When Katsura Kogoro brought Kenshin to Kyoto, he was a wide-eyed, idealistic youth. In less than a year, he was tormented by his inability to reconcile his idealism with the brutal reality of life as a hitokiri. This story follows Kenshin as he changes from that bright-eyed youth into the hardened hitokiri.

My brutal reality: I do not own the characters of Rurouni Kenshin. They spring from the fertile imagination of Watsuki Nobuhiro and are trapped in the clutches of Sony, Jump Comics, and all the other conglomerates, who own all the copyrights.

Descent into Madness

Chapter 1

It was evening, and Matsuyoigusa, the okami of the inn, was tearing her hair out. Only yesterday she had received a letter from her patron, Katsura Kogoro, informing her that he and ten of his men would be arriving at her inn today and planning to stay for about a week. For about a year now, her inn had been the Kyoto headquarters for Katsura, head of the Chousu Ishin Shishi, and his elite troupe of fighters. She regularly had about 20 men quartered in the inn, which was no problem since she had 15 rooms, but whenever Katsura himself came with his entourage, it meant having to double up all the men and laying in double the amount of food and drink. Sometimes, she thought, it was like trying to contend with a plague of locusts---buy all that food, and then it's gone in the blink of an eye.

Not that she really minded, not when she remembered what the Chousu Ishin Shishi had done for her and her family just a year ago. It had been a busy day at the inn, that fateful day, and among the guests had been a wealthy, but drunken, samurai. He had clearly had more to drink that anyone should—he could barely stand—so she had been glad when he finally ordered his groom to retrieve his horse from the nearby stable. After bringing the horse to the front, however, the groom realized he had forgotten something, so he had asked her husband to hold the horse for him while he went back to the stable. When the samurai came out and found her husband holding the horse, he started swearing and accusing her husband of being a horse thief. Being as drunk as he was, there was nothing anyone could do to convince him otherwise, not even the groom, who by this time had come back. In his rage, the samurai beheaded her husband on the spot for stealing his horse, then turned on his groom and beheaded him, too, for making a fool of him. Then he rode off, without even a word of regret. The authorities had refused to do anything about it—a samurai was entitled to issue summary justice, they told her, and lowly merchants could not question the decision. Two weeks later, she had found a note on her door: "The samurai has received his just reward." It was signed, "Chousu Ishin Shishi." From that day on, she had been an ardent supporter of the Chousu, and she offered to let them use her inn in any way they chose. With its location in an out-of-the-way alley, her inn soon became the home of a sizable contingent of the Chousu's best fighters. It was the one place, as Katsura told her many times, where he knew there would be no question of wavering loyalty!

She was busily counting up the bags of rice, baskets of vegetables, and bottles of sake and other spirits when Katsura and his group arrived.

"Katsura-san! How nice to see you!" she called out.

"Okami-san, the feeling is mutual," he replied, as he handed the reins of his horse to a stable boy. He had known Matsuyoigusa long enough by now to know that she hated being called 'Evening Primrose' and much preferred just to be called what she was—'Okami,' mistress of her inn. "We've been on the road for a week, so we're very much looking forward to a bath and your good home cooking!"

As he and his men trooped into the inn, she noticed that among them was a young, red-headed boy who looked to be about 11 or 12, dressed in peasant's clothes. 'How odd,' she thought. 'He's never traveled with a servant before, and I've no place to put a servant,' but she brushed her thoughts aside as she went about assigning the men to their rooms. Eventually, only Katsura, his chief aide Katagai, and the boy were left.

"Katsura-san," she said, "I had assumed that Katagai-san would share a room with your tenth man, but there doesn't seem to be a tenth—just this boy. I wasn't expecting you to bring a servant, and I have no room in the servants' quarters for a boy, so…"

"Ah, this is not a servant," Katsura said, cutting her off. "He is a swordsman from Takasugi's Kiheitai, and he'll be joining the men here permanently. He can room with Katagai for the time being."

Okami eyed the boy, then looked rather piercingly at Katsura. In a soft voice, she asked, "Are things so bad for the Ishin Shishi that you're now recruiting children?"

Peals of laughter greeted her question. "Heavens, no!" Katsura answered, once he had regained his composure. "Okami-san, he's not a child—he's 14!"

"Oh, he's all of 14!" she repeated somewhat sarcastically. "Well, that makes a big difference, doesn't it." She clearly was not impressed with this information and clearly didn't believe it, either.

Katsura motioned for the boy, whose name was Himura Kenshin, to take a seat in the kitchen. Then he led Okami and Katagai off to a side room. "Okami-san, you and I need to have a chat."

"I know the boy looks young," Katsura started, once they were in the room and had closed the door, "but I've lived with him at close quarters for the past week, and I can tell you from what I've…seen…that he probably is the age he says he is."

Okami blushed as she realized what he was getting at.

"Furthermore, he is more than just a swordsman—he is undoubtedly the most accomplished swordsman I have ever seen, young or old. We know nothing of his background or his school, but if he is even half as talented as I think, this boy, with his sword skills, will be instrumental in bringing about the new era we all are seeking. I have special plans for him, but before he can start his assignment, I need you to help him get some proper clothes and learn his way around Kyoto."

"Yes, especially learning about Kyoto," Katagai cut in. "You should have seen him once we entered the city. He was trying hard to look impassive, but his eyes got as big as saucers. I guess spending his whole life on a mountain, he's never seen anything like a city before. It's going to take some getting used to for him."

"Leave it to me," Okami said. "I'll take him to the seamstress tomorrow, then show him around some of the nearby neighborhoods. Maybe I'll get the stable boy to help some, too. He's trustworthy, and he's close to the same age."

Katsura agreed with her plan. Then they went back to the kitchen, where they found Kenshin trying to fend off Okami's two serving girls.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like me to show you the storeroom?" said the one in pink, whose name was Kishi, as she tried to take his hand.

"Oh, no, Kishi, he needs to be shown the garden and the well," said the one in blue, whose name was Yuka, as she tried to put her arms around his neck.

Kenshin, for his part, was trying desperately to remove himself from their clutches without seeming rude. The relief he felt upon seeing Katsura, Katagai, and Okami return to the kitchen was written all over his face.

"Girls!" Okami said, clearly shocked by their behavior. "What do you think you're doing! This is one of our guests!" The girls just giggled, then disappeared.

Katsura chuckled to himself at Kenshin's obvious discomfort, then said, "Himura, I take it you've survived meeting the staff? This is Okami-san, owner of the inn. I've asked her to take you under her wing, so to speak, for the next few days so you can get some proper clothes and learn your way around town. Katagai and I have several meetings we need to attend this week, but we'll be here for most meals. In the meantime, I leave you in her capable hands. See you at breakfast." And with that, Katsura and Katagai left to settle into their rooms.

"Your name is Himura, then?" Okami asked.

"Sessha wa Himura Kenshin, de gozaru…."

"'Sessha?" Okami cut him off. "Where in the world did you come up with that? No one's used 'sessha' around here for at least 50 years!"

"Gomen nasai, Okami-dono…"

"-dono?" Okami put her head in her hands. "No one's used '-dono' in about 50 years either. Just call me –san."

"Hai, Okami-dono…uh, -san."

"Himura-san, may I ask, where did you grow up?"

"In the mountains southwest of here," Kenshin answered.

"And everyone there uses 'sessha' and '-dono?"

"Well, not everybody," Kenshin answered, "but my shishou always taught me that I should use those when I'm in polite company, especially around women."

"Ah, well, your shishou must be an elderly man, then, to teach you such archaic manners," she said.

A small smile crept onto Kenshin's face as he envisioned an elderly Hiko Seijuro, complete with white hair and cane, in his mind's eye. "No, actually he's only about 28," he finally said.

"And someone as young as that goes around using 'sessha?'" she asked incredulously.

"Oh, well, he doesn't—only I was supposed to. He said no one would believe him if he called himself 'unworthy.'"

Okami burst out laughing. "Himura-san," she said, once she managed to control herself, "here in Kyoto, no one uses those terms anymore, even in polite company and even around women. So, I guess that's your first lesson—no more 'sessha,' no more '-dono, and certainly no 'de gozaru!' Let's get you settled in your room, give you a chance for a bath, and get you some dinner. Tomorrow, I'll start taking you around some of the neighborhoods so you can learn your way around.

"Thank you, Okami-… san. I appreciate this very much." He followed her up the stairs, mentally cursing Hiko for teaching him outdated manners. 'He probably had a good laugh over it the whole time, too,' he concluded ruefully.

Okami was up earlier than usual the next morning, knowing that it would take extra long in the kitchen, what with so many mouths to feed, so she was astonished to find that someone had already beaten her to the kitchen. There, by the stove, she found the firewood already piled up and four fresh buckets of water from the well. As she was pondering who could have done this, Kenshin walked in carrying another two buckets of water.

"Ohayou, Okami-don…, I mean, -san," he said, bowing his head.

Okami's mouth hung open in surprise. "O.. Ohayou, Himura-san," she finally managed. "What in the world are you doing?"

"Well, I brought in wood for the fire, water for cooking and washing…"

"Yes, yes, I can see all that," she said, "but, Himura-san, you don't have to do that, you know. And to get up this early!"

"Oh, I'm used to it," he said with a smile. "When I lived with my shishou, I always did this, and the cooking, too. And with the Kiheitai, we all had jobs, so I just kept on working in the kitchen. But if you'd rather I didn't…"

"Oh, no," she laughed, "that's just fine! I certainly will never say no to someone who wants to help out, especially with the crowd we've got staying here now!" She set him to work chopping vegetables and stirring the soup, and saw that he was quite good at it.

About 15 minutes later, the two serving girls dragged into the kitchen, looking like they could use another 10 hours of sleep. Then they spotted Kenshin. Their grogginess vanished in an instant.

"Oh, Himura-san," purred Yuka , "you're so talented at cutting and chopping. You have such experienced hands!"

"Really, Yuka," said Kishi, "you're being awfully forward with our new guest." She sidled over to him so that she was right up against him. She could feel him tense. "What he needs to do is come with me to get some of those heavy bags from the storeroom. Isn't that right, Himura-san?"

Kenshin quickly took a step to the side to get away from her, but that put him up against Yuka, so he took a step backwards. "I would like to continue cutting these vegetables, if you don't mind," he said as forcefully as he could. He looked around the kitchen frantically for Okami.

"Oh, come on, Himura-san, come with us," they giggled as they started tugging at his sleeves.

"Girls! What did I tell you last night!" Okami had just walked back into the kitchen, much to Kenshin's great relief. "Go do your work!" Turning to Kenshin, she said, "Those two, I swear! They've got their hooks into half the men here, and they're trying hard for the other half!"

"Thanks for warning me," Kenshin said gratefully, as he went back to his vegetables.

About an hour later, Kenshin heard the sounds of men coming downstairs for breakfast and eventually heard someone call his name.

" Himura!" It was Katagai. "Thought I'd find you here. Come with me. Katsura expects you to walk into breakfast with us, as a way to introduce you to the troops, so to speak."

Kenshin wiped his hands, placed his swords in his belt, then bowed politely to Okami and took his leave.

'Hmm, he must have an in with Katsura-sama himself!' Kishi mused. 'He's so shy, though. I wonder what it would take to get him to like me…' She smiled deviously as she thought up all sorts of ways to try to insinuate herself into his good graces.

Katsura was waiting in the hall and started walking towards the dining room with them, but he was called aside by one of the men, so he motioned for Katagai and Kenshin to go in without him. As the two entered the dining room, the din of conversation slowly lessened as the soldiers eyed the newcomers.

Suddenly, someone shouted, "Hey, Katagai, didn't know you went in for pretty boys!" Gales of laughter rang out. Kenshin clenched his fists, though his face was impassive. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the laughter stopped---Katsura was standing in the doorway. He placed a hand on Kenshin's shoulder and glared at the men.

"This boy," Katsura said sternly, putting emphasis on the word, "is the newest member of your company. This boy is the most accomplished swordsman I have ever seen, young or old, and could beat any of you in a fight. This boy will be treated as a man, and he will be accorded all the courtesy and respect due to me or to any of you. Do I make myself clear?"

The silence was deafening; he had made his point. He led Katagai and Kenshin over to a corner table, then said, "Himura, don't mind them. They're a bit rough, but they're all good men. It'll take some time for them to get used to having someone as young as you on their level, but they'll get used to it, especially after they've seen what you can do."

Kenshin wasn't so sure. He could hear snippets of conversation making fun of his hair, his clothes, and his height. "Bet he doesn't even shave yet," someone guffawed. It was one thing to have Hiko make fun of him, but quite another to hear it from strangers. Clearly, these men were not like his comrades in the Kiheitai. They had all been small-town farmers or merchants, not much different from Kenshin himself, and they had been quite kind to him during his short stay with them.

"Katsura-san," he ventured, when it seemed that Katsura and Katagai had finished discussing business, "are you sure this will work out? Perhaps it would be better if I stayed with the Kiheitai."

Katsura looked around the room, judging the character of the men surrounding them. "Himura, I've only known you a short time, but in that time I've seen that you not only possess great skill with a sword, but also maturity and integrity beyond your years. Give them time---they'll come around. They're battle-hardened, cynical warriors, and this is a cynical town. Once they've seen you in action, believe me, you'll get nothing but respect from them."

"And just what will my job be?" Kenshin asked. "You never did tell me exactly what I am to do for the Ishin Shishi."

Katsura gazed at Kenshin for a moment. 'He really is young,' he thought to himself. 'Is it fair to ask him to do what I want him to?' He gave no outward indication of his thoughts, however, as he said, "Himura, if all goes as planned, I want you to take on probably the most difficult job of all. I can't say any more than that right now, until I've discussed it with the other leaders. We have a series of meetings planned this week. By the end of those meetings, your role will become clear. Until then, learn your way around Kyoto and participate in the practice sessions with the other men, but you are not to go out on any missions as yet." With that, he stood up, bowed slightly, and left the room.

"Where do we practice, and when?" Kenshin asked Katagai. "I haven't been able to do my kata for over a week. I'd hate to get rusty."

Katagai smiled, thinking how refreshing it was to be with someone who still cared about the finer points of swordsmanship. He hoped this boy would not become jaded like the others as time went by.

"In this room," he answered, sweeping his hand around for emphasis. "Anyone who hasn't been out all night on a mission is supposed to come in to practice after breakfast has been cleared, although not that many do. You'll be out with Okami this morning, but if the room is empty this afternoon, it's all yours."

Kenshin looked around the room. "Pardon my saying so, Katagai-san, but I think the ceiling is a bit low for my purposes."

Katagai looked up at the ceiling, then at Kenshin. "Too low?" he repeated. 'I've got to see this kid practice!' he though to himself. "Well, I guess you could use the courtyard, as long as you're quiet about it." Kenshin looked quizzical. "Wouldn't want you to bother the neighbors, you know," Katagai said with a wink.

With breakfast over, it was time join Okami to start learning his way around Kyoto. Having never been in a village any larger than about 200 people, Kenshin had found his first views of the capital city to be unbelievable. Never had he seen so many people and buildings in one place. Just the fact that there were separate shops for tea, fruits, books, tools, you name it, was so at odds with the little general store he was used to that it was almost overwhelming. So, it was with some excitement that he accompanied Okami on his real first foray into the city. His eyes took in everything—the way people dressed, the height of the buildings, the way the streets seemed to go every which way. It was a different world.

"Himura-san, you're gawking," Okami said, smiling, as they walked down a main street.

"Ah, gomen, Okami-san," Kenshin said, "but's it's all so very different."

"I imagine so," she said. "In fact, I'm surprised your father let you come to such a big city by yourself, especially with everything that's been going on."

"I don't have a father," he answered simply.

"Well, your mother, then," Okami said.

"I don't have a mother."

Okami stopped walking and turned to face him, hands on hips. "Himura-san, everyone has a mother."

Kenshin lowered his head, hiding his eyes behind his hair. "My parents died of cholera when I was five," he answered softly. "I was found later by my shishou, and I've lived with him ever since."

Okami let out a sympathetic "Oh," then continued walking. After a moment, she said, "And your shishou thought it was okay for you to become a soldier at such a young age?"

"Well, not exactly," Kenshin answered truthfully. "We sort of had an argument about that. I won."

At this point, Okami turned down an alley and steered Kenshin toward a shop that said 'Seamstress.'

"Well, here's our destination," she said. "Katsura-san told me to get you a proper uniform—a dark blue gi and grey hakama. I have a feeling she'll need to make it up specially for you. That should put her in an interesting mood."

Kenshin stopped short. "Okami-san, I can't do that," he said. "I don't have enough money."

"Don't worry, Himura-chan." She couldn't help herself from using the '–chan'—he was motherless, after all, and despite what Katsura said, he was still just a boy. "Everyone receives a uniform when they join, and anyway, you'll be getting paid every week."

"I will?"

'Oh, my,' she thought, chuckling. 'He has so much to learn!'

As they entered the shop, a middle-aged woman with sharp, angular features eyed them keenly. "Okami-chan, ohayou," the woman said in a voice that sounded like fingernails scratching on slate. "That's some odd boy you've got with you. Nice hair!"

Kenshin flinched imperceptibly.

"Watch your manners, Junko-san," Okami said with a grimace and emphasizing the '-san.' "This boy is joining Katsura-san's men and needs a uniform." Leaning over to Kenshin, she whispered, "The woman is evil, but very loyal to the Ishin Shishi."

"What, Katsura-san needs someone with red hair to light up the way at night?" Junko laughed at her own joke. Okami did not laugh with her. "Oh, lighten up, Okami-chan. Such a shrimp—better bring him over here so I can measure."

The seamstress roughly grabbed onto Kenshin's arm to drag him over to her, only to find that what looked like a slip of a boy was actually a steel-muscled individual with no intention of being dragged anywhere.

"Like I said, Junko-san," Okami continued, "mind your manners."

Kenshin finally walked over to Junko and allowed her to measure him. She fingered his old gi with distaste.

"How old are you, boy?" she asked.

"Fourteen," he answered.

"Fourteen, my foot! Why, my 12-year-old son is taller than you! Well, even if you really are 14, you obviously have a lot of growing left to do, and you're just about out of this gi as it is. What say we put big hems on the gi and hakama, eh, so you can let them out as you grow? And tell you what—my 12-year-old just outgrew a perfectly good gi. It'll probably be too big on you—hah!—but you can have it, too. I'll send everything 'round in a few days. Good day!"

With obvious relief, Okami and Kenshin left the shop. "Old witch," Okami muttered. "Come on, we've got to pick up some items for dinner." Then, as they turned back onto the main road, she said, "I hope all our conversation hasn't distracted you from learning your way around the neighborhood."

"We went west, then turned northeast, turned southeast into the alley, and now we're going northeast again," Kenshin answered quickly.

Okami was astonished. "How did you figure all that out so quickly? It's cloudy today, the sun isn't even out to help!"

"My shishou taught me well," was the reply.

At Kenshin's suggestion, they split up after reaching the marketplace. Okami needed to get back to the inn to prepare lunch, but Kenshin wanted time to explore. He had been intrigued by the alley in which the seamstress had her shop—it ended with a wall and no other way out, something he had never seen before. Okami had called it a dead end. 'Dead end, indeed,' he thought darkly, if someone were caught there during a fight. He decided to wander the small streets and alleys off the market area to see if dead ends were common, and found that they were. But he also started seeing a pattern to the seemingly random twists and turns of the back streets and alleys. After two or three forays, he saw that he could predict which streets would meander in which direction, and which would likely lead only to dead ends. Finally, in one dead-end alley that looked particularly deserted, he decided to test the height of the buildings surrounding the alley, a height that seemed to be common to most buildings in the area. After a quick check to make sure he was alone, he jumped; he reached the roof easily.

He was about to jump back down when he heard a commotion out on the main road. Crouching on the roof, he slid over to the edge nearest the road to see what was going on. It was a group of three samurai on horseback, wearing the uniform of the Bakufu and demanding that the passersby bow down to them. This being a neighborhood known to be hostile to the Shogunate, not many people were showing what the samurai considered to be the proper respect. When the men started to dismount, everyone—men, women, and children—started running for whatever shops or doorways were nearby to get away from them. Those who couldn't get away fast enough were beaten, then forced to bow to the ground.

Kenshin felt his anger rise. He wanted more than anything to jump down and confront the samurai, but he remembered Katsura's admonition not to go on any missions yet, so he held back. Instead, he loosened a piece of roof tile, took aim, and threw it at the rear-most samurai, hitting him in the neck. The look of astonishment on the man's face, not to mention on the faces of his comrades, was priceless. The man fell, unconscious. With everyone in the street all bowing, the samurai couldn't figure out who could have thrown the tile. In frustrated anger, they grabbed their comrade, threw him over his saddle, then grabbed the horse's reins and rode off. Kenshin silently slid back along the roof, then jumped back down into the alley. There was no doubt in his mind—he would do whatever it took to help rid this country of the hated Shogunate.

By mid-afternoon he was back at the inn. The place seemed deserted, so he decided to take the opportunity to practice his kata in the courtyard. After the anger he had experienced just an hour before, it felt calming, even relaxing, to start centering himself and to do the first, slow beginning moves. Soon, time lost all meaning for him as he methodically performed each kata, handling his sword with the grace, speed, and accuracy that Hiko had relentlessly drilled into him all those years. At a certain point, he became vaguely aware that some of the men were watching, but that didn't matter. He progressed to the most difficult moves, practicing the attacking jumps and deadly slashes that were the hallmark of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu. Finally, with a last leap and a lightening-quick circular swing of his sword, he finished. When he looked up, he was surprised to find 25 men staring at him, mouths agape.

"Gomen nasai, if I've interrupted something," he said softly, not knowing what else to say. As he went to leave the courtyard, the men parted before him, still staring. As he went inside and up the stairs to his room, the silence broke.

"Did you see what I think I just saw?" one of men said.

"I don't know what you saw," said another, "but what I saw was too fast for me to follow."

"Katsura's right," another one put in. "That's no boy—that's a demon!"

At dinner, as Kenshin walked in with some of the men he had traveled with from Chousu, conversation once again came to a stop. Once again, all eyes were on him, this time in awe. Not knowing what else to do, he gave a small bow, then continued walking to a table with his group. Katsura and Katagai soon joined them.

"Well," Katsura said to him, "I hear you gave quite a demonstration today."

"I what?" Kenshin asked, clearly puzzled.

"Your practice," he continued. "It seemed to impress the men."

"Oh." Kenshin didn't know what else to say.

"And I'm told you've already figured out the layout of Kyoto."

"Well, not quite," said Kenshin, "but I did learn something today. Kyoto is not that much different from the forest where I used to live. It may have houses instead of trees, but there are still paths that meander in certain patterns, and you still have to watch out for wild animals."

"How true," Katsura said with a smile. "Yes, I think you are going to work out quite well."

Japanese Terms:

Okami: mistress, head.

Chousu: One of the most anti-Shogun provinces.

Ishin Shishi: name for those rebelling against the Shogunate.

Kiheitai: a private army in Chousu created by Takasugi Shinsaku, composed of farmers and the like rather than samurai.

Sessha wa: "This unworthy one is….," very archaic version of "I am…."

De gozaru: archaic version of "desu."

Gomen nasai: very sorry.

Shishou: master teacher of swordsmanship.

Ohayou: Good morning, hello.

-chan: honorific used for a child or a very close friend.

Bakufu: name for the Shogunate government.

Kata: the prescribed moves for practicing a martial art.

Author's Note: The idea for this story comes from the little snippet in the OAV showing Kenshin among the Kiheitai as a rather wide-eyed, innocent-looking youth. That's what he would have been like when he first arrived in Kyoto. He obviously got a very fast education in treachery and man's inhumanity to men once he got there, but Watsuki doesn't show us how that happened. There are plenty of stories about Kenshin as a hitokiri, but none about his earliest days, so I'm filling in the gap. Let me know what you think!

CoConspirator's Note: Well ….we're back!! *does happy dance* So how do you like this one so far? Don't forget to let us know what you think! (poor Kenshin he's so short and scrawny) *sigh* Oh well see you in the next chapter.