Chapter 21: Finally
The sky was cloudy and the air crisp as I entered the park and made my way unerringly to the swings where she sat, absent-mindedly tracing patterns in the dust with her toe. Fourteen days ago I had knelt in her blood and begged her to stay with me. Twenty-four hours later she had been sitting up and laughing. Even if the laughter never reached her eyes it had been a sign of life that I had treasured.
Now I realised, with every passing day, that while Ingrid had survived part of her had died in that equipment shed. Something had slipped through my fingers that day and even now I was still struggling to work out what it was. She smiled less, and laughter was as rare as snow in July. Tears fell far more often, and they were not the shallow, wasteful tears of a bad day, but the deep sobs of someone in too much torment to bear.
I straddled the swing and leant back against the chain, watching my partner carefully. Her black hair hung in a thick curtain, and the wind played among the ebony strands. Her green eyes were downcast, intent on the dust beneath her booted feet. She didn't wear the dresses anymore, and I had a deep suspicion that she'd thrown them away. Instead she wore baggy black jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. A scarf was draped around her neck, but it wasn't doing very much to protect her from the cold.
As I watched she suppressed a shiver, and I knew that if I rolled up her sleeve she would be covered in goose-bumps. She sighed and lifted her head, fixing me with a questioning look. 'What is it, Fillmore?'
'Why are you outside in the cold?' I asked gently, knowing that if I said it in the wrong tone Ingrid would get defensive.
'I needed some fresh air. There's only so much bed rest I can take.'
'Does Ariella know you're here?'
Ingrid looked uncomfortable. 'She had to go into college to explain to her tutors why she wasn't back yet. I left her a note.'
'Ingrid-' I sighed, before standing up. 'Come on, I'll walk you home. I know you need the space, but you shouldn't be out here on your own.'
Ingrid stood up wearily and followed me, her hands in her pocket in a feeble attempt to stay warm. She took a deep breath and looked around the park for a moment, before leaving the tiny paradise behind and walking along the sidewalk. Her bootlaces made soft noises as they trailed along. Ingrid hardly ever did her boots up, and I was always amazed that she didn't walk out of them all the time.
'The HIV test came back today,' she said quietly, and I felt my heart thump painfully in my chest. 'It was negative, but they want to check again in a few months, just to make sure.'
'Well, that's a good thing, isn't it?'
'Yeah, of course,' she shrugged, but didn't smile. 'It just makes it seem more real, you know? I mean sometimes I can forget it happens, and then I hear something from the doctor, or see the scars and – it's like I'm never going to leave it behind.'
'What about – um – I mean – do you know if you're…' I trailed off awkwardly, and couldn't help but smile when Ingrid got what I was talking about.
'Pregnant?' she asked, and this time a tiny smile did touch her lips. 'No, I'm not, and yes, that's a good thing too. I don't know what I would have done if either test had come back positive.'
She sighed again and shrugged before lifting her eyes to the sky. 'I mean, I'd have lived with it I suppose, but I'm glad I don't have to.'
'Have you talked to the police again yet?' I asked, tucking my own hands into my pocket. She looked so hurt and alone. It took all my will power not to pull her into a hug, but it couldn't be that way any more. She had to make the first move. Harris had torn Ingrid's trust in any man apart and it was going to take a long time to rebuild that. It didn't mean I was going to give up being there for her though.
'They said they didn't need my testimony. In the face of the evidence all three confessed. Flint and Harris are likely to get a longer sentence than Rossi.'
'Why?' I asked, unable to stop the sneer twisting on my lips. 'Tanja deserves everything she gets.'
'You kissed her once,' Ingrid reminded me, her eyes reading my face with ease.
'More than once actually, but that's not the point. She wasn't like that then. She was, well, a brat, but she wasn't so ruthless.'
'That changed pretty quick. She's the kind of girl who won't stop at everything, and I doubt Juvie will change that.'
I looked up and winced when I saw that we were walking past the cemetery. I would have taken the longer way back to Ingrid's house if I had remembered, but the forlorn rows of tombstones were already decked out to our right, behind a low wall.
Ingrid stopped and jumped up on the wall, swinging her leg over with barely a wince. She didn't jump down the other side, but looked across the gentle green slopes with a distant eye. After a moment I jumped up next to her and took off my coat. When I held it out to her she shook her head at first.
'Oh, all right.' She took it and slipped it on. 'Thanks, but you'd better not get cold.'
I took out the cell phone that Dad had bought me only a week ago. He'd said that they might be a public nuisance, but sometimes they could be useful. I dialled Ingrid's home number. It was fine that she'd left her sister a note, but I knew Ariella. She wouldn't be happy if she thought Ingrid was out on her own. I smiled as the older Third picked up the other end, sounding slightly breathless. 'Fillmore! Is Ingrid with you?'
'Yeah, she's just getting some fresh air. How did you know it was me?'
'Caller I.D. of course. That and you call so much that I recognise your number! Can you ask Ingrid to be home by six, and make sure she doesn't get ill?'
'Thanks, Fillmore. Take care.'
The line disconnected and I looked up to see Ingrid watching me. She was trying to look annoyed, but her eyes were smiling, even if her lips weren't. 'Why did you do that?'
'It'll stop Ariella worrying. You don't seem to be ready to go home yet.'
'It's not home anymore. It's just a house.' Ingrid swept her hair behind her ear. 'Ariella and I have been looking at new places. We've found a great apartment complex in town and were thinking of buying one. Our inheritance will cover it easily.'
I nodded. Ingrid's Dad had been a top scientist, and although I didn't know what her Mom had done I knew that she had been a career woman.
'Are you still waiting until the New Year to move?'
'Probably. I need to be back at school, and Ariella needs to get back to college. We'll see, anyway.'
Ingrid leaned back and lay along the top of the wall with her arms behind her head. It can't have been comfortable, but she didn't seem to mind. Her t-shirt had ridden up a bit and I could see a thin band of white skin. My eyes followed the hem of her top until I saw the lower edge of the ragged scar. The dressings were off of it now, but it was still an angry red. A few days after her surgery an infection had taken hold in the flesh and although it had been cleared easily it meant the scar would be worse. A permanent reminder of what Harris had done to her.
I clenched my jaw at the thought and only looked up when Ingrid's hand covered the end of the healing wound. Her eyes were intent on my face and she shook her head slightly. 'Stop thinking about it, Fillmore. I have. Well, most of the time, anyway.'
'When are you going to see the counsellor?' I asked abruptly, prepared for her usual arguments.
Ingrid groaned end rubbed both her hands across her face. 'Some when. In fact I'll go when you go. Finding that scene must've been pretty traumatic, and I'm sure you want to spill all of your deepest darkest secrets to a stranger,' she said bitterly.
'Ingrid, it's not something that people are making you do to meet some stupid target. It's for your own good.'
'Maybe I don't want what's good for me right now. Maybe I just want what's easiest. Everyone seems to be thinking of my well-being, but not about what I might want.'
'That's because what you want isn't good for you,' I said, hearing the anger in my voice and trying to modulate it. Ingrid was still easily frightened, and the last thing I wanted was for her to withdraw from me.
She met my eyes, a petulant frown on her face before she saw that I was genuinely concerned and sat up with a sigh. As she did so she wobbled slightly and I grabbed her shoulders to stop her falling off of the wall. Ingrid steadied herself and looked at my hand on her shoulder. There was a moment of breathless uncertainty. I was physically cringing because I knew she didn't want to be touched, and she was watching my hand in surprise.
Carefully she lifted her own hand to mine and squeezed my fingers gently before moving my palm away.
'Sorry,' I mumbled.
'Don't be. For one thing people touching me to stop me falling over doesn't bother me now. Secondly, it's you. You'd never hurt me.' She spoke in a quiet, confident voice, and I raised my eyebrows in surprise
She laughed at my expression. It was a quiet sound, but for the first time in ages she looked really happy. 'Fillmore, I knew that all along anyway. It's just prolonged touch of any kind still reminds me too vividly of Harris. Otherwise…'
'Otherwise?' I asked.
Ingrid blushed beautifully and bit her lip. 'Otherwise, let's just say I'd be looking for excuses to be near you.'
My smile instantly became a grin and Ingrid looked away, still flushed pink with embarrassment.
'Let me know when you feel like making up those excuses, okay?'
'Sure.' She grinned and then looked around in surprise as a droplet of rain splashed on her hand. One was followed by many and soon the leaden sky had opened and was pouring rain on the cemetery.
'Come on,' I urged softly. 'Let's get you home.'
Ingrid scowled at the storm above before giving a nod of agreement. 'Okay, I suppose it's back to lying on the sofa and watching the discovery channel.'
'I'm surprised you aren't tired. It's a long walk to the park, even for someone who's not been stuck in bed for two weeks.'
Ingrid didn't reply as she jumped down from the wall, her boots landing heavily on the sidewalk. I followed her example and looked closely at her face. Now that I'd mentioned it the strain was clear around her eyes. She was always pushing herself too hard, and this was no exception.
'Are you going to be okay to walk home?'
'If I'm not we're a bit stuck,' she wrapped my coat tighter around her body and picked up her pace. She wasn't quite limping, but it was obvious she was in pain. 'I'll be fine, Fillmore. You worry too much.'
'You don't worry enough, Third.'
She stuck her tongue out at me and I shook my head in disbelief. 'What a mature come-back, Ingrid.'
'I'm too young to be mature,' she replied with a smile. 'Mature can wait for High School.'
It took us about ten minutes to get back to her place, and she shrugged out of the coat before handing it back to me. 'Thanks for walking me home.'
'No problem. Are you going to be online tonight?' I asked. We'd gotten used to chatting over the Internet in the evenings, and it was going to be a hard habit to break.
'Probably at about eight.'
'Okay, I'll talk to you then. And Ingrid?'
'Get some rest, okay? School's not the same without you.'
Her green eyes flashed with something and she gave a small, cunning smile. 'I'm sure I'll be back before you know it.'
Something about the way she said it made me raise my eyebrow curiously. 'You've got another four weeks of rest to get through,' I reminded her.
'We'll see,' she said with a wink. 'See you later, Fillmore!'
I watched her slip through her front door and turned up the collar of my coat. Despite the miserable weather I was smiling. It only took little things, like her laugh and her smile, to give me hope. The young woman that I knew might have changed, but underneath she was still there.
She was still my Ingrid.
A/N: I would like to heartily thank all of my reviewers who have made this story such a pleasure to write. There will (most likely) be a sequel in the New Year, unless real life bombards me with obstacles. I look forward to seeing you then, and wish you Happy Holidays!