Roy's head was pounding. His vision was blurred and the sharp splinters of pain behind his eyes only made it worse. His heart was throbbing just as chaotically as his head, beating so hard that his chest hurt and every breath was a tremulous, nauseating ordeal.
His sore eyes moved back down to the surface of his desk, to the tangle of equations and transmutation circles and garbled, long-dead languages that had been carved there. That he had carved there.
No. No... This was not possible. How could it be Monday? How could he have lost two whole days?
He couldn't stop shaking.
"You don't remember doing this?" Hawkeye asked quietly, her soft, worried voice penetrating the fog of exhausted terror that was floating through his brain. She sounded terrified for him, and Roy felt his pulse quicken even further. He shook his head, words sticking in his dry throat too much for him to speak. He swallowed, but his parched mouth did almost nothing to dampen his throat.
The initial, jarring shock of being shaken from whatever spell—or, more likely, some kind of powerful psychological event—he had been under was wearing off, and Roy took stock of himself. He felt terrible. The pain in his head was some of the worst he'd ever experienced. Even sitting down, the room was spinning and if it weren't for the fact that his stomach was achingly empty, he likely would have vomited. He was badly dehydrated, he knew that for certain. If he had been here since Friday night, destroying his office without pause, then it was no wonder. He hadn't eaten, slept, or had anything to drink in days and his entire body was screaming for him to nourish it.
What the hell had happened? Maybe he should take Hawkeye up on her offer to call a doctor. People didn't just blank out for two days without reason. Not sane, healthy people, at least. His mind was absolutely whirring, roaring with exhaustion. It sounded like whispering in his ears, a low and profoundly distracting hiss that almost sounded like words when he closed his eyes and listened to it...
Roy looked over at Fuery, only just realizing in his distraction that he'd called his name several times. He was handing the phone to him, his hand held over the mouthpiece. He looked nervous. "I know this isn't a good time... but Major Hughes really wants to speak with you."
"Tell him to call back later," Hawkeye ordered him tightly.
"No, I'll take it."
Fuery looked to Hawkeye unhappily, but then she nodded and he let Roy take the phone.
"What, Hughes?" he croaked into the receiver.
"Mustang!" Hughes exclaimed, "What the hell is so important over there that you can't take an urgent call? Something's going on with Armstrong. I think he's finally snapped."
It took Roy a moment to process what Hughes was saying. His mind felt sluggish and distracted. The headache just made it worse, as did the ghostly whispering.
"What...? What's wrong with him?" Roy managed to ask finally.
"I don't know. He tore apart his office and drew all these transmutation circles all over everything. I honestly don't know what to make of it..."
Roy's jittery heart gave a sharp lurch in his chest.
"I mean, he was writing on the walls, Roy. I think he's been here all weekend. Does this mean anything to you? I saw the transmutation circles and my first instinct was to call you. Ever seen anything like this before?"
He almost laughed. The terror in his breast that had been growing since he snapped out of his daze had lessened a little to think that someone else, another alchemist, was going through the same thing he was. But then it occurred to him that perhaps that made the situation even worse. If two different people... located in completely different parts of the country... who both happened to be alchemists of the State... simultaneously had some kind of mental break that stole their senses and forced them to destroy their own offices...
...Then what did it mean?
Izumi Curtis rolled over, leaned over the side of the bed, and vomited a small, trickling mouthful of blood into the awaiting basin below. Good, just a little blood this time. Her head felt like it was going to explode and her guts burned within her, but she felt a little better than she had earlier. Her fever was breaking.
"I was afraid I was going to lose you, love," her husband told her, his naturally husky voice touched with the sweetness of concern. He was on the bed beside her, and he draped an arm across her chest as she lay back again. He reached over and wiped a smudge of blood from her lower lip, his huge hand deceptively gentle. "It got pretty bad this time."
"I don't remember anything past Friday night," she mumbled, groggy. She snuggled against his side and closed her eyes. She almost couldn't believe it was Monday. She had been sick most of last week, and then sometime Friday it started to get really bad. She couldn't concentrate on anything and she could barely hold a conversation. Even now, her mind was fuzzy. The last thing she could remember was Mason holding her down on the bed while Sieg forced her medicine between her lips.
"I think you were hallucinating. You kept trying to get up and wouldn't sleep. You were drawing transmutation circles on the floor."
Izumi lifted her heavy head and turned to look back over her shoulder at the wooden floor of her bedroom. It looked as if someone had tried to cover it with the rug, but she could see the edges of multiple transmutation circles peeking out from under it. There were also words here and there, crudely hacked into the wood.
"...We're here, sir."
Mustang looked up slowly. His typically sharp eyes were dull and red-rimmed. He blinked.
"Oh..." he mumbled, looking around and realizing that they were outside of his apartment. Kain was standing outside of the company car, holding the door open for him. He got out of the car, stumbling a little as he stepped onto the curb. "Thank you, Fuery."
After getting some water and a little food into him back at the office, Hawkeye had asked him to take the colonel home. Kain was only too happy to comply. Mustang looked terrible, to say the least. He was distant and didn't seem to be able to focus properly. Even on the drive over, he'd kept spacing out and losing track of what was going on. If it weren't for the fact that it was happening to other alchemists as well, Kain might have thought that he was suffering from some kind of neurological injury: perhaps a mild stroke or even some kind of epileptic event that had addled his brain.
But no, Mustang was not the only one suffering from this mysterious ailment. Armstrong, for one, had also been stricken. But it wasn't just him, either. There were now eight more State Alchemists to add to the list, and there were a hell of a lot more of them that no one could seem to contact. Even civilian alchemists were being reported as acting strangely. Many had been admitted to hospitals at various points over the weekend, their families worried about their behavior. The hospitals all over the country were reporting that new alchemist patients were coming in every hour.
Only alchemists seemed to be affected and whatever it was, it was widespread.
Mustang massaged his brow and headed toward the stairs leading up to his apartment. Kain could tell that the man was deeply shaken by the events of the morning and honestly wondered whether or not he should be alone, but by the looks of him he was probably just going to collapse into bed. Still, he would make sure that someone from the office called him at least a few times throughout the day. You know. Just in case.
"I hope you feel better, sir," Kain told him sincerely, watching his back as he ascended the stair.
He responded with a soft, absent grunt. But then he paused, mid-step, and turned to look back at Kain over his shoulder. His brow was furrowed.
"What is it, Colonel? Are you okay?" Kain asked, taking a step toward him.
"...Something just occurred to me."
Mustang stared at him for a beat, then raised his hand to his brow again and pinched the bridge of his nose in fatigued frustration. "Damn it... I can't remember."
Kain's stomach squirmed. "I'm sure it'll come back to you. You must be tired. Try to sleep and maybe you'll remember when you wake up."
"No. Wait. It was important," he insisted, closing his eyes tightly. "Just wait a minute."
And so Kain waited, nervously, fidgeting like an out-of-place kid in a situation that far exceeded his comprehension. But then Mustang opened his eyes, and opened them wide. He dropped his hand from his face and breathed:
"...Has anyone thought to check on the Elrics?"
Maes' shoulder rammed into the door. He backed up and hit it again and the sound of splintering wood echoed down the hallway of the barracks. He had tried knocking, but there was no answer and, given the situation, Maes didn't feel like waiting for the barrack guard to bring him the key. A deep foreboding had coiled itself tightly in his gut, and he could not relax until he knew that the boys were safe. The fact that they hadn't answered the door to his knocking only wound the coil even tighter, and as he battered the door down he could only hope that maybe they just weren't there.
But if they weren't here, that just brought on a whole new kind of worry.
The latch on the door loosed one last, plaintive groan and gave. Maes stumbled inward, his instincts as a military man sensing that something was very wrong, and his fingers itched to draw his knives.
He saw Alphonse first. His bulk was hard to miss, even sitting as he was on the floor in the corner. One of his hands was upraised, the light from the open window glinting the morning's sun off of his forearm. He worked rhythmically, hypnotically, carving those alarmingly familiar equations into the wall.
Almost every surface of the smallish room was textured with the writing. The floor, the furniture, the baseboards, and yes, the walls were almost completely covered. The only blank area was a patch on the wall opposite from Alphonse. Here, the writing went from tight, to loose, to illegible, and it curved downward into a single, jagged line that pointed to the floor...
...and the body lying upon it.
Maes cried out and rushed forward, hitting his knees beside Edward's limp, unmoving form and rolling him over. He was breathing shallowly, sucking rattling breaths into his lungs. His parted lips were so parched that blood oozed from the cracks, hinting at the severe dehydration that his body was suffering. Maes swore.
"Edward!" he shouted in the kid's face.
Ed's eyes were half-lidded and sunken with exhaustion. He was mumbling, the words so quiet and garbled that Maes didn't even try to understand them. He already knew that the words meant nothing, as he had heard the exact same mumblings from Armstrong just a couple of hours before. He shook the boy in his arms, trying to rouse him from his stupor. He didn't respond.
"Damn it, Ed!"
Maes reached down and, with his thumb and forefinger, grabbed a thin piece of skin on the side of Ed's neck and pinched it as hard as he could.
Ed's eyes flipped open wider and he sucked in a startled gasp, his whole body stiffening in Maes' arms in response to the sudden pain. He coughed dryly and started to tremble, his unfocused eyes traveling to Maes' face.
"Ed, kiddo..." Maes called anxiously, brushing his tangled hair out of his face, "Can you hear me?"
Ed gave a soft, almost inaudible moan, and his eyes sank completely shut. Maes swore again and collected him against his chest. He got to his feet with Ed's limp body in his arms, casting an uncertain glance toward Alphonse. The youngest Elric had barely even moved. Maes knelt beside him and shouted his name, screamed it, over and over again.
"Hey, Alphonse! Al!"
He cradled Ed in one arm and banged on Al's armor with his clenched fist. He even went so far as to grab Al's wrist in an attempt to halt his writing, but he didn't stop or look up. He was absorbed with his task and Maes may as well have been a fly battering himself against his metal skin, as much good as it did him to try and bring him back to reality.
Maes knew a panicked moment of indecision. He was going to have to leave Al here, because while both boys were clearly being taken over by the strange alchemic sickness, only Ed was in physical danger. He was badly dehydrated and needed a hospital as fast as Maes could drive him there.
He was going to have to leave Al behind.
"I'll come back for you," he promised, hugging Ed closer and standing. He rushed out the door and down the stairs to his car.
Fuhrer King Bradley sat back in his impressive chair, behind his equally impressive desk, and massaged his fingers into his temple.
For the first time in a very, very long time... he had a headache. A bad one.
It had been so long in fact, that he had forgotten what they felt like. Bradley—or Wrath, as he referred to himself for the most part—rarely underwent the daily pains felt by the mortals he ruled, but that is not to say that he didn't experience it at all. Physical pain was no stranger to him. How could it be, when he was the leader of a vast country, one who insisted on being smack in the middle of the battlefield—much, he might add, to the admiration of his people—fighting alongside his men? Of course he'd been injured at times. He'd been battered, bruised, sliced, stabbed, shot, and any other manner of wartime wounding that one could think of.
No, he was used to pain and it did not bother him in the slightest. He was not, however, accustomed to just not feeling well. This headache was a novelty, as was the dizzy sensation in his gut that it took him a while to identify as nausea. Homunculi did not, as a general rule, get ill.
Alone in his office, Bradley closed his visible eye, and silently marveled at the dull pain in his head, feeling it pulse behind his brow. Still, as unsettling as these unusual sensations were, he had more important things to focus on.
Something was wrong with the Alchemists.
It wasn't just one or two of them, either. It was all of them. The State Alchemists seemed to be falling apart at the seams, and even civilian alchemists were fumbling around on the streets as if they had lost their minds. Bradley had ordered that each State Alchemist be frequently checked up on by a subordinate, and so far this seemed to be helping a little, but each Alchemist's mysterious symptoms were still lingering.
It had been two days since the outbreak of alchemic illness, and already mass panic was beginning to flood across the nation. Many of the alchemists had been found scrawling nonsense over their offices and bedrooms, others—like Fullmetal, who had just been released from Central Hospital this morning—had been found unconscious, overcome by dehydration and malnutrition, their sudden, unnatural obsessions with their unknowable projects keeping them from food, drink, and sleep for days.
The press was unshakable; Bradley could hardly leave his office without being bombarded with questions about what was going on. The only thing he could definitively tell them was that only alchemists were affected by the malady. Moreover, the individual alchemist's skill seemed to decide how deeply the malady affected them. Beginning alchemy students and those who were just vague hobbyists in the art didn't appear to be nearly as affected as those who had made alchemy a profession or were particularly talented in it.
Needless to say, this meant that every single one of Bradley's State Alchemists were all but useless at the moment. And things were only getting worse as the days passed. For the most part, they had stopped drawing and writing their archaic nonsense unless they were left alone for too long, but they were still increasingly distracted and could barely carry a conversation. Bradley had spent nearly twenty minutes on the phone with Colonel Mustang trying to discuss what needed to be done and to gauge how badly the highest-ranking alchemist had been incapacitated by the outbreak—badly, it seemed—before he got frustrated with the Colonel's distraction and had him put Lieutenant Hawkeye on the phone to speak for him. She had agreed that holding a meeting in Central, where all the suffering military alchemists could be grouped in one place as they assessed the situation and decided how to best deal with what was happening.
Bradley had called a meeting for the following afternoon. Every State Alchemist—each chaperoned by at least one subordinate—was to report to Central Headquarters by noon tomorrow.
Whatever this was, they would deal with it. There was no other option, really. Bradley didn't know what the meeting would bring or—given their current mental state—how many of the Alchemists would be about themselves enough to show up, but the great Fuhrer and Homunculus honestly didn't have any better ideas at this point. He needed his State Alchemists. They were the lifeblood of this country and were one of the most powerful political pieces that Bradley had to play.
As much of a thorn in his side as some of them tended to be—Mustang and Fullmetal, particularly—he could not afford to lose them... especially those two. They were an integral part of something far beyond the political stability of this country. Father had made it abundantly clear that they were both to be watched closely, and nothing was to happen to them. Not yet, anyway. And that just brought a whole new kind of pressure to finding out what was going on. Not only was the country depending on Bradley to repair this situation, but so were the rest of the Homunculi and the goals they were destined to achieve.
Everything they had been working for was at risk. Every carefully laid plan, every excruciating detail, every drop of blood and sweat... all of it would be worth nothing if anything were to happen to the alchemists.
Bradley's stomach churned uncomfortably and, with slow frustration, in a private show of weakness that likely would have disturbed any one of his men had they been present, he lowered his throbbing brow his desk and buried his head in his arms.
He didn't know what it meant, but Bradley could not ignore how his lingering—and increasingly unpleasant—sickness was coinciding with the malady of the alchemists. It was too strange to be a coincidence; the two conditions had to be connected. The air Bradley breathed was heavy and unsatisfying, as if there was some kind of great weight sitting upon his chest that kept him from drawing complete lungfuls.
But deeper than his physical discomfort, there was a sort of jitteriness, an anxiousness flitting around inside of him that he could not shake. It was like the thrill of being on the edge of a promising battle, the anticipation of something great and terrible coming toward him... but this manner of anticipation was in the face of an unknown outcome, for a battle with an unknown enemy. All Bradley knew was that something was coming.
And even he, the great Fuhrer of Amestris, Wrath the Homunculus, did not know how to fight it.