A person could live a lifetime in the seconds waiting to die. Many times in her life Hermione heard about someone who had a near-death experience talk about how there was enough time to witness their entire life flash before their eyes. They remembered every important milestone, every face of every loved one, every moment that made them smile. It was a comforting thought to someone who was always in danger of death. Somehow it made the prospect of facing down a painful death less frightening. Though she'd been very close to dying before, she never recalled having a similar experience.
Watching the bright green light of Draco's spell racing towards her chest was different than all of the other times. For the first time, she actually understood what those people were saying. Flashes of memories appeared in slow motion inside her mind. Entirely without color and eerie to view, they weren't the sorts of memories she would've expected to have. They weren't the happy times in her life that seemed to be so few and far between. She didn't relive the day Professor McGonagall showed up at her parents' house to explain that she was a witch and was invited to attend Hogwarts. Nor did she recall the first time that Viktor Krum stole a kiss from her in the library during her fourth year. Happiness was not a central theme in the memories she dwelled on in that critical time.
She remembered only her regrets. Perhaps because there were so many more of them than there were happy moments. Her inability to save Harry that horrible day during the Battle. Stripping the memories of her away from her parents. Attacking Ron with those damned birds instead of telling him why she was really upset. Killing Oliver Wood. Laughing in her husband's face when she was being cruel. The expression of sheer terror on her son's face when she walked into the room. Watching Ginny Weasley crumble to the floor dead because she was too afraid to tell her husband the truth about his daughter. There were countless more, each one seemingly worse than the one before. Forced to view them all over again, Hermione felt an overwhelming sadness that she wouldn't have the chance to make up for them or try again. Her life had been one big waste of time. It wasn't exactly what one would wish to discover at the very end.
But at least she knew she wouldn't regret the last moment. Protecting her child from a madman's curse was the least she could do. Without her body as a vessel for Bellatrix, Rodolphus couldn't continue with his plan immediately. He would have to find some other poor soul to torture. While she feared that with her death, there would be no one left to protect the children she was leaving behind from further attacks, she had to be hopeful that Fred was able to find help. Maybe some of the professors in the school were still there for the holidays. She couldn't imagine Minerva McGonagall would allow anyone to murder two innocent children when she had the power to stop them. Rubeus Hagrid was formidable too. Most were quick to disregard him as stupid or unimportant because of his expulsion from Hogwarts and the fact that he had giant blood. Hermione knew that he would do everything in his power to protect those he knew were weaker. His generous and loving heart had always been the greatest part of him. He could see beauty and warmth in creatures others could only see terror and pain and ugliness. She wished she could've been more like him. And Temeritus Mulciber must've been there somewhere. Hadn't he promised that he would protect all children at Hogwarts? Someone would show up when she was dead to take care of the children, to take them back to their worried father.
There was nothing to fear about death. If Hermione was truly honest with herself, she would admit that she feared living much more than she feared dying. Others she knew had eventually come to that conclusion right before they died. She would never forget the resignation in both Rabastan and Ginny when they no longer had any fight left in them. Each of them chose to die because they no longer had the strength to keep living. Hermione understood their reasons even if she was struggling to feel the same way herself. In many ways it felt like she'd only recently begun living for the first time in thirty-nine years. How tragic to die before she was ready. Living might have been scary, but she wasn't Sorted into Gryffindor for nothing.
A shout of desperation filled Hermione's ears. She wasn't sure where it was coming from. Her focus was on her regrets, leaving little opportunity for anything else. Draco wasn't standing very far from her. It shouldn't have taken that long for his curse to reach its mark. Time didn't have much meaning. She stared at the green light, waiting for it to kill. At least she could be thankful that her death wouldn't be the painful, lingering one she deserved.
Except the light never struck her. Nor did it hit Oliver or his little sister he was shielding with his own body. A black shadow moved in front of her body absorbing the killing curse. Unable to understand what was happening, a sharp pain like she'd never experienced in her entire life exploded in her head. Worse than every single time someone ripped through her mind, she worried that her head would split into two pieces. Unable to focus on anything else, she fell to the stone floor of the Great Hall holding her head between her hands, begging whatever deities would listen to deliver her from the unimaginable pain.
She thought she would be dead when she opened her eyes again. How could a body go through that much pain without succumbing? Or their heart stopping? Unsure what she would see, Hermione ignored the steady throbbing in her ears to look around. She almost shouted when she stared into the wide, unblinking light green eyes that belonged to Rodolphus. Laid out on the floor, unmoving, she knew without question that he was dead. Had he been the black shadow she saw? It was the only explanation that made any sense at all. They were all standing so close together. The moment he realized that she was going to sacrifice herself to save her son, Rodolphus tried to pull her away. In his desperation and his insanity, he moved into the path of the curse and shielded her instead. Though it wasn't his intention, he'd saved them all with his last few seconds of life.
Furious that his plan didn't work, Hermione heard Draco's voice shout out more curses. None of them made their mark. Thanks to Rodolphus' sacrifice, they were safe. It wasn't done out of love like Lily Potter or even like her son Harry when he marched into the Forbidden Forest towards his certain death to protect everyone else, but it worked nonetheless. With the pain more manageable, she could think clearly again. As she scrambled to try to find Rodolphus' wand to use against Draco, she could hear a wavering shout just behind her. Unable to make out the exact words, she didn't have any trouble understanding the scream of pain that followed.
She had to forget about herself. It was critical that she get up off the floor to fight and protect the children in her care. Sheer determination was what enabled her to locate Rodolphus' wand. Moments after his death it rolled out of his hand and several steps from his cooling body. Not caring that she was showing no respect to the dead, Hermione crawled over him to reach it. Another wavering shout and then a second scream of pain gave her the boost she needed to make it to her feet.
Oliver was still standing. Though his hand was trembling and his wand wasn't steady, he was alive and whole. Maisie clung to his pajamas, terrified to let go for even a moment. If her children were all right, who screamed? She rushed to Oliver's side where he still had his wand concentrated at a spot on the floor. Draco lay in a growing puddle of blood, clutching his mangled wand arm to his chest.
"Ollie, what did you do?"
"I… all I could think of was a severing charm."
Both of the evil wizards intent on destroying her family hadn't even considered the possibility that her young son could be any sort of threat. Neither of them bothered to disarm the boy, confident in their own power to not even worry. Wasn't that the sort of arrogance that almost killed the Dark Lord each time he faced Harry?
Draco's right arm was missing a hand. A second look revealed that the second shout she heard was Oliver repeating the action on his left. Without hands to hold his wand, he was unable to keep hurling curses in their direction hoping that one of them would eventually hit. It had been brave of Oliver to face down a wizard more than three times his age with a great deal more experience. She was proud of him and encouraged by the fact that he didn't even try to kill Draco. All he desired was to stop him. Already Oliver was a much better human being than his parents. They had a lot to learn from him. For the first time in a very long time, Hermione actually began to believe that they might even have the chance.
But, they needed to get rid of the last of their hindrances to a happy future first. Rodolphus was no longer a concern, but Draco made it clear that he wouldn't stop until his enemies were all taken care of. Considering he tried to kill her son, Hermione would show the bastard no mercy.
"Ollie, step back. You don't need to see this. Cover your sister's eyes and close yours."
She wasn't sure if her son followed her directions. It didn't matter that much in the grand scheme of things. Hadn't he already been a witness to some truly horrific shite that night? Stepping closer to the wizard writhing on the ground in pain, she was tempted at first to just kill him in a painful explosion of viscera and blood. His death deserved to be painful after what he'd done to her family, what he'd done to her. When he looked up to see her standing over him, Draco had the audacity to smile through the pain.
"Your son was a surprise. Too bad I missed him with my avada."
"I seem to remember you claiming once that you'd never killed a person before. You seemed awfully confident in that curse for someone who had never used it before."
His smile turned to a pained chuckle. Given proper medical attention, he would survive and even have the chance to have his hands reattached to his arms. It was a shame for him that Hermione had no intention of allowing him to breathe again outside of the Great Hall. He would fall in the same place his aunt did over twenty years earlier.
"If you believed that rubbish when I told you, then you're just as insane as Roddy."
She wouldn't allow another one of his insults to get to her again. There would not be another second in his soon-to-be over lifetime that she would give him power over her again.
"You're pathetic, Draco."
"Oh, I'm pathetic?" Another laugh turned into a groan, but he didn't stop. "The real pathetic one is lying over there dead. He was so easy to manipulate. He'd do anything I told him to do just as long as I convinced him that he was the one who came up with the idea in the first place. What happens when he tries to make his own decisions? He ends up dead. Crazy, old fool."
Even in the midst of his pain he had to have the final word. She pointed Rodolphus' wand at him, reveling in the fear she could see in his eyes. Living on the outskirts of the violence meant that he wasn't seasoned and prepared to face it himself.
The flesh in his neck opened up in a wide gash. His grey eyes were unblinking as he truly understood the danger he was in. Dark, red blood sprayed over the immediate area. Mere seconds passed that must've felt like a lifetime to Draco before he finally stopped moving. A quiet gasp next to Hermione reminded her that she wasn't alone.
"Ollie, you shouldn't look."
It pained her that there was no way to shield her son from her sins any longer. Beyond hearing what awful deeds she'd committed from the two men dead on the floor, he'd actually watched her at work. Would he ever be able to look at her the same way again? Hermione was afraid to meet her son's eyes. Forcing him to look away from bloody corpse, she was relieved when she saw something akin to pride on his face. She'd protected them and been unafraid to do what was required. Oliver threw his arms around his mother. Muttering to him that they were all going to be all right, Hermione began to actually feel it herself.
A heavy slam of the doors to the Great Halls being violently pushed open made them all jump. Initially afraid that it was Rodolphus' allies come to finish what he started or maybe friends of Draco's to kill them all, Hermione had never been happier to see her husband. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she watched a motley rescue team of wizards run inside. Antonin was in front with Thorfinn only steps behind. Alain and Kingsley were next followed by Lee and Augustus. Fenrir was alone in his entrance, but still very much a part of the group. Finally, an ashamed looking Temeritus slinked in after the other men. Never had she been more thankful for the powerful men in her life.
Antonin sped up his steps at the sound of his son's cry. The moment he was close enough, he kissed Hermione and pulled both his wife and his son into his arms. There were tears rolling down his cheeks that he didn't even bother to wipe away. Hermione suspected that he wasn't the only one experiencing the same. Part of her had been so afraid that she would never see him again, that she would never see any of them again. Never had she been so glad to be proven wrong.
"Rodolphus had Temeritus under a pretty damned good Imperius Curse. When it lifted, he was able to lift the wards surrounding the castle to let us in."
"You mean, you couldn't bring them down yourself?"
She couldn't resist taking a moment to tease her husband. Far from being offended, he laughed.
"Believe me, I was trying."
In all of the initial excitement of the doors opening, Hermione forgot one very important fact that her husband needed to be aware of. Before she could tell him, little Maisie poked her head out from her hiding place behind Oliver. She still held the fabric of his pajamas tightly in her tiny hands.
"Are you my papa too?"
Antonin's eyes widened in shock at the sound of her voice. The tears that had abated were beginning to fill up his eyes again. Releasing his hold on Oliver and Hermione, he dropped to his knees to be on the same level as his daughter. He seemed unsure what to do next, what to say, how to act.
"Yes, I'm your papa too, Maisie."
"My mummy showed me a picture of you. Said we'd be a family one day."
His arms opened timidly. No one knew if she would accept him right away. Maisie didn't hesitate to walk towards him and put her tiny arms around his neck. After what had to have been a tremendously trying and terrifying night for the little girl, she could see safety and security with her father even if she had never met him before that moment. Perhaps it was the kindness in his eyes that looked just like hers. It didn't really matter. He hugged her tightly against him, unashamed of the emotion he was showing so openly. Several moments passed before he stood up again with his daughter still in his arms. Content that she was finally safe and likely exhausted, she laid her head down on his shoulder. Hermione thought she might burst into tears herself at the trust that was so evident from the very start.
There was a lot to explain. No one mourned the loss of the two men lying on the stone floor. Beyond Draco's parents, there was likely to be no one who mourned either of them. They'd made their choices and their mistakes.
It warmed Hermione's heart to see the men gathered around them in the Great Hall. Each one of them cared deeply enough for her to risk their lives to come to her aid. Well, all of them except Temeritus Mulciber who made his excuses to slip back out of the room the first chance he could. Somehow she didn't get the feeling that he would ever try to proposition her again. Being in Rodolphus' thrall had to have been humiliating for the proud man. He wouldn't want a reminder of his shame.
One face was missing from the small group. As much as she was scared to know the truth, she knew she had to ask. Turning to Alain who was only a couple of steps away, Hermione lowered her voice. She didn't want her son to hear her concerns just yet.
"Where's Alexandre? The last I saw him he'd been hurt. Is he..?"
She nodded. With such a solemn expression on his face, she was certain that Alain was about to inform her of the worst. When he smiled moments later, she relaxed.
"Alex has a nasty bump on his head, but nothing the good Healer Jordan couldn't take care of. He's recuperating in Gus' littlest bedroom with sweet Rosalind fussing and fretting over him."
Alain caught his older brother's eye and both men smirked. It was impossible to miss. She also wasn't going to just let it pass by without an explanation.
"What's that about?"
"Seems our little brother has finally met a witch outside of one of his books that he finds fascinating."
"I still say that he's too old for her."
"Ach, you worry too much, Gus. Our Alex is so shy that by the time he finally works up the courage to do anything about his feelings, sweet Rosalind will be a grandmother."
It was the perfect opportunity for them all to laugh at Alain's joke. The tension that hung over everyone since the whole horrible ordeal began disappeared. Despite the violence that had taken place in that very room only a short time before, life still continued to go on. People would continue to fall in love, get married, raise their families, and all of the millions of other little moments that made up a lifetime. Hermione slid her arm around Antonin's waist and reached for Oliver's hand. Never did she expect to have the opportunity to start over again. It was a gift that she was determined she would not take for granted.
Three months later…
A loud clattering woke Hermione out of a sound sleep. Annoyed because she was just getting to the really interesting part of her dream, she instantly feared that something terrible was happening. An instinct left over from a life filled with violence and intrigue and countless false friends ready with a knife to push into the backs of anyone that would get them the least bit of influence, she had a tendency to jump straight to the worst-case scenario. Instead of recognizing the innocent sound of a pan being dropped on the kitchen floor, she was reaching for her wand. She might have jumped out of bed too if an amused Antonin didn't stop her. Clearly he'd been awake listening to the sounds too. If he wasn't filled with dread and ready to curse someone in the face, she wouldn't worry about it either.
"Ollie's trying to make us breakfast and Maisie asked if she could help."
Hermione chuckled with her husband, glad to be a part of such an innocent moment. Another pan crashed to the tiled floor. Oliver's worried voice was easy to hear.
"Careful, Maisie. You'll wake Papa and Mum up."
Antonin smiled at her teasing remark. Leaning across their bed, he kissed her gently. It was how he greeted her every morning since they were reunited in the Great Hall. Far from getting tired of it, she hoped that she had a lifetime ahead to look forward to more of the same. She stretched her stiff limbs. Her new life meant that she was never very eager to climb out of bed. Once she fantasized about a life where she could sleep until she was no longer tired. Three months after that horrible night in the castle, she began to believe that it was possible.
The sounds of the crashing waves and the sea birds squawking through their open bedroom window brought her an immense sense of peace. Hermione could always smell the ocean, something that she hadn't realized brought her comfort until the weeks they spent in Cornwall in hiding. As soon as they were able, after all of the statements had been made and they were all checked by Sarah to make sure they weren't injured, the Dolohovs made their dream to move to Brazil a reality. While she'd considered taking Oliver and running much sooner, she was glad that they waited until everything was settled. It would've been far from a paradise if they had to constantly check over their shoulders or worry about the spell in her head. Rodolphus was dead. So was Draco. They could all breathe a little easier.
"You know she's probably going to start calling you Mum too. She's so young she's already starting to forget her mother."
It wasn't the first time she considered the possibility. Hermione knew that Antonin was still dealing with his own guilt and regret where it came to the mother of his daughter. Likely he would spend the rest of his life replaying the night he killed Ginny over and over again in his head. One of the first nights the small Dolohov family was under the same roof together, Antonin whispered in the darkness to his wife his fears about one day having to explain to Maisie what happened to her mother. Hermione offered him a kiss and a promise that she would never tell anyone what happened that night as long as she lived. There was no reason to give Maisie all of the gory details. Her mother was a strong, powerful fighter who spent most of her life trying to right the wrongs that the end of the war created. Because of who she was and her respected place amongst the Resistance, she'd been a constant target. They would tell Maisie that her mother was brave and fearless. She didn't need to know that her father killed her mother in a fit of passion and misunderstanding. All that would do was reopen old wounds that were better left undisturbed. Though somewhat reluctant to believe it could all be that simple, Antonin agreed.
"I know, but I'll help her remember Ginny. Loving her daughter as my own is how I can try to make up for everything that happened."
She stopped him with a kiss before he could say another word. There was no reason. They both knew how he felt. All dwelling on it would do was drive him mad. No time-turners existed that could take them back to that day to change what happened. They had to live with the consequences of all their actions no matter how difficult it might be. Antonin was grateful for the pause in the conversation. When they broke apart from their second kiss of the morning, he smiled and brushed some of her hair away from her face.
"Maisie was the missing piece. I always felt like there was some part of us that wasn't whole. I know I drove you mad with my insistence that we have another child even when you didn't want one, but I just knew we weren't complete."
"No, I understand. I feel it too. It's like she was always meant to be a part of our family."
The Dolohovs would never be the model family for anyone to emulate unless they were held up as an example of how not to behave. But they were determined that they would make it through life together. And as much as she discovered that she loved her small family, especially her exceedingly patient husband, Hermione knew that there was no happily ever after for them. Reality didn't work that way. Life wasn't a romance novel where the baddies were defeated and the hero rescued his lady from danger to live a perfect existence the rest of their days. It just didn't happen. Besides, what if they were all baddies?
Life was more complicated than a silly romance novel no matter how much one wished it wasn't. Good and evil weren't absolute. No one lived in black or white, but in varying shades of grey. Even though she knew her life wasn't a romance, she was thankful for it. Thankful that she was given a second chance to make it better than she ever dreamed. There would be mistakes, of course. Plenty of days would pass when she would look at her husband and wonder why she loved him. Or she would grow frustrated with their children and long for at least a few days on the run again where no one could find her to bother her. There would even be times that she regretted Rodolphus getting hit with the curse that could've easily been hers. Death wasn't as frightening as living.
"Alain spoke with the Headmaster at Castelobruxo. Thorfinn and I are going to take the girls and Ollie to tour the school today. If they all keep up on their studies, they'll be allowed to enroll next term."
Thorfinn moved his family to Brazil with them. When they announced where they were going, he decided to take them up on their offer to follow. There were too many painful memories he wished to escape from. Hogwarts no longer felt like a safe place for his three girls to attend. Everyone needed a fresh start. Hermione was glad that the Rowles lived next door. Every single day she could see more and more of the old Thorfinn poking through his mask of grief. She'd seen the way the local witches stared at the massive, handsome blond. Whenever he finally felt he was ready to move on from his mourning, he wouldn't be single for long.
"I'm very thankful to know that the name Dolohov outside of Great Britain is a much more positive name. Thanks to Alain he's managed to make us almost respectable again."
Antonin smirked, but there was some pain behind the expression. She knew that it was something of an embarrassment that he'd brought shame to his family name. Perhaps even more so considering the fact that Alain wasn't even technically a Dolohov. Not by blood. There was hope, however, that they could all bring honor back to the name. They all had a second chance.
A soft tapping at the open window caught Hermione's attention. Seated on the windowsill was a large owl carrying what appeared to be an official looking letter on his leg. She climbed out of bed to retrieve the missive. Even before she reached the window she could tell what it was.
"Looks like the Minister for Magic has some more questions for his favorite unofficial advisor."
The groan from the bed made Hermione laugh. Part of what she wasn't allowed to know while Rodolphus' spell was still in her head was the effort to make certain that a fair and honest person became the next Minister for Magic after the incompetent Pius Thicknesse was forced to resign. Because he hadn't been involved in either the Death Eaters or the Resistance, Kingsley Shacklebolt was the most obvious choice. He'd been well-respected by both sides even before the war ended. There were a lot of changes being made in their home country. She hoped they were for the better. Everyone was exhausted of war and violence and death. Kingsley invited them to remain to help clean up the mess, but it was an offer that neither one of them would ever consider. Antonin was willing to correspond with the Minister by owl. Nothing else.
They had a new life in Brazil that they'd fought hard to get. Already they'd set some new rules that should've been in place from the very beginning. If they were going to truly make their marriage work and keep their family together, there could be no more secrets. They had to share everything no matter how much they feared the other might be upset or angry. Also, their marriage wasn't big enough for more than two in it. There would be no more affairs for either one of them. Hermione was looking forward to seeing how their marriage improved with the simple addition of rules that most other couples took for granted.
As she turned away from the window, she caught a glimpse of pale blond hair. Startled, she spun back around to see that it had only been a small boy on the beach fifty meters away. Part of her wondered if she would always be expecting to turn a corner and see Draco again. Even though she was the one who killed him, she had trouble accepting the reality that he was really dead. More time was necessary to move on fully from her experiences of the last year.
Hermione didn't regret killing Draco. Not for a single second. But, she couldn't deny that there was still a hint of sadness buried deep within her when she allowed her mind to wander to thoughts of him. He lived a wasted life. Perhaps, to a certain extent, they all did. There had been many opportunities for the wizard to turn away from his anger and his need for revenge. The only person he had to blame for his fate was himself. Still, there were quiet moments when she would remember a look or a touch that seemed genuine. Almost like the person he truly was deep inside all of that hatred and fury was trying to break out of his internal prison. It was heartbreaking. Maybe they could've been something real in another life.
There was no sense in dwelling on what couldn't be. She only had one life to live and she was done taking it for granted. Reaching for Antonin's hand, she pulled him out of bed. It was time they surveyed the mess in the kitchen their children created.