Winry stared at the man in front of her, barely able to credit what she was seeing. While she had thought – in passing – that she might have been thrown through the famous gate and into the world Ed and Al had traveled to, she had never seriously considered it.
She hadn't dared to hope she might actually find them.
Her brain barely had time to process that yes, this was Al in front of her, and yes, that meant she must have gone through the Gate, before her feet were moving. They sent her hurtling straight into Al as she threw her arms around his neck, fighting the temptation to burst out sobbing. She had a feeling that if she started, she wouldn't be able to stop.
Her face was pressed into messy blonde hair, which smelled vaguely of shampoo. The thought that Al must have washed his hair recently skittered through her foggy brain as she soaked in his presence like a dried flower drinking in water in a sudden downpour.
She had felt reassured when she and Noa talked, confident that the woman wouldn't just hand her over to the Thule Society...but now, she was with someone she trusted, someone she loved like the brother she'd never had.
Now, she was safe.
At least, until she realised that one of Al's hands had come to rest just between her shoulder blades. Despite knowing that this was the boy she'd grown up with, Winry stiffened, the pressure on her back bringing back flashes of steel and blood...
"Are you...okay?" Al whispered, almost right into her ear. His voice was wavering a little, and there still a certain stunned sound to his voice, as though he couldn't quite believe what was happening.
He wasn't alone. Winry was feeling more than a little stunned herself.
"I'm...alright," she said slowly, leaning back and feeling a flash of relief when Al's hands slipped away from her back. "Yeah, I'm...alright..."
And then, without warning, Winry felt herself dissolve into tears and noisy sobs of relief.
Ed stepped out of the facility and locked the door with a certain sense of relief. He'd spent the entire day and the better part of the night ironing out one of the problems in their rocket design...though he suspected he might not have taken quite so long if his mind hadn't been preoccupied with thoughts of Al in the midst of the Thule Society, finally discovering what their famous 'magic doll' supposedly was.
Even though his logical mind insisted the rumours of actual alchemy were nothing but that – rumours – he couldn't shake the feeling that there might be some truth to it. They'd claimed their 'doll' had come from Shambala...did that mean someone from Amestris had been dragged into Germany somehow?
Ed sighed, starting up the car and telling himself it would do no good to dwell on it – he'd know soon enough.
Winry knew that her reaction was perfectly understandable – she'd been running on adrenaline and fear for the duration of her captivity, and to have that tension suddenly relieved was often as traumatic as its infliction. She'd spent weeks locked up in darkness, being periodically dragged out and cut open...and to be taken in and sheltered, offered sympathy, and reunited with one of her oldest, dearest friends who she had thought lost to her forever...
She supposed she could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. But all the knowledge in the world didn't stop her from feeling like a crybaby.
She sniffled a little wetly, and Al glanced at her in alarm. Her crying fit had ceased a few minutes ago, but she still looked as though she was in shock.
And when Al had hugged her, he was fairly certain he'd felt her flinch when his hand landed on her back.
"Winry...did they hurt you?"
She offered a tremulous smile. "I'm fine."
Which wasn't really an answer to his question, Al noted. She was wearing one of Noa's blouses, and he couldn't help but wonder what had happened to her own shirt.
As he pondered that, Noa stepped into the room and handed Winry a cup of tea.
"Thanks," the blonde grinned.
At first, Al didn't know what bothered him about that word. It took a moment to realise it had been spoken in fluent, perfectly accented German – even Ed didn't speak it that well!
"You speak German," he said dumbly, switching to the language now that Noa was in the room and he knew Winry could speak it.
Another wan smile from Winry was his reply.
"How long have you been here?" Al asked with growing horror. They'd only heard rumours of the magic doll recently, but that didn't mean that Winry hadn't been in Germany for longer than that. He felt his chest constrict as he considered the possibility that she could have been in the grasp of the Thule Society for months.
Winry shrugged. "I don't really know – they kept me locked up most of the time. Maybe a few weeks."
Her tone was light, but the dark shadows in her eyes told Al he wasn't getting the full story. But when she yawned, he supposed questions about that could wait – all his questions could wait until she had rested.
"You can take my bed, if you want," he offered.
"Could I?" The hope in her eyes was painful. He swallowed as he wondered how Winry must have been treated for her to look as though she'd been handed a priceless ruby at the prospect of being given a bed.
But Al said nothing, simply nodding and pointing to the door that led to his bedroom, and Winry rose with a grateful smile. Something in her expression told him she knew he still had questions, and that she'd be willing to answer them as soon as she'd gotten some sleep.
Some part of him was unwilling to let Winry out of his sight, afraid she might suddenly vanish as soon as he couldn't see her...but he let her go into the room without a word. He knew it was silly, and since he doubted Winry would agree to let him watch her sleep, he didn't protest.
His door snapped shut, and he turned to Noa, his voice low, "Do you think she's really okay?"
Noa bit her lip and debated with herself for a moment, before she decided Al should know. "Al...there's something else..."
She moved to the pot where she'd stored the blood-soaked bandages, intending to boil and sterilise them later. "When Winry first came, she hadn't escaped without...injury."
"Injury!" Al hissed, half-rising. "Why didn't she say something, why didn't she-?"
"Because while I was in the middle of treating them, her injuries healed."
Now Al was staring, and Noa showed him the bandages, resplendent with crimson stains, to illustrate her story. "She had a cut on her side so deep I could see bone. It was bleeding so much I almost thought she was going to die...but then it stopped bleeding, and when I looked, there was nothing but a thin scar."
"What did they do to her?" Al whispered, his voice anguished. "Do you think they-"
"I don't know," Noa said quietly, the only thing she could say with any truthfulness. "I don't know."
Al didn't know how long they stayed there, standing awkwardly in the living room, struggling to digest the events of the past few hours. Winry had returned to them...but Noa made it clear she had been altered in the process. He could only imagine the nightmare Winry had gone through, and while Al was undoubtedly happy she had been reunited with them, it was mingled with a thick dose of regret that it was under such circumstances, and a touch of guilt that some part of him was so pleased.
He was only broken from his contemplation by the sound of a car pulling up outside.
"Brother!" he exclaimed, practically running for the front door. How would Ed react to this?
"Hey," Ed said, sounding bemused as he shed his coat, hanging it on the hook beside the door. "That's a rather exuberant greeting – I take it there's something to this magic doll thing then?"
"The magic doll is...it was...it was a person!" Al stammered, struggling to find a halfway calm method of breaking the news.
Ed's mouth twisted. A person was being held prisoner by the Thule Society. No wonder Al had practically jumped up to tell him.
"But she escaped," Al went on. "And she...brother...it's Winry!"
Ed froze, his heartbeat suddenly ringing alarmingly loudly in his chest. "Al, that's not funny."
"I'm not joking!" the younger Elric insisted, seizing Ed's hand and tugging him towards the bedroom Winry was sleeping in.
He cracked the door open an inch or two, just enough to let a slice of light illuminate the face of the woman resting on the bed.
At first, Ed couldn't believe what he was seeing. He blinked, hard, just to see if this was some sort of hallucination, but the information his eyes were relaying remained the same.
That was Winry, sleeping in Al's bed. That was Winry, barely a few feet away from him.
That was Winry...on this side of the Gate.
Ed said something surprisingly obscene – even for him – in a dazed, disbelieving sort of voice. He reached out, starting forward into the room on impulse, and Al grabbed his arm to hold him back.
"She just escaped," he said softly. "She needs to sleep."
"Right, right." Ed still sounded dazed, and he hadn't taken his eyes from Winry.
Al tugged on his wrist to prompt him to move and shut the door behind them, letting the woman inside continue her slumber undisturbed.
"Sit down and Noa and I will try to explain everything to you," Al instructed.
Ed did as he was told, which was the biggest tell that he was still far too shocked to actually process anything.
So Al struck while the iron was hot, as the saying went, and told Ed everything he knew. Which wasn't a lot, but what little they did know was earth-shattering enough.
They knew that Winry had been imprisoned by the Thule Society for weeks. And they knew that she'd been altered somehow during her captivity, perhaps through some kind of warped experiment.
"So..." Ed's voice was a little too calm, and his knuckles were white where they'd clenched in the fabric of his pants. "You think the Thule Society...did something to her."
It wasn't a question.
"Who else could it be?" Al said quietly, his throat aching. "Noa showed me the bandages – Winry must have been bleeding really badly. But she didn't have a scratch when I saw her."
Ed shook his head, feeling as though someone had hit him on the head with a mallet. His body felt too small to contain the emotions running through him. Some part of him was happy to see Winry, and he felt guilty for being happy when it was obvious she had suffered so much in coming to this world. He felt simultaneously shocked at what he'd just heard and physically sickened by the idea that the Thule Society might have used Winry as a lab rat.
He closed his eyes and dug the heels of his hand into his temples, feel the cool metal of his automail through the glove that concealed it. Ed dropped his arms to his knees and stared at the limb, at the sliver of steel that peeked from the gap between his glove and sleeve.
The metal Winry had created for him. The automail she had given to him the last time he had seen her.
For a moment, Ed closed his eyes, reliving the adrenaline rush of the crash, the throb of bruises on his body...and the sight of Winry in front of him, tall and strong and smiling. The feel of her arms around him, her body pressed tight against his.
He had thought he had broken the link between Amestris and this world. He had thought the Thule Society would never find a way to reach it again. He had thought everyone in Amestris was safe from them.
He had thought Winry was safe from them. Cut off from him, perhaps...but safe.
And now, he was learning that he'd been wrong. That Winry had been anything but safe. That she'd been in this world, being tortured, for weeks...and he'd never known. He'd never even suspected.
When Ed took a chair into Al's room, determined to spend the night watching over Winry, neither Noa nor his brother said anything.
He hadn't been able to protect her then, but he could damn well protect her now.
Winry woke to the smell of toast. For a moment, she experienced a pleasant amnesia – she thought she was in her own bed, smelling her grandmother making breakfast. But then she realised the ceiling she was staring at didn't look anything like the ceiling of her bedroom, and it all came rushing back.
She sat up in her borrowed bed, glancing around the room with a sort of weary puzzlement. Some part of her still couldn't believe her captivity was over, that she was here and safe, with Al and...
She blinked as she took in the man sleeping in the chair in the corner of the room. When her eyes confirmed that, yes, it was really Ed there, Winry rose and hesitantly made her way to stand beside him.
For several moments, she just stared, drinking him in, feeling her heart squeeze a little in her chest. She'd thought she would never see him again. When she had seen the blimp vanish through the Gate...she had resigned herself to a life without him. She had tried to go on, tried to forget him, tried anything she could to make his and Al's absence sting a little less.
And now she was with them again. Al was right downstairs, and Ed was right in front of her.
Blinking away a hint of tears, the mechanic reached out and shook Ed's shoulder, rousing him.
"Huh?" Ed spluttered, as he came around. "Wha-?"
Then his eyes landed on her, and his voice died in his throat.
Winry gave him a trembling smile before she launched herself at him and threw her arms around his neck, clinging tightly to him, almost exactly as she had so long ago.
But this time, Ed didn't remain stiff and shocked in her embrace. This time, she felt him clutch at her in return, almost as fiercely. She closed her eyes and pressed her face into his neck, breathing in his scent as she felt tears prickle at her eyes once more.
Fortunately, his arms were around her lower back, away from the danger zone between her shoulder blades.
Ed gave a long, shuddering sigh, feeling most of the tension leak out of his body. He pressed Winry to him as tightly as he dared, reveling in the contact, in the real, tactile proof that she was here with him and safe.
"Winry..." he sighed softly, closing his eyes and blindly pressing his face against her hair.
They remained that way for long moments, wrapped in each other's embrace, until a sudden loud clang from below brought them back to themselves.
They disengaged slowly, each wanting to prolong the contact as long as possible.
"Want some breakfast?" Ed asked softly, trying to inject a bit of lightness into the atmosphere.
Winry's giggle sounded suspiciously wet, but her eyes were dry when she stepped away. "Sure."
They made their way into the kitchen, where Al was making toast and Noa was stirring a pot that smelled suspiciously like porridge.
"Don't give me much," she cautioned as Noa began to spoon the porridge into four bowls. "I should probably take it easy."
Of course, seeing as she hadn't lost an ounce of weight while she was being starved, Winry doubted the normal rules applied to her anymore...but it couldn't hurt to be cautious.
Ed blinked, hard. Al and Noa had informed him of Winry's sudden ability to speak German, but it was still quite startling to hear the language come from her mouth.
In fact, he thought he detected a slight Roma accent to her speech...
"Why?" Al asked. "I mean, why should you take it easy?"
"Because they never fed me," Winry said softly, staring determinedly at her porridge instead of the others.
She took a tentative spoonful and brought it to her lips, swallowing almost immediately. Her stomach didn't rebel – if fact, she didn't even feel the nausea she knew was common to most starvation victims when they tried to eat again.
"They didn't feed you?" Al echoed, sounding stricken.
"Not once. They never gave me anything to drink, either." Winry shrugged, trying to inject some flippancy into her voice when she said, "But you don't have to worry, it didn't seem to affect me."
There was silence, and Winry took advantage of it to finish her porridge. She tried to pace herself, but eventually the desperation to get something in her stomach after months of it being empty overcame her, and without any nausea to check it, she was quickly devouring her food like a ravenous boar.
She looked up only when she had finished, feeling a sudden rush of self-consciousness as she realised everyone was staring at her.
"Winry...do you remember exactly what the Thule Society did to you?" Ed asked. His voice was even, but Winry detected an underlying tinge of anger. And even deeper beneath that...pain.
The mechanic swallowed. Apparently, they'd decided this was time for the hard questions. Not that she could really blame them – she wanted several mysteries explained herself...if they could be explained.
"The Thule Society didn't...make me this way."
And then she told them about her visit to Central, about being made part of a twisted alchemy experiment that somehow sent her hurtling into this world. And about her blood somehow being needed for the Thule Society to perform alchemy.
But most importantly, she told them all about her apparent immunity to starvation and dehydration as well as the cold, her mysterious ability to heal from wounds that should have taken weeks to repair, and the momentary telepathic-like link with Noa that had somehow granted her the ability to speak German.
"So...if you can explain any of that...be my guest," she finished, her tone rather brittle.
Noa was pressing her hand against her mouth, looking horrified.
"Oh, Winry," Al sighed, seemingly on the verge of tears at what she had endured.
"I'm okay," she said shakily, afraid that such a blatant show of affection would send her into sobs again.
She shot a quick glance at Ed, alarmed to realise that his face was white, and his automail hand was clenched so tightly around the arm of his chair he looked about to snap it off.
"Ed...?" she ventured cautiously.
Ed squeezed his eyes shut, wrestling with the hot, black anger twisting inside him like a furious snake.
"And you don't know what they did to you?" Noa asked, seeming to sense that the elder Elric needed a few moments to compose himself.
"No. But if you guys have any ideas..."
"I think I know what happened," Ed said quietly, his breath coming a little harder than was necessary as he struggled to speak calmly, to deal with this rationally.
Winry stared at him, a tinge of apprehension in her eyes as she waited to hear what might have been done to her.
"Winry...are you sure the red liquid went into your body?" he asked, trying to be as certain as he could before he proposed his theory. A theory that seemed ridiculous...but was really the only one that made sense.
Winry nodded slowly. "What do you think he did, Ed?"
"I think...I think he might have put a Philosopher's Stone in you."
AN: Thanks to justcallmefaye for beta-ing this!