HUG A SCORPION

This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and situations elaborated herein.

Thanks to my reviewers and especially to my previewers, Bellegeste and Cecelle.

WARNING This fic contains HBP Spoilers. Enter at own risk if you haven't read HBP.

Hermione had expected Professor Snape to keep her scrubbing all night, so she was astonished when Professor Snape vanished her brush and bucket, acidly remarking that he was not prepared to waste any more time on training her unless she was truly committed to the task.

"I won't hold you to your word, given like a true Gryffindor without thought or understanding. It would be better for you to draw back now while the headmaster and I still have time to try other contingency plans than to continue half-hearted and let us down in the end. I will give you a week's grace to think it over – if you can think of anything other than your hormones."

She bit her lip, wishing yet again that he could learn to request or convey information without the obligatory attached insults.

"You said it would be soon," she reminded him. "Is there even time to try another plan?"

"That is not your concern. If you're too weak to stand the strain, then the less you know the better."

Was he serious or was this just another game? If it was true, as he'd implied, that he'd not passed on news of their meetings to Voldemort, then she knew enough already to condemn him to a long, slow death. All these conversations could be explained away – he must be a master at concocting believable stories to have lasted this long – everything was excusable but the fact of his secrecy.

Still she wouldn't mind a week's respite. His company was by turns stimulating and draining, but never ever pleasant.

"What about my letter?" she asked, without much hope. She had to send it by nightfall.

"I've better things to do with my time than to indulge your desire for someone to do your thinking for you."

Tamping down her temper, she took a few breaths before answering.

"It's for your safety as well, sir. You wouldn't want me to give away any of your secrets and it surely wouldn't suit you if my parents tried to remove me from school!"

His cold black gaze considered her as he traced his finger over his lips.

"Very well. Sit down at the desk and write what I tell you." He nodded at the hard straight-backed chair across from his, selecting a piece of parchment and a quill for her use.

"Dear Mum and Dad," he dictated, mouthing the words with a grimace of distaste, as soon as she seated herself, "or whatever you normally call them". She raced to keep up.

"Currently the Ministry of Magic is chasing a politically-motivated criminal gang, who call themselves Death Eaters. They're a bit like the IRA used to be, with random attacks in public places, except they don't ever give warnings beforehand."

The IRA? When did he hear – Oh, right. He'd told her he was familiar with Muggle studies. It was very surprising for a pureblood to be quite so knowledgeable though. Even such a Muggle-lover as Mr Weasley seemed to get muddled about Muggledom. She might almost wonder if – No, that was ridiculous. Snape couldn't be anything but the purest of the pure.

"I'm perfectly safe because Hogwarts is the most protected place in the world, but you need to be a bit more careful than usual because they're the ones behind some of the scary things you've been reading in the papers. If you see one or more people in black cloaks and white masks, you need to get as far away from them as you can as quickly as you can. If there's nowhere to go, you need to hide until they leave the area. Don't try to reason with them and never ever approach them."

Hermione looked at the draft letter sidelong, with narrowed eyes and puckered mouth. He'd generated it with barely a pause for thought. His intellect was amazing, she mused, not for the first time; it even sounded like her.

"That's all? That's all the information you think they should have?" It didn't seem like much.

He shrugged.

"What more do they need?"

She stared at the scribbled words, searching for an answer.

"Well, what about You-Know-Who?" Surely that at least was essential knowledge? Though, to be truthful, she couldn't think why.

"Unless your parents are in regular contact with the wizarding world, no purpose will be served by mentioning him."

He looked bad-tempered. He always looked bad-tempered. It had never given her chest a painful twist before.

"They might remember what I said in first year and ask questions."

He raised an exasperated eyebrow.

"In which case, you'll reply with as little detail and as much reassurance as possible. I would have thought a witch of your supposed calibre could have generated this without my aid. All they need to know about you is that bringing you home would serve no purpose. All they need to know for themselves is how to avoid danger."

"They need to know that Britain's not as safe as elsewhere. They need to think about whether they should move."

But they hadn't moved for the IRA, she remembered. Oh, he was clever! But these were wizards, far more dangerous than bombers or gunmen – only it didn't work like that, did it? Dead was dead, no matter whether it was wizard or Muggle who did the deed.

"I've already told you they're in no more danger than any other parents of Muggle-born students," he said.

"But that's more than if they had no connection with our world, isn't it?" she argued.

"Barely." His lips thinned.

"But some Hogwarts parents have been killed."

"Not for that reason. Their deaths were incidental, not purposeful."

"Well, that's a comfort, isn't it?" she jeered.

"It should be, yes," he snapped. "They are as safe as the Order can make them. If they decide to leave, they might want you to go too."

She considered this.

"They can't make me. I'm of age as a witch."

"Not as a Muggle," he reminded her.

"No, not yet, but so soon into next year that it wouldn't be worth their while trying to stop me from returning next year.Who cares where I spend the holidays?"

"Who indeed?"

Amazing how much bored condescension two words could hold. She gritted her teeth.

"Unless – Would it make a difference to you? Do I have to stay in case I'm needed?"

"Your holiday arrangements are a matter of complete indifference to me. I will know how to contact you." He glowered at her till she dropped her eyes. "Very well, you may insert the words 'and who oppose the inclusion of muggle-borns into wizard society' after 'Death Eaters". Now make a fair copy, add whatever gossip or news you would normally send them and turn your mind to something more useful than pointless worry."

"Easy for you to say, sir. Who do you have to worry about?"

He waved her away. As she opened the door to leave, she thought she caught a whisper of thought from behind her.

"Everyone – and no one."

The questions disturbed her all week. As she squeezed herself between two half-familiar third years in the Quidditch stands the following Saturday, she was still pondering. Was there really a choice? Had there ever been? If a link with Professor Snape was as necessary as Professor Dumbledore believed, could she dare break it? Did she still want to?

She wasn't sure what she thought of Snape any more. She'd always disapproved his temper as much as she admired his abilities, yet now he triggered a strange twist of sympathy in her chest. She still didn't like him – he made very sure of that – but if ever there was someone in need of a friendly hug it was him. Not from her though, urggh! She'd as soon hug a scorpion. Its sting would probably be less painful.

She shivered a little and pursed her lips. It must have been a long time since he'd experienced casual affection. His school-friends had all grown up to be Death Eaters and only one had been a girl. Somehow she doubted Bellatrix had ever been the hugging type, except for the convenience of the victim's back to her knife, and boys just didn't.

"Where's our team?" Hermione's spiky-haired neighbour grumbled. It was almost time for the game to start and the Hufflepuffs were already on the pitch.

"They were all in the changing room when I came down with Ginny," Hermione said.

All but one! Harry had popped up to the hospital wing to see Ron before the match. Surely Ron would have sent him off in plenty of time? Ron was even keener on Quidditch than Harry now, though Harry was captain.

Her throat closed. Harry didn't seem to be keen on anything any more except proving his two least favourite Slytherins to be villains. He was even ignoring the headmaster's instructions about Slughorn's true memory in favour of following Malfoy around, waiting for him to stumble. She didn't know whether that was his attempt to engage with the problem or to distract himself from it. Did he really think Voldemort would recruit such a weakling at all, let alone for anything important?

She frowned, chewing on her lower lip. If Harry ever found out she'd been training with Snape he'd think her the worst of traitors, even though it had been the headmaster's idea. She didn't like keeping secrets from him, but sometimes she had to.

"Here they are! About time!" The other third year punched a jubilant hand in the air.

All around them, red-scarfed supporters jumped and cheered. Hermione joined in, but her heart wasn't in it because Harry seemed barely to notice. He mounted his Firebolt without even glancing at them and, after shaking hands with the other captain, flew straight up high in the air and quickly round the pitch, neck craned and eyes searching. He seemed less interested in playing than in just getting it over with.Her hands clenched. Not that she cared about Quidditch, but she hated to see him so detached from everything he used to care about.

Poor Harry! He'd told them on the ride home last June that he was the one who'd have to face Voldemort and kill or be killed. Who could care about studies or sport in face of that doom? What did school matter when you didn't even know whether you'd be alive to finish it? Even she didn't look forward to her N.E.W.T.s with the same enthusiasm as before.

"And that's Smith of Hufflepuff with the Quaffle…"

Hermione jerked upright. Goodness! Was that Luna in the commentator's podium next to Professor McGonagall, rambling on about how nice Ginny was and making wild guesses at players' names? It must be! Who else would call a match as if they were describing yesterday's breakfast menu?

A moment later, she was groaning dutifully with the other Gryffindor supporters.McLaggen was so busy telling everyone else what to do he'd forgotten to keep the Quaffle from the hoop. Wanker! (As Ron would say.) For one hot shamed moment, she writhed at the thought she'd actually gone out with him once and even said he was a better Keeper than Ron. How could she? Ron might get nervous, but at least he kept his eye on his own job instead of harassing everyone else.

She wondered if Ron could hear the commentary from the hospital wing. It was good being friends again though there were still some things they couldn't talk about, like the last three months and what he might be saying to Lavender when she wasn't around. That was something she didn't want to know.

McLaggen had let in another Quaffle, but instead of being abashed, as Ron would have been, he was barking commands to everyone else. Prat! Good thing he'd carefully avoided her ever since Snape had caught him that time. Funny, if Snape hadn't been so vitriolic one might almost say it had been nice of him to protect her like that. He was always protecting them in his spiteful sneering way. The velvet hand in the prickle-skin glove.

Dour, difficult, disagreeable man! The more she got to know him, the less she thought she knew him. Was he possibly being "nice" when he'd accused her of poisoning Ron? He hadn't told her how close Ron came to dying till after he'd reassured her that he was alive and recovering. If that had been anyone else, she'd have credited them with trying to soften the blow.

More goals were scored on both sides but Hermione's thoughts were too loud for her to hear the cheers and groans till suddenly Harry's voice roared above the crowd, saying something about a bat and goalposts. She looked up just in time to see prat-boy mis-hit a Bludger to Harry's head. There was Harry's broom hovering empty in mid-air and there was Harry hurtling unconscious to the ground as his Beaters hurtled after him on their brooms to break his fall. She screamed.

Her first coherent thought after that was, "Harry's broom! Not again!" In third year, his broom had been shredded by the Whomping Willow after he fell off it. She stood up, shakily calling out, "Accio broom!" and her outstretched hand caught it. Then she fell back into her seat, almost knocking her neighbours out of theirs, and started to hyperventilate.

For several minutes all she could think about was breathing. By the time her lungs resumed filling and emptying at a steady pace, Harry had been carried off the field - "Alive but unconscious," Professor McGonagall had announced, drowning out Luna who was still placidly droning on about the wind-break capacity of Harry's glasses (What?) – and the Gryffindor players were locked in argument. After a short hesitation, the Hufflepuff players continued scoring without them, as they were well entitled to do.

Ginny's voice rose above the hubbub.

"Right, you lot, be quiet and listen! I'll substitute Harry. Seamus, if you're in the crowd, suit up and take my place as a Chaser. McLaggen, you ruddy prat! Guard the hoops and keep your fat mouth shut or the next Bludger will have your name on it! Places everyone. Let's try and save the match for Harry!"

Hermione didn't wait around to see the inevitable slaughter. After safely depositing Harry's broom, she went up to the Hospital Wing to see him, but she wasn't allowed in. Instead Madam Pomfrey sent her to her own bed with a Calming Draught and instructions not to get up till the next day. She must have looked sicker than she'd realised.

Sunday was a quiet day. She was allowed to visit her friends for no more than an hour so she spent the rest of her time in the library, checking Almanacs and Compendiums for the elusive"Prince". She was still determined to prove to Harry that "he" might be female. (When had he started to think that only boys could be clever or strong? If she wasn't careful, he'd start shutting her out the way he always did Ginny, under the guise of "protection".) She'd had no luck so far, but maybe the back-copies of The Prophet would give her a lead.

Returning to the common-room that evening, she walked in on a screaming match between Ginny and Dean. The room was almost deserted, though a seventh year was lounging on the sofa, a book in his hand and a pair of purple earmuffs on his head. Hermione tactfully kept her eyes on the floor as she sped past. Nobody wanted to brave Ginny's temper when she was in a huff; she was twice as scary as a Mrs Weasley howler.

"All right, keep your shirt on!" Dean protested. Hermione smiled inwardly at the thought that he was probably more used to entreating the opposite. "It was just funny is all -"

"Funny!" Ginny shouted. "Funny? He could have died and you're calling it funny?"

Hermione hurried to her own room before her itchy fingers could succumb to the temptation of hexing Dean into the Hospital Wing for being so callous. She was entirely on Ginny's side in this argument. In the safe privacy of her curtained bed, she forced her breathing to slow until her hands unclenched. Perhaps this was even a good thing. Maybe Ginny would confront her feelings for Harry and drop Dean for good.

Harry and Ron were being released together the next morning so she ran up before breakfast to escort them down. The three of them together again; it would have been almost like old times except that the sole topic of conversation seemed to be Ginny's boyfriend. Harry was obviously as smitten as Ginny could wish and Ron as oblivious. In other words, that looked to be going splendidly. It was a pity Dean had managed to apologise himself into being forgiven.

Few people were about so early. They passed a shy little first year carrying heavy brass scales, which she dropped at sight of them, Luna with a green Allium bulb and an appointment scroll for Harry from Professor Dumbledore and, at the foot of the marble staircase, Lavender Brown tapping angry fingers against her thigh. Harry and Hermione exchanged quick glances and, by common consent, scurried past her without speaking, leaving Ron to face his angry girlfriend alone.

So they were fighting too! All to the good – not that she was breaking her bargain or anything. She'd promised to let Ron love whom he wanted to love, but if he'd stopped loving, then she certainly wasn't required to regret it. Her mouth curved in a smile, which she instantly suppressed every time she noticed it.

In another nod to old times, she "looked over" Harry's Herbology essay that evening while he went to see the headmaster. Of course, that was code for fix it and finish it and naturally that meant Ron would copy it next morning before class, but Hermione couldn't bring herself to push the issue tonight. They did really need to learn to do their own homework all by themselves, but she didn't want to ruin the moment by nagging.

It was hard not to say "I told you so" next morning, when Harry admitted that Professor Dumbledore had told him off for not having tried harder to obtain Slughorn's memory. Pity the scolding hadn't included helpful advice. Harry was still as clueless as ever and, truthfully, so was she. She'd been racking her brains all term without success. Presumably it had something to do with the Potions master's fond memories of Harry's mum, but turning that mild affection into a self-sacrificing willingness to reveal information against himself sounded about as easy as persuading Lucius Malfoy to man a "Kiss the Muggles" booth at a fun fair.

Harry's other news diverted her thoughts. Voldemort's first job after finishing school had been in Borgin and Burkes, ending when he apparently killed an old lady, Hepzibah Smith, for two of the Founders' treasures? Smith? Any relation to that prat, Zacharias? Probably not, it was a very common name, but maybe, just maybe … And ten years later Voldemort applied, for the second time, to teach Defence Against Dark Arts at Hogwarts? And it really was true about the position being cursed? No wonder Dumbledore had always refused it to Snape till this year.

Till this year! Had they known that long ago that "the terrible thing" was coming? (She couldn't help thinking of it in quotation marks like that since she didn't know what it might be.) Something that would prevent him coming back next year; something that would destroy his reputation and embitter his life; something that she would find "the greatest betrayal" – but what was it?

She asked him again that night, when she reconfirmed theirarrangements. He still wouldn't tell her.

"You'll find out soon enough and then you'll wish you hadn't," he told her. "Be glad that when you look back you won't bear the burden of knowing you could have stopped me - and given the enemy the victory."

"I would never -"

"Yes, you would. Forewarned would be forsworn. You couldn't have helped yourself."

A/N Since Luna's Gurdyroot looked like a green onion to Harry, I've taken the liberty of classifying it in Genus Allium, which contains onions and other such bulbs.