Hiroaki stopped just short of sliding open the shoji, surprised at how busy the dining room was. He scanned the room, sensing fierce auras and dimmed ones. More than a few were clumsy; that was the sake taking effect.
He smiled to himself, and slid the paper screen aside, grateful for the warmth and raucous voices. Less than an hour ago, he had been sopping wet, and shivering. Out on a mission, he had become separated from his group, chased by three Shinsengumi fighters. Outnumbered and unsure, he had darted through the narrow alleys of Gion and ended up in the back streets, close to the hills.
He had lost them in the gardens of the Kiyomizu shrine, where he had waited for almost an hour, in the cold rain. A shallow cut had bled and turned his sword-arm numb.
Crouching in the bushes, suppressing his ki, he had experienced a terrible, rising frustration. He was alone in the dark, and his muscles had begun to ache; a result of their recent, furious ambush.
He had sensed one of the fighters approach, and without hesitation, burst from his concealed location, sword drawn and aiming for the man's chest. Taken by surprise, the Shinsengumi man had no time to react. Hiroaki's blade impaled him and both fighters were sent crashing backwards into the foliage.
Hiroaki had freed his katana, and escaped, hoping the other two were still a good distance behind him. He had taken a circuitous route through the pottery district, navigating back streets until he reached the Kohagi inn.
It had been a busy night, and he was tired. Outside, the rain had not relented. Perhaps the weather explained why so many of the Ishin Shishi had remained indoors. Their skirmishes with the Bakufu did not stop just because of the rain, but sometimes, it almost seemed as if there was mutual agreement on both sides.
Hiroaki did not envy those who had been sent out on a night such as this. Stepping into the room, he scanned the area, searching for a place to sit. Most of the tatami space was taken, except for a small clearing in the corner.
Hiroaki took a deep breath. He understood why.
Battousai sat in the corner, slender hands cupped around a bowl of rice. His gaze was sapphire blue, hard and measured, taking in every movement. The men seemed to be aware of this, and Hiroaki felt the way in which they ignored the hitokiri, trying to appear relaxed under his scrutiny, was rather pointed.
The young man was expressionless. Out of habit, Hiroaki extended his senses and was surprised to find no trace of Battousai's ki. Of course, a shadow assassin would be an expert at keeping his aura dampened. And it was clear that the hitokiri had gone to great pains to conceal his ken-ki. Even in a safe place such as the Ishin headquarters, he remained on guard.
Perhaps that was why some of the men felt unsettled around him. If not for that startling red hair, and the cold, clear blue eyes, the Ishin Shishi's most dangerous swordsman would have gone unnoticed.
There was a sense of icy control about Battousai that made Hiroaki's skin crawl. It was almost as if the man projected menace without intending to.
After all, there was nothing to be afraid of. They fought on the same side. Sitting in the dining room, chopsticks in one hand, he ate with slow, precise movements. He posed no threat to any of them.
But he had heard the others talking, of entire squads of Bakufu, slain within the space of a few breaths. By a youth who would then flick the blood off his blade, sheath it and walk away as if it had been nothing but a mild inconvenience.
Hiroaki navigated the floor, aware they were now looking at him. A few of his comrades smiled in greeting, but no-one made room. There was no room.
Except for the empty space, next to Battousai.
Hiroaki tried to appear calm, but tension crept into the set of his jaw, making his expression stiff. He kneeled and took the bowl and chopsticks into his hands, helping himself to rice, salted fish and pickled vegetables.
Battousai did not move. The hitokiri ignored Hiroaki and kept eating at a steady pace, pausing to pour himself some tea. He set the pot down with fluid grace and then sipped the tea. All this was done with the absence of any perceptible sound.
Hiroaki focused on his food, forcing his breathing to slow. He picked up the chopsticks and started to eat, the mouthfuls larger than normal. He was shoveling the food into his mouth, which was unusual, as Hiroaki was normally a slow eater.
After a while, Hiroaki realised Battousai was looking at him.
He swallowed, and the clump of rice settled in his throat, causing him to cough. Battousai looked away, his attention diverted to his meal. Hiroaki forced down the rest of his food, relaxing. He reached for the tea, and met a calculating stare. The hitokiri's expression was unreadable.
He's looking at me again. Had he done something wrong? Hiroaki froze, running over his last few actions in his mind. He couldn't think of anything that might have offended Battousai.
Unless… Hitokiri Battousai was a swordsman of the highest calibre, adept at reading intentions. Had he been able to sense Hiroaki's feelings? Did he realise that Hiroaki would never have sat here by choice?
He was about to stammer an apology when Battousai looked away, sipping his tea.
Hiroaki reached for the pot and poured himself a steaming cup, taking in the calming aroma of jasmine. He cursed himself for being paranoid, and drank.
He almost spat out the tea. Those unnerving blue eyes were once again trained on him.
What have I done to annoy him? Hiroaki knew his fear was irrational, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something about him was irritating Battousai. The hitokiri was the last person Hiroaki wanted to offend.
"Hiroaki-san," Battousai's voice was low and soft, like velvet, but Hiroaki almost jumped. He swallowed, hot tea scalding the back of his throat. He hadn't been aware that Battousai knew his name. He cursed the bad luck which had led to his lateness. Had he made it back earlier, there would have been more space in the dining room; he would have sat somewhere else.
It was a lesson he would remember for next time, if he survived.
"Suman…" He began to apologise, but was silenced by Battousai's sharp look.
"It appears," Battousai rested the chopsticks on his empty bowl, "that you have rice stuck to your chin."
"Huh?" Hiroaki's hand shot up to his face, and his fingers met a soft clump. Battousai rose, in that disturbing soundless manner he had, and gave a single nod.
Then he was gone, and it was as if he had never been there at all.
Author's note: Pfft, I don't know; this was just a random idea that popped into my head. Sort-of humourous, I suppose. Nothing better to do on a rainy day than sit at home and write pointless one-shots.