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The Mind Has Mazes

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“Whoa there, whoa, watch the goods…” Tony protested as the soldiers shoved him through the narrow stone entrance. “Okay, getting a little too friendly with those spear ends… I’m going, I’m going, Labyrinth ahead, yes, that was the…” The boulder was rolled into place behind him with a loud groan. “...deal.”

He ripped the blindfold off, which made no appreciable difference in visibility.

Okay, so he was here, Labyrinth, trapped, darkness, no light, carnivorous monster ahead…

Well, maybe not no light.

He lifted his red chiton and carefully unwrapped the long roll of fabric from around his torso. Hot as Hades, already half soaked through with sweat, but the wool layer stopped anyone from noticing the blue glow coming from the center of his chest.

People tended to be a bit odd about the glow. Of course, they weren’t trapped in a maze without an oil lamp, so fuck ‘em.

His immediate surroundings were now bathed in a faint blue light as he rifled around in the fabric for the other things he’d managed to smuggle in. Dried fruit, wire, a small knife, string, some tools. It wasn’t a king’s ransom, but he’d done worse with less.

Some creative tearing, folding, and tying later, and the fabric had become a sack he could sling over his shoulder, though the knife stayed out and in his hand. Tony swung the sack back and forth a few times, testing how quickly he could hide his glow. He had no interest in being a lighthouse directing the way to delicious manflesh.

Though his manflesh was pretty damn delicious, if he did say so himself.

Okay, so the way he came in was no good. The boulder had taken at least four men to roll into place and he wasn’t going to last the entire year before they opened it up again for annual happy fun human sacrifice times. He didn’t know the inventor personally, but no engineer that brilliant would have designed something like the Labyrinth without leaving at least one secret exit. Especially considering the tendency displayed by so many kings of rewarding genius with death sentences.

Just goes to show you should never build a death trap you can’t escape from.

Onward and inward it was. Tony mentally flipped a coin, shrugged, and put his left hand against the left side of the corridor. The stone felt cool and rough to the touch, scraping gently against the calluses on his fingertips.

He followed the wall for what might have been hours, or days… It was impossible to tell without external references, and even the growling in his stomach was no help; he’d gone days without food before. Or sleep. Tony sat down, back against the wall and legs splayed, as he chewed one of his precious dried fruits. Unsurprisingly, not even hunger could make them taste like anything other than used sandal leather.

At least he had access to all the sleep he could possibly want, if, of course, he could manage to sleep.

As though his body had been waiting for that cue, Tony felt his eyelids drooping as Hypnos decided to forcefully make his presence known.

His last thought before he fell asleep was a nonsensical hope that the monster wouldn’t snore.

***

It was not the first time Tony had woken up with no clear memory of where he was or how he’d gotten there. On the probably up side, he was clothed. On the definitely up side, he wasn’t hung over.

Tony hated mornings. Of course, with no good way to keep track of time in here, he could always just decide it was already evening and see if that helped. Mind over… minding.

“You’re awake,” a voice said, and hearing an unknown voice upon waking? That, at least, had a comforting familiarity to it.

“Yeah, well…” Tony said, pushing himself into an upright position on the sleeping couch, “It’s not my first chariot race. Or Dionysia, whatever.”

“I found you asleep in one of the tunnels. You’re at the center of the Labyrinth now.” The man appeared slightly older than Tony, with patches of grey in his dark hair and lines of worry on his face, though he moved like a younger man. He wore a heavily patched tunic that bore traces of having once been purple.

The man stared at him briefly before pointing to his left. “There’s food on the table.” And so there was; bread as well as a pitcher he devoutly hoped was full of something other than water. Tony poured some of the liquid into what looked to be the only cup. No such luck.

“No meat?” Tony asked, his mouth full of rather dry bread, so it came out more like “nuh meaa?”

“I, ah, I don’t eat meat.”

“So what’s your name, anyway? And may I just say what a pleasure it is to know I won’t be punched for having to ask.” Tony extended his hand, palm up and empty.

The man stared at it awkwardly, as though he knew there was a correct response to this action, but had forgotten precisely what it was. Tony was just beginning to think he should give up on the gesture when the man finally reached out and shook his hand.

“Bruce.”

“Well, Bruce, I’m Tony. Nice to meet you.”

“You slept for about four hours after I found you.”

“That long, huh? How can you… oh gods, you’ve got a clock!” Tony abandoned his half-eaten piece of bread and began examining the mechanism sitting on another of the tables circling the chamber wall.

“Yeah, I started with a water clock, but that took too much maintenance so I tweaked it a bit.”

Some corner of Tony’s mind noted that this was the first sentence Bruce hadn’t paused or stammered in the middle of. The rest of him was too busy examining the odd device. “This is brilliant! Have you… wait, lead here, I see… and the bronze has iron to compensate for the expansion and contraction…”

“Yeah, it doesn’t matter so much in here, obviously, constant levels of temperature and humidity…”

“...but anywhere else you’d still be able to keep accurate time,” Tony finished, grinning at Bruce. “Genius. Have you considered replacing the stone here with something harder?”

“Something like sapphire, yeah, but I…” Suddenly the distance was back. “I don’t really have the best access to supplies in here.”

“Athena’s tits,” Tony breathed out slowly, “just think what you could do in a proper laboratory space with proper lighting and tools.”

“You shouldn’t say that.”

“What, about her tits? It’s a complement. I’ve been to the Parthenon, they’re lovely. Very… golden ratio, if you know what I mean.” Tony traced their shapes in the air. “Tell you what, we’ll escape the Labyrinth, go visit a few wonders… Skip the gardens, seriously, tourist trap, go back to Athens, overthrow the regent, and once I’ve retaken the throne I’ll fix you up with a decent workspace, all the trimmings, loads of… of natural light, and all the tools and resources you could want. It’ll be fun.”

“I don’t think that’s such a… wait, overthrow?”

“Yeah, politics, what can you do?” Tony smiled again, though this time it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m not exactly here by choice. No offense.”

“None taken.”

“Who’d you piss off to get stuck down here, anyway? Sleep with the king’s daughter? Son? Both?” Tony waggled his eyebrows in an exaggerated fashion. “Mess around with something the gods decreed ‘Man Should Not Know’? Don’t be shy, I’ve done most of them. Okay, all of them. In my defense, I was really bored. And drunk. That’s a defense, right? Diminished capacity? Speaking of, do you have anything here that might diminish my capacity? I’m feeling uncomfortably sober.”

“You’re a strange man, Tony,” Bruce said, but there was a tiny smile.

“I prefer ‘eccentric,’” Tony said. “So c’mon, spill.”

Bruce sighed. “I let something out I shouldn’t have.”

“You… it’s something to do with the beast here, isn’t it? They were a little fuzzy on the details on the ship over, just lots of ‘gods’ anger’ this and ‘abomination’ that and ‘can rend apart men and women with its monstrous bare hands and then eat them alive’. Any tips for killing him? Any vulnerabilities, allergies, self-fulfilling prophecies… anything you can tell me about?”

It was tough to be entirely sure in the flickering light of the oil lamps, but Bruce looked as though he’d gone a bit green.

“Why do you need to kill him? Isn’t it enough that they built this Labyrinth, have us trapped in here…”

“Because it… I don’t know… eats people? Bruce, I’m sorry, I don’t know your relationship with it, I’ll assume friendly since your limbs are intact, but when people keep man-eating critters around it Always. Ends. Badly. Look at Diomedes. Though to be fair, the guy was also kind of a dick.”

“The Other Guy doesn’t eat people. He doesn’t even eat meat. He’s safe here. He’s not a threat to anyone.”

“Except for you,” Tony pointed out. “And, well, me now, obviously.”

“He won’t hurt you,” Bruce said calmly. “I won’t let him.”

“What about you?” Because seriously, the guy did not look like he could take anyone in a fight, unless it was with his brain. Tony made a note to self: invent way of fighting with brain.

Bruce smiled ruefully. “He hasn’t hurt me yet. I just try to… avoid him.”

“Aside from getting you stuck here in here, though I guess that’s sort of a chicken-and-egg, Phoenix-and-the… phoenix sort of deal. Have you even tried to find the secret exit? You haven’t, have you.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re a genius,” Tony stated. “You’d have found it.”

“I’ll make you a deal. I’ll help you get out of here if you promise you won’t try to kill him. He’s not a threat to anyone.”

“You swear?”

“On Pythagoras’ theorem, yes.”

“Then okay. Deal. Shake.” They shook hands on it, Bruce’s hands firm and unexpectedly warm in the cool of the Labyrinth. Tony added, “And you’re coming back with me to Athens.”

“You don’t always get what you want.”

“Correction,” Tony said, poking Bruce in the chest with his finger, “I don’t always get what I want yet.

Bruce left soon afterwards, saying something about him walking around the Labyrinth to keep the monster in check. Which, hey, didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Tony, but then, it wasn’t his monster. He’d waved him away with a “bye, have fun, don’t get eaten,” which Bruce, to his credit, had only rolled his eyes at and told him to stay put.

Tony could have insisted on going, but he knew what fear looked like, and Bruce wasn’t afraid of the creature. He would have to trust that the man, who, after all, had been successfully not dying here for much longer than Tony, knew what he was doing.

And if that meant having nothing better to do than rummage through Bruce’s living area/workspace/laboratory, he could live with that.

A tiny sleeping couch and table with one stool sat in a corner of the large room, and the rest was taken up by tables filled with all sorts of odds and ends. Despite the seeming randomness of the items present, which looked as though someone had simply run around grabbing everything within a certain radius, there was a quiet arrangement to the place that spoke of an ordered mind. Stoppered jars that were definitely not full of wine lined one wall; scrolls filled niches along another. Bits of metal were piled on one table next to a half-finished mechanism with a similar internal structure to the clock.

He rubbed his hands together briskly to warm them and got to work.

As easy as it generally was for Tony to lose track of time when he was working, a place with literally no distractions or external reminders of time’s passage meant that he could easily have simply worked until he’d fallen over. Which was actually kind of awesome. Of course, Bruce was likely to be back in under three days, so he couldn’t try to beat his current personal best.

When Bruce did come back, it was to Tony on the floor, fiddling with tiny gears and surrounded by scrolls held open with whatever had been close at hand.

“You’re not much for privacy, are you?”

“Only other people’s,” Tony said cheerfully after spitting out the tool in his mouth. “Your chemical formulas are brilliant, by the way. I can’t wait to try them out.”

“Is that my distilling apparatus?”

“….yes? Oh, wait, was that rhetorical?”

“Are you trying to make alcohol with it?”

“Well, only until I can find something to ferment, I’m a chronic optimist. I’ve also improved the oil lamps. They should stay as bright but use about twenty percent less oil. Give me another day and I can redesign the wicks to take advantage of a new oil formulation based on your work.”

And that, of course, lead to them talking about Bruce’s work, which Tony could have done indefinitely because, hey, the guy was smart. It was in his lab and his notes and in the way he could follow Tony’s ideas and even add to them. His knowledge of chemistry and chemical compounds may have even been better than Tony’s, and that was like his birthday come early.

Eventually, though, Bruce began yawning, which led to Tony yawning, which led to Bruce yawning, which led to Bruce saying, “We should maybe get some sleep.”

Tony considered arguing the point, but then he yawned again.

“Fine, fine, hope you don’t steal the blanket,” he said, rising to his feet and walking towards the couch. He sat down and looked back at Bruce, who sat on the stool as if frozen. This time it was Tony who rolled his eyes.

“It’s cold in here and there’s only one couch that is, let’s be fair, hardly big enough for one person. I’m not about to make you sleep on the floor and frankly, first meeting aside, I have absolutely no interest in doing so again, so get over here and bring your excess body heat with you.”

Bruce took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Fine.”

“Oh,” Tony added as they finished the minor bodily shifts necessary to make two grown men fit in a narrow space, “I should warn you, I’m a cuddler.”

True to his word, when Tony woke up it was with an arm curled around Bruce’s torso. But Bruce was the one with his head buried in Tony’s neck, so he figured they were even.

It had been too long a time since he’d shared sleeping space, especially for someone as, let’s say, friendly as himself; after The Cave he hadn’t wanted to see anyone’s reactions to the thing in his chest. It meant he was content, at least temporarily, to just lie there and enjoy the physical contact, ignoring the morning erections both of them were sporting.

Bruce was less inclined to do so, if the way he immediately scrambled to put distance between them was any indication. Of course, since he’d ended up on the side towards the wall, he wasn’t actually able to get very far.

“Watch it there, you’re going to push me off,” Tony groused.

Bruce stilled. “Uh, sorry.”

“Totally natural,” Tony said reassuringly. “I’m guessing it’s been a while for you too?” He let his voice drop lower. “I could help you with that.”

Bruce’s eyes were wide open and his pupils heavily dilated in the faint blue glow of Tony’s chest. Hoping that he was reading the situation correctly, Tony leaned forward and very gently pressed his lips against Bruce’s.

For a second, they were kissing. Then Bruce bolted over Tony, inadvertently elbowing him rather firmly in the gut, and ran for the entrance to the maze.

“Stay put! Don’t follow me!” he yelled as he sprinted out of sight, as though the monster was in here and not out there.

Tony grabbed a ball of string, tied one end to the table leg closest the exit, and headed out into the labyrinth after him.

“Bruce!” he hissed into the quiet, trying to find some odd, probably nonexistent volume that could somehow be heard by Bruce but not the monster. “Bruce! Dammit! Come back!”

In the distance, he heard a roar.

He dropped the string and began running in the direction he thought the noise had come from. Fuck, if someone else got killed because of his actions… If Bruce got killed...

Tony came to a halt, panting heavily, when he saw there was something on the floor in front of him. Scraps of what was once Bruce’s tunic littered the ground. In the dim light he couldn’t see if there was blood or not, but there was no way anyone could have been wearing the tunic when it was shredded and not have been injured.

“BRUCE!”

He took off running again, following the trail of scraps as the path split again.

“BRUCE!”

As he turned the corner, he caught a glimpse of something moving in the path ahead. He skidded to a halt.

The creature was huge, at least nine feet tall, shaped as though someone had taken the form of a man and wrapped layer upon layer of muscle around it until it was almost as wide as it was tall. It turned towards him, eyes shining green in the reflected light, before heading quickly away.

It had a strangely human face.

Tony gave chase, but the monster quickly outpaced him, leaving him out of breath, utterly exhausted, and with no idea where he was or how to get back to the Labyrinth’s center. Bruce might be dead, and there was definitely a monster in there with them.

Tony kept walking.

***

Fingers were held against the pulse point in his neck, then against his forehead, then a hand moved to shake at his shoulder gently. “Tony? Tony, wake up.”

“Brggghhh,” he responded, not naturally being at his best upon waking.

“Tony, c’mon, drink.”

Tony felt a cup being pressed to his lips, though sadly, it was only filled with water.

His eyes flew open. “Bruce!”

“We’ve got to quit meeting like this,” Bruce said, his mouth quirked upwards at the corners in a way that would have been a grin on anyone else.

Tony grabbed Bruce’s arms. “I thought you were… I was worried.

“Let’s get you back to the workshop,” Bruce said, helping Tony to his feet. With Tony’s arm around Bruce’s shoulder and Bruce’s arm around Tony’s waist for support, Bruce led them unerringly back to the center. At one point Tony thought they had passed the place where he’d seen the bits of cloth, but he couldn’t be sure and there was nothing there now.

“Bruce, I saw the monster. It was big. And… big. It had hands the size of sheep. We need to get out of here.”

He’d almost have thought he’d imagined everything, but Bruce was wearing a different ridiculously worn tunic than the one he’d had on previously. And wasn’t meeting his eyes.

“Look,” Tony said, as Bruce dumped him gently back onto the couch, “Let’s make a deal, I won’t make a pass at you, you won’t run screaming off into the Labyrinth in a way that takes years off my admittedly likely-to-be-short-anyway lifespan. I mean, I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized my seduction techniques were that rusty.”

“It’s not… It’s not you, it’s me.”

“Wow, we’re already having this conversation?” That might be a new record… no, wait, there was that brunette in Memphis.

Bruce was looking anywhere but at him. “I’m not very good with emotions.”

“Can’t stand ‘em myself. Look,” Tony said, because conversations dealing with emotions were sort of like dislocated shoulders, best set quickly and then followed with heavy drinking. “I like smart people. And beautiful people. And talented people. Really, I’m just a people person. And I like you, Bruce. You’re brilliant… really, you know how rarely I run into people that can keep up with me, let alone suggest things I haven’t thought of? And you’re easy on the eyes, even if your tunics look older than Kronos. But hey, if it’s not your thing… well, I question your taste, obviously.”

He smiled, and if it was one of his less sincere ones, at least Bruce hadn’t known him long enough to notice. “Anyway, hands and various other body parts to myself, got it, though we’re still on for nighttime cuddle buddies, because it is chilly in here.”

They looked at each other, and it was awkward, dammit, it was definitely awkward, then Bruce shoved the goblet of water in his face and the eye contact and tension were broken. Tony drained the entire thing before handing it back, being careful not to touch Bruce’s hand in the process.

“Now… if you think it’s safe, can you walk me around the Labyrinth so I can get a feel for the layout? I’d like to progress with the escaping.”

“Sure. Walking. Walking is good.”

“Big fan of walking,” Tony said, pushing himself up off the couch. “Let’s walking.”

Bruce led him slowly around the Labyrinth, Tony talking and peppering Bruce with questions about the monster the entire time. Bruce’s replies alternated between vague and noncommittal.

“You’re telling me no one even knows for sure how tall it is?”

“Strangely enough, no one seems to want to get close to the Other Guy with measuring devices,” Bruce said, showing a flash of what Tony now recognized as a very dry sense of humor. “Usually they’re too busy with the screaming and the fleeing.”

“What about you, you’re not afraid of him, how come you don’t have any data?”

Bruce shrugged. “I’ve, ah, never been in a position to take notes. Come on, there’s another room I want to show you,” he added, leading them off to the right. The narrow doorway ahead matched the one to Bruce’s chamber, making it the second actual ‘room’ Tony had seen inside, the Labyrinth being composed primarily of long curving hallways and dead ends.

“Aaah!” Tony cried, covering his eyes with his hands to block out the light. “What the… it’s bright in here!”

“Yeah, you’ll probably need a minute or two to adjust.” Bruce said, unapologetic. “It’s worth it, though.”

Tony kept squinting as his eyes oh so slowly relearned how to deal with sunlight. “I have become a cave creature, seriously. Argh, so bright, the sun. What is this?”

“You’ll see,” Bruce said, and there was definitely amusement in his voice now.

Tony’s eyes finally finished adjusting to the change in lighting conditions. “It’s a…”

“Not exactly a greenhouse, but that’s the general idea. Water is from an underground aquifer, the sunlight comes in from the outside via a series of mirrors.”

“It’s so bright. And warm.” It felt like standing in the courtyard of his villa on an early autumn afternoon.

“The olives like the heat.”

“And this is how you…”

“It’s not luxury, but it means I can feed myself and keep my lamps burning.”

“Bruce, this is amazing. You’re amazing.” Tony said, gesturing around him. “And I don’t even like plants.” The various plants grew off the ground, suspended in a strange latticework of wires and tubing. “You are just full of surprises.”

Bruce ducked his head down, hiding his expression. “You have no idea.” He looked back up. “Remind me to show you the room at night, I’ve got a sort of camera obscura-based astronomical setup I think you’ll get a kick out of.”

And the warm flush Tony was feeling was from the heat of the room and not Bruce’s expression of pride as he explained the hydroponics, and the glow he was seeing around Bruce was just an optical afterimage related to the sudden brightness, and his hands were definitely shielding his eyes to block the light and not because he was trying really hard not to reach out and kiss Bruce again.

They made it back to the center room after that, with Bruce insisting they get some sleep after the long day and Tony insisting that no, he was serious about the couch thing, c’mon, it’s chilly, Bruuuuce...