On Saturday just before lunch, Theo found his witch staring pensively out into the garden from the nursery window. It was raining, turning the thoughtless formality of the Nott gardens blowsy.
"Box hedges exist to make it obvious you have gardeners." Hermione opined, disliking the faultless severity. "I could ask Neville for his opinion. Molly too, assuming she doesn't hate me. The Burrow garden is lovely."
"Mother was the last person to do anything about the grounds. She planted a rose bower on the south lawn. All different colours. I remember the breeze blowing the petals." Theo stared at the geometric precision of the hedges, gravel and statuary. "Father tore it all down after the funeral. It's just grass now."
"Do you like gardening?" She didn't, particularly. Looking at plants, knowing about them, yes. Tilling mulch not so much.
"I like looking at the result." He kissed the back of her neck. She had her hair up but it was struggling loose from the braiding charm. "There'll be many people looking for work. We can hire some to remodel the grounds. Father did the same, albeit with the outbuildings, after the first war."
"That's unexpectedly altruistic." Hermione contemplated why a Death Eater would employ wizards to do busy work. "Oh, I see. Younger sons and the destitute. All dependants of his cronies."
"We look after our own." Theo agreed. After the end of the first wizarding war, the Notts had survived relatively unscathed. Many traditional families had not been as fortunate.
His father was Marked but had been more valuable to Tom as a financier than a warrior. Nothing could be proven other than collaboration, and after Tristan Nott had given generously to reconstruction funds even those charges had been dropped. The Wizengamot's excuse for their graft was more prosecutions would only cause pain. The people were tired of the trials, weary of the war and just wanted to return to their ordinary lives.
"The fines were pretty damn punitive this time." She had been astounded by the amounts the Death Eater families had been expected to pay. That some could, without bankrupting themselves, was phenomenal.
"The Ministry didn't touch the scholarship vault my father endowed. We'll be able to support any who ask." And they would ask. Perhaps not immediately but like the previous war, the Ministry would not hurry to help those who had made it look incompetent.
"And thus build a base of loyalty and obligation ready for the next war." Hermione thought about Gideon and Fabian Prewett, and George and Fred Weasley. The guilt of the survivors. "I'm going to use the household accounts to help anyone I can. Starting with the Muggle-borns. We'll lose them otherwise. They'll go back to the non-magical world and we'll be worse off for it."
"Andromeda will be here shortly. I'm sure she'll want to help." Theo had acceded to Regulus's request that the Black family reunion be held at Nott Manor, comfortably neutral ground. The revelation of Nemesia's existence had rubbed many old scars. Everyone wanted answers.
Except Theo. He was content to leave the Blacks to their collective feuds. Unfortunately that would mean Hermione weathering the tempest alone, which he could not endure. So into the storm he would go.
"How much petulant screaming can I allow myself?" Hermione asked rhetorically. She didn't intend to lose her temper but meeting all the Blacks at once was going to be taxing. It wasn't her idea. Regulus had told Andromeda and Draco had told Narcissa. The sisters were frantic to meet their niece.
"How upset are you that you didn't have a childhood of ridiculous indulgence and paranoia?" Theo asked, rubbing the small of her back. "Nemesia would likely have gone to Beauxbatons if the Lestranges had obtained custody. Or you could've grown up with Draco being awkwardly ignored by Lucius until Tom returned."
"I can bear having had a comfortable middle class life. Ballet lessons were unpleasant but I loved the museums. My parents and I were looking at good secondary schools before I got my Hogwarts letter." She breathed in slowly, meditatively, searching for inner peace. It wasn't there. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to study at uni. I quite liked the idea of being a scientist. Or an engineer."
"Once you graduate, Masters across Europe will be owling you to offer Apprenticeships." He smiled at the prospect. "Proper research, done somewhere surrounded by peers keen to learn not just play Quidditch." Theo wasn't sure what he would do with himself. He didn't expect any offers. "Once I restore the Nott library, you could host an intellectual salon."
"What's wrong with the library?" Hermione was instantly distracted from her own worries with concern over the books. An old family like the Notts could have accumulated thousands of rare volumes.
"The Ministry sent people in to cleanse it of banned tomes. They left a maelstrom." The elves had tidied up the worst of the disarray but checking the collection for losses and damage needed to be done by a witch or wizard. Or several. "But NEWTs first."
"And babies." Hermione reminded him. She needed to keep reminding herself, despite the back ache and random twinges. She wasn't even that big yet but her hips felt like they were shaking loose. Theo strayed a hand to her bump and kissed her again.
"I haven't forgotten." He was quietly terrified but was spared having to confess his trepidation by the chime of the Floo alarm. They went downstairs to greet their guests.
Andromeda Tonks and Nymphadora Lupin had arrived first, the former in drab mourning robes, the latter in a purple coat with matching hair. When she saw Hermione, the Auror rushed to her, hugging her tightly then inspecting her.
"When mum said, wow!" Tonks laughed, quirking her eyebrows at the borrowed robe. "Welcome to the nut-house." She hugged the girl again, still not believing. "You look good. Pity about the pasty git beside you."
"Madam Lupin." Theo inclined his head to the exact degree courtesy demanded. The Metamorphmagus made a literal pig nose at him before dragging Hermione to Andromeda, who had been decorously perusing the kintsugi pottery in the curio.
"Teddy will love having playmates." She slung an arm over Hermione's shoulder, in a somewhat more subtle show of protection than Harry's outright threats. "When's the last time we had twins in the family?"
"Phineas Nigellus's grandmother was one of two, I believe." Andromeda spoke languidly, watching her niece with a deceptive air of calm. She and Regulus had spoken extensively, both expecting to be berated by the family at large for their actions. For her part, she didn't care. Nemesia had been safe and loved and left to become herself not a plaything for a madman.
"I understand." Hermione said quietly. "I'm not ready to say I'm happy, but for what it's worth there's nothing to forgive except what you did to the Grangers."
"I would have raised you myself, except I dreaded seeing Bella in you." The haggard witch studied the young woman before her. "There's some of her in you. You're a lucky mix of Lestrange and Black. If I'd known how you would look, I might have risked it. You were too precious to be gifted with someone else's resentment."
Hermione was glad the Floo chimed, cutting off a probably not-very-witty remark about being given a full load of derision over her Muggle birth she could have done without. She didn't think growing up aware of magic would have lessened her wonder at it. It would probably have blunted some of her urge to constantly prove herself though.
"Harry!" She exclaimed, surprised when her friend stepped through. He wasn't alone. Ron was fast behind him, dusting off the soot and looking around at the parlour with a scowl.
"Expecting more skulls?" Tonks joked. The room was big, full of fancy foreign china and stuffy chairs.
Ron didn't answer her. He'd seen Hermione and all the things he'd planned to say, proper grown-up questions he'd meant to ask just blew away. She didn't look as thin or as tired as she'd been when they'd had their last barney. The pinched look her face got when she was trying not to be angry wasn't there. That was good. Pretty much nothing else was.
"Blimey, you weren't kidding, Harry." He said that to say something. Hermione was definitely up the duff. And there was bloody Nott smirking like he'd done something clever. His fists itched. But he'd promised Harry he wouldn't go spare. Sodding time travelling fairies.
"Ron." Hermione found her breath and her voice. She didn't expect her former sort of boyfriend to crush her in a tight embrace.
"It'll all be okay, 'Mione. Don't worry. We'll sort this out." He promised, glowering hexes at Nott over her shoulder. "I mean it's all terrible but we're together on this just like always."
"Thanks." She tried not to snivel, a huge weight lifting. Hermione had less success in ignoring the little voice in her head asking precisely what had Harry said to perform this miracle of Weasley-wrangling. "I need to talk to your mum, to everyone."
"I've told them." Ron left out the bit where the whole Burrow had overheard him shouting. "They're all on your side. That's why Mum and Dad wanted me to come here today when we heard about this Black lunch."
"What?" Hermione pulled back a little, looking from Ron to Harry. "Why?"
"So they don't try to badger you into agreeing to anything." Harry explained. "When Sirius made me his heir I got tangled up in all sorts of trusts and vaults. He was disowned like Mrs Tonks but there's some old stuff that can't be taken away." He grinned, pleased the Slytherins wouldn't be getting their own way. "So Regulus can't ignore me."
"And I'm here because Dad's mum was a Black. So I'm your something cousin." Ron raised his voice when he heard the Floo, ensuring that the Malfoys and Regulus Black heard this declaration.
"Mister Weasley is our second cousin." Narcissa Malfoy made an airy gesture to include Regulus, Andromeda and herself. "That hardly qualifies you to intrude. Not least because you were not invited."
"Actually, I asked Harry and Ron to come along." Tonks flicked her bright hair out of her eyes, giving her aunt a lupine grin. "Even up the numbers." She shot a challenging look at Theo, who raised no objection. Nor would he, in front of Hermione. He'd already reconciled himself to Potter and Weasley cluttering his home.
"Now we are all here, perhaps some refreshments?" Hermione suggested as she was hungry and wanted to divert everyone before they drew wands. The quietly awkward family luncheon she had envisioned now looked like a prelude to war.
Wizarding table etiquette was Byzantine and the unexpected guests would have disarranged the seating any way, which made it fortunate Hermione and Theo had opted for a buffet. The circle of comfortable chairs each had a low table beside it so everyone could eat at a loafing pace. That suited Hermione and meant the house elves didn't have to wait attendance.
Narcissa was too polished to frown at the casual repast. She assumed Theodore was quietly telling his social circle he did not wish to entertain formally. His father would have never accepted anything less than a full service meal. Perhaps his new wife was to blame for them dining en famille. Which might also be someone making a point.
Hermione spent the first half of the meal refereeing between Ron, Harry, Malfoy and Theo. Her husband was biting his tongue, she could tell. Regulus too was noticeably reserved. Tonks chatted, mostly at Narcissa, who made pointed comments in return. Andromeda acted as the voice of reason with such finesse that Hermione didn't notice her steering the conversation until she prompted Ron to ask the important question.
"What are you going to say to that bastard Lestrange?" He demanded, his harsh tone a legacy from his exchange with Malfoy. She could see both her friends trying to play it cool. They were here for her, to ensure the older Blacks didn't manipulate her into being a figurehead. And in Ron's case to try to push every one of Theo's buttons.
"I don't know." Hermione answered candidly. "I've given it a great deal of thought. I don't expect him to be particularly rational." Malfoy muttered an assent and was hastily shushed by his mother. "I probably won't say much beyond telling him who I am."
"You could renounce him. A wizarding oath to your father would cut you off from his family." Regulus urged with subtle force. But it mattered too much for him to feign disinterest well. Hermione frowned.
"You know, you could have kids of your own." She didn't like the quiet hunger Regulus, Narcissa and Andromeda seemed to share. There was discord between mother and daughter too, as Tonk's hair flashed red briefly before returning to purple.
"Remember what Parvati's mum wrote?" Harry was surprised Hermione had forgotten what they had discovered during their Third Year when it seemed everyone was trying to break into Hogwarts. It took him a moment to realise he was speaking to the wrong Hermione. "You said yourself that Dark Magic was like radiation then Seamus made a joke about lead-lined underpants."
"Madam Gupta-Patil is an authority on the deleterious effects of Dark Magic." Regulus did not air his personal opinion of the witch, who had been a staunch supporter of the Ministry raids against suspected Death Eaters. "She is an accomplished Healer, who has written several treatises on curses. Which makes it difficult to refute her conclusion that a factor in the reduced fertility of pure-blood families is our exposure to what she calls 'accumulations of contaminated artefacts'."
"Yes, of course." Hermione covered her lapse with a shrug. "Sorry, baby brain." She rubbed her stomach, not wanting to overplay her excuse. Theo got up and brought her a cup of peppermint tea. "I simply don't like everyone hovering over me waiting to stake a claim."
The expressions of her relatives were a spectrum from Tonks's indulgent amusement to Draco's chary watchfulness. No one called her out. Narcissa ate a canapé with frigid calm. She had dined with Voldemort, nothing now could ruffle her. Andromeda was not so frosty.
"We want the best for our House." She flicked a tolerant glance at the interlopers Harry and Ron, who didn't give a toss for the Black family name, before assaying a soothing smile at Hermione. Who gave her a honed Ophelia stare in return. "You want bluntness? Very well. Regulus and Draco have poisoned themselves with the Dark Mark. Nymphadora married a werewolf. I am a widow and Narcissa might as well be. So we hover because your sons are our best hope."
"Because there's not enough barmies in the world." Ron muttered into his ribbon sandwich. He took the assembly of glares from everyone except Harry and Tonks with insouciance. "Sorry, 'Mione, but you've got to admit you're worried about having a mini-Bellatrix. I'm sure Nott's got some inherited oddness just waiting to show itself."
"Like your family's poverty?" Draco asked, automatically vicious.
"That's right, Malfoy." The ginger wizard agreed grinning without humour. "I hear it's catching too." Ron had a pretty solid idea of how much the Malfoys had been stung by the Ministry. They were lucky they still had their ancestral pile. He couldn't resist another dig. "Want some tips on how to stretch a Knut?"
Lunch didn't last much longer after that. Narcissa and Draco left before causing a scene. Tonks hustled Harry and Ron out, the latter pointedly inviting Hermione alone to the Burrow. Andromeda issued a general invitation to her home and received one in return from Theo. Regulus left some parchments for his cousin then excused himself politely.
They packed up the left-overs and took them to the solarium on the third floor. The windows were enchanted with a view of a summer meadow complete with brook and butterflies. Spreading a blanket on the floor, Theo arranged cushions for his witch before lounging.
"Ron and Harry are up to something." Hermione remarked as she settled in. Her statement got an affirmative noise from the wizard with his mouth full. "And Draco noticed something off about me not knowing about Gupta." Another sound of agreement. "I want to read her books."
"They should be readily available. Your other self might have a copy of them." He said after he'd swallowed the dolmades he had been enjoying. McGonagall had discreetly returned the belongings they had left in the Eighth Year dorm. "Would you like to move from Nott Manor?"
"I think so." She appreciated his perspicacity in following her line of thought. "If exposure to Dark curses and items causes long term health effects, I'd prefer not to live here. At least until you cleanse the place."
"That would be difficult for a Varinen." Theo had been keeping himself from arguing with the Gryffindors by silently assessing how many of his Manor's wards he could alter or remove. Some, was his best current estimate. "It may be better to empty the furniture and contents to let the building bleed off the ambient residue."
"I don't want to make you metaphorically chuck everything on the lawn." Hermione was conscious this was Theo's home. He smiled at her, offering a bowl of strawberries.
"It's something that has been in the back of my mind since the end of the war. My father is never getting out of Azkaban. If I want to make a fresh start, I need to step out of his shadow." He said. He did not say he wanted his wife and his children to live in his ancestral home, despite it being his fondest wish. "You need to mind your parents' house. We can shift there, read Gupta's theorems and plan."
"I'd like to go to the Burrow tomorrow." She wasn't asking permission, but she wasn't announcing it as fact either. "You really won't be welcome."
"Nor should I be." Theo shifted closer to feed Hermione a strawberry. "Regardless of how we changed the Battle, I still fought against the Weasleys. Loving you doesn't absolve me."
"It will." Hermione vowed. "I will bring you into the light." She smiled. "I'll drag you if I have to, and defend you. A brave new world." Her fingers interlaced with his. "Together."
"Together." He agreed, sealing the vow with a strawberry flavoured kiss.