Roy went again to the window, and checked the growing blizzard. If his experience was any marker, the center of the storm was still on its way; the gale would continue well until morning.
He trusted that Hawkeye had gotten the others away in time. She probably had. She was the sensible one, who could keep her head in a crisis. Roy was not. Roy could keep his cool, which he admitted was not quite the same. Otherwise, he might not have jumped in to battle those chimera; might not have taken the drop over the cliff that had seperated him from the others; might not have ended up in this godforsaken cabin in the middle of nowhere.
Snow whipped against the crusty glass panes, and Roy frowned. He also trusted that Hawkeye would have the sense not to lead a platoon of men out into this deadly storm in a useless attempt to look for him. In the morning, when the storm eased, he would be able to send up a signal fire that the search parties could see. In the meantime, he wouldn't freeze to death.
He rather hoped not, anyway.
An involuntary shiver escaped him, and he wrapped his arm across his chest. His clothes were still distressingly damp, and he reflected on the catch-22; he couldn't make the fire to dry his clothes without first drying his gloves. At least, he reflected, his clothes were only wet from the snow, and not from tumbling over the bank into the ice-crusted stream.
Like Ed had.
"Colonel," Al called softly, drawing his attention back to the presence of the others in the cabin. "I'm trying, but it's no good. He won't get warmed up."
Roy turned away from the window, shaking his head. "Did you get the fire started?"
"Yes, of course," the young alchemist said impatiently. "But there's not much fuel, and the heat diffuses too fast."
His boots made muffled, sodden thumps on the bare wooden floor as he crossed the cabin to stand beside Al. In the middle of a neat, precisely drawn array – and what HAD Alphonse drawn it with? There was no chalk in this godforsaken shack – the small fire crackled, but Al was right; the cabin's single room was too big, and the heat swirled upwards to vanish in the drafts coming through the ceiling.
Al had placed his brother on the floor by the fire, so close that he was almost curled around it. Any closer, Roy gauged, and it would burn him. He crouched down, leaning forward on the balls of his feet, and checked Ed's color. Not good. More than a little alarming, in fact. His lips had the waxy, almost translucent shade that Roy had seen on more than a few corpses. His eyes were slitted open, but when Roy checked, they were rolled back in his head, and hs breathing was harsh and shallow. He shivered only occasionally, in shallow fits and starts.
Roy rocked back on his heels. "You need to get him out of his wet clothes," he said.
"How will that help?" Al said. "Even if they're wet, as long as they're keeping any heat in –"
Roy gestured at Fullmetal's sodden coat. "There's frost forming on the hem," he said. "It will take too much of his body heat away just to keep the water from freezing." Roy paused, then continued. "I will donate my coat in the meantime, while you try to get his clothes dry."
It was bitterly cold in the cabin, without his overcoat. Roy moved around the room, scrounging for burnables and stamping to generate body heat, and tried not to think about how much colder it would feel to Edward.
"Colonel," Al's voice came again, filled with desperation. "I can't get him warmed up. I'm too cold."
Roy stopped his mostly futile search, facing the door, feeling Al's gaze burn between his shoulder blades. "I'm not sure what do you expect me to do about it," he said softly, keeping the same stillness in his posture, in his voice that he used when facing down any hostile rival in politics.
"I don't have any heat to share," Al said, anger and despair lurking beneath his tone. "You do, Colonel. Share it with him. Help him."
Now Roy did turn around, keeping his expression even. "I don't believe that would be appropriate on my part, Alphonse," he said quietly.
"So what? It's appropriate to let him freeze?" The hurt and anger in Al's strange hollow eyes were focused on him now. "After he saved your life tonight? Colonel, I thought you felt more loyalty to your subordinates than that."
Roy winced, but managed to disguise it in another shiver. Slowly, keeping his steps even and controlled, he made his way back to the brothers. Al loomed over the small fire, and Roy reached past him to deposit his small pile of fuel beside the fire. There really wasn't much, wasn't enough to build it up any further, not if they meant the fire to last all night. No alchemical reaction could sustain fire without fuel indefinitely, and unless they wanted to start burning the walls that sheltered them from the wind, or the roof that kept the snow off, there simply wasn't much else to work with.
His hand brushed against Alphonse's arm as he sat back, and he was momentarily startled by the icy touch. At times it was hard to remember that Al's body was animate, but not truly alive; that the soul that resided in the armor didn't have a body to move and warm it. The metal plate of the armor was as cold as the walls or the floor of the cabin.
He touched a hand lightly to Edward's face, still visible above the edge of Roy's coat. It was warmer than touching Al, but not enough. His color was no better. No worse either, Roy decided, but not improving. A part of Roy's mind whispered to him about the brain damage that could result from prolonged hypothermia. A part of Roy's mind insisted on telling him how much like an angel Ed looked with his face slack and pale, wet strands draggling around his face. He firmly told them both to shut up.
Unfortunately, Al seemed to be in agreement with the first voice. "You can help him," he accused. "But you won't? Because of some kind of stupid notion of propriety?"
Roy slanted a cool look at him, still attempting to reject the logic of it. "This would necessitate taking all my clothes off, and all of your brother's, and getting quite intimate with him," he said bluntly. "Do you honestly not see the problem with this?" Because I don't, the second voice whispered irrepressibly.
"I don't care," Al said. "And he's in no shape to care."
But I care.
He was stalling, and he knew it. Why was he stalling? Ed had saved his life that night, stepping in front of the chimera attack that would probably have torn his throat out to bleed out into the snow. Ed was in trouble now, and Roy had the means at hand to aid him. He would do no less for any officer under his command. He probably owed Ed more than that, he thought bitterly. Because as much as he liked to deny it, the Elric brothers were still children, who were owed the protection of adults, whether they desired it or not.
Be realistic, Mustang. Is the Fullmetal Alchemist, really a child any more?
Yes. Or else this wouldn't feel so wrong.
"Keep him warm," Al whispered. "Please."
"Very well." He could probably argue with himself, and Al, all night, but it would be Ed that suffered for it. That was unacceptable. Having made up his mind, Roy got to his feet and began to strip, quite businesslike. There was a creaking noise in front of him, as Alphonse hastily turned his head to look away; Roy couldn't help but smirk at that. The Elric brothers had not spent enough time in the company of soldiers to become comfortable with nudity, the way most enlisted men did fairly quickly.
It was with rather less equanimity that he bent down and peeled his dark coat away from Edward's curled-up form. Alphonse had, as ordered, stripped his brother out of his soaking coat and shirts, but had left the leather pants intact. Roy sighed, and got to work wrestling them off. He supposed he could see why; the wet leather clung and dragged to skin, and Ed was not exactly helpful. In order to get proper leverage, he had to sit on the floor with Ed propped against his chest, slumped between his legs. Roy had the horrible sensation of undressing a large doll, or a child. Either way of thinking was unpleasant. He gritted his teeth and finished pulling off the pants, revealing nasty-looking chafe marks where the wet leather had met skin.
Once done, he arranged his own relatively-dry clothes and Ed's undershirt, which was moderately less wet than the rest of them, on the floor in front of the fireplace. He kept Ed tucked at his side as he made the arrangements; at all the jostling about, Ed gave a weak moan and started to stir. Roy was heartened.
He finally settled himself lying on his side in front of the fire, with Ed clasped to his chest, between the two heat sources. He fumbled for his coat, trying to get it arranged over the both of them, and tried layering it with Ed's still-wet coat. It was terribly awkward; the sleeves kept getting in the way.
"Here." Large hands took up the two coats. Al quickly wrung them, sending icy drops of water flying, and knelt down to scratch an array on the floor. Ah, so that was how he'd done it, Roy observed with interest. Rather than using a material to draw with, Al used the sharp edges of his knuckles to score a line directly into the material of the floor. There was a brief flash of light, and a crackling – alas, that heat was not a major byproduct of the process – and Al shook out a single square blanket, fantastically patterned in blue and red.
He dropped it over Roy's shoulders, and tucked the end of it under Ed's feet. Roy eyed the new blanket, fingering the slightly fraying edge. Thin white strands ran through the welter of red and blue, the remains of the piping on Roy's coat, and black threads from the flamel embroidery on Ed's. "I don't imagine he'll be happy when he sees what you've done to his coat," Roy remarked.
"It won't kill him." Al sat against the wall, on the other side of the fire. The flickering light played off the plates of his armor, giving his broad chest the illusion of motion. Of breath. Roy knew it was just an illusion; Al didn't need to breathe. Just as he didn't need to eat; he didn't feel hunger. Or cold.
Roy shifted uncomfortably, under the blanket. Now that they were done with the fidgeting, he was hyper-aware of Edward's body pressed against his. The automail arm and leg were terrible heat sinks, draining precious body heat away from both him and Edward. Roy thought for a moment about removing them, setting them aside, except for the difficulties it would cause the next day, especially if the joints froze and broke in the cold weather. He sighed, and wrapped one leg over Edward's legs, pulling the boy deeper against his skin. Against his heat. Ed was still so terribly cold.
This shouldn't be exciting. It shouldn't at all. The cold was still cruel, oppressive. Ed was nearly as lifeless as a doll in his arms, and Al was just a few feet away, watching them. But it was only the cold that kept Roy's body from responding to the positioning, an unwanted intimacy, an awkward mockery of affection. And even the cold couldn't stop his mind from responding.
He wrapped an arm around Edward's chest, and ran his hand slowly down over his collarbone. Ed's skin was cold wherever he wasn't directly touching Roy's skin, even with the fire radiating on it. Roy rubbed a little harder, trying to force circulation, and life back into the boy's flesh. He wanted to laugh. He'd thought of doing this before, when he gave himself the self-indulgence to let his thoughts run freely. Snuggled together under a blanket, in front of a fire – what could be more romantic?
His hand traveled further down Edward's chest, and mired in a sticky, congealed liquid. Ah, yes. Nothing more romantic than blood. He shifted Edward's body slightly, peering over his shoulder to assess the damage. The chimera's fangs had been blocked by Ed's automail arm, but its slashing claws had scored Ed across the stomach, leaving a rent in his clothes and a long, shallow cut in his skin.
Carefully, Roy probed at the edges of the wound. It had bled freely – and Roy doubted that that blood loss was helping Ed's temperature problem any – but it seemed to have stopped now, and not even removing the shirt had opened it up again. Even more gently, Roy pressed at the side of Ed's ribcage, where he'd landed on a rock on his way down to the creek. The cold suppressed any swelling, but Roy thought he saw the beginnings of a nasty bruise. Cracked ribs? God forbid. He pressed a little harder.
Ed jerked, and made a distinctly complaining noise. Relieved, Roy left off on prodding him and shifted the boy around in his arms, trying to bring new, still chilled skin into contact with his own. "Waking up in there?" he said in a conversational tone. Ed gave a weak groan, and shifted slightly; and then, as though a switch had been flipped, he started shivering in earnest.
Roy sighed with relief at this sign of the renewal of life, and relaxed somewhat, still rubbing a hand up and down Edward's back. A shifting of motion caught the corner of his eye, and he stiffened, abruptly reminded of Al's presence.
"You would do this for him if you could," Roy said, after long, empty moments of feeling Edward tremble in his arms. "Wouldn't you?"
"Of course," Al answered. "I remember when we were training – this was when we were studying with our teacher, back before... We spent a whole month on this island, you see," he said, voice warming up to his subject. "Our teacher gave us one knife, and told us to survive a month with no alchemy.
"Most of the time it was warm on the island... it was a really nice island, unless of course you were trying to live there on your own... but there were a few nights that were cold. At least, colder than we were used to, sleeping outside with no shelter and no blankets. On those nights, we would sleep together, touching." He paused, face turned towards the fire.
"Like this," Roy said, shifting slightly. One of his hands had somehow come up to tangle in Edward's hair, and he absently set to work trying to comb the cold water out of it. "For warmth."
"Yes. For warmth." Al turned his head slightly, to look at him more directly. "And for comfort."
Roy swallowed. He was reminded again, uncomfortably, that Ed was not the only intelligent one in the family. Possibly not even the most intelligent one, as much as you could compare two different people. "Did you used do that much, before?" he mused, keeping his voice light, non-invasive. "Touching."
"Of course," Al answered readily enough. "We were brothers."
"Ah." Roy paused for a moment, to let this fall between them. "You don't touch very much any more," he said neutrally. "At least, not that I've ever seen."
Al hunched forward, wrapping his arms around his legs. Roy had to remind himself, again, that Al did not feel the cold. "Niisan doesn't let me," he said.
Roy tried to sort out the nuances he could hear in the younger brother's tone. Unhappiness, that was plain. A hint of anger. Resentment, perhaps. And a touch of exasperation, the kind that came out of love. "Why doesn't he?" he asked seriously.
"Because I'm like this now." Al held up one hand, and turned it over in the light. "Once – I asked him if my body repelled him, and that was why. But he swore it wasn't why. It took me a little longer to figure out the real reason."
He hesitated, hand still outstretched, before dropping it to the meager pile of wood, adding more to the fire. "It's because I can't feel," he said lowly. "Even if we touched now, like this, I couldn't feel it. I would feel cold to him, but I couldn't feel his heat. I would be hard to him, but I wouldn't feel his touch. He doesn't let himself have anything that I don't have any more. He won't."
Roy turned this revelation over in his mind, carefully, cautious of the feelings that were wrapped up in it. In his arms, Ed shifted, but did not wake. "Perhaps it is a kind of equivalent trade," he ventured.
"That's what he thinks," Al's voice was dark, with hints of anger. "But I know he's just punishing himself."
It was plain that Al disapproved. As for Roy – well, Roy knew all about guilt. Unthinkingly, he pulled Edward a little closer to him.
"Why tell me this?" he asked, quietly. "Somehow I don't think Ed would be happy that you told me about these feelings."
Al made a noise like a snort, though where it was coming from Roy wasn't sure. "They're my feelings," he said. "I'm free to tell anyone I want about them. Maybe I want to tell you."
"Why would you want to tell me, then?"
"Because I don't want him to go on like this," Al said, with a vehemence that surprised Roy. "Why should he starve himself just because I can't eat any more? That's not equivalent trade. It's just stupid. Hurting himself won't make me happy. But he won't listen to me, not about some things. Maybe he can't. Maybe I'm too close." Al was focusing directly on him now, in a way that reminded him uncomfortably that he was naked. "Maybe he'd listen to you."
Roy shifted again, moving his hand from a slowly-warming patch of Ed's skin to a still chilled one. "What makes you think I have anything to say to Edward in matters of feelings?" he said, feigning a lightness he didn't feel. "I am merely his commanding officer, and he makes it quite plain what he thinks of my authority over him. Why would I have anything to say that he would listen to?"
"Colonel." Alphonse's voice was wry. "I know you aren't stupid. Please don't assume that I am, either."
"Mmm." A very useful noise, to cover up his lack of an answer. "Alphonse, I'm not sure exactly what you expect me to do." The words echoed strangely with something he said earlier, that night.
Al's answer was the same. "I have no heat to share with him," he said. "You do. Share it with him. Please."
"I..." Roy couldn't meet Al's not-eyes. He looked down at the other brother, instead. Ed's color was much improved, now, and the shivers were beginning to ease. He seemed to have fallen into an exhausted sleep, now, not the near-stupor of before; eyes fully closed, face relaxed. "Alphonse. It isn't up to me."
"Keep him warm." Al's voice was near a whisper, near begging. "Please. Keep him warm."
It was much later. The fire had burned down, as much as Roy judged would still provide heat while conserving fuel most efficiently. The coats-blanket was still firmly wrapped around them, held down in all the right places so that Roy was loath to move, to disturb the warm cocoon even a little bit. Al hadn't moved or spoken in hours, and Roy judged by the state of his eyes that he had followed his brother into whatever he used for sleep.
Edward shifted, and mumbled. He wriggled in Roy's arms, a startling sensation, and one leg knocked out from under the blanket to hit the cold floor. The boy yelped, and hastily tucked his legs back up, under the blanket, planting his cold feet on Roy.
"Do you mind ?" Roy said, half amused, half irritated.
"No," Ed said, not moving.
He was, Roy judged, more awake than he had been, but still caught in the dazed sleepiness that exposure to intense cold could bring. The body's attempt to protect itself, Roy was given to understand, by shutting down or cutting off as much of its function as it could to survive in the hostile environment. Roy could sympathize.
"Edward," he said, and Ed made an affirmative grunt. Roy bent his neck, and nuzzled the boy's still-damp hair. "Why did you save me today?" he murmured, into that hair.
"Chimera..." Ed sighed, turning his head into the touch. "Bad alchemy... 's my business... 's my job."
"But you took a risk," Roy said gently. "You took an injury that was meant for me."
"Couldn't let you die," Edward yawned, and nestled back against Roy's chest. "Couldn't."
Roy stared into the fire. Couldn't had always been him and Edward, going over and over in his mind all the things he couldn't do, all the reasons why. He'd used all his skill at manipulation to keep Ed at a distance, a cool distance.
Ed was very close, now.
And there wasn't very much of the cold left any more.
Maybe he could, after all.