A/N: This is vaguely AU. Everything mentioned regarding everyone's history is still canon, and most of what happens in the first two seasons generally applies (Maureen does not exist, however). It takes off in the summer after the N-JBC's senior year of high school. Basically, the goal in this was to explore N/S/T a little more in-depth, incorporating the dynamics that were revealed in 3x11-3x12.

The title, and quite a bit of the inspiration for this fic, comes from the song "Heart" by Stars. Many, many thanks to DaeDreemer for reading this over for me and being excited about it. Reviews are love!

make up words to songs you used to know

--

Driving straight into the sunset, she props her feet, multi-coloured chipping toenail polish and all, up against the dashboard, throws her head back and laughs. Sitting in the passenger seat, arms flung over her head, eyes closed, skirt spilling over her thighs and sliding upward, she lets the wind soothe her warm skin and flirt with her hair, tries and fails to grasp it in her fists.

Nate watches her instead of the road.

--

He scuffs the toe of his expensive tennis shoes against the ground as she stumbles out of the convertible, greets all his relatives exuberantly, because it's summer and she's shining.

She doesn't miss the knowing looks that pass over her head as she follows Nate's second-cousin inside for dinner as dusk settles over the property, but she pretends to.

--

Dinner with the van der Bilts.

(She giggles into her champagne because she thinks they should make it a reality show.)

Tripp smiles at her as if he can read her mind, nudges her shoulder with his own, and she laughs aloud, one hand flying up to cover her mouth. She leans into him a bit, lets her tanned arm rest against the sleeve of his white button-down.

Nate stabs a carrot with his fork hard enough to garner a look of disapproval from his aunt.

(Voted off the island.)

--

"I want to swim," she declares, hands planted on her hips, after she loses her fifth game of croquet to a crew of well-dressed, blonde-headed boys.

Nate laughs at her stubborn expression, goads his little cousins to chase her into the house, and she smiles at him across the sun-kissed lawn, squeals obligingly as she darts inside just shy of their reaching hands, catches him watching her until she's indoors, out of his sight.

--

They walk to the beach together and he reveals that he snuck two chocolate chip cookies out of the kitchen, and she feels her heart flip over.

"You won't ever grow up, will you?" she asks him, but wistfully, like she doesn't really want him too.

"I won't if you won't," he jokes, winks at her and gives her a cookie, makes a deal that has the echoes of the childhood promises that she genuinely though they'd keep.

Somewhere along the walk, her flip-flops kicking up dust and the sun glittering through tree branches, her hand finds its way into his and it feels good.

--

Nate attacks her from out of her visual field when they're in the salty water, sneaking up on her from behind and scooping her up, dunking them both beneath the surface.

When they resurface for air he still hasn't let her go, his hands lingering on all the skin laid bare by her bikini. "Natie!" she protests indignantly, but he's grinning too big for her to frown. So she giggles, fights her way out of his grasp and splashes water at him as punishment, smiles softly at him before she turns and swims away.

Tripp watches from the shore.

--

She treats the cottage (an ironic term, as it's a mansion) like her own home, which is how she ends up downstairs in the kitchen very early in the morning in one of Nate's t-shirts making herself some decaffeinated coffee because she's too restless to sleep.

Tripp finds her there, coming in so late from the party he attended last night that he's home early.

"Hi," she says, and her cheeks are pink and she's tugging at the hem of the Rolling Stones t-shirt she's got on.

"Should've known," he says by way of reply, slouching casually onto one of the stools that surround the island in the kitchen. "You were always awake even before the help."

Serena lets go of her t-shirt, turns around and plucks another mug from the cupboard, fills it up and slides it across the island toward him. "You remember that?" She laughs, tucks her hair, a tangled mess from the midnight swim she took with Nate, back behind her ears. "I was a baby then."

He smiles at her with his eyes over the rim of his mug as he takes a long drink.

"Maybe. But you've grown up beautifully."

--

Dinner with the van der Bilts.

"Episode forty-two. Season finale," she murmurs dramatically against the shell of Nate's ear like she's Mr. Moviefone, and he grabs her hand, his laughter landing on her skin as her kisses her knuckles.

It's a garden party, for this last night that the family is all together, and it is all the more formal and yet more relaxed all at once. Serena's hair is gathered up onto her head intricately, sparkling clips holding every strand perfectly, but she's wearing her bikini under her Grecian dress.

There are lights twinkling in the trees and a string quartet and enough political blood on the grounds to necessitate a few security guards lurking around the periphery of the property, and on nights like these she fully feels like the spoiled little rich girl she spends so much time trying not to be.

She is there as Nate's friend. That's how she's been introduced all summer long (Serena van der Woodsen, Nathaniel's good friend) and that's how they both want it to be. It's the way it is, even if she's spent the past forty-two days sneaking into his bedroom on intermittent nights and falling into lazy afternoon naps on the lawn with her head on his lap and his hands in her hair. As far as technicalities go, they have declared this a friendship, even if all signs point to it being much more.

So she supposes, technically, there is nothing stopping Tripp from walking over, bowing jokingly, and extending his hand to her.

"May I have this dance?"

And there is nothing, technically, besides the barely perceptible way Nate's grip on her fingers tightens, to stop her from accepting, letting him whirl her away.

--

Her heart feels like a butterfly in her chest the next morning when he finds her out on one of the balconies, two mugs of coffee in his hands.

"Enjoy your summer?"

She nods, pushing the sleeves of her flimsy dressing gown up on her arms (she slept in her own pyjamas, and her own bed, for once) before she cups the mug in her hands, enjoying the feeling of the warmth spreading through her fingers.

"It's been…" She sees a blur as she thinks back on it, blues and yellows and greens, sugary lemonade and too many croquet games, fancy dresses and pleasantries, sunsets and dewy mornings and sandcastles on the beach. It's airy in her mind, a breeze of thoughts that consist of nothing tangible, nothing worthwhile.

Except maybe Nate's smile.

Her own lips curve upward as she sips her coffee – lots of sugar and no cream, just how she likes it.

"…um, it's been wonderful," she says, tripping – tripping – over her words in surprise at the familiar taste in her mouth and the way he seems to understand her, right down to her coffee preferences.

--

Serena van der Woodsen's plans for the early autumn consist of classes at Columbia, maybe, if she can fit them in between snagging shopping time with Blair when she's home from Yale, afternoons of iced coffee and lattes in Sheep Meadow, and sleeping until noon under Nate's sky blue duvet.

The day before school officially starts her room is a disaster zone (Eric and Chuck put caution: do not cross this line tape up over her door as a joke), books and clothes everywhere. Panic is settling in, making her restless. She feels secure. She has a future – she has a plan.

But she's never been very good at those.

She's sitting in the middle of her mess, lazily contemplating sorting it out, when the maid brings her a bouquet of flowers with a note card poking out.

She pulls off her orientation t-shirt emblazoned with her dormitory's name (John Jay, in bright letters) and cut-offs, exchanging them for a summery dress and espadrilles, her frown during into a coy smile as steps out onto the bustling sidewalk and hails a cab.

--

It starts with coffee.

Coffee and chocolate-filled croissants (her favourite), laughter and low lighting, the familiar feeling of the unknown, the excitement of it pulling at her like her oldest, most reliable friend.

"You've got beautiful eyes," he tells her across their small table, like he's been waiting to say it since they danced on that humid summer night, tiny lights captured by her blue eyes.

She blushes. He touches her cheek.

He drops her off at home, tucks her hair behind her ear, and kisses her chastely in her doorway.

--

Nate goes to Columbia alone.

--

She fights with Lily, loud voices and ugly words and years of the abandonment she feels slipping into their argument.

(You did it to me over and over again; how dare you accuse me of doing it to you?)

She leaves her home and her childhood behind, taking just the clothes she's got on and her wallet, sits on steps of the Met until the sun begins its descent and she can't ignore the way her eyes ache anymore.

"Drinks, my treat," she suggests, wearing her sunshine smile when he opens his hotel room door, trying to disguise the way her voice quavers.

Tripp looks her up and down slowly, tilts his head to indicate she should come in.

"My treat," he corrects her gently.

--

Blair brings her clothes from home and a disappointed frown.

"What are you throwing away?" she whispers, and Serena shrugs off the concern with a thank you kiss to Blair's cheek and a closed door.

--

Evenings blur. Tripp pours champagne and she curls her feet under her on the sofa as they talk. Nights blur. His hands learn their way over her body and she gets accustomed to falling asleep on pillows that smell like his cologne. Days blur. She sleeps late, usually wakes up alone, reads the paper.

Days, evenings, nights blur into weeks. Soon enough they will become months.

Time flies but she forgets to enjoy it.

--

Serena and Nate remain friends.

(Technically, it's all they ever were, all they'll ever be.)

There is one week of awkwardness, but then she calls and he answers on the second ring and she can hear his smile right away, it hits her with such impact that her fingertips tingle.

He tells her about Columbia and jokes about the people in his dorm and his profs and she feels her world focus around him again. It's the same, and yet it's not, so much that it hurts. There is something off in his eyes when he looks at her, something that makes her want to call take backs! She didn't mean it, wants to reverse it with a snap of her fingers and a smile.

But they're not little kids anymore.

--

Autumn falls into winter, leaves on the ground covered by snowflakes, frost painting the windows every morning.

She meets Nate in Central Park, arrives a little late and finds him wearing a blue toque and laughing with some classmates from Columbia. The girls gaze at him adoringly and the guys look like real friends, the kind he deserves to have. Nate looks happy.

But then his eyes land on her and his face, it – it reaches this whole other level of joy, in his eyes and his smile, and it takes Serena's breath away.

He jogs over to her, wraps her up in a hug. "Hot chocolate?" he proposes, promising: "Lots of mini marshmallows."

She takes a deep breath and pretends that the tears in her eyes are just because of the cold. "Maybe…maybe we need to see a little less of each other."

A storm crosses his sunshiny face, his eyes darker and cloudy, and she has to fight with herself to keep going. He deserves his happiness.

(Without her.)

"So, I'll just…I'll go, okay?"

She smiles, big and bright and almost genuine, just before she playfully tugs his toque down to cover his eyes.

A kiss, the quick press of her lips against his.

"See ya, Natie," she says, and leaves before he can adjust his hat so his last memory of this moment will be of her smile.

--

She always liked to live without absolutes. She liked to let life pick her up, whisk her way, carry her off until she had to fight to be set free.

Now she lets it pass her by. She spends days in bed, lounging around in silky slips, staring at the smooth walls.

--

The day Blair's first-term exams end Serena meets her best friend and her step-brother for drinks at The Empire Hotel, Chuck's first and most profitable business venture.

She finds herself watching them instead of really investing in the conversation. (She has nothing to say, no news to report, so she simply listens to them speak: their laughter, the harmony of their voices, their stories.)

They look so put together, eyes bright and chins held high, tie and skirt in matching shades of a royal kind of purple. Chuck rests his hand atop Blair's on the table as his girlfriend speaks and Serena hears a future in her lilting tone.

They look like they could conquer this city, this country, this whole world, if they so desire.

Blair's concern has spanned Serena's entire life (what is you is me) and has slipped unfailingly into their hesitant conversations over the past four months. Slowly, Blair has let go, focused her attention on her own happiness. Serena knows she could pull that concern back if she wanted to, and have it until she sorted her life out again, along every step of the way. But they've drifted so far apart as they've entered adulthood that Serena doesn't quite know how to reach out anymore.

And what's more, she still isn't fully convinced that she wants to.

So smiles and nods and drinks three martinis.

--

Chuck's concern – something that surfaced back when they were party pals and men used to look at her like property, something that was refined when somewhere along the line he became her brother – rears its head in the hotel lobby, when Blair has left to use the restroom.

"Leave him, Serena. Right now. You can live here," he tells her, eyes burning into her own, answering questions before she can voice them. "Call admissions at Columbia. Tell Blair right now when she comes back, she'll help you. Tell your mother, tell your brother." He exhales. "Damn it, Serena, tell Nathaniel."

She can't look at him. She stares off into space and her eyes land on a discarded newspaper on one of the leather couches; she sees her own photograph on page six, her smile dazzling.

"You're more than this," Chuck says, his voice gruff, eyeing her dress, the latest purchase made on one of Tripp's credit cards, disdainfully.

"I tried to be," she acknowledges him slowly, finally letting herself look at his eyes. "But you can only fight a losing battle for so long, right?" Blowing out her breath, she admits, sudden tears stinging her eyes: "I'm tired, I just want to…"

He looks at her, intensely, waiting for whatever she's going to say so that he can rebuke it, and she finds him having such faith in her both touching and exhausting.

"You won your battle," she comments, tries to laugh and picks at her nails. He's proven himself so well, become someone so wonderful. I'm Chuck Bass has started to really mean something. If she were the girl she was last summer, she'd giggle and tease him about it, kiss his cheek and calls him bro and declare her happiness exuberantly.

Instead, she tears at her nail so harshly she breaks skin, blood pooling in a teardrop shape; bright, angry red.

"I'm proud of you, Chuck," she says, and means it.

--

Sitting with her legs curled up underneath her in the armchair by the hotel room's large window, she watches New Yorkers bustle around on the streets. She smiles wistfully, feels far-removed from Christmas despite the fact that it's only ten days away, sitting up here above it all wrapped up in her robe.

Her life is quiet. Painfully so. Tripp is working at the mayor's office: long hours, mild stress. He comes home – if you can call their (his) hotel room that – every night and insists, over drinks or late-night TV or kisses pressed to her cheek once they're tangled in the sheets, that she is the very best part of his day, the part that makes him feel alive.

She doesn't understand how that could possibly be, because she lost her vivacity somewhere in the past few months.

But she appreciates it, when she watches him sleep, moonbeams on his face. It's nice to know that someone still sees that life she had about her, that his eyes can reach to wherever it has disappeared within her.

--

Nate finds her on the day of Christmas Eve. Knocks on the hotel room door to the tune of shave and a haircut and she smiles sleepily as she pads over in her bare feet to open it; she knocks back: two bits.

"What're you doing here?" she asks him, inhaling deeply. He's brought the winter chill inside within him and it fills her lungs until they sting.

"I hate not seeing you," he says with a bluntness she doesn't recognize but a smile she does, a smile that stretches into a grin, a smile that sees all the liveliness she's ever had (and loves it).

--

Holiday spirit engulfs her the second she steps outside, having thrown on sweatpants under her short nightgown and a winter coat on top. It's snowing lightly, pretty, tiny flakes dusting Nate's deep blue jacket noticeably and dampening her hair.

They walk through Central Park, quiet as they absorb one another's company for the first time in weeks. She wants to know how he is, what's happening in his life, what motivated him to seek her out today.

Before she can even begin to formulate a question in her mind, Nate gives her elbow a squeeze with his mitten-encased hand. She's barely turned toward him when a snowball flies straight at her face, splashing and splitting right across her nose.

Spluttering, she wipes off her face and blinks at him, sees so much hope in his eyes that she lets out a breathless laugh.

"Oh," she says, and knows that her eyes are probably as shiny as his are. "It's on."

--

She finds herself partially in a snow bank, the weight of his body pinning her down, and she's revelling in their silliness, the warmth of him, the feel of their laughter –

And he kisses her. It isn't the typical Nate kiss she's grown accustomed to in her life, sweet and just a little more emotional than they want to allow themselves, the kind that makes her instantly greedy for more. It's hard, almost rough in its insistence, full of longing; it says choose me.

When he pulls away, putting the slightest bit of space between them, he's breathing hard and she's crying for the first time in months, feeling as though she might break despite the gentle way he pushes her snow-soaked hair from her face.

"Let me take you home, S," he murmurs, something tender in his voice reaching somewhere deep inside her as he tugs her to her feet. He pulls her close and she braces her arms against his chest, won't let herself fall into him.

He does not mean a hotel room under William van der Bilt's name. He means home, whatever versions she's got, the penthouse of the Palace hotel, or maybe even his Columbia dorm room.

--

Tripp is waiting in the hotel lobby; he gathers her up in a hug, laughs at the state of her clothes, and tells her to go change.

From his pocket, he pulls out tickets to Paris, her Christmas present.

--

The private jet takes off on Christmas morning, just a moment or two after midnight, and Serena traces out the sparkling city lights on the chilly pane of the window with her fingertip, squinting to see if she can make out any recognizable buildings.

(She kissed Nate back.)

--

Spring takes its time, evolving from winter at a slow, slow pace.

Tripp buys a loft apartment and Serena tags along to real estate appointments, picks the one that's got the most windows, the most air. Rebelling against the icy weather, she wears her short summer dresses and flip-flops inside. She decorates, paints, keeps herself busy trying to make it a home.

He laughs when he comes home to her, loosening his tie, to find her dress splattered with pale green paint or her nose dusted with flour from a failed attempt at cooking.

"You're perfect," he tells her as he pours them red wine, pries paintbrushes and spatulas out of her hands and steers her toward the formal leather furniture his aunt sent as a gift.

No one's ever said that to her before, and she feels the discomfort of it in her throat as she swallows.

It's a lie.

--

Boredom leads her to shopping, but she is tired of pretty, flirty dresses and negligee. She buys new jeans and wears them right out of the store, wanders around for something else to buy.

She ends up in a photography store and leaves with a professional camera.

Maybe she is her mother's daughter, after all.

--

The sun peaks out and the frost finally disappears during the two weeks Blair and Nate are writing their first-year finals.

Blair calls, and her voice sounds different, older and further away, but the sentiment is the same as always. "Come out with us tonight," she says, words that are soft but firm. It's not a plea or an order; it's more along the lines of a request.

She sits on the couch, legs draped over the back, her body on the cushions so that she's upside down. She tips her head back and lets all the blood rush to her head.

"I don't know, B."

Blair exhales on the other end of the line. "We want to celebrate, Serena. It won't be the same if you aren't there."

She closes her eyes as if that will prevent the onset of her headache. "It hasn't been the same for a while now."

--

She ends up going to dinner with Tripp that night, drinks afterward in the lobby of the Plaza, celebrating his promotion at the mayor's office, the take-off of his political career.

Most of the evening she spends smiling prettily, staring into her martini glass – which, thanks to the attentive bartender and Tripp's tendency to tip generously, is never empty – and thinking of her friends, probably not all that far away but seeming like they're separated from her by a whole world. They could be down the street, or in a limo only blocks from here, but she feels so firmly separated from them, and it's like a crack in her heart.

It feels like boarding school all over again.

It's worse this time, because then they were kids, stupid kids who were maybe in love, and she'd known… She'd known she could run away and fight for the right to be included again once she was back, and she'd known there would be yelling and crying, guilt and regret, and that everything would shatter. But she'd also known that if she apologized and meant it, and loved them all as fiercely as she always had, they'd pick it all up and piece each other back together and make it alright.

(And she'd torn it all apart, she knows, but only because she needed it all to break in order to reassemble it. She'd thought for a split second that it was worth it, that he was worth it, that it would be okay if in the end if resulted in her and Nate, Serena and Nate, together.)

She blinks quickly, but not quickly enough, and a tear slips out of her eyes, makes it path slowly down her cheek.

A hand touches her arm and she glances up, the words already on her tongue to tell Tripp not to worry (it's just the angle of the lights, stinging her eyes, that's all), but she's struck speechless when she sees it's not her boyfriend (is he her boyfriend?). Instead, it's a middle-aged man who's looking at her, completely enthralled, and holding out a business card.

--

She's been pursued by modeling agencies before, and she's always shrugged them off and waved them away, because her whole life was a fight to be seen as something more than a pretty girl.

They title a perfume after her (Serena's Tears) and suddenly she's on billboards and the sides of buses, and she's getting phone calls with people she's heard of but never met, and there's a lot more money in her bank account.

It seems like it only takes days for she and Tripp to fall into an entirely new routine, one that involves less kissing and far less conversation, one that has him getting up just as she's coming home and most of their communication happening via text messages.

Coming home at three in the morning with her hair teased and too much makeup on, she sits in the living room that she painted pale green and stares at the door leading to the bedroom, and finds herself wishing for home, because this is not it.

--

In the fall, the political world picks up its pace, a script for a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany's find its way into Serena's hands, and her little brother calls her.

"I see your picture on the side of the bus everyday on the way to school," he says. "You look really pretty."

A lump rises in her throat. "Thanks, E."

"You're famous!" he enthuses, making conversation, because she can't, and something about the tone of his voice makes her heart hurt.

Serena nods, even though he can't see her; sucks in her breath and manages to force some joy into her voice when she says, "Somebody even sent me a movie script! It's called Breakfast at Fred's. It's modern-day Tiffany's, or something." She hasn't read it yet.

Eric laughs, the sound bubbling through the phone, a distinct reminder of the way she used to laugh, too. "That's awesome! Did you tell Blair about it? She'd love that."

"I don't…" She breathes out slowly, says softly, "We don't talk all that much anymore."

All evidence of cheer dissipates from his words, and he replies in the same blank, cautious tone she's using: "Oh. Well, I hope…you get the part."

Guilt hits her like a slap across the face. "Eric, I –"

"It's okay. I'm okay." There is a pause, an unasked, are you? "I just don't…I don't understand what you needed that we couldn't give you, I guess."

Serena chokes on what should be a laugh but is probably a sob. "E, promise me something? Finish school, with honours, and go…go to Yale, or Princeton, and major in…in, I don't know, psychology or something, and make sure you have fun, but…just make sure you have the life you deserve to have, okay? You deserve it all."

His words reach out to her through the phone, like a hug he's longing to give her. "I promise, Serena."

That was always the plan. She was the screw-up and he was the good kid, and she hates that her messes always forced him to fall into that role.

"I'm okay," Eric repeats, forgiving her like it's the most natural thing in the world.

--

She does audition for the movie; she's not sure why. And she gets the part (she really doesn't know why).

Tripp argues about it with her over dinner, red wine and some dish with a pretentious French name. It's the first real fight they've ever had, and somehow, in a way that she might've found comedic in another time and place, it disappoints her.

It's not the kind of fight Serena van der Woodsen has; those include yelling and arms in the air and throwing pillows and breaking out her bitchface. This is a classic, quiet UES argument, hushed and heated voices across their table and smiles in case anyone happens to be watching them.

--

She's curled up in bed feeling much younger than she is later that night, facing away from the door, when he gets in beside her and curls an arm around her body, despite the fact that she doesn't move and keeps her eyes shut.

"You have to understand, Serena," Tripp murmurs against her cheek. "That I have a political reputation, and that you're tied to me, so you're tied to my reputation."

Something about those words wounds her, and she twists in his arms to look at his face. "I know that. I'm not a child. But I'm my own person – I'm not going to embarrass you, because I don't want to embarrass myself, but I'm going to do what I want."

She bites her lip and searches his face.

Why am I not good enough for you? Why am I not good for anybody?

--

Movies, she learns, for all their romance, are very technical productions. (She thinks Blair would be disappointed; thinks she herself should have known this fact all along.)

Somewhere along the production of the movie, she learns to rein in her emotions when she needs to, and even more importantly, how to produce new ones that mean nothing deep down but look very real on the surface; emotions she can call upon in the blink of an eye, with a camera a foot away from her face.

By the time of the premiere; low-cut dress and cameras flashing and Tripp's hand resting comfortably at the small of her back, the smile on her lips seems strange, and she realizes it's not real – it's yet another thing she's learned to make up.

--

The movie is a box-office hit, so much so that she gets a call about a sequel.

No one's more surprised than she herself is.

--

The Christmas during which Serena should be on break from her second year of college, learning deep things, she is instead living a life of dinners with the city's important political figures and days spent dressed up in couture and friends who tell lies about her the second she turns her back, which feels a lot like a life of nothing at all.

Tripp takes her with him to Christmas break with the van der Bilts, and she is overwhelmed when they arrive by air-kisses from his relatives who tell her she's so beautiful and she must be proud of that movie she made.

They smile, and she smiles, and Tripp smiles.

(And Serena does not let her gaze wander, does not look for Nate.)

--

Christmas Eve, back from the small church the van der Bilt family has been attending on Christmas and Easter for decades, she sits on the couch. She is holding a frothy glass of eggnog, made by one of Nate's uncles with the assistance of the cook and packed with no much liquor that her head already feels fuzzy.

Tripp leans so close that she can feel his breath against her cheek, and it makes her shiver like she used to – it's just the eggnog, she tells herself.

"Dinner with the van der Bilts," he whispers mysteriously, and she can hear the smile in his voice.

And she giggles, because he remembered, and it gives her that same thrill she first had when they were beginning. When she first got involved with him, her life now is nothing what she ever would have imagined or wanted it to be; maybe that's okay, though, if beneath it all they still remember, if he remembers.

"I was wrong about the movie," he murmurs to her. "You looked beautiful, and you were…you were incredible. I'm proud of you."

She tilts her head toward his, offers a smile back. They're in a room full of people, his family, but she feels the same sense of quiet, comfortable confidence between them that she's been craving for months.

"I'm proud of you too," she whispers back. And then, spurred by the look in his eyes and the alcohol in her system, she grabs hold of his tie and tugs him just a bit closer to her, close enough for a kiss.

--

It feels like he's betrayed that quiet moment of confidentiality between them on Christmas Eve when he gets down on one knee in front of her on Christmas afternoon.

He speaks sweetly (she catches the sentiment, but not the words), and looks solely at her (earnestly, but confidently), and she can only gape back at him for a moment, trying to convey her panic through her eyes.

But then she remembers who she is, where she is, this future that she never meant to commit herself (at the time she'd chosen it, she'd been too afraid to consider her future at all) and she presses her lips closed, looks at a spot on the wall just behind his head.

And she cries, and nods yes because she can't say it out loud. Tripp smiles, his family claps and coos, and Serena finds herself wearing the Cornelius van der Bilt diamond ring that her best friend used to dream about.

He kisses her, cups her chin in her hand and presses his lips chastely to hers.

(And the second they break apart Serena's eyes do lot fly automatically to where Nate is standing near the back of the room, and she does not feel the way the shattered look in his eyes is like a hammer to her own heart.)

--

"You're my fiancée," he says.

She bites her tongue to keep from saying that she knows, that she could never forgot, not with the weight of this ostentatious ring on her finger reminding her every single second.

"I don't see how that pertains to the issue," she finally says, her voice cool, a far cry from the way she used to speak, warm and airy, like she might burst into laughter at any second.

He seems alarmed by her tone, but his eyes narrow, and it, like so many other things, is forgotten. "You're going to be my wife, Serena. You cannot be kissing other men."

"It's a movie!" she explodes.

Tripp steps closer to her, until they are face to face with only a breath between them. "Don't play naïve, Serena. I know you've always done what you wanted, and admittedly, there was a time I really admired that about you. But I'm in the public eye; my last name means something. I know you never acknowledged what yours did, but when you become my wife you're going to have to understand the significance of mine."

She grits her teeth. "It's acting."

His eyebrows fly up, almost condescendingly. "Would you like to have that debate with the Buckleys?"

Catching his eye, she whispers: "You said you were proud of me. For the movie."

"I was." At her sharp intake of breath, he waves a hand in the air, rolls his eyes and lazily corrects himself: "I am. But you need to realize that morality, not our feelings about each other, is what's at issue here."

She takes a step back and crosses his arms. "What are you saying? That I'm a whore?" she spits back.

"No," he says evenly, in his press-conference voice, "I'm saying you need to find a job that makes you look less like one."

--

So Serena steps behind the camera, calls up the photographers she worked with as a model, digs out that camera she bought downtown that one day. She spends a lot of her time in Central Park, taking photographers of nature and people and city life; she gets taken under the wing of her favourite photographer, the one who shot her perfume add.

He adores her, and teaches her well, and she admires him – but one day when they're working late, deliberating over pictures for a modeling campaign that she declined a place in, he smiles at her and says, "You know, I envy you, Serena."

She stares at him with big blue eyes, tries to figure out what, in her life, is enviable at all.

"Don't look at me like that! Successful, selective movie career, amazing modeling gigs; wealthy, good-lookin' fiancé who doesn't mind you staying here late; an Upper East Side upbringing…all of that, and you're how old?"

Serena pretends to be comparing two photographs. She does not say this is everything I never really wanted.

She says, "Twenty."

--

One day in Central Park she says Nate, playing a lazy game of soccer with some friends, wearing a Columbia hoodie and mittens with his jeans.

She takes a picture not with her camera but with her mind, his body animated with energy and his blue eyes bright, the image preserved in her memory.

--

A single appointment with the florist is all it takes to reveal to Serena that she has no sweet clue how to plan a society wedding.

She calls Blair.

And they fall back into their friendship like they do every single time, laughing over ridiculous invitation designs and the snobs Serena's obliged to have on her guest list, but it's different. It's different, because Blair is carefully constructing her life and her future and is thus far satisfied with the results; Serena is floundering, meandering.

She wonders if she even knows how to grow up.

--

While Tripp stares tiredly at policy briefs at their kitchen table, Serena carefully addresses wedding invitations with a calligraphy pen. Everyone who's anyone is society is going to receive a thick, creamy envelope with an RSVP card inside. She puts special effort into Chuck and Blair's, and Eric's, and a couple for her model friends. She addresses one to her mother and her step-father.

"Nate?"

Tripp looks up at her, vaguely irritated. "What about him?"

She blushes; she hadn't meant to say anything aloud, but the sight of his name on the guest list had shocked her.

"He's my cousin. He's your friend."

"Yeah," she whispers, her lips quirking up into a silly-me kind of smile, but her lips won't stay there. Her chest is tight and her cheeks feel hot; something about his name, neatly typed by Tripp's secretary onto eight-and-a-half-by-eleven paper, makes everything hurt, because this is what he's been reduced to in her life: little letters on a piece of paper.

Tripp is no longer paying attention to his policy briefs. "He is your friend, isn't he?"

"We grew up together," she tells him faintly, feels her face hardening. "You know that."

"Alright. So, you'd want him at our wedding. I want him at our wedding. That's why he's on the guest list."

She drops her pen, presses a hand to her eyes. She's not going to cry, not under the pressure of his gaze, which is only gaining intensity.

"Is there something you want to tell me, Serena?"

Her hand falls away from her face, back to the table, curled into a fist with her fingernails biting into her skin. She looks at her fiancé with clear, dry eyes, and lifts one of her eyebrows. "No."

Tripp reaches for her hand, uncurls it in his grasp. "We'll have to move," he tells her in a tone meant to put this to rest, meant to coax a smile from her. "We'll get a house, lots more bedrooms, hire staff…you could even have a darkroom."

She swallows.

"Sounds perfect."

--

Blair cries the first time she sees Serena in a wedding dress, even though the first one she tries on is this disastrous, poufy thing; simply because she's Serena's best friend and she loves her, so Serena loves her for it even if she thinks she looks like a giant marshmallow.

It's the third one she puts on that causes her own emotional breakdown; pretty, light fabric that hugs her body in all the right places and trails off into a romantic-looking train.

"Is this the dress?" her bridal consultant asks happily, noting the tears in Serena's eyes once she's carried her train on the way out of her dressing room to the main part of the small, exclusive store, where Blair is sitting patiently on a couch.

Blair gets to her feet and touches the fabric of the skirt, glancing up at Serena. "I knew Vera Wang was the right choice. S, you look so – "

But Serena is shaking her head, gasping for breath, closing her eyes against a rush of dizziness. Her heart is pounding so hard it hurts.

It's a blur, as Blair reaches for her, pulls her toward the couch with it's soft, squishy cushions, and unclips some of the pins holding Serena's dress together at the back. She must say something to the consultant, because all of a sudden they're alone and Blair is titling Serena's face up with a hand to her chin and ordering, "Breathe. Not just into your lungs, deep down, to your stomach."

She does as instructed, and the first couple times her breath catches in her throat, but then she's okay and her heartbeat isn't echoing in her ears anymore.

Serena presses her hands to her hot cheeks as Blair looks her over, clearly surprised. "I've never seen you have a panic attack before."

"Is that what that was?" She tries to laugh, but it's quiet and breathless and free of any mirth.

"What is it, Serena?" Blair's looking at her intently, reaching out toward her. "You just had a panic attack. You're still crying." She softens her voice, repeats: "What is it?"

Serena looks at her – this is her best friend, keeper of all her secrets, solver of (most of) her problems – but she doesn't know how to say it; doesn't know how to pull herself out of the tangled-up mess she's created for herself, and doesn't know what would come after.

But she's still crying and this dress, it makes her think of beaches and bare feet and the boy who'd sneak into her dressing room before the wedding because screw tradition, I can't wait to kiss you

"I can't get married," she gasps, her words mangled by the tears in her throat.

The way Blair is looking at her, holding out a box of tissues, is gentle but almost eager, her eyes bright and calculating, as if she's just been waiting for Serena to say that exact sentence. "Oh, honey –"

Serena shakes her head, snatches a tissue out of the box and amends, "In this dress, I mean. I can't get married…in this dress."

Her best friend's face changes, falls; but she lets Serena pretend.

"Okay. Let's find you another dress, then."

--

Lily responds to her wedding invitation with a phone call rather than simply returning the RSVP card.

"Married, hm?"

Serena nods, forgetting that they're on the phone and her mother cannot see her.

Whatever maternal instincts Lily has are particularly honed at this moment, it seems – maybe they stockpiled, after she'd had so little contact with her daughter for so long – because she seems aware of Serena's physical action on the other side of the line.

"Well, best wishes, Serena."

"Thanks, Mom."

Lily's voice sounds a bit tighter when she adds, "You're going to be a very beautiful bride."

"Thank you," Serena repeats, and feels a pulse of childish need for her mother for a brief, painful moment.

"I miss you."

Her mother is crying on the other end of the line, Serena just knows it; she can envision the embroidered handkerchief Lily is holding at this very moment. She swallows down her guilt and her own tears and tells herself this is okay, because Lily abandoned her time and again, this is nothing more than karma.

Nevertheless, she blurts out, "I miss you, too," and her cheeks feel wet.

Lily clears her throat. "I saw your photographs. They're beautiful."

Serena smiles. "Airbrushing," she murmurs, and is surprised to hear her mother laugh.

"No, darling. The photographs you took."

Something swells in her heart and she feels like she's been reduced down to a little girl again. "You think so?"

"Of course I do, baby."

--

Serena van der Woodsen gets married when she is twenty-one (too young), only months after her birthday, in the early fall (not the summer). Her whole family, all the van der Bilts, and every member of New York society is there. She looks beautiful (radiant, her mother says afterward when she gives her a hug and a cheque) and Chuck walks her down the aisle (you're my brother) and Tripp's best man is some guy she's only meant twice (he smiles big and pats Tripp on the back, like a best man should).

Tripp smiles, vows til death do us part, pushes back her veil and kisses her tenderly; he never stops touching her at the reception, whirls her expertly around the dance floor. And in return she says I do, cries at the wedding and glows through the whole reception. And together they accept a flurry of congratulations and make promises for next week, two years from now, for always, together.

And because Blair helped her plan the whole thing, because Blair loves weddings and Blair loves her and Blair memorized Upper East Side decorum when she was about five years old it is nothing short of marvellous –

– and because they all know how to play their roles flawlessly, it is nothing short of perfection.

--

She finds Nate, sitting on Tripp's side of the cathedral, only a millisecond after Tripp slips her ring onto her finger, binding them for life.

For that second when her eyes meet his, blue and blue, blurred by her tears, she is dizzy enough that she thinks she might have a panic attack again.

Because it all breaks down in that small, small moment, just a second, she thinks of everything that she was too afraid of. She remembers being seven years old, sitting in a fortress composed of pillows and sheets, hidden away from everyone in the world but him – and the way they'd defined forever then, the only requirements being ice cream and each other, the way she'd said I won't ever marry anyone, not ever and the way it'd gone unspoken: except maybe you.

Just for an instant, she allows herself to think that this was always meant to be her ring, but that it was given to her by the wrong man.

Tripp's lips find hers and their friends and family cheer and she says I love you the very second they break apart.

As if she'd ever been foolish enough to believe those words were a cure for anything.

--

They honeymoon in Cuba.

(Serena wanted to go to India.)

She feels more comfortable on the beach, sand between her toes and their hands linked, thinks that this is okay, this is right; she's meant for this, right here, with him. She has to be.

It's three weeks of laziness, late dinners and sex and sleeping in, and unending cycle that she relaxes into. Every once and a while he'll get a call from his office, and she'll roll her eyes and steal his phone, and he'll smile and laugh at her (and she will ignore the way he always takes it back and talks anyway).

Most of the time she feels rather content, lazing around in bed or letting him buy her beaded necklaces, and those moments are enough so that she can pretend that he never forces her into conversations about houses and properties and jobs she could do and children.

--

On their last night there she has an ache in her chest; she will be homesick for this foreign place simply because it is where they felt most like the way she wants them to. They eat out, an extravagant meal, and she wears a flowing blue dress and forces herself to enjoy the evening.

She twirls out in the street, looking up at the stars, and when he laughs as he catches her around the waist and pulls her into a kiss, she closes her eyes and smiles against his mouth.

She drags him to the beach, pulls off her high heels, and she tugs on his hands until he follows her all the way to the edge of the water. She wades in, but he won't follow her.

"No," he says, but he's still laughing and he's giving her that earnest, admiring look she's always loved, so she doesn't relent.

"C'mon!" she cries, wading out a little further. "For me," she pleads, shooting him her best smile.

Tripp keeps laughing, shaking his head. "Not even for you," he chuckles.

She ignores the words, reaching down and splashing water toward him, ready to say now you're wet, you have to come in!, but instead –

"Serena!"

The tone of his voice makes her freeze, makes the smile fall instantly from her lips. "Come on," she says, more softly this time, "I –"

He pulls his cell phone out of his pocket, shooting her an incredulous glance as he examines it for water damage. "What are you doing? We're not children. You've ruined my clothes."

Suddenly cold, she shivers, still up to her knees in the water. "I…" This was why you used to love me.

"Let's go back," he says, in this tolerant voice that makes her blood boil. "I need to call New York."

"You go," she shoots back, but her voice is still soft and shaky and the night feels particularly dark.

"Serena," he tells her, in a quieter tone that reminds her of the earlier days, when he seemed like everything good in her life, "Don't do this already."

She lets out an incredulous laugh. "So do it when, Tripp? In ten years?"

She waits until he's walked back up the shore, toward their resort, to kick at the water in frustration.

"Why did you marry me?" she screams in the direction he went, long after he's out of earshot.

Why did I marry you?

--

(Nate came and found her before she got married, navigated the complex hallways at the back of the church, somehow sneaked past all her bridesmaids that were handpicked by his grandfather. He didn't say anything for a minute, just leaned back against the door he'd closed and looked at her standing there by the window, in her wedding dress.

And she'd wanted to cry, had wanted to say say something come closer touch me how long has it been, this, us? but she'd seen such a clear echo of his sixteen-year-old face in his expression at that moment (I didn't come back for you!) that she could do nothing but stare back.

"You look…really pretty," he'd finally said after what had to be the longest silence she'd ever experienced, stumbling over his words.

She'd laughed, choked on it a little. "That's all you've got, Archibald?"

His whole face had relaxed and he'd taken five confident steps toward her, leaving them only a foot or two apart. "Beautiful. I just…I always thought you'd wear something different."

It had cracked her apart, the way he'd just known, and she fought to keep her face from crumpling and failed miserably. "Natie, I –"

"Don't marry him," he'd blurted then, closing the distance between them until they were so close she could have touched him very, very easily. "Don't do this. You don't want this. I don't want this."

"Nate…"

"Please, S. I know this is late – it's so late, because I always…you'd say no and I'd listen because I want…I want you to be happy, but this isn't what's going to make you happy."

Her lips trembled. "If I said it was, would you walk away right now?"

Nate was breathing shakily, even as he cracked a half-hearted grin. "I would try," he murmured, his eyes searching her face.

And then he had kissed her, hands wrapping tightly around her waist, pressing her body to his. She very nearly whimpered, had almost forgotten how this (he) made her feel, absolutely horrified to fall but as if she couldn't not take the leap; she'd almost forgotten the perfect way they fit and the taste of his mouth and the way this could just feel like everything. She kissed him back just as fiercely, with just as much longing, her arms slipping around him in turn.

She didn't know who had pulled back when, but she was on the verge of crying and had gasped, "I'm getting married."

He had not let go of her. "Don't. Serena, I…"

"What'm I going to do?" she whispered, a challenge and a plea all rolled into one. "Walk away? This is the society wedding of the year, I can't cause that kind of scandal."

Nate smiled, the kind of smile she had always adored, and she couldn't help but kiss him again. "Scandal," he murmured, breaking the kiss to specifically tell her this, "has never stopped you before."

"But Tripp –"

"Tripp will be fine. You're not in love with him."

"You don't know –"

"I know." His hand had moved along the back of her dress, tied tightly corset-style, and she was grateful there was no easy way for him to get her out of it.

"How?" she had pulled back a bit, demanding this from him. "How do you know?" Show me. Save me.

He had cupped her face gently with his hands, kept his blue gaze steady on hers, and said very simply, very softly, "I love you. I don't know when I started and I don't know how to stop. I love you, Serena. And maybe you don't love me back right at this moment but I know that you could, if you'd just let yourself."

And it was everything she'd needed to hear and everything she couldn't handle.

She had pulled away from him, tears in her eyes, the feel of him all over her, all over the dress in which she was supposed to marry another man.

Nate had watched her pull away, had watched her try (in vain) to stifle down all her emotions, and had not flinched once. "You can," he told her again, you can love me, like a promise.

Serena hadn't been able to continue looking at him.

I do. "I can't.")

--

The man running all moving operations for their huge country manor house laughs when Serena walks into the kitchen in her hip-hugging jeans and comfiest boots, which will serve as her casual moving clothes.

"What's a pretty young thing like you doing here?" he chuckles in his booming voice. "People buy a house like this…means they're rich folks, settling down."

She adjusts the position of her Birkin bag on her shoulder, touches her hair to make sure it is still the way she elaborately twisted it up that morning, feeling self-conscious about the rock of a ring on her fourth finger.

"I'm Mr. van der Bilt's wife," she says tightly, no sign of the encouraging smiles she used to give even the people she was told were beneath her.

She can see his thought process, painted across his face, the conclusion he draws, and when he leaves the kitchen to organize his boys she turns on the taps to splash cool water on her face.

Here she is, exactly who everyone said she would turn out to be when she was younger, exactly who she'd always fought against becoming.

I am a trophy wife.

--

Her life flies by (uselessly). She becomes an expert at cocktail party conversations, spends a lot of time wandering around in their large, lonely house, and escapes to the city with her camera whenever she can.

She works her way through every novel ever deemed a "classic". She takes up yoga. She takes an online course in Mandarin. And she tries to learn something useful, like how to cook, but Tripp thinks it's ludicrous.

"That's why we have help, Serena," he lectures her with an amused smile on his lips. "My wife doesn't need to be cooking."

Biting her lip, she ignores the way he ignores the meal she worked so hard to make for him. "I'm not just your wife."

He touches her cheek, and then kisses it. "I know. But it's definitely my favourite thing that you are."

--

One day, when she's tidying (not cleaning, because that's the help's job) the coffee table in the most casual of their three living rooms, she stumbles across the latest copy of The New Yorker and flops down on the couch to read it.

She has nothing better to do.

She's startled to stumble across a poem written by Dan Humphrey; even more stunned to see that it describes a beautiful, alive, easy-and-yet-so-very-difficult-to-love girl that can only be her sixteen-year-old self.

It takes only a heartbeat, a click of the mouse, to track down his phone number.

"You wrote about me," she says, skipping pleasantries altogether.

He chuckles on the other end of the line and his voice is warm as he says, albeit a bit mockingly: "Always a pleasure, Serena."

She laughs, hugging one of the couch cushions. "Hi, Dan," she says obligatorily. "How are you?" she adds, genuinely interested to know.

"I'm…good."

She recognizes downplaying when she hears it. "You're published!"

Dan chuckles again. "Yeah, there is that, isn't there? But hey – you too, in a way! All that modeling, and the movie…actually not a bad interpretation of Tiffany's."

From Mr. Literary Critic, this is high praise, she knows, and she beams. "You think so?"

"And you looked amazing."

"Makeup," she shoots back.

"Your acting, too," he says, clearly amused. "You were good, Serena."

"Thank you."

There's an awkward pause, some history and a year or two of silence between them.

"I'm, uh," he clears his throat. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it to your wedding, Vanessa and I –"

"It's okay!" she cuts him off brightly, because she is the girl who stashed her wedding dress at the back of her expansive closet, who never takes out the albums to admire them. "Thanks for the waffle-maker."

Dan pauses. "You haven't used it once, have you?"

Caught, Serena rolls her eyes and changes the subject, fingering the page with his poem on it. "Why'd you publish this one?" she asks softly, "it's from forever ago."

"It's one of the best things I've written," he tells her, an honest answer, the kind she rarely gets these days. "Our relationship was…a rollercoaster, but you were one of the best muses a guy could've asked for."

"Yeah?" she asks softly.

"Yeah! I mean…you're you," he says simply, a bit of the reverence for her that he had back when he wrote this slipping into his voice.

"And who's that?" She intends for it to be a joke, but it comes out shaky and the words have suddenly blurred on the page.

Dan is silent for a second, gathering his thoughts, before he says gently, "I don't know, Serena. I never did. That was always the problem with us – who I wanted you to be, who I thought you are, and who you are…they're two different people. That's not to say," he rushes on, "that you're not a really amazing person, because you are. But I needed to realize that you can't just dream people up, and you needed someone who wasn't…me."

She presses her lips together for a second before blurting: "And what if that person doesn't exist?"

He analyzes her words like they are straight out of a novel, a character's dialogue, and he gets right to the root of what she's saying. "Listen. I didn't know exactly who you are, I wasn't lucky enough to find out, but I feel like I have a pretty good sense of who you're not. And I think that's exactly who you're trying to be right now."

It makes her want to both laugh and cry, that years and miles away, this is a truth that is blatantly obvious even to Dan. "I…"

"Serena, any guy would be lucky to have you," he tells her quietly, "it's just a question of finding the one you're meant to be with."

She bites her lip hard enough to draw blood. "But what if I found him?"

Dan scoffs on the other end of the line. "You think Tripp van der Bilt is the man for you?"

She could argue with him. She could say you don't know him like I do, you don't know anything at all. But she's tired, and he knows, so she sucks in some air and tells him what she knows is true: "That's not who I'm talking about."

He is quiet for long enough for her to rethink her words, to wish she hadn't said that, that she hadn't broken down into admitting something that has the power to break her apart, that has always had the power to break her heart.

"What you wrote about me," she says shakily, "…about who I used to be. It's beautiful. She's beautiful. I wish…" She doesn't have his vocabulary; doesn't have the words she needs to tell him what she wants to.

"Yeah," he agrees, "She is beautiful." And then he gives her what will be his first and last piece of step-brotherly advice: "So find her again.'

--

Chuck proposes to Blair in the spring they are both twenty-two years old, and they marry in the wintertime when he is twenty-three and Blair has just turned twenty-four.

A year and a half, and Serena cannot for the life of her remember what she has accomplished, while the whole city is raving about Tripp's successes.

Mostly, she supposes, she helps Blair plan her dream wedding, which includes horse-drawn carriages and an extensive guest list and more cake-tasting and wine-sipping sessions than Serena thinks are necessary. But it's fun, and it's easy, to help Blair, to spend time with her best friend.

But it makes her ache, the way Blair beams like her whole life is settling into something not perfect, but thoroughly wonderful. Serena can't remember the last time she wore smiles like the ones Blair's always got playing across her lips.

(She forgot that perfection is relative; got so damn terrified of her own version of perfect that she found herself caught up in someone else's.)

--

Nate, whom she has studiously avoided since her own wedding, is Chuck's best man. And Serena, of course, is Blair's maid of honour. And she can't, cannot do it; she will just die if she does walk down an aisle with Nate Archibald.

She wants to say so, wants to yell it and cry about it, but this is Blair's wedding so she doesn't, she just hooks her arm through his and pretends it is not a big deal.

She pretends, also, not to realize that he doesn't have a girlfriend, and that she doesn't spend nearly the entire ceremony thinking about what that might mean.

--

He drops pecans onto the plate that holds her half-eaten piece of wedding cake so that they form a smiley face, takes a seat next to her, and touches her cheek. She stops breathing, leans into him the slightest bit.

"It's your best friend's wedding," he tells her softly (and stops touching her, keeps the kind of distance that friends should have). "She's marrying your brother. These are two of the people you've known for nearly all your life. And you look like you're at a funeral."

It's scary, but she gathers her courage and forces herself to, and finds herself falling into his navy blue eyes so easily; if she'd made herself be brave right from the beginning, could it have been this easy all along?

"I'm sorry," she says, and she means to be apologizing for her general lack of happiness on this day, but it comes out solemn and strained and I'm sorry I broke your heart; I'm sorry I broke mine, too; I'm sorry this is all I ever seem to do.

"It's okay," he says, and his mouth grins but his eyes don't even come close. He touches her cheek again, a finger gently poking the stop where her dimple usually lies, a spot he must have memorized years and years ago. "Smile for me, S."

She does, because it's the least she can do for him, forces the corners of her lips to turn upward.

"That's my girl," he comments approvingly, casually, but it hits her right in the heart.

They stay there, best man and maid of honour, smiling sweetly at each other for everyone to see.

"Don't you think about it?" Us. Her voice sounds broken even to her own ears.

Nate scoffs, shakes his head a little, as if he can't believe she'd ask. "Of course I do."

They sit there, and they smile.

--

Serena and Nate chase Chuck and Blair's limo down the street, throwing confetti and yelling have fuuun!, and when they stop, when they're alone, almost-but-not-quite out of her husband's sight, he reaches out to hug her.

She stops him, bats his hands away, knows that she won't trust herself if he does.

(It does feel like a funeral, their own, but she can't bring herself to say goodbye.

And neither can he, it seems, his fingers tugging at her hair like they used to when they were so much younger, when they had so much possibility; he says, "I always…" and leaves it at that.)

--

Three months after Chuck and Blair are married, two months after the honeymoon, Serena receives a giddy phone call.

Blair's pregnant.

Everyone's happy, everyone's thrilled, Serena included: she can't wait to be an aunt.

She tells Tripp over dinner, some pasta thing that he loves but she's never really liked.

His eyebrows rise and he smiles at her across the table, almost mischievously, and she has a flash of the look on his face the day, when they were kids, that he gave her the scar she has on her wrist. She touches it without really thinking, and smiles back. This is a good day.

"It would be great if your kids, yours and Blair's, grew up together, wouldn't it?"

Her mouth falls open and any possible words she could use to respond get stuck in her throat.

--

Serena's mother is on vacation in Morocco, her best friend is six months pregnant, her little brother is excelling at Berkley; she is twenty-three and she is fighting with her husband on the day that it happens.

They're driving into the city, and they're fighting, not the muted kind of arguments they've been having for what feels like millennia but has really only been years, but the big, ugly kind of fighting. They're yelling at one another in the confined space of the vehicle and she's too angry to even cry.

It's her I'm not ready to be a mother! versus his I didn't say right now – and this about us, not you, her not now, not anytime soon against his I want this for us, Serena; it is his declaration of I want a family with you! that sets a spark in her and has her spitting you don't! you just want a family and I'm the one who happens to be here!

"That's ridiculous, Serena," he says in a quieter voice, and he seems genuinely wounded. "I love you."

"You don't," she says firmly, matching his quiet tone, and her eyes ache with unshed tears.

"What?" he turns to look at her, shocked by the certainty in her voice.

"You don't, I know you don't, because I don't love you either."

She can feel herself unravelling, but she knows it's necessary now; she has to ruin it all before she can fix it (you can, he had said), she has to find the courage to get herself where she knows she needs to be, and with who she needs to be with (I always…). Her voice, as she starts to tell Tripp this, is deadly and quiet and calm.

And so is the accident that kills her.

--

Tripp wakes up after a day in a medically-induced coma a driven politician; he becomes New York's youngest ever congressman half a year later.

Oh, the grief, it drove him into his work, is the accepted piece of gossip over the situation, but Serena knows better.

She knows that he planned her funeral, showed up in a suit and buried her with her wedding rings, and that he cried (but never publicly). She knows that he left all of her clothes, and all of her things, in the closet, but that he closes the doors and never opens them again. She knows that after he mourns, he puts himself back together and continues living without her (he has the help, after all), delegating her to his memories, the whims of his youth, the girl he might've loved.

--

But it's not her (ex)husband Serena spies on from heaven, it's his younger cousin.

He loved her, is what they say about Nate, and she believes it.

She knows that he attends her funeral a dishevelled mess, doesn't quite cry but doesn't quite manage not to. She knows that, in his childhood bedroom he digs out every relic of her, photographs and grade-school Valentines, the shirts of his she used to borrow to sleep in, every silly little present she gave him, and spends hours looking at them. She knows that he never really stops mourning, that he thinks of her everyday (of course I do), and that he suggests Serena as the middle name for Chuck and Blair's baby girl whom he is godfather to, wanting to make sure she keeps living in some way.

And she knows that he visits her grave, always in the summetime, and brings forget-me-nots to rest on her headstone. She knows, like he knows, that those were the flowers that were growing on the side of the road where they pulled over on the summer's day, on the way to his family's home, the beginning of the end. They were so young, so close to the cusp of something that day, together and happy and so in need of each other that he stopped the car so that she could pull him into the backseat, so they could make love under the sun and spend the subsequent hour giggling and whispering and hoping no one would drive by on the rarely-used back road.

--

The last time she said I love you and meant it, she's sure, is when she breathed it against his neck on that perfect day, the sun making the world behind her eyelids explode with colour.