Labyrinth (or a Somewhat Reasonable Facsimile Thereof)
by Blue Soaring
Run?" Duo echoed.
"Yes, run!" Heero shouted again, grabbing Duo's hand and dragging him down the passage, away from the steadily growing silver glint that had been the crystal.
Duo glanced back over his shoulder. The crystal had transformed into something huge and metallic. It filled the entire tunnel, scraping along the edges of the rock. It grated along the ceiling, smashing small protrusions of stone. The front of it was covered in sharp pieces of steel that scratched and ground against each other, filling the passage with the high pitched shrieking of metal on metal.
Duo turned back around, too late to avoid a crack in the floor. He tripped, sprawling face first onto the ground. Heero jerked to a stop, roughly hauling Duo to his feet. The longhaired man scrambled to get up, grabbing onto Heero. He stumbled again, twisting Heero's arm and making him wince.
"You okay?" Duo gasped as he righted himself.
Heero gave him a quick nod, running down the tunnel at breakneck speed. Ahead of them loomed a gate that filled the entire width of the passage. Chains looped around the bars.
"Oh no!" Duo yelled, frantically glancing back at the steel death-trap bearing down on them and then at the walls penning them in.
Duo jerked the chains wildly, nearly screaming in frustration as the thing behind them steadily rumbled closer. Heero slammed his body against the gate, trying to break the old, rusted doors down. The longhaired man cast about again, noticing a section of the wall that looked more like a giant door than wall. Running over to it, he started pushing and gave a shout of elation when he felt it give under his body weight.
"The Cleaner, the Bog of Eternal Stench... you sure have his attention!" Heero shouted over the chaos, finally looking over to where Duo was slamming himself against the panel. He quickly abandoned the gate, adding his strength to Duo's.
As one, they looked back down the tunnel. The Cleaner was close enough now that Duo could distinguish the different metal blades endlessly turning, light glinting off of the razor edges. He gave a scream of rage and desperation, throwing himself against the panel. It gave a great shudder, then fell back with a great crash and billowing dust. The two men collapsed on top of it and each other, breathing heavily with adrenaline and exertion. The Cleaner thundered passed them, breaking through the grate as if it were paper. Dirt and steel flew into the air, adding to the chaotic noise. The sound of metal scraping on stone gradually faded as it disappeared down the black tunnel.
Heero gave Duo a startled look when he realized where he was lying and quickly picked himself up. He glanced around their new surroundings. A ladder was set against one wall, leading far up into a thinner passage. "This is what we need," he said, heading towards it. "Follow me."
Duo crawled to his feet, staring at the other incredulously. He dusted the dirt off his pants and vainly tired to tame the errant strands of hair that had worked loose from his braid. Tucking a strand behind his ear, he said with an exasperated sigh, "How can I trust you, now that I know you were taking me back to the beginning?"
"I wasn't," Heero replied, looking up the shaft and testing the first rung of the ladder. "I just told him that I was taking you back to the beginning."
Duo crossed his arms over his chest. "Heero," he said coolly, "how can I believe anything you say?"
"Let me put it this way," Heero answered, climbing the ladder and adamantly avoiding Duo's gaze. "What choice do you have?"
The longhaired man looked back through the crumbling doorway that they had fallen through, then back up at Heero. He threw his arms up into the air. "You're right," he sighed finally, walking to the base of the ladder and climbing up after Heero.
"You see," Heero said after a few moments, "you have to understand my position. I live in the labyrinth, Treize controls it."
"What kind of position is that?"
"A bad one. That's my point." Heero paused and looked up, checking the remaining distance. "If you knew what the Bog of Eternal Stench was like..." he trailed off, an involuntary shudder passing over him. The rung his foot was resting on groaned, then broke free with a sharp crack. Heero quickly moved up to the next step.
Duo watched the piece of wood fall down into the blackness below them, his eyes widening when he couldn't hear it strike ground. "Is that all it does? Stink?"
"Believe me, that's enough," Heero growled. He reached up, pushing against something covering the shaft's exit. There was the sound of stone grating against stone, and then a tiny stream of light showed through. The short-haired man grunted and heaved the stone off.
Heero's head appeared over the rim of a giant pot as the lid clattered to the ground. The pot was set high on a stone table, in the middle of a clearing of the well-groomed hedge maze. Other pots and statues were set in various places around them, and a worn, stone stairwell beside them led back down into the underground tunnels. The tall, smoothly carved walls with the pointing hands rose up beyond the leafy shrubs. Duo emerged beside him, mouth falling open in disbelief.
"You're on your own from now on," Heero said, jumping down from the pot. "That's it, I quit."
"What?!" Duo nearly screamed, heaving himself up over the rim. "Wait a minute," he ground out. "Heero!"
"I said I promised nothing; that I'd take you as far as I could go." Heero shrugged his shoulders, glanced around, and started heading into the maze.
"You cheat! You nasty little cheat!" Duo shouted, storming over to Heero and grabbing him by the arm. He flung the other around, glaring darkly.
Heero scowled at him, violently shrugging off his hand.
"I don't owe you anything!" Duo shouted at his companion.
Heero merely snorted.
Duo's eyes narrowed, then flicked down, catching sight of the black glint tucked in Heero's waistband. "Oh yeah? It's like that, is it?" he quickly grabbed the butt of the gun and backed away.
"Give that back to me," Heero hissed, bearing down on Duo as the other man danced away, keeping small trees and statues between them.
"Now, there's the castle," Duo said when Heero stopped trying to grab him and merely stood still, seething with anger. "Which way should we go?" He tucked the weapon into the back of his pants.
"That's mine," Heero snarled, jabbing a finger in the direction of his gun. "It's not fair."
"No, it isn't," Duo said softly. "But that's the way it is."
Heero didn't look one bit impressed by Duo's revelation. At that moment, a small movement from the other corner of the square caught both of their attention. An older man, accompanied by a girl with black hair so dark is almost appeared purple strolled into sight. The man had light grey hair that stuck off in odd points from the sides of his head. Dark sunglasses hid his eyes from view. He made his way to a chair carved of stone and settled himself on it. The girl perched negligently on the arm, looking down at him and speaking quietly.
Duo and Heero exchanged a look. The dark-haired man shrugged. Duo quirked an eyebrow, then headed towards the two newcomers. Heero sighed and followed.
"Excuse me," Duo said, coming to a halt in front of them. "Can you help me?"
The man turned to face him, surprise clearly showing in his face. "Oh. A young man...?"
The girl followed his gaze, making an approving sound deep in her throat.
"And who is this?" the man asked, raising a bushy eyebrow and nodding at Heero.
Heero glared at him.
"My...friend," Duo said hesitantly.
Giving a tiny start of surprise, Heero glanced over at Duo.
"And what can I do for you?" the old man asked.
"Please, can you tell... that is..." Duo stopped, his thoughts scattered. "I have to get to the castle at the centre of the labyrinth," he said finally, gathering himself together. "Do you know the way?"
"Ah," the man said.
"Ah," the girl echoed.
"Ah," he said again.
"Ah," she repeated.
"Ah...yes. You... w ant to get... to the castle?"
The girl snorted. "How's that for brain power, eh?" she said to the two men.
"Be quiet!" the man snapped.
"Aw, nuts," mumbled the girl.
"So, young man," he said, turning back to Duo.
Duo smiled hopefully.
"The way forward," he continued, leaning ahead in his chair to pin Duo once more with his glasses-covered gaze, "is sometimes the way back."
An extremely puzzled expression crossed Duo's face.
"Ach, will you listen to this crap," the girl said.
Heero grunted his agreement, and Duo shot him a sharp look.
"Will you-" the man started to say.
"Okay," the girl cut him off.
"I'm sorry," she huffed.
"Alright?" asked the man.
"Okay," the girl answered.
She harrumphed again.
"What?" he asked.
"Sorry," she mumbled.
The man let out a long sigh. "Finished?"
"Yes," she said shortly.
"Quite often, young man," the man said, turning again to Duo, "it seems like we're not getting anywhere, when in fact-"
"-we are," the girl interrupted.
"We are," the man grated out, glaring up at the girl.
"I'm certainly not getting anywhere at the moment," Duo said, glancing around.
"Eh!" the girl snickered. "Join the club!"
Heero smirked again, nodding his agreement. The man had slumped against the chair back, snoring softly.
"I, eh, think that's your lot," the girl said, looking down at the old man. "Please, leave a contribution in the little box."
The sleeping man snored loudly, rattling the box he held in his hand.
Duo raised both his eyebrows, perplexed. He glanced down at himself, looking for something. His hand drifted toward the gun.
"Don't you dare!" Heero growled. "That's mine."
Duo pursed his lips, but dropped his hand away. Heero grunted. The longhaired man finally reached for the armlet. "Well, I guess I can spare this," he said, unclasping it and letting it slip into the box.
Heero made a disgusted sound as they turned away.
"Gracias, senior!" the girl called, waving.
"You didn't have to give them that," Heero grunted once they were out of earshot. "They didn't tell you anything."
Duo pointedly ignored him.
"Well, well then," the girl said, watching them turn the corner. "There go a couple of suckers."
The man snored his agreement.
"Ach, it's so stimulating being your friend," the girl complained, rolling her eyes.
Duo and his companion wandered through the tall hedges, choosing their route at random. The longhaired man scratched absently at his neck and flicked his braid over his shoulder. He peered around a corner, looked both ways and chose the right hand path.
"Why-" Heero started to say.
"Do you hear that?" Duo asked, stopping short. He listened for a moment, but the soft pitter-pat that he thought he had heard was gone.
"What?" the other asked.
"Nah, nothing," Duo mumbled and started walking again.
A few minutes later, Heero tried again. "Why did you say that? Calling me your friend?"
"Because you are," Duo replied, peeking around another corner. "You may not be much of a friend, but you're the only friend I've got in this place."
Heero grunted again, but the sound had a wondering quality to it.
Duo stopped again, frowning. "Do you hear something?" he asked, drawing his brows together in confusion.
Another grunt, then, "No."
"Yeah, you're right." He shoved his hands in his pockets and moved on.
"Friend..." Heero said mostly to himself. "I like that." He turned the corner, following Duo. "I've never been anyone's friend before."
As soon as the words left his lips, a strained cry echoed from somewhere in front of them. Both froze and Duo shot Heero a wide-eyed look when he heard a high-pitched scream of pain.
Heero glanced around, then abruptly decided that the opposite direction, the way they had just come, looked more promising. He gave a little snort and said, "Goodbye."
Duo's mouth dropped open. Whirling on his heel, he turned on Heero. "Wait a minute!"
"Keep the damn gun," he growled, staring straight ahead as he walked away.
"Are you my friend or not!?" Duo shouted, grabbing the other's arm.
"No. No, I'm not! I'm no one's friend. I look after myself, like everyone does!" Heero snarled and roughly shook Duo's hand off.
"Heero! You idiot!" Duo stumbled and watched Heero stalk away with a sinking heart.
Another cry sounded, making Duo wince. The echo of laughter filtered down the path and a desperate scream filled the air.
Duo glanced over his shoulder, then back down the path where Heero disappeared. He straightened and glared determinedly in the direction of the commotion. "Well," he said, trying to convince himself, "I'm not afraid. Things aren't always what they seem in this place..."
There was a loud shriek that made Duo jump. A chorus of snickers followed it and he firmed his lips as he leaned carefully around a smooth rock wall.
The air was filled with frustrated groans and cruel laughter. A rough group of five men in dirty, rumpled uniforms had another man strung up by his ankles, poking and prodding at him with a stick that had a tiny, ugly animal wrapped around the end. Each animal had a mouth full of yellowed, sharp teeth and were happily biting the unfortunate prisoner whenever the stick-wielding men swung them close enough. Duo winced in sympathy when one bit him high on his right thigh, alarmingly close to something sensitive. The man shouted in pain and flailed his arms about, trying to keep the little nipper things away.
Duo bit his lip, thinking furiously. His hand strayed towards the gun, but he let his arm drop. He couldn't' just shoot someone. "If only I had something to throw..."
The man nailed one of the nippers, sending it flying. Taking the chance given by the small reprieve, he slapped at his jeans, searching for something.
Duo raised his eyebrows and looked around his feet for something useful.
The man was still madly slapping at his pockets with one hand while trying to bat the nippers away with the other. He started spinning with the effort and was bit several more times on his hand for his trouble. Then he shouted again, this time in triumph. When he hit his pocket, Duo heard something... squeak.
Deciding that he was on his own if he wanted to help, Duo looked down, hoping to find a sizeable rock. Instead he saw an amazingly tiny, oddly-painted car swerving towards him. Duo looked at it apprehensively, glancing up at the swinging man again. The man swatted at another nipper, trying to point down at the car when he saw Duo looking at him.
Duo's eyebrows shot up again, but he reached down hesitantly to pick up the car. When it didn't explode in his hand, he relaxed a little. At a loss for what else to do, Duo carefully aimed and let the car fly at one of the men.
The car stuck a man directly between the eyes, making him wobble on his feet. He lost control of his nipper stick and smacked another man in the rear with the business end of it. The nipper happily sunk its teeth into the man's backside and he jumped away with a yelp. "That's my ass!" he shouted, rubbing the tender spot.
Duo heard another squeak and felt something bump into his foot. He picked up another car and threw it at the group of men. It whacked the back of a man's head, sending him sprawling into a second man. The two tumbled down, taking a third man with them. A nipper went flying into the first man Duo hit, latching onto his leg. He started hopping around, backing into a forgotten nipper stick belonging to someone else. Jumping away from the snapping teeth, he stepped on yet another man.
"Retreat!" one shouted, scrambling up and getting nipped. "Retreat!"
The other men quickly took up the cry, shouting and scrambling all over each other in their haste. One man danced around with a nipper stuck to his leg while waving his arm wildly in an attempt to dislodge the nipper on his arm. He whacked someone else in the head and sent him flying into another man as they all tumbled down another path.
Duo stepped out from around his corner, ginning crazily at the shouts and yelps coming from behind the hedges. He heard someone curse and fall, then the sounds faded as the men moved further away. Satisfied that they were far enough away and not coming back, Duo headed over to the still-swinging man. He reached out to stop him from spinning, but snatched his hand away when the man shouted and tried to punch him.
"Hey! Stop that!" Duo said indignantly.
The man opened his eyes and took stock of the situation, quickly calming down and then looking up at Duo expectantly. Duo glanced him over, noting that he wore faded jeans that seemed either a size too small or were just plain tight and a green tutleneck. He didn't see any blood on his clothes, but there were several shallow scratches on his face and a deeper wound on one of his hands. His eyes were startlingly green, a colour that made Duo think of glittering, priceless emeralds.
"Ahem," the man said, his eyes narrowing.
Duo jerked back. "Ah, sorry," he said, absently rubbing his hands on his thighs.
"Would you mind letting me down?" the man asked, crossing his arms. The movement made him spin half way around again.
Reaching out to stop him, Duo couldn't stop the grin that formed on his face. "Sure." He looked up, followed the line of rope and saw where it was tied around a large tree root that had broken through the cobblestones. He knelt beside it and gave it a few tugs. Suddenly the rope skimmed through his hands and the man was rudely dumped on the ground.
"Shit!" Duo exclaimed, surging to his feet and running over to him. "I'm sorry! Are you alright?" He quickly untangled the rope from his legs.
The man rolled over and pushed himself up on his elbows. His hair fell over his face, nearly obscuring an entire half. "Ouch," he said after a few moments consideration. Looking up at Duo, he sat up and brushed off his hands. "Thank you."
"No problem," Duo said, smiling. He offered the man a hand. "I'm Duo."
"I have no...never mind. Trowa," he said, taking Duo's hand and hauling himself to his feet.
Duo looked up and found himself staring straight into Trowa's chest. He took a step back and tilted his head back in an attempt to meet the other's gaze.
"Well, you're damn tall, aren't you?" Duo said before he could stop himself.
Trowa raised an eyebrow. "Maybe you're damn short."
Shaking his head and grinning, Duo said, "Maybe. You sure you're okay?"
The taller man brushed off his clothes and slid a hand into his pocket. Seemingly satisfied, he answered Duo, "I think I'll invent a few new skin colours, but otherwise, fine. Again, thank you."
"Could I... ah, ask you something?"
Duo hesitated. "I have," he began tentatively, then his words tumbled out in a rush. "I have to get to the castle in the centre of the labyrinth. Do you know the way?"
Trowa's face was blank for a heartbeat. "Oh," he murmured, finally making sense out of what Duo had said. "No, I don't. Sorry," he added when he saw the disappointed expression on the other's face.
"I wonder if anyone knows how to get through this place?" he said quietly, his eyes drifting over to where the castle stood on the hilltop, shrouded in haze.
Far away from them, wandering among the leafy green hedges, was Heero. He moved swiftly through the paths, making his way back to the pond that he had abandoned when Duo had first made an appearance.
"Get through the labyrinth," he muttered in a disgusted tone of voice. "Get through the labyrinth. One thing's for sure," he grunted, "he'll never...get through the labyrinth." Heero's face clouded over and his voice dropped off to a whisper. His steps faltered and then slowed, worry showing in his features as he turned and glanced over his shoulder.
"Anyway, if you're going to help me..." Duo was saying to Trowa, frowning at a rip in the side of his shirt. He glanced up and stopped short. "Hey," he said, "where did those come from?"
"Hm?" Trowa said, turning around and following the longhaired man's gaze.
Behind him, two doors had appeared in what had been blank stone walls. They sat in a corner, vines trailing across the ground and winding snake-like up the rock. Large doorknockers sat in the middle of the wooden planks, glinting dully metallic in the sun's light.
"What do you think? Should we...?" He jerked his chin in the direction of the doors.
Trowa glanced at Duo, then looked back at the corner. Both knockers were shaped like male human faces. The left knocker was bronze, the curved ring used to knock, secured to the figure's ears, hung low on the door. Its open eyes shone bright. The right, moulded from a now-tarnished silver, had the ring suspended from its mouth, an odd band resting low on its forehead. Duo stepped closer to the doors.
"It's very rude to stare!" shouted the left doorknocker, glaring down at Duo.
"Dammit!" Duo cursed, jumping back and landing in Trowa's arms. The tall man looked down at him, his lips curling up at the edges. He righted Duo, pushing him gently.
"Sorry," he mumbled, straightening. Turning back to the doorknocker that had spoken, Duo said, "I was only trying to figure out which door to choose."
"What?" the knocker said loudly.
"It's no good asking him, he's deaf as a dolt," a garbled, muffled voice chimed in.
Duo glanced over to find that the right knocker had joined the conversation.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," the left said, glaring.
"I'm not talking with my mouth full!" the right half-shouted. At least, that's what it sounded like he said.
"Hang on," Duo said, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. "I can hardly understand you."
"What were you saying?" the left knocker said loudly.
Duo shot the left doorknocker a dark look, then walked over to the right one and, grasping the ring with both hands, pulled it out of his mouth with a loud, metallic clunk.
"Oh! It's so good to get that thing out of my mouth," the right knocker said, smacking its lips.
Duo handed the ring absently to Trowa, who raised his eyebrows and gave it an appraising look. "You were saying?" Duo prompted.
"I said," the right doorknocker began, clearing its throat, "it's no good talking to him, he's deaf as a-"
Duo knitted his brow in confusion. It didn't look like the doorknocker had a throat to clear.
"Mumble, mumble, mumble!" the left doorknocker said, cutting his companion off. "You're a wonderful conversational companion."
"You can talk, all you do is moan!" the right said, snickering.
"No good," the left said, pausing to sniff disdainfully, "can't hear you."
The right knocker sighed explosively.
"Where do these doors lead?" Duo asked suddenly.
"What?" the left knocker shouted.
"Search me, we're just the knockers!" the right one said, laughing.
"Oh." Duo ran his hands over the door, searching for a knob or a latch. When he didn't find one, he tried pushing. The door didn't budge.
Trowa was still sizing up the ring, weighing it in his hand and giving it an experimental toss into the air.
"How do I get through?" Duo asked the right knocker when he couldn't open the door.
"Huh?" the left one said.
"Knock, and the door will open," said the right knocker, lowering his voice to a whisper.
"Uh huh," Duo said, raising an eyebrow and turning back to Trowa. The taller man was tossing the ring and several other much tinier objects Duo didn't recognize high into the air and easily catching them again. He caught Duo looking at him and shrugged sheepishly.
Smiling at the look on Trowa's face, Duo held out his hand for the ring. Trowa caught it and tossed it to him, quickly stuffing the other objects into his pockets. Shaking his head, Duo walked over to the right hand door. He held the ring next to the knocker's mouth. The doorknocker glanced around, humming tunelessly under its breath.
Duo nudged its lips with the ring.
"I don't want that thing back in my mouth!" the doorknocker cried, clamping its lips shut.
"C'mon, I wanna knock," Duo said, letting out an annoyed breath of air.
"Huh, doesn't want his ring back in his mouth, eh?" the left knocker said. He sniffed again, looking to the side. "Can't say I blame him."
Casting a glance back at Trowa, who shrugged in response to the silent question, Duo nibbled on his lip. He looked back up at the right doorknocker. Suddenly, he grabbed onto its nose, pinching it tight. The knocker rolled its eyes, trying to keep its lips firmly shut. A few moments later, though, it gasped for air. Duo triumphantly shoved the ring into its mouth and knocked. He smirked as the doorknocker mumbled under its breath and around the ring.
"Sorry," Duo said with a shrug, unable to stop smiling.
"S'alright, I'm used to it," the knocker grumbled with a mouthful of metal. The door slowly opened with a mournful creak, and the two men walked inside.
Just past the door, Trowa hesitated. Duo stopped, looking around. Tall trees filtered out the sunlight, leaving dappled patterns scattered across the swampy ground. Vines dangled from trees like thick green ropes, tangling in the half-buried roots that wound over the dirt path. The still, moist air clung to his skin, almost suffocating in its weight. Close by, a chorus of insects chirped, followed by the rusty croak of a frog. Behind them, the door closed, sending a rain of dirt and dust down from the earth it was set in.
"Nice," Duo said.
In the castle, perched high on a wall in the twisted corridors, a clock ticked the seconds away steadily. A solider glanced up at it, noting that only four hours and ten minutes remained. He continued on his way, passing by a small, cosy room. Inside, a fire crackled merrily in a worn fireplace, fighting off the chill of the ancient stone walls.
Treize sat in a plush chair on one side of a small refreshment table, facing his guest. He handed Relena a plate of biscuits. She pondered for a moment, then selected one. "Thank you." She smiled contentedly, taking a bite.
"You're quite welcome," Trieze said. A small, mysterious smile graced his lips.
Another clock chimed the time, bells tinkling happily. Relena never noticed.