Edward tightened the scarf around his neck, nearly choking himself, and buried his arms into his pockets. The ground was covered with a thin layer of snow, but even that was getting to his ports, making him shiver, though he managed to keep it down to a minimal tremble. Alphonse stood next to him, trying to share as much body heat as he could without outright hugging his elder brother. Though they cared about each other very much, Ed wasn't up to affection at the moment and was by no means above punching whoever had the misfortune to piss him off.
Standing to his right, being the smug bastard that he was, was the Bastard. Yes, very descriptive on Edward's part, but the cold was making his brain freeze. And his automail ports. But Colonel Bastard was using his ignition gloves to create a small fire, which hovered above his open pal, emitting enough heat to keep him warm without setting his entire body on fire.
The older Elric contemplated that image for a moment – and the warmth of his awaiting bed – when the woman he had deemed 'the toad', one of his less vulgar names for her but still one of many, had finally decided to show up. She had been holding the entire class back, as the Care of Magical Creatures teacher, Professor Hagrid, didn't believe she could navigate far enough into the Forbidden Forest. Edward was happy enough to let her find her way in, hell, leave her in there if she didn't get lost fast enough, but had been adamantly ignored.
So he was left to waiting until the toad made her appearance, shivering as his ports slowly succumbed to frostbite. Perhaps not, considering it was barely cold enough for water to freeze, but one would never know. But Professor Hagrid caught sight of his other colleague and immediately brightened, happy as his students to get the show on the road.
"All right you lot," he called over the students' heads. "We'll be workin' in here today! Bit more sheltered, an' they prefer the dark, too."
"What prefers the dark?" one student asked. Ed didn't bother identifying him, though judging by several snickers, it was amusing to some. "What did he say prefers the dark – did you hear?"
"Ready?" Hagrid asked, counting up the students and making sure all of them were present. "Right, I've been savin' a trip inter the forest fer yer fifth year. Though we'd go an' see these creatures in their natural habitat. Now, what we're studying today is pretty rare, I reckon I'm probably the on'y person in Britain who's managed ter train 'em –"
"And you're sure they're trained?" the same student asked. Ed could hear the panic oozing out of the kids' voice, and he wanted to throttle him. The sooner the professor got over his speech, the sooner they could be in the forest and back out of the damn cold. "Only it wouldn't be the first time you'd brought wild stuff to class, would it?"
Murmurs of agreement came from roughly half the class and Ed felt that he'd had enough, since the kid was determined to drag this out.
"Can we hurry this up?" he asked loudly, voice shaking with his body's involuntary movement. "It's cold out here, and your rambling's not getting the lesson over with any sooner."
"Brother," Alphonse sighed.
Several students looked back at him but the rest were looking to the other, who Ed finally realized was Draco Malfoy. Well, it wasn't as though it made a difference. He would argue with anyone, so long as he had a reason to. And felt like it, for that matter.
"If yer done," Hagrid interrupted, directing a pointed glance towards Draco, "then we'll be headin' into the forest."
He turned without a second thought, picking up a hunk of meat from the ground that looked suspiciously like the back half of a cow, making a number of students where it had come from, and strode beneath the bare branches. Ed followed immediately after, the movement warming his limbs slightly. Al was right next to him, and he knew the bastard was trailing behind, close enough to stop the older Elric if he did something stupid. The thought made him scowl and he glared back at the older alchemist. Unfortunately, the look was lost as the other students came forward, more hesitant than the Amestrians were.
It took at least ten minutes to move through the forest, and by that time Edward's flesh limbs had gone numb from the repetitive movement. He couldn't feel the skin around his ports anymore, but there was none of the sluggish movement that indicated frostbite. Around them all, the trees had slowly crept closer together before seemingly melding together into a single wooden curtain, blocking out nearly all the sunlight and locking the world in a perpetual twilight.
With a grunt, Professor Hagrid dropped the bloody flesh onto the ground, stepped away from it, and faced the class. Ed was less impressed with the bowels of the forest than he had been with the fringe. It was hardly any warmer in here than out there, even if there was no snow on the ground. He glanced back and saw the rest of the students nervously creeping forward as though afraid to be set upon by creatures of the night. The blond rolled his eyes and refocused on the teacher as he spoke again.
"Gather roun', gather roun'," he encouraged. Mustang clenched his hand, killing the alchemical fire and dropping the light level by several degrees. A student whimpered as it became darker, though no one called them out. "Now, they'll be attracted by the smell o' the meat but I'm goin' ter give 'em a call anyway, 'cause they'll like ter know it's me."
Professor Hagrid turned away, facing deeper into the forest. He shook his head, pushing his beard out of his face and screeched. The sound echoed off the trees, rebounding back at them like the forest was answering the demonic sound. Several fifth years cringed as it reverberated back and forth, accompanied by a second cry that made the Amestrians wince as it cut at their ears. A minute passed and Hagrid prepared to make the noise again when Ed saw it.
In the gloom was a pair of glowing eyes, shining white through the dusk and growing larger as the rest of its body neared the group. First a head appeared, somewhat reptilian in its shape, followed by the near-skeletal body of what looked to be a horse, if one ignored the bony wings protruding from its shoulders, currently pressed against its ribs. Its black, leathery skin seemed to be stretched over its frame, giving it the appearance of an underfed animal. The creature kept its head low, pupil-less eyes roaming over the students blankly. It paused before them all, long, thin tail swishing in thought, before the beast bared too-sharp teeth at them in a silent hiss and bowed to begin tearing flesh from the cow.
"What the fuck is that?" Ed whispered, eyes locked on the demon-horse. He felt both Mustang and Al stiffen next to him once the creature had come into view, so he knew he wasn't the only one hallucinating. He hoped he was hallucinating. He didn't think he could take it if this demented thing was a chimera, because he didn't think he knew whose ass he'd have to kick for creating it.
"Oh, an' here comes another one!" Hagrid said, pride evident in his voice.
Ed screwed up his face with disgust; he was proud of these demon-horses? Perhaps it was just shock speaking for him, but he'd honestly rather face Father Cornello's chimera than these things. As the giant had promised, a second demon-horse had come out of the trees and began feasting with its companion.
"Now, who can see 'em?" Ed raised his hand, as did his brother and Roy. Hagrid nodded at them and commented on three other students before the bastard interrupted.
"Excuse me for asking, but what exactly are they? They don't look quite... real."
Understatement of the year. A number of students taking Mustang's Alchemy class looked up at him in surprise, but rather than answering, Hagrid gestured at the carcass. There was a squeal and a gasp, followed by some disgusted 'eews' from the less mature fifth years.
"They're thestrals. Hogwarts has got a whole herd of 'em here, pullin' the school carriages an' all, but Professor Dumbledore occasionally takes one of 'em out for long journeys. Here's another couple, look –"
One of the girls shivered as a thestral, as Professor Hagrid called it, passed close by her, nearly touching her, and she moaned, "I think I felt something."
"It won' hurt yeh, it takes a lot to annoy a thestral. Who can tell me why some o' you can see them an' some can't?" Another girl raised her hand and Hagrid called on her.
"Only people that have seen death can see thestrals," she answered.
Ah. Made sense now. Unconsciously, Ed pulled his left arm out of his pocket and pulled Alphonse closer to him. The younger didn't object, thinking of the same thing his brother was: their mother.
"Tha's right; ten points ter Gryffindor. Now, then –"
"Hem hem." The toad, who had been silent thus far, decided this was a wonderful time to pipe up and drag the lesson out farther. Ed shivered again, looking the thestrals, who had eagerly torn into the meat offering. Apparantly Hagrid had said something, because toad woman said, "You are aware the Ministry of Magic has classified thestrals as 'dangerous'?"
"Thestrals aren' dangerous," Hagrid repeated with a chuckle. "Maybe they'll take a bite outta you if yeh really annoy them –"
"'Shows . . . signs . . . of . . . pleasure . . . at . . . idea . . . of . . . violence . . .'" toad woman muttered out loud, enough so that the class could hear her as she scribbled at her clipboard. Professor Hagrid, who appeared to be at a loss as to why the other teacher was acting this way, stared for a moment then began again.
"Erm . . . anyway, thestrals are known ter come from Amestris, out in the east," Hagrid said haltingly.
"They do?" Al asked. Hagrid nodded, eager to keep the lesson going. "I've never seen them back home."
"Mos' of them have migrated outta there," the professor answered. "An' they prefer forests an' the like, away from people or cities."
Edward felt a tap on his shoulder, distracting him from the conversation. Umbridge was behind him, leering slightly; the blond had to back away a step, barely masking a look of disgust on his face. Al looked at his brother but quickly answered Hagrid's question, aware his brother could fend for himself.
"What do you think of them?" Umbridge asked, gesturing at the demon-horses.
"The thestrals, of course." Ed looked at the meat, which had nearly been stripped to its bones by that time.
"I think they look like horses. You know, about so tall –" he held his hand below the bastard's shoulder, frowning at the height difference, "black skin, no pupils, wings, the works."
Umbridge frowned at the lack of success and went to prey on another student. The older Elric muttered under his breath several undecipherable words, though whether they were directed to the thestrals, his commanding officer, or to the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, it wasn't clear.
One half hour later, the three of them were trudging back through the snow, the lesson over after the toad woman had insulted the Care of Magical Creatures professor with exaggerated movements and language. Ahead of them, three other students were talking about the lesson while another three followed slightly behind, ready to jump into the conversation.
"Do you?" one of them asked quietly. Ed had no doubt as to what he was referring to. There was a short pause as the other realized what they said.
"Oh Harry – I'm sorry – no, of course I don't – that was a really stupid thing to say –"
"It's okay, don't worry," he reassured.
"I'm surprised so many people could see them," the third commented. "Five in a class, six if you counted Professor Mustang."
"Yeah, Weasley, we were just wondering," one of the second trio interjected. "D'you reckon if you saw someone snuff it you'd be able to see the Quaffle better?"
He couldn't help it; Ed launched himself at the speaker, fists flying through the air. No one tried to stop him, either. There were simply lines you did not cross.
He should know.