Title: Coping Mechanisms

Author: S J Smith

Rating: K+

Summary: Sometimes, it feels like being under a gun.

Disclaimer: No, no, I'm just a fangirl.

You can feel him.

It makes your skin twitch, and you wonder if your targets felt the same way, when you took sight of them. Because you think this sensation, of your skin twitching underneath your uniform, between your shoulder blades, has to be the same sort of thing that made some of your targets raise their heads, eyes widening, as they searched for what was causing that tingling.

The only problem is, you know exactly what's causing this twitching, tingling sensation.

And worse, just like your targets, you can do nothing about it.

Fuhrer King Bradley sits in his chair behind his desk. He watches you out of a single eye, the other blacked out by a patch. As an immediate superior, he is far more conscientious than Colonel Mustang. The files you pass him at the beginning of the day are returned to you within twenty-four hours; and often sooner. His calendar is updated immediately. He greets you every morning, and passes an evening salutation when he leaves for the day. He offers to have his driver drop you at your house, but you decline. Politely. You do like your walk home, which allows you a chance to shop at some of the little stores on the way – the bakery, where you can pick up a good, crusty bread; the butcher shop, with its fresh offering of meats, and bones for Black Hayate. (You know he misses being able to come to work with you, but you'd rather him be safe at home. If Fuery was still assigned to Central – but that is no more of an option than taking Hayate with you to work any more.) Even though the Fuhrer doesn't press you after your second 'thank you, but no thank you', even though you know that he already knows where you live, and may have a way to track you throughout your days and nights, you like to pretend that, as long as he doesn't drive you to your apartment building, he doesn't know where you actually live.

It's a foolish pretense, and you know it, but it helps.


You chose your apartment, in this area reminiscent of a ghetto, with your noisy, drunken neighbors, for a few reasons. One – you can keep Black Hayate there. Two – it is inexpensive, and there are other things you choose to spend money on than a place to live. Three – there are a lot of different exits out of the building. While you have a particular routine you use, including your arrival time at work and departure time for home, and the way you would take Hayate out of the building for his walks; you know how to use that routine against someone who might be keeping an eye out for you.

Plus, you have an extensive collection of outfits, wigs, and make-up that First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye would never be caught dead wearing, hidden behind a false wall in your bedroom.

Maes Hughes hadn't been the only chameleon in your group.

You leave your light on, and the radio playing, and tell Black Hayate to 'go to bed' – code for him that you'll be busy for a while and unable to play. He lies down, and you slip out the door, locking it behind you. Sometimes, you wish you could afford to rent the apartment on either side of your rooms as well, but you're not made of money. It would be handy to have another set of rooms to stash weapons and costume changes, and keep your other identities from being realized. 'Elizabeth' isn't the only girl you've been over your years with Colonel Mustang. There are others: Candy, who may or may not be a prostitute; Betty, a good girl down on her luck. Tonight, you are the redheaded Kate, maybe the one closest to your actual personality with her honor and dry sense of humor. Kate dresses like a matron, though her red hair and the odd brooch or earrings she wears adds color and a hint that there were things hidden beneath her dowdy clothes. If someone saw the flash, he was less likely to see your face, though you disguise that, too – a beauty mark just left of the corner of your mouth.

You step out onto the street, adjusting your pillbox hat in the reflection of a window, a neat trick to check if someone might be following. At this point, you don't see anything, but you will still keep an eye out as you make your roundabout way to a bar just on the outskirts of your neighborhood.

As you approach the Scarlet Cock, you hear the jangling of a piano. Kate settles on you like a second skin, and her mouth opens in a broad smile. She greets a couple leaving the bar – Vanessa, one of the bar's hostesses, and a man old enough to be her father. He tries to grab a handful of Kate's ass but she sidesteps him and wags a finger, though her mouth quirks roguishly. He likes that, and roars his laughter, clasping Vanessa close as they continue on down to the nearest taxi cab, waiting for a fare.

Entering the Scarlet Cock means she allows herself to take on a more raucous mien. Kate approaches the bar, raising a hand to the older woman standing behind it, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. "Kate," she rasps out, in a voice destroyed by the tobacco she was addicted to, "I didn't expect to see you this evening."

"I had some free time, Madam." Kate nods at her. "I thought I should stop by, see if any of my friends were also free."

Madam Christmas sniffs. "None of your friends," she says, "but a whining boy, crying over his lost woman." She tilts her head toward the end of the bar, and a man dressed for an evening out.

Kate wrinkles her nose – he looks too high tone for her tastes, with the scarf around his neck, and fine woolen jacket. So she stands at the bar instead, hooking her foot over the railing, and orders her regular – a shot of whiskey, neat, with a glass of water for a chaser. Madam Christmas brings it over with a napkin. Kate doesn't sip her whiskey; she tosses it back in one shot, the burn of it igniting her throat – hence the water chaser. Still, she savors the burn, and the way the booze warms her stomach.

The man's cheek is pressed onto the top of the bar, a half-empty glass next to his temple. His eyes are dark; Kate can't tell their color from where she sits and the dim lighting of the bar. He sits up, revealing a roundish face accented with slanting eyebrows and a sharp nose. The lines bracketing his mouth reveal stress, even though he smiles like a drunk, and the skin around his eyes crinkles into laugh lines. He says that he must get back home before he's too drunk to drive. Madam Christmas snorts at him. "Roy-boy, I know I'll see you again, soon."

As he passes by Kate, he gives her an unguarded glance that ignites the liquor in her belly; and she nearly turns to follow him out the door, but she's not that kind of a girl, and forces her attention back to the glass in front of her.

When he's gone, safely twenty minutes away, Kate pays for her drink, collecting what would appear to be a receipt with her change. As she walks back to the apartment, she sheds her persona, and, with a glance in the reflection of a window, you know you're not being followed.

You duck into your apartment building through one of the side doors, making sure no one is in the hall before unlocking your door and slipping inside. Hayate raises his head and wags his tail, and you smile at him, tell him, "Good dog!" as you walk across the room, unpinning the pill box hat from your wig and hair to set it aside.

Twenty minutes later, Kate is packed up in her box until the next time she's needed, and you are on your sofa, legs curled under you, a cup of tea steaming gently on the end table next to your elbow. Hayate rests against you, his chin on your thigh, and you rub his head absently, unfolding what is not a receipt.

Mustang's handwriting is crabbed and tiny, and you think that it is highly unlikely anyone would be able to read his alchemic journal, coded or not. Even after so many years, you still find it difficult to decipher his hand. It takes time, but you manage to read the letter, with its words of encouragement, information on the rest of his command, and finally, a reminder of everything that the two of you share, and your heart is warmed by more than the shot of whiskey you'd drank earlier.

Yes, you can feel Fuhrer King Bradley, watching you, but even so, Colonel Roy Mustang still has your back, and that comfort is better than a blanket on a chilly night.

After draining your tea cup, you take Hayate out for his final walk, then ready yourself for bed. The note goes with you to your bed, tucked into the pillowcase. Not an original hiding place, but it would only stay there until the morning, when you'd burn it, as you had all the previous notes. Still, that little comfort would stay with you for the following days, until you had a chance to don another role and venture back to the Scarlet Cock, and a chance to see him again.

- end -