A/N: I am usually not one to write sequels to stories that end happily (what's the point, right?) but I started this and finished it, and convinced myself into posting it. It changes nothing about the events in Never Let Me Go but actually adds some sexy time. Which is good! Very good, actually.
That being said, please read Never Let Me Go before reading this. It only makes sense. Maybe I should have mentioned that first. Enjoy!
"I can't believe it," Taylor was saying, pouting over her iced coffee, as I shoved my things into boxes. "I can't believe you're ditching us."
I shook my head, smiling to myself, before looking up at Anika, who was having breakfast at the counter. She was lazily flipping through an old magazine.
"Do you share this same sentiment?" I asked her, wrapping up my picture frames in bubble wrap. I looked down at the picture of the three of us – me, Anika, and Taylor – and felt lightheaded. Was this really happening? Was I really packing up my things and moving to California for Conrad?
She looked up at me. "To an extent, yes. But I'm not as dramatic as Taylor. I prefer to keep my bitterness all bottled up inside, only to be unleashed at the most inconvenient time. Like maybe your wedding."
"Typical Conrad. Asking you to move to California for him. As if you haven't already done enough for that boy! Why can't he just stay here?" Taylor whined indignantly.
"Tay's just jealous because she can't go with you," Anika said, dryly.
I rolled my eyes. "Because he's finishing up med school, Tay. You know that."
She scowled at me for a second before her face softened. She leaned back and sighed. "So this is it, then? This is for real? You and him."
"I think so," I said, even though I had a hard time believing it myself. I had woken up this morning convinced it all had just been a dream until Taylor barged into my room, demanding to know why Conrad Fisher had just dropped off boxes at the apartment.
Even now, packing away my clothes and things, I stopped every now and then to mentally pinch myself. I thought of Conrad, and the both of us, in the ocean. I thought of the way he told me he loved me, and how that could possibly never get old.
"This is so damn romantic," Anika said. She'd abandoned her magazine and had taken to watching me, just like Taylor, who had her head slumped over the couch arm, watching me with sad eyes. "It sickens me. I need a boyfriend."
"Brad from the fourth floor has a crush on you," I suggested.
Anika crinkled her nose. "He has Harry Potter movie marathons."
It was true. Once in every few months I would see a flyer posted up on the general announcements bulletin board for a Star Trek marathon, or Lord of the Rings, or, every Halloween, Harry Potter. A few times he had come to our apartment to personally invite us – or, more specifically, Anika – himself.
"He's adorable though," Taylor said, expressing her approval – a rarity, considering her taste in men, which is basically any man that could possibly be featured on the cover of GQ. "In that Elijah Wood kind of way. You'd never be able to wear more than two inch heels if you were to go out though. Just FYI."
I continued packing through the rest of the day. I took a break before going out to dinner with Anika and Taylor to call my mom and tell her the news, only to find out that Conrad had already gotten to her.
"So, Mom, what do you think?" I asked, biting my lip with my phone pressed close to my ear, sitting in my bathrobe. I was worried she would tell me that this was a stupid mistake, even though some part of me already knew she wouldn't. It felt right in a way that very few things had ever felt, which was actually a little scary.
"Well, Belly, you waited almost an entire day to tell me," she said, pretending to be angry, just for a second. "I think you've already made your decision. I'm not offended. It just means you're growing up." I sighed in relief, feeling guilty that I had waited so long but just glad that she didn't think we had gone insane. "Conrad called me this morning. He sounded… happy. The happiest I'd heard him in a long time."
I looked up to see myself smiling in the mirror. I touched the delicate seashell necklace against my collarbone. "I think he is."
I could hear my mom smiling on the other line. There was no doubt she loved Conrad like her own son. For a second I tried to imagine Susannah's face, breaking into a glorious smile, upon finding out that Conrad and I were moving in together. I stifled the knot that threatened to form in my throat.
My mom was thoughtful on the other line. "I think so, too."
After dinner with the girls, I met Conrad back at the beach house. He saw me walking up the steps and greeted me at the door, smiling like a boy on Christmas morning. It was impossible to resist; I felt myself mirror it immediately. I was reminded of how rare it was to see Conrad like this – Conrad, who was always so serious – and elated that I was now the cause of it.
"Hey," he said.
"Hi." I felt butterflies erupt in my stomach, catapulting me back to the days when Conrad would show up for the weekend, after having driven for five hours from Boston.
He leaned in to kiss me, and he smelled like soap and seawater. We kissed for a minute, and I was sure my knees would have given out had they not locked in for my own safety, before we pulled away, and went inside.
It was a nice night, so we had a beer out on the balcony, laying out on our backs and watching the stars. They were like metallic clusters in the sky, and Conrad, who had always loved astronomy, showed me which stars were which. I could feel his fingers grazing against mine, like wind weaving around wind chimes. We talked for hours, just like old times, laughing and reminiscing. But as much as we were about the past, we didn't linger much on what used to be. This was us now. Belly and Conrad.
"How did Taylor take the news?" he asked, taking a sip of his beer.
"With some resistance. You know Taylor." I traced the lip of my beer bottle, relishing the feel of the breeze in my hair. I tried to think of a better feeling than this, lying out underneath the stars at the beach house, with the boy I had loved since I could remember. I could think of very few. "She's always resented how much attention I gave you," I laughed.
"She doesn't hate me, does she?" he said sheepishly, but his smirk gave him away. He brushed his knuckles against mine. "You know, before the wedding… she sat me down and gave me a talk. Told me to stop fucking around. Which I pretty much deserved." He glanced at me, chuckling.
I leaned my head back, smiling a little to myself. She had never told me about this, but for some reason, I wasn't surprised. "She's a good friend."
He nodded. "She is."
We sat there for a few minutes, saying nothing. I thought of how, with some people, silence strikes a certain fear, or panic – a sudden feeling of paranoia and need to know what the other person is thinking, and if they are thinking about you. I have never felt that with Conrad. With Conrad, silence came naturally, and comfortably. Maybe that was a sign you were meant to be, in a way: when you can be perfectly content just being near each other, without having to say much at all.
Suddenly, I asked the question neither of us was willing to ask.
"Should we tell Jeremiah?" I said, my voice quiet. I watched the silvery tide crash on the sand, scattering like thousands of tiny liquid marbles, before getting sucked back in. "I mean… are we?"
Conrad was silent for a second, thinking. "I've been trying to answer that, too." Then he looked at me, his face earnest. I could tell he was still worried about how this might affect Jeremiah. "But I think that it has to come from me. Is that okay?"
I nodded. I knew that Conrad was especially careful about his relationship with Jere, now that it was slowly back on the mend. He loved his brother and I couldn't find any dispute with that. "Of course."
He sighed, leaning his head back. I felt the fingers of his free hand entwine with mine. They were warm and rough.
"Sometimes I think about everything that happened," he confessed, "and I try to figure out where I went wrong, and if I had done that one thing differently, how things might have ended up. If I had just told you that night at the hotel. But I can't. I knew myself back then, and I don't know that if I had just been honest, if we would be here right now, like this."
I stared at him, the glorious outline of his face. I wanted to kiss him. Always, I wanted to kiss him – but especially when he was deep in thought, and so serious. As I watched him I could no longer see a trace of young Conrad, pouring over his encyclopedias, thirsty for knowledge. He was older now. He knew more, and he had seen too much.
"It's just hard to tell sometimes, that's all – what was the right thing to do."
I wanted to tell him that I understood, and that maybe sometimes what was right and what was wrong wasn't black and white. As much as I had hated him for letting me go – even when he wanted me – I understood why he thought he had to, and when he had told me why, it made sense. It made sense in the way I most feared it would, because Conrad, as much as he had played the part of the jerk in the past, always had a reason.
"It made sense at the time," he said, his eyes hard and focused on the sky. "But I'll never forgive myself for the way I treated you."
I set my beer down, reaching out to trace his jaw line with my fingers, trying to ease away the tension that had gathered up there. He turned to me, his eyes softening, and we kissed.
We stumbled back into the beach house, kissing, his hands tangling themselves in my hair. We hadn't done much the night before, aside from kissing and talking, but I had a feeling about tonight. We went up to his old room and settled on his bed, slowly slipping off our clothes, and just as we were getting intense, he pulled back for a second, looking at me. He asked me if I was okay, and if this was what I wanted. I told him yes, a million times over.
I'd always imagined how it would be like to be with Conrad, and being with him was exactly how I thought it would be. He was gentle but strong, perched above me, kissing me while I moaned. I swung my legs around him and I could feel his sheets crinkling up against us, his ancient bed frame quietly rattling with his thrusts. I felt like I was just drinking him in, like your first cold drink after a long summer's day, and I couldn't possibly have enough. We kept at it until we were too exhausted to, collapsing beside each other, moist with each other's sweat, breathless and laughing.
"I love you, Belly," he whispered to me, his voice warm and deep. I loved the slow-burning desperation I heard behind it. I loved it because I felt it, too.
"I love you more," I said, feeling my heart swell in my chest. The room was dark but out there was a full moon, and a little ghostly beam of light was spilling from his window, cutting right across his chest.
My hair had fallen in front of my face, and he swept it away, tucking it behind my ear. "Impossible," he said.
We lay there afterwards; fighting sleep, slowly noticing as the moonlight began to disappear, blending in with the lightening sky. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of his breathing, and how perfectly it seemed to synchronize with the crashing of the waves. It was one of those moments where you are almost tempted to ask time to stop, just so that you could stay here, and feel this way for as long as the universe would possibly let you.
"At my graduation," he said to me, his deep yet quiet voice vibrating from his chest, "I saw you, in the crowd. I went looking for you afterwards, but you weren't there. So I convinced myself that I'd just imagined it all."
The way he said this let me know that he knew better now, even without me having to tell him.
I smiled against his chest. "And here I thought that it was impossible that you'd notice – me in such a big crowd." I remembered his graduation. Like every memory of Conrad, it never lost its hold. I remembered every detail, and every crushing pang of emotion.
"The weird thing is that I started to have this habit, of looking for you everywhere I went. Even when I knew you wouldn't be. I looked for you anyway."
I closed my eyes. I imagined Conrad Fisher, entering a crowded bar, or a neighborhood supermarket, subconsciously-but-still-consciously looking for me. I began to drift off.
"I'm here now," I mumbled.
"Yeah," he said, his voice slowly fading. I could hear contentment in his voice. "You are."
I fell asleep thinking of how, for once, we were both at the right place at the right time. Such a crucial combination, and when you happened upon it, you had – as impossible as it sounds – utter perfection. And it was.
Conrad was known to be an early riser, but this time I'd managed to wake up ahead of him. I silently crept out of bed, not wanting to disturb him, slipping on a shirt and some underwear. I quietly searched the cupboards and pantry, finally settling on making pancakes and bacon for breakfast. I looked at the time. Or brunch.
As I thought about last night, my senses tingled and my mind fogged over with joy. I could hardly concentrate on the eggs, which ended up slightly burnt on one side. I knew Conrad would tease me about it later, but I slid them onto a plate anyway, saving them for myself. I suddenly had the image of my mom, scolding me for wasting food: waste not, want not.
I was in the middle of frying bacon when I heard Conrad.
"Good morning," he said, kissing the back of my neck. He had taken a quick shower before coming down, and his hair was still damp. "Or afternoon," he mended, having glanced at the clock. He looked skeptically at the sizzling pan on the stove. "You're making breakfast. I was worried you'd do that."
"Shut up," I said. Conrad had always made fun of my cooking. Not only my cooking, but my eating – he was convinced that I had some kind of alien gene. He'd told me once that with my eating habits, I should not be weighing any less than 200 pounds, and the fact that I did so was a miracle.
"You burned the eggs," he pointed out, impishly. He poured himself a cup of coffee. "New rule: when we live together, you're not allowed to cook. Ever."
"I don't know what you're talking about. They're perfectly fine – they're just singed. It adds flavor," I said adamantly.
"The flavor of being burnt."
I turned back around to hide my grin, pretending to be annoyed. "I can't stand you."
His right eyebrow shot up his forehead, before his eyes glittered playfully. "Is that so, Isabel Conklin?"
"Absolutely. Definitely. Incomprehensibly."
He set down his coffee mug, coming towards me, a smirk playing on the very corner of his lips. Suddenly, he turned me around, kissing me urgently. I felt the soft cotton of his t-shirt against my fingertips, his arms wrapping around my waist. He lifted me up, setting me on the counter, never once breaking our kiss.
"Wait," I said, pulling away, breathing heavily. My eyes were still closed. "The bacon. It'll get burnt."
"Good. It can match the eggs," he said huskily, already lifting up the edges of my shirt.
By the time we were done, the bacon had been burnt to indistinguishable black coals and needed to be tossed out. Conrad was in his boxers, standing on a chair, trying to air out the smoke surrounding the fire alarm, which had begun to screech shrilly.
We were both laughing so hard we could barely talk.
Eventually I had to leave to come back to the apartment and pack up the rest of my things. Conrad walked me out to my car and we kissed for twenty whole minutes, pressed up against my car, before I pulled away, my lips singing and swollen.
"Okay. I really have to go. For real, this time."
He smiled, relenting, kissing me on the forehead. "If you say so."
I opened my car door, knowing that if I didn't leave now, I would never be able to. Suddenly I was having doubts about us living together. If it was this hard to separate now – if only for a few hours – how could we ever get anything done in California?
I smiled at the thought. I started the engine, looking up at him. His face was drawn down, serious.
"I'm telling him today," he said. "Jere."
I nodded, the feelings of elation and pleasure ebbing away. They were replaced with concern and trepidation. "Okay. Good luck."
"Thanks," he said, and we said good-bye, before I backed out of the driveway. As I drove away I could still see him standing there, looking after me.
Anika was standing my doorway, staring at me, scrutinizing.
"What?" I said, suddenly feeling self-conscious. Had I put my shirt on inside-out? Had Conrad given me a hickey and I hadn't noticed? I had made sure to inspect myself in my car mirror before I headed out, not wanting to be too obvious about our night's activities. I was not like Taylor, who felt the need to indulge us every time she and Brent had amazing sex.
"You have that odd glow about you," she said. "That I-had-sex-all-night-and-barely-slept-but-it-was-totally-worth-it glow."
I felt myself blush bright red, opening my mouth to protest. But what could I say? She was right. I only hoped this "glow" would go away before Taylor got off work, or else I would be subject to probing and incessant detail-begging for the rest of the day.
Anika seemed satisfied when I closed my mouth and instead ignored her, preoccupying myself with neatly folding my clothes into my suitcase.
"Was it good?" she asked, but didn't allow me to answer. Not that I would have, anyway. "Of course it was! If it wasn't you'd have come creeping in at 2 in the morning, instead of 3 in the afternoon."
She came in, sitting down on the edge of my bed. She took a pile of clothes and began to help me fold them. "I can't believe you're leaving me here with Taylor. That's cold-hearted, Iz. You were the perfect mediator between her and me trying to choke her out."
I laughed at her. "You guys love each other. Admit it."
She only smiled. "Tay and I talked and we decided we're giving you a three month respite – three months for you to realize you hate it in California and come back, and three months before we start looking for a new roommate."
"That sounds fair. Thank you."
She stood up again. "Just so you know, I hate Conrad just a little bit, too. Just because he's taking you away from us. So tell him the icy reception is nothing personal. Just territorial."
And with that, Anika disappeared back down the hall, into her room. I happened to get most of my packing done by the time Taylor got home. We ate dinner together – Chinese leftovers – before she dragged her sleeping bag into my room.
"I don't care if you think I'm being childish," she said, before I could say anything. "I'm your best friend. I'm allowed to every now and then."
So, for old times' sake, we had a sleepover. We watched Pretty Woman and she recited Richard Gere's lines while I mimicked Julia Roberts' until we had to stop from laughing so much. I had a feeling that Anika knew what was going on but never once came in. I think she knew what this meant to Taylor, and she respected that.
When the movie ended, we both retired to our beds, talking randomly – about anything and everything that came to mind. Our childhood, what we were going to do with the rest of our lives, and even if Anika would ever finally give into Brad from the Fourth Floor's attempts to take her out on a date. We had both settled that we thought Anika eventually would. Anika was always resistant to boys that blatantly liked her, but if they held out long enough, she always found their determination somewhat admirable, and said yes.
"I'm happy for you, Belly," I heard Taylor say. "You and Conrad. After all you guys have been through. . . . there's a nice justice to it, that's all. You guys were meant to be."
Her words echoed in my mind. Meant to be. Even though I had thought that, many times about Conrad, it was the first time I had ever really analyzed the weight and ambiguity of those words. Meant to be. Meant to be. I certainly wanted it to be meant to be – us. And it felt as if it could, sometimes.
"I hope so," I breathed.
"Trust me," she only said. "You are."
Taylor and Anika dropped Conrad and I off at the airport. We'd had dinner with Steven and my mom the night before, taking the whole evening to say our goodbyes. My mom held me close, reminding me to call her if I needed anything. Steven also gave me a big bear hug, warning me not to get all "earthy-crunchy, Whole Foods, organic-food-obsessed like everybody in California." He also vowed to come visit.
"You're both taking me to Disneyland," he said, pointing to both Conrad and I. "I hope you know."
I looked at Conrad, who was laughing. Even now, I could sense Steven's jealousy that Conrad was taking me back with him to California, and not him. But that didn't stop him from pulling Conrad aside with a very serious face, telling us women to give them a minute. My mom and I watched them from a distance.
"I believe," she said, amused, "that your brother is threatening Conrad."
"Better that we not mention how ridiculous this looks," I said, smiling.
"Look at Con, trying so hard to take him seriously." She wrapped an arm around me, giving me a kiss on the forehead. I breathed her in, her signature cinnamon smell, and felt something warm prickle my eyes. "If you ever forget how lucky you are, my dear Isabel Conklin," she said to me, "all you need to do is look at everybody who loves you."
Anika handed me my other suitcase, promising to send me the rest of the boxes. Conrad politely excused himself to the bathroom, giving us a few moments to say goodbye.
Taylor leapt at the opportunity. "It's not too late, you know," she said, chewing on the straw of her mocha frap. "To back out. Just say the word, Belly, and we can grab your shit and just peal on out of here."
I shook my head, laughing. "I think I'm okay. Honestly."
"You sure?" Anika asked. Great. Even she had joined in. "Because Tay's right. And Tay's hardly ever right."
"I mean, are you even going to like California? Stanford? What if everybody's mean and Conrad ends up having these hot, hippie, nude colonist neighbors?"
I seriously considered the case that Taylor was presenting. She watched my face tentatively, as if waiting for me to admit my doubts. "If things don't work out," I admitted, "I will be back. I promise."
"Remember, Iz, three months," Anika said, and for a minute we all just stood there, looking at each other, and as I sighed heavily, I felt myself get choked up, just a little.
"For God's sake, just hug me already," I said, and they both rushed in, hugging me at the same time. I closed my eyes, not caring how ridiculous this might look to any onlookers.
They pulled back at the same time, with Taylor sniffling. Always prepared for any occasion, she slipped on her Chanel sunglasses.
"I love you guys," I said. "I promise not to replace you with an Eva Mendes lookalike."
"You better not," Taylor said. Her face prettily crumpled. "I hate goodbyes."
"Me too," said Anika. She gave me one last hug. "Call us anytime. Often is good, so you can check if I've killed Taylor yet."
And with that, they both began to walk away, just in time for Conrad to come back from his supposed trip to the bathroom. He wrapped an arm around me, pressing his lips against the top of my head.
"They're right, you know," he said. "It's not too late for you to back out."
I looked at him, confused at how he could have possibly known they'd try to talk me out of going with him. Then I remembered that he knew Taylor. He knew that she wasn't going to let me go that easily.
"When I said I was in, I meant it." I grabbed my suitcases, and he picked one up, slinging it over his shoulder with ease. I glanced at his profile, smiling victoriously.
"Don't tell me you've changed your mind about me coming with you," I said.
"Me? Changing my mind, about you?"
We walked towards the security line. Overhead, electronic airport announcements were being played.
He looked at me. It was that look that had the enormous capacity to end things or start them. I knew what it meant this time. That look. The beginning of everything.
"Never. You and me, Belly, we're soul-mates. You remember that, don't you? We're bound to each other, whether we like it or not."
I thought of the infinity necklace. Conrad always had a way of knowing things before they happened. Maybe he'd known about California, too. Or maybe not.
We boarded the plane and stuffed our carry-ons in the overhead compartment. I had the window seat and he had the middle seat, holding my hand as the plane lifted off of the ground. As we reached higher elevation, I closed my eyes, feeling the faint motion of his finger against my open palm, light but sure, tracing a sideways eight.
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