Epilogue: All the Difference in the World
(Three years later)
There were many things Hermione still didn't like about herself that she couldn't come up with a logical reason of why anyone like him would even care about her, but he did—in his own, silent and not-so-aloof-anymore way.
Draco Malfoy wasn't perfect by any means, but…
She smiled to herself.
He still hated people, mobiles, parties, and walnuts; and yet, he tolerated people for her, attended parties with her, and had a mobile because of her. He still couldn't be paid to eat a walnut and was sticking to his guns on that one. Ridiculous. Draco was still an arrogant, aloof, control freak; but there were also times when he was humble, perceptive, and generous. He still worked unnecessarily hard to keep his feelings private; and yet, he'd shared more of himself with her in the last three years than Hermione could have ever expected.
Draco absolutely refused to join her for Saturday lunches with a visiting Harry, Tuesday dinners with Ron, or the occasions when she'd meet them both for drinks. But when Weasley invited her to dine with him and his new girlfriend, Kate; Draco accompanied her with little fuss, and spent three days refusing to admit that he had a decent time. And when Potter showed up in his office to ask him if he could join them in celebrating what would have been Matthew's sixth birthday, he didn't reject him.
He still declined every invitation to Weasley' Sunday dinners, and no, he didn't care. But sometimes he would turn up early to escort Hermione home, and he was never rude. Draco pointed out that he made peace with everyone and didn't feel the need to form any kind of attachment with them. And Hermione never argued because, well, she didn't mind.
About any of it.
Draco could have any witch that he wanted, but…
Hermione looked away thoughtfully.
He wasn't romantic in any sense or definition of the word; there were no roses, promises, confessions of undying love, cards, or anything that remotely breathed sappy. But there were looks and actions, silent affection and something bubbling under the surface that looked a lot like love, felt a lot like love, but he never spoke it.
But, again, she didn't mind.
Draco wasn't as horrible as people thought – well, he wasn't horrible to her. Not at all. He was still a prick to everyone else, but she understood that he was just being Draco. It had taken them both a while to figure out that he wasn't much different without the mask than he was with it. Maybe softer around the edges and not so uncomfortable with the feelings he kept private, but that was a side of him that she had only seen.
Hermione still struggled and tussled with the past, just like him, but they went through the dark days together. Sometimes it was so bad she wondered why he stayed…why they stayed with each other. There were weeks when Hermione firmly believed that the only reason Draco had stayed by her side for so long was because he wanted to remind himself that there was someone in the world more fucked up than him, but it wasn't the truth. It always took time or Draco's form of brutal honesty for her to see, but she always came to her senses.
Nearly four years ago, Hermione had wondered that if she screamed at the top of her lungs, would anyone actually hear? Would they notice? Would they even care? Would they possibly give a damn long enough to tell her that she needed help? She always thought the answer to all of those questions were no, which had been the reason she'd never tried a pathetic cry for help. But now she knew that the answer was yes. She had screamed and someone had heard….
Draco wasn't the only person in her life that knew just how much she struggled internally, but he was the only person who was willing to give her a kick in the arse when she needed it. And he wasn't the only one who knew that she was still in pain, but he was the only person who refused to walk on eggshells around her. Draco wasn't the only person who had told her that if she kept on going the way that she was going, she would never make it out alive, but he had been the person to make her really understand just how horrible she had become. He told her the truth and made her see it, too.
And he wasn't her best friend, but maybe he was. Now, at least. So much time had passed, and she still didn't know. But the more that she talked and walked with him, the more that she sat and stayed with him, the more that she learned and understood him, the more that she held his hand and hugged him, the more she kissed and stayed awake with him when he had nightmares; Hermione began to realize more and more that what she thought that she had wanted wasn't at all what she had needed. And what she needed was…well….
Sometimes, Hermione didn't think that she was worthy to have him in her life, but only God knew how thankful she was that he was there. Because without him, she knew that she would still be stuck in the past. Without him, she would still be swallowed whole by her own self-hatred. Without him, she wouldn't know or appreciate what good friends she had been given. And without him, she knew that she would be trapped in a world where she carried such heavy burdens on her shoulders, a world that tried to see and hear her but couldn't, a world that didn't truly know what she went up against every day, and a world that couldn't understand….
"Lost in thought, again, Miss Granger?"
Hermione blinked back into the present, smiling sheepishly at Miss Shepard. "I just drifted right off there, didn't I?" She crossed her legs. "Sorry. I've got a lot on my mind."
"Would you like to talk about it? We have time."
She exhaled. "Honestly, I just can't believe this is my last session."
"I can," Katherine told her truthfully. "You've come so far in such a short amount of time, Hermione. It would take most people a lifetime to pull themselves out of a hole as deep as yours, but you've done it in a little over two. I know you aren't completely out of it, but I've helped you all that I can. I think you're ready. The real question is: do you think you're ready?"
Hermione never hesitated. "I am."
And she really believed it.
At the top of the next hour, after a heartfelt goodbye and a promise to make an appointment any time she needed, Hermione closed the door to Miss Shepard's office, closed her eyes, and exhaled with a smile. It felt like she was closing the door to another part of her life and starting anew. And as she took the first tentative steps away from the door, Hermione was reminded of how many new beginnings one could experience throughout their lives.
To new trainees on their first day or whenever they messed up, she always said that every moment was a new beginning. However, it was only right then – when she was experiencing such a radical shift from being the person who needed therapy to the person she was today – that she recognized it for its profound truth. Endings and beginnings were central to the human journey. Some were more welcomed than others, but Hermione was finally in a place where she could see that every ending needed to be acknowledged, mourned, and even celebrated before a new beginning could truly start.
And she planned on celebrating this one as soon as she could.
The lobby of the office building where Miss Shepard's office was located was filled with people coming and leaving in rapid succession, but not crowded. She always paid attention to the people around her, waved if they recognized her and spoke when she recognized them; so it was a wonder how she didn't hone in on the red hair the moment she spotted it. Maybe it had something to do with her racing thoughts or the feeling of anticipation, but it wasn't until the distracted redhead brushed shoulders with her and started to apologise with a, "I'm—" when she finally noticed who the redhead was.
"Sorry," she finished, flushing like a cooked lobster; a look, Hermione remembered suddenly and oddly, that she hated. Huh. Ginny never came to the family dinners she attended, which was probably planned. It made sense and was the best way to minimize awkwardness and make everyone happy. Ginny looked the same; only slightly older, with shorter hair and the hard edge of her face were smoother. "I didn't see you. Sorry. I was—" Ginny made an elaborate gesture with her hand. "On my own continent."
"I know the feeling." Hermione replied, and it wasn't as hard to speak to her again as she'd imagined.
And she had imagined it; late at night when she talked to Draco about it in whispers. She would tell him about what she'd say or what she'd do, and he'd listen until she fell asleep or insert his own opinion on the matter. Over the last three years, it had changed considerably. With the residual anger and resentment gone, there wasn't much left to say that she hadn't said in the past. The only thing she could do was talk about something new. And wasn't she just thinking about new beginnings and opened doors?
Ginny awkwardly looked around, tucking her short hair behind her ears. "I'll just—sorry again."
Hermione was about to let her walk away and return to being just another familiar face in the crowd, but impulsively made a decision. The journal she held went from her right hand to the left before she asked. "How have you been?"
More than anything, she looked surprised by the question—so much that she didn't answer immediately. She blinked several times before carefully answering, "Fine."
And when Hermione said, "That's good," she was earnest. It made Ginny open up just a bit more.
"I've been seeing a therapist. Miss Shepard—her office is just upstairs. Parkinson referred me last year."
Hermione hadn't known that. "She's my therapist, too, I—"
"She is?" She looked alarmed for a flash, then uncomfortable. "Oh, I can start seeing someone else if that makes you uncomfortable. I didn't know. I don't want you to think that I'm—"
"No, no," Hermione assured. "I just had my last session with her today." Ginny seemed to exhale at that. "And if I still were seeing her, I wouldn't even dream of suggesting something like that. Not if she's helping you."
Ginny tugged on the end of her shirt, looking a bit more at ease. "She is. Really. It's been hard, but she's forcing me to take a hard look at myself." The corners of her lips quirked slightly. "So much fun."
That made her snort. "Oh definitely."
After checking her watch, Ginny flashed a sort of faint smile. "I should go. I'm going to be late."
"Yes, I should go, too." Hermione paused. "Seeing you, it's been…good." And maybe she wasn't ready to see Ginny at the Weasley family dinners just yet, but seeing her today had made her hopeful that she would in the future.
"It really has." Ginny extended her hand in what looked like an impulsive move…
And Hermione shook it just once before they parted ways.
Hermione tucked the journal under her arm as she started down the steps, preparing to join her fellow Londoners on the busy sidewalk. She was just about to blend into the crowd when a familiar flash of blond caught her eye. Hermione stopped abruptly, causing the man behind her to bump into her.
"Watch where you're going!"
After muttering apologies, she weaved her way through the hoard of people and found herself standing in front of Draco, who was lounging on a bench with a book in hand. It was one of hers that she'd left at his flat months ago. Hermione noticed that he sat up a little straighter when he saw her, but said nothing. She was curious to the point of suspicion. "What are you doing here?"
Draco closed the book and shrugged. It was probably supposed to be whimsical, but it was just stiff. "I just happened to be in the area."
Hermione stared at him dubiously, folding her arms across her chest. "The Ministry is across town."
"I'm taking a lunch break." He shot a challenging look.
She tried not to smile. "At nearly three-thirty?"
Then he smirked. "Precisely."
Hermione finally let herself smile. It wasn't like Draco to volunteer information or to explain his actions or behaviour, but she always seemed to know what he was doing, even when he didn't do anything at all. Even when he was just there. Like today. "That's your story, and you're sticking to it?"
"Exactly," he said, but there was just a hint of humour in his voice. His eyes quickly caught the journal tucked under her arms. "I thought you were giving that back today."
She shrugged and joined him on the bench, sitting close enough for their legs to touch. Draco was now at the point where he automatically draped an around her without so much as an afterthought. And she was now at the point where she leaned into his side. It was nice, almost normal, and she liked it. "Decided to keep it. If I'm going to chronicle my feelings, I think this would be a good point to start."
Hermione nodded and they sat in silence. It was a nice day; the first sunny one in about a week, so it felt good to just be outside in the moderate heat that was tempered by a decent breeze. Draco went back to reading and she read with him until she snorted at something the protagonist said. He gave her a withering look that lacked the malice necessary to make her feel like he meant it. "You like the book?"
"It's fine. A little academic for my tastes."
Draco flashed a rare smile that was starting to be less infrequent before he went back to reading.
Hermione quietly watched him until he shot a side-long look in her direction. "What?"
He didn't relent. In fact, he sighed and shut the book again. "What Hermione?"
"Really. Nothing. It's been a good day. I spoke to Ginny."
Draco tensed slightly. If she didn't know him as well as she did, she never would have been able to tell. Hermione knew that if he had his way, she would never have the opportunity to even be in the same room as Ginny. Draco was irrationally protective like that when left to his own devices, but he was getting better. The first time they went to Venice, he spent half the trip torn between watching her every move and trying not to look like he'd been watching her. She had to finally pull him aside and let him know that he could breathe; that she wouldn't fall apart. Not even a little bit.
And she reminded him again. "It was fine. I'm okay."
He nodded, but the relaxed look he'd been wearing was gone. "I saw her go in, but she didn't see me."
"I bumped into her." Hermione informed. "We talked. That's all."
She made a thoughtful face. "And…that's it. It wasn't as hard as I thought it'd be. I mean, I know we aren't going to be friends, but I think we can be civil."
"Whatever works," which was his standard reply for anything he didn't fully agree with but didn't want to argue over. Hermione smiled up at him, which made him relax again. "Where do you want to go now?"
"I thought you were on lunch break."
"I thought you knew I was lying."
"I did, but it's not like you to own up to anything."
Hermione remained pensive for a bit. "It's nice out. We could sit here for a little longer. I've literally been on the move all day. New trainees…pretty much the reason I was gone this morning before you woke up. Sorry about that, by the way, I had a meeting, then training employees who asked more questions about us than they did about protocol."
"That's fine," Draco moved the arm that was around her shoulder and took her hand. "I had some stuff to do, as well. Arcturus is in town for the day. He's invited us to have dinner tonight, but I expect that he'll chat more about how well the business is going than anything." He looked back at her before looking down at their now entwined hands. "I thought we should dine at a Muggle restaurant, for the sake of privacy."
"Sounds fine to me."
Draco looked around uncomfortably for a moment. Hermione had an inkling that he wanted to say more, but wasn't surprised when he changed the subject. "You know, you now have left a pair of socks at my flat; in addition to the pyjama pants, shirt, jumper—"
Her cheeks reddened a bit. "Oh. I'll just grab all that tonight after dinner."
"No need," Draco waved her off flippantly. "I, uhh, gave you a drawer."
She froze. A drawer? "Is this a—"
Draco gave her a pointed look. "I thought we agreed to let things progress quietly."
"But a drawer?" Hermione laughed. "Coming from you, that's almost like an invitation to move in. Next you'll be telling me that you're giving up a bit of closet space too!"
He just looked at her.
She stared back at him. "Seriously?"
Draco looked even more uncomfortable. "Well, you practically live with me already, Granger."
Hermione made a face. "No, I don't."
He cocked a brow, "You stay over almost every night."
"Your toothbrush is in my bathroom."
"I think we both appreciate a clean mouth in the morning."
"Fine. Your stupid cat has spent so much time on my ottoman that he thinks that it's his personal space."
"Apollo is territorial. And you're the reason I have a cat in the first place."
"How's this? You fired my housekeeper."
"She wasn't needed."
"Are you even listening to yourself, Granger? You have your mail forwarded to my flat."
"I just—" Hermione chewed on her lip. "Perhaps you might have a point."
"I know I do."
"So…you don't mind?"
"I wouldn't have cleared out a drawer and closet space if I did."
"True." Hermione looked at Draco, "You do realize that this is the first time you've—"
He kissed her, probably to shut her up, but it worked well enough. At least until he was ready to say something. "Aren't you always telling me to not complicate things? Well, I'm telling you now. Don't complicate it. Everything else is complicated enough now that we've finally gone public."
"Do you wish we hadn't?"
It was actually a miracle that they managed to stay out the gossip rags as long as they had. Hermione suspected it had something to do with everyone's fear that Draco would terrorise them and demolish their business for so much as hinting at their relationship.
He shrugged in response. "Some things aren't supposed to be kept a secret forever."
She looked at him meaningfully. "But some are."
"But that doesn't apply to us."
Whatever Hermione was about to say died on her lips when he kissed her.
They were different with each other now; considerate instead of critical, relaxed instead of tense, and balanced instead of insecure. They each were more inclined to listen to each other, and less inclined to cast blame. They talked to each other instead of at, and set guidelines that they stuck with. Dinner with Narcissa on Fridays, breakfast with Blaise and Pansy on Sundays, and one complete day that was set aside solely for them to be…well, them.
Hermione and Draco weren't normal, but they tried.
They never had it easy, but knew nothing worthwhile was ever easy.
And they weren't even perfect; not even close, but they were a couple.
They fought and grew, pushed and pulled. And soon enough, they would fall. They didn't have a song or ridiculous pet names for each other, but they had an anniversary, a drawer in one another's home, and an epic story of how they came to be what they were now.
They were more than they had been, less than they could be, but they were actively working on changing that. Day by day, Hermione and Draco worked to gain back all that they had lost, while piece-by-piece, their foundation grew stronger than it had ever been.
Disclaimer: I don't own it.
Author's Note: I've gotten a metric-ton of emails and reviews saying that you wanted to see the epilogue, and it's always been like half-finished...until this morning. I had the weird urge after reading reviews to just let you guys see it separately. So shazzam! It's unbeta'd, jsyk. I never really liked it much, thought it would ruin the ending I had planned because it's not as good as the end of chapter 36, so I never, ever wanted to finish that...but eh. I'll live. And curiosity does kill the cat. Just know that there won't be anymore epilogues. This is it. And if I ever wrote about them having children, it would be a very angsty tale, given their histories.