Ever since Hermione can remember, she's loved books. Her first books had more pictures than words, but by the age of seven she was reading with a voracious appetite. She doesn't recall telling her parents that she wanted books for Christmas that year, but she remembers opening her card to find a book token inside and then the blissful hours spent choosing books with her dad.
From that day onwards, it's been a Granger family tradition for Hermione to spend Boxing Day in a bookshop. Some years Hermione never made it to a bookshop, most memorably when she and Harry were hunting Horcruxes and spent a grim Boxing Day pondering their near miss in Godric's Hollow, but even that year she'd acquired a book.
It's been a decade now since Hermione received a book token denominated in pounds instead of Galleons, and her parents no longer accompany her, but, the routine is otherwise the same. Browsing through books is as much a part of the Christmas holidays as mince pies, carols, or roasted chestnuts.
With the book token from her parents tucked safely in her bag, Hermione walks briskly along Diagon Alley. The street is dusted with snow that sparkles in the winter sunshine, and the shoppers' breath forms clouds in the air. Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour is advertising its 'Simply Magical Hot Chocolate.' As Hermione passes she sees people clutching large mugs, and Florean standing behind the counter in a red wizard's hat with a white fur trim.
Hermione reaches the door of Flourish and Blotts, pushes it open, and feels the rush of warm air. She steps inside, closing the door behind her, and pauses to stamp the snow off her boots.
There aren't many customers today, but the shop is filled with gaudy displays of books: a large pile of illustrated copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a table of wizardographies with Fudge's Memoirs of a Minister prominently displayed, and a colourful shelf of romance novels with a sign proclaiming them 'great stocking stuffers!' Hermione moves carefully past all of these, heading for the table of new spellbooks.
Hermione has given some thought to what she wants, but there's a world of difference between reading a book review and having the text in your hand. She picks up Silver Linings: 100 Charms for Grey Days, opens it, and breathes in the crisp scent of fresh ink and untouched pages, before turning to the index.
Half of Hermione's brain is still focused on Silver Linings as she reaches absentmindedly for the lone copy of Cursework, but instead of touching the book her hand closes around something warm and soft. It takes Hermione a second to realise that she's grabbed somebody's hand.
"I'm so sorry!" Hermione says, releasing the hand immediately, as a female voice says, "Sorry! I didn't realise--"
Hermione looks up into the face of a very pretty woman with long, dark hair, and warm, brown eyes. It's a face that Hermione is sure she's seen before, but can't quite place where or when.
"Sorry, I should pay more attention to what I'm doing," Hermione says, struggling to remember who the woman is. "I'm so easily distracted by books."
"No, honestly, it's not your fault. I'm just the same way, I--"
The woman pauses mid-sentence, stares at Hermione for a moment, and then says, "Hermione?"
"Yes," Hermione says, and something about the tentative way the woman says her name gives her a flash of inspiration. "Cho?"
"It's lovely to see you!" Cho says enthusiastically, and although Hermione has heard this dozens of times from ex-schoolmates, she somehow doesn't doubt that Cho means it. "It's been years, hasn't it? How are you?"
"I'm good," Hermione says, automatically. "Still at the Ministry. How are you?"
"Great!" says Cho, smiling, and Hermione suddenly understands why Harry was reduced to mumbling incoherence when inviting Cho to the Yule Ball, because that smile is stunning. "I'm writing a book, actually, so I'm here doing some research."
"I shouldn't delay you, then," Hermione says, feeling a pang for the days when she was engaged in research, instead of writing endless Ministerial briefing papers. "It was Cursework you wanted, wasn't it?"
Hermione gestures to the book, which is sitting lopsidedly on its display stand. All the other books on the table are piled high with multiple copies, but this seems to be the only copy of Cursework.
"I can't take the last copy. You were here first," says Cho.
"But you need it for research," Hermione points out. "I can just get something else, like..." She tries to think of another book she's been looking forward to reading, but the glowing reviews of Cursework in Magical Monthly and Transfiguration Today jump inconveniently to mind. "I'll find something else," she says weakly.
"Maybe they've got another copy?" Cho says hopefully, and turns to face the shop assistant. "Excuse me! Do you have any more copies of Cursework?"
"Everything we've got is out," the saleswizard says, without looking up. "If you want to make a special order there are forms at the desk, but it's at least a three-week wait at this time of year."
"It's fine," Hermione says, taking a step backwards. "You take it."
Cho bites her lip, frowning slightly, and then says, "How about if one of us buys the book and passes it on it to the other when they're finished? I'd be happy to lend it to you."
"That sounds... really good, actually," Hermione says, and melts as Cho flashes her that amazing smile again.
"Okay, well, I should be finished with it by the end of the week, so I'll Owl you. Maybe we could discuss the book over a coffee when you've read it?"
This is just politeness. She's not flirting with me, Hermione tells herself sternly.
"That would be nice," she says, hearing her voice come out higher than usual.
"Great!" Cho announces. "I'm afraid I've got to go, because I'm late for lunch with my brother. I'll talk to you soon."
Cho steps close and wraps her arms around Hermione in a hug. For a moment Cho's hair tickles her cheek, and Hermione inhales the scent of it, and then Cho moves away. Hermione watches dazedly as Cho pays for the book.
"Bye!" Cho says, her words mingling with the jangle of the bell above the door, and then she's gone.
Although Hermione selects three books that she's genuinely looking forward to reading, somehow none of them appeals as much as the prospect of getting an Owl from Cho.
You're being ridiculous, Hermione tells herself.
"What was that?" the shop assistant asks, and Hermione realises that she vocalised her thoughts.
"Nothing," she says, blushing, and dives into her bag to retrieve the book voucher.
Here you go! I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to discussing it with you. Drop me an Owl when you're done.
Thanks for lending me Cursework. Flourish and Blotts still haven't got any more copies. I'd love to get together and discuss it if you're still keen. Maybe next weekend?
Hermione looks in the full-length mirror for what must be the fifteenth time, and sighs at her reflection. Deciding what to wear for an actual date is hard enough, but picking an outfit for coffee with Cho is somehow much harder: nothing too formal, or too casual; nothing too scruffy, in case Cho is interested; nothing too flirty, in case she isn't.
She glances at her watch, which reads five minutes to three. There's no time to change, now, so this will have to do, Hermione tells herself. She smoothes her hair down one last time, focuses on the cafe, and Disapparates.
Hermione arrives to find Cho is already waiting, her hands wrapped around a large steaming mug.
"Hello," Hermione says, willing herself not to blush.
"Hi!" Cho stands up to greet her.
Cho leans in, and this time Hermione is prepared for the hug and wraps her own arm briefly around Cho's shoulders. It's nice: warm, solid, and Cho is just a little bit closer than last time, so her breasts brush Hermione's own. At the thought of Cho's breasts, a warm tingle of desire runs down Hermione's spine.
"So," Cho says, pulling back, "do you want a coffee? Or tea?"
"Tea, I think, but I'll get it," Hermione says, but Cho waves her protest aside.
"My treat, because you were kind enough to let me take the book," she says, and has moved off towards the counter before Hermione has time to protest.
She's buying you a drink, Hermione thinks. As if it were a date.
Hermione blushes, mentally chastises herself, and wills the flush to fade from her cheeks by the time Cho returns with a teapot, cup, milk jug and sugar bowl floating alongside her.
"So," Cho says, retaking her seat as the crockery arranges itself on the table in front of Hermione. "What did you think of it?
"It was excellent," Hermione says, without hesitation. "After those reviews I thought, perhaps, it was over-rated, but the chapter on time-limited curses was amazing -- it's completely changed how I think about spellwork, actually."
"That's what I thought, too!" Cho says excitedly, leaning forwards. "Time is a component of magic that people don't usually think about, but it's just another dimension, isn't it? And that section on the Thief's Curse--"
"Yes, that was really well done," Hermione agrees, reaching for the book, and before she realises it they've talked for so long that her tea has gone cold.
As Hermione spells the teapot hot again and pours some tea into the cup, Cho fiddles with her mug.
"Actually, I had a bit of an ulterior motive for this," Cho says, looking down at her hands. "I was interested in what you thought of the book, but I also wanted an excuse to see you again."
"Oh," says Hermione, and her heart sinks as she imagines what Cho will say next -- that she wanted a re-introduction to Harry, perhaps, or a quote for her book-jacket. When Cho doesn't continue, Hermione prompts, "So you wanted to see me, because..."
"Well," Cho says, lowering her voice. "I... I'm no good at asking people out." Cho looks up, meeting Hermione's eyes, and gives her a hesitant smile.
For a moment Hermione just stares as her mind cartwheels, and then she musters the coordination to smile back. "I've never got the hang of asking people on a date either," Hermione admits. "Maybe we should stick to books?"
"We could do that," Cho says, leaning closer; her thumb brushes softly across the back of Hermione's hand. "I might have more books that you'd be interested in. Would you like to come over and take a look?"
"Well," Hermione says, feeling almost giddy as she entwines her fingers with Cho's, "I've never been able to resist a library."