Maes' heart dropped into his stomach when he saw Roy. Maes hadn't seen him face-to-face since the last meeting several days ago. He had looked awful then, but now...
He didn't even look alive. He looked like a doll being manipulated by an invisible puppeteer.
He was wired, that was for sure. Maes could tell by the quick, spastic way that he glanced at everything around him as he walked. He looked twitchy, like a rabbit that smells the approach of a wild dog. He didn't look frightened, though. He looked angry.
His obvious drug use was upsetting, but Maes wasn't exactly surprised. He just swallowed back his worry and decided not to say anything. Hawkeye was walking a pace or so behind him, and Maes could plainly see that she felt his sentiments.
Roy stormed past Maes and into the meeting hall without even acknowledging him. Maes almost turned to follow him but, as worried as he was... he didn't really want to speak to him. Not now, when he was so obviously strung out and not even trying to hide it.
"He dosed himself in the car."
Maes turned to look at Hawkeye. Her tired eyes were still on her superior's back as he disappeared into the conference room.
"He... he took a hit in front of you?" Maes asked, appalled.
She nodded slowly, turning her head to look at him. "He'd been out of it since yesterday afternoon. We had to go... pick some up. He asked me to drive him to skid row this morning before the meeting. So I did. He bought what he needed, got into the back of the car, and snorted his line without saying a word about it. That's why he's so wired; it's barely been twenty minutes since he hit." She cleared her throat and shook herself, clearly upset. "I think he took more than he was supposed to... but I can't really tell. I don't know much about cocaine."
"You didn't have to stand for that, even if he is your superior," Maes bristled. "You should have said something."
"I did say something. That's why he's angry." She ran a hand across her brow, radiating worried fatigue. "How far is this going to go, Lieutenant Colonel? When will enough truly be enough?"
Maes swallowed. "I don't know."
It was getting bad with Roy. His temper had always been prone to angry flares, but that tendency had increased tenfold over the past few days. Maes could scarcely speak with him on the phone anymore. He'd been trying to call at least once a day to see how he was doing, but it was so easy to frustrate and anger Roy these days that Maes almost didn't want to continue calling him.
They were all worried. Maes wondered if Hawkeye was filling the rest of Mustang's staff in on their beloved commander's wellbeing. They were all still at Eastern HQ, holding down the fort until he and Hawkeye got back. Maes was fairly certain she was keeping them informed somewhat, but somehow he doubted that she told them about the drug use. They didn't need to know, and it would only make them worry more and doubt their commander's judgment. Maes could see that Hawkeye herself was beginning to doubt, and the last thing she needed was more of Mustang's subordinates encouraging those dark feelings within her.
Roy was losing control. Maes knew it. Hawkeye knew it. Roy most likely knew it, too, but he was in too deep to stop now. At least, that was his excuse and Maes honestly couldn't tell at this point whether or not he was wrong.
Maes looked down at Hawkeye and desperately wanted to say something comforting to her, but he didn't have the heart to lie. And so, after giving him a quiet salute, she turned and went back to the company car to wait for the meeting to conclude and Maes followed Mustang's departure into the building.
There were even fewer alchemists who showed up this time. More alchemists were missing. Others simply hadn't bothered to show. Others still were dead.
In the past four days, twelve alchemists from all over Amestris—some military, some civilian—had been found dead. And then just last night, three more had been reported as dead by their families. Most of them, Maes' investigations had concluded, appeared to be suicide.
It was becoming very apparent to all the non-alchemists that when Ed and Mustang had tried to explain that they would do just about anything to block this Call, they hadn't been exaggerating. It was hard to ignore the depth of this torture for them when so many of their number had chosen to end their lives over it rather than wait to see what fruit Mustang's research bore.
Maes took a chair next to Ed and rubbed his brow. He didn't bother asking Ed how he was, though he did give him a quick glance that showed him enough to twist his insides into even tighter knots of anxiety. He knew how Ed was. He didn't have to ask. He knew how they all were, and it wasn't good.
The alchemists who had actually managed to make it to the meeting were all on their last leg. Those who abstained from the cocaine were drained and in pain. There was no hope left in their eyes and even Edward, that little spitfire, looked younger and more defeated than Maes had ever seen him. His cheeks and eyes were sunken from not eating or sleeping, and his hair was in need of a good washing. He looked like a vagabond who had been wandering the streets for days. At least he didn't appear to still be cutting himself—as far at Maes could tell, at least. Even if the cutting worked better than the band, that was not a path that Maes ever wanted to see Edward go down. Especially not when, as in Roy's case, the method of blocking the Call had the risk of becoming an addiction.
Because Maes didn't think that Roy was addicted to the cocaine per se. No, Roy was just desperate to keep the Call away. That was his addiction: the silence and mental control it gave him. To Maes, that seemed far more dangerous a habit, because it was an entirely understandable one.
And then there were the rest of the alchemists—the others who had decided to alleviate their ills with the cocaine—and their appearances were even more disturbing than Ed's. Like Roy, they all had that twitchy, frantic air about them and looked more like animated corpses than living people. They were almost frightening to look at, like mad demons from a fairytale... and Roy was one of them. And not only was he one of them, he was their ringleader: the sad and horrifying Demon King.
Roy pulled a stack of files from his briefcase and slammed them down on the table. His ire was still volatile, it seemed. Armstrong stood beside him and they exchanged a few quiet words, though Roy was speaking very tightly and looked ready to blow up at any moment. Still, having another alchemist near him, one who fully understood what he was going through, seemed to soothe him even if only a little.
"We're going to keep this brief today, Colonel Mustang," Bradley rasped, interrupting them. Maes looked over at him. Bradley looked almost as bad as the alchemists. In all the years that Maes had worked for him, even during the war, the proud Fuhrer had never looked so overwhelmed or exhausted. Bradley was a man who was starting to get on in years, but never had he worn those years so heavily. He looked old and sick now, and it was shocking. "Unless you've found something more helpful than a few newspaper clippings," he continued wryly.
Roy bristled at the blame in his voice and almost—almost—lost it. It was frightening how close he suddenly came to rounding on the Fuhrer, but Armstrong put a firm hand on his shoulder, silently telling him to calm himself. After a moment, Roy took a deep breath and, still looking as if he wanted to kill someone, let it out and made himself speak softly to his superior.
"Then we might as well get started, sir," he agreed through clenched teeth. "I doubt any more of us are going to show up."
"Fine. What do you have for us?"
"Not much. But I do have more proof that this has happened before. Possibly even more than once in our history. There are also some strange seismic events—something akin to earthquakes, it seems—happening along the fault line, according to the university. They don't know what to make of it, but it can't just be a coincidence. The fault has been essentially dormant since around the same time that these other alchemic occurrences were taking place. There has to be some kind of a link between the two." Roy seemed to deflate a little and rubbed his face with his hand. "But we don't have much more than that... I'm sorry."
"It doesn't make sense," Major Gate whispered. She was sitting a couple of seats away from Maes, on Ed's side. There was another alchemist, Lieutenant Colonel Casey, sitting in between Ed and Gate. Both Maes and Ed leaned forward, looking past him to see Gate. That angry fire that had been in her during the last meeting was gone. Now, there only remained a sense of hopelessness and exhaustion. Like Ed, she had abstained from the drug. She still wore the rubber band around her ravaged wrist however, and it was painfully clear how much she had been using it. Blood was dripping from her fingertips from the pulpy wounds at her wrist, but she either didn't notice or didn't care. Her eyes were utterly dead. "It can't have happened before. We would know if it happened before," she continued, her voice so dazed and tired-sounding that Maes almost reached over to comfort her.
"Something this big doesn't just disappear," Casey spoke up from beside Gate, though his voice was much stronger and more agitated than hers. "And this is big. And even if it's only affecting us alchemists... it would be in our texts somewhere. How do you explain that?"
"Then what the fuck are you doing, Mustang? You're wasting time with goddamn newspapers and earthquakes! How does this help us? How does it fix what's going on? What are we going to do?"
"I don't know, alright?" Roy spat back, losing that frail tether on his temper again. "Any information we find could be the answer! We can't just stop searching because it isn't what you want to hear!"
The alchemists in the room shifted, whispering to one another, all of them feeling the sudden pressure in the hall. Ed fidgeted beside Maes and they exchanged a quick, uncertain glance as the man on Ed's other side stumbled to his feet.
"Parker killed himself!" Casey roared, standing to face Roy. "Major Johnson, Major Reed, Lieutenant Colonel Davis; all dead! They were my colleagues! My friends!"
"And I'm doing what I can to prevent more deaths! If this has happened before—"
"Who the fuck cares if this has happened before? It's happening now!" Casey's voice cracked and, with the quick motion of a trained soldier, he reached down to his belt and withdrew his pistol. "And not all of us can wait for you to save us, Mustang."
Armstrong instinctively jumped in front of Roy as the gun went off, but as everyone soon realized in the sudden reeling chaos of the room, the Colonel was not the intended target.
The side of Casey's head burst open in the roar of gunfire, showering both Edward and Maes in a mist of blood and soft chunks of grey matter. The hand that had held his own gun to his head dropped back to his side and the pistol slipped from his bloody fingers.
Ed cried out as the body collapsed against him. Gates and Maes both rushed in to pull Casey's lifeless form off of the boy and lay it on the floor as the rest of the room broke into a panic. Some of the alchemists rushed up to gather around the corpse. Some of them even tried to resuscitate him, even though they all knew that he was already dead. Others fled the room entirely, too overcome by the lives of their fellows crumbling around them to witness the horror further.
Ed remained in his seat, recoiling back into it, his legs drawn up as if he was trying to keep himself as far away from the corpse as possible, but was still rooted to where he sat and did not have the presence of mind to get up and leave.
Maes grabbed him and led him away from the body and the grieving, scared alchemists encircling it.
They'd barely made it outside before Ed's legs gave out from under him. He hit his knees and threw up onto the concrete. Maes crouched behind him and, while he was distracted, quickly brushed bone fragments and globs of pulverized brain matter from the boy's shoulder's and hair and hoped with a heavy, frantic heart and sick stomach that he hadn't noticed them. He was absolutely covered in it.
Roy swept out of the building not too far behind them, Major Armstrong close at his heels. The colonel's dark eyes were wide and his face had gone an unearthly shade of grey-white.
"Were either of you injured?" he asked, looking between Maes and Ed.
"I wasn't," Maes answered shakily. He looked to Ed, one hand still on his shoulder as they knelt together. "You?"
"No," the boy whispered, the word so very quiet and despairing that it tore at Maes' heart. Blood dripped down the side Ed's cheek and Maes reached forward deftly to wipe it away with the cuff of his uniform.
Roy nodded to them both and ran a hand through his hair, his drugged jitteriness redoubling itself in the face of what had just happened. His hands were trembling.
"Lieutenant Colonel Casey..." Armstrong breathed from Roy's side, almost to himself, clearly reeling. "We were in combat together... he was unshakable, and so kind..." His gravelly voice hitched. "I just cannot believe that he—"
"Stop." The word came from Roy's lips as an imperious order, and Armstrong flinched to hear it. The major wrapped his massive arms around himself, shoulders quaking, and fell immediately silent.
Roy closed his eyes tightly and clenched his jaw, then looked over at his fellow State Alchemist and friend, thinking. He regarded him calculatingly for a long time, his nervous short-temperedness deflating a little into a harsh, tightly wound kind of sadness. "Alex..." he began gravely, "Give me your gun."
Armstrong looked at him sharply, unfolding his arms. "Sir... you must know that I would never..."
"I know," he said, reaching down to his own gun belt and unfastening his weapon. He drew it out and, without looking at him, offered it to Maes. "Neither would I. In his right mind, Casey wouldn't have either." He swallowed. "But we are not in our right minds, Alex."
Slowly, Maes stood and took the gun that his friend was offering to him, the sick pit of his stomach fully understanding the gravity of what was happening, of the dark possibility that Roy was admitting existed in all of the alchemists right now. Armstrong's great shoulders sagged and, without a word, he drew his own gun and gave it to Maes as well.
With a heart so heavy that it made him ill, Maes turned back to Roy. "Your gloves, too," he rasped.
Roy closed his eyes very tightly for a moment, then rummaged in his pockets and produced his gloves. He held them in his hands silently, his glazed eyes taking in the red details of the transmutation circles stitched upon them, then handed them over. He did not meet Maes' eyes as he took them. Instead he turned and, with Armstrong following close behind, headed back toward where Hawkeye was waiting with the car.
Edward sat, alone and silent, on the floor of the bathroom, his arms wrapped around his knees, his dull eyes staring at his red coat on the floor and the dark spatters that now stained it.
It was all he could do to not think about the postage stamp sized piece of scalp—complete with blood-matted tresses of Casey's hair—that he had fallen out of the hood when he'd taken it off.
A knock sounded on the door.
"Edward? You okay, kid? You've been in there a while."
Water dripped from the shower head and hit the awaiting tub below, filling the small room with the soft and steady beat, beat, beat...
He leaned his back against the edge of the tub, the white porcelain still warm from the long, long shower he had just taken. He had scrubbed his skin and scalp until they were raw, frantically trying to cleanse himself of the blood and cerebral tissue that he had been covered in. It had taken him four washes to get it all out of his hair, and even after pieces of bone and meat ceased to rinse out with the soap he continued to wash himself again and again.
And yet, Edward still felt horrifically unclean.
"Ed?" Hughes tried again from the other side of the door.
Ed scarcely heard him. The hot shower had soothed his physical pains somewhat and the Call was flooding his mind again in the absence of that stimulus. He didn't even know how long he'd been in here, locked in with the cleansing steam, naked and alone and sick and terrified and...
That flood of white noise that had become so horrifyingly familiar over the past fortnight made itself heard again in Ed's head. The Call reached for him, summoning, demanding that he obey. It flooded into him, suddenly much stronger than it ever had been before, pulling at his soul.
Another round of loud rapping on the door made Ed jump a little and he blinked. He stared at what was in front of him for a moment in confusion, then his stomach clenched.
He didn't remember getting up from his half-curled seat against the side of the bathtub, nor did he remember striding forward the two paces to the door and placing his hand on the knob, but suddenly that's where he was.
He yanked his hand from the knob and staggered backwards away from it, bumping the backs of his legs into the tub and nearly falling into it. Shaking, he seated himself on the tub's white rim, his hands clasped between his knees, his head bent so that his wet hair hung forward in limp tendrils.
It was only a matter of time, he realized silently, before the Call took him. If Hughes hadn't been there to inadvertently set his mind back on track with the noise that he was making, how far would Ed have gone? Out of the room? Out of the building? Or would he have disappeared completely?
So many alchemists were going missing each day, pulled from their homes and families, all of them forced to follow the Call in one way or another. There was no stopping it. Even Mustang didn't know what to do, and he always knew what to do. He was just as sick and tired as the rest of them... perhaps more so. Ed felt almost like he could sense Mustang. He could see him in his mind's eye, alone and exhausted, sitting at his desk in his room and knew—more than Hughes, more than Hawkeye even—how sick he really was.
Ed rested his brow in his hand, his eyes wandering down to the healing gash in his leg.
How many more days were they going to last? Two? Maybe three? Would the threat of the Call just become too much to bear by then? And, when it actually came down to it, would they let themselves be taken by it or would they choose Casey's path and end it before it could go any further...?
He squeezed his eyes shut tightly, the Call thrumming in the back of his skull. He needed to increase his pain again. He hadn't done it since this morning, and it was about due for another turn. That's all he needed. He would feel better once his mind was clearer again. Carefully, Ed got to his feet again and stumbled over to the sink.
"Please, Ed..." Hughes' voice was low and deeply sad, "Just say something..."
It took a couple of tries to make his voice sound more reassuring than a dull, tired rasp. He cleared his throat as he opened the drawer under the sink and pulled something out. "I'm fine," he said. "Leave me alone."
Ed heard Hughes sigh quietly from the other side of the door. "Are you going to be okay if I leave for a while, then? I have to go back to the office and stop at home for a few things, but I'll be back."
There was a brief, but unspeakably sad silence from Hughes. In the dark lull, Ed raised the screwdriver he'd pulled from the drawer and set the head of it to the screw securing his automail to his collarbone. The area around the screw was pink and swollen from Ed messing with it that morning, but now the pain was not enough for him. He needed more.
Edward took a breath and turned the screwdriver.
Agony shot through his chest and up his neck, blurring his vision and nearly buckling his knees. The grinding sound of the metal screw boring into his collarbone drowned out the Call completely for just a split second, and Ed would have laughed in relief if it had been possible for him to breathe in that instant. The screwdriver slipped from his fingers and landed with a muffled thud into his rumpled, blood-stained clothing on the floor. He clutched the sides of the sink to remain on his feet, head swimming.
"I'm staying here with you boys tonight," Hughes began again, his kind voice penetrating the fog of pain in Ed's brain. "What Casey did... it's okay to be upset about it. You probably don't want to talk about it, but if you do, I'll be here."
"Y-yeah. Sure," Ed managed when he could draw a breath. His head spun, dizzy with pain and an odd, relieved sort of pleasure. He looked at his reflection in the mirror above the sink, purposefully averting his eyes from his own worn, almost-unfamiliar face and blearily eyed his clavicle, watching blood well up from under the metal and begin to ooze down his chest.
"...Winry is going to kill me." He grinned darkly at himself.
"What was that?"
"No... Nothing Hughes. Just go. I'm fine."
Edward could hear his standing outside the door for a bit longer, uncertain, clearly not thinking that he should leave but needing to. Finally, he bid Ed a soft adieu and he could hear the man's footsteps fade and then disappear as he walked out the front door and snapped it shut.
Linda Bogart stared.
Since the discovery of the odd seismographic readings the previous week, she had been assigned as watcher over the ticker-tape of needle marks to see if they continued. Of course, they had. The seismograph kept swinging back and forth, back and forth in that mindless rhythm, creating great arcs usually only seen during earthquakes, but much slower.
As the days passed, the arc was swinging wider and wider, yet still no one could feel the earth moving beneath them. This was not an earthquake. It was something else. Something powerful. And now, today, the needle was dancing off the edge of the chart, the swing of the readings becoming too drastic to be encompassed by the ticker-paper that recorded the movements.
Never, in the history of the Central University Seizmology department, had this ever happened before. There were other strange things going on as well. The whole problem with the alchemists, for one... One of the State Alchemists, a Colonel Mustang, had been by a few times in the past week to speak to professors about the readings. Clearly, the man felt that the strange readings were somehow related to the ailment of his colleagues. He was adamant that there had to be a link somehow... and considering all of the craziness that was going on, it certainly seemed that he could be right.
But even more than that... Linda felt something. It was a pressure at the base of her skull, a dull little twinge that jangled her nerves and made her heart beat harder until she felt the sound of it filled the dim little lab she was in. She was alone in the room, just her and the equipment and that horrid tick-tick-ticking of the needle... but still, she heard something.
It was like a voice, but not a voice.
It spoke to her without words, incomprehensible, like a song played on the radio in another language, so garbled by static as to sound completely inhuman.
It gave her a headache.
Major Alex Louis Armstrong sat at the desk in his barrack room. The workspace was really far too small for him, but he had been making do without complaint for many years.
The room was scattered with books and articles taken from Central Library that he had been trying with all his might to study. Because things could not keep going as they were. It had to end. He and Mustang and the rest of the alchemists had to figure this out.
He was not studying now, though. In fact, he was not moving at all.
A book lay, forgotten, on the desk in front of him. The pages had not been turned in hours. Alex just stared at nothing. For hours and hours. The phone had rung at some point, then it had rung again, but Alex did not notice.
All he could see and feel were his fellow alchemists, some of them sitting in a daze as Alex was... others fighting the Call with everything they had, as Fullmetal and Mustang were. Others still were moving forward into the darkness, following the summons that had been reaching for them for days and days...
All he heard now was the Call.
All he knew was that, somehow, he had to answer it.