This was for this year's next_gen_fest, and it of course fits into my Pieces Universe! This piece was a lot of fun to work on! I'm a big fan of chess as metaphor, and I have a lot of feelings about Lily. It was wonderful to get to explore them! Thanks to the husband for the beta.
And because I am not above shameless plugs, you know how many of you have been saying that you would read original writing of mine if it was published? Well, now you can! I am publishing online an interactive YA novel that I co-wrote, and I would love for you all to check it out at artofletterwriting dot com! And end shameless plug.
Enjoy the story!
Every year, for one week during the summer, Harry and Ginny Potter disappeared. No one knew where they went. "And even if we did, we wouldn't tell you lot. Give the poor bloke a vacation, would you?" was all Ron had to say about it the numerous times he was asked over the years.
The yearly vacations had been Ginny's idea, but Harry certainly hadn't needed a lot of convincing. So once every summer, they picked a week and disappeared, leaving their children in Ron and Hermione's capable hands.
It was far from the most hectic week of Ron's summer - any full Weasley family gathering at the Burrowing outdid it in terms of sheer chaos - but it was the most hectic week that Ron was responsible for. Nevertheless, he wouldn't have offered the year Jamie was born if he hadn't been confident that he and Hermione could handle it.
Jamie had a penchant for mischief, but Ron worked alongside George in a shop geared toward mischief makers, and he'd watched his brother with little Fred, and he knew how to handle the pranks.
"Here are the ground rules," he'd said in no uncertain terms the year Jamie was old enough to be held responsible for his own actions. Jamie's face had settled into a defiant sulk with the expectation of Toe the line and no pranking being his ground rules. But Ron had surprised him. "Nothing that hurts anyone. If someone specifically asks you not to prank them, you will respect that request. Don't dish it out if you can't take it in return. And keep your mischief away from your aunt's office unless you'd like to spend the remainder of your vacation in a Full Body Bind curse being fed through a straw."
Give an inch to gain a mile, as George always said. Jamie had only broken a ground rule once, and four days as his aunt's constant paperwork companion at the Ministry had forever cured him of breaking another.
Al was easy. He and Rose were two of a kind and best friends, so they just disappeared up into her room together, quietly plotted complex and cunning revenge pranks that Jamie somehow never saw coming, and never caused any trouble.
But then there was Lily.
When Lily was very young, she'd been easy, too. She'd played with Hugo and entertained herself with him. But as they got older and Hugo proved to be much quieter and less curious in nature than Lily, Lily got bored. And when Lily got bored . . .
She wasn't like Jamie. She didn't delight in causing trouble. She didn't get into things. No, when Lily got bored, she started following Ron and Hermione around. Constantly. And Lily was a chatterer. The girl could keep a verbal stream of consciousness going for hours, no responses required. She'd ask a question and before anyone had formulated a reply, she'd be on her fifth or sixth, the first ones all but forgotten.
They were used to curiosity. Rose was a very curious child. But Rose would ask a question and wait for the answer, and if her parents didn't know, she would set about to find it on her own or with Al with a focus and determination that was screaming Ravenclaw! to her father years before she went off to school.
But Lily was different. She flitted from topic to topic, growing bored easily with each, searching for something new and interesting. The year she was five, Ron and Hermione had been at a loss trying to manage the energy and keep her occupied.
"How do you do it?" Ron asked his sister when they came to pick up the kids at the end of the week. "How do you handle the . . ." He gestured vaguely to Lily, who hadn't stopped filling Harry in on their week since her parents had walked through the door.
"The chattering?" Ginny supplied with an affectionate if slightly exasperated smile. "Yeah, we handle it differently, Harry and I. Harry just lets her go and treats it like a genuine conversation, no matter how quickly she jumps to a new topic. He's gotten really good at keeping up. Me, though, I've found it's all in the distraction."
"Yeah. Audrey says she's trying to find something to think about that's actually challenging for her. She's really smart. Some of the questions she comes up with? I'm not sure I could actually answer them if she gave me a chance. So it's all in finding something for her to think about. She likes puzzles."
The next summer, Ron and Hermione were prepared. Hermione jumped at the word puzzles and made a point of going to her parents' and collecting all the old logic puzzle books she'd pored over as a kid. The second six-year-old Lily started following them around that summer, looking for occupation, Hermione pulled out the book, showed Lily how to make the necessary grids, and explained how the puzzles worked.
"You're not worried those might be too hard?" he asked his wife in an undertone as they watched Lily methodically draw lines on a piece of paper, her small tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth as she worked.
"I checked in with Ginny," Hermione said. "She's already reading and writing, and she got bored with Sudoku puzzles months ago. These require a little more brain power, especially the bigger ones. Merlin, she's smart."
Ron had his doubts. Smart was one thing, but he'd looked at those puzzles, and they didn't make any sense. When you had to assign four identifiers to five different people, how did six clues give you enough information? Especially when some of those clues didn't even tell you anything useful?
But Lily seemed fully occupied. She carried the book around with her all day, her eyes narrowed and focused, her mouth whispering hints and clues as her pencil tapped over the boxes on her paper. When she was still fully occupied at dinner, Hermione offered him a knowing smile across the table, and he returned the gesture with his What do I know? Shrug.
"I'm glad that's figured out," Hermione told him as they climbed into bed that night. "Because I have to finish those briefing reports by tomorrow afternoon, and you're at the shop until after lunch, right? Jamie's spending the day with Fred and Angelina, Merlin bless her, Hugo will be with Mum and Dad for that concert, and Rose and Al can manage themselves for two hours, and now, so can Lily."
But when Ron returned home the next afternoon, all was clearly not going as planned. As soon as he walked through the door, he could hear the telltale sound of a young girl's voice rattling away at a mile a minute, filtering down the hall from the direction of Hermione's study. Ron sighed. Al looked up from his book in the sitting room.
"It was a nice try," he said. "With the puzzles. Worked about as long as anything else has."
Ron nodded, then hurried down the hall to rescue his wife.
"Lily," he said as he walked into the room. His niece turned to him with a huge grin.
"Hi, Uncle Ron! Aunt Hermione and I were just talking about unicorns and whether or not their coats are actually multi-colored or if it's just the way the magic works around them. Did you know that they start out gold and then turn silver and then turn white? I think that's really cool! Wouldn't it be cool if we changed colors too as we got older?"
From behind her desk, Hermione shot him a look of great desperation. He hid his smile.
"Lils, why don't you and I go find something to do so your aunt can get some work done, hmm?" he asked, scooping the six-year-old up onto his hip and carrying her out into the hall. "So what happened to that puzzle book? Did you get stumped?" he asked as he gently shut the door to Hermione's office behind them. Lily shrugged.
"No. I could solve them all right. But they got boring," she said.
"Boring?" Ron repeated, eyebrows raised. Lily shrugged again.
"Yeah. They've only got one right answer. D'you know what I think would be a cool puzzle? If there were a bunch of different right answers, and a bunch of wrong ones, and you had to pick which one you liked best. And if someone else could also change what the right answers were! Don't you think that sounds like a really neat puzzle, Uncle Ron?"
"Well," Ron said, a slow smile forming as one of the more brilliant thoughts of his life blossomed in his head, "as it happens, there is a puzzle just like that."
Lily froze for half a second, and then started bouncing up and down so violently in his arms that he almost dropped her. "Where where where? What is it? Do you have it? Can I try it?"
"I take it your dad hasn't taught you to play chess, has he?"
It was the quietest and stillest he'd ever seen her, sitting across the chessboard from him, her small bright eyes taking in each of the pieces and their rules, repeating each back to him dutifully. He coached her through that first game, explaining each possible move, telling her why he was making the choices he was. He kept expecting it to be too much, for the tiny six-year-old in front of him to grow bored with all the talking and all the rules. But she didn't. She sat there, eyes glued to the board, taking it all in.
When they played their first real game, he beat her easily - but not as easily as he should have beaten a six-year-old. "Don't go easy on me," she'd said before they started. And he hadn't. He hadn't played with the full strength of his skill behind him, of course - how would she learn if he just thoroughly trounced her? But he didn't go easy on her.
In the years to come, he got used to hearing the phrase, "Blame Ron. This is all his fault."
Because chess was the one puzzle Lily seemingly never got bored with. She asked Ron for games constantly, made her way through her parents and grandparents and each aunt and uncle, insisted all her cousins learn to play as well. ("Although," she admitted to Ron in a guilty sort of undertone once, "some of them aren't very good." Ron nodded solemnly and did everything in his power to keep from laughing.)
At ten, she organized what she called the "First Annual Weasley Family and Friends Chess Tournament."
"First Annual?" Harry asked Ron with a raised eyebrow when the banner and complicated looking bracket were tacked up by his daughter on the Burrow's garden wall.
"If you're commenting on your daughter's iron will and refusal to believe she can't shape the world to her whims, she gets that from her mother," Ron informed his best friend before striding to the gate to meet the new arrivals who made up the "friends" portion of the day's event.
Lily had high expectations for her own performance that day, expectations that were thwarted when she was soundly beaten in the first round by Minerva McGonagall. Ron watched that exchange with unbridled amusement along with Harry, their own board going ignored as little ten-year-old Lily looked up at their old professor and said, with great indignation, "You beat me!" Minerva's only response was a dry, "Well, I am quite good."
That first annual tournament ended with Ron facing off against McGonagall for the first time since he was twelve, and he knew they were both thinking the same thing. He could see the twinkle of challenge in her eye. He held nothing back, but neither did she. It was close, but eventually, with a laugh, Ron tipped his king to her. "Congratulations," he said. "Pride restored?"
Their game was barely finished before Lily slid into Ron's vacant seat and started setting up the board again with fierce eyes. "Show me how you did that," she demanded of Minerva McGonagall. "I want to learn."
"You want to add a please in there somewhere, Lils?" Harry asked his daughter pointedly, and she deflated a bit, chastised.
"Please," she said, her tone gentler. "You beat Uncle Ron. You have to be really good to beat Uncle Ron. I can't even do it yet."
Harry dropped his head to his hand in mock dismay. Ron laughed. Ginny just shook her head and said, "You have to admire her confidence."
"I admire a lot about your daughter, Gin," Ron admitted then, and settled in to watch his old professor coach the girl he'd come to think of as his prodigy. That night, she'd demand to know what he'd meant when he's asked if McGonagall had had her pride restored, and she would listen in rapt attention as he described the game he'd played on a life-sized chessboard so many years before.
"I wonder if it's still there!" she'd exclaim, eyes wide with excitement, and Ron would remind himself to make a point of warning Neville that he might well catch Lily Potter sometime sneaking around the third floor, looking for a trapdoor.
He missed her when she went to school. He missed their weekly chess matches and her incessant chatter that not even the chess could entirely quell, not that he'd ever want it to.
All the Weasleys had a habit of checking in with Neville to see how their children were getting along, and Ron was no exception, but about three months into Hugo's first year, he asked after Lily too. When he asked, "Does she have anyone to play chess with?" Neville had dissolved into laughter.
"Does she have anyone?" Neville repeated. "Ron, she's basically forced the entirety of Gryffindor House to learn. She's started a chess club. She asked me to be the advisor, and I've gotta tell you, nothing about my week is quite as exciting as watching this eleven-year-old girl school N.E.W.T. students across a chessboard. Especially when she feels they're not giving the game the attention it deserves."
The older she got, the better she got. By the end of her third year, she'd beaten every adult in the family at least once, except for Ron. But then her interest seemed to plateau. Oh, she'd play Ron every break a few times, but it used to be that demanding a game was one of the first things she'd done. Now, he had to seek her out. She never turned him down, but she didn't challenge him to as many rematches, either, and the intensity had gone out of her game. She used to watch the board with a focus that was almost startling, but now her game had become casual. Almost careless.
"Does Lily still run that chess club at Hogwarts?" he asked Hugo over Christmas break of their fourth year. He shrugged.
"Yeah, but it's a casual thing now. More social than anything else." When Ron frowned, Hugo looked up. "It's like her and everything else, Dad. She's the best at it now. There's no one who really challenges her. She and I play still, and I can almost beat her, but she's too good. Lucy would give her a run for her money if she'd pull her head out of her Quidditch charts, but she won't. The puzzle's become too easy."
It broke his heart a little, hearing that, but he wasn't going to be the one to push. If Lily had moved on from her chess obsession, well. That was fine. It was her life.
And then, out of the blue at the start of her fifth year Easter break, she showed up at the house, chess set in hand. "We need to play," she said. "And I know I'm rusty, but don't you dare go easy on me."
He beat her in eleven moves. She stared at the board for a second, then let out a sharp laugh. She dropped her face to her hands for a moment, then straightened again, running her hands through her hair. When she was finished, she reset the board with a wave of her wand. "Again," she told him, and there was a fire rekindled in her eyes.
When she went back to school, she insisted that they keep a game going through owl post. She'd also found the best chess players among the staff at Hogwarts and had several weekly games scheduled. Playing Professor Camry is like playing Dad, she wrote Ron. At the base level, pretty easy to beat, but every once in a while, she stumbles into genius by accident. Uncle Neville is like playing Mom. The chessboard becomes a battlefield and I find myself having to think like a general. Professor Pritchard, though, is the most like playing you. He's not quite as good, but he keeps me on my toes. Queen to F6.
Ron asked Neville if he had any idea what had prompted the change. Neville just smiled. "Her grades have been slipping. Career Advice called that to her attention. This is part of her strategy to get back on track."
It worked. By the end of her sixth year, she was on the top of every class. As the end of that summer and the start of her seventh and final year approached, she was at Ron's more and more often to face off across the chessboard with the one person she had never managed to beat. The day before the train left, she was quieter than usual.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked as he directed a bishop across the board. She was silent for a couple more turns.
"Uncle Ron," she finally said, "Suppose there was something you wanted to do, but you didn't know how everyone would react to it."
"If you want my advice, Lils," Ron said gently, "then ask me for it. But let's not talk in hypotheticals. They drive me mad."
The silence returned, save for the gliding of ivory on wood and the tinny commentary of the pieces, sounds that both Ron and Lily had long ago learned to drown out. Finally, Lily spoke again, her eyes glued to the board. "Do you remember when I asked you about your scars?"
He did. It had been years ago, but he remembered clearly. She'd been eight, and had noticed the thought-scars that wound up his forearms, souvenirs of the trip to the Department of Mysteries his fifth year.
"You told me that the Department of Mysteries was where wizards worked to solve the biggest puzzles of all," she said. "Ever since then . . . working in the DoM is all I can remember wanting to do."
A year later, acceptance letter in hand and family's eardrums throbbing under the intensity of her excitement, Lily nearly strangled her uncle as she showered gratitude upon him for his unswerving support.
"Why do I feel this all leads back to you?" Harry asked him, only vaguely accusatory. Ron just shook his head.
"Lils was a puzzle solver long before I taught her chess. You should be proud, mate. DoM only takes the best."
"I am proud," Harry said, but there was something else in his eyes, something he gave voice to moments later. "It's just a dangerous job."
"Said the head of the Auror Department who almost got crushed by a collapsing building last week."
Harry almost smiled. "I worry about her," he admitted.
"Take my advice," Ron said, draping an arm around his best friend's shoulder. "Don't."
And they didn't need to. Lily thrived at her new job. She couldn't tell them any details, of course, but anyone could see the spring in her step and the sparkle in her eye. There was no chance, Ron knew, of her getting bored in the DoM.
He was happy for her, happy that she'd found a niche that suited her so well, a place to put her incredible intelligence to good use. He missed their ongoing chess match - hell, he missed playing chess with her at all and missed getting regular updates on her life - but he had enough nieces and nephews, to say nothing of his own children, to know that this was how it went. Your children grew up, moved out, started lives of their own. You never fully said goodbye to them, but you said goodbye to the child they had been. In Ron's case, he said goodbye to being the only person in Lily's life who could offer her a puzzle she had to work to solve.
So no one was more surprised than he was when, about nine months into her first year as an Unspeakable, she showed up at his door at three in the morning, sheepishly holding a chessboard.
"I need your help," she said, and, wordlessly, Ron stood aside to let her in. She went straight to the table in the sitting room where they'd played their first game so many years before, and started setting up the pieces, speaking in a rush to fill the silence, her words tumbling over each other on the way out. "I have this huge problem I have to figure out at work, and I can't get my head around it, I can't focus, I can't solve it. I need a chess game to help me sort it all out, but no one there plays, or at least, they won't take time from their own work to play with me, and I tried playing myself, but I know myself too well, it's not enough of a challenge, but you." She straightened and turned, looking him in the eye. "You are the only person I've never beaten. You are the only player who still challenges me. I know it's three in the morning and this is a bizarre request, but will you play a game of chess with me? Muggle chess, please, I can't take sentient chess pieces tonight. That's why I brought my own board."
Ron gazed at her for a moment, then crossed the room and picked up two pawns and, hiding them in his fists, held them out for her to choose. Her relief was palpable.
They played in silence for several rounds, Lily's focus entirely on the board. But the jitters that had plagued her when she arrived had left. She seemed calmer, more in control. Her focus was on the board, but Ron's focus was on her. After several minutes, he spoke quietly into the silence. "How does playing a game of chess help you with your work?"
Her eyes flicked up to him, then back to the board. She didn't answer right away.
"There's too much going on in my brain. There always has been," she finally said. "When I was a kid, I just let all the extra thoughts come tumbling out in a stream of babbling because I didn't know what else to do. But chess quiets the noise. At least, if I really have to focus, it does. And when the noise is quiet, I can work through other things. It's how I got through NEWT classes. I'm hoping it's how I'll get through this. So don't go easy on me, okay?"
Ron laughed, which startled Lily's focus up from the board. "What's funny?" she asked, genuinely bewildered.
"The fact that you somehow think I'm capable of going easy on you," he informed her. She listed her head to one side, clearly still confused. "Lily," he said, straightforward, "I stopped going easy on you when you were thirteen. These days, I fight tooth and nail to beat you. If I were going easy on you, I'd have lost about ten moves ago. You're very good."
Lily colored, and returned her gaze to the board. "You're better," she said in a very quiet voice.
He returned to silence after that, letting her focus, if that was what she needed. The world was quiet, outside and in, the only sound in the room the quiet ticking of the pieces against the board, growing gradually faster in tempo as the game increased in intensity.
Bishop. Pawn. Knight. Queen. They moved across the squares, chasing each other, tracking down kings. Something had changed. Ron felt it, even though he couldn't name it. Something, though, about this game was different.
He saw it before she did. The end of the game. Had she done it on purpose, or had he made a misstep that had led him here?
He made his final move, and sat back in his chair, shaking his head, waiting for her to see it. There were only two ways this game could end for him, and a handful of seconds after he saw it, she saw it.
She froze, eyes wide, staring at the board. "Of course," she breathed. "Of course." And she leapt to her feet, moved her knight almost as an afterthought, then swiftly kissed his cheek, whispered, "Thank you," and bounded out the door.
"Congrats, Lil," he said to the place where she had been. "Your first -" His eyes dropped to the board and the final placement of her knight. An incredulous laugh was startled out of him. "Draw," he finished. "Your first draw." He picked up her knight, turning it over in his hand. Then he undid her move, moved her queen instead, and tipped over his king. Then he headed back to bed.
A week later she was back, at a more reasonable hour. "Forgot my chessboard," she said when he opened the door. "Fancy a game just for fun?"
"Always," he said, welcoming her in. She froze for a moment when she saw the setup of the board, unchanged since their late night match. "You didn't go for the checkmate," he said from behind her. She shrugged and began resetting the pieces.
"Didn't see it," she said.
"I don't believe you."
"Well, I'm sorry, Uncle Ron," she said, the picture of innocence, "but that's the truth." He held her gaze until the corners of her mouth betrayed a smile. "And even if I had seen the checkmate but ignored it in favor of the draw, well, if you lose a game of chess when it's three in the morning and you've just been roused from sleep, it doesn't really count, does it? A true demonstration of superior skill requires that both parties be at the top of their game." And she held out two closed fists to him. He chose, and they settled in to play.
"Hey, Lils," he said, as she reached for a pawn to start the game. She looked up at him, expectant. "No going easy on me, you hear?"
She grinned. "Pawn to C3."
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