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.