((AN: Long overdue update... my apologies. Chapter is longer than usual, so hopefully that will make up for it somewhat))
EDIT: AHHH! I just realized that my email has been blocking all my messages from this site since I switched to a new browser MONTHS ago. So if you've reviewed anything of mine in that time and I haven't replied (especially if you asked questions or put a lot of work into your review), I completely apologize. I've already found a bunch that I hadn't seen before and am working my way through them, so you may get a very, very late reply from me eventually. Arg. Sorry.
The vans rumbled down the near-deserted street, their wheels kicking up filthy slush onto the empty sidewalks. Ed stared out the windows set into the double-doors at the back of the van, watching the alleyways between the dark houses for any sign of the Hughes-thing skulking in the shadows. He saw nothing, but he hadn't really expected to. He knew that finding these creatures, Hughes and Delilah, was going to be very difficult... for why else would Mustang have agreed to Caldwell's ridiculous offer?
None of this was sitting well with Ed. It was all so unbelievable. And horrifying. Definitely horrifying. The thought of gentle Major Hughes prowling the night, literally driven out of his mind by some kind of viral warfare, was disturbing in itself... but to think that Mustang was going to go through that very same kind of transformation in two hours—well... less time than that by now—was downright frightening. But it had to be done. Ed understood that and, as much as he typically disliked Mustang, this show of selflessness was noble and he had to respect it.
Ed had always known that Mustang and Hughes were good co-workers and that they got along well when they weren't bickering, but he had never before really realized that they were such good friends. And by the look of the fire burning in Mustang's eyes when he'd agreed to essentially sacrifice every part of himself in order to help him, Ed felt safe to say that their connection with each other was nearly as strong as Ed's connection to Al. There had been love in his eyes, and a heated, murderous rage that demanded retribution for what had been done to his friend.
It was a sharp, slap-in-the-face reminder that Mustang was human, too. And that just made it all the more upsetting to think that he would shortly become a monster.
"See anything?" Al asked hopefully, breaking Ed from his musings.
He sighed and his breath fogged the frigid window. "Nope."
They were sitting side-by-side in the van, on the long bench lining the right side. On the left side of the van were two very formidable-looking lab assistants: the one who had led them to Caldwell, and another man with bandages on his forearm and stitches on his brow. Neither of them had said a word since the van started up, and Ed wasn't exactly keen to make polite small-talk with them at the moment.
The van went over a bump and the chains that were hanging on the front wall of the compartment rattled and jangled ominously. Ed looked over at them, not needing to ask what they were for. The lab apparently had only two vans at their disposal: the one that Mustang and his men were riding in, ahead of them on the cold street, and this one... the "transport" van. This was the very van that Delilah had escaped from only a few nights prior, and Ed felt he could safely assume that the guy in bandages had been one of her handlers. This time it looked as if they weren't going to take any chances; there were more than enough chains this time.
But there were more than just the chains. There were locks and shackles, leather straps and cuffs, and a very large and very powerful-looking tranquilizer gun mounted on the wall. There was even what looked like a collapsible gurney folded up against the wall, with steel manacles bolted to the sides. There were spots of a red-brown something staining it that could have been either old blood or rust.
"Brother, I have a really bad feeling about this," Al said quietly, his eyes lingering on the vivid tracks of claw-marks gouged into the floor of the compartment. Ed just swallowed and nodded.
It was hot in the van. It hadn't been at first, but Roy supposed that having so many bodies packed into such a small space had warmed the frigid compartment up pretty fast. He had already removed his overcoat and loosened the collars of his jacket and shirt and was contemplating taking off his jacket entirely, professionalism be damned. He was in pain, agitated, and just didn't feel well; he didn't give a flying fuck whether or not his attire was living up to the expected military decorum.
Roy fidgeted uncomfortably and checked his pocket watch, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time since he'd been injected with the Catalyst. Ugh, had it really only been seventeen minutes? He couldn't say that he was really looking forward to his impending transformation, but waiting for the terror and pain that he knew was coming was just excruciating. He was a man of action; he did not like to wait. Every part of him was tingling and his heart was beating an unquiet tempo behind his ribs. It was taking entirely too much willpower just to sit still.
He just wanted to get this over with.
He clicked the silver watch shut and slipped it back into his pocket as the van paused at a railroad crossing and then continued onward. At his side, Hawkeye gave him a quick, worried glance. He smirked back at her, trying to show her that he was fine. He hated it when she worried. He hated it even more when she was so obvious about it. It was actually starting to get irritating. She just needed to trust him on this, without question. He was, after all, her commander.
Roy was sitting in between Hawkeye and—most unfortunately—doctor Caldwell as Lieutenant Bailey drove the van toward the city park where Hughes had last been seen. Breda, Fuery, and Havoc were sitting across from them on the other side of the van, and all of them looked uneasy. Breda, especially, looked as if he would rather be anywhere but here. He kept glancing at Roy nervously, then looking away, then shifting around, then looking back up at his superior again, watching him for any sign of change.
"Your man looks a little ill," Caldwell mused, speaking low so that only Roy could hear him over the lumbering hum of the van, gesturing at Breda. "Touching that he's so nervous for you."
Roy felt his lips stretch back in a dark grin. "He doesn't like dogs. The fact that I'm about to turn into one probably doesn't help his phobia."
Caldwell made a harsh, incredulous noise. "You aren't going to turn into a dog," he spat, sounding offended. "You're turning into an Agent. There is more than one kind of animal DNA in the compound and I've hand-chosen them all carefully for their desirable traits." His eyes glazed over with an odd, gushing kind of joy. "You'll have the agility and vision of a mountain lion, the strength and aggression of a bull, and a number of others... And yes, there's some canine in there, too—not dog, but timber wolf, to be exact—for one-minded drive, possessive territoriality, and loyalty."
"Loyalty, sir?" Roy dared to scoff, eyeing him. "To whom?"
"To us. Eventually," he scowled. "I told you, we're still working on that part. We're still working on a lot of things, which is why it's so important that we have volunteers we can collect data from." He smiled up at him, placing a hand on Roy's knee. "I'm sure you wouldn't mind helping out with that, hmm? Answer a few questions, fill out a survey, that kind of thing...?"
Roy swallowed back the urge brush the man's hand away and just gritted his teeth and allowed the contact, the mild nausea in his gorge increasing. By the time they'd gotten to the van and settled themselves, Roy had decided that Caldwell's touchiness was not meant to be sexual, as he had first assumed. Then he thought that the man was just simply tactile and had no sense of personal boundaries... and that was probably at least partly true, but Roy felt fairly certain that Caldwell was also using the lack of physical boundary as a tool of intimidation and, damn, it was working. Roy didn't exactly have a phobia of being touched or anything so extreme, but he was used to keeping a physical distance from people—even his loved ones—and to be so casually touched by someone he barely knew and resolutely did not like made him quite uncomfortable. And it wasn't as if he could really ask his superior to stop. He'd taken enough chances with blackmailing the odd doctor and knew better than to push him too much harder. Roy's life was pretty much in Caldwell's hands, even with the legal trump card he had hanging over him.
"It would be my pleasure," Roy answered, smiling tightly, forcing himself not to look down at the doctor's unwelcome hand.
"Oh, wonderful!" Caldwell beamed, squeezing his knee. "Just let me know when you start to feel the change coming on and I'll start asking a few posterity questions. I trust you'll be honest?"
The doctor chuckled. "I wouldn't expect any less from you." He patted Roy's leg affectionately and, finally, moved his hand away. Roy's skin crawled and the tight wad of disgust in his chest started to turn to anger. This guy needed to keep his damn hands to himself or he was going to deck him in the face before the end of the night.
"How will I know when the change is coming?" he asked, shifting a little closer to Hawkeye to put more space between himself and the Caldwell. He felt her leg warm against his and was once again reminded of how stiflingly hot it was in here. He undid the buttons on his jacket and sighed as the cooler air touched his chest.
"Oh, you'll know," Caldwell said ominously, "Perhaps not at first, since the initial symptoms are fairly subtle. The first really noticeable changes will most likely be to your personality, though. Since I don't know you very well yet, we're going to have to depend on your men to tell me when you start to act... not like yourself. But don't worry about it for now. You have at least another forty-five minutes before you even begin to feel anything, and then..." He trailed off with a smile. "I'm sure you're already in pain and you don't feel well from your injuries, but it's going to get a lot worse, kiddo. When you do start to change, we'll start setting up the restraints that are in the other van. We may have underestimated Delilah, but you are in very safe hands."
Roy almost laughed. Safe. Right.
Silence lapsed into the van again for a few moments. Caldwell closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall of the van, looking exhausted but oddly pleased. Roy sighed in masked disgust, trying to think of a polite way to get up and move away from him, but a sudden shock of pain to his already-aching skull made him gasp and put a hand to his brow. The pain seemed to shoot down his spine in a hot streak that spread outward around his sides and to the pit of his stomach, which then churned even more violently than before.
Damn, that smack to the head when Maes tossed him on the street had been deceptively hard. He hoped he didn't have a concussion. That was the absolute last thing that he needed right now. He took a deep breath of the sickeningly warm air within the van and sat back, trying to get his stomach to settle.
After a moment he opened his eyes and looked over at Hawkeye. She met his gaze worriedly. She had, of course, been watching him, as well as listening to his conversation with Caldwell to the best of her ability in the noisy van. Roy bristled a little, wishing that she would just back off and trust him. He was her superior, and it was her duty to follow and obey him without question. If he had been any of her other superiors, like Armstrong for example, she wouldn't have dared to be so nosy. Perhaps she was too comfortable with her commander and didn't see a reason to respect him any longer. Perhaps he should remind her of his rank and what it meant to respect his stripes, and get it through her fucking head that he was not a man to be second-guessed or questioned.
Roy's head twinged again and he grimaced.
Maybe he should remind her of her place and teach her a goddamn thing or two about what it meant to serve Roy Mustang. If the back of his fist didn't get it through her thick skull, then it might be necessary to bend her over a desk and make her...
Roy sat completely upright, utterly and completely shocked by the vile image that branded itself into his brain like a hot iron. No. No, he didn't want that. What the hell...? How could he even think that? He glanced over at Hawkeye again, saw that she was still watching him, and felt his face heat with the oddly dual flush of shame and rage. Shame for what he had pictured himself violently doing to her, and rage because she was still fucking looking at him like that. What the fuck was her problem? Why was she always so goddamned focused on him, watching his every move? Maybe it wasn't even about her not respecting or trusting him. She could be a spy, couldn't she? That was why she was always hanging on him, watching him like a hawk. They could all be spies for Bradley, every last one of them, whispering information about their oh-so-beloved Lieutenant Colonel into his evil little ears. The stupid bitch was probably fucking him too, laughing as she spilled Roy's most precious secrets...
"...Sir, are you alright?" she asked, her face confused and worried as she watched him.
He almost backhanded her, right there. He had even raised his hand slightly before he caught himself as another shooting blast of pain wracked his poor head with dizzy agony and grounded him again, snatching away those horrible thoughts.
"Lieutenant, go sit with the others," he ordered quickly, putting his hands to his temples. He just wanted her to get away from him.
She blinked at him. "...I don't think—"
"Will you just fucking go?"
The words came from his mouth in a harsh growl, so wrathful and unlike his usual voice that he startled himself. Hawkeye actually jumped a little, but then she stood and moved to the other side of the van where the others were sitting, stumbling a little as the vehicle turned a corner.
Roy lowered his hands from his head and looked at them. They were shaking in his blurred vision. He tried to make them stop and found that he couldn't.
"Colonel..." he said to Caldwell quietly, the nausea and the pain in his gut making themselves felt again. "I don't feel right."
"Hmph. I'm not surprised," the man yawned, disinterested. "From the looks of your jacket, you've lost quite a bit of blood. But I wouldn't worry about it. It shouldn't affect the transformation too much."
"I don't think it's that. I—"
Roy gasped and doubled over as if he'd just taken a hit to the stomach. Pain unlike any he'd ever felt before gripped him, completely stealing his words and shocking him into dead, agonized silence as he tried to steady himself against it. He leaned forward, his fingers digging into the fabric of his slacks, his throbbing head bowed almost to his knees as his vision faded out and then back in again. He raised his head and, through watering eyes, he could see his men already half out of their seats in alarm. Roy grimaced and tried to straighten himself, not wanting them to worry about him more than they already were. He nodded at them tightly, trying to show them that he was fine, and sat back again.
But the pain had not stopped. It felt like a massive hand had taken hold of his organs and was squeezing them steadily tighter, crushing his lungs, stomach, and heart in a vice-like grip. If he'd had control of his voice box at the moment, he might have screamed.
Caldwell was looking over at him, his greasy head cocked to one side and his brow furrowed.
It took several beats for Roy to get enough control of himself to reply, but when he remembered how to breathe, he grated out, "I m-must be having some kind of bad reaction to the Catalyst..."
"Nonsense," he scoffed, "Even if you were having a bad reaction, you wouldn't be having it yet. The Catalyst hasn't even been in your system for half an hour." He paused and pursed his lips. "But perhaps your injuries are more extensive that we had thought..."
Rage welled in Roy's chest again. Nonsense? He called Roy's pain and discomfort nonsense? He should rip his goddamn balls off.
Caldwell rummaged in the pocket of his lab coat and produced his flashlight. With his other hand, he reached over to take Roy's jaw in his hand.
The instant Caldwell's fingers touched Roy's skin, that barely contained rage and revulsion he'd been holding back finally boiled over. He jerked back, batting Caldwell's hand away with a sharp blow. "Stop fucking touching me, you filthy son of a bitch!" he growled, "You're a disgusting, perverted piece of shit who doesn't deserve his life, let alone his rank!"
A dead, shocked silence flooded into the van. The heat of anger retreated a little from Roy's brain after a moment and a wave of cold took its place as he realized what he had just said to his superior.
"Colonel, I apologize," he said quickly, his hands starting to shake again. God, why was it so damn hot in here? "I don't know why I said that."
"...Neither do I..." Caldwell was frowning at him, but he didn't look angry. He looked contemplative, the gears in his head turning hard in an attempt to figure something out. He turned his head and shouted, "Bailey! How much Catalyst did you give him?"
Lieutenant Bailey turned in her seat to look back at her boss from the driving compartment to Riza's right. The expression on Bailey's face was closed and a little confused, as if she thought Caldwell was asking her a trick question.
"...Seven cc's, of course..." she said finally, turning back to the road but still watching him through the rearview mirror. "The standard dose for a second generation Agent."
Caldwell's frown deepened and his eyes moved back to Mustang.
"What's wrong?" Riza asked, speaking up against the silence of the van. Because, clearly, something was wrong. Mustang was obviously in considerable pain if she were to judge by the pallor of his sweat-streaked face and the way that he had begun to tremble. His uncharacteristic outburst only added to her concern. Sure, Mustang had made no attempts to hide from her how much he hated Caldwell, but he was a man of firm self control and, no matter how distressed, angered, or in pain he was, he would have never, ever disrespected a superior because of his personal feelings. For him to do so this vocally and violently spoke volumes about the lieutenant colonel's current state of mind.
"I'm not sure," Caldwell answered her, still eyeing Mustang in a very interested, very penetrating way. "Mustang, are you on any kind of drug? Some kind of amphetamine, perhaps? Cocaine?"
"No, of course not," he replied, panting a little. He grunted and closed his eyes tightly, his shoulders tensing as if he was being afflicted by a sudden increase of pain. He crossed his arms over his chest and curled in on himself a little, swearing under his breath.
Riza jumped up from her seat beside Fuery and moved back over to sit beside her superior. She put a gentle hand on his arm, but he wrenched it away from her, his eyes blazing.
"I told you to get the fuck away from me, bitch!" he snarled at her.
She blinked and pulled her hand back. She looked up at Caldwell and he looked back at her, his eyebrows raised.
"Let me guess..." he began hesitantly, "this isn't typical behavior for our Roy, is it?"
"No, not at all."
Caldwell swallowed tightly and Riza's pulse quickened. Even Caldwell looked nervous now. Mustang wasn't acting right, even considering everything that he'd gone through tonight. What was worse, Caldwell was the expert here and he didn't seem to know what was wrong.
Slowly, Mustang sat upright. He looked over at Riza. His eyes were hazy and watery and... somehow, they just didn't look right. They looked larger, more intense as he stared at her for several seconds, as if he wasn't sure what to say.
"Hawkeye," he rasped finally, "I apologize..."
"It's alright, sir," she assured him quickly, "I—"
"But I... I really need you to stay away from me. Please. Don't question it, just back off."
Riza couldn't really say anything to that, but she did stand and take a few steps away from him. She could not, however, bring herself to move back to the other side of the van with her colleagues. Even if he didn't want her there, it was her duty to stay by his side.
Caldwell was still watching Mustang with that bold, unnerving way that he had. Finally, he leaned in and asked, very quietly, "Why did you ask her to move?"
The muscles in Mustang's jaw worked and he swallowed. His eyes flicked back over to Riza for a moment, awkwardly, but he did not reply.
Caldwell's eyes narrowed. "Is it because you were thinking about her? Were you thinking about..." He leaned in and spoke so lowly that Riza could not hear him. Mustang stiffened, his eyes widening at whatever it was that Caldwell had said.
"How did you—?" he breathed, but Caldwell interrupted him dismissively.
"It's a symptom. One of this first." Caldwell pulled out his flashlight again and reached toward Mustang. But then he remembered himself and paused. "May I?" he asked.
Mustang, still trembling and looking increasingly ill, nodded. Caldwell cupped Mustang's jaw in one hand and clicked on the flashlight.
In spite of herself, Riza gasped as the light illuminated her superior's eyes. They lit up in the darkness of the van, shining an iridescent and poisonous green that was so far from his usual blue-black that it made her stomach turn.
Caldwell cursed and pocketed the light. "He's already changing," he mumbled to himself. He was definitely tense now, unsettled in a way that was becoming contagious.
"Why the hell is he changing already?" Breda asked. The tightness in his voice—coupled with Caldwell's own uneasiness—was doing nothing to calm Riza's fraying nerves.
"You mentioned back at the lab that some people are more susceptible to the infection," Havoc piped up timidly, "Maybe he's just one of those people."
"Figures," Mustang chuckled darkly, leaning his head back against the wall behind him. Sweat was beginning to stream down the sides of his face and he reached up to wipe it away with one shaking arm.
"No. Impossible," Caldwell snapped at them. "Outside of some insane genetic mutation that I've never encountered before, something else must be causing it for it to be happening this quickly."
Riza looked over at Fuery. His face was drawn with a suddenly deepened concern. "Lieutenant Bailey said that she gave him the standard dosage of the Catalyst for a second generation Agent..."
"Yes? And?" Caldwell snapped.
"Well," Fuery cleared his throat, clearly intimidated, before continuing. "If Corporal Delilah Blaine bit Major Hughes... and then Hughes bit Lieutenant Colonel Mustang... Doesn't that make him third generation, not second? Didn't you say that third generations change more quickly than second?"
Caldwell's steely grey eyes widened, just slightly. "Hughes bit him. Not Delilah?"
"Um... yes, sir. Does it really matter that much, though?"
He stared at Fuery and then slowly, terrifyingly, the color started to drain from his face. He jumped to his feet and stumbled toward the driver's compartment.
"You fools! That would have been important to know! Bailey, stop the van!"
The Lieutenant brought the van to a quick and screeching halt over on the side of the road. Caldwell threw open the double doors at the back of the compartment and jumped out into the street. "Lieutenant Hawkeye, get him up!"
The urgency in his voice shot through Riza like a cold bullet. She took Mustang by the arm and coaxed him to his feet. He didn't fight her, but he did seem to be a little sluggish and stumbled over his own feet as she led him out of the van. She could feel his body heat through his clothes, and realized for the first time that he was running a fever. She cursed inwardly.
Outside in the bright streetlights, she could see her superior more clearly and the light did not flatter him. He looked terrible, to say the least. He stumbled again and had to steady himself against the side of the van. He bent double, one hand pressed against the black metal, and vomited.
Caldwell and Bailey were jogging toward the other van as it pulled to a stop. He flung open the doors and started barking orders to the two burly men who had been riding in the back with Edward and Alphonse. The boys jumped out of the van curiously and followed Caldwell back toward Riza and the others. The colonel moved over to Mustang and put a hand on his back as he heaved again.
"Steady, man. You'll be fine. Everything's fine."
He did not, Riza noted, sound convinced of his own words.
"Hey... is he okay?" Edward asked Riza, jutting a thumb over at Mustang. The sick man was straightening himself and trying to remove his military jacket. Havoc rushed in to help him slip out of it, revealing the shirt underneath to be badly torn and completely saturated with an unhealthy combination of sweat and blood.
Caldwell chewed his lip as he came back toward them, agitated. "He was given too much of the Catalyst. A third generation Agent changes much more quickly than a second generation, so adding on that dosage of the Catalyst is forcing him to change too fast."
"But will he be alright?" Riza pressed.
"Lieutenant, I honestly don't know. This has never happened before, except in the early experimental testing with rats. We've always been very careful..."
"What happened to the rats?" she asked, not sure if she wanted to know.
"Well, one of them vomited up its own digestive tract." He spoke bluntly and dismissively, ever the scientist. Even as he said it, his voice did not show concern for the human life that his Catalyst was endangering. He did look concerned, but Riza got the feeling that he was more worried about what Mustang's potential death would mean to the funding of his precious Agent project. As he turned away from her and trotted back toward the transport van where two of his men were setting up a gurney and restraints, Riza felt distinctly ill.
"Is there nothing you can do?" she called after him, horrified.
"We can hope that he's more resilient than a rat, I suppose. Other than that, not much. From the looks of him, I'd say he has about ten minutes before the change really starts to pick up momentum. What happens then..."
He trailed off, his arms raised in a shrug.
Riza swallowed. She looked down and exchanged an unhappy glance with Edward before walking past him and his brother back toward her commander. Mustang was leaning his back up against the van, his eyes closed, putting obvious effort into making himself breathe evenly. Havoc still had his jacket and he had taken his tattered shirt off of him as well.
His nearly-bare, sweat-soaked skin shone in the streetlight, so hot in comparison to the cold night that a faint steam was rising from his shoulders and arms in ghostly tendrils. There was a halo of condensation on the van outlining Mustang's arms and torso, his body heat fogging the cold black metal. The bandages wrapped around his chest and shoulder looked tight and strained, as if Mustang were flexing his muscles underneath.
"Sir... can you hear us?" Breda asked tentatively. He was nearly as pale as Mustang and looked almost as nauseated.
"Mmph. Yeah," he rasped. His brow furrowed tighter and he leaned forward a little, crossing his arms over his chest again. When he opened his eyes that green light in them was even more apparent than it had been just minutes before. "What'd Caldwell say? I th-thought I heard something about up-chucking my own organs."
His wry smile was very, very weak.
"He said you're in for a rough night, but you'll be fine," Riza lied. At her side, Edward looked up at her calculatingly, but said nothing.
"Oh. Good," he panted, closing his eyes again. He grunted and his shoulders suddenly tightened, the muscles in his arms and abdomen going taut. His legs buckled and he fell to his knees on the cold, slush-covered ground before any of his men could think to rush forward and catch him. He swore loudly and curled in on himself until his brow nearly touched the asphalt. The muscles in his back were so flexed and tense that they looked absolutely unreal.
Riza rushed forward to help him, but then hesitated as she remembered his warning to keep at a distance. He had told her not to question it and, though it went against her nature to do so, she obeyed his words and stayed back. Breda and Fuery stepped in immediately and took Mustang from under each arm, pulling him from the frigid ground and helping him stumble over to a low wall near the van.
"Get off of me!" Mustang hissed abruptly. He wrenched himself from their grasps. "I'm not a goddamn invalid, so keep your fucking hands off."
"Whoa, okay, okay..." Breda said, backing away from him with his palms upraised.
"Why the hell are you even here?" he continued, taking a threatening step toward Breda, his shoulders tensed as if he had a mind to attack him. "You can't even stomach being in the same room with a pup, you coward. What made me think you were man enough to help with this mission, I'll never know. You're worthless."
He stumbled backward a little into the low wall and sat down on it quickly. His eyes seemed to lose focus and he closed them tightly, leaning forward to cradle his brow in his hand.
"...Sorry," he rasped, sounding both exhausted and sincere. He raised his head a little after a long moment of silence and looked at them. "Don't listen to anything I say from this point forward," he ordered, "Don't trust me." He stopped and shook his head with a kind of alarmed wonder. "...I was this close to ripping your throat out, Breda... I wanted to kill you. I still kind of do."
Breda stared at him, lips parted in unsettled surprise.
"Don't trust me..." Mustang repeated, bowing his head again.
"Wise words," a voice rang from behind them.
It was Caldwell, strolling toward the group, a clipboard tucked under his arm.
"He's already starting to lose control of himself, and when he does he will not hesitate to kill you. He won't know you. You will be nothing to him, except male competition. And meat." He looked over at Riza and his mouth morphed into something lecherous and evil. "Or, perhaps something even more unpleasant."
Caldwell's cold eyes lingered on her for a moment longer and it was all she could do to suppress a shudder. But then his smile warmed and he turned his gaze back on Mustang. Mustang returned his glance, his eyes flashing a dark kind of warning. Caldwell didn't seem to notice the near-tangible hatred flowing off of the sick commander. Either that, or he just didn't give a damn.
"...Which is why," Caldwell continued amiably, "we should get down to business before he changes too much to be of any use." He pulled out his clipboard and a pen and stood in front of Mustang, looking oddly buoyant in contrast to everyone's nervousness and Mustang's murderous glare.
"While this is certainly far from the ideal scenario, I have to admit that I'm very excited about this transformation," he grinned enthusiastically, like a car salesman. "We've never had a third generation Agent before, so this should prove to be educational for all of us!"
"If I even survive, you mean..." Mustang winced, putting his head in his hand again. His whole body tensed and he gave a small, strangled little cry, his fingers clutching his raven hair—had it always been so long?—in subdued agony.
"Oh, even if you don't survive, I'm sure a lot of information will still come of it!" Caldwell went on joyously, the anxiety he'd shared with Mustang's men earlier all but gone in a cloud of scientific discovery. "...But you'll probably survive," he added, almost as an after-thought.
It was becoming abundantly clear by his demeanor that he didn't really care if Mustang made it through the night. Sure, it would likely be a setback to his project to have a high-ranking officer dead at his hands... but his exuberance hinted that this was a hurtle that his lab could overcome, especially in the wake of studying a third generation Agent.
"Now then," he went on, setting his pen to the clipboard, "Let's get on to those survey questions we discussed earlier, hmm?"
Mustang looked at him as if he were insane, his eyes—those increasingly animal eyes—were narrowed and hazy, regarding the doctor evenly. But then he raised one hand in a shrug of defeat. "Ask away," he invited. The voice that came from his pale, waxy lips sounded entirely too low and raspy to be Mustang's.
"Lovely! Alright then, 'Question One: are your feelings toward your country positive or negative?'"
Mustang frowned. "P-positive, of course."
"Of course," Caldwell repeated, making a note, "'Question Two: has this opinion changed in any regard since being infected by the Agent?'"
"Uh..." the lieutenant colonel began, clearly distracted by his pain. Another spasm of muscle-tightening ran through his arms and torso and he grunted, wrapping his arms around his middle. "Ah... no. No, I don't think so..."
"Good, good... 'Three: are you currently feeling any discomfort?'"
"That... that is a stupid question."
"Just answer, please."
Mustang rolled his heavily shadowed eyes and started to answer when another spasm hit him. He cried out and clenched his teeth hard, folding in on himself with his brow resting against his knees and his tautly muscular arms hugging himself. The muscles in his back and flank bulged, seeming to move and pulse of their own free will, writhing under Mustang's skin. Blood was beginning to seep out from under his straining bandages and run down his back in tiny, sweat-diluted streams of red.
"Ye... yes..." he managed finally, breathing so hard that Riza feared his lungs would burst.
"And on a scale of one to ten—ten being the worst pain you've ever felt—how would you rank your discomfort?"
Another spasm hit him. This time, Mustang couldn't even answer. Instead, he screamed.
It was nothing like Riza had ever heard before. It was a gutteral, screeching sound that was more animal than human. There was no describing it in auditory terms, other than to say it sounded like some kind of twisted combination of beasts, if all of them were being slowly burned alive. It was the sound of all the souls of Hell wailing for freedom. It was the epitomic sound of what it means to feel pain.
Caldwell pursed his lips, eyebrows raised. "...I guess we'll call that a nine..." he mumbled, jotting it down.
Mustang cried out again and pitched forward off of the wall, landing on his hands and knees. Every part of him trembled and twitched. His back arched and he heaved, a sudden upsurge of blackish-looking blood dribbling over his wan lips.
"...Okay, nine-point-five..." Caldwell conceded.
In an instant all of them—even Edward and Alphonse, who Riza had all but forgotten were there, as focused as she was on her commander—were at Mustang's side. Havoc put a comforting hand on his shoulder, but Mustang immediately jerked away. A low, enraged growl rumbled from him as his bloodied lips pulled into a snarl, revealing the newly inhuman shape of his elongating canines.
"Don't." It was just one word, but the force of the eloquent Roy Mustang speaking it so harshly, so commandingly, in a voice that was so disturbingly not his own, was enough to make all of them move away from him again.
His hair was very noticeably longer now, hanging in his face and clinging to his sweaty back in thick tendrils. His shoulders were broader, even as hunched as they currently were, and every muscle in his body rippled beneath his thin, fevered skin. He was gasping hard, his massive chest pulling his bandages so tight against his wounds that the gauzy cloth began to fray, the bloody strands giving way under the strain. Riza could see some of the wounds now, and they gaped wetly like small red mouths, further tearing themselves open by Mustang's changing body.
There was a low, muffled crack and Mustang collapsed sideways onto the concrete. He did not immediately voice his pain. In fact, he stopped breathing for a moment. He just lay there on his side, his eye wide with deep, mortal shock, unable to move or make a sound. But then it came again, that muffled crack, and Riza saw Mustang's ribcage shift against the underside of his skin.
Only then did she realize that the cracking was the sound of Mustang's bones reforming themselves within him, possibly breaking. And only then was Mustang able to find the breath the scream again. And, god, did he scream.
Havoc stood over him, no doubt wanting desperately to help him but having no way of doing so. "Damn it, how long is he going to have to suffer through this?" he asked, fumbling in his pocket for a cigarette. He put it to his lips, lit it, and took a long, anxious drag.
"...Not long," Caldwell answered, watching his experiment with wide, excited eyes. "I believe my estimation of ten minutes was a bit generous." He turned his head to look back over at the transport van and called, "Bailey! Is everything ready?"
"Nearly!" she called back, loading what looked like a formidable tranquilizer gun.
"'Nearly' isn't good enough! We don't have much time! Get to it, I don't want to lose this one because we were unprepared!" He looked down at Mustang again and chewed his lip. He lowered himself to one knee beside him, like a father kneeling down to speak to a small child. "Listen up, Mustang. This transformation kind of snuck up on us, didn't it? Try to hold it off a little longer. Buy us some time, if you can, hm? Stay with us."
Mustang looked up at him from his vantage point of the ground, one glowing eye visible from behind his curtain of black hair. His hard, harsh panting slowed a little as he looked at Caldwell, and Riza wondered for a moment if he had understood what the man was saying. Something in his gaze whispered that he was already too far-gone, and any hope of helping him was lost.
A split second later, that suspicion was confirmed.
With the speed of a striking cobra, Mustang attacked. He was on Caldwell in an instant, knocking the older man back against Fuery's legs. Mustang had gone for the doctor's throat, but Caldwell had raised a defensive hand to push him back. There was a spurt of blood and a surprised cry and Havoc and Breda nearly collided trying to pull their commander off of the doctor. They grabbed him by each arm and dragged him backward as Riza and Fuery both knelt beside Caldwell.
In all the flurry of movement and Caldwell's scream, it took them all a moment to realize what had happened. Caldwell's left hand was a bloody mess. He clutched it to his chest, grimacing, trying to put pressure on the spurting hole of blood and bone where his little finger had been just minutes ago. Riza's eyes shot to Mustang's mouth, where she saw the remainants of the missing appendage gored between his teeth, the exposed knucklebone pale against his bloody lips.
Time stood still for a moment, all of them, including Caldwell, just staring at the disembodied finger in Mustang's mouth. Riza was the first to snap out of her horrified daze. She jumped forward, one hand grabbing the side of Mustang's face, the other trying to pull the finger from his teeth. Havoc and Breda were holding him tightly but he still fought her with surprising strength and, in spite of her best efforts to take it from him, Mustang crunched down on the devastated phalange, tossed his head back, and swallowed it.
"Ugh!" Breda cried, letting go of him and shuffling backwards. "No. No. That did not just happen! Ugh!"
"...Well then," Caldwell said with an eerie kind of calm, "I guess that means time is up."
Mustang bellowed and thrashed against Havoc's hold. Riza helped pin him down and Edward and Alphonse were close behind, forcing Mustang facedown against the concrete as Fuery helped Caldwell to his feet. Beneath her, Mustang stiffened as another wave of the transformation struck him and he roared in pain. She could feel his bones fracturing and grinding in their sockets, ripping through muscle and straining tendons, changing him into the monster that Caldwell wanted him to be.
"It's almost over," she found herself telling him, her throat tight with terror and worry. She ran a trembling hand through his hair. "It's almost over..."
He responded by growling and twisting his head around to snap at her face with his bloodied teeth. This creature was not Mustang, she knew then. Not now, at least. This was a wild animal, and no amount of her comfort or worry would get through to it. And if she gave it the chance it would gladly kill and eat her. Or... as Caldwell had pointed out... do something even more unpleasant.
"Erickson, Jacobs!" Caldwell called to the burly men working in the other van, "Get the restraints, I don't care if you aren't done setting up! We have to move, now!" He turned back to the four of them holding Mustang down. His eyes blazed at them and the blood that had splattered onto his cheek only made that gaze more intimidating. "Do not, under any circumstances, let that man go. There is more than his life at stake here, and if you compromise my research in any way, I will make damn sure that you live to regret it. Mustang is out of commission, so you are to treat me as your commander and obey my orders. I trust you understand."
And then, bleeding hand still clutched to the front of his lab coat, he spun from them and ran back toward the van, barking orders to his men with all the power and authority of his rank.
Though she hadn't thought it possible, Riza's insides plummeted even lower. She exchanged a glance with her comrades and saw that they were all just as disturbed.
Beneath them, Mustang growled again.