This one-shot was my entry for Ficathon 2008! This year's theme was "non-couple interaction," meaning we focused on interactions other than the standard fanon ships (AmixZoi, MinaxKunz, etc.) Please review if you like it, or especially if you hate it—I always appreciate constructive criticism. I'm thinking about making this into a series if people like it.
Gens Una Sumus
Frosted cobalt eyes narrowed in concentration at the rank and file before him. He silently evaluated every possible tactic, calculated every path through enemy lines. It should be a simple puzzle for a mind like his. But he was taking no chances. His honor—indeed, the honor of humanity itself—was on the line.
All right, that was an exaggeration. But right now, Jadeite needed a small task to focus on. Lately everything in his life had been broad and vague. Less than a month ago, he'd been an average twenty-something grad student with a part-time job at a Shinto shrine and an uncertain future. His primary concerns had been passing his exams and making his paycheck last through the month. Even then he'd had high ambitions, but he'd never imagined that his employer's granddaughter would turn out to be the reincarnation of a Martian princess who held the secrets of his past life as a warrior-prince of the lost Golden Kingdom.
He adjusted the starched collar of his gold and ivory uniform shirt. Though his mind was accustomed to the motion, his skin protested at the unfamiliar sensation. It was not that the changes were unwelcome. On the contrary, he had finally found the sense of purpose that had been missing from his life until now. But Jadeite liked to have a plan—not a distant and sketchy dream, but a concrete set of steps he could follow.
Gloved fingers drummed against the side of the holographic chess table as he pondered his next move. The sound produced an odd, ringing echo off the crystalline walls. The nice thing about playing against a computer was that his opponent never got impatient. Yet another pathway ended in inevitable stalemate; he frowned slightly and started over.
"Hey, are you still awake?" A light but still none too gentle shove accompanied the question, interrupting his thoughts. Jadeite glared without turning around. He could swear that Nephrite purposely waited for the moment just before he had found a solution to disturb him.
"I was thinking about my next move. This may be a foreign concept to you," he replied icily. His companion, well accustomed to such exchanges, paid him no heed. He plopped himself into the seat opposite Jadeite and crossed one leg over his knee, scraping the chair across the floor in the process. The blond cringed as he imagined scratches in the polished marble.
A slender man with long, tawny hair peeked over Jadeite's shoulder, and the latter's nose twitched at the scent of herbal conditioner mixed with expensive cologne. He could not fault Zoisite for being conscious of his appearance—that would be the utmost hypocrisy from a person who used more hair gel than a gaggle of preteen girls on the night of their first school dance. But the younger man's particular tastes had never quite agreed with him.
"How's she doing?" Zoisite asked, referring to the table. It was his latest invention, and this game was the first test run of its strategy programming. It was a trial by fire—Jadeite was by far the best player of the four. But Kunzite was busy at the moment, and Nephrite had refused to even touch the thing, citing several previous unpleasant experiences with Zoisite's inventions. Zoisite himself knew the inner workings of the computer too well to serve as a fair test subject. That left Jadeite, who had been willing enough. After all the time he'd invested in the project, Zoisite was too nervous to watch, so he was pretending to be busy in the other room and occasionally popping in to check on their progress. So far, Jadeite had the upper hand.
Jadeite and Nephrite were on edge too, but for an entirely different reason. The more their memories of the past returned, the more they realized just how much the world had changed. The atmosphere was tense with questions no one dared to voice. Serenity had given them a luxurious guest suite in the Crystal Palace while they sorted out everyone's concerns about the past, and more importantly, the future.
A guest suite. They were being treated like strangers in their homeland. The thought awakened an instinctive sense of indignation in Jadeite. But part of him really felt like a stranger, the part that remembered the way the Golden Kingdom ought to be: walls of stone, wood and iron hung with tapestries of their proud history; real, earthy things, and orange hearth-fires that glowed with natural heat. Although his present incarnation had lived in Crystal Tokyo almost all his life, now the fleeting shadow of a memory made the once-familiar streets seem foreign. Though Endymion was still their king, this was not their kingdom. Not this odd technological wonderland encased in crystal that glowed as pale and cold as the silver moon above.
To top it off, the room was about two degrees too cold, just uncomfortable enough to make him tense. But as a guest, it would be impolite to complain.
Suddenly, he found the solution that would give checkmate. He moved with swift certainty, and the computer followed as predicted, because Jadeite had already determined how this game would end. There was no way out, and in six moves it was over. Jadeite stretched, cracking his knuckles, and sat back smugly in his chair as the table announced in a smooth, artificial female voice, "Black wins." (Jadeite always insisted on being black. He knew that white held a considerable advantage in having the first move, and winning against the odds made his victories that much more satisfying.)
Nephrite had been expecting the outcome. "I told you no machine could beat Jadeite." It was not often that he openly praised his friend. But in this case, the praise was entwined with gloating, which made it acceptable.
"I guess it needs a little fine tuning," Zoisite admitted, looking a tad disappointed.
"You could've won three moves earlier if you hadn't sacrificed the bishop."
Jadeite looked up in surprise at the owner of the quiet voice who dared to criticize his tactics. A petite woman in a sailor suit stood in the doorway, hands folded neatly over her royal blue skirt. Behind her was Kunzite.
"Allow me to introduce SailorMercury," Kunzite announced in ever-suave tones as he closed the door behind them. "Lady Mercury, my fellow Heavenly Kings. Zoisite I believe you've already met. The one playing chess is Jadeite, and across from him is Nephrite."
The woman stepped forward and bowed politely, a forced smile straining her features. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Jadeite quietly sized her up as they went through the usual pleasantries. Her cobalt blue hair was cropped to her chin in a smart, practical style. Her skin was fair, and her eyes, though hidden behind silver glasses, betrayed traces of redness. He surmised that she spent a good deal of time indoors, likely in front of a computer screen. Not surprising, as Mercury was said to be the brain of the sailor soldiers. A passive yet self-assured posture told him that she was used to diplomacy; she knew how to appear non-confrontational without seeming like prey. And yet he noted that she had donned her elaborate and somewhat gaudy powered-up uniform, the one she wore in battle. Maybe the queen was a little nervous too, after all.
While Jadeite was analyzing her body language, Zoisite was, for the most part, simply enjoying the view. Perhaps Serenity had sent her down to break the ice, but she seemed to be made of it. Her motions were as firm and delicate, her wide blue eyes as clear and unreadable, as the element she commanded. And that new uniform skirt was even more revealing than the old one…
"You're staring, Zoisite." Nephrite gave him a knowing smirk.
"I was just lost in thought!" the younger king protested, turning away to hide his reddened face.
"And I know exactly where your thoughts were." Nephrite snickered, thoroughly enjoying Zoisite's embarrassment. He had yet to realize that, unlike Jadeite, Zoisite did not secretly enjoy his teasing.
Thankfully, Mercury did not hear them, as Jadeite had accosted her, "So, you fancy yourself a chess player, Lady Mercury?"
Something stirred deep in Mercury's eyes as her competitive instincts awakened. She sensed the challenge in Jadeite's words. But she only replied, "I do enjoy a game, when I get the chance."
Jadeite grinned wolfishly and leaned back in his chair. "Say, Zoisite. Does this thing support two players?"
Nephrite caught on and stood up. Jadeite gestured toward the now-vacant chair. "Well then, I invite you to demonstrate your talents. Please, have a seat." His tone was condescending, almost mocking, and yet he would not have wanted to play her if he didn't feel she was at least worth beating.
Mercury did not know this, and was put off by his attitude. But she decided to be the bigger person (figuratively speaking, anyway) and nodded politely. "All right, I accept." She smoothed her skirt, thanked Nephrite when he pulled out her chair for her, and sat down.
"Hah. This ought to be a good show," Nephrite laughed.
Mercury suspected he was being sarcastic, but took the comment in stride. "I hope it will be."
"That's enough, Nephrite," Jadeite admonished. Mercury was almost grateful until he went on, "I prefer not to laugh at my opponents until after I've beaten them."
So he had been mocking her.
"Oh, I meant it in earnest," Nephrite said.
Or maybe not.
Nephrite found the whole affair terribly amusing. Of course he would love to see the so-called brain of the sailor senshi put in her place. But he would get equal enjoyment out of ragging on Jadeite if he lost to this shy, fragile girl who barely came up to his shoulder.
"Holographic chess?" Mercury observed, her interest piqued.
"Impressive, no? Zoisite built it," Kunzite explained. His friend beamed.
Jadeite turned the table on, and the pieces appeared. Mercury noted that they did not flicker, as cheaper holographs tended to, but materialized smoothly and sharply. Zoisite knew what he was doing.
She realized that there was apparently no interface for moving the pieces. "Zoisite-san, how do I…?"
"Just pretend to pick them up as if they were normal pieces," he instructed. The collision detection is highly accurate—they'll even roll if you knock them over. And they make a sound when they hit each other or when you tap them against the board. I spent hours on the physics."
"That's great, Zoisite," Jadeite said quickly, before his enthusiastic comrade could segue into a highly technical description of the game engine that he neither understood nor cared about in the least.
They wasted no time getting started. Mercury began the game the usual way, attacking the center with a pawn. Jadeite replied with his favorite piece, a knight.
"King's Indian, hmm?" Mercury observed with a smile after a few turns had passed. "Bold, yet classy."
So she knew how to toss around chess lingo, at least. He eyed the four white pawns lined up along the center of the board. "You're pretty bold yourself." He wondered if Mercury really knew what she was doing, or if she was just a haphazard novice who had happened to accidentally set up one of the most aggressive openings possible. In a few minutes he would know for sure. He castled, preparing for the imminent confrontation.
They played for several turns in silence. Nephrite never let a move pass without some snide comment, and while Jadeite enjoyed their banter at some level, their games never demanded all his concentration. He knew his friend did it on purpose in an unconscious attempt to deflect humiliation. The teasing and eye-rolling were his way of making it clear that he wasn't trying his hardest, so that even if he lost his opponent's victory would be incomplete. Jadeite found that habit one of Nephrite's most aggravating, no small distinction considering the brown-haired king's vast repertoire of annoying idiosyncrasies. This woman was different. She was a serious player.
He glanced across the board at the four pawns and a knight that opposed him. They might not appear to be much of a threat, but as an experienced player he knew better. A wry grin touched his lips as he moved his queen's knight out to the edge of the board. Mercury arched an eyebrow. The choice was slightly unorthodox, though not unheard-of. This should be interesting.
Their eyes locked as they reached the point where tactical conventions ended. Now the bloodshed would begin. Jadeite offered a pawn, which Mercury took without hesitation. She knew what he was thinking and she was willing to play along. The blond squinted in concentration. He would keep her confidence in check… so to speak.
It was time to clear out those annoying pawns. He captured one. She moved its companion up to the space he'd vacated. He would deal with that annoyance later; the skirmish on the right side of the board occupied most of his attention at the moment. He threatened her knight with a bishop, and was a bit surprised when she used her queen to defend. She tried to sneak her own bishop past him, but the knight he'd sent around the outside came charging in to end that offensive. Several more minutes passed in anxious silence. Though Jadeite would never admit it, this was the most fun he'd had in weeks.
"You've performed far better than I expected, Lady Mercury," he admitted. The patronizing tone was gone from his voice; now he sounded pleasantly surprised.
She bowed her head modestly. "I don't think I'm as good as you. I'm out of practice."
Jadeite was not wont to bolster his opponent's morale by disagreeing. At the moment, he did seem to have the upper hand. Mercury had developed her queen too early, made too many sacrifices. She had two passed pawns and a relatively strong claim on the center, but at the price of over half her army. At this rate he would win.
Mercury's hand hovered over the board indecisively. He watched her eyes darting back and forth like panicked fish in a drying pond.
"You're thinking like Zoisite," he said. "He always tries to figure out what I'm going to do five turns from now. It's too early in the game to think about the end." He gave her a quizzical look as she sent a rook on an apparent suicide mission to attack his king. He dispatched it quickly and returned to dealing with a pawn that had been bothering his knights. "You have to be able to adapt."
"Of course. But I have faith in my strategy."
His queen took her queen's knight. She appeared unruffled; he wondered if this was all part of her plan. Her eyes were as glassy and unreadable as ever, and she still wore that soft, unnerving smile. She castled and threatened the black queen with her rook. Jadeite frowned, annoyed that he was forced to waste a turn retreating.
"No matter how much faith you have, no strategy is infallible." He looked straight at her. "No system is without its flaws. I hope you don't have too much faith."
If Mercury sensed the implication of his words, she chose to ignore it. "Of course every strategy has its strong and weak points. Books have been written on the subject." She chuckled. "I should know; I've read quite a few."
"As busy as you are, it must be hard to find time to read," Zoisite said, searching for a way to change the subject. He too had sensed the dangerous overtones of Jadeite's statement.
"It's true that I don't have much free time any more," she admitted. "But I do love my job, and protecting Earth's peace is more than worth the sacrifice."
The corner of Jadeite's mouth twitched. Some deep-rooted sense of pride—no, more than pride, honor—would not allow him to let that comment pass. "I remember a time when protecting Earth's peace was our job," he said nonchalantly, nudging a bishop forward with his fingertip while never taking his eyes off Mercury. Zoisite grimaced. It seemed his strategy had backfired.
Mercury avoided a direct rebuttal. "So I've heard. But I like to think we've held things together fairly well for the past eight hundred years."
"Then why do you still wear that uniform?"
"In case we need to fight."
"It's hard to call it peace if you have to keep fighting for it," Jadeite retorted acidly. "Typical Lunarians. You're so attached to your old ways that you're willing to use your power to make sure things never change. That's how you operated back on the Moon, and now you're doing the same thing in Crystal Tokyo."
"Jadeite," Kunzite said in a warning tone. He knew better than anyone that Jadeite had a short temper and a sharp tongue when someone rubbed him the wrong way. One of these days he was going to start a war if he couldn't watch his mouth.
Mercury shook her head. "I don't mind. He raises a valid point." She turned back to Jadeite, who was squinting at the board again. "I'll admit that I too have noticed some similarities between the two Silver Millennia. But we have no intention of repeating the mistakes of the past."
"Eventually your time will run out," Jadeite insisted. "How long are you going to keep sacrificing everything and fighting as hard as you can just to stay where you are?"
They traded queens.
"Well then," said Mercury, "I guess we'll have to fight twice as hard as that to move forward." This time her eyes sought his, and held them with that same cool smile.
One of her pawns was creeping up the left side of the board. He decided to get rid of it before it became a problem. To his surprise, she sacrificed her remaining knight to defend it. Fine, let her waste a piece if she wanted to.
"Just what do you mean by that?" he challenged.
Kunzite could tell his comrade was more focused on the conversation than the game. "You might want to pay attention there, Jadeite," he suggested, without sounding particularly concerned or interested.
Jadeite ignored him. "I suppose you want us to join your team?" He stifled an incredulous laugh. "Perhaps you think we're going to take orders from you? No. I don't think I'd look very good in a sailor fuku, you see."
Kunzite silently thanked every deity he knew that the other senshi weren't here for this. Mars and Jupiter would have found all sorts of interesting new ways to bend Jadeite's limbs, and Venus… Venus would have smiled sweetly, made polite small talk, and later slipped laxatives into their food.
Mercury pondered for a moment before selecting her move. "I still believe that working together is the only logical course of action."
"That would be ideal, but I'd hate to see our progress hindered by old Moon-Kingdom customs that have no relevance in the modern age." Jadeite barely glanced at the board as he played. "We have only this planet's best interests in mind, of course."
Mercury's eyes glinted dangerously, water hardening into ice. Even she could only take so much. "And who protected this planet when its own defenders betrayed it to Beryl?"
The cursed name shot through the group like a jolt of electricity, leaving the four men trembling and speechless. Kunzite's expression barely changed, but he grew noticeably paler. Nephrite's fist knotted in anger, then loosened again as the truth of her accusation settled upon him. Zoisite bit his lip, shame and sorrow clear on his face. Jadeite's face did not change at all; he'd already been glaring at her for some time. His hands spoke his anger, slamming the piece he held down with such a force that the impact of his fist made the table vibrate.
Any anger Mercury had felt dwindled as she saw their anguish. She murmured an apology.
Zoisite shook his head. "Don't apologize for telling the truth."
The scowl Jadeite still wore said that he disagreed. Taking a deep breath in an effort to control his temper, he silently made his next move. He allowed her pawn to reach the 8th row. Now she would ask for a queen, and he would deal with it just as he'd dealt with her last queen.
"I'd like to make it a knight, please," Mercury said after a moment's contemplation. The table obliged, morphing her pawn into the new piece in a shower of prismatic stars. (She wondered how long Zoisite had spent on that animation.)
Jadeite's eyes widened. "No…" he whispered. He'd been prepared to defend against a queen, but now he saw the advantage a knight would offer.
"Actually, the official rules do allow—"
"I know the rules, Zoisite," he hissed through gritted teeth. Promotion to any piece other than a queen was so rare that he hadn't even considered it. He mentally kicked himself for overlooking the possibility. Now he was on the run.
Two turns later he finally captured the offending knight, and the game was back in his control. Mercury had put up quite a fight, but she would not escape again.
"Sooner or later you will realize that every battle is predictable and unchangeable," he told her. "In the past, present, and future, you are bound to the fate that was created by your previous decisions." He narrowed his eyes at her as he put her in check, forcing her to interpose with another sacrifice. "If there's one thing you can learn from this game, it's that a bad strategy will never succeed, and a flawed system will always be destroyed. It is foolish to recreate a failure."
Nephrite shook his head, both in disagreement and to get a few stray bangs out of his eyes. "It's not that simple. Chess pieces don't learn from the past, or fight harder when they're desperate. There's a human element you can't ignore."
Mercury nodded. "However, chess does bear one important similarity to real life. Something apparently small can make a great difference." She slid her last remaining pawn, which Jadeite had forgotten about in his scramble to deal with the knight, up to his back row. He noted with some sense of irony that it was the one she'd sacrificed her knight to defend. This time she chose a queen, and this time he had nowhere to retreat. She had backed his king into a corner, and his own pieces had trapped him, sealing his fate.
"White wins," the computer announced. Jadeite could only stare numbly at the board.
Mercury stood up. "Well played," she said, extending a hand to her defeated opponent.
"Good show indeed," Nephrite agreed.
"I'm surprised to see Jadeite lose. He's normally better than this," Kunzite added, and was rewarded with an indignant glare from the blond. He gave the younger king his trademark "I dare you" look, and Jadeite backed down.
"He even beat me once," Nephrite said, as if this should be shocking.
"He beats you every time," Zoisite corrected. Now it was Nephrite's turn to glare. "Oh, get a haircut," he taunted, taking the cheap shot.
"I don't have to take that from you, pretty boy!"
As the conversation degenerated into a petty squabble, Jadeite finally rose and shook the hand Mercury offered. His eyes were still fixed on the board. Suddenly, from up here, the scene looked less like a battle. The king was waiting for the white queen at the end of the aisle, surrounded by a mixed crowd of their subjects. Soon she would be at his side. And for just a moment, Jadeite saw the world she was trying to protect.
With an electronic beep, the table reset itself. Again white and black faced one another in neat rows, ready for the next battle. There would always be another battle. There would always be struggle and sacrifice, trial and tears and atonement to be made. But they would come together. At length he looked up at Mercury and smiled.
"We should play again some time."
In case anyone is wondering, "gens una sumus" means "we are one family," and is the slogan of the World Chess Federation.