Back again! Weekly routine going strong. A lot of reviewers are very cross that Hermione hasn't told anyone about her illness! All in good time. Hopefully you'll forgive her for wanting to keep it to herself for the moment.

Thanks for sticking around. As always, JKR created it, I'm borrowing it!

Chapter Six

Hermione rushed nervously around the kitchen, swiping mindlessly at the countertop with a cloth, rubbing away invisible spots and stains. She straightened a tea canister for the tenth time, burying her face in her hands and giving herself a small pep talk to try and pull it together.

She was going crazy.

Draco had been upstairs for a long time now, long enough to make her anxiety build to a worrying level. She had no idea when her new husband would be returning downstairs, with her new mother-in-law in tow. They'd arrived home from Azkaban prison the day before, and Narcissa gone straight upstairs to her suite for several hours to sleep, appearing almost comatose at first. The appeal approval letter still lay on the kitchen counter, tossed there by an ecstatic Draco as he'd rushed out the front door earlier that day.

Everything had gone quickly but smoothly since their most recent pictures from Diagon Alley were published in the Prophet. The world now knew that they were married and the Wizengamot had reacted with predictable enthusiasm to the match. They'd been desperate after the war to re-design their public image to be more 'muggleborn friendly' after the disaster that had occurred under Voldemort's reign. The fact that they'd been so easily infiltrated and that ministry officials like Umbridge had actively supported and aided them in creating the muggleborn registration committee was a bit of a black mark on their reputation.

Draco's marriage to her was just the trigger he needed to have the ministry scurrying to release his mother, with a flowery written apology sent in letter form, begging forgiveness for the delay.

And now Narcissa would be living here with them.

And Hermione was somehow supposed to convince the woman that not only did she love her son, but that their marriage was totally legitimate and not at all a financial arrangement just to improve his public image.

That made it all sound so… tacky.

But things had worked well so far, she mused, tapping her fingers on the bench top and blowing a curl impatiently off her face from where it had fallen rebelliously. They'd had one or two outings in public, and everyone seemed to be wholly convinced that they'd married in secret after some long, romantic affair had taken place behind closed doors. Her best friends even believed it!

She just needed to act like she was totally and completely in love with him. Easy. It was a performance that had been worryingly simple to pull off so far. She tried not to think of the implications of that development, wondering when in Merlin's name the Slytherin prince himself Draco Malfoy had turned out to be a semi-decent guy who she shared a surprising amount in common with.

Not to mention his money was literally going towards a last ditch effort at saving her life right now, she thought morosely, remembering the potion prescription concealed at the bottom of her handbag waiting to be filed with the hospital now that she could finally afford it.

You should tell him… a tiny voice in her head whispered. But it was so easy to drown out that voice. Because she knew if she told Draco the truth about her illness now, after everything they'd already gone through, that he'd hate her. After the war, she knew Draco had found it difficult to trust people. And if he found out that she had essentially lied to him going into all this, that she'd proposed this arrangement under false pretences, she was afraid of what his reaction might be. She didn't want to lose his trust or his friendship, she realised.

There was also the cold hard fact that she wasn't ready to confront the truth herself. Oh she was going through the motions of course. She'd acquired the money she needed for her daughter, so that she'd be provided for later in life. And she'd purchased the required potions to give herself a fighting chance. But actually telling someone would mean admitting out loud that she was dying. Hermione didn't even know if she had the words to say it. Even the thought of how people might react, the way they would treat her differently once they knew, it terrified her. What if Sophie picked up on some hint of what was going on?

She's going to find out eventually…

But that was an argument too painful to even contemplate. The thought of how much pain and heartache her daughter was going to endure twisted Hermione's very soul into knots and made her feel like she couldn't breathe.

So no… she couldn't tell Draco. She couldn't tell anyone. Not yet.

The sound of a throat clearing from the doorway signalled that Draco had returned with his mother in tow from upstairs and her heart skipped. Hermione quickly tucked her hair back neatly from where she'd been toying nervously with it, hoping she looked presentable. With a deep breath for courage, she made her way over to greet her new mother-in-law.

Narcissa Malfoy certainly looked as bedraggled as she'd expected, even after a long sleep, but it was still a shock to see the previously austere, dignified woman so weak. Her now darker hair was stringy and limp and she was worryingly thin. She entered leaning heavily on Draco's arm, her gait broken as she hobbled forwards.

"Mother, this is Hermione," her son explained anxiously.

"Your new wife," the woman rasped, looking her up and down with a critical, penetrating stare.

"Yes, Mrs Mafloy. It's a pleasure to meet you…properly," Hermione said timidly, still tugging nervously on her hair.

"Hmmm. I wish I could say the same, but you must imagine my surprise when I heard my son was married. I didn't even know he was seeing someone."

Draco coughed awkwardly, shooting her a meaningful look.

"I told you mother, we were keeping it under wraps."

"Well you certainly succeeded. "

Hermione chewed on her lip as she watched the older witch frown at her son in disapproval. She took a breath and tried again.

"Could I get you a cup of tea and something to eat, Mrs Malfoy?" she asked. It looked very much like Narcissa wanted to keep scoffing at her new daughter-in-law, but they could both see the tremor in her fingers where she held desperately onto a walking stick.

"Where are the house elves?" she asked with a frown, causing Hermione to purse her lips and bite her tongue.

"It's their day off," she replied shortly.

The older witch sensed the tension in the room and released a long breath.

"Tea would be wonderful, thank you. It's been a long time…"

Her words were interrupted by a choking cough as her body shuddered. Draco immediately stepped in, helping her into a chair at the small breakfast table to one side of the kitchen.

"Just take it easy, mother. The doctor will be arriving in an hour or so to give you a full check up."

Hermione busied herself making tea. She also flicked her wand to toast some bread, wanting to keep the food plain and simple.

When she walked over to the breakfast table, tray in hands, Narcissa shot her the first softer, almost grateful look. She placed down the teapot and a dainty porcelain cup before pouring the tea slowly for each of them. Tendrils of steam drifted up from the surface and she saw the older witch let out a sigh.

"I can't even remember the last time I had a cup of tea."

The three of them sat together at the table, Hermione and Draco patiently watching Narcissa relish the first sip as she stiffly held the warm cup in her hands.

"How are you feeling?" Draco asked after a short pause.

"Tired. Confused. How did you manage to get me released on custody? The last time you wrote to me, you said the appeal had been rejected."

Draco shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

"They changed their minds."

"Because of her?" she pointed to Hermione who felt a bit affronted, but kept her expression calm. Draco exchanged an apologetic glance with her, clearly thinking of the story they'd come up with. He took a short breath.

"Nobody knew about our engagement or even that we were dating when I filed that first appeal. We were keeping it a secret from the prophet. It was Hermione's idea to move the wedding forwards. She thought it might help. Then once we were married...well…they…"

"Jumped at the chance for some positive press," Narcissa guessed with cynical accuracy, taking a dainty bite of her plain toast.

"Yes, we believe it improved the Ministry's general perception of me."

The woman's eyes darted between the two of them, and Hermione got the distinct feeling that she could see right through them.

"Because she's a muggleborn," the woman concluded, her lip curling slightly down on one side.

"She is sitting right here," Hermione said sharply. To her credit, Narcissa looked somewhat chagrined.

"The wizarding world today is very different from the one you remember, mother," Draco reminded her gently. She gazed at her son, her fingers fiddling with the handle of her teacup.

"I should hope so."

Hermione watched the woman cautiously, but there was no malice in her gaze, no particular sense of prejudice or distaste at the knowledge that her only son had married a muggleborn. There was merely a general distrust and suspicion. One could hardly blame her for being a bit dubious about their relationship, not when the first time she'd heard of it had been the day she'd arrived home from prison to live with them.

"There is…one other thing…" Draco began in a slightly nervous tone of voice. He shifted nervously where he sat, running one hand through his pale blond locks. Hermione's heart skipped. She knew what he was about to say. There was, after all, one big glaring addition to his household that Narcissa wasn't aware of.

As if the very thought of her had been a summons, the fireplace in the far corner of the room suddenly roared to life and the cheerful voice of Sophie was heard emerging through the flames.

"Mummy?"

"Here, sweetie," Hermione called, rising to her feet awkwardly and accepting the crushing hug that resulted when Sophie threw herself into her mother's arms.

"Thanks George!" she called over at the fireplace where the ginger's disembodied head was still visible.

"No problem, Mrs M," he replied in a singsong voice before giving her a cheeky wink and vanishing in a swirl of soot. Sophie was still clutching her legs, but she peered up at her mother eagerly.

"Mummy guess what? Uncle George taught me how to make a paper dragon and then we made it fly all around the room and-"

Sophie's voice trailed away as she seemed to suddenly realise that they weren't alone. She looked up at Draco with a slight glare as if just generally offended by his presence. But then her eyes passed over to Narcissa and she paused.

"Who's that?" she asked rudely and Hermione cringed.

"Uh…beg your pardon, Mrs Malfoy," she stammered, "this is my daughter Sophie."

"Your daughter?" the other woman repeated, still staring in shock at the little girl in her overalls with a cream jumper underneath, hair tied up into slightly uneven pigtails.

"Yes. Sophie, I'd like you to meet…er…your new grandmother. This is Draco's mother."

Sophie blinked up at the older woman who, even though she still appeared frail and gaunt, had softened somewhat at the sight of the little girl.

"You're Draco's mother?" Sophie asked bluntly, pouting and moving to hide behind Hermione's legs.

"Yes, dear, I am," Narcissa replied, seeming to find her senses again after being confronted with this latest shock, "and you seem to be a very grown up little girl! How old are you?"

Sophie thought about this question, still peering out shyly from behind her mother's legs.

"Ummm… four."

"That's a lovely age, dear. You're quite the young lady."

Draco and Hermione stared at Narcissa with surprise. From what he'd described, his mother was normally quite aloof and cold. Maybe prison had changed her, she mused. Sophie frowned at the older witch, jumping from one foot to the other as she always did when she was thinking hard about something.

"How can you be my grandmother if Draco isn't my father?" Sophie asked, rather too clever for her own good as usual.

"But Draco is your father, because he married your mother," Narcissa told her gently.

"Draco's not my father," Sophie protested, looking alarmed. Hermione squirmed, giving her husband and his mother an apologetic look.

"Uh… I think she's still adjusting," she explained with an awkward grimace.

"That's an understatement," Draco grumbled, making Hermione wince in sympathy. Her daughter had certainly made the last couple of weeks very difficult for him. Narcissa just raised one eyebrow up at them both.

"Does this mean you don't want a new grandmother?" she asked the little girl in front of her in a mild tone. Sophie pondered this question carefully.

"What does a Grandmother do? I've never had one."

"I'm not sure," Narcissa replied with a tired smile, "I've never been one. I suppose we play together, and read books. We could go shopping and I can do your hair if you like."

Sophie's eyes lit up.

"Auntie Lav sometimes does my hair but she pulls too hard!"

Narcissa chuckled, but it ended in a dry cough.

"Well grandmothers are always gentle and never pull too hard," she replied croakily. Sophie nodded thoughtfully, as if she was weighing this new information. Eventually she seemed to reach a decision, giving the older witch a beaming smile.

"Okay! You can be my grandmother if you like."

"Can I?" the older woman asked with a wry smile, shooting a bemused look at the other adults, "well then you can call me granny."

Hermione couldn't quite believe what was happening right in front of her eyes. Her daughter was actually warming up to Draco's mother quicker than she'd ever seen before. Usually Sophie was so distrustful and slow to give her affection to someone. Just look at her reaction to Draco. She'd been positively hostile towards him these last few weeks. And now here she was accepting this virtual stranger as her grandmother. Hermione blinked and shook her head incredulously, wondering why it couldn't always be this easy.

"Would you like to come to my bedroom and play with Sunny?" Sophie asked her new granny, practically vibrating with excitement,

"Who's Sunny?"

"My teddy bear."

Hermione was almost certain she hear Draco grumble something petulantly under his breath that sounded suspiciously like 'yeh the bear I bought her', which made her chuckle.

"Granny needs to rest today, sweetheart," Hermione stepped in and told her daughter, tugging affectionately on one of her pigtails, "she's had such a long journey to get here."

"Aww okay," her daughter looked sad but then immediately brightened up in that way only a child could, and turned to Narcissa excitedly, "but you are staying here with us, aren't you granny?"

"Yes I've decided to come live here with you for a nice long time," the older woman told her, obviously choosing not to mention the fact that she had no choice but to stay here as she was on house arrest.

"Really? Then will you play with me tomorrow? Please?"

"Of course."

Hermione ushered her out of the room then, wanting to give Narcissa a break from the little girl's exuberance. Once she had skipped off towards the stairs, there was a slightly awkward pause as Narcissa drained the rest of her tea between coughs.

"Your daughter is quite charming," she told Hermione eventually, obviously just as ill at ease as her new daughter-in-law in this situation.

"Thank you. She seems quite taken with you. Sophie's normally so shy and recalcitrant around new people."

"You don't say," Draco muttered, but gave a sort of resigned grimace when Hermione just laughed at him.

"She hates me," he explained to his mother.

"She doesn't hate you," Hermione corrected with a smirk, "she's just not used to sharing me with anyone."

There was a slightly awkward pause as they both quite clearly thought about how Sophie had absolutely no reason to be jealous of any kind of sharing on their part. Narcissa cleared her rasping throat and interrupted the silent pause.

"I certainly hope you both didn't rush into this marriage for my sake," Narcissa told them sharply, her eyes darting between the two of them, "Taking on a step-child is no small thing."

"Don't worry, mother," Draco told her with a gentle pat to her hand, masking his guilty expression with remarkable skill, "we went into this with our eyes open. Together we'll get through this."

"That remains to be seen," Narcissa murmured waspishly. Gone was the woman who had talked so kindly to Sophie and in her place was the austere, protective mother figure worried about her only son.

"The Medi-witch will be here soon. Would you like to meet with her in your chambers?" Draco asked.

"Yes, I'm a little…tired."

Narcissa went to stand and immediately began coughing, the sound wracking her whole body. Hermione quickly passed her a handkerchief. After it had been pressed to the older woman's mouth, the pristine white cotton came away with small splotches of red blood, the red vibrant against the cloth, with tiny spindles creeping out at the edges.

"Mother?" Draco cried in horror seeing the bloodstains, but Narcissa just waved him off.

"It's just this infection, I'm fine. That dreadful place was so cold all the time…"

Her voice trailed off and she got a distant look in her eye as if the very mention of Azkaban haunted her. Draco looked like he wanted to keep pushing the issue, but she could tell it was the last thing his mother wanted to bring up now. Hermione knew better than anyone that there were certain topics you just needed to keep private. The Medi-Witch would provide more answers soon enough anyway.

"Let me help you up to your room, Mrs Malfoy," Hermione offered, reaching forwards to take the older witch's arm and gently guided her towards the staircase. Narcissa obliged, probably because she was too tired to object. Hermione shot Draco a reassuring glance as she led his mother from the room.

It was a slow journey back up the stairs, but eventually they made it to Narcissa's room. It was richly furnished in burgundy and gold and suited the woman very well indeed. Helping her back into bed, Hermione smoothed out her blankets and summoned a glass of water to her bedside table.

"I'll let you know as soon as the Medi-Witch arrives," she told her quietly, making to leave. But a croaky voice from the bed stopped her in her tracks.

"Do you love him?"

She turned around to face the older witch, her heart missing a beat as she met the woman's penetrating gaze.

"Pardon?"

"Do you love my son?"

Hermione just blinked at her, not sure what to say in reply beyond telling her a direct lie. She hadn't been expecting the question yet and wasn't prepared to spin a convincing story. When she paused too long, Narcissa pushed on with her interrogation.

"He's incredibly rich, successful, from one of the oldest and most respected wizarding families... a thousand girls would die to be in your position."

Hermione almost laughed at the irony of her choice of words. It was dying, after all, that had directly led to this marriage, wasn't it? The fear of dying and leaving her daughter with nothing. She returned Narcissa's stare with a solemn one of her own.

"Your son and I may have had our differences in the past, but the Draco I know now is good and honourable and kind. And I'll bet those thousand girls probably wouldn't even care. But I do."

Narcissa smiled ever so slightly, resting her head back tiredly on her pillow, eyes drooping. At least she'd stopped coughing. Hermione sighed in relief as the other woman fell quiet, backing slowly towards the door.

"Get some rest, Mrs Malfoy."

"Narcissa."

Hermione paused, turning back to face the woman again.

"You're Mrs Malfoy now too, aren't you? Call me Narcissa."

Her lips twitched up into a smile, wondering if she'd just won some kind of battle of wills.

"Very well, Narcissa."

Draco leaned his forehead against the closed front door briefly once the Medi-Witch had left. His chest twisted in anguish as he sucked in a deep breath. His mother was sleeping deeply upstairs. She'd been given a potion that was also a strong sedative and would be out for several hours.

Giving the door one last frustrated slap with the palm of his hand, Draco slowly made his way into the living room. At the coffee table he saw Hermione sitting on some cushions with Sophie propped between her legs. They were drawing a picture together using pencil and coloured crayons. Hermione spoke softly into her daughter's ear while they giggled softly.

They made a lovely picture, curled up together sharing some quality time. Draco paused, leaning against the doorframe and watching them with a troubled frown. It was certainly true that he and Hermione had their differences, and calling their history 'complicated' would be the understatement of the century. There was still a strong sense of the old Hermione in there; desperate to prove herself, stubborn, precocious and, as Snape had always called her, a 'know-it-all'. But years of adversity and being forced to face the bitter realities of the world outside Hogwarts (not to mention a war) had changed them both. It was because of Hermione that he'd finally been able to sway the Ministry of Magic.

And there was no denying she was an excellent mother.

Her daughter clearly adored her and the two were so close it made him almost envious. Was it any surprise that the little girl seemed to truly despise and distrust him when she was so protective of her mother?

His own relationship with his mother over the years had been… complex. Narcissa wasn't an openly affectionate person like Hermione. And she'd always been very strict. When he was young Lucius had been his dominant role model. His father had been an overpowering force in both their lives, limiting Narcissa's role as a mother because he didn't want his son to become 'soft'.

But now… well, things had shifted a lot during the war. With Voldemort living in their home against both of their wills, they had forged a sort of bond of solidarity in order to survive. Their love for each other was not overt or demonstrative, but it was always there beneath the surface. These last few months fighting to get her out of that hellish prison had been a drain on his emotions, leaving him feeling raw. And only now were they starting to get the full picture about her time in Azkaban and the long-term consequences she would face as a result.

At that moment Hermione looked up from where they'd been drawing, meeting his eye. She seemed to immediately detect that he was upset, for she cocked her head to the side with a worried gaze. Draco just grimaced, not sure what to say, especially not with her daughter present. Sensing this, Hermione drew her wand and tapped the finished drawing. It immediately transfigured itself into a delicate white frame.

"Why don't you go pick a spot in your room to hang your picture, sweetie?"

"I can hang it anywhere?"

"Anywhere!"

Sophie grinned and ran from the room clutching the frame carefully as if worried she'd break it. She managed to find time to shoot Draco a small suspicious glare as she left, making him shake his head in bemusement.

"Draco?" Hermione called to him, gesturing to the other side of the couch on which she was now sitting. Draco dragged his feet as he made his way over and settled himself next to her. Immediately he dropped his head in his hands, letting out the breath he'd been holding.

"What did the Medi-Witch say?" Hermione prompted gently. Draco ran his hand through his hair, pushing back the few strands that were brushing his forehead.

"She's malnourished and her liver is damaged. Getting some good nutrition and taking a course of replenishing potions will help. But it's her lungs that are the problem. That last bout of pneumonia was very harmful. She's lucky she hasn't suffered from a complete respiratory failure yet."

"Will she be okay?"

"I don't know. We'll have to wait and see how she responds to the first course of potions. I'm going to contact St Mungo's this afternoon and arrange for a doctor to come see her regularly at the house."

He fell quiet, closing his eyes and wishing things had been easier. That he'd been able to do more. That his mother hadn't been punished for the crimes of her husband and son. The guilt was too much.

"Is there anything I can do?" he heard Hermione's soft voice ask at his shoulder. He looked up to see her impossibly deep brown eyes filled with so much compassion it made his stomach drop strangely.

"You've done so much already," he assured her. But she just shifted awkwardly in response.

"Not really. Not unselfishly."

Draco shrugged.

"Well regardless of our contract, if it weren't for you she wouldn't have come home."

Hermione frowned and didn't reply, although her expression seemed almost troubled. Draco leant back into the couch cushions, observing her silently.

"I tried so hard to keep her out of Azkaban, you know," he told her softly before pausing for a long time as he gathered his thoughts. Hermione waited patiently for him to continue, which he eventually did.

"It should have been me," he murmured, head bowed in shame, "I was the one with the dark mark. I was the one who'd hurt people. Not my mother. She just swapped one prison for another." He took a shaky breath and closed his eyes. "I couldn't protect her back then. And I'm afraid I'm going to fail again now."

He felt a tickling sensation on his hand and looked down to see the tips of Hermione's fingers gently closing around his knuckles.

"You are protecting her," she whispered gently.

"It's not enough," he protested. But she shook her head and her grip on his hand tightened.

"You're a good son, Draco. Just look at us for goodness sake! You married someone you used to hate, someone you hadn't spoken to in years, just to get her out of there. You are taking care of her."

"And what will I do if she suffers or god forbid dies now after everything that's happened?"

Hermione looked sadly at him, a little crease appearing between her brows. She chewed her lip for a while as though deep in thought and replied,

"Then she'll die knowing that her son fought for her. She'll die in her own bed, having spent her remaining days with someone she loves. That means a lot, Draco."

He blinked, his attention fixated on the weight of her hand on top of his and the resounding tingle in his arm. The sincerity in her dark brown gaze was entrancing and he so badly wanted to believe what she was saying. Visibly swallowing, she continued in a hoarse voice.

"Life can be unpredictable and stupid and so, so unfair. Don't waste time regretting things you could have done differently. Your mother is here now. Just spend time with her. Talk with her. Show her what a strong, brave person you've become. I promise you, that's all she wants in the world. That's all any mother wants."

He nodded, giving her a watery smile. Inside his heart was pounding. In one short conversation Hermione had just shown him more compassion than he'd probably ever encountered in his entire life. He didn't know how she could speak to him with such conviction, such tenderness. Not when all he'd ever done was treat her with cruelty and disdain in their not so distant past.

Sitting with her here and now, there was something so right about it all. He'd never pictured himself as a married man, but he wondered if this was what all the fuss was about.

Not the excitement, the passion or the sex.

The companionship.

The knowledge that you weren't alone in the world. That there was someone else to bear witness to your life and stand by your side no matter what.

Someone to see the best in you. Even when you couldn't see it in yourself.

And right then, for just a split second, barely enough time to take a breath, Draco wanted it all to be real so badly he could taste it.

….

And now Narcissa is home! Will they be able to convince her? Will Sophie ever warm to her new step-dad? Thanks for reading, please review to inspire me!