Epilogue

The sun was slanting in through a crack in the curtains when Harry finally awoke.  He could hear a hum of lively conversation and the bang of cooking pans through the thin wood partition which divided the kitchen from the bedroom he was sharing with two of Hermione's cousins.  The other two beds were already abandoned - Dan and Steve, presumably, were forming part of the mob in the kitchen, if they had not already headed down to the shore to play with the Hobie cat.  He stretched and grinned.

Well, they didn't get to bed as late as I did last night. 

He put out a hesitant hand towards the bedside table, closing his fingers around his glasses.  There was a half finished letter lying under them.  It had been lying there for a week now.  He felt a brief pang of guilt as he spotted it.

I really ought to finish writing to Hermione.

In fact, he thought ruefully, I really ought to tell her that I should be getting back to England.  After all, I haven't heard any news in three weeks.  And even up here, something as important as that would have been bound to make a bit of a noise.  Obviously it must have all been a great big flap about nothing.  There probably wasn't any conspiracy at all.  It's Hermione's job: it makes her paranoid - no, make that overprotective.  I ought to write and tell her I 'm coming home.

The letter stared accusingly back at him.  He looked at it, and then dropped a pile of books on top of it.

Just not today.  Perhaps tomorrow.  Or at the end of the week.

He stretched again, and grinned.

After all, it isn't as if there weren't a few compensations for being here.

In a moment of sudden decisiveness he strode to the window and flung back the curtains -

 - And found himself staring straight into a forest of long lenses, telescopes, binoculars and even, he thought with one wild, frantic corner of his mind, something that looked hideously like a radio outside-broadcast van.

His yell of shock and outrage brought Dan running in from the kitchen.  Harry gestured with a shaking hand towards the window

"What the hell- ?"

He closed the curtains with a shudder.

Dan grinned.  "Oh, I forgot.  You and Bethany got back too late to hear about yesterday evening's excitement - though I will say, Bethany did actually manage to get up for breakfast which is more than you managed - honestly, Harry, has anyone ever broken it to you that that 'Honey we've run out of gas' line was well past retirement age before Doris Day became a virgin?"

Harry looked slightly red, but not entirely displeased.  "Nothing wrong with following in an ancient tradition," he murmured airily.  "Anyway - what the hell are all those people doing on the lawn?"

Dan's grin got wider.  "Come to get a glance at our local celebrity, what else?"

"Ack?"  Harry gulped.  Hermione, I'm going to kill you for this.  The whole point of my coming here was to be incognito.

Dan continued obliviously on.

"Yes, she showed up yesterday afternoon, when you and Bethany were off on your - little sightseeing tour - well, the guy from the Audobon Society reckons she's a she, and I guess he ought to know, wouldn't you think? She's been perched on the eaves ever since then, and the news seems to have gotten round like wildfire.  Some of the guys I spoke to this morning had driven all through the night to get here.  I said I reckoned they must be nuts, but they said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in on the first ever sighting of a Scops on North American soil, and they'd have gone twice the distance if they'd had to."

Harry shook his head from side to side, very slowly, in the hope it might clear his brain

"Dan?" he enquired desperately.  "Would you just mind spelling out to me, in words of one syllable, just who she is?"

It was not, as a matter of fact, Dan who replied.

"You'll never guess what's just happened," an excited voice called through the panelling.  "That cute little owl that's there's all the excitement about has just flown in through the kitchen window.  It's sitting on the top of the stove  now.  And its got some ribbon sort of tangled round its leg, poor thing.  Come here and try and help!"

Harry and Dan stumbled through into the kitchen.  The owl looked up from a bit of intense under-wing preening, and uttered a series of high pitched "pew" sounds, before gathering herself up into a feathery bullet and launching herself straight at him.

He suppressed a squeak of pain as her claws dug into his shoulder, spotting in the nick of time that Bethany was regarding him with a deeply impressed look in her soft brown eyes.

St Harry of Assisi, patron saint of owls everywhere.

Definitely some compensations for being here.

He grinned, and extended a cautious finger to tickle the little owl under her chin, clucking soothingly at her.  His other hand reached out to the gold and red ribbons round her left leg, which neatly concealed the slip of parchment he had been expecting to find under them.  As he released the ribbons he palmed the whole thing unobtrusively into his dressing gown pocket for later examination. The owl favoured him with a searching look; pecked his finger once, rather hard, uttered a piercing shriek and shot off through the open window again, making, so far as he could tell, an arrow-straight line for the coast.  Outside, there was a confused sound of shouts, vehicles revving, and other indications of the imminent departure of the encamped mob.

 "Well, now that's sorted I'd better go and get dressed," he murmured modestly, acutely aware of Bethany's admiring glance on him as he made his way back to the bedroom.

Some minutes later, however, he was still sitting in his dressing gown on the edge of the bed, staring down at the parchment message in dumb incomprehension.  Isolated phrases whirled up and attacked his eyes at random:

"High-handed and impertinent interference in my private affairs -affording comfort, succour and assistance to my mortal enemies - engaging in lethal conspiracies directed at those I love - entitled to demand satisfaction in the traditional Wizarding manner - send my friends to wait on your friends at their earliest convenience - nominate a suitable neutral ground in a territory not yet signatory to the International Conventions on Magical Duelling - your choice of the appropriate protocol  - "

But each time he tried to read it his eye kept being drawn back, inevitably, to the neat, crabbed, impossible signature at the bottom.  He gulped.  There was a slight sound like the popping of a cork in his immediate vicinity.  His shocked eyes glanced up.

"Well, laddie," a familiar voice growled, "You've really gone and done it now.  I've been tracking that owl for a week, ever since one of the lads at the Ministry tipped me the wink about just what Eustace Longbottom did say when they finally managed to patch him up enough to formally question him.  Thank your stars that the Muggles spotted it and lit up your whereabouts like a beacon for me.  I daresay if I hadn't  got to you before young Neville's Second did, you'd have been just as likely to nominate some wet-behind-the-ears amateur like young Weasley or his father (god help us) to act as Second  for you, and then there'd have been no hope."

Harry's brain was going into overdrive, and his lungs kept making unscheduled gulping movements.  About the only words he managed to get out in a high-pitched squeak were:

"Neville's Second?"

"Yes, laddie, as if he wasn't going to be enough of a problem to handle on his own in his current mood.  Good job you've got me here to back you up, is all I can say.  I've seen Frank with a strop on, and he'd've never been able -"

Moody's eyes flashed, and he started muttering to himself.

Harry gawped. 

"Surely Malfoy's Neville's second?  Isn't all this really just a put-up job of his?  And I can take Malfoy with one hand tied behind - "

"Possibly, but you aren't going to get the opportunity in this precise instance," a cool amused voice from the other side of the room said.  His eye tracked up, and across: evidently the slight sound of the new arrival Apparating into the room had been drowned in his general horror.  His jaw dropped.

Narcissa stretched out lazily on Dan's bed, beginning to make micro-repairs to her makeup in a leisurely manner.  "Neville thought - quite sensibly - that it would only worry Draco if he knew about this before it was all over.  So Emily and I tossed for the job."

Mad-Eye Moody twisted his mouth in a sour grimace.  "I'd have thought Emily Longbottom would be old enough and ugly enough to realise you'd have to have been using a double-headed coin."

Narcissa's smile got wider.  "Come on, Alastor, do give us a bit of credit. We were both using double-headed coins.  It was just that I got my Convertere charm in a split-second ahead of hers."

Mad-Eye Moody snorted.  "I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  women like you don't know better as you get older, you just know more."

Narcissa smiled beatifically.

Harry dropped his head on his hands.  It seemed that things could get no worse.

He was wrong.

There was the sudden sound of the doorknob turning, and a cheerful voice saying:

"Harry, the pancakes are ready.  I made up a fresh batch - and  -  just who the hell are you and what are you doing in Harry's bedroom?"

He looked up to see Bethany looking across from Narcissa to him with a wide, accusing stare.  Narcissa, obligingly, sprawled across Dan's bed in an even more abandoned manner. He opened his mouth to speak, but Bethany got her word in edgeways first.

"Harry, you utter bastard!  And she's old enough to be your mother, too!"

Her hand came across his face in a wide, open handed slap before he could dodge.  His eyes still screwed up with the pain of the impact, he heard the door slam.  On the edge of his hearing there was a faint, high sound of mocking laughter.  He thought it might be the fates.

The End