Roy still dreams in color, vividly. The sand under his feet is a shimmering sea of tan and gold, the sky above him is a deep, endless blue, and the blood is a damning crimson stain on his skin.
When he thinks about Ishval in the daytime, he remembers it in grayscale. He remembers smoke and pale hair and the piles of bodies clothed in plain woven garments. It’s easier, somehow, when there’s no color. It’s further away – he can almost imagine it happening to someone else, like he’s just viewing the photographs of another man’s life.
Here, he has no such escape.
He walks through the silent streets. The wind moans as it rushes through the abandoned houses. There are no people here, no laughter, no crying, no screams. The houses are uninhabited, but undamaged. There are no familiar scorch marks seared into the walls. Ash doesn’t stain the sand. There are no corpses. The town doesn’t stink of death.
Roy breathes in the dry, burning desert air, and tries not to cry.
He wonders if he would have noticed her sooner if he could still see.
He’s sitting in his office, laboriously reading yet another report. He’s gotten proficient at braille – on good days, he almost matches his old reading speed. Today is not a good day.
His hands are clumsy from lack of sleep and the bumps blur into nonsense. He rubs at his eyes – there’s a headache blooming behind them. It’s an old reflex, useless.
When her small hand touches his arm, he flinches. His fingers automatically come together – another old reflex, this one significantly less useless.
“What do you want?” he asks sharply. It’s a child’s hand on his arm, and he should relax his fingers, should feel ashamed at readying an attack to hurt a child – but, well, he remembers Pride.
The hand tightens on his arm, and the child says something to him in a high, melodic voice. He doesn’t understand the language.
“Could you repeat that?”
The child says the syllables again, impatiently, and Roy realizes with a jolt that he’s heard this before. He knows these words.
He’s heard them over and over again, in his dreams and in his memories.
“Riza!” he calls, keeping his voice even through a staggering force of will. “Riza!”
When she arrives, the child is already gone.
That night, he dreams of the empty Ishvalan town again. He walks through the silent streets and tries not to look at the drying blood that coats his hands. The buildings are a blinding amber in the afternoon sunlight.
At the center of the town rests a coiled snake. He doesn’t remember the Ishvalan name for them – only their distinctive red markings and white belly. The snake shifts and its scales glitter like rubies.
It raises its head and stares at Roy. In Ishval, Roy once saw a man get bitten by one. He had started to sweat almost immediately, clutching his swelling hand to his chest, his eyes wide with panic. He had died within the hour, his body seizing into nigh impossible contortions. At the end, he hadn’t even had the breath to scream.
Roy reaches out his hand to the snake. It observes him dispassionately, fixing its beady, black eyes on the tips of his fingers. It flicks his outstretched hand with its tongue and then slowly uncoils, twining itself around his arm.
It loops back around so that its head rests in the cleft between his thumb and forefinger, and then presses its nose firmly against the base of his blood-stained index finger. Roy obediently turns to the left, and then, when the snake stops, he begins to walk forward.
He follows the directions of the snake out past the limits of the village and into the desert. The wind whips around him until his world is a haze of sand and sunlight.
Eventually, the winds calm, and he can see a wide expanse of stone. Fragments of an array are drawn on fractured stones. Roy tries his hardest not to look at them.
In the center of the array sits an Ishvalan child. She is mostly skin and bones, and her robes are caked with sand and sweat. She stares at Roy with ruby eyes. The snake slips off of his arm and slithers to the girl. She picks up the snake without breaking eye contact with Roy.
The snake sinks its teeth into the meat of her arm. Roy cries out in alarm, reaching for her. She just smiles, her irises as red as a Philosopher’s stone.
He’s almost ready for her, this time. When she lays a soft hand on his arm, he barely flinches.
Riza’s just on the other side of the door. He doesn’t call for her.
“What’s your name?” he asks gently. She doesn’t reply.
“What do you need?” he tries. Her grip tightens a little on his wrist, but she stays silent.
He reaches out with his other hand to touch hers, but it just passes through thin air. He can feel the pressure of her hand on his arm still. He bites his lip sharply.
Quietly, she repeats the same phrase as before, once, twice. Then the pressure disappears, and he is left, aching and alone.
He tries to transcribe the words phonetically, but probably falls woefully short. Still, he gives the paper to Riza at the end of the day, accompanied by a request that she find someone who speaks Ishvalan. He can’t see her expression, but there’s a thread of confusion in her voice. He doesn’t explain.
The town in his dreams is a conflagration. He walks amongst the flames, every step sending up a puff of embers. The fire does not touch him, but sweat soaks his clothes. His mouth tastes like ash.
A flock of birds flies above him. One swoops down to perch on his shoulder, its talons digging into the meat of his shoulder. He remembers these vultures – they would descend after a massacre to pick the bones clean.
Now, there are no corpses, only husks of buildings and flickering flames. He continues onwards. The fire never ends.
Eventually, he notices that the Ishvalan child is walking beside him. Flames writhe under her skin. She looks up him with ember eyes.
The vulture hops from his shoulder onto hers. Its weight causes her to stumble and Roy automatically catches her with his blood-stained hands.
Her skin sears his flesh. He tries to pull away, but she holds him fast. The fire bursts from her, consuming her, the vulture, and Roy himself.
He tries to scream, but his lungs are choked with smoke.
Riza comes back with an answer the next day.
“My source said it was hard to translate, even after he muddled through the mess that was your transcription,” she explains. “The phrase is rooted in the Ishvalan religion, so it’s apparently difficult to accurately translate into Amestrian.
“The jist,” she continues, “is apparently ‘you are forgiven.’ There are implications about sins committed under duress, others about being wounded by your own sins in turn. It might be closer to ‘you have paid back your debt in full.’ Does that help at all?”
Roy swallowed thickly. “Yes,” he says, fighting the urge to cry. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
He can’t see her smile, but he can picture the expression. “Of course, sir,” she replies, and hands him another stack of papers before leaving.
The girl doesn’t touch him or speak to him at all. Roy wonders if she’s left now that her message was delivered.
Still, before he leaves for the day, he whispers, “Thank you,” just in case
Roy dreams of the Ishvalan town. The sky is an endless, clear blue. The houses are empty, but there are echoes of laughter on the breeze. He looks at his hands. There are only the faintest remnants of blood caked in the valleys of his knuckles.
In the distance, he sees the shadow of a child. She is dancing, her movements joyous and uninhibited.
His mouth still tastes of ash, but he can’t help but smile.