Title: A Little Love Is All It Needs
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: The Elric brothers and the Hughes family.
Summary: Edward finds his Christmas spirit in an unlikely way.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: This story is a Christmas gift for Kristen Sharpe, who has been almost my sole cheerleader in the FMA fandom. Some inspiration was arguably drawn from a certain famous holiday animation, but it's actually a rework of an unfinished story from one of my past fandoms. FMA is much better suited to the plot device anyway, so here it is. Merry Christmas!
It was late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and the snow was coming down heavily in Central, blanketing streets and yards and rooftops in thick sheets of icy whiteness. There were few cars on the roads, and even fewer people on the sidewalks. Only the bravest or most desperate of last-minute shoppers were daring to face the weather.
Or the craziest, Edward Elric thought sourly, as he floundered across a parking lot buried in knee-deep (or in his case, hip-deep) snowdrifts.
"Ugh... Tell me why we're out here again?"
Half a dozen steps ahead, his brother Alphonse turned back to look at him.
Al, of course, didn't mind the weather. With a tower of hollow steel armor for a body, he plowed easily through the snow, impervious to the cold; and at the moment he was disgustingly cheerful anyway, because Elicia Hughes happened to be riding on his shoulders. He adored little Elicia, and she in turn had just about the closest thing to a crush on him that an almost-three-year-old could possibly have.
"You know what Major Hughes told us, Brother," Al said, a little reprovingly. "Since he had to go see Colonel Mustang in East City last week, his family waited until now to get their Christmas tree, so they could decorate it together like they always do."
"And that has exactly what to do with us getting dragged into it?" Ed groused, finally surrendering his dignity in favor of a blatant attempt to follow Al's tracks... with rather mixed results, as the only way he could cover Al's long strides was by hopping like a squirrel from one huge footprint to the next.
Regardless of Al's lack of facial expressions, the gaze he turned up toward his pink-parka-clad passenger came across as a look of unmitigated fawning. "Because Elicia wanted us to come."
Ed felt an intense urge to facepalm, and only just managed to stop himself from unwisely doing so with a metal hand. "Geeze, Al, you're getting as bad as Hughes..."
"I heard that!" Maes Hughes' bubbly voice retorted laughingly from ahead of them.
Stifling a groan, Ed trudged on toward their destination: a small Christmas tree lot, sheltered from the snow beneath a sprawling tent in the red and white stripes of a candy cane.
Really, Ed felt he could have done without the Hughes family's hospitality altogether this Christmas. He wasn't feeling very sociable, after a frustrating and physically tiring series of setbacks in their pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone, and he would just as soon have slept through the holiday in solitude at Central's military barracks. At the end of another year of bravely bearing his burdens, just a little private wallow in self-pity didn't seem like an unreasonable Christmas gift to himself.
But Al loved the Hughes family, and he loved the whole sappy picture-postcard traditional Christmas routine which - for some bizarre reason - they so generously invited the brothers to share each year. When there was so little in their difficult and dangerous lives to give Al happiness, Ed couldn't possibly begrudge him this interlude of normality; so he bore this too, even when he would rather fight a roomful of rabid chimeras than pretend to be cheerful.
Trailing after the others, Ed finally reached the tent, and pushed his way through the canvas flap. He was grateful to find that it was at least warmer inside, sheltered from the wind and heated by strings of bare light bulbs that hung over a forest of fresh-cut evergreens. Al had already set Elicia down, and she was dodging between the trees with little squeals of delight - while Hughes, of course, took pictures.
Ed wished he wasn't reminded of being an excited child just like Elicia, on the last Christmas before his father left; the last Christmas when there wasn't an empty place at the table, and his mother's smile wasn't shadowed with a quiet sadness.
"Well, how about it, Elicia?" Hughes asked his hyperactive daughter, with a childlike eagerness of his own. "Which tree should we get?"
Wide-eyed, Elicia skittered among the trees, studying each one with a comical gravity. Perfectly-shaped spruce and fir and white pines towered on all sides, their full green branches stretched out as if just asking to be hung with glittering ornaments. Any one of them would have looked handsome in the Hughes' living room...
But Elicia stopped at the back corner of the tent. There a single tree - if it could even be called a tree - stood apart from the others, left to lean against the tent's canvas wall instead of standing straight like its fellows. Barely as tall as Edward, it was just a crooked little stem, supporting a lopsided handful of spindly branches whose sparse needles drooped.
"Aw, the poor little tree!" Elicia crooned.
Her father looked pityingly at the bedraggled pine, and dismissed it with a shrug of his shoulders. "Wow. Gotta wonder what they're thinking, trying to sell that one... Anyway, Elicia, have you seen a tree you like yet? What about this one over here? It looks perfect to me!" He gestured to a stately spruce that stood nearby.
Yet Elicia barely glanced at the spruce before turning back to the little tree. She reached out, petting its wilted needles as if it were a lost puppy, and looked up at her father with big, melting eyes.
"Daddy? ...I wanna take this tree home."
Hughes gaped slightly. "That thing? Aww, sweetie... Don't you want a nice tree?"
"It is a nice tree!" Elicia protested, almost hugging the scrawny little evergreen. "It's just sad because it doesn't have a home - but you can make it better, Daddy. Just like you helped the baby bird that fell out of the birdhouse. Then it'll grow up and be big and pretty, like all these other trees."
"Uh..." Hughes mumbled awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck. "But Elicia, I don't think your mother would - "
The magic spell must have been that little quiver Elicia put in her voice, Ed thought, or maybe the I'm-going-to-cry shine in her eyes. Whatever it was, Hughes' surrender was as predictable as the sunset. His shoulders slumped, and he sighed windily, with a defeated little smile.
"Okay, Precious. If that's the tree you want - that's the tree we'll get."
The four arrived back at the Hughes' home half an hour later, where they were met by the delicious aromas of Gracia's cooking. The lady of the house stepped out of the kitchen when she heard the front door opening... and her eyes grew wide at the sight of the ragged little pine tree her husband was carrying easily in one hand. "Oh my."
Hughes reddened, visibly fighting off an urge to hide the tree behind his back. "Uh, yeah, I can explain - "
"It was a lonely tree, Mommy!" Elicia piped up, running to clutch Gracia's apron. "But we'll make it better. A little love is all it needs. Right, Daddy?"
"Er... right," Hughes murmured, his blush deepening, as his wife shook her head at him with an exasperated but knowing affection.
While Gracia finished dinner, Al helped Hughes get the tree set up beside the fireplace. The trunk was so thin, they had to pad the base it was screwed into with scraps of firewood; and when it was finally standing upright on its own, it looked pathetically puny and yellowed there in the Hughes' living room, among the tasteful furnishings and the rich green pine garlands that trimmed the windows and the mantelpiece. Still, Elicia hugged it and petted it, and Hughes and Al helped her decorate its stubby branches with the meager few ornaments it could support. The glass star for the top of the tree was much too big and heavy for it, so Al transmuted a small one out of tinfoil instead, and Hughes lifted Elicia up to let her pin it in place.
And Edward observed in silence - but he found himself thinking deeply.
The dinner that followed was nice. It was nice because Gracia's cooking was splendid, but also because Al didn't have to put up pretenses; Maes and Gracia had known the truth about him for a little while now, and whatever excuse they may have given to Elicia, even she never asked questions about the fact that he didn't eat. At their table, Al had no fear of embarrassment, and Ed was grateful for that.
With good warm food inside him, and good warm hearts around him, Ed's mood couldn't help softening... and later, he unwound far enough to join Al in playing a few games with Elicia. He even managed to ignore Hughes' camera for once.
However, he did notice that Hughes was trying to frame his shots in such a way that the little Christmas tree would not be seen.
At length Elicia fell asleep in the middle of the floor, drooling on the palm of Al's gauntlet, where her head had somehow found itself pillowed - the adorableness of which sent her father into raptures of joy. Once Gracia finally convinced him he had taken enough pictures, he carried Elicia off to bed, returning a few minutes later to wish the Elrics a good night.
When Hughes came back into the living room, Al politely rose from where he crouched by the fireplace, warming his armor - a gesture intended for Ed's comfort, as the brothers would soon share the guest-room bed. Edward himself stood thoughtfully studying the tree with folded arms, and he turned to the Major with a somber smile.
"Elicia's getting to be as much of a softie as her dad," he observed quietly.
Hughes blushed, staring haplessly at the little evergreen that sagged under the weight of its few glass balls and ribbons. "Yeah, she really got attached to that thing. I'm sorry about it, though; I wanted her to have the best tree we could get. And it'll be kind of silly trying to explain it to Gracia's relatives, when they see all the presents piled around a stick like that." He shrugged and adjusted his glasses. "Well, whatever makes Elicia happy... I just hope she won't be upset when we can't nurse it back to health and help it 'grow up', like she thinks we can."
Edward's gaze fell. "I guess, when you're that young... you think your parents can fix anything."
There was a sweetly aching tenderness in Hughes' silence before his hand came to rest on Ed's left shoulder, squeezing gently.
"Good night, Ed." The Major turned to smile at Alphonse and cuff him fondly on the chestplate. "Al, you too."
"Thank you, sir," Al answered, with a little bow. Ed could only muster a feeble grin.
Hughes went to turn out the lights then, and the brothers retired to the guest room. There Al settled himself in bed with a book; even Christmas Eve provided no respite from the unsleeping solitude of his nights, but this one was still much nicer than most, because tonight he could know his brother would stay safe and cozy. As for Ed, he crawled under the thick down covers and snuggled against Al's heated steel, his closeness giving as much comfort as he received.
Then he lay awake for a long time, because he couldn't stop thinking about Elicia and the little tree.
It was the truth to say that Elicia's kindheartedness took after her father. Hughes had a weakness for broken things, for broken people. He was afraid Elicia would be disillusioned because love and kindness couldn't magically transform the tree - but that was really the very thing he had been trying to do for years. The only difference was that he indulged this fancy on human beings. He did it with people who were fragile and flawed, damaged souls a person so normal had no business being fond of; people he would probably be better off not knowing at all. He was that way with Ed and Al, even with Roy Mustang, and he refused to be disappointed when his stubborn compassion didn't make them change.
...Except that sometimes, it did.
Edward sat up in bed. A crooked grin tugged at his lips, and his metal knuckles absently tapped the armor beside him.
"Hey, Al? ...I have an idea."
Maes Hughes was awakened on Christmas morning by pudgy fingers tugging on his arm.
"Daddy, Daddy! Come look at the tree!"
Blearily Hughes propped himself up on one elbow, fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand, and peered down at Elicia. She was standing at the bedside in her adorable footie pajamas, clutching her precious teddy bear, and her perfect green eyes were wide with excitement.
"Quick, Daddy, come see!"
A little bemused - but enchanted, of course, because seeing his daughter smile like that was the most thrilling thing in the world - Hughes sat up and shuffled into his slippers. "Okay, sweetie, I'm coming..." He grinned briefly at Gracia as she opened one curious eye, and then let Elicia seize his hand, dragging him out of bed.
She led him downstairs to the living room... and what he saw there was enough to halt him in his tracks.
The Christmas tree bore absolutely no resemblance to the pathetic twig under which, hours earlier, he had placed Elicia's gifts. Overnight, it had miraculously gained another foot or more in height; and more striking still, its branches had multiplied severalfold, each one bristling with a full growth of fresh green needles that filled the tree out to a perfect shape. The rest of the family's lovingly collected ornaments had even emerged from their boxes in the closet, and now adorned those inexplicable boughs.
"You see, Daddy?" Elicia intoned knowingly, squeezing his hand. "I knew it just needed to be loved!"
It took Hughes a while longer to realize the pine garlands that had trimmed the windows and the mantelpiece were gone... and then it all made a lot more sense. Equivalent Exchange, of course.
Later, the Elric boys were endearingly coy. They did a fine job of acting surprised when Elicia showed them the wondrous transformation of the tree - although Ed couldn't help getting a proud little smirk on his face whenever he looked at it. He couldn't fool Maes or Gracia, but that was alright.
The mechanics of the thing didn't matter, after all. It was still Elicia's love for the tree that had brought it about...
And maybe just a little more love than that.
2010 Jordanna Morgan