"Nii-san!" Al huffed, exasperated. "We should go. You haven't been to Central in months, and this is the perfect opportunity. Everybody will be there; you can say hello to them all at once," he cajoled, trying to talk Ed into attending the New Year's Eve party that Hawkeye had set up, no doubt at Havoc's request. Even Colonel Mustang would be there.

Speaking of the Colonel, that was exactly why Edward didn't want to go. "I'm not going!" Ed claimed, a stubborn set to his jaw that made Al want to call Winry over. Winry would probably smack him with a wrench, which would make Al feel better, even if it didn't make his brother accept the invitation.

The last party that Edward had attended had ended in disaster. He had gotten hold of some alcohol and gotten completely wasted. Alphonse still didn't know who was responsible, though he would certainly like to talk to them about providing alcohol to minors. Then again, knowing his brother, it's not like anybody could've stopped him. Except for maybe Colonel Mustang.

The story was still a bit mangled, and Al was pretty sure that Ed had made at least some of it up, but he knew three things to be fact. Edward had gotten drunk and passed out. Edward had woken up with a hangover to find himself spooned by the Flame Alchemist. Edward had then proceeded to destroy the entire building.

Still, from what Alphonse could make of his brother's grumblings, Edward had mostly just been pissed that everybody had been so noisy, yelling at Mustang while he tried to deal with his first ever hangover. It hadn't ended well, but Alphonse still thought that using alchemy to collapse the building on top of them was taking things a bit too far.

Deciding to change tactics, Alphonse turned his back on his brother and stalked away. He wasn't really angry with his brother, but Edward didn't know that. Al counted silently. At five, his brother called, "Al? Don't be mad, okay? It's just…I can't go." He sounded so plaintive that Alphonse almost caved in and forgave his brother. But this was for Ed's own good, so he didn't.

Steeling himself, he turned around and stared steadily back at his brother, hands on his hips. "Why not?" he demanded. Edward opened his mouth, and he held up a hand, forestalling him. "Seriously, Nii-san. Why can't you go? Surely it wasn't that bad, and you know the others will enjoy seeing you. If you'd like, I'll even protect you from Colonel Mustang."

The jab had the desired effect, and Ed spluttered. "I don't need protecting from that Bastard Colonel!" he howled, tackling Al to the floor. "He's nothing," Edward growled angrily, amber eyes flashing. "That bastard nearly got us both killed, Al! And what's more," he added, waving his hands around in the air for emphasis, "he's completely useless!"

Alphonse just raised an eyebrow; surely his brother could come up with better excuses than that. He was convinced, though; it wasn't that Edward hated the Colonel at all. In fact, he probably really liked him, their relationship far more than that of a soldier and his commanding officer. After all, Mustang had been the only one to see what they had done. He had not only overlooked it, but had helped them, too. Sometimes his leads only succeeded in causing trouble for the Elric brothers, but his intentions were honest. Mustang had given the two boys every lead he received, allowed them access to research that was forbidden to most alchemists, and had shielded them from higher authorities. Sure, he had used them to help further his own ambitions, but the end result had been the same.

Al suspected that his older brother had long since realized the same thing. As Edward had grown older, had suffered through so much in his search for a way to restore his brother's body, the blonde had also come to respect Mustang for his ambition and drive, if nothing else. And, Alphonse suspected, his brother wasn't completely immune to the Colonel's charms.

Deciding to get them back on track, Al smiled up at his brother. Edward had finally wound down, realizing that Alphonse wasn't paying any attention to his ranting. "Nii-san, please?" he asked, his eyes wide as he pleaded. He knew it was a dirty trick, pulling that look on his brother, but Ed had never been able to refuse him anything. Besides, if Ed thought he was doing it for Al, he'd be more likely to agree.

Sure enough, his brother sighed, pressing his forehead against Al's. "All right, we'll go. But only for the party," he ordered sternly. Alphonse just smiled up at him sweetly, and watched as Ed gave up. They'd come home when Al was ready for them to come home.

Mentally, he prepared a list of what they'd need to pack, and what could be bought in Central. His brother was incredibly stubborn and a bit slow on the uptake when it came to himself, so they would probably be there for a while. He'd have to let Winry and her grandmother know, as well.

Pleased with his brother's concession, Alphonse walked over to the Christmas tree and reached under it, pulling out a brightly colored gift and holding it out to his brother. "Since we'll be leaving the day before Christmas, I want you to open this now," he smiled. Ed looked at his suspiciously, obviously wondering why they were leaving for Central so early. But Alphonse was ready for him.

Blinking innocently at his brother, he chirped, "Didn't you read the paper, Nii-san? It's supposed to snow for Christmas. You don't want to be stuck at the train station, do you? And you've already promised you'd go with me, so we have to leave before the snow."

Ed scowled, obviously unhappy, but reached for the gift. Carefully, he unwrapped it, his eyes lighting up with that childish delight that time and suffering had yet to extinguish entirely. There in his hand lay a beautiful crystal statue, and its center was the flamel. The fading light caught the crystal and threw reds and golds across the room, twinkling brightly, a sign of their past, and of their future.

Carefully, Ed pulled the crystal to his body, cradling it close. Smiling up at his brother, his love obvious for the world to see, he murmured, "Thanks, Al. There's one for you, too," he added, nodding at the other gift under their small tree.

Reaching down and opening his gift, Al laughed in delight. It was a pocket watch, similar to the one that his brother still carried. Instead of the State Alchemist symbol, though, it had the flamel engraved into its side. Flipping it open, Al saw an identical message to the one inside his brother's. "Don't forget 3. October. 11." A warning, and a glimmer of hope. They remembered, but they were still moving forward.

"Thanks, Nii-san," Alphonse thanked his brother, holding the pocket watch tightly. Together, the two Elrics watched as the sun fell below the horizon, the near future forgotten momentarily in the wake of the present.