A/N: This is, honestly, the most random thing I've ever written. It just sort of appeared one day. It does not take into account anything we've seen in season three, and starts up after Nate's first year at Columbia. Enjoy; please review.

When The Stars Go Blue

where do you go when you're lonely?

I'll follow you.

On June fourteenth Nate walks into Serena's room and flops onto her bed without preamble, just like he has in the late morning nearly every day since his classes at Columbia finished for the year. The sun is scorching the city sidewalks, and he wants to get iced coffee with her and find a somewhat shady place in the park to lie in the grass. He's got a bracelet for her in his pocket, a happy-one-month-til-your-birthday gift, and he's still half-asleep and a little sun-stroked, so it takes him a moment to realize that he's not sprawled out over Serena's unmade bed next to her, but that he's actually lying on piles of neatly folded clothes, and Serena is inside her closet, rummaging around.

He moves onto his side so that he can look at her, fully intending to ask what the hell she is doing and why she's doing it so early, but then he sees her and the words escape him. Her hair is wet, pulled into something that vaguely resembles a bun, and she's wearing a dark blue shirt and these tight, really tiny white shorts.

"See something you like, Archibald?" she asks him lazily, without turning around. She bends over (Nate gulps) to scoop up a couple pairs of strappy heels before she spins around and holds both out. "Which are better?"

"Uh…" He pulls his gaze from her legs to examine the shoes. "Those ones?" He points to the pair in her left hand.

"Perfect." She drops the rejected pair carelessly, her eyes sparkling with laughter. "You're gonna have to move off my stuff, there, bud."

Nate reaches for her wrist. "Let's go get coffee."

"I'm packing, Nate."

He pulls the bracelet smoothly from his pocket, fastens it carefully around her wrist.

Serena grins, almost shyly. "One month until my birthday," she notes approvingly, her voice soft. "It's beautiful. Thank you."

Still holding her wrist, he pulls her hand toward him, kisses her knuckles. "Let me buy you celebratory coffee, c'mon."

"I'm packing."

He gives her wrist another tug, and this one sets her off balance, sends her crashing half onto him. "Pack later," he murmurs, touching her cheek.

"Natie," she whines, even though she gives in and rests her head against his shoulder.

"I thought you girls liked to arrive late to the Hamptons, anyway. Pack later."

She pulls away. "I'm not going to the Hamptons."

His heart picks up pace, a warning sign, as she gets up again, wandering back toward her closet. "So…where are you going?"

Serena shrugs one shoulder, says breezily, "Away."

He sits up slowly, frowning at her back. "For how long?" he asks, his voice low.

"Not sure," she tells him evenly as she turns around once again, yanking a dress of a hanger. "You're sitting on my favourite shirt, Nate."

Obediently, he stands. "You're leaving."

"Yes."

"For…some undecided amount of time?"

She nods patiently, carefully folding a blazer. "Yes."

His breathing feels messy. "Will you…will you be back by September?"

Serena shrugs again. "Probably not." At his disbelieving glare, she balks a bit. "What, Nate? It's not like I have anything to come back to. This year was a mess; deciding against Brown, all those jobs that didn't work out, just sitting around my mother's house… I'm not doing that again."

"Come to Columbia!" he argues, aware that he's kind of yelling at her now but entirely unsure of how to stop.

"That's not me, Nate." She gives him that look, the one that begs for him to be the person who will understand her. "I know you're happy there and I'm so glad for that, but it's not right for me."

"You think leaving is right for you?!"

"I just need to figure it out. I need to see what's right for me, because right now I don't know. But I can't live her and become…nothing. Not here." She shakes her head, looking down. "This city is making me irrelevant. Apparently…Gossip Girl's even smarter than I thought."

"It's not! She's not! Don't think that! I told you – that night, after she said that, I told you…"

"Nate." Her voice is quiet and calm, firm and decided, and he hates it.

"This is your home, Serena."

"No. Home doesn't feel like this."

"You aren't irrelevant," he says, a little desperately. You are the most relevant thing in my whole world. "Make this home, if it doesn't feel like it. Prove –"

"Almost nineteen years and I'm still not home, not here. I can't expect that to change now, Nate. You have to understand that."

"And what about…us." He stares at her across the room, shaken and vulnerable. He was so sure they were getting somewhere, that this summer would finally be it for them.

Her eyes are fixed on her window. "Nate…" She trails off, swallows hard. "There isn't any us. Maybe there could have been once but…we messed up and it's been a long time and…that's just over. We're kidding ourselves if we think that we are something. It's just, it's not… We can't, Nate. We aren't."

"You really think that?" he dares her. He wants so badly for her to look at him.

But she won't. Her gaze stays focused on anything but him, her fingers toying with the bracelet he just gaze her. "Yes," she breathes, and it's torn out of her mouth like it's been ripped from her heart, has the exact same ring as I didn't come back for you.

"You're lying," he shoots back viciously. "I know you; you're lying to me."

Serena looks at him, blue eyes wet and broken, but she doesn't say a word.

"Fine." He grits his teeth. "Fine, so I mean nothing to you –"

"Nate!" she cries, but he ignores her.

"But you're just going to leave Blair? And Chuck? Possibly forever? And Eric? Your mother and Rufus and Dan and Jenny?"

"That's not what this is," she whispers.

He chest and his throat ache. "That's exactly what this is. People need you, Serena." I need you. "You can't just pick up and go whenever it suits you!"

"I'm not disappearing forever." She sucks in some air shakily. "I'll still be in touch, I'll still visit. I might even come back, maybe even soon, I don't know. Everyone's going to be fine. You're going to fine. All of you."

"Right," he bites back. "Just like we were last time."

She gasps, clamps her mouth shut quickly afterward. "This isn't the same," she begins carefully.

"It's exactly the same!" Nate shouts. "You don't get to do this!"

"Natie, I'm sorry –"

"You're not. Don't call me that; you're not."

Her cheeks are wet, tears falling from her eyes and trailing over them. "I'm sorry – "

He shakes his head, his anger dissipating, because he's never been able to stand to see her cry. "You're not."

She bites down on her lip, says in a quivering voice, "I'll always…"

"No, don't." He can't hear it, can't deal with it, can't believe this is happening again. He turns to go.

"Nate, no!" she shouts, alarmed. "Don't leave us like this!"

He whirls back on her, says mockingly, "There's no us, Serena."

A sob hitches in her throat. "Don't go like this…"

Nate looks at her standing there, blue shirt that matches her eyes and band-aids on her toes because her shoes give her blisters and those tiny shorts; the girl he's always wanted to love. "Don't go," he replies quietly.

--

Blair yanks open his curtains, kicks a couple of his discarded shirts to the side of his room, and stares him down with her eyes blazing and her arms akimbo.

"You're being very immature about this, Nate."

He doesn't tear his eyes away from his video game. "Well, she's being an idiot." He glances at her then. "And so are you."

Her eyes narrow threateningly. "Excuse me?"

He tosses his controller aside, the game forgotten, and glares at her. "She's leaving, Blair."

The brunette heaves a sigh. "I understand that you're going to miss her –"

"That's not the point!" he snaps. (He is going to miss her, so much. He already does.) "The point is that she's leaving. Again. Again!"

Her dark eyes soften a little. "She's saying goodbye this time, Nate. You're the one who's refusing to do that."

His jaw clenches. "I am not coming to that stupid early Fourth of July, early Serena's birthday, goodbye party. She shouldn't be leaving. She should be here for July fourth, and for her birthday."

Blair steps gingerly through the mess of things on his floor and perches on the end of his bed. "I agree," she says softly. "But you have to let her do this, Nate. She's going to go with or without your blessing, but she's dying for it."

"I just thought…" He trails off there, can't add any more.

"I know." Blair nods and gives him a small, comforting smile. "But it's Serena, you know? It's kind of part of why we love her."

His throat is sore. "It's hard."

Blair laughs a little. "You're only realizing that now?"

He manages a small smile of his own. "What if she never comes back?"

"Then…I'm sorry. And I'll miss her everyday; it'll be hard only seeing her now and again and keeping in touch through e-mails and phone calls. But we're not losing her, Nate. That's not the point."

He stares at his television. "I can't…say goodbye to her."

She sighs, her sad eyes finding his. "You're breaking her heart," she tells him quietly. Then she pats his leg, weaves her way through his messy room again, and leaves.

Nate continues to mope. "She broke mine first," he tells no one.

--

"No," is the first thing Chuck says when he walks into Nate's room, right before he paces across it to open the curtains. "This is not happening."

"Dammit," Nate grumbles, closing his eyes against the sunlight. "Did Blair tell you to do that?"

Chuck doesn't answer, he's too busy digging around Nate's closet. First he throws out a pair of khaki pants, then a button-down shirt, then a tie, and lastly a pair of shoes which kind of hurt when they make contact with the arm Nate throws up to shield himself.

"Get dressed, Nathaniel," Chuck orders, carefully stepping over a pizza box.

"A tie, really?" Nate grumbles, reluctantly getting off his bed and stepping into the pants.

"We're going out for a drink. You need to stop doing…this." Chuck glances around disdainfully.

Nate buttons his shirt. "So, this is you and Blair tag-teaming me, huh?"

"For your benefit, Nathaniel."

He makes a face, throwing his tie around his neck and doing it up messily. "It would suck to be someone you guys hated."

Chuck smirks, ushering him toward the door. "Indeed. All yours, Larissa," he calls to Nate's maid, leaving her to clean up the disaster that has become his room as of late.

--

Chuck buys him scotch and says, "You need to be proactive, Nathaniel."

He scowls into his empty glass. "I shouldn't have to ask her to stay."

His best friend actually has the gall to laugh. "Considering you're hopelessly in love with her, you don't seem to know her too well."

"I'm not in love with her."

Chuck sighs impatiently. "Nathaniel. Give her a reason to stay."

"I can't," he says, feeling lame and helpless and sad. "There already is a reason, but she won't…she won't acknowledge it. She won't admit that…whatever's between us is there."

His friend blinks lazily. "And avoiding her is going to fix that?"

"I don't know what to do, okay? I've been trying to figure it out, and I can't. She's leaving me."

Chuck studies him for a moment, then orders more scotch.

--

She's leaving on the twenty-first, and by the twentieth of June, Nate already misses her so badly he's not sure how he's supposed to live like this for the rest of his life.

Her party is tonight. Everyone who's anyone is at the Hudson right now, celebrating and saying goodbye. Nate is in his room again, watching some corny love story movie on tv. He's restless, but he refuses to get up and go to that party. He's not going to endorse this whole thing, the way she thinks it's just fine to leave him over and over again.

"It's not fair," he mutters, changing into pyjama pants and working his way through an entire box of Pop-Tarts.

--

His phone rings at ten thirty.

"You should come, man," Dan says in this upbeat, encouraging voice that Nate can't help but smile at. "I know she really wants to see you."

Nate laughs a little. "You're her ex," he reminds Dan.

"Yeah. And I know that she wants you here." There's a pause before Dan adds, "Nate, come on. You're acting like a girl." It's gentle and kind of teasing, but it's also true.

"It's her fault," Nate objects. "You know how she is!"

There's another short silence. "Yeah," Dan finally says. "I do. And I think you are being a moron."

Nate sighs. "I'll see you later, bro."

He hangs up.

--

His phone rings again just past midnight. The caller ID says Serena.

He picks up in spite of himself, but he doesn't say anything.

"Hey, Natie," she whispers. She waits, and when he doesn't reply she continues, "I'm leaving today."

Silence follows and he hears her sigh. "Okay. You won't talk. I get it, you're mad. I get it. And I'm sorry, I'm so sorry – I never wanted to hurt you." She's breathing shakily and Nate can hear people talking in loud voices in the background. "I miss you already," she confesses.

She sighs again. "You don't have to come here, Nate. I'm not going to ask that of you. But can we please say goodbye? I can't leave without giving you a hug. I can't. And I'm sorry if that's selfish, I'm sorry if you think everything I'm doing is selfish, but Nate…"

The call cuts off.

--

Nate is still awake when his phone rings for the third time, at nearly three o'clock in the morning.

"Serena," he sighs sleepily when he answers.

She's crying, gasping through her words. "Nate. I lied, that day in my room. Like you said. I was lying."

She sounds drunk, but that doesn't stop his chest from tightening as she rambles, "Nate, you and me…it's not nothing, it's something, it's so much, and I know I never…it's just, I lo –"

"Honey, what're you doing?" It's Blair's voice, far-off and hazy.

"Sorry if I woke you up, I was just –"

"Oh, S. What have we learned about drunk dialling?" She sounds closer to the phone now, her voice gentle. "Hand it over."

"No, B –"

"Shh; you're drunk and you have a flight to catch in the morning. Let's go back to bed."

"But B – "

"Serena," Nate says then, as if that will make her stay, but Blair must get the phone from her because the line goes dead.

--

At five a.m., Nate is still wide awake, staring at his ceiling. Serena's leaving, as both Blair and Chuck have taken it upon themselves to inform him, at around nine.

He sits up in bed, looks around his room. His pale blue-and-white striped button-down that Serena tends to steal is hanging in his closet. A picture of the two of them from about two months ago that she framed and gave to him is sitting on his desk. A bunch of her CDs are piled on his floor.

He can't cope with all of that stuff being there, so he grabs an old duffel bag from the back of his closet and starts stuffing it all in. He's halfway through when he stops, takes a deep breath, and dumps it all out again. He's got another use for his duffel bag.

He's going to be proactive.

--

He writes his mother a note, texts Chuck and Blair, and leaves home at 8:22 a.m.

--

It isn't difficult to find Serena at JFK. She's pretty impossible to miss, standing there in the crowd with her bags at her feet, studying the departure schedule contemplatively. Her hair is loose, falling down her back in golden waves, and Nate's eyes zero in on her wrist: she's wearing the bracelet he gave her.

That gives him a little more confidence when he walks up to her and pokes two fingers gently into her back. "Guess who."

She whirls around and grins at him. "Nate. You're here." She throws herself into his arms, wrapping him up a tight hug. "Thank you," she says quietly against his shoulder.

He sighs, tucking his face into her neck. "I'm not here to say goodbye."

Serena doesn't let go. "Then…why are you here?"

"I'm coming with you."

At that, she pulls back abruptly, looking at him doubtfully. "Nate…" She looks weary, like she doesn't want to have this discussion again.

"Listen, okay?" He touches her face, hands against her cheeks. "I can't let you go. I don't know how I'm supposed to do that. I just can't. I need to be with you."

"But –"

"I have to be with you. If it can't be here, then…maybe somewhere else."

Serena licks her lips uncertainly. "Natie, I don't know what you're expecting, but I…"

"Nothing. I'm not expecting anything. Just let me come with you."

She hesitates for a split second.

"Please, S."

She shakes her head, but she's smiling, starting to laugh a little. "Um…okay. Yeah, okay."

Nate grins back, reaches out to gently touch her lips. "What's this smile about?"

"You just…" She looks away from him. "That was romantic. Is romantic. You coming here like this."

His grin widens a little more, even though he tries to stop it from happening. He shuffles his feet a little closer to hers, one hand still against her cheek. He moves his thumb over her skin tenderly, leans toward her.

She looks at him, all glossy lips and fluttering eyelashes and freckled cheeks – and then pulls out of his grasp at the last moment. She points, says, "We need to buy tickets. You get in line, okay? I'll meet you there."

--

Nate stares after her as she hurries off to somewhere, left with her luggage and the task of lining up, but he can't really complain.

He's going with her.

--

"So…where're we off to?" Nate asks when Serena finally joins him in line, carrying a couple of magazines, which she tucks into her carry-on.

She smiles, leaning toward him a little. "Düsseldorf."

He makes a face. "Düsseldorf?"

Serena pulls back. "Is something wrong with that?"

"Just…why?"

"Because it's where the apartment I bought is, so it would probably be a smart place to live. The shopping is really great. We'll learn some German. Plus, it's funny to say."

He relaxes, letting his hand rest lightly on her lower back. "There's the logic I know and love."

She shoots him a quick grin as they step forward together; it's their turn.

Nate's got his American Express Black card out and is busy discussing first class seats to Düsseldorf when Serena whacks him on the arm with one of her magazine. "Nate."

"Ow! What?"

She glares playfully. "Economy class all the way, baby."

"But –"

Serena elbows him out of the way and takes over, paying for their tickets with her own credit card.

--

"Wanna explain this to me?" he asks, studying their tickets. They're in row twenty-one. Twenty-one.

Serena's sitting next to him at their gate, gulping down coffee. "I'm tired of it. I don't want to be that girl anymore, the socialite with the family name and all the money and the pictures on Page Six. I just want to be normal; I want to be me, not just Serena van der Woodsen."

"Düsseldorf's newspapers probably have something similar to Page Six."

She takes another sip, eyebrows lifting. "You don't have to come, you know."

Nate flaps their boarding passes at her face, informs her, "Twenty-one is my favourite number."

--

The second the pilot switches off the seatbelt sign, the person in the seat in front of Nate's leans their chair way back. He scowls at the abrupt reduction in his personal space. Serena refused to give him the window seat, and now this.

She giggles, flicking through songs on her iPod. "Regretting this yet?"

Nate shoves his legs into her space instead, offers her a charming grin. "Nope."

--

"It's perfect!"

Nate stands in the doorway of the studio apartment Serena picked out for herself through a real estate agent, completely exhausted from the plane and the lines at the airport they had to wait in because his bags (not Serena's, of course) are lost somewhere in the world, and the journey from the airport to this place which seemed to take forever. Her current energized state, as she rushes around the apartment, is baffling to him.

"Whoa there," he says, reaching out to catch her around the waist, pulling her to a stop. He smiles despite how tired he is. "You're happy with this, huh?"

She grips his sleeve. "It's exactly how I imagined it."

He tightens his hold on her just a little bit. "What about me? Can you imagine me here, too?"

She pushes at his shoulder. "Yes, you idiot. You fit right in."

Nate presses a kiss to her cheek, allows himself to linger there. "Thank you."

--

They have no food and very little furniture and Nate doesn't even have any clothes, so they venture out an hour later. Serena's so in charge of it all – she finds the good pizza, leads him through the department stores, falls in love with and buys some chairs to be delivered in two days time. It makes him see how much she wants this, how very right it feels for her.

And it makes him want to have it with her.

When she gets pizza sauce on her lips, when she plants a furry hat on his head teasingly, when she sprawls out in the chairs to test their "comfort level" – he wants to kiss her.

"You know," he says as they wander back through the Old City, "if this were a romantic comedy –"

"Then we would've been having a moment, just now," she cuts him off, spinning on the sidewalk and stepping in front of him, so that she's walking backward. (Automatically, Nate checks to make sure there's nothing behind her that she can trip over.) "And you would've ruined it."

She sticks her tongue out, calls, "Race ya!" like they're nine years old, and they run down the streets, yelling and laughing.

--

They get lost and they don't find the apartment again until nearly one o'clock in the morning.

Nate doesn't care. When they finally stumble through the door, Serena's pressed into his side, laughing tiredly, her lips grazing his cheek for just a minute.

It feels like, maybe, he could call this home for a while.

--

There's only one bed, but they decide that's not a problem. It's queen-sized, and it's not like they haven't shared a bed before.

"What happens when you find a guy?" Nate asks one night after dinner; he's drying dishes while Serena washes. It's a legitimate question. (This is Serena, after all.) He tries to play it cool, tries not to care, tries not to grimace at the thought of some man he doesn't know all over her.

She throws suds into his face. "You're my guy, Natie."

--

The day Nate's out shopping for a shower curtain, his luggage finally arrives. Serena unpacks for him while he's gone; he comes home to find her sitting on their bed with one of his sweatshirts on over her tunic-style shirt and leggings.

"Your stuff's home!" she declares, arms stretched out, smile proud.

"Thanks," he says, leaning down to kiss the top of her head before he can let himself think it through.

She peeks up at him, still smiling prettily.

Nate crosses his arms and frowns suspiciously. "What?" He's met with nothing but that smile. "Just say it, Serena."

Her smile stretches into a bright grin, the kind that Nate honestly thinks can light up rooms. "You have boxers with ducks on them."

--

(Three weeks later he gives Serena those boxers to wear as pyjamas.)

--

Their shower curtain is see-through.

Serena stands in front of the tub, arms crossed, but her lips keep quirking up into something like a smile. "Did you do this on purpose?"

He waves the package at her. "It looks blue! I thought it was blue!"

She lets her bathrobe drop off one of her shoulders, revealing a pink bra and the expanse of her stomach above her low-slung PJ pants. She takes a couple steps toward him, until they are almost, but not quite, pressed against each other.

Head tilted to the side, she asks quietly, "That desperate to see me naked, Archibald?"

It's a Herculean effort not to touch her. Nate clears his throat. "I'll exchange it."

--

After a week of settling in, Serena decides it's time for fun, so Nate lets her drag him to some club she's heard about. He holds her hand on the way there, keeping her close in this city he doesn't know much of yet.

"So, did you have a plan? For what you were going to do, when you got here?"

She nods. "I have an interview next week."

"For what?"

"A writing column in a bilingual paper."

His eyes widen. "Journalism?"

"Yeah. I mean, it's a fashion column," she admits, "but it's something. I hope I get it."

Nate drinks in the way she looks in her strapless black dress, her hair falling over her shoulders the way he loves it best. He squeezes her hand. "You will."

Serena squeezes back gratefully. "You think?"

He nods seriously. "You will."

She exhales and throws him a smile. "What about you? I guess you didn't really have a lot of time to plan for this."

"Uh, yeah. But I'll figure it out, don't worry."

She gnaws on her lower lip worriedly. "Nate…what about Columbia?"

"I deferred for the year."

Eyes wide, she gasps, "Already?"

He smirks. "You think you'll be tired of me in three months?"

"No. No, I just…I didn't know how much you'd committed to this." She gives him this shy, quick look that he can't decipher.

"Well, you committed to it."

She stops walking then, her grip on his hand tight. "Yeah," she murmurs, sounding a bit shocked. "I guess I did."

--

Their bodies are pressed tight together; her back against his front, her head turned to the side and angled toward his. Nate's mind is blissfully fuzzy, but not so fuzzy that he's not aware that he and Serena are totally grinding right now. She's letting his hands drift across her hips, letting him dip his head to kiss her shoulder, then her neck.

She turns around, abruptly, and he thinks that's it and she's uncomfortable, that he pushed this too far, too fast.

And then she kisses him.

Really kisses him, arms around his neck, her chest pressed to his, her tongue sweeping into his mouth. He stumbles for a second and then he kisses her back just as fiercely, his arms holding her as close as possible.

Serena pulls away first, her expression the picture of indecision, and it fades into nothing but panic in only an instant. She touches her lips, shakes her head, and darts through the crowd.

"Serena!" Nate yells.

--

"Where are you going?" he shouts after her, relieved when he spots her walking quickly along the sidewalk, back toward their place. For a heart-hammering moment he'd thought that he lost her. "Serena! Stop!"

She ignores him, pauses only to pull off her heels when she trips over her own feet.

He takes the opportunity to catch up with her, grabbing her arm. "Serena," he begins again, a little breathlessly.

She pulls away from him, scrubbing at her cheeks and trying to hide her face. "Don't touch me."

"S," he tries again, his voice softer, his hand on her shoulder. "What are you doing?"

She tugs away again, continuing to walk. Nate falls in step with her, sighing. His buzz has disappeared. He gives her an entire block of silence before he makes another attempt to talk to her.

"Are you crying?" he asks quietly. He's been listening to her shaky breathing for at least three minutes. She doesn't reply, so he stops them both, his hands on her arms. "Serena."

Her head is bowed, hair falling into her face. "Don't," she says raggedly.

He can't help it. He pulls her to him, into a hug. She fights it for a second, and then gives in, sniffling into his shoulder. Nate rubs her back gently, waits until she's breathing a little more evenly to say, "It's okay. It's okay."

"That was stupid," she murmurs, her voice muffled. "That was so stupid of me. This whole night, the idea of it. I don't know what I was thinking."

"Serena, it's okay."

She shakes her head, pulling back slowly, revealing red eyes and mascara smeared on the apples of her cheeks. "I kissed you."

"God, S…" Carefully, he wipes her cheek with the cuff of his sleeve. "You say it like it's a disaster."

"It is." His moment of heartbreak must reflect on his face because she sighs heavily and says, "Oh, Nate, I didn't mean it like that…"

"Then how do you mean it?" he asks quietly, looking her right in the eye.

"I mean…" She breaks their eye contact, pushing past him as she starts to walk away again.

"Stop!" Nate yells after her. "Stop that! It's two o'clock in the morning and you're drunk and we are in Düsseldorf. I know you're used to walking away from me, but this is one of those times when you don't get to do it!"

She turns around to glare. "I'm not used to walking away from you! I hate walking away from you!"

"Doesn't seem like it! You do it all the damn time!"

"Not because I want to!"

"We can never have a conversation! We can never talk about us!"

"Now isn't the right time for us!" she cries, shivering on the sidewalk.

"So when is, Serena? Because I followed you here, to Dusseldorf. I won't let you give us up!"

She's standing there, in the moonlight, still so damn beautiful, and it makes him angrier somehow.

"Don't look at me like this is news to you," he snaps at her. "That I want this. That I want you. Don't act like it's so crazy that I don't regret that you kissed me. I'm glad you did."

"Nate, no…"

"What is so wrong with that? We're acting like idiots, Serena. We practically ran away together, we're sleeping in the same bed, we're dancing like we just did…we have feelings for each other but you're so determined to make sure we never acknowledge them!"

"I can't!" she yells, her voice high, cracking with emotion. "I can't, okay? Because the minute I do, it just opens everything up for me to make a fucking mess of it. And I can't do that with you. Not with you. It would kill me, it would… I just can't. I wouldn't be able to deal with messing us up. Can you understand that?"

He stares at her in shock, and then at the eight little blocks of pavement separating them. His mind is racing. Once he finally manages to look back at her, her face is hidden in her hands and her shoulders are shaking.

He approaches her cautiously, wraps both of his arms very lightly around her. He's done arguing about the relationship they should have, fully back to being just her friend as he presses a gentle kiss into her hair and lets her lean into him.

"S'okay," he whispers soothingly. "It's okay." He pulls her shoes delicately from her hand and rubs her back. "I'll piggyback you home, alright? So you don't hurt your feet."

She looks up at him hesitantly for a long moment, blue eyes tired and trusting, before she finally nods. He helps her onto his back and walks all the way back to their apartment building with her forehead pressed against his neck.

--

Serena sleeps curled up into a ball on the far side of their mattress that night, wearing a baggy sweater with her pyjama pants.

Nate sleeps on the floor, on top of a blanket.

--

She makes coffee in the morning, slides a full mug across their tiny table to him.

He catches her hand instead of the handle of the mug. "This doesn't have to be awkward. Okay? We've been through…worse. We'll just…try to take it easy on the alcohol."

Serena smiles softly at him over the table, an agreement, and spends the rest of the morning circling job ads in the classifieds for him to look at, a German-English dictionary open on her lap.

--

She gets the job, comes home from her interview a bundle of energy. She launches herself at him even though his hands are submerged in dishwater, arms around his torso.

Nate laughs and hugs her back, his attempts to keep her clothes dry failing miserably as she hurriedly gives him a summary of the experience, still in his arms.

He grins at her proudly. "I knew you could do it."

Serena smiles back. "You did, didn't you?"

Before he can reply, she scoops up some bubbles from the sink and gives him a beard with them, painting it on with her index finger.

Nate freezes. "You're asking for war, van der Woodsen."

"Bring it!" she cries giddily, and he does.

--

Since they are (obviously) not in America anymore, July fourth passes in Düsseldorf like any other day. Serena and Nate slack off, leave their bed unmade and their dirty dishes in the sink, buy cupcakes with red-and-white icing and some blue sprinkles to put on top. They find the best nearby park and lie down near a big, old tree, on their backs in the grass, watching clouds instead of fireworks.

--

Nate finds it almost unbearably adorable how seriously Serena takes her new job. She gets up early and Nate stays still in bed so that she won't feel bad for waking him, even though the alarm clock wakes them both up every single day. She bustles around, guzzling coffee all the way through her morning routine, and she always leaves him a cup of coffee and a whisper of bye before she rushes out the door.

(Sometimes, Nate lets his eyes open just a little and peeks when she's rushing around with only a towel around her body. And, sometimes, on the days he's faking sleep best, Serena will kiss his cheek after she murmurs bye next to his ear.)

For the boy who could hardly haul himself out of bed at seven thirty for most of high school, Nate is really starting to like mornings.

--

She comes home at around 4:30 p.m. every day, carrying colourful folders and talking a mile a minute about fashion shows and new styles and how Düsseldorf's fashion community might be better than New York…

Nate smiles, pulling her onto the bed next to him, his book abandoned and her folders falling to the floor as she curls into him.

"Maybe you should tell Eleanor," he teases.

Her blue eyes widen and she cries, "Blair! I haven't talked to her in like three days…"

Lying on their stomachs on their bed, feet tangled up together and chins pressed into their pillows, they talk to Blair on speakerphone for forty-five minutes, until she gets sick of them talking more to each other than to her, calls an affectionately annoyed goodbye! at them and hangs up.

--

On the weekend Serena wakes him up by tickling his ribs, giggling playfully as she tells him they're going to Aquazoo-Löbbecke ("there's an aquarium, Natie"). He laughs, drags himself out of bed, and lets her lead the way there.

Chuck calls while Serena is busy making fishy-faces at the fish; Nate steps away from her to answer.

"So…?"

"So…I'm good, Chuck, how are you?" Nate guesses wryly, chuckling to himself as he watches Serena.

"And how's my sister?" he friend asks knowingly.

"She's good. She got a job."

"Yes, I know," Chuck sighs.

Nate rolls his eyes. "Then there probably wasn't much of a point to this phone call, was there?"

"How are you and my sister?"

Nate blows out his breath as Serena turns around and gives him an inquisitive look. Chuck, he mouths, pointing to the phone. She makes a fish face at him, lips puckered and hands at her cheeks pretending to be fins, before she turns around again.

"Nathaniel?"

"We're not together," he mutters.

"Ah."

He isn't sure whether to laugh or frown. "Okay, I'm hanging up now."

--

Saturday night, they go out (to a different club, not the one where…) with a couple of Serena's co-workers who she's sure could be great friends.

Her co-workers are a couple years older than them, a man and a woman who both work in the travel section of Serena's paper and have been dating for two years. They're incredibly nice, speak English with light German accents, and full of suggestions for things in Düsseldorf that Nate and Serena should experience. They laugh kindly as Serena attempts to stumble through German sentences, offering up encouragement. They buy the first round of drinks.

Nate's happy, and this is fun, but he can't help but feel a little awkward. It feels like a date, and Serena's not helping, all pressed against him in their booth, her fingers grabbing his occasionally and one of her feet between his.

"And so I told Johannes…" She's beginning some story about her editor, laughter in her voice. Her fingers thread through Nate's.

When her friends (who, Nate realizes with some surprise, are well on their way to becoming his friends) leave for a moment, he leans toward her, presses a quick kiss against her shoulder. "What're you doing?" he murmurs.

Serena turns toward him, their faces dangerously close together. He could count all the pale freckles on her cheeks right now. "What do you mean?"

"Are you drunk?" He squints at her eyes.

She laughs but she doesn't move away. "No. Just a little tipsy."

He sighs, resting his forehead against her temple. "This feels like a date, S."

She pulls away, shrugging him off. "Don't do this now," she warns him, her voice low.

"So do it when?" He's so frustrated with this. "Tell me when."

But she won't. Instead, she smiles at the guy by the bar who's been eyeing her all night, and gets up to dance with him.

--

Nate's home and in bed at three a.m., trying very hard to be mad at Serena instead of worrying about her. He thought about leaving with some other girl, but he couldn't, and it infuriates him to think that she could just go off with some guy she doesn't even know when he's made it clear over and over again that he wants to be with her.

She tiptoes through the door, her keys jangling a little. Nate doesn't hide the fact that he's awake. She changes into her pyjamas with her back to him; she doesn't look at him once.

"You slept with him," Nate accuses, his voice raw and harsh, as she slips gingerly into bed next to him.

Her hands clutch at the blankets. "You shouldn't have come here with me. You should have let me go."

Nate slams a fist against his pillow, rolls away from her. "I don't know what the fuck you want from me, Serena."

It's quiet for so long that he's sure she's fallen asleep, but then she says quietly, "Natie?"

"What?" he grinds out between his teeth, his eyes squeezed shut.

"I didn't," she whispers, and it sounds like the truth. "I didn't."

--

Their apartment is peaceful and calm in the morning, sunlight leaking in through the windows, the air warm and smelling of summer. Serena's awake before Nate is.

"Hi," she whispers when his eyes open. Her hand is lying on the mattress between the two of them, an olive branch.

He blinks at her sleepily, covers her hand with his own. "Hey."

--

The next weekend they decide to be cultured, so they go on a museum tour, starting with the museum that commemorates the victims of National Socialism, which Nate is pretty sure is more likely to infuse him with depression, not culture. It's all just really goddamn sad, and it doesn't help that Serena's staring at everything with big, sorrowful eyes. It really doesn't help that she starts to cry on the way out the door.

Nate wraps an arm around her and steers them both into the nearest coffee shop, where they sit on the same side of one booth and share a piece of apple cake, their forks picking at it half-heartedly.

"What do we do now?" she asks, giving him half a smile. "Anything fun seems kinda disrespectful."

He runs his fingers through her hair and she leans her head against his shoulder, their cake abandoned. "Let's go home."

"And do what?"

"Uh…watch Schindler's List?"

She punches him in the stomach. "Nate!"

"Sorry! It seemed to fit the theme."

"Sucky theme," she objects.

He rubs her back. "Let's just go to the next museum on your list, okay?"

--

It's the city museum, which is boring, but that's definitely a step up. At least city history isn't going to make Serena cry.

And it actually turns out to be a lucky place to stop, because Serena's in the middle of a half-German flirtatious conversation with their tour guide, flipping her hair, laughing that laugh, when she grabs Nate's arm.

"They're hiring! English tour guides!"

So Nate gets his first-ever job, which happens to come with a goofy uniform and a name tag.

--

Serena lies on the floor and talks to Blair that night while Nate attempts to make spaghetti in the kitchen.

"Yeah, we went to a Holocaust museum…it wasn't a date, B, so it wasn't an inappropriate place – will you stop?!" She pauses. "I swear, I am going to hang up on you."

She glances at Nate, spits, "Your water is boiling. Stop smirking like that."

He keeps on grinning to himself, dumping the noodles into the pot.

--

They eat on a blanket spread out on the floor, an indoor picnic. They only have one plate, since Nate managed to dirty nearly every dish in his effort to cook for them, but they've got two forks and Serena decided that's good enough. They finish nearly all of a bottle of red wine before they even begin to eat.

Two bites in, they both get the same piece of spaghetti.

"You know," Nate says carefully around the noodle that's halfway into his mouth, halfway into hers, "if this were a romantic comedy, or a Disney movie about dogs…"

Serena's eyes are smiling. She sucks her way down the noodle, getting up on her knee and leaning over their plate until she makes it all the way to him and her lips touch his. The noodle breaks; Nate chews and swallows quickly, watching her lick spaghetti sauce off her lips. He leans in again, kissing her carefully.

"Nate," she murmurs, sitting back onto her heels. He pushes their meal aside and moves closer to her.

Her arms go around his neck, pulling him closer, and her mouth opens against his. Nate groans a little as she sits back even further, lying down slowly, pulling him with her.

"What're we doing?" he asks, mouth on her neck, a hand slipping beneath her shirt.

"I don't know," she gasps out breathlessly. "I don't know. Kiss me."

--

Nate wakes up on the floor with his head tucked against Serena's neck and his arm slung over her stomach. Their spaghetti and empty glasses of wine are still sitting next to them.

She shifts against him, moving onto her side and pressing herself close as she blinks her eyes open slowly.

"Hey, you," Nate murmurs gently, pressing a kiss onto her lips.

"Hi," she whispers sweetly. (She kisses him back.)

"Are we going to talk about this?" he asks as she slips a leg over his. Please, let's talk about this.

She nods sleepily, closing her eyes again. "Later. You have work in fifteen minutes."

"Shit!" He throws on his goofy uniform, brushes his teeth. He picks her up and tucks her into bed before he leaves.

--

She meets him after work, on the steps of the museum, coffee in her hands. She loops her arms around his neck, kisses him right there for anyone to see.

"How was your day, honey?" she teases.

Nate kisses her back, his non-coffee-holding hand pressed to the small of her back. "Better now, sweetheart."

--

Serena's first column comes out a week later; she sits crossed-legged next to him under their favourite tree in the park (Hofgarten, the best park in the Old City) as he reads it. "Well?"

"Oh."

"What?"

He makes an apologetic face. "Typo!"

"Are you kidding?! Let me see that!"

She wrestles him for it until her body is pinned under his.

"Joking," Nate tells her. "It's amazing. You're amazing."

Serena shoves him off of her. "And you're a jerk," she huffs, but she's smiling.

--

He takes her out for dinner on his meagre tour-guide pay check to celebrate.

Serena eats salad, her foot skimming up his leg underneath the table. "Listen," she says softly. "Will you hate me if I say I need some time?"

"I could never hate you," Nate tells her honestly, but his smile is small. He fills her glass with champagne again.

"Natie, I want this. I do. Just…give me a little while, okay?"

He sighs. "In that case, S, I suggest you keep your feet to yourself."

She grins at him across the table. "Thank you," she whispers.

--

"Düsseldorf," Nate says very seriously.

"Düsseldorf," Serena echoes, sitting across from him on their bed, her expression equally solemn.

"Düsseldorf."

"Düsseldorf."

"Düsseldorf."

"Düsseldorf," Serena says, and then she giggles.

Nate pumps a fist into the air triumphantly. "Yes! You lose! Finally." He's sitting there in his boxers and socks while she's still fully dressed in her pink-and-beige shirt and tight black pants.

"Fine," Serena pouts, pulling her shirt up over her head and shaking her hair out. She props her elbows on her knees. Sombrely, she says, "Düsseldorf."

--

On one Wednesday they both play hooky off work to spend a day playing the tourists they still kind of are. They go downtown, to the TV tower, Rheinturm, Düsseldorf's landmark. Serena stands on the sidewalk, legs apart and arms thrown into the air, and Nate takes her picture in front of the world's largest digital clock.

"Gorgeous," he says, when she runs over to check out the shot, and she sends him this sweet little smile when she notices that he's looking at her, not the photograph.

Next, they take a cab to Schloss Benrath, which is an old castle that now houses museums in the East and West wings. Serena pulls him around the grounds after they tire of the museums, playing at royalty like they're little kids again.

"Ah, darling, it's so good to be home after our trip abroad."

"Yes, my sweet, those American dignitaries can be so exhausting," Nate agrees as he tickles her.

--

They wander around Königsallee Boulevard one weekend, spending all day there. Serena flits in and out of boutiques, in her element, talking and laughing with shop owners about the new trends and the shipments they're getting in. In one store, she just can't resist, and she pulls several dresses with her into a dressing room. She models them all playfully for Nate, hips jutted and lips pursed; when she asks for his opinion he can only laugh and tell her that she looks beautiful in every one.

The boutique's owner gets a phone call and disappears into the back room, so Serena gets Nate to unzip her. His fingers linger against her back, trailing down her spine. Serena glances over her shoulder and then pulls him past the curtain and into the dressing room. His back against the wall, he kisses her, sliding the dress all the way off her body.

As afternoon fades into evening, they watch the city lights sparkle against the sky and reflect against the water. Nate kisses her by the banks of the canal and a passerby yells at them in German.

Serena laughs, her head tucked against his chest. "What do you think that means?"

Nate kisses her cheek. "Get a room," he guesses, his voice low and husky and his mouth close to her ear.

She tilts her chin up for another kiss. "You wish," she whispers.

And oh, he does.

--

They fall into a rhythm that feels startlingly domestic, but that also feels right. He stops pretending to be asleep in the morning, sitting up in bed and reading the paper while she hurries around, and she sits down next to him if she's got a couple minutes to spare and they kiss until she has to rush out the door.

Nate's happy. They're happy. He wishes they were official, but he's not about to endanger that happiness.

--

One day he comes home to find Serena sitting on the kitchen counter in one of his t-shirts, her feet propped up on a chair. She's got a pencil in her hair and a notebook on her lap.

"Hey, working girl," he greets her fondly, kicking off his shoes and pulling off his jacket. "Jeez, it's hot," he mutters.

She looks up at him through her eyelashes, setting her notebook aside. "You're hot," she replies.

Nate's eyebrows fly up and he takes a couple quick steps toward her, bracing his hands on either side of her body. "Yeah?"

One of her legs curves around him a little, her heel resting at the back of his knee. Her thumbs hook into his belt loops as she teases, "I love a man in uniform…"

He grins as she kisses him, her hand against the back of his neck. "I love…" he mutters against her lips. I love you. "…a girl in my clothes," he finishes, slipping his tongue into her mouth.

Serena smiles back, pulling away. "Hey, Natie?"

"Uh huh?" he asks absently, kissing her jaw.

"I think I'm ready to talk now."

--

They sit on their futon, the one item of furniture that comprises their 'living room' space, facing each other.

Nate reaches for her hand. "I only have one thing to say. And it's that…I want to be with you. You know that."

"Yeah, I know that."

"And?" he prompts, smiling a little, even though his heart is pounding. "Do you want to be with me?"

She nods. "I just…"

"Don't. Don't make excuses. There can't be any left, Serena. We've gone through them all."

"I'd just…I'd rather keep you as my friend then risk losing you if we become something more."

He shuffles closer to her, touches her cheek. "You couldn't ever lose me. You won't. We're kidding ourselves right now; you know that, don't you? C'mon, S. I promise you, it'll be okay. It'll be better than okay. We'll have fun."

"Yeah, we've always had that." She thinks it over for a moment, he can see her thought process painted on her face. And then all of a sudden, she leans over and kisses him, her hand squeezing his.

"Is that a yes?" Nate teases against her mouth, pulling her closer to him.

"Yes. It's a yes." She gives him a brilliant smile. "Let's be together."

--

Nate takes her out to Deutsche Oper am Rhein to see a ballet two nights later to celebrate their official status as a couple. She makes him sit in the kitchen with his back to her as she gets ready. She takes nearly an hour, and he's bored and fidgety by the time she finally declares, "Okay. Ready!"

He stands and turns around. "Finally…"

She's standing in front of him in a blue dress that's cut low in front and clings to her body in all the right places, her hair partially swept back from her face with tiny clips of some sort sparkling in it. She gives him a smile, spins around. "Worth the wait?"

"You always are," he says a moment later, pulling her close to him.

For some reason, she turns down his suggestion that they skip the ballet and stay in instead.

"Have you looked at yourself?" he points out, pouting a little as she drags him out the door.

--

"Hey," she whispers during intermission, snuggling up to his side. "We're on a date."

Nate grins at her, offering up the bottle of water they're sharing so that she can have a drink. "Yeah, we are."

"Going pretty well…" she comments.

"It's going awesome," he corrects her.

Serena grins back at him. "We are kinda awesome at this."

He kisses her as the lights go down. "Should've done it years ago."

--

Nate meets her after work on a Thursday afternoon, standing outside her building with pink calla lilies. "Aw, Natie," she says the minute she spots him, kissing him over the bouquet.

They go out to eat and try Himmel und Äd, which means "Heaven and Earth" and consists of black pudding, stewed apples, and mashed potatoes.

"You know," Serena says, "you wouldn't think this would be good. But it actually kind of is."

Nate nods in agreement. "Like peanut butter on Doritos."

"Yes!" she exclaims. "Exactly like that."

He kisses her neck. Her perfume smells amazing. "Düsseldorf," he mutters against her skin.

She shrugs him away for the sake of propriety, sets her lips in a straight line and replies, "Düsseldorf."

Nate laughs in spite of himself, splutters through, "Düsseldorf."

Serena makes him take off his tie.

--

In bed that night, Nate in his boxers and Serena in his duck-printed boxers and a flimsy tank top, they're slowly making their way through a German harlequin romance. (They figured if they were going to make the effort of learning the language, which has three genders, not just two like English does, they may as well have some fun with it.)

"That word's not in the dictionary," Serena giggles.

"Uh-oh."

"Must be dirty," she says, quirking her eyebrows.

He leans down to kiss her. "Speaking of dirty…"

"You have the worst lines, Nate," she sighs, laughing a little as she pulls him closer.

"S'okay. I've got the best girl."

She pulls the book out of his hands and kisses him again, softly telling him, "That one wasn't so bad."

He settles his hands on her hips, pulls her body onto his, so that she's straddling him. He can't help the way one of his hands slips up her shirt and the other tangles in her hair; can't help the way his body reacts when she moans.

Her hand slips into his boxers and he breaks the kiss, gasps, "Serena…"

She kisses him throat. "Mm?"

"We should stop…"

"No," she says breathlessly, resting her forehead against his. "No, it's okay."

He tucks her hair out of her face, looking into her eyes. I don't want to be a regret.

"I want this," she promises. "I want you."

Nate swallows hard. "Don't run away on me, S."

Her fingers trace paths over his face, down to his neck, his shoulders, his chest. "Nate," she sighs, blinking quickly. "I think I'm in love with you."

He kisses her then, swallows those words so that he'll have them forever. "I love you, too."

Serena's eyes are the darkest, deepest blue he's ever seen. "Show me how much," she whispers.

--

She pokes her head out of the shower when he gets home. "Hey, baby."

"You're home early," he comments. He's tired, but a smile springs to his face the second he sees her. Her hair is wet and sudsy as it falls onto her bare shoulder and her cheeks are scrubbed pink.

"Slow day," she explains as he walks over to her. She kisses him carefully, making sure not to flick any water onto him. "I missed you."

"Back atcha. You know…" Nate pretends to contemplate. "I'm starting to think that transparent shower curtain was a good thing. I could go back to the store, see if they still have them in stock…"

Her wet fingers curl around his collar. "Or you could get in with me."

Shrugging off his jacket, he kisses her again. "You're so smart. What would I do without you?"

--

For her birthday, Nate attempts – that's the keyword: attempts – to make Serena a cake, and in the end the two of them are throwing sticky flour at each other in the kitchen and she's licking icing sugar off his cheek. Everything's a total mess, but she's happy and giggly and cuddly when he gives her a blue teddy bear and a gift certificate to a nearby spa that she loves.

They eat éclairs from the bakery on the floor and kiss on top of the blankets on the bed; they fall asleep all wrapped up in each other.

--

"Best birthday," Serena tells him the next morning with a bright grin, dressed in red shorts and a gauzy white top when she climbs onto him to wake him up.

--

Now that they're together, Nate wants to show this fact off to the entire world, that she's all his. But he also wants to keep her just as his own; he's tempted to put them both on house arrest and just stay in their apartment forever. They go out – dancing and drinking, shopping and shows, long walks and coffee breaks, the occasional trip to the beach. But mostly they stay in, drinking Altbier and cooking for each other, making love and making hopeless attempts at the crossword puzzles in Serena's newspaper.

Even the kinds of things Nate was always glad he didn't have to do, he loves to do with her. She blasts music when she cleans their apartment, dances around the apartment with the broom or sings into the sponge she's using.

"Can I steal her away, Mr. Broom?" he asks, bowing for good measure.

"I think you're making him jealous," Serena whispers into his ear almost an hour later, wrapped up in sheets and his arms.

--

Blair and Chuck plan to visit in the beginning of August. They're going to stay at a nearby hotel, because they are, according to Blair, "Not about to sleep on your dirty floor, Serena."

--

"You're here!" Serena squeals delightedly when she spots them at customs at the airport. Nate smiles, lets her hug both of them first, laughing to himself at the look on Chuck's face when Serena launches herself at him.

"Look at you," Blair says, more quietly, but her smile is just as bright. She touches Serena's cheeks.

The blonde grabs her hands, "I have so much to show you, B. This place is great."

Nate clears his throat. "Düsseldorf."

"Düsseldorf," Serena giggles, pulling off her lightweight sweater, having clearly lost.

Chuck and Blair exchange a look that says we don't want to know.

"C'mon, let's go home," Nate says, pressing a kiss to the side of Serena's head.

He carries her sweater for her. He's a gentleman like that.

--

The day Serena takes Blair to work with her (she's interviewing some designer Nate can never remember the name of), he and Chuck take the opportunity just to hang out, sitting in the kitchen and drinking Altbier.

"You look happy, Nathaniel," Chuck says, complete with a knowing smile.

Nate finishes off his beer, rolling his eyes but grinning anyway. "So do you," he replies.

Chuck nods. "And you…couldn't be happy in New York?"

He beams. "You miss me. Admit it, man."

Chuck nods, opens another beer.

Nate sighs. "I can be happy in New York. I just…don't know if Serena can."

"And she takes precedence?"

He frowns a little. "Of course she does."

Chuck gives him a long, searching look, the meaning of which Nate doesn't quite understand. He leans forward. "What are your intentions with my sister?" he smirks.

--

He and Serena take Blair and Chuck to Königsallee a couple days later; the four of them walk around lazily, nothing to do and nowhere to go.

"You seem really happy here," Blair comments. She sounds a little surprised.

Serena grins, her arm around Nate and his arm around hers as they walk. "We are," she answers for them both.

"But what do you do?" Chuck asks. "In Düsseldorf?"

Nate shrugs. "Lots of stuff."

"But it's so much smaller than the city," Blair points out.

Nate gives Serena a smile as he says, "We have fun."

"Always do," she agrees, kissing him quickly.

"Am I missing something here?" Chuck demands. "Do you just stay in and – "

"Chuck!" Blair snaps.

"Well, what else is there to do?"

"Yes," Nate says sarcastically. "You're right. All we do is have crazy sex. We role play. Serena's always Heidi."

Serena cracks up, turning into his chest to muffle her laughter. "Nice one."

"What?" he murmurs to her. "You've got the hair for it. And she's German, isn't she?"

"I have no idea," Serena whispers. "Maybe?" She looks up at him. "What would you do, be a…yodeler? You know, the guys who wear those…overalls, but they're shorts, and they're always green. And knee socks!"

"Knee socks? Seriously, that's what turns you on?" he teases.

"Ahem," Blair says, half-smiling, half-frowning as she looks over at them.

"Whatever, B, you've missed us so much," Serena insists, and they all know it's true.

--

Serena and Blair both cry a little when they're saying goodbye at the airport, hugging for a long time.

"We miss you," Blair says. "But I'm glad you're happy."

"Miss you too," Serena murmurs before they finally let go and she hugs Chuck while Nate hugs Blair.

"Bye!" Nate calls after them as they line up to go through security.

Serena leans against him, sighing heavily. "Nate?"

He turns to her. "Yeah, babe?"

Her chin quivers a little. "Thank you for coming here with me."

"Thank you for letting me," he replies, wrapping an arm around her and steering her toward the doors.

--

Something changes about a week after Blair and Chuck leave, toward the middle of August, and Nate doesn't quite understand it. Serena seems restless, distracted. He wakes up in the middle of the night and she's got the lamp on, scribbling in one of her notebooks.

Whenever he questions it, she smiles and shrugs away any and all of his worries.

"Tell me," he says, but Serena plays hardball.

"Kiss me," she responds, lips glossy and eyes twinkling.

--

She works, and he works, and they make each other dinner and sleep in late on the weekends.

Nate decides that Düsseldorf's kind of awesome, and Serena is just…awesome. The most awesome, ever.

He's in love with her. And the best part is that she loves him back.

--

"It's almost September," she says softly one evening, picking at her salad.

"Yeah. Are you depressed about the end of summer?" He's teasing, but he really wants to know what's been on her mind lately. Finally.

"No. Well, kind of." She puts down her fork and looks right at him. "I don't think you should defer Columbia, Nate."

"But…"

"You love it there. It makes you happy. You got in all on your own. You shouldn't give up on college so that you can be a tour guide for the next year."

"I'm not giving up, I'm postponing. And I'm doing it so that I can be with you."

"And that's not fair. You have your own life, Nate."

"But…I want this. I want to be here, with you."

"I know." She bites her lip. "I want that, too."

"So…why would you say…"

"You need to go home. To New York." He can see it in her eyes, the determination, the way she's forcing herself to be brave enough to say this.

"I'm not…going to leave you, Serena."

"No! And I don't want you to. But I want you to do…what's right for you." Her foot touches his under the table. "Natie…after all we've been through? We can do long distance. I know it."

He hesitates, unwilling to agree. "It'll be hard."

She offers him a watery smile, eyes glimmering. "Aren't we worth it?"

Nate sighs, thinks about waking up without her next to him, about eating without her laughing at his jokes. He looks her in the eye, agrees sadly, "We always are."

--

He touches her slowly that night, trying to memorize every single inch of her skin.

She's shaking. "Nate," she breathes. "Don't do that. Don't act like something's ending."

He buries his face against her neck. "I'm going to miss you so much."

Serena's hands frame his face, pulling it to her own for a kiss. "We're going to pick back up right here, baby. You and me, Nate, we finally got it together – nothing's going to pull that apart. I love you, so much."

He sighs against her lips. "Show me how much."

--

He calls his grandfather, who calls Columbia. Fifteen minutes later he's back in.

Serena talks in a sweet, upbeat voice about decorating his dorm room and choosing classes and how they'll visit each other all the time.

He kisses her, effectively shutting her up. "Don't you dare let some other guy fall for you."

"What other guy?" she murmurs distractedly, pulling his shirt up and over his head.

--

The night before he leaves neither of them sleeps. They walk down to the Boulevard in the smallest hours of the morning, whispering secrets and sweet nothings, wrapped up in each other. By the time they get back to their apartment, they're ripping each other's clothes off in the stairwell, and they end up having sex on the kitchen floor. Nate picks her up and carries her to their bed afterward, really makes love to her, slowly and gently. She curls up close to him, tears on her cheeks, and he lets her doze in his arms until they have to leave for the airport.

--

Serena cries at the airport, says, "Sorry, I'm sorry," over and over, but the tears keep falling.

"I could st –"

She cuts him off with a kiss, hands clinging to the lapels of his jacket.

"Don't say it," she breathes. "Or I'll let you."

--

Nate goes to class and he plays lacrosse and he smokes up sometimes and he hangs out with Chuck and he gets coffee with Blair and he and Dan kick a soccer ball around in Central Park.

He misses her through all of it.

--

"You're gonna miss Karneval," she muses one night while they're on the phone, referring to the celebrations in November.

Nate sighs into his pillow. "I miss you."

He can hear her hopeful smile as she says, "Thanksgiving's not that far off."

--

Serena meets him at the airport in a pair of his plaid pyjama pants he left with her and a fuzzy white sweater, arms crossed and eyes darting around, seeking him out. He's tired, and jet-lagged, but he grins at her.

"Mensch," he says appreciatively, in German, letting his eyes slide over her body suggestively. Wow.

She rolls her eyes a little and grins back; he drops his bag as she runs to him, throwing her arms around his neck. Her legs kick up off the ground as he spins her around.

--

They have sex in a bathroom at the airport.

--

"Is your family mad I stole you away for Christmas?"

Nate lets her pull him into the apartment via their linked hands, eyes roving over everything. "Nah, it doesn't matter," he tells her absently, noting all the changes in the apartment, articles in colourful frames on the walls, pictures of people he doesn't recognize on the fridge.

He pulls her onto the bed, onto his lap, kisses her cheek. "I want to know everything. Tell me everything."

She laughs, kisses him full on the lips, pushing him back to lie down. "Natie, we text everyday and call every weekend."

"Yeah, but…" He sighs as she curls up to his side, one of her long legs hooked over his. "I miss you."

Serena smiles at him, and he thinks he'll never figure out how to get used to it. It's not some hash-induced daydream anymore, having her as his girlfriend. He knows what it's like to be right here, like this, and he doesn't understand how he's supposed to go back to how anything was before. He misses her. Everyday. A lot.

"What are you thinking?" he asks her softly.

"I'm thinking that I'm tired of thinking," she whispers back, shrugging off her sweater.

--

He gives her a scrapbook to put her articles in for Christmas, and the shampoo she was complaining about the other week because she couldn't find it anywhere in Germany, and a ring.

He watches her face nervously as she opens the small, velvety box. She's blinking quickly, biting her lip, examining it carefully. She doesn't look at him for what seems like a very long time but is probably only a minute or two.

"It's not – I mean – it doesn't…" Nate forces himself to inhale. "It doesn't have to mean anything. It just reminded me of you. I thought…look, there's a sapphire," he points it out, feeling like he's just made a mistake.

Serena's eyes meet his, her gaze steady. "But it could mean something?" she asks, only a small little note of hesitance in her voice.

"Doesn't have to," he insists. His heart is pounding.

She tilts her head. "Nate," she breathes, "how long have you loved me?"

He starts a little at the question, but she looks insistent, so he starts to calculate, months and weeks and days back to their I love yous in this very apartment. But when he reaches it, he finds he keeps going, further and further back, because he loved her way before it was ever okay to tell her so. "A long time," he finally says. He shrugs, almost guiltily, offering her a half-smile. "A long, long time."

"Yeah…" She takes the ring out of the box, slips it onto the fourth finger of her left hand. The fingers of her right hand hook into the collar of his shirt, pulling him toward her for a kiss. "If this is what you need," she murmurs, lips close to his, "to know that I've loved you for just as long…then I'll give it to you."

He grins into the kiss. "It doesn't have to mean anything…"

Serena laughs, sticking a discarded bow from one of their gifts onto his forehead. "It always means something."

--

He catches her awake in the middle of the night, hand stretched out, studying the ring in the moonlight. He presses himself closer to her, tucks his face against her neck.

"What is it?" he asks her sleepily.

She turns toward him and he slips his arm over her, pulls her to him.

"Just…don't…" She takes a shaky breath. "Don't let me go, okay?"

And he hears both sides of the request, the part that says don't break my heart and the part that pleads don't let me break yours.

"Never," he says, kisses the promise onto her lips, traces it onto her skin.

She breaks the kiss as she giggles. "Are we, like, engaged?"

--

They spent New Year's Eve with the windows open, drinking Altbier and watching fireworks, Serena huddled in one of his sweaters and his arms.

--

"I don't want to go," he sighs, forehead pressed to hers in the airport on January fourth. His bags are twice as heavy as they were coming over here, loaded with presents for Chuck and Blair, Lily and Rufus, Eric and Dan and Jenny and Vanessa.

"You have to," she whispers, "You have to get a degree and an amazing job and make lots of money for me." Her voice rises a little at the end, teasing and lilting.

"You want me to…be your sugar daddy?"

She giggles brightly, tilts her chin up to kiss him. "Go before I keep you here."

--

"But that's not fair." Blair stamps her foot, glaring at Nate's phone, which is currently set to speakerphone so that they can all here the conversation. "You should come here. I miss you."

"I miss you too," Serena's voice rings into the room, a little bit grainy but still clearly honest and patient. "But I just…can't get away from work right now."

"Bullshit," Chuck contradicts her lazily.

"Chuck," she sighs back, annoyed.

Nate clears his throat; he's sitting on the edge of the couch, close to the phone, while Chuck and Blair are sitting back and close to one another. "It's okay, S, I'll come see you."

Blair kicks his leg. "No. No, it's not okay. I haven't seen her in months, but I've got classes and Chuck's got the Empire, and we can't go to Düsseldorf right now."

"Düsseldorf," Serena picks up right away, laughing.

"Strip!" Nate orders her, smiling.

Blair frowns. "This is not the time for your little game."

"Listen, B, I'm sorry," Serena says softly, contritely. "But I just can't come to New York right now. We'll video-chat later, okay?"

"No, it's not okay –"

"I have to go. Work stuff," she says apologetically. "I love you guys."

"Serena!" Blair protests, but the dial tone sounds throughout the room. She aims her glare at Nate instead. "Will you please reason with your girlfriend, Nathaniel?"

"Nathaniel?" he asks, laughing a little.

Blair looks ready to rant, but Chuck sends her a look, pulls her a little closer. "We haven't seen Serena in months," he says in a calmer voice.

Nate grins; quells it quickly. "You miss her," he accuses Chuck playfully.

"That's not the point," his best friend deflects.

"I know," Nate sighs. "I know that you haven't seen her in a long time. And I know that she misses you, too – both of you. But…it's my spring break and I've got the time so I'm going over there to see her. She can't come back here yet. She's just not ready."

Blair gives him a long, measuring look, eyes narrowed, and when she finally speaks her voice is softer, more trusting, less angry: "And will she ever be ready, do you think?"

He meets Blair's brown eyes and smiles a little. "Yeah. I don't…I don't know when exactly, but…" He trails off, nodding to himself. "One day."

Chuck huffs. "Easy for you to say. You gave her a ring."

Nate's jaw drops and Blair's eyes practically become slits.

"How did you –"

Blair interrupts him with what is very nearly a shriek.

"You did what?!"

--

When Serena meets him at the airport she's in a skirt and leathery boots, her hair down around her shoulders, and wearing a ridiculously bright blue t-shirt that says NATE'S ESCAPE: Spring Break 2011.

In between kisses, he tells her, "Nate and escape don't rhyme."

She laughs, pulls a larger t-shirt out of her purse and holds it out to him expectantly.

He puts it on.

--

It turns out that Serena's got serious plans for them; they're not going to spend this trip like they did his Christmas break, cuddled together and hiding from the world.

They go to Berlin for three days, stay at a gorgeous hotel, and Nate lets her set the itinerary, pick the restaurants to eat at and the sights to see. He doesn't really care what they do or where they go – he spends most of the trip trying to steal private moments with her.

Back in Dusseldorf, they go out dancing one night and get drunk. Serena has work the next day and Nate follows her there, buys them both gigantic cups of coffee and muffins. He sits quietly near her desk all day, watching her squint at her computer screen or laugh with her co-workers.

"What?" she asks softly when she looks up from her notebooks and designer catalogues to see him smiling at her for what is probably the twenty-fifth time in the past three hours.

"Nothing. You just look really happy." He leans over, gives her a kiss that's not entirely workplace appropriate. "I'm happy you're happy."

She spins in her chair to face him fully. "Are you not happy?"

"Not…totally," he confesses. "Not without you. You're a hard girl to live without, babe."

Serena reaches for his hand, threading their fingers together. "I don't…know what to do about this, Natie." Under the fluorescent lights of her office, she suddenly looks younger, eyes big and blue and cheeks pale. "I'm happy here and you're happy there but…"

"Come home," he tells her softly.

She bites her bottom lip. "Do you remember…not long after we got here…I asked you for time?"

He sighs, leans back in his chair.

"If you…" Her voice shakes so she starts over. "If that doesn't work for you, tell me…"

Serena's hand is still in his, her ring pressing into his skin. He squeezes her fingers. "It works for me. You work for me."

She gets off of her swivel-y chair and sits in his lap instead, arms linked around his neck. "We're going to figure it out, I promise. And when we're living our real lives, when we're settling down – we're going to be together. We're going to do it together."

Nate lets his hand rest on her thigh. "You're living your real life, S. You're doing it without me."

"I won't be the girl who holds you back," she insists, her voice lined with a kind of resolve that makes him think she's thought this over very seriously.

"That's not what this is."

"Not now," she agrees. "But maybe, in ten years, it will be. And you don't get to resent me and I don't get to resent you – I told you, Nate. I won't let us mess this up."

He sighs, presses a kiss to her forehead. "You are so damn stubborn."

"But you love me," she says instantly, blue eyes on his face, asking for confirmation. And Nate nods, smiles back. "Of course I do."

--

After hours in her office, the lights dimmed, Nate pushes her down the hallway in the chairs with wheels, climbing into one of his own so that they can race, and they play around with the photocopier, laughing loudly.

He'd wait forever for her, he knows that. He just wishes he didn't have to.

--

"I hate these goodbyes," he tells her at the airport, wearing his NATE'S ESCAPE t-shirt again, Serena tucked into his arms.

"It's not forever," she murmurs, lips brushing against his neck, hands gripping at his shirt.

"What's not forever?" He breathes her in, coconut shampoo and sandalwood.

She pulls back a little.

"Goodbyes. You and me…I'd put money on forever."

--

His flight is called.

"Don't go," Serena blurts, and then shakes her head as if a swish of her glossy hair will erase those words. "No, go. Go."

"I have one condition," Nate announces.

Her fingers hook through his belt loops. "No fair. I'm emotional. You're mean to me, Natie."

He brushes tears off her cheeks. "Next time, you come see me. Come to New York this summer."

"I'll think about it."

"No." He shakes his head, totally unconcerned about the fact that he very well might miss his flight at this point. "Promise me."

Serena huffs, a couple more tears tracking down her cheeks. "You play dirty, Nathaniel Archibald."

"Promise me."

Her eyes meet his trustingly. "Okay. I promise."

He pulls her in for one last squeeze, whispers by her ear, "You're flying first class."

Then he walks off, laughing to himself as she yells after him, "Economy all the way, baby!"

Nate turns, shrugs at her and makes his most adorable face, but keeps his eyes serious. "Whatever gets you to me, sweetheart."

--

dusseldorf, Serena texts him one day, in the middle of a painfully boring Economics class.

He grins. strip.

didnt laugh! she protests.

strip anyway.

--

Serena calls on April Fool's Day, bright and early in the morning.

"Wake up, sunshine," she tells him sweetly when he mutters a sleepy hello.

"The sun is not awake yet," he groans, but he smiles as he rolls over and tries to blink himself awake a little more.

"I want to talk to you, baby."

He yawns. "Sound serious."

Serena sighs. "Kinda is."

He sits up, a little more alert now. "Okay. What is it?"

"They offered me a promotion."

--

Chuck taps his foot impatiently on the floor. "Serena's upset."

"I'm aware," Nate bites back.

"And if Serena's upset, by default, Blair is upset too."

Nate doesn't respond to that.

"And if Blair is upset, by default, it has an impact on my life."

"Cute," Nate snits.

Chuck sighs. "Nathaniel, I'm going to repeat a piece of advice I attempted to give you before Serena made the impulsive decision to move to Germany. Get her home. And then give her a reason to stay home."

"And how am I supposed to do that?" he demands, throwing a pillow across the room, aiming for Chuck's head. He's gone to Dusseldorf, he's agreed to come back, he's given her a ring. He doesn't know what else there is.

His friend stares at it for a moment, after it has already hit the floor. He meets Nate's eyes and shrugs. "You're the one who's practically engaged to her."

"I never proposed," he shoots back instantly.

Chuck stands there for another moment, lifts his eyebrows, and then leaves.

--

"I never said I was going to take the job," Serena whispers when Nate finally calls her back. She's given him as much time and space as he needs, and more, and he can't help but credit her for that. "I just need to think about options."

He doesn't know what to say to that, so he stays silent for a long time, listening to her breathing.

The pattern (inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale) breaks, hitches harshly, and that's when he realizes that she's started to cry.

"This wasn't going to happen. Not with you and me. This isn't supposed to happen. We should have never –"

"Serena," he cuts her off, keeps his voice even and swallows hard. "You made me a promise, last time I was there. You said you'd come to New York for the summer. Can you still do that? Will you?"

"Of course." She breathes in deeply, shakily. "I promised."

"Okay. So let me book you a ticket. Come to New York this summer." He pauses, then adds, "I love you."

There's a whisper of a laugh across the line, across the ocean and countries that separate them. "You can…book me a first class ticket. If you want."

--

When Serena arrives at JFK, touching down on American soil for the first time in over a year, Nate is armed with a plan and a bouquet of tulips.

"Natie!" she calls when she sees him, her whole face lighting up.

"Hey, you," he laughs as she throws herself into his arms. He catches her, like he's always been more than willing to do. "I missed you."

Her hands touch his cheeks lightly as she kisses him languorously. "Missed you more," she promises.

And he believes her, like he's always been more than willing to do.

--

"Chuck and Blair can't wait to see you," he tells her, kissing her neck in the backseat of their limo as they inch through New York traffic. "I'm sure your mom –"

"Shh," she giggles, her hand cupping his chin as she presses her lips to his.

He's nervous; he can't stop talking. "I think Blair's planned, like, the world's most epic shopping trip for you. She thinks your fashion needs an update."

Serena smirks, resting her head on his shoulder. "We'll see who knows more about fashion."

Nate grins. Doesn't this feel like home?

She lifts her head, leans across him to look out the window. "Where're we going, Natie? This isn't the way to Blair's or my Mom's or the Empire."

He plants a kiss on her cheek, toys with her hair. "First stop's a surprise." Home. You and I are going home.

Her eyes are sparkling. "I love surprises!"

Nate's next kiss lands on the corner of her mouth, the one after right on her lips. "I love you."

--

"This building's beautiful." Serena tilts her head back, takes it all in. She squeezes his hand. "What's here? Who's here?"

He wiggles his eyebrows, squeezes her hand back. "Let's go see."

--

He lets them in to an apartment, opens the door so that Serena can walk in first.

"It's beautiful," she says earnestly, throwing him an inquisitive look over her shoulder. "The windows…this kitchen…"

Nate nods. He doesn't trust himself to speak, so he just follows her as she explores.

"Sunflowers!" she says happily when she steps into the bedroom, sees a vase full of them sitting on the dresser. Her eyes widen a bit as she catches sight of the framed photos, some of the two of them in Dusseldorf, some with Chuck and Blair during their teenage years, a couple during society events, one from when they were very young, Serena kissing his cheek while holding the ice cream cone he'd just agreed to let her have. Some of the clothes she left behind at her mother's are hanging in the closet, there are towels with her name embroidered onto them right next to the ones that say Nate, and her very first article is framed and mounted on the wall.

"Are you…living here now, Nate?"

He gives her a half-smile. "There's more to see," he says, tilting his head.

She stops short in the living room, sees the same set of cushy chair she bought their very first day in Dusseldorf sitting there, waiting to be sat in. She turns to him, "Nate –"

Hands on her waist, he steers her toward the French doors that open onto the balcony. "Check out the view."

She steps out onto the balcony, looks out at the city, and then down into the building's gardens. She takes a sharp breath that makes Nate's heart jump.

"There's a fountain…"

"Yeah, remember, when you were younger and you always said you wanted – "

"I remember," she breathes, still staring downward and outward. "And…you remember."

--

When she finally turns toward him, he takes the opportunity to slip a delicate chain around her neck. Serena's eyes fly down, her hand leaps up to touch what's on it: a house key, polished and pretty; and an engagement ring, a real one this time, Tiffany setting and sparkling diamonds, the band of it engraved.

"I bought this place," he tells her steadily, watching her examine what he's just given her. "For us. For you and me. Serena van der Woodsen," he continues with a small smile, "I want to know if you'll marry me. And if, when you do, this can be our home."

She looks up, her blue eyes wet. "Nate…"

"I love you," he whispers, bumping his forehead against hers. "I love you so much, and I want you to come home to me. Forget Düsseldorf, forget promotions. I know you needed to get away, I understand that, but come back. Be happy here. Let yourself be home."

"But…"

"Isn't this home, S? It's us, and it's here, and…you're not irrelevant. You're everything."

A smile sneaks onto her lips, so slowly that it's torturous for him to watch.

"Natie, god…I make you work so hard for me, don't I?" She shakes her head a little, linking her arms around his neck. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." He shakes his head, too, kisses her gently and quickly. "You're worth it."

--

Lips fused to hers, he moves his hands from where they are, in her hair and on her hip, bending to sweep her up in his arms. She giggles, breaking the kiss, her nose nudging his. He's intent on carrying her inside to the bed, but she says, "Wait, wait. I didn't say yes yet!"

"So say it," he dares her.

"Yes." Serena looks at him, tear-stained cheeks and the biggest smile he's ever seen her wear. "Yes, yes," she says softly, kissing his cheek. "Yes!" she yells, out into the garden, out into the city that Nate is certain has been waiting, just as eagerly as he has, to welcome her back to what has always been her home.

--

She kisses him then, still in his arms, the key to their home and the ring that marks their official engagement still dangling around her neck, pressed between their hearts.