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Shion made his way down the creaky stairs leading from the private box to the main foyer of the theatre. He had to move carefully, against the flow of departing audience, to make sure the bunch of flowers in his hand wasn’t crushed as he approached the stage door tucked against the shadowed black wall. A quick knock on the flimsy wooden door revealed Takeshi, the theatre’s security guard.

“Good evening, sir,” the gnarled, brawny man said as he stepped aside, letting Shion in with a bow.

It didn't matter how many times Shion visited backstage, he could never quite get over how incredibly different it was from the front of the house. The public areas, shabby though they may have been, were always kept neat and orderly for the theatre's patrons. Backstage, however, chaos always seemed to reign.

“Shion!” A figure beside the stage waved and rushed toward him. “I didn’t know you’d be here tonight!”

“Noelle." Shion smiled as he raised his hand to wave back. "You were wonderful tonight – a most tragic Macbeth. I can’t think of a better casting choice.”

“Oh please – you know the only reason I got the part was because I’m the only actress even close in height to Eve," she teased. "It wouldn’t do to have Macbeth’s wife towering over him.”

“I doubt that’s the case," he replied. "You really were amazing.”

Her blush was visible even through the layers of greasepaint. "You know, you didn’t have to come all this way just to bring me flowers.”

“Oh. Well…” Shion paused uncomfortably, gripping the bouquet in his hand.

“Jeez, Shion, you know I’m just kidding. Of course they’re for Eve.” Noelle gave a dramatic sigh. “The prima donna always gets all the flowers.”

“Mmm yes, she does have her admirers.” Shion always supposed he should feel some sort of jealousy, but in all honesty he was simply surprised Eve didn’t have more of a following. Her fan base in the West Block was as strong as it always had been, but he really thought her popularity would have skyrocketed thanks to the increased flow of people in and out of the Block. Of course, the arts had never been a priority in No. 6 and it was fairly inconvenient for most people to come all this way just to see a play.

“I haven’t told her anything about our little project, by the way,” Noelle said, as if reading his mind. "I know you wanted to tell her yourself. I think she might be done yelling at her manager, if you’re headed that way."

"Again?"

"Yeah, I don't think this one’s going to last much longer than the last." Noelle chuckled and turned to leave. “I’ll see you at the groundbreaking next week?”

“Absolutely,” Shion replied, giving her a brief bow before heading off in the direction of Eve’s dressing room. Almost everyone had gone home, so he made his way through the labyrinth of curtains, pulleys, costume racks, and set pieces without interruption. As he approached her door, he could make out the sound of what appeared to be a heated discussion. He hesitated briefly in front of the door, but quickly decided that if it was indeed an argument, Eve might welcome the interruption. He raised his hand and knocked softly.

“Eve?”

A muffled voice responded, “What?” There was a sharp tone to her voice Shion recognized instantly. She wasn't pleased.

“It’s Shion.”

The sound of footsteps preceded the opening of the door.

“Shion. Thank the gods.” Amar, Eve’s manager, stood in the doorway, face flushed. “Maybe you can talk some sense into her.”

“I doubt it,” Shion replied without thinking. He had influence over a great many things, but Eve had never been one of them. He looked past Amar into the room and there, sitting on the tattered velvet chair in front of her dressing mirror, was Eve, looking back over her shoulder with a flushed, angry expression on her face.

Shion couldn’t help the prickle of excitement that skittered up his spine.

“I am not playing Ophelia again and I am certainly not going to work with that two-yen hack of a director,” Eve called out. “You tell him that, Amar – he can damned well find someone else to make look weak. I'll have no part of it.”

Amar made a sound that resembled a strangling duck, edging his way past Shion. "Good luck," he ground out. The sound of his leather-soled heels echoed in the hall, punctuating a mumbled monologue of obscenities. Noelle was right; Amar wouldn’t be lasting much longer at all.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, Eve." Shion remained in the doorway, holding the bouquet of flowers in front of him, waiting to be invited in.

Eve looked at him for a long moment, the grey of her eyes piercing in the low, yellow light of the room. She rose to her feet, the movement so graceful it could have been the opening of a dance. Other than the deep violet dressing gown that had replaced the layered period gown, she was exactly as she'd appeared on stage as Lady Macbeth, impeccably made up with her long hair spilling artfully down her shoulders and back.

"Well, Mr. Chairman," she began, smiling softly, "it's been some time since you've deigned to grace my door. Quite some time indeed."

Normally Shion hated being called by his title. At work it was a necessary evil – he insisted on it in order to remind those who saw his age before his experience exactly with whom they were dealing. Outside the political sphere, though, he did everything he could to shed the official title. It was a burden, a wall that separated him from those around him. Outside work, he was Shion.

But Eve only ever spoke to the Chairman.

"Have I come at a bad time?" he asked, the question as much a part of the ritual as anything.

"You know I always have time for you, Mr. Chairman." She bowed her head slightly, giving a falsely coquettish smile that Shion had seen her use countless times on stage to entice and beguile. "Do come in."

Shion stepped across the threshold and closed the door behind him.

"Lock it." Eve's voice remained light, but there was no doubt it was an order.

Shion had gotten so much better at reading people. The things Nezumi had taught him during their time in the West Block had taken deep root in his psyche and he'd spent the last decade in a quiet campaign of observation, constantly honing his ability to understand those around him. But Eve ... Eve was still a mystery. He could never predict if and when the sense of welcoming tranquility she so deftly wove around herself would fall away to reveal a wholly unpredictable tempest.

He never knew what would happen after closing the door. He couldn’t begin to guess what she was thinking and he could never, ever bring himself to look away.

The sound of the deadbolt clicking into place provoked an almost Pavlovian response. Shion’s pulse sped up, his respiration rate accelerated, and he was suddenly very aware of the feel of his clothing against his skin. He had a sudden almost uncontrollable urge to skip the preliminaries, shed his clothing, and fall to his knees in front of her, but he knew that Eve had very little tolerance for insolence.

"You were magnificent tonight, Eve." Shion took a single step forward, not bothering to hide the breathless quality of his voice. "It was your finest performance yet."

"It's amazing what one can do when one isn't surrounded with complete ineptitude."

Shion glanced over at the mass of flowers covering her dresser and coffee table before taking a few steps toward her and holding out the small bouquet in his hand. "This obviously can't compete with the offerings from your other admirers, but …." His voice trailed off and he felt himself flushing at the way she was looking at him. They both knew what the flowers meant. They were a message, a declaration of his intent to submit.

She leaned back against her chair, shifting so that the light material of her dressing gown fell away to reveal the long line of her leg, still covered by the sheer silk of her thigh-high stocking held securely in place by an old-fashioned garter belt. The action was entirely premeditated and eminently provocative.

"This is the same bouquet you've been bringing me for five years," she commented as she reached out her hand to accept. "I'd think someone like you might be able to do at least a little better after all this time."

"Does it displease you?" Shion was almost positive Eve was baiting him. She didn't care about things as meaningless as flowers, but if she meant something else...

"I was expecting you weeks ago." She was still smiling, but Shion saw it happen – the tiniest of shifts in her expression that belied decidedly darker things happening beneath the surface. "It's very unlike you to keep me waiting so long, Mr. Chairman."

"I apologize that I wasn't able to come before," he managed to stammer out, his heartbeat speeding up so suddenly he felt as if he were the edge of tachycardia. "I had a box reserved for opening night, but there was a Committee meeting that ran well into the evening."

"Of course. And the Committee cannot meet without its Chairman leading the way, can it?" There was a decidedly acerbic tone to her voice, despite the still-pleasant expression she wore.

"Well, there has been a fairly important project we've been trying to get underway," Shion began in explanation, "and there were a number of hurdles that had to be overcome."

"Such is the world of politics, isn't it?" She tossed the bouquet of flowers onto the counter behind her and rose to her full height. The height disparity between them was augmented by her heels and she took a long moment to look down her nose at him—

"I get the sense you're not taking our little arrangement seriously, Mr. Chairman. Perhaps your own inflated sense of self-worth is getting in the way."

"No!" Shion protested. "This was something ... I mean ...” He was taken so off guard that he was having trouble finding the right thing to say. “What I mean is that I think you might be interested in what we’ve been working on!"

"Oh?" Eve raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."

Shion reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a carefully rolled electronic sheet. He unrolled it, smoothed it quickly and handed it to Eve.

“And what do we have here?” She took it, her fingers just barely avoiding his.

Shion watched her eyes scanning the announcement, a sense of dread growing within him as the planes of her face darkened further.

“Of all the things you could think of – schools, roads, hospitals – your little committee decided the city needs a theatre?”

"Yes, actually. As you know, the revenue collection complex was one of many public buildings subjected to collateral damage when the Correctional Facility fell," he began in explanation. "What remained of the complex was not only an eyesore, but had begun to attract vagrants and vermin."

"Vagrants and vermin?" Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "I suppose the illustrious No. 6 certainly can't be bothered to deal with vagrants and vermin..."

"It was declared a public hazard and is in the process of being razed," Shion continued. "When it is complete, a new arts complex, including a theatre, will be built. The West Block theatre will, of course, remain in use for as long as it’s needed, but we determined a more centrally located, state-of-the-art facility would be of greater use to the City.”

"Well.” Eve crossed her arms in front of her, her forefinger beating out a slow, lazy rhythm against the silk covering her upper arm. “It seems like you've got everything planned out."

There was something in the tone of her voice that had Shion immediately on edge. “The plan has not been without its opponents,” he said, “but the Arts Committee and I have been able to garner enough support to move things forward.” To be honest, it had taken an incredible amount of effort and the fact that they'd made it this far was nothing short of a miracle.

“I’m sure,” Eve hummed. “No opposition is too strong to get in the way of your plans. Isn’t that right, Mr. Chairman...”

“I don’t know that I’d say that.” Shion had to stop himself from cringing; he hated hearing things like that about himself.

“And of course, it mustn’t have been too difficult once you explained the benefits of such a facility for the citizens of our dear No. 6,” she continued. “Bringing culture to the masses. Encouraging children’s dreams. All very noble causes.”

“Yes, those were among the arguments.”

“Only, that’s not why you proposed it in the first place, was it?”

Shion blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that you weren’t thinking about any of that when you came up with your little plan. And it was your plan, wasn't it?”

“Of course that's what I was thinking of.”

“No, you weren’t.” Eve moved closer, close enough that Shion had to tilt his head to look at her. She reached out and cupped his face in her hand, running her thumb along his cheekbone in a slow, sensuous caress. “You were thinking of yourself.”

Shion laughed, more an exclamation that out of amusement, his brows lifting in surprise. “Myself?”

“Yes, yourself.” Her thumb traced the line of his lips before sliding to the other side of his face. Suddenly her grip tightened, taking a hold of his chin and jerking his head upward so that he had no choice but to look her in the eye. “You were thinking of this very moment, as a matter of fact. You were thinking about what it would feel like to give me something like this. You were thinking about what kind of gratitude I might show for you.”

“No, that’s not it at all.”

In a fraction of a microsecond, Shion saw the ire flare up in Eve's eyes, stronger than he'd ever before seen it. “Don’t be purposefully obtuse, Mr. Chairman. You’re not fooling anyone, most of all yourself."

Shion’s heart was suddenly in his throat, thundering so loudly he was sure she could hear every milliliter of blood as it rushed through his veins and arteries.

"Tell me," she continued, her voice dangerously soft, "did you think I’d be grateful enough to get down on my knees to thank you?” She leaned in so close Shion could feel the heat radiating off her skin—

“Did you think I’d be grateful enough to let you fuck me?”

Shion flinched, as much from the sound of the word coming from Eve’s mouth as the feel of her grasp tightening painfully.

“You, better than anyone,” she whispered, “should know I don’t do that for anyone.”

And it was true. Eve could give a convincing impression of submission when the role called for it, but it was nothing but artifice. Any trace of true authenticity she might have once had had been burned out of her the day the Correction Facility fell. And after that ... well, Shion still didn’t know everything that had happened to Nezumi while he was gone, but the first time Shion saw Eve after his return, she had been hardened into a brilliant, dangerous gem.

“Is this how it starts?" Eve's eyes darkened further and Shion squirmed, faced so closely with her scrutiny. "I mean, we both did know it would only be a matter of time before the abuse of power began.”

“No, that’s not it at all!” Shion blurted. He tried to shake his head, but Eve’s fingers stopped the motion completely.

“And there is really no one on the committee who can hold a candle to your scheming little mind, is there? That elite brain of yours lets you run circles around them without their even realizing it. There are no checks and balances – just the way you like it.”

“That’s not true!” Shion snapped, his body trembling. She had misunderstood everything and wasn't even trying to listen. There was something about the way she was looking at him that made him absolutely terrified, like no matter what he said he could never convince her otherwise.

“Of course it is.” Eve released her grasp suddenly, causing Shion to lurch forward. “But we both know that you need to be checked.”

She stepped back, dropping the electronic sheet and grinding it into the wooden floor with her heel.

"I should send you away."

Shion felt like the world was suddenly off-kilter and he realized he was struggling to stay upright.

"I should send you away," Eve repeated, "and let you do what you will. It's no business of mine, after all."

"No." His voice sounded hollow to his own ears, like it belonged to someone else far away.

"There are plenty of others with whom I can amuse myself, Mr. Chairman." The cadence of her voice was light, but the tone was cold. "You're nothing special, after all."

She was right, of course. Eve could have her pick of hundreds, even thousands of exquisitely beautiful men and women. She could easily find someone more skilled, more subservient, and much less damaged than Shion was. She could find someone wholly dedicated to her, not someone so caught up in his work he was incapable of serving her as she deserved.

"Please ... don't." He felt the hard wood of the floor collide with his shins. "Please."

"Shion." The sound of her using his name for the first time was like a shock of electricity passing through him, jolting his attention back to her. He looked up and saw her towering above him, cruel and terrible. "Out there, you may be Chairman of the Reconstruction Committee, but in here? Here, your title is absolutely meaningless."

Shion could feel his eyes beginning to prickle with tears and if asked he wouldn’t know whether to call them tears of fear or of relief. Crying was a weakness that he had come to hate over the years, something normally to be avoided, but now he didn't care. He would give Eve all the tears he had if she would let him stay.

"In here, your only use is to me.” She turned and reached over to retrieve a riding crop that was leaned against the wall with an assortment of other old props. "And the person who determines what that use will be is me, not you. Do you understand?"

He nodded mutely, blinking away the tears.

"Presumption like that deserves quite the punishment." She reached out with the crop, using it to nudge his chin upward at a sharp angle, her gaze boring into him. "I assume it's not been so long that you've forgotten what that means?"

Shion managed to find his voice. "No."

"Good." She moved toward the dresser to retrieve a familiar wooden box, while Shion rose to begin the process of disrobing, unsteady on his feet.

He could feel the weight of her attention on his body as he took off his jacket, then his tie and shirt. With each piece of clothing he removed, he felt as if he was shedding a piece of the construct he built around himself and walked around with everyday. Out there, he was indeed many things to many people, but as Eve had reminded him, in this room he had only one function. And that function required nothing from him but his obedience.

His body practically vibrated with desire for just that. By the time he removed the final piece of clothing, Shion was already half aroused.

"Give me your tie," Eve commanded as he folded up his briefs and laid them on top of the neat pile he'd made on the coffee table.

Shion felt himself harden further as he picked up the drab grey length of silk. Eve didn’t always restrain him, but when she did, it was nothing short of earth shattering. He turned and moved toward her, holding it out in offering to her with both hands. She took it silently and crossed behind him, grasping his right hand, then his left and securing them tightly behind his back with the tie. Shion flushed as he caught sight of himself in the mirror in front of him, naked, restrained, and erect.

"Admiring yourself?" Eve ran a single finger down the length of his spine. It send a cascade of goosebumps across his back and arms. "Should we add narcissism to your list of transgressions?"

Shion shook his head, the back and forth movement small and quick.

"And there's the presumption again." She tsked softly before delivering a sharp smack to his right buttock. "I'll punish you for whatever I like, Mr. Chairman. And nothing you can say or do will persuade me otherwise. Am I clear?"

Shion closed his eyes, a single, delicious shudder passing through his body at the thought. "Yes."

"I'm going to bend you over that counter," Eve said, leaning over his shoulder and whispering directly into his ear. "And I'm going to beat that pretty little ass of yours until it's on fire. And then ... if you ask nicely enough ... I might just fuck you."

A raw, hungry sound escaped Shion's throat. He felt the pressure of her hand on his back, urging him forward.

"Down," she commanded, her hand pushing him toward the counter abruptly. With his hands secured behind his back it was easy for him to lose his balance, lurching forward awkwardly until his chest collided with the cold flat surface littered with makeup brushes, small pots of greasepaint, and jeweled ribbons from her costume. He landed with his face far enough away from the mirror that if he craned his head he could see the reflection of Eve's towering above him, her expression cold.

The first touch of the crop on his bare skin was soft, a gentle caress down the line of his hip, then another across the curves of his buttocks. The stiff end of the crop came down softly on his skin once, then twice, each impact delivered with just enough force to excite the nerve endings. She did this sometimes, littering his backside with a seemingly endless series of teasing, light taps that always worked him into such a state that he begged desperately for something more. Shion relaxed slightly, willing his body into the pliant state best suited for this particular approach, when the crop suddenly came down on him at what felt like full force, the loud crack of the impact followed almost immediately by a searing line of agony across his flesh.

Shion couldn't stop the pathetic, strangled yelp he made, just as a second, equally powerful blow landed directly underneath the first. As she began the process of applying a lengthy series of near identical strokes, each separated by what felt like mere millimeters and delivered in rapid succession, Shion tried to focus on maintaining his focus and keeping his breathing under control. He bit his lower lip in an attempt to remain silent, but it wasn’t long before he could no longer choke back the harsh moans and desperate gasps for air that each blow elicited.

"You can't even manage to keep quiet, can you…" Eve stopped suddenly and rested the crop against the area she had just gone over, the braided leather impossibly rough against his sensitive skin. "Or perhaps you actually want the people outside that door to know the truth about their illustrious Chairman? Is that it? Maybe you'd like to invite them in to observe?"

"No!" Shion shook his head desperately, the idea of anyone seeing Eve like this too terrible to comprehend.

He looked up to see her reflection staring at him contemplatively. She was still for a moment before she stepped away from him and crossed the room to her dresser, from which she retrieved two familiar lengths of dark cloth. She put the crop on the coffee table behind him and came over to his side.

"If you can't keep yourself quiet, I'll just have to do something about it myself," she said, balling up one of the lengths and shoving it deep into Shion's mouth. This too they had used before - it was a large enough mass that it muffled much of the sound Shion was likely to make. She reached across his body and retrieved a small pot of cream, which she pressed into one of his bound hands. "You know what to do with that."

Shion closed his fingers around it and nodded. Now that he had no voice, letting go of the object would let her know if he'd been taken too far.

He knew what was coming next and he dreaded it as much as he wanted it. She took the other length of cloth and wrapped it around his head, securing it tightly and completely obscuring his vision. Shion felt the familiar sense of momentary disorientation and panic, but he pushed back, refusing to let it overtake him. He knew that all he had to do was relax and allow himself to accept the loss of control. It was easier said than done, but Shion had a great deal of practice.

He could hear the sound of her heels as she walked back to the coffee table, retrieved the crop, and moved to stand behind him, placing the palm of her hand on the small of his back to anchor and steady him. After a few moments, she slid her hand down and cupped his left buttock in her hand, squeezing it tightly so that her fingernails dug into his still-throbbing skin. He squirmed, as if doing so could actually enable him to get away.

"Stop moving," she commanded.

The tip of the crop came down on his right buttock, the pain blossoming and spreading in a hot wave across his skin. She released her grip, but the relief was short lived as the sensation of her fingernails digging into his skin was soon replaced by that of the crop sharply landing in the very same place.

With the cloth filling his mouth, Shion didn't have to worry about keeping quiet. As the next rain of blows began to fall, Shion gave in and let his body react as it would. He couldn't use visual cues to predict her actions, he couldn't move, and he couldn't communicate. The only thing he could do was to accept and bear Eve's punishment.

Her approach tonight was wholly unpredictable. Shion could never guess where the next blow would strike or what kind of impact it would be. Some of them were sharp, abbreviated smacks, others were harsh, deliberate strokes, and still others were so light they could almost be nothing at all; however, it wasn't long before each time the crop connected with his skin, it sent a wave of fiery agony through him. The room was completely silent but for the smack of leather striking skin and the sound of his own cries, muffled yet strangely loud to his own ears. He realized in a detached, far off way, that the cloth wrapped around his eyes was almost entirely soaked with tears he hadn't known had resumed leaking out of his eyes, but the only thing for which he could muster any focus was how incredibly hard he was, despite the terrible cruelty of his punishment.

It wasn't until he felt the cool sensation of the palm of Eve's hand against the burning skin of his buttock that he realized the blows had stopped. Rather than flinching, he found himself arching into the touch, craving the intensity of the sensation that had somehow metamorphosed into something more complex than pleasure or pain. She ran her hand over the heated skin, caressing him too gently before delving a single finger in between his buttocks and...

"Well, well." She pressed forward, easily breaching the barrier to his body and slipping smoothly inside. The penetration, slight as it may have been, elicited a low, long groan from Shion. "You're quite the eager Boy Scout, aren't you ... coming to me so prepared ..." Eve pressed herself against Shion, her length hard against him through the sheer material of her dressing gown.

“Did you do it at the office?” she asked. “Lube yourself up behind closed doors and drawn blinds?” She thrust up against him, grinding herself into his heated flesh as she pressed her finger deeper and deeper into his already slick passage. "I don't know whether to punish your presumption or reward your audacity, Mr. Chairman."

Shion was trembling with need. He tried to push back in a vain effort to get more – more of her finger and more the feel of her body against him. He was rewarded with a sharp smack to his rear, which sent a wave of electrified arousal coursing through his body. He cried out, his body writing in frustration as Eve pulled back and he was left bereft of any sort of touch. He heard the soft rustle of fabric and then felt her hands on his hips and the searing heat of her bare skin and hardness against him.

After a few more teasing thrusts against him, she finally began to press herself inside, centimeter by agonizing centimeter, the burn of her slowly filling him almost more than Shion could take. His arousal was throbbing and every physical sensation seemed to be magnified a hundredfold. When she was finally seated fully inside him, she stilled and remained motionless for what seemed like an eternity. If Shion had been able to speak, he would have begged, pleaded with her to do something, anything to start to relieve the pressure building inside of him.

When she finally began to move, Shion felt like he would instantly come apart, like the bonds holding together the molecules of his body would dissolve at once, causing him to spontaneously break down into his component elements. Eve moved slowly at first, but she soon quickened and before long, she was pounding into Shion at a punishing pace, her hardness filling him painfully and the slap of her body against his abused skin an exquisite torture. His climax hit him suddenly, wrenched out of his body almost without his permission. His body bent backward and every muscle in his body went tense as he spilled himself without Eve so much as touching his erection. Through the haze of painful pleasure, he heard Eve give a strangled moan as her thrusts became erratic and she emptied herself into him.

Shion was utterly destroyed. He lay immobilized by his release, the cool of the counter against his cheek and the rushing sound of his slowing heartbeat in his ears. It was always a strange sensation, the euphoric calm that took over after Eve's punishments. He was aware of his surroundings, yet detached in a way that defied description. Today, she untied his hands, removed the blindfold and gag, guided him to the sofa, and had him lay down, covering him with a blanket – all almost without him realizing it.

He was pliant.

Still.

Quiet.

Shion watched with unseeing eyes as Eve underwent the process of transformation in front of him. She took down her elaborate hairstyle, combing through the styled curls and securing it back into a simple ponytail. Her false eyelashes and makeup were easily removed, revealing the face with which Shion was much more familiar. The shoes, stockings, and garter belt were taken off and put in their rightful places. When the pile of street clothes on top of the dresser was finally put on, Eve had disappeared and Nezumi stood in front of him.

His boots were heavy against the wooden floor as he crossed over to the couch and lifted Shion's body just enough to be able to slip onto the couch and rest Shion's head in his lap. The feel of Nezumi's fingers stroking through his hair was something real and tangible, something on which to concentrate as Shion came back to reality.

"You okay?" Nezumi asked gently.

Shion nodded.

"You did very well tonight,” Nezumi said after a moment. “There was no skin broken, but I have cream anyway. If you want it."

Shion shook his head, knowing that he'd want to feel the effects of tonight for as long as he could. He lay still for a while, focusing on the in and out of his breathing and the feel of Nezumi's nimble hand in his hair.

"Nezumi?" he asked suddenly, his voice rough.

"Yeah?"

"How long have you known?"

Nezumi sighed. "Rikiga let it slip two weeks ago."

"Ah." He should have known. Rikiga had never been good at keeping things to himself.

“In his defense, there might have been threats involved.”

"Eve was right," Shion said suddenly, clutching the blanket in his hand and concentrating on the feel of the rough cotton weave against the pads of his fingers. "I wasn't thinking of them."

"Mmm." It was a neutral sound, like Nezumi knew a reply was necessary, but didn't want to commit to saying anything in particular.

"I told myself I was doing it for the city, but I deep down I knew I was doing it for you," Shion admitted. “But Eve was right – I really only thought of how I would feel being able to do something like that for you."

Funny. Saying it aloud was almost more freeing than Eve’s punishment had been.

"I know," Nezumi replied softly.

Shion's heart clenched painfully at the sadness in Nezumi's voice, but he accepted the pain, letting it wash over him instead of denying it. He had caused it, after all.

"I'm sorry."

"I know that, too." Nezumi's lifted his hand from Shion's head and grasped his shoulder, squeezing it tightly. "An arts complex is not such a bad thing," he offered, his voice surprisingly gentle "The outcome isn't bad ... this time."

Shion was silent.

“But Shion."

“Yes?”

“If you do it again,” Nezumi said, his voice serious. “If you ever make a decision and your motivation is not one hundred percent the best interest of the city ... I promise you this: I will leave, and I'll never come back."

Shion knew that was the most honest thing he would ever hear Nezumi say.

"I can't watch you become that person,” Nezumi explained, almost an afterthought.

Shion shifted so that he could raise himself up on two arms. Every time he looked at Nezumi, there was something inside him that sang with a joy so intense he thought his frail human form wouldn’t be able to contain it. The thought of losing that, of his own actions causing that to be silenced, was too much to bear. Shion would do anything to prevent it.

“Will you help me?”

Nezumi smiled and gave a dramatic sigh as he reached out and cupped Shion's face. “I suppose it can’t be helped." He tapped Shion's cheek with his thumb, a fond, familiar action, before leaning in for a chaste kiss. "God knows my prince can’t do anything right on his own.”