There was a mirror in my room.

It was not, however, the presence of the mirror that disturbed me. It was what it reflected. A year ago, I would have seen a tired, sickly face, dark rings under eyes that had seen too little sleep and too much tragedy. Six months ago, I would have seen a content, if nervous gaze returned to me. Too much alcohol and too little Christmas cheer mixing in a face with nearly-fresh scars. None of what I would have seen would have prepared me for what I saw staring back at me the morning I was to leave for Diagon Alley to buy school books.

What I saw was a face that was not old, no, that was not a suitable word, but perhaps tried was the right way to describe it. And out of my mismatched eyes came a look more knowing than I had even thought I could accomplish: it was a look I could sometimes see in Vincent's eyes, in Frederic's when he talked about his parents, in Snape's eyes when he had looked at us Slytherins over the years. I had never expected to see it mirrored in my own eyes.

At some point during the summer, without my knowledge, I had grown up.

Merlin knew I felt older, but I had never expected to see it so clearly in my own face. Gone was the juvenile sullenness, replaced with a blank seriousness most often found in Vincent Lucas. Emotional detachedness was something I was still working on, but it seemed that I, at least, had the facial expression mastered. Breaking it with a decidedly adolescent grin, I picked up the book list and headed out of the room. It was time to leave for Diagon Alley, and if Frederic found out I'd been spending – I checked the grandfather-clock in the hall – ten minutes looking at myself in the mirror, I'd never hear the end of it.

Today, I was supposed to Floo to Diagon Alley, buy my school-books, perhaps spend some time at Fortesque's, and then return straight back to Vincent and report. It felt strange, knowing that I had spent nearly two months with the crazy Lucas brothers, training myself to be safe to be around. That was nearly two months of my life that had flown by in what seemed like moments. My childhood was slipping away, but like old men kept knick-knacks on their bookshelves to remind themselves of what had happened to them, I would hold onto it for as long as I was allowed.

But in a time of war, small space was made for such allowances.

"Be careful," Vincent told me seriously as I prepared to leave.

"It's hardly as if the Death Eaters would dare to attack Diagon Alley in broad daylight," I said, taking a pinch of Floo-powder from the old tin on the mantle.

"You never know," he said, shaking his head. "You never know."

"Are you going to shout constant vigilance at me, just like Mad-Eye did?" I wondered, half-joking.

"If that's what it takes." The expression on his face was approaching frightening.

"I'll be fine," I sighed. "It isn't as if the Diagon Alley people can spring anything on me that you two haven't. And if I see a Death Eater, I promise I'll sneak off in the opposite direction. Can I go now?"

He nodded tersely, and left the room. Breathing in slowly through my nose, annoyed at his over-careful attitude, I threw the powder in the fireplace, announcing my destination. Normally, the fireplace was barren and cold, but in honour of my little excursion, Frederic had lit it, laughing like a child all the while. At times, he seemed almost schizophrenic, one minute as easily amused and distracted as a child, the next giving advice on how best to kill someone using nothing but your hands.

For the last week, I had been suffering from what the Muggleborns called cabin-fever. I had been pacing the floor like a caged wolf, not concentrating on my studies not out of disinterest, but because I couldn't. Restlessly I would prowl the hallways at night, staring at the moon, wondering if even Remus Lupin had ever studied it as much as I did. As I paced, I tried my hardest not to think about Hermione Granger, but it was nigh impossible.

Somehow, she sneaked her way into my thoughts no matter what I did. I didn't love her, there was no conceivable way I could: I didn't know her, and if I got my way I never would, and this silly idea would burn out by itself. Pretended ignorance was sometimes the only thing between me and the freedom of lunacy. Slytherins did not fancy Gryffindors. Snakes do not mix with lionesses. Those two phrases became my mantra those nights, running over and over in my head, repeating themselves until I could finally find some peace again.

Unfortunately, my feelings would not bow down to cold reason. They found a way to creep in, into dreams, into thoughts, into the waking hours. In the cold, grey light of dawn, I could find myself wondering if she was still sleeping, or if she was being the stubborn Gryffindor she always was and studying all night long. Neither option would particularly surprise me, had I been informed. And when I thought about her, my cabin-fever grew worse.

Finally, Vincent had snapped at me to either stop pacing or go and distract myself. The first thing that had come to mind was going to Diagon Alley and buying my school-books. It was only due to my frantic pacing, I was convinced, that Vincent let me go. Otherwise, he would have kept me for far longer than my sanity would have held. I emerged into the sun of Diagon Alley more satisfied with the sights that most first-years were upon their first visit. My first stop would have to be Flourish & Blott's, since books were the main reason I was there, though I might need to get my wand checked out by Ollivander. It was starting to act strangely when I used it.

Flourish & Blott's was exactly like I remembered it. Of course, book-shops don't often change over the space of two months, but one might hope. I checked over my list again, before looking at the nearly empty bookshelves. It seemed the Hogwarts' booklist had arrived early this year. Or perhaps it was just I who was late out. Wandering through the shop, I hunted for the Transfiguration, Charms and Arithmancy books I needed.

I found them at the back of the shop, brought them to the cashier and paid for them. He looked at me strangely when I put the books on the counter, and seemed to count them twice, just to make sure there were three of them.

"You starting seventh year?" He asked sceptically.

"Yes." I said.

"Ain't you a bit too old for that?"

"I'm seventeen, eighteen later this year," I informed him, successfully keeping a straight face. It was amazing what a couple of weeks with legally insane brothers could do for your appearance. It made you look older than you were, for one.

"Then shouldn't you have Compendium of Curses too?" He asked, looking a bit dubious at the information that I was only sixteen.

"I've already read it cover to cover," I said, trying to look sincere, while cracking up on the inside.

And I had: in the hours of lost sleep, I'd finished the rather heavy book. It had seemed to be the only thing capable of making me sit down and stop pacing so frantically. The books I'd bought weren't particularly heavy, I noticed as I walked outside. In fact, they were the lightest course-books we'd ever had. With the exception of the Compendium, they were all less than one hundred pages. It was a rather odd occurrence for Hogwarts, since even our first-year books had been at least one hundred and fifty pages long.

Perhaps there wasn't much left for us to learn, or perhaps they'd changed the curriculum, since I could clearly remember Gaspar having to carry around books so heavy he was bent double in the effort. The only person who hadn't lightened our burden was Vincent, since the Compendium was packed full of curses just within the borders of legality. Perhaps he was right in doing so, since there was a war just outside the castle's walls, and we would most likely be in the middle of it.

I wandered down the street to Ollivander's and ducked inside. That place hadn't changed either, but it was different from Flourish & Blott's: Ollivander's had no right not to have changed. It had been nearly seven years since I was there last, but the dark little shop with the dusty pillow in the window hadn't changed one bit. Some scared little eleven-year- old was sitting awkwardly on a chair, waiting for Mr Ollivander to make an appearance. Leaning against a wall, observing the boy and his parents, I waited as well.

It occurred to me that Marise would be getting her wand this year, and starting school as well. Hopefully, she'd get to go to Hogwarts, since that's what our father had said when he laid down the law just before I went to school. He'd said, "No child of mine will have to suffer Beuxbaton's when they can go to Hogwarts," or something along those lines. I'd been a scared eleven year old, so I couldn't remember it very clearly. But meant, if Mother still had enough braincells to remember, that my sister would be coming to Hogwarts with me this year. Which meant complications.

Ollivander stepped out in the shop, followed by a young man with a vague resemblance to him, but who mostly looked like a cross between a poached egg and some watered-down mercury. I could hardly keep myself from snorting out loud at his appearance. He turned to look at me, and attempted a glare, of which he failed spectacularly. I raised my eyebrow and looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to say something, but he didn't.

"Rowan, will you please help the young man over there," Ollivander gestured towards me, "The picking of wands is best left to me, I believe."

Great, I rolled my eyes, I was left to deal with the weakling relative of Ollivander, when I actually needed Ollivander's help. Haywire wands wasn't something to be left to inexperienced boys who had yet to wipe their nose on their own.

"What can I help you with?" Rowan asked me, unable to keep the contempt out of his voice.

"I need someone to do a check on my wand: it's been acting strangely since July." I said, shrugging it out of its wrist-sheath. "I tried casting a Burning Hex, and it misfired, setting fire to a tree instead of my intended target."

"I'll look over it," he said, sounding frighteningly like a bleating sheep. "Can you come back tomorrow?"

"Hell no I can't!" I snapped, annoyed with his appearance, his manner of speaking and his attitude. "I need my wand today, and I can't come back tomorrow, since I live about half a country away from here with only sporadic Floo-connections."

"This will take some time," he tried, looking shocked at my outburst.

"I have all day: I can wait." I said, deliberately making my point obvious by leaning against the wall again. "You just look over my wand: I'll catch up on my sleep."

He sputtered for a moment, but I pretended to fall asleep standing up. From behind my fringe, which was as always in bad need of a haircut, I observed the little boy searching for his wand. He was proving to be a difficult customer, and he was getting steadily more desperate, just as Ollivander got happier at being allowed an excuse to go through all his wands. When he finally found the right wand, (ten inch yew with dragon heart-string, good for Transfiguration) he was close to tears with happiness.

And I still hadn't gotten my wand back.

An hour in the stuffy shop, and Rowan something-or-the-other still had my wand. He made a show of looking over it every now and then, but in between he would just stare blankly at a wall. My fingers itched, wanting to take back my wand. I wasn't at all comfortable with leaving it, even to someone obviously working at Ollivander's, but it appeared I had no choice. When finally finished stacking away all the wands again, Ollivander turned to me, smiling in the creepy way he had done in my first year when I came to buy my wand.

"Still here?" He asked. "Do you have a particularly complicated problem with your wand?"

"I wouldn't know," I shrugged. "I haven't got it back yet."

"You haven't?" He seemed surprised. "Rowan? What are you up to?"

He wandered off towards his relative, or at least I assumed they were related. Guiltily, Rowan snapped to attention like a nervous soldier who had just spotted his psychotic drill-sergeant coming towards him. He dropped my wand on the counter, his hands were shaking so bad. I couldn't blame him really: Ollivander was freaky enough when he wasn't annoyed with you. A brief, quiet argument I didn't catch much of later, I had my wand in my hand, and was being told there was nothing wrong with it. It was, in fact, in perfect condition for a seven year old wand.

"Well, then I am the root of the problem," I brushed off their curious stares, "I just wanted to get that confirmed. Thank you for your time."

Sometimes, it paid to be polite: Ollivander and his useless relative let me go without further questions, though he looked a little suspicious. Once more stepping outside the tiny shop, I found myself in a much busier street than I had left an hour ago: during my wait in Ollivander's, the people of Diagon Alley had woken up and started about their business of the day. There were a few first-years-to-be in the crowds, and I bumped into someone who was obviously a Muggle, holding onto the hand of someone who had the air of a scared Muggleborn. After apologising shortly and pointing them towards Flourish & Blott's, I headed to the Leaky Cauldron.

When I'd left some six weeks ago, I couldn't remember whether or not I told them I wouldn't come back. If I hadn't, it was time to apologise, and perhaps tell them they could keep their money. The Leaky Cauldron was a cosy place, and I might as well stop by there and eat my lunch. Unfortunately, it was at the other end of the street, and would take some time getting to. Muttering about how I despised crowds, I bundled of the bag I kept the books in and stuffed it in an inner pocket of my cloak/robe- hybrid.

Some of the residents of Diagon Alley hung in the second-story windows, pointing at the crowd and talking to each other. Someone threw a parcel down at someone standing in the street. It narrowly avoided bouncing off my head, and I glared up at the man who had thrown it. He merely waved cheerfully at me and closed the window, and the man who now held the parcel stalked off down the street in the direction of Ollivander's holding onto the parcel as if it was made of gold.

Dodging a group of witches giggling over something or the other, I finally reached Fortesque's. That was about half-way to the Leaky Cauldron. Looking at the crowd in doubt, I stopped just outside the ice-cream parlour, weighing the pro's and con's of actually fighting my way there. While the crowd wasn't any larger than it usually was, it was much more spirited and seemed to have a habit of running into itself every now and then. Ice-cream seemed a perfectly viable option, if not all that nutritious, when seen in light of those facts.

Making up my mind that ice-cream would be the main-course of my lunch of the day, I turned and walked into Fortesque's. For most people, it was too early to eat, even if they had the choice of ice-cream, so there was still space enough to spare in the ice-cream parlour. I placed my order and made myself comfortable at one of the tables, watching people go by on the street outside. As always, I was hungry, and as soon as the ice-cream was put on the table in front of me, I tucked in quite happily. Once more, I'd ordered chocolate and lemon, and once more, the waiter looked strangely at me. I ignored her. Let her look: chocolate and lemon ice-cream was nothing to the strangeness in my head.

Despite the variety of people in the crowd outside, I had yet to spot anyone I recognised from Hogwarts. There were a few excited or even scared eleven-year-olds, about to become first-years, but there wasn't any other students that I had seen. Not even anonymous Hufflepuffs. It seemed to be mostly people living in Diagon Alley, shop-owners or otherwise, and random strangers. Which was was strange, since most people should be here, getting their school books. Everyone couldn't go shopping the same day: three hundred students, as well as all other street-life did not fit into Diagon Alley at the same time.

For a moment, I thought I saw a flash of red hair and the face of that redhead I had thought was a veela, but as soon as I spotted her, she disappeared again, so it might as well have been my imagination. I shook it off, finished my ice-cream, and kept watching the people. I didn't need to get back just yet, since Vincent had muttered something about having a ´discussion´ with his brother, and I didn't want to end up in the middle of that. The waiter came by again, preparing to ask if I wanted anything else, but I waved her off absently.

People-watching was a cheap hobby, and not entirely pointless. One learns a lot by watching others. If nothing else, one learns about oneself when one watches others: sometimes, I was sure I wouldn't even know I was more than half-way to insane if I didn't have other people to watch. They were all so blessedly normal in comparison to me: they were neat, calm, happy, never had to think about looking over their shoulder in case someone tried to attack them with a pair of glasses.

As I watched, the crowd thinned out somewhat. Now I could see to the other side of the street without trouble, though there were still a lot of people walking around in the sunshine. There was mostly pre-first years and their parents, as well as some people who might have been Hogwarts students and who might not: I didn't recognise them, but they seemed about the right age to be in some of the higher years. They laughed, ate ice-cream and chattered happily, making the scene look every inch a summer paradise.

I envied them.

While the shadow of war marked everyone these days, none of them were as aware as I and perhaps Potter and his friends were. They didn't have their fathers in Azkaban like Draco had. They weren't locked up all summer by the grandparents because they might turn out like their parents, like Agnes was. They didn't sleep in a tree-house in the summers because they were afraid of what their fathers might do, like Theo was.

They didn't know fear like I did.

And when the time came, they would be paying for it in blood. Fear, whatever else it did, prepared for the unexpected. If you feared werewolves coming out of the walls, you wouldn't be surprised when they did. If you feared that around the next corner would be a smiling Lucius Malfoy, then you wouldn't be surprised when he turned up with his wand levelled at you. Fear was just as powerful a shield as the one I'd built by magic around myself.

The shield was tricky business: the making of it consisted of imagining an invisible layer between myself and the rest of the world, a layer which let sunlight, air and sound through but kept out physical things such as thrown rocks. Maintaining it was a different matter altogether: when thinking about it, it was difficult to keep it up more than ten minutes at the time, but when I let it become a unconscious reaction, when the only thing I consciously did was let it slip away, that was when I could keep it up for hours. It drained me, magically, little by little, and after about twelve hours I couldn't keep it up even if I wanted to. It didn't stop everything completely, except perhaps hexes and curses, but it slowed them down long enough for me to step out of the way.

And, I had discovered, it made me aware of someone who touched it, even if I wasn't looking. I had never attempted to push it further than about a feet from my body, but I had a suspicion that if I did, I would feel people inside of it. The risk of losing control by pushing too far, too soon kept me from trying. Bloody chaos wasn't exactly what I had in mind for my seventh year at Hogwarts.

I put money for the ice-cream on the table and wandered out of Fortesque's again, standing outside for a moment, looking at the crowd. A smile appeared on my face, and I retreated to the shadow cast by one of the rickety buildings. I leaned against the sun-warmed bricks and watched the people wandering by, in the manner of people in summer everywhere. Hidden in the shadows, no one could see me, which was just the way I wanted it.

'''''''''''''

Ending Notes: And there arrives the first chapter of Slytherin Vengeance 3. The last part of the trilogy. Well, I hope you'll like it, since most of the plot will have to be solved in it. There will however, on the insistence of O&U pirates (you know who you are), be another novel-length set in the same universe.

Note on Blaise's age: I've stated in part one that he was born on New Year's Eve, and is in fact a year older than the rest of his schoolmates, therefore he gave his age as almost eighteen at Flourish&Blotts.