk when they were young, and when Blair takes his arm and laughs at a sarcastic little comment Dan made, the déjà-vu hits him right in the gut.

*

"Let's go have a drink," Chuck says.

Dan eyes him warily, remembering a drunken night that ended with the two of him in jail and Chuck hating him. "I don't think so."

"Humphrey," Chuck says, and on his lips, Dan's name sounds like a reprimand. "You're divorced, not dead. So stop acting like you are. You're even more depressing than usual, and God knows you were bad enough before."

"That sounds like a great argument not to hang out with me."

Chuck rolls his eyes. "What can I say? You're my charity case of the week."

It should be offensive - it is - but it's such a Chuck thing to say that Dan can't quite hold back the way the corners of his mouth twitch in response.

Later, riding the buzz of too much, too expensive scotch, Dan doesn't feel the surge of righteous anger his sober self would when Chuck tells him, "It was never going to work out between Serena and you. Everyone knew it. I knew it and Blair knew it and Nate and Jenny and anyone who's ever known the both of you. You and Serena knew it, you just didn't accept it. Which is fine, it's not like we don't all indulge in denial now and then, but honestly, Humphrey, you need to quit the moping already and move on."

"Like you moved on when Blair broke up with you?" Dan asks. He's too drunk to make his tone as biting as it should be.

Chuck shrugs, unfazed. "You and I both know that Blair's different."

What does that mean, exactly? Even inebriated as he is, Dan recognizes the oddness of Chuck's phrasing. He'd put it down to Chuck's own drunkenness, but with the way Chuck's eyes rest of him with a heaviness and intensity that's uncomfortable, Dan knows that there are layers upon layers in Chuck's words that he's failing to decipher and it's driving him mad. He wishes he was either sober or more drunk – both, either, as long as it means that his mind isn't stuck in an endless loop of trying to understand what Chuck is telling him.

Chuck's hand lands on his shoulder, and Dan's skin prickles under his shirt, warm and sticky with damp sweat. He doesn't shrug it off and Chuck doesn't move away for longer than Dan thinks is appropriate for a patronizing pat.

He wakes up in the morning with a hangover and a mouth that tastes like cotton balls. Imprinted on his mind is the sense memory of Chuck's body against his, drunkenly leaning close in the cab.

*

Sometimes he catches them watching him, talking in quiet voices, falling silent when they realize they caught his attention. Sometimes Blair gives him looks that are speculative and make him feel uneasy. Sometimes Chuck's eyes on him are narrowed and heavy, like a predator eying his prey before it jumps and tears its throat out, and Dan tells himself that the feeling that curls in his stomach is wariness.

He's always been good at lying to himself.

*

Nate comes over at least once a week for dinner and a drink or five. Dan used to think it was weird how Nate seemed to be so keen on playing the third wheel to Blair's and Chuck's epic love story. He secretly wondered if Nate was having an affair with Blair behind Chuck's back (or perhaps an affair with Chuck behind Blair's back - Dan never could make up his mind which one was more likely).

Now, being a permanent fixture in the Bass household himself and getting to observe Nate interacting with them from close up, he realizes what a stupid thing it was to think. Nate is comfortable around them in a way Dan will never be; he might as well be family, a brother or a cousin, someone neither Blair nor Chuck can even imagine not sharing their lives with.

On this particular occasion, Nate's been away for business in Singapore for a couple of weeks, returning exhausted and broken-hearted over some woman or another (here's the thing about Nate: he's always nursing a broken heart, and it always passes when he tumbles headfirst into the next love of his life), and the first night he's home he spends over at the townhouse. They empty a couple of bottles of red between them, Blair stretching on the couch like a human-sized cat with her feet in Chuck's lap and Nate in the armchair by the window. Dan started the night out on the other one by the fireplace, but somehow he ended up gravitating towards Blair and Chuck, sitting down on the floor with his back against the couch, right beneath Blair, and sometimes her hand reaches down and almost absent-mindedly plays with his hair as if he were a cat she's petting.

He would protest, except for how good her fingers feel against his scalp, nails scratching lightly over the sensitive skin, and he's not sober enough to care that maybe he should be moving back to his chair.

It's past midnight when Nate leaves, clapping Chuck's shoulder on his way out, kissing Blair's cheek and giving Dan a friendly wave and a lopsided smile.

Dan knows he should go to bed. It's late and the air is suddenly heavy and charged and Blair's fingers are still tangled in his hair. With great effort and more willpower than he thought he had, he pushes himself up and opens his mouth to make his excuses. He doesn't get that far.

Chuck's hand clenches around his wrist firmly, just shy of bruising, stopping him. "Stay," he says, and Dan thinks that this is the most surprising part, because it's not like he didn't see this coming. He's not that naive, nor is he oblivious. He just thought it would be Blair, not Chuck, who'd ultimately make the move.

He swallows. "Someone once told me that the rule with threesomes is that the third person has to be a stranger." It's supposed to be a clever, funny little quip but his voice is hoarse and breathless, like someone took sandpaper to it, and when Chuck tugs at his arm and sends him down sprawling on top of him, he can hear his heartbeat like thunder in his ears, drowning out everything else. He doesn't try to disentangle himself from Chuck's grip, doesn't back away when Chuck leans in.

"Rules are made to be broken," Chuck says, unconcerned, biting his way along Dan's jawline. A shiver runs down Dan's back.

He doesn't notice Blair moving closer until she's right there next to them. "Besides, we don't want to have a threesome with you."

The disassociation between her words and the fact that she's pulling down the zipper on his pants and reaching inside as she says them makes Dan's brain stutter.

"Threesomes are for couples who invite strangers into their bed and kick them out in the morning, never to hear from them again. What we're going to do is have breakfast together, and later dinner, and the two of us will curl up on the couch to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s while Chuck is off having phone conferences with Dubai, and tomorrow you're going to come with us to Lily's fundraiser that you've failed to RSVP because you think you can avoid it, and afterwards we're going to have spectacular sex again, and there's not really an expiration date on this."

It takes a moment too long for Dan's wine-soaked, desire-drunk mind to understand what Blair is saying, and when he does, he pulls away abruptly, just a few inches but enough to get some space between his skin and Chuck's lips. Momentarily, Blair stops her ministrations as well.

"Wait, you want to have a relationship with me?" he asks, incredulous.

Blair laughs, silvery and a little breathless. "We already are in a relationship with you, Humphrey. We're just adding sex to the equation."

"That's a terrible idea." Even to his own ears, his protest doesn't sound very convincing.

Blair merely raises an eyebrow. "You keep saying that, but frankly, with your track record, I don't see why anyone should ever listen to your opinion about relationships." Her fingers curl a little more firmly around his dick, and Dan forgets how to form words.

*

In the morning, they have breakfast in bed, fresh fruit and orange juice and warm croissants. It's leisured and lazy and Dan thinks it should be a hell of a lot more awkward than it is, but Chuck reads the Financial Times on his iPad and complains about politics and the state of the stock market, while Blair keeps stealing things off their plates, and it's not all that different from every other meal they shared in the past few weeks.

Except for how it is, because at some point, Chuck finishes the paper or gets bored with it, and he throws the covers off and slides down, sucking Dan off without shame until he comes in his mouth, Dan's fingers tangling in Chuck's hair, holding on a fraction too tight.

After, when Dan eats Blair out, Chuck fucks him through it in steady, hard stabs. Between the way Blair's scent fills his senses and the force of Chuck's thrusts rocking his body, Dan feels like they're taking over everything he is. It should be a frightening notion, but after weeks and weeks (years, really) of struggling to find his place, it's oddly comforting, grounding him, and he lets the sense of belonging wash over him like a tidal wave.

*

Nate frowns at the way Chuck casually directs Dan through some society events or the other with a steady hand against the small of his back, at the way Blair turns and smiles to him from the other end of the room.

"Dude, are you three –"

He doesn't finish the question. Dan shrugs and takes a sip of champagne from his glass. "I'm waiting for it to crash and burn."

Nate's smile is honest and friendly, and Dan can't detect either jealousy or pity in it, neither of which is a reaction that would have surprised him. But Nate is Nate, and he just claps a hand on his shoulder. "I don't know. Not to jinx it or anything, but for some reason, I don't believe it will go up in flames like you think."

Dan snorts. "What? You think this is healthy?"

"I think it's maybe what you all need."

"Therapy is what we all need," Dan quips.

He actually has a therapist. She charges $600 an hour and tells him that he's angry with his parents and needs to let go of his deep-rooted rage. It doesn't feel like her sessions are any more productive than spending quality time with the former love of his life's best frenemy and the guy who once got him arrested and took his little sister's virginity.

There's probably something wrong with him, but he's increasingly doubtful that it's anything a therapist can fix. So why not try unconventional methods? He has nothing to lose but his sanity, whatever's left of that.

*

One of his Word documents grows larger and larger until Dan finally dares to hope that this one might not suffer the same fate as its recent predecessors. It's a young adult fantasy story about a ghost who tries to save the lives of strangers she watches. It's the first thing he's written that wasn't, in some more or less obvious way, about him and the people in his life.

Maybe it's time to lay the whole autobiographical thing to rest. Most things in his life aren't exciting enough to write novels about, and the few exciting bits... they're his own, and he reached a stage in his life where he doesn't want to share them with the world. He's not Lonely Boy from Brooklyn anymore, so desperate to be a part of a social circle he despised that he would have sold his soul to get there. He's outgrown Gossip Girl and the scathing, bitter commentary on people's misfortunes.

His latest protagonist is quirky and fun. She doesn't have any existential angst or self-destructive habits, and her social circle is a world away from New York's Upper Eastside. She's not like anyone he knows or has known, but despite that – or perhaps because of that – she's a joy to write and the pages fill up easily.

Pages turn into chapters, chapters turn into a novel, and on a Monday night in October, he types The End and smiles when he closes the lid of his laptop.

*

"What are we celebrating?" Blair asks him when he takes them out for dinner.

"I finished a novel. First one in a while." He doesn't feel like clarifying how long a while actually is, that it's been years before the divorce that he actually wrote something he felt good about.

Chuck groans. "Please tell me you're not divulging details about the love life of people who are poorly disguised versions of us."

Dan's lip curls into a wry smile. "Don't worry, you're not in the book." When Chuck raises an eyebrow, looking somewhat affronted about being left out despite the fact that he just protested the idea of their relationship being the book's subject, he adds. "None of us are, poorly disguised or otherwise."

"Oh, good," Blair pipes up. "I thought it was time that you laid Clair Carlyle to rest."

"And no more killing off poor Charlie Trout." Chuck raises his glass. "I'll drink to that."

Dan rolls his eyes at them, more good-natured than honestly peeved, and accepts the toast. "You guys are the worst," he says.

"And you love us anyway." Blair is smiling when she says it, but somehow, it doesn't feel like a joke.

*

"I'm tired of almost falling over your bags whenever I come to your room," Blair tells him. The expression on her face says annoyed and exasperated but Dan knows her well enough to know that the harshness in her tone is a cover for her insecurities. "There's enough closet space for five times the amount of clothes you own. You should unpack your stuff."

She breezes out of the room before he can say something in return.

With a sigh, he looks at his open suitcases, spilling over with heaps of crumpled shirts and pants, suit jackets thrown haphazardly over the lid, books and printed-out pages spread all over the bed he never sleeps in anymore.

He crouches down and starts unpacking.

End.