A/N – Just throwing this out to see what kind of reaction I get.
This AU was inspired by the book "Thai Horse" by William Diehl. I've tinkered with the RK timeline a bit, (okay a lot) and changed Kenshin's name to Kenjiro. Hopefully you'll understand.
Kenshin may be a bit OOC, and I've leant a bit towards the 'Battousai-as-alternate-personality' theory, although I don't normally subscribe to it.
Disclaimer – I don't own Ruroken. Don't sue.
1983 - Bangkok
He sat, seemingly relaxed, at a table in the dim, murky corners of the club.
Caucasian, one would think, given the pale skin and the faint glimmer of red-brown hair – but no. A turn of the head, shifting shadows revealing high cheekbones, an old, faded scar, and slanted eyes…
'A small, redheaded Eurasian with a scarred cheek,' the investigator had said. 'He comes into the Grey Cat but not for the drink, not for the girls – he just sits in the corner and broods.'
Kaoru drew her purse closer to her body and took a deep breath. She tried not to notice the naked, gyrating, twisting women all around her, their dark eyes flat and lifeless, jaded and often drugged. The men who watched them were no better – predatory, cruel and greedy, they whistled and clamoured at the dancers and watched her with contemptuous eyes.
It was not, she decided, a nice place. But she had no other choice.
As she drew nearer to his table she saw him raise his head, some instinct alerting him to her approach – he turned towards her, and met her eyes.
'He spent seven years in 'Nam. He was a contract assassin; they sent him out with a list and when he came back in with all the names crossed out, they gave him another one…'
"Are you," she paused, wet her lips nervously, "are you Kenjiro Hamill?"
He stared at her through narrowed, dangerous eyes, and she fought the urge to squirm. "Who sent you?" he asked, his voice low, flat, but undeniably American.
"My uncle. He told me he knew you, in '75." She pulled out a battered, pitted Zippo lighter with shaky hands and laid it on the table. "He said that you would recognize this."
He made no move to pick up the lighter. Under the steady gaze of those empty, golden eyes, she felt her courage falter. Stubbornly, she clenched her fists and raised her chin. She'd gone through too much, come too far, to back down now.
"Do you recognize it?" she demanded, terrified of her own bravado.
His eyes flickered and he looked down, reaching out with one hand – a surprisingly delicate hand – to nudge the lighter, turn it over; on the other side there was a chipped red, white and blue enamel picture of a bird, an American eagle, wings outspread, talons outstretched as it swooped down on imaginary prey.
"I recognize it," he said finally. "I remember…"
It was never completely silent in the jungle. All around him insects whirred and birds called, the damp, musty undergrowth rustled and crunched wetly and the trees constantly shifted – signs that a skilled hunter could interpret, if he had been out here long enough to understand. Ken had been in Vietnam for seven years, and in that time he'd become a very skilled hunter indeed.
He stopped, held up a hand to call for a halt.
To his right, Troung 'Johnny' Nguyen grinned evilly and hitched his weapon higher, fingers nervously playing with a flattened, misshapen bullet that had slammed into the cigarette case in his breast pocket just above his heart, knocking him over and breaking two of his ribs. He'd carried it ever since, a superstitious talisman of the luck that had carried him through two years of bloody jungle warfare.
To his left, James Genzai – not Jimmy, never Jimmy – was standing frozen still, his mouth moving soundlessly, his eyes terrified. He'd been in the army less than three months, and Ken had not been pleased with his presence on this mission. He was too young, too inexperienced and too naïve; he still believed in truth, honour and an all-pervasive Right. Unfortunately, he was the only one who could identify the target, and that was how Ken and Johnny had found themselves saddled with a raw tenderfoot – and how the horrified newcomer found himself in the company of two infamous killers.
Ken knew and understood; years ago, in another time and another world, he himself had volunteered to join this war. If only he'd known where it would lead him…
A change in the air alerted him, and he whipped his head around, almost scenting the approaching enemy. Ken and Johnny reacted automatically, melting into cover, but Genzai froze. The sharp, discordant babble of Vietnamese cut through the silence, rising in alarm as their presence was discovered, and the staccato crack of gunfire echoed through the jungle. Ken, cursing, cannoned into Genzai, knocking him off his feet and bearing him down to the ground, but it was already too late – thick crimson blood was welling from a tear in the newcomer's stomach. Johnny took one arm, Ken the other, and together they managed to drag him through the undergrowth searching for shelter of any sort…
"I gave it to him," Ken said. "He wanted a last cigarette before he died; I told him to take the lighter and use it when the nurses weren't looking."
"He said you and Johnny Nguyen carried him twenty miles through the jungle back to the base."
He shrugged, acutely uncomfortable with the note of awe in the girl's voice. "He was an important senator's son – I had specific orders to bring him back unharmed."
Else, he would have left the fool to die – would he? No. The boy had been so painfully innocent he wouldn't have stood a chance on his own. It hadn't been in Kenjiro Hamill's make-up, either then or now, to let someone so helpless die.
Kenshin Himura, on the other hand…
He had volunteered to join the army on his eighteenth birthday, seduced by promises of adventure, patriotism, and saving the world from communism. His first month in Vietnam had been a horrifying shock, a rough introduction to the true reality of war in the jungle. During his second month – after his innocence and ideals had been tarnished by seeing too many of his friends and comrades die – he made the acquaintance of Major Katsura of military intelligence, who seemed fascinated by his talent for picking up languages and his familiarity with Southeast Asia. This was a product of his nomadic upbringing, trailing after his businessman father as he established business interests in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
During the next few months, they met occasionally – at the base, in nightclubs and bars in Bangkok, or Hong Kong, and they struck up a kind of friendship. Katsura played the wise older hand, taking him for his first tour of the red light district, giving him tips on safety and survival, and Ken opened up, pouring out his fears and frustrations to a man who understood, sympathized, and more importantly, would not think him weak.
Looking back, Ken should have known there was something suspicious in such a friendship between a major and a lowly private. However, the true purpose of Katsura's cultivation of him was soon revealed – one night in Tokyo, Katsura asked him whether he thought he would ever make a difference, as a lowly infantry GI. Accustomed to speaking frankly to the major, Ken had admitted that he didn't think so – and then Katsura had, with great tact and delicacy, brought up the subject of assassination.
"Do you know anything about Japanese history, Ken?" Katsura had asked, his eyes dark and direct as he lit a cigarette with his Zippo, a red-white-and-blue enamel eagle flying proudly on the side.
"A bit, sir," he'd answered, focusing more on relaxing in the absence of gunfire than on abstract questions.
"Have you ever heard of a man named Battousai?"
That captured Ken's attention. "Hitokiri Battousai, sir? The Demon of the Bakumatsu? My Japanese cousins used to terrorise me with ghost stories whenever we stayed with them. I always slept with the light on those nights, after that." He'd smiled, then, remembering the innocence of his childhood.
Katsura had laughed, deliberately allowing smoke to trickle out through his nostrils. One day, one perfect day not so long ago, he'd shown Ken how to do that. "Ghost stories, yes. But the tales are based on a historical figure – a rebel assassin, whose killings terrorized the city of Kyoto for more than three years." He took a sip of his orange juice – he never drank anything stronger – and looked pointedly at Ken. "The point I'm trying to make, Ken, is that those Japanese rebel leaders had the right idea. They took out key personnel in the military, in the government, and in the financial sector – and then when it came for the big armed push, they simply rolled over the government's forces."
"Are you saying…?" Suddenly the lightheartedness of the moment was gone.
"That's what I do, Ken. That's what my unit is – agents who perform such operations –"
"If you must, then yes, assassinations. We eliminate – kill – key enemy figures that stand in the way of our military success. Just think – kill a key Vietnamese general before he can take his brigade out and wipe out a brigade of our men. Think of it as killing one man for the good of many."
Ken should have walked away then and there, refusing to have anything more to do with a man who could so easily speak of the greater good and killing in the same breath. His mother, who had lost a sweetheart in Hiroshima, could have warned him – but he'd been alone, away from home for far too long, and Katsura had done his work very, very well. There was no one he trusted more than the Major, and though naturally he had had misgivings, Katsura had made it sound plausible, reasonable, and even necessary.
The next day, Ken quietly transferred to Katsura's unit, beginning the training that would turn him into the deadliest, most efficient assassin in the shadow war. And when it came time to create a cover, he asked Katsura the one question he knew the Major had been waiting for, ever since their discussion that day in Tokyo.
"What was his real name, sir? Hitokiri Battousai?"
"Himura Kenshin. Or Kenshin Himura, whichever way you choose to look at it."
Therefore, – dyed black hair his only concession to discretion – Kenshin Himura he became; a Japanese American opportunist, a profiteer, a smuggler, and a river rat. Cold-blooded, pragmatic and ruthless, he kept his word when it suited him, killed without qualms when it didn't, and was absolutely loyal to only two things in his life –
Money and Major Katsura.
Sometime during the five years he worked for Katsura, he'd lost himself within Kenshin Himura. It was so much easier to play the conscienceless opportunist when he had a list of targets to eliminate, and so he had deliberately put away his gentler, more compassionate, more idealistic side. Had he been playing Kenshin in '75, he would have sacrificed young Genzai so that he and Johnny – unhurt, with more chance of survival – could live.
Perhaps that was why he'd given him Katsura's lighter. An ironic gesture; he'd told Genzai that it was a reminder of what they were all fighting for.
"What do you want?" he asked harshly. More harshly than he'd intended, actually, it had been a long time since he'd talked to a woman.
"I want you to help me," the girl said. Genzai's niece. Young, pretty, and very impressionable – and very brave, to come in here to find him.
"Usually it's the one who's been saved who owes the debt," he said, ironic.
"I'm not… I don't… It's not a debt, Mr. Hamill," she said awkwardly. "It's just that I don't know anyone else who could possibly help me. They said –"
Ah. Now they were making progress…
"The yakuza. They have my brother, Yahiko. They say that if I want him back, I have to win him back. In the arena."
"Sounds like a bad martial arts movie." But he smiled, mirthless. "Enishi always did watch too much Bruce Lee."
She gaped at him. "You know Yukishiro Enishi? The yakuza leader?"
"Yes. We had a falling out some time ago. He'd love to kill me – in fact, that's probably why he kidnapped your brother, Miss Kamiya. He knew of my connection to your uncle."
"He knew I'd come to you? That's the most…" she scowled fiercely, gripped her purse with both white-knuckled fists. "That bastard!" He watched, intrigued, as she all but stamped her foot with rage. "I hope you kill him! I hope you disembowel him clumsily and dance on his guts!"
"Unfortunately, Miss Kamiya, there is one problem. The yakuza arena fights are always to the death, and I have not used my sword to kill for years."
A/N - I would appreciate your feedback on this experimental piece. Thanks for reading.