Lelouch grimaced, and glanced back up at his sister. Cornelia was always the quickest to put him in check, and it aggravated him to no end. He'd never beaten Schneizel, true, and his record was about fifty-fifty with Cornelia, but the strategies of his two elder siblings could not be more different, nor could their victories. Battles between him and Schneizel were gentlemen's duels, calm, leisurely, the two spending several minutes between moves thinking about every possible result to each move they might make, and what the other might be planning. When Schneizel picked up a piece, he would often let it hover over a square for several tantalizing moments, or even put it down, keeping his fingers- even just his index- planted on that piece. He'd watch Lelouch's reaction as he held onto that piece, seeing if the young boy would give any of his 'tells' away- a stare becoming a smirk, left eye twitching, a sudden gulp- that Schneizel was doing exactly as he'd planned, and moving it back to where it had come from if he reconsidered, which, most of the time, he did.
Lelouch hated it. It was cheating, is what it was. But somehow, constantly losing to Schneizel never felt nearly as aggravating as playing with Cornelia, whether he won or lost. They weren't playing speed chess- they didn't even have timers- but Cornelia never took longer than fifteen seconds to make her move, and usually made it within five. When she picked up a piece, she knew exactly where it was going and set it down immediately. And although this was usually Lelouch's favorite type of opponent to face, the easiest to lead into a trap, whenever Lelouch let his guard down and thought for a moment that Cornelia was doing exactly as he'd predicted, he'd move to spring his trap only to find that he'd made a fatal mistake and Cornelia made a move he never saw coming, one that he was convinced, in his heart of hearts, that she had never seen coming either. That she'd just made up on the spot.
Cornelia was cheating, too. It wasn't fair that she should make moves nearly as brilliant as his that she didn't even put any thought into. She wasn't skillful, she was lucky. It had to be luck. How could it be anything else? How could she do something so stupid as to attack his bishop with her king when he'd been carefully setting up a three-pronged checkmate- only to make him suddenly realize that he had gotten his plan out of order, that he'd moved the bishop before moving the knight in to cover that spot, that her king had indeed taken his bishop while it was unprotected.
And what was the worst was that she didn't even look frightened. The greatest satisfaction Lelouch had ever gleaned from a chess match was not from any victory. Instead, it was when he got Schneizel to gasp and widen his eyes upon the realization that Lelouch had two pawns threatening both his knights- a fork, the classical term for it was- and that to save one he had to sacrifice the other. Schneizel had wiggled his way out of that one, too- moving his knight, instead, to check Lelouch's king. Forcing his hand. But Lelouch savored that moment even still, because for a moment there, he'd made Schneizel desperate. Nervous. Panicked.
Cornelia, on the other hand, would never, ever give him that satisfaction. No matter how desperate the situation, no matter how few pieces she had left, no matter how brilliant his trap was, she had the same expression on her face when she moved her first piece as when she moved her last. Even the same expression on her face now, as she told him that he was in check. Even the same expression whenever she would tell him that he was in checkmate. Cool. Calm. Confident. Lelouch would often wonder whether it was something she'd been born with or whether it was something she'd learned in the military. He couldn't remember a time when Cornelia had been any other way- she'd left for the military academy when she'd been fourteen, and he barely five.
He remembered very little before those years- a teary goodbye between her and Euphie, a package sent occasionally, holidays at home, and their first chess match that he'd challenged her to, the Christmas when she was sixteen and he seven, he remembered going exactly the same way as every other match they'd had since. He remembered that look on her face, the look he hated, the look that made his guts boil, the look that was so offensive and wrong and disturbing to him because it was no look at all, it was just Cornelia staring at him, waiting for him to move, with perhaps a mild sort of amusement on her face.
That was what he hated most. To him, chess was a passion. A study. A way of life. Schneizel understood it too. Chess was a metaphor for the highest levels of intellect the human mind could reach, a true test of wit against wit on an equal battlefield, with a million possibilities and strategies and challenges laid out before you, a story waiting to unfold, an epic battle waiting to be fought, a triumph waiting to be seized, a defeat waiting to crush you.
To Cornelia, chess was just a game.
"It's nothing like real warfare, Lelouch. Real battles are always asymmetrical, and timing and terrain, which don't exist in chess, are the most crucial components of battle in real life. Whole wars have been decided on where a river was located, or what time of day the attack took place, or whether the ground was muddy. Forcing your enemy to fight at a time and place that are good for you and not for him is what strategic warfare is all about. Chess isn't strategy, Lelouch, it's just moving pieces around on a board. You're good at this, but you'd never last a day as a general."
Cornelia's words burned in his head, the heat rising behind his cheeks as he recalled the lecture she'd given him when he made fun of her for having lost and suggested that perhaps he should be the one in line to one day be the commander of the Emperor's armies instead.
Her basic strategy was so predictable. Cornelia always started by moving her pawns out into a grid of mutual diagonal defense, and always then moved her rook up next, to guard that open row. Then she always began to move out her bishops, knights, and queen, but that was when everything quite literally went to pieces, either for her or for Lelouch. Her defense grid had its weakspots, sure, but those same weakspots could become its strongest points with one or two of his sister's moves. But when she moved her pieces to defend, it was always a good sign for him, a sign that she did not think the game would be ending soon.
It was when she ignored his attacks into her territory that he knew for certain he was in deep trouble, because that meant she only had one or two moves left to make before he was in checkmate. Cornelia may have thought it was only a game, but when she played, she played to win. She did not fool around, and she did not deliberately let him win, ever. That was the one thing she and Schneizel had in common with this game, and it was the one reason, Lelouch told himself, that he even still played with her. His mother had let him win once, at age six, and that had been the last game he'd ever allowed her to play with him.
Cornelia went straight for his king in the most direct route possible, and always attempted to check him with her queen. That queen was her favorite piece, for sure, and she was never frightened of putting the queen deep into enemy territory where all he had to do was move a few pieces to trap her. Her queen seemed to find her way out of even the most carefully-laid traps, and always managed to kill several of his most valuable pieces in the process. The most powerful piece in Cornelia's arsenal, Cornelia never played a single game without letting her queen's presence be known, that queen burning and slashing a bloody path of conquest all across Lelouch's side of the board and moving to put him in check from a distance wherever possible.
But strangely, the only games Lelouch had ever won against her were the games where he had left Cornelia's queen on the board. It seemed that, for all the damage she did, Cornelia's most effective use of that most powerful piece was as a diversion. A distraction. A noisy, frightening belligerent that sent him scrambling to protect himself and destroy it. When he ignored it and focused on Cornelia's support pieces, he quickly realized that it was her bishops or knights that were the ones truly moving to trap his king. Whenever he killed Cornelia's queen, he always found himself forced to use one of his more powerful pieces to do it- and as soon as that piece moved out of hiding, often taken soon afterward by one of her pawns, his king was left open, and trapped in a checkmate within a few moves.
It was maddening. It was infuriating. It was UNFAIR! Killing your opponent's queen was supposed to cripple their ability to checkmate you, not boost it! All the books he'd read on chess, all of Schneizel's advice, all of the grandmasters in the Empire he'd played against, had all said that the queen was a piece you were supposed to keep protected and in reserve! That her power was something best used on a wide-open board, in the later part of the game! Cornelia treated her queen no better than a pawn, attacked his most carefully-constructed and densely-packed defensive formations, put her in more danger than any of her other pieces, and always came out on top for it!
Cornelia played chess wrong.
So how did she keep on beating him?
Lelouch gritted his teeth, and stared at the board.
Concentrate, Lelouch. There must be a way out of this you aren't seeing. She's twice your age- exactly twice his age, he mused, realizing that she'd turned twenty last week and he was still ten- but you already know you're far smarter than she'll ever be. Than any of them will ever know. Mother said so, and Father... well, he'll find out someday.
Lelouch grinned in satisfaction at that thought, moving his bishop to shield his king from the threat of that attack.
His fingers had barely left the bishop when Cornelia's reached in to take hold of her rook, a piece she hadn't touched for twelve moves, still sitting next to her king all the way across the board, and Lelouch's heart plummeted into his stomach as he realized that there were six empty vertical squares between it and his bishop.
Later that night, after his mother had twisted his ear and forced him to pick up all thirty-two pieces from all over the living room and apologize to both Cornelia and Nunnally, who had begun wailing and sobbing, both from being hit by a pair of flying pawns and at the sight of her brother throwing a toddler's fit, the thought finally occurred to Lelouch that the real reason he continued to play against Cornelia and the reason she continued to play against him, even when a good third of his losses ended in him behaving in a most abominable manner for the rest of the night, were one and the same.
Games between him and Cornelia were always aggravating, frustrating, and infuriating, but they were also always exciting.
Could it be that the reason Cornelia's expression never changed, win or lose, was that she was enjoying the game either way?
Perhaps there was something to Cornelia's way of looking at chess, too. Perhaps it was all of those things he held dear, and a game. Perhaps entertainment was just as valid a purpose for chess as any other.
But now he had a new life's goal, and that was to one day make Schneizel flip over the chessboard and throw a fit, too.
Maybe even while Cornelia was watching. That thought made a strange feeling well up inside of him, and for a bizarre moment he imagined wrapping an arm around her, with him the black king and her his white queen, while Schneizel, the white king, stamped his foot and shook his fist at him for stealing his bride. A feeling almost more satisfying than winning a chess match. But there was nothing more satisfying than that, was there...?
Ah, well, a boy could dream, couldn't he?