Riza looked behind her to watch Mustang ascend the grand steps leading up to the looming whiteness of Central Headquarters. He was following her, but slowly, and he kept pausing as if he wasn't entirely sure of what he was doing or where he was going. As she watched he stopped again, his bleary eyes wandering over to watch another group of soldiers—some of them likely State Alchemists, judging by how they wandered around until another soldier in their party regained their attention.
She went back down the stairs to his side and took his arm.
It took a moment, but his eyes eventually trained themselves onto her face and he grunted.
"Yeah, yeah..." he mumbled to her grumpily, rubbing his brow with one hand as he allowed her to lead him up the steps.
He was getting worse. According to Fuhrer Bradley, all of the alchemists were. Mustang had barely spoken a word on the train ride over. He'd just stared out the window the entire time, one finger absently tracing invisible transmutation circles against the thigh of his uniform.
He did have his moments of clarity, though. They were few and far between—and getting even more rare, as the days progressed—but he seemed to be trying his damnedest to stay alert since they had arrived in Central. His mind was still getting fogged and lost at times, but he was more functional than he had been for the past few days. Perhaps it was out of habit, since as a soldier he had always made it a point to be on his toes whenever in Central. Whatever the case, it was encouraging that, over the past hour or so, he had seemed a little less distant. Certainly more frustrated and irritated with his own inattention, but Riza supposed that was simply because he was currently more aware of it.
There were a few people gathered outside the meeting hall, and the open door showed that many were already inside and had seated themselves, fidgeting anxiously, waiting for Bradley to arrive and begin discussions. Riza caught sight of Edward just outside the massive wooden doors, his bright red coat hard to miss amidst the sea of dark blue. Lieutenant Colonel Hughes was at his side, and he raised his hand in greeting, calling them over when he saw them.
"Good morning, sir," Riza said as they approached.
"Good morning, Lieutenant Hawkeye," he answered her, but his eyes were fixed on Mustang, taking him in. The crease that suddenly appeared between his brows let her know that he, too, thought Mustang looked terrible.
He looked a bit better than when Riza had first found him in his office days ago, when he'd been bereft of food, water, and sleep for days on end... but not much. Since then, Riza had made very sure that Mustang ate regularly and always had some kind of liquid on hand—which was a trial in itself, since Mustang was rather prone to forgetting about meals even when he was completely healthy—but she had a very firm hunch that he still wasn't sleeping well. He didn't say anything about it and she knew better than to ask, which was one of the many reasons that Riza was glad they ran into Hughes so quickly. His relationship with Mustang was a little less strict, and he pretty much said what he wanted to say to the colonel, whenever he wanted to say it. Whether or not they were on duty.
"Damn, Mustang..." Hughes said to him, acting playfully irreverent to hide his concern, "You look like you haven't slept in weeks."
Mustang was looking at the other group of alchemists again, but finally he raised his head and acknowledged the lieutenant colonel. It took him a second to process the man's words, but then he grunted as he had before, looking irritated and exhausted.
"Perhaps I haven't."
Hughes gave him a small, worried smirk. "You'll sleep better after the meeting. Maybe one of the other alchemists has figured out what's going on."
"Hm," the colonel grunted again, not sounding even slightly convinced. "Maybe."
An unhappy silence passed between the four of them and Mustang's gaze wandered back toward the group of Alchemists. Ed, too, Riza noticed, was watching them.
The kid looked worse than Mustang, if she was going to be completely honest. Hughes had called the office right after finding him half-dead in his dormitory room to say that he'd taken him to the hospital. Since Ed was so young and his body was still growing and in need of more nutrients than an adult, those few days of no food or water had taken a much harsher toll on him than it had with many of the other alchemists... and the extra energy his body needed to burn in order to operate his automail certainly made matters even worse for him. Fullmetal was mostly okay; the hospital had needed to put him on intravenous fluids for a while to get him rehydrated, but they said he was going to be fine with enough bed rest and nourishment.
Fine or not however, he looked like a train wreck and it was clear that he had lost some weight in just those few days. Some of the roundness of his young face had disappeared, and he looked so very tired. His golden hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, but it wasn't braided as it usually was and looked as if it hadn't been brushed in a while. His bangs hung in his face haphazardly, partially hiding the blue-black shadows under his eyes. He looked in dire need of both sleep and a few balanced meals.
"How are you, Edward?" she felt compelled to ask, that very rare parental fiber that lived within her making itself felt at the sight of him.
Ed didn't respond immediately. But then, oddly, he reached up his sleeve and Riza heard a soft snap from the vicinity of his wrist. He winced a little, then blinked up at Riza and sighed, "Better. I think."
"He was in pretty bad shape, but he'll be okay," Hughes told her, either not noticing or just ignoring whatever Ed had done up his sleeve. He frowned and shot a glance to Mustang, then added, "Well, at least as 'okay' as the rest of the alchemists are..."
"And Al? Is he any better?"
Ed dropped his hands back to his sides. When he spoke, his voice was very soft. "No. Sometimes I can get him look at me... but mostly he just sits there, writing on the walls. Or just staring. That's what he was doing this morning. I don't think he's moved at all since last night."
There was pain in the young man's tone, and deep worry. Riza's heart squeezed for him and she dared to reach forward and put a hand on his shoulder.
"We'll figure this out. Everything will be fine, Ed." She half felt it a lie even as she said it, but she had no other way of offering comfort. Sometimes a little, comforting lie is necessary. Ed just clenched his jaw and looked at his feet.
According to Hughes, Al still hadn't snapped out of the obsessive daze that had plagued the alchemists of Amestris. Hughes had tried everything: screaming at him, speaking to him gently, hitting him, physically moving him away from the wall he'd been writing on... Nothing worked. The only upside was that Alphonse required no sustenance or sleep, so his altered mental state was not going to threaten his health... But poor Ed must be frightened and devastated by the pseudo-loss of his brother, not able to communicate with him even though he could be sitting right next to him...
Riza tried to smile and shift the subject a little. "Well, at least you seem pretty alert, Fullmetal. More alert than the colonel, at least."
At this the three of them looked over at Mustang, who was obliviously staring into space, not paying any attention to their conversation. The group of alchemists that he'd been watching had moved on, but he continued to stare at the bit of pavement where they had recently been standing.
Ed watched his superior for a moment, his hand wandering up his sleeve and producing that odd snapping sound again. Ed winced once more, but then his eyes seemed to brighten a little. "Oh, I almost forgot..."
He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out what looked to be a black rubber band, the kind that he tended to braid his hair with. He took one of Mustang's hands and slid the band onto his wrist. Sluggishly, Mustang turned his head and looked down at him. He didn't pull away or really react at all, just bemusedly watched him without any real expression.
"Watch this," Ed told Riza. He pulled an edge of the band taut, then released it and let it snap hard against the tender inside of Mustang's wrist.
The colonel jumped. "Ow!" he exclaimed. He grabbed his wrist with his other hand and glared daggers down at Edward with suddenly bright and attentive eyes. "What the hell is wrong with...?"
But then he stopped. He looked around, as if in wonderment, before returning his eyes to his sore wrist. "...Ow," he said again softly, though this time his voice was full of contemplation rather than surprise and irritation.
He suddenly looked more focused than he had in days.
"I figured it out when Lieutenant Colonel Hughes told me how he got me to break out of that daze when he found me," Ed told him. He pointed to the side of his neck, where Riza could now see there was a pretty nasty-looking bruise. "He pinched me. Hard. I was thinking that maybe it was the pain that grounded me..." He rolled up the sleeve on his left hand and pushed the rubber band he was wearing there out of the way. The skin on his wrist was red and raised into stinging welts. Some of it was scabbed over as if it had been recently bleeding. It wasn't pretty.
"It's not a long-term solution..." he continued, grimacing down at his welts, "but snapping the band helps. I just give it a whack if my mind starts to wander... or Hughes does it for me if I'm too spacey. It's already not working as well as it was when I started doing it... but it's better than nothing. I think this might be why we can't wake Al... He can't feel pain, so we can't shake him from the daze. He's in there..." he stumbled a moment and brushed his hair out of his face, "...I just can't get to him."
"Clever..." Mustang mumbled, giving his own band another snap. "As uncomfortable as it is, I can feel a huge difference already. Good thinking."
Ed shrugged at the rare praise, looking disinterested, but Riza swore that she could see the flush of pride touching his pale cheeks.
After a few minutes of waiting for more State Alchemists and officials to gather, the four of them went inside and seated themselves in the meeting hall. Fuhrer Bradley was already seated at the center of the panel table, his fingers steepled. Riza watched him observing his Alchemists as they entered, his expression remaining ever closed. He looked paler than his usual self she noted, as if he, too, were suffering from lack of sleep. The thought of Bradley losing sleep and health over the wellbeing of his people was both touching and worrisome to Riza, given how stoic he typically was. She had never seen him look this out of sorts before. He looked positively ill as he watched his State Alchemists settle themselves.
Now that he was a little more alert—thanks to Ed's ingenuity—Mustang, too, was watching his cohorts with more than just vague confusion. He was watching them critically, regarding them as they gathered, and Riza could almost see his heart sink at the sight of them.
The alchemists—just about all of them—were complete wrecks. They were unkempt and groggy, as fragile looking as if they were battling some kind of terminal illness. Even Major Armstrong, that imposing, ever-powerful figure, seemed worn and tattered. Even the soldiers like Riza who were accompanying their alchemist superiors looked very frazzled and on edge, and Riza knew that they saw the same thing when they looked at her. All told, just about everyone at the meeting looked—and most certainly felt—awful.
Bradley began the meeting without much preamble. His obvious fatigue and distress was almost more unsettling than that of the disarrayed alchemists. The Fuhrer filled them in on the situation, but none of the information was really new. Alchemists from all over were still being brought to hospitals by their families; others were still missing, feared to have wandered off and been unable to find their way back home in their altered state of mind.
A few older alchemists had been found dead in their homes over the past few days, though no one could determine what had caused their deaths. Stress on their hearts, possibly... although one of the deaths was being handled as a suicide.
Even though she'd heard this all before, Riza couldn't help but feel the knot of fear in her gut tighten as the Fuhrer spoke. What the hell was going on? And, more importantly, was there a way to stop it? People were dying from this now. Another dead alchemist had been found that very morning, discovered by her brother. The reports said that she had lived alone, and no one had heard from her for days before she was found. Her brother found her body on the floor of her kitchen, surrounded by that alchemic writing. She had died of dehydration. There had been a fully-functioning sink not two feet away from her... and in her delirium she had chosen to perish rather than stop writing for long enough to take a drink.
"I've called you all here for a reason," Bradley was saying. He paused for a moment, uncharacteristically hesitant, then went on, "I'm at a loss, men. Something beyond my knowledge and understanding is happening to all of you... and I can't even begin to figure out what to do about it. Any further information you can provide to me, to all of us, may help in better understanding the situation and finding a way to remedy it. Please, tell me what is going on in your heads. Shed some light on this for us. Because as it is..." He spread his hands helplessly, leaning back in his chair.
Stillness took the room. The assisting soldiers all looked at each other. Most of the alchemists weren't even paying attention. Those few of them who were able to follow the Fuhrer's words stared at the floor, not knowing what to say. Beside her, Mustang snapped the band around his wrist and, slowly, got to his feet.
"Yes, Mustang," Bradley acknowledged him, looking almost relieved.
"Sir..." he began, but then he stopped and rubbed his eyes with his gloved hand. "This is... it's very hard to put into words."
"Anything is better than nothing, Colonel."
"I suppose, sir." Mustang snapped the band again and clenched his jaw. He didn't say anything for several more seconds, then he took a breath.
"Something is Calling us."
The room stirred a little. Even some of the spaced-out alchemists raised their heads.
"What is it?" Bradley asked, resting his folded hands on the panel table in front of him and leaning forward.
"I don't know. I don't know what it is. I don't even know where it wants me to go or what it wants me to do. It's like a phantom whispering in my ear. Just... constantly whispering, for days now. And I don't have a damn clue what it's saying."
He put a hand to his head and massaged his temple. There was a tenseness in his voice that Riza was not accustomed to hearing. He sounded as if he were working very hard to keep himself from getting upset. "It isn't even really a voice. It's just a feeling. Impressions. And an odd urge to write it all down, to try and figure it out, to calculate..."
"That's the carving and transmutation circles, I'm assuming?" Bradley asked.
Mustang nodded uncomfortably. He put a hand to his wrist. Snap. "It's hard to breathe. It's hard to think. There's a pressure in the air, a need for... for some kind of release..."
"It's like... having to sneeze, but not being able to," Ed supplied, standing at Mustang's side. "But much more intense. It's frustrating. Almost painful."
"A crude analogy, but yes," Mustang agreed. "It's as if there's something that I have to do... somewhere I have to go... but I don't know what or where. But something deep within me yearns to follow the Call. The fact that I'm not following it and don't even understand it is absolutely maddening..."
"Exactly," Ed rejoined. "I feel like..." he crossed his arms over his chest and looked, very suddenly, like the world-weary little boy that he often pretended not to be. "I feel like I would do almost anything to make this feeling stop."
Several alchemists in the room nodded and breathed soft, troubled words of agreement. Riza and Hughes looked at each other. While they had know that, of course, the alchemists were deeply troubled by what was happening to them, neither of them had understood how deep this went.
Mustang looked down at Fullmetal and swallowed tightly, then raised his head again. Riza could almost see him pushing back his doubts and fears, thrusting that classic Mustang confidence to the forefront of his being. It was painful to watch. She sat back in her chair, knowing what he was about to do, and cringed inwardly.
The colonel looked around at his fellow alchemists and threw them a cocky smirk. Only Riza and Hughes could see how thin that smile was and they exchanged another unhappy glance.
"But there is clarity through pain, my friends. Fullmetal discovered it." He raised his hand to show the band around his wrist, then snapped it in demonstration. "Inducing pain clears the head a little and brings us back to reality when our minds wander. This isn't going to solve the problem, but I know that speaking for myself, it's helping me focus a great deal. And with this tentative focus, together we may be able to figure out what is going on and put a stop to it."
Mustang lowered his voice, and that fire that Riza knew so well began to smolder behind his tired eyes as he spoke again. She had to hand it to him... as exhausted as he was, he was still Roy Mustang.
"We are Alchemists of the State. We have been through worse hells, and we will come out of this."
The alchemists stirred again, interested and, for the first time, looking hopeful. Sometimes it only took a few carefully chosen words to rally a crowd, and Mustang had always been a talented speaker on that front. While this particular little speech was sloppy and weak by his standards, Mustang's peers were desperate enough to latch onto any little glimmer of hope that they could. More than any of the other State Alchemists, Roy Mustang was truly born to lead. Even in a crisis—or, truly, especially in a crisis—people were drawn to him.
As wrought and spent as he clearly was, Riza could see that just about every soldier in the room was already looking to him for guidance. She sighed to herself, knowing that he really was the best man for the job, but quietly doubting that he had the strength or presence of mind to do it this time. Sure, through the mild pain trick that Ed had introduced to him he was much clearer-minded than he had been just this morning... but something deep within her knew that it wasn't going to be enough. If Mustang himself needed help, how could everyone around him expect him to lead them?
Bradley commended Edward and Mustang on discovering the thought-clearing tool of pain and suggested that the other alchemists give it a try. None of them looked exactly thrilled about the prospect of purposefully hurting themselves, but she saw many somber nods of agreement in the room. What other option did they really have?
The meeting continued on from there, but since no one else really had anything to contribute, Bradley called it to a close before too long. He dismissed them with the final command to stay in Central for the time being, and he ordered each alchemist's subordinates to watch their respective superiors closely.
As they were leaving, all of them walking back down those front steps to HQ, Riza reflected that she didn't feel any better about the situation than she had upon ascending them. She saw Mustang—tired, anxious Mustang—and knew without asking that he felt the same way. The difference was that Mustang had no choice but to keep silent about his doubts and misgivings. He had made himself a beacon of hope, and he had no other option than to keep himself shining brightly.
"Roy..." Hughes began, and she could hear the same caution she felt in his voice.
"I know," Mustang answered him as he walked. The burden that he'd just taken onto his shoulders was immense, and Riza imagined she could see it weighing him down with every step. "I know."
Roy sat at his desk, alone in the generic officer's room he had been assigned while staying in Central. He pulled back the band that Ed had given him days ago and let it snap against his wrist. He had been doing this so often for the past few days that he scarcely even felt it as the black elastic bit into the bloody, half-scabbed underside of his wrist. As Ed had warned, the band was almost completely ineffective now.
Still, if all went according to plan, he wouldn't be needing it much longer.
He chewed his thumbnail and looked over the papers on his desk again, his own hurried writing lit by the modest green desk lamp at his side. He was nervous. As he looked back over the papers again however, his notes kept bringing him back to the same conclusion that—if his theories were correct—the pros of this experiment would far outweigh the cons.
With the band-snap losing effectiveness, Roy had found himself unable to continue researching for any clues as to what was going on with him and his fellow alchemists. His only option was to take a short hiatus from that research and delve into a new kind of study, one that would hopefully lead to a better solution to his foggy-mindedness. It had been his first thought to start inflicting more intense amounts of pain on himself... but Roy had a fairly high pain tolerance and knew that he would be right back where he'd started once he got used to it and it wasn't enough to clear his mind anymore.
So then Roy stopped and thought about the mechanics of pain. What was it about the pain that kept the Call from stealing their senses and encroaching upon their minds? The adrenaline, Roy supposed. Sure, it was a very small dose when administered by the rubber band, but the stimulant was known for its ability to sharpen minds and enhance reflexes. It was a natural defense mechanism in response to pain that had been a part of human brain chemistry since they were grunting cave men. But what, then, could harness the stimulating effects of adrenaline other than pain or primal fear?
And after some lengthy searching and inner debate, a possible solution came to him.
It was, however, a solution that he did not like in the slightest.
He ran a hand through his hair and let his eyes fix themselves on the tool of his experimentation.
"...I cannot believe I'm doing this..." he muttered to himself.
He clenched his jaw and sighed, hoping that he wasn't going to regret this, then bent his head over the substance on his desk and inhaled sharply.
It wasn't exactly surprising by this point. Truthfully, Ed probably would have been more surprised if Al actually had replied to him.
It had been a week since everything went to hell.
It had been a week since Alphonse had spoken a single word.
Ed was almost getting used to sharing the dorm room with his silent form, that glimmer of hope within him that insisted that Al would come back to himself soon shrinking smaller and smaller with every passing day. Major Hughes and his wife had offered to let Ed stay with them rather than sit with his silently spaced-out brother night after night—it wasn't as if Al would even notice if he left...—but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Even if Al couldn't hear him or didn't know that he was there, Ed just couldn't leave him alone.
Moreover, Ed didn't want to be without him, even if he couldn't speak to him.
It was getting dark in the room. The sun had gone down without Ed really noticing—he'd lost track of time, as he was increasingly often over the passing days—and he hadn't yet felt the need to turn the lights on. The sky outside was still a pale, diluted orange where it met the horizon and it was still enough for him to see by.
Ed sat on his bed in the dimness, across from where Al was sitting—just sitting and staring, as always—and rolled up the leg of his boxers, exposing his thigh. There was a knife on the bed beside him, and a clean length of bandage. Both of these objects were illuminated by the artificial glow of street lamps coming in though the window, giving them ghostly halos against the dark bedclothes.
The rubber band trick wasn't working too well anymore. It had started losing effectiveness days ago, and now it barely did anything to keep the distraction and the ghastly white noise at bay. The Call was getting stronger. It made Ed's skin crawl, made him want to run from his dorm, screaming, and never come back. It kept him awake at night. It turned his stomach. He had to make it stop.
He lifted the knife and rested the sharp edge against his leg.
The rubber band wasn't enough now. That was just a little pain. Surely, if he just inflicted a little more pain... surely it would work even better...?
He pressed the knife down against his skin, but hesitated to cut. He didn't want to do it. He did not enjoy the thought of causing himself pain, and his insides clenched in anticipation of it. But it would help. He knew it would make him think more clearly, and keep that incomprehensible Call away for just a bit longer...
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, preparing himself for the first slice.
The phone on the bedside table behind him loosed a shrill ring. He jumped, startled as if he'd been caught doing something wrong. He swallowed and shook himself, his shaking knife moving away from his leg as he reached over with his other hand to answer the phone.
"Yeah? What?" he demanded into the receiver, trying to sound irritated in an attempt to disguise his queasy anxiousness.
"Fullmetal." It was Mustang. "I'm calling another meeting tomorrow, at Headquarters. I have some news. Not great news. Well, kinda. Maybe. It's news. Just news. And some other stuff that might help."
To Ed's ears, the Colonel sounded almost unnaturally awake compared to how lost and disjointed he felt. He was speaking very quickly and had an odd, strained inflection to his voice, like a fidgety child. "What... what kind of news?" Ed managed to grate out after a moment.
"I'll tell you tomorrow. It's important. And unfortunate. Kind of frightening, really. But also helpful. Parts of it, at least. But it's all important, so you need to be there."
Ed massaged his brow, trying to follow the colonel's rapid-fire words. "...Why don't you just tell me now?"
"Because I want you at the meeting. Don't be late. Nine o'clock. Okay? Okay. Bye."
And then he hung up without waiting for an answer.
Ed placed the phone back on the hook slowly, his tired, unfocused mind still processing what Mustang had been saying. What the hell did all that mean?
He sat back a little, alone-but-not-alone in the darkness and silence of the room.
What had he been doing before the phone rang? He'd already forgotten. That static feeling, the voiceless Call flooded his brain with incomprehensible noise and thoughts.
He turned his head and saw the glinting steel in his other hand and remembered.
"Oh," he said aloud. Purposefully not giving himself any more time to think about it, Ed raised the blade and drew it in a rapid, frantic line across his leg. He swore and gritted his teeth as he felt the deep sting of his splitting flesh.
And then, reveling in the quiet euphoria of his regained clarity and the renewed focus in his watering eyes, he took a deep, uncertain breath and watched his blood seep from the gash. It spilled down his pale thigh in thick lines, the red looking black in the failing light.
Al sat in his corner silently and did nothing.