"Brother, look! A kitten!"
Ed hefted up his pail and glanced over his shoulder at Al, who was perched over something on the ground. "Stupid, there aren't going to be any kittens here," he said.
"But there is," said Al, turning wide eyes on him. "It's so small, too?it's probably only a few weeks old."
Ed finally gave up and set down the bucket, wincing as he rotated his shoulder to get the kinks out. The bucket was heavy and he'd been carrying it all day, ever since their Master had thrown them out this morning. He glanced up at the charcoal sky, noting the fat clouds that were forming?what was it they'd told him in school, what were they called? Oh yeah, thunder heads. "Look, Al," he said, "thunder heads." He pointed up.
"Is it going to rain, you think?" Al stood, cradling something in his arms, and jogged over to him. His eyes went up to the sky, too, and when he glanced back down they were worried. "We're lost, aren't we? I've been trying to keep track of where we are, but I can't, and I don't think you know, either."
"We're not lost," Ed said, and closed his mouth before could say anything else, something snappish. He reached out and touched the little bundle in Al's arms, sifted his fingers through warm fur, hit the occasional lump of mud and clumped leaves. Gently, he parted Al's arms so he could see the kitten better.
"He's sick," Al said softly.
"When did you decide it was a he?" Ed grasped the tiny head in one hand and used his other to pry apart the eyelids, and peered at the wide pupils and dull eyes. The kitten shifted once, a little, but aside from that didn't move or complain. It didn't even purr when he let go of its head and stroked the length of its spine down to its little stubby tail.
"I don't know." Al shifted it to one arm and started petting it, too, bumping his hand into Ed's. His fingers when they brushed Ed's were cold.
Sighing, Ed grabbed Al's hand and rubbed his fingers, then bent down, drew it to his mouth and blew on it. When the fingers and knuckles were an angry red, he dropped it and raised his eyebrows at Al, who looked sheepish. "If you hadn't messed in the mud to get the cat," he pointed out, "your hands wouldn't be so cold. Give me your other."
He chafed the hand in silence, and Al just stroked the cat, tickled its ears, occasionally lifting his eyes to Ed's then dropping them. Those cautious little looks annoyed Ed?did Al think he'd get mad again? He wasn't mad, anyway, he just hated it when Al hurt himself because he was trying to do something good. He was so bumbling sometimes, Al?he was too small to do all the big things he wanted to.
"Brother," Al finally said, "it looks like it's going to rain."
Ed looked up and sighed, dropping Al's hand. Slightly to the west, he could see the haze of rain falling on the ground, moving fast. Rain would be here soon, and high up on this mountain, the air thin and cold, they'd freeze in hours. "Well, let's go, then," he said, tucking his hands under his armpits.
"We passed a cave a while ago," said Al, falling into step next to him. "Are we going there?"
"Sure," said Ed, and had brief visions of them both being eaten by a mountain lion, and the kitten being taken under its wing and suckled like in all the fairy tales. He hissed at himself, annoyed, and reached up to scratch his itchy head, brushing the leaves and sticks out of the tangles.
"I need a shower."
"Yeah, you do. You stink." Ed grinned, but Al just frowned at him, sour. "Here," said Ed, pointing to his cheek. "You've got some mud there. Master'll be mad if we come back dirty."
Al reached up to wipe at it, but his fingers were dirty and hairy from cat fur and he only made it worse. Affecting a sigh, Ed licked his thumb and rubbed at it, then swept across to scrub Al's other cheek and his dirty chin?the important spots, like Mom always said. "There. Just keep clean from now on, okay?"
When the cave was sight?and now Ed could see that it was way too small to house a mountain lion, that it was, in fact, perfectly kid-sized?a drop fell on Ed's head, and then another splattered his feet, and pretty soon it began to rain in earnest. Al broke into a run and, grinning, Ed chased after him; the rain cut into his face, ice-cold, and bit at his fingers and his toes, made his arm hair stand up.
Al got there first, and was grinning at him when Ed got into the cave. "Damn," Ed said, taking a deep, cold breath, and leaned against the cave wall. "You beat me *again.*" Al always did and always had: he won everything, trivia games, contests of ?who's going to fall asleep first,' fights by the river where Ed always ended up slipping in mud and tripping. He was Ed's height now, and looked to top him soon. He even had more *muscles,* damn him.
"Brother," called Al from further inside the cave. "There are rocks in here. We can start a fire? Brother?"
"Coming, coming." Ed brushed through his hair again, getting the water out, and walked over to Al, who had taken off his jacket, spread it out and lay the kitten down while he worked at the two rocks, trying to spark them. Ed sat down next to the kitten, hesitated, then pressed his ear to its chest. After what seemed like a long time, it drew in a noisy breath, scratching its whiskers against his cheek.
"I named him Seymour," said Al, blowing on the flame he'd started and tossing some brush into it.
"Where the hell did you get that name from?" Ed licked his thumb and pressed a little tuft of its hair flat, then picked it up carefully. This time, its eyes shivered and came open, and it stared at him as he held it in the air. "Hi, Seymour," he said. It mewed, a tiny little scratchy noise, and Ed grinned. "It *hates* that name," he informed Al as his brother brushed aside rocks and leaves to sit next to him.
"No, he doesn't," said Al. "He hates you holding him like that, is what he hates."
"Pfft." Ed lowered it into the crook of his arm, and the kitten mewed again?though this time, he thought, the sound was a little happier. It was a good cat, trying to be all brave like that when anyone with an eye could see he was cold and wet and just generally miserable. Ed shivered as a cold wind breezed through the cave, raising the hair on the back of his neck and on his arms. Al pressed closer to him.
"I hope the fire doesn't go out."
"It won't," said Ed, reaching with his free arm for a branch and stirring it. "You did a good job."
The storm raged as it passed them, and the wind occasionally gusted sheets of wind into the cave all into the night. Ed stayed awake (just in case that mountain lion did, after all, decide to make a home here); the kitten stayed pressed into his arm, and Al lay heavily against his side, his face nestled in Ed's other arm. Al was warm, but the kitten got cold and stiff halfway through the night, and when it stopped breathing Ed closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
He woke up cold; Al and the kitten were gone. Rubbing sleep out of his eyes, Ed stood, scattered the fire so it wouldn't spark again, and walked into a cold mist and gray sky. He almost tripped over Al and backed up, crouched down on his knees to be at eye-level with him. He looked down at the body curled before them.
"It was really brave, at least," said Al in a clogged voice.
Al's face was dirty again, streaked with mud and tears. Ed wiped it all off again, then wrapped his arm around Al's shoulders. When they were younger, Al would have cried all over him, but now he just sniffed and wiped his face, and sat with his face turned against Ed's shoulder.
"We need to leave," Ed finally said, shrugging his shoulder. "I left the pail and you left your coat. Go get them."
Al nodded, wiping his face one more time, and Ed watched his back disappear into the cave. Ed touched his hands to the wet ground, dug his fingers into the cold earth. He curled them into his palm and brought them up to his face. His fingers smelled like rain and mud and leaves and spring, when the things that had died were made new again. He set his hands down again. By the time Al returned, panting and clutching the heavy pail, he'd dug a hole deep enough for the kitten.
When it was buried and the hole was covered over, they started walking, Al hurrying to be next to him, and the pail slapping against Ed's leg. The sky was clearing.