A/N: Harry returns to school, and finds the experience a little different.

13 – Back To School, Part 2

Harry scowled at the retreating backs of his two friends, wondering why on earth everything had to be so hard now. He stood there in the corridor for a moment, staring after them, indifferent to the avidly suspicious looks the students chatting around him were sending his way.

Ever since the Vow, everything had become even more distorted than usual. Harry turned abruptly, heading for the library, not even registering the way people slipped out of his way. It was like he'd been living in a sparse, yet familiarly furnished dream world before the evening when Pomfrey, Snape and Dumbledore had met with him after his second fit of drowsiness. Now, however –

Harry turned the corner, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as his senses lazily warned him of his approaching a crowd. He didn't bother looking around the sparsely populated corridor like he had been doing all day yesterday whenever he got that odd, twitchy feeling about some irrelevant fact, because it had always proven itself quite true soon after he got it, and – well, and he was tired of second-guessing everything, really.

Without the Dousing potion (and, incidentally, with a small dose of Snape's disgusting Doxium every two days) his senses were almost nauseatingly sharp, and strangely selective to boot. Harry suppressed an embarrassed grin. He could understand phoenixes needing to know who their friends and enemies were and who was currently around them, and he could also understand them being on freakishly high alert every morning. What he couldn't understand was why he now definitely knew the name of every girl in sixth year (and those of quite a few in seventh) as well as who they spoke to and what classes he shared with whom.

"Afternoon, Madame Pince," he said easily, sending a calm smile in her direction. She looked momentarily flustered, as did most of the teachers he now found himself greeting automatically. That was another thing he found himself doing more and more – once he'd noticed someone was there, it was horribly hard not to somehow inform them of that fact. Not that that helped the stories of his being an impostor impersonating himself any.

Not that he really did care about those any more. Harry let his calm smile stay in place as he asked Madame Pince for recommendations from the phoenix section (an interestingly detailed section of the library, the way Hermione told it), and as Pince finished reeling off a list of books to see, she actually gave him a severe smile for his trouble. Harry felt an odd sense of contentment drift over him as he nodded and thanked her politely, and felt it increase as he found his way to the section (Pince had given him what counted for step-by-step directions, which was nice of her) and began to browse.

That was new, too, sort of. In hindsight, it had probably been creeping up on him ever since he was allowed to change once or twice a day to his real form, but now… Harry sighed happily, ignoring the way a group of third years at a nearby table jumped and stared. At times like this, when he was doing exactly what he thought he should be doing at the particular point in time, he felt markedly more content than usual. And that was all despite however angry he was with Ron for some obscure reason he was trying to suppress (that morning, for example, Ron had used his towel by mistake, and it had been niggling badly at him the entire day), or with Dumbledore and Snape for a more concrete reason.

Which was this: it was the Monday following his horrid little scar attack on Saturday and subsequent, er, Pomfrey attack (he still felt guilty about that), and neither of them had contacted him to speak to him despite the long session they'd held with him on Saturday night, questioning him about all sorts of stupid things to do with his scar itching in the mornings at 2am (which he could not remember happening even once) and to do with whether he was having dreams about Voldemort's current unhealthy obsession (which he was not). Snape had combed through his mind until the presence of Dumbledore and Dumbledore's wand (an all-too-tangible reminder of the Unbreakable Vow they'd sworn earlier) had been the only thing keeping Harry from tearing him a new hole in an uncomfortable spot, and had given him enough meaningful looks during Dumbledore's subsequent drivel on 'researching his condition' that Harry had expected something to happen, and to happen fast.

Which it hadn't done. Snape had practically ignored him at every meal since then, and Harry was sufficiently distrustful and impatient enough of the greasy bastard to take matters into his own hands for now. Which was why he was sitting at a library table piled with books with quirky titles like "Phoenix Lore for Lovers" and a complicated-looking expandable chart that looked frighteningly like it might be a genealogy of the British-born and burned phoenix. Surprisingly, the genealogy was the most interesting, and engaged his attention as he tried half-heartedly to trace the origin of the red-and-gold colouring which he sported in his true form, and it was like that, perched over a sprawling, heavy mass of parchment with crisp, ancient-smelling folds, that someone finally interrupted him.

"Potter." Harry jumped, wondering how on earth he'd missed the fact that someone had basically snuck up on him, and was speaking sternly at his right ear. The parchment and, irritatingly, the section Harry had just been looking at slithered unbecomingly to the floor in a cloud of dust, and he uttered something foul before turning to see who – "Detention." – right. It would have to be Snape, wouldn't it?

"Sir," Harry began to protest impatiently, but Snape's eyes were gleaming and somehow conveying that he should just shut up and accept the bloody punishment, and he found himself hard-pressed to restrain that impulse. To obey.

"Merlin knows only hard labour will ever be able to cure you of your rude tongue around your betters," Snape reeled off very convincingly. Harry glowered at him, and was slightly amused (and slightly guilty) to see Snape's eyes widen just a tiny, teeny bit, and not in anger. In fear. Ha.

The only thing that kept Harry from grinning was the ugly look on Snape's face. And when that and Snape were gone and Ron and Hermione (or RonandHermione, as he was starting to think they should be called, for being joined at the hip in such a manner) emerged from where they'd been observing worriedly to bitch about Snape being unfair (Ron) and to scold him for being so heedless of the genealogy parchment's demise (Hermione), the only thing that kept him from grinning was the sure knowledge that it would only fuel the impostor rumour to the level of someone actually trying to take him down so they could question him and perhaps free the Real Harry Potter.

Who was, right now, feeling more than free enough.

"Muffliato," Ron whispered, the look on his face very meaningful. Harry tried to relax into his seat as Ron and a disapproving-looking but obviously complicit Hermione sat down facing him – one irritating thing about being half-and-half was also getting that strange tingling when magic was cast around him. At first, it had been somewhat of a novelty, but now, it was no more novel than the state of his hair, and rather more irritating instead. It always got him keyed up when people cast the simplest spells around him, and it was so –

"You all right, mate?" Ron's kind, slightly worried question helped Harry relax like nothing else could. He smiled and nodded at Ron, feeling contentedly lucky – despite everything, his friends had never really changed, had they?

"Just a bit restless," Harry added for Hermione's benefit, as she loftily deposited the re-folded genealogy parchment before him. "Hey, I was looking at that – "

"Sorry," she said, looking a little contrite. "It's just that we've got something to tell you, and…"

"Oh," Harry replied, nodding, hard-pressed to keep another grin off his face. "Getting married, then?" It took about ten minutes of protesting that he'd just been joking and fending off Ron's narrow-eyed looks and Hermione's almost palpable embarrassment for Harry to back off and secretly think that they were probably planning something of the sort for the future, and finally get Hermione to tell him what she'd started out to do.

"You heard about Katie's accident, right?" she began, some traces of pink and the odd smell of her embarrassment lingering about her. Harry nodded – he'd been shocked to hear what happened to her on his return to the Gryffindor common room on Sunday evening. He'd been even more perplexed when he heard some rumours as to his involvement in it, but that was beside the point. "Well, what we didn't tell you then was that we saw Dung in Hogsmeade."

Harry blinked. Hard.

Preview of Chapter 14: A New Understanding

"Yes, Harry. And he was selling things, stuff that looked like it was from Grimmauld Place." Harry stared at her, shocked to the core. On one hand, Dung, deserving of his name, as usual, was stealing stuff from Sirius' house, and that was really callous of him, and he deserved to be cursed or shot.