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.