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she's a little explosion of hope

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The divorce is finalized on a Wednesday afternoon when she’s 28.

Dan hugs her outside her lawyer’s office, says, “I’m sorry,” in this shaky voice that’s the only one she hears anymore.

Nate is waiting outside her new building when she gets there, little grin spreading on his lips when she gets out of the car.

He wraps one arm around her, says, “Come on,” and she doesn’t know where, but she goes.

… … …

They end up on the Brooklyn Bridge, and it makes sense - halfway between where she’s been living and where the rest of her life is. Has been. Maybe will be.

“You’re sad,” he says, and almost seems surprised.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” He doesn’t say you left him, but he’s probably thinking it. “I’m allowed to be sad.”

“Yeah,” Nate admits, nodding slightly. “I just hate seeing you like this.”

Serena bites her lip, wonders what would happen if she dropped her phone out of her hand right now, let it fall into the East River.

“I kind of thought you’d be trying to cheer Dan up,” she admits, and it’s true, really. She and Nate may be old friends, but he and Dan have been closer these last few years.

That makes her sad, too.

Not to mention the fact that they did this before, the two of them. They didn’t let her get between them.

“What? Seriously?” he asks incredulously, and turns his body towards hers a little. He looks upset.

Seren feels a little badly for smiling, but just leans into him instead, her shoulder against his chest, head against his, and he puts his arm around her again.

So she gets him in the breakup.

… … …

He shows up at her place with a bottle of champagne, a bottle of absinthe, and a joint.

“Pick your poison,” he says, and Serena laughs and pulls him inside by the front of his shirt.

They smoke on the balcony with her feet up and perched on the railing and Nate’s hair getting messed up in the wind.

“You’re being an enabler,” she teases after they order a pizza and he pours them each a glass of champagne. It seems like a terrible idea, but she won’t say no.

She’s done worse.

“One night only,” he tells her, sounding serious, and Serena just looks at him. “The Serena I know doesn’t wallow.”

She smiles, a little, takes a deep breath and looks out over the park. “The Serena you know,” she says quietly. He’s staring at her. “Maybe I’m not her anymore.”

He says, “You are,” like he just knows it and it’s not up for debate and it’s just one of those things he doesn’t have any interest in arguing about. Absolute.

They’re quiet a moment, and her stomach rumbles and she sips her champagne and checks her phone to see how long it’s been since they placed their order.

Nate starts chuckling, says, “I’m high,” and Serena can’t help the giggle that bubbles up from her stomach.

… … …

She bumps into Dan at an event they’re both attending - though she wouldn’t have assumed she’d see him here. It’s been three months since they signed the papers. They have an awkward discussion that someone photographs, and then one outlet is saying they’re seen in a ‘heated moment’ and another says it looks like they’re reconciling.

Serena is pissed, because neither of those things are true.

Her mother calls to check on her.

“It’s all silly gossip,” Lily says. “Nothing you haven’t dealt with before.”

“That’s not true,” Serena argues.

“Well,” Lily laughs, “then it’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before.” She can’t help but chuckle at that, too, despite this being her worst fear come to life. (People will say she’s just like her mother.) “I know it’s awful advice, but you just have to ignore it.”

Serena sighs. She knows that. She doesn’t want there to be anything to ignore.

“Besides,” her mother says, “most of the photos we’ve been seeing have been of you and Nathaniel together.”

Serena freezes. “Nate is my friend.”

“Mhm. You two have always been close. Closer at some points than at others.”

“Mom.”

“I’m just saying. Be more careful. You know it doesn’t take much for rumours to start,” her mother explains, and Serena narrows her eyes.

“So you didn’t call to comfort me. You called to warn me not to drag the family name into the papers. Is that it?”

“Darling, no, I…”

Serena ends the call and tosses her phone onto the sofa in her living room. It’s not the first time she’s ever hung up on her mother, but she can’t say it’s a thing that ever feels particularly good.

She leaves her phone there, makes herself breakfast for dinner and doesn’t check for messages until nearly midnight when she’s watching a creepy documentary and doesn’t want to feel alone.

Nate’s texted her twice. Once to see if she’s okay. The next to say he’s worried.

Sometimes she doesn't feel worthy of all his concern.

… … …

Blair brings fresh croissants and coffee from this place they’ve gone to since they were literally children, sits herself down on the purple chair in the living room that she claims is tacky but always seems to gravitate towards.

Nate’s in London for 10 days to work. Chuck took her for drinks last night. Blair’s here today.

“Are you checking up on me?”

Blair scoffs. “Even if I was, you are in no position to say anything about it,” she insists, and Serena isn’t sure that makes any sense. “We want to prevent a spiral.”

“I don’t spiral.” Blair tilts her head, raises her coffee cup to her lips. “Anymore.”

“Mhm.” There’s a pause, and Serena pulls a piece off her croissant - still warm - and pops it in her mouth. “We all know your only reference point for what to do after a divorce is your mother, and we’re not interested in seeing you go that route.” Serena narrows her eyes. “Jumping from one guy to the next, flitting off to all parts of the world, marrying again before the ink is dry on the divorce papers.” Blair flicks her wrist. “You seem to be doing fine, but I think that’s what’s the most startling.”

“Did Nate ask you to do this?”

Blair smiles a bit, crosses one leg over the other. “No, but he’s been hogging you.” Serena rolls her eyes. “Be serious. We all know that the two of you together, at best, just ignore all the issues and use fun to make it seem like everything is fine.”

“That’s not true.” Blair glares. “It’s not totally true. We’ve been talking.”

“You should be talking to a therapist, Serena. Not Nate Archibald, whose own myriad family and relationship issues remain as yet unresolved.”

Serena knows for sure that isn’t untrue, that Nate’s grandfather paid for a therapist and Nate went for a long enough time after his whole family situation with the Captain and being homeless. She’s the only one who knows, and if Blair finds out, it’s not going to be from Serena.

“He’s a good listener,” she says instead of playing into that dig about Nate.

Blaire shakes her head, sips her coffee. Serena realizes both these croissants are for her, because Blair likely won’t have hers.

“Want to go shopping?” Serena asks, and Blair laughs out loud.

“I’m not going to let you distract me from being concerned, but I am going to say yes because it has been far too long since we had a shopping date. Go change. I’ll call a car.”

… … …

She knows the exact moment he’s back in the city. Not because of some messed up intuition, or because he told her his flight number.

He texts her ‘Fucking La Guardia’ with no other context at all and she smiles and continues applying her mascara. She’s supposed to meet her mom for coffee. She’s half expecting her to cancel, though. That happens so frequently it’s almost surprising when they actually do get together.

When he calls her, he just says, “Lunch? Your treat.”

Serena laughs and forgets to tell him she already have plans. Instead she goes, “Oh, my treat?” and likes the way he laughs.

“I’m jet lagged and hungover and really need some pizza.”

“I’ll order,” she tells him, and cancels on her mom (she doesn’t even feel badly) and when Nate shows up with his suitcase rolling behind him, hair messy from the plane and his tie loose around his neck, there’s just a split second where she thinks maybe she’s never been as attracted to anyone as she’s always been to him.

He tells her all about his trip, right up to the ‘meeting’ he had last night where his business associates in London insisted they go out and get drunk at some infamous pub, or something. He says he barely slept, almost missed his wake up call, and barely made it to the plane on time.

Serena wags her eyebrows as she watches him take a bite of pizza so big it should be gross.

“Any pretty British women in your bed when you woke up?”

Nate scoffs, shakes his head. “It’s not even like that.”

She thinks that means he wasn’t necessarily lonely while he was away. It seems he doesn’t want to talk about it, so she lets it slide and instead tells him about her shopping spree and tells him she’ll model things for him after they’re done eating.

… … …

She has this dream she’s 13 and it’s summer and her toes are digging into the sand and Nate sits down next to her, says something about taking her for milkshakes, and she turns to him and kisses him on the mouth.

She wakes up in the morning and remembers the dream when she’s brushing her teeth, and wants to laugh at herself for how silly that is. Before, when she was younger, when she’d run away because she was completely terrified of what she’d done, of losing her best friend and maybe losing him, she used to think of this a lot. What would have happened if she’d just said something before Blair really claimed him? What would have happened if she’d been brave enough to tell him before it was too late?

She’s a grown woman now, though. God, she’s divorced. She married someone - loved him enough to do it.

She calls Blair and asks for the therapist’s number, because clearly she’s got some shit to work through, here, and Blair would only employ the best, right?

She makes the mistake, too, of telling Nate about the dream.

Well, she says, “I had a dream about you.”

Nate grins and says, “I get that all the time,” and then just laughs and asks her what movie she wants to see.

He doesn’t ask for details. She thinks that’s for the best.

… … …

He helps her into a towncar after this benefit they both attended, and she’s tired and had one too many glasses of champagne, and Nate just leans his forearm on the roof of the car and leans down to look at her.

“Come home with me,” she says, and then laughs at how that sounds. “I didn’t mean...I just meant…”

Nate smiles a bit. His bowtie is crooked. “I can’t,” he tells her, and she tries not to pout. He gives a sideward look to the group of photographers standing nearby, all waiting for something they can sell. Serena rolls her eyes and leans her head back against the seat. “This isn’t a ‘give ‘em something to talk about’ moment, Serena.” He sounds too serious for this conversation. He said no and they can leave it at that. She’s not stupid. She knows how this works. “Don’t be pissed.”

“I’m not pissed,” she tells him, then reaches for the door handle. He almost smiles, but she thinks that’s for the cameras, too. “Your loss, Natie.”

There’s his real smile, and maybe she’s being childish, if not downright stupid, but she thinks people will still write about them anyway, because she’s always been the one who could get him looking like that.

… … …

“The other night…” he says over the phone. She’s downtown and he’s uptown and they haven’t spoken at all. Which makes sense, because it was literally nothing.

“I wasn’t propositioning you,” she reminds him, and laughs a bit when an older woman gives her a dirty look.

“I know that.” She can practically see him rolling his eyes. “You seemed sad.”

“I’m always sad.” She recognizes it as a lie as soon as it leaves her mouth. She thinks - and she’s been trying to work through this in her head - she tries to be sad because she’s supposed to be sad. But the sadness is mostly over, now. Now she’s disappointed, and worried about where the hell she goes from here.

She’s not sad, and she’s waiting for Nate to call her out for saying she is.

“You are not.” She smiles, bites her bottom lip and stops walking so she can look at these pretty green roses this shop is selling. “That’s why it seemed weird to me.”

“Oh, so now I’m weird?” she teases, and he says her name. She pulls a $50 out of her pocket to pay for the flowers, mouths a thank you at the seller as she takes them. “I’m fine. This conversation has already been too long, considering all that happened was you being smart about things.”

There’s a brief silence, then he says, “Okay,” and she wonders if he’s got more to say. “It’s just always so damn hard to see that look on your face.”

“What look?” she asks, laughingly.

“You just...I don’t know how to describe it, but that look gets me every time.”

She honestly doesn’t know what that even means. She’s a little afraid to ask.

(There’s still an indent on her finger from her wedding ring. She’s not ready to... She’s not going to do anything with Nate.)

… … …

She stares in the mirror, wondering if she’ll be able to see what he sees.

She laughs and laughs and realizes she’s been making faces at herself for at least three minutes.

… … …

She has a one-night stand with this guy she meets at a bar downtown where she thought she might be able to go without anyone caring who she is. These Wall Street types are always good for good time and not much else, and that’s honestly what she’s going for. She remembers being 15 and doing coke and acting too old for her age, and she’s finished one martini before she starts feeling a little pathetic, but then this guy who looks like a less beefy version of Chris Evans sits down next to her, asks her name and zodiac sign. It gets her laughing as she asks if that line ever works on women, and she figures this must be exactly what he’s going for, because he just grins at her, asks, “You tell me,” and this shouldn’t be cute, but it is.

He’s got a place a few blocks away, he says, and she puts her hand in his when she hops off her barstool.

She leaves at 1:30 in the morning when he’s sleeping and this is all so fucking familiar that it makes her want to scream.

She thought she didn’t do this kind of thing anymore. She laughs to herself in the back of the cab on the way back to her place, because of course she thought that. She’s been married, and hooking up with random people wasn’t an option in that relationship.

She wants to think she’s changed, though, since before. She must have, right? Tonight wasn’t like before. It wasn’t.

… … ...

He’s being totally weird, and she wants to know why. He’s the one who suggested they get together, and now he’s barely talking to her, sipping his beer slowly and then licking the foam from his lips. Serena’s waiting for him to just come out with it already, but it’s taking him too long.

He must realize, when she turns to him so their shoulders are almost squared and her knee hits his thigh hard enough to make him grunt, that she’s about to bring it up.

“I talked to Dan today,” he finally confesses.

It’s absolutely not what she expected.

“Okay,” she says evenly, because she’s not sure how she feels about it, but she also thinks it would be really unfair for her to be upset with him for it.

(Her therapist is talking her through how defensive she can be when confronted with something she doesn’t like. Serena is trying, here.)

“He called and asked to meet for coffee. I couldn’t say no.” Serena nods. “I mean, I could’ve said no, but that felt like a dick move.”

She smiles at him. “It’s okay.”

Nate frowns a bit. “He just wanted to talk about you.” She doesn’t want to seem conceited, or whatever, but of course that’s what Dan wanted. “He knows we spend all this time together. He wanted to talk about how you are and what you’re doing.”

She repeats, “Okay,” again, because she really doesn’t know what to say to that.

She finds she doesn’t even care to know what Nate told Dan. Honestly, she’s still a little bit shocked that Nate’s been hers since the divorce, especially given his and Dan’s complete refusal to fight over her or let her get between them way back when.

“It felt weirdly like betraying you.” Serena shakes her head. He said that all in a rush and it seems like it’s weighing heavily on him. “This - you and me - it’s separate from him.”

Serena stirs her drink with her straw. “You can be friends with him. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t.”

Nate nods his head and plays with his phone atop the bar. “I just want you and I to be friends.” She smiles at him, sets her hand on his back. “Sometimes we’re not, really, and it sucks.”

Serena thinks about it for a second, watches his face, and then when he meets her eyes again, she holds out her hand, pinky extended. He throws his head back and laughs.

“Come on. Swear it.”

“What am I swearing?” he asks, but holds out his hand before hearing, anyway.

“We won’t let it be like before,” she says, and then the weight of that hangs heavy over them. Nate lets out a breath, and they’re both thinking of all the ways they’ve been ‘before’.

He hooks his pinky together with hers, says, “Deal,” and then clears his throat, takes a long drink of his beer.

… … …

Serena rolls her eyes when they’re at lunch near his office and she’s picking at her salad (and eyeing his pasta), because this woman walks by and practically fucks him with her eyes. Nate’s too polite not to smile back, and Serena can’t help but show her reaction. Her fork dangles between her thumb and index finger as she chews and just shakes her head at him.

“What?”

She wants to laugh. She really does.

What? You know what. She might as well have taken her clothes off.”

Nate smirks, sips his wine. “I would’ve done more than just smile if she had.”

“Don’t be gross,” Serena says, nose wrinkled. He laughs out loud. She doesn’t like that he’s making it seem like she’s being ridiculous. “Sometimes I forget that you’re like, attractive.”

“Gee, thanks,” he scoffs, and she really didn’t mean it that way. She doesn’t know how to tell him that she’s always thought he was attractive, but sometimes too much so. To the point where she doesn’t notice other people looking at him. It’s stupid and she can’t really explain it. It’s just this factual thing that comes along with knowing him.

“I didn’t mean it like that. God, Nate, I know you don’t need me to tell you you’re handsome for you to know it.”

“You think I’m handsome?” He’s grinning again, swipes at the bit of alfredo at the corner of his mouth with the pad of his thumb. He’s got better manners than that, but she likes when he ignores that fact, too.

Serena just tilts her head. Do they even need to have this conversation? He chuckles, then, and nods a bit.

“And anyway,” he says, leaning forward a bit, “just because you don’t notice the way people - the way men - look at you doesn’t mean I don’t.” She bites her lip. She notices. She just doesn’t care. “Fuck, I’ve been noticing it since we were 14.”

He sounds jealous. It’s stupid that she likes it.

“Not the whole time,” she says, because it feels like an important distinction.

Nate just looks at her, brow furrowed like he doesn’t understand how she could think that.

“Yes, the whole time,” he argues. She believes him. He has no reason to lie. “The only time I ever liked it was when we were together.”

Serena narrows her eyes. “That’s flawed logic.”

“Naw,” he says, little grin on his lips. He’s playing with the stem of his wine glass and avoiding her gaze. When he looks back up she can see the navy blue in his eyes. “You were my girl.”

He doesn’t need to say any more.

Serena takes a breath, pushes her hair behind her ear, and wonders how they end up talking so much about that brief period when they were together.

She wonders if he wonders, too, sometimes, how they were both too stubborn not to fight for it.

… … …

She needs a couple days on her own, and she figures it might be nice to get away from the city. She ends up in the Hamptons because it’s easy on short notice, and the house is big and cold and there’s no staff around. She doesn’t mind; she doesn’t need them. She makes eggs and toast for dinner and wraps herself in a sweater, reads Faulkner in the formal dining room with her feet up on the table and a bottle of wine open with one glass next to her.

She’s bored after just a couple hours, but she thinks that’s the point, too.

Nate doesn’t text her the whole time she’s gone. She loves that he’s respected that she said she needed time alone away from the city.

She misses him, which is sort of what she was afraid of.

She tells her therapist in her next session. The woman asks her what she missed, what she likes about him, and then says, “He sounds like a very good friend,” and Serena twists her necklace between her fingers, because it feels like so much more than that.

... … …

He’s sprawled out on her sofa, Henry sitting on his stomach and telling him about school, and Blair blurts out, “Why don’t you go on a date, Serena?”

She doesn’t know why it bothers her that Blair’s saying this in front of Henry. It’s a stupid thing to be annoyed by. The kid is old enough to know what dating is. God, he’s old enough to know what a divorce is. He’s asked her so many questions about it, and she’s answered them all as best she can.

Nate drops this toy helicopter they’ve been playing with and it hits him in the face.

She thinks maybe he doesn’t like the question, either.

“Who am I supposed to go on a date with?” she asks, laughing, as if there are no single, worthy men in New York City.

Blair gets a devious look on her face. “I thought you’d never ask,” she says, as she pulls an iPad out of her Birkin bag and brings up an entire list. Serena doesn’t think Blair’s paying attention to anything but this, but then she scolds, “Henry,” when the child’s finger comes a little too close to going up his nose.

“Blair, I don’t want to shop from your weird catalogue of eligible bachelors.” Nate laughs and mumbles something Serena doesn’t catch. Blair shoots him a glare. “Ew! Christopher Ballinger?” Blair clicks her tongue like she doesn’t understand the objection. “I heard he gave…” Serena lowers her voice so Henry won’t hear. “I heard he gave his last assistant an STI. No.”

“Well, you don’t have to sleep with them,” Blair insists, setting her iPad on her lap, knees pressed tightly together. “I know that’s a difficult concept for you, but a date can be just dinner and not…that.”

Nate laughs. Serena throws a pillow at him.

“I don’t have to do anything at all,” Serena challenges, pulls her legs up so her arms are wrapped around her knees. “I’m fine the way things are.”

“The way things are, is that you’re practically dating Nate.”

“Nate is right here,” he interjects, “and doesn’t appreciate you acting like that’s the worst possible scenario.”

Blair flicks her wrist. “New blood, is all I’m saying.”

“She’s not a shark, Blair,” Nate argues, and for some reason that makes Henry laugh hysterically.

“Not what some would say,” Blair says, then stands, hooks her bag over her arm and holds out the other hand to her son. “Come on, Henry. We’re meeting your father at the office.”

Henry jumps down, shakes Nate’s hand, then leans over to kiss Serena’s cheek. She pulls him into a hug, tells him she loves him, and at least waits until Blair is out the door before she breathes out a curse word.

“Your best friend,” Nate says, and it’s either the start of a sentence he’s not going to finish, or it’s a sentence all its own that doesn’t need any more words, because she’ll know what he’s saying anyway.

“She’s…”

“She’s not wrong,” he interrupts, and Serena is a little shocked. “What’re you waiting for?” He sits up, then, puts his elbows on his knees. “You are spending all your time with me. Husband number two could be out there waiting on you and you don’t even know it.”

She’s out of pillows to throw, so she just reaches over and punches him gently on the arm. “Are you trying to get rid of me, then?”

“Never,” he says, and then pauses and looks over at her. “I didn’t mean anything by the husband comment, either. Maybe it sounded bad.”

She shakes her head. “It’s fine. I just...Maybe I’ll never get married again. I’ll just grow old in this apartment surrounded by expensive dresses and…”

She feels tears pricking her eyes, feels absolutely stupid for it, and maybe it’s ridiculous for her to realize only now that she doesn’t want to be alone. Maybe she doesn’t want to be married, can’t even think of doing that again, at least right now, but the thought of being by herself forever is breaking her heart.

“Hey, whoa.” Nate slides over and puts his arm around her, his other hand on her knee. “What happened?”

But he’s used to this by now, right? Her emotions have always been all over the place.

“I don’t want to be alone, but I don’t want to date.”

“Okay.” She can hear him smiling when he says, “I guess it is a good thing I’m around, then.”

She smiles at him, closes her eyes when he presses his lips to her temple.

… … …

She’s in the shower when she notices the mark on her finger is gone.

She thought she’d be sad.

She’s not.

… … …

Nate buys a townhouse, and doesn’t tell her until the deal closes and he’s got the keys in his hands.

“You’re the first person I wanted to show,” he tells her when he comes to pick her up so she can see it.

They walk arm in arm across the Upper East Side from her place, and when they turn onto this quiet street they used to walk along - exactly like this - when they were younger, Serena’s breath almost catches in her throat. It’s raining a little and she brushes a drop off her eyelashes when Nate reaches into his jacket pocket for the key. The SOLD sign out front makes her feel like they’re so old. For some reason, it’s hard to believe they, the two of them, have made it here.

“Ready?” he asks, with this really adorable smile on his face.

“I’ve always loved this one,” she tells him, still a little breathless.

She barely hears him say, “I know,” when he turns to fit the key into the lock.

She kicks her shoes off once they’re inside and Nate’s closing the door behind them. The whole place is empty, walls painted a pale grey and hardwood floors shining. The foyer is cozy in a way she isn’t used to places being in this part of town. She opens the closet to her right, not expecting to find anything, really, but just to look. He puts his hand on the small of her back and pushes her into the hall, then left into the living room. It’s big and open and the light fixture is ugly, but he can replace that if he wants to. There’s a fireplace and a big window and built in bookshelves.

“Nate,” she says, shaking her head.

“The kitchen is great,” he tells her, smiling, and then starts walking past her.

“You can’t cook,” she laughs, and he just shrugs his shoulder. He’s right, though. The place is gorgeous, with green granite countertops that somehow look gorgeous against the all white cabinets and with these stainless appliances. “Upstairs?”

Nate swallows like he’s nervous or something, nods his head.

They’re in the master bedroom, and he opens the doors to the terrace which overlooks his little back yard, and Serena laughs when some of the snow rain blows inside and he murmurs, “Oh, shit,” and closes the doors again.

“This place is amazing.”

“It’s too big,” he says, but it’s not an argument, really, but just a statement. “For just me, I mean. But…” He shrugs, hand tucked into his pocket. “Fuck it, you know?”

Serena giggles and throws her arms around him.

She notices the way he breathes her in once she’s in his arms.

It’s not lost on her that they’re standing in the exact spot a bed might go.

“If you’re not careful, people will start thinking you’re a grown up,” she teases.

Nate keeps her pulled tight against them, whispers, “Shh. Don’t tell.”

She promises, “I won’t,” and her heart beats away in her chest.

… … …

He asks her to help him move, which is just the most ridiculous thing she can possibly think. She told him to just hire someone, and he said he did, but that he also doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, and she’s the only person he knows who’s moved recently. That one stings, a little. She knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.

She shows up at his current place in her sweats and University of Toronto crewneck she doesn’t even actually know where she got, hair pulled up messily and some Nikes on her feet.

They lug boxes and she helps him pack the last of his things as the movers lift the furniture into the truck and take care of all the actual work she’d never do in a million years.

(That’s not true. She did it once, with Dan, when they moved into their own place. He said it was important that they do it together. They ended up fighting over how slowly he was moving, and then he broke her favourite coffee mug by accident, and then they ate pizza and talked it out and ended up having sex on the floor of their new living room amongst boxes of their things.)

She pours herself a glass of water in Nate’s new kitchen. Well, she fills up an empty Starbucks cup from a couple hours ago when they first arrived and she’d needed a caffeine boost to get through the rest of this day.

“What’re you thinking about?” he asks her, brow furrowed. He reaches for the cup in her hand, so she lets him take it.

“Dan, actually.” Nate presses his lips together. “You know that mug I had from that place where you paint your own stuff?”

“The owl one you basically threw paint at until you were satisfied?” he teases, elbowing her gently. “Yeah. You’ve had that since we were 12.”

Serena shakes her head. “It got broken when we moved.”

For some reason she doesn’t want to throw Dan under the bus and say he broke it. It wasn’t deliberate, or anything. They didn’t have the kind of breakup where she wants people to think he was a jerk.

“Feeling sentimental?” he asks gently, and she knows he’s not asking about the mug.

She doesn’t want to make this monumental day for him about her.

“Does your mom still have that picture frame you painted?” she asks, and he just laughs and laughs.

She took the photo he put in it when he gave it to his mom. She remembers them in Central Park with his dad’s expensive camera and her trying to get the exposure right and for him to stop being silly every time she said she was ready. She eventually caught one where his hand was in his pocket and he was smiling at something she’d said. A candid. He said his hair looked messy and didn’t think his mom would like that his shirt wasn’t tucked in, but Serena thinks it must have been fine, because that photo was never swapped out for a different one.

… … …

He plays a weekly indoor soccer game and invites her for drinks with the team after, when she mentioned she was at a dinner meeting and he said he was just a few blocks away. They’re all in sweats and she’s in a suit with a Tiffany necklace on; she’s overdressed but she doesn’t really mind.

He puts his arm around her chair at this bar, leaves it there pretty much the whole time, and leans over to speak into her ear, asking, “Wanna go?” when their glasses are empty.

She says goodbye to his friends, and waits while he does elaborate handshakes with all of them, and then when they’re on the sidewalk, he hitches his bag up onto his shoulder and she just looks at him.

“What?”

“Nothing. I just thought you were more subtle than acting that possessive so none of your friends hit on me.”

His eyes go wide and then he smiles a bit as they walk. “That was for your benefit. Trust me, you don’t want any of those idiots to hit on you.”

“Oh really? Who do you think I want to hit on me?” she asks, almost giggling.

Nate doesn’t answer. He steps in behind her as they let another couple pass on the sidewalk.

They open a couple beers at his place, then she gets sleepy and he won’t let her go home alone, even in a towncar.

He practically tucks her into bed in one of his spare rooms, sits next to her on the bed and pushes the hair off her face.

“Sleep well,” he tells her, and she misses him the second the door is closed behind him.

… … …

She doesn’t remember ordering anything, but the doorman has a package for her, and she can’t even wait til she’s inside her place before picking at the tape and pulling it off the box.

Inside there’s a plain white owl mug and a set of paints of every colour under the sun.

There’s no note. She doesn’t need one. She knows who it’s from.

She smiles and puts her hand on her heart and really, really tries to figure out if there’s something wrong with her, because she couldn’t make it work with Nate and he’s perfect for her, so maybe she’ll just never be able to make it work with anyone.

… … …

She needs a dress for this gala for the charity she sits on the board of. It’s not one of the ones that was on her mother’s list of approved organizations she wanted Serena to apply to. Instead, Serena selected a small non-profit that works to give young LGBTQ people access to scholarship programs, free tutoring, and resources that might otherwise be hard to find or afford. Serena honestly loves being able to actually do something with her seat on the board, not just have the title because it looks good for her. She’s been helpful to this organization, and helped secure thousands of dollars in funding. She’s also helped plan this gala, and it’s the biggest one they’ve ever done. Chuck’s helped them with the venue and the catering, and even Blair opened her contacts list to send through some invites to people she knew would be interested.

She’s looking for something that looks nice but isn’t over the top expensive, because she thinks that’d be a little tacky for a fundraiser for this organization. She doesn’t doubt that people will show up in gowns worth thousands, but she’s in the position she is and she doesn’t want to act like she doesn’t know the financial barriers these kids face.

Nate’s sitting here in jeans and a white button down, clean white sneakers on his feet, and a coffee in his hands.

She didn’t even ask him to come. She just said she had to do this today and he said he’d meet her.

She pulls on a floor length sequin gown and steps out, and he just goes, “That’s a lot,” and she steps back into the dressing room and carefully steps out of it. She thinks she looked great - and recognizes he didn’t say she didn’t. It was a little flashy, she supposes.

Then there’s the yellow one with a plunging back that Nate says he loves, but looks ‘too summery’. There’s a mauve high low that she hates, and a halter the salesperson gives her that she doesn’t even put on because she knows it’ll be an awful neckline for her.

“Hey,” Nate calls through the door as she’s zipping a dark green Grecian style that’s nice, but a bit boring. “What about…” She opens the door and he’s right there, looks her up and down and smiles. “That’s pretty.” She shrugs one shoulder and looks in the mirror again. “I found this.”

He’s holding up a plain black floor length gown with little sleeves and a plunging neckline. It doesn’t look like anything she’d normally choose, but maybe that’s a good thing.

“Does this fit my brand?” she teases, because he’s literally just finished a 20 minute rant about one of his colleagues who’s always talking about her ‘personal online branding’ or whatever.

“Just humour me,” he tells her, then reaches for the zipper at the back of the dress she’s got on, pulls it downward. She watches his eyes in the mirror. He’s staring, a little, at her body. “I think it’s sexy.”

She turns her head to look at him. He doesn’t make a habit of saying things like that.

She doesn’t mind, really, when he does.

As she’s looking at herself in the mirror in the dress he’s chosen, she’s trying to decide if she likes it because it looks so great on her, or because he picked it.

She steps out of the dressing room and he just stares at her, says, “Oh, shit,” under his breath and then laughs. She smiles at him and looks in the multi-angle mirror nearby, turns and looks at her butt, and Nate’s looking way to pleased with himself. “You look incredible.”

“It’s nice.”

Nice? Look at you!” he gets up, moves to stand behind her, sets one hand on her hip and she takes a minute to just look at them together, him all casual and her in this gown. “Seriously, it’s like, unfair to everyone else.” She doesn’t know what he means by that. “How’s anyone supposed to pay attention to anything but you, Serena?”

His voice is low, so only she can hear, and she’s trying not to feel too flattered by his words.

“Will you come with me?” she asks quietly, and he just nods his head, pats her hip and says, “Thought you’d never ask.”

So there are a bunch of photos of her in this black dress and him in a black tux and bowtie, his hand on her back. They’ve been friends long enough since her divorce that people are used to seeing them together without it being a big scandal or drama or speculation. The only one who says anything is Blair, and it’s a sarcastic remark about Serena taking fashion advice from Nate instead of her, and Serena mostly ignores it.

She and Nate walk home afterward, taking their time because she’s in these heels and ‘what’s the rush, anyway?’

“You did a really amazing thing tonight,” he tells her, and she takes a moment to be happy that he’s not talking about how she looks, or her jewelry, or anything else superficial. This is important to her and she loves him, a little, for knowing that. “You’re really good at this.”

She shrugs one shoulder, thinks about ages ago and what Blair told her his mother said, and…

“You know, your mother never approved of me,” is what she says, and it’s maybe random and definitely a generalization. Nate furrows his brow, then shakes his head when she looks at him, because this is definitely coming out of nowhere. “She didn’t want me to run the foundation.”

“Well, she was wrong,” he says firmly, and that doesn’t help, really, for some reason.

“She said I’m not the kind of woman she wanted influencing girls, or something.”

Nate stops walking, catches her wrist. They’re standing right under a streetlight, both realize it at the same time and step away so they’re not a total cliche.

“She doesn’t know you like we know you.” She doesn’t have to ask who ‘we’ refers to. “And look at you now. She can’t say a single thing.”

“She’s your mom. Don’t you care what she thinks?”

He shakes his head a bit, grins this boyish grin she swears she’s been seeing for her entire life.

“Not about you,” he says quietly.

Serena feels the smile break on her lips, puts her hands on his shoulders and leans forward to kiss his cheek.

He walks her the rest of the way home, waits til she’s changed into pajamas and pulled her hair up. He unclasps her necklace for her, places it in the palm of her hand, and promises to text to let her know when he’s home.

She’s lying in bed with her laptop open and a glass of sparkling water in her hand when she realizes she didn’t want him to go.

… … …

“Much as it pains me to admit it, you and Nate looked stunning together last night,” Blair comments over brunch in her bed. It’s something of a tradition they’ve never really given up. Serena loves it. Some of her best memories are her with her best friend picking seasonal fruit out of a dish and talking big things. Anything. Silly things.

This doesn’t feel silly.

“Why does that pain you?” she asks, instead of trying to disagree, or something, because Blair’s right. Serena’s seen the pictures. They did look great together.

(Everyone is saying so.)

(And they always have looked great together. That was never in question.)

“Because I’m honestly exhausted from the will they won’t they. I’m trying not to become invested until you decide one way or the other.”

Serena laughs a bit. “Blair.”

“I mean it.” Blair sounds serious. Serena picks up a piece of plum. “If you two can really be just friends, then great. But you and I and half the Upper East Side know that you and Nate can never seem to just leave each other alone.”

“We don’t want to.”

Blair smiles sweetly, sips her coffee, and says, “Mhm,” like that’s exactly her point.

… … …

“We should go sailing this summer,” she blurts out, and he just smiles and looks over at her. They’re walking through the park because he said he was going for a run and she wanted to get a coffee and suggested they meet.

“Like old times,” he says, a little softer than she expected. She remembers summers on his boat with him and his dad, and then with just him once he knew enough that it was safe, and she just…

The first time they kissed she was in a navy blue one piece with little red anchors on it. He’d had on board shorts and no shirt and she was teasing him about his hair, pushed her fingers through it and his hand rested on her hip and he’d just leaned in and done it.

“Maybe we could take a trip,” she says, just to stop herself from thinking about that.

She’s got so many memories that include him; there’s no need to dwell on any specific one.

“Maybe.” He sounds like his head’s a million miles away, so she bumps his hip with hers, which makes him smile in her direction. “Sorry,” he chuckles, then steals her cup from her hand and takes a sip. “I was distracted thinking about you and summer and bikinis.”

“Shut up!” she laughs, shoving at his arm. He just laughs along with her, then throws an arm around her shoulder. “You were not.”

“Was too.” His voice is low, quiet, and she wants to turn her head to look at him, but he’s on her hair. It’s fine. “If I had a dime for every second I spent thinking about it in my lifetime...”

“You’re such a dude. Ugh.” She’s laughing, still, but she feels her cheeks heating up, too.

“You love me,” he tells her in her ear, and she puts her arm around his waist, stops walking and leans over to kiss his cheek quickly while she steals her coffee cup back and pulls away.

“Lord only knows why,” she teases, walking backwards.

He follows, smiling.

She knew he would.

… … ...

She shows up at his place one afternoon with takeout Ramen from their favourite place.

She’s there just in time to see him putting a pretty brunette into a cab.

He sees her as the car drives off, tilts his head like he’s at least remorseful, though he probably has no reason to be.

Serena turns on her heel and starts walking away. She shouldn’t feel this miserable over this. God, he looks the way he does, and he’s wealthy and successful and charming, and maybe most of what she’s feeling is stupid for not thinking that of course this is a thing he does.

She just sort of figured that since he spends so much time with her, he’s not spending a lot of it with other women.

“Serena!” he shouts, and she keeps walking, because what conversation are they going to have? What is she supposed to say? That she’s jealous? “Hey! Serena, wait.”

He reaches for her arm, passes her and stands in front of her on the sidewalk. It’s cold out - hence, the ramen - and he’s not even wearing a jacket. His cheeks are all red.

“Nate, you don’t...I should have called. It was stupid of me not to call.”

“I’m not...That wasn’t…”

She laughs a little bit. “Come on,” she scoffs, trying her best to smile even as she shakes her head. “That wasn’t what it looked like?” He just sighs. “It’s totally fine. I just...I brought lunch.”

“Serena.” She holds the plastic bag out for him, and he takes it without thinking too hard. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”

She shakes her head again. Her hands are cold, so she stuffs them in her jacket pockets and ducks her head so her scarf covers her chin a bit more.

“I need…” His eyes soften, as if it’s strange for her to tell him something honest. Which is completely ridiculous, because he’s literally the one person she tells almost everything. “I need some space.”

Something dark is in his eyes, then, and she realizes they’ve been here before, haven’t they? Him literally chasing her and her telling him she needs time or space or not him.

(I didn’t come back for you. God, she just never does the right thing with him, does she?)

This time, though, she does need him, and it’s all a mess and she doesn’t want to admit that to him, especially not now, like, hours or possibly a matter of minutes after he’s clearly been with someone else.

“Space from what?” he asks, and she thinks he should just know. He should know, shouldn’t he?

She feels her throat start to get tight, and she hates that, and she just says, “You,” and watches him stand there saying nothing for a moment before she walks past him towards her own place.

… … …

She lasts a full two days, and the whole time she’s half expecting him to just show up unannounced, use his key to let himself in, and tell her how unreasonable she’s being.

And she is being unreasonable. It didn’t take her any time at all to see that the reason she’s so bothered is that she doesn’t want him to be seeing anyone else, sleeping with anyone else. The whole entire problem with them is they’re so terrible at telling each other how they feel, it always has to be some big thing when they do it. They can’t ever seem to get their shit together before one of them inevitably hurts the other. She actually doesn’t understand how two people can care for each other the way they obviously do - the way they obviously always have - are so terrified to just be honest with each other about this one thing.

She doesn’t want to do that anymore.

So she’s the one who shows up unannounced, again, and sits on his front step to wait for him. She has a key to his place, too, and she could just let herself in, but after the last time she was here she wonders if maybe they need to redraw those boundaries at least temporarily.

She waits a half hour, sits on her hands encased in their mittens, pulls her scarf up over her nose, and knows she’s smiling too much when she sees him walking down the street in his suit and overcoat.

He steps onto his walkway, practically lights up when he sees her. He sets his bag on the ground, sits down next to her so they’re pressed together.

“Hey you,” he says, and Serena leans against him. She rests her head on his shoulder and he puts his arm around her, and it feels so goddamn comfortable she wouldn’t want to move if she wasn’t so cold.

“C’mon, Natie,” she tells him, standing and reaching for her purse with one hand and his hand with the other. “Make me a drink.”

Serena watches as he takes off his suit jacket, drapes it over the banister of his staircase, then looks at her as he loosens his tie. She won’t lie and say she doesn’t find that sexy as hell.

“What?” he laughs, because apparently he’s feeling clueless today. “Scotch?”

She nods her head, then follows him to the bar cart in the living room. She slips her arms around him as he pours, presses her cheek against his back when she feels him place one hand over hers.

“What’s this?” he asks, a little more sincerely, like he’s just a little worried. He turns, then, and his hands are on her hips. “You’re being pretty cuddly for someone who was mad at me.”

She shakes her head quickly. “I wasn’t mad.” Nate just looks at her. “I was…” She pauses. It’s not like she hasn't been thinking about this. It’s all she’s been thinking about. “I was jealous,” she confesses quietly. Nate lets out his breath. “And a little hurt.”

“Serena,” he almost whispers. He pulls his hands away, then, reaches for two glasses and hands her one. She’s halfway tempted to drink the whole thing in one go. “You and I...we’re not…”

“I know. But we’re something, aren’t we?”

Nate smiles a bit, almost sadly, nods his head. He probably wasn’t expecting her to admit it. “Always are.”

She sits down on his sofa, tugs his wrist so he’ll sit down, too. They both take sips of their drinks, and she wonders if he’s deliberately keeping quiet so she can figure out what she wants to say.

And this is sort of exactly it, isn’t it? This is the thing that makes her think they’re on the same page.

“And I asked for space, but I think what I really wanted was for you to come after me.” Nate sighs. “I know. I know. That’s not fair. You’re always…” He blinks. Serena turns her body more towards his, moves her arm so it’s along the back of the sofa, and traces her finger along a wrinkle on his shirt. “You’ve always done that.”

“I know.”

“You shouldn’t have to chase me.”

He grins a little. “You never stand still. It’s chase you, or don’t have you at all.” She feels her chin tremble. That shouldn’t make her so fucking sad, because it’s the truth and nothing less. “Hey. Stop that.”

She collects her thoughts, sets her hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t want you to be with anyone else,” she finally says, like a confession. That’s what it feels like. It feels big and scary and like she isn’t sure she should say it at all, because the consequences are huge.

“Well, who do you want me to be with?”

Nate.”

“No,” he says, leans a bit closer. She watches his eyes as he looks at her lips. Her heart races a little. “I’m really gonna need you to tell me.” She wants to ask why, and why what she’s said already isn’t enough. “Because we’re honestly too old to play this game anymore, and if you’re saying… I don’t wanna go back and forth.”

That makes so much sense, doesn’t it? This thing they used to do where they can’t figure it out and they push each other away and then gravitate back together, it just feels childish. Now he owns a house and has a job and Serena’s been married and divorced and they’re really running out of time to make a mess of things. She thinks they’re out of chances to try and fail and still be friends.

And she doesn’t want them to just be friends.

So she says, “I want you to be with me,” and makes sure she’s looking right at him so he knows she really means it this time, knows she gets how big this is. She’s not just saying it because she’s jealous. She’s saying it because at this point she can’t actually imagine not being with him.

Nate wets his lips, moves his hand up her arm so it’s on her neck, then pushes it into her hair. “If you don’t mean it… Serena.”

The only thing she can think to do to convince him that this is her and him, and she knows who she is and what she wants, is to move one leg over him and straddle his lap. She’s still holding her drink in one hand as she looks at him, and he just smiles like yes, this is them and this makes it all more real.

“I mean it. I don’t want you to chase me. I don’t want to run. I want to be right here.”

Nate raises an eyebrow, slides his hand down over her hip so his fingertips are splayed on her ass. “Right here?”

She sucks in a breath, which makes him laugh, and then shoves gently at his shoulder.

“Are you gonna kiss me, or what?” she asks, and he just smirks.

“I like this,” he tells her, his voice low. “You coming to me. Saying all that. Climbing onto my lap.” Serena sinks her fingers into his hair at the back of his head. “That.”

“I still know what you like,” she says, partly with confidence and partly with reverence that even now, literally years after she last touched him this way, she knows what makes him make that noise.

“Like you.” She almost whimpers, really, then drains her drink and sets the glass on the table next to them. She places both her hands on his face, but right before she can kiss him (god, she wants to kiss him), he asks, “Are we really doing this, Serena?”

She nods, but figures he needs the words. “Yes,” she whispers, brushes her lips against his. Her hand moves down to the side of his neck. She can feel how quick his pulse is. “We’re doing this.”

“What’re people going to say?” he says, even as he sets both hands on her thighs, moves closer so he can press his lips to her neck.

Serena presses her hips down against him, loves the way he moans against her skin. “Since when do we care what people think?” Nate tips his head up and kisses her full on the mouth, then, which makes her move closer to him still and drape both arms over his shoulders. “Should we wait?”

His hand starts loosening his tie the rest of the way, and he locks eyes with her and shakes his head.

She agrees.

… … …

She’s making french toast when he walks into the kitchen, presses all up against her back, hands sliding over her stomach and then down, and her head falls to the side so he can kiss her.

“There’s coffee,” she manages, and then his hand is right there, and she breathes out, “Nate.”

“Since when do you make breakfast?” he asks, moving his hand back up, but staying just as close to her.

“I’ve picked up a few things since the last time we woke up together.” She turns in his arms, and he’s shirtless and just...She bites her lip and he smiles at her, lets out a low laugh and shakes his head. It’s a little crazy that he doesn’t realize at this point what he does to her, but then again, maybe he’s been trying to ignore it until now. She’s been trying to hide it, too.

“Didn’t wake up together,” he tells her. “I woke up alone.”

“Aww,” she teases, patting his chest. She tries to push him away a bit, but he pulls her against him, leans back against the counter. She thinks maybe they should talk about that, too. “Did you...were you afraid I’d left?”

He shakes his head, looking at her lips. “I smelled food.” She laughs out loud and he leans down to kiss her. “And I mean, I figured. It feels different this time.”

She nods her head. She also loves the way he says her name. “I think so, too.” His hands move up and down her sides. At first she thinks it’s just to comfort her, or something, but then his hands are on her bare skin and she realizes he was pushing up the fabric. “Focus,” she laughs. “Do you want to eat, or do you want to have sex in your kitchen?”

He says, “Both,” darkly, and she recognizes the double entendre, presses her face against his neck.

Stop.” He laughs in her ear, kisses the juncture of her neck and shoulder, pushes her back a bit. “If this is different, it can’t just be about sex.”

His brow furrows for a moment, then he just shakes his head, reaches up to push her hair off her shoulder. “It’s not,” he tells her, and it’s sincere, and she waits for more because she needs more. “Serena, it’s not C’mon. It’s us. It’s never just sex.”

And it’s strange, really, but she never really thought about it that way. Sex seems to be such a thing in their past, this thing they do instead of talking, or instead of addressing issues in their relationships or friendships with other people. Instead of saying how they really felt. Maybe they use it to communicate, but she doesn’t want that to be the case anymore. She needs more than that. She likes the he either realizes it or feels the same way.

Serena places her hands on his face, kisses him gently, and murmurs, “Get the syrup,” against his lips.

… … …

“Nate and I are together.”

Blair’s silent on the other end of the line, and Serena says her name to get her attention.

“Are you, now?” Blair asks, then there’s another pause. “Serena, are you...The two of you won’t survive another disastrous breakup.”

Serena runs her hand through Nate’s hair as he rests his head on her lap and reads on her sofa.

“I know.”

“You’re confident.” Serena shrugs, though Blair can’t see her. “You two will either get married and literally die together, or everything will be a disaster. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” Serena breathes out, and Blair lets out a little sound. “What?”

“I just...Don’t tell anyone this. Not a soul.” Serena laughs, but agrees. “I’ve been rooting for you two and it’s taken everything in me not orchestrate it myself.”

“Why didn’t you?” Serena giggles.

“You’re inseparable. I figured it was only a matter of time.” Nate must’ve heard that, because there’s a little smile playing on his lips. She thinks he’s really just pretending to read at this point. “I think that’s how I’ve felt about you two for as long as I can remember.”

Serena says, “Me, too,” in a whisper, and Nate lowers his book, looks up at her and winks.

… … …

She’s running late to meet him for dinner, because she had a meeting uptown and thought she could get to SoHo with time to spare, and maybe she could have if Elaine Aldridge hadn’t wanted to spend a half hour looking over photos of some of Serena’s most fashionable moments dating back to high school. Serena doesn’t mind, really, but this magazine wants to do this retrospective with a huge interview and she wasn’t going to do it in the first place. They thought she was playing hardball and offered her more money, so she worked that to her advantage and asked to guest edit a future issue, and…

Anyway, she’s 40 minutes late and she texted him as soon as she knew she wasn’t going to make it on time. He said it wasn’t a problem and that he’d be at the bar.

She sees him before he sees her, and she’s just thinking how gorgeous he is, sitting there with a drink in his hand and his head tilted slightly so he can watch sports highlights on the tv the bartender has behind the bar.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, sliding her hand across his shoulders.

He looks her up and down, makes an appreciative humming sound and puts his hand on her hip.

“Worth the wait.”

She tilts her head. He kisses her cheek and tells her she’s blushing.

… … …

Nate sort of wants to host Thanksgiving at his place for just himself, her, Blair, Chuck and Henry, but he hides his disappointment well when the scheduling doesn’t work and Eleanor refuses to let anyone spend the day anywhere but her penthouse just like old times. So it’s all of them, Cyrus, Serena’s parents and Eric.

They started the day eating apple pie in his kitchen, which she’d snuck into his place the night before without him seeing and warmed up while he was in the shower.

Dinner is busy and hectic and Nate tries to keep Henry from being bored out of his mind, since he’s the only child in the room and Nate’s pretty much always looking for a reason to do something more fun than just sit and talk about business with Cyrus.

He’s also steering clear of her dad, which Serena thinks is hilarious, since they literally all grew up together.

“Would you stop?” she teases once Henry’s preoccupied talking to his father. “He’s just my dad. He used to sneak us ice cream and let us stay up past our bedtime. Why are you so nervous?”

“I’m nervous because we were children then, and now I’m sleeping with you.” Serena tilts her head and presses her lips together. “What?”

“I mean, you’ve been sleeping with me for a while. Years. Half our lives.”

Nate just blinks as he thinks about that, then sort of halfway pouts, “Not the whole time.”

He doesn’t sound mad or annoyed or anything, really, other than petulant.

“Nate, none of our parents are in any position to lecture us on relationships,” she reminds him, and he just sighs.

“You’re right. It’s just that you’re just out of that thing with Dan, and... ” Serena grins at him, sets her elbow on his shoulder as they watch the other people in the room all getting along and talking with one another. He’s being really kind of adorable about this. “Has it really been half our lives?”

“Almost,” she says quietly. “Since the first time, anyway.”

“Longer than that, for the feelings.”

She smiles and leans over to kiss his cheek. “You’re kind of sweet, you know?”

“I do know that,” he says with a grin, making her laugh. “I’m still gonna avoid him for the rest of the day, if it’s all the same to you.”

Serena rolls her eyes, walks straight over to her dad and interrupts as he talks to Eric and Blair, and loudly tells him about Nate’s latest work success, sends him over to talk about it.

Blair laughs and links her arm through Serena’s, and Nate just straightens up his posture and shoots her a look as her dad walks over and takes a seat next to him.

She blows him a kiss and lets Chuck refill her champagne glass.

… … ...

He gets her back, so to speak, by inviting his mother for dinner when Serena thought it’d just be the two of them.

It’s awkward, at first, until Anne recognizes the earrings Serena’s wearing, asks when Lily passed them down, and then they’re off and talking about heirlooms and Anne’s saying she would always admire this one particular sapphire ring of Lily’s, and what ever happened to it?

Nate leans back in his chair looking a little too pleased with himself, but Serena isn’t upset with him at all, because maybe she was being a little silly, too, holding onto words his mother said about her when she was practically a teenager.

“Maybe she was mad at me for breaking your heart,” she says to him in the car on the way back to her place.

“Maybe,” he says, like he doesn’t want to admit it.

“You’ve always been a mama’s boy,” she says, and Nate gives her a look like he’s not mad but doesn’t appreciate the comment, anyway. “It’s cute.”

“I know,” he tells her, as if that’s part of the reason he was doing it - women liked it. Serena thinks he’s at least halfway joking. “Wanna grab a drink?”

“Maybe at my place.” Nate’s brow goes up. “Don’t give me that face. I like being alone with you.”

“You know,” he says, leaning over so his lips are close to hers. He makes her so crazy sometimes. “I knew that about you.”

“Nate, baby,” she breathes out, and pulls back just a bit so he can’t kiss her. He seems disappointed, which is exactly what she was going for. Her fingers wrap around the collar of his shirt. “I wasn’t trying to hide it.”

… … ...

Their first official outing as a couple - well, outing that people will care about - is Chuck’s annual holiday party. There’s never a theme, but it’s black tie and extravagant and $8,000 per plate with proceeds going to a charity of Blair’s choosing.

Last year, she wore an all white Badgley Mishka, and left early because Dan wanted to.

This year, she gets ready at Nate’s while he sits on his bed in his tuxedo pants and shirt, collar undone and jacket at the end of the bed. His bowtie’s undone around his neck. She steps out of the bathroom to reach for her phone to see if Eric’s texted her back. She’s got her makeup half done and she still hasn’t decided what to do with her hair. Her dress is hanging in a garment bag in Nate’s closet and she’s surprised he hasn’t taken a peek at it.

“Why would I?” he asks when she mentions it. He’s got his phone in his hand, but he looks up at her. She’s wearing this short robe she bought to leave here after spending the night a few times and deciding his shirts weren’t warm enough to walk around in. “You’re gonna look gorgeous in whatever you put on. Hell, wear that. It’d be a thing by New Year’s.”

Serena rolls her eyes and steps back into the bathroom.

The pictures that end up on the blogs are of her with her hand on his chest, him leaning over to say something in her ear. It looks super intimate and lovely and perfectly sweet and she isn’t even sure what he was saying to her. It doesn’t matter.

He brings her coffee in bed in the morning, says something about going to dinner and a movie later. She wonders if he even realizes there are photos and that they’re the talk of the town. If he does, he doesn’t care, but she wouldn’t honestly be surprised if he just wasn’t paying attention to it at all, was a little clueless.

“Let’s stay in,” she murmurs, looking at him through her lashes and then blowing the steam off her coffee.

Nate quirks a brow. “But we’ll be bored,” he teases, and it’s stupid and silly and she doesn’t want to find it cute, but she does.

Serena shrugs a shoulder, pulls the duvet up a bit more. “So let’s be bored.” He takes this quick little breath, then smiles and shakes his head. “What?”

“Nothing.” She stares at him. “Just...you look so cute.”

“Okay,” she chuckles, sliding down in the bed a bit more.

“Seriously.” He moves his hand over her hip so it’s resting on the bed and he’s leaning across her. “I…” Serena feels warmth spread through her chest and then he smiles adorably and looks down.

“You what?”

Nate leans in to kiss her quickly. “‘S’a secret,” he tells her, then stands and pulls his shirt up over his head.

Serena sets her mug on the bedside table, throws back the duvet. She steps towards him and puts her arms around his waist from behind.

“What kind of secret?” she asks, and Nate just chuckles and shakes his head. “A good secret? Will I like it?”

“Serena.” It sounds like a warning, like she’s embarrassing him, or something.

Really, she just thinks they’ve always been terrible about just saying the words, and she thinks he probably feels like it’s too early, or something, or that she won’t say them back. And maybe this game is really childish, but she loves it. It feels like them. She thinks of all the ways they’ve ever said the words without really saying them, and she sort of likes that

She moves her hands up to his chest and he sets his over hers.

“Must be a pretty big secret if you won’t even tell me.”

Nate turns, then, pushes her hair off her face with both hands and then strokes his thumb along her jaw. “You’re the only one I want to tell.”

“Baby,” she says gently, looking at his lips.

“Don’t do that,” he laughs. “This is coercion! I won’t be plied.”

“Mhm,” she says, then kisses him slowly, pulls a moan from him and waits until he moves his hands down over her body before she steps away. “Okay, Nate.”

She pulls her shirt off, too, places it in his hands as he sighs like she really is torturing him.

She stops in the doorway to the bathroom, throws him a look over her shoulder. “Coming?”

Serena.”

“Don’t worry,” she tells him as he walks towards her. Her heart races a little. God, she loves that look he has that tells her he just wants her. “You can keep your secret if you want to.”

“Yeah?” he asks, hooking his arm around her waist as he reaches over to turn the shower on.

Then he weaves his fingers between hers, brings her hand up to his lips and presses a kiss to the pad of her thumb, and she gets this rush of affection for him that has her smiling.

“I know all your tells anyway.”

Nate laughs, nods, conceding, and presses a gentle kiss to her lips.