When they returned to the farm much later, Hermione espied through the screen door of the darkened living room her Aunt Louise sitting in her rocking chair on the back porch. A quick glance to Sirius told her he'd seen as well, as he nodded and crept up the stairs to their room alone.
The springs on the old wooden framed door whispered softly as Hermione pushed through, easing it shut behind her so it didn't slam. The head of silvery curls let down for bedtime turned to her and nodded as the older woman motioned to the vacant rocking chair next to her. Hermione frowned slightly as Louise Ross lit a gnarled old pipe filled with a sweet tobacco blend and sighed against the slats of her chair, clearly waiting for the inevitable conversation about her own magical powers.
"Why didn't you tell me?" was all she could think of to ask.
"S'pose I didn't quite know how," came the response. Louise turned her head and raised an eyebrow at her niece. "I ain't like you, y'know."
Hermione let out an incredulous little breath and shook her head. "If you had any idea what I went through – the persecution and prejudice…" she said more to herself than her aunt. "I've feared for my life more than once, all because I was supposedly Muggle-born."
Louise turned and faced her directly then, her brown eyes flashing, so similar to Hermione's mother's, so similar to her own. "Ain' no such thing as 'Muggles', child. Your ma and dad, my husband and son - " she jerked an angry thumb to the house, "You, me, Sirius – we're just people. All this talk about separate worlds and separate Ministries and special schools – that's exactly why my ma had to send me away, exactly what destroyed her own sister, what murdered your great-great-grandmother Tessa. All this separatin' and considerin' magic folk to be more special than those what got none. We're all just people, 'Mione," she repeated, her voice shaking with emotion.
"I – I'm sorry," Hermione whispered, ashamed. "I didn't know…" She'd never seen her aunt be anything but sweet and even-tempered before, and now she wondered how she'd tolerated her bratty little niece with a wand and special schooling for so long.
"It's alright, child," Louise said, her tone softening. "I ain't mad at you, for Pete's sake! But I won't have you goin' on about this Muggle nonsense any longer, understand? Foolishness," she grumbled, tapping her pipe on the arm of her chair. "D'you see folks separatin' themselves because some can sing better than others, or cook better, or help the sick?"
"We were always told if – if non-magic people knew about us, they'd be wanting our help for everything…" Hermione explained, feeling ridiculous as she heard the words leave her mouth.
"And just what's wrong with that?" Louise shot back. "God didn't give you gifts just so you could hoard them away for yourself!"
A flash of defensiveness hit Hermione. She never liked being reprimanded, for even the smallest of things, and now she was being dressed down for her entire way of life. Pulling her wand from her concealed holster, she searched around for something to use. Her eyes fell on the thick glass ashtray resting on the table between them. With an intricate wand movement and a wordless command, it was transformed into what looked like a glittering diamond the size of her palm. Seeing her aunt's eyes widen, she held it out to her.
"It's not real," she said with a smirk. "But it looks real enough to fool someone who wouldn't know better. Someone who'd pay too much money for it before they could realize they'd been duped by a charm."
Louise's eyes narrowed in consideration, so Hermione continued. "There are too many people in the magical world who would be too easily swayed by temptation, people who will never care about helping others more than themselves. And people who believe with all their heart that 'God' did give them gifts because they were somehow superior to those without them. Those are the people who would use magic to enslave those without it because they believe it's their right."
They sat in silence for several minutes. Louise turned the transfigured ashtray over in her hands, studying it for a moment. Then, cupping her palms around it, she closed her eyes in concentration. When she opened her hands, it was an ashtray again. She quietly set it back on the table, flashing a wry grin at Hermione out of the corner of her eye.
"You were sent to America when you were eleven," Hermione said.
Louise took a breath and nodded. "That was when I got my letter. I'd never seen my ma look more frightened in my whole life." She gave a sad little smile. "Thought it was me she was scared of, for the longest time. Weren't till I was grown that my Great-Aunt Lisette told me the truth.
"You see," she explained, "Your Grandma Caroline - my mother, had a sister. Ain' no one knew about her, though, 'cause somethin' bad happened. Don' know exactly what, Aunt Lis would never tell me. But she was just a tiny thing when some folks saw her doin' things they thought was 'unnatural.' They were sons of the pastor of a nearby church. Took it into their own hands to try and 'exorcise the demons' out of little Isobel. Momma was the one who found her, the next day, locked up in a box behind the church."
Hermione gasped, the hand that had been covering her mouth as the story unfolded now wiping away tears. Louise glanced over, her mouth in a tight line.
"She only lived for a couple years past that. She was broken, though – they put her in a special home. Aunt Lis thought her powers got the best of her, trapped up in that broken mind like that." She shook her head. "The official report said the cause of death was a 'freak accident.'"
"No wonder your mother wanted to send you away," Hermione whispered. "But didn't anyone explain to your parents about Hogwarts? It's the safest - "
"Didn't matter," Louise interrupted. "When my ma had me, her mother told her about the magic, that it was passed down through the women in our family, always one of two sisters." She paused and gave Hermione a curious look. "Course, that's only if the dad don't have magic in him. I imagine your children will all have it… Anyway, it was her sister, Momma's Aunt Lisette, who got it. And it was their mother, your great-great-grandmother Tessa McNeil, who was discovered by a local woman convinced she was bewitching her husband and seducing him." Her wrinkled lips twisted in bitterness and disgust. "It was a small village, from what I understand, so of course bein' a couple centuries behind the times was to be expected…
"When Tessa McNeil was murdered, her husband only barely escaped with their two girls - took them away, brought them both to America. Grandma Alicia returned to England when she got older, married and had my mother and aunt. Lisette stayed here – she'd found her niche and a way to help folks. I s'pose after Ma lost her little sister Isobel, she was convinced the only safe place was where the only witch in the family managed to survive. And that's how I came to be here," she finished with a little smile and sat back, waiting patiently for the questions that would surely follow.
"But where did you learn the actual techniques of it? Is there a school here in America?"
"Heavens no," Aunt Lou laughed. "Aunt Lisette taught me everything she knew, and much of that came from local Native American tribes and healers, folks who recognized what she had and weren't afraid of it. I followed her around the country for a long time, went to a regular school, and then I met your uncle and we moved here."
"Where is she now?" Hermione asked, knowing that even if her great-great-aunt Lisette was a hundred years or older, she could still very well be alive, especially if she had magic.
"Oh, somewhere in the Blue Ridge mountains, I'd wager," Louise hedged.
"You don't even have a wand, Aunt Lou," her niece objected. "You could do things so much faster, more precise… we can get you one when we return to London, and I can teach you to use mine in the meantime!" She was getting excited now, and Louise had to cut her off.
"'Mione," she calmly interrupted, holding up a hand. "No, sweetheart. That would be like… like giving a machine gun to a master archer and telling him to go hunt rabbits with it," she said with a soft chuckle. "I do fine, dear," she added, noticing Hermione's disappointed expression. "Believe me. I just do things a bit differently from you is all."
Not that differently, Hermione thought, recalling the spiked tea as well as the discovery that the sunscreen Sirius had been slathering on her had its own 'romantic' properties to it. Starting with the sunscreen, which was actually more of a concern to Hermione at this point, she proceeded to grill her aunt about her little matchmaking scheme.
"What did it smell like to him?" Louise asked in a conspiratorial tone.
Hermione frowned. "He said it smelled like the perfume I wear. That's how I knew, because it didn't smell at all like that to me. To me, it smelled like - "
"Like him?" the older witch finished with a know-it-all grin.
"You can't do that, Aunt Lou!" she hissed, becoming more and more distressed. "That's meddling with peoples lives and, and their hearts! I don't want him under the influence of some… some love potion!"
"Shh, shh, shh," Louise soothed. "I don't make love potions, sweetheart. Don' believe in that kind of rubbish – even if it seems to work, someone usually gets killed or mortally wounded," she chuckled. "It was nothin' more than a test, really – if it wasn't right, he'd have smelled something less appealing. You both would have. I wouldn't do that do my little girl, would I?" she chided, reminding Hermione with a bittersweet lurch that she was still family, that she still had family, even though her own parents were gone.
"I miss them, Aunt Lou," she whispered suddenly. It was the first they'd spoke of their loss since Hermione had had to make the call months prior.
"I know you do, dear, me too." A cool wrinkled hand found Hermione's and squeezed.
After a moment, Hermione slid her hand away to wipe at her stray tears and continued with her questioning.
When asked about the tea, Lou simply smiled. "Oh, a little of this, a little of that – nothing spectacular, mind you, just something to open the door for a few minutes…"
"A few minutes?" Hermione laughed incredulously. "More like the whole afternoon – what was it?" she pressed.
Louise's grin widened. "Really, Hermione – it was nothing but a short-term little draught – 'Truth of Feelings,' is what Aunt Lis used to call it." She shrugged. "Only has a real effect for about ten minutes, and the more you drink it, the weaker it gets. Nothin' dark or evil, I promise. Anything beyond that was all you and Sirius."
Hermione sat back in her chair in shock.
"Told ya so," her aunt muttered smugly before patting her on the knee. "You're both adults, Hermione, and we don't judge here. Just – cast a little silencing charm or whatever it is you do with that stick of wood you carry 'round, hmm?"
With that, the older lady hauled herself up out of her rocking chair and meandered to bed, leaving her niece on the porch still blushing, slightly teary, and utterly dumbfounded.
Hermione and Sirius lay wrapped in each others' arms, the small twin-sized bed having been magically resized and the spare cot folded and stored away in the corner. The open window let in the sounds of Georgia's summer night creatures - a symphony of frogs, cicadas, an occasional owl, and Sirius' reminder.
He took a deep breath and braced himself. "Crickets."
"Hmmm?" Hermione hummed, lazily tracing her fingers over the contours of his muscles and the lines of his tattoos.
He gave her a little squeeze. "Crickets," he said again.
She looked up at him hazily, "Yes, what about them?"
Sirius sighed. "You asked what my irrational fear was, and I said I'd tell you if you'd go dancing with me…"
Hermione frowned, remembering. "Crickets?" she repeated. "The cute little harmless chirpy - "
"Okay, they're not cute, they're creepy, Hermione. Those long pointy legs and – and they're all jumpy…"
She gave him a skeptical look. "I don't believe you," she said bluntly.
He shrugged, "Alright, so I grew out of being afraid of them, but they still give me the creeps. You can ask McGonagall when we get back – she's the only one left who knows. She gave me a week of detention my first day at Hogwarts because I saw one in our dorm and tried to cast a spell to fumigate the room." He added in a sheepish mumble, "Set Moony's curtains on fire in the process."
He cast a hesitant glance at Hermione to find a dopey grin on her face. "What?" he asked, mystified by her expression.
Her grin widened and she shook her head slowly before kissing him long and deeply. "I love you, Sirius Black," she answered finally. "All of you. You didn't have to tell me, you know – I secretly wanted to go with you to Harlan's the first time you asked."
"Does that mean you'll go next weekend too?" He grinned.
"Will you wear the hat?" she asked shyly.
There was no clanging of the antique kitchen bell. A bright sliver of late morning sunshine peeked through the slit in the gingham curtains and made its slow path across tanned, muscled chest until finally, brushing eyelashes that shadowed the cheek resting there, eyelids fluttered and squinted against the light.
Feeling the female body in his arms shift slightly, Sirius smiled, inhaling her familiar scent, a happiness he'd never known filling him until he was certain he'd burst. He pulled her closer, nuzzling his face into her warm brown curls, the small kisses against his chest awakening other parts of his body. With a soft growl, he pulled her up to him, opening his eyes to the beautiful sight of his witch, sleepy brown eyes and wildly mussed hair, a satisfied smile on her lips. Oh the things those lips could do…
Without so much as a "good morning," he claimed her mouth in a slow, smouldering kiss, guiding her body to lay atop his and grinning wickedly at her little gasp as his cock came to full attention.
Suddenly she broke their kiss with a frown.
"What time is it?" she asked in a whisper.
The same worry that shadowed her pretty face crept into his nerves as Sirius realized by the light that it must be late – later than anyone in the house had slept in their whole stay there. It was quiet - too quiet. Something wasn't right.
They both moved quickly and silently, wands out and ready once they were dressed. AHomenum Revelio indicated only one other person in the small farmhouse, seated downstairs at the kitchen table. It could be anyone, and it didn't discount the possibility of others outside the perimeter. No one ever just sat at the kitchen table at the Ross farm, unless it was meals, which were taken together.
Hermione glanced at Sirius, her eyes filled with worry, but also determination. He nodded, and slowly turned the knob, easing the door open on blessedly silent hinges. On bare feet, they crept into the hallway, each flanking a wall as they made their way down the stairs, both avoiding the one that always creaked loudly. When they were almost at the bottom, just out of view of whomever was waiting in the kitchen, they paused.
"Ain't polite to try and sneak up on an old woman, y'know," Louise Ross commented wryly without looking up from her crossword. "I take it you two slept well?"
Hermione and Sirius both let out a loud exhale.
"Aunt Lou!" Hermione admonished. "Why didn't you wake us? We thought the farm had been attacked!"
The elderly woman chuckled and stood with a noisy scraping of her chair. "Hugh didn't need help this mornin' and we figured you two might be a bit – er… tired," she answered meaningfully, smirking over her shoulder as she began puttering around the kitchen. "Bit famished too, I'd wager. Sit," she added motioning to the table.
The pink flush that was creeping up Hermione's neck deepened as Sirius let out a bark of delighted laughter from behind her.
After they'd had their fill of brunch, Louise cleared away the dishes, shooing off their offers to help. She refilled their mugs of coffee as well as her own before plunking down at the table.
"Now," she said seriously, folding her hands. "We need to talk."
Hermione and Sirius exchanged a look.
Louise took a deep breath and gave her niece an apologetic smile. "Your friend Harry Potter called, dear."
"What? When?!" they both answered, almost in unison.
The older woman bit her lip, looking suddenly like a sixty-year-old version of Hermione. "Actually, he called just a couple of days after you arrived. Said they'd cornered your attackers at Heathrow just after your plane took off, but it'd taken a few days to sort everything out."
"Aunt Louise!" Hermione exclaimed shrilly.
"Hermione," Stern brown eyes narrowed on her niece in a rare display of authority. "Let me finish, child."
Sirius pressed his lips together to hide his amusement as he watched in silence.
"Harry also said there was no rush in y'all going back, and I told him it seemed you two needed a little time to work somethin' out." She ignored the indignant little gasp from Hermione and continued with a smug tone. "He agreed. Said when you figured it out to tell you he loved you both no matter what, and he just wants you to be happy."
Louise's pointed look flicked between the two of them as she waited for their reactions.
Sirius slid his hand up Hermione's back as she stared down at the table, speechless, an almost imperceptible frown creasing her brow. He could almost hear her thoughts, and was certain they echoed his own. They could go home. But they'd only just found each other, and going back also meant facing a rather large group of friends and loved ones who might not share Harry's sentiments.
As if reading their minds, Louise spoke again in a gentler tone. "You're not obligated, but you're welcome to stay as long as you like. You are family, after all." She gave Sirius a smile that told him that meant him, too.
Hermione's lips quirked slightly. "Well, I haven't quite gotten over my fear of horses yet…"
Author's Note: Confession time, guys. That's the end of this story as it was submitted to the bigbangblackout. However, there is actually a prequel as well as a sequel to this that's floating around my head and hard drive. It *will* happen, but first I've made a promise to tackle "The Wait" for the long haul. Thanks again for reading and reviewing!