AUTHOR'S NOTE: This was a FIC CHALLENGE presented by CAREYLAN. Her requirements were as follows:

1. Draco x Hermione.

2. One-shot humor and romance, no smut.

3. Must take place in Hogwarts when they are still students – I don't care what year.

4. Can be AU or follow the novels or movies – I don't have a preference.

5. Has to include Draco's ferret transformation somehow.

6. You have to use these words: shenanigan, patronus, bugged, coconut, fluffy, pickle.

7. No Harry, Ron, Ginny or Lavender allowed on screen, except to be mentioned in passing. Ron is dating Pansy.

8. Slytherins must be cool. Theodore Nott must play a vital role. Draco must be attempting to turn over a new leaf.

9. Want a shower or bathtub scene.

10. Happy ending.

Oooh… okay, a fun one. Hope you like!


TIMELINE: 1998

CHARACTERS FEATURED: Hermione Granger, Draco Malfoy, Theodore Nott, Blaise Zabini, Astoria Greengrass, Daphne Greengrass

STORY DETAILS: Alternate Universe (events after novel #4 never happened; Cedric Diggory didn't die, Harry won the Tri-Wizard Tournament, Voldemort was not resurrected and there was no war). Years Five, Six and Seven were filled with regular teenage angst stuff for our cast, but nothing world-shaking, like in the canon novels.

SUMMARY: When the newly appointed Head Boy, Draco Malfoy, purchases an ancient Meso-American talisman from Borgin & Burkes in Knockturn Alley with the intention of cheating and passing it off as his own creation to get an "O" on his upcoming Charms final exam, he makes the mistake of not exactly knowing what the magically imbued item can do. Unfortunately, Head Girl Hermione Granger and he soon discover the medallion's special talent for causing all sorts of trouble. Sometimes it takes an accident of epic proportions to bring two stubborn tempers together!

RATING: K+ (PG) (fighting/a little violence, and reference to flirty behavior and alcohol)


LOVE, ANIMAL STYLE

By: RZZMG


Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Scotland

February 1st, 1998

Prior to the start of their first term, Hermione Granger had previously maintained the notion that Draco Malfoy was a devious, rotten, little ferret. Well, now the proof was in the pudding.

Annoyed with her current… predicament… she stared imperiously down the length of her dark brown snout and twitched majestically long whiskers in annoyance at the white pelted weasel in front of her. Beady silvery eyes stared right back in hot anger, nostrils flared and fluffy ermine fur stood on end insolently. Playing to type, Malfoy broke the stalemate first, chittering his furious anger at their odd situation, audaciously placing all culpability for it on her for grabbing at the cursed amulet he'd been holding just before their "accident." He yapped and squealed his displeasure, turning his small pink nose up at her in disgust when he was finished with his rant, standing his ground against her accusatory glare.

Clearly, the self-centered Slytherin refused to admit his part in the troublesome shenanigan which now saw them transfigured as two animals (he a domestic ferret, she an Eurasian otter), unable to convert back into their human selves or use magic of any kind. Hermione was floored by such effrontery. How dare he try to turn this on its head and blame her! What an unbelievable, irresponsible git!

Snarking back through a series of flaying snuffs, wuffs and barks, Hermione refused him any reprieve from her ire, telling him to stuff his noisy, crepuscular self where the sun didn't shine, since this was all his idiotic fault for purchasing such a dangerous and poorly-studied magical item from Borgin & Burkes to begin with! Her tirade lasted quite a bit longer than his, and ended with a final below-the-belt shot with an insinuation that his overly-excitable scent glands were stinking up her nose. She even wrinkled her muzzle in faux distaste of the non-existent smell just to be malicious. She was quite put out with him at the moment.

Malfoy totally lost his cool then, and launched himself at her, all sharp teeth and spitfire. Hermione met him half-way in much the same temper. The two mustelids clashed foreheads, their eyes locked in a powerful, unquenchable enmity upon each other, snarling.

Slowly, Hermione's larger self began easily pushing Ferret-Malfoy back. His tiny claws scrapped across the stone floor as he stubbornly set his muscles in rigid defiance, refusing to give in even though she outweighed him by a good four or five kilograms and was longer than he by at least a dozen centimeters. For such a little fellow, her dorm roommate certainly knew no fear, she thought with some small amusement. She might have even respected Malfoy for his bold stance if he hadn't just growled out between his clenched teeth that she looked as ugly in this form as she did normally, even going so far as to insult the texture of her fur.

Sneering back, Hermione taunted Draco's mouse-like size, which comically made his pathetic little tail bristle in indignation. Instinctually, she knew that no member of the weasel family ever liked to be compared to a disgusting rodent; it was a serious no-no that she exploited just to get him to throw a wobbly. Feeling inordinately pleased that she practically towered over the boy who had bullied and bugged her for years, Hermione playfully batted a sizable webbed paw at his legs, knocking his tiny feet out from under him with one swipe, causing him to crash to the dark grey stone floor. She winced with a twinge of guilt (just a wee one, though) when she heard his teeth clack together from the impact. That had to hurt.

Snapping in sudden, rabid fury, Malfoy launched himself at her, scrabbling to his feet in a flash and giving a sharp bite to her ear. Hermione folded the vulnerable flap of skin tight to her skull, wrenching it out from between his sharp canines and bleated, flipping over onto her back to kick at him with her more powerful hind legs. Landing a rather vicious boot to her opponent's stomach, Draco flew back and landed hard on his side. He yelped in pain, and scrabbled to regain his footing, taking a defensive posture now, gnashing his teeth in her direction.

Hermione regained her legs and squared off, trying to make her body appear bigger in the game that animals played to warn each other off. Human she may be in the mind and soul, but at the moment, during a fight-or-flight situation, the beast's instincts took over. She half raised her larger, meatier tail to shield her side, ready to strike out with it, if necessary. Let him try to come at her again - she'd whomp him one good!

A thick trickle of blood ran into her eyes just as she noticed Draco seriously favoring his right front paw, which he had landed on with the full force of his weight. The combined damage gave her significant pause.

Different day, similar game, she sorrowfully mused. True, the current twist in the rules (their uncontrollable shape shifting) had definitely been unexpected, but the end result would always be the same between she and Malfoy – he instigated trouble, she berated and cursed him for it, they got into a bad fit that lasted for one whole day, and then blew over the next. This was the first time they had come to physical blows, though, and it made her strangely sad, lumping guilt and misery in her throat. She'd thought that despite their bluster, she and Draco had actually started becoming something approaching friends lately.

She grumbled and growled out her wish for this to end, as it wasn't helping either of them, except to blow off steam. They needed to find a way to reverse their misfortune, she pled her case for cessation. Besides, she argued, they were both hurt and needed to lick their wounds, quite literally. Effectively, she called a truce, still as weary as he, and after a long minute to decide her sincerity, Malfoy seemed less inclined to strike, the previous ferocity between them already simmering away. Retreating half a meter, keeping her sharp eyes on him, she began cleaning her injured ear, wincing as her paw lightly touched the torn skin and whimpering softly in pain.

When she'd finished, she looked up and noted that across the way, Malfoy was still watching her, refusing to move, one paw held limply off the floor, his liquid grey eyes fastened on her every move, as if he suspected all this to be a ploy. Talk about your serious trust issues! After five months of sharing the same private space – a perk of being Head Girl and Boy was their own small joint dormitory away from the other Houses – she figured he'd at least fathomed some understanding that Hermione wasn't one to go back on her word. She had extended the temporary olive branch, after all, and it would be "dirty dog" (as Ron was so fond of saying) to be the first to break the peace.

Sullenly, she watched him. Truly, this whole mess was all Draco's fault. If he hadn't insisted on cheating at his final Charms project by purchasing an ancient animism cult talisman (which hailed from a long-extinct Meso-American indigenous tribe that little was known about) and then wanting to pass it off as his own spell craft, and if he hadn't told her of such outrageous plans (especially in such an arrogantly boastful tone), then she would never have tried to wrest the cursed thing from his grasp so she could turn it in to the proper authorities to have it disposed of. That their combined touch set the thing off had been completely unexpected to him (the sincerely surprised look on his human visage before the light blinded her was proof enough that he hadn't intended for a spell to be cast), but that didn't negate the fact that he'd brought this nuisance on both of them by being so selfish and lazy from the start.

With a frustrated sigh, she noted that Draco's paw appeared very tender by the way he held it tightly to his small body. However, she couldn't tell if it was swollen up with a break, fracture or sprain because of the angle. Having acquainted herself with healing this last year (she was seriously considering taking an internship at St. Mungo's this summer to try out her career options in the medical field), Hermione worried that with their lack of magic and inability to leave the common room (the Heads tapestry that revealed the door in and out only responded to a human's voice, they'd discovered when they'd attempted to get out earlier), it might be hours before someone came looking for them and was able to actually look at his injury for treatment. If his paw was broken or fractured, there could be serious problems of blood sepsis or floating bones. Blessedly, her otter paws had the ability to grasp things (thank goodness for long-fingered feet!), and with her human brain in control, she had the fortune of being able to probably work a splint for him, if necessary, out of a combination of their clothes (which lay where they had dropped to the floor in the instant of this transformation) and some of her pencils, which lay atop her desk across the room.

She chirped the request to take a look at his paw, offering her assistance. Malfoy growled in warning, but it was mostly bluster; she could tell he was in pain. Hesitantly padding closer, she sniffed his fear and aggression in the space between them, hoping he wouldn't turn on her the instant she touched him. Pain did funny things to people and animals alike, making them lash out, and Draco was infamous for his bad temper to start.

Using the enhanced vision she was gifted with in this form, and nudging very lightly against his sore limb (earning her a rumbling warning), she took in the injury as best as she was able, determining upon a cursory exam that it was probably just sprained. He needed to elevate it and get something cold on it right away to keep the swelling down, though. She relayed this to Draco, offering to get him what he needed, and scampered off to collect her shirt, which she dragged to his side and bunched up into a nest for him to lie on. He actually grumbled a complaint that he had to actually touch her "germy trappings," to which she told him to shut it and lie down firmly or else she'd leave him to his aches (no surprise that he did as she requested, as she knew Malfoy had a very low tolerance for physically smarting, the big baby).

Getting something cold took a bit longer and more thought. Thank Merlin she'd left the door to their communal bathroom open earlier to clear out the steam from her shower, though, as it provided the perfect solution. Bouncing across the room hurriedly, she used the bog as a step ladder, of sorts, to make her way up and over to the vanity, where the sinks and clean wash cloths were. Gripping one of the rags between her teeth, she dragged it to the faucet and turned the tap for cold (with effort, pushing with all her weight to get the thing to move). When the fabric was soaked through with freezing water, she turned the tap back off (with great reluctance, as the otter within wanted to play in the spray for a bit), stepped on the cloth to ring some of the water out, then gripped it back in her teeth and charted a reverse course through the bathroom and out into the main area.

Malfoy was lying with his lids closed and his nose buried in the collar of her white uniform shirt, but snapped to attention and sat up as soon as he heard her approach. The moment of unguarded despondency that she caught in his eyes was masked immediately with cold disdain, and he began twittering in annoyance at her "filthy saliva" slopping all over the cloth she was attempting to place over his paw. Once the thing was in position, she turned her head and intentionally bumped the side of his face with her snout, berating him for being an ungrateful jerk. At the touch, Ferret-Draco froze and there was real uneasiness reflected in his gaze and in his posture. Hermione paid him no heed as she turned away to recheck the cloth, making sure it hadn't been dislodged by her bumping into him. From the corner of her peripheral vision, she caught a strange quivering of his whiskers as she moved in. However, by the time she stepped back, satisfied that he was going to be fine, and turned her attention back to his face to ask if he wanted something to eat, Malfoy had his head laid back down, turning his face away from her entirely as if in dismissal.

Arrogant prat! She'd just go hunting for her own food then and he could starve as far as she was concerned!

Scrounging through her book bag on top of one of the desks in the room (a feat which required balance and skill to maneuver up the chair, and a leap of faith across to the desk top), she pulled out the snacks she often carried around for emergencies (like if she were studying too long in the library and forgot to go to lunch or dinner). Pulling one of the Muggle cereal bars from its wrapper, she started nibbling. Immediately, her otter-self recognized the food as not normal fare; it wasn't meat, which was the primary diet for the carnivorous body she was currently occupying. She hoped consuming such unorthodox food wouldn't unsettle her stomach. The last thing she needed was to get the runs in this body. With his enhanced nose, Malfoy would smell it. How embarrassing would that be?

She finished off half the bar before she found herself too full to continue. Taking the remaining half in between her teeth, she brought it and herself to the floor, waddling back towards the magically-lit fire. Thank goodness this thing had been started before the mishap, as the Heads dorm could grow very cold at night. Fur or not, they were still in the middle of winter (spring would not appear for weeks yet).

Making a nest of the remaining clothes right in front of the fire, Hermione settled herself down for the night, wrapping her body in tight and putting her tail over her nose. Godric, she hoped someone would come for them soon!

With that thought, she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, the day's emotional drama taking its toll.

X~~~~~X

She awoke some hours later to the sound of whimpering. Her ears twitching back to catch the direction, she discovered the sound coming from Malfoy. Quickly jumping up, she scampered her way over to him, and found him in a shivering, fitful sleep, obviously uncomfortable and cold. Removing the cloth from his paw, she gently nudged him with her nose, trying to stir him into consciousness.

Draco came awake in a violent explosion, leaping to his feet and biting her snout, hissing and spitting. Taken aback, Hermione leaped out of range, blinking back tears at the stinging pain, snarling in surprised anger. As if just then recognizing where he was, what he had done, and that he had a wounded front leg, Malfoy's temper instantly cooled. He stumbled, trying to redistribute his weight between his remaining three limbs and fell to his other side in overcompensation. He moved ungracefully for once, which had Hermione worried that his sprain might be more severe than she'd suspected. Her own pain instantly forgotten, she carefully approached as he regained his legs, trying to sooth his spooked nerves with gentle tittering.

Obviously embarrassed by being caught so vulnerable, Malfoy lashed out with a sharp bark, letting her know that he didn't need her help, telling her to get away from him. Hermione understood that was just his shame talking and didn't let it deter her, leaning back in to care for the injuries she'd caused him. Strangely, he didn't put up much of a fight, other than some bristling, as she inspected his paw again. It definitely was not broken, but now she wasn't so sure about it not being fractured, weasel bones being somewhat small and fragile. One thing was for sure: Draco was icy cold and he looked utterly exhausted from the toll his pain was taking on his pint-sized body. He needed to be moved closer to the fire and made comfortable or else he might go into shock. Hermione wasn't sure how susceptible a ferret was to such things, but she recalled the twin baby rabbits she'd found in the field around her childhood home in Godalming when she was eight. They had died of a combination of chill and shock within an hour of being removed from their burrow. That had been the most painful experience of her early life, worsened only by the guilt of knowing it had been all her fault (she'd been warned to leave the bunnies be by her father, who was sure the mother would return as soon as the coast was clear).

This time – Draco's injury - that was her fault, too. Just like back then, she hadn't left well enough alone; she'd known better than to pick on him, especially in a bigger body than he, and was ashamed that she'd stooped to such low levels to vent her frustration at their situation. She was haunted by the thought that there might be a slim chance for a repeat of history now if his injury was worse than she could care for.

Offering to let him lean over her back so she could drag them both across the three meters towards the little nest she'd fashioned, she grumped at Malfoy when he sniffed in incredulous disdain, threatening to hex his arse off once they got their bodies back if he didn't listen for once in his stubborn life now. A few more moments of measured hesitation and then her dorm-mate reluctantly scuttled onto her back (to the tune of much grousing) and she carefully, slowly made her way across the room (almost dropping him once when her balance threatened to tip them).

Settling him down into his robes in the middle of the pile, Hermione waited until Draco had fallen back into a deep slumber before curling herself around him, adding her warmth to the heat of the fire before them, just in case. The wind howling against their one window to the outside world was enough to make this decision for her. Ferret-Malfoy's shivering stopped within seconds, and he let out a little sigh of pleasure in his sleep, settling into her unconsciously.

Sleep evaded her, however, and Hermione spent a long time simply staring into the orange and gold flames, thinking. She hoped fervently that someone would come to find them tomorrow when neither showed up for their classes. Perhaps Professor Vector, since tomorrow was Arithmancy first period for both of them...

For some reason, she absently wondered if Ron would notice when she didn't appear at the breakfast table later this morning. He was quite clueless most of the time, but that was especially the case now that he was head-over-heels in love with Pansy Parkinson. Hermione wasn't jealous of the girl (almost the opposite in fact), but she had to admit that it smarted something fierce to think that one of her former best friends – her ex-boyfriend, specifically, as she and Ron had made a go at a relationship for all of two months last summer before realizing how wrong they were for each other - wouldn't probably make much of her non-appearance at the dining table in a few hours time. He'd probably blow it off as Hermione either sleeping in after a long night studying or believe that she'd run ahead to her classes to be first in the room (neither supposition being too far of a stretch to imagine, honestly, as Hermione had done both of those things on occasion over the last few years just to keep her status as Class Valedictorian firmly established). Still, she knew that Ron wouldn't even bother to check if either hypothesis were true or false, taking for granted that he was somehow right, mostly because he was just too bloody lazy to care. It would require effort to go take a look-see, and if there was one thing Ron didn't have a lot of, it was initiative - except when it came to Quidditch and sex.

And that's what stung about the whole thing - knowing she'd been relegated to the level of 'a nuisance,' because she wasn't into sports and wasn't where Ron was getting his piece of kitty pie from at the moment. The only time he actually seemed interested in her was when he needed her help academically, or if he wanted romantic advice.

The more she thought about it, the more bitter she became, and resenting Ron was not conducive to keeping her tentative friendship with him (mostly for Ginny and Harry's sakes now) civil. It was best, therefore, if she dropped this whole line of thought pronto.

So she did. She closed her eyes and snuggled in closer to a much different kind of weasel for warmth.

After ten minutes attempting to count sheep, she still couldn't find her sleep, though. Her mind was too active for its own good at times, like now. Specifically, she was annoyed that she couldn't take a hot bubble bath and sleep in her own bed tonight. She would have liked to have curled up with one of Jane Austen's works for some light-hearted ironic comedy and meaty angst, but oh, no, that just wasn't in the cards (or maybe it was, given the circumstances). Instead of Mansfield Park, she'd taken a trip down Transmogrification Lane.

Gah! Bloody Malfoy and his bloody cheating! He'd really gotten them into a pickle this time!

The thing that really bugged her about the whole scenario was that Draco wasn't stupid - far from it, in fact. He was in the top five students in their grade, top ten in the whole school, and he did it without much effort put into studying or prep work. He was a speed-reader with a photographic memory (a combination Hermione would have killed to have been blessed with innately), could logically and quickly determine the best solution to problems, had a knack for mathematics and spatial organization, and had solid deductive reasoning skills. Bluntly, Malfoy was a rather brilliant individual (although it pained her greatly to admit that fact). And she knew that he knew that Borgin & Burkes was the place where wizards with questionable morals went to unload their collections of magical items (many of which were Dark Magic) to distance themselves from Ministry justice. Anything to be purchased in that gloomy, doom-y Shoppe was suspect. So why would he allow his good common sense to fly out the window this once and purchase such a dangerous item as that talisman? For some reason, his excuse of being lazy and wanting to cheat had seemed false to her ears when he'd spoken of it. There was more to his story, she was sure.

From what he'd described to her just before their argument, the ancient talisman (currently lying in the middle of the floor where it had dropped upon their altercation, and later been rolled by Draco as he'd tried to reactivate it) allowed its owner to forcibly call forth a person's Animagus form (causing them to change into their animal body instantly) or to reveal any Metamorphmagus abilities (forcing something on their head to change shape – be it hair color, nose and mouth formation, eye color, etc.). If she were to fathom a guess based on that information alone, Hermione would believe the pendant to be possibly a defensive item, intended to forewarn a wizard or witch of anyone with magically-induced shape shifting abilities hiding in the vicinity. That it had worked on both she and Draco meant that they either had a similar ability to become Animagi, or that they were both inherently Metamorphmagi and didn't have a clue. Given what she knew of the latter from personal experience (Tonks had been blessed with this rarest of gifts), Hermione suspected it was more likely that they were the former, as neither one had ever seemed to change their physical appearances when upset, when it was said that a Metamorphmagus couldn't control their shape changing abilities (and since this was an emotional state both she and Malfoy were often to be found in around each other, it seemed unlikely that either of them could keep such a power hidden or have it remain unknown for long).

Hermione had known since fifth year, when she'd secretly practiced how to conjure a Patronus on her own, that hers took the form of an Eurasian otter. And from her research on the subject (during fourth year, when she'd noticed a rather odd-looking beetle 'coincidentally' hanging about her, Harry and Ron a bit too frequently), she'd discovered that for all seven of the currently living, registered Animagi on the Ministry books, their Patronuses had taken the exact same form as their animal transformations (McGonagall's Patronus and Animagus forms were both that of a domestic house cat, for instance). Evidently, Malfoy's Patronus and Animagus form was that of a ferret, and her own Animagus form would reflect her Patronus' shape - which was why she was stuck in the body of an otter currently.

Truthfully, Hermione had had no clue whatsoever that she harbored this strange magical ability to shape shift outside of the use of Transfiguration. The idea was both thrilling and frightening, and brought up a huge moral dilemma for her: to register or not to register. That, it seemed, was the question. It would be awfully hypocritical of her to have threatened the awful Ms. Rita Skeeter with exposure for her unregistered form, and then to keep her own abilities under the radar. Besides, it would be illegal and could land her a sentence in Azkaban if it ever got out. And yet… she didn't like the idea that the Ministry would keep tabs on her either. It seemed a terrible invasion of privacy, this singling out of those with special talents, labeling them as somehow 'freakish.' Hermione already had a complex regarding her Muggle-born heritage (she'd mostly rationalized her way through it by now, but on occasion, lingering doubts would creep in, especially around testing times). Being an Animagus and 'coming out of the closet,' so to speak, would only further disassociate her with 'normal' wizarding society. Could she handle a lifetime of being treated as practically a pariah?

Perhaps if she could reason out a way to reverse engineer the spell quickly, she could change her and Malfoy back before anyone was the wiser. Then, she'd just swear the Head Boy to an oath never to speak of what had happened this night to anyone ever (in other words, she'd stoop to blackmailing him, threatening to reveal his own secret if he told of hers - just as she had with that Skeeter bint).

She tried to recall what had happened at the moment of the change, so she could possibly recreate the effect… There had been no warning that the pendant was activated; no spoken word, no feeling of air across her cheek, no unusual scent. It hadn't gone off when he was holding it on his own, and it hadn't worked after the change when Ferret-Malfoy had touched the stone again, rolling it about, trying to reactivate it. It had happened only when she and Malfoy had both touched the medallion at the same time while still human shaped.

Recalling the instant, hot tingling that had run up her arm, down her spine and back up to spike into her brain, Hermione shuddered. It had happened so quickly, that she hadn't almost registered it. A brilliant, white light had flashed before her eyes, and the next thing she remembered was scurrying to find her way out of the blanket that had somehow been thrown over her head (it had turned out that the "bedspread" was actually the layers of her jumper, shirt and bra that had collapsed into a pile when her body had changed). It wasn't until she looked over at the white ferret standing across from her, a very human look of horrified astonishment on its narrow, pinched features (its visage resembling Draco Malfoy perfectly in animal form), when she realized that she was at the same height as he. Crossing her eyes to look down the length of her snout and twitching her whiskers once had sent her completely over the edge, as she realized that she had become an animal. She was surprised now that her scream hadn't been heard throughout the castle… but then, it had been an otter's scream, not a human's, and as such, it hadn't been as loud as she'd assumed.

Hmmm… Perhaps the effect had something to do with her magical energies resonating with Draco's. Maybe there was some sort of connection there between their auras that the pendant had picked up on and used as an energy source to activate the spell.

She looked down at the ivory-furred creature whose coat she was currently stroking softly with one paw and considered her last thought. A connection… Yeah, right. The palm of her hand smacking against his cheek was about the only connection between them that had ever existed (twice this year alone, not to mention that one time in third year, and then again in fifth year). Malfoy certainly got on her last peck…

When they'd met up again last September at Platform 9 ¾, he'd behaved with that same sourness that he'd always espoused, only he'd fronted a more reserved attitude; in other words, he didn't go fishing for trouble openly, nor did he prance around the castle like he owned it once they'd arrived back at Hogwarts. He didn't pick at her or her friends either. In general, this year, he'd kept his mouth closed except when required to talk, he didn't mingle with the younger students except when his duties as Head Boy necessitated it, and he seemed to have purged the accursed 'M' word from his vocabulary, adopting the politically correct phrase, 'Muggle-born,' instead.

His closest friends - Crabbe, Goyle, Zabini, Parkinson, Nott and the two Greengrass sisters - all noticed the change from practically the beginning of first term, of course, and had adjusted accordingly, in the way of Slytherins. Hermione had watched them all carefully from the very start (as Head Girl, it was her duty, after all), and determined that Malfoy was still their de facto leader (he hadn't lost his spot as the Prince of his House despite his greatly-altered attitude, much to her surprise). It was a remarkable transformation, from her way of thinking.

Then, before anyone could understand it fully, Draco's odd behavior had begun to rub off; it spread throughout his House like a healing spell cleansing an infection from a putrid wound. By the end of September, the typical sniggering backtalk and the nasty sneers thrown about from those loyal to the Green and Silver had stopped all together, and Malfoy's core group of friends had actually become quite civil, tolerable even. The night of the Halloween Feast, and to everyone's amazement, practically the entirety of the exclusive 'Dungeon Club' had shown up at the other House parties and mingled all that night in costume (that was the evening Ron hooked up with Pansy, in fact, over a sneaked-in flask of Firewhiskey and after a few rounds of One-Eyed Jack). By the beginning of January, students no longer sat exclusively at their assigned dining tables in the Great Hall, library study groups had doubled in size with the inclusion of the Snakes, it was common to now see groups of various uniform colors traveling through Hogsmeade together, and Quidditch wasn't as viciously played (although individual House pride was still the calling on the pitch and in the stands). The change was so sudden and so positive that it left Hermione wondering if everyone hadn't been replaced by shiny, happy pod people when she wasn't looking.

That the new and improved Slytherins had been the ones to do what Hermione and her friends had been unable to for years - unite the houses - was not without its own sense of irony. At least the metamorphosis put some serious spring in Dumbledore's steps and a brighter twinkle in his baby blues. It was nice to see the old man walking about the castle grinning like a silly fool.

The final death of Malfoy's personal, biting attitude towards her, though (which surfaced only when he and she clashed on occasion over Heads duties or homework assignments) had come this last Christmas, when Hermione presented Draco with a gift - a rather thoughtful one at that, she'd believed. The idea had come to her the last week of November, when she'd noted his favorite Eagle Owl quill was beginning to wear down. After an exhaustive search for the perfect replacement, she'd finally purchased for him a rare and somewhat expensive Alicanto bird quill from a special catalog that Scrivenshaft's only offered to their most exclusive clientele. The day before she was to catch the train to go home for the break, she'd given him her gift. After unwrapping and opening the box containing her present (he'd been strangely quiet the whole time), their weird friendship had officially begun. Upon the return from the holiday, gone were the cruel, snapping witicisms and the vicious innuendos when he got upset at her; he adopted instead a dry, sardonic snarkiness that actually bordered on playful teasing. He greeted her with a pleasant 'good morning,' or 'good night' every day that they crossed paths in the common room. He'd even smiled at her twice - not one of his patented smirks, but an actual, honest-to-Godric smile. And Merlin, just last week he'd not only bent and helped her to collect some books from off the floor that she'd accidentally dropped while juggling an armfull, but he'd even brought her tea one evening of his own volition after she'd helped him with a particularly difficult Transfiguration spell that would definitely be included on their N.E.W.T. test.

Malfoy Version 2.0 was turning out to be quite an interesting person, as there were depths to the young man that she was just now uncovering that she hadn't bothered to fathom prior to this year. They could be, she now knew, rather good friends if things kept going the way they were (this little transfiguring incident and the subsequent panicked fighting they'd engaged in tonight aside, obviously). Stranger things were known to happen.

Having thought herself into a state of utter exhaustion now (surely, it was close to three or four o'clock in the morning by this point), Hermione lay her head down next to the boy in question with a deep sigh, cuddling close to make sure he was warm, and shut her eyelids. It had been a very trying night and her brain was finally ready to call it quits.

X~~~~~X

The next morning, she awoke to the feel of Malfoy shivering next to her. His body was hot against hers and he was whimpering. Blinking her sleepiness away immediately, Hermione gazed down at his limp, trembling form, noting the tell-tale signs of serious trouble: swollen paw, blood-red ears, pale nose, high fever. He must have fractured the tiny hand bones when they were fighting yesterday. She knew from the medical books she'd read that if a fracture wasn't treated pronto, a patient could develop an abscess, septicemia, and/or a dangerous Staph infection, and there could be a chance that the fracture may not heal properly if not set in time.

Gently, she nudged him awake, explaining the situation to him. Malfoy's grey eyes were glazed, but he responded as if he understood, too weak to snipe at her in any fashion (another bad sign). She asked if he was hungry and thirsty and he nodded his tiny head. Disentangling herself from him, pulling the sleeve of his shirt over his body to keep him warm, she moved to her left-over cereal bar and took it in her teeth to his side, dropping it before him. Weakly, he propped himself up on his good paw and began nibbling on the sustenance, not making a single caustic comment about the slight staleness or that such a meal was beneath him (seriously not good!). Then, she hurried to the bathroom, considering how she would get water to him.

A quick glance about and a rummage through the vanity's three pull drawers (which took some finagling) and the solution presented itself. Grabbing her clean shower cap from the middle drawer, she laid the bottom out as flat as possible in the sink, while turning up the edges, then shoved the tap on. Once she'd captured some water, she turned the spigot off, and carefully (accidentally sloshing all over herself in the process) turned up the edges until she made a small pouch, which she could carry in her mouth. It was extremely difficult going, and she'd had to go back twice and do-over the whole process as she'd spilled out the contents of the cap on the first two tries. By the third attempt, she'd realized she needed to carry a smaller portion of water for the trick to work, and finally made it back to Malfoy's side. It had taken over an hour with her small body just to get this part done right. By that time, she noted, the little ferret had finished his snack and lay back down, apparently spent from the effort.

Now came the difficult part: opening the plastic bag without spilling the water all over the floor. Laying it between some of the piled clothes, creating a 'volcano-like' aperture, she managed to only spill a quarter more of the precious fluid before getting it to stabilize properly.

She turned to Malfoy, inordinately proud of her accomplishment, only to realize that he would have to move if he wanted to get a drink from her miniature pond. But clearly, he wouldn't be able to put any pressure on his foot, and if she dragged him, it would upset the pile of clothes and spill the water.

Another obstacle to overcome.

But she was Hermione Granger - regardless of the fact that she was constrained by an otter's body. She was a solutions-oriented gal! Rather quickly, she puzzled out an answer to this particular quandary. She didn't, however, think Malfoy was going to approve. But, there also didn't seem to be another way. Squeamish she normally was not, but this was Draco she was going to be touching mouths with to make her idea work. Oooh, boy. He'd probably flip his wig this time.

Mentally preparing, reminding herself that this wasn't a game as he was seriously hurt and this could be the only way to keep him going, she scooped up some water between her jaws and headed to him, leaning over his mouth. She let the water dribble out her lips onto his. With eyes closed in delirium, he lapped in instinctive need, taking the water without complaint. It took several trips before he was finally satiated and fell back into a restless slumber.

Hermione spent the next few hours scrambling to bring down the other snack bars and to come up with a better solution for bringing water to her companion. It came to her in one of those "duh!" moments, the answer so obvious she wasn't' sure why it took her so long to figure out. The resolution was as the wise proverb said: if the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain. Dragging a towel from the bathroom to the pile of clothes, she padded it out with her tiny feet so it would act as a stretcher when the time came. She then hurried back into the bathroom and turned the cold tap on the sunken bathtub, filling it to the brim. Now she could bring Draco to the source of the water, instead of vice versa.

The next trouble to tackle was the need to use the facilities. Thank goodness she had dexterous digits, as utilizing the toilet wasn't as difficult as she'd assumed it would be (although it was quite awkward). How Draco would handle his needs in this department... well, she wasn't ready to contemplate that just yet. Hopefully, it wouldn't require her assistance much. Hadn't she read somewhere that severe injuries often shut the rest of the body's functions down? She hoped to Merlin that was the case.

Returning to the main room, she checked the exit to the room once more, trying everything she could think of to open it, to no avail. She then tried to reverse her misfortune with spells again and touching her wand with her paws, but met with the same resistance as last night: because she could not mouth the proper words, and she didn't know how to properly cast the nonverbal method for Finite Incantatum (a skill they taught only in Auror training, she bitterly mulled), she remained stuck in the infernal form of her Animagus otter.

Sauntering in defeat back to Draco's side, she checked on him again, making sure he was doing well. He was still awfully hot to the touch, and he smelled sour from the infection raging through his system. Using the wash cloth from the other night, she dipped it into the shower cap's reserves and then brought it back to Malfoy's paw, being as gentle as possible in cleaning it. He whimpered, his eyes popping open to stare at her in confusion. She soothed him with tender yapping, wiping the cloth across his overheated fur to cool him down. Then, she settled behind him when he started shaking again, and laid her big paw over him, cuddling him close, sincerely worried now. If help didn't arrive soon, she was afraid his tiny body might give out on him, much as the baby rabbits had.

She crooned to him when he pressed his nose down under the shirt sleeve and eventually his shudders subsided as he fell back into rest. For now, this was all she could offer him.

X~~~~~X

Later that night, Hermione awoke to Malfoy feebly licking the wounds he'd given her on her snout and her ear. His rough tongue tickled, and in the way of playful weasels, she yipped until he stopped. He growled an apology for hurting her, which she returned. It was an awkward few minutes between them, as they stared into each other's bronzed, shimmering eyes as the firelight reflected in their depths. Finally, Hermione asked him if he was hungry or thirsty again, to which he replied weakly that he was parched.

She pushed and dragged Draco onto the towel towards the bathtub and bade him drink his fill. After bringing them back to the fire side, she rolled him back (carefully) into the pile of clothes and covered him again. He was quickly out for the count once more.

Needing to take care of her own needs, Hermione nibbled a bit on a freshly opened cereal bar, and sipped water from the tub as quickly as possible, and immediately headed back to Draco's side, noting that his fleshy ears were still rather dusky pink, but that his temperature seemed to be dropping. She hoped that meant he was at least out of immediate danger. She lay back down next to him, sharing her warmth. To her surprise, Malfoy burrowed his nose into her chest, snuggling as closely as possible to her fur. Adjusting the sleeve over them both, Hermione tucked him under her chin, laid her paw over him once more, and drifted off to sleep again, as there was nothing else she could do at the moment.

X~~~~~X

Something woke Hermione up. It was a nameless horror, that instinct that tells a person – or otter, in this case – to open its eyes, for something was terribly wrong.

Immediately, she knew what it was. Malfoy had stopped breathing.

Panicked, she sat up and prodded him, barking at him like mad to get him to open his eyes and take the next breath. He remained unresponsive. She slapped him with one webbed hand. No response. She bit him on the ear. Nothing. Pushing her weight onto his chest, she felt his heart beat had slowed dangerously and she jumped on it, thinking to kick start it like her Muggle CPR classes over the summer had taught. But, Malfoy was a ferret, not a human being. Did such a thing even work on someone his size and with his body's cardio system? And how many thumps and breaths was she supposed to give him anyway? Heck, how was she even going to breathe into his mouth without real lips?

There was no time to think too much about this as his mouth was already turning blue from lack of oxygen. Making up her mind, placing her mouth over his entire muzzle and nose, she clamped down gently and breathed, while at the same time, she thumped his rib cage over his heart. She repeated this several times, on the verge of a full-blown hyperventilating anxiety attack, before two beady eyes finally popped open and Draco bit her tongue.

Yelping in pain, she staggered back, pressing a tiny hand to her mouth, berating him in a screech for hurting her when she'd just saved his miserable, weasel life. He weakly countered that she was suffocating him in his sleep to get back at him for all the times he'd bested her verbally. The git didn't even know that he had been a gnat's wing away from death!

Growling her displeasure, Hermione huffed over to the little bag of collected water and stuck her throbbing tongue into it, hoping to get his rabies out of her bloodstream before it was too late. She told him as much when he limply complained about her germs in their shared water source. That he was fighting with her again was a good sign. Perhaps he'd passed through the shadow to come out on the other side now, as medical practitioners were wont to say.

Snuffing, she asked him if he intended on continuing being a bad patient, because if he was, she would leave him to it and shed a tear for him later at his funeral. He retorted with an arrogantly assured snort, implying that she would not, in fact, do such a thing, and laid his head back down to sleep again, grousing that he was cold. Hermione took the hint, even though a part of her really wanted to let him freeze for a while for being such a demanding, rude prat and scaring and hurting her so.

Situating back at his side, she dropped down against him and slapped her paw over his mid-section harder than was probably necessary, and grumbled that he should shut up and go to sleep now. Disaster averted for the time being, Hermione stared into the magically lit flames in the hearth and prayed again for someone to come soon. Playing at Florence Nightingale was starting to get old.

X~~~~~X

It was Blaise Zabini's voice that woke her up the next morning. "Are those weasels?"

"Oh, aren't they cute! Where do you think they came from?"

That second voice was a girl's, although Hermione couldn't place it immediately. Perhaps it was a lower classman. She peeked open her eyes and stared up at four familiar faces – all Slytherin – and screamed (well, as much as an otter can scream). The four students that had circled her and Draco's pile jumped back, clearly alarmed with the reception.

Hermione recognized Theodore Nott as he made the connection almost immediately, his dark brown eyes widening in recognition. "That looks just like… no, it can't be." He glanced around at the pile of clothes, noting the female school uniform. "I think that might be Hermione Granger."

There was stunned silence before Zabini cracked a laugh so loud that it woke Draco straight up. Tiny grey eyes glanced in confusion at the humongous humans looming over them. "Slytherin's staff, that's Malfoy!" Blaise pointed a finger at the white ferret in part shock, part amusement. There were three gasps of surprise at this revelation. "Hey, remember when Moody transformed him back in fourth year? It's the same shape and everything. That's definitely Malfoy."

One of the blonde-headed girls – Daphne Greengrass - leaned in close. "I think you're right. Look, it even has his eyes and mousey features."

Malfoy snarled at that, not liking being compared to a rodent. Hermione's whiskered twitched with suppressed laughter.

The other female in the room, a girl who looked a lot like Daphne, stepped forward. Hermione recognized her as Astoria, the youngest Greengrass daughter. "Well, this explains why they missed classes and why we couldn't find them. What do you think happened? Some sort of Transfiguration accident?"

Chattering at Draco to calm down, Hermione gently nudged the edge of his shirt sleeve off of them and touched his wounded paw very lightly with hers.

"Hey, look, Granger's pointing," Daphne noted. "Oh my goodness, Draco's hurt!"

Nodding, Hermione jumped up and ran across the room to the talisman that still lay where Draco had dropped it. She pointed again – once to the talisman, then once to herself, then back to Malfoy. Nott stepped over to the trinket, but with a series of loud barks, Hermione warned him away from touching it. "I think this might have changed them," he explained, careful to lean in but not make contact with it. "Apparently, it's dangerous or something."

Hermione nodded enthusiastically, scampering back to the clothes nest as Astoria leaned down next to Draco's prone form. Pointing at his paw again, the Head Girl indicated that her counterpart needed to be taken to the hospital wing immediately. The pretty blonde carefully gathered Malfoy up, accidentally spilling the shower cap of water in the process, and cuddled him close to her jumper. "We need to get him help right away." The girl indicated the weak animal in her arms.

Zabini was already at the exit, holding the portal open for them. Nott scooped Hermione up in his arms and the six of them shot off to the infirmary.

As they hurried through the hallways, Hermione's full attention turned with sincere worry for the Head Boy's condition – which is how she caught sight of him rubbing his cheek and nose in delight against Greengrass' breasts, making a queer "dook dook" noise in pleasure. The bloody idiot was seriously injured, but apparently he still had enough energy to cop a feel! Of all the…

She slumped back into Theodore Nott's embrace, refusing to be upset.

Not that she was. Because that would be simply ridiculous. This was Malfoy she was talking about, after all, and he was git central - ad infinitum. She expected him to act like a fool (even if recently he hadn't been doing so as often). Living up to the stereotype of his age and gender by snuggling up to any available woman's chest didn't help his chances of improving that impression of him either. Teenage boys were always pathetically horny, she knew from her experience with Ron. So what he was doing just then didn't concern her in the least. Really.

"Dook, dook, dook!"

Astoria giggled cutely.

Hermione grit her back teeth.

No, she continued reminding herself, she absolutely was not angry that the devious, rotten little ferret was writhing away like some kind of man-slag against Astoria Greengrass' jumper at this very moment. Not in the slightest! It was simply preposterous to believe she could be even the least bit jealous over the situation, too. Frankly, she could really care less what the slim, attractive blonde with the limpid cerulean gaze and gently rounded hips thought of her Housemate's lavished attentions upon her torso. It was none of Hermione's business, truly. She had absolutely no claim - nor did she want one - on the likes of Draco Malfoy.

"DOOK!"

"Isn't that the most adorable sound you've ever heard?" the pretty blonde cooed.

Hermione's jaw was beginning to hurt from the clenching pressure.

Besides, it wasn't as if she fancied the blond prat in the slightest. Ha! As if! She could hardly stand being around him for more than an hour at a time usually. No, Malfoy was only a challenging mind for her to pit her wits against, since Ron and Harry (although she loved them dearly) weren't the most stimulating of characters, in general.

That Draco was a relatively well-trained and powerful wizard with wand and potion was a bonus in that he challenged her in spell crafting, forcing her to keep on her toes in classes so she didn't slip her position as Number One student.

And all right, he was an organized and efficient Head Boy, too, which made her job that much easier.

But that was all he meant to her.

"Dook, doooooooook…"

Daphne laughed and both she and Astoria scratched at Ferret-Malfoy's exposed belly when he happily flipped onto his back. "I love the little sounds he makes, don't you?" the youngest sibling hummed appreciatively. "I wonder if you'd purr for me when you're back to normal," she leered playfully.

Draco ate up the female attention with a contented chitter of delight, winking over at Hermione smugly.

Forlornly, Hermione thought that she'd have to have her parents look at her teeth during the upcoming Easter break, because she was sure she'd cracked the enamel on her molars.

She sighed deeply then in defeat.

Merlin Almighty, she did like Draco, didn't she? And in that way, too. The clenching around her heart as she watched him being touched and petted by two very attractive young women gave it away. She'd only ever felt this way one other time: sixth year, when Ron had kissed Lavender Brown in front of the entirety of her House. She knew the face of inevitability when she saw it, and there was no longer any denying her attraction to the idiot she shared a dorm with.

Bloody, bloody, bloody hell! How could this have happened?

As if sensing her distress, Ferret-Malfoy stretched his neck up and looked again over the barrier of Astoria's small arms, obviously noting Hermione's fixed, annoyed gaze and flitting, twitching whiskers. He threw her a chirping, mocking grin and "dook'd" yet again, thoroughly enjoying galling her by continuing to nuzzle the firm globes against which he was pressed. He was evidently trying to get her goat, knowing from their past debates that she had a distinct dislike for all chauvinistic tendencies (Hermione considered herself a strong feminist in the name of humanitarianism, after all), but still… his enthusiasm for the game balanced precariously between good, harmless fun and all-out lewdness.

Merlin's great white merkin, he was really rubbing it in, wasn't he (and quite literally, too)? What an unbelievable oily little pilchard!

Hermione had had enough.

Throwing a nasty leer at Draco, she limbered up Theodore Nott's body and proceeded to burrow against the neck of the tall, dark and handsome Slytherin who was currently transporting her around. She wasn't sure why she was trying to make Malfoy jealous; after all, he didn't like her back in such a fashion. Still, she had her pride.

Besides, what was good for the goose, and all that...

Nott laughed as her whiskers tickled his ear. "Frisky much, Granger?" he teased, scratching her fur, making her chitter in happiness.

"Hey, I think she likes you," Zabini teased. He slapped a large hand on Theo's wide shoulder. "It's love, animal style for you, my friend."

Nott's laughter was loud and lusty. "Well, what do you say, little Gryffindor? I could always transfigure myself into an otter for a day and we could have loads of fun in the bathtub. Heck, an hour will do," he joked, pulling Hermione's face out of his neck and holding her up under the arms, looking her in the eye. He waggled his brows playfully and grinned just as outrageously, and Hermione stuck her paw over his mouth to shut him up, embarrassed to the core by his blatant sexual innuendo. She hadn't wanted a bedroom proposition from him, only some harmless fun! The charming Slytherin seemed to get her drift, chuckling darkly and tucking her back against his warm chest once more.

She chanced a glance in Draco's direction just then and was surprised to see he had stopped muddling around in Astoria's arms. He was actually scowling at her and his friend openly. The expression looked rather funny on a clown-like ferret's face (even one that was wholly albino-ermine white without the traditional ferret masking marks). Apparently, she had succeeded in irritating him - probably because she'd gotten the typically taciturn Slytherin who was her current guardian to laugh, and then to make a very uncharacteristic flirtatious offer to boot. Whatever the reason, at least she'd finally managed to shut down that obnoxious "dook-ing."

With a series of twittering laughs, Otter-Hermione settled back into Theo's arms and enjoyed the rest of the trip to the hospital, knowing she'd just won this round against Malfoy and feeling inordinately pleased as punch by that fact. And very soon, she'd be back in her own body again, and then she could sleep in her own bed and read all of the Pride and Prejudice her little heart desired!

Thank goodness their ordeal was finally over!

X~~~~~X

Unable to reverse the transformation initially, Madam Pomfrey did her best to treat Malfoy's fractured hand with a spell for resetting bone instead. It wasn't as painless as a potion (Draco screeched rather loudly a swear word that Hermione had never heard before), but it did the trick. She then gave him a miniscule amount of potion to lower his fever and fight off the blood infection he'd caught (she'd had to experiment, as no one knew the proper dosage to give to a weasel).

Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall and Flitwick discovered the amulet on the floor of the Heads dorm when Nott took them back to show them what he'd found, and after much debate and research (lasting two more days), they finally figured out how to reverse the effects of the talisman's influence. It had required both the Head Girl and Boy to willingly surrender their Animagi powers to the stone, which turned out to be a darker evil than even Misters Borgin or Burke anticipated; it forced any innate shape shifting powers out into the open and then devoured the magic whole. The medallion siphoned and processed these specific types of transformative energies, turning them into raw power which could then be used to amplify the thief's spell casting ability.

The pretty pendant wasn't a defensive item at all, but a weapon.

As the Charms expert, Flitwick believed that when Hermione and Draco had both reached for and grabbed at the pendant on the end of the necklace at the same time (Malfoy had been careful not to touch it directly up to that point, holding it only by its silver chain), their combined magical auras overloaded the thing. It had been rendered inert for a short while as the demonic spirit trapped within the stone was knocked unconscious by the backlash of power.

A tad heartbroken at the idea of losing the ability to summon her Animagus form ever again (but also quite relieved at the same time, as this solved the dilemma of having to register herself with the Ministry), Hermione did as bade and surrendered up her form at the same exact time as Malfoy. The process reversed itself in a blinding flash of pain and light, and she woke up naked and shivering on the floor of the medical wing in seconds. She was quickly covered up by Minerva with a blanket (Dumbledore did likewise for Malfoy, ushering him off towards a cordoned-off and curtained area to separate the two), and laid back into one of the nearby cots, tucked under the covers to rest for an hour or two before being allowed to leave.

Rounding the curtain again (having taken care of Malfoy), Dumbledore bent down and picked up the temporarily overloaded pendant from off of the floor. Then, using some magic spell Hermione had never heard of before, the man smashed the evil item into a fine powder, destroying the sinister phantom within (which screamed in outrage once before silencing with all finality) so it could never again capture pieces of a magician's soul. The world was better off without such an item, the Headmaster explained succinctly to her questioning raised eyebrow, and Professor McGonagall – to Hermione's surprise, as the woman was all about salvaging bespelled items whenever possible – agreed wholeheartedly.

An hour later, dressed in a fresh uniform, Hermione made her way back to her dorm room from the hospital, thoroughly exhausted, deciding spontaneously to skive off the rest of the day's classes so she could get some real sleep in her own bed. She spoke the password to her dormitory and stepped back into the room that, just a few days before, had seemed like an impossibly large prison to her miniature animal form. She noted that the room had been cleaned, and their rumpled uniforms that they'd slept upon were gone. Even the bathtub had been drained and made spotless by the castle's house-elves.

Taking a much needed shower, she cleaned up, erasing the stink from her hair and skin, and shaved her legs and underarms. On her way towards her private bedroom afterwards, towel wrapped firmly about her body, her hair dripping wet, she passed Malfoy's door. Curious, she leaned her ear against the wood, wondering if he'd returned while she'd been in the bath. Light snoring came from the other side of the portal. He didn't usually make such noises, she knew (they had been living in the same shared area for five months now!), so the potion he'd taken for his newly-healed hand must have really knocked him out.

Satisfied that he was going to be fine, Hermione entered her room, dried her hair with a spell, dressed for bed in a comfy pair of flannel pajamas and climbed in between her sheets. Within minutes she was out for the count, too.

X~~~~~X

It took two weeks for Draco to actually talk to her directly after that. He seemed to go out of his way to dodge her in the interim, alternating his times waking, showering, and returning to his bed at night to avoid having to run into her in their common room. He stayed overnight in the Slytherin dorms for three days straight this last week and was almost constantly at the side of his friends now, who ran a nonchalant interference for him whenever she was nearby.

Frustrated, as she really wanted to discuss what had happened between them – he owed her an apology, at the very least, although a full explanation would be nice, too – Hermione's temper worsened as the situation found no resolution over time. She became short-tempered and waspish as a result, to the point that Harry and Ron walked on eggshells about her. Ginny merely waited patiently for Hermione to come around to talk to her, never intruding on her need for space. All of them knew what she had lost, magically speaking, and it seemed they were treating her with extra soft 'kid gloves' to spare her feelings. This, unfortunately, only aggravated her more.

The fact was that she truly didn't care anymore that she'd lost an ability she'd never even known she'd had. Over the last two weeks, she'd rationalized the entire situation, realizing that she'd actually dodged a bullet in never discovering her Animagus side fully. The thought of the Ministry interfering in her life so invasively if she had nurtured her power and ended up registered with them was… well, it was intolerable. She'd seen how the M.L.E. agents had treated poor Professor McGonagall a few years back when they'd come to 'interview' her. And the day Auror Tonks had come to discuss her Metamorphmagus abilities for their Transfiguration class last year, the M.L.E. had embarrassed her by pulling her out like a common criminal into the hallway for her interrogation. No, it was better this way. She'd have hated a lifetime of the Ministry poking and prodding at her, always worried that someone was watching to make sure she didn't abuse her talents. It was all too 'Big Brother'-ish for her comfort.

Wanting to tell all of this to Malfoy, however, so they could resolve some of the tension between them seemed impossible the longer he dodged her. They had to work together as Heads, and this unresolved issue was toxic to that effort. It was time to put her foot down.

X~~~~~X

The next day was a Saturday, and Hermione spent the day sleuthing Malfoy, following the crumbs he left behind to tell of his whereabouts. From the condensation on the mirror, she knew he'd recently finished a shower, but when she went to his bedroom and knocked, then peeked in, he was already gone. In the main living area of the common room, there was no sign of his jacket and hat, which meant he intended on leaving the castle proper today.

Hermione was just about to gather her own outdoors apparel, when she noticed a small, folded piece of paper on the table. She knew it hadn't been there the night before, because she'd cleared it of her study things before going to bed. Feeling a tad guilty for snooping, knowing the note was probably for Draco, she made her way over towards it and casually picked it up. Glancing about to make absolutely sure no one was watching – not portraits or ghosts or familiars (thank goodness she'd left Crookshanks back with her parents this year, knowing she'd be much too busy to care for the aging fur ball given her overflowing schedule and the additional stress of preparation for N.E.W.T.s… it would have been very bad had her raucous Kneazle found her or Draco in weasel form that time) - she opened it and read the message contained therein.

Madam Puddifoot's – reservation for eleven o'clock sharp.

The handwriting was beautiful, concise. It looked like a well-practiced woman's hand had written it.

So, Malfoy had a date today. That was the most logical conclusion she could derive, knowing that the tea shop was an intimate, formal setting that was best known for being the location to bring a date you wanted to impress (at least, according to Ginny; Hermione wouldn't know as Ron had never taken her here). It would hardly be the place to go casually hang out with one's mates, after all; The Three Broomsticks would be a better locale for such paling about, especially since it offered a variety of liquid consumables, most importantly Butterbeer. He was meeting up with a girl then for some one-on-one. But who?

Well, the answer was obvious, wasn't it? Most likely it was Astoria of the pretty, perky breasts.

The sharp ache in the middle of Hermione's chest bothered her.

Really, why should she care whether or not Draco humping Malfoy was seeing the equivalent of a mini Nordic goddess – one who'd been blessed with gorgeous cheekbones and manageable hair? What did it matter that she found him handsome and intelligent? He was still irritating in a funky, tropical skin disease-type of way.

So, she shouldn't want him.

Nor should she care one way or the other that he was dating someone else, right?

Absolutely-dootley.

This was only a small crush. It would go away eventually if she ignored it entirely.

Maybe he'd had the right idea all along in dodging her. Maybe not resolving the events of two weeks ago was for the best. They could just pretend none of it had ever happened and move on without looking back… and she would forget the way he'd snuggled up to her for warmth and how good that had felt, or how he'd licked her face to apologize for hurting her and she'd found herself enjoying such attention from him, and especially the image of him rubbing his cheek against Astoria Greengrass' C-cup bosom…

Slamming the note into her jeans pocket, Hermione donned her jumper, scarf and hat and made her way to the door. She could do with a little shopping therapy in Hogsmeade today, anyway. And if she happened to run into Malfoy there while he was out on his date, well, she wouldn't let it bother her one bit!

X~~~~~X

A familiar entourage of woolen-coated Slytherins entered the toasty, bright interior of Sprintwitches in downtown Hogsmeade ahead of her, and Hermione immediately abandoned her plan to wallow away the morning and afternoon in a fit of self-pitying retail consumption, and instead went with Plan B (made up exclusively on the sly): stealthily stalking Malfoy to find out why he wasn't with his new girlfriend. Surprisingly, he was hanging out with his friends, as she'd assumed he wouldn't be doing today.

As she stood huddled around the corner of the two-story, high-pitched, wood shake shingled building, blowing hot air on her mitten-covered fingers, shivering against the bitter cold (Godric, when would spring be here?), Hermione wished she had Harry's Invisibility Cloak on hand. At least then she could be inside the shop in the warmth to do her eavesdropping. But then, she hadn't expected to engage in a covert operation when she'd left the castle earlier, and frankly, she was just as happy not to have had to explain the odd request of borrowing the thing to her best friend. Harry and Malfoy still didn't get on, despite the fact that this year they seemed to have called a truce to their long-time enmity, too (they actually, on the extremely rare occasion that it was required, spoke curtly, yet civilly to each other now).

She stood around - feeling very foolish - for a good ten minutes, waiting for Draco to exit the shop, pretending she were on a tropic beach in the Caribbean to help take her mind off the blasted winter chill. Above her, hanging from the front corner of the establishment, a row of long, sharp icicles crackled in the frigid temperature. She tried to visualize them as coconuts hanging from one of those tall palms instead, but gave up too soon when she realized that even with someone with her very vivid imagination, it was nigh impossible to envision arctic-frozen water as a large, round nut from the sunnier side of life.

What was she thinking - she was a nut just for standing here! How totally pitiable was it that she'd been reduced to stalking Draco Malfoy?

And really, what would she do or say if she actually did spy him holding hands with the Greengrass girl today? She could just picture that run-in now: "Oh, hi, Malfoy, Astoria! Nice to see you both again. Enjoying the lovely weather on your date? What, me? No, I'm alone shopping today because I'm date-less. As usual. It's because I've got this ridiculous, one-sided crush you see. On who, you ask? Why, it's the Head Boy, you see. Yes, your boyfriend, Astoria. Oh, no, I'm fine with his rejection. I'll just content myself to live through Patented Daydream Charms about him for the rest of my life. Thanks awfully much for inquiring, though. See you later." Yes, what a glowing, peachy scene that would be.

She adjusted her hat, pulling it low over her ears to protect them against the gently blowing wind, preparing to step away and give up the game all together. Before she moved, she looked up the street to make sure no one was leaving Sprintwitches who might see her (it would be utterly embarrassing to get caught suspiciously stepping out of an alleyway next to the shop at this point). Around her, the streets of Hogsmeade had the regular flow of traffic for a weekend day – about two dozen people strolled the main street, hurrying back and forth to complete their shopping before heading into either Lady Rosmerta's or Aberforth's pubs for a wee nip. She'd just decided to join the crowd when a voice behind her startled a gasp from her throat.

"You are really pathetic."

Whirling about, Hermione came nose to chest with Theodore Nott. "Wha-? Oh, Theo. Hello," she recovered, stepping back to put space between them, trying to appear completely innocent, brushing snowflakes from her sleeve. He didn't reply right away, nor did he move, and so Hermione glanced up, unsure as to his intentions. "Is there something you need?"

The handsome Slytherin, who wasn't wearing a hat, she noted, brushed back his long, dark bangs from his eyes. "For two of the most brilliant minds in school, I just don't get either of you," he growled. "This whole dancing around each other thing that you've both been doing - it's beginning to make the rest of us ill. Why don't you just tell him you like him already and give the poor sop a break?"

Hermione's heart froze solid in her chest, and for a moment, she'd have sworn that Old Man Winter himself had something to do with that. "What are you talking about? Tell who, what?"

Nott gave her a knowing, 'don't-be-an-idiot' look.

"Geez, don't be an idiot, Granger."

Well, at least she was good at interpreting people's facial expressions.

"You know who I mean," Theo pressed. "Malfoy. You like him in a 'throw me against the wall and shag me hard' kind of way. It's obvious."

With a disdainful sniff at such a candid implication (which had her straight-up dead to rights, but she'd never let Nott know that), she turned on her heel and started to walk towards Honeydukes in a nonchalant attempt to escape the rather perceptive Slytherin. "You're delusional, Theo," she threw back over her shoulder with a fake laugh. "I do not like Malfoy in any such fashion."

In the next second, he was at her side again, and this time, he had gripped her right elbow with some force to stop her in the middle of the street. "Yes, you do. And he likes you in the same exact way, believe me. You're both just too bloody stubborn to admit it."

Had the sun come out without her noticing? Why was it suddenly stiflingly hot? Maybe she really was in the Caribbean on holiday with her parents and all of this was one big illusion brought on by heat stroke? She tugged at both her arm and at her red and gold scarf about her neck, trying to loosen them. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" she scoffed, trying not to let him know that her blood pressure had just jumped eighty points with his pronouncement. "What could possibly make you think Malfoy could ever like me? He's made it quite clear for years that I'm no better than twice-chewed gum on the bottom of his shoe."

Theo's smirk could have given Draco's a run for its money, as it slowly wound up the side of his right cheek. "Oh, really? And just why do you think he stopped giving you attitude this year? Why try to play nice and integrate the Slytherins with the other Houses, most of whose members he does think no better than dragon dung? You don't really think he went out of his way to reinvent himself this year simply because he had an attack of maturity over the summer, do you?" He blinked in astonishment when she didn't reply right away. "Merlin's balls, woman, you mean to tell me you never thought about his reasons for the abrupt flip-flop?"

Hermione's eyes widened in shock, but she tried to tame the hopeful feeling now blossoming in her chest with logic and fact. "It's… it's only because we have to work together as Head Girl and Boy."

Theo laughed, and it was a rich, dark sound. "Granger, I knew you were naïve, but really. He's been watching you obsessively since the middle of sixth year. Are you seriously that blind?"

Obstinately, she shook her head. "He didn't even start talking to me as a human being until last Christmas."

Rolling his eyes and looking towards the grey skies above, Theo mumbled something about persistently inflexible females being the death of him. "Ever hear of denial? He was fighting it at the same time as he was unconsciously giving into it. Drake is seriously pig-headed, as you well know, so I don't think he really figured out his feelings for you until then."

She found a flaw in his argument immediately. "Then why does he have a date today with some other girl? Eleven o'clock at Madam Puddifoot's." She pulled her arm out of his grasp finally. "No, you're obviously wrong."

Dark eyebrows shot down over glimmering, pensive dark eyes. "And you know this how?" Nott asked, unconvinced.

The game was up, so she might as well spill the pot of beans, she figured. Procuring the note from her pocket, she handed it over to her companion. "This was in our common room on the table. It wasn't marked, but clearly, it was sent by some girl to Malfoy." As the man opened the note and read the short line, he grinned. "He's meeting her here in about an hour for tea and probably a really good snog. My guess: the witch in question is Astoria. They seemed to have hit it off well recently." She stepped around the tall, weedy Slytherin and continued on her way to the sweet shop. "And I'm quite sure she'll make him a great girlfriend, given the fact his parents wouldn't object a bit with the pureblood match-up." She tried not to sound bitter; she really did.

This time, she got all the way to the front step of Honeydukes before Theo waylaid her again. "Silly bint! Yeah, Drake's going on a date with a girl today. YOU." He shoved the paper into her face. "That's his handwriting. I'd recognize it anywhere. He left it on the table in your room for you to find."

If it was possible for a person's heart to leap out of their mouth and fall at their feet, and still continue to beat and let them live, Hermione's would certainly have accomplished such a feat at that exact moment. He stared at the beautiful penmanship on the note, flabbergasted. There was no way such beautiful scrawl could belong to a seventeen year old man. Ron and Harry's writings were little better than chicken-scratch. How was it possible for Draco to be so well written?

Theo, of course, had an easy answer to that question when she finally posed it to him. "His mother insisted he learn how to write pretty for correspondence with her. She's big on the whole letter thing, in case you hadn't noticed."

Actually, Hermione had. At least once a week, no matter how busy his schedule was, Malfoy could be found posting an owl home. He did it this entire year they'd been roommates, and she now assumed that had also been the case throughout the previous six years. With so much practice, no wonder his letters were so graceful. But usually, whenever he left her notes about Heads stuff, the handwriting was hasty, much less perfect. It didn't look anything like this.

"You're sure?" she finally asked, feeling both strangely deflated and oddly enthused by Nott's revelation. "I mean, that he likes me?"

Shoving the note back into her hands, Theo sighed. "Why do you think he bought that stupid talisman to begin with, Granger? It was supposed to be a gift for you, probably for today, it being Valentine's Day and all. Only, Drake didn't know that the damned thing was dangerous." He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and strangely, Hermione didn't feel like pushing him away. She felt almost like… well, like Theodore Nott was trying to help his friend out honestly. Perhaps, for that reason, she could trust him a little. At the very least, she could let him make his pitch.

"Listen, Miss Head Girl, I'm going to do something I probably shouldn't." Theo seemed rather uncomfortable, but determined all of the sudden. "Breaking a bro-oath not to talk to chicks in this case is a necessary evil. You two are never going to get it right without an intervention." He took a deep breath and plunged in. "After the whole mess up with that stupid amulet, Drake was right depressed - and ashamed. He spilled his guts to me about it a few days later. He bought the pendant for you because he thought it was pretty, and because it was supposedly powerful. That bastard Borgin told him that it was simply charmed to amplify magical spells. Malfoy wanted to get you something nice after you gave him such an ace Christmas gift – he bragged on and on about the quill for two weeks straight after getting back from break – so he bought the necklace at the end of January, no questions asked, intending to give it to you. Caveat emptor though, yeah?" Theo affected a genuinely sincere countenance. "He hadn't meant to hurt you, Hermione, and he felt really guilty that you lost your ability to be an Animagi. He takes full responsibility. That's why he's been dodging you for the last two weeks hard – because he was seriously afraid you were furious with him and wouldn't forgive him." He pointed to the note in her hand. "That's probably why he left the note for you like this. Unsigned, you wouldn't know who it came from, and he knew you'd show up at Madam Puddifoot's out of curiosity. Then, he could take the opportunity to apologize to you properly."

Hermione's mind was whirling. He'd bought that evil cursed jewel for her as a well-intentioned gift, not knowing what it would do? How screwed up, but sweet! "But he said he'd acquired the pendant so he could cheat on his Charms final. He was going to pass it off as his work to get the 'O.'"

Theo grinned and shook his head firmly. "Slytherin's Rule of Engagement Number One: lie your way out of any uncomfortable situation. Malfoy's pride definitely wouldn't have let him admit any of this to you - which is why the two of you are nowhere near where you should be by now. I'd expected you to be dating already, the way he's been going on about you since the beginning of first term." He shook his head in amazement this time. "But, it seems he's finally ready to make a move. The question is, Granger: do you want him to?" He smirked again. "I think you do. You watch him almost as much as he does you. All of us see it, even Potter and the Weasley siblings. Heck, Pans has been on her boyfriend for the last three weeks about talking to you, but apparently, your red-headed friend is adamant about staying out of your personal life."

Hermione huffed. "He'd better be!" she grumbled, thinking about Ron being asked to stick his nose in her romantic business. He'd lost that right at the end of last summer, and they both knew it. It was smart of him to recognize this and not cave to Pansy's wishes.

Wait, Pansy Parkinson was batting for Draco and Hermione to get it on? Had the world just gone tilt or something?

Nott took his hand off of her shoulder quickly, and the way he moved – as if burned – told her that Draco must be heading in their direction. Her heart slamming in her throat, she refused to turn around. "Listen, just go talk to him. Give him a chance to apologize at least," Nott hissed under his breath. "Let there be at least closure there, if you're too chicken to try for anything else."

A challenge like that was something Hermione couldn't let go unanswered, and she knew that Theodore Nott knew that as well - which was why he'd phrased it the way he had. Tricky Slytherin. "Let me guess. Rule of Engagement Number Two: antagonize to get the reaction you desire from the other party?" she sarcastically murmured back.

Theo's smirk reappeared. "You steal my House etiquette book when I wasn't looking, Granger?" With that, he plastered an all-business mien onto his features, speaking loudly enough for the act to carry. "I'll create a schedule for that joint study session for N.E.W.T.s this next week." He affected a lackadaisical attitude. "Was that all you needed from me?"

She blinked, caught on and nodded. Nott was a Prefect this year, and discussing duties was the perfect excuse to cover up their rendezvous today. "Y-yes, thank you, Theo. By Friday, okay?"

Nott nodded curtly. "Friday." He looked over her left shoulder. "You find what you needed?" he asked somewhat brusque, completely different from how he'd been minutes before, when he'd been so open with her. Slytherins were the consummate actors!

Reaching deep for her courage, Hermione forced herself to turn around, preparing herself for the confrontation to follow. As she looked up… it was even more difficult than she'd assumed it would be. After not seeing him except very fleetingly for the last two weeks from across rooms or down hallways, and to have finally come to terms with her feelings for him within that time, to be this close to Malfoy now was a bit unsettling. That he was ravishingly handsome was also intimidating. So it was that just lifting her eyes to his face without blushing was actually quite difficult for her to accomplish. It was times like these that she wondered if she'd been sorted into the wrong house, as she was more Ravenclaw than Gryffindor in the bravery department some days.

"Yeah, all set," Draco replied. He paused, looking down at her, and Hermione dropped her eyes to his shoes. My, they were sure shiny, weren't they? Did he use regular polish on them from a general supplies store or something more expensive from some hoity-toity leather shop in Italy?

"Think I'll stick around down here and do more shopping though," he finished, and she could feel the weight of his gaze burning into the top of her head. Gads, had he always been so tall?

"I'll stay, too, then," Astoria piped up in that pretty, sweet voice of hers.

Just as she was about to despair, without missing a beat, Theo stepped in with the diversionary save. "Actually, Tori, I was kind of wondering if you wouldn't mind accompanying me to Tomes and Scholls. I've got a book I want to put on order. And it's a nice day for a walk, don't you think, angel?" He sounded like he was flirting. Did he, perhaps, have an interest in Astoria? That might explain why he was so hot for her and Draco to hook up – to free up Greengrass for himself. It would definitely be a Slytherin thing to do.

Bless you! Hermione thought, truly not concerned for the reason so much as with the outcome of his interference.

There was a small, slightly awkward pause. "Oh, um, yes, that would be… lovely," the younger girl accepted hesitantly. She sounded disappointed, but despite that, she apparently left with Nott, who swept past her and herded the younger girl away. Their footsteps pulverized the freshly fallen snow with crisp, crunchy pulses as they moved off together.

"Vin, Greg, let's head over to Zonko's before hitting The Three Broomsticks," Blaise offered his two hulking friends. Hermione glanced up briefly to catch the dark, handsome Slytherin firmly grab a hold of Daphne's hand as if he had every right to such displays of affection with her. "Come with us, Daph," he enticed in a low, husky voice.

With a knowing smile, the eldest Greengrass allowed herself to be led away with her three hulking protectors. And that left Hermione alone with Malfoy.

It was suddenly very hard to breathe.

There was a pregnant pause in which he shifted his feet, and she put her hands in her coat pockets, before she decided to take the bull by the horns. "So, um, how are you?"

From the top of her vision, over her lashes, she saw him shrug. "Fur-free. You?"

"I'm fine." Her fingers moved over the note he'd given her. She drew it out and let him see it, then boldly met his gaze and took a giant, scary leap of faith. "I got your note."

Between one breath and the next, he just stopped moving, as if he'd been the recipient of a petrify spell. Then, he blinked those enigmatic, silver eyes. "Oh, that's good. So, you knew it was from me, then?" He shifted his weight again, shoving his hands this time into his pockets.

Bringing the note into her face, she looked at it carefully. Should she tell him the truth? If so, it would risk breaking Theo's confidence. She considered Slytherin's Rule of Engagement Number One... "Only the two of us live in the Heads dormitory," she hedged, while crossing her fingers behind her back with her free hand. "Since I didn't write it, there didn't seem to be anyone else who could have. And since I'm the only other one who lives there, it makes sense that you'd written it to me." There, that wasn't a lie, per se. It was more a rearranging of the facts. Still, she'd taken the necessary precautions against a backlash for the little white one she'd just told. Uncrossing her fingers, she shoved both hands back into her coat pockets again.

Draco nodded, seeming to accept the explanation. "Ah. Well, did you still want to go? With me, to Madam Puddifoot's?"

It took two seconds and one deep inhale for her to reply. "Yes." She smiled tentatively up at him. "Yes, I'd like that very much."

Malfoy's eyes widened just slightly at the excitement she knew he'd heard in her voice, and a slight pinking of his cheeks occurred. He turned his head to the side, as if trying to re-establish some of that iron-clad control he almost exclusively practiced when in the company of others. He cleared his throat to cover as well. "Right, then." There was another awkward pause. "We still have, uh, almost forty-five minutes until the reservation. Do you, um, have other shopping you wanted to do? We could…" He trailed off, looking down at the winter-buried cobblestones, his meaning clear: he was asking to walk about with her.

She blinked, looking at him carefully. He sure was a handsome devil, wasn't he? Especially with light snowflakes falling about his face, landing on his nose and cheeks wetly. Devious, rotten, little ferret Draco may be on occasion, but he was quite adorable when he fumbled about honestly.

Realizing that the ever-confident Head Boy wasn't always as self-possessed as he pretended, and that she was the cause of his bashful hesitancy empowered Hermione in a way nothing else could at that moment. Theo was right; he did like her! She smiled with the sudden, enlightened understanding: Malfoy wasn't some cold-hearted reptile after all, as she'd always assumed. He was a warm-blooded mammal with the same trepidation about life as the rest of them.

Well, it would be up to her, it seemed, to make the first moves in this new, tentative relationship, as he appeared uncertain as to what to do next. And, yes, she wanted to try this out. There was no doubt about it now that she was this close to him and could practically feel the heat radiating from his nervous blush.

She considered Slytherin Rule of Engagement-Number Two and decided to try coaxing instead, knowing that her potential beau didn't respond well to antagonism. Besides, 'sweet before bitter makes it all better,' or so the saying went…

…and everyone knew that Malfoy definitely had a sweet tooth, specifically for chocolate. The care shipments his mother still sent him (but with less frequency now that he was older) always contained some of the finest confections in the world.

…and it was Valentine's Day, after all, as Theo had pointedly reminded her. A little splurge now and then wouldn't kill, especially since she'd been careful with the allowance her parents had given her and with her Christmas money. She had more than enough to indulge them both, if they wanted. She'd treat him to chocolates, and he'd take her to tea.

"Want to go to in?" she asked, indicating the shop behind her with a tilt of her head. "I heard from Ginny that they got in a shipment of truffles from Pierre Marcolini last weekend."

Malfoy's nose twitched just slightly twice in excitement at her offer, as if he was adjusting a pair of whiskers instinctively, and Hermione stifled back a laugh, knowing she had him; he'd be butter in her paws now. Animagus abilities or no, you apparently couldn't take the animal out of a person's soul completely.

Feeling as playful as an otter, she boldly wrapped her arm through his and tugged him into Honeydukes, determined to make this first date a fun one.

And maybe later, if all went well, she'd give him a kiss.

Heck, if he was really lucky, she may even try biting him this time!

~FIN~


AUTHOR'S FINAL NOTES:

Mansfield Park = A novel by Jane Austen.

Alicanto bird = A mythical bird from South America that eats gold ore, which causes his feathers to reflect light. He cannot fly, being too laden with metal, so he scuttles around on the ground. There's a nice artist rendition of one here:www . chilers . org . br

One-Eyed Jack (also called Half Slap Jack) = A game played with a normal deck of playing cards. The object of the game is to "capture" or "slap your hand down upon" the One-Eyed Jacks in the deck before anyone else (there are 4 Jacks in a deck, one for each suit. Of them, 2 are facing you straight on, the other 2 are in profile, showing you only one eye… hence, they are the one-eyed Jacks). The idea is to shuffle the deck randomly, then keeping the cards face down, you take turns picking up the top card on the deck and throwing it down in a discard pile. If you flip over the One-Eyed Jack, you compete with the other players to slap your hand over it quickly and "capture" it. If you succeed in being the person whose hand lands on the One-Eyed Jack, it and every card under the One-Eyed Jack card now becomes part of your "booty" (your treasure). The game ends when the last card is flipped. You then count up how many cards you captured in your booty pile. Whoever has the most cards wins. You can throw on more decks for larger parties (1 deck for every 3 people playing).

Merkin = A false toupee for one's genitals.

Pride and Prejudice = A novel by Jane Austen.

Big Brother = A dictator in the Muggle book "1984" written by the late, great George Orwell back in the 1940's. It's about a future where a totalitarian, elitist government (ruled by Big Brother) controls the thoughts and minds of their society completely. This government keeps tabs on every citizen with a registration-type database, invading their lives, assigning them work details, choosing their spouses for them, even determining what foods they will eat for supper and what shows will appear on the telly. It is the ultimate controlling entity under the most repressive regime you could imagine.

Caveat emptor = Latin for "Let the buyer beware." A principle in commerce that forewarns consumers that they are purchasing a product/piece of property as-is, and accept all legal and financial responsibility for said product (including its misuse, under use, over use, and/or the product's defectiveness).

Pierre Marcolini chocolates = One of the finest (and most expensive) chocolates in the world. I have tried some, personally, and can vouch for their distinctive deliciousness! Here's the website if you're interested to know more: www . marcolini . be