After eight hours of arduous mine inspections, Edward Elric concluded he had learned just one thing: the town of Gilan was cold.
Not that he hadn’t been forewarned of the fact. This was the northernmost town in Amestris, and its one claim to fame was its unfailing annual record for the most snowfall in the country. Still, he hadn’t been prepared for the sheer severity of the cold, especially as the sun began to set. The moment he came up from the relatively warmer mine tunnels, into the bitter freeze and biting wind, he was tempted to go right back down.
“Come on, Brother,” Alphonse cajoled him gently. “You’ll only have to stand it for a few more minutes, until we find the inn. Then you can just curl up in a warm bed until morning.”
Easy for Al to say. Living suits of armor didn’t have to worry about hypothermia.
Nevertheless, Ed surrendered. His automail ports were aching from the cold and the long strenuous day, and he could at least hope the inn was civilized enough to provide a hot bath he could soak in. Pulling up the hood of his coat, he trudged off toward the road back into town, as the lengthening shadows of day’s end cast an even deeper chill.
It didn’t take too long to arrive back in the heart of the small town, but there Ed was stymied. The streets were haphazardly laid out and poorly labeled with signs, and while the miners had tried to give him directions, the local accent made their speech somewhat difficult to follow. After a bit of wandering haplessly down side streets and back again, trying to identify the one where the inn was located, he was resigned to asking for new directions at one of the shops near the central crossroads.
“Stay here,” he told Al irritably, as the brothers stood on an unpicturesque corner near a cluster of garbage cans. “I’ll go ask somebody where to find the right street in this rats’ nest.”
“Be nice, brother.”
With a dour grunt, Ed slogged away through the snow, which was windowsill-high along the sidewalks but only knee-deep in the street. He left Al to stand there on the corner, patiently waiting for him.
And that, as usual, was what led to trouble.
The establishment Ed wandered into at random was a seedy diner. When he asked for directions to the inn, which was presumably a competitor for business, the stout matron looked as if she would just as soon have fed him to her customers. However, after he flashed his pocketwatch—and paid for a bowl of greasy stew he had no intentions of eating—she grudgingly gave him instructions he was almost sure he understood. He escaped with all haste, and returned to Al on the adjacent street corner.
Al now had his arms folded a bit awkwardly over the plating that formed his stomach, and Ed distinctly sensed he was trying to look innocent.
“What have you been up to out here?” the older brother asked suspiciously, lowering one eyebrow at him.
“Uhh—nothing! Just standing here, waiting for you…” Al nervously rubbed the back of his helmet with one gauntlet, but the fingers of the other remained firmly clamped on the edge of his chestplate.
Without warning, Ed arched his automail leg up and gave Al’s side a kick—and a muffled, protesting mew echoed inside the hollow armor.
“Brother, please! You know how cold it is!” Al backed away, clutching his midsection protectively. “After all your complaining about it, how could you let a poor little kitten stay out here?”
With some effort, Ed resisted the urge to thump his head against something. Al’s cat-stashing tendencies always got worse in winter. This was the third kittenectomy he’d been forced to perform on his brother in the past month.
“Come on, Al, don’t make me go through this again. That cat could belong to somebody, like last time! Besides, we’re only going to be here for the night, and I’m pretty sure the inn won’t look too kindly on people keeping animals in their rooms.”
“But one night is enough time for her to freeze! They don’t have to know!”
“You’d just have to let it go in the morning anyway, so you might as well not get attached to it tonight! Now put it down!”
The moment he had said those words, Ed felt a sudden wave of icy cold… and he was quite sure it didn’t come from the wind, but from Al.
“Just try and make me,” Al replied, in a low, ominous voice that made Ed genuinely uneasy. Then he turned and began striding away through the snow—in the wrong direction, according to the diner woman’s information.
For a brief moment, Ed was stunned by this outright rebellion. Then the shock slowly gave way to outrage. Gnashing out a growl between his teeth, he took two steps forward, clapped his hands, and smacked his palms flat onto the thick layer of snow that covered the street.
Like a bedsheet being shaken out, the snow heaved upward in an undulating wave. The ripple swelled and spread until it reached Al, and he yelped as he was tossed off his feet, to land gracelessly on his face… or rather, what would have been his approximation of a face, if his helmet hadn’t already gone flying.
While he was thus headless and sprawled on his chestplate, something little and white-furred sprang out of the exposed neck-hole between his shoulders. The kitten bounded away for the distance of several yards, and then paused at the top of a snowdrift, to turn and stare quizzically at the strange metal person whose body it had just escaped from.
“No, wait…!” Al scrambled to right himself, groping for his helmet as he moved toward the kitten.
Before his brother had a chance to recapture the animal, Ed hastily scooped up a handful of snow and packed it into a ball. He aimed with care and quickness, and his steel pitching arm let it fly—connecting with Al’s back more than hard enough to let the armored boy know he had been struck, even without a sense of touch. Al reeled forward from the impact, but managed to keep his footing.
“…You did not just do that,” he seethed slowly, without turning.
From their earliest memories of childhood winters in Resembool, this overture had been mutually understood. When all else failed to resolve a dispute between them, a declaration of warfare by snowball (or mudball in the warmer months) was the last-resort means of settling the matter.
“I did do that!” Ed countered defiantly, bracing himself in a ready stance. “So what are you gonna do about it?”
The answer came in the form of a particularly massive ball of slush Al swept up and lobbed at him. Ed ducked, but still caught it squarely on his shoulder—his automail shoulder, fortunately, which spared him from actually feeling the freezing wetness that seeped through his coat.
Given the status quo, challenging Al to such a winter battle was now a losing proposition… at least with conventional weapons. The enormous leather hands of Al’s armor could make bigger snowballs than Ed could, and faster. Of course, if alchemy was brought into play, Ed’s circle-less transmutations were a lot quicker and more devastating. The question was just how far he wanted to go in making Al mad, when his objective was only to distract his brother while (hopefully) making enough of a ruckus to frighten the kitten away.
Ed decided the best compromise was an upgrade to his conventional weaponry. As he dove behind the snowbank that was heaped up along the sidewalk, he tugged off his right glove, clapped, and slid his fingers beneath his right sleeve. At his touch, the steel plating of his automail arm extruded, morphing into a large rounded scoop that jutted out over his fist.
Just like an ice-cream scoop, one swipe of this appendage into the slush created a perfectly formed snowball. Ed quickly popped up above the snowbank, drew his arm back over his head, and lauched the white projectile as if from a catapult.
“Hey!” Al squealed, as the snowball’s direct impact on his metal cheek made his helmet tumble to the ground again. Under the circumstances, it was the one part of him that presented any sort of weakness—if only because he had to worry about some random bystander stepping out of a shop and catching him headless.
“No fair! Your head doesn’t come off!” he protested shrilly, fumbling for the missing component of his person.
“Yeah, well, you can’t get pneumonia!” Ed straightened a little, peering carefully over the edge of his snowy battlement, and incidentally noted that Al’s feline Damsel In Distress was still sitting on the sidelines. She appeared to have grown bored with the combat, and turned to the job of industriously licking herself instead. “See, that cat’s not even interested in you! Will you just give this up already?”
The proposal was rejected with a fresh volley of heavy snowballs. Ed ducked and covered as they peppered the ground all around him, and felt one strike his left hip rather stingingly, leaving a cold wet splotch on his clothes.
Sounds of rattling metal warned him that Al was making a full-on charge. Growling, he viciously dug his alchemized scoop into the snow, and dragged up a snowball that was every bit as big as his brother’s snowtillery. Then, with a clap and a touch, he rearranged its molecules of water and air to harden it almost into ice. That would surely ring Al’s bell…
He rose up to fling his secret weapon—and a snowball as big as his head hit him full in the face.
Sometimes, even Ed could be taken by surprise at just how fast Al could move. In the two seconds it had taken him to alchemically tinker with the structure of his snowball, the younger Elric had crossed the field of battle. Now Ed found himself sprawled on his back, his face dripping with icy slush, as Al’s monstrous figure towered over the top of the snowbank. He had another giant snowball raised high in both hands, ready to deliver the decisive strike.
“Do you give up?” he demanded, the soul-light behind his eye slits tinged with fierce red.
For a moment, Ed contemplated whether he was quick enough to land a kick to Al’s chestplate that would at least throw off his aim… and then an odd cry reached the hearing of them both.
From the middle distance behind the brothers, there came an answering mew—and as Al slowly turned, Ed could almost see a facial expression to match the bemusement his soul suddenly exuded. No longer under threat from the big slushball, the older brother carefully sat up and wiped the melting snow from his face, following Al’s gaze.
A small figure was running up the street. The child was thoroughly bundled in a parka and scarf, but upon drawing nearer, the visible portion of the face took on the features of a girl. Utterly ignoring the Elrics, she ran straight to the kitten, and caught up the little animal in her arms with an overjoyed squeak.
“Snowball! You naughty girl, you know better than to run away in weather like this! You come home right this instant…”
The girl’s stream of affectionate reproaches continued to flow as she turned and marched off down the street, with the now loudly-purring little cat draped over her shoulder like a baby.
Ed stared after the retreating child and her pet… and then he started laughing. After a moment, he heard Al join him, starting with an uncertain giggle that quickly rose into peals of laughter too.
“Sorry, Brother,” Al sighed, when their mirth finally began to die down. He stretched out a big hand to help Ed up.
“Forget it.” Edward let Al stand him on his feet, and then he clapped his hands, reaching beneath his sleeve to deconstruct the snowball scoop on his arm. “At least one good thing came out of it. All that exercise warmed me up!”
He moved off, saying no more. Al easily fell into step at his side, and they set off to resume their search for the inn, an unspoken truce declared once again…
At least, until the next kitten to cross their path.
© 2011 Jordanna Morgan