When he'd passed the playground for the first time, he hadn't gone in, just leaned his weight on the fence and watched the children play. There was a sandbox and a swing set, two slides, three see-saws, and all of them crawling with children; children laughing, screaming, hitting each other and falling on the ground, then getting up and chasing each other around and yelling with wild, gleeful abandon.
The second time he'd gone in, sat on the bench. It was hot, and he peeled off his coat and tied it around his waist, and pressed his arm to his side to keep the sun from shining on it. The kids never noticed him, but one of their mothers did, came and sat beside him, smiled at him, asked him what his name was and how old are you, lovely? Do you want to play, too?
Her hair had been dark brown, her eyes the same color but warmed into something softer by the kindness of her expression. She looked so young as she smiled at him, then turned and looked across the playground, shading her eyes with one slender hand as she called for her sons. They'd come running, laughing and jostling each other, two of them, one tall and skinny with bony knees and elbows, the other one younger, pudgier and softer. They had her face done in lighter colors of blond and red.
As they were leaving, the younger boy slipped on a piece of paper and crashed to the ground, coming up with skinned knees and elbows; and even with his brother next to him, telling him to be strong and take it like a man, okay? he'd started to bawl. The mother, so young, had looked hesitant at first, surprised, as if she weren't sure what to do. But then she put on a brave smile and leaned down to her son, putting her face close to his.
He didn't hear what she said, but the little boy stopped crying, and after a few more hiccups he even started to smile. His mother took both of their hands and, laughing, led them out of the playground.
The third time, he sat on an empty swing and pushed himself back and forth, idly, watching the children play. Several of them looked at him, but shyness clouded their faces and they went back to their friends. He toed the ground harder, launching himself into the air, and swung back and forth until the sun set and all the children were gone, and the playground was dark, cold, empty.
After that, the Colonel sent him on a mission—some stupid waste of time in a tiny village, where talk of the Philosopher's Stone turned out to be some crazy scientist's pipe dream—and when he came back to the playground, there was a sign set crooked against the fence.—-Closing Soon. No longer safe.'
He straightened the sign, and looked out across the playground. The wind was blowing through it, rattling the empty playthings, and everything looked duller and cooler without the children laughing, running, playing at kissing each other and dumping sand down each other's backs.
He picked up his briefcase and turned his back to the sun, and began walking.
The priest who visited while Ed was sick had said that when children played, the Devil played, too. Al was sitting in the room while he spoke of gruesome demons who danced around giggling children and breathed putrid breath down their necks, who chipped away at children's minds until they turned into evil debauchers, and laughed at them on Judgment Day; he waved his hands and thumped the bed for emphasis while he told Ed about fire and brimstone, the lakes of heat that melted away skin; Dies Irae, when all memories of human flesh and thought were burned away.
That night Pinako and Winry began attaching the automail, picking through the nerves in his arm, and even with a wet washcloth on his head he couldn't help thinking that the priest was wrong, that Judgment Day was right here, right now and every inch of him was being burned away, flesh melting, thoughts unraveling, everything that was *him* spilling out into a vast nothingness.
But his thoughts had come back, and while his body still felt on fire, those thoughts helped keep him anchored to the world. As he lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, keeping very still so he wouldn't jar his arm with its wires trailing out of his flesh and across the floor, he heard the clanking of metal. Al had come in the room and sat beside him, touched his good hand, said in hesitant tones that he'd had a nightmare about burning.
Ed told him the first thing that came to mind, about how Mother had always said that no matter what anyone else told them, bad things never happened to good little boys who minded their manners and were kind to others. And Al was definitely a good boy, so he didn't have to worry.
In the morning, when Auntie and Winry were moving around his room, feeling his head for fever and lifting him up to spoon broth into his mouth, he told Winry to take Al out today. Take him fishing, he'd said, build sandcastles with him like when we were kids.
Take him to play, like we did all those years ago that seem like yesterday.
He didn't play anymore, not with reports to file, books to read, notes to scratch out. While kids his age went to school and kissed their year mates and begged their teachers to extend the date for the test, please, he sat in the library and thumbed through yellowed copies of crumbling copies that couldn't be read anymore. He shifted in the chair because it was lumpy, held his spine carefully straight because the back was too hard, tilted the books this way and that to read them better, and kept his left hand on the notepad in case he had to write something down. His notes weren't like other kids': they detailed complex formulae he would later memorize, philosophical complexities he'd felt the taste of before he hit puberty, and they seeped into his life and colored everything an ancient, dusty gold.
The librarians knew him; they called his name as they passed, beamed blinding and motherly when he grinned and said their names, too. How's your brother? they asked and How was your trip to Central? and You look so tired, why don't you come get some coffee with us? And he did, and sat at the table with them while they talked about books and impatient superiors and their children or their siblings and parents and the war in Liore, which was oh so terrible, they hoped he wouldn't get sent there—but they wouldn't do that, would they, you're too young!
Ed sipped his black coffee and grinned at them. They frowned back at him with their young faces, young like the mother's at the playground. Young like his own mother's, which had looked so unsure at times but who'd done her best anyway, even when she was suffering on the inside.
If they want me to go to Liore, he told them, then I'll go. I'll go wherever they want me to—unless, he added, and made the girls laugh at the face he pulled, they tell me to go to a farm and milk the cows or something, because everyone knew how much he hated milk (they'd all tried to pawn it off on him at first, instead of coffee, until they realized that his running screaming out of the library hadn't been a one-time event).
He thanked them for the coffee and went back to his chair, to his books and his notes, but after a while he had to stop and put his chin in his hands, and just stare at the wall because he couldn't concentrate.
Other kids, he knew, would be going home right now.
Someday, Al knows, they will study his brother in school (and maybe they'll study him, too, but that's not so important). They'll say, What a genius Edward Elric was, such a flair for the practical and such a head for the theoretical. Students writing their theses will flock to Rizen Pool, where they will stand on the hills and stare at the grassy farming country that bore and bred the Fullmetal Alchemist, and they will argue over how much the absence of his father and the death of his mother affected him, how much of that pain and loss was transformed into the drive and power that shone from him, like a beacon; that burned you if you got too close to it.
Like a beacon. Or maybe just like a fire, that eats everything in its path and ends up destroying itself.
Al hopes that won't happen. He doesn't want the details of his brother's life dissected so clinically. But he knows it will, and he can only hope that history is kind to his brother, who has done nothing for himself but only for others.
Ed didn't lose his arm for himself. He didn't suffer through the pain of automail for himself. He didn't search for the Philosopher's Stone for himself. Will they know that, fifty years from now, a hundred? Will they even care?
Will they know that when their father left, Ed never cried, because Al always did and he had to be strong for him? Will they know that he used to bring flowers to their mother, hunting all over town for the ones she liked the best? Will they know that he used to spend his allowance on gifts for Al, taking note of things that caught his eye and presenting them to him months later?
They won't know, Al thinks, and they will never understand that passion and drive wasn't all that Edward Elric was. His brother is sitting by the window, looking at the sunset, and his book and his notes are lying forgotten in his lap, pencil fallen to the floor. His eyes are lidded to slits and his face is colored pink and orange from the colors of the sunset.
This is Ed, too.
They'll never know that the priest tried so hard to convert Ed, but he never tried to do the same for Al because—and Al overheard him saying this to Auntie Pinako in the kitchen—that boy had no soul to be saved, no body and thoughts for the Lord to work with. And they won't know that Ed heard, too, and that when Al sat by him that night and held his hand, he told Al that the priest was wrong and that there wasn't a heaven or a hell—but that, if there were, he thought that Al would be the only person who should live there.
When Ed smiles at him, Al knows that he is wrong, too. There is no heaven and there is no hell, but there is something close.
They'll never know that when the sun catches Ed's hair just right and glints on his eyes, Al wonders what need for gold people have at all.