Author's Note: Finally back with new chapters, which will be posted about once per week from now on.

If anyone is confused about the timeline of this chapter, you might be surprised to know that in the UK the main meal on Christmas is usually served near noon or soon after, with leftovers (Christmas tea) served later, which was the same every day before artificial lighting became popular. Some say the timing stayed the same due to the tradition of watching the Queen's speech after eating. Why this tradition would carry over into the wizarding world when they always had artificial lighting, and no one watches muggle TV or radio is anyone's guess, but it is canon.


Chapter 19

Afters

Leaving the Great Hall pleasantly stuffed, the two friends climbed their way to Ravenclaw library once again. Taking time to digest and play with their new presents, it was also agreed upon as a good place to wait for the Weasley twins to find them. But low and behold, they saw the whole redheaded gang playing outside in the snow, along with a few other boys.

"Family must be really important to them, to ignore something they gave up pranking for." Harry noted as he watched them throwing snowballs at each other.

While skimming through her new books, Hermione looked out at the playing boys, "If they're anything like Ron, they probably just forgot."

"Maybe, - want to go join them?" Her single dubious glance said everything. "It was only a joke... I'm amazed they would actually go out in that weather right after eating so much. And that was some meal too, we should thank the elves later."

She nodded along while flipping through pages, "I hope the Christmas letters we wrote didn't encourage them to work even harder." Looking up she wore a concerned expression, "Who are we kidding, our thanking them was exactly what did it. We're exhausting them by being nice!"

Harry laughed, "I'm sure they're loving every minute of it. The last time we saw them they looked happier than ever, and not a one looked worn out. If I had to guess, they might get more energy from it all." The concern on Hermione's face wasn't leaving. "But if you're worried, we can ask Kolie when we check in."

That brought out a nod of satisfaction and she went back to reading. Harry spread out the gifts they received from crackers onto the table between them. Unbreakable phials, potions notebooks, a tiny dancing wooden fairy, multiple revealers, self tying shoe laces, the miniature wireless, his towel, Hermione's homework planner, and numerous hats. He liked the outfit Hermione was wearing the best, but was afraid she wasn't going to keep it on much longer. Which reminded him of something.

Taking out a secret present bought for himself, he activated his pin and took a photo of Hermione curled up in the chair reading her book. She looked up curiously at the flash as he took another. Her eyes narrowed and began to reach for her wand as he took one more and hid it behind his back. He shrugged his shoulders with an arch smile, and tried to distract her with conversation.

"Do you wonder now if Santa was based on an actual wizard? Maybe he had hundreds of elves that made toys for him and delivered them all on a magical flying sleigh? So the classic story we heard all our lives could have somehow been real, and maybe he's still out there, giving gifts to all the good little girls and boys who don't get any of their own?"

"You already know what I wonder, how long you think that camera will last before the film mysteriously disappears. But I doubt your theory since there should be at least one wizard that wrote about it by now, if it was true." She sat up and gave him a critical look.

Harry put on a pleading face with big puppy dog eyes, "Please? It's only a few photos, I'll be good. I promise."

Wearing a wry look of disbelief, she crooked her finger at him. Coming closer, Harry knelt beside her chair, playing up the act. She observed his pouting for a moment, then spoke, "You already got me into this costume somehow, so I get to decide which pictures you can keep, and you have to stop whenever I say. Also, you will lose all privileges if you do anything bad. Understand?" He nodded his head vigorously, giving a winning smile.

She roller her eyes, "You're only humoring me so I don't get angry again, aren't you?"

"That might be a consideration... but your conditions are reasonable so I would agree to them anyway."

"Okay, I promise not to reject too many pictures. And maybe, I could use it sometimes as well?"

Harry smiled at her hopeful expression, "Agreed."

Stretching closer he gave her a quick peck on the cheek and thanked her. Then sat down with a relieved sigh, and stored the magical camera away in his pouch. Noticing the invisibility cloak underneath gave him another idea, but he decided to put it off for later. Sorting through the loot, they choose to save a few things for Sue and Padma, and share the rest, leaving most of it in the room. Harry tried browsing through his new books as well but ended up gazing into the fire, watching the flames as he mused over the day.

"Have you noticed that there isn't any kind of wizard church or wizard religions, yet Christmas is a huge deal here? It's curious, but I suppose it's more traditional, like Saturnalia or Yule rather than celebrating a religious figure."

Hermione glanced up again and considered his words, "The whole wizarding world is a little strange. But the religious part is odd too. Right after I got here I saw there were religious books that were more than two thousand years old, I thought I could read them and find out what really happened. But it turns out none of them are the same. They all have different ideas of what really went on. When I asked my parents if they wanted to see any of them, they refused."

"It's the story they want, not history. I found that out early on when I first started asking questions my aunt and uncle couldn't answer. They threw the bible at me and called me devil spawn for asking so many questions. And when I was old enough to read the whole bible, which kinda freaked me out at the time, and ask them questions about that, they hit me with it until I stopped."

"That's... disturbing."

"Later I realized that they hadn't even read it themselves. That they didn't care what was in it, but preferred the stories told to them and in their heads better. I never even mentioned the many other versions of the bible that I read about."

"You'd think with all the accurate record keeping by wizards back then that there wouldn't be so much confusion, and differing accounts, but there seems to be much more than non magical accounts. And no one seems to care."

"I suppose that's why no one is especially religious here, when you have easy access to hundreds of different books explaining what happened in the past, some saying it didn't happen, and many more versions of every religious book out there, you can't beat someone over the head with just one."

Hermione stifled a chuckle, realizing it might be a sensitive topic.

Harry noticed her concern and waved it off, "I gave up caring about my relatives doing that long ago, after I learned how to stop them. Religion has turned into one of those theoretical thought experiments for me. None of it makes any difference, and there doesn't seem to be any evidence for the supernatural, even with magic."

"You don't wonder who created it all, what ghosts really are, who made magic to fit words, and made us fit so well in nature?"

"To me, that last one is like a puddle of water asking why he fits so well in a pothole. Life, people, are nature, and grow with it. Saying there's something more than the laws of nature is... wishful thinking, unneeded. I find it strange that only magical people can become ghosts, hinting that it's magical, not supernatural. As for spells working with words, well do you think English based spells like Scourgify and Pack, were created alongside Latin spells like Lumos or Nox?"

"I suppose not. But it all seems too complex to imagine everything works so well on it's own. Although you'll probably say that's my limitation, not nature's."

Harry's eyebrows rose, "You've had a conversation like this before haven't you? Only I have a feeling you were the skeptical one."

She nodded with a resigned smile. "Only I didn't have your witty responses. My parents both say they believe in it all, but they don't ever talk about it or go to church. Then my uncle is a priest. He likes to lecture me when I ask questions and say, 'See, you don't know everything after all!' Which gets really annoying after the first twenty times." She wagged her finger while imitating him, then sighed and sat back in her chair.

"I never had anyone to discuss those things with, except books. None of my friends even knew what philosophy was, let alone read a book on the subject. But when you have some kind of mental power no one else does, supernatural or otherwise, you tend to question those things a bit more. At least I did." He sat back as well, "- Let's talk about something else, I think we're getting a bit too depressing."

oOoOo

Just then a commotion could be heard outside the library, feet stomping and multiple voices arguing. Turning around revealed a mass of flaming red hair coming toward them, definitely more than the twins. Harry looked to Hermione but received only a shrug in response, as they got closer, he heard a hiccup, then another, and soon even more. Arriving beside their chairs, the Weasley brothers stood in front of them, all hiccuping together. Harry burst out in laughter after seeing a few crumbs on their robes.

None of them looked please but Fred gave in, "Good one, H-hic- Harry, the cakes were smart, new from Gambol and Japes'?"

George continued, "Can you -hic- give us the antidote already?"

Percy butted in, "Yeah, -hic- it's common manners to include the antidote -hic- nearby."

Still laughing, Harry tried to think about what they were saying, "Antidote?"

Stricken faces formed all around, "He's got to -hic- be joking!? Who doesn't buy the -hic- antidote with the prank?" complained Ron.

George slapped his forehead, "Muggle-hic-borns..."

Catching onto the situation, Hermione interrupted before things got out of hand, "I'm sure Madam Pomfrey has something that can fix it. Let's go before... oh no. I just remembered, she's supposed to be visiting relatives after dinner, and won't be back for a couple of days." Her 'take charge' attitude melted into a frown.

"Maybe if we all try casting Finite all at once, it might work?" Harry offered.

Percy shook his head, "I already tri -hic-" But before he could correct himself, Harry pulled out his wand with Hermione rushing to as well, pointing at the siblings and casting.

"Finite!" And just like that, it was quiet.

Until the celebratory cheers broke the silence, the twins shook their hands, as Ron sat down to catch his breath. Looking a little embarrassed, Percy mumbled, "I guess it wore off enough for that to work. - Next time, don't forget the antidote. Come on everyone, let's get back to our house."

Harry nodded sheepishly from his blunder, while the twins stayed behind. "Go on without us. We'll give our heroes a few lessons on proper pranking and be back around tea." Ron hurried after Percy, not wanting to get involved with any more jokes.

Fred rubbed his hands together fiendishly, "Now, I think you owe us a tour of a mysterious room?"

"Did you purposely fall for Harry's prank just for an excuse to come here?" Hermione asked in a suspicious tone.

"We're not telling." They chorused.

Shaking his head, Harry stood up. "Wait here, I'll go open the door and signal Hermione to bring you in." With scrutinizing looks, the twins sat down to wait.

A minute later Hermione heard the thought 'Ready,' and stood up. She turned to the twins, "Follow me, and don't dawdle."

They trailed after, confused but not uttering a word, even after she steered them down a long aisle of bookcases that led nowhere. At the end Hermione pulled open a door in the wall, and waved them in with a smirk. Craning their necks all around, they looked for some mechanism or way to open it from the outside but got pushed along from behind, into the vast room.

Harry stood not far away with a brown top hat on and twirling a cane. "Come with me, and you'll be, in a world of pure imagination." Hermione chuckled at him, as the twins gawked. "Well, we call it the disappearing room, but you get the idea. This is the storage room we fought the trolls in, and where we've been frequenting recently. Want to help explore it with us?" He wore an inviting grin.

Their jaws were moving but no words were coming out. One pulled out the original map and taped it with a wand while whispering something. It darkened and they both looked down, trying to find where they were while unfolding every flap and page that moved. After an extensive search they looked up at Harry taking his hat off and setting it on a stand.

"Yes!" They both sputtered.

"But... how did you?"

"Where are we?!"

"There's enough time for that later." Hermione observed, "We should show you around a little before Harry gets a house elf to dress up as an oompa loompa."

"A what?" Asked a bewildered Fred.

Harry chuckled, "They're small little orange men that used to live in Loompaland. It's filled with vicious hornswogglers, snozzwangers and terrible whangdoodles."

"They're having us on again, aren't they?"

"Who cares, look at this place Fred!" And they looked, walking in between the aisles and gazing into the distance. Harry rolled out the flying carpet and Hermione got on, floating up behind the distracted pranksters he bumped into the back of their legs. Jumping in shock they spun around, "You've got a flying carpet too?"

"There's all kinds of things in here, flying vacuums, mops, and of course lots of brooms. I'm starting to wonder if wizards have some kind of obsession with household cleaning devices, or just enchant anything that's handy. - Now get on, and let's give you that tour."

Spending the next few hours playing in the room, the twins found some quality brooms they felt more comfortable on and everyone flew around the safer areas that had already been surveyed. Finding some old potion equipment and cupboards full of dried ingredients, the twins began collecting a sample of everything, yet ended up playing with antique wooden dueling swords and shields. While Hermione scanned through more unusual books for interesting spells out topics, Harry inspected racks of wizard clothes, checking for magical pieces. To his dismay there were none to be found, making him question the intelligence of wizards again.

"You'd think that with all the expensive fabrics and gems sewn into these robes, someone would have enough money to enchant them with a few useful spells as well. But no, people make worthless trinkets like remembralls and biting doorknobs instead."

"They don't allow much enchanted stuff at Hogwarts. Didn't anyone tell you that Harry?" Shouted Fred and George as their swords clacked against each other again and again. "Quills, bags, and toys are pretty much it. But they overlook the little stuff like warming gloves and fancy watches."

Harry shared an amused look with Hermione, as most of their presents were enchanted. Yet they already decided not to show them around. "Madam Malkin did mention something about that, but I thought it was only for specific things. So it's just at school that people waste their time on frilly robes and boring trinkets instead of useful things?"

"Naw, the ones who can afford all that enchanted stuff actually like the frills and trinkets." Fred parried as he joked.

"Plus that kind of stuff doesn't get misplaced, what with special enchantments and house elves keeping track." Said George as he dodged behind a large marble bust.

"Are all enchanted items and clothing that expensive?" Inquired Hermione.

"Magical wood is simple to get, but have you ever tried to shave a Kneazle or wax a Werewolf for their fur? It's not as easy as it sounds, trust us."

"Our brother Charlie used to skin dragons when they died, and he needed a dozen professional dragon herders to keep the other ones from eating him while working." The twins pretended to fight off the dragons themselves, attacking a stack of wooden chairs aggressively.

They got tired quickly, collapsing onto a pile of old pillows and breathing hard, "Plus it's not easy to enchant some stuff."

"We thought up a good trick to get around all that though. Just need to sew some magical paper into plain fabric, should make it loads cheaper and easier to enchant some spells." George bragged as a possessed stool wiggled out from under the other chairs to get its revenge.

"Not that we're trying anything dangerous..." Fred hedged as he looked warily at Hermione, not yet noticing the new attacker.

Harry laughed, as the twins were suddenly set upon by the angered seat, stepping on their toes and smacking their shins. They stumbled into the marble bust in their attempt to run away, sending it crashing to the floor and breaking the nose off. Hermione gasped, while Harry thought he heard a disgruntled snort from somewhere in the distance, sounding oddly like his uncle Vernon when displeased.

Quickly freezing the aggressive stool to the floor, Harry shushed the others and tried to listen for it again but nothing else made a noise. He shrugged in response to the odd looks he was getting, "Thought I heard something."

Finally getting peckish again, they all headed back to the entrance. Upon their arrival, George commented on the number of doors.

"Three doors? Where do the other two lead?"

"Ah, but there isn't only three, there's four." Harry corrected him, as another door materialized next to the others, this one was white with painted fruit all over it.

Wooden swords clattered to the ground.

"Wait a tick. - Did you just imagine a door into existence without a spell?" Ventured Fred.

The smirk crept back to Harry's face, "Told you it was better than your map. - This one leads directly to the kitchens, so we can ask our friends the house elves to prepare a little something."

"Doesn't that take the biscuit. Your first year here and you two already found the best room in the castle, with house elves for catering." George said with bemused laughter, while Fred set their brooms and dueling equipment aside.

"We should probably get back though, or Percy might get in a huff. He goes a bit mental when Ron beats him at chess."

"Can we come again tomorrow?" Pleaded George.

Harry and Hermione exchanged a glance, "Sure, but Hermione might put you to work gathering books. I usually skiv off halfway through, so it's not too bad. - Where do you want out?"

"There's fine." Fred pointed to the kitchen door with a smirk.

Taking an extra large meal up to the Gryffindor dorms, Fred and George bid them goodnight, leaving the house elves to pamper Harry and Hermione with scrumptious leftovers at a small table in the kitchens. Hermione didn't ask if any elves were worn out or tired from the day's work, since every one of them were bursting with excitement to serve them and singing strange songs as they cleaned the kitchen to a spotless sheen, yet Harry still talked with Kolie before leaving to ease any lingering fears.

Propping open the door to the disappearing room worked while they ate, but they caught it trying to close on its own multiple times. They affectionately thanked the elves and left stuffed once more, wondering if they were going to get fat over the winter holidays.

Curfew arrived soon after Harry opened another door to a private dueling and training room. They practiced together until Hermione's watch buzzed in alarm, twice, as she had changed it to try preventing another morning like before. When saying goodnight at a new door that led outside the Gryffindor dorms, she became suspicious at the excited expression Harry was trying to hide.

"What are you up to this time?" Harry looked away, not responding, which only confirmed it for her, and she remembered his manic laughter that morning, "You better not be following me back in that cloak Harry. You promised not to scare me, or do anything bad remember?"

"Don't worry, I wasn't planning on bothering you at all tonight." He tried a reassuring smile but that only made her more wary.

Hermione grabbed his hands and looked him in the eyes, "I know I can't stop you, but try not to get in trouble, okay? I don't want to go visiting you in detentions for the rest of the year. Or worse, at your relative's house."

That made him chuckle, "They need me. I don't know why, but I can tell from from my sessions with Dumbledore. They'll never kick me out. Besides, with today's gifts and my abilities, no one can catch me. Now go to bed, I'm only going to explore a bit, nothing dangerous."

She walked away, still wearing her fox outfit and not very reassured.

oOoOo

Checking in at Ravenclaw tower, Harry walked around the expansive common room, making sure people saw him. Heading to his room some time before the older student's curfew, he donned his cloak and activated the silencing pin. He tested his camera to see if it worked under the invisibility cloak, and smiled to himself when looking at the negatives in darkness. Making his move when he sensed no one was near the stairs, he waited by the entrance to the dorm and left when a single older student rushed past.

He was free. The whole castle was open to him, and it was time to explore.

Rushing towards the Gryffindor tower Harry was filled with adrenaline as he followed an older girl to the portrait, coming close enough to hear the password. Only it was muffled, a charm to stop eavesdropping, just like he was trying to do. Desperate thinking made him hold the portrait open with wandless magic before it closed, sneaking inside a room that boasted never being breached.

Staying close to one wall, he edged into the expansive stone room with a real roaring fire. The place smelled faintly of roasted nuts, and cinnamon, over top of a musky burnt flavor that permeated the furniture. He guessed it was probably from using real wood rather than a magical fire, along with the discarded socks and shirt he noticed on the floor. A hint of something else reminded him of playing in autumn leaves, yet he couldn't tell where it came from.

He saw a bulletin board close by with next week's password on it, 'Leviculus Anser', which made getting in again easier.

There were only a few people still awake, yet it felt homey and relaxed, with loads of Christmas decorations plastered around the room, most of which were centered around a giant tree to the side of the massive fireplace. Scarlet and gold tapestries decorated the walls, with a broad window overlooking the grounds. Old leather couches were covered with warm throws, as varied red and brown chairs filled the rest of the room. It was easy to imagine Hermione sitting in one of the squishy armchairs, reading a book in some awkward position, oblivious to the rest of the room. He took a few pictures and moved on.

Creeping towards the stairs he tested a foot on the boy's staircase, which was solid. Setting a foot on the girl's staircase felt weird, like it wanted to move underneath him. So this was what Hermione was talking about. Apparently an invisibility cloak doesn't protect me from some detection spells. Not that I was going to watch Hermione sleep or anything. Although with a short broom... No, that way leads to madness.

Harry slipped around a student coming toward him, and followed the boy up the stairs, just to see what a Gryffindor dorm looked like. Opening the very top one, he sensed only Ron inside and guessed he was asleep. The room looked simple, like his own yet with much more clutter and a giant heater in the center, draped with a pair of wet socks. It was also slightly smaller, containing run down furniture with tons of quidditch souvenirs on the walls. This is where I would have stayed if put in Gryffindor... I wouldn't have fit in.

He left a chocolate frog hanging from a wreath still above the door, simply spreading good cheer, and maybe confusion. Before leaving he saw a mangy looking rat sleeping on a bed. It felt unusually strange, giving him the desire to step on it before he was bit. The only thing that held him back was a memory of Ron carrying it around once.

Making his way down to Fred and George's room, he peeked in, but saw they were already asleep as well. He left some hiccuping sweets on their cabinets to make them wonder and took another picture.

Exiting outside the dorm was easy, as he simply pushed the door open a crack and walked out. Not even the portrait seemed suspicious this early. Running to the disappearing room, he hoped it might lead him closer to Hufflepuff house rather than searching by the kitchens. He felt for anyone close by as he entered, then thought of needing a door outside the Hufflepuff common room, seeing a striped yellow and black one appear gave him high hopes.

It was still ten minutes till last curfew when he tried opening the door, but fell through instead, the wall solidifying behind him. Alone in the near dark, Harry got a shiver up his spine as he concentrated on seeing in the dark. That was unusual. Now where is this, a storage hallway? Large barrels and... one looks like light is coming out of it.

Footsteps echoed down the hallway as an older chubby boy came into view, walking toward him. Backing against a corner, Harry watched the boy with food in his arms shift it all slightly to remove his wand, tap twice on a barrel, then three more times. As the boy backed up he dropped the food into an book bag and began to crawl through the somewhat large opening. Harry quickly followed after, only needing to crouch.

This seems like an uncomfortable way to enter a common room. With wizards though it's probably some pointless idea to keep students humble. The little ones don't have to bow as much and getting older they have to grovel themselves just to come in. Except someone like professor Flitwick could strut through easily.

Finally exiting the barrel Harry relaxed his vision and stood straighter, regarding another circular room with a very earthy and cozy atmosphere. The lights were dimmed but the low yellow ceiling glowed with the warmth of a clear sunset, while a hint of moonlight could be seen outside, illuminating the snow gathered against a line of small circular windows. Plants were spread everywhere, some swaying in baskets above student's heads, while others hummed merry tunes in large pots. Plush looking furniture was decorated with their house colors and copper adornments were spread throughout. Overlaying practically everything though, were Christmas decorations. Ornaments hung from plants and a stocky Christmas tree to one side, wreaths covered the walls and round doors, and tinsel was draped from the squat rafters with holly and mistletoe everywhere else. Facing him was a large portrait of Helga Hufflepuff, smiling brightly and raising a cup towards him in welcome.

There was scent of fresh bread in the air with sweet apricot jam, and more than a hint of forest soil beneath it all. It was hard for Harry to tell if some of that was from the previous boy's snack or whether it was always there.

Quite a few people were still up talking, all bundled around the large round hearth on the far side of the room as late night treats were handed out. Harry explored near the sides, taking pictures as he went, careful not to bump into plants or Christmas trappings. Looking into an open dorm room he felt no one inside and stepped through. There were plants and more ornaments, with copper bed warmers lining the walls, yet it was very similar to the Gryffindor rooms. He left a fizzing whizbee on each bed, and returned to the common room, noticing everyone getting up. Following after a lone third year girl, he was curious if there were any protections on female dorms here.

Seeing her open the door without a password or wand he crept closer, glancing in.

The small bit he saw before it closed in his face was much pinker, with brighter colors and more trinkets but nearly as messy as the boys. With a careful hand he reached out to the doorknob, but sensing danger he felt a buzz in the air, as if his fingers were an inch away from high powered electrical wires. Stepping farther back he saw tiny blue, glass pebbles in the vase of a bulbous looking plant. He picked one up with magic and tossed it at the door. Nothing happened. Sending another at the doorknob exploded in a loud pop of shattering glass, alerting the whole common room of something wrong. Harry backed away quickly to a spot near the exit, ready to bolt.

A seventh year or very near came rushing over towards the noise, wand out and casting spells over the room. Five more older students fell in behind him, ready for anything. The girl called out, "Anthony? What happened? Did someone try to come in my room? Who would do that?" Her voice sounded shaky, a little frightened.

The one in charge called back, "No one out here is hurt, smells like something got fried though. You can come out if you want Heidi, it's safe." Opening the door a crack she peeked through, then opened it all the way and stepped out.

"Owww!" She yelled, hopping up and down on one foot. Lifting up one leg she picked up the the first pebble Harry threw, and looked at it in annoyance. "For crying out loud, it was that bouncing bulb again! Knocking stuff everywhere... why do we even keep them in the dorm?" The other students shook their heads and put their wands away, heading back to their rooms.

Leading the girl to a soft chair the oldest boy cast episkey on her foot and patted her back, "We put up with them like everything else, because it helps us be better people. And because Professor Sprout is obsessed with plants, but you didn't hear me say that." He gave her a wink and sent her back to her room. Standing up he cast a few more spells around the dorm after everyone left and spoke.

"Show yourself you little sneak! I don't know how you got in but you're not leaving here in one piece. - Coward, face me!" He growled the last bit.

Harry's eyes widened in fright and his heart thundered in his ears. Surely he's only bluffing, how could he know I was here? He couldn't want violence, especially a Hufflepuff, could he?

Ducking down behind a large pot, Harry pulled out his wands, ready to defend himself, if that was even possible. The next few seconds were unbearable as Harry's hands were shaking with tension and he tried to hold onto any semblance of reason. With all the adrenalin pumping through him, and his fight or flight responses trying to take over, he almost gave himself up. The stress was immensely worse than any duel or school test, he could actually get hurt. Why am I so scared though? I was hurt during the troll incident, and this isn't as bad. But it felt so unreal at the time... I didn't even think of being scared, or the consequences. Like getting in trouble.

Then laughter was heard, and a deep voice mumbled, "I'm getting too paranoid for my own good sometimes..." Footsteps faded away and a door closed with a small click.

Falling back in flooding relief, Harry edged around the pot, seeing no one around. Sitting there for a few moments he calmed himself with meditation and consoling thoughts. I was right in the first place, he was only bluffing, pretending to be brave and daring only to intimidate. His blood and adrenaline was most likely racing the same as mine. I'll remember that.

After another minute Harry got up and turned towards the door, when another voice spoke into the empty room.

"Young Ravenclaw," Harry froze mid stride, heart thundering in his chest again, "You may have found the key to enter this dorm, but do not abuse your privileges while here." Turning around while feeling if the cloak was still in place, he saw no one. Except, the large portrait... looking him directly in the eyes. A founder's portrait was speaking to him.

As he tried to respond, nothing came out of his mouth. Not wanting to risk canceling his silence charm, he sent a thought instead, 'I didn't mean to cause harm, I was only interested in what the spell did.'

"Be that as it may, unrestrained curiosity can cause harm as well. Sometimes all you need do, is ask. Do try to remember that next time." She nodded at him and walked out of the frame.

Somewhat befuddled, Harry tried to ask much more but got no response back. Shaking his head, he exited out of the barrel, hopping down to the solid floor. Feeling like he was back to dry land after months out at sea. He shook himself and calmed down again while walking back through the dim corridors. The Hufflepuff basement turned out to be very close to the kitchens, and Harry found his way up the stairs, wandering through the empty yet haunted school. Passing by a ghost now and then, and Filch's cat as well, nothing bothered him while musing on the night's events. Reaching the third floor, Harry was struck by another thought he always meant following up on.

Why was the third floor corridor off limits? He could feel something down there, but it was extremely muffled, like in the disappearing room, or when the invisible person followed him.

His fear and curiosity were battling each other while his feet took him towards where he was not supposed to be, yet again. Fear always lost with him, except when rational thought agreed with it, but this time it was putting up a pretty good fight all on its own. Although now there was anger, at feeling helpless, for almost giving in, for losing control, and not feeling free. The fear was stamped down in an instant, but it lingered in the background of his mind.

The door arrived in front of him, with the sensation of something massive behind it, waiting for him. Casting a few detection charms revealed only a single lock on the door and a hiding charm, nothing an alohomora couldn't solve. So it did, and the lock clicked open. Slowly, ever so slowly, Harry opened the door, concentrated on his vision, and looked in.

It was only a dog.

A giant three headed dog from the gates of Hades, but it still felt like an ordinary dog. It shifted in it's sleep, moving a head to a different position. Harry opened the door further, peeking in the room of barren walls with a single flickering torch, noticing nothing else unusual. Why are they keeping a giant three headed dog in an unused room, in a school full of students? Behind a simple lock no less... is this some kind of test of courage or a way to scare students into obeying rules? Is it one of Dumbledore's hints, or simply another oddity of a magical school located in a thousand year old castle?

Another head began scratching its chin against the rough stone floor, and then started sniffing. Quickly opening it's eyes and looking around, the other heads woke up as well, sniffing out the same scent, his scent. Pulling his head back he nearly closed the door, leaving only a crack to observe, ready to close it shut at any time. But the dog only kept sniffing, getting up and moving about, searching the room for him. Then Harry saw it, a trap door in the middle of the room, being guarded.

Shrugging his shoulders, Harry absentmindedly sent a command for the dog to sit, and it did. Giving him a better view of the door, the dog lolled its tongues, waiting for something. It's trained of course, just like, Fang? No... Hagrid likes unusual creatures, but this? What am I saying, he wants a giant fire breathing dragon, this is probably just his speed. Who else but Hagrid or the crazy care of medical creatures professor would even think of training it? Not to mention Hagrid accidentally let slip that there was something secret hidden in the castle, perhaps something a three headed dog might guard?

Giving up for the night, Harry decided to ask Hagrid about it later, maybe slip it into a conversation. He closed the door and secured the lock, walking back towards the main stairs. That was when he felt someone close by.

Filch, and his cat were walking up the stairs. Of course, if the dog can smell me then the cat probably can as well.

Harry hurried up the staircase only to hear someone else coming down from above. Peeling off at the fourth floor he made his way towards the Ravenclaw wing. And then there arrived another presence in front of him, muffled this time, he wasn't able to see it down the long hallway, even with his improved vision. He backtracked a little and went around, wands in hand now. Taking the twisting hallways at a run now, he saw flat stone up ahead. That wasn't right at all, he knew there should be a pathway through, but there wasn't one now. Who are all these people? None of them feel familiar except Filch, what could they be doing up this late? Cornering me... that's what.

Backtracking again he hid beside a suit of armor, sensing Filch following after his cat, coming down the same narrow corridor. The other presence wasn't close but still blocked his path to the Ravenclaw stairs. He sent a thought at the cat, of a mouse scurrying behind it. It paused for a moment and looked back, but kept stalking forward. Harry moved then, seeing an open door and slipping his way inside. No, this feels like a trap, like they were directing me here all along.

He looked around the room for some escape, but there was nothing, just an old classroom, no windows or doors; used for storage it looked like. With his breath ragged and blood pounding in his ears for the third time tonight, he began to focus, pulling the door closed ever so slowly and quietly. He cast a few sticking charms around it, making sure it couldn't be opened by normal means. Feeling the flow of adrenaline, he used it to think quickly while gripping both wands tight. He stood against the wall by the door, listening to the sounds of footsteps in between the plodding thumps of his heart. It took forever for Filch to pass by, step by slow step, while Harry kept trying to distract the cat with other thoughts.

One last thought was sent of another student out of bed, far away in the castle, which got the cat to bolt back the way they came. Harry caught his breath, and relaxed once again. The danger was getting easier to deal with already, feeling more like a rush of excitement, rather than trying to hold up the world as everything came crashing down. It was hard to decide whether that was a good thing or bad, whether he might start liking the rush enough to seek it out, or get desensitized to the fear. Experience isn't bad, it's how I respond to it that makes the difference. Being in control of my thoughts and actions is a good thing, much better than letting the situation control me.

Reaching out with his senses he could feel the same faint and muffled presence that now blocked his passage out of the narrow hallway. It wasn't close, but also wasn't going away either, he decided to wait it out. Meanwhile he looked around the room and placed a few desks in front of the door, to alert him if anyone tried to open it. Next he sat down to wait, finally taking in the whole room and the floor to ceiling mirror in the middle of it all.

oOoOo

It was an opulent gold piece, larger than any standing mirror he'd ever seen, with unusual writing at the top. "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi" Extravagant and expensive was all he could think of, two words that he had a habit of staying away from, specifically ingrained in him by his relatives early on. That thought made him want to challenge the feeling and go inspect it, yet his current situation overrode any whims of fancy like that. He tried to make sense of the writing while feeling for other people close by, or if the strange presence moved.

Was the text a riddle or a different language?

It used the Latin alphabet, but not much resembled the Latin roots he'd learnt, which most languages with the Latin alphabet was based on, so it seemed more like a riddle to him. Riddles were becoming a breeze living in Ravenclaw tower, especially since first years got easy ones and progressed over time. All he had to do was start with the easy bits.

'Erised', desire spelled backwards, came easily, but only 'on' spelled anything else when flipped, yet that didn't help at all. Except the last, wohsi, could possibly be 'I show'. It soon became too simple. It's only the mirror image of the text, separated by random spaces and without punctuation for some reason.

He began working it out, and spoke the words aloud, "I show not your face but your heart's desire." Not very inventive for a secret code, but it's about the standard for a first year Ravenclaw riddle. Now that begs the question, how can a mirror show your heart's desire, or is that simply another riddle?

Harry had been sitting for around five minutes and the presence still hadn't moved, so he got up and looked in the course he saw nothing covered in his cloak, but he hesitated to remove it. Is this the trap, or am I only being paranoid again?

He lifted his left hand out from under the cloak, to see two hands in the mirror. He searched around but there was nothing causing the other reflection. Pulling out his other hand reflected two extra hands in the mirror, and the first one holding his own. He yanked his hands back in, a little weirder out.

Those other hand aren't mine, and why would someone else's hands be my heart's desire? Unless there's a person attached to those hands...

Checking his senses revealed nothing different, so he pulled back his hood. As a shape was forming he knew who it was before even seeing it. He guessed who it was by the familiar looking hands even. Hermione's face and his own stared back at him from the mirror, with something quite different about them. She smiled, that cute friendly smile that was just for him. Pulling off the cloak out of curiosity revealed them both taller, older, and wearing the same Ravenclaw trim. His eyebrows twisted in mild surprise, but it made a weird sense to him. It changed slightly, to them embracing and celebrating some new device they created, throwing it up in the air it floated away on its own. He could see a small book in her pocket and multiple wands up his sleeves. They smiled and kissed. He blushed and turned away, looking straight at Dumbledore sitting on a nearby desk.

His senses told him the mysterious presence was gone, and confirmed that he'd been set up by the Headmaster.

"So that was you outside maneuvering me around, using Filch's cat too I bet. No wonder she didn't respond to the thoughts I sent. You could have just asked me to come here with you." Harry crossed his arms, realizing he was showing how defensive he was.

A twinkle came from those stark blue eyes, "I suppose I too wanted to have a little fun with a Christmas gift, like the game you played with Miss Granger this morning."

Harry rolled his own bright green eyes, "Are you going to contrive some way to teach me a lesson every time you find out I do something mischievous?"

"Perhaps," A hint of a smile could be seen beneath his beard. "But I see you have found what I wanted to show you. Do you realize what it does already?"

"Considering it's written on the top, it wasn't hard. - Why would you want to show me this? Trying another way to see my character?"

Dumbledore coughed lightly, "While it does show your heart's desire, it is not shown to anyone else. Although you could share?" Harry tried raising one eyebrow in cynicism and failed.

"Only curious, but that was not my purpose in bringing you here. I wanted to show you the dangers and the marvels of magical devices you seem to relish." He walked over beside the mirror and put a hand on it. "While some may realize this mirror's capabilities and limits, learning from what it reveals. Others may be pulled in, trapped in what they hope might be true, only to waste away their lives wishing for what cannot be."

"Is that a hint to get me to put warning labels and proper descriptions on any future creations?" This time Dumbledore returned the look Harry attempted. "Alright, I know what you're getting at. Most thing's can be used for bad or good, and that not everything is as innocuous as it may seem, even a mirror. But that can be said of anything, not just magical objects. Even old sage advice can be misconstrued to mean something harmful. - Why do you seem resistant to me finding and exploring magical devices?"

"I am trying to help you see the dangers of the path you might choose. That it is not only the physical dangers of the objects you may seek, or the perils you may encounter to get them, but the true threat is what your desire for them might cost you. That you could lose more than what you see in this mirror."

Harry chewed on his lip for a second, gently shaking his head, "And what if the only way to achieve what the mirror shows is to take this path? Or one just like it."

That confused Dumbledore, which he showed with a tilt of his head, "You do not see your family?"

"Why would I see them?" Harry asked in distaste, "You even offered to let me live with someone else."

Shock, and then realization set in, "Ah, I was thinking of the family you lost, your parents and other relatives never known to you."

"Huh, that's interesting it's possible, but like you said, I never knew them. I have no idea what they look like, let alone who they were. They would just be a pure fantasy I created in my mind. And I've already learned any expectations I had of my parents aren't based on reality. - Besides, I would rather focus on those in my life now, rather than pine for relatives I never knew."

This struck Dumbledore in a most unusual way, he turned away from Harry and began mumbling to himself. Harry thought back to earlier conversations together, to their very first. After a few minutes of this the headmaster turned around, with only the slightest hint of moisture in his eyes, "You see her, do you not? Miss Granger."

Pausing, Harry considered what he would say. "Yes... we're creating our own inventions together. - What, do you see in the mirror?"

"I? I see a warm pair of gloves on my hand."

Harry snorted, "I'd believe that less than if you had said socks, even after I gave you a color changing pair for Christmas." Hesitantly he asked the real question, "The reason you thought I saw my family, is because... you see yours? The ones you've lost?"

Dumbledore looked away again, "I could never expect you to forget that story, could I? Not with a memory like yours."

"Not likely. Professor, why don't you help me learn about magical objects, and how to stay safe doing it, instead of warning me away from them, only for me to do it anyway? Then, maybe one day, I could help you in return somehow?"

Laughing mirthfully, Dumbledore wiped his eyes, no longer hiding it. "Sometimes, even I forget how much a student can teach the teacher. - Come, let us get some sleep after your night's adventures and think on the day's events."

Pulling on the cloak Harry asked his last questions, "Alright, but have you followed me around before tonight while being... disillusioned? And will you tell me why you have a three headed dog in the castle or what it's guarding? Oh, and do you know what the key is? I heard something about it while exploring tonight."

Laughing even harder, Dumbledore shook his head, "I have not, I will not, and not even with your wily manipulations could you get that old tale out of me."

"Oh. Well, thanks for returning the cloak at least, it's quite useful."