Hermione was walking out of Flourish and Botts when she walked into a brick wall. At least it felt like a brick wall. All her bags and books fell out of her arms.
"Sorry, babe, I didn't mean to," the brick wall rumbled.
"Don't worry," Hermione said, looking up, and taking the large hand that was offered to her. "Charlie!"
"Oh, hi, Hermione. I almost didn't recognize you with the short hair," he said.
"I didn't know you were back in England. Your mum didn't say anything the last time I saw her."
Charlie reached out and pulled her out of the way of someone who was muttering about people clogging doorways. "She doesn't know."
Hermione was taken aback and it showed in her face.
"Don't look at me like that. I want to give her a Christmas surprise," he said, "Don't worry, it'll be a good one." He thought for a bit, while he held his hand out for her bag. "I didn't know you still saw Mum."
"I like your Mum. It is really interesting to watch her needle Ron and Lavender about starting their family so early. When I asked why, she said she had to find her fun somehow."
"What was that about?"
"Either a goose walked over my grave, or I'm deathly afraid of what else my mother might find fun," he said.
Neither one seemed to want the conversation to end, even though they had run out of things to say at the moment.
"Say, why don't you come over to my flat for tea, and you can tell me why you are secretly back," she said.
"That sounds great," he responded, and reached for her hand.
Hermione let him take her hand, a bemused smile on her face. They walked the length of the Diagon Alley then turned onto Wims Sickle Alley. She stopped in front of a lovely building with carvings of magical creatures all along the edges of the brickwork.
"Very nice. Lavesh Wims certainly had interesting tastes, didn't he?"
"He is rather high on my list of 'wizards I wish I could have met'," she replied. "My flat is on the fourth floor."
Charlie nodded and followed her as she used her wand to tap the front door, then turned his back when she tapped the sequence to enter her doorway.
"Oh, it is nice to see you with a real gentleman," said a voice from the corridor.
"Hello, Mrs. Quizly, it is nice to see you, too," Hermione responded. She grabbed Charlie's hand and pulled him up the stairs.
"Don't let him be too much of a gentleman!" The elderly neighbor's voice carried after them.
As Hermione pulled him into her room, Charlie let out a guffaw. "I can see why you like living here," he said after he stopped laughing.
"She's a hoot. You should have tea with her one day. Her stories would either give your mother the vapors or some ideas."
Charlie shuddered again.
"You don't think seven of us are enough?"
"You have a point."
Charlie followed Hermione into her kitchen and helped her prepare the tea.
"OK, what is it with the bemused looks?" he asked.
"You seem far more domesticated than your brothers, which is kind of amusing considering you work with dragons," she answered.
"No one takes care of me but me, you know?"
"I would think you have droves of women wanting to take care of you."
"Most of them don't last a week around the dragons. I can't even remember the last one that tried. It must have been a couple years ago."
"I think I like dragons better than people," Hermione answered.
"Not everyone is Ron," Charlie answered.
"Oh, for Merlin's sake. I thought you were smarter than that. Honestly. Ron had a thing for Lavender in our sixth year, and she never really got over him. We never dated, no matter what anyone thinks. One kiss doesn't make a relationship."
"Then why the smug looks and touches for the cameras?"
"To get people to leave us alone for the most part. We could choose our own partners that way. I knew he was dating Lavender; I was never jilted. I was the maid of honor because Parvati couldn't get back from India, and I was her other roommate, not because I blackmailed Ron," Hermione said then laughed. "Did I get all of the rumors?"
Charlie chuckled at her in response, leaning back on the sofa he was sitting on. He patted the pillows, it was soft in all the right places.
"Speaking of secrets and rumors, why are you back?"
He stared at her as though he was trying to look into her soul. "I was given the directorship of the Welsh reserve. I'm home to stay. I was just picking up some books for the long nights when I ran into you."
"But you never went into the store!"
"A smart, pretty witch trumps a book every time, Hermione."
She smiled at him uncertainly.
"Don't look at me like that. You can't argue that you aren't smart, can you?"
She shook her head for no.
"Well, don't argue that you aren't pretty. I think you are, and beauty is always in the eye of the beholder," he said.
"Don't get too comfortable. You look at dragons and grizzled keepers all day long. I'm betting you find almost all women pretty."
"You got me there. I like women." He grinned. "Before you ask, yes, I find you attractive, and it is for more than your pretty face and curvy figure."
"Is this an interview? Are you looking for a prospective husband?"
Hermione flushed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to come off like that. I just have had so many bad experiences with men who just want to say they were with 'Hermione Granger' that I've gotten combative when anyone says I'm attractive."
"I've known you since your hair looked like you tangled with a Medusa and your teeth were a bit big for your face, babe. And even then, even when you were just one of the little ones running around, you always were interested in asking me questions and listening to the answers."
She nodded. That was true.
"So, you fixed the teeth and cut the hair, and grew up a whole lot. And you still ask me questions and are interested in the answer. You don't automatically categorize me as the 'big, dumb dragon tamer' and ask to see my biceps."
"I don't have to ask. I've seen your biceps. The Burrow wasn't that big, and you all liked wandering around in the least amount of clothes your mother would allow. I've even seen most of that tattoo on your left hip," she said. "In any case, I know that to move past dragon keeper to tamer to director you need to have attained a Master level in the care and breeding of the animals…" She trailed off at his look.
"What the hell was I wearing for you to see that tattoo?"
"A not very big towel." Hermione blushed.
"Did that 'not very big towel' feature in any fantasies?" Charlie grinned when Hermione blushed deeper. "I didn't think that color was possible on anyone not blood related. You really have been hanging out with Weasleys for too long."
She shook her head at him. "So when do you want to go back to the bookstore?"
"Didn't you just leave the bookstore?"
"Did you forget who you were talking to?"
"Not at all. I can also stop by the Leaky Cauldron and see if they have a room to let off and on for the next few weeks while I get my place at the Reserve set up."
Hermione surprised herself with what she said next. "I have a spare room. Stay here." She thought about it for a bit and realized she really liked Charlie.
"Are you sure, Hermione?"
"Very. And I'm off next month, all of it. I had too much personal time built up… So I can help you set your place up."
"Then, yes. Absolutely. I will stay here and take your offer of help."
Molly was bustling about her kitchen on Christmas Day, getting everything ready for the big dinner when Hermione came in, an hour early.
"Hi, Molly. I came to help. And I brought a surprise guest. I hope that is all right with you," she said.
"Of course it i–– Is that an engagement ring?"
Hermione smiled at her. "Yes, it is."
"Oh, I'm so happy for you. Your fiancé is always welcome here!"
"Good to hear it, Mum."
Molly's eyes went comically wide. She turned around, only to see Charlie, in formal robes, entering the kitchen.
"Charles Weasley! I thought you were in Romania? And when have you had time to court our Hermione?"
Charlie walked over to his mother and gently placed his index finger over her lips. "I am now the director of the Welsh Reserve, Mum. So I will be home far more often. As for Hermione, we bumped into each other about six weeks ago at the bookstore and she's been helping me with my move. We spent a lot of time together and realized we wanted to make it permanent. Good enough?"
Molly sighed. "Good enough. Now, when's the wedding? We have lots of planning to do."
"No, Mum," chimed in Hermione. "It's OK to call you that, right?"
Molly nodded through her sudden tears.
"Dad is a Ministry official. He can do it legally, so we want to do it tonight. Everyone we want to have as a guest will be here anyway," she said.
"Well, then. Let's get everything ready," Molly said, a wide smile on her face.
And so they did.