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...