Apprehension (Worth the Risk #26)

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“Are going to hex me?”

At the sound of the hesitant voice, Hermione glances up and arches a brow as she stares at the door. “I’m actually thinking that your actions last night deserve a full-blown curse.”

Ron flinches and steps inside her office, shutting the door behind him. "A curse? That's harsh, isn't it?"

"Harsh? After what you did last night, I'd say that was letting you off easy."

"Taking his side, I see."

"Oh, please. Don't even start that nonsense. This isn't a matter of sides. It's a matter of being mature versus behaving like an idiot."

“Well, I’m not sorry,” he says stubbornly. “If that means you get annoyed with me, so be it. I had to talk to him myself, to see if my suspicions were correct or not. I didn’t go over there intending to fight, though.”

“Why did you think it was your place to go over there at all?” she asks tightly. “We’re divorced, Ronald. We’re fortunate that we survived that experience with our friendship intact, yet you seem determined to overstep your bounds and push your luck. I accepted your relationship with Mel despite any misgivings that I might have had, and it isn’t too much to expect you to do the same.”

“Not really the same circumstances, you know?” he points out. “Besides, did he tell you that he broke my nose? Mel was able to fix it, but I still sound funny today.”

“Yes, and I think you deserved more than that. And how exactly did you explain your injury to her?”

“I was honest. She, uh, smacked me upside the back of my head and said I was a bloody moron for doing it, but I wasn't! I was just worried about a friend.”

“Somehow I doubt you’d have done the same if it were Harry.”

“You’re not Harry.”

“I know I’m not, which means you claiming it was simply concern for a generic friend is ridiculous. You deliberately sought out my lover after agreeing to accept my relationship, however reluctantly, and you accused him of behavior that isn’t anything like him while also belittling him because of his age. Basically, you, a man of thirty-eight, picked a fight with a twenty year old. So forgive me if I’m rather unforgiving at the moment.”

“Bloody hell. It wasn’t like that.”

“How was it then? You went to his flat, his home, and proceeded to make unsubstantiated allegations based on what your behavior would have been despite telling me hours earlier that he’s nothing like you. You also repeatedly told him that he’s a child and who knows what else was necessary to actually make him speak up and fight back.”

“So it’s all my fault, is it?”

“Yes, it is,” she says simply. “I didn’t tell Teddy my opinion on the matter of responsibility because I don’t want him thinking I actually condone his actions, but I know you’re to blame. You had no right to go to his flat and say anything regarding his relationship with me, and certainly no right to make accusations on my behalf. I didn't ask you for, nor do I want, your protection. And stop trying to hide behind a friendly concern shield because it isn’t appropriate in these circumstances and you know it.”

“Well, hex me if you’re going to,” he finally mutters. “It’s worth it because I feel a lot better now. He and I brawled it out like men cause that’s what we blokes do. Don’t need all those fancy words and threats when you’ve got two fists.”

“If you dare teach that philosophy to our son, I’ll hand you your bollocks in a jar,” she tells him matter-of-factly.

“That’s something I don’t think I’m going to test.” He shifts awkwardly and puts his hands in the pockets of his robe. “This isn’t something you’re just going to forgive and forget, is it?”

“No, it’s not. However, we have work to get done today, and I’ve perfected the ability to be irate with you and still behave professionally at the office, so it should be business as usual.”

He nods and makes a face. “Are you going to hex me? If so, I’d rather you just get it over with because I hate when you do something all sneaky that doesn’t even take effect for ages.”

She gathers her file and notepad before she stands up. With a slight smirk, she drops her wand into her pocket and asks, “Whatever makes you think that I haven’t already hexed you, Ronald?”

As he narrows his eyes and attempts to figure out if she did, she walks past him and opens the door. It’s time to go to Protective Services and interview Warrington’s victims, which is something that has had her stomach tied in knots all day. She hates this part of abuse cases, regardless of the victim, and having to talk to children about this sort of thing just makes it worse. Susan and Teddy are accompanying them today, and they’re both waiting by Teddy’s desk.

They look up as she approaches, and Susan slides off the edge of the desk where she’s been sitting. “Is it time?” she asks in a serious tone. She’s the best assistant when it comes to cases involving children, yet she has resisted Hermione’s urging for her to enter the internship program for a dozen years. She still asks because she knows Susan would be an asset if she had more training, but she understands that the long hours and intense casework could potentially cause problems at home, even with Parvati‘s blessing, so she doesn’t push. It’s Susan’s decision, after all.

“Yes, it is,” she says, focusing on the case instead of the distraction of Susan’s career path or how Teddy looks in that shade of green. Ron joins them, and she’s relieved that he and Teddy aren’t glaring or behaving stupidly.

“Afternoon,” Ron says, nodding at Teddy and smiling at Susan. “Everyone ready?”

It‘s somewhat difficult to know how exactly to act around Teddy now that Ron knows, so a part of her wonders if she did or said something that made it obvious. It was incredibly awkward this morning as she tried to be aware of every word before she said it, so she finally gave up and just started being normal. But Ron’s presence brings back the uneasy feeling and slight confusion. She focuses on work and smiles. “We’re accompanying Ron, and we’ll just act as observers unless we’re needed to help. Susan, there’s a chance that the children might respond better to a female, so be prepared should the need arise.”

“Of course, Boss. I know the routine,” Susan tells her confidently. She glances at Teddy and smiles wryly. “A majority of my cases involve children, and they seem to take to me rather well.”

“You project a maternal warmth that they generally react to well,” Hermione says simply. “Despite having children, I lack that natural air, so it’s a good thing you have it.”

“You’re too reserved to connect.” Ron shifts away from her slightly, as if he’s uncertain if his honest statement will result in a smack.

“I am, at that,” she agrees, following them into the hallway. “Children who have been through traumatic experiences require patience and a gentleness that I don’t quite possess.”

“I could see that,” Teddy says thoughtfully, briefly touching her elbow as they step onto the lift. When she gives him 'a look', he just smiles innocently. “I mean, about them needing something that not everyone could give. When I was a kid, I had to see someone because my parents were dead, and there was one bloke that I just hated on sight. Wasn’t anything special about him, just the way he looked at me like I was broken and needed his pity or something.”

“There’s a very thin line when it comes to my work,” Ron tells him. “On one hand, we have to ask questions that aren’t things they want to talk about, but, on the other, they have to trust us or they won’t say a word. It can be difficult to be objective, depending on the case, and there are times when you really just want to hug them and say it’s going to be okay, which you can’t do because it violates like a dozen different rules. I hate cases with kids, but I always want them cause I want to catch the bad guys.”

“Too many years being the hero,” Susan says with a slight smile. “That’s a condition many of us former DA members suffer from, you know? Lavender needs to propose a study about that sometime with all her foofy groups.”

“I’d refrain from classifying them as such around her,” Hermione suggests. “She takes her work very seriously, and she’s been able to do some rather brilliant things with her knowledge on behavior and sociology.”

“Oh, I know,” Susan tells her. “It’s just too easy to tease her, though. All I have to do is ask if she’s consulted the crystal ball to determine the general mood of the populace for some future date, and she starts going on about ology this and ology that. It can be bloody amusing sometimes.”

“It’s actually an interesting field of study.” Teddy shrugs when they glance at him. “I considered applying for an internship there, but I’d rather be more active and do less research. Plus, I lack the patience needed for a lot that they do.”

The news that Teddy almost worked for the Department of Mental and Social Health is surprising. Behavioral science and sociological impact is Lavender’s primary focus, and Teddy’s knowledge of her area means he must have studied up on it while considering his options. It would suit him, in a way, but she understands why he chose not to pursue it. The research and group sessions would wear his patience, no doubt. Still, it’s another piece of information that she finds unexpected. She likes discovering new things about him, and stores this one away with all the others.

The lift arrives on level six, which is where the Protective Services and Wizarding Welfare offices are located. Greg is waiting for them as they step off the lift, and she reaches out to shake his hand briskly.

Normally, she doesn’t feel particularly short even if she is an average height. Around Greg, however, she is keenly aware of the fact that she isn’t particularly tall. He’s several inches taller than Ron and built like a small boulder, definitely not someone you’d want to come across in a dark alley, yet he’s actually gentle and unassuming, well-suited to working with kids in trouble. Still, she straightens her shoulders just a little more and tries not to feel tiny as his large hand envelops hers. “Good afternoon, Goyle. I hope you haven’t been waiting long. It took the lift ages today.”

“Not long at all. Matthews just got the children settled,” he says quietly, shaking Ron’s hand then Teddy’s before he nods at Susan. “Lav said we can owl her if something comes up, but, otherwise, they’re ready.”

“Is Matthews still here?” she asks, considering Lavender‘s offer and debating whether or not it might be wise to contact her, just in case. There’s certainly a benefit to Lavender being somewhat of an expert in such matters when a majority of his casework deals with children.

“No, he went to get tea.” He lowers his voice even more. “You know he hates this part.”

“What are your initial observations?” Ron asks curiously. It took him eight years, give or take a year, before he ever trusted Greg’s knowledge in this field. Social Welfare is still a concept that some in the magical world are getting used to even after twenty years, but Greg has become an expert at dealing with children in crisis, regardless of the particular kind. Of course, part of Ron's dislike of him was possibly due to the man‘s marriage to his first girlfriend. Now, she isn’t surprised when she hears about them getting a pint together after work or even occasionally attending a Quidditch match, with Ron denying he was ever rude or distrusting.

Greg frowns as he leads them down the hall. “It’s hard to say. I just saw them briefly, but I think it’s going to be tough. Neither of them was speaking, and they’ve obviously sought comfort in each other, which isn’t unusual in shared trauma. They probably kept each other alive, after all. They’re scared and hurting, and it’s a good thing that Warrington’s locked up or else I’d be paying him a visit.”

"Who do you think would be the most approachable one to question them?" Hermione glances at Teddy and Susan, who are keeping quiet and listening before turning her attention back to Greg. “Susan’s working on this case, so she can handle it if you think that’s the best choice.”

They arrive at the room and enter the observation area. Unconsciously, she stares through the glass at the two children sitting close together. They’re obviously scared, and her heart breaks as she takes in their appearance. She strengthens her resolve and looks back at Greg as she opens her file.

“If Weasley doesn’t mind, I figure he’d not be the best choice,” Greg says slowly. “They sort of blanched at the sight of me, and he’s built close enough to maybe bother them. Susan’s good. So’s Lupin. He’s tall but not, uh, well. He’s not so imposing. Also, they seem to be scared of wands, but not magic itself. So, no wands in the room with them where they can see them.”

“Always knew being tall and scrawny would have to pay off in some way,” Teddy says with an easy grin. “Seriously, though, I think I’d rather not unless it’s necessary. This is all new, and I’d not want to bugger anything up or make it worse.”

“Don’t worry, Lupin. Some women like skinny blokes,” Ron says in what is probably the closest he’ll come to a teasing voice for awhile.

“And some women don’t like blokes at all,” Susan points out helpfully.

The situation is making them all edgy, so it’s not unexpected that they’re trying to diffuse the stress. Still, her attention keeps being drawn to the children, and she can’t join in at the moment, even if she probably should. “Ron, do you mind if Susan goes in alone? We can observe their reactions and change the plan as needed.”

“No, that’s fine.” He sounds relieved at not having to ask the personal questions necessary, and Susan takes the piece of parchment from him to read over the basic information needed.

“Do we need everything now or is this a general first-time interview?” Susan asks.

“Don’t push,” Greg says gruffly. “We can talk to them as many times as needed, but they don’t deserve to be put through more than they already have been.”

They all agree, and Susan leaves the room while they get settled. She focuses on the interview, pushing everything else to the back of her mind as she observes and listens. The children don’t react to Susan at all. They just sit together, arms around each other’s shoulders, and stare at her curiously.

The girl is Rose’s age, and the boy is Lily’s age, which makes it far too personal for her, but she concentrates even more because of it. After twenty minutes, Susan glances at the mirror and shrugs, ready to give up since she hasn’t even managed to get one word from either of them. In a case such as this, it’s rare to get very much during the first interview, but she had hopes that they’d at least get names and something to add to the case.

“Lupin, you go in,” Greg murmurs quietly. “Just sit and do whatever it is you do. Might help.”

Teddy opens his mouth to protest but closes it again upon seeing Greg’s ‘do it or I’ll growl’ look. He stands up and glances at Hermione before he leaves the room to go next door.

“Do you think that’s wise?” Ron asks curiously. “Don’t see what he’s going to do that Susan can’t.”

“You questioning me, Weasley? This is my job, and I know kids. Lupin’ll be fine.”

Hermione watches the door open as Teddy steps inside. He smiles hesitantly at the children and looks bloody terrified but he walks over and sits next to Susan. The children turn their focus away from Susan to stare at him intently, the boy shrinking back slightly as the girl soothes him by rubbing the top of his head. Teddy shifts in his chair, most likely feeling as if he’s drowning at the moment, and she almost asks Greg is he’s crazy for sending him in that way. She doesn’t because Ron’s already been growled at once and she certainly doesn’t want to be.

Susan glances at the mirror and gives them a ‘this isn’t going well’ look while Teddy introduces himself and runs his hand through his hair as the children keep staring. She notices his hair flicker as he fidgets nervously, and the brown begins to fade to a pale shade of purple. The little boy cringes and whispers to the girl, who stares at Teddy’s hair with wide eyes. They look surprised and scared, which makes Teddy shift and tap his foot as if he's considering making a run for the door.

His hair flashes from purple to bright red and back again as he stares at them staring at him. It takes him a few minutes before he seems to realize what they’re looking at, and she can see him blush before he bites his lip as he thinks. It’s a look that she recognizes, so she knows he's plotting something. As she waits, she picks up her pen and makes a note before she focuses on the room. He leans forward slowly, so he doesn't scare them, and shrugs while he speaks softly. She can't hear what he's saying, but his hair begins to change color more rapidly, an assortment of shades she's never even seen before.

When Teddy leans back and his face begins to shift and his hair grows longer, she watches the children and listens to Ron move his chair closer to the table. The children are still staring, but she can now see the wonder and amazement mixed with their natural fear. They aren’t sure if they should trust him, she realizes, and she bites her lip hard to keep her concentration on what they might say or do. She also wonders what Teddy said to them, though she suspects it was something about his gift since he was shrugging and looked sheepish in that adorable way of his.

Her attention strays to Teddy, and she grips her pen harder as she sees him morphing his face to look like different animals. Her mind is taken back more than twenty years to an afternoon at Grimmauld Place when she watched Tonks do the very same thing while lying on the sofa reading a book. Teddy doesn’t use his gift very often, not beyond his changing his hair color and length, though she knows he’s mentioned practicing it before. She accepts it as part of who he is, yet, in this moment, she can’t help but be struck by how proud Tonks would be of her son.

The children still aren’t talking, but they’re slowly relaxing and no longer seem quite so scared. The little boy is slowly edging closer without losing his grip on the girl. It takes awhile before he quietly says, “Puppy.”

Teddy tenses slightly and Susan inhales sharply enough that Hermione can see it. Then, Teddy smiles and lets his features shift until he looks similar to a puppy. The boy smiles and reaches out to pat his nose quickly before he pulls back and hugs the girl. By the time an hour has passed, the children still haven’t said anything, but they’re more comfortable and less frightened, which has its own rewards. Matthews arrives to take them back to their room at St. Mungos, so they can receive their treatment and rest.

As they leave, the little girl stops by Teddy’s chair and whispers something to him. He nods and she smiles shyly before she whispers something else. After that, she leads the boy out, who waves at Teddy and Susan before moving both his hands around the girl‘s hand. Hermione lets out a breath she didn’t even realize she was holding and glances at Greg, who looks far too smug. “How did you know?”

“I know Lupin,” he says simply. “Get him nervous enough, and his hair’s a rainbow of color. Kids like that.”

“If you say ‘I told you so’, I’ll add Veritaserum to your pint next time we go to the pub and tell Finnigan,” Ron mutters at Greg.

“God, that was tough,” Susan says as she and Teddy enter the room. “They’re not the worst we’ve had, but it’s going to take time to get anything from them if we don’t resort to magic.”

“I prefer doing it naturally,” Hermione says firmly. Since her own experience with bewitching her parents and modifying their memories, she refuses to use such charms in her work unless there’s just no other alternative.

“You okay, mate?” Ron asks Teddy, who is leaning against the wall and looks shaken.

“I’m fine. Just a bit,” he hesitates and makes a motion with his hand. He shakes his head and looks at her before he focuses on Ron. “The girl says her name is Beth and the boy is Howard. She’s twelve, he’s nine, and they’re not related. That’s all she said after she asked if I’d visit them again. I said yes. I hope that’s not a problem?”

“It’s not,” Greg says firmly. “I’ll send you word when we schedule the next interview. Probably tomorrow afternoon.”

Teddy looks at her. “Is it okay, Boss?”

“Of course,” she says, making a note in the file. “You can be our liaison for the interviews, so the rest of the team can focus their attention elsewhere as needed. Kevin or I will attend each interview to observe, but you can write the notes and keep us posted.”

The meeting breaks, and Greg takes Ron to his office to go over another case they’re working on while Susan heads back upstairs for a meeting. Hermione decides to finish working on her notes before she leaves, and she can hear Teddy moving around as he closes the door and then sits at the table beside her.

“Are you really okay?” she asks softly as she looks at him. They're alone, but she doesn't dare reach out to touch his cheek like she wants to because she doesn't want to encourage dangerous behavior by breaking an unspoken rule herself. Especially not when he's getting more frustrated at keeping their relationship a secret and takes enough chances as it is.

“A little drained,” he admits. “I don’t usually change like that, so it used more energy than I expected. It helped, though, didn’t it? They seemed to like it, once they realized they didn’t have to be scared. It was tough, but, God, hearing him speak really made it worth the effort. Does that sound stupid?”

“Not at all. It sounds sincere,” she murmurs. Deciding that it isn't technically breaking one of their rules, she reaches beneath the table to squeeze his hand. “As I was watching you, I realized something that I want to tell you. Your mother would be very proud of you.”

“Yeah?” He smiles before he ducks his head and admits, “I sometimes wonder how she ever could be since I’m not an Auror and brave like her and I don’t really use the gift she passed along to me that often. More like my father in a lot of ways, and I don’t mind that, but I like having a connection to her, too.”

“You might not be an Auror, Ted, but you’re very brave,” she says firmly. She sighs and lets go of his hand, knowing it's time to return to work and focus again. She gathers her notes and frowns slightly as she looks at him. “Now stop making me want to word-we-can’t-say-or-do-at-work you and being such a distraction.”

“A distraction, huh? Well, we certainly can’t have that, I guess.“ He grins and stands up, making a point to look around the empty room carefully before he leans down and brushes her hair back from her face. He glances at her lips before focusing on her. “As much as I'd like to tempt you into breaking more of those silly rules of yours, I'll be good and say hold that thought until after work,” he tells her. “Well, until after Hugo’s asleep, if maybe I can come over for dinner? I'll cook and we can work a little, too, if you want. Or Hugo could beat my scrawny arse at chess again while you work.”

“I like how you invite yourself to dinner,” she says dryly. “However, offering to cook and be beaten at chess by an eleven year old makes up for your presumptuous behavior. Seven o’clock.”

“I’ll be there.” He gathers his notes and opens the door for her, waiting until she’s walked into the hallway before he steps out and shuts it behind him. “So, what do we do next? How long will it take before we get any information from the children?”

“We continue receiving reports from the Aurors as they gather evidence, and we begin working on gathering statements and investigating Warrington more thoroughly. A lot of our job is dependent on the Aurors and what information they provide to us. As for the children, that varies case by case, so I couldn’t even begin to estimate. It could be tomorrow or next week or even longer. They went through terrible events that people three times their age wouldn’t want to discuss, after all, and that they may not have enough context to explain clearly, which only makes it more confusing for them.”

They continue discussing the case as they get onto the lift and head upstairs. Once they‘re back in the office, he starts working on notes from the interview while she goes to Kevin’s office to fill him in on the interview. She has two meetings scheduled that are going to occupy most of the afternoon, but she doesn’t mind so much since the time will at least pass relatively quickly. Now she has dinner with Teddy and Hugo as well as a certain held thought to look forward to tonight.