When duty and honor are no longer on the same side, where does one turn to find morality? In the aftermath of the State Alchemists' attacks upon Ishbal, Tim Marcoh is torn between his State duty an...
Author’s note: The title is a paraphrased quote by Mark Twain, which I have quoted in full at the end of the story.
Warning: This story contains spoilers up to episode 15, The Ishbal Massacre. Please also note that I have taken slight liberties with the dialogue when quoting directly from canon scenes. While most of the lines have been taken from the licensed dubbed version, I have supplemented it with a couple of lines from the fan sub that were, in my opinion, better phrased.
Those Who March Out For Sordid Wages
Chapter 1: The Aftermath
Field log, August 8th, 1912,
“In the three weeks since the stones’ first use in battle, the resistance in the East has faded to only a shadow of its former fury. They were effective, but only as efficient as the alchemist wielding them. I must admit, the reactions of the various alchemists out here worry me; they have come off the battlefield almost…giddy. From what contact I’ve had while the preliminary field tests were being performed, symptoms included dilated pupils and a higher color that I would normally associate with fever. Long term effects are, as of yet, unknown.”
Tim Marcoh sat back in his chair, dropping his pen on top of his notes to tilt his head back, feeling the bite of rough wood digging into the back of his neck as he pressed the bridge of his nose with enough force to turn his knuckles white. He squinted as he re-read his notes. They read more like poetry lately than his usual dry, scientific recitation of facts, figures and formulas. The words blurred and he leaned closer to see more clearly.
When he felt the tip of his nose brush the paper, Marcoh jerked his head back up, glancing around the army tent that served as his quarters. Dying sunlight made the ugly brown canvas glow a golden-brown color and he grabbed his pocket-watch where it rested beside him on the table to check the time. He couldn’t see the numbers on the watch. Snapping it shut, he shook his head ruefully before he stood to reach for the lamp overhead. Hearing the small of his back pop, he reconsidered and threw open the tent’s flap instead to step into a spectacular Eastern sunset.
It almost never rained in Ishbal. Marcoh hadn’t given the sky more than a passing glance that day, but he knew it had been a hard, cerulean blue that, had they been in Central, would have betokened a day of impromptu picnics and other outdoor activities as the residents hurried to catch the last days of Indian summer before the weather began to cool in preparation for the first dusting of snow. He had hoped he would be home in time to see the first snowfall. Winter was supposed to be the one season when infrequent rain fell in Ishbal and the rest of the East; when the desert bloomed with hidden, luminous plant life.
The desert was quiet. The clamor of the camp faded into silence the further Marcoh strayed from its borders. Without realizing it, he had wandered halfway up one of the stone steppes that surrounded the encampment’s farthest border. A jutting shelf provided a proper perch and a picturesque view of what had once been Ishbal’s capital.
Built on top of an underground water supply, it had been a beautiful, fertile city before the war; set like a vibrant jewel among the dull, brown desert. From this distance, the Great Dome of their main temple to Ishbala would have caught the fading light, the gold shining with a simple beauty that could make even a dedicated alchemist wonder, for a moment, about the existence of a divine being. The more humble sandstone houses of the Ishballan citizens would have glowed more softly in the orange light.
Now the square houses were mostly crumbled; scorched black from fire. The great temple’s dome was caved in. Sardonically, Marcoh wondered how long it would take before looters began to reclaim whatever they could salvage from the city, after the military gutted it.
A pebble skittering down the side of the steppe, too close to his head for comfort, jerked him out of his reverie. Automatically shielding his eyes, he glanced up. A figure in State navy was climbing onto the flat top of the rock and Marcoh was startled to recognize Major Roy Mustang. He watched him pick his way to the very edge of the steppe before plopping down and pulling his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs. Chin propped on his knees, Mustang gazed out over the ruined city, just as Marcoh had recently done.
Mustang hadn’t had to push his way past anyone that night; the men made ample room for him as he strode back into the camp, the sky a hazy red as fire ravaged the city behind him. Whispers and glances trailed in his wake, as if his own people were afraid that they too would be consumed if they were to get in his way.
The young man’s face had been expressionless. Marcoh remembered thinking for the first time, in that moment, that Mustang’s face resembled Kimbley’s, who hadn’t reported in yet. In fact, Mustang was the first alchemist back.
He was walking straight for Marcoh. There was only a moment to brace himself before Mustang was standing in front of him. Mustang’s normally pristine white gloves were grey with ash and soot, the array standing out in a darker grey relief as Mustang extended his hand towards Marcoh and he automatically reached out his own hand in response.
Warm metal fell on his bare palm. Startled, Marcoh almost dropped the object before closing his fist to catch it.
It was the ring. The Red Stone glowed against his hand, almost seeming to pulse with the raging flames. For the first time that night, he met Mustang’s eyes.
Marcoh swallowed. Those eyes were empty, devoid of any emotion.
“I’m going to transmute a bath.” Mustang’s had said in a perfect monotone. He was filthy. Ash and soot coated everything from his hair and face to his clothes, turning his uniform black and dull, except the streaks where he had attempted to wipe the mess away with his hands. The residue didn’t just sit on top of his skin; it was glued there with what looked like grease. Marcoh had felt the ground tilt slightly underneath him as he attempted not to think about where that grease had come from.
But no matter how much one tried to ignore it, no one had been able to escape the acrid stench of burned hair that clung to Mustang. Marcoh wanted to say something, anything, his mouth opened - but the other man had already turned on his heel, heading for the rudimentary bathing facilities. He wanted to say that he had seen some flash of remorse in Mustang’s eyes, but as the younger man walked farther and farther away, the only thing he could think was that Mustang looked as unruffled as the first time they’d met.
For once, Central propaganda and Marcoh’s own studies had concurred; the East looked pretty much the way the State made it out to be – harsh desert heat beat down from a crystalline sky, baking everyone and everything unfortunate enough to be outside at noon. Marcoh had looked around the train station for his escort to the camp, clutching the cushioned briefcase tightly. He didn’t understand why his research was being taken out of the lab so early. His recent reports had clearly stated that the Philosopher’s Stone was still incomplete, still imperfect. He had yet to complete it; and he was running out of ingredients.
He had forcibly pushed aside his worries, as well as the text on Ishballan religion that he had brought with him from Central’s library, and prepared to disembark, pulling the stiff collar of the uniform away from his neck. As he had stepped off the train, onto the platform, the desert heat hit him squarely in the face. Coughing slightly as dust and grit settled in his throat, Marcoh glanced around the station, looking for his escort.
His first impression was of a very sluggish ant colony. There were no civilians that he could see, the only colors were the dull tones of brown wood boards and sand stretching as far as he could see, and the monochromatic blue uniforms. There was a dogged efficiency to the way the majority of obviously exhausted men moved, but, underneath the exhaustion, he could see even then; their bodies were tense, jumpy and seemingly ready to spring into action at any given moment.
Among the activity one man caught his eye, a man who stood perfectly still while everyone else around him bustled. Marcoh had squinted slightly, his breath labored with the intense dry heat. If he looked down, the rough concrete wavered as the trains’ steam engine blasted sweltering air around his ankles. He remembered that his stomach, already clenched into a tight ball, had twisted with nausea that he’d fought back. Instead, he’d squared his shoulders and headed for the man he had spotted.
“Excuse me, I was told that I would be met at the station by a Major Mustang?” Marcoh had been careful to ask the question politely, despite his nervousness at being summoned to the front and his irritation with the heat, noting with relief that the temperature dropped at least five degrees in the shade.
The young man had nodded. “Yes, I’m Major Mustang. I’ve been ordered to bring you immediately upon arrival to Colonel Grand.” Mustang offered a crisp salute and Marcoh had returned the gesture half-heartedly, looking at the young major.
He was hardly more than a boy, but the fresh-faced look of youth looked like it had been beaten out of him. His dark eyes were set like jewels in a tanned face that was probably the color of porcelain when removed from the punishing Ishballan desert sun, and they constantly watched the surrounding area. One long boned, elegant hand was covered by a white glove, and on the back of that glove was stitched in scarlet thread…
“You’re a State alchemist? You can’t be more than eighteen years old!” Marcoh was surprised. Most State alchemists were at least in their thirties before they passed the state exam; Mustang didn’t look a day older than twenty, was his best guess.
“Twenty-two, sir,” Mustang's voice had held a note of resignation and Marcoh adeptly hid a smile, despite his surprise. He imagined that this wasn't the first time someone had been shocked by Mustang’s age.
“You can dispense with the formality, Major. Dr. Marcoh is just fine.” Marcoh hadn’t missed seeing Mustang’s shoulders relax a fraction and Marcoh had relaxed with him, feeling slightly more at ease.
“Very well, Dr. Marcoh. Strong Arm will get the rest of your luggage and meet us back at the camp. We have a car out front, waiting,” Mustang had said, stepping aside and gesturing for Marcoh to precede him.
Stepping back into the sunlight from the relative shade underneath the ledge where he and Mustang had been speaking, Marcoh walked in the direction Mustang had indicated the car was. He noticed the young alchemist was wary as they left the station and into open space, his bare hand resting just above his service revolver, the gloved one looking as thought he was ready to snap his fingers, for some reason.
“Are you expecting to be attacked, major?” Marcoh had asked. He looked around, but he didn’t see any Ishballans jumping out to say “Boo,” at them.
Mustang hadn’t appreciated Marcoh’s casual attitude, because his reply was stiff. “You came in on a supply train, Doctor. The Ishballans have been hitting the trains, trying to disrupt our water supply. They succeeded about a month ago. It left the alchemists stationed out here transmuting water constantly for a week before they could lay enough track and clear the wreck to get another supply train through.”
Marcoh swallowed past the dust in his throat. “I see,” he had said, approaching the car, where a driver in an enlisted man’s uniform sat.
Mustang had added grimly, “They’re also attempting to take out officers when they can, which is why we’re taking precautions.” Mustang had climbed into the front seat as Marcoh crawled into the back. It was unbelievable how the younger men didn’t seem to be affected by the heat. He could only hope that he would grow used to it in time, he had thought, as the station faded into the distance.
He had noticed, however, that neither Mustang nor the driver dropped their guard for an instant. A rifle lay within easy reach of the driver and Mustang’s eyes stayed peeled on the road, constantly sweeping back and forth across the desolate landscape. Marcoh had tried to be as vigilant as they for a while, but before long he had felt boredom set in as miles went by with no change in the scenery, only sand dunes and the baked rock they drove on, broken occasionally by the sight of some hardy plant that grew dry and gray through the cracked rock. The steady rocking motion of the car as well as the ever-present heat conspired to lull him into dozing. If he were home, he had thought, beginning to drift off, there were those computations that he really should get to…
“On the right!” Mustang had suddenly yelled, and the driver immediately swung the car left, off the dirt road. Now completely awake, Marcoh was flung to the side by the momentum, his research case slamming against the door, and he winced at the thought of the precious vials inside being shattered.
“Major, what the hell-?” Marcoh had been cut off as both Mustang and the other soldier drew their weapons, scanning the area.
“Get down, doctor!” Mustang had barked the order and, feeling very much out of his element and slightly pissed, Marcoh did so, scrunching himself into foot space of the back seat, sweat trickling down the small of his back. Mustang nodded to the driver who aimed his rifle at the empty waste, leaving Mustang to raise his right hand, snapping his fingers. Marcoh had a moment to wonder just what the hell Mustang thought he was doing when fire burst from Mustang’s fingertips and ziz-zagged to hit a spot on the ground where something small and black stuck up through the sand.
Immediately there had been an explosion that left his ears ringing and shook the car as he had huddled down in the narrow space, his belly pressing uncomfortably against the waistband of his pants. Mustang had simply watched the explosion, unruffled, even as both Marcoh and the driver had covered their faces. The driver recovered more quickly than Marcoh, however, and sighted over his weapon, checking for any insurgents that might have been hanging around to see what kind of damage their mine had inflicted.
“I thought the Ishballans didn’t have modern weaponry?” Marcoh's voice had shook slightly and his blood pounded sluggishly in his ears.
The driver had been the one to answer him, a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “They don’t. But other tribes in the East do, and they don’t mind trading amongst themselves.” He apparently didn't have much patience with green officers right out of Central.
“Enough, soldier.” Mustang had cut the man off curtly. “We’re alive, that’s what matters. I’ll report this to Colonel Grand myself.”
“Yes, sir.” The relief on the driver's face had been visible and Marcoh sympathized. Colonel Grand’s temper was fierce enough to be legendary among the men, and had made Marcoh’s previous dealings with him quite unpleasant. “You see any more mines, Major Flame?"
Mustang’s mouth had twitched just slightly at the nickname. "If I do, you’ll be the first one to know, sergeant.”
“Major Flame?” He had never seen anything like what had just happened; what kind of alchemist was this man?
Mustang hadn’t bothered to turn around as the soldier started the car again and drove into the desert as if nothing had happened. “Major Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist, at your service, Crystal Alchemist.”
If Mustang had unsettled him at the time, he had been a positive ally in the face of alchemists like Grand and Kimbley in the subsequent meeting. But even Mustang’s eyes had widened at the sight of the red water. He hadn't hesitated to participate in the anarchy of what Marcoh could still only mentally refer to as “that night.” He hadn't hesitated to use his unique brand of alchemy to destroy Ishbal's capital.
Bringing himself back to the present, Marcoh glanced back up at Mustang, who was still watching the sun sink over the horizon. A glimmer of light caught his eye and Marcoh squinted against the dying sunlight.
Tears. Without making a sound, without a telltale shaking of his shoulders, Mustang cried silently. Marcoh watched tears drip down his face as he stared out at the destruction he had caused.
Ashamed, Marcoh turned away. Mustang had no idea that he was here, and this was private, not meant for him or anyone else to see. He carefully walked close to the rock trying not to make a sound as he left for another spot, closer to camp, where he could watch the rest of the sunset. But he felt a moment's relief at Mustang's sorrow, felt relieved that the man was capable of crying about the destruction he had inflicted with such stoicism.
The morning after the obliteration of most of the major Eastern cities, the only thing Marcoh could feel was shock, followed by an almost comforting numbness. Now, a month after Ishbal's capital had been razed, tendrils of anger were creeping into his psyche, an anger that was only beginning of a bone deep rage at what had happened, what he had enabled the military to do.
He had been taught that alchemy was to be used to help people, to improve, to build. He had even accepted that, in order to create, something must be destroyed. Before creation, exists destruction.
Reaching the main part of the camp, he looked at the exhausted, hopeful faces of the men who had been on the front for years. He recalled Mustang's solitary weeping and the desperate rage in the Ishballan faces he had seen in the last few months, and he wondered just what the Fuhrer was trying to create that destroying the Eastern region was necessary.
Walking into the main part of the camp, he suddenly heard a commotion; voices muttering and even louder exclamations. Then he distinctly heard someone yell, “Someone get a goddamn doctor. Now!”
Marcoh immediately picked up his pace, coming up onto a group of soldiers, one of whom was kneeling in the dust, pale and retching. A man had already started running in the opposite direction, probably to summon a doctor, leaving the other to care for their sick friend.
Reaching the two men and ignoring the small crowd that had gathered, Marcoh knelt next to the ill soldier. “What’s wrong, son?”
The soldier continued to retch, not bringing anything up, for which Marcoh was marginally thankful. His friend spoke up. “He said he was dizzy and then he started this!” The soldier gestured nervously, standing back a little ways, now that someone else was there.
“Have you had anything to drink?” Dehydration and heat exhaustion were common problems with the troops, especially as the brass made little provision with the dress code to allow for the intense desert heat, if one was not on the front lines.
The soldier shook his head, but this time as a direct answer to Marcoh’s question. He untapped his canteen and pressed the neck of the bottle to the soldier’s mouth.
“Drink slowly, just a couple sips, and try to keep it down.” Taking the canteen in his own hands, the man drank, a trickle of water spilling from the sides of his mouth as he gulped clumsily.
After a few minutes of waiting, Marcoh heard running footsteps behind him and turned, expecting the army doctor. When he saw the figure coming toward them, however, a petite woman with hair sloppily tied back in a ponytail, he smiled unexpectedly. “Sara!”
“Hey, Tim! What seems to be the problem here, boys?” Sara knelt next to Marcoh and brushed the ill soldier’s hair back from his face, a gesture so motherly that, if there had been an award on the Eastern front for the ‘best beside manner,’ Dr. Sara Rockbell would have won it, hands down.
Marcoh sat back on his heels, deferring to Sara’s expertise. “I’m fairly sure he’s dehydrated. I got a little water into him before you showed up and he’s keeping it down, so far.”
“Have you been drinking all of your water rations?” Sara’s voice was stern, especially after the man shook his head again. “You need to make sure you drink all of it. How close by are your quarters?”
The soldier who had retrieved Sara spoke up. “Not too far from here, actually. You want me to put him to bed?”
“I think that’s a good idea, don’t you, soldier?” She smiled at the man, taking the sting out of her words. “Put him on his cot, give him plenty of water and keep him as cool as you can. If you’re still feeling dizzy in an hour,” she addressed the soldier directly, “I want you to come to the infirmary. Understand?”
“Don’t worry, ma’am. I’ll make sure he follows orders,” the one soldier said. His friend, the one who had looked queasy as he watched the man be sick, looked relieved that he wouldn’t have to play nurse.
Sara raised an eyebrow. “Okay, then. And you’re to come by tomorrow for a quick checkup.” The soldier, who was no longer retching, but still looking pale, groaned slightly, but made no other protest as he got to his feet and walked slowly in the direction of his quarters, a little unsteady on his feet, his one companion escorting him while the other peeled off in the other direction as quickly as he could without running.
“So, what are you still doing here?” Marcoh stood and offered a hand to pull Sara up.
She grinned at him. “You didn’t honestly expect me to be anywhere else, did you? We’re going to be right here until the soldiers start going home.”
“Ah, yes, where is Frank?”
“He was summoned for a medical emergency.” Sara’s voice was mischievous and Marcoh smiled with her, feeling his spirits lighten somewhat.
"A medical emergency?"
"Oh yes. Grand has a hangnail." Sara rolled her eyes as she and Marcoh shared a somewhat bitter laugh over the general's medical "emergency." They were still fairly close to the edge of the camp and Sara shifted to stand beside him, looking out at the ruins of Ishbal. “You know, it’s somewhat funny,” she said, suddenly serious.
“What’s funny?” Marcoh raised an eyebrow.
“This. Us,” She gestured at the desert and the camp surrounding them. “We’re out here, slaughtering each other in the name of something that I don’t think anyone out here really understands. I know I don’t,” she said, folding her arms around herself.
Marcoh sighed. “We’re out here because the Fuhrer ordered it, Sara.”
“If you want to get technical, I suppose. But, in the end, I don’t think most of these men really give a damn about what the Fuhrer wants. The only thing they know is that they’re being attacked and the people around them are dying because of it,” Sara replied, with exasperation.
He thought about that for a moment. “That’s all the Ishballans really know, too,” he realized slowly, his head clearing as he began to see Sara’s point.
“Exactly. That’s why it’s funny. You know, we’re the only animals that kill each other for sport?” Frowning slightly, she continued. “Lives are unique, easy to destroy, easy to create. It’s re-creating one that’s the kicker.”
The dying light lit her face, illuminating features that reflected months of tireless work on the battlefields. Like Mustang, the experience had beaten most of the remaining youth out of her face, but in its place was a beauty that had nothing to do with smooth skin or pretty features. Her face had manifested an ageless, timeless beauty that was the result of a human being fighting tooth and nail, not to destroy life, but to preserve it.
“War makes monsters of us all. I’ve spent my whole life looking for something and now that I’ve found it…” Marcoh trailed off, massaging his chest lightly with the palm of his hand. His uniform hung loosely on him where it had once pressed tightly against his belly and he realized he had dropped weight. And from the expression on Sara’s face, it looked as though it were obvious.
Sara looked him up and down, her gaze passing over his body with a quick professional assessment. When she caught his gaze again, Marcoh saw a distinct look of displeasure in her eyes. "Come on back to the infirmary. We don't have that many patients and you look like you could use a meal in any case," she said, finally.
"I couldn't, really," he protested. He liked the Rockbells very much and after watching his life's work crush the spirit of an entire nation, he was somewhat reluctant to soil their warm and welcoming company with his presence.
"Bullshit," Sara said and she took him by the elbow, pulling him along with her while he recovered from the shock. She smiled sweetly at him, and he knew that her choice of language had been deliberate. "It's amazing what you can pick up in an army camp," she said, smiling.
"You know, Sara, you're completely destroying my image of you as a sweet soul, too good for this desert waste," Marcoh felt some of the depression that had hung around him for the last month lift.
Sara snorted. "You want sweet? I'll show you a picture of my daughter. I don't have time to be sweet with some of the patients that come through.”
Marcoh frowned. "Are you still treating the Ishballans?" He admired the Rockbells' commitment to ethical medicine, but the reality of the situation was that most of the Ishballans that they treated ended up back on the front lines.
"Yes," Sara said, her tone of voice clipped. "We've received a couple of warnings from the military about 'sympathizing with the enemy,' but so far they haven't asked us to leave," she continued, her voice softening slightly. "That's one of the good things about there being so few doctors out here. The ones they have are indispensable," she finished with a quick smile.
"The war is over, Sara,” Marcoh said, feeling very tired all of a sudden. “I know it, you know it, hell, I think even the Ishballans know it by now. Why don't you go home?" Marcoh asked flatly.
Sara ignored his question and continued talking as if he hadn’t spoken. "Truthfully, and don't tell my husband either, I do see the military's point," she said, steering him into the half finished building that looked like a cross between the officer’s canvas tents and a crude lean to that served as the main infirmary.
Marcoh looked around, but neither Sara's husband nor a single patient was anywhere in sight, so he continued the conversation. "You do?" he asked.
"I'm no fool. I know perfectly well that the people I treat are caught up in a vicious cycle. The young men are the worst.” Sara smiled bitterly.
“Why are they the worst?”
Sara leaned against a table covered with papers and books. “The children don’t understand what’s going on, for the most part. They’re only parroting what their parents and other elders are saying. The women…women are somehow better prepared to deal with the consequences of war, I think. They’re focused, for the most part, on surviving and trying to make sure that the people around them survive. But the men, the young men especially, are so angry.”
“They have a right to be angry, I think.”
Sara snorted. “I didn’t say they didn’t. But when I’m treating them, sometimes for shrapnel or gunshot wounds, sometimes from burns or other damage, they sit around with that rage in their eyes and do nothing except plan how they’re going to strike at our boys. You know, my daughter got into a fight with one of our neighbor’s sons, because he was teasing her? She wanted to play the victim because they had gotten into a fight that ‘he started.’ Do you know what I told her?”
Marcoh pulled out a chair next to her and sat down. “What did you tell her?”
Sara smiled ironically at him. “I told her that it takes two people to fight. The other person may have started it, but she had the option not to finish it. Out here, I feel like I’m surrounded by children, sometimes.”
“Ishbal isn’t - wasn’t - ” Marcoh paused. “The Ishballans aren’t children. They have a right to defend themselves.”
Sara just looked at him. “This isn’t defense anymore. The alchemists destroyed any real resistance. If the Ishballans were really as concerned as they say they are with the survival of their people and their religion, they would just surrender. Fighting to the death sounds romantic in a story, but in real life, you just end up dead. Without your people to remember you, everything you were just rots with you. There’s no point to this anymore.”
"Then why are you treating them? Marcoh asked.
Sara looked over at the empty hospital beds and was silent for a moment. Then she answered, "Because I'm a doctor, Tim. State or Ishballan, these men are still bleeding and dying on my floor." She looked at him and her mouth twisted. "We're all the same when dying."
Marcoh sat back in his chair, tipping two legs off the floor. There wasn't much he could say to her bald statement of truth, so he settled for the more mundane realities of living. "I believe I heard the promise of food?" he asked.
Sara smiled at him and opened an improvised cabinet set atop a crude desk. "I have crap, crap, and more crap," she said, pulling out the standard issue rations.
"Crap it is, then," Marcoh said, smiling at her.
The flap of the tent drew back bringing with it a glimpse of twilight, and Sara's husband, Frank Rockbell entered. "Tim!" he exclaimed. "It's good to see you!"
Marcoh smiled at Rockbell. "It’s good to see you as well. Your lovely wife offered to feed me crap. Are you joining us?" he asked.
"Oh, what I wouldn't give for my mother's kitchen," Rockbell said, sighing dramatically.
"Not her cooking?" Marcoh asked, lifting his eyebrows.
Sara shuddered noticeably. "My mother-in-law is a wonderful woman, and an excellent auto-mail mechanic. However, her cooking-"
“Her cooking leaves something to be desired," finished Rockbell, sharing an intimate look with his wife.
As he sat in Frank and Sara’s company, Marcoh felt the hard knot of his stomach loosen. The Rockbells were reassuringly civilian among a mob of military personnel, unconcerned with anything but saving as many lives as they could, their idealism somehow untainted by the bloody war that had raged around them. As the air continued to cool around them and the last traces of sunlight faded from the sky, the talk turned toward the soldiers.
“The majority of them are suffering from shell shock,” Rockbell said, shaking his head. “Some of these men have been deployed out here for over a year without leave. And after that last major battle,” he didn’t quite meet Marcoh’s eyes, “some of the alchemists are in really bad shape.”
Marcoh frowned, consciously ignoring the reminder of the carnage they had wreaked. “Really? I hadn’t seen much of a reaction from many of my colleagues,” he said.
Rockbell just looked at him, a hint of impatience in his eyes. “Oh a few of them - and I don't think I need to name names to you, Marcoh - think this war is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them, but most of them just want everything to be over at this point. I actually ended up sending one of the alchemists home a week ago. Are you familiar with a Major Armstrong?”
Marcoh nodded his head; thinking of his brief meeting with the big, surprisingly gentle man who had met him with his luggage at his tent after his disastrous meeting with Grand. Rockbell continued, “He shut down. Refused to fight anymore. He was in my infirmary for a week, just lying on one of the cots, refusing to eat before Grand figured out that he wasn’t going to go back to the front anytime soon.
Sara poured some more water into her tin cup. “Yes, honey, but at least he was put back on a train to Central. I’m more worried about that boy, Mustang.” A look passed between the two that Marcoh was shut out of, for a moment, although he put his hand to his mouth, physically wiping the smile off his face as he thought of what Mustang’s reaction to being called a “boy” would be.
“Why are you worried about Mustang?” He could see him crying silently on the rock in his mind’s eye. “I wouldn’t say he’s in the same boat as Strong Arm.”
“Strong Arm? Oh, Major Armstrong! No, he hasn’t cracked, yet. I’d be less worried if he had, quite frankly,” Sara said, sighing and sitting back.
Rockbell elaborated on his wife’s concern. “In the past month, every mission he’s had, he ends up in the infirmary for something; burns, shrapnel, other minor injuries that he could have avoided, if he had been paying attention.”
“He makes damn sure that his men aren’t hurt, but I don’t think he’s showing any serious concern for his own life,” Sara picked back up. “I’ve submitted a report to Grand that Mustang should be relieved from duty and sent home, but the last thing that bastard wants is to lose another alchemist out here. He was quite short with me, actually, when I brought it up to him in person the other day.”
Marcoh looked at both of them. “He’d rather lose him in the field then send him back to Central?”
“I don’t get it either,” Rockbell shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but that man is mad.”
Marcoh looked at him. “Whom are we talking about, Grand or Mustang?” he asked.
Sara sipped her water. “Grand. I wouldn’t call him mad, though. Drunk, would be a better word. He’s completely intoxicated with the power he has out here.”
Marcoh looked down, unable to meet their eyes. If Grand was intoxicated, then it was Marcoh who had brought him the drug. To cover his discomfort he pulled his pocket-watch from his trouser pocket, and checked the time. “It’s already ten o’clock? Rockbell, Sara, I’ve really taken up your time tonight. I’m going to turn in,” he said, rising to leave.
The Rockbells stood as well. “Don’t be an ass, Tim. We’ve enjoyed having you for dinner, didn’t we, Frank?” Sara chastised, leaning into her husband as he wrapped an arm around her.
“Of course we did. Drop by again, if you get a chance,” Rockbell held out his hand for Marcoh to shake. He took it, enjoying the civilian salutation rather than the formal military salute he had become accustomed to.
“I’ll be sure to see you two again soon. Who knows, maybe it’ll be on the train home, with any luck,” Marcoh replied, smiling at them and pulling the flap of the tent back. “Goodnight,” he called.
“Goodnight,” the Rockbells chorused, and he left them bathed in the soft glow of the kerosene lamps.
As he walked away from the Rockbells’ hospital and company, Marcoh felt more at peace with himself than he had in months. There were monsters in this world, but, in the end, maybe there were more, good, decent people who were only caught in the middle of a struggle they didn’t – couldn’t – understand. War makes monsters of us all, Marcoh thought. But for some it allowed their best qualities to shine, these doctors and leaders; men who could find the sheer nerve to put everything on the line for the insignificant human being in the trenches next to them, whose lives suddenly meant everything.