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black king, white knight (red queen trumps them all)

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A woman on the street corner calls out to her audience. Watch the queen, watch the queen, see if you can catch that gorgeous lady! She entreats them, lures them in, with the promise of money, and even better, comeuppance.

The mark - and it is almost always a him - steps up to the table, throws his ten quid down like it’s no big deal, eyes the woman with cards in her hands with disdain, with derision, with doubts.  She’s only a woman , they each think, what can she do to me?

The dealer shuffles the deck with quick, clever hands, the pads of her fingers running over the creases in the cards.  With practiced, efficient movements, she quickly isolates three cards: the jack of clubs, the king of spades, and the queen of diamonds.

( Why not the queen of hearts? You might wonder, ask the woman running the table.  She gives you a patronizing smile and a pat on the arm.  Ducky, the queen of hearts is much too nice , she might say with a laugh almost too sharp to be funny. Or maybe: I like my queens like I like my money: cold, hard, and safely in my grasp.  Or possibly: Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. )

The dealer holds up the cards, shows them off to her challenger and to any audience members that may have assembled. She flicks them across the table, moving almost too quick for the eye to see.  She lays them out, face down, and lets the mark pick.

Somehow, it’s still a surprise when he picks wrong, even when it’s common knowledge that the game is more likely a con.  She smiles, takes his money with a better luck next time that everyone knows is a lie.

Fate is a clever dealer.  She distracts you with sleight of hand, with prophecies and power, with twisty, vague sentences like a man not born from woman or as the seventh month dies . Sentences that only make sense once Fate is met, and she smiles that clever-cruel smile at you.

Every game with Fate is rigged.

The House always wins.

 


 

How do you win a game rigged from the start?

You don’t play the game at all.

 


 

The dealer shuffles her cards again, preparing for the next mark.  

 

A surprisingly agile figure twists its way out of a narrow window on the ground floor of a shabby, hidden house and slowly, gingerly, lowers itself behind the gnarled shrubbery in front of the house.  There is a muttered curse and a muffled string of nonsensical words and then the bushes twitch and a teenage girl, clad in garishly bright and what certain prudish wizarding mamas might consider “skimpy” running clothes, jogs out as if she is simply an ordinary girl, getting in some summer exercise.  

The fanny pack around her waist makes a suspicious jangling noise, and something seems to be tucked into her right sock, and that hair...well, it was definitely not normal, but other than that...a perfectly normal teenage girl goes jogging down the sidewalk in the gray pre-dawn light.

 

Here comes the second card.

 

She jogs for several blocks before eventually coming to a Tube station.  She casually walks down the stairs, checks the schedule, buys a ticket, and then ducks into a bathroom.

Ten minutes later, a different teenage girl comes out of the bathroom.  Her hair is scraped back into a utilitarian braid, and she’s wearing baggy jeans and a t-shirt with the logo of a popular coffee chain across the back, along with the ubiquitous black waitress apron with several deep pockets.  Yawning ostentatiously, she boards the Tube and gets off several stops later.

Just another normal teenage girl, working another normal summer job. 

 

Pay close attention, for this is the third card.

 

She ducks into a back alley.  A door opens and closes, and one could assume that the girl went to work like she was dressed to do.  Moments later, a different teenage girl comes be-bopping out of the alley, bouncy ponytail swinging along to the beat pumping through her walkman headphones.  Her dress is a cheerful daisy print, the short hem swinging around her thighs.  The bubble gum in her mouth is a vivid pink against her maroon lipstick.  The edge of an algebra book hangs out of her half-zipped backpack, along with homework with an ominous red ‘D’ circled at the top of the page. She walks a block to the bus stop and waits patiently for the next one to arrive.

Just another normal teenage girl, on her way to some normal summer remedial tutoring.

 

Athlete, barista, student.  You’re so busy watching the cards that you never think to look at the hands doing the shuffling. 

 

Which one is the queen? 

 

Sorry, you lost. Lost the game, lost track of the girl somewhere between Grimmauld Place and Little Whinging, lost track of the most famous boy in the wizarding world.

 

Better luck next time.

 


 

“Psst! Harry!”

The sharp hissing of his name in a tone quite familiar to him after four years of hearing it draws Harry out of his heat- and boredom-induced haze.

“Hermione?” he whispers back, head of messy black hair poking above the top of one of Petunia Dursley’s prized rose bushes.  He spots a figure on the sidewalk, clad in workout clothes and stretching against a nearby lamppost as if paused in the middle of a morning run.

The figure bends over to touch her toes and Harry, like any hormonal teenage boy, is too distracted by the flex of spandex over a rather nice arse to notice the flash of paper that comes zinging his way. She straightens out of her stretch, looks over her shoulder at Harry, holds a finger to her lips, winks , and then goes jogging off.

Harry pushes his glasses up onto his forehead and rubs at his eyes.  Surely the heat hasn’t made him crazy, has it? Because there’s no way in hell that Hermione Follow-the-Rules All-of-the-Time Granger just a) jogged past his aunt and uncle’s house b) wearing a crop top and tight shorts c) with her very nice arse in order to d) wink at him.  Each one of those individual parts were strange enough, and combining them into a singular sentence simply blew his mind.

Harry sinks back down behind the rose bush, fingers carding through his sweaty fringe as he tries to reconcile the last few minutes in his mind.  There is a flash of purple out of the corner of his eye, and when he turns his head there is an origami frog folded out of lilac-colored paper perched on the torn knee of his baggy jeans.

“What the hell, ” he whispers quietly but vehemently.

The origami frog jumps at him, and out of reflex more than anything he catches it.  Once his hand touches the paper, it unfolds to reveal a message, a metal pin, and a dark blue ribbon embroidered with a G.

The ribbon is a Portkey timed to ten after midnight. The pin is a magical lockpick, in case your things are locked away again.  I’ll explain more when you get to my house tonight. Tell no one and act normal; people are watching. HJG

Harry took it all back; his earlier cursing wasn’t strong enough.  “What the fuck ,” he whispers to himself, but his fingers tighten around the ribbon like a drowning man grasping at his last lifeline.

 


 

Hermione was so focused on translating her latest letter from Ducky that she didn’t even notice the adults filing into the basement kitchen of Grimmauld Place and staring at her expectantly, waiting for the young girl to leave so they could begin their secret meeting.  “A double? You paranoid bastard,” she muttered to herself as she looked over the odd, chicken scratch letter full of lines and dots alongside a page full of nonsensical words in her careful, precise script.  

“Hermione Granger! I will not have you using that kind of language under my roof! Especially not about such a respected Auror!” Molly Weasley’s outraged yells cut through her focus, causing the young girl to startle and hurriedly clutch the various pieces of paper she had to her chest.

Hermione recovered quickly and then gave Molly a cool look.  “For your information, Molly , I was speaking about my uncle, not Auror Moody,” she said in imperious tones.  Her face shifted into a thoughtful mien.  “Though...it is rather telling of your own opinions that you immediately assumed I was speaking of Auror Moody,” she pointed out.

The retired Auror in question barked out a harsh laugh.  “She’s got you there,” he said to Molly.  Turning to Hermione, he asked a single word that confused the rest of the occupants in the room.  “Pigpen?”

Hermione’s response was even more confusing.  “Templar, actually, with a secondary Caesar, I believe.  It’s no enigma, but it keeps me on my toes.”

“Bletchley or SOE?” Moody asked, curious.

“NID, actually, but my aunt started at Bletchley and then transferred to SOE,” Hermione answered.

“I’m sorry, but what the hell are you two talking about?” Sirius interrupted.

“Muggle spycraft,” Moody answered, while at the same time Hermione said, “That’s classified.”

The girl and the Auror looked at each other with surprised expressions, while Sirius and the other adults in the room watched in confusion.

Hermione was the first to speak.  “If that’s how you treat your OpSec, no wonder it’s been so easy to crack,” she said slowly.

Moody’s interest turned back to paranoia faster than a snitch could swerve and he immediately had his wand pointed at Hermione.  “What do you know about our OpSec?” he growled threateningly.

“I know that your guard rotations are predictable, your secondary routes are negligible, and that your operatives’ covers are so easily broken a blind man could do it,” she said defiantly as she nervously shifted in her chair. “I know that none of your operatives have had eyes on the primary objective in days yet none of them have reported it to you, or even noticed themselves,” she snarled.

Moody opened his mouth, the intent to interrogate Hermione clear on his face, but then he froze.  His eyes flicked down towards his prosthetic, and then quickly back up to her face.  Whatever he saw there made his eyes narrow and his gaze go thoughtful.  After a minute or so of a staredown between the two, Moody set his wand down on the kitchen table and then held his hands up in supplication.

There was a collective intake of breath from the other occupants of the room.  Everyone, even those who didn’t train under him, knew that Moody never willingly gave up the advantage of having a wand on hand.  Every eye in the room, even those not paying attention to the original conversation, turned towards the mismatched pair.

“If you are right,” Moody said carefully, “not only will I rip these blithering idiots a new arsehole, I will hear out your opinions on OpSec.  It’s rather obvious that someone trained you up right,” he said respectfully.

Breathing heavily, the letter that had led to this standoff crumpled thoughtlessly in her right hand, Hermione stared angrily at the grizzled old Auror. After a long moment, she gave him a sharp nod and then pulled her left hand out from where it was hidden under the table.  In the shocked silence that permeated the kitchen, the quiet clatter of a knife being dropped onto the table echoed like a Sonorus Charm had been cast upon it.

“I’ll leave you to your meeting,” Hermione murmured quietly before standing and running from the room.

As soon as she cleared the doorway, the room erupted into chaos.  Molly was yelling about Hermione’s new, blatant disrespect for her authority; Kingsley and Tonks were worriedly discussing operational security for the two main objectives the Order was currently undertaking; Snape was yelling at Sirius for allowing such an impertinent brat free reign over the headquarters while Remus and Sirius both vehemently defended Hermione’s right to be at Grimmauld Place.  The noise covered the not-so-stealthy clomp of Moody’s prosthetic leg as he followed the trail of the runaway student.

He found her in the hallway powder room by following the noise of someone violently retching into the toilet.  Conjuring a glass and then filling it with a silently-cast aguamenti , he shouldered his way into the small room.  He set the glass where the girl could easily reach it, and then ran the hand towel under the faucet and placed it on the back of her neck.

She sighed and pulled the chain on the toilet, and then leaned her head on its rim.  “How much trouble am I in?” Hermione asked meekly.

“From me? None. You protected yourself in a situation where you were outnumbered and disadvantaged and escaped capture.  You got the drop on me ,” he said pointedly.  “Very few people can say that.”

A proud little smile curled around the edge of her mouth, and Moody huffed a laugh.  “The higher ups always wondered why I liked to pick girls as my trainees,” he said as a non-sequitur.  “Joked that I just liked having something nice to look at, or that I was trying to get under their robes.”  Hermione gave him a confused look.  “But I always picked ‘em because girls are vicious,” he said, nodding at her.  “Girls already understand subterfuge.  Girls already know about looking over their shoulder, and being underestimated, and gaining an advantage when you have none.”

“Is that why you picked Tonks?” she asked curiously, sipping at the glass of water he had given her.

He shrugged.  “She’s good, but she’s no Alice Longbottom. That girl was the best I’ve ever trained, period.  Oh, Black likes to claim that he and Potter were the best, but Alice had a success rate better than most of the department put together.  She and Frank were at the top of the Death Eater hit list not because of the damned prophecy, but because she was that fucking good.”  Moody had to hide his grin when Hermione flicked a wide-eyed stare his way at the mention of the prophecy.  Let’s see what she does with that tidbit of information , he thought smugly to himself.

Moody leaned back against the pedestal sink, taking weight off of his bum leg.  He noticed a small tear in his trousers, from where the girl had pushed that knife against his femoral artery, and waved his wand lazily over it to repair it.  “Where’d you get the knife?”

“My potions kit,” Hermione admitted quietly.

“Smart. No one thinks anything about a student having a potions kit in their bag,” he mused. “What made you carry it?”

Acuti ingenii est utilis sed semper custodiat te pugione. ” Hermione recited in the bored tone of one who had been made to say the same phrase a thousand times.

“In English, Greek, or Russian, girl,” he commanded her.  “That’s all I speak.”

She gave him an appraising look.  “Talent is useful, but always keep your dagger sharp,” she translated.

“And where’d you learn that?”

Hermione leaned back against the wall and pulled her knees up to her chest, cradling the now-empty glass in her hands.  “It was the unofficial motto of my au pair’s unit. After what happened to me this last year, she made me start learning more self-defence earlier in the summer, and told me to start carrying an easily accessible weapon at all times.”

“What happened?” he asked suspiciously.

Hermione curled even further into herself, and Moody was suddenly struck by how young she looked.  “Some of the upper-level pureblood boys thought that since the Daily Prophet claimed I was a money-grubbing whore, I’d be willing to…” she trailed off quietly, staring at the glass in her hands.

Taking in her tense, guarded body language, Moody braced himself on the sink and slowly lowered himself to sit across from her on the bathroom floor.  With several waves of his wand, he closed and locked the powder room door and threw up several privacy wards on their small space.

“Peregrine Derrick and Lucian Bole...they were both seventh years. Beaters on the Slytherin quidditch team,” she recited blankly. “They caught me in the dungeons after potions one day and tried to...tried to make me...tried to get me to…” she looked up from her hands and gave Moody a sad, helpless look. 

He gave her a curt nod. “I understand. Continue,” he said gruffly.

“They taunted me, and then Bole grabbed my hair - I’d worn it in a ponytail that day - and Derrick ripped open my robes. I swung my bookbag at him and clipped him in the temple. When he went down, Bole tried to put me in a chokehold, but I managed to get my wand out of my skirt pocket and hit him with a stunner from under my armpit.   Before I could hit Derrick, Snape came out of the potions lab.  Snape told them that if they wanted to dirty their hands, Greenhouse Four would have less contaminants, and then took thirty points from Gryffindor and assigned me a detention,” she recited as emotionlessly as if she were reciting the twelve uses of dragon’s blood.

“Did you report them?”

She shrugged.  “It was my word against theirs and Snape’s.  The only person who didn’t believe the papers was Harry, and, well...you and I both know how the wizarding world works, both in terms of gender and blood purity,” she said resignedly.  “So I scrubbed cauldron bottoms and listened to Snape read newspaper articles about my whorish ways aloud and kept my mouth shut. In the scheme of things, it wasn’t a battle worth trying to win.”

“I’ll handle Severus,” he growled.

“I’d rather you handle Molly Weasley,” she muttered under her breath, and Moody barked out a surprised laugh.

“I’d rather handle Death Eaters than a pureblood mam who thinks someone is in the way of her daughter’s chance at a betrothal,” he joked.

Hermione gave him a confused look.  “She thinks I’m competition for Ginny? For who, Harry?” she asked, shocked.

“I may not have seen much in that hospital wing, but I saw how the young Potter deferred to you. You’n Minerva are about the only people he’ll listen to, bullheaded as he is.  He’s your primary objective, isn’t he?” Moody asked knowingly.

Hermione gaped at him for a moment, then snapped her jaw shut and glared at him suspiciously.  “Everyone cares about the Boy Who Lived, but nobody really cares about Harry,” she said quietly.

“Aren’t they the same person?” he asked, confused.  Not that Moody had spent any notable time around the Potter boy, but he’d heard enough about him from the Order that he thought he had a good idea about the kid. Reckless, like his father, and stubborn, like his mum. 

“Only one of them is an actual person, Auror Moody; a person with feelings that can be hurt and a body that can be broken, as was proven without a doubt this past year.”  Hermione paused, and gave Moody a tired look much too old for a fifteen year old girl.  “Let everyone else rally around the idea of their supposed saviour baby; I will worry about the boy whose Hogwarts letters were addressed to the cupboard under the stairs,” she said coldly.  “The boy who flinches every time voices are raised or someone touches him without permission. The boy who is smaller than the others in his class, and not because of genetics. The boy who is forced back into an untenable living situation year after year for the greater good ,” she snarled.  “Harry may be expected to save the wizarding world, but I will save Harry, even if it means having to save him from Albus Dumbledore himself,” she swore resolutely.

Moody could feel the magic gathering in the room, feel the way it rolled off of this girl like lava off of an erupting volcano.  He knew, suddenly, without a doubt, that this girl would defy Merlin himself for the Potter boy; that she would die with no hesitation and she would kill with no remorse not because he was the Boy Who Lived, but because he was her friend.  She loved him, even if it wasn’t romantic, even if she didn’t know it herself, and love was the most terrifying and powerful magic there was. 

He liked this vicious girl, and intended to make sure she succeeded.