Disclaimer: I don't own Fullmetal Alchemist or any of the characters. However, I do own all of the DVDs. Does that count for anything?

Author's Note: This is my first fan fiction. Contains SPOILERS for (yep, you guessed it) Episode 25. Oh, and I directly stole a couple of quotes from the same episode.

Lessons Learned

Part I: Tending the Fire

Maes Hughes strode briskly down the narrow hallway, struggling to keep the anxiety he felt under tight control. He stopped in front of the last door on the left and knocked.

Several moments passed with no response. He tried again, knuckles rapping sharply on the wooden barrier.

"Roy?" he called, leaning close to the door in an attempt to avoid disturbing the people in the adjoining apartment so late at night. "It's me, Maes."

Still no answer.

Amber eyes narrowed worriedly behind rectangular glasses, Maes pounded the side of his fist against the door, all concern for the neighbors gone. "Dammit, Roy! I know you're in there. Open up!"

Nearly three weeks had passed since the day Maes knocked on this same door to deliver an apple pie from his girlfriend, Gracia. On that day, a shockingly haggard-looking Roy Mustang had answered. Maes had followed his friend apprehensively into the dim-lit apartment and been appalled to discover dozens of alchemy books and papers scattered haphazardly around the main room, complex equations and transmutation circles scrawled across every square inch of visible floor, and buckets of what looked disturbingly like blood littering the alcove beneath the room's only window.

Roy had delivered his explanation of the chaos in a chillingly casual tone, "It's called a taboo. Forbidden alchemy. It's kinda fun."

Equally unsettling, Roy's unholstered handgun had rested within too easy reach on the corner of the nearby table.

"I had it in my mouth, Maes."

Maes wasn't certain why Roy hadn't pulled the trigger that day—the cowardice he claimed or because of Maes' arrival. He hoped it was the former. It was much easier to believe that his best friend still possessed the stability of mind not to kill himself than to imagine what Maes might have found had he reached the young alchemist's apartment a minute or two later.

Whatever the reason, Roy had made the sane choice against suicide and told Maes of the plan that would give the alchemist's "detestable" life meaning. He would become Fuhrer, transform the country for which he served as a State Alchemist, and change the system that used those alchemists as human weapons. He would make sure that no one could ever again issue the types of orders that had turned Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist, into a killer.

An eerie, determined calm had settled over Roy as he spoke of his plan, a calm Maes found nearly as disquieting as the state of his friend's apartment or his sallow, unshaven face and the dark smudges beneath his eyes. He had no doubts Roy could attain his stated goal, and he promised to help push him to the top, but was Roy truly devoted to the plan? Or was his announcement of it simply a ploy to get Maes out of the apartment and allow the alchemist to get back to whatever he'd been doing?

Not long ago, Maes would have been able to read Roy's mental and emotional state and understand his intentions with little more than a glance. But ever since returning from the east and the horrors of the war in Ishbal, Roy had become a closed book, his thoughts and feelings hidden behind a hard-eyed, grim-faced mask. And so Maes had remained in his friend's shadowy apartment with its mad ornamentations, talking animatedly about everything and nothing (avoiding only the subject of the war) and listening carefully during the few occasions Roy chose to respond to his ramblings with more than a nod or a mumbled acknowledgment, all the while searching for a sign that it was safe to leave him alone.

An hour or so into the mostly one-sided conversation, Roy pushed himself away from the bookcase he was leaning against and began to return his scattered alchemy texts to their proper places and collect his strewn notes. Still responding to Maes' chatter with only an occasional glance or brief comment, he examined each sheet of paper carefully before placing it in a neat stack on his desk or dropping it into a squat metal trash can nearby.

Maes kept up his cheerful banter and helped with the cleaning as best as he could. He returned dirty dishes to the kitchen and threw away clearly unusable items and crumpled pieces of paper. As he sifted through the materials on the table, his hand brushed Roy's gun. He picked it up.

The alchemist glanced up sharply from a pile of notes he'd just taken off the couch. His right hand slid into his trouser pocket, slanted eyes narrowed beneath a fall of black hair. Maes quirked a smile at him and, moving very deliberately, unloaded the gun. With a slight nod, Roy returned to his examination of the papers he held. Maes carried the gun into the bedroom and left it on the chair where Roy had hung his uniform jacket.

He returned to find the alchemist standing in front of his desk. He still held the papers he'd retrieved from the couch, but he was staring at the stack of notes on the desk with a hint of a frown on his features. After a moment, he combined the two piles of paper and dropped them all in the trash. He raised his right hand, and Maes caught a flash of white as Roy pulled on his transmutation glove. The alchemist snapped his fingers, and flames leaped from the metal bin, reducing the papers to ash in a matter of seconds.

He glanced at Maes. "I won't be needing those where I'm going."

Maes felt a weight lift from his shoulders, and he smiled. But memory of his friend's mercurial slide from suicidal taboo-seeker to ambitious soldier made him realize just how quickly he could slide back.

Roy Mustang was a fire that needed more than a single night's tending.

Continues in Part 1b...