Ed had thought, after the whole Promised Day, homunculus, entire country harvested for alchemical batteries thing, the batshit quotient of his life would have settled down some. He really ought to have topped out the meter with that one. But no. The bullshit is just getting started.
“Are you fucking kidding me,” Ed demands. “The wizards?”
Mustang sighs. “Yes. The wizards.”
“But they’re all loonies over there!”
“Nonetheless, we have been asked to resolve the situation.”
“Do you want to be the one to explain to General Armstrong why her dear childhood friend from summer camp abroad isn’t getting help with her terrorist problem?”
“Why the fuck isn’t she the one here, then! You telling me the Ice Queen can’t handle some terrorists?”
“These terrorists use soul bonds, Fullmetal, so forgive us all for calling in an expert.”
“You just want her to owe you a favor,” Ed growls.
Mustang’s mouth ticks up just a hair. “You’re getting better at this, Fullmetal. Though primarily what I want is to not be disemboweled and left to be savaged by rabid bears while dear Olivier laughs and watches.”
“I’d buy tickets to that,” Ed mutters. “What the fuck is this about soul bonds?”
Mustang’s face loses some of the amusement. “The briefing so far has been… less than satisfactory on most details,” he says, pushing a folder across the desk. “But from what I understand, their number one most wanted raised himself from the dead.”
Ed snatches up the folder. “Raised from the dead?” The briefing is way less than satisfactory: there’s practically nothing here, just four pages of notes about location (wizard loony land, who cares), a pathetically scant threat estimate (whoever did that analysis is clearly just as pleased to have next to no details to offer as Ed is to get them) and one page is just a handwritten letter on weird beige paper. Ed frowns at it and holds it up. “Fuck is this?”
“General Armstrong’s friend - one Amelia Bones - is the director of law enforcement for their government, and she is the one who requested help. She is not, however, reaching out in her official capacity but rather as,” Mustang’s mouth purses eloquently, “a member of a vigilante group of private citizens.”
“Because their government is insisting that the terrorists don’t exist.”
Ed squinches his face up. Governments cover up wild shit all the time, obviously, but terrorism tends to be co-opted and used as propaganda fodder, not denied. “Do they exist?”
“General Armstrong certainly thinks so.” Mustang sighs. “There’s a translation attached.”
Ed flips the letter over and finds it, immediately recognizing Hughes’ handwriting. “Hughes speaks wizard?” he asks, scanning the page. Hate to ask this of you… no other help...
“English,” Mustang corrects. “No, he recorded Olivier’s verbal translation. If anyone else in the military speaks English we’re not aware of them.”
Ed flips through the measly handful of pages again and eyes the Intelligence seal on everything except the letter. “How official is this?”
Mustang shrugs. “We’re Security. General Armstrong has brought us evidence of alchemical terrorism that has the potential to become a national security threat -”
“Wizards have alchemy?”
Mustang sighs. “No, Fullmetal,” he says in his do keep up voice. “But nobody’s going to take a report with the word ‘magic’ in it seriously.”
Ed waves a hand. “So we’re on the up and up but only as far as it takes to paper over the bullshit.”
“And as you said, it can be very valuable to have General Armstrong owe you a favor,” Mustang says. “After this I’m not going to be the only one with an IOU.”
“With me doing the entire military’s dirty work, as usual,” Ed says in comfortable disgust. “When do I leave?”
“We will be heading out the day after tomorrow,” Mustang says. “Once we receive the Imperial travel documents securing passage through Xing. I’d suggest you wire Alphonse and let him know we’ll be passing through the capital.”
Ed’s so distracted by Al! Yay! that he almost doesn’t see the catch. Almost. “We?”
Mustang smiles. “Why yes. It’s official military policy to send no man alone when traveling across the Divide. Hawkeye and Havoc will accompany us to the gateway in Guangshi, and I will be joining you to rendezvous with our contacts and determine whether we’ll need to apply any more… resources.”
“Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Ed says.
The contact rendezvous is at someone’s literal fucking house. Getting there is a fucking nightmare, because first it’s three days’ train ride across the desert - thank fuck for the new rail lines - and then another three days upriver in Xing, and then another day in a boat along the coast. They’re not alone, at least: Al and Mei join them when the river passes through the imperial capital because neither of them have been to Guangshi.
Ed’s never been to a port city before either, Amestris being landlocked, and Mustang must be feeling slightly less bastardly than usual because they take an entire day to “rest up” for their “big trip” after they check in with the local magistrate to reassure his Imperial Lingness that they’ve arrived where they’re supposed to and haven’t hared off to do god knows what to his country. Ed, Al and Mei spend the entire day walking the shore and investigating the dock markets, eating fried octopus and lime-soaked clams and buying sea pearl earrings (for Winry), thirteen books on tidal basin ecology, ocean navigation, deep-sea predators and water-specific alkahestry (for Ed and Al), and brightly colored cloth wind pennants shaped like fish (for everyone. “Souvenirs!” Al had insisted. “They’ll make a nice gift no matter who it’s for.”)
“So,” Al says after they’ve dropped off their crap in the hotel room and gotten back to chewing on fried shrimp on an open pier by the market. “Wizards.”
“Wizarffs,” Ed agrees, kinda muffled by his mouthful of shellfish.
Mei makes a face. “Is it true they keep themselves segregated out there? Alkahestrists living in secret apart from everybody else?”
Ed shrugs, yanking the tails off another skewer of shrimp so as to more efficiently load them into his calorie hole. “No idea. The intel we’ve got on anything over there is a fucking joke. Only thing we know for sure is their ‘magic’ is basically just impermanent alchemy, so nothing they make is actually stable.”
“I think only General Armstrong’s been across, that we know of,” Al tells Mei. “Her family is really old and they have distant relatives living out there, but I haven’t heard of anybody else crossing over. You’ll be meeting a guide, right, brother?”
“Yeah, think so,” Ed says, chewing. “Mustan’s doin’ all the ‘rranging. ‘Pparently crossing the anomaly is supposed to really suck.”
Al gives him a sharp look of you’re telling me this little fact NOW? “Will your automail be alright?”
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Mei says. “There’s people who trade with them here. And we saw people selling those translation rocks at that alkahestric bookstore, remember?”
“That shit is unnatural,” Ed declares, telling Al I’ll be fine with his eyebrows because these days Mustang kicks up way the fuck more of a fuss about environmental hazards to his automail than he does. “There’s nothing that should be able to translate language that can be applied to a rock. A small rock.”
“At least you don’t have to learn a whole new language just for this assignment,” Al says, but he also looks displeased by linguistically impossible rocks. All three of them had looked them over and all three of them had been totally at a loss as to how the fucking things worked, not least because they only translated to and from languages from either side of the anomaly. They shouldn’t.
“I know there’s some alkahestrists down the coast that have studied the Divide, but all the research we have in the capital is mostly about mapping it,” Mei says doubtfully. “Which is, well. It’s mostly over the ocean.”
“And there’s really not much data beyond measurements,” Al sighs. “The most interesting thing was that radio waves can’t pass through - which, well, there could be any number of reasons for that. And we have practically nothing on their culture.”
“I haven’t heard of any people from there crossing over to this side,” Mei says, tugging on her braids and frowning. “There are some accounts from Xingese travelers, but I haven’t read them.”
“We’ve got practically nothing in Central,” Ed admits, because he’d spent the day before departure rooting through all the wizard books in the library (zero point two, nothing but four paragraphs in some old traveling Cretan cartographer’s journal) and hunting down the two Intelligence analysts who’d compiled the briefing (who had burst into simultaneous tears of commiseration when Ed had complained about having jack shit - jeez, Hughes hires them highly strung).
Additionally, the letter had been super unclear about the whole soul bonds thing - Armstrong’s friend claims her Lord Wal de whatever came back from the dead through ‘dark soul magic’, but with literally no evidence Ed’s pretty firmly on the side of ‘this guy just fucking hid out building his power base for ten years and then told everybody he resurrected himself to seem scary’. Also, who names a terrorist group death eaters? Ed hmphs. "Our best intel is from twenty fucking years ago, from what Armstrong remembers crossing over as a kid to go to fucking summer camp. With wizards.”
Al taps reprovingly at Ed’s metal leg with his cane. “They’re people just like us, brother. And they’re asking for help.”
“We’re gonna help,” Ed complains. “Just - wizards!”
“This is our chance to learn more than rumors,” Al points out. “And if a whole society of people decided to follow their own branch of alchemy, impermanent or not, then maybe there’s something to it that we haven’t thought of. They could have some really interesting insights. They’ve got to at least have libraries,” he adds, only a little uncertain.
“If their stupid terrorists haven’t blown them up yet,” Ed says, but he can’t put any venom into it when Al, as usual, is extremely fucking right. This is why they send Al to do diplomacy and Ed to beat people insensate with their own inadequacy. “Fine. After I’m done there I’ll ditch Mustang if I have to and get us some books.”
“Bring me back some too!” Mei demands.
“Obviously,” Ed says, not least because these days Al and Mei were sharing textbooks or whatever it is the university kids were calling it these days. Ed, like with all things that make Al happy, wholeheartedly approves while also lurking in the background holding a very big hammer.
Mei looks pleased, at least. “Let’s go talk to the market administrator and ask who’s gone across recently,” she says. “Maybe we can talk to someone who’s been.”
Al beams at Mei like someone’s handed him a kitten. “That’s a great idea!”
So yeah, Ed approves.
The administrator in the main market does know of three merchants who have traveled across the anomaly, but regrets to inform the imperial princess that two are in caravan to Yangluo and one is currently on business across the anomaly itself. He personally does not have much information, beyond that what the merchants bring back is mostly artwork, cloth and fresh translation stones, as they don’t last more than a month without their mystery batteries going dead or whatever.
“It’s fine,” Ed says when they reconvene outside the administration office. “Not like I won’t find out soon enough. Let’s go get some of those steamed buns we saw by the fish market, I wanna get my money’s worth outta this day. Probably don’t even have buns in wizard world,” he mutters, slinging his arm over Al’s shoulders and steering them back down the street.
They get the buns, and they’re delicious, and they end up spending the rest of the afternoon in one of the alkahestric bookstores stacking up even more books to take home (cardiac diagnostics, Al, multi-application array design, Mei, energy conservation in transmutation, Ed.) In the evening practically every street gets lit up with elaborate paper lamp strings, and it turns out there’s a night market, too, so by the time they return to their rooms Ed’s almost forgotten that he’s here to go see fucking wizards and solve their stupid magic terrorist problem.
At least Mustang doesn’t make them get up early. They traipse out to the gateway close to noon, which is on the outskirts of the city and up one of the jungle-covered hills that make up the entirety of the coast minus like two meters of beach. The gateway itself is marked by two carved posts covered in imperial lions: it looks like a freaky wobbling stretch of grey air, but the two guards on one side of it are literally sitting and smoking and playing pai, so clearly this shit is only alarming to dumb foreigners. Mustang presents their papers to the little customs booth a few meters from the gate, they get nodded through by a bored official, and Hawkeye and Havoc salute Mustang while Ed gives Al and Mei a tight hug.
“Keep a journal,” Al instructs, then amends, at Ed’s disbelieving look, “If you have time. But think, brother, we could get a research paper out of this,” and Ed has to hug Al again for that. His little brother always knows just what to say, even if it is in service of manipulating Ed into taking notes.
“We’ll be back before you know it,” Ed says, and strides into the wobbly air. Like hell is he gonna let Mustang go first.