A/N: I've had this mostly written for a while, and just finished it last night. Picks up from the season 2 finale.
He's the boy whose hand she'd wake up holding when they all shared a bed. The boy who'd let her cry on his shoulder when she insisted she hated her mom. The boy who'd save her from whatever things she got up to. The one who'd whisper that it'd be okay.
He's the first boy she ever kissed, silly as it was, and she's the first girl he ever slept with.
Somewhere along the way, they fell in love with one another. She fell for him and he fell for her, and when they realized it, it was the worst possible time. She told him he couldn't, and she thought he might be able to tell that she was the world's biggest hypocrite, but if he knew it, he didn't say anything.
Somewhere along the way, after all that, they fell out of love with one another.
She can't say she didn't have many constants in her life.
Sometimes it seems Nate's the only one that ever really mattered.
Even now, when she's on the doorstep of the rest of her life, uncertain and excited and absolutely terrified, one of the things that scares her most is thinking that she'll see even less of him now.
She's cried a few tears, the kind she only ever cries for Nate. She doesn't tell a soul.
Serena leaves with Carter and doesn't tell anyone. It's the second time she leaves without a word. It's the second time she's gone somewhere with Carter; the second time he's tried to help her find her father. She doesn't need to ask why he does it. It's all right there in his eyes every time he looks at her, and she ignores it as best she can. She's tried love, and it hurts.
This time she at least gets in touch with Blair. She doesn't give many details, she just says that she's fine, and she's going to Fiji, and she'll check in when she can. They both know that probably won't be very often.
The last person she expects to see at JFK is Nate. With Vanessa. Flying commercial.
She's waiting for Carter to come back with details of where their private jet will be taking off, and she sees Nate's unmistakable form standing at a newsstand, leafing through a magazine.
She walks up behind him and places her hands over his eyes, and she fully expects him to say Vanessa's name. She also has no idea how she's suddenly so calm, just being around him. She's been chewing her manicured nails for ten minutes waiting for Carter, and yet she sees Nate and she's instantly playful again.
"Serena," he says before he's even turned around. He could smell her, and he somehow knows how her body feels against his; he loves that he does. He hides it well. He turns to her and she's got a goofy surprise! expression on her face. "What are you doing here?"
"Um...last minute," she says flippantly, waving her hand in the air. "I thought you and Vanessa weren't..."
"We're just going as friends." She scoffs and furrows her brow. "What?"
"Vacation as just friends? Come on, Nate," she says. She puts her hand on her hip, but it's then that she realizes that she's maybe doing the same thing, she just hasn't really had a moment to think about it.
"It'll be fun. I can't sit in an office all summer," he tells her. She nods her head and he knows something's up.
And then he sees Carter.
She follows his gaze and inwardly cringes. She knows Nate and Carter have some kind of bad blood, if their confrontation at the debutante ball is any indication. She doesn't really know the whole story, but she can see in Nate's eyes that he disagrees with whatever it is she's doing.
"Just...don't say anything, okay?" she requests. She places her hand on his forearm and pleads with him with those blue eyes, and he sighs and shakes his head. "You don't understand."
"I guess not," he says, looking at her like he wants to understand. He's always looked at her that way, like he wants to know everything about her.
"It's a long story. We aren't together," she says. She's not sure why, but it feels important. That detail is always important between the two of them.
He can't help but realize that he's single and she's single, and it's for the first time in ages. And now they're jetting off to different parts of the world. Maybe. He doesn't know where she's jetting off to. He doesn't know if they'll ever get a shot, but he suddenly feels like they're missing out on one by each going away this summer.
She tries to walk away without saying anything, but he won't let her. She doesn't really want to.
"Serena," he whispers, grabbing her wrist. "Be careful."
"Nate." She shakes her head and looks at her shoes before meeting his eyes again, and she sees how serious he is; how concerned.
"Be careful," he repeats. She smiles weekly and nods her head, and he pulls her into a hug just as Vanessa comes walking over. He vaguely hears the two girls talking, but he's eyeing Carter eyeing her.
Serena leaves, and he watches her go. She turns at the last second and flashes a smile that he knows is just for him. He knows he's going to worry about her this summer more than anything else.
Two weeks into their trip, Nate starts thinking he was stupid to think it wouldn't be awkward. What the hell was going through his head? He assumes it had a lot to do with the fact that he really didn't want to work in the mayor's office. He clearly wasn't thinking straight.
He's suddenly noticing all these little things about Vanessa that he hadn't noticed before. It takes her 20 minutes to order in a restaurant, and while he used to find it adorable, it now drives him crazy. She's notorious for stealing the blankets. She looks at him condescendingly any time he pulls out his platinum card to pay for anything. She has this laugh that drives him up the wall (thank God she doesn't use it much). And not to mention, she's got an aversion to staying in hotels at all; even when there was no vacancy at a hostel in some little Slovakian city, they'd ended up taking turns sleeping on a park bench. He was up for an adventure, but that was taking it to the extreme.
He's starting to think the villas in Italy and five star hotels in Paris are exactly how he wants to spend the rest of his vacation.
He has his cell for emergencies only, and everyone knows he's away, so it isn't exactly ringing off the hook. The day it rings in his bag, both he and Vanessa look towards the noise like it's some foreign thing. She tells him she's off to look at some gallery, and he tells her he'll catch up.
His heart falls when he sees Serena's name on the screen.
"Nate!" she says. She sounds relieved. That doesn't put him at ease. "Hi. How are you? Where are you?"
"Serena. Slow down. What's wrong?"
"Serena." He interrupts the lie he knows she was about to tell.
"Where are you right now?" she asks.
"I am in...Prague," he says, though it takes him a moment to remember. This is like Eastern European boot camp. "Will you tell me what's going on?"
"Nothing. I'm just...leaving Fiji, and..."
"Yeah. That's...where I've been. But I can't go back to New York yet, and I don't know where to go."
"Serena, you're freaking me out," he says seriously. "What's up with you?"
"I can't...I don't want to talk about it right now." Her tone is firm, and he knows not to push her. "Can I meet you in Prague?"
"I'm going to Paris tomorrow," he tells her. It's true. He and Vanessa decided (amicably) to part ways. She's going back to Budapest to spend time with some relatives or something, and he wants civilization, familiarity.
"Paris?" she asks, just a hint of excitement in her voice. "Really?"
"Meet me there?" he asks. He gets the impression she would have sought him out anyway. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, Nate. Just...let's stay at that place. That hotel your mom loves," she says. She doesn't know where it is or how much it costs, but she knows the name of it, and that'll be enough.
"Okay. I'll see you there. Call me if you need...anything."
She promises that she will.
Then she buys a ticket on the next flight to Paris and ignores the guilt she feels over leaving Carter alone on an island for the second time in her life.
She's sleeping when Nate gets to the hotel, and the tension he's felt since she called him is easing as soon as he sees her now darker skin and lighter hair. She's in a silver satin pair of shorts and matching camisole, and she's got a glass of water by the bed with her phone. She looks worried, he notices. He feels like it's been forever since he's seen her, though it's only been a few weeks.
He doesn't want to wake her, and he needs a shower, so he steps into the bathroom and laughs to himself. He has no idea how long she's been there, but she's got an entire range of beauty supplies sitting on the counter. He loves that she's out there sleeping, wearing no makeup, and she's got all this stuff in here. That's kind of the way it's always been with her; she has all this stuff, but she'll wear Chapstick and drug store mascara and look incredible.
He still wants to know what the hell she was doing with Carter, and what the hell they were doing in Fiji, and why the hell she fled so quickly. He wants to know why she called him and not someone else, and he's got a very strong feeling that it isn't just because he's been in Europe too.
She's sitting back against the pillows with the blinds pulled back, looking out the window at their view of the Eiffel Tower when he steps into the room with his hair wet and just his boxers on.
"Hi," she says weakly.
"Hey." He smiles at her, and she feels like everything's okay again, and she hates that she does. "Come here."
She clamors off the bed and throws her arms around him, burying her face in his neck and mumbling something that might be, "I'm so glad you're here." She doesn't seem to want to let him go, and he doesn't really want to let her go, and so they stand there like that until they both pull away just a little bit and look outside. They both laugh at how very romantic it is (and how very romantic it isn't) that they're together in Paris in the summertime.
"Tell me what's going on," he demands.
He takes her hand and they sit on the edge of the bed, and she takes a deep breath and she tells him the whole story, no matter how painful it is for her to do it. Well, she tells him most of the story.
She tells him about Carter finding her father, and waiting around in Fiji until they had confirmation of exactly where he was. But as it turns out, Keith van der Woodsen is nothing if not icognito. She found out just days earlier that he had left the island and went...somewhere. She 'wasted' weeks waiting for him.
She starts to cry when she asks Nate why her father doesn't want to be found.
The question he knows she isn't asking is, why doesn't he want her.
Nate pulls her into his arms and he doesn't want to ask the question he really wants to ask. It's stupid and it shouldn't matter, but he feels like he needs to know.
"What happened between you and Carter?" He knows something did. He knows it.
"That part, I don't want to talk about," she says, pulling away from him and wiping her eyes.
"Well, you're obviously upset," he says with concern in his voice.
"It's nothing. It's...Carter. It's nothing." He feels like she's trying to convince herself of that more than him. He cares far more than he should. "Come on, Nate," she says, letting herself smile. "Let's go see Paris."
He wants to tell her that he's not letting her out of that hotel room until she tells him what's really going on in her head. Well, all that's really going on in her head. But then she's pulling a summer dress from her bag and heading for the bathroom, and he knows he'll do whatever she wants to do. He always has. He probably always will.
They spend only three days in Paris. They do all those cliché things they both love to do, like sip café au lait outside of little bistros and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and go to museums and walk old streets.
The night before the night they leave, they get really good and drunk on Bordeaux at some fancy restaurant, and they stumble, laughing, back to the hotel. She's got her arm around his waist, and he's got his around her shoulders, and she likes the way his hand feels on her sticky skin. It's hot out, and she pulled her hair up into one of those lazy ponytails before their dessert came. She knows she's sweating a bit, but Nate doesn't seem to care. She doesn't really care either.
She falls onto their bed when they get into their room, and he flops down beside her.
"We drank too much," he points out needlessly.
"Yeah. Why do we do that?"
"Well, you remember the last time we had too much to drink together," she says. It's not an invitation or a flirtation or anything like that. She's not telling him to do anything. It's a rare form of nostalgia; merely a mention of a moment they shared together and maybe both hold onto. One of those special moments together, of which they have many.
But maybe that particular moment is the most sacred, despite how awful everything after it was.
"Of course I remember," he says, almost too quietly. "I can't forget." He weaves his fingers together with hers, and she turns to him, their blue eyes meeting in that same unspoken understanding they always have.
She doesn't say anything for a while until she hears his breathing slowing down, but she doesn't want to sleep yet, and if she isn't sleeping, there's no way he is, either. He probably already knew that. She shoves him a little bit with their joined hands, and he lets out a gruff noise.
"When was the last time you fell in love?" she asks. She doesn't know why she wants to know.
Well, she does, and she's fighting it. It's easy with Nate. It's there, and it's been there, and maybe it's always been there. But then there's Carter...
...But then there's Cater, who she feels something for, but she's not sure what that something is, and she really doesn't know why she runs every time she feels it. Is it some kind of intrinsic warning, or is it just that big kind of love that maybe she's not ready to feel just yet.
Nate brings her hand up to his lips and kisses it, and he says one word that doesn't really make sense, but completely does at the same time;
Blair raises her brow when Nate and Serena step off the same plane from a place she knows they didn't go to together. They both shoot her looks as if to tell her not to ask, and she just smiles.
Those two are always finding their way together. She wonders when they'll finally just find their way together.
Lily and Rufus' wedding is beautiful. Everything a wedding should be and maybe more, since there's that rare, true kind of love at this one.
Blair, Jenny, and Serena stand up next to Lily as she says her vows. Dan, Erik, and to everyone's surprise (though maybe not really) Chuck stand up next to Rufus as he says his.
Vanessa is Dan's date. Nate is Serena's. Dan and Serena, as best man and maid of honour, have to walk down the aisle together. She actually laughs into her bouquet over how messed up this all is.
Nate asks Serena to dance sometime between her obligatory dance with Dan and the cutting of the cake. He tells her she looks beautiful in her blue dress, and she looks at him like she doesn't believe him, but they both know she's gorgeous. She's just always been a little more bashful around Nate than anyone else.
"How long do we have to stay, you think?" she asks. He laughs and his eyes shine and he tips his head back a little.
"It's your family."
They both look over to the 'head table', and she's the only one missing. Chuck and Blair are all wrapped up in one another and she's smiling over something he's said. Jenny and Erik are laughing loudly, like they don't care where they are at all. Dan has Vanessa sitting on his lap (a new development that no one is surprised about at all). Lily and Rufus are holding hands and kissing occasionally, speaking in hushed tones, things that Serena doesn't even want to know about.
"It's my family," she says quietly, almost in awe that it's true. "You wanna go get drunk?"
"What is it with us and getting drunk at weddings?" he says teasingly as the song comes to an end. She rolls her eyes in dramatic fashion and reaches for the closest bottle of chilled champagne and two glasses.
She loves that they can joke about it all. She loves that it's not taboo anymore; it's not to be kept quiet or only spoken of in rushed whispers in private spaces.
When they're walking through the hallway of the hotel they're at and they pass an empty bar, they both burst into a fit of laughter. Their eyes meet and it only makes them laugh harder. She doesn't know why it's funny, but it really feels like it is. Then he's got her hand in his, and he's pulling her inside and pushing the door closed behind them.
He pops open their bottle and pours them each a glass, and they're quiet. Nothing's funny. It's tense now, and it's just this side of awkward (the only reason it's not is because it's them).
"To...To our summer," he says, because it's safe and vague and he doesn't have to spell it all out for her to hear every word he's saying.
"Our summers," she corrects him. He smiles and nods and they clink their glasses together. She's had just enough of the stuff to think it's a good idea to answer the question she knows he's been wondering since a month ago in Paris. "Carter wants to be with me."
He feels as though he's been punched in the stomach. "Really?"
"Really? What does that mean?" she asks, giggling at his response.
"No, I just...Carter isn't really the type to be with someone, is he?"
"Apparently, he is," she says quietly.
"So...he wants that," she says. "He just...he looks at me sometimes like...like there are things he doesn't like about me or something." She watches him furrow his brow like that's the most ridiculous thing he's ever heard. She wants to kiss him for it. She's had too much to drink. "And..I dunno. There's something there, but..."
"Not enough," he supplies before taking a sip of his drink. Without knowing it, she's just described his feelings for every girl he's ever dated. Except her. But then, they never really dated.
"Yeah." She refills her glass, then his, and continues. "I can't be...Blair. Or whatever. Or you know...someone's mother. I can't...that's not me," she says. He wonders if she'd say the words if she hadn't had a few glasses of champagne. "I don't want to."
"You know, this is your problem," he says, and it sounds a lot meaner than he wants it to.
"You always try to be something. You try to be a different person with every guy you're with, and it's...it's stupid," he spits out. He ignores the tears in her eyes and the way she's pursing her lips in favour of finishing his point. "You should just be you, Serena."
"No one wants just me," she almost whispers, bowing her head.
"That's not true."
She looks over at him and he's all blue eyes and smiles and that bit of a dimple. Stubble on his cheek and that cologne she's always loved mixed in with his deodorant and it's all sexy and it's all Nate and she wants him more than she's wanted anything.
When she kisses him, it's not unexpected or rushed or any other negative connotation. It's perfect and lovely and she feels something. She only ever really feels (has ever felt) this something when she's with him, and she doesn't want to lose it, so she moves off her barstool and stands between his legs and lets him pull her as close to him as he can.
She's just undone the last button of his shirt when it happens.
He tells her he loves her.
She doesn't see him before she goes away to school.
She doesn't see him when she comes home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or weekends.
She doesn't see him at all during that first year away.
She doesn't tell anyone, but that's one of the reasons she transfers to Columbia.
She cites family and friends and missing the city and shopping and the life New York has. She says Rhode Island is too small, and all the socialites laugh at the line, and she hides it when she rolls her eyes.
But really, she misses Nate.
Just like he always does, Carter Baizen pops up out of nowhere, only this time she tells him that if he has information about her father, she doesn't want to hear it.
He tells her he just came for her.
She still hasn't talked to Nate, and she knows he knows she's home, and she can't bring herself to just call him. It doesn't feel right, and more importantly, she doesn't want to. She assumes she'll just run into him at a party or on the street and they'll talk. Or Blair will have had enough of them avoiding each other (no one knows why they are, though they have their theories) and she'll lock them in a room somewhere.
She finds herself thinking that Carter Baizen has shown up at the perfect time.
She treads lightly, fearful of anything too serious or too much or too anything. She kisses him and lets him kiss her, but she doesn't sleep with him and he respects that and she wonders if maybe it was him all along.
Then she sees Nate at a party, and the boy who's hand she's holding doesn't feel like the one; not even close.
Then Nate ignores her and turns his back on her and it hurts and she leaves with Carter and they have sex on her new bed in her new apartment and it's all new and it feels like it's good enough.
If she can't have Nate, it's good enough.
She thinks it's always been that way with any boy who wasn't Nate.
Always good enough.
Never quite right.
Nate has seen her around with Carter a few times. She holds the guy's hand and laughs and swings her blonde hair around and she looks happy.
He tries not to feel miserable about it.
He dated a girl during his freshman year. She was beautiful and smart and funny and free spirited and she drank black coffee and stayed up all night watching stupid movies with him and laughing about just about anything.
Chuck had to go and point out that the girl had blonde hair and blue eyes and was like Serena in a lot of ways.
Nate broke up with her the next day.
He doesn't want someone like Serena.
He wants Serena.
His heart breaks a little bit more every time he has to remind himself that she doesn't want him.
She runs into him on campus one morning after one of her classes. He knows, of course, that they go to the same school now, and he's kind of been hoping this would happen.
She's got two coffees in her hands. She's late to meet Carter, but she stops caring when Nate smiles at her. It's been far too long since he's done that.
"Hey," she says, turning her head to flip her hair over her shoulder.
"Hey." He glances at her books and smiles a little more. "Psychology?"
"Who knew, right?" she laughs. "I guess being screwed up helps understand everyone else." They both laugh, because that's what they're supposed to do, but it's not really funny and they both know that. "Still in Poli-Sci?"
"Yeah. Working on it," he says. "How are you?"
"I'm good. You?" She fucking hates how awkward this is. "Here." She extends the second coffee to him, and he takes it from her and looks at her questioningly. She just shrugs her shoulder. "Are you going to Chuck's opening?"
He's got another high-end club opening, and Blair has insisted that Serena show up, 'no matter what'. Serena knows that means that Blair will metaphorically, and maybe literally, kick her ass if she doesn't go. She suspects Nate's been told the same thing.
"Blair took me shopping for a suit," he says, and they both laugh again. That's so Blair.
She tries to remember the last time the four of them were all in the same place at the same time.
Her mom's wedding. That night. The night she regrets and wonders about and thinks maybe that was the biggest mistake she's ever made. That night.
She wonders if he still loves her.
"Well, look," he says, smiling that perfect smile at her and walking to a nearby bench. "Why don't we get the awkward catching up out of the way now, then we can have fun on Saturday."
She smiles at him and nods her head and says, "perfect," because he really is.
They spend the next two hours together, and he misses a lecture and her phone is vibrating in her bag, but she doesn't care. She's missed this and she's missed him and this is why she came back to New York in the first place.
And they have fun on Saturday. Carter left Tuesday for L.A., some deal to be done for something or another, and so he's missing the party, but Serena's the only one who cares.
Or rather, she's the only one who should care.
She spends the evening with her three oldest and maybe still closest friends, sipping champagne and reminiscing and feeling like she's 15 again and thinking these are her people and nothing's ever going to change that.
Carter walks through the door just after midnight, and she's the only one who doesn't see. She's got her back to him when he sneaks up behind her and wraps his arms around her. He doesn't acknowledge anyone else. He doesn't say hello, and she doesn't say goodbye, and Chuck, Blair and Nate are left alone and wondering when Carter fell in love with Serena, because he so is.
Chuck wonders what Serena sees in Carter Baizen anyway.
Blair wonders if Serena is in love with Carter, too.
Nate wonders why the hell this all still hurts so damn much, and maybe more importantly, if it'll ever stop hurting so damn much.
Nate's father dies in prison when he takes cocaine laced with arsenic. Or at least that's what the autopsy report says.
He hasn't talked to Serena in close to three months, but she's the one he calls. It's two thirty in the morning, and she was sleeping, but she doesn't need to hear any of the details before she tells him she'll be right over.
He wasn't even aware that she knows where he lives.
She shows up at his apartment in a pair of jeans that don't quite fit right but still look amazing, and a man's button down shirt. Her hair is pulled up into a ponytail and she's not wearing any makeup, but she looks perfect, and so Serena that the moment he opens the door and sees her is the moment he breaks down.
How in the world is there such perfection in some things, and such utter fucking destruction in others?
She throws her arms around him at the first sight of a tear and pushes him inside, kicking the door closed behind her.
"Nate," she whispers, because she doesn't know what to say. She might not have a father around to lose, but she sympathizes with him; her father might as well be dead.
They sit down on the sofa, and she's almost on top of him, but it doesn't matter because she'll do whatever he needs her to, and she's proven it by coming over in the first place. She wraps her arms around him and lets him cry and it breaks her heart because she feels helpless and she wishes there was more she could do.
"This is my shirt," he says after what might be an hour.
"We broke up," she tells him. She doesn't look at him; he's still got his face buried in her neck and her hair and her.
He doesn't say anything, because he's not sorry, and he isn't in any frame of mind to feel bad about not feeling sorry. He knows she wouldn't expect him to. He wonders if, had she been single at the time, she would have felt as unapologetic when he and Blair broke up. Or if maybe she felt that way anyway.
"What can I do?" she asks when he pulls away. There are tears on his cheeks and she's never seen him look so broken and all she wants to do is take it all away, and she's not sure it's her right to do so.
"Stay," is all he says. She smiles a little bit and they stand. He leads her to his bedroom and she kicks off her jeans before laying down with him.
"Nate," she whispers through the darkness. "I'm sorry."
He just pulls her close and he feels her tears fall onto his chest, and he realizes that she's lost someone too. Just like when Bart Bass died, just like when Harold moved to France, they lost their father figures. Those were the men, though some more than others, who raised them and influenced them, guided them. Now they're all gone. They've lost them all.
The only thing they never really do seem to lose is each other; the four of them, no matter what.
He kisses her forehead and she weaves her fingers through his and they fall asleep together like that, and when Chuck and Blair come over first thing in the morning after hearing the news, neither of them questions a thing.
The Captain always did tease Nate about his crush on Serena.
They all go to France that summer and stay with Blair's father on the vineyard. They drink too much wine and get too much sun and laugh too much and it's the four of them again, just like when they were younger, and it feels happy and free.
Serena notices the way women look at Nate, and he notices the way men look at her, and she'll tease him in French about the way his eyes look or how he takes his shirt off at the most opportune times, and Chuck tells them to 'get over themselves and have sex already.' Blair, no matter how crass the statement is, agrees with her boyfriend.
They're walking across the property one night, just the two of them, and Serena takes his hand. "Remember Paris?" she says.
"I didn't run that time," she notes. He turns and looks at her, and in the dusk in France with her hair wavy and her skin sunkissed, he thinks she's never looked more beautiful. She's barefoot and wearing a white summer dress, and she's all the things he loves about her, all wrapped up in one perfect image.
"What?" he asks in confusion.
"You said you loved me," she reminds him. "Or something like that."
"Something like that," he says, smiling and bumping her shoulder with his.
"I didn't run."
"You were drunk." Her jaw drops and she shoves him a little, but he doesn't let go of her hand, and he pulls her closer, wrapping both arms around her. "A lot's happened since then."
"I know," she whispers.
They're the only two who know that he's been seeing a girl in New York for a little over a month. He doesn't want to make a big deal, he'll say, and that's why he hasn't told Chuck and Blair. Serena wonders why he's told her.
"Could we screw this up any more?" he asks after a few minutes, and they both laugh, and she shakes her head.
She stops in her tracks and puts both her hands in his, looking up at him with blue eyes and a smile and he has no idea what's about to happen, but he thinks it might screw it up even more.
"I never loved anyone the way I loved you," she tells him sincerely.
He doesn't say anything. The way he kisses her says it all. He doesn't care that she's used the past tense; it doesn't matter. She's never really ever even referred to loving him at all, and he's glad she finally has. This is their moment, and he's going to take it.
They race like five year olds back to the house and quietly slip into Serena's bedroom, where they've been sleeping most of the time anyway, and for the very first time in her life, she feels like she knows what making love is.
This is them. This whole week has been them. Quiet, stolen moments and acting against their better judgment. Not-so-innocent kisses that they'll call innocent anyway. Holding hands when no one else can see, and his skin on hers and a lot of moments so perfectly wrong, wrong and perfect, that neither can take them back.
This is them. This is him, and he's hers.
Even when he's not; maybe especially then.
It took them 19 years to really get it together.
And one night to fuck it all up.
The summer isn't even over, and they're at each others' throats. She thinks they started things too quickly, no matter how long it took them to 'find one another'. They didn't really talk about things, they still haven't, and there are definitely conversations they should have had, but neither initiated.
She's laying on her bed in her apartment, flipping channels and sipping bubble tea, and Nate walks into the room. An hour late. Without calling to let her know he was going to be an hour late. Normally, this kind of thing really wouldn't bother her at all; Lord knows she hasn't always been the most reliable friend.
Nate has been. That's the problem.
He kisses her before he says a word, and she tastes whiskey on his lips, and she wonders where he's been. Without her asking, he tells her he's been out with Chuck.
She wonders, briefly, if that's the first lie he's ever told her, or if there are others. Because Chuck called her a half hour earlier to ask if he had left his Bvlgari sunglasses at her place. Nate wasn't with Chuck.
She's not the kind of girl to hound him about where he was and who he was with and why he tastes like cheap whiskey, so she doesn't say anything. But when he tries to kiss her again, she can't let herself let him, and he knows something's wrong.
"What's with you?" he asks. He realizes immediately that it's entirely the wrong thing to say.
"I just don't want to."
"Okay," he says, laughing in confusion, because he really doesn't know what else to do. He's had almost enough to drink to tell her she sounds like a four-year-old, but not quite. "Are you alright?"
"Fine," she says, but she's not looking at him, and she's flipping channels so fast that there's no way in the world she even knows what's on at all.
He thinks this has to be about them. How they've never said those three words again and they haven't talked about what they are or what they want to be or where they're going.
"Can you just tell me what's bothering you?"
"Nothing, Nate. It'd just be nice if...You know what, whatever."
"Serena." It's a sigh, and he's tired and frustrated, and he just wants whatever this is to be over so he can get some sleep. Staying to talk would be the smart thing. "You know what? I'm gonna go."
"Fine," she says quietly. "Go."
"What the hell?" he asks, unable to hide his anger as he stands and starts pacing the floor. She doesn't answer, and he shakes his head. She's nothing if not stubborn. He doesn't have the energy to wait it out. "I can't deal with this."
She laughs bitterly and shakes her head, almost like she was expecting it, and he wonders if she's been planning this, and if so, for how long.
"I'm not coming back." It's not a threat, it's a statement. It's the truth, and it's almost like he's just begging her to tell him to stay, or that he can't go until they talk.
Or that she loves him.
But her heart is too busy breaking and being confused to realize she can fix all this with a few simple words. If he wants to go, he should go, she thinks; that's what always happens. Admittedly, she's being a little dramatic, and she doesn't have the good sense not to say what she says next.
"Maybe I don't want to see you again," she says quietly.
They both know that maybe it's a lie, but it certainly feels true in that moment, and she won't take it back, and so he leaves without another word and he doesn't look back and he thinks that maybe he doesn't want to see her again either.
Chuck proposes to Blair the next day.
So they'll be seeing each other again.
Given that they go to the same school and live in neighbouring areas and have the same best friends, it's amazing how well they avoid each other.
Nate still has no fucking clue why they're doing it.
Blair and Serena talk wedding plans at Chuck's place while the guys have drinks at the bar nearby. Serena and Chuck go to their 'family only' dinners as required, every second week, and those are Nate and Blair's nights to watch movies at Blair's place, (almost) like they used to. Serena and Nate haven't had to so much as see each other in over a month.
Through it all, all Serena can think is that she's a psychology major. She should be able to communicate and avoid these problems and have a balanced, healthy relationship. But she's never really done anything by the book. Plus, it's always easier to tell someone else how to do something than to actually do it yourself.
But there's an engagement party, and while Blair has been relatively understanding and sympathetic (though she's yelled at the both of them, telling them to just get it together), she tells them that they both have to be there and they have to be civil and they have to wear exactly what she tells them to. They each know better than to argue.
Serena swears she's going to kill her best friend when both she and Nate are directed (unknowingly) to Barney's to pick up their pre-approved wardrobe choices for the party the following week.
Nate sighs and shakes his head and wonders if Blair will ever let it go.
Or if Serena will ever have the courage to hang on to it.
He knows he's blaming her entirely, but he's not ready to take responsibility for...whatever it was that happened.
She rolls her eyes, because it's obvious he's not going to talk to her, and she starts laughing. This is so familiar. Junior year of high school and her standing next to him and him not saying a word.
Well, two can play that game. She gets her dress in its Chloé garment bag, tosses it over her shoulder, and marches away from him with purpose. She's not sure who's ignoring who, why he'd be ignoring her, or why the hell it still breaks her heart a little every time he doesn't say he loves her. Which is definitely ironic, since basically every other time in her life that anyone's said those words to her, she's bolted, run scared, and occasionally fled the country. She thinks it might be some sort of karmic retribution that the one person she now wants to hear them from is the one person who won't just say them.
It really doesn't help that she's got a pregnancy test in her bag to take when she gets home. It's funny, she thinks, that he's the only person she can really see herself having a baby with, but she's so wishing for a negative result.
That isn't the result she gets.
It's been over a month since she and Nate stopped...whatever they were. Stop talking, stopped trying, stopped sleeping together, stopped everything. Just stopped.
She doesn't know who to call. Blair, she fears, might not understand. Chuck would, but he'd tell Blair. Nate is most certainly out of the question, at least for the time-being. Erik is busy and preoccupied, and she doesn't want to burden him with her mess. She's scrolling through her phone and she comes to one name and she thinks that he's always helped her before, and she's never really asked, and that if she asks this time, he'll probably do anything for her.
Because even when they broke up (because he said he loved her and she wasn't in love with him; not surprising) he told her to call him if she needed anything. He said he might be around; she knew he wouldn't leave New York and that if he did, he'd always come back. She lets herself think that she should have just stayed with him and been with him all along.
Carter comes over and she's wearing one of Nate's Columbia shirts. He heard, because he's in the right circles and knows the right people, that she and Nate were...something. It broke his heart, but he'd known all along that maybe Nate and Serena always had a little something that no one could name; just something beneath the surface that wouldn't ever really go away.
But he's the one here with her. She's called him, and he'll help her because he said he would, and he wants to, and he doesn't break any promises, not to Serena.
First thing's first, he takes her to a doctor; the best, most discrete doctor in the city. He tells her he'll wait for her and he'll be there when she comes out, and she smiles at him for the first time that day. As she's sitting in the exam room waiting for the doctor to step through the door and confirm that her entire life is about to change, she realizes that there's a part of her that really wishes it was Nate that was here with her, and that he was in the room and holding her hand and smiling and happy over the idea of them having a baby.
But he's not. He's not there and he doesn't know and maybe he wouldn't be happy, and she honestly can't remember the last time she saw him smile.
And so when the tests are all completed and she's told it'll take another day or so for the results, she steps back into the room where Carter is waiting for her, and she lets him take her home, and she asks him to stay. He stays.
The doctor calls the next day.
The home test was a false positive.
Serena cries in her bathroom in the night while Carter is sleeping. She really doesn't know what the tears are for.
Blair does an amazing job of making sure Serena and Nate don't have to be alone together. She doesn't understand it, and she doesn't love that her best friend won't tell her what's really going on, but when Blair sees that Carter is coming around again (he brings Serena a latté as the girls are getting ready) she knows that whatever this thing between Serena and Nate is, it's serious. Whatever has torn them apart is too big to have them simply kiss and make up.
If only she knew how small it really is.
But they go to the engagement party, and no one questions that they barely speak. Serena fusses over Blair and Chuck takes Nate out to smoke cigars with Erik and some of the guys he knows from work. Serena sets her jaw when he walks past, and it's all she can do not to cry. Blair notices, of course she does, and she insists she needs to use the washroom and Serena must come with her. Serena is just glad her best friend knows her well enough to get her away from that situation.
"S, can you please tell me what's going on?" Blair requests, loosely holding Serena's hand once they're in the luxurious washroom.
"I don't even know, Blair," Serena admits, shaking her head. "It was fine and then...all of a sudden it wasn't. It isn't. And now he can't even look at me, and it's...Carter's back. He's here. I don't know what to do."
"Just breathe, first," Blair says, making them both laugh a little bit. Serena inhales deeply as Blair puts some cold water on a paper towel. "Here." She dabs along Serena's hairline, and she doesn't care that this is her party and she's missing it. Serena is her best friend, and that is so much important than the rest of it. "Why don't you just talk to him?"
"I don't think he wants to talk to me," Serena says, her blue eyes shining with unshed tears.
"It's Nate. It's you and Nate," Blair says.
"That's why," Serena whispers, looking down at her hands. "We never really needed to talk. We just understood each other. I don't know why we don't anymore."
Blair watches as the tear rolls down Serena's cheek, and she doesn't think, no matter what they've been through, she's ever seen her best friend look so sad. Sure, she's looked upset and distraught and just plain terrified. But never, in all the years they've known one another, as Blair seen Serena like this.
Blair almost cries herself when she realizes that this is the look of heartbreak.
"It's okay," Blair says softly. "We'll figure it out."
Serena tries to smile, and she nods her head, but she knows it's not that easy. Blair's schemes and Chuck's resources won't help her now. It's too far gone, and it's killing her, because she's lost Nate, and she never thought she could. They'd drifted apart, but it never felt final.
It feels final now, and she doesn't know where to go from here.
But she stands up and fixes herself in the mirror, straightening out her dress and touching up her makeup before she and Blair walk back to the party, holding hands like they aren't twenty-something girls. Holding hands like they used to when Serena got lonely but didn't want to say the word, or when Blair got scared, but didn't want to say the word.
Serena sits next to Nate at the round table with the happy couple, and she smiles at all the right times, but never at Nate, and she laughs at all the right times, but not at anything he says.
Toasts are made and congratulations are given, and they clink crystal champagne glasses and get their pictures taken together. Someone asks for one of just the best man and maid of honour, and Nate smiles and Serena smiles, and they both pretend they don't still fit together perfectly, and as soon as the flash goes off, they let go of one another, each thinking that's what the other wants.
They're witness to an epic love story. A beautiful masterpiece that's good enough for the movies, just the way Blair always wanted.
It's an epic love story, and Serena wonders when she may get her own. She never wanted one, not really. Not until now. Happiness isn't contagious for Serena. She really wishes it was.
While Blair plans the perfect wedding and Chuck continues to allow Bass Industries to flourish, Serena rebuilds a relationship with Carter. He's good to her, and he's told her he loves her and that's what she wants. She thinks she might love him too, on some level or a few levels. Maybe enough levels.
It's not the same as it was before. She doesn't revere him because he's older, and he doesn't say anything that might scare her. He doesn't say he might want to marry her one day (he does) or that he made his home in New York so he could be with her (he did) or that he hates that she was ever with Nate in any way at all (he does).
In fact, they don't ever talk about Nate. They both need it to be that way, but neither knows it.
Nate is at Chuck's place one night when Blair comes home, talking on her phone and saying, 'You and Carter should come to dinner tomorrow night,' and he feels his breath stop. He knows who Blair is talking to, and deep down, he's known she's back with Carter again, but it doesn't make it hurt any less.
Because she shouldn't be with Carter. She never should have been with Carter. He wishes he could take it back to Paris. To take advantage of that moment where he was completely honest and she didn't run. He would have held onto her and said that he'd always loved her and he'd make her understand that she was the one he'd really always wanted.
The worst part is, he knows that if he had swallowed his pride that night at her place, or any night after, and just told her he'd do anything to fix it (because he would) she'd be his again and maybe always.
That night after he leaves Chuck's (soon to be Chuck and Blair's) he does something he hasn't done in a long time; since he was a teenager, really. He rolls a joint and smokes it on the balcony of his apartment, and he tries to tell himself that they aren't meant to be.
He sees her on campus one morning, the spring right before they graduate. She's wearing jeans and a loose white button down shirt, and her hair is down and a little messy, but held in place with a blue silk scarf. She's wearing a pair of flip flops and he lets himself smile, thinking of those summers they used to spend together and how she lived in dollar-store footwear instead of department store brands like all the other girls.
She sees him too, and she stops in her tracks, letting her friends walk ahead of her a bit as she looks at him, standing there on the other edge of the patch of grass in front of the building her class is in. He looks good, she decides, and there's a part of her that likes that he's alone, though that really doesn't mean much of anything.
He smiles at her, and she smiles at him and tucks a lock of that long hair behind her ear, and she waves subtly just before she skips off towards her friends. He thinks she looks so much younger than she is, for some reason, and it's not the flip-flops.
He wonders if he'll always see her that way. Innocent and carefree and beautiful.
And in some way or a lot of ways;
Maybe it ends (or starts, or resumes, or continues) at Chuck and Blair's wedding that August. Nate is best man and Serena is maid of honour, and it's almost exactly like they always thought it would be. She wears a pretty dress and a smile only he can tell is at least a little fake, and he's in a tailored tux and a ridiculous bow tie (it is Chuck's wedding after all) that matches the satin of Serena's gown.
He loves that they match.
But she and Carter just broke up - three weeks prior, actually, much to Blair's dismay, since it threw off the seating chart - and Nate has been single for most of the year. Blair told Nate the news, and the way she said it said more than the actual words. The way she said it said, 'this is your chance and trust me.'
Serena loops her arm through Nate's after the ceremony, and he smiles at her when he sees the tears in her eyes. She playfully tells him to shut up and squeezes his arm with hers, pulling him a little closer in the process. She realizes that suddenly her broken heart doesn't feel so broken anymore.
She realizes that it wasn't Carter who broke her heart at all.
Sure, he'd told her that now that she was done school, he was moving back to Dubai, and she should come with him, and why not? He'd called her childish when she simply said, 'because I don't want to'. He asked her if she loved him, and she hesitated only for a moment before she said yes. He didn't notice that hesitation. She did. She has a job lined up starting in September at a local practice while she works towards her Ph.D. She has Erik and her mom and Blair and Chuck and everyone and she wasn't leaving. He said he loved her, but that if the obvious choice wasn't for her to come with him, then maybe she didn't love him. She said that if his obvious choice wasn't to stay, then maybe he didn't love her.
She doesn't know which one of those things was the truth. Maybe neither or maybe both. All she knows is that she can't leave New York, and she misses Carter sometimes, but not as much as she'd miss everyone else if she'd gone with him. That probably says a lot.
She and Nate sit at the head table on opposite sides of the newlyweds. Chuck, never, ever one for subtleties, tells them that he's cleared out a room in the hotel (third door on the left, and he's not joking) if they want to grab a bottle of champagne and carry on their wedding tradition. Nate blushes just a little bit, and Serena just shakes her head and sips her drink. Of all the crazy things she's done and maybe regrets, nothing she's done with Nate has ever made the list.
Well, except for that night that messed it all up. That night that feels so long ago, but she remembers so well.
But something about this night, seeing their two best friends get married after four years together, makes it all feel different. They're not kids anymore, and it's time to either get it together, or to resign themselves to the fact that it's never going to happen. No matter what, they need to figure it out.
Even as they're sitting there, stealing glances at one another, Serena thinks that maybe they always had it together and just didn't know what to do with it, and that maybe it was always going to happen.
After all, being with him has always been so much easier than being without him.
Chuck and Blair take to the floor for their first dance, and Nate stands and holds his hand out expectantly. Serena places her hand in his palm and they both laugh when she curtsies for no reason. They're both very aware that everyone's watching them as they make their way to the floor and dance to the song from some movie Blair's always loved.
"So...hi," Serena says with a laugh. They haven't really had a chance to talk all day, and certainly not about anything important.
"Hi." He reaches up instinctively and brushes her hair from her face. "You look beautiful."
"You don't look so bad either," she says, and his blue eyes seem to sparkle at her a little more.
"How are you?" he asks. He knows she's about to tell him she's fine. "With...everything."
She smiles up at him. Part of her loves that he won't even say Carter's name. "I'm actually okay," she insists. "There's nothing like a ridiculously extravagant wedding to help you get over someone."
He laughs, but he doesn't really mean it. He has no idea what to say next, and he likes just standing there with her, both of them just shuffling their feet to the music, though they should probably be dancing the proper way. Neither of them has ever really cared about appearances. His hand rests just below the small of her back, and she likes it there. Her perpetually cold hand is sitting on the back of his neck, and when he pulls her closer, she drapes both arms over his shoulders and he slips both arms around her waist.
"I miss you, Nate." She doesn't know why she says it, but it's the truth, so she can't take it back.
"I miss you too," he says quietly.
She rests her cheek against his shoulder, right where it's always fit so comfortably, no matter what age they were or what process of growing up they were in. He was always her Natie, and he was always comforting, and it's no different now. A lot of the time, she didn't even know she needed comfort - like right now - and he was still the one to give it.
The song ends, and Blair and Chuck are kissing at the center of the dance floor, and Serena wants to kiss Nate and Nate wants to kiss Serena, but neither knows the other wants it, so she just pulls her arms from around him, and he does the same, and they walk back to the head table and refill their glasses.
Blair hisses, "talk to him," when she returns. Serena just rolls her eyes. Blair has always just gone after what she wanted and grabbed it. Things just happen to Serena.
But, Serena thinks, Blair is the one with rings on her finger and a smile on her face and the love of her life as her husband.
"Want to talk?" she asks abruptly, looking past Blair and Chuck to lock eyes with Nate. He just smiles and nods, and they both stand.
"Third door on the left," Chuck reminds them, smirking like he always does.
And that's where they end up, but not for the reason their friend had no doubt intended. It's not the kind of talk they expected, but they'll take it. He tells her he's going to be pre-law in the fall, and she smiles and nods her head like she knew he'd do it all along. She tells him about the job she's starting in a couple weeks and how she's going to get her Ph.D., and how she's so scared, and he tells her she'll be great; that she's always great. He tells her he moved again, and she laughs, because he's moved every year since he started school. This time is different, since he bought the place. Her eyes go wide and she says, 'that's so cool!', and he laughs. It's not cool, not really, but he loves that she thinks it is.
They're them again after only 25 minutes of talking, and it feels good. It feels right. It feels kind of amazing, actually.
She's felt for a while like she's getting things together. She has her own place, and she's a university graduate. She's got a great, albeit very strange family and amazing friends, and just about everything she always thought she wanted.
But something's missing.
Love, and how you should feel when you're in it.
The way she's only ever felt when she's been with him, in whatever ways she's been with him.
They step back into the ballroom where the reception's being held, and she's laughing that amazing laugh of hers after he tells her about moving and how he'd wanted to do it all himself, but that lasted all of an hour before he called for help. They sit closer together at the table and laugh and talk while Chuck and Blair make the rounds to talk to all their guests, and Serena hears her mother say that it's like someone 'flicked a switch' and Nate and Serena are back to being how they always were. Normally, she'd be annoyed by that kind of statement, but Serena finds herself loving it. It really is that easy.
The newlyweds are getting ready to leave, so everyone who's left - only the important people - makes their way outside.
The four of them stand in pairs, just like they used to in the beginning. The very beginning. Serena and Chuck. Blair and Nate.
After she's needlessly congratulated him for the hundredth time, Chuck pulls something from his pocket and slips it into Serena's hand.
"It's Nathaniel's room key," Chuck says. He says nothing more before walking away.
Blair hugs Nate, and he tells her that he's happy that she's happy, and she smiles as she pulls away. She pulls something from a hidden pocket on the hem of her dress (only Blair would have a hidden pocket in her wedding dress). She tucks something into the breast pocket of Nate's tuxedo jacket, and he looks at her in confusion.
"It's the key to her room," Blair says, smiling at Nate as she shakes his head. She kisses his cheek and gathers up her dress and heads off to her husband.
They watch and clap as Chuck and Blair get into the waiting limousine, but then Serena is talking to Erik, and Lily pulls Nate aside to ask if it's true he's going to be pre-law in the fall, and he kind of loses her in the crowd.
But when he fingers that key card sitting in the pocket of his jacket, he knows how he'll find her.
She manages to wave to him while Eleanor and Cyrus sweep her away to talk about something or another, but he doesn't see her again after that. He makes his way to the hotel shortly after saying his goodbyes, but he wishes she was with him.
He's kind of always been wishing that.
It's three in the morning, and she's in her satin nightgown, laying in her darkened room with that key card in her hand, wondering why she hasn't used it yet.
She's afraid, she realizes. She doesn't want to be. She gets up, pulls her matching satin robe over her shoulders and ties it loosely, and when she opens the door and looks down the hall, she realizes his room is just ten doors away from hers. Ten doors. It's either too far away or not far enough and she can't decide which.
She gets to the door marked 2174, and she's just about to insert that key when the door swings open, and there stands Nate in his grey pajama pants and faded blue Columbia tee shirt. He looks surprised to see her, and she looks surprised to see him, and she holds up her key to his room at the same moment he holds up his key to hers.
"Of course," he says with a laugh.
"Of course." He pulls the door open and she walks inside, and she grabs his hand as he lets the door close. "I guess we're on the same page again."
"What page are you on?" he asks as she leads him to the messy bed and sits down.
"The 'I'm sorry for messing everything up and I hope you maybe want to try again' page," she says, scrunching her nose adorably. She can't believe she just said all that, but he smiles at her and she doesn't care anymore.
"That's the one," he says softly.
"Really?" She says it like she's really surprised, and he weaves their fingers together.
"Serena, I don't even know what happened before," he says, shaking his head.
"We just weren't ready," she says rationally. "We thought we were, but we weren't."
He holds her hand a little tighter. That's the moment he realizes this was all inevitable. They were inevitable.
"And are we ready now?" he asks, treading lightly. He hopes that is indeed what she's implying.
She thinks for a moment about how to tell him that they are. She's only recently ended that other relationship, but that really has nothing to do with this one. She knows he'll bring it up if she doesn't tell him somehow that she's over it. She knows she's ready for him, and that she's never really felt this way before about it.
"I love you," she says.
It's the first time she's ever said those words that way. It's not past tense. She's not drunk, and she's not laughing it off, and there's no reason in the world for her to say them unless she means them the way he wants her to. She's proving to him that she's not going to run away from him or start stupid, mostly non-existent fights.
"I love you," he whispers, because it's true, and it's always been true, and it's probably always going to be true.
He kisses her, and all he can think is this is it. She says those very words out loud and his heart does something funny in his chest. He really doesn't need anymore proof than that.