A/N: Timelines are difficult, but if you've read the Private books - all of this takes place pre-series, including everything that happened with Ariana. If you haven't read the books, then none of that matters. Written for a prompt meme I did on LJ; "It was broken long before you came around."

::

the way you move ain't fair, you know

::

The campus looks like something out of a storybook.

In her favourite brown boots, Serena steps onto the cobblestones and feels like she's stolen some other girl's dream.

(What else is new?)

"Hey, gorgeous." A well-dressed boy rests his hand on the handle of her bag presumptuously, slides his gaze down her body. "Can I walk you to your dorm?"

She sighs, wraps her buttery leather jacket tighter around her. Serena is good at boys, knows exactly how much of a smile to give him as she says, "Pembarton. Thanks."

His eyebrows rise and he lets out a decidedly undignified snort. "Really? I thought you were a Billings girl."

Though she has no idea what he's talking about, she meets his eyes and says, "You thought wrong."

::

She breathes, in through her nose, out through her mouth. The dining hall's food tastes a little like cardboard, which makes her miss Dorota, which instantly makes her miss Blair, and in a rush she misses Nate so badly her heart hurts.

Her stomach twists with guilt and she pushes her plate away.

She's surrounded by girls – the others from her dorm, who flocked to her the day she arrived with friendly smiles and offers to trade clothes and advice on teachers – but she finds herself watching the girls at another table.

She has discovered this school's version of herself and Blair.

The Blair girl has long, dark hair, sharp eyes but an easy smile, and is clearly holding court, despite the fact that there are older girls at the other end of the table. The other girls glance at her often, seeking approval, and a boy swings by the table, touching her hair and leaning down for a lazy kiss. The girl Serena equates with herself has the requisite impressive blonde hair and a calmer demeanor, but the other girls seem to defer to her as well – despite the fact that she spends half the meal with her nose buried in a book.

They're not exact matches, but they're close enough.

Her place at this school has already been filled.

Serena looks at her discarded food and does not cry.

::

"So, we have a bet."

She tilts her head back, gazes at the boy standing above her from behind her sunglasses. She's sitting under a tree, legs stretched out and Madame Bovary open on her lap.

"You have a bet," she repeats.

"Yeah, me and the guys." He sits next to her, uninvited. "We were wondering which one of us you'd flirt with first."

"So you're betting on yourselves?" She scrunches up her nose. "Egotistical."

His grin looks like a confession. "We've been pulling out all the stops and you're been giving nothing back."

She pushes her sunglasses atop her head and is momentarily taken aback by how bright a blue his eyes are. "I'm not interested."

"Yeah, don't blame you. I'm not interested in any of those guys, either."

In spite of herself, she smiles. There's something about his conspiratorial tone that she loves.

"You, however…I'm kinda interested in."

"Kinda." Serena glances at the sky. "I'm honoured."

He touches her chin, and she expects him to lower her face so that she'll look at him, but instead he leans in and presses his mouth against hers. For a moment she's too stunned to respond, but she is who she is, so eventually she kisses back.

With one last brush of his lips to hers, he plucks the book out of her hands and bounds to his feet.

She stares up at him, highlighted by the setting sun. "Looks like you won the bet."

He smirks at her. "Not yet."

::

Her book is returned to her in the dining hall the next day; he leans down behind her, his chest touching his back for a moment, says cheekily, "You're welcome."

There is a sentence underlined on page-thirty two, and at the top he's written his name.

Pearson, in defiantly messy script.

::

"Got a present for you."

He falls into step with her as she's leaving her last glass of the day, eyes bright with mischief.

"Mm-hm?" she murmurs noncommittally.

They're both forced to stop when he steps directly in front of her, holding up a bronze medallion with a small square hole in the middle that glints in the sun.

"A subway token." Her eyebrows lift.

He tilts his head. "City girl. I like that." He looks her up and down – checks out her legs in the process, if she's not mistaken. "Wouldn't have pegged you for the type to use public transportation."

The last thing she's looking for is romance, and yet somehow that doesn't stop her from running her tongue over her lips and tucking her hair out of her face. "You could say that I'm a rule-breaker."

He grins. (Her heart stops.) "I like that even more." He reaches for her hand, presses the token into it. "This is my good luck charm. I want you to have it."

She curls her fingers in, enclosing it in her palm. "You're giving me your luck? How generous."

Leaning close, he sinks his fingers into her hair and whispers, right by her ear, "Maybe you'll share with me."

Serena presses her free hand to his chest, pushing him away gently. His skin beneath his polo shirt is warm, his heartbeat is rapid and sure. She winks. "Too soon."

And she walks away, skirt flouncing with every step.

::

On Friday night he catches her before she enters her dorm.

"Can't walk away from a guy like that and not even tell him your name."

She shifts her books from the crook of one elbow to the other; he reaches out and holds them for her chivalrously.

"You know my name, Thomas."

He sets her books down, and she doesn't even have time to question him or protest it before his arms wrap around her waist and he tugs her to him, kissing her full on the lips, almost violently – she thinks she would stumble if he wasn't holding her up.

"I want to know more, Serena."

::

"Thomas Pearson's bad news, you know."

Serena blinks, lifts her face from her Pre-Calculus book to look into the face of the Blair-girl, the one with the long, dark hair who seems to rule this school. She smiles lazily. "Really?"

The girl crosses her arm, taps her foot as if she doesn't have the time for this conversation. "Drug dealer, alcoholic, family issues that years of therapy couldn't fix. Do you need to hear more?"

She taps the eraser-end of her pencil against her textbook, ask innocently, "How do you think I'm getting my E, Noelle?"

Noelle Lange balks, lifts her chin imperiously. "How do you know who I am?" she demands.

"How do you know who I am?"

"Touché," Noelle comments after a moment, a touch of a smile on her lips as she shakes out her hair. She turns to go but hesitates, glances back over her shoulder. "Don't get in over your head, Serena."

Eyes fixed on her homework once again, Serena replies, "If you know so much about me, you should know that I don't drown all that easily."

::

"I've been hearing about you, you know."

His hand hovers near the small of her back, ready to steady her if she trips on any roots as they make their way into the woods that borders the campus.

"Have you?" His voice is cautious, a shade darker than she's used to.

"Yes."

"And what have you heard?"

A wind blows through the forest; it tangles Serena's hair and plays with the hem of her dress. She trips over a small tree stump and decides to abandon her strappy sandals, kicks them off to the side.

"Serena?" He reaches for her, wraps an arm around her waist and presses a kiss to her lips. "What have you heard?"

She lets him help her up a sudden, sharp hill. "I've heard that you drink too much and deal drugs and that your family has its problems."

He stops short; they've come to a clearing and she steps into it instantly, enjoys the feeling of the soft, dewy grass beneath her bare feet.

"And what did you think?" His face is closed off, his chiseled features hardened, and she sees then why some people might find him frightening.

She spins; the hem of her dress billows out around her thighs and she looks upward, sees leaves and stars and moonlight. She laughs, breathes, "I think I'm more dangerous than you are."

::

"You tell me."

"No." He nuzzles again her neck; the stubble on his cheeks tickles her. "You tell me."

They're drunk, sitting in the grass. The air smells like rain.

She's half on top of him and she uses that leverage to push him to the ground. "You tell," she giggles.

"My dad's a drunk." His jaw is clenched but his eyes are light. "My mom's a tremendous drunk."

"My father's gone," she murmurs; his hand moves onto her leg, slips upward and under her dress, but she doesn't complain. "But my mom fucks everything up enough for them both. I love her, but…"

"You hate her," he fills in, matching her quiet tone.

Serena rolls off of him, flops onto her back and stares at the sliver of a moon. "I'm no different than she is."

He turns his head to look at her. "Who the fuck made you think that?"

She laughs and it leaves her with a bittersweet aftertaste. "Me."

Thomas shakes his head and props himself up on one elbow. "You know what I think sometimes?" He watches as she shakes her head, continues, "I think I'm falling in love with you."

She blinks, seeing nothing. "And I think you're drunk, but sweet."

"M'serious. It's this whole other…thing, it's like fucking…magic or something. There's no hate, there's just…me, and I want you."

Lifting her hand, she lets the grass she's been idly plucking rain down on them both.

"Don't," she whispers, lets the breeze carry it away, "please."

::

(He kisses her eyelids, her nose, her lips – she opens her eyes and touches his cheeks, fingers digging into his skin, implores him without a word, I ruin the people I love.

His mouth coaxes hers open and his kisses taste smoky, like sin; already ruined.)

::

"Do you want to stop?" It's a whisper against her mouth as his hands push up her dress.

She sits up a little underneath him so that she can pull her dress over her head, drags his mouth back to hers as his body settles over hers.

He groans quietly, repeats, "Do you want – "

"You," she interrupts very firmly, fingers dancing over the waistband of his boxers.

His eyes are so blue she can't look at them for too long.

"You're sure – "

"I don't need you to take care of me." She laughs into their kiss.

::

meet me by gwendolyn hall, reads the note that somehow makes its way into her book on the French Revolution by the end of the day.

"Half-burned building?" she will ask him later, running her hand along the old walls. "How romantic."

And he will kiss her so softly, his lips ghosting over hers, and she will feel a shiver of tragedy. "Exactly what I was going for, babe."

::

The first day it snows, he buys her hot chocolate and they pretend to read in a corner of the library.

Serena misses home and the Met steps and Blair, but the ache in her chest fades when Thomas lifts his copy of Romeo & Juliet and kisses her behind it. She lifts her own book, too, giggling, and realizes for the first time that it's about bees and flowers and pollination.

Thomas laughs, shrugs as he says, "Kinda sexy?"

::

Josh, Thomas' roommates, makes himself scarce when Serena shows up three hours after curfew. She shoots him a thank-you smile and crawls onto Thomas' bed, where he is lying in his boxers, staring contemplatively at the ceiling. He lifts an arm and she smiles, curling up to him.

She pokes him in the ribs. "What did you smoke?"

He smiles at the ceiling. "I do not even know."

She huffs a little. "You text me before next time. Let me in on the fun."

Thomas laughs, then abruptly says, "You know I have a brother?"

Intrigued, she moves a little so that she can have a closer look at his face. "Yeah?"

Nodding, he says, "He's a dick."

"Oh," Serena murmurs.

She falls asleep there and sneaks out in the morning; they never mention siblings again.

::

Giddy and tipsy off of spiked punch at a school dance on Valentine's Day, she laughs as she twirls under Thomas' arm. She spins back into his chest, links her arms around his neck as his hands find her hips and he laughs into her hair.

"You know you're the envy of all the girls here?"

"Why, 'cause I'm with you? You're so modest, you know that?"

"I like that you're not like them. I love that you're not like them."

She nuzzles her nose against him, smiles and kisses him so that she doesn't have to reply.

They are barely moving, just holding onto each other, when he says, "You always get the guy, don't you?"

"Always is a serious word."

::

"Hey."

She glances up at him. The quad is muddy but the sun is out and they're kicking a soccer ball back and forth.

He grins winningly. "Run away with me."

Serena laughs. She doesn't tell him that she's already running away. She says, "Okay."

(Belatedly, she realizes that Parents' Weekend is a month away.)

::

They're sharing a joint behind his dorm when she says, out of the blue, "I meant it, you know."

The sun beats down.

"Yeah, I know, babe."

::

Interlude: she meets the parents.

His mother laughs when they all go out to lunch together, too loud and too sharp.

"You should marry this girl, Thomas."

His eyes are stormy blue and he doesn't smile, but he holds Serena's hand under the table.

::

She tells him she sees friends and their parents that they should say hi, excuses them both politely from the table where they're sitting with his parents, promises that they'll be right back.

They leave; running down the sidewalk, breathless, hand-in-hand.

::

He climbs into her room, through the window, and finds her crying as she packs.

"What…" He pulls her into a hug.

"My brother," she chokes out, pushes him away.

His eyes darken several shades. "What did he do?"

Serena stares at her clothes, wrinkled and crumpled and shoved into designer luggage.

"What did I do?" she says, an imperfect echo.

He touches her back but she doesn't move.

::

"You're leaving me."

"You're drunk," she retorts. It's windy in the woods; tree branches battle overhead and Serena shivers.

His mouth is sloppy against her, his eyes bleary. "I love you."

She snaps a twig in two. "You don't. I told you not to."

Silence, and then he mutters, "Fuck you."

Eyes closed, Serena says nothing – fuck her is right, she leaves a mess everywhere she goes.

::

Josh sits up, his eyes full of confusion, when Serena slips into the window of the room at five o'clock in the morning.

"Sorry," she whispers, moving toward Thomas' bed.

She kisses him awake, lips grazing his softly. "Hey," she murmurs gently, blinking back tears. "Will you run away with me?"

Half-awake, he smiles. "Yes."

"I want you to take this back." She holds up the subway token. "I can't take your luck with me, that wouldn't be fair."

"Keep it." She opens her mouth to protest but he insists firmly, "Keep it."

She tucks it into the pocket of her jeans, whispers, "Bye."

Thomas' hand catches her wrist. "I meant it, you know."

Serena smiles. "I know."

::

"Where are you going?"

She turns, not entirely surprised to find Noelle standing behind. "Why are you following me?"

The other girl laughs. "You could have done more here, you know. We've been thinking about you."

Serena doesn't know what that means, but she honestly doesn't care. "Trust me," she says quietly, "I've done enough."

::

(Two years and thirty-nine days later, she spots a funeral announcement in Nate's morning paper next to articles about the safety standards of boarding schools and where are we sending our children.

She throws a subway token into the Hudson River.)

::

She plucks Madame Bovary off her messy bookshelf, reads for the first time that sentence he underlined a lifetime ago.

The sun was setting; the sky showed red between the branches.

Serena sighs; the pages flutter shut.

::

I ruin the people I love(d).

::

fin