Title: Winter Wonderland
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Alphonse, Edward, and several original guest characters.
Summary: Al finds a creative way to pass the night after a snowstorm.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Written as a Fandom Stocking gift for Kristen Sharpe. It also fills the prompts of "sleeplessness/insomnia" for Genprompt Bingo, and "snowed in" for Trope Bingo.
In the northernmost reaches of Amestris, snow had come early and hard that year. The landscape the Elric brothers traveled through was white and frozen, buried under deep drifts. Wet, heavy snowflakes fell, lightly at first—and then more and more heavily, until the snow was a swirling, blinding blizzard.
By the time sunset drew near, the situation was growing dire. Edward could only make forward progress along the road by following closely in Alphonse's steps, at least partially shielded by his large metal form. Al knew that if they could not find shelter before dark, his brother would be in no little danger from the plummeting temperatures and howling wind.
At last their fortunes changed. Dimly, in the distance, Al could see a farmhouse through the haze of white. He plowed toward it, guiding Ed to the cover of the front porch, and knocked at the door as the elder brother tried to shake the clinging wet flakes from his clothes.
Moments later, the door was flung open by a tall, plain-looking man of late middle age. At the sight of a huge suit of armor and a slender blond teenager on his doorstep, he looked startled—but only for a second. Then he hastily reached out and took Ed by the arm, ushering both boys into the warmth of the house.
"You just sit by the fire and unfreeze," he said kindly, as he took Ed's coat and hung it near the fireplace to dry. "I'll ask my Erna to fix some hot soup… Erna!" he called out, and set off toward the kitchen, before the brothers even had a chance to express their thanks.
Ed grinned up at Al. "Looks like we picked the right house to stumble into."
As they awaited their host's return, they were joined by another figure who came down the stairs. He was a fidgety little man in a brown suit, his hair gray at the temples, with the look of an office underling about him. When he saw the brothers, he paused on the bottom step and smiled thinly, jerking off his spectacles to rub their thick lenses with a handkerchief.
"The blizzard's caught a couple more, I see." He tucked away his handkerchief, replaced his spectacles on his nose, and stepped forward with an outstretched hand. "Hickens is the name. Up from Central to visit my sister—just had her first child, you know. And what brings you… er, gentlemen to these parts?"
Although Ed looked rather nonplused by the flighty chatter, he accepted the handshake Hickens offered. "I'm Edward Elric. This is my brother Alphonse. We're, uh… traveling on some personal business."
It was a partial truth at best. As usual, they were really on an assignment from Colonel Mustang. However, Ed was apparently not disposed to noise his military credentials to this character; and besides, there was always the hope that every official mission could be a stepping stone in their own goals, so Al supposed it was not too far a stretch of the facts.
Hickens looked toward the front window, which was all but completely snow-plastered. "Lucky thing you found your way here when you did, the way this storm is blowing up. They tell me there's not an inn to be found within ten miles. Besides yourselves, there are already five of us stranded here—the Roopers have been just wonderful to take us all in like this."
"Well, we could hardly leave anyone out there to freeze, could we?" their host remarked as he emerged from the kitchen. He moved toward the Elrics, followed by a plump, smiling woman who carried two steaming cups of soup on a tray. "You fellas warm yourselves up with this. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes… You might tell the others too, Mr. Hickens."
"Oh, certainly," Hickens chirped, and scurried back up the stairs.
After tasting his soup with an appreciative smile, Ed introduced himself and Al. "…And Mr. Hickens said your name is Rooper?"
"That's right. I'm Swen, and this is my wife Erna," their host confirmed, as the woman dimpled sweetly. "You're not our only unexpected guests in this storm, so I'm afraid we've got sort of a full house—but we'll do our best to keep everyone comfortable until the snow lets up."
"It's very kind of you," Al offered sincerely. Although the blizzard outside would have had no effect on him, he was painfully conscious of the harm it could have done to his brother.
"Not at all. It's just what folks are supposed to do for one another." Swen smiled graciously. "I'd better be about setting the table now. There's a washroom to the right of the stairs, if you'd like to clean up before dinner."
In the dining room a few minutes later, the Elrics met their remaining dinner companions. The Willitts were a pair of newlyweds, on their way to make a home in the town where the husband was to work. Ola Boyd, a shy girl barely out of her teens, was going north to become the caretaker of her widowed aunt. Nedry Ott was a lanky and bearded young man, an amateur naturalist who had been camping in the woods—in search of a rare species of sparrow.
Altogether, the travelers were a colorful lot. Al might even have gone so far as to say odd… but then again, a living suit of armor really had no business talking about other people's strangeness.
Erna Rooper served up a hearty beef roast with vegetables. As always, with his lack of useful things like a stomach or a mouth, Al was resigned to simply moving the food around on his plate to give the appearance of eating; but judging by Ed's alacrity, the meal was excellent.
Not surprisingly, the weather was the dominant subject of conversation.
"This snowstorm explains why I didn't see a single buff-bellied sparrow in my three days out there," Nedry speculated with enthusiasm. "They must have been able to sense it coming from the pressure changes. They're not migratory by nature, but they could have moved to thicker and more sheltered forests."
"All I know is, it was certainly nothing like this in Central when I left!" Hickens remarked, as he sawed on his hunk of the roast with a knife that looked too big for him. "I can't imagine how you northerners deal with it."
Ola shook her head, lips thinned anxiously. "I'm from Faybrook in the south. It's always warm there. This cold is going to be… hard to get used to."
"Well, it is easier when you grow up with it. Winter can still give us some nasty surprises, though." Swen's faint, polite smile slowly faded. "I'll tell you folks the truth. The snow came earlier and heavier this year than anyone living in these parts has ever seen—and it took out a good part of the season's crops. More than we could stand to lose. The money we're living on now won't last us until the next harvest… so, come spring, I'm afraid we'll have no choice but to sell the farm."
The guests were instantly sobered by the news that their generous hosts faced losing home and livelihood.
"Oh, that's terrible," Mrs. Willitts groaned, wringing her hands. "The two of you with such an awful burden on your shoulders—and yet you still took in a bunch of strangers, and fed us this wonderful food—"
"We ought to live while we live," Erna replied philosophically, folding her hands on the table. "It doesn't matter if we spend a few cens more or less right now. We'll have to find a new situation in a few months, either way. In the meanwhile, doing the right thing is what's important—and instead of sitting here waiting in a gloom, at least we can make nice memories of this evening, and the good company the snowstorm brought us."
Hickens frowned. "But surely something can be done. A loan, or something."
Swen shook his head. "We've already tried, but we were turned down on some sort of technicality. To be honest… I think the head of the bank wants the chance to get his hands on our farm. There's been talk about building a new railroad line nearby, and if that happens, our land would become much more valuable." He sighed. "I suppose he'll get his wish in the end. Oh, I'd like to hold out for a buyer who would keep the place as it is—but no one else would pay as much as the bank. Even if it's still only a fraction of what the land will be worth if the railroad does come through."
"Crying shame," murmured the laconic Mr. Willitts, staring morosely into his coffee cup.
"We'll be alright," Erna asserted, although there was a trace of mistiness in her eyes. "We plan to move south, to where our daughter lives. I can't say I'm looking forward to all the noise and bustle of a city… but at least we'll be close to our grandchildren."
With all the fierceness his bookish little person was capable of, Hickens slapped his palms together. "It's simply intolerable to hear of a crime like this, and not do anything about it. I work at a bank myself. First thing when I get back to Central, I… I'll talk to my bosses. I'm only a lowly clerk, you understand, but—well, maybe…"
He did not sound at all confident, but Erna smiled gratefully at him, nonetheless. "Thank you for thinking of us, Mr. Hickens."
The Roopers did not allow their guests to dwell for long on their misfortune. After dinner, the entire party sat around the fire in the living room, getting better acquainted over coffee and pecan pie. Even the timid Ola was coaxed to talk more freely about herself. The only downside was that Nedry expounded a little too much on the breeding habits of his buff-bellied sparrows… but Ola seemed, at least discreetly, to hang on his every word.
Although not overly talkative by nature, Ed had learned of necessity to carry on civil conversation without saying much about his present life. Al followed his brother's lead, limiting his subjects to harmless things like their upbringing in Resembool, or the latest goings-on in Central and other cities where they had journeyed. As their fellow travelers were polite enough not to be inquisitive, the time passed pleasantly.
Shortly after ten o'clock, by mutual agreement, the evening drew to a close; the Roopers were early risers, and their guests were all tired from forging through the bitter weather that day. Amidst a flurry of spare blankets and pillows, sleeping arrangements were negotiated for the mixed company. The Elrics, Nedry, and Hickens would remain in the living room. Ola was to sleep in the old bedroom of the Roopers' daughter, while the couple offered their own bed to the Willitts. They themselves were content to sleep in Swen's study.
Finally, good-nights were said and lights turned out, leaving the four bachelors to bed down near the glow of the fireplace. The younger three deferred the sofa to the arthritic Hickens, who nattered gratefully as he settled in, his spectacles set aside on the coffee table. Nedry sprawled in an armchair, and at once began quietly snoring. Al lay flat on his back near the hearth, so that Edward could snuggle close to him on the rug—enjoying the added warmth Al's armor absorbed from the fire.
For some time after that, Al stared up at the ceiling, his ever-wakeful soul listening to his sleeping companions.
Ironically, for him, the nights when the brothers were not alone were the most lonely nights of their travels. When he and Ed had a room to themselves, he could sit up reading, or find some other way to occupy himself; Ed was accustomed to soft light and quiet sounds when Al was active. Now, however, while they shared the same space with two other people, he had to put up pretenses. He had to feign sleep, at least for a little while, until he was sure Hickens and Nedry were entirely asleep themselves—and even if he did get up after that, he would have to move elsewhere to avoid disturbing them. That also meant leaving the intangible comfort of Brother's nearness.
Although he could hear the clock ticking steadily on the mantelpiece, he didn't know how much time had passed: perhaps an hour. He let his thoughts wander, in search of a thread they would find engaging enough to follow, but his mind only found itself in a dull gray place without interest.
The truth was that he was terribly bored.
Eventually, Al turned his helmet to one side. From his vantage point on the floor, he could see only a portion of the window, but he noticed the panes were now free of the thick white smattering of falling snow. The clouds beyond looked heavy, but the air was clear, and there were no longer brisk winds to sway the lacework of ice-coated branches on the maple tree in the yard.
His curiosity piqued, Al levered himself into a sitting position, slowly and as quietly as he could. Ed made the faintest of protesting noises as the warm surface of Al's armor was withdrawn; but then he merely turned over and sank back into a deeper sleep, curling up tighter beneath his coat.
That was one hurdle overcome. Al inched back a little farther on the rug, cautiously extended his limbs, and managed to rise to his feet with just a few clinks and scrapes of steel. He tiptoed to the window and gazed out, to confirm that the night had grown still.
On an idle impulse, Al went to the front door. He stepped out onto the porch, taking care to close the door again behind him.
Immunity to cold and heat was one of the few advantages of his condition. Glancing down at his vambraces, he watched as moisture instantly began to condense on his fire-warmed steel, and then crystallize into a delicate sheen of frost. The air must still have been bitterly chilled.
Al tried to remember what coldness was like against warm skin, raising goosebumps and provoking shivers. It was strange now for him to think about how unpleasant it would feel, were he still flesh and blood. He yearned deeply to have his real body back, and know even that discomfort again… but in the meantime, he didn't regret the chance to experience small wonders like this. Observing the effects of a winter's night, without being touched by its harshness.
Looking up, he gazed across the Roopers' lawn, with its covering of snow that glittered like diamonds under the moonlight. It was piled deep on the ground, heaped by the wind into higher drifts against the fenceposts, until only their tops could be seen. Past the fence, the road was all but indiscernible. The trees of the woodland beyond, a mix of dark evergreens and silvery leafless trunks, were fringed with ice. All around, the isolated farmhouse was surrounded by a landscape of stillness and haunting beauty.
It saddened Al to think that the Roopers would soon be forced to leave this place they loved, and he began to wonder if there was anything he and Edward could do. With all his achievements, surely Brother still had a few favors he could ask from military higher-ups. Well… one or two, at least, that weren't canceled out by the collateral damage so often attendant to those achievements.
More than likely, Ed's kind heart had already turned to thoughts along those lines as well. Al would ask him in the morning.
The snowy steps creaked as Alphonse descended from the porch. He walked out under the clearing sky, looking up at the stars that had begun to twinkle, and then back at the large, flat impressions his footsteps had left in his wake.
Behind the house, the Roopers' property stretched away into the distance, bordered by distant treelines. Aside from a few barns and sheds and the neat rows of an apple orchard, most of the land was devoted to crop fields that were now frozen. The ground slept beneath a vast blanket of white, fresh snow.
It was like a blank canvas. As Al wandered across the open space, he couldn't resist lying down on his back and trying to make a snow angel. His armor produced odd results—an ungainly silhouette pitted with spike-holes—that made him chuckle ruefully and shake his head.
Coming upon traces of a buried path to a tool shed, he studied the faint outline of unevenness in the snow, and then bent down. With a finger he drew a simple transmutation circle. When he placed his hands on it, the snow rippled and flowed up out of the pathway in a pale blue glow, exposing the flagstones underneath.
The next snowfall would only bury the path again, of course. But in the meantime, he could make it easier for the Roopers to walk along it for at least a little while; and anyway, it was something to do. It was a way to pass the time in the solitude of the night.
Al spent another hour using alchemy to clear the backyard paths… and when he looked up again, at the empty white fields stretching before him, his imagination simply went on from there.
In the morning, Edward Elric was jolted awake by the slam of the front door.
"It's—it's some kind of miracle! In the field behind the house… Everyone, you have to see it!"
Scowling, Ed sat up and rubbed his eyes. Alphonse was not beside him; but that wasn't unusual. With his inability to sleep, Al was prone to become bored during the night, and wander off in search of a diversion.
It was Nedry who had barged into the house so excitedly. Ed peered up at him with ingratitude, as the young ornithologist was chattering away at an equally groggy and befuddled Hickens. "What are you talking about?"
"The snow—out there!" Nedry waggled a thumb toward the back of the house, attempted to make several expansive gestures with his hands, and then gave up with a violent shoving-away motion. "I can't describe it—you've just got to see it for yourself!"
His enthusiasm was beginning to rouse others in the house. The door of the study opened, and the Roopers emerged, wrapped in their robes and looking mildly concerned. Ola appeared on the stairs a second later, already dressed in her simple clothes, and the Willitts followed close in her wake.
"What is it, Mr. Ott?" Erna Rooper asked Nedry anxiously.
"I could venture a guess that the young man's discovered a new species of sparrow," Hickens quipped, before Nedry could say a word.
Nedry shook his head fiercely. "No, no, it's not like that. I was out seeing what kinds of birds I could spot, but what's behind the house is… come see!" he insisted, and took off for the back door, almost at a run.
Bemused, the homeowners and their guests reached for their coats, and followed the excitable naturalist.
Outside, the air was clear and freezing cold, without a cloud in the sky. The sun was just rising over the trees, its rays slanting long across the open fields that lay beyond the Roopers' back garden. A thin screen of leafless bushes separated that garden from the fields; but through the branches, Ed could see vague white shapes standing out against the brighter whiteness of the snow-covered ground.
And when he stepped around the hedge for a better view, even his breath caught slightly… although he, among all those present, was the only one to understand just what he was really looking at.
Where a mere empty field had stood the night before, an entire small kingdom of crystalline structures had arisen from the ground. Like frozen variations of gingerbread houses, quaint little cottages made of snow sparkled in the sun, surrounded by gardens of fantastic ice flowers. Other life-sized sculptures of animals—horses, tigers, elephants—stood scattered around the cottages in friendly poses. Farther on, across a moat spanned by a glistening bridge, the miniature village was overlooked by the towers of an ice castle that stood three stories tall.
The Roopers and their guests said nothing for several long moments. They simply moved forward in silent awe, along the broad snow-brick "streets" between the wintry cottages and ice gardens, taking in the intricate beauty and whimsy of the sights around them.
Edward, however, was not exactly awed. He felt amusement and fraternal pride instead—because he could see the giant footprints in the snow, confirming what he already knew.
"Why, it's…" Ola whispered at last, and didn't try to say anything else, as words failed her.
"It's incredible." Swen Rooper took a few more steps forward, scratching his head, as he stared around himself at the icy wonderland that had overtaken his empty field in the night. "How do you suppose…?"
Hearing a familiar clink of metal behind him, Ed glanced over his shoulder, to see Al coming upon the group. He smirked knowingly at his little brother, and Al's helmet ducked sheepishly in turn.
Mr. Hickens turned abruptly to the Roopers, adjusting his spectacles. "You know, maybe it is a miracle… This might be just what you need to save your farm!"
Erna blinked. "What do you mean?"
"I mean this could make the place a tourist attraction for the rest of the winter!" Hickens eagerly slapped a fist into his palm. "Listen. One of my friends is a newspaperman in Central. If I send him a few pictures of this, he can write a story about it, and about the situation with your farm. Then other papers will pick it up, and the next thing you know, people will be coming from all over the country to see what you have here—and every one of 'em just jumping to donate a little money, to help tide you over until your next harvest!"
"You… you really think so?" Erna queried hopefully, as her husband squeezed her hands and slowly began to smile.
"I know so!" Hickens crowed.
Still hovering at the rear of the group, Alphonse started and quivered—but he said nothing.
A shrill, warbling whistle cut through the air then. Something small and brown darted overhead, performing a few dizzying spins along the way. At last it alighted at the very peak of a snow-cottage's roof, to tilt its head and peer down quizzically at the humans below.
Nedry let out a squeal that was worthy of the most ardent fangirl confronting her favorite celebrity.
"Look! Look at that! The buff-bellied sparrow!" he howled, all but jumping up and down… while the bird in question eyed him skeptically and took a few judicious hops backward from the eaves. Delirious with excitement, Nedry then impulsively seized the hands of the person closest to him—which happened to be Ola—and wrung them hard, as she gazed up at him with a sort of delighted amusement at his happiness.
"Isn't it beautiful, Ola? It's—it's just…"
At that point, Nedry's hysterical joy overcame him. Still grasping Ola's hands, he yanked her forward and kissed her—only to remember himself at once and let go, instantly red-faced.
"Erm. Sorry," he mumbled, clearing his throat.
Blushing herself, Ola clasped a hand to her cheek, and grinned up shyly at the young man. "Oh, you don't need to apologize, Mr. Ott…"
Edward needed to excuse himself before he burst out laughing.
Stepping away from the group, he passed the Roopers and Hickens as they conversed eagerly about their impending plans for winter tourism. He wandered deeper into the snow-village, in the direction of the castle, as familiar sounds of metal-on-metal trailed behind him.
"You've been busy," he remarked simply, once he was sure they were out of earshot of the others.
"I was bored—and I had all night." Al ducked his helmet again. "I didn't expect things to turn out like this, though! Do you really think it might save the Roopers' farm?"
"Why not? That guy Hickens is actually a pretty slick character. If anybody can sell it, it's him—and the rest of the winter is going to be cold. All this should stay frozen for a couple more months at least." Ed paused at the foot of the moat's ice bridge, looking up at the glittering spires of the castle, and then back at Alphonse with a grin.
"You're really something, Little Brother. You know that?"
Al chuckled softly, following Ed across the bridge and through the gates of the castle.
© 2014 Jordanna Morgan