Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and all affiliated characters and settings are the creative property of Watsuki Nobuhiro and all companies affiliated with its license and translation. The setting and characters are used without permission, at no profit to the author of this fanwork.

EDIT: It didn't occur to me until skenshingumi mentioned in her review that my pen name change threw her off. SO GUYS, here's your notice! I (somewhat) recently changed my pen name from BakaBokken to Dread Pirate Rinja. It's noted in my profile, but not everyone actually checks that so uh, sorry if I threw anyone else for a loop! D: I promise it's still the same writer, haha.

Yes, I know it's been pathetically long since I've updated this story. I've got a lovely, long list of excuses why I haven't been working on this one, but you know what? No point in excusing, haha. I'm just glad I managed to write some more on this particular story. The next chapter is actually in progress, believe it or not! There are about... 15 or so scenes left after this chapter, so it's getting closer to the climax!

Thanks to Nekotsuki for her ever-amazing beta reading skills. Lord knows this chapter needed it! Also, thank you to Kellen and Varethane for additional encouragement; I love you two. :)

Warnings: Violence, brutality/torture, mild language. This chapter is one of the main reasons this story is rated M.

Chapter 7: Endure

In the dark haze of semi-consciousness, Kenshin's world narrowed to unfamiliar voices and a great deal of pain. The heavily-trained killer's instinct told him to get a grip on reality and figure out where the hell he was; his body, on the other hand, was too weary to put the fragmented pieces of his focus together at a rate his instinctive half would approve of. Instead, Kenshin chose to float in the space between cognizance and the blessed dark for the time being, slowly allowing reality to trickle back into place.

He'd spent a lot of time here of late, part of him noted wryly. And when he realized that, he also recalled why exactly he was in so much pain, and the sudden, frightful rush of adrenaline lent him just enough strength to make it all the way back to consciousness. Blinking his eyes slowly in confusion – he didn't remember when he'd opened them – he saw above him the blurred outline of an elderly man with a long, snow-white beard sprouting from his chin. The man's cold fingers dug sharply into his tender shoulder, causing him to draw a choked, gasping breath, and then the man's sharp gaze was upon him.

"You with me now, boy?" the man asked gruffly, as though irritated.

Kenshin was ashamed at the groan he felt vibrating in the back of his very sore throat, but couldn't seem to put together enough words to answer the man.

"Apparently so," said the elderly man in understanding, a frown deepening the already-pronounced wrinkles that stretched across his forehead. "But I'm afraid this would have been easier if you hadn't woken up so soon."

The fingers went back to pressing and prodding into his shoulder, and Kenshin had to grit his teeth against the agony the man was wringing out of him with his ministrations. Once the stars cleared from his vision, Kenshin noticed that the wrist on that same limb had been tightly bound with linen cloth, though the binding did little for the amount of pain he felt shooting up his arm with any attempt to move the joint. A thick metal clasp attached to a chain put a little extra pressure on his sore wrist, his fingers throbbing with each heartbeat. He was still being held prisoner, then.

"You won't be using that arm any time soon," the old man said suddenly, "but that was likely the intent of whoever it was you pissed off. Takashi, most likely. He's got a vengeful streak, that one, and your reputation will do you no good there."

Kenshin tried hard to focus his gaze on the elderly man to read his expression, but every time the man's fingers put pressure on his tender shoulder, his vision blurred just a little more and made the task nearly impossible. Was there sympathy there, or just idle chitchat? The man continued talking, though Kenshin couldn't seem to concentrate on his words either. Gods, it hurt so badly. And suddenly, the pain receded to a dull throb, and he blinked blearily up at his caretaker. The healer – which is what Kenshin assumed this man was – had finally pulled his probing fingers away from his shoulder.

"You with me again?" the man asked, tone flat. Kenshin blinked again. "Maybe it would have been better if you'd stayed unconscious the entire time; I'm not entitled to give you any pain relief."

Not that Kenshin had been expecting any from the Shinsengumi. Why bother to have the old man tend my injuries? He frowned, and almost asked, but his tongue felt thick and his throat clicked painfully when he tried to speak.

"I wouldn't try to talk if I were you, young man," the man said sternly. "I wouldn't be surprised if your throat hurt like hell after that scream last night. The entire headquarters had to have heard that. You'd nearly bitten your tongue through earlier, too."

So damned undignified, but considering how much pain he still was in, perhaps it had really been bad enough to cause him to nearly–

It finally occurred to him, that they really did want to keep him alive. Which meant they still wanted something from him. And if they wanted something from him, things were only going to get worse from here.

"Perhaps it would have been better if you had bitten through your tongue," the healer muttered, apparently unaware that Kenshin could hear him rather clearly. "It would have saved you the trouble of doing so later when they try to force information out of you." The old man was thinking the same thing, then, and Kenshin had to wonder…

No. Tomoe had made him promise – promise – to live. He couldn't let her death be in vain. But no matter what, he knew that the Shinsengumi planned on having his head, one way or another. He would have to get out of there somehow if he wanted to keep his promise. Unfortunately, that didn't seem to be an option here.

At least, not yet.

"I wouldn't even think about trying to run, if I were you," the healer suddenly said, startling Kenshin. He blinked back up in confusion at the older man, who was frowning at him. Had he said something aloud? No, he hadn't, but something in his eyes or expression had told the healer more than enough. He'd need to work on that. "Your last attempt didn't do you much good."

Kenshin grunted; that much was true. Perhaps it hadn't really been the best time to attempt an escape, but at least he had confirmed his approximate location.

"Well, I can't do much more than bind your injuries, so I guess this is as far as I go," the healer said, wiping his hands on a piece of linen. "May the gods see fit to bestow mercy upon you."

Kenshin closed his eyes and nodded, and when he opened them again, the healer was gone. He must have dozed off, he realized sluggishly. Looking around, he saw he was in the same warehouse as before, but this time they'd taken more precautions – not only were his wrists clamped in metal instead of rope this time, they were each chained to metal poles that had been stuck deep into the dirt floor. With his injured arm, he knew it would be nearly impossible to pull either pole out of the ground.

It didn't matter much anyway. He wasn't in much condition to simply break and run for the woods now, as he'd painfully discovered earlier. Katsura was highly unlikely to send someone after him – he had done the leaving in the first place, for one, and it would be far too risky. Kenshin prayed that Katsura would avoid such a reckless route, especially for a simple tool like a replaceable shadow assassin. If Kenshin was going to walk out of that complex alive, he was going to have to do it on his own power, and with careful planning.

If it was possible. He had already determined that he was being kept alive for some reason, most likely information that he most likely didn't have. And if they wanted information…

He was likely in the best physical condition he would ever be within these walls, at this moment. If his previous attempt had failed, then he was almost guaranteed not to do any better on a second try in his current shape. They were on guard this time – the element of surprise was completely out of the question, barring any stupid mistakes, and Kenshin was not one to count on someone else's errors. Without any foreseeable reinforcements, he honestly did not have much of a chance. It wasn't a comforting thought, and left Kenshin with an uneasy, painful hole in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with his injuries.

He might not have any pertinent information on Katsura's whereabouts, but he did know of several Ishin safe havens in the forms of inns and temples, and he wasn't sure how much of that information he could keep quiet on should things get... serious, which they were very likely to become. In that case, perhaps the healer's none-too-subtle suggestion wasn't an unreasonable route to take.

No. Focus. You can do this.

But the more Kenshin thought about it, the more impossible the task of escaping – or even withholding information until they finally took pity on him and killed him – seemed. He would be breaking his promise to Tomoe in either situation, wouldn't he? It wasn't a dishonorable death for a warrior to take one's own life. Even if he wasn't sure he could be called a true samurai, he prayed the gods would understand, even if Tomoe might not.

The small voice in the back of his mind telling him not to give up so damned easily slowly faded into the distance, until he could no longer hear its call. Not even the fleeting memories of Tomoe's smiling face as she died in his arms could bring him back now.

This was going to be the end.

Before he could even think about what he was doing, his teeth sank ruthlessly into his tongue until blood welled in his mouth and nearly began to choke him.

"H-Hey! Stop him – he's trying to–"

"Gag him! Gag the bastard before he succeeds!"

There were hands pulling at his hair, dirty fingers pressing into his mouth trying to force his teeth open. Now that he had gone this far, he clenched his jaw harder like a starving dog on a scrap of meat, until a fist found his jaw and stars blotted out his vision.

When he came back, he realized first that he hadn't been out for long. Someone still had their fingers woven harshly into his hair, and he distantly heard angry voices arguing around him. The second realization was that someone had pulled a dirty rag into his mouth that cut into the edges of his lips harshly, it was pulled so tight. He couldn't clench his teeth anymore, which he knew was the entire purpose of the gag. Blood still coated his mouth, running down his chin and down the back of his throat and making his stomach roil.

The voices above him started to become clearer as his vision slowly returned.

"–choke on the blood, you idiot! And if not the blood, then he's going to puke it all back up and choke on his own vomit – don't you remember how he was hurling all over the place when we first brought him here?"

"He'll die faster if he bites through his tongue, jackass! Unless you have a better idea, then I suggest you fuck off and leave him as he is right now," a second voice snapped. "We can keep an eye on him for when he starts turning green."

"Are you sure we shouldn't bring Fujii-sensei back in here?"

There was fear in that voice, Kenshin realized. Then there was a very strong possibility that these soldiers would get in trouble if he did indeed manage to take his own life (which he had quite apparently not accomplished). Part of him felt almost angry at these men for stopping him, but before he could let that emotion swell, the small voice in the back of his mind told him that he shouldn't have been so reckless, to hang on to hope even if it seemed impossible.

He then wondered if Tomoe would have been happy to see him in the afterlife under these circumstances, and in his mind he could actually see her sad expression as she averted her eyes and turned away from him. The realization of what he'd just almost done hit him like a harsh blow to the stomach, and suddenly he felt incredibly ill.

"Shit – he's going to choke!"

Kenshin's eyes burned as his stomach finally rebelled, and he was turned to the side, the gag removed just long enough to let him convulse as he spat up the small amount of blood he'd ingested mixed with some bile before dry heaves shook his weak body. Once his body stopped shaking and his vision began clearing, he saw blurred figures above him – his Shinsengumi guards. One of them was reaching for his face with the dirty rag again, but when he tried to protest, the blur intensified and blended with the dark spots at the edges of his sight.

His first thought upon awaking to find the gag still in place – and his nostrils being assaulted with the pungent, foul smell of stale vomit – was something along the line of, Well, that didn't work so well. After his eyes stopped watering and his stomach stopped trying to rebel on him again, he looked around wearily to find that his arms were now chained above him – his own weight putting a painful amount of stress on his injured arm and wrist – and that he wasn't alone.

"Ah, so you're finally awake, Battousai." The cold, unfamiliar voice was accompanied with the creak of leather being tightly stretched, and it sent a chill down Kenshin's spine. The gag tightened and shifted in his mouth as rough hands worked to loosen the gag's knot at the back of his head. "I think it's about time we had a little chat."

There was a distinct feeling pooling in his abused stomach that perhaps trying to kill himself had not been such a wise idea, after all.

Hirokatsu had been asked – in not so many words – to check in on Katsura when the Ishin leader had declined to show up for the evening meal. Okami-dono's forehead had been wrinkled with worry lines as she'd told the elderly healer of Katsura's message, and it went without saying that she was requesting that Hirokatsu check on him.

It was Himura's disappearance that was bothering Katsura; Hirokatsu knew that without a doubt. He wasn't sure exactly what the Ishin leader planned to do about it now, but it was some consolation to Hirokatsu that whatever course Katsura chose, it wouldn't come without serious contemplation. Bowing outside of the shoji leading to Katsura's rooms, he tapped quietly on the wood of the shoji.

"It's Hirokatsu," he said softly after he'd knocked.

There was a pause, and then, "Come in."

Hirokatsu waited another moment before he quietly slid open the shoji, and then peered into the mostly-dark room. Katsura was on his knees by his writing desk, a crumpled paper in one hand as he stared into the flickering lamp that cast a weak light across the room. He looked tired, worn, frustrated, but Hirokatsu bit his tongue as he entered and knelt down across from the younger man without a word, waiting patiently in silence to give Katsura a chance to speak first.

He had to wait several long, stretching moments before Katsura finally looked in his direction, but the Ishin leader said nothing as their eyes met. The intensity with which Katsura's eyes gleamed in the dim, however, were words enough – something had gone terribly wrong. And, considering that Hirokatsu had not heard any word on his youngest charge – Himura – he had a sinking feeling that the problem Katsura grappled with now was directly related.

Katsura's stare did not last long; within the barest of moments, he was looking away again, teeth clenched almost as tightly as the fist holding the crumpled parchment. And he was angry – so angry that he was shaking.

"The Shinsengumi have him," Katsura finally said, quietly, voice quivering almost as much as his hands.

It was as Hirokatsu had feared. Himura had been in horrible shape when they'd forced him to run with them, and he knew it was a bad idea to let the kid run back. Though the news did little to surprise him, he had to catch himself from clenching his own fists too harshly.

He was afraid to ask, but the words slipped out of his mouth before he could catch them: "What do you intend to do about it, Katsura-sama?"

Katsura's shoulders slumped, and he stared down at the note he still clutched in his hand. Taking a deep, unsteady breath, he said, "I… don't know. I just don't know." Another pause, and then, "I know what I should do, but I don't know if… I don't think it's a fair choice for Himura."

At this point, Hirokatsu took the chance to get a closer look at the half-scrawled message that Katsura apparently had begun composing before he had intruded, and he frowned. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but it looked like a corner of a black envelope was just visible from under the letter on the table–

The answers clicked into place, settling into a ball of ice in his stomach.

"You aren't seriously thinking about sending in an assassin after Himura, are you?" he said, voice low and brimming with fury.

Katsura couldn't meet his eyes.

Hirokatsu saw red. Without even thinking of the ramifications for his actions, he reached forward and grabbed Katsura by the front folds of his kimono, jerking him forward and trying to force him to look him in the eye.

"Have you gone mad?" Hirokatsu hissed. "Himura hasn't done a damned thing to you; that child went back even while half-dead to save our lives – your life! And you're planning on giving him up without a fight? What the hell is wrong with you?!"

Setting his jaw, Katsura grabbed Hirokatsu's hands with a surprisingly strong grip, and with a stiff tug, dislodged them from his clothes. He settled back on his heels, a resolved expression firmly in place now, and then he stared Hirokatsu down.

"I don't have a choice, Tatsumo," he said, his tone even this time. "If Himura were to give them any information on our safehouses–"

"You really think Himura would talk?"

"Under duress, who knows." Katsura took a deep breath. "In this case, it's always best to err on the side of safety – it's Himura's life or the lives of our men."

"You're condemning him to die, maybe for the sake of everyone else, then?" Hirokatsu knew his tone was cold, but damn it, he was still upset. "If you're going to do that, for the gods' sake, Katsura – come up with a better reason than that! You're showing a lack of trust in someone who has done everything you've ever asked him to do. Why lose faith now?"

"This isn't a matter of lost faith, Tatsumo."

"Then what is it? A matter of resources? You know this is simply wasting all of our efforts from before to revive him after that last attack." Hirokatsu folded his arms over his chest. "You can't expect me to believe that this is the only option you've got left."

"Put yourself in my place, just for a moment," Katsura said shakily, massaging his brow with one hand. "I don't want Himura to die, either; not after… after everything he has been through for our sakes. But this isn't a matter of letting him die or live – this is a matter of how he's going to die. They're going to kill him, one way or another. I'm just trying to ensure that he dies in a more honorable manner."

This argument was going nowhere, Hirokatsu realized, clenching his teeth so tightly his jaw throbbed. There were so many things he wanted to say, but the only thing that managed to find its way out of his mouth was, "So be it, then."

He stood up abruptly, glaring down his nose at Katsura, before turning on his heels and storming out of the room, closing the shoji behind him with enough force to make the wooden frame shudder at the impact. At the back of his mind, he noted that Katsura hadn't even tried to stop him. Good – maybe he's thinking about what his plans mean to Himura.

It wasn't until he'd reached the baths later that evening when he realized that he'd forgotten to tell Katsura of Okami-dono's message. He sighed, reminding himself to check back in on Katsura once he'd had some sleep and a chance to think the situation through.

Katsura flinched when Hirokatsu slammed the shoji behind him, and then waited until he heard the healer's angry footsteps storm further down the hall before he allowed himself a deep sigh. Shoulders relaxing, he pressed his fingers back into his brow and let a soft, mirthless bark of laughter escape. Of course the healer was going to be angry – he'd invested a great deal of time, effort and energy into preserving Himura's life, and it hadn't escaped Katsura's notice that the man too had grown fond of the mild-mannered young soldier. Himura's loss was a painful one to the both of them, but…

He ended the thought there, because part of him knew that Hirokatsu might be right: he was giving up on Himura far too easily. In all honesty, his gut instinct was to send in as many soldiers as he had on hand, and to go break Himura out of the Shinsengumi's clutches as soon as he'd heard they had captured the boy. But rationality forced him to remember that it was an impulse, and that the campaign would accrue heavy costs in manpower and resources.

So maybe Hirokatsu was right on that account as well, in that it was a matter of resources and a lack of faith in Himura.

But what was he to do? He couldn't play favorites just because Himura was young and highly skilled in his field. He had to keep his other soldiers' best interests in mind as well, and it would do company morale little good if many of them went in and lost their lives for a single soldier.

Katsura looked down at the half-written instructions on the parchment before him, and put it aside. Perhaps it was too early just yet to send another assassin in after Himura, but just in case, he kept the letter in the drawer of his writing desk.

Tomoe smiled demurely at him from the doorway of their shared abode in Otsu, but there was no deception in her face. It was then that Kenshin realized for the first time that he really, truly loved her, and that he would kill – even die – for her sake. It was an image that stuck out in his mind, and it was the first place he escaped to when the pain became too overwhelming. Here, in the memory, the cracks of the whip and the angry, snarled questions faded into the back of his consciousness, and he swore he could hear the crackle of the fire behind him in the memory.

"You're not allowed to pass out on me yet, Battousai."

Cold water stole his breath, stinging as it ran down his bare, bruised and bloody back, and brought him back to his own personal hell with a harsh, painful gasp. His right arm was a mass of fiery pain; the restraints held his wrists so far above his head that his toes barely touched the ground, and the strain on his lungs was almost as excruciating as the sharp stabs of agony traveling up and down his mangled arm. His back was a mass of fire. Each breath was a chore, coming out in wheezes and quiet noises of pain that Kenshin began to hate himself for.

"Matsuo-sama–" a quiet voice warned, but suddenly fell quiet.

"The demon is hardly at death's door," Matsuo snarled, and Kenshin was sure he could hear the damnable creak of the leather whip being readied for use again. "Hijikata was able to flay a man like this until the skin fell off his back, and even then, the man survived for several more days. A few welts and cuts aren't going to kill him."

The other voice was silenced, and Kenshin felt his aching shoulders tense reflexively as Matsuo's heavy footsteps drew closer – so close, that Kenshin could feel the man's hot breath on the battered back of his neck. A rough hand grabbed his chin and forced him to look at the man's glittering, deep set eyes and crooked-toothed grin. Kenshin narrowed his eyes and poured as much ire into his glare as he could manage, teeth pressing painfully into the sides of his mouth from Matsuo's strong grip.

"See?" he said, gaze not leaving Kenshin's. "Battousai's still got some fight left in him. Don't you, murderer?"

Kenshin didn't have the opportunity to reply (even if he had wanted to) before Matsuo's hand left his face and patted his cheek in a mockingly patronizing manner as he paced around his victim like a predator toying with its prey.

"I guess we still have a ways to go before you're willing to speak, then," Matsuo said, taking a step out of Kenshin's line of sight. Kenshin allowed his shoulders to relax slightly then, but let out a sharp cry of pain and surprise when the whip cracked harshly against his back once more without warning.

Kenshin took a shaking breath, staring down at the ground and tugging himself a little more upright to pull in more air. The stinging subsided in his back, but his arms and shoulders were still aching, and he had a bad, bad feeling that his right arm was in serious trouble. And if he didn't have his sword arm, he was going to be in serious trouble when he finally got loose.

Because, damn it, he was going to get out of here alive. He had to.

And Matsuo was going to be the first on his list of people that needed to die.

"You still haven't answered the first question," he said, managing to sound only partially annoyed. "Where is Katsura Kogoro?"

Kenshin wasn't sure what was worse – the fact that Matsuo was well versed in the feared Hijikata Toushizou's torture methods and had a skilled hand with the whip, or the fact that Matsuo was terrible at interrogation. The man clearly had no idea what kinds of questions he should be asking – ones that Kenshin would actually have answers to – and didn't know how to measure out his punishment effectively. Matsuo was too heavy-handed with the whip, and should he keep up his current pace, Kenshin wondered if the man might end up killing him far too quickly.

The whip cracked again, and Kenshin flinched and hissed as it wrapped around his left side, the end of the leather flicking sharply near the edge of the healing bullet wound on his abdomen. Another crack of the whip brought another flare of pain across his shoulders as the leather thong covered wounds already in existence. Several more lashes like this, and Kenshin's vision began to blur again, much like it had before.

Then, there was a pause, accompanied by some rustling and creaking of leather behind him. Kenshin didn't dare try to look as he panted harshly and tried pulling himself up again to try to relieve the growing pressure in his chest.

"I'll give you one last opportunity to answer my question, boy – where is Katsura?"

One last opportunity before what? Kenshin snorted softly, then shuddered as he tried drawing in another breath, but didn't get the chance to think about it too long before the whip cracked again.

This time, however, the pain was sharper, had a broader reach, and lasted much longer than it had before. He gasped as stars burst across his eyes, unable to breathe as he was struck again – and again – with Matsuo's modified whip. Lungs seizing, his vision whited out and his ears rang so loudly that he was sure he was going deaf.

"Matsuo-sama – his lips are turning blue–"

"You're going to kill him–"

"Shut up, all of you! He isn't going to die that easily – cut the bastard down, and get Fujii-sensei in here."

When air rushed back into his lungs so quickly that he thought they were going to burst, Kenshin felt himself fall forward. Rough hands pressed against the fire in his back, and he heard no more.

Suzuka shuddered as he watched two (very drunk) Shinsengumi cart a limp and bloodied Battousai out of the warehouse at Fujii's frantic direction. The young assassin's back was so battered by the time Matsuo finally stopped beating the kid that Suzuka was sure he'd seen strips of skin hanging off of the red, shredded, dripping mess. Suzuka was not new to blood – he was a samurai in the middle of a war, after all – but the sight of raw, tenderized human flesh made his skin crawl, and it took a great deal of willpower to keep the sickened feeling in his stomach from showing on his face.

Matsuo had to have been drunk – or insane – to willingly inflict such punishment on a body so young. It didn't help that Matsuo was asking all the wrong questions in the process (how the hell was Battousai supposed to know where Katsura was? The rebel leader was like a slippery eel; he moved so often that it was extremely difficult to track him, and Matsuo should have known at least that much). Perhaps the real interrogation had not begun yet; Matsuo couldn't be that foolish. This had to have something to do with Battousai's earlier attempt at escape.

Or, perhaps, it was an attempt on Matsuo's part to show Hijikata that he was capable of sheer brutality. Mimicry as a form of flattery – it wasn't an unlikely explanation for Matsuo's rather extreme interrogation session with their captive, especially since it completely failed to yield useful information. Instinctively, Suzuka felt that Hijikata was not going to find Matsuo's methods flattering at all, that the famed Shinsengumi leader would be outraged by it instead.

If Suzuka wasn't careful about how he approached Matsuo – or Hijikata's spy, who had undoubtedly been witness to the entire scene – he knew that his neck would be at stake as well.

And that was the most frustrating problem of them all – Suzuka remembered a time when Matsuo actually trusted those around him. Those days, Suzuka knew how to read his lord, and could interpret how to best serve him, and Matsuo had recognized that skill. Matsuo's trust in him had enabled him to gain a status he never would have been able to reach under any other was hard-pressed to betray that trust now, because in a sense, he felt that he truly owed Matsuo his allegiance.

But Matsuo's recent behavior was wedging a slab of doubt into his staunch loyalty; he felt he was unable to do his job as a proper vassal and advisor, and with his own neck at stake, he had been wondering if this Battousai venture meant more to Matsuo than the lives of the vassals that had faithfully served him all these years. Suzuka had never felt his loyalty more threatened by anything before, and it made him uneasy and uncertain about how to approach his lord with this very problem.

He didn't have long to dwell on his own strategy, however. As he left the warehouse to return to his own chambers, a pebble bounced off his shoulder, and he heard a sound that faintly sounded like an animal rustling through the brush that surrounded this walkway. Carefully glancing around to make sure nobody else was paying attention, he made a small forward motion with his head – there was a small shrine ahead that would likely be untouched.

Standing before the prayer offerings box at the shrine, he bowed twice, clapped twice, and bowed again before he said – softly enough to pass as a prayer – "What do you ask of me?"

"Tell me what you think just happened in there." The voice was so quiet that Suzuka had to strain his ears to hear it.

He knew immediately that his answer would determine what side he was on. And the answer that came the most instinctively to him was hardly in Matsuo's favor.

"Matsuo had no intention of gathering information from that session," Suzuka said, keeping his head bowed and voice low. "That was a matter of revenge and a piss-poor attempt at flattery."

There was a soft snort – laughter? – and then, "You noticed that as well?"

"There is only one thing on Matsuo's mind constantly, and that is the acquisition of power through any means possible."

"And you don't think he will achieve that feat?"

Was the spy baiting him? Suzuka's brows furrowed, but he kept his eyes closed. "I do not."


Suzuka tensed, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end as he sensed another presence in the brush, but heard nothing.

"Tell me, then, Suzuka – what do you believe was Matsuo's intention in beating Battousai to the extent he did?"

"He doesn't want to relinquish his captive to Kyoto," Suzuka replied. "He feels that if he keeps Battousai incapacitated to the point of being unable to travel without the real possibility of death, he will get to hang on to his prize."

Suzuka knew that he had essentially placed his betrayal in words, but this was a matter of survival at this point. The spy would glean the same information from elsewhere, if not from him – Matsuo was unlikely to win in this small political skirmish over Battousai. Matsuo had already shown Suzuka his motives, and they were no longer in Suzuka's favor. He simply was allying himself with the most likely winner; no more, no less. Holding his breath as he waited for the spy's reply, he resisted the foolish urge to look around to make sure nobody else was watching or listening.

"You are a shrewd man, Suzuka," came the amused reply after a moment. "Await further instructions – you will find an envelope in your writing desk sealed with black wax in three days. It will be on the day before Matsuo receives a reply back from Hijikata-sama. Continue to observe Matsuo's actions until then, and ensure that he doesn't kill Battousai just yet."

A brush of a light breeze rustled the greenery around the shrine, and Suzuka no longer sensed the presence of the spy nor his companion. Expelling the breath he'd been holding, he finally opened his eyes and looked down at his shaking hands. A bark of shaky, nervous laughter bubbled over his lips.

Perhaps I truly am a coward.

Battousai had made progress in the last four days, Fujii-sensei had said, but Matsuo could tell that the healer was extremely reluctant to reveal that much. He didn't like the way Fujii's eyes glinted disapprovingly as he talked about the treatment of Battousai – what, was he siding with a criminal now? – or the way the healer had not volunteered this information without Matsuo's inquiry into the matter first.

Matsuo wasn't so sure he could trust Fujii-sensei to be forward with him, but on the other hand, Fujii had the most talent of all the healers in the area. He would have to discuss the issue with Suzuka before he made a final decision.

For now, he still needed information from Battousai, who was awake and glaring at him from across the room with a piercing gaze that promised violence, if unleashed. Matsuo didn't care that Fujii considered the hitokiri to be just a boy; that child was a murderer, a demon straight from hell itself. Those eyes only proved his case.

But those eyes also meant that Matsuo had hardly broken Battousai.

"Still as stubborn as ever, I see," Matsuo commented dryly, breaking the silence that had permeated the warehouse. He didn't expect an answer, nor did he get one. "I suppose I haven't been hard enough on you yet."

The eyes stayed fixed on him, still glittering with violent intent, unblinking, and part of Matsuo wanted to be angry. But he knew that no matter how defiant Battousai planned on acting, the boy hardly was in control here – Matsuo had the upper hand, after all, and he refused to relinquish it to this demon. He was going to have to force the hitokiri to come to terms with that fact.

He stepped towards Battousai, who was on his knees, arms pulled to the sides and chained to small metal loops that were tightly wedged into the warehouse floor, leaving the hitokiri in an awkward mockery of a bow. Bared to the waist and stripped of bandages, the red, angry lines left on Battousai's back from Matsuo's previous harsh treatment stood out in stark contrast to the ghostly pallor of the young man's skin.

"You still haven't answered my questions, Battousai," Matsuo said evenly, staring down his nose. Battousai wasn't looking up at him from this position – he would have had to crane his neck awkwardly in order to do so – and was instead looking at Matsuo's feet. "You should know by now that we won't let you die until you answer them."

Matsuo squatted down, grabbing Battousai by the chin and forcing him to meet his gaze, and blinked in surprise. Some part of him had been expecting anger, hatred, and maybe even fear, but he saw none of those in the glittering yellow of the famed hitokiri's eyes. Instead, there was quiet resolve and… sadness? Hah, as if the boy had any right to feel sorrow – the murderer had too much blood on his hands to be allowed such emotions, and the fact that Battousai had them was making Matsuo irritable. Disgusted, he roughly shoved the boy's face to the side and stood up, turning his back to the prisoner as he motioned to one of his subordinates to hand him his favorite whip.

"I will give you one last chance to answer me: Where is Katsura Kogoro?"

He waited in silence, counting to fifteen under his breath before he turned and cracked the whip down harshly across Battousai's back. To Matsuo's grim pleasure, Battousai flinched and hissed as the leather struck tender, still-healing injuries. A thin line of blood droplets formed along several of the red lines – a small detail filed in the back of Matsuo's mind as he struck again, and then again when there still was no answer.

By the tenth stroke, he finally managed to get a small gasp out of his victim, and he paused briefly. Several of the wounds had broken open on the young man's back by this point, and blood steadily trickled around heaving ribs as Battousai tried to catch his breath.

"You will answer me, boy, or you will not get such a merciful death," Matsuo warned in a low voice. "Where is Katsura? What inns have been harboring him in Kyoto? In Nara?"

He pulled the whip tightly between both hands, the leather creaking threateningly. Battousai looked like he was having trouble drawing deep breaths from his position, but showed no sign of talking. Grinding his teeth, Matsuo handed the whip back to the guards assisting him, and motioned for one of them to bring a tray forward that held two long iron nails, two candles, a hammer, and a few matches.

"Did you know that Hijikata was the one to get the information that led to the Ikeda-ya raid?" Matsuo pulled straps from the inside pouch of his kimono sleeve, and used them to tie the large flaps of fabric back. Then, he picked up one of the two nails lying on the tray, holding up the sharp end between two fingers and looking at it thoughtfully. "He used an interesting technique, which I have heard works wonders in the interrogation room. Let's see how well his technique actually works on stubborn prisoners."

Two of the other guards exchanged nervous glances once Matsuo looked at them and nodded towards Battousai. This wasn't going to be pretty, but it didn't excuse the fact that his new recruits were horribly weak-minded. They were soldiers, and finding information – especially important information that could help bring the very leader of their enemies down – was part of their job description. Matsuo's lip curled as he watched them unchain Battousai, pull him to his feet, and tightly hold his arms in place of the chains. Another guard moved forward with a rope, grabbing at Battousai's feet – he had a very close encounter with Battousai's foot as the hitokiri lashed out with a sharp kick.

"Still have some fight in you, eh?" Matsuo said, taking another step forward and twirling the nail around in his fingers. "I will enjoy watching you break, Battousai."

The third guard took a swig from a bottle of alcohol he kept in his robes – Matsuo didn't stop him – before he reached out and grabbed Battousai's feet firmly, binding them with thick rope. The two guards at Battousai's arms then lifted him into the air just long enough for the third guard to slide a thick board under his heels. Matsuo handed him the nail and a hammer.

"You know what to do. Just do one for now," Matsuo instructed with a sneer.

The guard's hands were visibly shaking as he took another long draught from his bottle, then he took the proffered nail and hammer and positioned the sharpened tip of the nail over the center of Battousai's left foot. The demon's eyes widened with sudden horror, much to Matsuo's delight, just before the guard raised the hammer and drove it down on the nail.

This was the second time Matsuo had had the pleasure of hearing Battousai scream, and he relished in the sound.

"String him up," he said, once the guards regained control over the thrashing prisoner.

In moments, Battousai's arms were also bound, and Matsuo was looking at Battousai's pained face upside-down. He couldn't help but smirk at how quickly the boy's face was turning red. A guard lit the first of two candles from the tray

"Since I tend to be a generous man, I will give you one last chance: Give me a list of names that harbor Ishin, and I will give you a swift and painless death."

Battousai managed a glare through the mask of pain on his face, but again said nothing. It was just as well, at this point.

"Very well, then," Matsuo said evenly.

He took the glowing candle from the guard and – with the help from a stool – stood up above Battousai's feet, tapping the sharp, bloodied end of the nail protruding from the even bloodier foot before he eased the soft, hot wax of the candle down over the nail. Several drops of liquid wax dripped onto the sole of Battousai's foot, each eliciting a pained gasp from the prisoner. Once the candle was standing on its own with the help of the nail, Matsuo stepped back down to observe his handiwork.

Candle wax dribbled down from the flame, over the sides of the candle to first pool in the sole of Battousai's foot. The hitokiri thrashed in his bonds, gritting his teeth as more wax melted down over his foot and onto the backs of his calf – that was when he started screaming. The room began to reek of burning human flesh, and one of the guards who had previously held back Battousai's arms turned green and lunged for the warehouse door.

And yet Battousai still refused to talk.

Matsuo was getting irritated as Battousai's screams died into yelps, then to occasional harsh gasps of pain. His lips were turning blue by the time Suzuka came to knock on the warehouse door, eyeing Battousai nervously as he approached Matsuo and bowed low with an envelope held in his outstretched hands.

"Matsuo-sama, these are orders that just arrived by messenger from Kyoto," Suzuka explained, staying low, but Matsuo didn't miss the wrinkling of his subordinate's nose as Suzuka caught the stench of burning flesh. "They're from headquarters."

"Ah, so Hijikata finally sends his reply," said Matsuo as he took the envelope and broke the seal. Eyes quickly scanned the document, and he blinked several times before he looked back over it to make sure he hadn't misread the instructions.

He hadn't.

With gritted teeth, he glared over at Battousai and grabbed for his whip, but Suzuka cleared his throat and quickly spoke, interrupting Matsuo's onset of ire.

"Matsuo-sama, with all due respect, you're going to have to make sure Battousai is in one piece when you send him to Kyoto," Suzuka said, cautious and quiet and all-too-reasonable. "The execution has already been announced publicly, and will be open to a special crowd in Kyoto; the messenger explained this to me as he gave me the envelope. Hijikata will not be pleased if you kill Battousai before he's due at headquarters."

Matsuo gritted his teeth so hard he was sure he felt one of them crack, but he couldn't deny that Suzuka had a very valid point. As he glared down the bleeding and writhing hitokiri – who was still hanging upside down by his feet, candle wax still dripping down his leg – he suddenly realized that it was unlikely that Hijikata even knew what the demon looked like. Matsuo had been surprised when he'd first seen that Battousai was nothing more than a teen with extraordinary skill with the sword; perhaps the great Hijikata would also be in for a surprise.

Or, perhaps, Hijikata wouldn't be able to tell if Matsuo switched out Battousai with someone who would look more suitable for the part.

"Suzuka, who else do we have in our holding cells?" he asked suddenly.

Suzuka blinked. "A few other miscreants – a couple peasants who didn't pay past-due tribute, a thief or two. Shall I clear them out for you?"

"No," Matsuo replied with a grin. "I'll need you to fetch one of them for now. Bring me the one that looks the strongest."

Suzuka's eyes widened in realization, and then he bowed reverently. "Yes, Matsuo-sama."

Matsuo watched his men cut a nearly-unconscious, bleeding and shivering Battousai down as Suzuka left, smirking all the while. Hijikata would not steal his hard-earned prize from him so easily. Not this time.

The news of a public execution at the Shinsengumi headquarters made Katsura's skin crawl, his knee-jerk reaction of disgust and anger kicking in. When he got information that it was the famous hitokiri Battousai scheduled to be publicly shamed and killed, he had to restrain himself from punching through the shoji that led to the interior garden of the inn he was staying at.

Katsura's most trusted advisors, including Hirokatsu, were watching him intently as the messenger relayed the news. Hirokatsu's expression was unreadable, though the healer's posture still betrayed some anger after their last confrontation. They hadn't spoken in the several days that had passed since.

But then Katsura realized that the Shinsengumi had essentially told him where Kenshin would be at a specific time. This was either an extremely stupid mistake on their part, or…

"They're trying to lure me out," Katsura said solemnly once the messenger left.

One of his advisors, Ishikawa, nodded earnestly. "There's hardly any doubt that this is a trap, but it also means that they haven't killed Himura yet."

"But it could also mean that they've pulled all the information they need from him, and thus they no longer need him alive," said Kato, another advisor.

"If they had managed to get any information out of him, Kato, don't you think they would have moved in on us already?" Hirokatsu pointed out. "If they received any useful information from Himura, they would know we move constantly and that they'd have to move quickly if they didn't want their intelligence to go stale."

"Besides, how do we even know it's Himura they're bringing to Kyoto? It could be some poor idiot dressed up to look like Battousai, for all we know," Ishikawa added.

"In that case, Himura is likely dead," Kato replied.

Ishikawa snorted. "If they're announcing his execution instead of advertising his death, I have a strong feeling that he still is alive."

"But this still is a trap."

Katsura watched the argument slowly break out between Kato and Ishikawa, but didn't pay much attention to the words they were saying. Ishikawa did have several good points; perhaps it would be prudent to have two groups – one that went to the announced execution, and another group that went to Nara headquarters to scope out the situation there. He would need to use the men who actually knew what Himura looked like, but maybe… just maybe this could work.

Hirokatsu was staring at him again, and he shifted. He really wanted the healer's input on his forming plan – despite the fact that they were both still irritated at each other, Hirokatsu was one of his most trustworthy men, especially when it came to Himura.

"What do you mean you don't think Himura is worth going after?" Ishikawa was saying angrily, once Katsura began to pay attention again. "After all he's done for the Ishin–"

"That's enough, Ishikawa, Kato," Katsura said, raising a hand to silence them. "Would you gentlemen please excuse me? I need to think about something."

The two arguing advisors exchanged irritated glances, before bowing to Katsura and taking their leave. When Hirokatsu got up to follow them, Katsura motioned him to stay and sit down across from him. The healer's expression gave none of his thoughts away as he complied.

"I… think you were right about me, about giving up on Himura too quickly," Katsura said, once Hirokatsu had been settled. "I've been thinking, and I may have a plan to retrieve Himura. Alive," he added when he saw Hirokatsu shift in his seat.

The healer regarded Katsura seriously for a few moments; Katsura began to feel nervous, but then a grin spread across Hirokatsu's face.

"I was hoping that was what you were going to say," he said conspiratorially. "So, what did you have in mind?"

.end chapter seven.

Historical Note

A short note this time! The torture method that Matsuo credits Hijikata for – the nails through the feet with a candle dripping hot wax part – was something that Hijikata did actually use, and it did apparently produce the information that led to the Ikeda-ya raid (from the information I've been able to find on the matter). Yeah, not very nice, is it? Dx

As many of you know, a beloved member of the RurouKen fan community recently passed, and while I think my poor writing is hardly a decent tribute, I would like to dedicate the remainder of this story to the memory of HakuBaikou. Her fanfiction "Against a Sea of Troubles" was one of the first I came across in the RK section here at FFnet, and it was one of the reasons I went ahead and chanced writing and posting the original version of this story. I would like to extend my condolences and prayers to her family and close friends; she was a beautifully talented individual who will be greatly missed.

Again, I sincerely apologize for the (almost two-year) delay. As far as further historical notes go, if there's any cultural or historical material in this chapter that anyone wants further explanation for, please do let me know! I'll try not to be almost two years until the next update, I promise! That is, if any of you folks are still even reading this story, haha.