Before Cedric's hand could close with Lucius Malfoy's, six figures stepped through the fuzzy circle of Disillusionment and flashs of red and white blasted wands from hands, freezing all four Death Eaters where they stood.

And that fast, it was over.

Kingsley, Bill, Scott, and Arthur stepped forward to secure the four Deatheaters while Tonks unsealed Hermione's mouth. Hermione dragged in air in great gulps, then said, "Our wands are in Dolohov's cape pocket."

Cedric felt incapable of speech, still paralyzed by the magnitude of what he'd almost done, almost been forced to do. His mother peered into his face. "You're in shock," she said without other greeting. "Wait a moment." And she stepped back through the disillusionment screen, returning immediately with a bemused-looking Helen Granger.

"You just disappeared!" Helen was saying.

"Disillusionment," Lucy explained. "Helen, ring up Charles and tell him to drive home. We need to take the kids to St. Mungo's to have them looked at. I'll have Tonks side-along you, and I'll take Cedric. He's in shock; I don't trust him to Apparate himself." She glanced at Hermione.

"I'm okay; I'll manage. I got my license two weeks ago."

"I can Apparate myself too," Cedric muttered, accepting his wand from Scott. "I'm a big boy."

"Right now," Scott said, "I'd trust Hermione to Apparate more safely than I trust you to."

"Gee, thanks," Cedric snarled.

"I just call 'em, like I see 'em, me."

Dizzy, Cedric swayed on his crutches but before he could argue further, his mother gripped him around the shoulders. He felt the familiar squeeze of Apparation and they popped out in the alley beside St. Mungo's. She knocked on the A&E - accident and emergency - entrance door. Behind them came two more pops as Hermione appeared, then Tonks with Helen, who looked both thoroughly shocked and slightly green. Hermione immediately grabbed her mom. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, my! You travel like that all time? Beam me up, Scotty! No wonder Dr. McCoy hated the transporter."

Hermione was laughing, but Cedric didn't understand the reference. He'd ask later. A mediwitch was letting them into the hospital. She took one look at him and steered him right into a little room not far from the admissions desk used for spell triage before patients were assigned a floor and ward. "You need to lie down." She undid his leg braces and (to his embarrassment) unbuttoned the top of his trousers too. "We don't want anything constricting your blood flow," she explained as she flung blankets over him, then put a pillow under his feet.

"I'm okay!" he protested.

"No, you're not. What spell were you hit by?"

"Nothing! Somebody needs to look over Hermione - my girlfriend. She came in with me. They sealed her mouth so she could breathe only through her nose."

"She'll be examined too, I promise. But your body is clearly reacting to something. Are you sure you weren't hit by a spell?"

"No! No spells."

I just nearly sold my honor for my girlfriend's life, is all. But he didn't say that. Shame sealed his lips.

"Well, it's probably just shock, so let me get a Pepper-Up Potion. That should take care of it quickly enough."

Cedric's mother had entered the small cubicle and now halted the mediwitch. "He and his girlfriend were captured by Death Eaters. Please be certain to run a diagnostic."

"Someone will," the woman said before slipping out.

Cedric was beginning to feel better, not so dizzy and nauseous. He was afraid to look at his mother, but he still had questions. "How did you find us? And know we were in danger?"

"Hermione rang her mother back. It seems that Lucius and Antonin took your wands, but failed to recognize the significance of a bit of Muggle technology. They left her with the mobile phone. She managed to open a . . . a 'line,' Helen called it. We could hear what was going on, so we knew you'd been captured."

They could hear what was going on? So all of them had heard his deal with Lucius Malfoy? They all knew his shame?

His mother was still speaking. "When we reached the hall, Bill was able to locate the disturbance caused by the Disillusionment spell - he's very handy to have about, I must say - so we surrounded you and timed our moment of attack to when they were most distracted. You did a good job of stalling them."

He opened his mouth to say he hadn't been stalling, he'd been serious, then shut it again. He could let her continue to think it had been a sham. She didn't even question whether he'd intended to go through with the vow because, of course, she would've been thinking five steps ahead and was confident others would too.

She Conjured a chair for herself and sat down beside his bed as the mediwitch hustled back in, vial of potion in hand. "Of course, this alters a great deal regarding your status," his mother said even as the mediwitch spoke, "That should do it for you, Mr. Diggory, but one of the Healers will come by to run a precautionary diagnostic, just to be on the safe side. No sense taking chances when Death Eaters are involved." She gave a delicate shudder and handed over the vial, then helped him sit up enough to swallow it.

Wincing as the familiar sense of hot air rushed through him, out his ears and mouth, he did have to admit he felt more clear-headed. The mediwitch helped him lie back down, then disappeared. To his mother, he said, "What are you talking about, 'this alters my status'? We already knew I was a likely target, if hardly Public Enemy Number One for Voldemort."

She glared at him. "Cedric, you do realize the Dark Lord sent two of his highest ranking Death Eaters to kidnap you? No, you may not be considered as dangerous to him as Harry, or Albus - but I dare say you've joined the ranks of his primary targets."

"Everybody's a target, mum!"

"No, they're not."

"I'm not going to quit my job," Cedric warned.

"Nor did I suggest you should," his mother replied with smooth aplomb. "But while the Ministry has been advising for some time that no one travel anywhere alone, it's become especially important for you. Bill will strengthen the protections on your flat, I'm sure, but when he and Fleur move out after the wedding, you shan't be able to keep that flat alone. You must consider a roommate with experience at defensive spell-casting - or move back home."

"I need the electricity in my flat!" Cedric protested. "I'm not moving out!"

"I'll move in with him," said a new voice at the door.

Cedric looked up to find Scott standing there. He looked grim. "I thought you went with Shacklebolt?"

"I did, but only as far as the Ministry atrium. Then Robards took over. I'm just a trainee."

"Patience," Tonks said behind him, patting his shoulder as she looked in the room past his arm. "And at least we got four of them back into custody."

"For how long?" Cedric's mother asked her. "They were all supposed to have been in custody already."

"Well, the Carrows weren't, but Dolohov and Malfoy, yes." Tonks flicked her wand to Muffle their conversation. "Shacklebolt told us last week that he suspected a partial breakout at Azkaban, which Scrimgeour kept mum to reduce panic. Since we picked up both Malfoy and Dolohov, I think that's proof enough Kingsley was right. But since this happened in the Muggle world, I don't expect The Minister will admit to their recapture."

"Who else got away in the prison break do you think?" Cedric asked.

"We've no way of knowing since, officially, they're all still in prison." She made a face.

They stopped talking as a Healer entered - none other than Healer Grant of the floppy blond hair, in fact. "You just can't stay out of trouble, can you?" Grant asked, albeit without much heat. "Well, let's take a look at things, be certain it really was just shock."

"They didn't cast any spells," Cedric told him.

"Not that you heard," Grant pointed out. Hermione had slipped in behind him, although her mother stayed at the door with Scott and Tonks. Even so, four people in the room made the triage cubicle quite crowded. Grant turned to them all. "Out!" he said with a surprising amount of authority. Typically, he came across as the easy-going one when Cedric met with him and Healer Groat, but now he expelled everybody and shut the door, then turned back to Cedric, gliding his wand all along Cedric's body. After a moment, he said, "You look all right. No hidden curses that I can detect."

"I told you - "

"- but," Grant interrupted, "shock might cause the old curse to flare up, so I'm giving you a couple bottles of the higher strength Abdoleo. Take one in place of your regular pain medication tonight, and keep the other in case you need it. Any attacks since December?"


"Good. But that means it's probably getting to be time for one, so I wouldn't be surprised if this brings it on due to stress to the nervous system."

"Lovely," Cedric muttered, letting Grant help him to sit and put back on his leg braces.

Grant handed him the dark blue bottles, then his crutches. "Go home, get some rest, take the potions - and ditch the traveling circus with you. I'm sure they mean well, but right now, your Healer prescribes peace and quiet or you'll have a really nasty attack."

"Tell that to the Aurors."

"I will." He opened the door and shadowed Cedric out. "Take him home," he said to Cedric's mother. "He needs to sleep - and not be disturbed. No debriefings until he's had some rest."

"But - "Tonks said.

"No buts!" Grant told her. He gestured to Hermione. "Interview her, but leave Cedric alone until he's slept. If he hasn't had another attack, then you can interview him."

Tonks - and Scott - appeared annoyed, but Cedric's mother only nodded, as did Helen. "We'll see to it," his mother said. Grant nodded and headed off, leaving them to find their way out.

Hermione had come over to wrap arms around his waist. She still wore the beautiful, beaded dress that had given him naughty thoughts earlier, but now, he couldn't summon the interest, which was pathetic. He wanted comfort not sex, yet felt too humiliated to seek it from Hermione, who'd witnessed the collapse of his courage. How long until everyone knew he hadn't been stalling. He'd been willing to surrender?

Hermione was looking up at him, and he felt her palm on his cheek, angling his face down. 'I'm taking you home,' she mouthed. He started to shake his head, but she ignored that, glancing at Tonks - "I can Floo you in a little while, or Auror Shacklebolt can come to take my statement."

Tonks sighed, but nodded. "Fair enough," she said. "An hour or two won't make much difference."

Hermione's mother and Cedric's seemed half-prepared to intervene, then Cedric could see both draw back, as if realizing their children weren't children. Helen Granger turned to Lucy. "Come back to our place. I'm sure Charles wants to hear what happened." Then Helen turned to Hermione. "Ring us as soon as you get to the flat."

"I will," Hermione said.

"Tonks and me - we'll escort them," Scott told both mothers. "See them right to the door."

"Thank you," Cedric's mother told him. "And you were serious earlier? About moving in - ?"

"Absolutely. I've got an efficiency in Diagon Alley right now. It'll be no trouble to give notice."

"Scott's going to move in with you?" Hermione asked.

Cedric resisted making a face at being protected; he was starting to understand Harry's frustration over such things. "Yes, but not till Bill and Fleur marry and move out." Truth was, he'd need a roommate for purely financial reasons, and it wasn't as if he hadn't shared space with Scott for seven years. It was better than moving back home.

"We'll have a grand time!" Scott said, slapping his shoulder. "Girls! Beer! Quidditch on the Wireless! Muggle pizza!"

Tonks elbowed him. "Auror exams, Cedric's job . . . not to mention his girl."

Cedric didn't miss that she hadn't named herself Scott's girl, even if - effectively - she was. "Ach!" Scott protested. "You're no fun! And you can come over for the pizza and Quidditch."

"Wouldn't miss it, Casanova," Tonks told him, slapping his arse, to his surprise and Hermione's amusement.

They'd made their way out into the alley. Cedric watched as his mother gripped Helen Granger - who squeezed her eyes shut in wary anticipation - then Apparated them both away. He eyed the other three. "I don't need to be side-alonged again," he told them, Disapparating before they could argue, and reappearing behind the white trellis in the back garden. Three pops followed in quick succession.

"You could warn a person!" Scott scolded.

"I did." Well, by implication anyway. Scott and Tonks frowned. "Okay," Cedric said, "We're here. You can go."

"We'll see you into the house," Tonks said, following Cedric and Hermione right up to the back door. Waiting inside, Fleur threw hers arms around Cedric as soon as the door opened.

"You are all right!" she shouted, then moved to hug Hermione too, rather to Hermione's surprise, it looked like.

"Bill didn't send you a message?" Hermione asked.

"Well, yes, but he said you were going to hospital!"

"Just a routine check," Cedric said, glancing around to see Tonks finger wave as Scott drew her away. "I'll talk to one of you and give a statement in the morning," Cedric promised them.

"And I'll Floo later," Hermione called before Fleur closed the door and set the special seals that Bill had put on the door.

"There was news on the Wireless!" Fleur said. "I think the Minister is very glad to be able to claim a victory, even if the attack was unexpected. They said four Death Eaters had been taken into custody!"

"Well, two were taken into custody again," Hermione said, sinking into a chair at the kitchen table. "What he didn't say was that Lucius Malfoy and Antonin Dolohov had escaped from custody in the first place."

"Oh, no!" Fleur said. She went over to start a pot of water for tea while Hermione related what had happened. Too tired, Cedric just seated himself in the other chair. He noted that Hermione skimmed over his offer to Malfoy and he stared at her - hard - but she wouldn't look at him. Was that the way it'd be? He could fuck up, show his yellow belly, and she'd just ignore it?

Rising again, he grabbed his crutches and muttered about needing to use the loo since he hadn't in hours. It was honest enough - he did need to empty his bladder - but he also wanted a moment to himself.

He took his time on the toilet. It seemed an appropriate place to ponder his shame. In a matter of moments he'd seen what he was really made of, and it wasn't pretty. They said every man had a price. The Death Eaters now knew his; he was compromised, even if not literally so. And yet, if he'd been willing to maintain principles at the cost of another human being's torture - anyone's, not just Hermione's - what sort of heartless monster would that make him?

Nonetheless, fear had motivated his choice back at the festival hall: fear for Hermione, and a little for himself. When it came down to it, he wasn't really brave. He'd seen that at the end of his sixth year in the maze. Fear had become aggression against his rival, a boy three years younger than him. Fear had sent him back with the portkey too, not just common sense. He'd brought help, and he'd returned, but he hadn't stood his ground the first time. And if he had stood up to Umbridge and Fudge, taking the fall for his mistake and sparing Hermione, it hadn't really cost him anything. Even at the time, deep down, he'd known it. Expulsion would hardly have been the end of the line for a former Headboy and Triwizard Champion, especially not given the circumstances. He hadn't been caught doing something that called his honor into question. Most people knew he'd been canoodling his long-time girlfriend. It was a black mark on paper only - as Scrimgeour's eagerness to add him to the Minister's personal staff had made clear.

No, Cedric's cowardice was reserved for things that mattered, unfortunately, like life and death. Bowed over, head in hands, he didn't move until he heard a tap on the door. "Did you drown?" Hermione asked on the other side.

"I wish," he muttered back, then said more loudly, "No. Be out in a moment."

He cleaned up and washed his hands before opening the door. Hermione was still on the other side, waiting. Her face appeared concerned. "I should give you your potion and put you to bed, but you have a guest. I reckoned I shouldn't turn him away."

Cedric had a hunch who'd come even before Hermione led him into the living room where Dumbledore was having tea with Fleur. "Cedric," Dumbledore said, nodding to him, "I do understand your Healer wanted you to rest immediately, but I wondered if I might have a word first? I promise not to keep you long, nor stress your nerves as Auror Robards might." He winked.

"Of course, professor." Cedric settled into a chair near the couch where Dumbledore sat.

Dumbledore had turned to Fleur. "It was lovely to see you again, Fleur. And Hermione, I think that, under the circumstances - and before you ask -" his grin was impish, "it would be a good idea for you to spend the weekend here. I trust, given your reputation, that completing your homework won't be an issue, so we'll expect you back at the castle Sunday afternoon. You can use Professor McGonagall's fireplace."

"Thank you, professor," Hermione said, blushing.

"Why don't you help Fleur in the kitchen?" Dumbledore suggested - a clear dismissal and hint that he wanted to talk to Cedric privately. With a glance at each other, both young women disappeared back down the hall towards the kitchen-dining area at the rear of the flat. It was far enough away that whatever Dumbledore said to Cedric couldn't be overheard.

Setting aside his teacup, Dumbledore leaned forward and studied Cedric's face. Cedric had a hard time meeting his eyes. "There is no shame in love, Cedric," Dumbledore said. "Ironically, Harry and I just had this conversation - the power of love. Voldemort tries to use it against his enemies, but he doesn't truly understand it."

"I was going to - "

"Of course you were," Dumbledore said, cutting him off. "You were backed into a corner. You might, perhaps, learn from the situation that your fellows in the Order can be counted on more than you realized, but whatever your desperation, you did effectively stall Lucius long enough for help to reach you. Don't discount that."

"Harry would have figured out a way - "

"Harry wasn't there. You were. We're not discussing Mr. Potter. We're discussing you. Each individual brings his own gifts and talents to the table. Yours aren't the same as Harry's. That is a good thing - as we saw last year. Had it been only Harry left to defy Madam Umbridge, I'm not sure things would have gone quite as well. Likewise, if it had been only you, Harry's fighting force might never have been created. Learn to rely on the strengths of others - but don't diminish your own."

"I wasn't brave," Cedric whispered, cut by Dumbledore's words so that the poison leaked out.

"Bravery is sometimes foolish. You weren't a coward, either, Cedric. The hat saw truly when it placed you in Hufflepuff. You are steadfast in your loyalty. Yes, perhaps sometimes you would do well to trust yourself a little more, put yourself forward without fear of arrogance. There is a difference between confidence and boasting, yet your very humility is part of why others do trust you, and you don't let them down. So no, you didn't respond the way Harry might have, nor the way your mother might have" - Dumbledore must have plucked that out of Cedric's own mind - "you responded the way Cedric would respond. And there is nothing wrong with that."

Dumbledore stood abruptly. "I wish I could stay longer, but I fear I must get back to the school. Get some rest, Cedric."

Cedric stood as well, trusting his weight to one crutch in order to offer the headmaster his hand. "Thank you for coming at all. You didn't have to, sir, but I appreciate it."

"Harry needs his paladin - one not incapacitated by guilt." Dumbledore winked as he shook Cedric's hand with his good one, then took his cloak from the front rack and swung it around himself as Cedric moved to see him out. "No, don't trouble yourself. I believe the soon-to-be Mrs. Weasley may have another muffin in the kitchen for me if I take the back door, and Miss Granger has been haunting the end of the hallway so that she can come and tuck you in. Good night, Cedric." He started to leave, then paused and looked back. "Oh, tell Miss Granger that you have my permission for her to explain what Harry and I learned from Professor Slughorn's memory - but it is something that you must keep in the absolute strictest confidence. I trust your discretion." Dumbledore's blue eyes were very serious. Cedric only nodded.

A few seconds later, Hermione appeared in the living room, indigo bottle of Abdoleo in her hand. "Bed," she said as if he were an errant three-year-old. When they married (to his mind, there was no 'if'), he knew which of them would be the disciplinarian. Obediently he headed for his room and she followed, handing over the bottle when he'd reached his bed and sat down.

"Dumbledore said you can tell me whatever Harry found in that memory of Slughorn's."

"I heard. Drink the potion, Cedric. I'll tell you tomorrow."

"How much else did you hear?"

She paused, then admitted, "Some of it. He's right, you know. You're not Harry, and I don't want you to be."

"I was going to - "

"I know," she cut him off. "And I can't say - if our positions had been reversed - that I wouldn't have done the same thing. And to be honest, so would Harry, if pushed to the wall. Look what he did last year to save Sirius and he didn't even know for sure that Vol-Voldemort had him. We're not professional Aurors who signed on for this, and it's easier to sacrifice ourselves than somebody we love. And" - she took a breath, then blurted out - "if you're ashamed of offering that vow, then . . . then I'm ashamed that I'm, ah, relieved you were going to." She hung her head and her voice broke. "See? I'm not brave either. I wouldn't have blamed you if you hadn't; I didn't want you to compromise yourself. But I'm . . . not good with pain. I'm not as brave as you think I am, Cedric."

Her words shocked him with their raw honesty. Reaching out, he grabbed her hand and pulled her to him, holding her between his knees. "Thank you," was all he said, laying his head against her chest. He could have said a lot more, but those two words encompassed everything, really.

Hermione should have known that after everything they'd been through, Cedric would suffer an attack - and he did. By dawn, and despite the stronger medication, he was twisting on his sheets, moaning in pain. She gave him the next dose of the stronger Abdoleo and Flooed Healer Grant to ask for a third. She'd spoken to Tonks the night before, giving her version of events, but when Tonks came by at noon to interview Cedric, he was drugged into unconsciousness.

While she waited for Cedric to wake, Hermione mulled over the previous night's events. She'd been in life-and-death situations before with Harry and Ron - and was certain she'd be in them again - but she'd got used to escaping by the skin of their teeth. She'd almost come to expect it, seeing Harry as some sort of rabbit's foot. After all, he was the boy who lived . . . and lived, and lived, in the face of impossible odds. Yet if she'd escaped yet again last night, the fact Harry hadn't been involved had brought her face-to-face with the fact a time might come when she wouldn't escape. After all, luck did run out.

Yet she found herself much more frightened by the prospect of losing Cedric than of losing her own life. She didn't know what she'd do without him, and if she'd had any doubts that she really did love him, last night had extinguished them.

He slept through all of Friday, not waking until Saturday, mid-morning. He was weak, and still depressed, but in a better frame of mind, she thought. They discussed horcruxes. He knew no more about the matter than she had, although he thought his mother might recognize the term. Unfortunately, Dumbledore had forbid the trio to discuss it with anyone else besides Cedric. "It's not a matter of trust," she said, when Cedric somewhat indignantly suggested that Dumbledore still didn't fully trust Slytherins, even his mother. "I think it's a matter of fear that an older Order member might fall into Voldemort's hands and he'd use his powers as a Legilimens to take out of their minds what we know or don't know about the Horcruxes."

"Why couldn't he use the same method on you, me, Harry, or Ron if we were captured?"

"Because Voldemort doesn't believe we would know. He doesn't give us that much credit. We're just children, after all." At Cedric's somewhat wounded expression, she said, "I'm sorry, love. I know you're an adult now, but - "

He waved away her apologies. "No, you're right. To him, I'm still unimportant. He sent his Death Eaters after me not because he sees me as a threat, but because I embody everything he hates." His face was grim. "He's very blinkered, though. He only grants respect - and fear - to those he considers dangerous by his criteria."

Hermione nodded. "And that's how we'll defeat him in the end. He overlooks people and things he doesn't believe matter."

"Like Lucius overlooked your cell phone because Muggle technology doesn't count for much with them. That was very clever, by the way," he told her, making her grin and blush. "But I think it's also why he - or anybody with attitudes like his - are doomed to fail. They get so drunk on power, they assume they're unstoppable and the minute that happens, they become stoppable. A little fear is a good thing." Sighing, he leaned his head back against the rear of the chair where he was sitting in the living room. "I should have remembered that Thursday night. I'm not sure I was cocky so much as . . . underestimating things. Moody's 'Be ever vigilant' is looking more sensible by the day."

Hermione could only agree. "What's the old saying? It's only paranoia if they're not out to get you."

That made him smile, but he was also looking tired again so Hermione retreated to the kitchen where she could study, and let him nap. A little to her surprise, Fleur came in and asked if she could help. "Er, well, ah - how much do you know about Runes?"

"Oh!" Fleur said, looking delighted. "Quite a lot! It is translation that interests me most! That is how I met Bill - or at least, it is how we got to know each other at the bank. We worked on translations together!"

Hermione was somewhat skeptical of Fleur's claims . . . until they started translating. Then her respect for the Fleur skyrocketed. Bill's fiancee wasn't just tolerable at Runes, she was as skilled in that field as Hermione was becoming at Arithmancy, and Hermione got a very profitable two hours of work out of it. Then the two of them prepared dinner together. Perhaps Hermione had misjudged Fleur a bit; Bill had seen more in her than her Veela charms.

They'd almost finished slicing vegetable for a casserole when Bill's perimeter alarms went off with a low buzzing all through the house. It meant an unknown witch or wizard had approached, but a low buzz indicated only the presence of magic in a person not already known to the wards. If that person bore a miasma of Dark Magic, the alarms would be blaring not buzzing, giving all of them time to Apparate to safety.

Hermione hurried down the hallway, Fleur behind her, even as Cedric was struggling up from his nap and onto his feet. All three had their wands out as a precaution when the front doorbell rang. It didn't seem like a Death Eater trick to ring the doorbell, but who knew? Hermione peeked out.

All she could see was a chest. A big chest. Then whoever it was stepped back and she was looking at one of the largest men she'd ever seen, not counting Hagrid. She didn't know what he was, except not British. "Uh. It's some guy. He's . . . big? I don't recognize him. Fleur?"

She let Fleur peek, but the other woman only shook her head. "I have never seen him before."

The doorbell rang again and whoever it was knocked too, clearly impatient. "Hey! Anybody at home in there?"

The accent was distinctly North American.

Behind Fleur and Hermione, Cedric made a shocked sound, then called back, "Beindigain!" The locks all unfastened with a swish of his hand and the door opened inward.

The man on the other side laughed. "Misakakojiishag Ayaawag! Boozhoo!"

Bemused, Hermione looked from him to Cedric, who was on his crutches and grinning as if Christmas had come early. The stranger breezed in, hugging Cedric with much back-slapping, half lifting him off the ground, heedless of his crutches. "Who is that?" Fleur whispered to Hermione.

"I have no earthly idea," Hermione replied. Although she might - just might - have an inkling.

"Put me down, you big oaf!" Cedric was saying - and it was really rather amusing to see him manhandled by someone taller than he was. Then, still looking wildly happy, he turned to Hermione and Fleur. "This is Jeff Whitecalf!"

"Who?" Hermione and Fleur said together.

"My friend Jeff. One of Ed Whitecalf's sons. Ed was the middle son of Leonard Whitecalf - the man who gave me that eagle feather, and changed my life. They're Lake Wabigoon Ojibway."

Hermione recognized the family name, certainly, and she'd seen pictures of Jeff too - but a fourteen-year-old Jeff with his arm around the shoulders of a twelve-year-old Cedric holding a basketball, both waving into a magical camera. He'd been a cute, skinny kid with crooked teeth, glasses and long black hair.

The only thing he still shared with that old picture was the long black hair. It easily reached the small of his back. Now, he topped Cedric by three or four inches, and probably outweighed him by four stone. His face showed the ravages of acne - not something wizards usually suffered - but his teeth were straight, if yellowed from coffee or tobacco, or both. He was dressed simply in denim and flannel, a baseball cap on his head.

"This is Hermione," Cedric told him, pointing to her and not adding anything else, which suggested Jeff already knew exactly who she was, then he indicated Fleur. "And that's Fleur Delacour, soon to be Weasley, Bill Weasley's fiancee and one of my roommates."

Jeff held out a hand to them both in turn and Hermione shook it. His palm was large, calloused, and warm, and if he suffered the usual visceral male reaction to Fleur, he didn't show it - which was very strange.

"Get your stuff! Come in!" Cedric said, pulling his wand to wave in Jeff's duffle bag. Jeff stepped back through the door to grab a big stick he'd leaned against the outside wall - or not a stick, a staff. It was curved at the top with various feathers, fur, and other things tied to it. If the rest of him gave no hint of his origins, the staff was clearly another matter.

"How did you get that through customs?" Hermione asked.

"I have a special permit and letters from both my tribe and the Canadian government. It's a sacred object. I think it caused more trouble on the plane for trying to figure out where to put it - something like this can't be checked - than it caused in the customs line."

Fascinated, Hermione studied the staff that was taller than she was. The top curled into a loop decorated by some feathers and fur, and a piece of red, circular cloth like a banner strung tight with more feathers tied all along the outer length of the staff. The red cloth had been subdivided evenly by an X with each of the four sections painted a different color: white, black, red and yellow.

"May I . . . touch it?" Hermione asked.

Jeff elbowed Cedric. "She wants to touch it. Whaddaya think?"

"I think your mind is perpetually in the gutter," Cedric shot back.

Hermione could feel her cheeks flame even as Fleur let out a delighted peal of laughter and closed the front door. "I meant the stick," Hermione clarified.

"She meant the stick," Jeff echoed with a mock-serious face.

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Hermione exclaimed as Fleur and Cedric both laughed too hard to comment. "You" - Hermione pointed at Jeff - "are cheeky! You don't even know me!"

He was chuckling now too. "Oh, I know you. I've never met you, but I know you pretty damn well from this dude's letters." Abruptly, he grew serious. "But yes, you can touch the staff, just show it respect. I was given this to carry by my people. My dad presented it to me. Only a vet is allowed to carry an eagle staff. I served two years in Bosnia-Herzogovenia as a medic with the CF - Canadian Force - for UN peace-keeping. I have an otter skin wrapped around the top of the pole" - he pointed to it - "to indicate my service was in Medicine."

He looked at Cedric and there was no humor at all in his face now. "I carry this for my people, brother. They've sent me with their blessing to fight for you. Mi-geing!"

"Mi-geing," Cedric echoed. His eyes were suspiciously red, which shocked Hermione a little. He never cried, or almost never.

Abruptly, Jeff gave that wild grin again. "So let's see what your Foldemort makes of the Bear's Child."

"Voldemort," Cedric corrected, but the corner of his mouth twisted up. "The real question is, did you get permission to teach us your Medicine?"

"Yeah," Jeff said. "Yeah, I did. At least some of it."

Cedric dropped his head, as if in relief. He was smiling. "We should Floo Tonks and Kingsley. They'll want to meet you. They probably want to talk to me too, about Thursday night."

"What happened Thursday night?" Jeff asked, frowning.

"I'll explain in a minute." He turned to Fleur. "Can we get some spare sheets on the couch for Jeff?"

Fleur was looking Jeff up and down. "You are assuming he will fit on the couch, Cederic."

"I'm used to sleeping with my feet off the end," Jeff told her.

An hour and a half later, Hermione, Cedric, and Fleur, plus their unexpected guest, were seated at an enlarged version of their eat-in kitchen table, along with Tonks, Moody, Shacklebolt, and Remus Lupin. Scott was apparently in classes and couldn't wiggle out of them. Bill came home only a little after to join the soiree.

Jeff's presence was welcome more for its symbolism and the knowledge he brought than because he represented the Canadian cavalry riding over the hill. Their brother wizards across the Pond hadn't forgotten them, even if it wasn't the official Canadian Ministry of Magic. Jeff could still share wards, disillusionment spells, and healing medicine the Death Eaters would never have seen before. And if his knowledge didn't lean much to offensive spells, a good defense still saved lives, and Hermione was all for that.

She'd also have loved to be a fly on the wall Monday morning when Cedric took Jeff Whitecalf - eagle staff and all - to meet the Minister of Magic. Unfortunately, she was due back at Hogwarts on Sunday, and no sooner was she back than she was drawn back into Harry's paranoia about Draco Malfoy, and whatever Harry thought Malfoy might be plotting.

Notes: Regarding Jeff's eagle staff - you'll often see these in Grand Entry processions and/or during the Veterans Honoring Song at pow-wows. Only a veteran is supposed to carry one, and it's a great honor to be asked. The Warrior Tradition is alive and well in Indian Country. They come in a wide variety, and each is unique. FF-net won't permit links, but if curious, you can Google "eagle staff" and "Native American" to see images. Incidently, a man OR woman can carry one, there are no gender restrictions as long as the person is a vet. Some traditions get a little squirrelly about it, but many don't. Eagle staves require special handling both because of their unique religious status but also because ceremonial eagle feathers aren't supposed to touch the ground. That's what Jeff means by having to carry it on the plane, and having difficulty stowing it. In any case, the staff is not only to be carried by a warrior, but it's also considered a "flag" for the people.

Dulce's intended ending:

As I've explained in a variety of places, I've retiring from fanfic, although my fiction won't disappear from all archives. A number of reasons led to a decision to bow out, at least for now, and aren't pertinent here. Dulce was all but complete, and certainly all the truly original (non-canon) matters have been covered and resolved/(introduced). The last two chapters would simply have detailed the battle at Hogwarts from the point of view of Hermione, as well as Dumbledore's funeral through Cedric's eyes. Essential events wouldn't have changed - Dumbledore still dies, Snape still kills him, and Draco Malfoy still escapes with Snape. Harry still has the locket, which turns out to be a fake.

The only significant difference in this version is that Jeff (and Scott) will fight with the relief force of Aurors, and the Carrows wouldn't be present. Jeff has a unique ability. He's also a shape-changer, but out of a different tradition. He calls himself the "Bear's Child." When he transforms, he becomes a giant grizzly. His presence at the battle will alter the outcome with Bill. He takes on Greyback, preventing Bill from being mauled quite so badly. Bill is still scratched, mind, but not as much, and Greyback is seriously hurt, although he survives. Greyback's scratches have no effect on Jeff.

Also of note - unlike in the Battle at the Ministry - Cedric does not go with the Aurors to Hogwarts Castle. He waits. He's learned to recognize his realistic limits, and that means not trying to fight unless he has to.

Once upon a time, I had delusions (*grin*) of carrying the story all the way to the end of book 7, but that would require a time commitment that I just don't have. I'd wanted to show the war from the OTHER side ... those who (like Cedric) didn't go with the trio but had to watch and wait and wonder what Harry was up to. Was the Boy who Lived still alive? Cedric would become part of Lee and the Weasley twins' Underground Radio, so it would have shown a slightly different aspect of the war.

The biggest change I'd have introduced would simply be the knowledge brought by non-British wizards. While I understand JKR's choice to focus on British magic, I've always wanted to give a sense of the wider magical world - so there's India-Indian magic (thanks to the Patil twins' brother Anu), Romany (Gypsy) magic (via friends of Viktor), Native American magic (from Jeff), Jewish magic (remember little Rose Zeller?), and Chinese magic (thanks to Cho). It becomes a greater world endeavor, and at the end, new respect is forged between these different magical traditions.

The final battleat Hogwarts would have turned out much like it does in the books. The goal of this novel has always been "parallel canon" - to show events from a different prespective ... which in turn grants a different view of the same events. I've attempted to change very little. The only intended addition to the last book that would (of necessity) have been different from JKR's is the fate of Cedric's mother. Lucy Diggory would have been taken captive sometime during the purges (before the final battle but after Harry and company arrived at Malfoy Manor). There, she would have significant interaction with Narcissa Malfoy, which would help to explain Narcissa's assistance to Harry (beyond just sympathy and concern for Draco). In the end, however, Lucy would have been murdered by Voldemort. (Sorry, Lucy fans.) Lucy and Scott Summers have been my favorite original characters from this series, so it wasn't without due thought that I decided to kill her off. Also, yes, Scott and Tonks would eventually have formed a real relationship, which means no, Tonks did not marry Remus Lupin. Tonks would also survive the final battle to marry Scott. So a trade-off ... Tonks for Lucy.

After the war, Cedric will go on to become one of Shacklebolt's most trusted junior advisors, and eventually fulfills his wish to become the Ministry's ambassador to Canada and to Canada's First Nations. Hermione will work for the Ministry forming more just legislation regarding the status of Magical Creatures. They have three children: Gwynn, Ian, and Isabelle. Gwynn becomes a Healer, but one with Muggle training in medical school as well as lessons from his Uncle Jeff in native healing (Jeff, who you met in this chapter). You can catch a little view of their future in "I Hope You Dance," if you've not read it already. (There's also a slightly naughty little piece called "Yellow Plastic," but it's rated quite adult.)

As I said at the outset, I've retired from fanfiction. But I do still read the reviews, even if I rarely respond.

Thanks to my readers for coming along with me on this lengthy AU ride. It's been fun, letting Cedric survive and seeing how that might change things, while still keeping the plot (mostly) the same.

As my son would say ... "Peace out." :-)