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—