Desolation (Worth the Risk #28)

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Teddy’s gone.

Even after he quietly shuts the door behind him, Hermione sits in the private room waiting. If she goes, she won’t be there if he comes back. After enough time passes for her to have to accept that he isn’t coming back, she feels numb. This is one of the reasons she’s been so hesitant to acknowledge the possibility of a real relationship between them. She hates the hurt and the loss. With Ron, they had drifted apart gradually, and it hadn't been a huge surprise when they decided it was best if he just moved out, but it was still horrible to lose him. There had been an ache, a sense of failure at not being able to fix their relationship or save her marriage, and there had been tears, always after the children were in bed, but she had survived and life went on. Of course, she'd also vowed at one point to never again allow herself to fall into such a position because the hurt was awful.

Yet, here she is once again. Different circumstances but similar in many ways. In this case, she resisted giving herself completely to lessen the pain when he inevitably left only to find out that it doesn’t hurt any less. It’s illogical and confusing, and she can’t think about this right now. She’s spent so much time thinking during the past weeks that she thought she must have considered every possible angle and choice, but she knows she unconsciously avoided any thoughts that involved emotions or a possible future.

It’s too soon. She thought she had more time, that she could adjust to the huge decision she already made by giving them a chance, albeit in secret, and after she was comfortable, then she could think about the future and worry and analyze and make lists, as is her way. While three weeks might seem like forever to someone Teddy’s age, to her it feels like barely enough time to process the fact that she’s dating again and involved with someone she’s beginning to care more about.

A lot of what he said still rings in her ears, the accusations and valid arguments regarding her actions, or inaction, and she knows she has to concentrate on their fight and go over every detail that she can remember repeatedly until things begin to make sense. But not now. Probably not even tomorrow or the next day; though, if she’s being perfectly honest with herself, she doubts she makes it through the night without making a list. It hurts too much, it’s too fresh, and she doesn’t want to make herself sick obsessing over it until she’s ready. Of course, knowing her mind and the fact that she’s already fighting the urge to grab paper and start writing things out in a hope that the pain will weaken, she isn’t entirely sure that she won’t end up obsessing anyway.

Unfortunately, she’s at a party full of people she knows and calls friends. The desire to hide and indulge in a good old-fashioned cry isn’t possible. Instead, she wipes her face and takes several deep breaths as she does her best to calm down and appear normal. It isn’t easy, but she has to do it, so she does. She has years of practice at putting her needs and feelings into a space in the back of her mind to bring out when she’s alone, after all, and this is no different. She doesn’t want anyone to realize she’s upset because she doesn’t want them worried about her and she certainly doesn’t want them asking her what’s wrong. Perhaps Teddy’s right with his claim that she unconsciously puts everyone else’s needs ahead of herself, but it’s just how she is and that’s not likely to stop now.

The party is in full swing when she quietly makes her way up the stairs. She tightens her grip on the railing before she straightens her shoulders and forces her lips into a slight smile. It’s not as natural as usual, but it’s the best she can do right now. Fortunately, it’s enough to fool everyone. She spends the next hour making casual conversation, giving hugs, and making vague promises to meet for lunch/tea/dinner/a drink while she smiles and laughs as if the world is perfectly all right.

This is an act that she refined during the awkward months following Ron’s leaving, when their friends were uncertain if sides would have to be chosen and if things could actually be civil between them considering their rather heated relationship over the years. There’s part of her that is still relieved, all these years later, that they were able to adjust and remain friends because she can’t help but think a majority of the people in this room would have chosen his side if it had come to that.

After all, Ron is one of them, far more than she has ever truly been. She works long hours and spends her free time with the children generally, so she doesn’t often drop by the pub for a drink with the ‘old gang’, and she’s never had a typical sort of relationship with any of them. She’s the one they come to for advice, the one they call on to kick their arse when they know they need a shove in a certain direction, the one that many of them seem to have somehow cast into a maternal role for approval and acceptance of dating partners, job offers, and any number of things for which they seek her counsel.

Perhaps it comes from her having been Prefect or tutoring so many of them over the years or possibly even helping Harry with Dumbledore’s Army, but it’s just their way, so she doesn’t protest. It’s nice to be able to help friends, even if it can occasionally be trying to feel like an outsider even when surrounded by a group hugging and vying for her attention. However, the role she plays for many of them doesn’t compare with Ron’s friendship and getting a pint after work, so she’s glad they were never made to feel like they had to choose or balance being friends with both.

When she realizes that she’s allowed herself to drift into maudlin thoughts and is studying her friends as if they were on display at a museum instead of people she cares about, she decides it’s time to go home. It’s too loud and crowded to really speak with Dean now, but they made tentative plans earlier to get together for lunch in the next couple of weeks to discuss Hugo’s wand. She has managed to avoid Ron entirely, despite noticing him with Mel a few times. After Teddy’s quiet acceptance of the slanderous accusations that Ron had no business even thinking since he knows her better than that, she’s not entirely certain that she could control herself if she were to run across him. Since she doesn’t want to be responsible for putting her children’s father into St. Mungos, it’s best to ignore him until her temper cools. Then, she’ll hurt him but be able to stop before it becomes too messy and permanent.

Before she leaves, she has to let Harry know she’s going. He’ll worry otherwise, and he has enough on his mind without her adding more to it. He’s talking to George when she finds him, so she quietly gives him a hug from behind and lets him know she’s leaving, claiming a headache and stressful week when he and George say it’s too early to go. Harry stares at her in that intent way that makes her wonder if he’s trying to read her mind before he hugs her and tells her to take care of herself. After making a promise to meet George for lunch in the upcoming week, not a vague one because he knows her far too well and demands a date and time, she makes her way to the fireplace, stopping by to tell Ginny good-bye on the way.

Finally, she’s home, and the smile fades and her shoulders sag. The house is dark and quiet, too quiet, and she walks over to turn on the wireless because she doesn’t want to be alone with her thoughts. When she hears the sultry sound of Delphinia Warbeck, she blinks and remembers Teddy singing along in a husky voice that made her feel like she had a fever. “Stop it,” she scolds even as she turns off the wireless and wraps her arms around herself.

Her choices are to go upstairs to bed or to find something to keep herself occupied so she doesn’t think about the fight and losing Teddy before she ever completely had him. Busy wins over sleep, so she kicks off her shoes and heads to the kitchen. After she washes dishes, she reorganizes the cabinets. They’re still sorted alphabetically, but she also makes sure that the various colors are grouped together, too. It’s probably pathetic that Hugo’s turquoise cup distracts her for a few minutes because it reminds her of Teddy’s hair, so she blames the pause on trying to determine whether to group the cup as blue or turquoise.

It’s almost midnight by the time she finishes scrubbing the kitchen floors and cabinets, leaving everything clean and shiny in a way that will be more impressive to her in the morning. Her blouse is soaked with sweat and mop water, her skirt is pushed up high around her thighs, and her hair is a complete mess, but she feels accomplished. There’s still more energy left in her, so she starts on the sitting room. “Let’s hear Ron complain about me not hoovering now,” she mutters crossly, snarling slightly at even saying his name.

Once she finishes hoovering the rug, she mops the wooden floors and then starts dusting. She does everything by hand for once, leaving the magic for another day, and works her way around the room. The bookshelf takes ages because she decides to remove the contents from each shelf to make sure no dust is missed. The majority of her book collection is in her home office, also known as the garage, so there are less than a hundred titles on the shelves. When she finishes, she realizes that she put the books back in the wrong order, which isn’t like her at all. She frowns and fixes them before summoning glass cleaner so she can work on the windows.

At a quarter past three, she finally stops. The kitchen, sitting room, and hallway are all clean, but her body is starting to protest. She’s been awake since six and had a long day at the office before attending the party, and the cleaning has left her back aching and her hands sore. The only thing in her mind now is to shower and sleep, so her plan was effective, albeit tiring. She puts out the candles and slowly makes her way upstairs in the dark. When she enters her bedroom, she strips off her clothes and puts them in the hamper before she turns on the shower. She washes quickly, not lingering because she’s riding the wave of exhaustion that will let her sleep deeply and just forget everything.

That plan lasts until she pulls down the blanket and slips between the sheets.

Everything smells like Teddy. The pillow, the sheets, and the entire room, it seems. She’s instantly awake, and she feels the twisting in her gut as she inhales slowly, savoring the masculine scent that she’s come to love over recent weeks. She turns her head into the pillow and sniffs, moving her arm over the empty space beside her. When she realizes what she’s doing, she sits up and shakes her head. This won’t do. It’s pitiable, at best, and she sincerely doubts he’s lying around sniffing pillows and fighting tears.

She rolls out of bed and begins pulling off the sheets. Thank god no one is around to see her because she must look mad. A naked woman tugging furiously on pale yellow cotton while biting her lip to keep from crying is an image that makes her cringe because she’s the woman. Naked because she’s taken to wearing Teddy’s T-shirt and her other sleeping clothes are in the hamper to be washed, and she can’t very well wear his shirt tonight. She just didn’t count on the bloody sheets.

After she pulls them off, she tosses them on the floor. “There. Better,” she says emphatically as she crawls onto the bare mattress and curls up into the fetal position. Her pillow is on the floor with the sheets and blankets because Teddy’s scent has managed to permeate all her bedding. It’s cold without any cover, but she’s too worn out to contemplate a warming charm, so she just shivers a little until she adjusts. She keeps sniffing and smells nothing more than the fruity scent of her soap and the mustiness of the mattress.

“Just sleep,” she tells herself, closing her eyes tightly and trying to count sheep then hippogriffs then books. Nothing works. She tosses and turns, the scratchy surface of the mattress rubbing against her bum then her breasts then her bum again. A glance at her bedside clock tells her that it’s after four, and she’s still not asleep. She has to pick up Hugo in eight hours, as she told her parents she’d be there by noon, and she promised him a special day, which means she has to be herself by then, or at least a reasonable facsimile.

She opens her eyes again and stares at the ceiling. It’s not working. Nothing is working. She can still see him, still feel him, still hear him, still smell him, and still taste him. Why can’t she just stop feeling? She wants to be numb, to be cold and distant, to not hurt so bloody much. She sits up again and pushes her hair out of her face as she stares at her dark room. She stays there for a while, doing nothing except looking at the shadows, before she eventually crawls across the mattress and carefully slides off.

When she’s on the pile of sheets and blankets, she pulls them around her and inhales, smelling Teddy, smelling them, and she finally lets go of the tears she’s refused to let fall since he walked away. She cries silently at first, her face becoming damp as she pulls the sheet around her upper torso, but it gradually becomes worse until she’s sobbing into the spare pillow. She cries for everything she did wrong, everything Teddy did wrong, everything they lost, everything they’ll never have now, unless there's some way to fix this that she just hasn't seen yet. It hardly seems likely, but it's a little bit comforting to think it's possible. It isn’t until the tears start to stop that she finally feels herself start to drift off into sleep.