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i was born with a stain like the mark of cain

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Jongdae stands framed by the light of the balcony, his shadow stark on the stone floor as he stares imperiously down into the courtyard. Baekhyun eyes him idly, as he always does, the tip of his dagger mindlessly tracing the still-sensitive scar that slashes horizontally across his face from the failed assassination last month. 

“Baekhyun,” Jongdae calls out in that imperious, even tone that sends shivers up Baekhyun’s spine. 

Baekhyun knows better to leave Jongdae waiting, and slinks out of his hiding place in the corner of the room, coming to a stop at the edge of the place where darkness is cleaved into sunlight. “My lord?” he asks, resisting the urge to itch his scar with the pommel of his dagger. 

Jongdae’s mouth thins out as he considers his next words. Careful, always careful now, eons away from the impetuous, curly haired youth he had been. “Do you think we will succeed?” Jongdae says, staring down at the soldiers in the courtyard before him. His hands twitch at his side as he asks the question. Seemingly irritated by his own weakness, Jongdae flexes his hands before clasping them behind his back.

“I have not the slightest doubt in you or your abilities,” Baekhyun tells him, honesty pricking at the edges of his voice. And it would be true, even if Baekhyun had not trained Jongdae himself. Jongdae is the perfect prince. Kind, caring, and just, beloved by his people and envied by all the other petty dukes and counts scrapping for power in the Romagna; but more importantly ruthless, calculating, and dangerous, willing to discard anything and anyone to achieve his dream and then hold onto it. He wears and tears off a million different masks, but moments like these are a crack in the perfect façade, and only Baekhyun’s to have and tuck away in the corner of his heart he dares not look too closely at.

Jongdae raises an eyebrow at his words, eyes flicking over to assess Baekhyun coolly. “Not a doubt?” he parrots back, a sardonic edge to his voice.

“Never,” Baekhyun says firmly. Baekhyun remembers when he first found Jongdae: no more than a boy, the bastard son of a cardinal, manipulated into a position wholly unworthy of his person and desperately trying to constrain himself to the part the world had set out for him. Yet even then, his eyes had raged with a want that made desire run hot and heavy through Baekhyun’s veins. 

In time, that want has cooled and sharpened into the stiletto point of ambition, and every passing year has only stoked the flames of Baekhyun’s desire higher. Despite the heights Jongdae has risen to, Baekhyun can’t stop his grimey and blood-stained hands from grasping at him, pulling him back down to the fetid earth. Every mark sucked into the hollow of his throat, every purple fingerprint left on his hip bones, is one of Baekhyun’s desperate attempts to claim Jongdae for his own. Jongdae shines so bright it’s near painful, both great and terrible to look at, and when Jongdae’s mouth is bitten cherry-red and his hair tousled, the two of them slumped against a tavern door, outside a Florentine cathedral in the dead of night, the library bookshelves in between meetings, Jongdae’s sheets on a rare occasion, Baekhyun think maybe a piece of that brightness could be his.

“I have never...thanked you for what you have done for me,” Jongdae says haltingly, shifting minutely to face Baekhyun. His features could be carved out of marble for how still they are, but no less lovely. 

“Thanks has never been needed between us before,” Baekhyun reminds him. Baekhyun does not need anything from Jongdae, much less a few meager words.

“Still, I think it fitting. Sometimes I fear I would have fallen into obscurity without you by my side,” Jongdae admits. “Rectifying my mistakes, dulling my faults, burnishing my virtues.”

“I did nothing but teach you how to hold a blade properly. Everything else is yours, Jongdae. I claim no credit, nor do I want it. I would be happy to be by your side until the day you no longer need me, or until I die. Whichever comes first.” 

“I will never not want you by my side, Baekhyun. And should you die...a famous poet once said ‘Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now.’ I could not think of a prettier corpse than yours, should his words be true.” Jongdae’s eyes are far away, his voice little more than a rasp. Baekhyun’s breath catches in his throat as they edge towards a great precipice, one where something both unspeakably holy and desperately vile lies at the bottom--for two men are not supposed to love each other as they do.

Then Jongdae shakes himself out of whatever daze he had lost himself in, any gentleness in his features vanishing as he draws near to Baekhyun.

“I know you will do your best,” Jongdae tells him, hand heavy on his shoulder, the warmth seeping through the leather of Baekhyun’s jerkin and branding his skin. His eyes soften again for a moment when he looks at Baekhyun’s face, their color honey-gold in the sunlight as his thumb brushes against Baekhyun’s fluttering pulse. Baekhyun makes to follow him as he steps away, but Jongdae stills. “Stay,” he says softly, but it’s not a request--it’s a command. 

Baekhyun is powerless to do anything but stand there, every fiber of his being straining towards Jongdae. “Good,” Jongdae tells him approvingly, voice just as quiet, his mouth quirking upwards in a cheshire grin at the confirmation of the visible effect he has on Baekhyun. His steps click against the marble flooring as he strides down the hall, face set and eyes cold, and Baekhyun’s heart aches for this man who has settled into Baekhyun’s bones and wrapped himself around his heart in a stranglehold.