At some point in the last ten years, Hermione Granger had gotten used to being overlooked. Once the Second Wizarding War had been completed and Lord Voldemort defeated once and for all, it had been easy to simply slip into the background. There was a great deal of attention surrounding her best friend Harry, the so-called "Chosen One". Unfortunately she and Ron had been sucked up into the maelstrom of publicity despite her desire to be left alone. Harry endured it with the same resigned stoicism he'd employed since the tender age of eleven. Ron, out of the shadows of his older brothers for the first time in his life, ate the attention up greedily. After one too many Witch Weekly and Daily Prophet articles speculating about her role in the last year of the war as being little more than a bed warmer for one or the other of the boys, Hermione joyfully escaped back into the bosom of Hogwarts Castle to finish her final year of schooling.
Hermione would never come right out and say that she was unhappy, but there were certainly times when she wondered if there was more to life than arse-numbingly dull department meetings and occasional Sunday dinners with the Weasley clan. She lived a solitary existence. Her friends from school had all moved on with their lives in different directions from hers. Harry was happily married to the love of his life. He and Ginny were proud parents of three gorgeous children that Hermione loved from afar. Ron was too busy playing the field with eligible witches (and even the odd Muggle) all over the country. His job in his brother's Diagon Alley shop kept him right in the middle of the comings and goings of Britain's magical community. More than a few were interested in a firsthand account of the end of the last war. Even Neville Longbottom was working as Professor Sprout's assistant and engaged to the woman he'd had a crush on since fifth year.
Working long hours at the Ministry of Magic certainly didn't help her keep her relationships with her loved ones strong. She knew she shouldn't spend so much time sitting in her cramped office on the fourth level of the London Headquarters. Her job in the Office for House-Elf Relocation was supposed to be a temporary stepping stone to other divisions within the Ministry. She was supposed to learn the basics of the job and rise through the ranks accordingly. No one explained that without adhering to strict office politics she would be doomed to shuffle papers in one of the most boring departments available. There was a game to be played and much like Arthur Weasley years earlier, Hermione didn't always know the rules.
Like every other Monday night since she began her job eight years earlier, Hermione was the last one in the department. Every single one of her coworkers had already gone home, some hours ago. Much like when she was the last person in the Hogwarts library, she found it easier to work with no distractions. None of her subordinates were asking her inane questions they should already know the answer to. Her direct supervisor wasn't demanding she rewrite her reports on the current state of available house-elves. And most importantly, the Department Head wasn't teasing her about S.P.E.W. whenever he had a free moment.
She enjoyed the emptiness of the building as the evening wore on. While her work could most definitely wait until the next morning, she didn't have anyone waiting for her at home. Sometimes it was just easier to stay late than to go home to an empty flat. Her grandmother would've called her an old maid if the cantankerous old woman was still alive. At almost thirty years old, Hermione was living the depressingly unfulfilled life Grannie Granger always feared she would.
Because she refused to play the game, because she refused to suck up to her supervisors or use her friendship with the current Minister for Magic to her advantage, she was stuck in a dead-end job that literally no one was anxious to take away from her. She would be trapped in her tiny, windowless office until she either retired or even more depressingly, died. Sobered by the thought of keeling over in the room with the garish gold carpet, Hermione leaned back in her uncomfortable chair to stretch her stiff, tired limbs. A quick glance at the clock on the wall revealed the time to already be a few minutes after nine.
If she left in the next few minutes, she would make it home in time to have a single glass of wine in the bath before she slipped into her empty bed alone only to wake up seven hours later to come back to work. I really ought to find some kind of hobby, she thought. Her female friends would tell her that what she was really lacking was a male presence in that big, empty bed of hers. She wouldn't say they were wrong, only that prospects were disappointingly slim.
Hermione stacked her loose papers into a single, organized pile. She pulled her heavy, winter coat down from the hook beside her door and shrugged it on during the short walk to the lifts. The lights were almost all out on the fourth level due to lack of human presence at the late hour. If she had not known every inch of the department by heart, she might have been unnerved by the darkness in several spots. Years of experience taught her that there was nothing to fear.
The lifts were notorious for being slow even at that time of night when no one else in the building was waiting for one. Hermione adjusted her coat as she waited for the lift to arrive at her level. The mid-January nights had been growing colder and colder. She was thankful that her flat was only a short walk away from her Apparition point.
A large, blond man appeared near the lifts pushing a mop in the Muggle way. Hermione had never seen him before and his sudden appearance caused her to jump. Embarrassed at being startled by the new custodian, she giggled to herself. The man likely hadn't even noticed her surprise. She allowed a brief inspection of the new arrival while his back was still turned. At several inches over six feet, he towered over Hermione. His clothes were baggy and didn't fit him well, but it was still obvious to see the large, defined muscles he was hiding. It was obvious that whatever he had been doing before he came to be pushing a mop in her department, it hadn't been done behind a desk. Something seemed familiar about him. Wizarding Britain was such a small, insulated community that it was possible they had met at some point in the past. Half of his face was still shadowed. Hermione didn't think he could be more than ten years older than her. If he was younger, they might have even been at school at the same time.
"I don't believe I've seen you around here before."
The door to the lift opened just as she finished addressing the man. In the corner of her eye she could see that he had turned around. She glanced in his direction to wish him a 'Good evening', but the words caught in her throat. A smile was spread across his familiar features that reached all the way up to his cool, blue eyes. The last time she'd been that close to the man she was modifying his memory while he lay on the sticky floor of a tacky Muggle café. Hermione rushed into the relative safety of the empty lift. She frantically pushed the button that would take her up to the Atrium. Through the crack of the closing doors, she watched Thorfinn Rowle stare at her without once dropping the smirk.
When she reached the Atrium, Hermione practically ran out the Employee Entrance. She wasted no time Apparating to the alley closest to her flat. Short minutes later she was safely inside her cold, empty home. Only when every Muggle lock was locked and every locking ward was up did she finally allow herself a moment to take a deep breath.
She took the entire bottle of wine with her to her bathtub. By the time the water grew cold and the dregs at the bottom of the bottle had been consumed, she convinced herself that she had simply being seeing things that weren't really there. She had been working too hard lately and had not been sleeping enough. There was no way that Thorfinn Rowle, Death Eater, was pushing a mop in the Ministry of Magic. He was a convicted criminal sentenced to a lifetime in Azkaban. She followed all of the Death Eater trials, paying especial attention to those that had personally tried to kill her during the war. He must have been a figment of her overactive imagination, yet more proof that she had been working too hard. Maybe she would talk to her Department Head about taking some time off. He'd been hounding her to take a break for months.
The next morning arrived before Hermione was ready for it. She woke with a raging headache. It was too late to do more than simply wish she hadn't consumed an entire bottle of wine on her own. Her alcohol tolerance was not as strong as it used to be.
To make matters worse, the morning staff meeting was almost unbearable. Usually the Department Head had better things to do than spend his time dropping in on their weekly sub-division meeting. That day, sadly, Kenneth Towler had enough free time to check in with the poor sods relegated to the Office for House-Elf Relocation. He sat back in the leather chair at the head of the conference table patiently listening to the various reports. Only every few minutes did his attention fall on Hermione directly to either smile, or worst of all, wink.
She hated Kenneth Towler. A Gryffindor in the same year as the Weasley twins, she'd known him through her first five years at Hogwarts. Fred used to torment him relentlessly. He even once put Bulbadox powder in his pajamas to make the obnoxious twit break out in disgusting, oozing boils over his entire body. Hermione fondly remembered the moment he was helped to the infirmary after that glorious incident. If it had been anyone else in the tower, she would've been horrified and irate with the twins. Since it was the arse who had been teasing her and pulling her curls since her very first day of school in some pathetic attempt to get her attention, she simply laughed.
Towler had asked her out no less than seventy-three times (she kept a thorough record in case it was ever needed by higher-ups) since she joined the department. Thirty-seven of those requests had taken place in the two years after he was promoted to become the youngest Department Head in the entire Ministry. He was obnoxious, but if someone else didn't start showing her any positive attention soon, she was likely going to buckle and accept his invitation.
"And finally, Hermione, didn't you have a proposed bill you were wanting to submit to the Minister's staff?" asked her direct supervisor.
Snickers erupted from all eight people seated around the table at Matthew Kettletoft's question. Only Hermione failed to find the humor in his question.
"Are you attempting to reorganize spew?" inquired Towler to the further amusement of the group. "I might have a spare sickle or two to donate if need be."
Hermione closed her eyes and took a deep breath before responding. She longed to point out that Towler was one of the very few Gryffindors to actually contribute to S.P.E.W. in her fourth, his sixth, year. No doubt he saw potential for a Hogsmeade visit out of the deal. Instead of blurting out her innermost thoughts, she bit her tongue. There was nothing to gain by embarrassing the Head of her department and quite a bit to lose.
"I have a proposal to update the terms of the House-Elf Protection Act of 2004 to include additional days off for the elves."
"The Act already guarantees two days off a month," replied Towler. "How many are you wishing to propose?"
The small conference room rang with the guffaws and chortles of her coworkers. One of her subordinates was even openly wiping tears from her eyes. Undeterred, she powered on through the remainder of her presentation.
"Witches and wizards are given at least four free weekends a month. Do our elvish friends deserve any less?"
"Hermione, you have a generous heart, but in this instance, I fear it is overpowering your equally generous brain," declared Towler.
"Eight days is preposterous!" Matthew said with much less concern for her feelings. "No respectable house-elf would agree to those terms. They are an insult."
"Perhaps a revision of your proposal is needed before submission," Towler suggested. "Feel free to visit me in my private office for any assistance you might desire."
His offer was accompanied by another damned wink. Hermione didn't even try to hide the expression of absolute disgust his offer elicited. More snickers filled the room. Kenneth Towler wasn't insulted. He'd been pursuing the woman for years and still did not know when to quit. Hermione half-expected a bar of Honeydukes finest chocolate to make its way to her desk by the end of the day. He was excruciatingly predictable.
"If there is nothing further, let's adjourn and return to our own desks," Matthew ordered.
Hermione remained in her chair to allow the overly eager to exit first. Frustrated with yet another failed attempt to help pass legislation that would bring real change to the lives of the downtrodden house-elves, she took her time rearranging her stack of parchment. When the last withdrew from the conference room, she rose from her chair. She was two steps away from the door when her arm was grabbed. Towler had been waiting for her at the exit.
"I meant what I said, Hermione," he said, his hand lightly brushing her forearm. "I would be more than happy to provide additional assistance to get your bill passed."
She shrugged her arm out of his grasp. Kenneth simply stepped closer, effectively pinning her body against the wall.
"Even if it means working late into the night."
His voice dropped to a low, husky tone that needed no interpretation. Hermione hated how backwards and behind the times the Wizarding world could be. In the Muggle world, Kenneth Towler could be fired and sued for his relentless behavior. Here, she risked being labeled a frigid troublemaker if she reported him.
"You are wasted in this division," he continued. "There's a position coming open very soon in the Goblin Liaison Office. Much higher pay. Much larger office with two windows. The Minister is waiting on my recommendation."
There was no more respected division within the entire Department than the Goblin Liaison Office. It was a position that commanded great respect and Ministry officials actually listened to those important enough to be in that office. She would do just about anything for the opportunity. Based on the way Towler was running his index finger across her exposed collarbone, it didn't take a genius to figure out what he wanted in exchange. Hermione gulped. Suddenly she wasn't so sure about doing anything.
"Have dinner with me Saturday night. We can discuss all of the tedious details over an exorbitantly expensive bottle of wine."
Her agreement to go out on what was essentially a date with her hated Department Head tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop herself. A bright grin crossed Kenneth's face. Apparently, the seventy-fourth time was the charm.
"Should I pick you up from your flat or should we meet here?"
"Here is fine."
There was no way she was going to let the horrid man anywhere near her home.
"I look forward to it."
Kenneth exited the conference room with an extra spring in his step. Hermione feared she was going to be sick. She ignored all of the knowing smirks from her coworkers as she rushed back to her office to hide. Despite what might or might not happen after Saturday night, she still had a mountain of work to complete and a bill proposal to revise.
She spent the rest of the workday hiding in her cramped, windowless office. More than once her thoughts strayed to what life might be like in one of the airy offices in the back of the department. Her thoughts were interrupted after five by the sudden appearance of her direct supervisor. He avoided conversations with her whenever possible.
"What did Towler want to talk to you about after the meeting?" he demanded.
Matthew Kettletoft was one of the worst examples of a Hufflepuff that Hermione had ever personally known. How the Sorting Hat ever saw fit to put him in a House that was known for its loyalty and kindness was beyond her understanding. At almost forty years old, Matthew was bitter that he'd failed to rise higher in the Ministry ranks than he had. He was a man who expected all of the good things to happen to him without any of the hard work. From the moment they met, Hermione had not found a single admirable trait about the wizard. The only positive that could be said about him was the combination of his olive complexion and his dark wavy hair made him passably attractive.
"He offered to help me with the bill again," she answered, neglecting to elaborate further on their private discussion.
Matthew was skeptical.
"That was all."
Unsatisfied with her answer but knowing he wouldn't get any more out of the witch, Matthew narrowed his eyes and swept out of her office. He was headed towards the lifts with the majority of the other in the department. Hermione settled back into her work to distract her mind from other more unpleasant thoughts. The revision of the bill proposal meant hours of work ahead.
In an almost exact repeat of the previous night, Hermione laid her quill down a few minutes before nine. Her eyes were beginning to cross and go blurry the longer she stared at her proposal. After stretching her entire body and rubbing her tired eyes, she carefully stacked her parchments in a single, tidy pile. She removed her coat from the hook behind her office door. It was during her short walk to the lifts that she remembered how anxious and frightened she'd been the night before when she could've sworn she'd seen Thorfinn Rowle.
The reminder of her hallucination made her chuckle while she waited for the lift to arrive. She made a quick survey of the semi-dark floor. It seemed that once again she was completely alone.
"You are working too hard, Granger," she said aloud. "You definitely need more sleep."
The doors to the lift chimed announced the arrival to her level. A self-deprecating smile was still on her lips when the doors began to open. Sometimes Hermione could hardly believe how stressed out she could make herself. She was still smiling when the muscular blond man appeared with his mop and bucket. Their eyes met once again and Hermione had to resist the urge to take off running for the stairs. The Thorfinn Rowle look-alike smiled back as he exited the lift. Their sleeves brushed against each other. Hermione's entire body erupted into goosebumps at the sensation. She was in the lift and frantically pushing the button for the Atrium when he spoke.
"Have a good evening, Princess."
Her jaw fell open at the familiar sobriquet. His soft laughter echoed in her ears as the doors shut, obliterating him from her view. Only one person called her Princess. One person that she hadn't seen in years. It was a remnant of her miserable first year at Hogwarts where a cruel seventh year Slytherin used to tease her without mercy. It was last shouted at her across the battlefield of a crumbling Hogwarts corridor as various shades of debilitating curses flew out of a Death Eater's wand. She was in a full-blown panic by the time the lift opened onto the Atrium level. There was no denying that for whatever reason she couldn't possibly fathom, Thorfinn Rowle was out of Azkaban with access to the building she spent most of her waking hours.
After a rather sleepless night pacing the floors of her flat, Hermione entered the Ministry with purpose. While most of the new arrivals were still bleary eyed and anxious for another cup of their preferred caffeinated beverage, she was on a mission. The crowds parted before her almost as if the world was aware she was not a woman to be messed with. Or more likely, she had a manic gleam in her whiskey colored eyes that tended to make those around her uncomfortable.
Her feet carried her directly to the office of the Minister for Magic. Kingsley was a dear, old friend from their Order days. He still enjoyed dropping by her office for a chinwag when his busy schedule allowed. Those rare visits were usually the highlight of Hermione's month. She loved seeing how flustered Matthew became during the unscheduled visits. It was one of the only times he showed her any respect at all. Those were some of the only times her status as a genuine war heroine was acknowledged.
"Good morning, Miss Granger," greeted Kingsley's personal assistant. "May I help you with something?"
"Thank you, Gemma. I just need a quick word with Kingsley."
Hermione rushed past the witch's desk and straight to the ornate door of the Minister's private office. Like her, Kingsley was a creature of habit. She knew without a doubt that he always arrived no later than seven forty-five each morning and left no earlier than six-thirty each evening. Unless he was called out of the Headquarters for a special meeting or appointment, he spent the first forty-five minutes of his day reading the classified news reports from the night before while enjoying a pot of Earl Grey and two blueberry scones. His partner was forever nagging him to limit his pastry intake in the mornings to a single scone, but Kingsley never heeded his sage advice.
"Minister Shacklebolt is not available," Gemma said, almost pushing Hermione away from the door.
"Step away from the door, Gemma. I know for a fact that Kingsley doesn't have an appointment for the next twenty minutes. I've already checked his schedule."
Without giving the former Slytherin prefect a chance to argue, Hermione barged into Kingsley's office. She practically slammed the door in the other witch's face. The Minister was startled enough by her abrupt entrance to drop one of his buttered scones on top of the report he was in the middle of perusing. A wide smile crossed his face when he realized who his intruder was. He didn't seem surprised in the slightest to see her standing on the opposite side of his desk.
"Good morning, Hermione. What can I do for you today?"
"You can explain to me just why in the bloody hell I have seen Thorfinn Rowle in my department the last two nights!"
Kingsley shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He wasn't used to Hermione raising her voice. It had been many years since they were in a situation that required such vehemence. Hermione stood in front of him with her hands on each hip, waiting for his response.
"Have you read the memo on Azkaban parolees that was circulating last week?" he asked.
"No, I haven't," she admitted. "You know most of the memos we receive are complete rubbish. How am I expected to know which ones are important enough to read?"
Kingsley nodded his head in agreement. His decades with the Ministry gave him more than enough experience to know she was correct. There was simply no motivation for an employee to read every single memo that crossed their desk. They would be unable to complete their actual job if that were the case.
"A few former Death Eaters have been selected for a trial parole program," he explained. "Rowle was selected because of his history of good behavior in Azkaban."
Hermione snorted. Somehow she doubted that that man was capable of spending years locked up in a prison without causing trouble. If he was an example of a model prisoner, she could only imagine how terrible the truly awful ones were.
"He will be working in the Ministry late at night for the foreseeable future."
"This is insane, Kingsley! What's next? Is Antonin Dolohov going to start serving tea in the canteen? Alecto Carrow going to start handing out fresh towels in the loo?"
"I understand your concerns, Hermione."
"'Concerns'? Kingsley, before the other night, the last time I saw Thorfinn Rowle he was trying to kill me at Hogwarts. He has a personal vendetta against me."
Kingsley rose from his desk to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"The war was over a long time ago, Hermione."
"It's doesn't feel like it to me sometimes. Especially when one of the baddies is out and mopping the floors."
"I have been assured by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement that there was an extensive screening process before any of the parolees were released from Azkaban. Mr. Rowle was analyzed by a team of experts and was determined to not be a threat to public safety. If it makes you feel better, he is forbidden from performing any kind of magic for the first two years that he is out."
At least that explains why he's been mopping like a Muggle, she thought. To be stripped of his magic made Hermione feel a twinge of sympathy for the man. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to be unable to use what came so naturally. As a Pureblood, it must be exponentially worse. Stop feeling sorry for the monster, Granger.
"I'm honestly surprised that you didn't talk to Harry about this earlier," Kingsley said. "His office has been assisting in the project."
Hermione leaned up to kiss her friend on the cheek.
"I apologize for barging in on you, Kings. I was simply surprised."
"No need to apologize, dear girl. I understand."
She excused herself from the Minister's Office. Gemma Farley was glaring at her when she exited. Hermione didn't care. She had more important issues to worry about. Like why her best friend didn't feel the need to mention he was part of an organization letting dangerous Death Eaters free. She checked her watch. Harry was usually in his office by eight unless there were problems getting the kids through breakfast. She directed her steps towards the stairs. It was past time that she had a visit with her best friend.