Learning Curve

1. a little chess

Edward Elric was not in the habit of playing chess, although he knew how to play; Grandma Pinako had taught him, as a way to pass the time while he waited for his shoulder and leg to heal enough to begin automail installment. He played against Al most of the time, and against Grandma Pinako a little, and once Ed had started going on military trips, he bought a little handmade travel set for the long train rides. It was fun, he thought, but often tiresome, and after a while playing Al became repetitive. On the trains it was almost impossible to play anyway because of the jolting (the pieces kept falling off the board and Al would accuse Ed of putting them back incorrectly), and soon poker was their new favored game.

He hadn't even really thought about chess for a couple of years when he came into the mess hall and found Havoc and Breuda hunched over a checked board; it was a close game, but Breuda was up a bishop and threatening Havoc's king with fair regularity. They finally stalemated in the corner of the board, and they'd begun to pack up when Ed asked if Breuda would be interested in a game. He declined—he had some guard duty hours to fill—but Havoc offered to play instead.

Three cigarettes and 45 minutes later, Ed had Havoc checkmated, and Roy Mustang came into the mess hall.

"You play chess, Fullmetal?" he asked as he approached, sending everyone in the general vicinity scrambling to their feet to salute—all save Ed, who nodded his head respectfully but distantly.

"Yeah, a little," Ed shrugged, although his expression suggested he was trying to keep from being too smug about beating a man almost twice his age.

"Hm," Mustang answered. "I play a little chess, too. Would you care to try me?"

Why yes, the Fullmetal Alchemist would care to try his hand against the Flame Alchemist. Not quite as satisfying as burying his fist in Mustang's face, Ed decided, but almost just as humiliating.

"He's pretty tough," Havoc said as he stood, and it was unclear whom he was speaking to, Mustang or Ed. They both shrugged mutually, met each other's eyes for an instant—one gaze venomous, the other evaluating—and Havoc flipped a coin to see who would be white. Ed won the toss, and they each took their respective pieces.

A small crowd began to form as word spread across the hall that the Colonel and Fullmetal were about to take each other on. But the two combatants ignored the murmuring and bet-swapping; Ed smirked up at the Colonel. "Ready?" he asked.

"Go right ahead," Mustang waved his hand in a slightly regal manner, leaning back in the folding chair as if it was his own comfortable desk seat. Ed snorted and hunched over the board, moving forward a pawn at random for his first turn.

Roy followed suit after a momentary consideration, and Ed smirked slightly. "The first turn doesn't really matter," he said airily, putting forward his leftmost pawn.

"Every move matters," Mustang replied, tapping his finger against his bishop. "The game starts instantly—not three turns in." He searched Edward's face with cool eyes, and then moved the bishop aggressively forward.

Ed quirked an eyebrow at the bishop, then put out his own knight to threaten it. "I don't need you to lecture me," he said, his eyebrow ticking once as he crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders forward.

But Mustang ignored him. "The trouble is, Fullmetal," he said, moving his queen out, "is that you think too linearly." He sat back again, and crossed his arms. "Checkmate."

Edward stared. "Liar," he snorted, grabbing his king—but there was nowhere to move. Mustang's queen had him in check. He was hemmed in by his other pieces, and if he moved forward, the bishop would have him.

He couldn't help but gape up at the Colonel. "How did you—"

"Keep your eyes open," Mustang recommended, replacing his pieces on his end of the board. "Don't be blinded by your immediate goals." He sat back again, and this time his smirk was wide and open, patently obnoxious. "Again?"

Edward snarled and slammed his pieces back in place. "That won't happen again," he snapped, glaring.

He didn't hear Mustang murmur into his collar, "I would hope not."

2. placement

But Edward lost all three games they played that day, defeated, every time, in less than twenty minutes.

"How," he demanded of Al that night as he raked his gloved fingers through his hair, "does he do it so quickly!? I never saw it coming, Al! I was just ... he caught me off-guard every time."

"Perhaps it's because you weren't able to cheat, Niisan," Al suggested, but he waved his hands apologetically in front of himself when Ed turned a deathly glare on him.

The next day he came into the Colonel's office with his forgotten travel set under his arm, and placed it on the desk with more force than necessary. "Play me," he said, demandingly.

Mustang raised his eyebrows, putting down his pen. "Right now I have work, Fullmetal, and I believe you owe me a report in ... " he checked his watch. "Two hours?" He let a smile curl across his lips when Edward glared at him. "But I don't have a date tonight. If you would like to play again after hours ... " he let the sentence hang.

Edward jutted out his jaw and came as close to pouting as he ever did, before he nodded curtly and picked the set back up. "See you then," he said shortly.

"See you in two hours," Mustang corrected, and watched as Fullmetal stomped out the door in a fury.

That night they played again, and again, and Edward was defeated soundly all four games. "What am I doing wrong?" he demanded of the board in a rhetorical manner, scowling, but Mustang answered anyway.

"You aren't watching," he said, unperturbed by the look Edward sent his way. "Every piece has only one set of moves. Learn how to use them effectively, and keep your opponent from using theirs."

Edward fumed for a moment, but his eyes softened and turned inward as his intelligence began to shine through his bludgeoned pride. "Elimination?" he said thoughtfully, in clipped tones.

"Placement," Mustang corrected. "Sometimes, there's no need to decimate a piece to render it useless."

"Hm," said Edward, and a slow, evil smile curled over his face. "I'll remember that."

3. metaphor and foil

Routine was established soon thereafter, and every Tuesday evening with fair regularity, Edward and Mustang would sit in Mustang's office and play chess—provided Edward was in town and Mustang had no dates.

Edward said nothing to Mustang, but he was keeping a record of their games. At the moment, he stood well behind the Major General at 116 losses and no wins—not even a single stalemate. He swore to himself and to Mustang that he would win someday—in fact, he would repay every one of those losses—but that day seemed far off, now.

One time, he survived a game with the Major General for well over an hour.

"Good job," said Mustang, much to Edward's chagrin; he didn't want compliments from this man, especially when he was sitting with his lone white king surrounded by a bishop, a queen, and a rook. "You've improved quite a bit. Your downfall is that you cannot see what I'm doing with my pieces until it's too late."

"There are too many options!" Edward exploded, glaring at the board. "Besides, you've had plenty of practice, haven't you!? You do the same thing with people," he snorted. You do the same thing with me, is what he didn't say.

Mustang's smile was just short of a smirk. "Very good, Fullmetal," he said evenly, and watched as Edward's brow furrowed thoughtfully. He slid Edward's captured pieces across the desk. "Again?"

Edward replaced his pieces, silent, and took the first move.

"There are always limited options," the Major General said as he moved forward a pawn. "Sometimes, your options are more limited than at other times. And sometimes, sacrifices must be made."

Edward took the pawn Mustang had put forward, and watched as his commanding officer moved out his bishop. "How do you decide?" he asked, his voice low, hesitating before moving; he hunched forward, frowning down at the board.

"It can be hard," Mustang answered. "But in the end, you must always do what's best for your final goal, even if it doesn't satisfy your immediate needs." He was leaning forward now, his hands hiding his mouth.

And then Ed saw it, and he moved his pawn into the path of the bishop. "But you should always know when the price is too high," he said, looking up.

"Indeed," Mustang nodded, a small smile quirking his lips behind his hands. "You have gotten better, Fullmetal."

But Mustang went on to win the game, anyway.

4. even ground

"The trick is to never be less than four moves ahead of yourself," Edward mumbled as his eyes skimmed the board. Their usual Tuesday game—the sessions had been cut down to a single game due to how long each game lasted, now—had been moved up because they were both free, and Mustang had other business that night. The late afternoon sun streamed in the window and slanted across the chessboard as Edward folded one leg under the other and leaned forward thoughtfully.

Mustang, too, had taken to leaning forward, and he did so now, his own eyes not leaving the scattered pieces. "True," he agreed, "But you must keep an open mind."

"I know," Edward snorted, but he said nothing more as he moved forward a rook. "Ha! Check."

"Mm," Mustang calmly took Ed's rook with his queen, and put it aside as Ed scowled. "You should have seen that coming."

Edward was less violent about his fuming now. "Hmph," he snorted, a slight nod acknowledging that the Major General was correct. He moved his own queen, and raised his eyes to Mustang's face. "Is it more interesting now?" he asked.

Mustang looked up at Ed. "Hm?" he inquired.

"To play me," Ed said, a smug smile lurking on his face. "You used to always look so bored."

The Major General's mouth moved—it might have been a smile. "It is," he acknowledged with a nod, looking back down at the board and moving a knight. "Now stop smirking and pay attention, Fullmetal, before you lose again."

Ed hurriedly moved his king as he realized he had been two moves away from checkmate.

5. bigger fish

"Stalemate," Mustang said.

"I just stalemated you," Ed breathed.

"You did." His eyes were unreadable.

"I just stalemated you," Ed repeated.

"Very good, Fullmetal," Mustang answered.

"I JUST STALEMATED AGAINST THE MAJOR GENERAL!" Ed crowed. "Finally! I didn't lose!"

"And what did you learn?" Mustang asked, raising his voice over Edward's.

Edward paused in his celebrations and sat down again, looking at the board. "I saw where you were going," he said, "Here, and here, and I moved to stop you, but you cornered me here." He pointed.

"You anticipated me, and moved to defend," Mustang said. He paused. "Did you accomplish your goal?"

Edward looked up at Mustang, his brow slightly furrowed. "My immediate one," he said, drawling the words as he thought aloud. "To save my king. But not the bigger goal." He pointed again. "To capture your king."

"Mm." Mustang nodded slightly. "And what did you learn from that?"

Edward scowled. "Stop talking around the point in metaphors," he said. "I see it." He held up his right hand, his flesh hand. "I passed one goal—my first one, I guess. What's the bigger goal, to make you Fuhrer?" he asked.

Major General Mustang smiled. "Open your eyes wider, Fullmetal," he said. "To change the way this country runs." He raised an eyebrow. "Will you aim for that goal?"

Edward looked at Mustang, then down at Mustang's king.

"Sure," he said, as he flicked out a finger, and knocked it down.