Labyrinth (or a Somewhat Reasonable Facsimile Thereof)
by Blue Soaring
Duo climbed carefully over a fallen log, checking to see where his feet would land. Trowa followed, a frown firmly on his face. Straightening, the longhaired man brushed his hands together, then scratched his cheek as he looked around. He left a small smudge of dirt on his pale skin when he moved his hand. Duo's pants were spotted with dirt, patches of the jean worn away by the constant abuse of trekking through the labyrinth. His braid had loosened, bits and pieces of his hair hanging free.
"I don't like this," Trowa repeated.
"Want me to hold your hand?" Duo asked, grinning.
The taller man gave him a withering look. "No."
Duo looked around the dim swamp. "You wanna hold mine?" he said with a small laugh.
Trowa smiled a tiny little smile. Satisfied, Duo turned back to the path and plodded onward.
Minutes later, the swamp fell eerily quiet. Looking behind him, Duo realized that Trowa was gone. His eyes widened. He whirled around, frantically casting about for the only friend he had left.
"Shit, Tro! That's not funny! Where are you?" he shouted.
The swamp remained silent.
"Trowa? Hello? Heero!?" he called, turning in a small circle as he searched. "God damn it!"
High above the murky swamp, Heero made his way carefully around the uneven, rocky ground. Heads carved out of the white rock lay strewn about, broken and chipped. He stepped over one and heard the faint voice calling him.
Heero froze. "Damn it," he muttered, swiftly turning around and coming face to face with Treize. The king leaned casually against one of the carved heads that had managed to remain upright.
"Well," he said. "If it isn't you." He pushed himself away from the rock and stalked toward Heero. "And where are you going?"
"I hear Duo. I'm going to take him back to the beginning," Heero stated coolly.
"I see. For one moment, I thought you were running to help him." A dark raven perched on a tree behind Treize let out a throaty croak. "But, no. Not after my warning. That would be stupid," Treize finished easily, stopping directly in front of the man.
Heero grunted and moved to walk around him. Treize put a hand out to stop him.
"Oh, dear. Poor Hero," he said with false concern.
"I've just noticed that your favourite gun is missing," he continued, sliding an arm around the frowning man's shoulders.
Heero stepped away, his frown deepening. "I know where it is. I'm taking Duo back now." He walked quickly away from the older man.
"Wait." Treize said. When Heero stopped and turned halfway around again, he said, "I've got a better idea. Give him this." He raised his hand, a perfectly round crystal balanced on the tips of his fingers. He twirled it between his fingers, letting the light reflect on its shiny surface. Twisting his wrist slightly, he tossed it to Heero.
Heero snatched it from the air. In his hand, he held a healthy looking peach, slightly warm as if it had been sitting in the sun. "What is it?" he said, not trusting his eyes.
"It's a present." Treize's voice was sharp.
"It isn't going to hurt him, is it?" Heero asked, turning the piece of fruit over in his hands experimentally.
"Oh, now what a concern," the king said mockingly.
"It won't do anything to harm him," he pressed.
"Come, come, come, Heero. I'm surprised at you, losing your head over a boy."
"I haven't lost my head," was the indignant answer.
"You don't think a young man could ever like a nasty little thing like you, do you?" Treize said, poking a finger in Heero's chest for emphasis.
Heero scowled. "He said we were-"
Treize had begun to turn around, but looked back at Heero when he heard him speak. "What? Acquaintances? Bosom companions?" He arched an eyebrow. "Friends?" he finished, letting his voice drop.
Heero sighed and caught himself. He finished with a noncommittal grunt.
"You'll give him that, Heero, or I'll dip you straight into the Bog of Eternal Stench before you can blink," Treize snarled, staring down at the shorter man menacingly.
Heero gave a small shake of his head and finally turned to leave.
This time, Heero merely stopped, refusing to look back at the ruler of the labyrinth.
"If he ever kisses you, I'll turn you into a prince."
"What?" Heero asked, looking over his shoulder, a shocked expression on his face.
"Prince of the Land of Stench!" Treize finished grandly, holding his arms out and laughing.
Heero turned away, a deep frown upon his face and worry in his eyes as his thumb gently stroked the peach.
Alone, Duo wandered the swamp, looking for both a way out and for his lost friend. Ahead of him, a bright flash lit up the air. A few seconds later, the ground shook underneath his feet.
"Holy shit!" Duo yelled, falling against a tree trunk. He stayed there for a minute, waiting to see if there would be another blast. When the ground stayed still, he pushed away from the tree and moved toward the area. He hoped that Trowa was nowhere near that.
Through the scraggly trees, Duo saw a group of men in uniforms huddled around a tiny, blackened crater. Tendrils of smoke drifted upwards in a straight line, undisturbed by any breath of wind. They were talking easily amongst themselves, casual.
As short distance from Duo, another explosion rocked the ground. He yelped in surprise, grabbing onto the nearest tree. The men froze, turning to scan the area around them. One spotted the longhaired man.
"Hey! I know you!" the man shouted.
Another turned, and Duo recognized him as one of the soldiers that had been tormenting Trowa. "Get him!" the man yelled, pointing.
"Yeah, c'mon!" a rumpled soldier shouted.
"Oh, shit," Duo said under his breath.
He whirled around, running flat out away from the men. Glancing behind him, he saw them leaping over logs and rocks, catching up. Duo turned back in time to jump over a tree root, stumbling when his feet hit the ground again. Scrambling to get his feet back under him, he rounded another corner and met with a rock wall. A quick look to the side showed another path.
"Somebody stop him!" someone shouted.
"Come back here!"
"Yeah, right," Duo muttered, running down the second path. "Sure."
"Ah ha! Got ya!" A soldier appeared in front of Duo, his arms held wide and waiting to trap him.
"Leave me alone!" Duo shouted, reflexively punching the man in the face.
The soldier's head snapped back, a surprised expression on his face. Duo punched him again, aiming for his stomach. The man doubled over and Duo didn't wait to see if he stayed down, but jumped over him and zigzagged through the trees.
"Get up and catch him!" someone else shouted.
Duo ran straight into another dead end. He looked back, seeing the soldiers close in a half-circle around him. He pressed himself back into the cliff face, swearing under his breath.
"You're ours now," one soldier grinned, rapidly closing the distance between them.
"Dammit!" Duo shouted. He felt the gun he had taken from Heero press into his side. He was turning the idea over in his head when a rope fell against his shoulder. Duo risked a glance up. "Heero!"
"Grab it!" Heero called down from the top of the rock wall.
Duo's face broke out into a wide grin. He wrapped the rope around his wrist and started to climb. A shout of dismay rose from the group of soldiers and one of them lunged at Duo's legs.
"Get off of me!" Duo snarled at him, kicking out viciously and nailing him in the chest. The man went down with a sharp cry.
Duo's arm appeared over the side of the cliff, and Heero reached down to haul the other man up. A bright smile covered Duo's face as he climbed to his feet.
Heero looked down over the edge. "Go away," he said flatly, glaring at the soldiers and hauling the rest of the rope up.
"Heero!" Duo shouted with relief, throwing his arms around the other's neck.
Heero's mouth dropped open. "Hey!" He closed his mouth and tried to pry Duo's arms away.
"Thank you!" he said, planting a light kiss right on Heero's lips.
Heero blinked. Duo was grinning manically at him. "No!" he yelled, "You kissed me!"
Duo pulled back, confusion and anger on his face. "So?"
And then the ground dropped out from under them.
Duo spat out a curse as they were dumped feet first into a sharply sloped, dirty stone tunnel. He fell down on his back behind Heero, cobwebs and leaves catching on his clothes and face. Ahead of him, Heero scanned the walls, hands frantically searching for something to grab onto in the dim light. Suddenly, the tunnel ahead brightened.
"Damn!" Heero shouted as he was flung out of the tunnel, over the edge of a steep wall. He managed to catch himself on a huge, rusting nail protruding from the stone and dangled there, relearning how to breathe.
"Whoa, shit!" Duo cried, turning on his side and catching a root creeping up the side of the tunnel opening. His arms ached when he was snapped to a halt, the root making a horrible breaking sound but holding.
Duo hauled himself back in, wiggling to get his legs up onto the small ledge. Heero braced his feet against the wall, groping for a handhold to drag himself up. Once Duo was standing on the ledge, he pressed his back close to the wall surrounding the tunnel exit and scooted over to where Heero dangled, and crouched.
Heero grunted, reaching up for Duo's hand when the other held it out to him. Duo had started pulling Heero up when his nose was assaulted by a horrible smell. He paused, muttering, "Oh my God," and tried to breathe through his mouth.
Far below them, the ground was covered in a thick, deep green slime. It gurgled and bubbled, hot tendrils of steam released when a bubble popped with a loud, wet sound. Dead trees were spread throughout the mass, reaching up out of the gelatinous liquid like skeletal fingers.
Heero made a sound of annoyance.
"What is it?" Duo asked, staring at the gooey strings hanging from a branch. A thick bubble gurgled and popped, sending a fresh wave of the choking smell into the air. He gagged.
"The Bog of Eternal Stench," Heero grated out, feet slipping on the rock wall.
"I've never smelled anything like it!" Duo said, trying to pull Heero up while he stared in macabre fascination at the bog. "It's like...it's like..."
There was a loud burble and another bubble grew, expanding until it was larger than the ones surrounding it. It exploded with a moist pop, and Duo started to choke when the stench hit him.
"It doesn't matter what it's like," Heero hissed, still dangling dangerously over the edge. "Get me up!"
"Hold on," Duo said, refocusing on his friend. He tightened his grip and roughly hauled Heero up.
The other scrambled up the slimy stone wall and Duo kept pulling. He fell back and Heero collapsed on top of him, crushing him into the stone. Duo stopped breathing for a moment, staring at Heero's face, so close to his own. The short-haired man's gaze was fixed on Duo's.
"What did you do that for?" Heero barked suddenly, jerking away from his companion and leaning against the wall.
"Do what?" Duo said, slumping back and trying to breath through his mouth. "You mean help you?"
"No," Heero snapped, searching for secure footing on the tiny ledge. "You kissed me," he grunted just as the rocks slipped out from under their feet and tumbled into the bog below. Both scrambled for footing, dust rising in a dirty cloud. Heero's expression darkened.
"Don't pretend to be so hard," Duo panted, falling back against the wall as he waited for his heart to stop pounding. "You came back to help me; you're a friend."
They both inched along, hands and backs pressed against the rough rock behind them. "I did not, and I am not," Heero insisted, creeping along behind Duo. "I came to get my property back."
Duo reached out for a tree branch as Heero spoke, using it to balance himself as he hopped over a gap in the ledge.
"And give you..." the other continued, glancing down for a moment.
Duo shot him an absent look before concentrating on staying on the ledge again. "Give me what?"
Perched on the stone just before the gap, Heero opened his mouth to reply as the rock started to crumble again. "Shit - Heero!" Hearing Heero's sharp intake of breath and the sound of ground giving way, Duo jerked around and reached for him, their fingers touching and gripping moments before both unbalanced and tumbled to the dirt below.
Rocks and dust scattered as Duo landed with a thump on something surprisingly soft. Something that grunted, rolled over, and sat up with Duo sprawled across its lap.
"This place reeks," Trowa stated, dust settling around him.
"Tro!" Duo grinned and scrambled up, sending more rocks skittering. His smile faltered for just a moment. "Where's Heero?"
"Get off of me!" came the half-muffled, irritated shout of the short-haired man.
Trowa looked around, noticed that he was indeed sitting on someone, and stood up with a bland, "Oh."
Staggering to his feet, covered with dust, Heero peeled his lips back in a snarl and stared at Trowa. Trowa, unconcerned, returned the look with a glare of his own.
Duo's gaze flicked between the two. "It's okay," he said, his voice faltering slightly. "This is Trowa, he's...a friend, too..."
"A what?" Heero grumbled.
"Christ, the smell..." Duo muttered, clamping a hand over his nose. The three stood at the very edge of the burbling slime, the stench of the gooey mass choking the air.
"We know," said Heero.
Duo ignored him, kept his hand firmly over his nose, and looked around, trying to find a way out of the stench. "There's a bridge," he said finally, pointing with his free hand toward it. They set off in single file, Duo in the lead with Heero and then Trowa following behind him, each one looking a little sick and devoting their entire attention to avoiding the sludge.
"Watch it," Heero said as Trowa crowded close, the dirt path around the edge of the slime growing thin. "Step in this stuff and you'll stink forever."
Reaching the hill in front of the bridge, Duo trotted ahead, desperate to get out of the stinking air, with Heero and Trowa eying each other and following at a normal pace. One step away from the bridge, Duo stopped short, jerking back as someone jumped in front of him.
"Stop!" the newcomer shouted, one hand raised in warning. Heero ignored him, and he spoke again, indicating the sheathed sword at his side. "I said, stop."
Slanted, coal black eyes watched them warily, shoulder-length hair of the same deep hue falling around a face with sharp, high cheekbones and skin a lighter gold than Heero's. The man wore loose dark pants that flowed around his legs, partly hidden by a long-sleeved jacket that fell to his knees, a trail of small, glinting buttons closing it from thigh to neck. His expression was hard, his hand on the sword hilt and his stance ready.
Duo stepped back, flanked by his two companions. "We have to get across-" he started.
"What?" Trowa asked, looking from Duo to the man blocking their way and back again.
Frustrated, Duo tried for honesty. "I only have a little time left-"
"We need to get out of this stench," Heero said, cutting him off.
"It reeks," Trowa agreed.
A dark brow arched, challenging. "That is nothing."
Duo gaped. "This smell!?"
The man shrugged with one shoulder, though his posture remained alert. "It is nothing."
"You're joking," Heero said flatly.
"My senses are keen," the man said, ignoring the roll of Trowa's eyes. "I can tolerate this air, it is nothing to me, and none may pass without my permission!" he finished, dropping into a fighting stance and whisking the blade out of its sheath.
"It reeks," Trowa insisted.
Heero growled, "Get out of my way," and stomped past Duo, heading straight for the man in front of the bridge. Abruptly, the sword point was pressed to his chest and he jerked to a halt.
"I warn you," the man said, "I'm bound to do my duty."
"C'mon," Duo tried again, "let us get across."
"Hold!" the man repeated, the sword tip swinging up to dance in front of Heero's face. Trowa shifted, moving to stand in front of Duo while Heero backed up another step. "I don't wish to hurt you," he finished.
Ignoring him, Heero took another step back and separated himself from the two, searching for a way to the bridge. The man's attention swung to him, and then quickly back to Trowa as they attempted to flank him. Seizing the moment, Heero dashed by the bridge guard and across the wooden planks.
"Heero! What are you doing!?" Duo shouted, pissed off that he'd once again been left behind.
Trowa faced off with the man, looking not at all certain what he was expected to do while the latter merely waited. Trowa took a half-step forward, and the sword point whistled dangerously close to his cheek; he jumped easily back out of the way, stumbling slightly when an ear-shattering shout echoed through the bog.
There was a flurry of blond hair and pale skin, and the man, apparently the owner of the shouted name as he had winced and drew back as soon as it was called, started to say something when he was cut off with a resounding thwack on the ass. Duo's eyes were wide, Trowa's mouth slack with surprise as they watched a short, wooden-spoon wielding man glower furiously at the swordsman.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," the dark-haired man said to the blond.
"Then don't try to skewer the company, Wufei!" was the sharp retort.
Wufei muttered his apologies, grumbled something about sacred duty and grouchily sheathed his sword.
"Um...hi?" Duo ventured.
The blond turned around, fixed startlingly blue eyes on Duo's face, and raised eyebrows as light as his hair. "Hello."
"We'd like to cross the bridge...." Duo continued, encouraged by the dazzling smile the blond bestowed upon him.
"Well?" the blond said, turning back to Wufei, who had crossed his arms moodily over his chest.
"You have my permission to cross," Wufei groused. "You always ruin my fun, Quatre," he continued, his voice going up several decibel levels. "That one could have been a good fight!" he said, jabbing a finger at Trowa.
Trowa merely shrugged.
"Where are we headed?" the one identified as Quatre asked. He suddenly noticed he was still gripping the wooden spoon, and tossed it negligently over his shoulder with a slight flush and cleared his throat.
"What?" Duo asked, dumbfounded. It was impossible to keep up with them.
"Wufei wants to go with you," the blond said, as if it were obvious. "So, where are we going?"
Duo blinked, stared at Wufei. In response, Wufei merely jerked his shoulders and replied, "It's boring here. And it stinks."
"It reeks," Trowa corrected.
"Unh...the castle?" Duo offered tentatively.
"Good enough for me," Wufei said with a nod, and waved them ahead.
Duo looked at Trowa, then at his two newest companions, still not quite certain he was following. Three expectant stares met his, and, with a shrug, he walked towards the rickety bridge.
"Have no fear," Wufei began, noting Duo's reluctance. "This bridge has lasted for a thousand years." The longhaired man gave him a withering glace but started to make his way across. "And your other friend made it across safely," Wufei concluded, patting one of the stone anchors.
"Some friend," Duo muttered, already halfway across the bridge. There was a low rumble, and a groan, and suddenly the planks started sliding out from under his feet. Frantic, he grabbed a low branch, tried to haul himself up and let out a shout as it cracked alarmingly. The bog spit and burbled as Duo dangled above the slimy goop.
"It seemed solid enough," Wufei said to Trowa by way of apology when the latter gave him a flat look.
"Help would be good!" Duo shouted as Heero stomped back around a corner, the semi-permanent scowl set on his face.
Quatre blinked rapidly, then elbowed Wufei solidly in the side. "Help him!"
"What am I supposed to do?"
Trowa had already moved, tugging a long vine from a tree and trying to rip the end away from the gnarled trunk. At the threat of another elbow, Wufei turned, slashed the vine free, and watched with grudging admiration as Trowa wrapped it securely around his wrist, backed up several steps and took off at a run, using the vine to swing across the bog, snatch Duo out of the air and land safely on the other side. Politely, Wufei and Quatre applauded, and Trowa bowed.
Duo sat flat on his ass in the dirt, gasping for breath and immediately regretting it as he inhaled the stench of the bog. On the other side, Wufei was busy finding a second vine for himself and Quatre as Heero held down a hand, his expression mildly apologetic. "Here," he said.
Rolling his eyes, Duo accepted it and stood up in time to watch Wufei and the blond swing across the sickly green mess. "Thanks, Heero."
"That worked amazingly well," Wufei said to Trowa, who merely offered a small smile in response.
Glancing from face to face, Duo attempted to brush the dirt from his clothes and indicated people with his free hand as he spoke. "Heero, Trowa, Quatre, Wufei, and I'm Duo." He straightened up and winced as his stomach growled loudly. "We're going to the castle, right?" There was a chorus of agreement and a few nods. "Let's get out of here."
Duo took the lead again, followed again by Trowa and Heero, with Wufei and Quatre bringing up the rear. Both newcomers gradually overtook Heero, and Wufei murmured, "Excuse us...thank you," as they passed him.
Light gradually waned, night falling lazily around them. Lagging behind, Heero watched as the group trudged forward, small snatches of conversation floating back to him. He turned his hand over, looked at the still-warm peach nestled in his palm. Stepping softly to the edge of the bog, he hesitated for a moment before starting to loosen his grip on the fruit.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," the king's voice echoed in his ears. With a grunt, Heero snatched his hand back, his eyes worried. Sighing, he turned to catch up with the rest.
Wufei had taken the lead, trekking out of the bog and into a deep, almost pleasant forest. They stepped around giant roots, passed under the dark canopy and listened to the sounds of night. "Well, come on then," he said, turning back to watch Quatre and Trowa. "We should reach the castle well before day."
Moonlight shone through the castle windows, spilling into the throne room of the king. He leaned forward in his seat, holding a small crystal ball in front of Relena's face, murmuring softly to himself. The ball showed the image of Duo and his friends picking their way through the forest, and gradually, the others faded to show only Duo.
"Look, Duo," he said, flicking his gaze to Relena. "Is this what you're trying to find? So much trouble over such a little thing...." Relena remained oblivious, sitting with her hands folded neatly, a teddy bear in her lap. "But not for long," Treize continued. "He'll soon forget all about you, my lady." He turned his gaze back to the crystal, cool blue eyes watching as Duo walked. "Just as soon as Heero gives him my present...then, he'll forget about everything."
Wufei and Trowa talked easily, with Quatre following close beside them. The conversation halted for a moment, Wufei tilting his head curiously to the side at the sound of an angry rumble. "Is that my stomach or yours, Quatre?"
"Might have been mine," Trowa replied.
Duo stepped over a root, looked mournfully at his own stomach. "Yeah, well, we can't stop now. Maybe we can find some berries or something."
Beside him, Heero made a hesitant gesture. "Ah...Duo?"
Taking his own suggestion, Duo had begun searching the undergrowth for berries. "Yeah?" he answered absently.
"Here," Heero grunted, thrusting the peach toward him.
Duo made a curious sound, looked up and caught sight of the fruit. "Heero, man - thanks. You're a life saver." He took the peach, started to wipe it off with his shirt and gave a short laugh as he noticed the shirt was dirtier than the peach was. With a shrug, he bit into the sweet flesh and chewed slowly.
Cautiously, Heero watched, and as Duo's expression changed his eyes clouded with worry. He took a few horrified steps back when the other looked at him.
Duo swallowed slowly, a shudder passing over him. "Tastes strange..." he murmured, stumbling slightly as the world began to spin. His vision darkened, eaten away by black at the corners. "Heero...what have you done...." He started to fall, slipping down to the leaf-strewn ground.
"Damn you, Treize," Heero snarled, reaching out to touch Duo's arm and jerking his hand back before he did. "And damn me, too."
Lounging on the edge of a window sill, back against the dark stone, Treize sat gazing out over the labyrinth. In his hand, balanced on top of his steepled fingers, he slowly turned three clear crystal balls. Perched on top of them, undisturbed by the twirling ones beneath it, was a forth, shining brightly in the white light. The reflection shone in his cool blue eyes, eyes that held a ghost of sorrow as he lifted the forth crystal away. Cradling it in the centre of his palm, he let the breeze take it, watched as it floated lazily on the air.
Unsmiling, he took a second and let it drift away, the remaining two still twisting easily in his fingers. Smooth, clear, they sailed on the wind away from the castle, drifting lower through the leaves and branches to where Duo lay slumped against a tree, eyes clouded and dazed. Bemused, he looked up at the delicate glass, puzzlement crossing his features as he saw an image form in the depths.
"There it is," Wufei said, gesturing. "The castle is straight ahead." He turned, gaze drifting over first Quatre and then Trowa, then the darkness of the forest stretching behind them. "Duo?" he said, voice hushed with realization.
Quatre's eyes widened and with a low sound of worry, he pointed toward the castle. Wufei turned slowly to see a string of glass balls drifting on the air, dipping low to wind between him and his companions. Inside, turning in sluggish circles and staring in mystified wonder at what they couldn't see, was Duo.