This is how it starts:
The door bursts open as best as it can—which, considering the file-boxes placed one over the other right at its entrance, is less a burst and more a nudge. Despite that, the girl storms into his office, wooden floors yielding under her heels, creaking like an audience full of laughter. She seems, initially, unbothered by the mess, maneuvering around it without so much as a glance, stopping short when she reaches his desk. He raises a brow in greeting.
It’s Monday, probably. Maybe Wednesday. Mail only comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and there’s a slipping stack growing on top of the boxes, added to yesterday. The office exists in a perpetual twilight, but he remembered to pay the heating bill this month, keeping out the cold. Going off of the condition of her jacket, and the silence against the windowpanes, it’s dry but still dreary outside. Through the blue-dark, she narrows her eyes at the plump, plum-slice of a bruise under his eye like it’s a detail of a painting, scrutinizing. Finally, she says, “You need a new sign.”
“A new sign?”
“For your door,” she says. “The letters are all faded. It says Dan Humpy, Vat Instigator.”
“Great. Who are you?”
Little reddened nose in the air, she says, “I’m here about the ad.”
“The–? Oh, right. There was a number on there to call.”
She presses her lips together. “It was out of service.”
Forgot to pay the phone bill. Shit. “Well, never mind, then.”
He picks his crushed pack up from the desk, offering her a cig, which she declines, before sticking it between his lips and lighting it, kicking his feet up and gesturing for her to sit. She wrinkles her nose at him, then at the stack of books on the chair opposite him, before pushing them aside gingerly and taking a careful seat on the edge. She takes off her hat—a pink thing with a silly bow on it, matching her jacket like they came in a set—her hair, somehow, appearing untouched underneath. With her back straight and her small hands folded in her lap, she looks just about as out of place here as she possibly could.
“None, technically, but I’ve done the books for my mother’s dress shop. I speak three languages, I’m a fast learner, and I’m quick on my feet.”
Dan nudges his hat higher on his head to get a better look at her, suspended shadows looming over face, doe eyes staring down the headlights. Through a bout of smoke, he says, “Look, sweetheart, that’s all swell, but I’m looking for someone who’s a little more experienced.”
“Your ads have been up for a week and you still don’t have a secretary, because you neglected to put an address on them,” she takes a sweeping glance around, eyebrows raised. “It looks like you need me more than I need you.”
He swings his feet down, leaning forward on his elbows. “I didn’t put an address.”
“I just said that.”
“How’d you find me, then?”
“You’re not the only one who can follow a trail,” she says. Off his questioning look, she adds, “I asked around until I found you, Mr. Humphrey. It’s not that difficult, anyone could do it.”
But not many would bother. He taps ash into the muddy pile of tea leaves at the bottom of his cup, precariously placed on a fat wad of papers, watching her watch him. She looks like she’s holding her breath.
“It’s every day, long hours. You up to that, sweetheart?”
Her expression pinches. Stiffly, she says, “I have a name.”
“Apologies. What’s your name?”
“Blair Waldorf,” she says, like it means something. Against his better judgment, Dan wants to know what.
“Well, Miss Waldorf,” he sticks his hand out, mumbles around his cigarette, “you’re hired.”
“One thing,” she says, considering his held-out hand like some dime-store palm reader. “I’m not going to sleep with you.”
“There’s a lot of young girls working in the city whose bosses expect that of them, and you should know upfront not to expect that of me.”
“Didn’t even cross my mind.”
“Very well, then.” She takes his hand in her own, dainty with perfectly manicured nails, but the grip of her handshake that of a guy twice her size. “When do I start?”
“How about right now?” he says. “You know how to pay a phone bill?”
The drink cart rattles like rain against the windows as it makes its way down the narrow hall of the train car. He hates trains, really, prefers the comfort and control of his own beaten down little car, but he’s out of gas and out of gas money, so. Across from him, Blair flips a page of her book delicately, nursing a bourbon— neat with three cherries, please— the pointed toe of her shoe just about brushing his knee. There’s something about her that he can’t quite put his finger on; she moves as though she’s aware, at all times, that he’s watching her.
“Big drink for a little lady,” he says, then immediately winces, pressing his fingers to his eyes. It’s been a while since he had to hold a conversation. When he was a kid, he could babble non-stop, Jen had to hold her tiny hands over his mouth just to get him to shut up. Then he grew up and realized no one was interested in what he had to say, and hell, he couldn’t blame them— he wasn’t even interested in what he had to say. The only thing his mouth is good for is sucking on smoke from a cigarette. He kinda forgot that people don’t talk the way they do in the movies. “You live in the city?”
She nods, taking a small sip of her drink.
“Manhattan? You look like a Manhattan girl.”
“Why were you looking for work in Brooklyn?”
“I just love the commute,” she says dryly.
“You got a steady?”
“I don’t mean to offend, Mr. Humphrey, but I’m much more interested in my book than in conversation with you.”
“Well, as long as you didn’t mean to offend.” He drums his fingers on his bouncing knee, then waves her off, even though she’s continuing to pay him no mind. “Nah, it’s–it’s fine. It’s a good book, and a good book’s worth a hell of a lot more than any conversation.”
Her brow arches without looking up. “You’ve read this?”
“I can’t tell if you’re more surprised that I’ve read Tolstoy or that I can read at all.” That almost makes her smile. “It’s a little morbid, though,” he continues, “reading Anna Karenina on a train.” Blair only purses her lips in response. “You–uh, you seen that flick they made of it? That Vivien Leigh’s really something. I like her.”
Blair scrunches her nose, swallowing. “I thought it was dull. Garbo was much better.”
“Well, yeah, but Garbo’s incomparable. Doesn’t make Leigh bad. Actually, it makes her performance all the more impressive, following up a great like that and still being able to hold your own.”
She considers him for a moment, then goes back to the book. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”
With the drink all done, she tips the glass back and lets the last cherry roll onto her tongue, lets it peek through her lips, almost the same shade of red, and sucks on it gently, like consideration, like cradling something dear, and it makes Dan feel like someone put a cigarette out somewhere inside his gut. Her eyes flit up off the page to meet his suddenly, the front of her teeth breaking through the flesh of the cherry slow, and Dan looks out the condensation-clouded window fast enough to break his fucking neck. They’ve torn away from the city into the green-gutted wood, orange-slice sun winking light between the trees like it knows something they don’t, like it’s watching them very carefully, one wrong move and it’s back to the gutters for ole Dan Humpy, Vat Instigator.
Her hand sets on his knee, stilling it. “That’s annoying,” she says, quiet, but with a kind of bite that makes him feel like the goddamn cherry. Her hand stays there, one beat, two, then pulls back—his stomach feels like an overused ashtray, like— butterflies is what Jen would say, but that’s not it, that’s not it at all, this is—moths, a flurry of those annoying little fuckers swarming his insides and clogging his throat trying to get to the flame.
For a small girl, she’s taking up quite a bit of space.
The house in Nassau County is bigger than any house ever needs to be. His neck cracks just craning to look at it. “I wish you would’ve told me we were coming to meet the Vanderbilts,” Blair is nagging, exasperated, “I would’ve worn something much nicer than this.”
“There’s something nicer than that?” he says, breath building in the air like a puff of smoke without the satisfaction, shielding his eyes from the fast-setting winter sun. Blair gives him a look, a narrow-eyed tight smile, which he returns in kind. “Besides, we’re not meeting them. I’ve done some odd jobs for them, here and there. The Buckley photo last fall? All me.”
Blair hums, unimpressed, moving to ring the doorbell. Before she can reach, the door swings open.
“Humphrey, old man!” Nate greets, pulling him in by the forearm. Music fills the foyer, only slightly louder than the lively chatter from further inside. That was the thing about these houses—every one he’s been to has carried the bustle of the city streets out of the limits and into their halls. “Who’s this?”
Stepping in next to him, chin held high, Blair announces, “I’m Humphrey’s girl.”
“Are you now?” Nate says, leading them into the high-arched entrance of the living room. “Been a while since Humphrey’s had a girl. Or a girl’s had Humphrey.”
Blair, seemingly finished with this conversation and already looking for the next, asks, “Is that Serena van der Woodsen?”
“The one and only,” Nate says. “Why don’t you head over there? Serena loves making new friends.”
Watching her go, Nate plucks out two cigarettes from his pocket, placing them between his lips and lighting them, then handing one over. “She’s pretty.”
Dan shrugs. “She’s doing the job.”
“Job the only thing she’s doing?”
Dan shakes his head, making his way to the nearest ashtray. “Do you have what I came for or do you need more time to keep pissing me off?”
“Lighten up, old man, I’m only joking.”
Dan takes a seat as Nate ducks out, watching Blair decline a drink near the record player, red lips forming around words he can’t make out but that cause a bark of laughter from Carter Baizen. She looks rather pleased at that. Dan fucking hates Carter Baizen.
“Here,” Nate says, dropping half a dozen files into Dan’s lap suddenly, setting another few, even heavier, down next to him. “Dad took these with him as a parting gift when he was pushed out of Bass Industries. The rest I got off the commissioner’s girl. Owed me a favour.”
“Doesn’t everyone,” Dan mumbles, thumbing through the file on the top. “You’ve done half the job for me already.”
“That mean I don’t need to pay you full price?”
“Hm. Let me think. Fuck you.” He gestures vaguely out into the room, “I raised my rates. Gonna need half upfront. For her.”
And for gas money. And electricity. And dinner. Blair catches the wave and leaves her conversation with the picture-perfect couple mid-sentence, heading back to him, and there’s an odd little zing through his stomach at that.
Nate smiles. “Thought you didn’t pay for that?”
Dan flips him a quick bird, which is the only thing Blair catches, raising her brows at him. He stands suddenly, sending the files toppling to the floor. Nate, always congenial and always, always a pain in the ass, laughs wholeheartedly, tipping his hat to Blair before leaving them alone, a backwards step and a knowing little smile. Crouched together on the floor, slotting the loose papers back into the files, Blair tilts her head towards his, leans in real close, conspiratorial—her breath still sweet as caramel from her train-cart bourbon. “She’s so nice.”
“You sound surprised,” he whispers back.
“Girls that pretty don’t need to be nice.”
“You’re telling me,” he says. Their hands meet briefly over a page, and he feels her look up at him, sharp and sudden, and it sends that same bolt of electricity through his gut, that same spark-spot of a burn. He doesn’t look back. “What about him?”
Blair shrugs, straightening back up. “He’s better looking in pictures. There’s something very Cary Grant about him,” she says, tone indifferent.
“You don’t like Grant?”
“Oh, I like him fine. I’m just more of a…Laurence Olivier girl myself.” She tucks half the files to her chest, a slight downturn of her lips when she looks over her shoulder at the party continuing on without them.
He sighs, taking a long-suffering drag of his cig. “Go on. We can stay a bit longer.”
They sit together in the dingy Chinese restaurant across from the office he spends weekends in when being alone gets too loud, fluorescent lights fluttering like eyelashes, searing red and gold as the setting sun. He’d wanted to look over the files alone with some cheap dinner but she’d followed him in without a word and sat next to him in the peeling booth with even less. He nurses a cup of pungent tea, burning thick and earthy down his throat, flipping through the files silently.
“What is it?” Blair asks, her chin propped in her hand.
“You hear about Bart Bass?”
“I don’t live under a rock,” she says. She taps a finger to her chin. “Did you hear about Bart Bass?”
Dan clicks his tongue. “You won’t be laughing when you see these pictures.”
He pulls the casefile out from within the stack, spreading out the half a dozen crime scene photos—sick shit, blood-and-brain-splatter, a skull cracked like a smile—but Blair doesn’t back away, doesn’t even flinch, no, she leans in. “Wasn’t this ruled an accident?”
“By the cops. They’re not the most thorough bunch,” he slides the top stack of papers aside, then lets her take over, flipping through pages of documents with menacing red stamps, photos of dark waves of flame. “Building fire in Manhattan a couple weeks ago, one casualty,” he taps a photo of a young woman, “Avery Thorpe. Name ring a bell?”
“Thorpe Enterprises,” Blair says, looking up at him with a match of curiosity sparking so bright behind her eyes it makes his heart beat a little funny—lopsided and heavy, something unnameable tripping it up. He nods, looking away.
“Avery Thorpe, found dead in one of Bart Bass’ burnt down properties. And then a few days later—“
“Bart Bass, found dead at one of Thorpe’s properties,” she traces her nail over the edge of a photo of Bass, blank eyes boring into the shutter. “Correlation doesn’t imply causation. It could be a coincidence.”
“Nate doesn’t think so, and neither do I. He’s trusted me with this, and it could really change things for me. Get me out of that storage closet and into a real office, making real money.”
Blair gives him a small, resolute nod, sliding another file towards herself and rifling through it with increased interest. With his tea all done, he reaches for the fortune cookie left sitting on the bill, cracking it open and straightening the strip of paper between his fingers.
“What’s it say?” Blair says without looking up.
“Give chances,” he reads.
She watches him out of the corner of her eye with something like mild interest as he lights a cig; the music, light and twinkling and unfamiliar, curling around them like a hug. “I couldn’t work in my mothers dress shop forever,” she says after a while, tone careful. “Not only because I hate my mother but because it’s not the kind of work I’m good at. I mean—I’m good at it, obviously, I could make a girl believe she looked great in anything, even when she clearly didn’t, but I needed to be somewhere else. Somewhere I was actually appreciated. I could’ve gotten a job in a real office—no offence—“
“But… people person was left off of my list of qualities for a reason. Apparently I don’t work well with others. I came across your ad by accident, and when I sought you out… you seemed like you didn’t work well with others either.”
He laughs, shrugging. “I am a bit of a shut-in.”
“Right. And you think you're smarter than everyone else.”
He leans back in his seat, watching her over the wisp of smoke circling between them. He shrugs again, a little slighted this time. “I guess I’ve been guilty of that.”
“So do I—except, I am.”
She turns towards him, her knees knocking his under the table. He shifts enough to make space between them. “What I mean to say, Mr. Humphrey, is that this may not have been my dream job, or my dream… location, but that’s only because I hadn’t thought of it before I met you. So…thank you. For giving me a chance.”
“Thank you for giving me one back, Miss Waldorf.”
“And no,” she says, going back to the files, “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
Across the door, in fine gold lettering: HUMPHREY & ASSOCIATES, PRIVATE INVESTIGATION.
Dan always had a feeling that this job would send him to an early grave, he just expected it to come at the hands of some slimy cheating fucker catching him with a camera, rather than the direct result of finally hiring himself a girl.
Blair is just A Lot. For one, she’s not particularly nice. She’s polite, sure, but she has a way of saying things that sure as hell feel like insults but don’t really sound like them. For another, she waltzes into the office with her hair curled and her pearls on like this is the fucking Copa and he has the insane urge to apologize for the fact that she’s here working for a sorry sack of shit like him.
Dan jams his key into the lock, pushing his shoulder heavily against the door, a force of habit that causes him to stumble inside when the door swings open fully with ease. He’s startled still when met with what is supposed to be his office, says so right on the door, but looks nothing like it: blinds drawn to let light seep in right to the floor, boxes and books neatly stacked away—papers that normally crowd every surface tacked up to the wall like something ripped straight from the movies—a tune spinning on his forgotten record player, not a speckle of dust floating in the air. And in the center of it all stands the little miss with her hands on her hips, a bead of sweat gathered on her brow, fingers smeared with golden paint.
“Morning, Mr. Humphrey.”
Dan, forgetting every single word in that big-ass English dictionary he’d lorded over as a kid, nods in return. She strides over to him, tugging his coat off his shoulders and hanging it on the coat rack he wasn’t aware he owned. She looks to him expectantly, wiping at her brow.
“Associates?” he manages.
“Makes you sound more official,” she says, matter-of-fact, handing him a cup of tea. It’s not the cheap stuff he has lying around, it’s rich-smelling, earthy and strong—the same as the restaurant across the street. He stares dumbly into the swirling black hole of it, steam rising around his nose.
“Did I do something wrong, Mr. Humphrey?”
“Oh, no. You’re—“ he shakes his head, meeting her eyes again, and gosh, they really are nice eyes. Rum-bottle deep and sugarcane molasses brown. He doesn’t think they’ve come up with a word yet, for whatever she is. “Thank you.”
She dips her chin, a small proud smile tugging at her pink lips that flickers through Dan oddly. He’s never come in here, into this shithole masquerading as an office, and thought it looked a little like a home, even though most nights it was.
Inexplicable-and-A-Lot, Blair steers him over to sit behind his desk, which actually has wood, by the way, who the hell knew, and presents him with a bowl holding a sliced grapefruit and a spoon.
“That, Mr. Humphrey, is half a grapefruit.”
“Thank you, Miss Waldorf,” he drawls, “what’s it for?”
“Breakfast. My father has one every morning. It’s good for you. I already had my half.” She takes a precarious half-seat on the edge of the desk with a pointed glance around. “You don’t seem to do much that’s good for you. You’ve done a terrible job taking care of yourself.”
“Never saw much use for it.”
Blair peers down at him, curious. She pushes the bowl closer to him. “I’ve been reading the police report,” she says. “There was a witness to the fire, an Andrew Tyler, said he saw Bart Bass fleeing the scene, but before they got the chance to follow up, well—“
“It was too late. What did you say the name was?”
“I know that name,” Dan says. “Or I’ve come across it before. He’s a private eye. High profile.”
“It’s a common enough name,” Blair says, bright eyes flitting over to meet his. “But let’s say you’re right, that it’s connected. What’s your plan to prove it?” Dan blinks. Blair raises a single brow. “You do have a plan, don’t you?”
“Obviously,” Dan scoffs. “I go inside. Follow where the scent leads.”
Blair’s other brow treads toward her hairline. “Despite your grooming, Mr. Humphrey, you’re not a dog. They’ll notice you sniffing around. You need a good cover.”
“I thought I’d tell them I’m an old friend of Nate’s. The best lies stick close to the truth.”
“So you’re a single guy, no fortune, trying to join the big leagues?” Blair shakes her head. “You need a good cover. You need to make them think you’re already one of them.”
“How do you reckon I do that?”
She shrugs. “A nice suit, an air of mystery…a girl with expensive taste.”
Her eyes flicker in the newfound daylight, lips twisting up in a wicked little grin. Dan takes down his tea too fast, coughing into the crook of his elbow. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
“Depends,” she says. “What do you think?”
It doesn’t sound like all that bad an idea. Risky, yes, and all kinds of ridiculous, but not bad. But still. “This could get dangerous.”
“A murder investigation? Dangerous? Oh no, Mr. Humphrey, I hadn’t thought of that.”
Dan shakes his head. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” He runs a hand over his face, then sticks it out in front of her. “I’m definitely going to regret this, but—you wanna be partners?”
“Waldorf and Humphrey. It’s got a ring to it.”
“Sure, except it’s my practice, so it’d be Humphrey and Waldorf.”
“Humphrey and Waldorf,” she says. “Like Holmes and Watson.”
Despite himself, Dan smiles. “Yeah. Just like that.”
She takes his hand, all dainty and delicate, a plume, but it weighs on his heart like a pyre, sweet and warm and weird. “Partners.”
Blair’s heels click in the two steps it takes to make it from the desk to the futon he’s spent more nights on than he cares to admit. She gives him a pointed look, a cigarette tucked between his lips, before bending over him to crack open the window, then shoving at his feet until he swings them down to let her sit. She’s close enough that the sweet-powder scent of her perfume overpowers any grey cloud forming over his head—like the counters he watches men buy their mistresses gifts at, but on her it’s...nice. Not artificial or cloying, just nice. Real nice.
“Will Carter and Serena be there tonight?” she says.
“Maybe. Carter’s a big bettor, and Serena’s—well… I’m sure you’ve heard stories.”
She taps her fingers on her knee, a near-silent rhythm catching his attention and keeping it. “Do you believe in soulmates, Mr. Humphrey?”
Dan doesn’t believe in much, never has. He tilts his head, shrugs. Blair’s eyes, candlelit from within, leave his. “I thought it was mostly for show, when I saw them in the papers, but they really love each other, don’t they?” He’s not sure if she’s looking for a real answer, but all he can manage is another half-hearted shrug either way. “They fit. It seems nice. Having something like that.”
“Why don’t you?”
“You make it sound like it’s easy.”
“Seems like it would be for a girl like you.”
“Because it’s so easy to find a man who doesn’t only not mind that I want to work, but really wants me to. Who isn’t just waiting around for me to get pregnant and give up. Not that I don’t want that, too. But I don’t want to give myself up for it. Maybe that’s asking for too much—that I don’t want to be Missus Something or Other. I want to be me, Blair Waldorf, a wife and a mother and a woman who works. I’d like to have a family. I’d like to… fit. I dreamed about that sort of thing as a little girl. Then I grew up and found out that most men don’t want that.”
“You’ll find someone who does.”
“Do you?” she asks, staring intently at her hands.
“Yeah,” he says, voice thin when he finally manages to find it. “Yeah, I’d like that. I’d like that a lot. If—“ she looks up at him then, but he can’t bring himself to hold her gaze.
“If, you know, I could—find someone who wanted it with me,” he laughs, stilted, self-deprecating. “But she’d have to have some pretty low standards.”
Blair hums. “You’ll find someone who does.”
He chances a glance at her then, finding her looking back at him strangely through the film of smoke, biting at her lip, not quite smiling. Then she blinks, smoothing her skirt as she stands suddenly, somewhat flushed. “I’ll need some money. I’m going into the Fashion District to pick up your new suit, a few ties, some shoes without holes in them…” her head tilts, ruminating, “and maybe a little something from the makeup counter for under your eyes. Rich men never look tired.”
“Shoes are supposed to have holes in them. That’s where your feet go.” She throws that look of hers at him over her shoulder. “You don’t have to do that. I can shop for myself.”
“You could use a woman’s touch,” she says. In more ways than one, he hears her mutter, but when he gives her a pointed look, she only smiles innocently in return, holding out her hand. He hands over a few bills from the roll Nate gave him begrudgingly. She considers them, then looks up again, batting her lashes. “With you in all your nice, new clothes, I’m afraid my old dresses just won’t do.”
He stares at her for a moment, jaw set, before forking out a few extra bills. She smiles, really smiles, and it sounds like the crack of a shovel into the earth.
“You know, I’m still not convinced it’s connected,” she says, buttoning up her coat, wrapping her scarf around, donning her hat, her cheeks and nose already bloomed like a rose garden from the frigid air coming through the cracked open window. She looks a little silly; like a very prim, awfully pretty snowman. Something inside his chest prickles like it’s waking up from a lengthy slumber. “When I’m right, you’ll owe me dinner.”
“If you’re right, Miss Waldorf, I’ll take you anywhere you want.”
Growing pleasantly pinker, she heads for the door, glancing back at him. “You’d be a lot more handsome if you shaved,” she says, and then she’s gone.
Dylan Hunter moved back to the city three months ago after a stint overseas, he’s got a too-tight silver watch seeping sickly bruise-blue rust into his skin and a gold rush fortune lining his pockets he’s looking to spend.
Sometime between when Blair stepped into the office in her new red dress, lips to match and more makeup around the eyes than she normally wears—it’s getting in character, she claims, Miss Clair Carlyle, a “woman of questionable morals” and a slight French accent—and did a spin for him, her smile tearing the breath straight out of his lungs and holding it in the palm of her hand, making the dinner he’d skipped in exchange for the costumes absolutely worth it, and when they first step into the entrance of the Empire Hotel, Dan comes to realize that this is actually a really bad fucking idea.
Blair steers him off to the side, pushing him against the wall, spine ringing like a knife to glass, hard enough to bruise, and the thought heats him all over oddly, it’s very hot in here all of a sudden, too hot in here. “What the hell?” he hisses, his hand tugs at his collar and her hand tugs it away.
“Stop fussing,” she says, tightening the tie he’d loosened around his throat, and he feels that at the base of his back too, forget fish out of water, this is lamb led straight into bloodshed. “Why are you so nervous?” she frowns at the wrinkles that have already magically formed on his shirt on the ride over, “would you relax? How do you ever get any work done if you’re this nervous?”
“Stupid plan—how’d I let you talk me into this stupid plan? No one’s ever going to believe that I come from money. No one’s ever going to believe that a pretty girl like you wants anything to do with me.”
She looks up at that, eyes bright. “You think I’m pretty, Mr. Humphrey?”
He grinds his teeth, a pestle to a mortar. “I think a blind man would think you’re pretty, Miss Waldorf.”
Her chin dips with a pleased smile, heat rushing over him like a landslide while she smoothes her hands over his stomach, fixing the tuck of his shirt. He clears his throat. “How do I look?”
She gives him an exaggerated once-over, but her gaze lingers on his face. “Like Laurence Olivier without the moustache.”
He tries to laugh her off, but there’s no tone to it, coming out a small, helpless sigh. Lamb, meet slaughter. “Well, you’re the one who made me shave, so that’s your fault.”
The deeper they venture, down the dark thrumming throat into the belly of impropriety, the more Dan feels grateful having someone at his side. He’s used to doing this alone—everything alone, really, but when Blair grapples blindly for his hand he feels a surge of something he can’t quite place, that unnameable feeling that’s grown in him since her arrival, a tenderness he can’t quite bear. She places his hand on her waist and he yanks it back like she burned him. “What are you doing?”
“The people here think we’re doing a whole lot more than just this,” she says, curling his stiff arm around herself. She smirks. “You’re blushing.”
“You are. Just follow my lead, Humphrey.”
Like he has any other choice.
The private lounge of the Empire is, at its very heart, wrong in the Biblical sense—sinful and strange, desperately cold despite all the warm bodies, and it makes Dan feel like he’s doing a handstand even while he’s leaned up against a wall right-side-up. He recognizes almost every face in here—in full living colour as opposed to the grainy likeness of them in the papers—and it strikes Dan, as he grips a glass in his palm a little too hard, that that’s what may give him away most of all. He’s unknown.
Blair, on the other hand (literally), seems unperturbed by the drastic change in scenery and any chance that they may be found out. She’s ethereal, electric, making heads turn, and even though he knows the hand that sits light on her hip is a lie, he wishes he could tell the blood rising everywhere that.
“Haven’t you ever gone undercover before?” Blair whispers as his hand comes off her to tug at his tie again, a shiny plasticine smile puckering her pretty cheeks menacingly. “Haven’t you ever worn a tie before?”
“Ties are for funerals,” Dan says. Blair’s put-on smile falters slightly, brows drawing, and Dan continues, “I’m meant to blend in. This is above my pay grade. Or it was until now.”
“Have you ever considered that maybe the reason you don’t make a lot of money is because you’re not very good at your job?”
Dan blinks at her, her heels making them almost the same height, and her smile, the surface sheen of sunlight on a lake, ripples away, disturbed. “Oh, I didn’t mean that how it sounded.”
“There’s not many other ways for it to sound.”
“Well—” she sighs. Her hand clasps his tight, keeping him from fidgeting. “I only meant that you’re too unsure of yourself. If you think you’re only good at being in the background then those are the only kinds of cases you’ll be able to solve. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a good P.I. to me.”
Dan takes a lengthy, evasive sip, the rough pad of his thumb smoothing over the pale gloss on her nails before trying to pull away. She doesn’t let him. “I don’t know what to do,” he says finally. In the moment after, as it hangs between them like a puff of smoke in the air, he realizes she’s the only person he’d ever admit that to.
“I’d say that standing here in the corner all suspicious-like probably isn’t the best thing.” She smiles again, but it feels real this time, genuine, although it glitters all the same. “It’ll get easier over time,” she says, squeezing his hand reassuringly. “Just look around, Mr. Hunter. What do you want to do?”
His eyes land on the table across the room, and he nods. “C’mere,” he murmurs, a hand on the small of her back, leading. All the eyes they pass are on her, and he really can’t blame them, even if he thinks these guys need to get a fucking grip and quit gawking, and focus on their own girls instead of his.
That last bit is Dylan Hunter talking, of course.
“You know how to play?” he says, grabbing a cue off the empty pool table.
“Daddy says billiards are poor man’s poker.”
“You can still bet on billiards.”
“Hm. Maybe he said dumb man’s.”
He bites his lip to suppress a laugh, shaking his head at her with a low huff. She smiles, reaching out to trace a finger down the cue, landing softly at his knuckle. From behind them, breaking their reverie, Dan hears, “I could teach you.”
Just over Blair’s shoulder stands Jack Bass, slanted over his own cue. “Uh, no,” Dan says, a hand coming on Blair’s elbow. “That’s—that’s fine. She doesn’t need to know. It’s not all that exciting.”
“Well, I don’t see why not,” Blair says, turning and taking a step towards him. “Sounds like fun.” Bass leans forward, smile wide and white like a dog with a bone, but Dan sets a hand on Blair’s shoulders, steering her the opposite way, dropping his cue and letting it roll over the edge of the table before knocking to the ground with a sharp crack. “What the hell is your problem?” Blair whispers harshly as they round the corner, tugging herself free from his grasp.
“What d’you think you’re doing?”
“He could know something!”
“And that’s how you wanna get it?”
“You use what you have, I’ll use what I have.”
“This isn’t a Hitchcock flick. These are dangerous people. Jack Bass is a dangerous man. Do you understand? You could really get hurt.”
Blair crosses her arms over her chest, rolling her eyes. “Because no one’s ever gotten hurt in a Hitchcock flick.”
“Dammit, Waldorf, I mean—you aren’t a girl in a movie. This work has real consequences.”
With her little noise in the air, she scowls. “I’m a woman so I couldn’t possibly be able to handle something on my own.”
“That is not what I mean. You know I don’t think like that. A woman can do anything a man can do, and in our case, you can do a hell of a lot more than me.”
“Then what’s the issue? I can take care of myself.”
“I know, I know you can, but I—“ he runs his hand over his face, looks into those bambi eyes, and just about melts, goddammit. “Unfortunately I care about what happens to you, okay? I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Blair frowns. “You don’t think I would care if you got hurt?”
He shrugs, taking an evasive gulp of his drink. “Would you?”
“Of course I would,” she says softly. “We’re partners.”
Dan reaches out, dragging his thumb over her shoulder lightly, then lets his hand drop back down with a sigh. “I shouldn’t have touched you like that. Just the look on Bass’ face…but that’s–that’s no excuse. I’m really sorry.”
“I’m not as fragile as all that. And besides,” she fixes the knot of his tie, amending his earlier fidgeting, her touch lingering on his collar, “you played the jealous boyfriend part well.”
“Right,” he says, clearing his throat.
“Hum—Hunter, old man?” Nate whispers, peeking his head around the corner inquisitively, then shading his eyes. “Oh! Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“You’re not,” Dan grits out, swatting Blair’s hand away, a burn in the shape of her grin searing into the back of his neck.
“Thought you’d like to know that Thorpe just got here.”
With his pulse bruising the center of his brow-bone, tightening the space between his eyes, Dan waits and watches the ice melt slowly into his topped-off drink, watering it down before he takes another sip gingerly. He shakes his wrist out, letting the silver of his watch catch the light and Thorpe’s eye, and touches a hand to the knot of his tie, the afterthought of Blair’s touch still lingering.
“Hunter, was it?” Thorpe says, turning away from his conversation and leaning forward in his seat.
“Yessir,” Dan mumbles around the rim of his glass. “Real sorry to hear about your loss.”
Thorpe blinks slow, cocking his head. “Sure, sure. Quite a bit of loss around here lately. Nate says you’re looking to invest?”
“Mhm,” Dan hums, wishing he had thought at all about what the fuck he was going to say before sitting down. He drums his fingers on his glass, sitting up a little straighter. “Weighing my options, right now. I was hoping to speak to Charles Bass, and, well, you.”
“If I may say—you won’t want to throw your money at a company run by someone with such little experience. Hardworking man like yourself, you should be in the hands of someone who worked for what they have, instead of…acquiring it by other means.”
“What are you getting at?” Dan says, but before he can get an answer, Thorpe’s eyes flicker over his shoulder. The chatter around the table dulls slightly, heads turning and slow, sickly smiles stretching. He supposes it’s another round of booze or a pretty broad, and tries again: “Mr. Thorpe—“
“Russell, please,” he says dryly. “Come by my office and I’ll show you how an honest man conducts business.”
Dan picks at his tie, skin prickling under the gaze of a half a dozen drunks, and wonders if somehow everyone clued in all at once that he doesn’t belong here. Then a dainty hand comes down on his; pale, sickle-shaped nails smoothing out his fidgeting. It’s not a kiss, really, just a bump of lips against the shell of his ear, but he shudders all the same. “I did something bad,” Blair whispers, with that little foreign lilt—although it’s really not a whisper at all, at least loud enough over the clink of ice and tossed coins to warrant a low whistle from somewhere around the table.
Dan stands so suddenly his knees crack, vision dotting with pinpricks of darkness, his voice coming out rough despite clearing his throat. “Pardon.”
“Looks like you have something to take care of,” Thorpe says. “I do hope you take me up on my offer.”
Blair pulls him along down a hallway, the glint and stumble of bodies thinning out the farther they go, until they reach a grand elevator. When the doors shut, he turns on her. “I was getting somewhere before you got handsy, you know.”
Blair leans back against the wall of the elevator, hands clasped behind her back, lashes fluttering. “I’ll keep my hands to myself next time if you’re so horrified by it.”
“That’s not—I didn’t mean—“ he runs a hand over his face, “where the hell are you taking me?”
“I had an idea.”
“I told one of those bellboy-types that I left my earrings in Mr. Bass’s office last night. He wasn’t very clever at all, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off my chest, I could’ve told him I was the queen of England and he would’ve believed me.” The doors ding open, and Blair strides out, nudging open a dark-wooded door and presenting it with a flourish. “I believe they call this thinking on your feet.”
“Or breaking and entering,” he steps into the office, well-organized but still crammed full of papers in every direction. He points out an earring dropped by the desk and Blair snorts.
As Dan rifles through stacks of papers, tucking anything that looks vaguely incriminating under his arm, Blair keeps her head peeked out; his sharp, watchful eye. He smiles over at her for a moment, disbelieving. “Come, Waldorf. The game is afoot.”
His dreams have always been black and white, film-reel flickers, vague and hazy around the edges. Which is why when she leans over him, prim and proper like that Katherine Hepburn he’s always had an inkling of a thing for, but in full, vivid colour, smile sharp and sparkling, he thinks it’s real.
He jolts, head swimming in the dark blue of the office, mouth dry and palms slick with sweat. He smells her perfume and thinks that’s real, too.
“Good, you’re awake,” she says from the floor in front of him. He startles, taking in a deep breath, filling his lungs with her, that sweet smoke singeing inside him, heating him up and levelling him out like a good, long drag. She drops a file on his chest. “I found lists of all of Thorpe’s and Bass’ abandoned properties in those boxes you got from the city hall records.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with that?” he mumbles, patting down his pockets, then around the cushions of the futon, coming up empty. He looks back at her, the spark in her eyes like the burning cherry of a cig, her lips down-turned.
“I don’t know,” she says archly. “Why did you bother getting the boxes in the first place?”
He shakes his head, running a hand over his face. “Sorry. I’ve been told I’m a grouch when I wake up.”
“As opposed to all the other times when you’re perfectly cheery.'' She produces a cigarette seemingly from nowhere, sticking it between his parted lips. She flicks on his lighter, brows drawn as she touches the flame to it, eyes meeting his over the orange glow with a slight smile. He breathes it in like he’d breathed her in, not breaking her gaze until she pulls it out from between his lips and his eyes drop closed on a sigh. When he slides them back open, blowing the smoke out away from her, her smile only grows sharper. “I looked through the other files, too, the ones we…borrowed,” she says, voice suddenly quiet, like this is a moment for tip-toes, undisturbed and still. She gives him another drag, then hands him a paper with rows and rows of numbers. “What do you think this is?”
He puts the paper aside, catching her hand before it can retreat, thumb running lightly over her wrist as he takes another drag. Blair, eyes wide and pulse thumping quick and hard under his touch, lets out her own little sigh of contentment. He arches a brow, and she pulls back fast, studying the cigarette like it’s awfully interesting, before placing it between her own lips. She breaks off with a cough suddenly, her nose scrunched, and tosses it onto his chest as he laughs. “That’s disgusting,” she says. “I don’t understand why you like it.”
“I don’t understand why I like a lot of things,” he says.
She gives him one of her odd little looks, the one with some question in it that he can never decipher, then stands and smoothes her skirt, her heels clicking across the floor. He notices, across the room, his dad’s old boarded up record collection opened up and scattered around, the boxes of newer records sent by Jen and Vanessa from overseas seemingly picked through.
“Snooping while I was asleep, Waldorf?”
She turns, looking guilty for only a moment before it washes away into amusement. “Seems a shame that it’s always so quiet in here when you have such a selection to choose from.”
He shrugs her off, trying to match her amusement, but feels that smile carve out something deep in his chest, something he thought was already hollow. Filling up the silence might trick him into thinking that people don’t go, that life doesn’t move on after they do. But people always go. It’s better that there’s no noise at all than noise that dies down. He grabs the paper a little too roughly and rubs the leftover film of sleep and smoke from his eyes.
“They’re restaurants and jewellers,” he says, sitting up and disposing of the cigarette butt. “Looks like Bart Bass had a woman with expensive taste himself, and one he didn’t want anyone knowing about. They’re all the same, these guys. They have the same hiding spots. Makes it pretty easy to catch them.”
“That doesn’t have to mean anything. I’ve been taken to dinner and given expensive gifts, too. I didn’t end up in a burnt down building. If that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No, but you’re here, so you’re not much better off.”
He thinks he sees something flash in her eyes, but it’s too dark to really tell, and whatever it was, it passes as quick as it came. She prods through the records absently. “You think they were having an affair?”
“I don’t think it’s a stretch.”
“Why would he kill her? If he—if he loved her?”
“People kill people they love all the time. And who says he loved her? Those guys taking you to dinner and buying you diamonds love you?”
She swallows, looking away. “Grouch,” she huffs. “You can’t prove that Bart Bass was having an affair with Avery Thorpe. Because they’re both dead.”
“You’re getting the hang of this detective thing, huh?” That earns him the barest edge of a smile. “But we have this. Why would Chuck keep this if it wasn’t significant?”
“Because his father died and it’s important to keep records?”
“You got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“We’re getting paid for answers, aren’t we?”
He slumps back against the futon, pressing his fingers to his eyes. “I’m way too fucking tired to argue with you.”
“So I win?”
“Whatever,” he says, hiding his smile. He watches her in her own little world, rifling through the rows of records while she swings idly to the first notes of some French record he never bothered to listen to . She pauses when she catches his eye, “I love this song,” she says, before drifting over to him. She steps out of her heels, dropping inches to the ground. “You’re not too tired for a dance, are you?” she holds out a hand, a sliver of pale moonlight that cuts through the dark of the room. “For me?”
“I don’t really know how to dance.”
“It’s just us, Mr. Humphrey. I promise to only make fun of you a little.” He looks up at her, jaw set with feigned annoyance, and she wiggles her fingers at him. “Follow my lead?” she says again, softer tonight, small and hopeful. He takes her hand with a sigh, as if he had ever planned on doing differently.
She pulls him to stand, curling a hand onto his shoulder, and he places a cautious one on her side. “This okay?”
“Yes, Humphrey. That’s typically how one dances with a woman.”
He rolls his eyes, straightening his back as she begins to sway them. They move in a clumsy semi-circle, off-beat, while she giggles, a soft sound that glows in the dark. Her hand in his is impossibly small for how strong she is, for how strong she makes him feel, and he can’t help but think about how nicely it fits, how nicely they fit. He feels his palm clamming up on the satin-sheen of her dress. “What’s she saying?” he whispers.
Il est entré dans mon coeur, “He has entered into my heart,” Une part de bonheur “A piece of happiness,” Dont je connais la cause “That I know the cause of,” her teeth catch her lip, he sees the line of her throat shift as she swallows, C'est toi pour moi, “It’s him for me,” moi pour toi dans la vie “Me for him… for life.”
He twirls her suddenly, surprising a laugh from her, and when she comes back to him they’re closer than before, his hand settling on the small of her back. “You’re better at this than you made yourself seem,” she says.
“I don’t think we’ll be giving Fred and Ginger a run for their money any time soon.”
Something past his ribs feels rattled, raw and scraped up by the way she’s looking into him with the faintest of smiles. He thinks any man who wouldn’t do exactly what she wants is a fucking fool. He thinks he feels one of those moths stuck in his throat.
“You did well out there, you know. I almost started buying into it myself,” she says.
“It was nice to be someone else for a change. It was nice to be Dylan Hunter, really. Money, influence, beautiful girl…” he shakes his head, moving instinctively to run a hand over his face, before realizing he’s anchored down by her.
She rests her head on his chest, the weight right and warm over his heart. Her thumb runs down the nape of his neck and he shivers. “For whatever it’s worth, I like you just the way you are, Mr. Humphrey.”
He feels his pulse in each fingertip, feels his pulse in the palm of her hand. He’s holding her but it feels like the other way around. She’s leading, and he thinks he’d follow her anywhere, which scares the shit out of him. He doesn’t want her to be stuck with him. He’s been vaguely aware since the moment she first took his hand that it wouldn’t last, that she’d realize she’s too good for this place, for him, although he thought it’d be a lot sooner, wouldn’t have fathomed that she’d be here spinning with him past the sunset. He’s awfully glad, though. At least now she’ll have left him better than she found him.
“That’s worth a hell of a lot.”
“I had fun, too,” she says. “I’m always such a good girl. I liked being bad for once.”
“Maybe too much.”
Her head lifts, then. Rum-bottle deep and sugarcane molasses brown and he feels drunk. “Didn’t you?” Her chest rises and falls in rapid succession against his, they’ve hardly been moving but she seems out of breath. “Humphrey?” she says, so quiet, if he hadn’t been watching her mouth he might not have made it out.
He’s not sure at what point they stopped moving altogether, or when the song ended, the record skipping subtly like a hiccup. She lets out a breath, and he’s close enough he feels it warm his chin, her eyes dropping like she’s watching it form in the air, like it’s cold enough in here to see it, and it could be, hell, it could be below freezing and he wouldn’t know, because her hand in his sends a shockwave of heat through him like a contact high fever. She meets his eyes again, that question from before is still in them now, but Dan can’t for the life of him figure out what it is. Her chin dips. “It’s late. Daddy will be waiting up.”
He nods, letting her go and taking a step back. She slips back into her heels, plucking the needle from the record, the echo of her footsteps out the door too loud in the silence.
When he swings the door open, she’s sitting at the desk, waiting for him. There’s half a moment where he catches the draw of her brows, her lip gnawed between her teeth, the anxious drum of her delicate fingers; then she’s looking up and the worry melts away, replaced by the softening of her features, the light behind her eyes reignited, sparking at his heart like striking a match. He forgot what it felt like to have someone, anyone, to come back to, doesn’t think he’s had that since before the girls set off overseas to adventures too big and bright for him to fit in.
He doesn’t think it ever felt quite like this, though.
“How’d it go?” she says, moving to stand, but he waves her off, keeping his coat on and taking a seat on the edge of the desk.
“Weird,” he says after a moment, sticking his hands in his pockets. “I missed Thorpe but I ended up catching his daughter on her way out and asked her to lunch. I think that’s what they call thinking on your feet.” He smirks down at her, but finds Blair having retreated, rigid in her seat and hands folded in her lap. Confused, he continues, “She’s really broken up about her mom, so I–I gave her a... shoulder to cry on, you know, and asked her how she thinks it happened.”
“What’d she say?” Blair asks, voice strange, stunted.
“Her dad called, said he was getting out of a late meeting and asked to talk to her mom. She wasn’t home. She thinks Avery had plans to buy the property out from under Bass and turn it into something useful, and that’s why she was there. She thinks…” he sighs, “she thinks she dropped her cigarette and the place went up in flames.”
“There was no sign of that,” Blair says.
He looks down at her and shrugs. “It never happens how you think it happened.”
Blair looks up at him a little sadly, head tilted, then rolls her lips in and looks away again. Dan wonders at just what he would do to keep her looking at him, even with pity. Anything, he reckons. He’d do anything.
“She’s a real nice girl,” he says, clearing his throat. “I feel so bad about using her like that. It’s awful, isn’t it?”
“No,” Blair says, still looking at her hands instead of at him. “It’s you. It’s not awful.”
He considers the touch before he makes it, reaching out to clasp his hand over hers, decidedly gentle, prodding. “You eat yet?” Blair shakes her head, and he nods to the door. “Let’s go, I’ll get you a cup of those noodles you like.”
“They’re not good for me.”
“Neither is not eating at all.”
Blair props her chin in her other hand, batting those lashes that hit him like the crack of a whip, warmth rolling through his stomach, an ink spill, a dawn break. “Dinner, Humphrey? You’re not even going to wait to see that I’m right?”
“It’s a late lunch if anything.”
“You should really start making reservations,” she says, collecting her things, “I could start calling around. Table for two for Mr. Grouch.”
“Come on, Miss Pain in my ass.”
Being in the belly of the beast does not, in fact, get easier over time. Sweat gathers under his collar, the slick stain creeping like a shadow. He adjusts his stupid cheap watch and his stupid cheap cufflinks and his stupid cheap tie a dozen times. Ice clinks. Coins toss. He bets money that isn’t really his. He is quite positive he’s going to vomit all over his stupid cheap shoes.
But Blair. Oh, Blair. She’s someone else here, glittering like a reflective surface, like a flute of expensive champagne, and it makes him feel just as disoriented, how she catches his eye from across the room and for a split second, just a blink, she smiles in a way that he can feel is just for him—how quickly she can slip into it, how quickly she can get all eyes on her.
It’s good for business. That’s what’s making his gut twinge with a sharp sort of excitement. Probably.
He smiles at her from around the rim of his glass as she makes her way over, abruptly choking on his drink when she drops down, seating herself on his lap with a giggle, and he thinks about the other night, about things fitting together, about her fitting with him, he feels it again now, and he wasn’t blushing, that first night, he really wasn’t. Now, however. Now is a different story. His hands tense at her sides to keep her from moving too much, so help him god. “What are you doing.”
Her smile is lethal, teeth like a tombstone etching, she leans over, breath grazing over his ear, and Dan’s eyes drop closed, breath coming out all fucked, cross his heart, he thinks he can feel the earth splitting open underneath him, a jaw of dirt unlocking to swallow him whole. She whispers, “I think someone likes me.”
Dan shifts, an apology already rolling off his tongue when Blair straightens, flicks her eyes eastward, and sure enough, Chuck Bass sits slumped against a booth far in the back, sucking on a cigar, a girl already on each arm but his eyes only on her.
“I’ve got an idea,” she says, toying with his tie, sliding it between her fingers, and he’s sure she can feel it, even from there, the way his traitorous scrap of a heart is beating like hell against the bars of its cage, determined to break. “You trust me?”
“With my life,” he says, no hesitation. His breath gets caught on their closeness, he feels dizzy with it, then realizes it’s probably because he’s cross-eyed trying to keep up.
“Humphrey?” she whispers. “You’re looking a little flushed.”
“I’m fine,” he grits out. “Please be careful.”
“No promises,” she says, hopping back to her feet and trailing a finger over his shoulder as she rounds him, a predator out for the hunt.
Logistically, he should have had enough to drink by now to calm his nerves, but he still feels turned upside down, his gut wrenching between his ribs and his heart beating somewhere in his stomach-space. The halls all look the same, some twisted carnival maze of glitz and grandeur, the click of coins and heels blurred into one, sending him into a tailspin, until—
Blair ambles towards him, all lopsided and hair displaced, a broken shoe in her hand and his heart lurching up through his insides, getting caught in his throat, his voice coming out rough around it, “What the hell happened?”
She nearly runs him over, clutching at his forearms for balance. “He stuck his hand up my skirt without asking, so I slapped him one and made a run for it. But that’s not—“ she pants, leaning her weight into him, and he wraps his arms around her, holds her steady, “that’s not important. I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news,” she says, breathless. “Bad news, we still can’t prove who killed Avery Thorpe. Good news—“ her smile is wild, uncontrollable, a pulse in and of itself, “I know who killed Bart Bass.”
With Chuck Bass crammed in lock up, all that debonair good and forgotten, Blair rests her head at the center of Dan’s chest, his heart rate thundering as she hugs his coat tighter over her. At the station, she plays them the recording she caught on the office’s voicemail, slurred but still damning, brag after brag about the boy king slaughtering his father, pushing him off that building and signing his own name on the lease, interspersed with little moans and sighs that blow through the bottom of Dan’s spine like a bullet. She looks up at him from under her lashes, makeup smudged around her eyes, but he can’t quite hold her gaze, looking up and over, and smoothing his hand over the mess of her curls. “You’re insane,” he says softly.
“And aren’t you glad I am?”
“Yes,” he says. “Very.”
He holds her a little closer. Just for now.
At the base of the rickety stairs leading up to the office, Blair winces, broken heel swinging by a strap on her finger. Dan rolls his eyes, sighs, long-suffering, and lifts her. “Oh, Mr. Humphrey,” she says, that same breathy, flirty tone she’d used to pull out that confession, smile smug and menacing. “My hero.”
She says it like a joke. He supposes it is.
Inside, he sets her down on the edge of the desk, bending to inspect her ankle. He tilts her foot up, down, up again. “Doesn’t seem sprained,” he says. “You trick me, Waldorf?”
“I left my flats up here,” she says, face cast in shadow from above but he hears her smile, the light from the street glows hazy around her like a dream sequence or something sacramental. “I wasn’t going to climb all those steps in only one heel.”
His thumb swipes over the sharp bone of her ankle through her stockings, and she gasps, so soft, a bump in the night kind of noise. Her eyes are headlight-caught wide, knuckles white on the edge of the desk. “Hurts?” he asks.
Her lips part for a moment before she answers, voice gone translucent with breath. “No,” she says finally.
He raises to level with her, gaze catching on the small, rose prick of a spot where her neck meets her shoulder. “You let him do that to you?”
“Would you think of me differently if I did?”
“‘Course not,” he says lowly. “Just want to know what kind of punishment we should be petitioning for.” Blair smiles a little at that. He swallows. “Your father won’t wonder?”
“My father isn’t like most men his age,” she says mildly, slipping off the desk and onto her stockinged feet, her hand brushing his in the dark. He tenses, then sticks his hand in his pocket, producing a crumpled bill, slipping it between her fingers, just as easily, as quietly. The touch lingers for a beat. “For the cab,” he says hoarsely.
“Was any of it real?” he hears himself ask, his back to her as she heads for the door.
“On the recording?” she says. He nods once, stilted. There’s a smile hugging her words when she says, “I’m a good actress, Mr. Humphrey.”
That’s what he was afraid of.
“You should get going,” Dan mumbles, fogging up the window he’s leaned against. It’s half-hearted at best, customary, she’s gotten herself comfortable on the futon, composure be damned, surrounded by a ring of papers like a half-assed salt circle. She doesn’t look like she plans on leaving anytime soon and he doesn’t want her to.
Breaking her spell of concentration, Blair yawns. “Not yet.”
“It’s dark out,” he says, holding up a hand as if to present the blue nightfall, tired eyes of the city lights winking to sleep.
“Stellar observation, detective.”
“Won’t Daddy worry?”
She pulls a pen out from the knot of hair she’s tied off her shoulders, circles something on a page three times ‘round. Dan keeps his smile to himself. “I’ll call him. Tell him I’m staying with a friend.”
“You’re just gonna lie to your old man like that?”
There’s a half-moment before Blair smiles, but it’s still wary, not all there. He rolls the word around in his mind, friend, a chunk of ice on a hot tongue, and he realizes she hadn’t made it sound like a joke at all.
Neither of them mention sleep, or the logistics of her staying, or the idea of her leaving. He doesn’t think he’s ever had a night like this, really, this exchanging of yawns, fighting to stay awake not only for the work but for another moment spent with someone else, and he wonders if Blair stays quiet on the subject for the same reason.
“When we met,” Blair says, “you had a bruise. Here—“ the very tip of her finger brushes under his eye, light as a breeze that shivers over him, “how’d you get it?”
“Lady got me to follow her husband around, catch him in the act, as I do, and I—I shouldn’t intervene, that’s not part of the job, but he was—this guy was throwing this poor girl around, saying, you know, he pays her, he can do whatever the hell he wants with her, and I—“ he clenches a fist, punches the stale air, “and he, did I mention this guy was the size of a fucking bus? Well, he—“ fist meeting his face in an exaggerated charade, he mimes a brawl, two fists punching the air and fingers under his nose like a gush of blood, eyes wide with horror. She laughs, a bright, clear sound that rushes to his head like his first ever pull of a cig. Blair tilts her head, considering him, and Dan thinks his heart might just fall out of his ass, thinks he’s gone fully-fucking-insane, ‘cause he’s thinking of that drawn up little doe and the sound of Jen crying and how he’d told her to shut the hell up but was wiping tears away himself—he’s thinking that even the best damn cartoonist Walt’s money could buy would never be able to get close to coming up with her. Dan’s still iffy on the whole Man-Upstairs thing, but who else could conjure her up?
“You really are one of the good ones, aren’t you?” She places a palm on his cheek, so soft, it makes him shudder like a slap, makes him want to retreat. Despite himself, he leans into the touch.
“Not by a long shot.”
Dan wakes with the taste of stale coffee sticking to his tongue, thick and murky and useless, given the fact it failed to keep him up. He raises a slow, heavy hand to wipe away the strip of drool trailing out of the side of his mouth, blinking in the stark sunrise that’s filling up the room like a glass of orange juice. Blair’s curled into him completely, her arm around his waist and her face hidden in his shoulder, a knee-jerk of a movement at the unfamiliar weight and warmth sends his lips against her temple, his nose against her hair, like the street-waft outside a bakery, all warm and sweet and mouth-watering. She yawns, and the hot rush of breath against his neck like a ray of sunlight makes him jolt. “Oh,” she says softly, big, bleary eyes blinking up at him and cheeks so pink his palms itch with the urge to cup them, cradle them, never let this girl who stormed into his life and made it worth really living go, almost every part of her is still touching almost every part of him, her hand resting dangerously low on his stomach, and he stands suddenly, joints cracking, before they can be greeted with an unwelcome guest. He crosses the room in under a moment, casting a surreptitious glance down over himself before turning to her over his shoulder. “Uh. Coffee?”
“Mhm,” Blair hums, two hands coming up to smooth over her hair. She smiles, small, almost shy. “If you’re anything to go off of, I must look like a mess.”
“I don’t care about all that,” he says with a dismissive wave, which he assumes was the wrong thing to say based off the way Blair’s smile drops just so, and tries to remedy it with: “I mean, you don’t, but if you did I wouldn’t mind. I don’t mind mess.”
Blair’s face goes curiously blank for a beat, lips parted and eyes far-off, before she blinks back into herself, her smile wry this time. “That’s evident.”
They sit on opposite sides of the desk, Blair behind and Dan in front, his feet kicked up and her nose scrunched in distaste, two cups of coffee and the newspaper split between them. The record player scratches idly along, the sweet scent of almost-spring in the air, not warm but getting there. It is, decidedly, a very good morning. Maybe the best he’s ever had.
A knock at the door has them both looking up over the edge of their papers, reverie broken.
“Are you expecting someone?” says Blair.
“No. Are you?”
She shakes her head. “Maybe it’s the mail?”
“It’s Friday,” Dan mutters, swinging his feet down, but Blair holds a hand up, stockinged feet padding silently to the door, pressing her ear against the worn wood with her eyebrows knit. After a moment, she creaks the door open a crack, bending forward and retrieving an envelope, deep red with a thick wax seal brandishing a proud T.
Blair opens it gingerly. “Hunter,” she reads, “come watch the world from the top.” She raises two tickets, eyes wide, unwary. “The opera.”
“Kind of short notice,” Dan says, lighting a cigarette with one hand and taking one of the tickets from her with the other. Over the little orange glow, he grins. “You got plans?”
When the door opens, he turns, cigarette tipping the balance as his mouth falls open. “Wow,” he says. “You look—“ he clears his throat, trying to regain some semblance of composure, “like you’re gonna be cold.”
Blair purses her lips. “You sure know how to flatter a woman, Humphrey.”
“Gorgeous,” he says quietly, stomach swirling like the trail of thin smoke in the air. “You look gorgeous, Waldorf.”
“That’s more like it,” she says with a smile, then dips into the bag she’d brought, producing a jar of hair gel. “You, on the other hand, need a little cleaning up. It is the opera, after all.”
She props him up against the desk, standing studiously between his knees with her hands smoothing through his hair. “Daddy and I love the opera,” she says, her breath breezing over him sweetly. “I’ve been taken on a lot of dates there, you know.”
“So this is nothing new for you.”
“In a way it is. None of those men were you.”
Like this, she looms over him slightly, her hand sitting sticky in his hair. A passing light fills up the room in shatters of shifting gold, catching on her dress and lighting her face aglow. There’s something in the way she’s looking at him that makes him feel like she’s waiting for him to do or say something, but he’s not sure what. He swallows, feeling shy all of a sudden.
“No holes in their shoes?”
Blair presses her lips together, setting the last of his loose curls into place. “I brought you something else,” she says, pulling out a small, velvet box from her bag. Inside sit a pair of silver cufflinks, intricately detailed, and Dan doesn’t pretend to know much about stuff like this, but even he can see that they’re pretty fucking nice. “Daddy says they were given to him by a very special friend,” she says, as she removes the old cufflinks she’d picked up when they’d started this charade and slides the new ones into place, “so I thought they’d be good to give to you,” her eyes flick up to meet his. He’s holding his breath. “Just for tonight of course.”
“Of course,” is all Dan can think to say for a moment, his throat gone dry and his hands clamming up. “Thank you, Waldorf.”
Blair nods, then turns on her heel. “We can’t be late. We have a case to solve.”
The bulbs above the opera house bare down, dead-eyed, glinting off all the cut crystal below, and he squints back up at them, a staring contest. “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world,” he drawls, “is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”
Blair rolls her eyes at the reference, but her cheeks pucker with a secret smile. She loops her arm through his, an anchor, and they step inside.
Blair abandons him at the bar in favour of whispering conspiratorially with Serena, like they’ve got their own little mission, casting furtive glances his way, smile like a switchblade whenever they lock eyes. Silence stretches uncomfortably between him and Carter Baizen, who rolls a chunk of ice on his tongue and considers him long and hard before leaving him alone, too. Dan still fucking hates him.
“Dylan Hunter,” The Captain says humorously, sidling up next to Dan. He nods to the cufflinks with a smirk. “My boy’s been paying well, I see.”
Dan ignores that. “You in Thorpe’s box too?”
Captain nods, waving down the bartender. “Bart did me a favour, pushing me out the way he did,” he says with a laugh. “He never really trusted me the way Russell does. He never appreciated me the way Russell does.”
Dan muffles a snort against the rim of his glass. “Right, right. So you would’ve been in the meeting with him the night his wife died, then? Must’ve been rough.”
“Sure, I was in that meeting, but Russell wasn’t.”
“I mean, he was there at the beginning, but he left almost right away. I was the one running that meeting, not him.”
“And you didn’t think to tell anyone that?”
Captain blinks, taken aback. “He’d gotten a phone call. I assumed that’s what it was.”
Thorpe’s box is a rather big, rather cramped thing—they are not, in fact, all that special in their invitation. Thorpe himself isn’t there yet, but his daughter idles around Nate, throwing a bright smile almost overshadowed by the tiredness behind her eyes their way, which Blair pointedly ignores, her grip on his arm tightening. Dan waves, just as pointed, and that seems to tighten Blair’s grip further.
As they settle into two seats at the front of the box, Dan leans over, nose nudging against Blair’s done-up curls, breath catching on the smell of hairspray and her perfume. “Raina said Thorpe called her about Avery’s death at the end of a meeting,” he whispers, breath hot with booze, and Blair shivers, the lights casting shadows of her long lashes, fluttering at the tops of her blushing cheeks. “But Captain just said Thorpe left that meeting right away after getting a phone call.”
“You don’t happen to think that call came from one Andrew Tyler, alerting him of Avery’s location, do you?” Blair whispers back, biting back a grin.
“Elementary,” says Dan.
Before they can say anything else, the lights go out, a hush befalling the tightly packed theatre, and Blair turns away from him excitedly. Even in the dark she’s incandescent.
Dan spends the show looking anywhere but at the stage, nervous anticipation rolling jittery through him—at Captain looking bored next to his wife, at Raina Thorpe’s deep, mournful gaze, at Thorpe, who slipped into a far seat at the last minute, who is already looking back at him.
Next to him, he hears a sniff, and turns to see Blair, a fat tear fit for those big brown eyes running a track through her powder that he instinctively reaches to catch, wipe away. She startles slightly, looking back at him, his thumb lingering at her cheek, her bottom lip trembling fast, and he slips his own shaky, unsteady hand into hers, giving it a squeeze. There’s a long instance of music-filled silence, of aloneness in a full room, of looking at her and having her look back—then it breaks with a shift, her free hand curls against his shoulder and she leans in, as if to whisper something to him, but before she can the sound ceases, the theatre erupting in applause.
He places a cautious hand on her back as they shuffle out for intermission, tracing her like a shadow and ordering them both fresh drinks at the bar. She leans her elbows against the shined wood, slumping a little into his side, and he leans close to her ear to say, over the bursts of conversations around them, “Were you going to say something back there?”
“Before the lights went up. I thought you were gonna say something.”
She blinks at him, a small dip between her brows, then finally shakes her head. “No, Humphrey. I wasn’t going to say anything.” Three cherries neat, she wraps her hand around her glass of bourbon, and he knocks his Manhattan against it in sloppy celebration, ice clinking, the tips of his fingers brushing her knuckles. Around the rim of her glass, she mumbles, “What do you think?”
“That if we go looking, there’ll be a phone booth by that burnt down warehouse with a pretty damning call record.”
“I meant about the show,” she says, tone almost too even, unnaturally measured. Blair takes a long sip, letting the bourbon sit and sweeten her tongue. “I’ve been to the opera a lot but I’ve never felt the way I feel tonight. It’s…very romantic.”
He shrugs, taking his cherry from its pick between his teeth and sliding it off slow. “I don’t know anything about romance.”
Blair scoffs, shaking her head again, then turns, leaving her drink and him, slipping through the crack between the silhouettes around them.
“Hey,” he says, following her, paying no mind to the opera-goers he pushes aside in haste. She really wasn’t kidding about being quick on her feet. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to the powder room,” she says, then whirls around suddenly, causing him to stumble to a stop. “I hate it when you talk about yourself like that,” she snaps.
“Like you’re less than you are.”
Dan chuckles humourlessly. “Feeling pretty lesser than in a place like this.”
“Who cares if you have to pretend for a little while? I’ve been doing it all my life. But tonight you’re going to take off that tux and go back to that sad little office and you’re still going to be your charming, wonderful —aggravating self, and that’s the man I want to work with. Be with.” Soft and quiet but still firm, imperious in that way that settles in his stomach like a good glass of whiskey, she says, “This isn’t only me, is it?”
Dan’s mouth parts on a question, but before one can form the buzz of time running out cuts through the lively chatter around them. She closes her eyes, breath shuddering out of her, then turns and slips back into the crowd. He knows he should reach out for her, but his hands are stuck to his sides, cherry-syrup cloying at the roof of his mouth. He runs a hand through his hair, mussing up all of Blair’s hard work, and swallows down his drink a little too quickly in an effort to wash away the heart-shaped lump in his throat. With no sign of Blair’s return, he heads back to the box alone, but finds her seat there empty as well. He knows how long it takes her to get ready, and if a trip to the powder room is even half that, she’ll probably make it just as the curtains start to draw.
What Blair means to him—and what he thinks she’s saying he means to her—is starting to seep through the cracks of his doubt, curling around the parts of him he thought surely no one would ever want—and what great fucking timing for this revelation, when he can just about hear the handcuffs clicking into place on Russell Thorpe’s wrists. He can’t quit fidgeting, hands playing at his cufflinks, his tie, his loose curls of hair, until the lights drop them back into darkness, and a rush of silence fills up the room, and the seat next to him still remains empty. Looking around, he catches another curiously empty seat, something sinking in his gut as the music swells again.
He tries to give it another moment, but his anxiousness gets the better of him, leaning over to tap Serena on the shoulder. “Wald— Clair’s not back from the powder room. You think you can go check if she’s alright?”
Serena nods, giving his hand a light touch before excusing herself quietly. Nate raises a brow at him, and he whispers, “You see where Thorpe went?”
Nate looks around, seemingly just noticing the empty seats, then shrugs. Dan raises a hand apologetically, rounding his seat to follow out the way Serena left. He stops when he sees her, concern growing as a dip between her brows. “She wasn’t in there,” Serena says. “I’ll go check outside, okay?”
“No,” he says, tugging his tie loose, “I’ll do that. You–uh, you tell Nate to come out here and get the commissioner on the phone, get one of those bulletins out for Russell Thorpe.”
“Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Dan says. “Just go. Hurry.”
A row of cabs lines the outside of the opera house, their on-lights like a glowing, menacing, straight-toothed smile. There’s no one out on the street but him.
She took a cab. He said the wrong thing—or, didn’t say the right thing—and she took a cab and went home. He doesn’t turn around when he hears Nate call his name.
The city feels at a stand-still as the cab races through the ink dark night, the honks and sirens and people in the streets all background, all wide, white noise, his heart at the forefront, raging a rapid-water rhythm in his chest. Her eyes like wishing wells, deep and dark as black, filling with tears. He’d done that. Whatever happened, wherever she is—he’s done that, too.
He takes the steps to the office two at a time, forcing the door open so harshly it snaps against the wall upon entry. He does, he really does, expect to hear her jump, hear her yell at him for being so brutish. But he’s met with the same darkness they left behind. Hollow.
Stupid. God, he’s so stupid. This isn’t her home. No matter how much he wants it to be.
He can’t believe he’s really crossing his fingers for his big, dumb mouth as he shakily dials the number. It rings once before a man, voice soft and sleep-warmed, answers. “Waldorf Residence.”
“Mr. Waldorf? You don’t know me, or maybe, I don’t know, maybe Blair’s mentioned me, I’m her—partner. Is she there?”
“Humphrey?” he says. “No, she’s with you, isn’t she? You went to the opera?”
“Yeah, we—uh, well—“
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yeah, we just… got into it a little, she’s…probably just cooling off. No need to worry.”
“…Okay. I’m sure whatever it was, the two of you will make up soon. I know she’d mind me saying, but she likes you very much, Mr. Humphrey. And I think you’ve been good for her.”
“Yeah, I—she’s been good for me, too. Thank you, Mr. Waldorf, you have a goodnight.”
Dan leans back against the desk, the way he had only hours earlier, with the smell of Blair so close it had clung to the back of his throat like smoke. Now, nothing. He gives in to his weak knees, sliding to the floor and pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes, letting the world go black and blue. His mouth is dry, so dry, stale as over-brewed tea all the way down. He can’t breath. He can’t think— how did he think before her, how did he breath.
If it was him, she would know what to do. If it was him (it should be him), she wouldn’t be lying here limp and useless, she would know what to do and she would be doing it . His chest goes tight, like delicate fingers wrapping around the rods of his ribs and gripping, wrenching him up, clambering to his feet. He hardly knows where anything is but he rips through boxes all the same, making a mess of the office that she’ll surely scold him for when she sees it (and she will see it, she will) . Four boxes turned inside out later, he finds what he’s looking for, the paper trembling in his hands, crumpled from his grip, then—there.
An abandoned warehouse owned by Thorpe Enterprises. Six blocks from the opera house.
He calls the cops, gives them the address and tells them he heard screams, heard gunshots, smelled smoke, what-the-fuck-ever, the room spinning as the phone hangs off its hook and he heads for the door. The stairs spin. The street spins. The wind has picked up but it’s nothing —nothing compared to the chill that settles inside his stomach, creeps and catches down his spine. He’s frozen and the world—the world keeps spinning. Funny how that is.
In the cab—which seems somehow to be slow as honey and jolting rigidly through traffic at his barked commands fast enough to rile up the drink in his gut—he drops his head between his knees and prays. Not to God. To her.
The warehouse stands in stony, shadowy deceit, all dark but for the barest flicker of light in a high window he’s not completely sure he didn’t imagine. But it comes again, and he wonders if this is what it’s like to be answered. He throws probably too much cash at the cabbie and works to get the nearest door to the warehouse open; the sound of sirens rounds nearer, but hell if he’s going to wait for them when she needs him. When he needs her. With one final kick the door bursts open, the bitter burn of smoke registering in his throat. It’s ashen inside, the quiet so loud, and he’s taking the rickety steps so hard one gives under his foot, wood splintering at his ankle. He hears a cough from above, shouts from below, and he wrenches himself up, up, up, until—
Smoke-streaked and laid half limp at the top of the stairs with her hands behind her back, she smiles when she sees him. Really smiles.
There are people around them now, shouting commands and concerns, it’s bedlam, it’s the gardens of Babylon. “We’ve got Thorpe!” yells someone from further inside, and Dan laughs, hysterical, the twine around Blair’s wrists cutting through his skin, painting his fingers a cruel crimson as he works to tear them off her. “Dan—“ she gasps, freed hands reaching for him, curling in the lapels of his jacket, yanking him in and catching his mouth—his eyes are still open when their lips meet but she’s a blur, because she’s—well, kissing him, obviously, his body takes a moment to catch up with his brain, which itself feels like it’s ablaze, before he finally wraps her in his arms, kisses her back in earnest. It’s bitter, almost metallic, but he swears he tastes cherries on her tongue. She hardly breaks away, speaking right into his mouth, her hands coming up to cup his cheeks, keeping him in place, “I knew you’d find me.”
“How’d you get out of there?”
“Kicked him where the sun don’t shine.”
He laughs, breathless, pushing away the hair clinging to her forehead so he can press a kiss there, then lean his own against hers. “That’s my girl.”
With her wrists bandaged and her head checked and Dan doubled-over, dry heaving, they watch Thorpe hauled off in the back of a cop car, his nose broken and bleeding with a heel mark cut deep at the bridge. Blair pats Dan’s back earnestly, sticking a cig between his lips forcefully and lighting it herself. “You’re not going to do this every time, are you?”
Dan chokes on his smoke. “Every time?!”
She slips her hand into his, muffling her laugh against his arm. “Let’s go home,” she says.
“So,” Blair says, grappling for the light switch, the office filling up with sudden, intense light. “I was right.”
“I wouldn’t say that. It wasn’t exactly a coincidence.”
“But it wasn’t what you thought it was. Hence: I was right.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Trying to get out of dinner, Mr. Humphrey?”
He props himself against the desk, knees still weak, and shakes his head. “I owe you a hell of a lot more than dinner.”
“I suppose you want to say I told you so,” she says.
“Not for this,” he says. “You didn’t—there’s no way you could’ve—“ he stops, runs a hand over his face, and shakes his head again. “Were you scared?”
“No,” Blair says primly. “Mad as hell, but not quite scared.”
So quiet it barely makes it out, Dan says, “I was terrified.”
“I know,” she says, and she’s smiling. He doesn’t think she’s stopped since. He doesn’t want to be presumptuous—her laugh sung like a blade, smile a curved scythe, filled with the joy of escaping death—it was probably only the adrenaline that had landed her in his arms, but now that he’s had her there, he’s not sure how he’s going to go on without her.
“Sweetheart,” she says, an edge to it that scrapes a chill down his spine. Her hands slide over his jaw, up into his hair, and he drops his head into the crook of her neck. “Dan,” she says, like she’s trying the name on for size and finding it fits perfectly. He nuzzles in closer, breathes in her perfume and her pulse, feeling her shiver in kind, and a headache pounds from his temples to the base of his skull, breaking free of the back of his mind, unrelenting in its scream of: I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU.
“I know,” she says again softly, petting through his hair. “You let me wonder for a while, but I know now.”
“I didn’t mean to. I tried to stop myself, albeit not very hard, but—lord knows you deserve a better man than me—“
“Shush,” she tells him, definitive, then pulls him back up by the hair and kisses him speechless to punctuate the point. “None of that. I won’t hear it. I love you too, silly.” She giggles against his lips, the sweetest little noise he’s ever heard, and he’s startled, shocked, really, that this isn’t just another of his technicolour dreams.
“You never said anything.”
“Mother taught me there’s three things a lady never tells: her age, her weight, and if she loves you.”
He hums, kissing the corner of her mouth, still tugged back in a smile he hopes he can keep there always. “I can see why you hate her.”
They’re stilled like that for what feels like a short forever, exchanging breaths and small kisses. He squeezes her waist under his palms and thinks this is more gratifying than a cigarette ever could be, a much more worthwhile endeavor for his hands and mouth. This, maybe, is what they, what he, was made for.
“We’ll need a new sign,” he murmurs.
“A new sign?”
“For the door,” he leans back to hold out his hand. “Waldorf and Humphrey. What d’you say?”
(This is how it really starts:)
She takes his hand, and he pulls her in, kissing her.