He flung open the door to Axel's room, teeth gritted behind the mask. Already, the mage was reaching for a blade.
"Just yell at me. Or whatever the hell you want to do. I don't even care any more."
For a long moment, Axel simply glared at him.
"What are you talking about, assassin?" he growled.
"Krig. I swore my life on it, didn't I? Just shout at me. Blame me. Somebody has to."
Axel simply snorted, dropping the knife. "You're pathetic."
"Are you really that desperate for somebody to blame you, that you'd come running here and beg me to shout at you? Is that how much you seek blame, assassin? Don't waste my time. I'm not going to yell at you if you come pleading me for my anger," Axel scoffed.
Behind him, footsteps. Lux had finally caught up.
"Please, not now," Rubin muttered.
"Why not?" Lux demanded. "You're breaking down, Rubin. You need help."
"Yes," he growled. "Which is why I'm here."
Lux's eyes flitted between the two of them. Eventually, he managed to choke out, "Axel? You've come to Axel for help?"
It was a fair point.
"Kind words aren't going to help him, Lux. You can go and check on the others who are wounded."
The prince hesitated before nodding reluctantly, and backing away.
"So you want me to blame you for the fact Krig betrayed us?" Axel asked.
"What else do you think I'm here for?" he snapped. Raising an eyebrow, Axel gave a nonchalant shrug. Did he have to act so... superior?
"You're an idiot. You've probably done a lot of things worth blaming you for."
He clenched his jaw, but didn't speak. He knew exactly what he'd say if he dared open his lips, and it was bad enough that Krig knew everything.
"I suppose some of the blame lies with you," Axel said eventually.
"Some?" Rubin hissed back. How could he say that? Just some?
"Yes. Mostly, it's Vipera's fault for manipulating Krig, and it's partly Krig's fault for not realising. You were just stupid enough to trust him."
"So it's my fault!" Rubin screamed. "It's my fault that most of the Golden Flame are dead, because I trusted him, and now I can't even kill him!"
The words echoed across the walls of the room, and Axel winced at the noise.
"The only reason I'm listening to you is because I know betrayal, assassin. Quiet down or leave." He took a deep, ragged breath before continuing. "The only reason you can't kill him is because he was more than a comrade. He was your friend, whether you accept it or not. So it's hardly your fault for trusting him, is it?" Axel snapped. His words made sense. They sounded stupid, but they made sense.
"So I'm an idiot for making friends." It came out a laugh - a shaky, insecure, pathetic laugh.
"Human nature," Axel shot back. "Even monsters make friends."
"You're a monster? I just got over a hundred people killed," Rubin hissed, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his eyes.
"You didn't. War did, Vipera did, Krig did. So unless you're calling yourself the creator of war, or unless you're going to listen to me, you can leave."
Rubin was doing neither, but he stayed.
"You're trying to be helpful," he growled. "For Lux. Must be nice to have somebody who has your back." This time, it ended in another laugh.
"I'm never helpful unless I intend to be," Axel replied calmly. "Which means that I'm helping you because I have your back. Clearly, you can't watch your own."
"No," Rubin shot back. "I'm too pathetic for that, aren't I?"
"Would you just stop wallowing in your own self-pity? It's easier to talk to you when you're your usual, loathsome self. And that's a large statement."
"I thought you said you had my back."
"I do," Axel shrugged, "but you're still loathsome."
"I know that," Rubin shouted. Why couldn't Axel simply yell at him? It would make things so much easier.
"Look, Rubin, you might be an idiot for trusting a spy, but that makes Lux an idiot for trusting a monster, and me an idiot for trusting a prince. And," he added, eyes blazing, "an even bigger idiot for trusting you."
For one long, unsettling moment, there was silence, as Rubin took in Axel's words.
"Yes," he managed finally, voice reduced to a whisper. Why? Why did they have to be so complicated, that stupid race of creatures that trusted? "Yes, you are."
He sunk against the wall, drawing up his knees and burying his head in his arms.
"Did you create the everflames with the knowledge that they'd explode and kill everybody? Did you give the everflames to somebody, knowing that they would kill people? Did you order their deaths? Did you appoint the tyrants ruling Haven?" A pause. "Well? Answer me!"
"No," Rubin sighed. "But I gave the everflames out, and I trusted the person who gave them to me."
"Which we've already established was not your fault," Axel told him impatiently. "If you're just going to sob like a child, you may as well do so alone. If you're not listening, I won't bother speaking."
He stood wordlessly.
"Do you still want me to blame you, Rubin?"
"Yes," he said. It was a lie, he realised, the second the word escaped his lips.
Rubin didn't answer.
Axel wasn't sure what was going on in Rubin's head, but the fact he hadn't even tried to annoy him said a lot. He probably should've been harsher with him, but there had been something about his shattered voice, his sobs. Perhaps too much animosity would have torn him even more. He sighed. Rubin would calm down soon - probably. Whether he did or didn't, it didn't exactly matter. Axel needed sleep, whether Rubin required his help or not.
A timid knock snapped his eyes open.
"Come in," he sighed. The door swung open, and Lux slipped in, passing quietly across the wooden flooring. Axel's gaze softened.
"I saw Rubin," Lux said, sinking into his familiar place in the chair beside Axel's bed. "Do you think he'll be okay?"
"He'll be fine," Axel replied. "It just might take him a while."
Lux nodded hesitantly. He was chewing his lip, Axel realised.
"I..." He faltered. "Yeah, I guess I am." Lux lowered his head, and Axel gestured for him to continue. "You're angry with me, aren't you? For telling the medic to knock you out and asking Skala to carry you somewhere safe."
Axel shrugged. "Everybody else who was injured stayed here," he said. "What makes me different? I thought we could trust each other, Lux."
Lux stared at him in shock. "I... I thought you'd try to follow us!" he stammered. "You would've been hurt, and-"
"I only would've followed if you or Skala had been in danger." His face formed a wistful expression. "Like I am now, I only would've been a hindrance."
Almost numbly, Lux nodded. "I-I'll trust you next time."
Axel waved his hand dismissively. "Forget about it."
He wouldn't simply forget; Axel could tell that much from the guiltily distant look in his eyes. But there was something else there, besides the guilt.
"Is something bothering you?" he asked tentatively.
Lux bit his lip as he looked at him. "Yeah," he said finally. "You know I told you my magic was increased after the masked men forced my body to accept it?"
"Well, I think Vipera did that. I think she's the one who's giving the mages more power."
"She did call them her experiments," Axel said quietly, and instantly saw Lux's nervous features succumb to despair.
"I think she's the reason I have any strength. She betrayed us, and yet she's the only reason I can fight."
"No," Axel said softly. "You'd be able to fight anyway. Rubin doesn't have magic, and he's one of the best. You'd find a way. I know you, Lux. You worry at first, but you always find a way."
Lux's lips played at a smile, and Axel forced himself to ignore the leap of his heart. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I guess."
"What you said before, when you saved me," Axel started, and Lux's head snapped up.
"You... You heard that?" he gasped, his face staining pink.
"I heard it," Axel replied. Lux swallowed, his discomfort mirroring Axel's. "Did you mean it?"
"Yes!" Lux shot back indignantly. The second the words left his lips, he jerked his head away, almost like he was angry at Axel for provoking him. "Yes," he echoed, more quietly. "Why wouldn't I mean it?"
Forcing back a smile, Axel said, "Because when people say good things about me, they're usually trying to flatter their way out of their death."
"I wouldn't make something like that up, Axel!" the prince shot back defensively. His blazing eyes caught the gleam of the candle. "He was insulting you! I couldn't just let him keep saying all that! I mean it, okay? Every single word."
Every single word. The phrase echoed through his head, ringing in an endless, beautiful melody. This time, Axel could do nothing against the smile.