The more crowded the trains got, the more noticeable it became. Out in the boonies, where the trains came only once or twice a day (if that,) and carried only a handful of passengers, it could perhaps be expected that people would space themselves out more widely. But as they closed into Central, passing from one train line to another and through more and more populated stations, it became obvious what was going on.
No-one wanted to sit next to the Elric brothers. Nobody seemed to even want to get near them. Maybe out in the middle of nowhere that was understandable—a seven-foot-tall suit of armor was pretty intimidating, after all, if there were no security personnel around. Here in the city, people were used to that sort of thing, and although the train guards couldn't have laid a hand on Ed or Al on their best day, the other passengers didn't have to know that.
No, it wasn't Al that was the problem.
"It sucks, being a dog of the military," Ed grumbled, sliding a little further down in his seat. Across the aisle, a woman with a bun and a black purse sniffed disdainfully, and moved a seat further away. The seats on either side of the Elrics were already empty, as two other women had opted to stand and hold the handrails rather than sit by them, despite the crowding in the car.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with you, Brother," Al said loyally, and Ed scowled. At the very least, he consoled himself, he didn't think it was Al that the passengers were snubbing. Al had an amazing ability to make himself unobtrusive, and Ed's silver watch usually acted as a lightning rod for other people's contempt and discontent.
"—show a little basic decency?" hissed a female voice, at the very edge of their hearing. Ed stiffened. There were a few mutters behind closed hands, and at least one man was actually openly glaring at them. He didn't let himself respond, though; he had far too much practice with this.
"I knew what I was getting myself into when I made this choice, Al," Ed said, rather more fatalistically than he actually felt. He scratched the back of his neck. After a week-long mission out in nowhere towns with the most rustic of inns, he was more than ready to collapse into a real bed and eat a nice hot cow or two. He was not in the mood to deal with this now. After a moment, he added, "You'd think people in Central would be more used to State Alchemists, though. It's not like their damn headquarters are in this city, or anything."
"Maybe that's why," Al offered. "Still, I don't think it's fair. You aren't like the other State Alchemists. You're the People's Alchemist. Don't they know that?"
Ed scowled. They had to recognize him, didn't they? Otherwise how would they know he was an Alchemist at all—he didn't wear a uniform, and he didn't carry his watch obviously. But as the youngest State Alchemist ever to pass the exam, he'd gotten a lot of noterity in Central, and then even more as a hero in the East. Didn't these people realize that?
The train slowed. "Seventh Street Station," the voice of the trainmaster singsonged over the PA. "Next stop, Central Square Station, end of the line."
"Come on, Al," Ed said abruptly, standing up against the lurching train and grabbing his suitcase. "Let's get off here. We can visit the Major before we report in."
As they off-boarded the train, people pointedly drew out of their way and turned their faces aside. Ed ignored them. Let them think what they wanted! Al knew there was nothing wrong with him, and of all the people in the world Al should know him best. Right?
They found Major Hughes out working in his lawn, puttering between the hedges with a pair of clippers and a hose. Elysia was nearby, of course; but she was intent on doing something very important with mud and didn't see her 'big brothers' approach.
"Yo, Ed!" Hughes greeted them, setting down the clippers and lifting a hand as they approached. "Long time no see, Al. You boys must have just gotten in from an assignment. Will you be in Central long? Elysia has been dying to see you!"
"Yeah, but we'll be busy most of the time," Ed replied. "We've got tonight off, though, so maybe... if you guys wouldn't mind a few guests for dinner..." He sucked in his cheeks and aimed a wide-eyed, starving look at Hughes, who laughed. Al would have smiled, if he could; Ed always had just one thing on his mind.
"At five o'clock, then," Hughes agreed easily. Then a peculiar expression crossed over his face. "But before then..."
And calmly, he turned the hose on Ed. There was an indignant squawk, a sputtering and spraying and flapping or red cloth and gold hair; Al squeaked alarm and edged away from the stream of water.
Ed emerged a moment later, sputtering and spitting water. "What did you do that for?!" Ed screeched, more than a little wild-eyed. "Major, I thought we were friends!"
"We are friends," Hughes replied with an easy grin. "But we'll be much better friends after you go and get a bath. Ed, you smell."