A.N. Anyone notice that all of my stories are oneshots? And they never seem to have more than two FMA characters per story? I suppose that shows how unmotivated I am, but I DO have a few multi-chapter stories in the works. These oneshots are basically practice. And thank you to everyone who reviewed Respect! It's my most popular story so far, I'm so happy!
Alphonse glanced up at the swiftly darkening sky, startled by the tiny, white flakes just beginning to drift down between the bare tree branches.
"I noticed," Edward grumbled, pulling his red coat tighter around him.
Al looked ahead at his brother, currently stomping his way through the forest in search of a campsite. "But that means it's cold enough to snow!" Al exclaimed. "We can't stay out here for the night if it's that cold--"
"We'll be fine," Ed snapped. "There's no way in hell we're going back to that inn…"
"Then let's ask one of the townspeople to let us stay the night," Al suggested desperately.
"Are you kidding me?" Ed demanded, turning to face Al. "Half the people in that town were there for our fight with the innkeeper and they all took his side! And word travels fast in small towns. Believe me, no one's going to take us in."
Ed turned on his heels and marched onward with Al keeping pace behind him. Truthfully, Al really wanted to just pick Ed up and carry him back to the town by force, but Ed was probably right about the townspeople anyway. And the irony of the situation was that the whole argument had started as a simple misunderstanding.
They had stopped in the town for the night, like they had with so many other towns before, planning to catch the early train to Central the next morning. The innkeeper was a friendly, jovial man as were the townspeople packed into the inn's small common room and the brothers were welcomed warmly. They had been halfway through dinner when the conversation got around to what kind of business they had in Central and Ed had mentioned quite proudly that he was the Fullmetal Alchemist.
Naturally, the townspeople hadn't bought it at first so, like many other times before, Ed had gone to pull out his silver pocket watch as proof. Only the watch had been gone, whether misplaced or stolen they would probably never know.
Everything escalated from there, with the innkeeper along with many others calling them liars and accusing them of trying to get privileges reserved for State Alchemists. Ed defended his claims and that led to the argument at the end of which the innkeeper said that either they pay the full price or leave. Ed agreed, albeit reluctantly, and went for his wallet.
What were the odds, Al wondered, of Ed losing his silver pocket watch and his wallet on the same day?
And so here they were, out in the forest near the town in search of a decent campsite. It took some time, but they eventually came on a tiny clearing with plenty of dead wood for a campfire. Ed and Al began gathering firewood, though once Ed started shivering Al made him sit down and wrap up in a blanket while he got the fire started.
Once the fire had built up, Ed scooted as close to the flames as he could without getting burned. Al continued gathering wood until they had enough to keep the fire going until morning and piled it up nearby. Since Al would be awake all night, Ed could sleep without worrying about the fire going out.
For a while, the two of them sat silently beside the fire, each lost in his own thoughts. The last of the sun's rays set beyond the tree line and soon the only light came from the campfire, casting a red glow on Ed's skin and flickering reflections across Al's armor. The snow continued to fall gently, creating a thin, white layer on the ground around them and melting in their campfire with little angry hisses.
"Remember the last time we had to stay out all night like this?" Ed murmured, seeming to look through the fire.
Al thought back, letting the memories return to him. "Back on the island, right? I remember after our month-long test was over, you swore you'd never go camping again."
Ed smiled wryly. "We were so miserable back then. That first week we thought we'd die out there and no one would ever know."
"Teacher wouldn't have let us die," Al said confidently. "And we made it through just fine. But I'm glad we were together for that because I don't think I could have done it alone."
"Me either," Ed said softly.
Al turned to watch his brother, letting his memory of Ed from the island overlap reality. Back on the island, the two of them had spent many nights sitting side-by-side before a campfire just like this. The image of firelight playing across Ed's face and hair was Al's strongest memory of those nights.
That and the cold. Al hadn't truly felt cold in years and his memory of the sensation was foggy. His mind associated the feeling with one of intense discomfort and weakness, of wanting to curl in on yourself and cry, of wishing the cold would just go away and stop making you uncomfortable.
The night they figured out how to make fire without alchemy had been a blessing, but even with the fire Al hadn't been truly warm. That was the way fire worked, sending heat outward in one direction and no matter how you were sitting, one half of you was always exposed to the cold that lay just outside the circle of light.
Al had stayed awake for half the night, turning this way and that trying to keep every part of him warm. At one point, Ed had woken up and grumbled at Al to stop squirming around. But when Ed realized what was keeping Al awake, he'd gotten up without a word and lain next to Al, opposite the fire. With Ed on one side and the fire on the other, Al was finally able to warm up and fall asleep. That was how they slept every night after and Al began to think of his older brother as a shield, protecting him from the dark and cold, keeping him safe.
It never occurred to him until years later that Ed must have been cold on those nights as well, that the side of him not facing Al must have been freezing without the fire.
Al's mind came back to Earth just as Ed let out a huge yawn. Al tossed another log on the fire and reached for Ed's suitcase to pull out a few spare shirts and another blanket. "Here, Brother. You should layer up so you don't get cold."
"Too late for that," Ed mumbled, blinking sleepily as he pulled the extra shirts on. "'M already cold."
Ed rolled a blanket under his head for a pillow and lay down beside the fire, curling up into a ball to conserve heat. Al watched him for a few moments until Ed's breathing became deep and steady with sleep. Bright, soul-fire eyes turned back to the fire and Al let his mind wander off, still lost in the memories of their battle for survival on the island.
Two hours later, the snow stopped falling and the clouds rolled back to reveal the stars. Out of boredom, Al started examining them in search of constellations. He and Ed had both memorized the stars above the island from so many nights of lying on their backs to watch them traverse the sky. Al could pick out a few particularly bright ones that seemed to always be in the sky no matter where he was, but the rest were foreign to him.
It took Al a little while to realize just how badly Ed was shivering, his teeth chattering loud enough to echo in the empty clearing. The snow from earlier hadn't melted away, so the temperature had to be below freezing. Al eyed him worriedly and tossed more wood on the fire. The extra heat didn't seem to help and Ed started tossing and turning, instinctively trying to produce more heat.
Al stood after a few moments to go gather more wood, unable to stand seeing Ed so cold without being able to help. If he were in his human body, Al could have shared heat like they did on the island, but with his armor it was out of the question. The steel was probably as cold as ice.
After piling up the wood he'd collected, Al knelt next to the campfire near Ed, who was still shivering violently. The side of Ed's face turned away from the fire looked incredibly pale, though Al knew it was just a trick of the light. Al glanced down at his hands and absently held them up to the fire, imitating warming them. But he couldn't feel a thing. Neither cold nor warmth had any effect on him.
Ed whimpered slightly in his sleep and Al stood and walked over to him, concerned by the way Ed's breath was clouding in the air. Al tugged the blanket more firmly around him and laid a hand on Ed's cheek. Was there any way for him to warm his brother up more? There had to be something he could do…
He jumped in surprise when Ed's face turned toward his hand suddenly. For a moment, Al thought he'd woken up, but Ed simply pressed his cheek into Al's palm, nuzzling the leather in his sleep.
Al stared at his hand then slowly looked back at the fire. His hands had been close it only a minute ago. Were they warm? Warm enough for Ed to find some comfort in pressing his cheek against them?
A vague sort of idea formed in Al's mind and he went back to the fire. He built up the flames quickly and hunched over them, being careful not to let the cloth around his waist catch fire. How long would it take for the metal to heat up? How would he even tell if it was warm enough? Al pondered that for a couple minutes and picked up Ed's canteen. He started dropping water on his chest plate every few seconds, stopping when the water sizzled slightly on contact.
Al stepped away from the fire and carefully scooped Ed into his arms, being cautious to keep some cloth between Ed's skin and his armor in case the metal was too warm. He sat down facing the fire, making sure the firewood was still in reach, and gently laid Ed in his lap.
For a moment, Ed shifted around as though trying to get comfortable. Then Ed turned toward Al and snuggled against him, curling up to the heated metal with an audible sigh of relief. Al smiled inwardly and wrapped his arms around the sleeping alchemist. Soon enough, Ed stopped shivering and he slept on peacefully, never once pulling away. Al was confident that the combination of Ed's body heat and the nearby fire would keep his armor sufficiently heated for the rest of the night.
Al looked back up at the stars, feeling a gentle warmth in his soul that had nothing to do with the fire's heat. Tomorrow, they would return to the town and be showered in apologies, the townspeople having just found out that one of the younger children nicked Ed's watch and wallet during dinner. Ed would grumble and curse about the whole thing, accept the free breakfast the innkeeper brought him and they would be on their way to Central. Tomorrow, they would go on with their journey and Ed would go back to his routine of putting all of Al's needs before his own.
But tonight--even if only for tonight--Al would be the shield.