Rating: PG

Pairing: none, really, though implied and established Roy/Hawkeye

Spoilers: practically all the manga, specially from #39 up to now.

A/N: Note that the Roy Mustang here is, by no means, my Roy Mustang or any kind of canonical interpretation of him. This more a Roy Mustang heavily filtered by Breda´s take on him. Breda, who is, in his fashion, even a bigger mystery. The key, for me, was that illustration in which he was playing chess with Roy. I could not shake off that image from my mind.

Here I attempted the impossible (for my limited talent, at least): write a Chuck Palahniuk variation on a Vladimir Nabokov theme.

The structure is all scattered and messed up because I tried to write it like some surprising moves or developments in a chess play (much like the novel "The Luzhin defense" itself).

I have forgotten most of my chess education (three years of my life, I always played blacks) so there might be some incongruence in the details.

For any who is interesed in Breda, chess or Mustang mythology:

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THE LUZHIN DEFENSE

stalemate in four moves-

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I. Fibonacci Opening

Chess.

That is how I became Roy Mustang´s subordinate, but it isn´t how I met him.

Insomnia.

This is how we met.

Or rather that was to blame and to condemn; that and my own incompetence.

How Roy Mustang and I met is the story of everything that went wrong on a winter day.

There is something about winter sunlight that if you watch it from the corner of your eye is almost like water pouring over your vision, sharp water cutting out the edges of the things until they appear as they really are. Winter sunlight is like insomnia; everything seems so clear that you wonder if you are really awake.

That day I-

killed one man

failed another

made a friend.

The man I killed was just desperate enough (I never wanted to know his reasons, everybody has their reasons) to take as hostage the man I failed in a hold-up that ended up more messed up than any of the parties bargained for.

I remembered what they told me in the academy about this kind of situations.

I just decided not to follow those orders.

Why? Because of what he said (words are far more dangerous weapon than a gun), because in a way I believed the criminal and that´s the worst mistake you can make. I believed him and I promised myself I would never trust so easily again.

"I don´t want to hurt anybody."

I knew I was awake when I heard those words and saw the gun tilting in the man´s hands and pushing against his victim´s temple.

There is a lightness in being awake for so long, like your body is no longer yours, the original one peeled-off, and your skin only a mask. You see yourself resting your finger on the trigger with the distant casualness of an outside viewer; the weight of the gun lifts and the gesture seems natural enough (it was not the first of the last time I fired against human flesh) as to not arise special interest or warning inside your head.

I blinked for a second and for a second I think I lost conciousness and that enough for my victim to kill his victim and make us all murderers.

There was a loud, buzzing blur between the thud thud of one, two bodies falling on the marbled (tiles of blue and ochre arranged geometrically) floor; and the moment Roy Mustang found me outside the hospital room.

I hesitated and there were two shots.

If I hadn´t there would have been only one.

I hesitated and there were two corpses.

If I hadn´t…well, maybe I could have saved them both.

No, that was my mistake in the first place. Not being clear about my priorities. That´s the first things they teach in the army. Priorities are everything. Choices are easy if you know your priorities.

There was a gap between the blood and a young officer I had only peripherically seen around headquarters. I know (because I saw it printed the next day, while I was fighting away hangover and the first hours of deep sleep in weeks) that within those lost minutes I spoke to some journalist, I spoke to my superiors (narrow eyed and clean and neat and not caring), to my companions in the wreck, I spoke to some ruffled-haired all-nighter doctor, inquiring about the unfortunate lieutenant´s condition (lying on a operations table, waiting, like a frog, waiting to be dissected, like a turtle with no skin underneath its shell).

And just then, between everything that went wrong and past midnight, this young (I have long since forgotten how young he was, he is, because I´ve grown accustomed to the old age and tiredness in the rings around his eyes) officer -the rank not really meeting the age, but it never would- appeared, over-coated even for the freshness of the night (the shoulders hung timidly low, bored, so it made them seem narrower, but the step confident and the head hanging proud) and questioned me.

"I thought they both deserved to be helped."

That was my moment of honesty in front of a stranger and I´m still paying for it. Right then I was a fish and he wouldn´t let me go off the hook.

He noted down in black ink, on army-sealed white paper.

This is the story of everything that went wrong that night, beginning with that exculpatory account in his messy, round, full calligraphy.

I never asked for any fucking favour.

(and yes, he likes that I can be loud and curse when I need to)

If you try hard enough to make patterns out of static noise eventually they will start to make sense. This is like discovering shapes in the cloud, sprawled across a green soft summer field. Or you can close your eyes and the colour stains behind your eyelids begin to form a painting, or a face.

You can also do the same with Roy Mustang: the undercurrent to all his words is like the time before humans learned to cut tree branches into pointy weapons, it´s like trying to catch fish with bare hands. Between what you know about him and what he seems to be there is room to fit in myth, delusion and deception. The trick is you don´t know it until it is too late.

I didn´t know it back then (I could have used the advice), when we first talk; that is, besides a couple of politely exchanged words in that hallways. But that was not often.

I worked in the second floor.

He worked in the third floor.

It was not often.

We talked for a while. It occurred to me that he was friendly in that casual way only mid-ranks can afford. A casualness half a lie and half showtime.

The trouble with my colonel is that you can never really tell when his smiles are sincere, you have to rely on your instincts and the years in his acquaintance to know the difference. You should be able to recognize a false smile studying the muscles of the face: the corrugator, the mentalis, the risorius and the platysma muscles. This trick, however, does not work with Roy Mustang.

But there are other tricks, some certainties you begin to pick up if you stick around long enough.

Like a discreet and unexpected move from a seemingly minor piece, a sudden development of the match which importance you only start to grasp after it´s all over, Riza Hawkeye joined us.

I didn´t know her name (but I had seen her face though I had as soon forgotten it until then).

He handed her the scribbled notes about me (it´s always ood to recall the first time you saw something you´ve come to regard as a ritual; it´s odd to recall how naïve, how defenceless you were).

Then he offered to buy me a drink.

Two people had just died because of me. I could as well use a free drink.

That was the end of this particular period of insomnia in my life.

We dropped Riza Hawkeye home on our way. He rolled the window down and told something into her ear I could not hear.

The next day he officially requested I transferred to his unit.

I (as officially) refused.

II. Evans Gambit

a variation of the Giuoco-piano opening named after British sea captain W.D. Evans, who invented it in 1820

There is a man who can take you from Amnestris to Xing safely. He chooses his customers and not the other way round: he has to like you to accept to help you make the journey. His reasoning: if he has to spend two weeks without contact to another human being but you at least he has to make sure you are likeable. If he refuses it´s of no help all the money you can offer; he is not for sale. You have to be content with his decision because the alternative is a slow, painful death in the desert.

I know this because Roy Mustang told me.

He has a drop of Xing blood in him. It makes him love and hate the desert. It makes him crave the sand while yearning for water.

"I heard you are interested in chess. They say you always win."

His voice feels like iron wrapped in velvet, like a sweet poison and the solution of a long-forgotten, unresolvable selfmate. It can be pleasing to the ear but you must always bear in mind that it´s deathly.

"Oh, I heard you are interested in chess, too. That you always lose to the General."

Roy Mustang smells of rotten coffee with milk and cigarettes. He doesn´t smoke but his fingers must taste like damp wood.

"Why don´t you want to work for me?"

I studied him with a glance.

"You look like trouble. I don´t want trouble. I´m too lazy for trouble."

(this is not a love story, although Roy Mustang has been the closest thing to a true love I´ve had in my life)

I came to the army at a late age. Had I joined earlier I would have a higher rank by now. Smart, silent types like me always get promoted. We never make the top but we get close sooner than anyone.

He was curious about all this. He set the board (both figuratively and literally) and suggest a wager: if he won the match I would become his subordinate.

He began to put out the chessmen.

"I joined too young," Roy Mustang said, later, after he defeated me (I´m saving you the suspense) that first time. "I wasn´t interested in the army but I was interested in alchemy. National alchemist seemed to be the most logical escape. Some days I wake up and can´t remember why I´m a soldier. Some days I wake up and can´t explain why I was so passionate about alchemy. If I started over again I might not be an alchemist, or maybe I would. I don´t know."

Time travel, if it was possible, would be less useful than people imagine. I know this because Mustang explained: when we talk about "starting over again" we are talking about a paradox.

"If I was born again," he said, "I would probably end up in the army again. Even if I knew everything beforehand, when it came to the crucial moment I would fall in love with alchemy again. There is no choice."

No choice, he said. You are always more than happy to sink with the same boat again.

"You could rewrite your past to a certain degree; but you cannot rewrite yourself."

He is like a very complex retrograde chess problem. It is impossible to find out for sure which steps led to his actual position.

(Partial Retrograde Analysis; the last move cannot be determined precisely, so both possibilities are considered separately.)

Sometimes he takes me out for a drink after if we have a late match; he does that now, but the first time, after the first match, I was reluctant to accept his invitation.

He began to slip in the pieces -at first just a row of Pawns along the second rank. On would not treat shuch lesser pieces with such devotion as he did. Through the years and the games I have caught glimpses of his pained face every time he loses one of them.

Everything disappeared, if you concentrated hard enough, the noise surrounding us slowly shutting down, everything suddenly meaningless save the chess position, the match: complex, inscrutable, charged with extraordinary possibilities.

(if you believe I´m fishing for a metaphor about Roy Mustang right now, you wouldn´t be so wrong)

I still try to find out a way I could have beaten him.

Luzhin devised a radical strategy to defend himself against Turati´s inventive attack.

Roy is not as gifted as Turati. But I was no Luzhin either at the time.

At the most desperate moments is when you start to remember (really remember) all the things they teach you in chess classes, all the warnings. How Boden´s mate can also happen to an un-castled king.

But Roy Mustang wasn´t going to get you with something so absurdly simple.

I relived (I relieved) the match in my head, over an imaginary chessboard, even when we were sitting at the bar; I draw our movements over a napkin about a hundred times, before deciding that some things in the universe couldn´t be explained, and that Roy Mustang was remarkably among them.

(the mechanism of the game: blacks occupied the diagonal, a white pawn fell, my replied swept off one pawn and one bishop -so early it gave me stupid confidence- and in the end his queen made her way through the protection of knights and rooks and that was all)

So hours later, in a bad-lit, ambar-lit, deserted bar:

"Everyone you love will reject you or die," he said.

"That has happened to you?"

"I´ve never loved anyone."

I stared back at him.

Liar.

Faker.

I had only known him for a couple of days and I knew already enough.

I knew it was a blatant lie.

He knew it was a blatant lie.

Then: "No," he shakes his head, as if he were talking to himself, listening to his words, Hamlet-like. "That is a lie."

Of course.

And: "But she will reject me, eventually. Or she will die."

And that how Roy does the trick. That is the magician´s spell. The alchemist´s illusion.

He bursts out some kind of intimate and somewhat revealing personal information and makes it seem a slip, an accident; this makes you feel very special because you have seen a glimpse of the man behind the mask and you suddenly crave for more, you become addicted to these moments of enlightment. You find him very romantic and tortured and that´s how he makes you his dog and it is no more about loyalty than it is about love.

So the chess match assured my loyalty; but it was the aftermath what assured my love.

The real trick about it all is that years later I´m still not sure if those slips of the tongue are really planned; my hesitation to admit there is nothing behind the mask is the space he uses to pulls at my strings.

The myth requires that Roy has to suffer.

(the man, the myth, the... there is not really much of a difference these days)

Roy thinks is about self-destruction.

I don´t agree. Self-destruction is too simple for him, though he does it beautifully.

It´s like everything he does rhymes, but the language has only so many syllables.

"I prefer real matches to chess problems, drawn boards and postions in old magazines," he confessed, though I had imagined him spread on his bed, the air of his room full of dust, the smell on paper, he with one leg up and with one arm under his head, eyes studying the diagram of Madrasi chess or retrograde analysis of some less serious direct mates. Then smiling: "I prefer to look my enemy in the eye," and he fell back on his chair, sighing contently. "But I am a scientist. Of course I love chess notation."

I have seen him walk out of a building in fire, blowing, covered in dust and then coolly shaking off the ashes from his coat. I have seen his first lieutenant coming up to him, her hands to his clothes, saying "you´ve missed a spot" as if she and the colonel were the last life on the universe.

Death and luck walk hand in hand with him.

(or so they do in my mind, but note that all my chessboards have blue instead of black now)

There is a practised single-mindness in every soldier that´s why I like being around them. Like is not the word. I feel comfortable around soldiers. Things get easier when you can see what the whole point of your day is. Wearing blue. In a way it makes life easier, more focused, and you can pretend every choice is an order.

when you know your priorities choices are easy, they tell you at the academy-

The colonel´s office is a simulacrum of something else. Something different. Choices are choices again. We like to believe. Little obedient dogs. We love to fool ourselves thinking that, after some time (some of us take longer than other, Havoc took the longest time) we stick by him because we want to.

Because he needs us.

(insert laugh)

We have it all backwards.

We all pretend this is not the army, we pretend this is something else.

There are six people inside this office, inside this circus, and three of us never forget Roy still has nightmares about the things he has done.

III. Solus Rex

In fairy chess: new fairy conditions such as...One of the most successful novelties is Circe Chess. The basic premise is that a piece which is captured is replaced on its starting square. If the square is occupied then the piece is removed as in normal chess. There are a few rules governing replacement: a rook, bishop or knight returns to the starting square of the same colour as the square on which it is captured; a pawn returns to the starting square of the file on which it is captured. The king is exempt in ordinary Circe; if the king is also subject to the Circe condition the problem will be labelled 'Circe Rex Inclusiv'.

He has always said that his childhood is so distant a country as his country really is.

Mine is just one step behind me.

(In discovering check from the bishop is futile, as the black bishop will interpose at d5, and after 2.Bxd5 it will reappear at c8 and interpose at b7! The key is 1.Kb4, which threatens nothing but clears the a-file, so that any capture on e1 will send the rook to a1, pinning the bishop.)

A secret, a buried memory few people know about, consider it a concession to you:

Roy Mustang loved his father and he was gone.

I hated my father and he was gone.

There is no tragedy in either.

With Roy the problem is he equals death with rejection.

Everybody you love will reject you or die, and so the story goes, la la la, sing with me.

He often says that you cannot trust anybody but yourself. He says that and still I see how he treats first lieutenant Hawkeye. The lies he builds and how he only half believe them. He is smarter than his own lies, too smart for his own good.

I come back empty-handed (and Roy Mustang is the last person you want to fail to, if only because he would never throw it back at you, and it would be easier if he would, you wish he would).

Marco is gone.

Start from the beginning, he says.

No, we have learned a lot, I say.

No, we have lost a lot, he says.

Scratch and from the beginning. Strike it off and from the beginning. Tabula rasa.

Plato tells us we learn nothing: we merely remember what we alredya knew.

After hundreds and hundreds of matches with Roy Mustang I have remembered:

He has one strong Bishop and one feeble Rook.

(you just cannot predict beforehand which)

He attacks from the flank but the final strike will come full force from the center.

All his moves seem unreasonable on the spot but afterwards you realize it was a cold-blooded, elaborated plan.

He doesn´t care about the Knight as much as one (me, for example) would infer from his classical chess training.

When you are a kid and you first begin playing (you used to hold the pieces in your palm, mysterious, beautiful, before you knew how they were supposed to move) you become obsessed with the Knight -just like you become obssessed with stories of heroes and magic, princesses and the big bad dragon spitting fire. Then you grow up and you grow out of everything and you keep playing and you learn and study and understand contemporary chess has banned the Knight from the spotlight.

I once read in a dusty, rusty, worn-out old textbook (one of those that still tell you about Andersen´s sacrifice of both Towers to Kieseritsky as if it were an epic poem) that modern age meant a crisis of faith in the Knight. I thought the author was right in the widest sense.

"I would have killed her, as you told me."

"I know," and for the first time there is a bit of remorse about the person he has turned me into.

You´ve made me a murderer, but that was how we met, mmm?

The last time I saw her I told Maria Ross she should grow her hair long (so she wouldn´t be recognized, or that´s what I told myself) and touched her neck. She grabbed my wrist and felt my pulse.

Copycat, she said, only I can´t remember if out loud.

No, that´s what you are doing with Brosh; but we don´t know each other well enough to be so straightforward so I let go of her neck and she let go of my hand. The most I know about her is that I would have killed her if it had come to that.

That´s the little obedient dog I am.

"For somebody who hates dogs you use them a lot in your analogies."

"I would have killed her," I repeat, and the air in the colonel´s office shift like dust blow off an old book´s cover.

Do you know how to play chess? I asked her.

We were sitting on a veranda, heat upon our hands and eyes. Xerxes was as beautiful and arid and mysterious as an underwater exploration, the pression drumming in the ears of the divers.

She shook her head. There were some faint spots and pigments under her fingernails that told me she used to smoke in her teens, and that she considered that was long ago.

I could teach you shougi. You should never take up chess, I said, more than a bit bitterly.

When I got on a train with Maria Ross the only thing I felt was curiosity; how would it be like to kill her? If it comes to that. I almost wanted her to be a murderer. I thought Roy deserved some closure. And I imagined she would be glad to be the sacrifice.

If it´s true that equivalent trade exists then the universe works in sacrifices.

When I greeted Maria Ross I was thinking about killing her.

But when I waved farewell I wanted to tell her that the colonel has a drop of Xing blood.

She´d be the only one to appreciate the information, and that is the most I know about her, apart from my willingness to murder her.

(somehow, knowing that would have made her exile easier)

The universe works in sacrifices and maybe, in the end, Maria Ross is indeed Roy´s. The desert´s horizon line swallows her and we all know we will never see her again. And even if we did she wouldn´t be her anymore.

"You would have made me a murderer," and when he doesn´t answer I wonder if/when I will be his sacrifice. And the form that sacrifice will take.

(insert some chess simile/metaphor here, if you can, if you will, I´m tired of waiting for the next move, tired of avoiding checkmates)

Even thought I´m not his pawn, I have learned (Hughes, Hughes, Hughes) that sometimes more important pieces are lost. His game. He makes up the rules.

The lapses of insomnia come back to him every couple of years, a reminder of war days and war nights. I know sometimes he is scared of falling asleep, because he is not sure what can be remembered in dreams.

"It´s been two weeks since I slept. The worst part is that I sleep with someone and by dawn I´m so ashamed that I leave before she can notice I haven´t had any rest. I´m afraid she will think I´m deserting her."

He said that when we met.

The very first night.

The key to Roy Mustang´s wins and defeats at chess is that he is willing to sacrifice any piece but his Queen.

I asked him once. He smiled and gave me an answer two years after.

Life is like a chessboard, he explained. If you are not ready to sacrifice what is important to you then you cannot achieve anything; and if you are reckless and sacrifice everything you may end up victor but alone, you lose your humanity. The balance is difficult. I haven´t found it, he said. I take too many risks; the key is that I narrow the number of pieces I actually mind to see taken.

No.

The key to Roy Mustang is that he is willing to sacrifice everything but his queen.

IV. Stalemate.

"You should stop sulking."

"I´m not sulking," Havoc protests.

Without a word from him I stand up and search his clothes for the lighter. I find matches.

"I switched," there is a pantomime of a smile on his lips.

I bend over his bed and light his cigarrette, rather than handing him the matches.

"You are a stupid," I say. The whole scene is quite touching, really. I just never imagined I would be such friends with somebody like Havoc.

My colonel is out there on a guilt-trip somewhere and I just want to smack Havoc for it.

"I know," he admits. He twists the plain fabric of his hospital robe and his eyes seem very far away.

I was never uncomfortable seeing myself as a pawn; but it has never been Roy´s plan, not for me, nor (despite Havoc´s desperate pleas) for any of us. It is ironic and it happens to even (or it happens specially) to the best players: he has put himself in check.

Havoc lets the ashes fall onto the bed again.

When he was just a little boy Roy Mustang used to take out maps and paint over them, drawing islands where no island should be. The thought of an island was unconcieveable to him because the sea was as strange to the boy as midgnight days.

And I once heard that he won one game (back in the days where none of us knew him and there were only him and Hawkeye, him and his shadows, alone in the world) after sacrificing in succession one Bishop, one Rook, a Knight. A bewitchingly elegant sacrifice. Up to this day I have not yet gathered the courage to ask him if this was true: I´m horribly scared of finding out it´s not.

Between the inside edges of the brown, loosely drawn curtains, simple, broad daylight filters, spreading over our figures; it turns Havoc´s blonde hair into cheap gold. He looks small under the sheets and covers. Dust settles down and becomes visible from the light rays.

By the way, I forgot to mention: that very first time we met, the day I killed a man, failed another and made a friend. That day Roy Mustang was the only one to ask if I was okay.