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Chapter Four

Property of Hermione Granger

Lucius poked his head into the kitchen, following the sound of his new owner muttering unhappily. Miss Granger stood before the stove, her shoulders hunched and her head shaking as she moved some things about on the burners.

"Are your fellow Gryffindors not joining us for breakfast?"

Hermione started at the voice behind her, but only shook her head, once more. "They both had early mornings in their Ministry departments. They'll be back this evening. Harry was kind enough to pop out to the market and pick up a few things before he left. Can you bring me the bread?"

Brow furrowing, he looked about. There, on the counter nearest the pantry, was a loaf of dark, pre-sliced bread in wrapping, amongst a few other things he did not readily recognize—the wizard in question must've gone to one of the dreadful Muggle markets in the area. Retrieving the bread, as she requested, he brought it to her.

He stood behind her, peering over her shoulder into the pans on which she was so focused. "What is it you're doing?"

She didn't seem to notice his proximity as she pulled a few slices from the package and set them down in the melted butter in one of the pans. "I suppose I should tell you, so you can try to prepare food for yourself when I'm not here. I thought I'd make a simple breakfast. So," she said as she pointed to the separate pans, in turn. "Bacon, scrambled eggs, toast."

Reaching around her, he tipped the cup in which she'd beaten the eggs, noting the remnants of thick, yellow liquid. "I hope you will not mind my saying that this seems fairly ghastly."

She giggled, yet again shaking her head—she didn't notice that the ends of her wild hair brushed against him. "What's ghastly is having to pan-toast the bread, since you have no toaster. So old fashioned."

"And the unappetizing mess in the cup?"

Hermione frowned thoughtfully. Lucius Malfoy was a great deal more inquisitive about the simple matter of making breakfast than she'd ever imagined he would be. Then again, he'd never had to do it before, so this probably did not seem simple to him, at all.

"You crack the eggs in there, break the yokes and stir in some seasoning. After that . . . ." She pointed to the eggs in the pan. Even understanding the Malfoys' circumstances, it was unsettling to her that they did not grasp such basic tasks, as making tea or scrambling a bloody egg.

"Could you turn over the bread?" she asked, as she saw to dicing up the eggs and setting aside the bacon.

"Are you not still angry with me?" he asked, reaching around her, again, to do as she asked.

Her brow furrowed. "For what?"

"I do believe I upset you last night with our conversation."

The witch actually laughed. "Mr. Malfoy, if I were to spend my energy and time being angry every time a Malfoy did something to upset me, I'd never get anything else done."

He nodded. That was a strangely reasonable attitude.

"Why?" she asked in an amused tone as she turned off the burners and began setting the food on the plates beside the stovetop. "Don't tell me you were actually considering—?" Her elbow bumped his lower abdomen and she suddenly realized precisely how close behind her he stood.

Turning her head, she lifted her gaze to meet his. He simply stared back at her.

Hermione swallowed hard as she managed to finish in a whisper, "Apologizing?"

Lucius allowed a smirk—just a tiny hint of one—to curve a corner of his mouth upward. The faintest flicker in her eyes betrayed that the difference in his expression was not lost on her.

Their eyes locked, he gave a fluid shrug. "Perhaps I was. We find ourselves in quite the odd circumstance, Miss Granger. It might prove beneficial to all of us, were we to make an effort to be more pleasant toward one another."

It was sadly difficult for her to focus on his words with his grey eyes peering down into hers so steadily. There was a time she'd have been terrified to find herself the subject of Lucius Malfoy's undivided attention, but now . . . .

She tried to ignore the flutter of warmth through her belly. Now, something was clearly different.

"Am I interrupting something?"

Draco's voice cut through the room, snapping Hermione's attention from the elder Malfoy to him. She visibly tried to backpedal a step, but with the stove at her back, she had no safe retreat.

She slid sideways, turning toward the counter for only a moment to grab a plate and one of the cups of coffee she'd made before Mr. Malfoy had interrupted her breakfast preparations. Hermione didn't look at either of them as she stepped around Draco and headed to the dining room.

Draco met his father's eyes. Lucius handed Draco a plate and a mug, answering the younger wizard's suspicious look with a smirk and a shrug.

Nodding, Draco spoke as he turned to follow their mistress to the table. "You do work fast."

"Loose her venom, then remind her how much nicer things can be without it . . . ." Lucius picked up his own things, his voice low as he fell into step beside his son. "Making her question her own feelings will do half the work for us."

"Crafty old man," Draco said, unable to stop himself from chuckling under his breath.

Lucius couldn't help a grin. "Not that old."

After a while, Draco couldn't take the silence at the table. Granger just sat there, her gaze flicking from the windows, to her plate and back as she picked at her food and sipped her coffee.

For his part, Lucius didn't seem bothered by the quiet, but then, for all Draco knew, the elder wizard likely thought the reason for her reticence was the moment he'd interrupted in the kitchen. That probably made this a good thing in Father's book.

"Granger, you seem nervous."

Sighing, she met his gaze a moment before shaking her head and returning her attention to the greenery beyond the window panes. "Not nervous, just . . . not exactly looking forward to what I have to do today."

Lucius nodded, his tone nonchalant as he asked, "Would you care to discuss it?"

With a heavy sigh she shook her head. Then, clearly thinking better on it, she nodded, dropping her fork onto her plate and pushing the dish away. "I suppose you should know, since it does involve the two of you, sort of."

Folding his lips inward against a groan, Lucius propped his elbow on the tabletop. Pressing his fingertips to his forehead, he closed his eyes tight. "I suddenly have a terrible feeling I know what it is you are not looking forward to."

Draco's brows inched upward. Honestly, what? Was she planning a public execution for them?

She nodded. "Your estate has been property of the Ministry since it was seized. Now that I've accepted ownership . . . ." Hermione drew in a deep breath and let it out slow. "I am expected at Gringotts this morning to sign some documents that will transfer the contents of your family's vault to me. And then, at the Ministry, the deeds to your properties are to be signed over to me."

Both Malfoys looked a little sick, and she couldn't say she blamed them. Their possessions had no longer been theirs for quite some time, yet she was certain that hadn't seemed quite so final until just now.

"I know this is difficult, and I'm . . . . I can't believe I'm saying this to you, but I'm sorry," she said, a bitter smile on her lips as she shook her head.

She hated that she actually felt sorry for them. She couldn't pretend she didn't understand their circumstances; couldn't ignore the realization that she would want someone on her side, were she in their place.

Hermione Granger and her blasted compassion, she thought sourly.

Why couldn't she have been given custody of someone for whom she could feel no sympathy? Where the bloody hell was Dolores Umbridge when someone actually needed her?

Lucius was genuinely confused. "Why would you apologize to us for this?"

Shaking his head, Draco waved dismissively in Hermione's direction. "Sympathetic acts are her thing."

"I'm not comfortable having control of another's life like this," she said, ignoring the younger Malfoy's quip. "But, we all know what the alternative was."

Silence wrapped around the table for another long stretch. Hermione finished her coffee, unaware of Lucius' calculating gaze still on her as she started out the window. She didn't touch another bite of her breakfast.

"Something more unsettles you, Miss Granger?"

"Hmm?" She met Lucius' gaze. "Oh, I just . . . . Knowing what we all do about that alternative, I can't help worrying. I mean . . . . What's to become of you two if something should happen to me?"

She turned her attention to her cup and dish as she gathered them up and stood from the table, missing the look exchanged by the wizards across from her.

Lucius and Draco looked at each other in disbelief. Hermione glanced at the weed she'd pulled from one of the many flowerbeds in the garden. "What?"

"Here I thought you were the bigger person—taking the high road, and all that," Draco said, grey eyes narrowed venomously. "Yet, here we are, with you making us do servants' work."

The witch gave herself a moment, counting quietly to ten and then letting out a breath. "No. No, you see, it is not servants' work to upkeep one's own home, Draco. If I have my way—which I do—a house elf will never set foot here, again." She ignored their unhappy expressions at her declaration. "There are only the three of us in this enormous house. Harry and Oliver likely won't mind pitching in while they're here, but their stay is only until I feel settled here . . . and until I'm certain you two have stopped trying to figure out a way to murder me in my sleep."

At least Lucius and Draco had the decency to feign shock at her accusation. They had attempted no such thing last night, but then she'd only just begun her stay at the Manor.

"It will be up to us to maintain this ridiculously excessive living space. This garden has not been tended since the start of the War." She shrugged. "I thought, after your incarceration, the fresh air and sunlight, and the exercise you'll get just from walking about looking for weeds to pull, would be a nice change."

Lucius gave a little start, looking from the witch, to the gardens surrounding them, and back. "You do not mean to leave us out here all day while you are running your errands, do you?"

Her brows shot up. What sort of person did they think she was? Well, a terrible one, obviously.

"Not all day; I'll be back this afternoon. A handful of hours working in the sunshine won't kill you. You are permitted to go back inside and serve yourselves if you start feeling hungry or thirsty." She eyed Draco. "And I mean actually hungry or thirsty, no 'I'm so very thirsty and hungry, I think I'll just stay in the kitchen all day helping myself to whatever I can find.' You're going to have to do actual work from here on out, Malfoys."

She allowed them a moment to shuffle in place and grumble their displeasure.

"You go in, eat or drink, return out here to continue with the weeding. Oh!"

Hermione reached into her bag and pulled out a small lotion bottle. "Come here." The men exchanged a glance.

She opened the bottle, dribbling some thick, white liquid onto her palm. When she looked up at them, again, neither had moved.

Her shoulders slumped. "You big babies, it's only sunscreen . . . . A Muggle convention to keep sun exposure from damaging the wearer's skin."

Draco found himself stepping forward—his father's helpful nudge in his back was to thank for that, of course.

Reaching up—though, from her expression it was clear she didn't like the reminder that they were both notably taller than her—she gently smoothed the lotion across Draco's face and neck. She didn't trust the Malfoys not to try getting the stuff in their eyes on purpose, so they could bow out of work due to injury.

She applied a coat to his hands, as well, as those would also be exposed to direct sunlight as they worked. Though it wasn't a surprise they didn't have something as simple as gardening gloves since the house elves wouldn't have needed them, she grudgingly added it to the list of things she needed to pick up.

"All right, Mr. Malfoy," she said, turning toward him as she ignored the sour expression Draco made when he sniffed at his fingers. "Your turn."

Hiding a smirk, Lucius took a step forward. He accommodated their height difference by leaning down for her to apply the odd smelling lotion.

Hermione tried not to stare at him as she applied the sunscreen. She'd simply never seen Lucius Malfoy's face this close to her own. Draco's? Certainly—they'd spent too many classroom rows in one another's faces. She was a bit stunned by how smooth his skin was beneath her fingertips—upsetting really. Shouldn't a man in his early forties have a wrinkle or two, by now? Crow's feet? Frown lines? Something?

Damn wizarding blood.

She tried to ignore the way his gaze swept over her features as she worked the lotion along his neck, and the bit of his collar bones the opening of his shirt left exposed. And she certainly tried to ignore the way his closeness set off that damned warm fluttering, again, as she turned her attention to his hands.

This was Lucius bloody Malfoy! Possibly the last person in the whole of the Wizarding world who would care to give her butterflies. He was probably trying to intimidate her with his unflinching closeness, she realized.

Oh, if only he realized how terribly it was backfiring, she thought, trying not to laugh.

"Okay," she said, nodding as she finished with his hands and stepped back. "You have your rules. I'll be back as soon as I'm able."

When she had disappeared back inside to make her way toward the front entrance, Draco turned to his father. "I would've thought this would be a bit more upsetting for you, what with her blood status, but it seems you're settling right in."

Lucius grinned as he started down the nearest path to begin their assigned chore. He was going to pretend he didn't hear the biting tone in his son's words— it almost sounded like jealousy. "Doing what I must to turn this situation to our advantage is a burden, I assure you."

He couldn't help a smirk after he turned away to grab hold of the first ugly, scraggly weed he spotted. The hazy gleam that had flickered through her eyes as she'd worked along his skin with delicate fingertips was in danger of making his burden not quite so arduous, but he'd keep that thought to himself, for now.

After all, it did play right into their plan, did it not?