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“You swear to Merlin that you’ll owl me before Christmas Eve?”

I stared at Lily for a few seconds, wondering if it was natural for her to be this perky. Of course, she had been incredibly happy and bouncy since James had asked her to come to his house for Christmas Day so he could introduce her to his parents. She had been over the moon about it and had come rushing back to the dormitory, squealing at the top of her lungs before launching into a hurried explanation of what had transpired. Alice and I were so confused, we waited until she came back from the Owlery so she could properly tell us what happened.

However, I couldn’t help but smile. “Of course,” I said, nodding my head softly.

“Promise?” She held out her pinkie finger and wiggled it.

Rolling my eyes good-naturedly, I hooked my own pinkie finger around hers. “I promise.”

Lily grinned, dropping my hand, and hugged me tightly. “Take care, Eleanor,” she spoke into my ear.

I returned the hug eagerly and gave her a small pat on the back. “You too, Lily.” We pulled back from the friendly embrace and looked at each other, grinning. I narrowed my eyes slightly and said, “Now, no shenanigans.”

She laughed, a warm, pleasant sound. Her mouth opened and she had been about to speak, but over her shoulder, her parents were anxiously awaiting their daughter’s greetings by her trolley, which she had pushed over to them only to come running back to her mates to say goodbye to.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” she said, the side of her mouth quirking downward into a partial frown.

“I’ll see if my aunt will let me come over, yeah?”

The would-be frown vanished and she bobbed her head enthusiastically. “All right! Just promise that you’ll owl me!” She had started to walk away and was shouting so that I could hear her over all the commotion on the platform. “Happy Christmas!”

I waved. “Happy Christmas!” I shouted back.

Lily had been the last of my friends to leave for her family members. Everyone else had left rather quickly, but not without proper goodbyes. I had gotten tight hugs and had promised each and every single one of them that I would owl them. I would have to get over my aversion to owls, particularly Leonidias, but I could do that for my mates.

Alice had been the first to depart, having caught sight of Frank Longbottom off in the distance. With a shriek, she had run toward her lover, jumping into his arms and planting kisses on his face. It was a happy sight to behold, especially in such dark times.

Peter had patted me on the shoulder, told me to have a Happy Christmas, and went waddling over to his mother, a foul looking woman who had a permanent scorn on her face. When he reached the forbidding looking woman, she glared over in our general direction and immediately began to scold her son. I couldn’t help but thinking, Poor Peter.

James had wrapped me up in a tight hug, swinging me around in the process before he set me down and bopped me on the head, ordering me that I had to show up to his parents’ annual New Years’ Eve party or else. I hadn’t asked what the “or else” bit meant, but the look in his hazel eyes was suggestive enough. And no I don’t mean like that. I just knew that I would be in for trouble if I didn’t attend that party.

Sirius had left with James since his family had left without him. Like James, he had swept me up into a hug, but my heart hadn’t thrummed so powerfully when James embraced me. Whispering a softest of “Happy Christmas” in my ear, his lips brushing against the side of my face and earlobe, he released me, playfully ruffled my hair, and hurried after James. I couldn’t help but notice the tiniest hint of sadness in his endless grey eyes.

Remus had waited until I had said goodbye to all that others before saying his own goodbye. He had kissed me somewhat unexpectedly on the lips, right in the middle of the platform. Though I did enjoy the feel of his warm lips against mine, I pulled back quickly, feeling a little more than slightly awkward and guilty. I muttered an apology, claiming that Aunt Eliza would murder me if she saw me snogging him in public. Truth be told, she would praise me, patting me on the back like a father would do to his son and then ask if I wanted to get an ale at the pub. Remus just smiled, hugging me close to his body, and kissed my forehead, informing me that he would owl me whenever he had a free moment and to have a Happy Christmas.

Now I was standing on the platform, surrounded by hundreds of families exchanging loud welcoming hugs and kisses. It was a little awkward, truth be told, but I didn’t mind it. I pulled my cloak closer to my body, shivering. I knew I should’ve warn my travelling cloak as well!

I pushed my way through the crowd, my trunk trailing behind me, and found a bench to sit upon as I waited for Aunt Eliza. I wasn’t mad that she wasn’t here yet. In fact, I was expecting her to be late. The only time she had actually been on time to pick me up from the station was at the end of my first year. She had rushed at me, scooping me up in her arms and clinging to me tightly. I had never seen her blubber so much at one point in time.

A cold, bitter wind swept through the emptying platform, stirring my cloak around my ankles. Biting my cheek, I tried to stop my teeth from clicking together. It honestly wasn’t that cold, but my body tended to overreact in extreme weather conditions. I tucked my arms against my side and scanned the platform. If it hadn’t been for the ridiculous hat she was wearing, I doubted I would’ve spotted her.

Scrambling to untangle myself from the mess I had made of my cloak in an attempt to block out the cold, I rose to my feet, pushing myself up on my tiptoes so she could see me. When she finally did spot me, I could hear her excited yelp all the way across the platform. She began to shove her way through the departing families, apologizing to them if she pushed too roughly. In return, they all gave her odd looks. It was rude, to say the very least, but if she wasn’t my aunt and I didn’t know that she regularly dressed in odd clothes, I probably would’ve stared at her funnily, too.

I mean, it wasn’t every day that a woman who was nearing fifty wore a peach coloured bowler hat with a blue robin perched on the brim, a set of violently orange and lime green striped robes that had random flowers of vibrant pink and purple on the print with ruby red shoes that glittered somewhat obnoxiously beneath her sweeping robes. Not to mention the many necklaces cluttered with silver charms and all sorts of odds and end that were draped around her neck.

“Ella!” she cried once she had managed to fight her way through the sea of bodies. She held out her arms for me and, like a small child, I rushed into them. A whoosh of air escaped her as I collided with her body, her arms immediately circling around my waist tightly.

“Oh,” she chuckled, kissing the top of my head. “I’ve missed you so much, my dear.”

I choked back a happy sob. “I’ve missed you, too,” I said, a hot salty tear escaping my eye.

With a final squeeze, Aunt Eliza pulled back from our warm embrace, her hands gripping either of my elbows.

“You’ve cut your hair,” she commented, removing one of her hands to wipe away the tears on my face. She, too, had tears of happiness leaking slowly out of her eyes.

“Gum got stuck in it,” I replied.

She laughed, a sound that made me want to throw my arms around her again. I loved the sound of her warm, heartfelt laugh. When she laughed, it felt like there was hope in the world, that everything had not gone to pot just yet.

“You would get gum in your hair,” she said, shaking her head to herself in amusement.

“Who said that I got the gum in my hair?” I asked teasingly, trying and failing to raise a brow at her.

Reaching up, she swatted me on the back of the head before stroking my dark locks of hair. “I like it,” she stated, nodding in approval. “It suits you much better than that long mop you called hair.”

My eyes widened slightly. “But you always told me that my hair looked good long!”

“Well, that was only because I didn’t want my opinion to influence your own personal style,” she returned in a tone of voice that suggested that it blatantly obvious.

I threw my arms up into the air, a look of feigned annoyance flashing across my face. “You tell me this now!”

Aunt Eliza laughed again. “Oh hush up,” she ordered lightly. Wordless, she flicked her wand at my trunk and it soared onto the bed of the trolley.

I saluted her. “Yes, ma’am.”

Aunt Eliza sighed softly, her arm coming around my shoulders. As we walked, I pushed the trolley and she leaned against me, her temple pressing against mine, her outrageous hat nearly falling off her head of flyaway strawberry blonde hair.

“It’s so good to have you home, Ella,” she said softly. “Even if it is only until the beginning of January.”

I grabbed her hand, giving it a tight, affectionate squeeze. “It’s good to be back, Aunt Eliza.”

X - - X

With a loud pop, we Apparated straight into our backyard, which wasn’t much, but still humble and well kept by my energetic aunt.

“Don’t you just love the feeling Apparation gives you?” Aunt Eliza giggled, her cheeks tinged pink.

She had always enjoyed Apparation for some strange reason that is beyond my comprehension. I, on the other hand, hated it. I nearly failed the test when I took it just days after my seventeenth birthday back in June. It wasn’t because I hadn’t appeared in the right location; I had fainted upon arrival. Which was rather embarrassing, if I do say so myself.

Since I disliked Apparation so much, I was currently sitting on top of my trunk with my head between my knees, trying to think of anything aside from the feeling of being squeezed through a tiny little tube, which was a lot harder than it sounded.

“Hmm,” Aunt Eliza mused out loud. “I guess not.”

She unlocked the back door and started making odd kissing sounds. My interest piqued, I picked up my head just in time to see a mass of white and grey fur bounding toward me. Before I was able to move, a pair of monstrous paws were placed upon my chest with a surprising amount of force and I was knocked backward off my trunk, heels over head, onto the ground.

When my back connected with the ground, all the air that had been in my lungs left with a quick whoosh. I wasn’t left much reaction time as a wet tongue started lapping at my face, licking ever available space. I tried to pull my head away, but every time I moved, I could only grunt in pain.

“Ouch!” I squeaked, swatting at the weight on my chest, but missing my target every time.

Heeled shoes clicked against the pavement and the beast was wrenched off me. “Sorry, dear,” she said hurriedly. “Leo’s water bowl needed to be refilled.”

Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I pushed myself up into a sitting position, a little more than slightly disgruntled. “Rufus, I take it?” I said, gesturing toward the dog at her heels, the collar of which was grasped firmly in her hand.

“You don’t remember him?” Aunt Eliza gasped as if I had just said the wrong thing. Which, judging by the look on her face, I had.

I shook my head slowly. “No, I can’t say that I do.”

“Ella!” she squealed. “This is Rufus! The dog you kept feeding over the summer, even though I told you not to? The one I told you about in my letter?”

I struggled to my feet, straightening my robes as I did so. “No, that’s not Rufus,” I said, pointing to the English Sheep Dog sitting right beside her. “Well, it is,” I corrected. “But it’s not my Rufus.”

Her brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“That’s not the dog I was feeding over the summer,” I reiterated.

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Is too.”

“Is not.”

“Is too.”

“Is not - oh, what’s the use?” I cried, throwing my hands up in the air in exasperation. “Aunt Eliza, that is not the dog I kept feeding. The one I fed was big and black and did not look like that - that - thing!”

“Are you sure?” Aunt Eliza asked, raising one eyebrow. Urgh! Did everyone except me know how to do that? Was I born with some sort of genetic birth defect: the inability to raise a singular eyebrow in order to appear cool and intimidating and, in some cases, incredibly sexy and spy like.

“Absolutely positive,” I replied. Cocking my head to the side slightly, I held out my hand cautiously for Rufus to sniff. “Although,” I began as he lightly licked my hand with a long pink tongue. “He is sort of cute.”

A smile brighter than the sun and wider than the Pacific Ocean lit up her face. “Isn’t he just?” She bent down next to Rufus, taking his massive head between her hands and placing a kiss on top of it. “He thinks you are very pretty, too.” She looked into the dog’s eyes and laughed. “And he agrees with me: your short hair is much better on you.”

I chuckled softly, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. Most people would have raised their brows at such oddity, but I was used to it by now. Truth be told, if Aunt Eliza acted like she couldn’t talk to animals, namely dogs and owls, and didn’t wear obnoxious clothing, then and only then would I ever consider rushing her to St. Mungo’s for a check up.

“Can we go inside now?” I asked, folding my arms against the cold. “It’s freezing out here.”

Aunt Eliza smiled at me again and flicked her wand at my trunk, making it zoom into the kitchen through the back door, which was still hanging wide open. Gesturing for her to go up the stairs first, I followed behind her, nearly tripping over Rufus as he stopped abruptly to spin around and lick my hand. I closed the door behind me, subconsciously sliding the lock into place. It was an old habit of mine that I had supposedly picked up from my dad.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and get settled in while I fix us something to eat?” Aunt Eliza suggested kindly, her bright blue orbs twinkling. “I’m sure you must be starving.”

As if on cue, my stomach gave a loud groan of hunger. We both giggled and I grabbed my trunk by the handle, physically hauling it up the stairs like I used to before I had turned seventeen. Even if I could use magic to get my trunk upstairs, it was nice to stick to some sort of tradition. And if that included lugging my trunk up a flight of stairs and nearly breaking my back doing so, then I was more than willing to do it.

It was a struggle, to say the very least. I huffed and puffed as I tugged and pushed the heavy trunk up the stairs. It wouldn’t have been so heavy if I hadn’t been forced to take home almost all of my text books so I could complete the homework given to us over the holiday break. Professors Binns and McGonagall had gone surprisingly easy on their students while instructors like Slughorn and Gilbert had laden us with work.

Though I hated stairs, I loved our house. The house I had lived in which Aunt Eliza for the past eight years; we had moved into the modest house just two weeks after my dad’s death. There might have been too many pieces of mismatched furniture littering the rooms of the house and all sorts of strange odds and ends taking up space on the shelves, but that is what made it our home. It certainly wasn’t a palace, but who wanted to live in a cold, dank palace when they could have a nice, warm, and comforting home that was just a little too cramped?

Finally, with a great grunt and a mighty heave, I managed to get my trunk over the last step and onto the flat ground of the upper level. A thin sheen of sweat had collected at my hairline. I wiped it away with the back of my sleeve and used my feet to kick my trunk into my bedroom. Twisting the doorknob, I pushed the door open, smiling softly to myself when the door creaked on the hinges.

My room looked exactly how I had left it nearly five months ago. Although, I noted, my bed was actually made and there were not clothes strewn all over the floor. The soft purple walls were just that: still soft purple. I was surprised, to say the very least, considering that Aunt Eliza oftentimes took on home improvement projects to pass the time while I was away at school. Ninety percent of the time, when I came home from Hogwarts my room was painted a completely different colour and the decorations weren’t the same. I didn’t mind it. Quite the contrary, I liked it coming home to see a new coating of paint on my walls and new décor: it broke the monotony that threatened to form if I were to keep it the same colour.

Aside from the colour of my walls, the things that were plastered to them were the same as well. The few posters that I had were still the same, unmoving and featuring the names of some of the Muggle bands that I had been raised on. Like me, Aunt Eliza was a half-blood witch and had grown up in a strictly Muggle area. She had even been raised a Muggle as her father was scared that if either of his daughters were aware of their magical abilities - which they had inherited from him - that they would go blabbing about it. I couldn’t blame my grandfather; if my mother and Aunt Eliza were my daughters, I certainly wouldn’t have let them know. Anyway, to make a long story short, since she was raised in a Muggle environment, she tried to stick to it as much as possible so I would be well versed in both worlds.

Needless to say, I thought that Muggle music was much better than the crap they played on WWN.

Having kicked my trunk into my room, I removed my cloak and shoes, tossing them onto the floor like I always did when I first came home. I changed into much more comfortable clothing, opting for a pair of trousers and my Puddlemere United jumper; I knew that would make Aunt Eliza happy to see. Seeing that my room was just a little bit dusty, I flicked my wand and all the surfaces were cleaned.

Merlin, it was nice to be able to use magic to clean things.

I flopped down onto my bed like they do in the movies. A sigh escaped me as I pulled my pillow down from the top of my bed and tucked it underneath my head. Yes, these pillows were much better than the ones at Hogwarts because they smelt like the house. Which reminded me of Aunt Eliza. My mattress was much bigger than the one I slept in every night at Hogwarts: it was a queen size and that was a good thing, considering I moved around a lot in my sleep.

The mattress dipped slightly as Rufus jumped onto my bed. I narrowly dodged his massive paws, which nearly clobbered all over me as he searched for a place to rest. He settled from right beside me, his warm, shaggy body curling up against my frame. Despite the fact that my bed was bound to be covered with his hair, I couldn’t help but rub the top of his head affectionately. And yes, I did end up resorting to baby talk. Rufus licked my face with more exuberance than any dog I had ever seen, not to mention with the worst smelling breath possible. I literally had to hold a hand over my nose as I attempted to bat his massive head away from my face.

Nothing worked, obviously, but once he saw that I didn’t fancy having my skin licked off my bones, Rufus settled his heavy head on my stomach. In turn, I settled for petting his head with my fingers, scratching behind his floppy ears and massaging circles into the crown of his head. He would make a noise of satisfaction every few minutes while I had to pretend someone was massaging my feet. Dogs always got the luxury treatment, didn’t they?

Even though my mind was a complicated mess of feelings I shouldn’t be experiencing and thoughts that I should’ve already been absolutely positive about, I somehow managed to let go off everything and just lay on my comfortable bed, stroking the new family dog, and relaxing. Tucking an arm behind my head, I closed my eyes.

It wasn’t until Aunt Eliza was tickling the bottom of my foot that I realized that I had dozed off. I jerked away suddenly, squeaking as she tickled me. I sat up, rubbing the tingly feeling of sleep from my eyes. I blinked at her. “What?”

“It’s time to get up, sleepyhead,” she said gently, smiling down at me. “Dinner is ready.” She moved to tickle my foot again, but I nudged her arm out of the way before she could. As you know, I hated being tickled, and Aunt Eliza was a merciless tickler.

My stomach lurched happily and I hauled myself to my feet, swaying to the left as Rufus knocked into me with his massive form. Glaring down at him, I stumbled down the stairs after him, the smells wafting from the kitchen making my toes curl happily.

“What’s on the menu?” I asked as I took a seat at the table.

“Onion soup and cheese sandwiches,” Aunt Eliza replied from her position at the stove, where she was ladling hot, steaming onion soup into two separate bowls. The sandwiches were already out on the table, looking absolutely delicious in their simplicity.

“Sounds good, looks good,” I said, smiling as I picked up a sandwich and placed it on the plate in front of me. “Can’t wait to eat. I’m a bit thirsty, though. What do we have to drink? Anything good?”

“There’s some fresh squeezed lemonade in the icebox if you would like some,” she answered.

But she was barely halfway through her sentence before I was out of my seat and rummaging through the cabinets for a glass. I practically tore the door off the hinges and lunged at the pitcher when I saw it standing on the shelf. I tipped a generous helping of it into my glass and slid back over to the table, taking my seat once again.

I gulped down a large mouthful and sighed happily. “This is heaven!” I moaned.

Aunt Eliza laughed. “It’s only lemonade.”

“You don’t understand, Aunt Eliza,” I said dramatically. “They don’t have lemonade at Hogwarts, at least not to my knowledge they don’t. Therefore, I’m milking this for all it’s worth - and don’t you go ruining it either.”

She chuckled again, shaking her head to herself as she pivoted and carefully walked toward the table. She set a bowl down in front of me and helped herself to some lemonade as well. Picking up my spoon, I slurped some soup into my mouth, only to regret swallowing it an instant later. I fanned my face with my hands, making a helpless face at Aunt Eliza.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” she giggled. “You should’ve known that it was going to be hot. It is issuing steam, after all.”

Quickly swallowing my mouthful of burning hot soup, I coughed into my fist. “You could’ve warned me first!”

Aunt Eliza shook her head to herself, chuckling in her humbling manner. “Silly Ellie. Why don’t you eat a cheese sandwich before you can burn your mouth with anymore soup.”

I glared at her as I roughly bit into my sandwich, chewing it up roughly. Aunt Eliza reached over the table and patted me soothingly on the head with one of her bejewelled hands. I resisted the urge to bat her hand away, knowing that she was doing it as a way to apologize for taking the mickey out of me, although she should’ve known that I was only pretending to be upset. I mean, it was just a mouthful of hot soup, after all. It’s not like I had swallowed drain cleaner or anything.

We ate in a companionable silence for a good stretch of time, just like we always did whenever we ate a meal together in the kitchen. We both felt that there was no need for chatter if we were both stuffing our faces with food. That was one of the things that I loved about Aunt Eliza. She never forced conversation upon anyone if she saw that they didn’t really feel like talking - at least that’s how she was with me. I had seen her chatting with complete strangers who looked as though they wanted nothing to do with whatever it was that she was talking about. Not that she cared, of course.

I was scraping my spoon against the bottom of the bowl to get the remainder of the delicious onion soup from the bottom of my bowl when Aunt Eliza began to speak.

“So, I’m assuming those people on the platform were your friends?”

I was startled by her sudden words, slopping the remainder of my soup down my front. I sighed in annoyance at myself, reaching out and grabbing a napkin from the holder on the table. As I swiped at the liquid, which was still mildly hot, I nodded my head. “Yeah, those were my friends. Why do you ask?”

“Oh,” Aunt Eliza said. “No reason. I’m just glad that you’re finally making friends.” She cleared the dishes off the table with a flick of her wand and walked with them over toward the sink.

“I’ve always had friends, Aunt Eliza,” I replied, somewhat offended by her implication as I gathered the sandwich plate and our glasses up in my arms.

Manually turning on the faucet, she put the stopper in the sink, adding soap to the filling basin. “Oh, I know,” she remarked offhandedly as I came to stand next to her. I set the dishes in my arm down on the counter. “It’s just that I rarely get to see them with you is all.”

Pushing my sleeves up to my elbows, I said, “That’s because we always say goodbye to each other in our compartment.”

“Oh,” Aunt Eliza said. “I get it.” She chuckled and began to soap up a dish. “Well, regardless of what you did with your other friends in the past, I’m glad that you’re getting along so well with them. They all seemed very nice.”

I smiled to myself as she passed me a dish. I ran it underneath the cool stream of water, rinsing off the suds. “That’s because they are,” I responded fondly. “They’re all so wonderful; I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better set of friends, Aunt Eliza.”

“That’s great, Ella,” she commented, nudging me in the side with her elbow affectionately. “I’ll have to meet them all.” A gasp left her mouth and I knew that it couldn’t be good. Whenever Aunt Eliza gasped, it meant only one thing: she had an idea. And when she had an idea, usually bad things ended up happening.

“What?” I groaned as I rinsed off another dish.

“You should have them over for dinner!”

Immediately, I shook my head. “No.”

Her face fell. “Why not?”

“They’re all busy with their families, Aunt Eliza,” I said automatically. “James, Lily, Alice, and Peter are going on vacation with their families and I know that Remus rarely sees his father, even during the summer, so I’m willing to bet that he wants to spend as much time as possible with them. And Sirius. . ., “ I trailed off, not sure what I should say about him. Muttering his name made my heart skip a beat and my stomach flutter. I know, I’m being ridiculous, but it did.

“Oh,” Aunt Eliza began. “I understand. Well, it’s only natural that they would be busy with their families. Although,” she added as she handed me another dish to clean. “You never said what that Sirius bloke is doing. Which one was he - by the way?”

Before I could help myself, I sighed somewhat dreamily and began to spill my guts. “He’s the extremely handsome one with the dark, shaggy hair and beautiful grey eyes. You know, the one standing next to the really tall fellow with dark black hair and glasses?”

“Oh, that one,” she mused out loud. “The one that you were staring after as he walked away?”

I nodded. “Yeah, the one I was staring after -,” I stopped suddenly and glared at her. “Hey! That’s unfair of you!”

She laughed. “I’m just teasing, Ella.” Wiping her hands on her slacks, she added, “He was very handsome, though. I mean, if I wasn’t so old, I would -,”

“Eliza!” I interrupted. “Please, I don’t need to hear what you would do to him. I have to hear about it all the from the other girls at school.”

“So he’s one of those boys, is he?” she assumed. “One that uses girls shamelessly -,”

“No,” I interrupted again, shaking my head adamantly. “No, he’s not like that at all, Aunt Eliza. He is really sweet - and he has a girlfriend, anyway. They’ve been going together for nearly two years, I think. I’m not entirely sure though.” I set the dish I had been drying down on the towel beside me and pondered for a bit. “Why do you want to know about him anyway?”

She shrugged her shoulders, a smirk threatening to upturn her lips. “No reason, just curious about your friends, is all,” she answered. We continued to wash and dry the dinner dishes in silence before she asked, “Would you fancy a trip to Diagon Alley tomorrow? I have a few more presents left to buy from some friends. Besides, you haven’t been since school’s started.”

I smiled widely at her. “Yeah, I’d like that a lot.”

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