Notes: Many thanks to Aubrie for her help and advice in figuring out this chapter! Also, this chapter carries a warning for being much darker than the previous ones and for getting into a more thematic subject, though I've tried to handle it in a tasteful manner.

Chapter Seven

Vodka cradled his partner's upper body in his arms, staring down in horror at all the blood and the fatal wounds. The blonde hair was tangled and streaked with crimson, the long locks falling over Vodka's left arm. The once-strong form was physically and emotionally broken, the chest stilled as blood streamed from the pierced heart. The only manner of apparel that adorned the corpse was a tattered and bloodied sheet that Vodka had wrapped it in, as a means of giving his comrade some form of dignity. The head and neck had limply fallen back, and as Vodka tried to adjust his grip so that's the other's head would rest on his shoulder, he realized that, through the bangs, the green eyes were still open. They were blank and empty, the eyes of a dead man. And Vodka swallowed hard, reaching with his other hand to gently close the eyes. He could not bear to look.

"Don't look at me like that."

He snapped back to the present, swallowing hard as he took in the sight of Gin sitting on the bathroom floor, gripping his wrist as crimson streaked through his fingers. He was not dead yet, but would he have been, if Vodka had arrived a few moments later? Would he still die? And had he inflicted that wound himself? Vodka still did not know. He wished that he had not left earlier. But he had never dreamed that he would come back to this.

Hours before, Gin had finally fallen asleep back at the suite, and for some reason Vodka had gotten the undeniable urge to find out exactly what was happening to Chardonnay and Sake in Aoshi's ward, especially after Aoshi's unscheduled visit. He had already known that they could not be being treated well, but what he had seen there was enough to both horrify and outrage him. He was not certain what he had expected to see, but he did know that it had not been what he had found---and that he never wanted to see it again.

"Agent Vodka?"

He started and half-turned, regarding with confusion the nurse in front of him. She looked back, her brown eyes revealing her own bewildered feelings.

"Are you alright?" she asked, clutching her clipboard to her chest as she regarded him worriedly. Coming down the corridor, she had found him standing there, gazing off into space as if both horrified and deep in thought. And when she saw the room he was standing in front of, she could certainly understand why. She herself did not like going there more than necessary, and she had found herself trying to find alternate routes to where she needed to go. She hated that it disturbed her so much, but when it could also affect one of the Organization's assassins, then she did not feel as badly about it.

He swallowed hard, nodding, and looked back to the window that he had been gazing through. He had gotten lost in thought after watching the occupants of the room, and he wished that he had not come here. He did not even know what had brought him there in the first place. He doubted the women realized he was there.

Chardonnay had done very little of anything, and instead was rocking back and forth in the corner of the room. It reminded Vodka too much of what Vivalene had said that night during dinner, about what happened to some people who were emotionally broken. Chardonnay's partner Sake had been that same way when Vodka had found her at Portman's base, rocking back and forth and not seeming to comprehend anything happening in reality. He quickly averted his eyes from her.

Sake was restless now, and was pacing around the room. Every now and then, she screamed in an inhuman way. Vodka was chilled, especially when she turned and saw him watching her through the window in the door. Her eyes widened as many emotions flickered through them, and for the briefest moment Vodka wondered if she recognized him. But then she lunged without warning at the door, her hands curled in a clawlike manner, and Vodka instinctively jumped back, his heart racing and his mind reeling.

Gin could have ended up as they were. He had been showing signs of damage similar to theirs, but he had not been held captive for as long. If he had been missing for as long as Chardonnay and Sake, then who knew how he might be at this point. He was a strong person, but it had been proven that not even he could withstand all of the immense torture he had been put through.

I'm not qualified to take care of him, he thought to himself as he turned to leave this horrible scene. And I know Aoshi never could be, either. But he should know what's to be done, even if he won't do it. I don't have the training. I don't have any idea what to do. If he can't help them, when he's a doctor, how can I expect to be able to do anything for Gin? He knew that it was most assuredly true that he did care what happened to Gin, as he had told Aoshi and Brandy, but he wondered if that honestly was a good enough qualification. If there was a kind medical doctor, then Gin should probably instead be treated by such a person. Though it was not likely that Gin would even allow it himself, since Vodka was the only person whom Gin would let get close to him. It was a lot to live up to.

He turned back slightly when he saw out of the corner of his eye a man coming to the door and unlocking it. To his shock, the person was carrying a wooden rod, and when Sake tried to lunge at the newcomer as the door was opened, he struck her harshly on the forehead, sending her falling back. Then he advanced into the room, locking the door from the inside with a key and proceeding to hit Sake every time she tried to rise. Chardonnay only continued her rocking, as if oblivious to everything going on around her.

Vodka was aghast, wanting to turn away and yet not being able to. This was not like watching an enemy being interrogated---though he did not even remember the interrogations proceeding in this manner. But this was a fellow agent, someone who deserved to be treated with respect, especially after her horrifying experience. "What are you doing to her?" he finally cried indignantly. "You can't help her that way!"

The man never looked back. "She has to be taught that this behavior isn't allowed!" he retorted. "She has to be broken in. She's not an animal, she's a woman, and a member of the Black Organization!" Sake grabbed desperately for the rod and he kicked her in the face.

"You're treating her like an animal!" Vodka yelled through the glass as Sake fell back, her nose gushing blood. "She suffered that kind of treatment every day for months because of Portman, and now that she's back, you're acting the same way with her!" He banged on the glass, filled with a sense of fury that he did not entirely understand. "How do you expect her to get better?" Perhaps he was seeing Gin in Sake's place, imagining him being hit repeatedly until he could not even defend himself. And perhaps, too, he remembered Chardonnay being happy and cheerful, and Sake being serious and sarcastic. Those memories only made it all the more disturbing to see them now.

"It isn't your business!" Aoshi's aide retorted. "Anyway, don't you have somewhere else to be, such as with your partner?"

Vodka clenched a fist, knowing that there was nothing he could do for Chardonnay or Sake right then. The best he could hope for would be that the formal complaint he had issued would be reviewed and actually investigated, rather than just being rejected. Aoshi needed to have his job terminated. Surely the base's director would not have turned a blind eye to the physician's conduct. And for associating with Aoshi the way that he had, Brandy should be dealt with as well. Not to mention that Vodka would never believe that Brandy had not been the one who had tried to kill them at the villa in the mountains.

Though, Vodka suddenly realized, he could appeal to the elderly doctor. He could not forget how that man had stepped in to help protect Gin the previous night. Surely he could do something about the cruelty of Aoshi's men. It was worth trying, anyway. Vodka did not feel right about leaving things as they currently were. He knew that he never could if it was Gin being beaten in that room, and Sake was a fellow agent. He wanted to do what he could to be able to help her, even if he could not actually do much.

He turned away, also knowing that he did, indeed, need to return to Gin. He would hurry and find the doctor, and then go back to the suite. The blonde could be awake now, and panicked to find himself all alone. He had tried to hide it, but he was not always successful, and Vodka had seen his ally's fear more than once over the past twenty-four or so hours. Gin hated himself for it, in his moments when he seemed more like the man Vodka had known for years, but after what he had gone through it was not something he could help. He was only human.

When Vodka arrived back at the suite and got out his keys to open the door, he could not deny that he had an eerie, foreboding feeling. He swallowed, pushing it back as he unlocked the door and stepped into the living room---but if anything, the silence in the room only increased his worry. Gin was probably still sleeping, Vodka told himself, and that was why everything was so quiet.

He noticed that the blonde's door was ajar again. Gin had not explained, but Vodka had gathered that the other had not been willing to stay alone in his room with the door shut. He seemed to be afraid that if the door was closed, he would not be able to get back out of the room. Slowly Vodka approached the door, opening it further to look into the darkened room. His eyes widened when he saw that the bed was empty, the covers having been thrown back.

Deeply concerned now, and berating himself for having left Gin in the first place, Vodka pushed the door open the rest of the way and hurried into the room. "Bro?" he called, switching on the light as he checked desperately through the room and even in Gin's bathroom, in case he had fallen and was hurt. But he was not there. Panicked, Vodka came back into the living room.

Where could Gin have gone? And why? Had he panicked, leaving the suite entirely? Where would he go? Would he be wandering around the base? Surely he would not have taken his car. . . .

Vodka blinked suddenly, frowning in confusion. Had he left the door to his own room open? He did not remember having done so before going to the infirmary. And yet it was partially open now. But Gin would not go in there, would he? Well, he decided, it was worth a try. It was hard to know what Gin might do, especially if he had woken up distraught. Maybe he still did not fully believe that this was real.

Quickly Vodka went to his door, pushing it open and looking into the bedroom. "Gin, are you in here?" he exclaimed, stepping inside and looking around the side of the bed. He could not see anything, and he felt even more puzzled. Biting his lip, he placed his hand on the bed's headboard, and then suddenly blinked when he felt a sticky substance there. Blood. . . .

Immediately he flipped on the light switch, noticing that blood also had dripped on the edge of his desk, parts of the carpet, and that it was decorating the knob of his bathroom door. Without stopping to think, he went over and yanked on the knob, having trouble getting a firm hold because of the substance coating the smooth and glossy material. But at last he managed to turn it and stepped inside, leaving the door half-open behind him.

The first thing he noticed was the sink in front of him. Blood was on it as well, and on the taps. He could see that the towel that hung by the mirror had been taken away, and as he looked around worriedly, he saw Gin sitting on the floor by the small linen closet, holding the towel over his wrist. Alarm bells went off in Vodka's mind when he remembered the nightmares that had been plaguing him, and he hurried over, bending down in front of his partner.

"Bro?" he cried in shock, gripping at Gin's shoulder.

Gin jerked violently, crying out in a panicked way. He looked at Vodka with wild eyes, and Vodka drew back when he saw the fear in those green orbs. This was not what he needed to come back to, after what he had just witnessed with Chardonnay and Sake. But of course it was not Gin's fault, and Vodka would have to swallow his distress and try to deal with it.

"Bro, what happened?" Vodka tried again, lowering his voice to more normal tones. Gin did not answer, continuing to stare at Vodka the same way he had done when Vodka had pinned him to the floor earlier that day. Vodka tried to block that look from his mind, even though he knew such a thing was impossible. He could never ignore or forget it. His voice dropped again. "Bro, it's just me. Remember? It's Vodka. . . ."

Gin shook his head emphatically. "You're dead," he answered, his voice strained. "You're dead. I killed you. . . ." He shuddered, still clutching his wounded wrist, and started to attempt to get up and go around Vodka.

The heavyset man stared at him, at a loss for words. He knew that Gin must be talking about something that had happened when Portman had been torturing him, but that only made Vodka feel more disturbed. As Gin struggled to get up, Vodka reached out and gently grabbed the other's shoulders, almost without thinking. "Bro, it really is me," he protested quietly, trying desperately to keep his emotions under control. It was so hard, and it had only gotten increasingly difficult with each passing hour. Every time Gin went into one of these conditions, Vodka ended up even more bewildered over how to handle it then he had been previously. "Gin, I'm not dead! It's in your mind!"

His voise rose in panic as Gin cried out again, struggling against him and managing to deliver a painful kick at least twice. Then suddenly, the battle stopped. It took a moment for Vodka to process this, but when he finally looked down at the blonde, he saw that Gin had wearily gone limp in his arms. The stout man swallowed hard. "Gin . . ." he murmured, suddenly unsure of what to do. This was not right.

Slowly Gin pushed himself back, blinking as he focused on Vodka. Then he slumped against the wall again, an expression of anger and frustration twisting his features.

Again Vodka returned to the present, hearing Gin's words echo in his mind again. "Don't look at me like that." Gin was upset again, and shamed, but now there was also even more of a desperate look in his eyes. Vodka did not know at all whether Gin would close himself off again or whether he would suddenly attack---or if he would do something else entirely. Finally he dared to speak again.

"Gin. . . ."

Gin started and looked up at him, as if he had forgotten that Vodka was truly there. Then he looked down at his wrist, gripping the cloth over the wound. Vodka could see blood staining the towel, as well as Gin faintly trembling---though he did not know whether it was from the injury or something he was haunted by in his mind. But from Gin's actions, Vodka guessed that it was both.

"Bro, what happened?" Vodka demanded worriedly.

"It won't stop bleeding," Gin growled.

Hesitantly Vodka reached for the other's wrist, wanting to examine whatever wound the other had sustained. "Is . . . the vein cut?" he asked after a moment, still having to wonder if Gin had inflicted the injury deliberately. He shuddered subconsciously as he remembered Chardonnay's and Sake's behavior, and he wished that he had not gone to see them. The only positive side, he thought, was if he could tell about how they were being treated and if it would help Aoshi's practices to be stopped.

"I don't think so," Gin answered, at last letting Vodka take hold of his wrist and gently unwrap the cloth.

Vodka winced as he saw the way Gin's skin was punctured. It looked as though it could have been done by a knife, but he still wanted to give the other the benefit of the doubt, considering both Gin's personality and the fact that Vodka had not seen a knife anywhere. "How did you cut it, bro?" he wanted to know, as he examined it in concern. It looked as though Gin was right, and the vein had not been affected, which Vodka was relieved about. It seemed to just be bleeding too much, as wounds sometimes do, though that could still be life-threatening if it continued.

"I didn't cut it," Gin grunted, seeming to gather what Vodka was concerned about. "I was looking for you, and I couldn't see what I was doing in your room. I hit something while I was looking for the light switch and I lost my balance." He watched Vodka replace the cloth and hold Gin's arm up again in an attempt to stop the flow of blood. "Your metal desk ended up causing this damage. I caught myself on one of its sharp corners." He gave his partner a searching look. "Where were you?"

Vodka could not help feeling guilty. "I . . . I went to see Chardonnay and Sake," he answered finally. "I thought I'd be back before you woke up. . . ."

Gin looked away, not willing to admit that in his solitude, he had considered the possibility that Portman still had him and had killed Vodka, even though he honestly knew that he was now safe. "What's happening to them?" he asked then, his voice nearly a mumble.

Vodka suddenly did not know how to answer. Gin knew as well as Vodka did what Aoshi did to those he had under his supervision. But Vodka found that it was not easy to describe the torture he had just witnessed. He did not even want to keep thinking about it. "They're . . . not getting better," he admitted quietly. "And Aoshi and his aides aren't helping. One of them was beating and kicking Sake. . . ."

A flicker of pain went through Gin's eyes, and Vodka doubted it was because of the wound. The blonde gazed off at a point beyond Vodka, as if lost in another world. He had done that a lot over the past day and night, and it was haunting. Vodka desperately wished that Gin would come back, as he wished every time when he could tell that he was losing the other. Sometimes Gin would stay lost in his other world for so long that he would seem to have slipped into a complete trance-like state, from which he would only return after repeated pleadings from Vodka---or from a shock in whatever waking nightmare he was having.

This time Gin came out of it on his own, though once he spoke, Vodka was sickened in a way he had not thought possible.

"They used to beat me," Gin muttered, still staring ahead at the wall. "They would beat me until I couldn't even move. . . . And if I tried, voluntarily or not, I was beaten again." He shuddered, and Vodka could see the horror in Gin's eyes, as well as the hate. Vodka found that those same feelings were in his own heart. To think of his partner being treated in such an inhuman, cruel way. . . . Vodka willed the new mental images he was gaining to stay back.

"Sometimes I would be shocked if I touched a doorknob. . . . And when that happened, there was usually a needle with a drug in it, as well. . . ." Gin did not even know why he was saying any of these things. He had wanted to keep them locked up, to never speak of them, to forget them completely. But he could never push them out of his mind. Almost without realizing it, his subconscious desire to tell someone he trusted about some of his pain had spilled over. The relatively small yet irritating injury he had just received had reminded him of one of the delusional scenarios he had crafted in his mind, with Portman's encouragement, and that remembrance had in turn brought much more of his anguish to the forefront.

Vodka swallowed hard, not even able to imagine the extent of what Gin had suffered. And when he recalled how Gin had said earlier that he had sometimes called for Vodka, but Vodka had not come, he felt all the worse. To think of Gin being that helpless and broken---laying on the floor in agony, weakly moaning for Vodka to get him out of there. . . . Vodka shook his head, not able to bear thinking of it any longer. Even though it was useless to berate what was, Vodka could not stop himself from doing so. He wished that he would have been able to have found his partner sooner. He wished that he could have prevented Gin's pain.

"I used to wonder sometimes if I would wake up again when I could feel myself sinking into unconsciousness," Gin remarked, finally turning his haunted gaze to his partner. "Sometimes I almost wished I wouldn't. . . ." Vodka could see some of the emptiness returning to the blonde's green eyes, and he wanted to make it go away, but he knew he could not. He wondered if anything could. If there was something, Vodka wished that he could know of its existence. Gin needed help so badly, and he needed it right away. Vodka again did not feel that he was qualified at all to be doing this. It was something that should be handled by a doctor. But Gin would not let doctors near him, and anyway, the only doctor assigned to these cases was Aoshi, as they knew all too well.

"It was usual to see that some of the other prisoners had killed themselves," Gin continued. "I always resolved to be stronger. . . . When I had the chance to finally get back at the men who had been tormenting me, I took it." His eyes narrowed. "It's not any secret that I killed several of them. Chardonnay and Sake did, as well. And neither of them had ever killed anyone before that. They were driven to it because of what they were put through. Though I would say it was self-defense, and completely justified." He growled. "After what was done to us, they would have to be fools to think that we wouldn't fight back."

Vodka swallowed hard. It was hard for him to imagine Chardonnay ending anyone's life, no matter the reason. But the Chardonnay whom he had tried desperately to restrain such a short time ago was not the same person he had once known. She had nearly killed Vodka in her crazed state. Everyone retrieved from Portman's base had been badly scarred, and Vodka still had to wonder if any of them would ever be anything like the people he used to know. The fact that Gin was telling him these things at all worried him even more. Vodka knew that it meant his partner was feeling especially desperate. And the only thing Vodka knew to do was to listen, and to attempt to reassure the other.

"You know . . . that nothing like that will happen to you now, don't you, bro?" the heavyset man asked quietly. "Aoshi won't get you. . . ."

Gin looked at him. "Of course he won't," he grunted, "because I won't go through what I did again. I'd kill him."

Vodka did not doubt it. But he also knew that Aoshi would have to contend with more than Gin, if he tried again to take the blonde captive. Vodka would never stand for it. He would fight Aoshi to the death, if it came to that.

Slowly he removed the towel again to check the wound. "The bleeding's stopped," he reported hesitantly, "but I don't know, Gin . . . maybe you should get this stitched up. . . . It looks kinda deep. . . ." He knew that Gin would not like the suggestion at all---not that Vodka blamed him. But if they went to the elderly doctor, he would treat Gin with kindness.

Gin growled, jerking away. "It's fine," he snapped. "Just bring me the first aid kit and I'll take care of it." Anything was better than going back to the infirmary. He would not! He would be perfectly happy if he never saw another doctor. He would stay here, where he would be safe.

Vodka sighed softly. There would not be any reasoning with Gin at this point. In addition to his understandable paranoia about physicians, he had been starting to grow increasingly irritable, as well, and Vodka had the feeling that Gin would only become more so as further time went by. He supposed that it was one of the ways the blonde had of coping with what had happened to him.

He got up, opening the medicine cabinet and getting out the first aid kit. "You won't be able to manage that by yourself, bro," he pointed out, much to Gin's annoyance. After freshly washing his hands, Vodka took one of the disinfectant pads and brought it over, dabbing it over the injury. Gin watched him, not trying to pull away, but also not looking happy about being assisted. He was much too independent, though Vodka found his partner's obvious annoyance to be a relief, especially after the things Gin had just told, and the way he had behaved. The irritation showed more of a return to the cold, harsh Gin that Vodka knew and wanted to have back.

Setting aside the wipe, Vodka got out the gauze and cut a long enough strip to wrap around Gin's wrist several times. Gently he did this, and Gin nodded slowly in acknowledgement when Vodka was done. He pulled his wrist back, using his uninjured hand to pull himself to his feet. Slowly he shuffled to the sink, awkwardly washing the blood off of that hand before heading to the door and slipping back out into the bedroom.

Vodka followed after a moment, wondering what Gin had in mind. He partially wanted to ask if the other was okay, but that seemed pointless. Of course Gin was not okay. He was not anywhere near okay, and asking would seem like a mockery especially in light of what Vodka now knew had been part of what had happened to him. And Vodka knew that Gin had probably only revealed the figurative tip of the iceberg about what Portman had done.

Gin ended up back in the living room, where he slumped into one of the chairs and lit a cigarette. His hands shook slightly, and when Vodka noticed, he had the feeling that it was not from physical pain. The haunted look in his eyes was back as well, and it seemed more pronounced, as if he was recalling something even more horrific than what he had even told. But Vodka doubted that Gin was going to share anything more about his experiences. With a soft sigh, the heavyset man sank into the other chair, lighting a cigarette as well. They smoked in silence.

Gin was attempting to drag himself onto his bed to rest, but he could not seem to manage very easily. There was a sharp pain in his side, and several times he had coughed and tasted blood in his mouth. He had to wonder if he had been injured internally, which would not surprise him. As before, they had allowed him a few days in which to heal before attacking him again, and once again he could scarcely move at all. He hissed in pain as he reached for the edge of the bed with one hand. He always felt somewhat better after resting for a while, but right now he did not know if he could even struggle onto the mattress. He might have to simply lay on the floor, which he was tired of doing.

He blinked, trying to rid himself of the various shapes and colors that were stubbornly disturbing his vision. They would not go away, and if anything, their effect was only increasing. He slumped against the side of the mattress, resting his head against it as he closed his eyes momentarily. It seemed so pointless to even try anymore. What good did it do? He would never be free. Portman was making sure of that. He felt so drained, so weary and despondent, and part of him felt detached, as if he was viewing everything from outside his body. But then the pain and the sickness would remind him that No, he was very much still in this miserable world, and able to feel everything that was done to him---every blow, every kick, every knife and every whip that pierced his flesh.

He came to attention when he heard the door opening again, and he whirled around to see one of his attackers coming back into the room, brandishing a whip. Gin would have had a struggle being able to defeat this person even if he was healthy and fully able to fight, despite the fact that this man was there by himself. He had close to the same build as Vodka did, coupled with Gin's height. He had been one of Gin's main attackers from the beginning, and Gin hated him. Gin had already given him several injuries during the previous beating, when the blonde had been struggling so desperately to defend himself. Now the intruder was smirking in a wicked way and had a treacherous gleam in his eye that made Gin suspicious and tense.

"Well," he purred as he shut the door behind him, "now it's just the two of us. You're not looking so well, Blondie." He cracked the whip, and Gin ducked as it flew over his head.

The green-eyed man wondered if he was about to be beaten again. It seemed likely. He gripped a handful of the quilt, his knuckles turning white. In his current condition, it was tempting to simply submit to the pain, as he had finally been forced to more than once. He was so weakened and weary, but still, when there was apparently only one opponent, a part of him refused to simply lay down and accept what would come. And yet he did not know how he could gather enough strength to stand. He felt as if his legs had simply crumpled underneath him and that they were stubbornly refusing to even consider straightening out again.

When he looked into the other's eyes, however, what he saw there disturbed him enough that he fully came back into the current situation with a start. Had he seen correctly? He looked again, subconsciously drawing back at his realization. His heart started to race faster. There was not bloodlust in the other man's eyes and smirk, not this time. Gin had seen that many times and would not be uneasy about it. This was something much more dark and twisted and sinister. Gin had never had such an expression directed towards him before, and as the smirk widened, Gin began to feel a mixture of emotions---a sense of indignant outrage at the forefront, as well as a wave of panic that he tried to push back. He struggled harder to stand. As long as he was down, he was much more vulnerable. He had to get up . . . he had to. . . .

Again the whip cracked, wrapping around his arm. Gin growled in pain as a sharp tug was given, intended to throw him off-balance. Desperately he grabbed at the bed's headboard, resisting his attacker's pulls on the weapon. He hissed as he felt the edges of the whip cut into his upper arm.

"Let me go," he snapped darkly. Gathering his bearings with all of his might, he planted his feet firmly on the short carpet and slowly let go of the headboard. Throwing all of his weight into his actions, he grabbed at the whip with his other hand and held on tightly. He felt it dig into his palm as he pulled on it, but he did not care. He had to get away from this person at all costs.

The other man, who had shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair and a scar down his left cheek, growled in annoyance when Gin nearly managed to yank the whip out of his hand. He had not expected the blonde to have such a strong grip after what he had been through. After all, the assassin looked as though he was already ready to drop. It was amazing that he had managed to stand up at all. But then the brunet grinned, tightening his grasp on the handle. "This will be more of a challenge than I thought," he remarked, stepping closer. "I've been underestimating you from the beginning."

The glint in his eyes only became all the more pronounced. He had been wanting all along for this chance to come, this opportunity to go after Gin while they were alone. The blonde was different from most all of Portman's prisoners, and he was fascinated and intrigued. He wanted to know more. He wanted to force Gin to submit to him. At this point, it would not take much to ensure it would happen. Gin could not stand for much longer, nor could he continue to play his games. It would all come to an end now. He would give in to his temptations, and he would see that Gin did as well.

But Gin looked at him with disgust. "I'll be dead before you can do what you want," he answered coldly. He could sense the other's feelings and desires only growing stronger, and he clenched a fist in fury. Was there not any way out of this? The door was barred, and it was the only escape route. If he tried to lock himself in the bathroom, most likely he would only make things worse. This person would either break the door down, or else leave and come back another time, and Gin would end up stabbed with a needle in the doorknob when he would try to get out. He had to deal with the problem now, and solve it. He could not run away.

"But that wouldn't be any fun," the brunet responded. "Anyway, you can't tell me you don't purposely try to tempt people. Look at this hair, for one thing." He reached out to take a handful of it, and Gin jerked out of his way, his lip curling in revulsion. He wore his hair long solely because he liked that, but he did not have to explain anything about himself to this lech.

"You have a one-track mind," the wounded man growled darkly.

"Yes, I've been told that," was the smooth answer. "I don't care."

They stood looking at each other for a long moment, as if sizing up each other's strengths and weaknesses. Then, without warning, the other lunged, in hopes of catching Gin off-guard and pinning him to the bed. Gin dove out of the way, still pulling on the whip. He veered sharply to the right, punching his opponent as hard as he could manage. The broader man stumbled back, briefly dazed, and Gin used the opportunity to finally tug the whip free and half-run, half-limp to the door.

Before he could reach it, he was abruptly tackled and brought to the floor. "This time you're not getting away," his assailant declared, muttering something obscene under his breath. He reached out, running a hand down Gin's cheek. His touch felt cold and sick and slimy, and the assassin froze before trying to pull away.

"Oh, don't play games," came the disgusting voice. "Aren't you ready to settle down yet? No matter what you try, it's pointless." He laid his hand underneath Gin's jaw, moving his fingers across it in a slow, deliberate manner.

Immediately Gin lashed out, wrenching the hand free with as much force as he could muster. When he saw it coming at him again, he slapped it away viciously, pouring all of his hatred and his revulsion into the action. The only response he received was a deep chuckle, dripping with carnal feelings.

He realized then that he was actually shaking, but he was not certain whether it was from anger or loathing, or both. He refused to consider that he might also be afraid. He could not be afraid. He had never feared when facing his opponents. He had always stepped up to the challenges and completed them with ease. It was true that he had never before dealt with someone who directed sickening, lustful feelings towards him, but this was just another kind of battle. There was not a reason to be afraid of it, or him. He was pathetic, someone whom Gin could so easily get rid of, if he had his gun. . . .

But he did not have it. He did not have any means of fighting back, as long as he was being held down on his stomach. He had to get up. He had to find some way to at least turn around. . . .

He felt the cold touch on him once again, coming to rest on his bare shoulder. "It would be so much easier for you if you just stopped resisting," the creature growled. "Just admit to yourself the truth."

"What truth?" Gin snarled, again reaching up to bat the hand away.

"The truth that you want this," was the reply.

Gin was silent for a long moment as he digested these words. Finally he spoke again. "You make me feel sick," he hissed coldly. This was the last thing he wanted. He had never wanted anything of the kind. He was not that sort of person. He felt the same sense of disgust that he had upon awakening to discover a strange woman kneeling beside him in his bed, wanting the caresses, the affection, the kisses, the love, that could only be bestowed upon one person. One person whom he would never have with him again. . . .

"I do? Why don't we find out what else I can make you feel."

Gin fought against him furiously, the panic rising again when he felt the other trying to rip away what was left of his clothes. He thrashed about, not allowing the other to keep his grip on the threadbare remains of his shirt and pants. He could still not turn over, as his captor was sitting on his legs, but he vainly attempted it anyway, only to be viciously slammed back into the floor. He could feel that his heart was racing wildly. There was no escape . . . no escape. . . .

Remembering that he was still holding the whip, he reached up over his head, cracking the weapon and trying to catch the brunet's wrists. He heard a hiss of pain and then felt his hair being grabbed and pulled violently before it was sent flying around him.

"Don't think you can do anything against me," came the dark and twisted voice. "You're too weak to fight me successfully. But who knows. Maybe you'll like this, inspite of what you say." He chuckled.

His words only made Gin even angrier and more panic-stricken. He would not lose this battle. He twisted his upper body about as far as he could, gasping as it made his side ache all the more. Struggling to ignore it, he grabbed the brunet's throat viciously with one hand and began to squeeze. He would do whatever it took to keep this man away from him. And if he was occupied trying to stay alive, he would not be able to do anything else.

The eyes widened and he took hold of Gin's wrist firmly, struggling to pry it free. Gin only squeezed tighter, trying to ease out his own body and figuratively turn the tables, pinning his attacker to the floor. As the other started to back up, growing more desperate to get the grip loosened, Gin found that he could get free. He started to move to restrain the other, but was suddenly kicked in the stomach. Gasping, his concentration was momentarily shaken, and he was suddenly thrown against the wall.

Before the dazed and badly injured man could try getting up again, the brunet was upon him once more, taking hold of Gin's pants. His lips twisted in a revolting smirk as he reached to undo the top button.

Instantly the blonde retaliated, cracking the whip and using it to wrap around the thick neck. He pulled tightly and the other gasped in pain, reaching up desperately to release the pressure. But Gin refused to let go.

He forced himself to sit up, pulling harder. The only thought in his mind now was that he had to kill this person. That was the only way to escape what would happen otherwise. And his hatred had spilled over. He would not be treated in this way, as someone's plaything. He would not play Portman's games, and he would not lay down and give in to this monster's lust, no matter how weakened he was. He would not, he would not. . . .

At last the creature slumped to the floor, dead. Gin fell back, breathing heavily as he slowly let go of the whip. He was safe, at least for now. This beast would not bother him again. There would be Hell to pay for killing one of Portman's lackeys, but right now he did not care.

He coughed harder, holding a hand to his side as a wave of dizziness swept over him. As the adrenaline rush passed, he was left feeling extremely weak and sick, and he soon found darkness blanketing him.

He was all too correct about the punishment for his actions. It was not long before some of the other thugs found him in his semi-conscious condition and pulled him up, yelling obscenities and cursing. Groaning, he tried to force his eyes open, but he could only wrestle them halfway. He was being held up by two men, and his first impulse was to desperately pull away. How did he know that they would not try to do the same thing to him? Perhaps they had all decided that they would not torture him solely through methods of beating.

But he was suddenly slapped violently across the face and he staggered back, his bare feet tripping over the shoes of the ones restraining his arms. Shuddering and spitting blood from his mouth, he tried to look up.

The one who had struck him grabbed him under the chin, but in a vicious and hateful manner as he forced Gin's head upward to look into his flaming eyes. "So," he said in a dark tone, "you think you can get away with what you've done? Do you?" He gave the blonde a harsh shake, and the green eyes widened in pain. "You'll suffer for this," the thug vowed, "and by the time we're finished, you really won't be able to move at all, and you'll never be able to commit another atrocity like this!"

Gin gave a weak growl, but he did not even have a chance to retort before the two who were holding onto him suddenly and viciously threw his body into the wall. He hit it hard, gasping in pain, and he felt himself leaving a trail of blood on the wood as he slid down to the floor, unable to stand at all. He was quickly surrounded, and for the third time within the past several hours, he was cruelly and mercilessly beaten.

He did not know whether this time it actually was worse, or if it only seemed that way because he was already hurt nearly to the point of not being able to endure it any longer. But every time he was struck by a fist or a foot, and every time a weapon viciously came in contact with his poor body or was driven into his flesh, the pain seemed far worse than it ever had before. He wanted to detach himself from it, he wanted to slip into unconsciousness, but something was keeping him awake, forcing him to suffer. He acutely felt every blow that was laid upon him.

The thugs laughed, spitting and hooting and screaming obscenities every time Gin jerked in agony, moaning and coughing up blood. Only one or two actually cared about the death of their comrade. It was just an excuse for them to attack Portman's pet subject all the more. They wanted to see him completely broken, unable and unwilling to do anything against them. Several times they had gotten him nearly to that point, but when he started to recover, his stubbornness and his fighting spirit would start to return once more. They did not want to see it happen again. They did not want to be the next ones to die if he or another test subject finally retaliated.

Gin was barely aware of when they actually stopped beating him. The pain was still shooting throughout his limp form with such insistence that he could not register the fact that he was no longer being hit and kicked. Weakly he tried to move his hand across the floor, but he found that he could not even manage that simple task. He looked and felt half-dead. He was bleeding from several wounds of varying seriousness over his arms, chest, and back, and his left leg was badly bruised. Blood dripped down his face, but he did not even consciously realize that fact, or that his right eye was swollen shut. His hair, matted and tangled, and also sporting unceremonious patches of crimson, was spread out around him. He coughed, again tasting copper in his mouth. His spirit, as well as his body, was broken.

"Vodka," he moaned in delirium, blankly gazing out at the empty and darkened room, "get me out of here. . . ." He was not consciously aware of his words, but at this point, he would not have cared even if he had realized what he was saying aloud. No one would hear him, least of all the one who could rescue him from this Hell.

Vodka gave a soft sigh as he entered the bar on the site of the Tokyo base. It was annoyingly loud, as usual, and he weaved around tables and people until he reached the back and sank into the corner booth that he and Gin had always used. It felt depressing, and wrong, to come here alone. Vodka was very conscious of the empty space across from him. He found himself wondering if it would ever be filled again, but then he glowered, trying to push such thoughts out of his mind. Gin would be back. He would be found safe and things would go back to normal.

He had returned to Tokyo five days ago, and since then he had been diligently continuing the search for whatever information on Portman he could find. He had discovered several locations that she had previously used as the sites of her bases, but they were all abandoned now. He still remembered the horror he had felt as he had looked through them, discovering blood splattered on walls, the floor, and over various items of furniture. He had tried not to wonder if some of the life substance could belong to Gin, but it was impossible to not consider the thought. Gin could have been at any of those locations and now be gone, and Vodka would have an almost impossible task to find him again.

He knew that it would not help, to be pessimistic, but as Gin had told him once, pessimism was only realism. Vodka had found that he had to agree. Idealistic people were the ones who always had their hopes shattered, while realistic people did not have hopes in the first place. And yet . . . was it really realistic to think that he would even get Gin back? Maybe he was already dead. But no . . . if some of Portman's victims had lasted as long as he had heard, then Gin could certainly still be alive as well. He was so strong-willed, and even in the face of so much torment, he would struggle to live. He might come back battered and scarred, but he would be back. And Vodka had to convince himself that such a thought was realistic, that it would happen.

He sighed softly, leaning against the back of the booth.

"Hey, Vodka. . . . It's good to see you back."

He started and looked up, hearing the waitress's voice. She was smiling at him in a gentle manner, the same sort of way that Chardonnay always had, before her disappearance. It was a friendly smile, one that generally did not make him nervous or edgy. But tonight he did not feel like even talking to her. He was so tired and worn-out from the failing search, and he really just wanted a quick drink before going back to the lonely suite to rest.

He swallowed, but nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess. . . ." His gaze drifted around the room uncomfortably, not knowing what to say.

She understood. "I know. . . . I miss Gin, too," she said quietly. "But hey, I'm sure you'll find him. If anyone can find him, you can." She was quite fond of the shy operative, knowing that he was loyal and devoted to his partner. She felt sorry for him now that he was all alone, and she wondered how long the higher-ups would allow Vodka to be on his own before assigning him to a temporary or permanent replacement. If there was ever any seeming proof that Gin was dead, then Vodka would definitely be forced to accept a new partner. And somehow she did not think that he would be able to. He had grown so close to the aloof blonde. To be assigned to someone else would only dishearten him.

Quickly she changed the subject now, sensing Vodka's discomfort with the topic. "The usual?" she asked, receiving a swift nod in reply. "I'll be right back," she told him, and he watched her walk away through the crowds and around the tables.

He sighed softly, reaching into his jacket pocket for his cigarettes and the lighter. As he placed one of the objects in his mouth and applied the flame, he suddenly realized that he had again wound up in the booth right next to the three agents who were fond of gossiping. Amid the noise of the current song and the other people talking, he could hear their familiar voices. He slammed the lighter shut, feeling frustrated. He always hated listening to those three, especially since he and Gin were among their favorite topics. And right now Gin's disappearance was one of the most talked-about subjects on the base, along with Chardonnay's and Sake's.

"His partner's been checking into the exploits of that mad scientist Alice Portman," the first one was announcing.

"So he thinks that nutcase might be responsible?" mused the second.

"I've heard she's brilliant," remarked the third.

Vodka glowered. Being skilled in ways to successfully break the human mind and soul was not what he considered "brilliant." When he had gone to the base director and posed the idea of Portman being behind the agents' disappearances, he had been told that it was already being looked into and considered. He had also been told a few details of the things that Portman's victims were rumored to go through, and he was still in horror over the information. What she apparently did was worse than even what happened in most of the Black Organization's "interrogation" sessions.

"Oh yeah, she's brilliant," the second rejoined, "in making people go crazy. Can you imagine what would happen if that happened to Chardonnay or Sake, or especially Gin?"

"Gin's scary enough when he's sane," the first commented.

Vodka did have to smirk weakly. That could certainly be true. He had feared the blonde many a time, and even recently he had felt uneasy on some occasions. But after all that they had been through together, he did have to feel that he was not in any real danger from his partner. Gin could get furious, and every now and then he seemed to like scaring Vodka. The poor man still shuddered when recalling the incident in the locker room. But Vodka had also come to feel that, at least where he himself was concerned, Gin's figurative bark was much worse than his bite. Gin would not actually hurt him.

Though Vodka could not say what would happen if Gin was out of his mind. He did not even want to think about it. The base director had warned Vodka that Gin very well might not be the same person Vodka had known, but Vodka was not willing to accept that. Gin would not change. He would be able to resist whatever was done to him. Still, Vodka could not entirely push away all of his fears.

He was startled out of his thoughts when the waitress came back, setting the shot glass on the table. He nodded weakly. "Thanks," he mumbled, reaching for it.

"No problem," she smiled, half-turning to go to another table. "Just let me know if you want anything else."

What I want is something you can't bring me, he thought wistfully as he slowly sipped the liquor. He wanted his partner back. And he wanted Gin to be fine, not in some terrible condition from which he would likely never recover.

He could not help hearing as the conversation progressed in the next booth.

"I've heard that a lot of crazy things go on at Portman's laboratories," the third was saying. "She develops some kind of weird drugs that she uses on her experiments . . . hallucinogens or something like that, making them see their worst fears and to think they're being beaten."

"It's not just in their minds," the second replied. "After a while, they really are beaten. Some of her victims come away with physical injuries that never heal."

Vodka gripped the glass tighter, his hand shaking. Was that what would happen to Gin? Maybe he would never be able to walk again, or speak, or maybe he would not even have any memory of Vodka.

"I don't doubt it," said the first, "but with her, it's mostly about the mental torture. Most people who end up taken by her and her associates never recover from whatever nightmares they're put through because of how their minds are damaged. Some of them regress to childlike or even animalistic behavior."

"I know," the second replied flatly. "They're prone to attack anyone who approaches them, even if it's someone who doesn't mean them harm." A pause as he took a drink. "But then, you really can't blame them, after what they suffer."

"I've heard even worse things," the third spoke up now. Vodka wondered if he dared to listen, and yet he found that he could not block them out.

"About some of the captors' . . . tastes?" the second answered, already having an idea of where this discussion was going.

"That's right," the third confirmed slowly. "Some of the victims talk about how they were attacked in . . . other ways. They say that, in varying degrees, they were violated."

In his alarm and shock, Vodka nearly spit out the rest of the drink. Instead he ended up swallowing it all down at once, and soon dissolved into a coughing fit. The trio ceased their conversation momentarily, as if they realized they had been overheard, but they soon continued when Vodka managed to pour himself a glass of water and quiet himself.

Vodka was not listening to them now. He slumped back against the booth again, feeling shaken. He had not even ever considered that possibility. Cruel experimentation and being harshly beaten was bad enough, but . . . this as well? Gin would never stand for such a thing to happen to him, but . . . if he was beaten so badly that he could not move, what choice would he have? If he was cornered by someone healthy and much stronger, would he be able to resist at all? He might be overpowered and forced into it.

Vodka did not want to think about it. Frantically he tried to block out the images that were now swirling through his mind and would not cease. He felt ill, and as he slid out of the booth he was aware somewhere in his mind that he had knocked over the centerpiece on the table. He badly wanted to simply ignore it, but he watched as an observer as he turned back and fumbled with the object, finally getting it upright. Then he quickly fled the bar completely before he could hear any more of what was being done to Portman's prisoners. He could not bear to hear any more.

Vodka came back to the present, casting a worried glance back at his blonde comrade. Gin had been silent all this time, but the reason for it was not just because he was so shaken and had nothing to say. At some point, he had fallen asleep. He was slumped in the chair, his head against the side of it. His bangs completely covered his closed green eyes, and several locks of his generous hair had slipped over his shoulder. Despite being quiet and still, he did not seem to be at peace. At least, Vodka did not think so. Gin looked uneasy, as if he could not escape even in slumber.

The stout man shuddered as he recalled the alarming conversation from the bar. He had never forgotten it, but in his desperation to believe that what was talked of last was not something that would happen to Gin, he had pushed it from the forefront of his mind. It was something he refused to consider.

The doctors had not, however. After Gin had been unfairly rendered unconscious by Aoshi, he had been examined for many different kinds of injuries and maltreatment, including that. In addition to the rumors about what some of Portman's men did, it was a precaution they had wanted to take in general. And they had not found any indication that he had suffered such an abominable experience, much to Vodka's relief.

He supposed that it did not mean that someone might not have tried and then failed. If Gin had been at all able, he would have fought such a thing tooth and nail and prevented it from happening. But Vodka did not want to think that someone would have been so twisted as to even try in the first place. He could not stand to think of Gin going through an experience like that, whether or not the person succeeded in what they were trying to do.

He started when his cellphone rang. Quickly he grabbed and opened it before it could wake Gin, and as before, he went back into his room to converse. He had seen on the caller ID that it was Vermouth, and he found that he was not looking forward to this. He had already spoken to her twice that day, and by now he was so weary from everything. It suddenly dawned on him that he had not even eaten any dinner yet.

"Hello?" he mumbled.

"Vodka, you sound completely beat," Vermouth commented in her typical, gently lighthearted voice. Vodka noticed, however, that tonight there was a hint of genuine concern in her tone.

He sighed softly. He had never been in the habit of pouring out his soul to anyone, least of all Vermouth. He had always been quiet, not wanting to bother anyone with his problems, whereas Gin's aloof characteristics were mostly because of his pride. But in any case, Vodka did not feel comfortable talking to Vermouth about what was happening right now, or his current fears. Gin certainly would never forgive him if Vodka spoke of the latter and Gin learned of it later. Vodka still regretted telling Vermouth about the problem from earlier.

"I went to see Chardonnay and Sake," he announced at last, hoping to change the subject. And surely Vermouth, being the mysterious boss's favorite, would be able to do something for them, or to ensure that the base director would do something. She would naturally have more power over the situation than a lower-ranked agent like Vodka would.

"Well, that would certainly be enough to wear you down, in addition to dealing with poor Gin," Vermouth answered, and then paused. "I went to have a look at them too. Sake was laying on the floor. She looked pretty bad off." Her voice had turned completely serious. "Chardonnay had finally come out of her corner, trying to shake her awake."

Vodka gasped, suddenly feeling a wave of guilt wash over him. He had not thought that Sake would be beaten that badly. It sounded to him that Aoshi's men were just as bad as Portman's. And he wondered if he should have tried to do something more. He would have gone into the room if he had been able to, but it had been locked, and the metal door would not have been something he could have forced open. The elderly doctor had promised that he would do something, and Vodka wondered if he had been able to after all.

"Do you think . . . she'll be okay?" Vodka finally asked hesitantly, feeling deeply concerned. If Sake died, what would happen then? Surely Aoshi would be stopped. But Vodka never wanted things to go that far before it would happen. Sake had been rescued. She and Chardonnay had to be given their fair chances to recover, not tortured even more.

Now Vermouth sighed. "Actually, Vodka, I really don't know," she admitted. "When I got there, they were getting Sake out of that room and going to send her to the ER for treatment. Chardonnay seemed to know that something was wrong. She got up and tried to grab onto the gurney, and they had to hold her back to keep her from following them. It was really sad, actually." But at least they would both be away from Aoshi. Chardonnay was also going into the care of the other medical team, and Vermouth had personally gone to speak to the base director about what was happening. She was determined to see that a halt was brought to Aoshi's actions, and it seemed to her that it should have been done ages ago, before things would have had the chance to go this far.

Vodka shuddered. Gin could have so easily been in Sake's position. If he had not been willing to take care of his partner, Vodka knew that Gin very well probably would have been. Aoshi and his aides would never have been understanding of any of Gin's traumatized behavior. He hated to think what they would have done to the blonde if they had seen him running into a corner or if he had suddenly gone into a violent fury. He could imagine them mercilessly hitting and striking, as had been done to Sake, and Gin fighting back until he could do so no longer, crumpling to the floor in agony. . . .

"So . . . how's Gin?"

Vodka started back to the present. He bit his lip. "Well . . . he's asleep," he replied, also not certain that he wanted to tell about finding Gin in the bathroom with his wrist punctured. "It's been a long day. . . ." He was exhausted himself, and he found himself wishing for sleep. He would much rather lay down instead of worrying about food again. He knew that if he tried to eat, the only thing he would be thinking about would be getting finished quickly so that he could lay down.

"Oh yes, I'm sure of it," Vermouth purred. "But you can be grateful that Gin is with you, even though it's hard." Her voice softened. "Frankly, I'd have to say you're the main thing keeping Gin sane right now. He needs some kind of stability, and you're really the only person he trusts." She knew that he would probably deny it, and that he honestly wondered if he could do anything for Gin. Poor Vodka, he held so little confidence in himself. Vermouth found it necessary to encourage him whenever she could, though she did not know how much good she was actually able to do.

She could hear him shifting about, and she guessed that he was both surprised and uncomfortable by her statements. "I don't know," he said at last.

"If he didn't trust you, he'd fight you tooth and nail to get out of there," Vermouth answered gently. "You know that, don't you?"

"I guess. . . ." Vodka always felt a sense of discomfort when anyone started commenting on the nature of his partnership with Gin. It seemed strange, even wrong, when someone else, especially Vermouth, seemed to think that she knew what was going on even more than Vodka did. Vodka wanted to believe that Gin trusted and cared about him, but even though he sometimes did believe it, he found himself thinking that it seemed almost vain to think that Gin would. Still, Vodka had to admit that he did not think Gin distrusted him, at least not when he was in his normal mind. In his shaken condition, however, Gin did not seem to trust anyone. But Vodka had been the only one to be able to calm him down, several times now.

"You're good for him, Vodka. Trust me." Vermouth smiled softly, leaning back on her bed.

"Okay. . . ." She could still hear the doubtful tone in his voice, as well as the exhaustion.

"Hey, I'll let you go," she told him. "The director said he'll investigate Aoshi tonight and make a decision tomorrow. I'll let you know what he says."

Vodka found himself laying down on his bed. "Okay," he mumbled again. "He'd better plan to do something."

"I'm sure he will. He won't let Aoshi get away with this." Vermouth smirked now. "Kisses," she told Vodka by way of a goodbye.

Vodka flushed crimson as he closed the phone and set it absently on the nightstand. He wished she would not do that.

He sighed, removing his sunglasses as well and then reaching up to loosen his tie. He should get out of his suit before going to sleep, but he was so tired that he was not certain he could even get up again. His mind said yes, but his body said no, and it was winning. And suddenly he remembered that he had not yet cleaned up the blood in the room. Rolling onto his side, he decided to ignore it until he woke up again.