warnings for brief discussions of death, including non-graphic mentions of execution and murder, and moderate swearing.
Sebastian walks into the Sector G common room, finds Zachary and Alexander at one of the square tables, and slams the piece of paper down on the piece of empty table next to the chessboard between them. "Finally," he declares, gesturing wildly at the sheet, prompting Alexander to swipe it up and take a good look at it.
When he comprehends the full weight of what he's seeing, his eyes grow wide and a smile breaks out over his face. "Nice one, squirt," he says, looking up, handing the paper over to Zachary, who looks at it in confusion for a few seconds, before whistling and approval and giving Sebastian a thumbs up.
After Sebastian has the paper back, tucking it back inside the envelope he's been carrying, he dumps himself down in one of two empty seats, quickly surveying the chessboard. The two of them are approaching the endgame; Sebastian's watched Alexander play for more than enough time to know when Alexander has a game in the bag. Zachary's just moving around the board, trying to prolong his defeat, looking for ways to take the white queen. Sebastian knows that it's no use trying to get Alexander in checkmate, no use trying to go for the king, but the queen is almost as good.
Alexander moves his bishop, then turns back to Sebastian as Zachary stares down the board. "What brought on the name change, then?"
Sebastian shrugs. "I have no claim to the Whitaker name."
"Pssssh," replies Zachary, not looking up from the board. "You're still our mother's son, aren't you? Our mother was a Whitaker when you were born, and my father was perfectly happy to raise you as his own."
Sebastian shakes his head. "Perhaps if I'd known him, I'd feel more comfortable with it." He pauses for a moment, trying to formulate the words into a sentence that won't crush everything that Zachary holds dear. He can't do it, so he settles for an, "I can't do that. I'm sorry. I can't pretend to be somebody I'm not."
Zachary makes his move, shifting his rook to the right, and looks up as Alexander looks down. "So you trade your Ducartan name for an Acothran one?"
"It's English, actually," replies Alexander, moving his knight. "Anglicised after the Norman Conquest. Your move, Zachary."
Zachary takes one look at the board and declares, "Oh, fuck you, Alexander."
Alexander laughs, sharp and bright, before retorting, "You love me really."
Zachary shrugs and laughs with him. "I do, I do. I don't know why I do, but I do."
"How do you even know that?" Sebastian interjects. "The meaning of the name, I mean."
Alexander shrugs, laughing again at Zachary, who's staring at the board with his eyes furrowed in confusion. "I Google things too," he laughs. "You're not the only one with access to a computer, you know."
Sebastian looks at the sheet of paper, tracing the name in the air before he's interrupted by a low rumble from Zachary, who's collapsed over the table, eye-level with the chessboard. "Why would you Google that name in particular?"
Alexander looks over at Sebastian, raising his eyebrows. Sebastian knows why Alexander knows the history of the name, both of them having spent a significant amount of time in the same place alongside a woman who bore said surname; someone that Alexander grew very attached to over the years, something that Sebastian will never understand. He'll accept the fact nonetheless because even though Sebastian personally doesn't like her all that much, he will listen to Alexander talk for as long as he needs to. Besides, she's still family, in the end. They've both got the surname now to prove it.
"So why that surname, then?" Zachary asks, still staring the board like the secrets to the universe will magically appear before him. "Out of all the surnames in the world, why that one?"
Alexander looks over at Sebastian, his eyes begging wildly for Sebastian to rescue this and save him, but Sebastian just shrugs and drops him in it. It's mean, he knows, but Alexander and Zachary have been together for long enough now that any revelations aren't really revelations anymore.
Alexander sighs, and lets the secrets roll out. "When I was at the Victory Ground, I was practically adopted by three people. One of the was a girl named Thea Spencer. She's only about four years older than I am. But we were so young when our parents died; I don't remember them at all. In my mind, Thea's the only mother I've ever known."
"So you Googled her last name?" Zachary asks, finally moving a pawn. "Your move, Alexander."
"You're telling me that you never got bored during those endless days in Sector C?" Alexander asks back, casting an eye over the board, possibilities and strategies constantly whirring in his head.. "When we got to Sector G, it was better; constantly being pushed to the limits has the added bonus of being never bored. But Sector C? I don't know how you guys survived in that place for so long. I'd have died from the stress of being idle for so long."
"Not all of us grew up at the Victory Ground, Alexander," replies Zachary. "Not all of us spent ten years living through jam-packed seventeen-hour days. You chose that life, and you grew so accustomed to it that you can't stand not having that. Why on Earth would you choose that life?"
"Zachary. I was two, and I was going with the three people who actually showed any sort of human decency to me after my parents died. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I still maintain that I was made all the greater for it."
Zachary laughs, and Sebastian can just tell that it's laced with subtle sarcasm. Zachary's a master of disguise, can conceal and manipulate anyone and everyone if the need arises, but he can't lie to Sebastian. They're brothers, after all, and he knows Zachary like the back of his hand. He knows that Alexander knows it too, no matter how much Zachary tries to keep himself concealed. There are some people who know you as well as you know yourself, and Alexander is most definitely one of those people for Zachary.
"And yet we still produce the greatest soldiers, even without going through all of that," replies Zachary. "Really, Alexander, I thought you were clever enough to realise that all of their methods are absolute fucking bullshit."
Alexander snaps up, "Zachary, don't swear in front of the kid - oh, you're fifteen now, aren't you? Never mind." Sebastian laughs, still bemused by the fact that even though Alexander is only around eleven months older than he is, the gap between them still feels like an eternity. Alexander and Zachary are sixteen, not at the age of legal majority in every nation that's not this one, but the Ducartan nation plays by different rules. In this place, fifteen is old enough to drink, old enough to marry, old enough to get sent to the front lines to live and die. Old enough to be selected for Sector G, old enough to become part of the greatest force that the Ducartans have to offer. Sebastian's snapped out of his train of thought by Alexander taking Zachary's bishop with his knight.
"Yup. Old enough to legally change my name," Sebastian replies.
"Why did you change the first name as well?" replies Zachary. He looks down at the board. "Ah, shit. I'm trussed up, aren't I?" Alexander smirks and nods, not saying anything. "Fuck you, Alexander." Alexander just laughs at that but leaves the space free for Sebastian to answer Zachary's question.
Honestly, Sebastian would rather have gone his entire life without having to explain that. But he can't keep secrets from his own brother, so he swallows his discontent and forces the explanation out. "When I was at the Victory Ground, they made me take my father's name." Sebastian's cut off by Zachary having a coughing fit at that.
He sputters for a little while, then stammers out, "They made you?"
Sebastian nods. "They don't like anyone being different from them. I had an Acothran name. Reynolds. So I was made to use it."
"That's fucked up."
"And yet it happens all the time in that place," Alexander replies. "I already had my father's Acothran name, so I was fine, but Dad was forced to change his. So that everybody knew full well that he was the son of cowards."
"That's still fucked up."
"I know," replies Alexander. "But what can you do except go along with the system?"
"A lot, actually."
"You clearly didn't grow up in the Victory Ground."
"No, because unlike you, I was clever enough not to go with people I didn't know."
"You were also unconscious at the time I went with them. Also, I was going with the only people in that situation that I trusted. That's not a hard concept to understand - "
"Alright, alright, you two. Please stop arguing," interjects Sebastian. "Let me finish and you can quarrel until the sun sets." Alexander and Zachary immediately shut up. Zachary goes back to surveying the chessboard, trying to figure his way out of the mess that Alexander put him in. Alexander, on the other hand, taps incessantly on the table. His eyes dart back and forth between the board and the clock at the far end of the room, like he's just waiting for something. Sebastian doesn't call him out on it; he has no right to. He pulls up a calendar in his mind, visualising today's date. September fifth. An ordinary day. So what is it that has Alexander so worried?
Alexander catches Sebastian's silence. "I thought you wanted to finish?" He says it with no real urgency, no real interest. It makes Sebastian think that -
"You already know about it, don't you?" he asks. Alexander nods. "You weren't even there. You were here. How the hell do you already know?"
Alexander smiles, shutting his eyes and exhaling sharply. "I know a lot of things. It's kind of my job, squirt." Sebastian remembers the old term,
"So what's wrong with Jack Reynolds?" Zachary asks, and Alexander snorts. Zachary shoots him a glare. "Come on. He might know this story, but I sure don't, so you may as well hurry up and say it already."
Sebastian scoffs at his brother's blunt tongue, but he does as Zachary prompts him to. "I shared a name with my cousin." He pauses. "When I was twelve, he did something inexcusable."
Zachary looks up sharply from the board. "Explain." But when Sebastian tries, when he tries to remember that awful day, he finds he just can't get the words out. Sebastian remembers being told, how it wasn't anything like when Jack died. He remembers the older boys waking him up, yelling at him to get up because a traitor had been brought to light and executed.
"His cousin killed his second cousin," Alexander concedes, eventually. "He's changing to defend his family name." Zachary still looks confused by the whole affair, but Sebastian still can't find the words to tell Zachary what happened, so he motions for Alexander to continue, but Alexander is an ass and merely replies, "Come on, Zachary. We don't have all day. You may as well just go and let me end this."
Zachary shakes his head. "If I do, you're going to go back to your desk and stare at the computer until noon, then tap into the Dansan newsfeed and force yourself to watch the entire broadcast. I know you're going to watch it anyway, but I can stop you from worrying alone."
"Woah, woah, woah. What's happening?" Sebastian asks. "Is something big happening that I've managed to miss?"
Alexander nods. "Yes, but we're not talking about it because all of this is my fucking fault."
"Why did you even do it, Alexander? You could have found another way," Zachary practically snaps at him.
"This is the best way, Zachary," Alexander shoots back. "Unfortunately for me, it involves shattering lives of three people who were very, very good to me when I was a kid." Zachary looks like he wants to say something else, but he decides against it. "Sebastian, I've started you off. Carry on. Please."
Sebastian does. "Jack killed Alec. I don't like him. I don't want to have the same name as him. Simple as."
Zachary nods. "Fair enough. I don't really know what else to say. Except that I fully support your name change and no matter what you're called, you'll always be my little brother."
"Thank you," Sebastian mutters. "I really appreciate it."
"No problem, Sebastian," Zachary replies, before staring back down at the board. "Sebastian Spencer. Sounds good. Much better than Jack Whitaker, at least." Sebastian laughs at it and he looks over, but Alexander just stares back up at the clock, tapping his fingers on the table again. Sebastian doesn't know what's going to happen at noon, but he knows that it's probably best if Alexander is alone when it happens.
He kicks Zachary under the table, but Zachary doesn't look up. "Go already. Stop prolonging his agony," he says, gesturing at Alexander. Alexander doesn't seem to hear him say a word.
"Alright, alright. I can practically feel you glaring at me, Alexander. Let's wrap this thing up." He moves a piece, seemingly at random, waiting for Alexander to claim his victory.
Alexander doesn't get the chance. Gabriel comes up to them and takes the seat opposite Sebastian. "Ooh," he hisses, casting a quick glance over the chess board. "You're already gone, Zachary."
Zachary nods. "Yup. Just waiting for him to make his move and end this. Any moment now, he'll make it." Alexander still doesn't move, still just staring catatonically at the clock as it inches towards noon. "Honestly, I think Alexander wants to drag out this game for as long as possible." Sebastian's not sure whether that was directed towards him or Gabriel, but he's got a sneaking suspicion that it's a little bit of both.
Gabriel doesn't say anything, but there's a solemn look in his eyes. "What?" asks Sebastian. "What do you know?"
Gabriel swallows sharply. His voice is hoarse as he declares, in the kindest voice he can muster, "I'm sorry, Alexander. They moved it up."
Alexander snaps out of his trance. "What?" he breathes.
"They moved the execution up. He died an hour ago." That knocks the breath out of him. Sebastian doesn't know who died, but it's somebody Alexander knew, and knew well, judging by the way that Alexander's tapping hand curls into a fist and begins to tremble.
Alexander breathes out sharply, training his eyes back on the board. "Was it taped?"
Gabriel snorts, and it's such an odd thing to do given the situation that Sebastian almost wants to reach over and slap him for his insensitivity. "Yes, it was taped. I know you're about to go to your desk and watch it on repeat. But stay with us. Finish this chess game of yours. Hold off on the torture. Just for a little while."
Alexander looks down at the board. He's not looking for a way to finish it, Sebastian knows; Sebastian cam see at least three methods and he's sure that Alexander knows a dozen more. No, Alexander's trying to control himself, to keep himself from snapping before the entire congregation.
Alexander shoves back his chair, pushing all the pieces off before putting them all into the box. Sebastian, Zachary and Gabriel can only watch as he tucks the chess set under his arm and walks soundlessly away.
Months later, after they attack the Chorans, and the Dansan prince runs, and the Anvian prince is shot, and the monarchs broker a fragile peace, the war is finally over. The Ducartan Army still stands, as does Sector G, but the war is over at last.
Months later, Sebastian finally learns the truth of the matter, that the execution Gabriel mentioned was of a boy not much older than he is now, a traitor who danced too close to the edge and got himself caught. That's not the truth, of course. The traitor was careful enough to stay hidden; it was Alexander himself who pushed him into the light. Alexander's constantly racked with guilt over it. Sebastian will never forget the haunted look in his eyes, never forget the words Alexander told him when Sebastian asked him about it. They go something like this.
"I knew what I was doing was the best thing. There was no easier or better way than letting him die. One man's sacrifice for the benefit of six nations; to anyone else that would have required no trouble at all. Not to me. I became the man who bit the hand that fed him. Do you know what it's like to tell your mother that you're sending your father to the grave, Sebastian? Do you know what it's like to hear her swallow over the phone, trying not to break down because she's in the same precarious position that we are? Do you know what it feels like to know you'll live with this for the rest of your life?" He broke off then, refusing to say anything else, no matter how sneakily Sebastian tried to phrase the question.
Sebastian knows that Alexander knows a lot of things, but that he'll never be the same person again. It doesn't really matter, in the end; the war changed them all beyond the point of reversal.
But there are things that he can do to try and help.
Sebastian writes to his second cousin, to Alec's twin sister, to Alexander's mother who lost the man she loved as a result of her son's actions, asking her if she blamed him for sending him to his grave. The letter he receives two weeks later is written on military paper, and it's shockingly short.
I don't blame Alexander. Not one single bit. This is war; he did what was required of him. You know the old adage, I'm sure. 'Victory does not come without sacrifice.' Oscar's was worth it in the end, as he said it would be.
Give this to Alexander. Let him know that if he continues to blame himself, I'll come to Ducarta and slap his wrists myself.
Stay safe, cousin. The great game is coming to a close. These last few weeks are the most dangerous of all, where anything could change. Don't let yourself get caught in the crossfire.
Lieutenant Colonel Emilia Theodora Spencer.
Sebastian leaves the letter on Alexander's nightstand, and it's gone the next day when he sneaks in to check.
Alexander never says anything about it, but on the day the war ends, Zachary and Sebastian walk into the common room to find a chessboard set up at the same table Zachary and Alexander were playing at all those months ago.
As they draw closer, Sebastian takes a good look at it. Chessboards in the common room aren't uncommon - one of the Logic and Tactics kids will usually set up a board in the morning and then wait for somebody to take him up on his offer, requiring them only to write their name down on a piece of paper so that no one else starts to play once the game has begun. The board stays in the common room throughout the day, and as the players pass through, they'll move a piece and flip the piece of paper with the two names over so that the other player knows they've made a move.
What's intriguing this morning, though, is that the board's not set up for a new game and that the person who set it up hasn't left a piece of paper with their name on it. There's a piece of paper on the table, sure, but there are far more words on it to be a simple declaration of turns, or even the piece used to signify checks and checkmates.
Sebastian doesn't look at the piece of paper for a moment, choosing instead to survey the board, as does Zachary. Zachary and Sebastian look at each other a few seconds later, amusement rife in both of their eyes. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" asks Sebastian.
"He is a master at this, after all," replies Zachary. "Trust him to remember the layout of a board from months ago, amongst all the boards he's seen since."
Sebastian nods and smiles again. The board is exactly as it was when Alexander swept all the pieces off it, the same pieces standing proud and tall amongst the squares. With one exception.
He's finally made his move. His queen, the deadliest piece on the board, to E6, and Zachary has nowhere else to go.
It's then, and only then, that Sebastian takes up the paper, skimming his eyes over the words on it. He instantly recognises Alexander's elegant script, learned from his mother. Sebastian smiles as he reads them, then passes it over to his brother and smiles as Zachary does the same.
Dear Sebastian and Zachary,
The game is over; both the great game that Mama talked about and this trivial one. In a way, they're practically the same. You sacrifice what you have to in order to keep the king safe, even if it seems like the wrong decision at the time.
Thanks, both of you, for enduring this game with me.
Alexander Samuel Faulkner
But it's the last word that makes them both look each other, eyes alight with amusement. The last word they've been waiting for so long, the one that makes them both slump down in relief because it's all over; the war is finished.