"So then, this is it."
Back in the hall, the rest of the Golden Flame were preparing themselves as Rubin and Skala distributed everflames to them all after Lux's inspiring speech. Axel refused to believe it was the last he would ever make.
"Me and Skala will ride with you," Axel offered. "I can't fly a griffin, anyway, and if I need to use shadow-voyage to get to the ground, I won't be leaving a riderless mount with the everflames."
Lux nodded in appreciation, shooting Axel a nervous smile.
There was a moment of silence that hung between them. Strange. Awkward. Empty.
"You don't have to be scared. I'll protect you. I promise. I've fought before, and I swear it on my life that I won't let them hurt you."
Lux met his eyes, looking up at him, finally allowing the fear to seep into his features.
"Axel..." he managed to murmur before the first tear rolled down his cheek. "Gods, I'm terrified. I've fought before, but this is different, and I just... I'm just so scared," he whispered. His small, lithe body was trembling, and suddenly, the strong, fearless prince was transformed into a delicate, helpless victim of Haven's tyrants.
When Axel moved, he did so purely on impulse, an action of wild, sudden thought as he pulled Lux into his arms.
The prince inhaled a sharp gasp. For a moment, there was no time, simply the two of them, one terrified and confused; the other desperately trying to comfort.
"Lux. You won't die," Axel promised again, feeling the warmth of Lux's body against his own; feeling the rapid beating of his heart.
"I don't want to lose you," Lux whispered, his voice barely audible.
"And you won't," Axel vowed, knowing that the only thing he needed to do, the only thing he could do, would be to comfort Lux. "We'll both make it, Lux. So will Skala."
"If he doesn't talk himself to death, yes."
A nervous laugh. It was an improvement from the tears, Axel decided, still unsure as to whether the closeness of Lux should be making him feel like this.
"Look, you'll be fine. Stop worrying. Please."
The prince sniffed, burying his head in Axel's shoulder like he was trying to hide away from the horrors of the world. Like it wasn't already hammering against his chest quickly enough, Axel's heartbeat increased.
"We're up against the royal army," Lux choked out, the words muffled as he spoke them into Axel's shoulder. "How couldn't I be?"
"Because we're stronger, and besides, you remember what Krig said, don't you? The army's out training."
"But some of them will still be there," Lux whispered. "Some of them will still be there, and I don't know if I can just lead them all to victory... A-And then they'll get hurt. Because I can't lead them."
Axel's arms tightened around Lux.
"You can lead them."
"But what if I can't?"
To this, Lux didn't reply, instead unclenching his hands from Axel's shirt and curling his arms around him, pulling himself closer, sobbing quietly into the other's shoulder. Daggers of pain were sent cutting deep into Axel's chest with each sob; to see him so broken forced a spear of agony through his heart.
"You're an amazing leader. You've been born into it, remember? Besides, you're a natural. I know you can do it, Lux, I know you can." The words seemed to craft themselves from his emotions, barely crossing his mind before they were rolling gently, softly from his tongue in waves of reassuring murmurs. Slowly, the sobbing subsided.
"Better?" Axel asked, as Lux cautiously withdrew his head from Axel's shoulder. A sniff. A nod.
"Good," Axel smiled.
"Thank you," Lux murmured faintly. "I-I'm sorry for just breaking down."
Shaking his head, Axel met Lux's eyes. "You're about to lead an army, Lux. You have every right to feel scared and upset."
"Do you really think so?" He sounded doubtful, but there was a tinge of hope within his voice.
"Yes. I do."
The prince's lips were touched by the faint beginnings of a smile. "Thank you, Axel. You really helped. You know, you can be really kind sometimes." His smile grew. "Like now."
Axel could feel the searing sensation burning his cheeks; he looked away quickly, eyes flitting swiftly away.
Rubin chose that exact moment to burst through the door.
There were a few seconds of confusion, in which Rubin spluttered in surprise, and Axel and Lux remained frozen in a mixture of shock and terror. And then, all at the same time, they were moving: Rubin throwing his head back in laughter; Axel and Lux staggering hastily away from one another.
"You were hugging!" Rubin exclaimed. "Hey, Skala, they hugged!"
Skala appeared behind Rubin at the door, raising a questioning eyebrow at Axel.
"Oh?" she asked. Axel could detect the unfamiliar tinge of smugness to her voice, but, thankfully, she didn't chase it up in front of Lux and Rubin.
"You were seriously just hugging! Gods, that's pretty adorable," Rubin sniggered.
"We weren't," Axel growled. "You're just..."
"Going crazy! Hallucinating!" Lux put in, and Axel nodded as the assassin sauntered towards them, laughing and grinning.
"Nope. But you two need to stop cuddling and get ready. We're leaving in about an hour, remember? No more hugging. Also, if you're going to kiss any time soon, let me know, so I can tell you both that I told you so."
Gritting his teeth, Axel started towards the assassin, but Lux touched his shoulder.
"Don't fight him," he said, half pleadingly and half in an order. "And Rubin, stop being so stupid." He sent a warning glare at the assassin, who snorted.
"You two are now my favourite couple," Rubin declared, before striding towards the door, waving a hand in brief farewell. "And don't forget, you need to get ready for the fight! No hugging, passionate kissing or lovingly gazing at one another!" he called over his shoulder, grinning at them both before sliding his mask back on, swinging open the door and leaving before Axel could tear his stupid throat out.
"I'm going to kill him," Axel muttered irritably. And then, to Skala: "Are you okay riding with us on the phoenix?"
Skala nodded. "Of course," she said. Thanks the gods, she wasn't as bad as Rubin. "Is Snow still in the forest?"
Lux nodded, biting his lip. "Would one of you be able to bring her here? I still need to prepare myself."
"I can go," Skala offered, nodding her head in farewell before fading into darkness.
Leaving Axel and Lux. Alone. Again.
Axel ignored the increasingly swift beating of his heart as Lux turned to him, his cheeks still dusted scarlet from Rubin's teasing.
"Sorry about that," Lux said quickly. Axel shook his head.
"It was my fault as much as yours," he dismissed it quickly. "But you'd better get ready." Axel went to leave the room in order to stand sentinel outside, but Lux grabbed his wrist.
"Axel," he said, golden eyes swelling with gratitude, "Thank you. I mean it, honestly."
Axel simply nodded, smiling at him briefly. "Just remember, Lux, we're all going to make it through. I will protect you. Don't ever forget that."