Chapter 1: Bah, Humbug!
The old halls of the Amestrian military headquarters at Central City were cold and drafty in winter--having been designed several decades before and fitted at the time with central administration in mind, and not central heating--and by the time Christmas rolled around, one was more likely to see the soldiers strolling the halls in full dress uniform than not, just for the precious warmth of the enormous overcoats that they included. But anyone you asked would be sure to tell you that the coldest place in the whole echoing building was the offices of Colonel Roy Mustang, and not just because of the pathetically small size of the fire in his fireplace.
Colonel Mustang was a cool, collected, and very efficient man, and there were few things he liked less than stupid displays of superstition and wastefulness. It was a well-known fact, therefore, that the subject, celebration, and general trappings of Christmas were never brought beyond his office door. Insubordination, loud and off-key attempts to sing, and hot beverages with so much sugar in them that they made his molars ache might have outdone Christmas among the rankings of things Mustang hated, but beyond that, there was little that competed--and anyway, Christmas inevitably brought with it an extra heaping dose of all three.
Yes, the Mustang of the holidays was a cold, cruel man, a tight-fisted man, a man known to send sparks scurrying up the hallway to shut up any outbursts of caroling within his hearing distance, and to slam the door in the face of any coworker seen wearing colorful scarves or brandishing holly wreaths or mistletoe. To enter a room where he sat at any time from November to New Year's was to feel a tangible drop in temperature, as he suspiciously looked you over for any sign of reindeer-knit sweaters or traces of sugarplum on your chin.
He was, to sum up, a pretty unpleasant guy to have at the head of your department in the holiday season.
Nobody knew this better than his unfortunate subordinate, Edward Elric. Every year Mustang seemed to take out his disgust with the season openly and unabashedly on the younger alchemist, by devising ways to keep him in the building as late as possible on the fateful eve itself. This year, on grumbling his way into Mustang's office to answer the usual summons, Ed had found himself presented with a gargantuan heap of paperwork, and strict instructions that he was not to clock out until he had filled out every page.
"The hell, Colonel!" he'd yelled, staring at it in disbelief. "I can't do all that today, it's nearly as tall as me!"
Mustang had smirked, somehow managing to look at Ed down his nose despite the fact that he was seated at his desk and Ed was standing angrily on his own two booted feet. "Oh, come now, Fullmetal. That's not saying much, is it?"
"WHO ARE YOU CALLING SMALL ENOUGH TO STUFF A STOCKING WITH?!" Edward had howled--and realized a second too late that he should never have picked such a festive metaphor, as Mustang's gaze went from bored to cold as ice.
"Modulate your tone, Fullmetal," the colonel sharply said, an unbecoming frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. "My ears are aching as it is from all that infernal carrying on in the halls. If you hadn't failed to file your own reports properly for the last three months, this paperwork would not exist. Now, get to work, before I decide to dig up some more of your backlog and keep you here until New Year's."
It was only knowing that Mustang was fully capable of making good on that threat that made Ed shut up and sit down. Several hours later, there were long shadows growing in the corners and up the walls of the office, and the sounds of his fellow officers merrily wishing each other a happy holiday on their way out of the building was making Edward's mind wander eagerly and prematurely out the front door after them. It didn't help that Mustang hadn't added a log to the fire since before he'd come in, and the room was starting to feel like an ice cave.
Scribbling what felt like the five thousandth copy of his signature onto the dotted line at the bottom of a page, Ed scowled as the line of ink petered out. Holding up the fountain pen, he shook it--never a wise idea--but even that act of supreme daring and blatant stupidity failed to produce the usual messy spray of ink. Curiously, Ed removed the nib and peered down the barrel of the pen...
"Colonel," came the half-disbelieving voice, "my ink is freezing."
"That's nice," Mustang said absently, doodling in the corners of his own paperwork and stubbornly ignoring the snatches of laughter and caroling filtering in from the hallway. "Finish your work, Fullmetal."
"I can't," Ed repeated, a bit louder. "My ink is frozen. Have you not noticed that we've been able to see our breath for the last hour?"
"Fullmetal, if you've got a weak constitution, that's no concern of mine," Mustang drawled. "I'm not about to waste fuel just because you can't take a little winter weather."
Ed glared at him, particularly at his heavy and cozy-looking dress overcoat, supplemented as it was by shirt and trousers and warm boots--and, unknown to Ed, by thick wool socks and flannel longjohns as well. When Mustang felt like causing discomfort, he planned well ahead. "You could power up the damn fire just by snapping," Ed muttered rebelliously.
"When I decide to use my honed and battle-ready alchemical skills for your personal comfort, Fullmetal, I shall let you know," Mustang informed him dryly. "Now, if you're not going to stop wasting my time with useless banter and get back to work, I--"
Ed was not to discover what Mustang would do, as a matter of fact, because it was at that moment that the office door crashed open and a broadly-grinning oasis of holiday color came waltzing into the room.
"Heya, Chief!" Jean Havoc sang out, striding across to his superior officer's desk and planting his hands atop it, the better to lean in and puff a cloud of smoke into Mustang's startled face. "What's with all the doom and gloom in here!"
Coughing and waving his hand in front of his face, Mustang squinted up at Havoc in befuddled annoyance. "Haven't I told you not to smoke those things in my office, Havoc?" he snapped. "You look ridiculous."
Adjusting his brilliant red stocking cap, which was trimmed generously in white fur, Havoc laughed cheerfully. A fluffy scarf knitted with snowflakes was thrown around his shoulders, and a small sprig of greenery bobbed above his head, apparently attached by a wire to his already very festive hat. "Aw, have a little holiday spirit!" he scolded. "I brought you something, yanno!"
Without further ado, he pulled a large pine wreath wrapped round in bright red ribbons from behind his back and plopped it onto Mustang's head like a crown. It was a bit too large, however, and immediately settled onto the colonel's shoulders as he jerked away in surprise, like a collar of greenery on a prizewinning racehorse.
"What in god's name--!" he started to sputter, as an outbreak of snickering came from the couch where Edward was delightedly watching the proceedings. Havoc clapped him heartily on the shoulder, making the wreath shake.
"Merry Christmas, Chief!" he shouted. "Looks good on you!"
"Christmas?" Mustang spat, struggling to pull the wreath off without poking himself in the eye with a needly twig or five. "Bah! Humbug! What's it to you, besides an endless string of dateless parties? Nothing but an excuse to take a day off and get drunk on the military's money!"
"Aw, you don't mean that!" Havoc exclaimed, looking a bit taken aback. "It's the best time of the year! It's the season when all the lovely ladies come out of the woodwork in the dozens and there's mistletoe over every doorway! Hell, it's the only time of year you back offa them and hole up in your office--I owe you one for that, anyway! Oh, speaking of which," he sailed on, undaunted, "the boys and I are going out to the Lion and Laurels tomorrow night for a little holiday cheer! You want to come along, Chief?"
Mustang snorted. "You've obviously already started drinking," he said, giving Havoc's flushed cheeks and sunny grin a disapproving look. "I swear, Havoc, if I could convince the brass to transfer the paid leave of every enlisted officer who was already up to his eyeballs in wassail by the time he left for the day to the ones who actually stay in our offices and do our work, I'd have enough of a bonus by this time tomorrow to bribe the Fuhrer to cancel the holiday!"
"Chief!" Havoc sputtered.
"Second Lieutenant!" Mustang shot back, finally managing to extricate himself from the wreath and tossing it over his desk to skate to a halt near the door. "Keep your Christmas in your own way, if you have to, but leave me alone to keep it in mine!"
"But you don't keep it!" Havoc protested. "You never do!"
Mustang snorted. "Exactly! And next time, kindly remember to keep it far away from me!"
Glancing around the room, from the guttering spark of a fire to the frigid-looking teenager watching them with the unabashed delight of someone bored to tears all day, his jacket hood pulled snugly up over his head against the cold, Havoc drew himself up in all his festively bedecked glory and pointed a finger dramatically at his superior officer.
"You know what?" he proclaimed. "Maybe you're right! Maybe a week from now I won't be any better off than I was before Christmas! But just for today, there are parties to go to, and there is caroling to do, and there is food to eat and beautiful women to hang out with and...and silly hats to wear...and...fun to have!" he finished up emphatically. "So I'm going to go have my Christmas, and go to those parties, and eat that food, and talk to those girls, and get as drunk as I feel like getting with as many of my best friends as wanna come along, and if you're too busy getting frozen into a popsicle in here with that stick up your ass, I say, eff you, Chief!"
It was into the flabbergasted silence that Mustang produced after this speech that there came the sound of Edward bursting into appreciative laughter and applause. Grinning, Havoc took a bow in the direction of the sofa.
"Fullmetal! Quiet! Havoc! Out!" Mustang shouted, standing up and holding out a hand in snap-ready position. Havoc gave him a cheeky salute.
"Yessir!" he said, tossing the trailing end of his scarf over his shoulder. "And Merry Christmas, Chief, whether you're merry or not!"
"Out!" Mustang repeated loudly.
"And a Happy New Year!" Havoc added irrepressibly, heading for the doorway.
"Good night, Havoc!" Mustang bellowed.
Passing the couch, Havoc winked down at Edward. "Merry Christmas to you too, Boss!" he said gaily. "Don't let the bastard grind you down!"
"You too, Havoc!" Ed said, looking about fifty times more cheerful than he had when Havoc first entered. "Merry Christmas!"
"Oh, spare me," Mustang muttered to himself, propping his chin on his hand. "I'm surrounded by idiots and madmen. As if Fullmetal of all people has anything to be merry about this Christmas. A cold room in a cold barracks and only his brother to celebrate with. Humbug!"
But he didn't have time to ruminate further on the state of Edward's holiday cheer or lack thereof, because there were now two more uniformed figures coming in as Havoc left.
"Oh, hey, Second Lieutenant Ross!" Ed called jovially, waving them inside. Mustang looked up in mild interest--Maria Ross was an attractive young woman, and quite efficient as well--but if it was a comrade in humbugging he was looking for, the colorful cardboard boxes that Ross and Brosch were holding melted that hope like a snowflake on a child's tongue.
"Ah, Maria! Merry Christmas!" Havoc said eagerly, catching the arm of the lady officer as she went past and pointing triumphantly up at the sprig of leaves wobbling on its wire over his head. Maria's eyebrow twitched, but she let out a little chuckle all the same.
"Well, 'tis the season, I suppose," she said, and stood on tiptoe to plant a quick peck on the cheek of the considerably taller officer. "Merry Christmas, Havoc."
Havoc's face lit up like a string of electric lights, and he sailed off down the hallway, humming 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' in an unidentifiable key and oblivious to the look of combined dismay and covetousness Brosch was giving his hat. Sighing in exasperation, Maria caught her partner's arm and dragged him resolutely across the room.
"You sure this is a good idea?" Mustang heard Brosch muttering nervously in Maria's ear as he trailed behind her. "I don't think the colonel's going to be very--"
"Colonel Mustang!" Maria interrupted him, snapping to a neat salute in front of Mustang's desk with her cardboard box tucked smartly under her arm. "The sergeant and I were just making the rounds for our department's yearly holiday charity, and we thought to inquire as to whether you might be willing to...ah...donate a...small...donation...?" she finished lamely, even her crisp demeanor wilting under Mustang's scathing look.
"Give me one good reason why I should be more inclined to 'donate a donation' at this time of year than any other, Second Lieutenant, and I will gladly feed my hard-earned cens to that laughable-looking cardboard snowman of yours," Mustang said, leaning back in his chair to regard the pair disapprovingly.
Maria frowned, puzzled. "I should think that would be obvious, sir," she began. "The Christmas spirit of charity towards others--"
"Are you referring to the same spirit of charity that made you take pity on a sad case like Jean Havoc just now?" Mustang inquired. "Because, if so, I will have to respectfully decline your undoubtedly well-meant offer to take my money. Thank you for that spectacular display of utter humbug, and good evening, Second Lieutenant."
A flush rose into Maria's cheeks, and she looked for a moment as if she was going to give her superior officer what for. The impulse visibly swelled her shoulders, but she held it down, snapping him a very crisp salute instead and turning on her heel to march out of the office. Following her, Brosch offered a lame, "Good evening, sir," as the door clicked shut behind them.
Quite satisfied with himself, Mustang was relaxing back into his chair, when a heavy stack of paper thumped down in front of him.
"There's your paperwork, Colonel," Edward told him flatly, hands on his hips. "I melted the ink myself, thanks for nothing. Can I go now, or do I have to stick around and watch you annoy the hell out of everybody else in the building, too?"
Mustang pursed his lips. "Well, fair's fair, Fullmetal," he admitted, casting a look at the window, which was now quite dark and being dusted lightly with snowflakes. "I suppose you'll want tomorrow off?"
"Well, duh," Edward muttered, crossing his arms. "No way in hell am I coming in to this igloo tomorrow. I promised Al I'd be free."
"And I suppose you'd think it horribly unfair of the military to withhold that privilege, and yet consider it perfect equivalent exchange to be paid a day's wages of your exorbitant State Alchemist's salary in return for doing absolutely nothing?" Mustang asked mildly, steepling his fingers in front of him and smiling blandly at the boy.
Ed gave him a nervous look, obviously anticipating some new devilry and yet afraid that running off his normally unfettered mouth at this particular moment might bring his free Christmas crashing down around his ears. "Well...it's, uh...it's Christmas. Sir."
Mustang sighed, rubbing his temples. "Yes, Fullmetal, I'm aware of that. Fine. I'll postpone your next mission until the twenty-sixth. Now, get out of here, before I change my mind. And take this folder with you, I'm going to want the preliminary forms in it filled out when you next report in. Don't be late."
"Yessir," Ed said, sketching him a messy salute and hightailing it out the door with the folder tucked under his arm. The door slammed behind him, and Mustang could hear him calling his brother's name long before his voice faded out in the direction of the staff lounge where Alphonse often waited to walk him back to the barracks.
The Elric boys would celebrate Christmas Eve by running and sliding down the icy sidewalks all the way to their barracks room, whooping and hollering as they went and throwing snowballs in the parade grounds with several of the other young officers until it got too dark to aim and they turned in for the night.
Mustang, on the other hand, remained in his office, morosely shuffling and reshuffling his various paperwork until he had no further excuses to avoid heading home. Buttoning up his overcoat snugly as he strode down the quiet streets, he frowned at the deepening snow, which had piled up over the course of the evening until his footsteps were reduced to a soft shushing sound. In the crystalline quiet of the snowy night, he heard the joyous sounds of a group of carolers long before he reached his apartment building, and was disgusted to discover that they were situated right outside the front door.
"Merry Christmas, sir!" a small boy in a green hat with the earflaps tied snugly under his chin exclaimed after him as he pushed his way past them and up the front steps.
It was one more Merry Christmas than Mustang could take. "Oh, shut up, all of you!" he shouted, waving an arm dismissively at them as they goggled at him in shock. "The sane people of the world are trying to sleep! Bah, humbug!"
With that, he slammed the door, bringing down a showering of snow from the lintel. The carollers milled about briefly, then headed off down the street, starting up a stubborn chorus of 'Here We Come A-Wassailing' that faded gradually into the distance as Mustang climbed the stairs to his floor, grumbling all the way.
Chapter 2: A Visit From An Old Friend
By the time he stood before his own apartment door, fishing in his overcoat pocket for his keys, Mustang had worked himself into such an irritated snit that he almost missed noticing the unusual state of his door knocker. As it happened, he didn't even glance at it until the moment he shoved the correct key into the lock.
It was the eerie green glow coming from it that caught the corner of his eye.
That, and the pair of square-rimmed glasses.
"M...Maes...?" Mustang whispered, staring at the tiny but perfectly real-looking face that was gazing mournfully back at him from the spot where his lion-headed door knocker should have been...
A moment later, he blinked, and the face was gone, replaced with the familiar snarling brass muzzle. Mustang pressed a hand to his eyes, as if to wipe away whatever brief madness had just possessed him.
"Seeing things," he muttered, turning the key in the lock and shoving open the door. "Must be."
Still, he couldn't help giving the door a suspicious look as he closed it behind himself, as if he half expected the rest of Hughes to be protruding from the back of it. Ridiculous, of course. Setting entirely aside the issue of why Hughes would be skulking around sticking his face through doors--which, he had to admit, he wouldn't have put entirely past his old comrade in past days--the man had been dead for months.
It was, he insisted to himself, that last thought and the usual surge of depression that followed it that made him go quickly to the cupboard and pour himself a snifter of brandy. The apparition on his door had nothing to do with the way he carefully locked both the latch and the deadbolt on it before he sat down. Colonel Roy Mustang, the eminently respected Flame Alchemist, did not need anything like a bracing drink after possibly seeing a ghost. Colonel Roy Mustang, the eminently respected Flame Alchemist, did not believe in humbug like ghosts and hauntings in the first place.
Which was why, when he had settled into his chair by the heater a moment later and taken a long pull at his glass, the growing awareness of a weird clanking noise coming from somewhere out in the hallway didn't bother him in the slightest. And the shrieking of the wind outside was of course merely a part of the growing snowstorm, and had nothing to do with the way he rapidly finished off his brandy, gazing uneasily at the dark windowpanes. And of course, when he realized that the rattling noise was growing louder and louder, and awfully resembled the sound of a lot of heavy chains being dragged across a hardwood floor, he merely wondered very calmly what sort of silly new Christmas custom this was, and who was going to be blamed for the scratches in the hallway flooring in the morning...and whether he would be expected to pay for the repairs, considering that the noises were now coming from right outside his door...
And so, in the next moment, when the transparent, faintly glowing figure of his old comrade in arms came gliding right through his double-locked solid oak front door as if it was a curtain of gaudy beads in some trashy coffee shop, the eminently respected Flame Alchemist most certainly did not let out a terrified shriek and leap up onto his chair in fright like a soppy teenage girl who had just spotted a mouse on the floor.
Well...to be honest...perhaps he did.
"Baaahahaha!" the spectre of Hughes guffawed, bending over and slapping his knees with mirth. "Oh, for God's sake, Roy, it's just me! Get the hell off that chair, you look dumb enough already."
Mustang gave him a wide-eyed look, still clutching the back of the chair like a life preserver. "But--but--but...you're dead!"
"And?" Hughes asked, spreading his hands in a shrug. "I'm here, aren't I? Or don't you believe your eyes?"
A faint gibbering noise escaped Mustang's lips. When nothing followed it, Hughes sighed and moved to the chair that faced Roy's.
"Well, if you're not going to offer me a seat, I'll take one myself--if you don't mind--while your brain reassembles itself," he said, sitting down with a look of tangible relief. "Ahh...that's better. So," he said chattily, leaning forward exactly as he had once done across the space between their bar stools to murmur a particularly juicy bit of covert information, "how come you don't believe in me?"
He was so utterly...himself...despite the transparency and general eerieness, that Mustang found it harder and harder to be afraid of him. His hammering heartbeat slowed as the ghost calmly returned his gawking stare.
"Well, for one thing," Mustang said, shakily resettling himself in his chair as his common sense reasserted itself enough to realize that he looked a complete fool huddled up on the back of an armchair like a scared cat--besides, if he was going to be haunted, he might as well sit comfortably for the process--and pointing at the empty snifter on the side table. "I just polished off the entire contents of that. I'm therefore given to suspect that your...manifestation...has a lot more to do with a surfeit of brandy than any genuine supernatural phenomena."
Hughes let out another guffaw. "Ha! Roy, if half a snifter was enough to get you seeing spirits, you'd have gone screaming for an exorcist so many times by now that they'd have put you away. Face it, buddy, I'm as real as you are."
The solid logic of this was not lost on Mustang, but he still couldn't quite reconcile the glowing figure seated before him with his solidly scientific view of the world. "But--" he started to protest.
Hughes made a face. "I don't have time for this, Roy," he complained, and rose out of his chair again, raising his arms and giving the dangling chains a shake. The light in the room went suddenly sickly and green, throwing his ghostly face into sharp relief, and he let out a howl that shook the building to the foundations and rattled the drawers in the kitchen until Mustang could hear cutlery clattering onto the floor. The lights flickered wildly, and for a moment Mustang thought the building might collapse around him.
"NOWWWW DOOO YOUUUU BELIEEEVE?!!" the spectre roared, looming horribly over him. Mustang shrank into his chair as if he could hide in the gap behind the cushions.
"Yes!" he yelled, plugging his ears against the cacaphony of noise. "Yes, dammit, yes! I believe!"
"'Bout damn time," Hughes said calmly, sitting down again. Breathing hard, Mustang realized that the entire room had gone back to normal. The loops of chains that swathed his friend's transparent body clanked loudly as he got himself settled, and Mustang found himself staring at them in confusion. Now that he looked, there appeared to be quite a lot of objects hanging off those chains...and if he wasn't mistaken, they looked like...
"Maes?" he asked, uncharacteristically timidly. "Why are you covered with cameras?"
The spectre sighed, and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, uh...that's what I came here to talk to you about," he said, leaning back in the chair. "Look, I don't have a lot of time, so here's the story in a nutshell. It is required of every man that he should be good to his fellows, and keep Christmas with cheer and goodwill. And if he doesn't..." Hughes spread his arms, the chains and their unusual weights rattling as he did. "Yeah. I screwed that one up bigtime."
Mustang frowned. "But...you love Christmas! Well, loved it," he corrected himself, awkwardly, then barreled onward. "You wouldn't shut up about it! You used to drive me nuts, barging into my office and waving around photos of your kid decorating cookies and making snowmen and putting the star on the tree..."
Hughes nodded. "Uh-huh. Well, as it turns out, driving everybody in the office bonkers with photos wasn't the best way to 'keep Christmas' after all. I don't see why not, considering that my cute little Elysia is like pure Christmas spirit distilled and given adorable human form...oh, she's just so sweet around the holidays! Here, I've got a few shots of her in her school pageant last year--" His hands dove eagerly among the tangles of chains.
"Didn't you say you were low on time?" Mustang blurted quickly.
"Oh...right," Hughes said, reluctantly tucking several handfuls of ghostly photographs back into his pockets. "So, yeah, here I am. Doomed to wander the earth every Christmas Eve, dragging the chains of misery I inflicted upon my fellow human beings during my lifetime."
"Damn," Mustang said, letting out a low whistle. "Sucks to be you."
Hughes shrugged. "Well, it's only once a year," he said, "and they're really not that heavy, compared to some."
"Is that so?" Mustang asked a bit incredulously, looking at the mass of chains, which trailed from Hughes' chair halfway to the front door. "Like whose?"
An ironic little grin lit Hughes' glowing face. "As a matter of fact," he said, "yours, for one."
Mustang froze. "M...'Mine'? Now, wait just one minute, Maes--"
"Haven't you been listening?" Hughes reprimanded him. "I get to haul these things around every Christmas--" he rattled his chains again, making a shiver of dread run down Mustang's spine-- "just for sharing my photos of my lovely Elysia a little...a very little...too enthusiastically. Now, you, my friend, have been raining your own personal Hurricane Roy on everybody's Christmas parade for about the last decade or so. Think about that for a second."
Mustang's face fell, then went pale, as a vision of endless miles of chains spooling out behind him filled his vision. And if Hughes' were covered in cameras...he thought of Fullmetal's hunched silhouette on the couch, and the chains in his imagination blossomed with ton upon ton of filing cabinets and neatly stapled reports...
"Good god!" he shouted, leaping to his feet. "No! I am not dragging that kind of load around every Christmas for the rest of my afterlife!"
Hughes snorted. "Christmas? Don't make me laugh," he scoffed. "With the way you're going? You're gonna be loaded down from November to February."
A moan of despair tore from Mustang's throat. "Maes!" he cried, grabbing the spirit by the shoulders--or trying to. His hands slipped right through and landed on the back of the chair, with a sensation as if he'd plunged them into freezing water. Staggering back in horror, he tucked his hands under his arms, trying to warm them again. "Come on! I didn't know any better!"
"Not gonna help you," Hughes said with a shrug. "A punishment's a punishment. You're an alchemist, you should know that much."
Mustang's eyes were wide with panic. "You didn't show up just to rub this in my face, did you?" he said, falling to his knees in front of his old friend. "Come on, Maes! We're pals! We grew up together! Tell me you came here because you have an idea! Tell me there's some way I can get out of this!"
"Oh, get up," Hughes said, smothering a grin. "You really think I'd do that to you? Of course I have an idea."
If he'd had a corporeal hand, Mustang would have grabbed it in gratitude. "Good old Maes!" he crowed. "I knew you'd come through! What's the plan?"
"All right," Hughes said, raising a ghostly hand and ticking off three fingers. "You're gonna get a visit from three spirits--"
For about the eighth time in as many minutes, Mustang's face fell. "More ghosts?!" he complained.
"Look, you want to end up like me or not?" Hughes asked sharply.
Mustang let out a resigned sigh. "Fine. Fine. Three spirits. And how is this going to help me?"
About to answer, Hughes hesitated, and shoved aside the chains on his wrist to reveal a watch. "Damn. Out of time. I guess I'll have to let them explain for themselves. Nice talking to you, Roy!" he added, standing up and beginning to fade out of sight as he slogged towards the door, his chains clanking in his wake.
"What?!" Mustang cried, starting to run after him. "Maes! Wait, Maes! What do you mean, three spirits? When? How?!"
"Merry Christmas!" Hughes said, giving him a mischievous grin, and vanished into thin air.
Mustang let out a howl of frustration. "Screw Merry Christmas, I want some answers!" he shouted at the empty spot where his friend had been--and then clapped his hand over his mouth, glancing around himself apprehensively, as if he expected to see a ghostly filing cabinet materializing out of the air, manacled to his body with long loops of chain.
But when no such apparitions appeared, and the apartment remained silent and undisturbed except for the soft whistling of the wind outside, Mustang slowly began to relax.
"Bah!" he muttered, flopping back into his chair and reaching for the brandy to pour himself another glass, full to the brim this time. "Trust him to put me through all that and then tell me nothing! Three spirits? I've got all the spirits I need right here, dammit!"
By the time he'd finished off that glass and topped up the snifter again, the whole affair was starting to seem almost laughable; certainly not as frightening as it had been while it was happening.
"Cameras!" Mustang chortled, raising his glass to the chair where Hughes had sat. "And that's supposed to be a punishment for you? Hell, if that's the criteria, maybe I'll end up chained to a harem of beautiful women for eternity! Now there's a merry thought for you, Maes! Hah!"
Toasting the listening air, he knocked back another swallow of brandy and laughed outright.
The fire burned lower and lower, and between the fading adrenaline and the liquor, it wasn't long before a snoring Mustang was sprawled in his chair, his overcoat still buttoned snugly around him as the snow fell ever more deeply outside...
Chapter 3: The Ghost of Christmas Past
The first thing Mustang became aware of was the musical chiming of the clock on his mantelpiece striking one. The second was the rough, warm tongue lapping messily at his hand where it dangled over the side of the chair. Twitching away didn't help; the licking continued, along with the satisfied whuffing of a large and happy dog.
"Dammit, Hayate," he muttered, swatting blindly at the creature and refusing to open his eyes. "Contain your animal, Lieutenant...god, you would not believe the dream I had...that's the last time I drink brandy alone at ten...p...m....?"
His voice trailed away, faintly. It had suddenly dawned upon Mustang, firstly, that Lieutenant Hawkeye had no reason he knew of to be at his apartment on Christmas Day, with or without her pet; and secondly, that whatever dog was accosting him had a tongue far too large to belong to Black Hayate. Slowly, with a dreadful feeling that he was going to regret it, Mustang opened one eye a crack.
"Hi, Mister!" chirped a sweet young voice.
"Aah!" Mustang cried, throwing himself back into his chair as far as he could get from the latest invaders of his apartment. The animal that had been licking his hand was an enormous sheepdog, possibly the biggest he'd ever seen, with shaggy white fur and a wreath of what looked like pine sprigs around its neck. Riding on its back as if it was a pony--and, he had to admit, it was large enough to be mistaken for a small one at a distance--was a little girl of about four or five, wrapped in an ethereally floating white gown, her waves of soft brown hair cascading down her back from beneath a crown of holly in which real red and white candles burned. Apparently unbothered by his surprise, she was beaming a brilliant smile at him, her wide blue eyes sparkling.
He could almost have taken them for escapees from a particularly bizarre Christmas pageant, if it wasn't for the way they both glowed with a soft white light.
"Don't look so scared, Mister," the little girl told him with a giggle. "We're not gonna hurt you."
"Wh-who are you?" Mustang stammered, and then remembered Hughes' words on vanishing. Confronted with this odd pair, who--he glanced past them to the door, and noted that yes, it was still locked and bolted--had also managed to appear in his home without being admitted or expected, it was much harder to bah-humbug the warnings he'd been given. "You're not one of those spirits Hughes said were coming, are you?"
The little girl dimpled at him, the candles in her crown burning brightly. "I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past!"
"Oh, great. So, uh...long past?" Mustang asked, looking at her old-fashioned gown curiously in spite of himself.
She shook her head. "Your past," she corrected him, and gave the dog a nudge with her heels. It woofed thunderously, and caught his coat in its teeth, hauling him to his feet with a strength that even such a large dog shouldn't have possessed, and a gentleness that no dog he'd ever encountered had come close to. "C'mon," the little spirit said as he yelped in protest. "We got some stuff to show you!"
Evidently this spirit was a bit more substantial than Hughes had been, Mustang thought dazedly as he was pulled helplessly across the room...and then, he realized that it was the wide windows that overlooked the street, three floors below, towards which he was being led. The little girl stretched out a hand toward them, and they swung open, the curtains belling out like banners in the night wind from outside.
"Hang on!" Mustang shouted, holding out his hands in a plea as his boots skidded across the rug. "I can't go out there like this! I'm not a spirit! I'll fall and break my neck!"
"Silly," the little girl laughed, and stood up on her dog's back, reaching out a small hand to touch the ribbon bar on his chest...no, he realized a moment later, as delicious warmth and a strange, light tingling feeling spread through his body from the spot where her fingers rested. Not the ribbon bar. His heart.
"That'll help," the spirit said, sounding quite satisfied with herself, and Mustang looked down to find his boots hovering a good inch above the floor.
"What--" he started to exclaim, and then the dog let out a happy woof and bounded out the window into the waiting night, and he found himself fluttering along behind it like some kind of kite, his coattails still held firmly in its teeth.
For a split second, it was an exhilarating feeling, if somewhat bewildering, the night wind blowing around him and ruffling his hair as they sped through the air. Then he made the mistake of looking down.
The streets of Central City were spread beneath them, so far down already that the few people still out at this time of night were like tiny, colorful insects. Mustang let out a shout of alarm and grabbed for the dog in a panic.
"Now, stop that," the spirit scolded him, slipping her tiny hand into his. "Alexander doesn't like being hung on by grownups. You hold on to me and you'll be fine, Mister."
Swallowing hard, Mustang nodded. It was true, somehow--as small as her fingers were, that same sense of cozy security came from them, and he found himself growing almost calm again as they soared through the sky. Released from the dog's mouth, his overcoat flapped behind him in the slipstream of their passage. Mustang couldn't help wondering what anyone beneath would think if they happened to look up and see them flying overhead...
But, already, the bright lights of Central were receding into the horizon, and they were skimming over the hills and valleys that led north, dotted with patches of light that he recognized as towns and homesteads.
"Where are we going?" he called over the whistling wind, and the spirit smiled happily, as if she had a wonderful surprise in store.
"You'll see!" she said gaily, and it was at that moment that they began to descend, the trees and fields rushing up to meet them. Mustang threw his arms over his face, expecting at any moment for the whole ordeal to end in a mighty crash--
--and felt his feet settle lightly onto grassy turf. Opening his eyes, he found himself on a broad lawn in front of an imposing marble building, in front of which a series of armored vans and other such vehicles were parked. Only a few windows were lit, but even in the dark, he could never have failed to recognize the place.
"It's...it's the Military Academy!" he whispered, taking a hesitant step forward, then another. "But...they converted the place into a college five years ago...when they moved the training facilities to Central, to be closer to the barracks..."
The spirit shook her head, her candles throwing soft light on the grassy lawn around them and making the patches of thinly-fallen snow sparkle. "It's still the Academy here," she said softly. "See? This is your Christmas past, Mister."
Speechless with awe, Mustang walked slowly across the lawn, his boots not so much as bending a blade of grass--he was still floating, he noticed, though it suddenly seemed like small magic compared with what he saw before him. It was the old Academy all right, all the way down to the carved crest of Amestris over the door and the hedges cut into the shapes of roaring lions and rearing stallions that lined the drive. He hadn't been back since he graduated, when he took the State Exam at the age of eighteen...
A faint light glimmered in a second-floor window, and Mustang found himself gravitating towards it without thinking of what he was doing. The spirit followed him, rising at his side until they were looking in at the window, into the dim room inside.
It was a plainly furnished dormitory room, with two cots pushed one against each wall, a pair of simple bookshelves filled with leather-bound tomes, as well as the folded clothes and various knickknacks typically collected by young boys, and two small desks next to them. A small, dark-haired boy of eleven or twelve was seated at one of the desks, slumped asleep over an open book.
Mustang looked closer, by the light of the candle guttering on the desk, and his mouth dropped open.
"That's...that's me!" he exclaimed.
The spirit nodded silently, and Mustang pressed closer to the glass, looking inside in abject fascination.
"I remember this Christmas!" he said, softly. "That's the book of alchemical theory my grandfather sent me! I was up all night reading it, because all the other boys were gone, and my family couldn't afford to bring me...home..."
He fell silent, gazing in at his own small shoulders as they rose and fell almost imperceptibly in sleep. A faint echo of the tears he'd wanted to cry at that first Christmas away from his home rose in his throat, and he swallowed hard. It had been so difficult, listening to the other boys talking and laughing about their plans for the winter break, and knowing he'd be spending it with no one but the academy caretakers for company...
A warm little hand settled on his shoulder, and he felt the dog's furry muzzle nudge his side.
"Let's look at a different Christmas," the spirit said, and suddenly it was mid-afternoon, and the young Roy sitting at the desk was taller and broader, at least sixteen. He was rolling a pencil absentmindedly across his desk, flicking it from one side to the other and carefully not looking at the open suitcase lying on the bed opposite his own.
Suddenly, the door banged open, and another teenaged boy came bursting into the room, grinning from ear to ear. The young Roy sat up in astonishment, just as his older self outside the window let out a happy, startled cry.
"Maes!" both Roys exclaimed, and indeed, though the scruffy beard had not yet been grown and the shoulders were still teenager-thin, the brilliant green eyes sparkling from behind square-rimmed spectacles certainly belonged to a younger Maes Hughes.
"Great news!" Maes shouted, pulling Roy to his feet and throwing an arm around the shorter boy's neck with an enthusiasm that nearly knocked him back into his chair. "My old man was just on the phone, and he says you can come spend the holidays with us after all!"
Roy gave him a look of disbelief, and then let out a whoop of delight, grabbing his friend by the shoulders. Hughes grabbed him back and danced him around the room, nearly knocking over his vacated chair as they went past.
"I can't believe it!" Roy shouted. "You sure he said it was okay?"
"Hell yes!" Maes shouted back, grinning into his roommate's face. "We are gonna show you a real Christmas for once! We can roast apples, and go sledding, and my mom's gonna stuff you with food till it comes out your ears, and...ha-HA! Gracia! You can finally meet Gracia!"
"Oh, god," Roy said, laughing. "Like I don't already practically know her better than I know you..."
"Hey, I don't talk about her that much," Maes complained, punching him in the arm.
"Only all the time," Roy shot back, smiling all over his face despite his annoyed tone. "D'you think she knows you're this obsessed?"
"Now, the problem with you, Roy," Maes said companionably as they dashed out of the room to make preparations, "is that you are in dire need of a girlfriend..."
As the racket of cheerful teasing faded, Mustang turned to his ghostly companion with a reminiscent smile on his face. "That was the best Christmas of my life," he said fondly. "I could hardly stand going back to school at the end of the break...are we going to see more of it?" he asked, hopefully.
"We don't have time," the spirit said, a little regretfully, he thought. "I've gotta show you one more Christmas."
Roy's heart leapt eagerly. "Which one is it this time?" he asked, running over his short list of happy Christmases in his head. Seeing Maes and himself again, the way they'd been as boys in the academy, had made him feel almost like a boy again himself. As crazy as it all was, he could get to like this spirit visitation thing...
But there was a sad look in the little girl's eyes as she took his hand again, and when they rose into the air, he realized they were retracing their flight back to Central.
"I dunno if you'll like this one as much," the little girl said, and then they were winging their way over the streets, and down into a little park, not much more than a few rosebushes clinging bare for the winter to their trellises between the rising walls of the surrounding brick buildings.
A white marble bench stood in the middle of the tiny lawn, and on it were seated two young figures in military uniform. Roy recognized one of them instantly as himself, older still and with the silver chain of a State Alchemist's watch visible looping into his pocket. The other...
"Riza," he murmured, as the girl stared morosely at her gloved hands, folded in her lap. Between her short-cropped golden hair and the watch he wore, they had to be at least eighteen, which meant...
No. He suddenly realized which Christmas this was, and felt his heart drop into his boots. Twenty. They were twenty.
"Not this Christmas," he hissed to the spirit as her dog's paws settled onto the snowy ground next to him. "Pick a different one. Let's go back to the ones at the Academy...that first one, even..."
"We can't," the spirit said, looking up at him solemnly. "I hafta show you this one. It's important."
"But, I..." Mustang protested, and the girl pressed a finger to her lips, then pointed at the couple on the bench.
"Listen," she said, and he found himself drawing nearer in spite of himself.
His younger self had reached over to take one of Hawkeye's hands, and was holding it in both of his own, as if to warm it, but she was flinching away, pain written all over her face.
"Can't you just listen to me?" Roy was asking, pleadingly. "If there was another way--"
"Of course there's another way," Hawkeye said, her face bleak. "You could apply for a desk job, like Maes. You don't have to go, Roy..."
His face was drawn and resolute. "Yes, I do. I can't shirk this, Riza. Not if I want to get promoted. Not if I want to reach my dreams."
"Your dreams," Hawkeye said, with a bitter chuckle. "How will getting killed in Ishvar fulfill your dreams, Roy? It's a slaughterhouse out there! They're only sending out the alchemists because the ordinary soldiers are being killed in the hundreds..."
"All the more reason for me to go," Roy said earnestly. "I can make a name for myself, get a promotion..."
Her eyes were cold with dread as she looked back at him. "You can make a name here."
"Not as quickly as I can on the battlefield," he insisted.
When she pulled her hands out of his, it was without warning. "Quickly? You're doing this to save time?!"
"You don't understand," Roy protested. "I have to think about my career--"
"I understand just fine," Hawkeye shot back. "You care more about your career than you do about your own safety. About..." She didn't finish the sentence, but sat looking at him, something visibly dying in her eyes. "You're going to regret this, Roy," she whispered.
Watching them, Mustang hardly noticed the tears rising in his eyes. He stretched out a hand to his younger self.
"Listen to her," he told himself, hoping against hope that some miracle could occur, to change this scene, to change all the scenes that had followed it. "She's right. Don't be an idiot...listen to her!"
But his younger self's face was stern. "Don't be so weak, Hawkeye," he heard himself saying, even as his older heart broke for his youthful foolishness. "It's not like you. I have to do this." He took a deep breath, and stood, turning his back on her.
"With...or without you."
Hawkeye was silent for a long moment, head bowed, her soft golden hair falling across her face. Mustang could see the first lines of tension forming in her back, as she squared her shoulders, and then lifted her head, standing to face him.
"I made a promise--" she started to say, and the young Roy turned to meet her, a delighted smile on his face, words of relief and confident reassurance forming on his lips.
They never escaped. Hawkeye's posture was stiff and formal, her hands at her sides in brisk attention, not reaching out for his.
"--and I intend to keep it," she finished, solemnly. "You'll need backup out there...Major."
The happiness drained from Roy's face, as it sank in that he had made his choice...and that Hawkeye was not fool enough to let him have his cake and eat it too, however faithfully she might follow him to the end. If he was determined to let nothing get in the way of his own promotion, then she would be his loyal subordinate, but nothing more.
"Take it back," Mustang pleaded with himself, taking a step toward them. "You can still change your mind...don't throw what you have here away! Don't take her into that hellhole!"
But his young shoulders were squared as well, his posture matching hers in military solemnity.
"Understood, Second Lieutenant," he said, sharply, and then turned on his heel and left the park, striding briskly out into the street. Mustang saw his hand slipping into his pocket as he went, gripping the watch there as if to remind himself of what was really important...
"It didn't matter!" Mustang shouted after himself, suddenly furious, running across the lawn and past the stricken girl as her military crispness melted and she slumped onto the marble bench alone to bury her face in her hands. "It was a fool's errand! Maes got his promotions with honors, and we...and I..."
But his uniformed back was disappearing resolutely into the distance, vanishing among the Christmas crowds that filled the street to take in the sights. Swearing loudly, Mustang dashed back into the park, to find the Ghost of Christmas Past and her dog seated on the bench next to the silent, white-faced young woman, gazing at her in sympathy as if they were trying to infuse her with as much Christmas cheer as they could. She was staring blankly at the bare rose brambles on the wall across from her, pale-lipped and silent. Mustang winced--Hawkeye had never been the type to cry, but this was as close as he'd ever seen her come.
"I'm sorry," he said, haltingly, knowing she couldn't hear him. "I didn't know any better..."
"...but a punishment is a punishment," Hughes voice rang, echoing, in his ears. "You're an alchemist, you ought to know that..."
Blinking away tears, he whirled to glare down at the little girl.
"Why did you bring me here?" he demanded, furiously. "What kind of demon are you, torturing people like this?!"
The girl's blue eyes were calm as she looked up at him, swinging her bare feet where they dangled from the bench, too short to touch the ground. "You did it," she said, with childish honesty. "I just showed it again."
"Take me back!" Roy shouted. "Don't show me any more!"
"I don't have to," the girl told him, as her dog whined softly. "It's all there. In your memory. Isn't it?"
The Christmases at ground zero, the scent of burning flesh that worked its way into his clothes and couldn't be washed out, the cold sand blowing gritty into his eyes, Hawkeye's face smeared with dust and blood as they made their way through town after shattered town...
"Go away!" he yelled, choking back tears of fury and pain as the images swam before him. "Get the hell away from me, you little monster!"
He raised a hand to strike at her--and the candles on her wreath flared up with a light so brilliant that he had to shield his eyes, and when he could see again, the park with its dying roses was gone, and he was standing in the middle of his apartment, alone, with the snow of long-ago Christmases still melting on his sleeves.
Into the sudden silence, the clock chimed one.
Chapter 4: The Ghost of Christmas Present
Breathing hard, Mustang looked blindly around the darkened room. The lamp he'd left lit when he fell asleep was out, and the apartment was plunged into shadows, so that he could hardly see.
"Was it a dream?" he whispered, but the dampness of his coat was real. There was snow dusting his hair, and melting to trickle chilly down the back of his neck. He shivered, and took off the heavy overcoat, draping it over the back of the chair. Somehow, he couldn't quite bring himself to sit down again.
Three spirits, Hughes had said. Well, when the next one came for him, he wanted to be ready for it.
Pacing the shadowy room in agitation, Mustang found that he couldn't wipe the images of the memories he'd been shown from his mind. Happiness...sadness...foolishness and joy...when had he stopped feeling, on this holiday? When had he shut it all off? Was it after that last Christmas with Riza, before she became Hawkeye to him, when the season had begun to go sour for him? Or had it begun long before then, during those cold and lonely Christmases at the Academy, and had Hughes' friendship merely slowed the process?
He was so deep in thought, in fact, that he hardly noticed the way the temperature in the apartment was steadily rising. He had absentmindedly shucked his gloves and even begun to sweat without realizing it by the time he heard the first faint thrummings of music from his bedroom, and slowed his steps to look in confusion at the closed door.
It was then that he noticed the bright light streaming from the crack beneath it.
"Here we go again," Mustang muttered, and advanced apprehensively toward the door. The knob was warm in his hand as he turned it--
--and then the door swung open, almost of its own accord, and he was suddenly bathed in brilliant golden light as a hundred delicious smells came wafting out to greet him. Looking into what he knew full well had been his bedroom that morning, Mustang's mouth dropped open. Blazing torches lined the walls in festive brackets, and the floor was buried under great heaps of food and brightly-wrapped gifts, in tempting drifts of roast turkeys and fruitcakes and colorful boxes that piled all the way to the ceiling in the corners. Music filled the air, grand old-fashioned music that made his heart race to listen to it, from no source that he could see, though he recognized trumpets and strings among the instruments lilting around him.
And in the midst of it all, on a greenery and velvet-draped dais that he hardly recognized as his own bed...
"Young one!!" bellowed the massive figure, sitting up and stretching out a huge hand to him. "Welcome to the feast!!"
If his jaw had dropped before, it was practically unhinged now. "M-M-Major Armstrong?" Mustang stuttered, goggling in utter stunned amazement at the gleaming giant before him.
Throwing back his head, the man let out a roar of laughter. "Hardly!!" he cried in a jovial bass rumble. "I am the Ghost of Christmas Present!!"
It was true, Mustang had to admit, that the Major was not fifteen feet tall or given to breaking into his superior officer's homes to fill their bedrooms with holiday paraphernalia. And Armstrong had certainly never shown up for work draped in a velvet robe trimmed in white fur, tied loosely around his waist with a gold cord and gaping wide to display his impressively muscled, gleaming chest, with a bushy wreath of holly on his head. Besides all that, he had last seen Armstrong the day before, and even a talented alchemist such as the Major was not capable of growing a rich, curling golden beard all the way down to his waist in a day's time.
Still, the resemblance was so striking that Mustang could only stand and continue to stare as his giant visitor heaved himself to his feet and strode toward him, yuletide spirit sparkling tangibly around him in points of green and scarlet light.
"Come now!!" he roared, and picked up the stunned colonel to settle him on his shoulder as easily as Mustang might have picked up a small child, had he possessed any inclination to do so. "We have much to see, and little time to see it in!!"
Clinging to the holly wreath to keep from tumbling off the ghost's shoulder into the mountains of Christmas goodies swamping his room, Mustang was startled to realize that the holly thorns were not sharp. He hardly had time to wonder at this, or at the way his room's ceiling seemed to be easily accommodating the combined height of his giant guest and himself, before the room itself seemed to melt away and they were soaring into the air--again.
"Can I at least get my overcoat?" Mustang shouted, his teeth chattering already in the snowy air. It seemed to be broad daylight, now, turning slightly golden-orange with the onset of evening. He wondered how long this insanity had been going on and dragging him with it. Was it already Christmas Day?
"Touch my robe, young one!!" the ghost commanded him merrily. "It could keep a thousand men warm on the coldest of nights, and yet have warmth for more!!"
Tentatively, Mustang fisted his bare hands in the rich folds of the robe where it was draped over the ghost's shoulder--and, sure enough, he felt a crackling heat fill him, as if he sat by a blazing fireplace.
"Impressive!" he couldn't help exclaiming, and the ghost let out another rich laugh.
"It is a robe that has been passed down through my family for generations!!" he declared, as they swooped low over the rooftops of Central.
"Are there a lot of generations in your family?" Mustang asked, watching the streets pass by beneath them. The ghost nodded his shining head.
"Over eighteen hundred of us!!" he shouted. "One for every Christmas there ever has been!!"
Mustang whistled. "I don't envy you your family reunions!" he said, and then they were sailing down for a landing on the bustling street outside what he recognized as the same barracks where the Elric brothers lived during their sojourns in Central. The sidewalk was crowded with people going about their holiday business, but none of them seemed to notice the colonel, or his outlandish companion; they simply walked past them, occasionally passing straight through the ghost's muscular, yet apparently incorporeal, body.
"Merry Christmas!" a young boy was shouting, running happily among the crowds; Roy recognized him as the young caroler from the night before, and the taller boy following him must have been his brother, if the identical pale-gold shade of their hair was any clue. "Merry Christmas! C'mon, Russell! We've gotta hurry, or there won't be any cookies left!"
"Whoa, whoa," the older boy called after him in fraternal irritation. "Slow down! The bakery isn't going to disappear!"
As they passed, the ghost stretched out his hand over their heads, and the colorful sparkles that surrounded him seemed to drift down over them. A smile bloomed on the older brother's face as the light touched him, and he sped up his steps, grabbing his brother's hand so that they ran side by side through the crowd, calling out Merry Christmases to everyone they passed. Mustang watched them go with a slightly wistful look on his face.
"Why so long-faced, young one?!" the ghost boomed down at him, and Mustang sighed.
"They were caroling at my apartment building yesterday," he said, remembering the slumped shoulders of another little boy he'd seen not so very long ago. "I wish I'd given them something."
"The deeds of a Christmas past cannot be changed!!" the ghost said, swinging him up onto his shoulder again without warning. "Only the Christmas of the present lives and breathes!!"
"Who-oa!" Mustang yelped, grabbing for a hold on the wreath again as they lifted into the air, the ghost scattering sparkles--no, Christmas spirit, he suddenly realized--over the bustling crowds below.
"Hold on, young one!!" the ghost cried, and suddenly they were hurtling up toward the barracks itself, the wall melting away before them as the roof of Mustang's room had done. There was a brief confused moment, as the building seemed to get itself arranged to the ghost's liking, and then they were standing in the corner of a bare-walled barracks room not so unlike the one that Hughes and Mustang had occupied at the Academy. That long-ago room, however, had never contained a large, animated suit of armor, and they would have been in serious trouble if they had been caught smuggling in a teenaged girl like the one currently clambering out of the suit's open chestplate.
Come to think of it, Alphonse could have gotten in a lot of trouble, too, but from the way his eyes were sparkling--as brightly as the Christmas spirit radiating from the smiling ghost--he didn't seem to care.
"Quick!" he was exclaiming, as Winry giggled mischievously, trying not to fall as she climbed down his legs. "He's going to be here any minute, I saw him coming down the street from the other way! Get under the bed, hurry!"
"I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying!" Winry cried, smothering her laughter and dropping down to roll under the nearest of the two cots, scarf and mittens and all. Al quickly shook out the blanket folded at its foot, so that it draped down to the floor and hid his friend, and seated himself atop it. It creaked loudly, and for a second Mustang expected to see the holiday marred by a squashed Rockbell--but the frame strained and held, to his relief.
They weren't a moment too soon; hardly had Al had time to grab a book and assume a casual pose, when the door clicked open, and his brother came wobbling into the room under a stack of boxes, snow dusted over his golden hair and the bright red broadcloth of his overcoat.
"Gimme a hand with these, Al!" he called, and the suit of armor creaked eagerly to his feet, taking the boxes out of Ed's arms and setting them on the bed. "Holy damn, it's cold out there!" Ed complained, pulling off his gloves to cup his bare hand over his mouth and blowing his own breath into it in an attempt to warm the chilled skin. Snow steamed off of his overcoat as he quickly transmuted it dry, shrugged out of it and draped it over the other cot. "What is this, the North Pole? Did somebody realign the planetary tilt and forget to tell me?"
Al was ignoring his brother's habitual melodrama, sorting through the boxes on the bed.
"What is all this, Brother?" he asked, his voice echoing in puzzlement. Ed grinned.
"Well, I figured since Colonel Bastard kept me too busy again this winter to manage a trip home for Christmas, we ought to have a celebration of our own!" he said, pulling open one of the boxes. Colorful ornaments rolled out across the bedspread, winking in shades of red and green and silver. "It's not much, but--"
Al's eyes lit up even more brightly than usual, and suddenly Ed was lifted off the floor in a clanking metal hug.
"Brother!" the younger boy cried happily. "You shouldn't have!"
"Ow! Put me down, Al, that hurts!" Squirming out of his brother's grip, Ed dusted himself off sheepishly. "Yeah, well, it's not much of an equivalent trade for spending the holidays alone...I'm really sorry, Al," he said, gazing out the window at the bustling street below. Mustang couldn't tell exactly where those golden eyes were looking, but he could guess; there were any number of happy families strolling down the sidewalks out there, arm in normal flesh arm, and Ed was clearly wishing he and his brother were among their number...
"Well...not quite alone," came a cheerful correction, and Ed jumped back in surprise as a slightly dusty Winry poked her head out from under the bed. "Merry Christmas, Ed!"
"W-Winry!" Ed cried, flabbergasted. "What...how...?"
"Aww, Winry, you were supposed to wait!" Al scolded her. "It was going to be a surprise!"
"Oh, I'm surprised all right," Ed said emphatically, still staring in disbelief. Winry giggled.
"Granny got me the train tickets for a Christmas present," she said, peeling off her scarf and jacket and tossing them across the room to lie atop Ed's overcoat. "She said you two deserved some family for the holidays for once, and she was too old to go halfway across Amestris in this weather. Al picked me up at the station while you were out shopping. So, are you going to stand there looking like a fish till next year, or do we get to see what all's in those boxes?"
Ed looked in amazement from her, to his beaming brother, and back again--and then Winry let out a squeak of surprise as he caught her in a heartfelt hug.
"Thank you," Ed said as he let go, a moment later, looking a bit red-faced but still pleased. "It means...well...thank you," he repeated, awkwardly, and Winry grinned.
"No biggie," she said. "Thank Granny, not me. So, how'd you spend your Christmas bonus this year?"
It was the beginning of a bright and cheerful afternoon, as the three old friends seated themselves on pillows tossed onto the floor and began unboxing the fruits of Ed's last-minute Christmas shopping. The room was quickly festooned with tinsel streamers and ornaments, wreaking a wonderful change on the bleak whitewashed walls, and a pair of colorful patchwork quilts thrown over the beds. With that taken care of, the rest of the boxes turned out to contain several holiday games, a pack of cards, a scattering of gifts, and a generous Christmas feast for one.
"It's a good thing Brother eats so much," Al laughed as this last was unboxed. "There's enough here for you too, Winry!"
"Yeah, you'd think with all the stuffing you give your face, you'd be a little bigger by now," Winry joked.
Ed scowled. "Heyyy..."
"Aw, don't get so upset," Winry said, poking him in the shoulder. "It's Christmas!"
"I'm sorry we don't have a present for you, Winry," Al said suddenly, looking up from the small heap in his lap. Al's gift for Ed had been fished from under his cot as well, and was currently waiting to be opened. "We mailed yours a few weeks ago..."
"Hey, a good mechanic's always prepared," Winry said, stretching to grab her coat and producing a brightly-wrapped little box from its pocket. "I brought it with me to open here. Oh, and these are for you guys," she added, pulling out two more small packages and holding them out.
The gifts were torn open with gusto--Winry's was another pair of earrings, and Ed made her solemnly promise under threat of no Christmas dinner that she wouldn't get more holes made for them--and then the two older teens fell eagerly on the food. With no adults that they were aware of to scold them for bad manners, turkey and stuffing and the whole rest of the lot was eaten with their fingers straight from the deli boxes, while all three of them chatted and bantered happily.
Mustang watched the whole proceedings with something akin to awe. He'd never before been quite so aware of the stiff, guarded front that Fullmetal and his brother put up for his benefit. Here in the privacy of their own room, in the company of their old friend, they acted like the kids they were. When he thought about all they'd been through--and how much of it he'd put them through, an uncomfortable little voice muttered from deep within him--it was almost heartbreaking to see them bravely throwing their own secret Christmas party in this plain little room.
Time seemed to bend and fly past, the afternoon passing in a whirl of festivities. The ghost stood beside him the entire time, beaming at the kids as they teased and played. As the light began to fail outside, Ed produced a bottle of sparkling cider and two glasses from the last of the boxes with a triumphant grin.
"Ooh, we've gotta have a toast!" Winry exclaimed, clapping her hands. Al's helmet was turned toward his brother in confusion.
"Two glasses, Brother?" he asked, uncertainly.
Ed scratched the back of his neck with a sheepish grin. "Yeah, well...I know you can't drink it, but I thought we could pour you a glass anyway, just for, I dunno, the thought of it."
Al seemed to beam. "Bless you, Brother," he said, reaching out to ruffle his sibling's hair. "Winry can have my glass, though. I don't mind."
"Thanks, Al," Winry said, and the cider was poured.
"To Christmas!" Al said, holding up the bottle in lieu of a cup of his own.
"To family!" Winry toasted, clinking her cup against theirs.
A wicked grin spread across Ed's face. "To old Colonel Bastard!" he said, raising his own glass, and shrugged when they gaped at him. "Well, it was all the overtime he's been giving me that paid for all this," he laughed.
Al giggled. "Okay, then!" he said. "To Colonel Mustang!"
"To you two knuckleheads," Winry said with a snort, taking a sip of her cider. "Cheers!"
"Cheers!" they chorused.
Watching the way Al sat patiently while his brother and friend drank the cider, Mustang felt an odd twinge inside. How quickly this boy had forgiven him for keeping them there...Ed's toast had been meant in jest, but Al had echoed it honestly, innocently. Not once had he expressed frustration at being unable to share their Christmas dinner or feel the warm folds of his new quilt or the chill of the snow outside.
"Spirit," Mustang asked tentatively, "can you see the future?"
"I see what is shown to me," the ghost replied. Was it his imagination, or did its boisterous manner seem to have sobered a little? Mustang plunged on regardless.
"That boy," he said, pointing at Alphonse, who was laughing with his little family as they all tried to outdo each other in thinking up the most outrageous toasts possible. "Alphonse Elric. Will he ever get his body back?"
The ghost regarded the little party with a grandly solemn air. "His spirit is brave," he intoned, "but the link between soul and body is fraying. It cannot hold forever."
Mustang felt his insides go cold. "No..." he murmured. But the spirit spoke on, giving the answer he no longer wanted.
"I see an empty bed," boomed the solemn voice, "and a brother who gazes alone into the snow and can weep no more. If some breakthrough is not made within the year, no further generations of my family will see this boy celebrate another Christmas."
"Then he'll die?" Mustang cried, grabbing at the ghost's arm. "Isn't there anything anyone can do? Please, Spirit!"
But the ghost merely returned his gaze to the children sitting on the floor. Laughing happily, Al raised his bottle again, clinking it against Ed and Winry's upheld glasses.
"To us!" cried the softly echoing voice. "God bless us, every one!"
Ed's laughing protests and Winry's heartfelt echoing of the toast faded, along with the walls of the room, and Mustang hardly had time to shoot a last worried glance back at the little group before he was hauled up onto the ghost's shoulder and soaring out into the street again.
The crowds below seemed to restore the ghost's merry humor, and once again the Christmas spirit cascaded from him in shimmers of light. When they stopped again, it was outside a bustling tavern. A wooden sign swung over the door, painted with the lion and laurels of the Amestrian flag. This building, too, opened itself eagerly to the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Mustang found himself hurrying along in the jolly giant's wake as the crowds parted unconsciously to let him through.
The ghost led him to a table in the back, and he instantly recognized the occupants. Half the office seemed to be there--Breda, Farman, Fury, Havoc, even Scieszka, looking flushed and shy but determined to enjoy herself. Empty beer steins littered the table, along with partly-eaten platters of food and the remains of pulled party crackers.
"...and then!" Havoc was saying, pounding his fist on the table and wobbling slightly with drunken mirth, a paper crown from one of the crackers perched crooked on his head. "And then, if y'can b'leive it, he said...he said Christmas was a humbug!"
"Christmas, a humbug?" Breda echoed, and roared with laughter. "Aaahaha, that's our colonel all right! He freezes the whole department come December! Oughta retitle him the Ice Alchemist!"
"What's a humbug?" Fury asked timidly, as flushed as Scieszka with his glasses slipping down his nose.
"A 'humbug'," Farman recited knowledgably from next to him, "is generally defined as something useless, pointless, or incurably silly. In other words, a load of nonsense." He ended his definition with a satisfied hiccup.
"Nonsense?" Scieszka exclaimed, straightening her own paper crown where it was slipping over her eyes. Her tipsy state seemed to have made the usually reclusive girl more outspoken than Mustang had ever seen her, save the few times she'd confronted him over the investigation of Hughes' death. "He called Christmas nonsense? What kind of holiday spirit is that?"
"It isn't!" Havoc crowed, with the air of someone putting the finishing touch on a well-outlined argument. "Our old colonel wouldn't know Christmas sp'rit if it, if it jumped up and bit him in the face! All he's good for 'round the holidays is ruining 'em for ev'rybody else!"
"I dunno," Breda said, contemplating the foam at the bottom of his stein. "I kinda feel sorry for the guy, yanno? I mean, it's not like he's got anybody to celebrate 'em with, right?"
Murmurs of agreement ran around the table, as the other drinkers nodded in inebriated sympathy.
"Hey, I invited him," Havoc said with a shrug. "You know what he said?"
"Wh--hic--whaddee say?" Fury asked, leaning in eagerly as if for the punchline of a good joke.
Havoc pointed an accusing finger at the startled radio operator. "OUT!" he bellowed, in a fairly good imitation of Mustang's best parade-ground shout. "GOOD EVENING! BAH, HUMBUG!!"
The entire group joined in the last shout, and dissolved into laughter. Mustang found himself frowning uneasily as they pounded the table and each others' backs. To be teased by his underlings was one thing, but to be pitied by them? It wasn't as if he was missing anything much by not coming along to get soused and wear stupid paper hats...was he?
"I dunno," Havoc said, slinging an arm around Scieszka's shoulders; she squeaked slightly and edged up against Fury on her other side, who took one look at her and blushed tomato-red to his eartips, staring very hard into the depths of his stein. "Mebbe he oughta get a good kick in the pants for being such a snowman, and mebbe not, but...seems to me he's hurtin' himself just as bad as the rest of us, right?"
"I hear ya," Breda agreed, raising his stein. "To poor old Colonel Mustang," he proposed piously. "May a little Christmas cheer shine on him tonight, wherever he's holed up...and may the icicle up his ass please melt before he kills the holiday spirit for us all!"
"Hear, hear!" the others echoed, and five heavy steins crashed together, spilling beer onto the table.
"Oh, hey!" Havoc shouted as they set down their steins, grabbing up a steak knife on the table and holding it so that it protruded from his nose like a jagged snout as he made a comically angry face. "Yarr! Grarr! What'm I?"
The others quickly warmed to this game, shouting out guesses.
"Oh, oh, a swordfish!"
"No, no, and no!" Havoc declared, and made a particularly ridiculous face at Scieszka, waggling the knife. "Rawrr, Scieszka! All your Christmas spirit is belong to me!"
"Ooh, I know!" the girl cried, clapping her hands. "You're Colonel Mustang!"
"Bingo!" Havoc congratulated her, and the table melted into roars of laughter again. Watching them, Mustang scowled, his hand twitching into snapping position despite his lack of gloves or corporeality.
"I fail to see what a steak knife has to do with an impression of me," he muttered darkly to himself.
A heavy hand rested on Mustang's shoulder, and he looked up to see the Ghost of Christmas Present smiling benevolently down at him.
"Your men are gruff in expressing it, but their holiday spirit extends even to you on this fine day!!" the ghost declared, as if trying to reassure him. Mustang made a face.
"Yeah, thanks," he muttered, frowning at the revelers as they continued to drink his health and de-icicling with enthusiasm. The noise of the bar suddenly grated on his nerves, and he found himself wishing he was back in his own apartment. What right did they have to make fun of him? Just because he'd kept them on track during the holidays, when they would otherwise have gone lollygagging off without a second's thought for the people onto whose shoulders their neglected work would fall...
"In their own way, they are grateful to you!!" the ghost continued to boom. "After all, had you not given them enough work over the holidays to prevent them from seeing their own families, they would not be here celebrating together!!"
...and Mustang's self-righteous bubble burst yet again. It suddenly occurred to him that, yes, everyone here did have a family of their own. He'd heard Scieszka talking about the ill mother in the country to whom she sent her monthly paychecks, and his men sharing stories of parents and siblings in the quieter moments around the office. True, they'd had a lot of work to do this year, what with the rash of theft and other misdemeanors that always cropped up during the luxurious holiday season...but, still...
Would it have been so impossible for him to have given them more than a day off?
He had no more time to contemplate this, for the wall of the bar had already begun to fade, and the ghost was guiding him out into the street again. It was pitch dark outside by now, and the clouds had cleared away, a million bright stars twinkling overhead in the brisk night air.
"My time grows short," the ghost at his side boomed, and when Mustang looked up at him, he realized that the mighty spirit's face had grown lined and spotted with age, his golden beard shot with gray. "Soon I will leave this world."
Mustang blinked. "Are spirits' lives so short?"
"I live only while Christmas does, and then on in the hearts of man for evermore...but it is span enough for me!!" the ghost exclaimed, with a bit of its remaining lively vigor. "But before I go, I must show you something."
One wrinkled hand twitched aside the hem of the trailing robe, and Mustang drew back in horror. Two bony faces stared out at him from beneath the velvet folds. A pair of skinny boys clung to the spirit's ankles, clad in black rags with their long hair trailing down their backs, as they glared hatefully at him with dull purple eyes. The smaller one's tangled hair was dark as pitch; the other's shone faintly green.
"Who are they?" Mustang cried, shocked. "They're not...not yours, are they?"
The ghost hung his head. "They are mankind's," he said grimly, "and not even my merriest spirit can reach their hearts. This is what comes of withholding love and kindness from those who need it most. The younger is Ignorance, the older, Want. Look upon them, and take their lesson to heart, young one, for my time with you is at an end!!"
As he spoke, he flung out a hand above his holly-crowned head, and a brilliant cloud of light billowed from it, enveloping the bustling street and blotting out stars and merriment all in one breath. Mustang staggered back, one arm flung up to cover his face...and when he lowered it, all of what lay before him--the huge and aging ghost, the starveling boys, and the street itself--had vanished away entirely.
Chapter 5: The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come
Of all the places Mustang had found himself in this very strange sequence of events, this latest was undoubtedly the strangest. Though he would have liked to express his frustration with all the rapid scenery changes, in no uncertain terms, to anyone available, it so happened that there did not appear to be anyone to express them to. He stood on nothing in particular, floating in a great expanse of white light. The only object he could see in any direction was a huge stone gate that towered before him, its doors decorated round with statues of human beings in a hundred different postures. Enormous alchemical symbols were engraved on its broad expanse, but he could puzzle out barely half of their uses, and all the ones he could decipher were extremely esoteric.
"Hello?" Mustang called, his voice sounding small in the vast nothingness. "Is...is anybody there?"
Silence answered him, and he shivered, already missing the warmth of the ghost's robe.
"There were supposed to be three spirits!" he shouted at the Gate, cupping his hands around his mouth. "You're teaching me about the right way to keep Christmas, right? Now where's the third one? Just come out and let's get it over with!"
A faint creaking sound caught his attention, and he realized that the tall stone doors were swinging open as if to admit him. Taking an eager step forward, he froze in his tracks as a hundred baleful eyes opened, glowing in the darkness between the doors. This was unlike any of the previous spirits--even Hughes' spectre hadn't sent chills down his spine the way this slowly opening Gate did--and Mustang found himself backing away from it, his arms wrapped around himself as if in extreme cold.
As he watched, a faintly glowing shape appeared in the doorway. It reminded him of the silhouette of a young boy, but outlined only vaguely in the palest of grayish light. One nearly invisible hand reached out to him, and beckoned sharply.
"I'm supposed to go in there?" Mustang asked, disbelievingly.
The hand beckoned again. Swallowing, Mustang took a nervous step forward, then another, moving with great reluctance towards the Gate. As he approached, what looked like a million streamers of pure darkness unrolled from within it, reaching for him. Mustang flinched, but kept walking, muttering to himself.
"This is your third spirit? I swear, Hughes, if you weren't already dead, I would kill you---uuuu!"
His voice rose from a mutter to a cry of alarm as the darkness suddenly caught him up and sucked him in, the Gate crashing shut behind him. For a few dreadful seconds, he swam in utter blackness, seeing nothing but the staring eyes that surrounded him and the pale silhouette still floating silent at his side. Somewhere he could hear high-pitched laughter, and he knew instinctively that it was at his expense, and much more malevolent than the good-natured merriment in the Lion and Laurels.
Then, mercifully, the darkness lifted, and he was standing in another street, this time a shabby and deserted one. No other human beings were visible; just the glowing shape, standing a short distance from him and regarding him with its featureless face.
For a few moments, Mustang simply stood doubled over, his hands braced on his knees, and struggled to breathe normally again. His throat felt like he had been screaming, but if he had, the sound had been so lost in the smothering Gate that even he hadn't heard it. Once the gasping and disorientation had passed, he raised his head weakly to look at his unspeaking companion.
"So," he said, hesitantly, still a bit breathless. "If we're following any kind of logical progression here, you must be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come."
The silhouette inclined its head, just slightly, in a nod.
Mustang managed a triumphant grin. "And you're going to show me some Christmases in the future."
It nodded again, still silent.
"Excellent," Mustang said, making his best attempt at his usual collected sarcasm. "If I pay good attention, I can win big in the office betting pools when I get home. Lead on, Spirit!"
The look it gave him managed to be baleful, even without any features. Mustang felt something shrink in his chest, and his bravado faded again. Walking past him, towards the mouth of the alley, the spirit did not bother to gesture for him to follow, but he found himself following anyway, as if drawn along on an invisible thread.
There was no flying this time; they merely walked to the corner where the alley met the road, and the spirit turned right and continued straight through a battered wooden door without stopping. Pausing outside, Mustang took a deep breath, then followed, trying not to wince as his face approached the sturdy surface.
He couldn't help closing his eyes at the last moment, but his steps didn't falter. When he opened them again, he was standing in a dingy, cluttered room, lit with guttering oil lamps instead of electric light. Unsavory-looking shapes lounged around in the corners, and a trio of people were gathered over a cloth that had been spread on the floor. It was too dark to see what was on it, but whatever it was gleamed here and there where the dim light hit it.
"There you go," a woman in a slinky dark suit of something skintight said, tossing her short blond hair scornfully. A pale mask covered her face, but the eyes behind it glinted craftily. "Everything I could lay hands on, swiped right out of the room where they laid the poor bastard out. Not that I think anyone'll care. There wasn't a single mourner to catch me--easiest heist I've had in years," she laughed.
"Not surprising," the tallest of the figures replied with a sharklike grin. Inspecting his fingernails, the man buffed them carelessly on the front of his fur-collared jacket. "They say his men used to be pretty loyal to him, but he froze 'em out over the years. Never let 'em get close, even this time of the year. You do enough of that and you wake up one day with nobody at your funeral, ain't that right, Martel?"
The shorter woman who knelt sorting through the bundle of stolen goods glanced up at him, the jagged red tattoo across her face and neck almost glowing against her pale skin. "It's all junk," she said, ignoring the rhetorical question. "What the hell did he do with all that money he's supposed to have?"
"Left it to the military?" the slinky woman suggested with a sensual shrug. "Hell if I know. It's not like he ever did anybody much good with it while he was alive. Why make it available to steal now that he's dead? He had to know there wasn't likely to be anyone hanging around to protect it."
Mustang felt the blood draining out of his face. "They've robbed a corpse?" he whispered, though he knew by now that the people in the scenes before him couldn't hear or see him. "Why? Who are these people? What poor idiot ran afoul of them?"
But the silhouette did not answer, merely turning and melting through the door again. As he followed it, he heard the thieves still talking as they began to parcel out their loot.
"Why were you so dead set on robbing the bastard blind?" the slinky woman asked, holding up some kind of garment or cloth curiously.
The man shrugged. "Oh...call it a grudge-once-removed," he said, and then they were through the door and out into the street again.
Mustang hurried his steps to catch up to the glowing presence as it led the way out of the rotting, disreputable area of Central and into clean streets that bustled with Christmas festivities in progress. He breathed a sigh of relief when they entered these boulevards; he'd been wondering whether it was even Christmas at all now, or whether this was all some kind of cruel joke. He drank in the sights and sounds of merriment and light so eagerly that when the spirit stopped suddenly, he nearly walked right through it. As it was, he stumbled to a halt just in time to catch a snatch of conversation from two people walking past in uniform.
"...can you believe the General bit it?" Recognizing Denny Brosch's voice, Mustang almost called out a greeting, before he remembered the uselessness of it. The sergeant was loaded down with parcels, and the dark-haired woman walking at his side had her arms just as full.
Maria Ross shook her head slightly. "He wasn't even that old, was he?" she murmured. Mustang noticed that her short-cropped hair had been grown out, and was swept into a tie at the nape of her neck. It made her look younger and gentler than he remembered, not older as he knew she must be, and the way Brosch was beaming shyly down at her seemed to pay tribute to his having noticed the effect as well.
"Oh, I dunno," Brosch said carelessly, obviously not terribly interested in the subject at hand. "I never kept much track of his age. Anyway, wasn't it an alchemical accident?"
"I heard he fell down some stairs," Maria said, vaguely. "They mentioned it at the cantina the other day, I think. Can we not talk about this kind of thing at Christmas, Denny?"
"Fair enough," Brosch said, hefting his packages with a broad smile at her use of his given name, and they moved on through the crowds. Mustang watched them go, an increasingly uneasy look on his face. He had a terrible foreboding about this General they were talking about...
Glancing around, he realized the spirit had moved on again, and jogged after it to keep up. It crossed the street, now, and turned down a broad boulevard and across the broad parade ground in front of military headquarters. A few cadets were having a snowball fight, laughing and pelting each other with rapid-fire skill as they skidded on the icy concrete.
The pale silhouette passed among them without seeming to notice their mirth, leading the way inside and through hallway after echoing marble hallway. It was odd to walk down those halls without the familiar clicking of his boot heels on the floor, and Mustang found himself shivering again, glancing around as if he expected those ribbons of darkness to come curling out of the cracks in the walls at any moment.
As they passed the door of his own offices, Mustang found himself slowing his steps of his own accord, lingering outside curiously. The spirit slowed as he did, so that it was hard to tell whether waiting here had been his own idea or his guide's. The door was closed, and Mustang felt a weird reluctance to enter, but he could hear voices within.
"You doing okay?" said a man. Mustang recognized the gruff voice as Breda's, and leaned closer, pressing his ear to the crack between door and frame.
"Better than I thought I would, actually."
Hawkeye. It was Hawkeye, her voice solemn but light. Mustang heard the scrape of a chair being pulled up, and imagined his subordinates settling down for a proper conversation.
"You sure? You, uh...you cared a lot about him, didn't you?"
A faint sigh. "It was a long time ago. It's...hard to explain. He changed so much."
Breda laughed, rather sadly. "Turned into a regular old grouch in the end, didn't he?"
"I suppose you could say his goals overshadowed his principles," Hawkeye said, tactfully. "Honestly, Breda? I will always miss who he was, once, but the more I think about it, the more I realize...that man died a very long time ago."
Mustang suddenly found himself not wanting to hear any more. Backing away from the door, he went quickly to the spirit's side.
"Is death so heartless?" he murmured, as the spirit began to walk once more. "Isn't anyone truly mourned?"
His strange escort paused to look up at him, then nodded and turned suddenly left.
They passed through several more halls, but it finally led him into a side room, which he recognized as a communications center. It was mostly empty, but a young man dressed in black sat on a wooden stool in a corner, the receiver of a telephone held to his ear. Though he was older, broader-shouldered, and even a bit taller, the colonel would have recognized that blond braid anywhere.
"...yeah, Merry Christmas to you, too, Winry," Edward was saying, smiling faintly as he spoke. His voice was deeper, almost a man's now. "How's Granny doing? Her rheumatism any better?"
"Spirit," Mustang murmured, not quite daring to nudge it as it stood glowing next to him. "Why are we here? What's the point of eavesdropping on Fullmetal's phone conversations, even the future ones? Surely you don't expect him to believe me if I try to brighten his Christmas next year by telling him he'll be taller soon?"
There was, of course, no answer. Mustang sighed, and moved closer to better hear Ed's disjointed half of the conversation.
"Yeah," Ed said, nodding. "Yeah, I figured. Uh-huh...oh, yeah, last Thursday," he said, as if in answer to a query. "It was kind of a shock. He was only, what, thirty-something?"
"Not this again," Mustang said faintly.
"Yeah, I went," Edward was agreeing, "but I didn't stay long. Nobody did. I guess they figured he probably would have wanted to be left alone anyway, you know? Yeah. Yeah, that was pretty much his theme song these last few years. No...yeah. Yeah." He hesitated suddenly, biting his lip, and swallowed. "Yeah, I guess he would have been proud of me...he would have gone too. Probably would have stayed up all night with the body, he always was too soft h-hearted..."
The boy's voice faltered, and he swallowed again. Whatever Winry was saying on the other end of the line, she said it for a while, as Ed nodded occasionally. Then he let out a weary sigh.
"Okay, you're right. Yeah...I miss you too, Win. This call is getting pretty expensive, though...yeah. Tell Granny Merry Christmas for me, would y--oh, hi, Granny! Huh? Yeah, it's still in one piece. Yeah, I'll try to get the week off next year. Should be easier now that he's not around to pile work on me, anyway. Huh? ...okay. Okay. I miss you, too. Merry Christmas..."
Edward hung up the phone with a heavy clunk, and sat very still for a moment, his back still to Mustang. Curiously, Mustang walked around the stool for a better look at his face--and drew back, startled.
Tears were running silently down Ed's face, as he sat rigidly on the stool, his hands clutched tight in the fabric of his jacket. He closed his eyes as Mustang watched helplessly.
"Would you have been proud?" he asked the air, his voice a hoarse whisper. "You always said he helped us when he could, Al...but he never did a thing in the end, when you needed it the most...too worried about his damn career to get mixed up with our sins...."
"Oh, god," Mustang said, staring at the raw grief etched on Edward's face. "He didn't...they didn't..." Turning to the spirit, he took a step towards it, stretching out his hands. "Tell me I'm wrong!" he shouted. "Tell me I misunderstood! Where is Alphonse Elric, damn you?!"
The spirit seemed to regard him coldly for a moment with that featureless face, then turned and walked through the wall. Mustang hesitated between following it and staying with the mourning young man--not that he could have done a thing for Edward now, he realized with a sick lurch, but it would have been a gesture, it would have been something at least--but his growing fear of ending up trapped in this bleak future overwhelmed him, and he rushed blindly through the wall after his guide.
Rooms and hallways blurred past as he cut a path through them, the faint glow always just ahead, and then they emerged onto a smooth green lawn with the winter moon shining coldly down on rows of identical white stones. Mustang felt his pulse quicken, as the glimmering silhouette glided down among the tombstones.
"The main event, is that it?" he whispered, following it slowly as it passed among the graves. "Time for the punchline, you silent thing?"
He did not expect any kind of answer by now, but he trembled uncontrollably as they approached one grave among the newest row, the earth over it freshly turned and frozen in the winter cold until its surface cracked with crystals of ice. Mustang knew what he would see long before the spirit paused before the grave, but somehow he still felt the perverse need to look.
"General Roy Mustang," he read aloud from the newly-carved stone.
His hands shook as he stood there, atop his own grave, and turned to his ghostly companion. "That's it?" he asked, hoarsely. "That's how I go? I just...fade out, one day, without even my men to mourn me?!"
The blank face regarded him calmly. Mustang let out a hysterical laugh.
"I never even made it to Fuhrer!" he cried, pointing at the title appended to his name. "All that sacrifice, everything I lost, everything I gave up, and I died a General! A pathetic, godforsaken General! Oh, god...!" His voice breaking, he staggered a few steps away from the frozen grave, unable to look at it anymore. The shade followed, gliding in his wake.
Breathing in ragged gasps, Mustang stared up into the night sky for a shaky moment, then whirled around to face the faceless ghost.
"You!" he cried. "You're the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come! You know how everything turns out in the end! For god's sake, tell me I can change this! Tell me I don't have to die like this! Say there's something I can do!"
The silhouette remained unmoving, the headstone of his grave faintly visible through its body, his name blurred but still horribly legible. Mustang let out a cry of despair and fell to his knees on the cold earth of the grave.
"Say something! Say anything!" he demanded, clutching at its incorporeal legs. "I can change my ways! I'll keep Christmas better than anybody! I'll wear all the wreaths and go to all the stupid drinking parties I can stand! What can I do?! Tell me what to do!!"
It was still watching him patiently. Mustang suddenly remembered Hawkeye's bitter despair in the rose garden, the loneliness hidden under the cheerful toasts in the Lion and Laurels, and Ed's pain-ravaged face as he sat alone in the communications room...and something clicked.
Suddenly, Mustang understood.
"I'll listen," he said, slowly, pronouncing the words carefully. "I'll lighten up. I'll help those who need it, when I can. Whenever I can. Is that what you've all been trying to teach me?"
Perhaps it was his imagination, but the featureless face seemed inexplicably to smile. For a moment, looking through it at the rows of gravestones, Roy thought he could almost see another pale silhouette, chainless now and sketching him a fond salute of farewell.
Then the earth split beneath him with an ominous rumble, and he fell into nothingness with a startled yell--
Chapter 6: Merry Christmas To All!
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
--and sat up with a start in his own armchair, as the clock on his mantelpiece struck nine.
"Augh! Who-where-what the hell...!" Mustang shouted, flailing his arms before his face. Something bumped his waving hand and toppled from the side table, shattering with a tinkle of breaking glass. The sound broke into his confusion, and he froze and glanced down to see the remains of his brandy snifter littering the floor.
The whole sequence of events came rushing back to him then, and he grabbed his shirtfront, frantically feeling his own chest to make sure his hands didn't pass through it, then pressing two fingers to his neck to take his own pulse. It thudded rapidly against his fingertips, and he let out a sigh of utter relief.
"I'm still alive," Mustang gasped, looking wildly around the room as if daring any more spirits to come bursting out at him. "I'm still alive..."
Light was streaming through the gaps between the curtains, he noticed, and leapt to his feet, the shards of the snifter crunching forgotten under his boots as he ran to the windows and flung them wide. Brilliant morning sunlight flooded the room, along with the sounds of chattering and bustle.
"Hey! You!" Mustang called, and one of the passersby looked up. He recognized the boy instantly as the caroler in the green hat, and gave him a wave. "What day is it?" he shouted.
The boy gave him a bewildered look. "Why...Christmas Day!" he called back, uncertainly.
Mustang let out a whoop of delight. "Christmas! Ha HA!!" he jubilated. "All that in one night! Hughes, your ghosts are miracle workers!"
Pausing for a moment, he frowned. "So...was it all a dream, then?" he wondered aloud, but the answer was bubbling up from inside him regardless. "It doesn't matter!" he declared joyously. "It's Christmas Day! I'm still alive! There's still time!"
Leaning out the window, he called down to the boy again. "You there! What's your name?!"
"Uh...Fletcher!" the boy replied, looking more puzzled by the minute. "Fletcher Tringham!"
"All right, Fletcher Tringham, you wonderful child!" Mustang shouted. "If you can get to the bakery down the road and buy the nicest Christmas cake on display for me, out of this--" he dug in his pocket and produced a crumpled banknote, waving it out the window-- "you can have whatever's left to buy as many cookies as you like!"
The boy's eyes lit up, and he glanced eagerly up at his older brother, who was standing arms crossed beside him.
"Can we, Russell?" he asked, hopefully. "We're going to the bakery anyway..."
"Where's this cake supposed to go?" Russell asked suspiciously.
"To the Fullmetal Alchemist and his brother! Tell them to deliver it to the main barracks under that name, it'll find its way to them! And if you come back here within half an hour with the delivery receipt, there'll be more cens where that came from!"
The boys exchanged a strangely startled and amused look, but the nod Fletcher gave him was a solemn contract. "Okay, Mister!" he called, and Mustang let the note float down from the window, then slammed it shut again. He had a few more errands to run on his own, and he would need to get spruced up before he showed his face at the Lion and Laurels that night...
It was a fine Christmas indeed, but you can guess the details for yourself. Suffice to say that steins were drained, toasts were made, a mysterious and unsigned cake was gawked over and eaten with great relish, the fellow officers of Roy's department were very impressed by the colonel's impression of a swordfish, and a certain Lieutenant received the largest bouquet of Christmas poinsettias she had ever seen, as unsigned and mysterious as anything else that Christmas.
The next day, Mustang arrived at work first thing in the morning, as usual, seated himself behind his desk, steepled his hands severely, and waited. The clock ticked past eight am, the minute hand creeping past the five, then the ten. It was eight twenty-three by the time a breathless Edward Elric rushed into Mustang's office, his folder of papers in disarray under his arm.
Mustang frowned delicately. "You're late, Fullmetal," he observed.
Still flushed from his run through the cold streets, Ed nodded. "Yeah," he gasped. "Sorry--I was up late last night, and--"
"Your excuses fall short of the mark, as usual," Mustang interrupted him, and as Ed's mouth opened for an angry retort at the height crack, Mustang pushed away from his desk, his chair falling over behind him with a crash. "I will not tolerate this kind of behavior from you, Fullmetal!" he roared, the air around him crackling with full Mustang fury.
Ed gulped and took a step back, fumbling with his papers. "Uh--" he started to say, but Mustang cut him off with a sharp slashing motion of one hand.
"Coming in late to work! Bringing me papers in that sorry condition! Spending quality time with your loved ones when there is pointless busywork to do!!" he shouted, stalking around his desk and advancing on the younger man in a livid rage.
"But, I--that is, I-I--" Edward stammered, papers slipping out of his grasp as he backpedaled across the room. "Wait...p-pointless busywork?"
"It is unacceptable!" Mustang bellowed, towering over the young alchemist as his back ran up against the office door with a thump. "It is irresponsible! It is exactly what you ought to be doing on Christmas, and that--!" He poked one gloved finger into Ed's chest sternly. "--is why I am giving you the next week off with paid leave!"
"Oh, yeah?! Well, I--" Ed started to shout back angrily, then checked himself as the actual words sank in. "Wait a minute...paid leave?!"
"Did you not hear me, Fullmetal?" Mustang demanded. "If I see your face once in my office between now and January third, there will be hell to pay! Is that understood?!"
Edward's mouth gaped, working helplessly for a moment, combining with his saucer-round eyes to make him resemble a beached goldfish. Then a brilliant smile spread across his face, still bewildered but not about to question fortune, and he snapped to attention in the smartest salute Mustang had ever received from him.
"Understood, sir!" Edward barked, and dropped his papers then and there. Standing back, Mustang gave him room to open the door and take off running down the hallway, nearly bowling over a startled Lieutenant Hawkeye as she turned the corner with her arms full of clipboards. "Sorry, Lieutenant!" he called over his shoulder, without pausing his headlong rush. "Guess what, I got paid leave till New Year's!"
"Did you?" Hawkeye shouted after him, startled. "That's lovely, Edward!"
"Yeah, I know!" Ed yelled back. "See you next year, Lieutenant! And watch your step, I think the colonel's finally snapped!"
Gazing after him in confusion, Hawkeye frowned faintly, and turned to enter the office--only to be confronted with a smirking Mustang.
Wearing a brilliant red stocking cap, trimmed generously with white fur.
"Ah," Hawkeye said, raising both delicate eyebrows. "Is that the Second Lieutenant's hat you've borrowed, sir?"
Mustang's smirk spread into an unabashed grin. "Very astute of you, Lieutenant. Yes, as a matter of fact, it is."
It was, indeed, a very merry Christmas. As for Alphonse Elric, he received every assistance Mustang could arrange, and between that and the Elrics' own unceasing hard work and searching, it was not long before a flesh-and-blood boy was sharing Christmas cider with his family in Resembool. And as for Mustang, he was a changed man from that day forth, and whenever Christmas was mentioned in the halls of Central Headquarters, it was always remarked that Mustang was a man who kept it uncommonly well.
And now we come to the end of our tale, and only one thing is left to be said.
A very Merry Christmas, and as Alphonse Elric would say...God bless us, every one!
Cast of Characters
Ebenezer Scrooge - Roy Mustang
Bob Cratchit - Edward Elric
Scrooge's Nephew - Jean Havoc
Charity Collectors - Denny Brosch, Maria Ross
Marley - Maes Hughes
Ghost of Christmas Past - Nina Tucker
Scrooge's Sister - Young Maes Hughes
Scrooge's Sweetheart - Riza Hawkeye
Ghost of Christmas Present - Alex Louis Armstrong
Mrs. Cratchit/Martha - Winry Rockbell
Tiny Tim - Alphonse Elric
Scrooge's Nephew's Friends - Cain Fury, Heymans Breda, Farman, Scieszka
Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come - The Truth
Thief Woman - Psiren
Thief Man - Greed
Thief Girl - Martel
Ignorance and Want - Wrath and Envy
Carolers - Russell Tringham, Fletcher Tringham, Kyle of Youswell, Rose Thomas, Clause, the little ailing girl from Xenotime, Gracia and Elysia Hughes, Paninya, Dominic, Garfiel, Sig and Izumi Curtis, Mason, Yoki, Scar, Barry, Pride, Sloth, Lust, Gluttony, Dante, Lyra, Dorchet, Law, the lizard chimera, Kimbley, Archer...honestly, anyone who didn't get a speaking role. Just imagine them all decked out in scarves and hats and bellowing 'Good King Wenceslas' in front of Mustang's apartment building.