Provocation (Worth the Risk #27)

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It’s tempting to forget about the party and just spend the night doing anything but being social. It’s not possible, of course, but Hermione still considers it as she examines her wardrobe and tries to decide what to wear to a surprise party. The week has gone by so quickly that she can’t believe it’s already Friday. Of course, considering the events of the week, both at home and at work, it’s little surprise that the hours went by without her noticing.

From the Warrington case to Ron knowing about her and Teddy to the juvenile behavior of two of the men in her life to realizing that Ron told Mel despite promising not to tell anyone, it’s just been one stress after another until she feels like hiding away from everyone to just think and try to relax. The very fact that she’s reached such a point isn’t particularly good, so she tries her best not to let it get to her. However, she knows it isn’t as easy as it logically should be.

Since the realization that Mel knows whatever Ron told her to explain his broken nose, she has become more prickly than ever. She’s annoyed at herself for being so distracted with work and irritation with Ron that she didn’t hear that. She’s angry at Ron for breaking his word that bloody night instead of waiting at least a few days before blurting it out. She’s scared that he’s told others, however inadvertently.

She’s also worried about Harry finding out and how he’ll react. She’s frustrated with Teddy for not understanding why she’s upset about Mel knowing and failing to grasp why it’s important not to make those casual touches or give her those looks when there’s a risk of others seeing, which he seems determined to ignore lately. And, despite it all, she’s happier than she has been in years even if she feels like she’s drowning at the moment.

It’s isn’t pleasant at all to feel like her life is spiraling out of control. She hates not having control, which is possibly one reason she is so aggravated with Ron right now for forcing her to realize she can’t hide things as easily as she hoped. The logical part of her mind is no longer a failsafe because it seems to have split into two, with one side arguing that this affair very well might be nothing more a temporary casual fling while the other side points out that it hasn’t been casual for weeks and she needs to stop hiding behind thoughts of temporariness to avoid making a few tough choices. The fact that her own subconscious is now calling her a coward is utterly galling and certainly doesn’t help her current mood.

Maybe the party will help. Even if she might be on edge and suspicious that everyone somehow knows about her and Teddy and finds her disgusting and depraved, she can have a drink with friends and just try to relax after a tense week. Ron and Mel will be there, which is going to be awkward, but she’s an adult and she can certainly attend a party with people she’s known for over twenty-five years without becoming a stressed-out harpy. It’s Friday night and the weekend is finally here as well as it being Dean‘s birthday, so it’s a cause for celebration all around.

Once she resolves to have fun even if it’s difficult, she chooses a simple brown skirt and a cream colored shirt to wear. It isn’t fancy but it also isn’t completely casual. Seamus probably doesn’t care what people wear, if anything, but she feels uncomfortable wearing denims to a birthday party, even if it is in a pub. Ron used to mutter that she’s too proper but she has to smile as she imagines that Teddy would just ogle her legs and attempt to swat her bum, which seems to have become one of his favorite habits lately.

Just thinking about him makes her tummy twist, which isn’t a good sign at all. In fact, it’s downright scary. If she avoids acknowledging that there are many emotions involved regarding Teddy, then it’s like they don’t truly exist. She knows it isn’t logical and it’s just ignoring another issue because she’s not prepared to make choices yet, but she can be immature and weak sometimes, too. She’s only human, after all.

After she gets dressed and brushes her hair, she goes to find Hugo. He’s waiting in the sitting room with a bag packed for his overnight stay with his grandparents. Her parents don't see him nearly as often as Molly and Arthur, and they’ve mentioned having him stay over for months, so this seems as good a time as any. She’s not sure how late she’ll be home from the party, but if anything comes up later in the night and they need her, she'll be reachable. “All packed?”

“Yeah. I’m taking Exploding Snap because Grandfather said he’d be keen to learn how to play,” he tells her with a mischievous grin.

“Hugo, don’t terrorize your grandparents,” she warns, feeling a slight throbbing in her temples as she pictures him scaring them to death with magical items. They haven't seemed comfortable around magic of any sort for twenty years, ever since they learned she took away their memories (and their choices, which they've told her many times was the real issue) and sent them off around the world. She doubts that this discomfort changed completely just because she's given them grandchildren.

“I won’t. You know, they don’t mind it nearly so much as you always say,” he points out helpfully. “Grandmother is always asking me and Rose questions about this world and says you never talk to them about it anymore.”

She bites her tongue to keep from replying that she’d talk about it more if her mother didn’t react like a scared Hippogriff whenever she sees Hermione’s wand. "Well, Grandmother didn't know anything about this world, or anyone in it, when I first went off into it, so even though she doesn't mind talking about it with you, when it's me, I think it reminds her of being frightened. Just a little. With you, she doesn't mind it so much because she knows you have me with you. You probably shouldn't tell her that---it would just make her feel bad." She pauses. "Or maybe Grandmother just isn’t entirely sure what else to talk about with you, so magic seems the most likely choice. Did you take your book?”

“Yes, Mum,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I’ll read two chapters just like I promised. You look pretty tonight. Is Teddy going to be at the party? If so, tell him that Dil says hello in the letter I received today.”

“I’ll tell him whenever I see him, but he won’t be at the party tonight. It’s Dean’s birthday, so the guests will mostly be old people like me,” she tells him. “And thank you for the compliment.”

“And I didn’t even want anything,” he says proudly. He stands up and gives her a hug. “We should go now because Grandmother and Grandfather will be looking forward to seeing me.”

“Of course they will.” She ruffles his hair and kisses his cheek. “You’ll be good, and I’ll pick you up in the morning. Maybe we can do something fun.”

“I will, Mum. Oh! That’d be smashing. Rose comes home soon, so we won’t be able to have our special days anymore,” he says with a sigh. “We’ll have to share them with her.”

“We won’t have to share them all,” she promises, wondering how long it will be before he wants to do anything but spend his free time with her. Maybe she’ll get lucky and her children will avoid that characteristic of the teenage years, but she figures she’d better be prepared, just in case.

They take the Floo to her parents’ house. After she has a brief conversation with them and gets Hugo settled, she Apparates to the entryway of Harry’s house in Godric’s Hollow because it’s easier. She’s a little early, but she can hear voices from the sitting room so she walks down the hall to join Harry and Ginny. As she stops in the doorway, her eyes widen when she sees that they have a guest. When Teddy gives her a cheeky smile, she narrows her gaze before turning to look at Ginny when she speaks.

“Good evening, Hermione,” Ginny says with a smile. “You look pretty tonight.”

“Good evening,” she says, forcing herself to not look at the smirking incorrigible man sitting on their sofa. Ginny’s compliment doesn’t ring as true as Hugo’s, but it’s a nice effort considering that Ginny hasn’t ever hidden her dislike of the ‘blah brownness’ of Hermione’s wardrobe. “Thank you. You look lovely.”

Though Harry got to his feet when she entered the room, he hangs back a moment before he hugs her and kisses her cheek. “Hi, you,” he murmurs against her ear. He pulls back and grins. “I didn’t want to interrupt the female bonding clothing thing.”

“You can interrupt female bonding anytime you want,” she mutters as she nudges his ribs with her elbow, “as you well know, prat.”

“Don’t I get a hug?” Teddy speaks up for the first time since she arrived, obviously not affected by her initial glare.

“No, you don’t. I’m just special.” Harry laughs and looks fondly at his Godson, which makes her tummy twist in guilty ways. “A quality Hermione-hug is just one of the benefits of being a hero.”

“You’re definitely special, though I’m not entirely certain if it’s a good special or a touched-in-the-head sort of special anymore.“ She ruffles Harry’s hair before she looks at Teddy, who is watching them. “I’m surprised to see you here, Lupin,” she says pointedly. “You didn’t mention attending the party tonight.” Despite us discussing my invitation and you claiming you had plans with friends, you smug git.

“Oi! Lupin already? What did you do this time, Godson?” Harry asks, looking at her curiously before glancing at Teddy, who is still staring at her and is now also smirking.

“You know Hermione, Godpapa. She hates not knowing everything,” Teddy says easily. “Guess she didn’t expect me to be here, so now she’s annoyed with me for not mentioning anything at the office.”

“We ran into Teddy at Finnigan’s on Wednesday and invited him to come along,” Ginny explains. “Seamus had asked him to the party, but he wasn’t sure about attending so we talked him into it.”

“I’m sure it took a lot of persuasion.” She feels Ginny and Harry staring at her after her rather snide comment, which makes her shift awkwardly. God, she’s already being a snippy hag, and they haven’t even left Harry’s house yet. She gives Teddy a ‘this isn’t over yet’ look and smiles. “Sorry, it’s been a long week, and I didn’t mean to be sharp. It’s lovely that you could join us, Teddy.”

“It has been a rough week,” Harry agrees with a sigh, reaching out to rub her shoulder. “You’re so bloody tense, Hermione. Maybe you should go see that bloke Ginny sees, with the ‘magic hands’. Stupid wanker.”

“He’s a massage therapist,” Ginny says with a roll of her eyes. “And stop being a jealous prat and calling Sven names. He has magical hands and that doesn’t change no matter how many times you insult him.” She smiles at Hermione. “Seriously, though, I can give you his details. He’s Muggle and amazing.”

“Hmph.” Harry shakes his head. “And I’m not jealous. Just don’t like some bloke running his hands all over you, even if it is in a professional way.”

“Oh, but you suggest that I let some bloke run his hands all over me?” Hermione asks, arching a brow as she purses her lips.

“Well, maybe you wouldn’t be so tense if you had a bloke running his hands---okay, we need to stop this because my mind is now going to very disturbing places,” Harry whines after Teddy snorts midway through his explanation.

“Don’t stop, Godpapa. This was just getting interesting,” Teddy says innocently. “What else does our Hermione need? I‘m all ears.” To illustrate his point, he grows his ears abnormally big before he shrinks them back.

“You, shut it,” Harry warns, pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose as he stares at Teddy intently for a moment. He frowns before turning and giving her his perfected puppy-dog 'forgive me’ expression. “I just worry about you, and I know this week has been rough. Ron’s acting weird, too, but he’s always a bit odd, so I don’t think much of it anymore.”

“Okay. Hermione looks ready to use her wand on both you prats, which isn’t a nice relaxing way to spend a Friday night, even if she'd probably be within her rights and I might enjoy seeing what she does to you two,” Ginny says. “Hermione, forgive my husband and his godson. They’re men, so they just don’t know any better.”

“It’s fine, Ginny. Normally, I’m much more inclined to laugh when they behave stupidly. After this week, however, my patience is worn rather thin,” she explains smoothly, giving Teddy a look of warning before she focuses on Harry. “You have to make it up to me, of course, so you’re buying the first round and you have to dance with me twice.”

Harry sighs dramatically before he nods. “A fair price to pay, I suppose. But just one dance. I’ll make Teddy take the other. Have to share since we’re both in trouble.” Harry glances at Teddy with that same thoughtful frown before he turns and holds out his hand to Ginny.

“That’s just cruel punishment, Godpapa,” Teddy says even as he smiles at Hermione over Harry’s shoulder and waggles his eyebrows in a way that makes her want to smack him. Incorrigible brat.

“That’s because I’m nasty and evil,” Harry says smugly.

There’s a moment of silence before they all laugh and some of the tension eases. Ginny ushers them all to the fireplace so they can Floo to Finnigan’s, and Hermione stumbles when she feels a hand grope her bum just as she’s stepping through. She arrives badly, missing her footing and falling forward. She’s almost on the floor when strong hands grab her arms and keep her from falling.

“Easy there, Hermione. I know I’m the sort of the bloke that has women falling at his feet, but you don’t always have to be so literal.”

She glances up and tries to glare but her lips curve into an affectionate smile. “What can I say? I’ve finally succumbed to your many charms, George.”

“Many charms? You and I need to share a drink so you can fill me on those, girl,” Angelina says with a laugh as she arrives at George’s side. “Here I thought his charms could be counted on one hand.”

“Ouch! That hurts and scars and wounds me,” George moans, bringing Hermione’s hand up to rest on his heart. “You wouldn’t treat me so viciously, would you? Run away with me, my love. We can build a sandcastle and live on a tropical isle.”

“I’m afraid that a tropical climate would just ruin my hair,” Hermione says with a sigh. “Alas, I must resist your tempting proposal.”

“You---you rate your hair above nights of debauchery with your favorite redhead?” George gapes at her and leans his head against Angelina’s shoulder. “She’s utterly heartless.”

“There, there,” Angelina says, smacking his arm as she shrugs him off her shoulder. She steps forward and hugs Hermione. “Now that he’s stopped performing, tell us how you are. It’s been ages since you’ve been by for a visit.”

“She’s been working too much, as usual,” Teddy says from behind her. He steps closer and presses against her back casually as he reaches out to shake George’s hand then kisses Angelina’s offered cheek. “And don’t feel too bad about her refusal, George. Maybe red just isn’t her color anymore.”

“Since you just slammed my baby brother, I probably shouldn’t find that as funny as I do,” George points out with a grin. “However, what sort of older brother would I be if I couldn’t enjoy making fun of him?”

“Maybe we can have lunch soon,” she tells Angie as she nonchalantly steps back and makes sure to step onto Teddy’s foot. She grinds her foot slightly, hoping the heel of her shoe hurts as it presses down on his. She hears him inhale and grunt but he doesn‘t do anything to attract George and Angelina‘s attention. “And my choice of color isn’t anyone’s concern except my own. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I see a few more people that I have to speak to or risk hexing.”

She leaves them and looks around the pub, seeing so many familiar faces that it’s like stepping back twenty years and entering the Great Hall for dinner. At gatherings like this, it’s easy to notice the people who are missing instead of focusing on just how many are there, but she’s not in the mood to allow herself to become maudlin tonight, even though she thinks how much Fred would love seeing George happy, albeit with his ex-girlfriend.

“You can’t keep running away from me,” Teddy murmurs softly as he catches up to her. “It’s a party, a crowded one, at that, and no one is going to find it suspicious that we’re talking.”

“Not now,” she says quietly, giving him a look. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Lupin, and rushing forward without thinking is a certain way to lose everything. Understood?”

“All I understand is that you’re still getting to keep your bloody secret but I’m not forced to hide away like I don’t even know you. It’s ridiculous to expect that when you keep on about being normal, and we normally are friendly and tease some. Don’t make rules for me if you’re not following them, too.”

Before she can reply to that accusation, she hears someone say her name. She turns to see Lavender walking towards them. Her dark hair is loose and falls over the left side of her face, concealing the worst of the scars that cover her body. Contrary to their association at Hogwarts, Hermione struck up an odd friendship with Lavender after the war ended, possibly due to the gratitude Lavender felt after learning she helped get Greyback off her during the last battle. Regardless of the motivations, it’s been a pleasant surprise. Greg follows behind Lavender awkwardly, shuffling quietly as he withdraws even more in such a crowded place.

“Good evening, Lavender, Greg,” she says, giving another hug and cheek kiss. By the end of the night, she knows from experience that she’ll be hugged out. It doesn’t seem to matter if someone has just seen her earlier that day, they still give the hug and, depending on closeness, a cheek kiss at these parties. “That’s a lovely color on you.”

Lavender smiles and smoothes down the dark red dress she’s wearing. Her scars are visible around the bodice and due to the short sleeves, but she doesn’t seem to care. Hermione remembers a time when Lavender did care, and she's grateful that Lavender found Greg, who managed to help her move past that. “I managed to find the most delightful little boutique in Hogsmeade during a therapy session recently. We simply must go sometime. They sell clothing inspired by Muggle fashion, so it’s really quite interesting.”

“Oh, yes, we must because I just love shopping,” Hermione says dryly. Greg snorts and coughs to cover it up when Lavender gives him a look.

“Don’t encourage her,” Lavender scolds before she focuses on Teddy. “How are you, Teddy? Greg told me you’ve been doing wonderfully at work with,” she lowers her voice, “the children.”

“He’s brilliant with ‘em,” Greg says firmly. He doesn’t speak a lot, but, when he does, it’s usually honest and to the point. Even after fifteen years, Hermione’s still startled that he and Lavender clicked so well, but they make sense in an odd way that just has to be seen to understand.

“I dunno if I’d say brilliant,” Teddy says, smiling sheepishly. “It’s different, but I like it. I mean, I managed to get them to talk a little today, even if they didn’t say much.”

“Often in these cases, it’s not what they say that truly matters in the healing process,” Lavender tells him. “If you’re helping them adjust and move on, it’s far more important than getting information about the crimes, regardless of what the Aurors would have you believe.”

Greg looks at Hermione seriously and says, “I’m thinking of asking to borrow him for another case I have. Ten year old boy who got caught nicking handbags in Diagon Alley. Borderline case that I think we can pull back safely. Not the animal faces, but the open frankness might work, cause nothing I’ve done has yet. Don’t want this one turning out like I did, you know?” He shrugs and stops talking, obviously reaching his quota of words for the moment.

“You made bad choices and admit to those,” Lavender says firmly. “If it hadn’t been for your friends and family, you wouldn’t have made those decisions, and you’ve managed to make something of your life that you can be proud of. Not to mention that you snagged me as your wife, which really makes everything else pale in comparison.”

“If Teddy agrees to help, I don’t see any problem with it so long as it doesn’t interfere with any of his assignments,” Hermione tells Greg, though she’s not sure he’s listening anymore because he’s looking at Lavender and touching one of the scars on her face in a very private way that causes her to realize it’s time to move on. “Owl me about the shopping, Lavender, and I’ll see you at work next week, Greg.”

They nod and say good-bye as she and Teddy walk away. Considering Lavender's fondness for kissing her husband in public, she's relieved they managed to get away without witnessing such an event. While she enjoys seeing people happy, she’s just not a particular fan of public displays of affection, so she’s glad to escape before she becomes uncomfortable.

As they move through the crowded pub, Teddy stays close by. She stops occasionally to speak to someone, but she can always feel him nearby or hear him talking or laughing with someone he knows. After being social for awhile, she seeks a corner for a moment of quiet. It’s no surprise when Teddy happens to join her.

“Tired of hugging? Me too, and I don’t even know half these people,“ Teddy says. “The short blonde witch pinched my arse, I swear.“

“With as much as some of them are already drinking, I’m surprised she’s the only one. As for me, I needed a quiet moment,” she tells him, giving him a deliberate look. He ignores it and settles in beside her to watch the crowd.

“So, what bad choices did Greg make?” he asks. “I was wondering but didn’t have a chance to ask earlier.”

She glances at him and considers his words. “Greg chose the wrong side during the war, and he was part of a group of three who nearly killed me, Harry and Ron,” she says finally.

“What?” He stares at her. “And now he works with kids?”

“Yes, well, the other surviving member of that trio is your illustrious second cousin, so I’d not point fingers unless you want them pointed back,” she tells him firmly. “Greg was never an actual Death Eater, nor was his friend, Crabbe, who didn’t survive their attack on us. He would have been if it had been possible, of course, but choices that children make shouldn’t shape their entire lives if they have the desire to make more of their lives.”

“You don’t have to mention Draco in such a snotty way,” Teddy murmurs quietly. “He might be an arse, but he’s some of the only family I have left. At least he made an effort to connect with me, and he’s not all that bad, just different.” He frowns in thought and then nods. “Actually, I understand better why Goyle works with troubled kids. He tries to save them from making the same mistakes he did, yeah?”

“That wasn’t a snotty tone, Teddy. As for Greg, he also helps those who can’t help themselves, like the current case,” she agrees. “You don’t have to feel obligated to assist him on that case he mentioned, but, if you’d like to, just keep me apprised of the situation.”

“Will do, Boss,” he says, flashing her a grin. “And no more work at a party. We need a drink. Guess we should find Harry, since he’s buying. I think I see him over at a table near that ugly painting.”

“Teddy, this needs to stop. You really can’t keep following me around the entire party,” she whispers. “It probably already looks suspicious since you haven’t really left my side since we arrived, and I don’t want people to notice anything out of the ordinary. And please stop touching me because it’s difficult to think when you do.”

His smile fades and he runs his fingers through his hair, which flashes from brown to dark red and back again. “Sorry. I wasn’t aware that my being in the same proximity as you in a crowded pub was somehow indicating to everyone that we had fucking amazing sex last night or that my touch caused you such problems.”

"Be quiet," she hisses, looking around quickly to make sure no one overheard him. Once she's sure it's safe, she looks at him and frowns. “It doesn’t, and you know it.”

She rubs her temple and hears Seamus calling out for everyone to get quiet before she can continue. The lights go out as Dean approaches the pub, and she suddenly finds herself pushed against the wall with Teddy’s lips on hers. She whines softly and tries to push him away even as she parts her lips and curls her tongue around his.

It’s too dark to see anything but she can hear people all around them counting softly and preparing for Dean’s arrival. Teddy moves his hand beneath her shirt and squeezes her breast roughly, obviously taking out some of his frustration with the situation on her. And she replies in kind, scratching his back hard enough to make a mark as he presses closer. The crowd is on six then five then four. By the time they reach two, Teddy pulls back and releases her, and she leans against the wall as she tries to catch her breath. The lights come on and everyone yells ‘Surprise’ at a shocked looking Dean while she fusses with her shirt and hair, hoping that her lips aren’t as swollen and wet as they feel.

She can feel Teddy staring at her as she looks around the room to make sure no one is gawking at them. Her eyes narrow when she catches sight of a flushed faced Ginny fiddling with her hair while Harry smiles smugly and sees Parvati reapplying her lipstick while Susan shakes out her hair. Shaking her head slightly, she tries to regain control. She glances at Teddy, and he looks sincerely apologetic for taking advantage of the opportunity, but she’s not sure it’s enough. Not considering how bloody pushy he’s been all night.

The kiss and groping her in public, even if the lights were out, crosses the line, though. She can’t just shrug it off, despite being partially to blame because she actively participated in it, too. After a moment, she sighs and runs her fingers through her hair. “Come on,“ she says, leading him through the crowd to one of the small private rooms downstairs. “We need to talk.”

“We need to talk?” Teddy repeats quietly. “That sounds rather ominous.”

Hermione glances back at him and smiles wryly. “It’s not a threat, Ted. I just don’t want to attempt to have a conversation in this crowd, even if we used privacy charms. One of the dining areas downstairs must be free, so we’ll be able to talk more easily.”

“Why don’t we just get a drink first and then we can talk? I’ll even sit at the furthest point away from you, if necessary,” he tells her.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t.” She bites her lip and focuses on the stairs as they walk down to the lower level of the pub. Counting the steps helps her focus, but she feels tense and keeps doubting her choice to discuss this now instead of waiting. But if she puts it off, it’s like she’s condoning his behavior, and she doesn’t want that, either. She really wishes now that she’d just sent an owl to Harry claiming a migraine and stayed home because this entire situation has her on edge, and she hates feeling this way.

“Right. Fine, we’ll talk then we’ll get a pint.”

His tone is strained, but he keeps following her until they reach an open room downstairs. These rooms are often reserved for private parties or business meetings, so they vary in size. The one they come across first is a smaller room, with a table that seats eight and a dozen candles floating around. She lights the candles while he shuts the door. After she casts the necessary charms to keep their conversation private, she sits down.

“So,” he says as he sits down across from her. “Is this about the kiss?”

“Partially, but not completely. It’s also about your behavior all night.”

“My behavior?”

“Don’t say it like that because I certainly didn’t. But, yes, your behavior. You’ve been pushing me all night, Teddy. I understand being confused about boundaries, I really do because I’m not even sure about them, but this goes beyond that.”

His hair flashes dark red as he grips the edge of the table. “I’ve been pushing you,” he repeats slowly. “Yet all you ever do is push me, but that’s fine because it’s you, right?”

“I do not push you,” she denies. "As I said, you push me. You make wide open statements around anyone who is there to hear about last night or this morning. You touch me in ways that are not appropriate or consistent with our long non-sexual relationship. You tell me every day to hurry up when I tell you I'm not ready. I'm not the one pushing here, Teddy."

Her denial seems to make him snap because he starts speaking fast as if he can‘t stop himself. “Yes, you do. All the bloody time. You control everything, Hermione. You say jump, and I say how high because I want you so much that I can’t refuse. I’ve kept it secret like you asked, and I’ve been patient and have waited while you run hot and cold and give me rules that you don’t even follow yourself. That’s pushing, to me.”

“That’s being responsible and mature about a difficult relationship,” she tells him firmly. “And you’re not doing very well at keeping it a secret when you’re staring at me all night and touching me whenever there’s an opportunity. You were also flirting in front of Harry, again, and don’t think he didn’t notice something odd was happening because I know him well enough to know that he did.”

"Yeah, and we can’t let Harry know, can we? God forbid he realize that his saintly best friend is a woman with needs and desires that might very well shock him.”

“I doubt Harry would be shocked at all that I’m a woman, despite his ridiculous whining earlier,” she says. “However, finding out that I’m shagging his Godson, the one he’s helped raise since he was only months old, isn’t something he’s likely to accept with a smile and hug. So forgive me if I want to protect him from having to deal with that for long as I can.”

“At the expense of us. I’m not a bloody child anymore, and he has to realize that. This is my life, not his, and it’s not bloody fair that you’re so worried about yourself and your friends that you seem to have lost sight of me.”

“I---I haven’t lost sight of you, Teddy.”

“Haven’t you? You’re so selfish, Hermione, and I don’t really care because I know you’ve got more to be worried about than I do, and I understand that. But it’s never about what’s best for us, it’s always what’s better for you.”

“I’m not selfish. If I was selfish, I’d say bugger it all and just do what I want without being concerned about anyone else.”

“Right. Your selfishness shows up in the great sacrifice. You have to protect everyone from everything that might make them even slightly uncomfortable because it gives you a sense of control and makes you feel needed. The thing is, you’re protecting some people from things that you think would bother them without even giving them a chance to make those decisions themselves.”

She bristles at his words and tries to figure out how this talk got so quickly out of hand. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

“The truth hurts,” he says firmly before he sighs and pushes his chair back. He starts to pace, his hair changing colors so fast that she can’t even keep up. “It’s been three weeks, Hermione. Three weeks. I see you nearly every day, need to see you daily because I feel restless if I don’t, and you still put everyone else’s comfort above our own. So, yeah, maybe I was pushy tonight. Maybe I was hoping you’d realize that you can be with me and not lose everything in your life.”

“I have obligations and responsibilities to consider, Ted. It’s not as easy for me, as I’ve told you from the start. You’re only twenty, and you don’t know yet what it’s like to have to balance a dozen different things, between children and work and family and ex-husbands and friends and chores and cooking and so many other things that can’t just be ignored or forgotten because I’m dating someone.”

“Stop using my age as an excuse,” he tells her. “This isn’t about me being only twenty and you being so old and mature. It isn't as if my grandmother won't be alarmed. It isn't as if I haven't already felt the reaction of someone I have known exactly as long as I've known you. I know something about balance and who could get hurt--one of those people is me--and so what if I don't cook dinner or have kids? I'm not interested in hurting Hugo or Rose, and yes you're their mother and you'd have to deal with them but I'd lose the entire relationship if they were upset or angry at me, because clearly, I'd be the one let go. I'm risking too, so this isn't about that. It’s about you being scared, damn it, and you just won’t admit it so you think of all these bloody excuses that keep you from having to admit that what we have means something to you.” He's loud and flushed by the time he finishes speaking and she watches him deliberately mute back down to brown, clearly demonstrating control before he resumes pacing.

“I'm not using it as an excuse. Your behavior earlier by letting your frustration make you take such risks is proof of why it is it a factor. And you've just listed several reasons why they are serious issues, Teddy." She pauses. "And, okay, I am scared. There. Happy? I’ve said it. I’m bloody well terrified sometimes, and you forcing me to do this before I’m ready isn’t helping.”

“Are you ever going to be ready?” he asks desperately. He stops walking and looks at her. “This isn’t casual to me, you know? It hasn’t ever been, even if you never wanted to hear that, and it’s not temporary for me, either. I want to be able to be with you without secrets and lying and hiding.”

“I just need time,” she whispers, trying to process what he’s said and figure out what to do because it’s too much and she feels like she’s suffocating at the moment and can’t breathe.

“God, maybe Ron was right,” he murmurs softly, looking hurt and angry as he holds the back of a chair. “He said you just liked the attention and the sex because you were lonely and I was convenient. He said if you really wanted to be with me that you wouldn’t be sneaking around and hiding. Too strong and brave for that, he said, which means you were ashamed of me. It’s when I lashed out at him, not believing you’d ever feel that way.”

“I don’t,” she says sharply. “I never---Ron has no right making such claims. He doesn't know nearly as much as he thinks he does.”

“Yet you can’t even bring yourself to tell Harry because you don’t want to disappoint him, and you seem to think the entire world will be against us or think that we’re disgusting. Sounds like you’re ashamed to me,” he points out. “I just didn’t want to acknowledge that, I guess, because it brings things into perspective.”

“I’m not ashamed of you, Teddy. I’m scared and confused and this is so very complicated, but I’ve never been ashamed. There's a difference between shame and caution.”

“I know it’s complicated, but we should be dealing with that together! Not hiding and sneaking around and ignoring all the problems like they’re going to suddenly disappear,” he says, running his hand through his light blue hair.

“What do you want from me?” she finally asks.

“I don’t know. Well, I do: I want you to stop making excuses and choose. I’m just tired,“ he admits. “I’m tired of not knowing what is and isn’t acceptable around people we know outside a work situation, and I’m tired of not being able to touch your hand or wink whenever Hugo’s around and I’m tired of not knowing where I stand because you say it’s just taking each day at a time while also acting like it could end tomorrow yet looking at me like you don’t want it to end anytime soon. I just can’t read your signals anymore, and it’s so bloody frustrating.”

“I’m tired, too,” she tells him. “I’m tired of lying to my best friend by not being able to be honest with him, and I’m tired of having to pretend around Hugo and I’m tired of feeling torn in so many directions that I can’t even think straight anymore. I’m tired of thinking about the worst possible outcome if we do actually try dating publicly to see what happens between us. I’m tired of reaching for you at night when you’re not there and feeling disappointed if I don’t kiss you every day. I just need more time because it’s all just happening so fast.”

He sighs and looks like he wants to reach for her, but he just tightens his grip on the chair. “It’s been three weeks. How much more time can you possibly need?”

“I don’t know! Just…more. I’m not ready yet, and it’s not fair to push me like you are, Teddy.”

“Maybe it’s not, but it’s also not fair for you to refuse to think about it because you’re scared about making a decision and having to face the consequences of your choice. It's not fair to me that the cost of your caution is to totally disregard my needs. I'm not saying my needs are everything, but they are something, and at this point, I don't get to express them. I'm not sure you think I should have them.”

“Stop trying to make this all my fault and make it sound like I don't care about you. You know that's not true,” she says. “You knew before we ever had dinner what you were getting into, so it’s not like I’ve taken advantage of you or lied to you. I’ve been honest from the start, and you’re far too observant not to know my negative qualities as well as my good. Maybe I am putting off thinking about all this because it took me time to decide to take the risk in the first place, but it’s not all on my shoulders.”

“No, it’s not your fault. There is no fault in relationships, not like this,” he murmurs softly. “I can’t wait any longer, Hermione. I wish I could give you weeks or months or however long it takes, but I can’t. I just am so sick of secrets and hiding how I feel. It’s twisting me into knots, even if I always think it’s worth it whenever I’m with you. I hate feeling like I’m not enough for you because, if I were, we wouldn’t be having this argument and you wouldn’t be so hesitant, would you?”

“It’s not like that. You’re more than enough; that isn’t the issue. God, I just wanted to talk about you groping me in public and warn you to stop pushing. I didn’t intend---”

“Neither did I.” He smiles wryly and blinks like he might cry, which makes her eyes water. “Something that feels so bloody right shouldn’t make us feel ashamed or like we’re doing something wrong, you know? If we could just forget the rest of the world, it would all be perfect. Unfortunately, the rest of the world occupies a huge part of our lives.”

“I know,” she whispers, reaching up to wipe at her eyes. She feels worse than she did when Bellatrix Lestrange used the Crucio curse on her, like her insides are twisting so much she might very well get sick, and it hurts so much. “So.”

“So,” he murmurs before he sighs. “This is it, I guess? We‘ve reached an impasse. I want more than you’re willing to give, and I can’t give you what you need.”

“Teddy, I---” She struggles to find words, but it’s too difficult. This is nearly as bad as when Ron first mentioned that they should separate, only she’d sort of expected that and this caught her completely by surprise, especially considering last night and this morning.

“It’s okay,” he says softly. “I mean, it’s not but I can’t keep giving you time when I want more.”

“And I can’t give you more until I’ve had time to figure things out,” she says, sighing as she looks up at him.

“Any idea how long that would be?” he asks hopefully.

“It could be a day or a week or more,” she admits, wanting to be honest even if it hurts so much to think about losing him. She can’t stand the idea, but she just isn’t impulsive enough to make such a huge decision without careful consideration.

“I was afraid you’d say that. It’s ironic that one of the reasons I’m attracted to you is your brilliant mind yet, right now, it’s one of the main things ruining my life.” He laughs dryly and tries to smile. “I should probably go now before I decide that my hatred of sneaking around isn’t worth losing you.”

“Teddy, please,” she whispers, blinking away tears as he walks closer and leans down to gently brush his lips against hers.

“I can’t very well leave without a word-we-can’t-say,” he murmurs, resting his forehead against hers briefly before he stands up and shakes his head. “I want to stay so badly that it hurts, but I can’t.” His words are a low whisper and he turns to leave before she can say anything.

She wants to tell him to stay, to tell him she does care more than she’s admitted, to tell him it doesn’t matter who knows, to tell him anything that makes him stop looking so hurt and sad as he walks away. But she can’t no matter how tempting the idea. She hates that she can’t, hates that she can’t just be reckless and daring and that she’s sitting here silently crying while someone who makes her happier than she ever expected walks out the door. She starts to say his name, just needing to say something, but she can't. Instead, she does one of the most difficult things she’s ever done in her life: she lets him go.