Winry had been afraid when Mr. Malcolm voiced his intolerance for Ed's actions. That fear had only grown as she handed him his coat and followed the small, bristly ball of walking fur towards the warehouse. She feared for Ed's safety, and for Al's as well (though she doubted Mr. Malcolm would demonstrate enmity toward the younger Elric—he hadn't done anything wrong, after all). And she feared for what range of decisions she might have to make if Ed and Mr. Malcolm began to fight.
But even with her fears compounded together, they had nothing on the complete mortification that lanced through her body and paralyzed every limb, every organ, every hair follicle.
"Wh-where... did you find that?" Mr. Malcolm stuttered, the cold resolve gone from his stance so quickly, Winry couldn't be sure if it had been there at all.
Ed, standing across the room, dangled a piece of loose, sagging skin in the air. "Over there," he answered, nonchalant. He gestured toward Al, who fashioned two more flesh masks in his hands.
"It would seem that this little fantasy of yours is all but finished," Ed shouted across the room. "What are you going to tell your 'Miss Winry' now? That this was an accident, too? I wonder," Ed mused, tossing his mask up into the air and catching it. "What I can prove with this tantalizing bit of evidence."
"Put that down—stop it. Don't touch it, don't play with it—STOP!" Mr. Malcolm shrieked, turning away from the Elrics.
"We just want to make sure we have our facts right, so we don't file an untruthful report when we get back to Central," Ed assured the engineer. When had he gotten so convincingly dramatic?
"We shall see, hm? You're still in my castle. If you never get out, then you won't need to file a report at all!" The sentries, who had been standing down as the two parties exchanged greetings, burst into action.
Winry flinched instinctively as the one nearest Ed clapped him on the back with the butt of its spear, forcing Ed to the ground. She clamped her eyes shut, but the dissonance of clashing metal and shouting gave her a clear enough picture. She could imagine Ed falling to the ground and rolling around frenetically, trying to gain the split second he needed to vault himself back to his feet.
She could hear Al shouting something—was he talking to her? No, he was shouting for Ed—before his voice was drowned out by another sharp clang as he blocked a blow from the robot's spear.
"Stand near the entrance, sweetling." Mr. Malcolm was standing uncomfortably close to her—she could feel his presence—but he didn't touch her. He never did. She opened her eyes, wondering why she had to stand by the door. A sweeping against her ankle answered her unspoken muse. The blade models were waking.
"What are you doing? They'll be killed!" Winry screamed, though she moved towards the doorway all the same. Mr. Malcolm treated her to an apologetic tilt of his hooded head. That's what he intends. She felt like crying, then, because she was entirely confused. What was going on, and why?
After making sure every blade model had woken, Mr. Malcolm returned to her side. "I'm sorry," he said. You don't sound sorry, she thought angrily. You always say how you don't want to see me hurt, how you don't want to hurt me. It was moronic of them to come back to this place, but not unexpected. Hadn't he foreseen and prepared for their return?
Something shattered above her head, raining down bolts and slivers of steel plating. Another tremor of mortification rumbled through her. What's going on?
The robots were...exploding? They weren't built to be driven together all at once, was her first thought. The second was: No, it has nothing to do with their numbers. The robots only work in the icy temperatures of the north, don't they? When we were constructing their engines, we aimed for something that would be light enough to allow swift movement, but now they're overheating, because all the heat is trapped inside this little cave. It's not as cold as it needs to be in order for them to keep from overheating.
At a detached level of comprehension, this disappointed her greatly. She had spent months learning and tweaking her design for these robots, only to discover that she had not taken into account the extreme conditions in which she had observed her results.
That was elementary. But she had forgotten all the same.
Then, she knew exactly what she needed to do. Pressing against the cave wall one last time for reassurance, she bolted into the fray. Behind her, she could hear Mr. Malcolm trying to call her back. "I can't bear to see you injured, Miss Winry. Please, stay where it's safe, come back —"
She turned toward him, slowing just enough to form complete sentences without needing to take a breath in between phrases. "I know. And I can't just stand by while Ed and Al get hurt, either. That's why I have to do something!"
As her creations overheated and exploded all around her, she searched frantically for Ed and Al. Soon, the acrid tang of smoke from the explosions invaded her nostrils, burning away—it seemed—everything but her ability to smell. The smoke had begun to drape down over her head, brining the proverbial ceiling down to the point where she had to crawl on her hand and knees to escape the thick blackness.
"We have to get out of here now or we'll suffocate," Ed grabbed her by the arm and started pulling her toward the back exit. She jumped—where had he come from? And I was such a great help to them just now, wasn't I?
"Wait! What about Mr. Malcolm? We can't just leave him here." Ed studied her expression, as if trying to decide whether she was serious or not. "So he doesn't like you. If we don't make sure he's gotten out safely, we'll be the ones who killed him," Winry reasoned, mouth a hard, unwavering line.
"You'd be amazed at the unlikelihood of Mal—Mr. Malcolm being asphyxiated," Ed muttered before whirling around and forcing his way through the throngs of rattling, incapacitated robots on his hands and knees in order to reach the front door, where Mr. Malcolm was presumably waiting.
They found him with Al, who was hovering tentatively over the man. As she drew nearer and the deafening scream of a dozens of motors exploding subsided, Winry heard Mr. Malcolm sobbing uncontrollably, clutching his face. "Are you hurt? What happened, I thought they wouldn't..." Winry started, kneeling down by Mr. Malcolm's head.
"GET AWAY FROM ME," He shouted, batting at her outstretched arm. "Don't touch me, don't come near me, don't even think about me. I'm an a-abomination!"
Winry shrunk back, which caused the engineer to begin sobbing harder. "THIS is what I am—a monster!" He cried, throwing back his hood. Beneath the hood was a grotesque paste of flesh that might have, at one point, resembled a human face. But no longer. The eye sockets had begun to droop and swim, flesh clammy and drained of all colour. It was this, more than the blood seal on Mr. Malcolm's metal body, that frightened her the most.
She looked to Al, and then to Ed, searching for consolation, comfort, anything. Both refused to return eye contact. They knew. And for how long had they kept this from her? She felt a tightness in her throat and she could feel herself trembling—no matter how hard she fought, she could not stop shaking. "I," she managed to get out.
And suddenly, she realized that there was no fear left in her. What was there to fear, after all? "I'm done crying. Done being afraid."
The rest of their time in the cave was a blur to Winry. She was lost in her own world of realization and wonder, processing all that had changed in such a short sprint of time. But she did remember leaving cave together, in a significantly less panicked fashion than she could have imagined.
They parted ways outside the warehouse, Mr. Malcolm to his 'mushroom home,' as he called it, and the Elrics in the direction of the walls. Winry stood at the crossroads of both, shivering in her light sweater as she bid Ed and Al goodbye. As Ed turned to step over a bit of rubble, she exclaimed, "Hey! It's officially October third." She pointed to the tinge of murky gold on the horizon—northern dawns were about as glorious as northern sunsets. (Which is to say, they are not glorious at all.) "Don't forget."
"Don't forget," Ed agreed slowly. It was clear that he was uncomfortable with her having brought that up, but he loosened into a genuine grin. Al, however, said nothing. Winry guessed that Ed had not yet shown him the inside of his treasured pocket watch; it remained a secret between just the two of them.
She had just begun to slip into a dream-like warmth at the thought of white secrets when Al said, "Brother, why is the military here?"
Winry looked up, almost inquiring as to what 'the military' encapsulated, before she saw all (as she would later count) twelve dozen soldiers, crisp military blues a stark contrast against the grey, dawn snow. That's a good question, Al. She, however, did not care to discover the answer.