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Nate sort of stalls going to see Serena.

He shouldn't, because he doesn't have that much time to begin with; but he finally puts together his magical appearance in his room from the steps and Blair's gardeners-are-sweaty comment…

So he takes the long to her room— which is to say he goes outside to say thanks to Jean and Max, nods along and smiles to their teasing; stands out in the sun for a bit, asks what they're working on and if he can do anything to help later…

It's not because he's nervous about talking to her. It's not. It's because they're nice to him and he likes the sun… even if hurts his eyes at this particular moment in his life.

And when they tell him they have to get back to work, he nods easily, lets them get to it; and only walks back to the house very slowly because he's still feeling a kind of hung over—not because he's nervous.


So far, Nate thinks as he stands outside of Serena's bedroom door, he's done a really great job of following Blair's directions— there's a bit of his hair that's knotted at the back because she braided it and since his head still kind of aches he didn't feel like pulling at it… so he didn't comb it back there.

But otherwise he's showered and dressed and here, so— so far so good. The hallway is quiet, empty. Blair's gone to sit by the pool and her Dad and Roman are somewhere in town.

It's just him… and Serena upstairs and he takes a deep breath, knocks.

She does not answer.

He counts to eleven and knocks again, a little harder, a tiny bit more insistent.

He's at nine when the door swings open. "Blair, I do no—"

Serena's mouth snaps shut, eyes widening when she sees him. And he stares too— just because her hair's in a ponytail and some of it's slipping out around her face, because she's not wearing makeup and her lips are pressed together tightly, because she's wearing a yellow tank-top and her eyes are so blue...

They're looking at each other in silence when she takes a step back, looks away from his face, "Na— wha— Blair said you wer—"

"She said you were leaving," he cuts in, straight to the point as he takes a step towards her, "And I—"

"Yeah I'm bored, okay," she interrupts defensively, stares at a spot on the floor beyond him, "And we spent enough time in Paris that I don't want to go ba—"

"You shouldn't go. Don't go." The words slide off his tongue with bitterly familiarity.

And she shrinks back the tiniest bit, hears their echo too. She shakes her head, lifts a hand as if to ward him off, "You can't be here, it—"

He opens his mouth to speak, but she shakes her head again and then she slams the door shut.

He jumps, surprised at the abrupt gesture. And then he stares at it… because she just— she shut the door. In his face.

"Serena," he calls her name, still staring at the door.

"Go away!"

It sounds muffled through the barrier, but he knows she shouted it. And he sighs, "Open the door!"

"No! You're not— you can't—!" She's quiet and then, "You're supposed to be asleep! Hung-over! Blair said!"

"I am hung-over!"

"Then go sleep!"

"You're leaving!"

"So what?"

"So I don't want you to!"

"So what?"

"Last nig—"

"I'm not leaving because of—"

"Then why else—"

"I told you! I'm bored!"

And he scowls at the door, pounds on it, "Open the door!"

"No!"

"Serena!"

"You ruined everything!"

"Wha—"

"Again!"

And his breath catches, he stares at the door. The shouting is making his head ache a little more and he doesn't know what to say to that— or at least not what to shout out.

So he repeats, "Open the door!"

And she repeats, "No!"

He stares at it for another beat and then sighs, leans forward, touches his forehead to the wood and shuts his eyes.

"I'm not leaving." He says loudly, calmly after a very long moment, "You have to open this door sometime."

Total silence is his response; long and empty and he shifts his head, presses his ear to the door, tries to hear inside.

"This is a third floor."

The words are loud too, not shouted either— and coming from below him, like she's sitting on the floor.

"That's not fair." She continues.

And he slides to the floor too, legs stretched out in front of him and shoulder against the doorjamb. "You making me talk loud when my head hurts isn't fair either."

"Then go away."

"I can't."

"Nate." It's a plea.

And so is this, "Open the door."

It's a breath later and she does, the tiniest crack, he can see the fabric of her shorts, how her legs are blocking the door.

"There. Go away now." She says quietly.

He nudges the door a little, "Serena… just… let me in, we— we should talk and— just…" He pushes it lightly again.

"No." She nudges the door back at him, keeps her legs blocking it; keeps herself positioned away from the opened slit, so he can't see her.

"Last night—"

"Showed we can't— we can't do this; we can't do this anymore, we can't be together and friends without—" she sounds like she's going to cry, "And… just…" she exhales sharply, "Go away…"

She moves to shut the door again.

And he bumps his knee against it, stops it from closing; so that now the door is held in place between them, pressed against him on one side and her on the other.

"Na—"

"Yeah, okay," he whispers tightly, interrupts her, "That's what I… what I'm here to— I'll go. You stay and I'll go."

A pause and then, "What?"

"Stay here, with Blair, okay?" And he knows that technically Blair insists on a picnic tomorrow, all three of them. But that was before Serena took one look at him and shut the door.

"No… you can't," she whispers too, sounds sad.

And he tries again; pushes at the door a little bit, wants to see her. "Serena…"

Her legs hold it in place, it doesn't open; but he sees through the crack how her hand lifts towards her face, "You can't do that…" she breathes, "I'm the one who— wants to leave."

Nate rubs at his hair and then leans his head back against the wall with a thud, doesn't wince when it hurts. "This was your vacation with Blair… and I'm the one who ruined it." He repeats her words back to her.

"I didn't—" she stops herself off, blows out a breath and then, "I didn't mean it like that…" so quiet he barely hears it.

He shuts his eyes. "I don't know what you mean," he admits and it hurts to say it, because Blair's right – he's supposed to know Serena. But he's lost the key somehow and now the signs don't make any sense.

She doesn't respond, so he continues.

"Last night I… it doesn't have to…" he trails off, rubs at his hair again. "Why— why does anyone have to leave?" He wonders quietly, hesitantly, "Why can't we both stay?" Please.

She doesn't answer that either, but he hears the soft, hitching breaths she's taking and winces, murmurs, "Don't cry."

"Don't talk." She snaps back.

He sighs, "Say you'll stay."

"I can't."

"I'll—"

"Stop talking!"

He lifts his head, she's sounding upset now. More upset. "Serena—"

"What is it with you having to say things suddenly!" She demands angrily, but there's a thread of something else in her voice, something shaking.

And his mouth goes dry.

"Why can't you just not talk? Not tell me things! Not go around reminding me that I break hearts and that you—"

The hallway plunges into silence when she stops abruptly and he freezes, is still staring into the crack of the door, watching her hands move as she talks, still as she doesn't, lift to her face as she cries.

Blair had told him not to make her cry; given him a list of pretty simple instructions and he'd already messed one up.

He swallows hard, might as well mess them all then.

"I'm sorry," he tells her softly, reaches through the crack in the door and touches fingertips to her leg; she flinches. "I'm sorry about last night, about what I said… I know that it's not what you want to hear right no—"

"You don't know anything." She counters, "You don't. You… you broke my heart first. You don't get to— to say that to me."

"That I love you?"

"No! Not that— and stop saying it!"

"It's not news!" He snaps back, frustrated suddenly. He pushes at the door, "Let me in."

"No!" She shoves back. "Go away."

"No!" He growls.

"I only keep breaking your heart because you keep breaking mine!"

He gapes. "You're the one that leaves!"

"Because I have to! Because it's the only way to keep us together at al—"

"You don't have to!" He argues, "You could stay and we could try—"

"We did try! And now we're broken-up and we're staying that way and you can't just… just tell me things whenever you feel like it…!" She's still shouting, but she's losing steam now, "We can't be… we can't be together and friends if you just… say everything…" she chides, "Things change when you say—" she stops.

But he thinks he's understanding her a little, what she's saying. "Things change…" he starts carefully, "When I say that I lov—"

She huffs, "Yes. So stop—"

"Serena," he cuts in, tugs on her shorts through the crack in the door, "I'm sorry that I... I said that and you— I know we're broken up and I said it and it upset you… but, it's not—"

She shifts away from his touch and he pushes the door open a little more. She halts it with her hand.

"It's not news," he repeats more quietly this time, "I've… always loved you, it doesn't change—"

"It does! When you say it, every time you say it, it—"

"Serena." He says her name seriously, firmly, sets his jaw; is tired of this suddenly. As if she didn't know, like she hasn't always known how much he—

She stops talking; is quiet, waiting for him to continue. He doesn't, he waits too, doesn't add anything more until after she's breathed out a shuddery breath and asked, "What?"

He takes a deep breath and says it simply, "I love you."

She breathes in sharply and he feels her lean against the door more heavily, "Na—"

"Let me in."

Her response is fast. "No…"

And he feels his lips quirk upwards in a sad smile, "See, nothing changed."

Her breath is a stifled sob then, "Stop it…" she mumbles a little desperately.

He pushes at the door, wraps his hand around the edge of it, shifts so he's sitting on his knees and slips his other hand through the opening too. He touches her knee, her shorts, slides it up to her lap until he can find one of her hands and she… lets him.

"Come here…" he whispers, squeezes her hand gently.

"We don't work."

"Okay." He doesn't argue it; pushes the door a little more, the opening widens.

"I mean it. We… hurt each other and it's not supposed to… it shouldn't… you and me we're not supposed to hurt…"

He nudges it a little more, watches her shift away from it little as he says, "Okay," again.

"I didn't mean to do it, to hurt you, but…"

"I hurt you too…" he finishes for her when she trails off.

"Yeah," she responds, voice hushed, "And you… you love me and I…"

"You love me too," he picks up for her again. He knows, she told him so.

"Yeah," she agrees, voice small.

He pulls her a little, pushes at the door simultaneously— and she moves; shifts so that the door opens.

And then they're face to face, her with her tear streaked face and him with her hand in his.

"You leaving…" he says carefully.

She looks away, but doesn't pull her hand out of his.

He licks his lips, starts over, "Going away it isn't going to make it stop..." He shrugs a little,"It's not… that easy." He pushes past the sudden tightening in his throat, "I can't just stop it, but I'll try to—"

"You're not the only that has to try," she whispers, still not looking at him.

And his breath leaves in a rush; he squeezes her hand reflexively, but she doesn't look up, won't meet his gaze and he wants to ask her why. Why they have to try, why they have stop being in love.

But she looks up then, blue eyes distressed and somber and he can only watch her as she brushes the back of her free hand over her cheeks, "I don't…" she blows out a breath, "I don't know what to do."

He swallows hard, feels kind of like crying too all of a sudden… because it shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be hard at all; she's making it hard. And he has nothing new to say, has really had only one thing to say all along, "Stay."

It flashes over her face so fast he almost misses it, fear and he scoots forward, tugs her towards him a little, says, "It's okay…" automatically.

She slides to him easily and it surprises him a little, the way she just presses her face into his chest, no words or reluctance. His arms go around her and he places a kiss to the top of her head.

"I just… I want you to… to be my friend." She murmurs it against his chest.

And he shuts his eyes, lays his cheek against her hair, "I'm alwaysyour friend."

It's the truth and he thinks that's maybe the thing that's going to save them.

She doesn't reply; they hold still, hugging on the floor, in doorway to her room. And when she grips his shirt between her hands tightly, he tightens his hold on her a little; remembers this vaguely, that this happened already— they did this… on the steps? Hugging and… kissing?

He pulls back a little, is going to ask her about it; but she clings tighter, doesn't let him go and he's smoothing her back gently when she wonders very quietly, "Are you really trying to not love me?"

Nate tenses all over; feels sort of sick at the question, at this whole conversation suddenly— because he can't remember when he started loving her and knows that's maybe not a good thing; because he is trying to stop, but he isn't; because he doesn't think he can stop, but maybe he should, because he wishes he didn't have to try and doesn't really get why he does. He doesn't know how I love you got so messy.

"Isn't that… what you… what you want?" He finally prods; needs to hear what she says.

She's quiet, feels warm against him, and he thinks say no, say no, say no, over and over again.

Until she says, "Ye—yes… it— it is…"

And he doesn't think about it, won't, just gives her what she wants. "Then… ye—yeah…? Okay…" He doesn't mean to make it a question.

And she doesn't respond for a long time; when she finally says, "O—okay, good then..." it sounds strangled, pained, and he wonders what the point of lying to each other like this is… when it hurts and its obvious and it doesn't make sense… why he's going along with it in the first place, why he doesn't just tell her they can't pretend—

"I'll stay…" she adds, "Let's stay."

And then he remembers, that's why.

They stay like that for a long time; on the floor, holding each other— maybe longer than is appropriate for whatever it is they are now. He doesn't know.

He knows that she shifts first, leans back slowly; and that he lets her. He knows that she's not crying anymore, not looking fearful; knows that she looks at him with clear blue eyes and a slightly hesitant expression, knows that when bites her bottom lip like that and shifts her gaze around his face she's unsure of what now too.

So he takes both her hands in his and figures anyplace is a good place to start. "I'll help you unpack?" He offers, stands and pulls her to her feet.

She's barefoot, toes painted yellow like her shirt and he can't help it, he leans forward and puts a kiss on her forehead.

She doesn't seem to mind so much, holds still for it. And then turns around, into her room.

She stands at the center, silently.

And he spots the suitcase, packed and sitting neatly by her bed.

He goes to it and unzips it and in one easy move, lifts it up and spills its contents onto her bed.

"Hey!" She cries, hopping over to him. There's a flood of colorful tops and dresses pouring on her bed and she stands by him and watches it, brigs a hand to her mouth, "It took me a long time to pack that," she says through her fingers.

He digs out the flip-flops from the bottom, chucks them on top of the pile, "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah… like twenty minutes…" She sits on the bed, leans back on the pile, looks up at him.

"No kidding?" He drops the suitcase on the floor.

"Maybe twenty-five."

He picks up a few shirts and tosses them at her head, "Such a hard worker…!" The teasing slips out, a strange brand of easy awkwardness.

And she laughs a little, softly, not entirely herself yet and he smiles back kind of shyly, not entirely sure it's okay either.

And then she tosses clothes at his head— it hits him in the face, but he dodges the second toss. She giggles, backs up on the bed and throws more clothes.

He gets hit in the face and shoulders with her blouses and a dress and a bra and he the laughter drifts out of him, loosens something inside him. He lunges for the pile of clothes, lands on her bed with enough force to jostle it and she squeaks, "Stop it!" When he throws one of her pillows in her direction.

And he cries, "You first!"

They hurl clothes and pillows at each other from opposite ends of the bed. One of her flip-flops catches him in the cheek and he shouts, "Time out! Wounded!" And she falls to the side laughing, throws a skirt at him half-heartedly.

He has a handful of her lacey underwear in his hand when she shouts, "You can't touch those!"

And he's laughing, "Too late!" Tosses them at her with fanfare and gets a beaded sandal hurled at his head for the effort.

He ducks.

By the time they finally run out of stuff to toss, they're weak with laughter, stretched out horizontally on her bed, across from each other and smiling.

And he stares at her, her smile… it's wide and genuine and in love with him, he knows it—

But he's getting this now. She loves him but she wishes she didn't and it's okay as long as he doesn't say it. It's like before again— where he was allowed to love her only if he never mentioned it.

And he's not entirely sure he's okay with that, like he isn't sure not remembering when is good— but right now, basking in that smile, when her leg lifts up and her toes poke him in the stomach, and she giggles, "You have to clean my room…"

He knows it's what he'll do. For now at least.


.tbc.