Tanabata Jasmine

Right! Well, I have two disclaimers for you, so here goes:

Disclaimer #1: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin.

Disclaimer #2: This is my first fanfic in 12 years. Therefore, expect it to be a bit shy to start off, with terrible usage of the Japanese language. If you can live with that, you're laughing.

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Something Tae had said to him earlier, when he'd met her outside the inn, had prompted him to do it. Why, Kenshin, she exclaimed with an arched eyebrow. You do know what today is, don't you? Surely you're not going back to Karou-chan with just that tofu? Tanabata. She was teasing him, and he'd promptly flushed with his customary oro… it was expected, after all. And yet … the comment stayed with him as he threaded his way through the crowd. He balanced the tofu bucket carefully along his forearm and smiled gently at the young child who stumbled across his path, putting a hand out to steady the boy as small hands tangled briefly with Kenshin's hakama.

"Arigatou." The woman's smooth voice made him look up again. "My son can be a handful, but at least you kept him free of the mud."

She was probably around his age, he guessed; dark eyes in a worn face that smiled gratefully at him, even as she turned an admonishing look on the boy. "It is alright, de gozaru yo," he replied cheerfully, rurouni lilt firmly in place as violet eyes dropped to the bundle she was carrying. It caught his interest. "May sessha ask what that is you are carrying?"

"Hmm?" She raised an eyebrow, and then smiled as she looked down. "The flower?"

Not just a flower. He held a hand out to take it from her as she proffered it. It carried no fresh scent of the garden, but rather an applied, perfumed sweetness. "Jasmine," he muttered softly, and thought of Kaoru. The petals were delicate as always, but were an artifice, shaped and ruffled from white silk. The long, green stem was carved from bamboo. "Truly, a blossom that will last. Did you make this?"

"Not I," she laughed, and plucked it from his willing fingers. "There is a merchant, further upon the road leading away from the markets. He is selling them, rather cheaply I thought. But who am I to complain? I suppose it is just for today."

You do know what today is, don't you? Kenshin smiled ruefully as Tae's teasing voice echoed in his mind. He nodded his head as the woman took her wayward son by the hand and – with a harried farewell – vanished into the crowds of the marketplace.

Tanabata.

He glanced at the tofu in his hands and sighed. Just this once, I will give in to temptation.

Decision made, he turned in the direction the woman had pointed, and walked with a deliberate tread, looking for a particular merchant.

"Him?"

"None other."

There was silence again. From the far edge of the marketplace, close to the Akabeko, two men stared after the rurouni in his maroon gi. Subtly, silently, Himura Kenshin was watched.

The merchant had distanced himself from the bustle of the marketplace, the sounds of the crowd faint as Kenshin finally spotted him. He was, in point of fact, nestled on the path leading back to the Kamiya dojo. Perhaps Tae had suggested the merchant plant himself in the only path Himura Kenshin would take home. And now, you've got yourself thinking the local merchants are plotting behind your back to play matchmaker, he scolded himself inwardly.

He studied the merchant a moment before approaching him. Short, tidy dark hair and narrow eyes that reminded him of Saitoh. Yet this man smiled lightly at the passersby and spoke swiftly to them of his wares, putting his potential customers at ease. He was slender for a merchant, and totally unfamiliar. A traveler, then, here for the festival. Certainly, he had no plans to set up a regular stall; the man sat cross-legged on the side of the street, a square of dark silk folded in front of him, and on this silk lay the last of his wares for the day; three of the same beautifully crafted flowers he had seen earlier.

He hesitated a moment more, and then crossed the street almost shyly. He intended to keep his relationship with Kaoru strictly platonic, despite the way feelings ran between them. He was too old for her, he was too stained. He knew she wouldn't care, but he did. And … he had too many enemies. She was targeted enough on his behalf without her being openly known as the Battousai's woman. It was safer for her if he didn't show her his care.

And yet, for all his platonic intentions, here he was at a street vendor to buy her a silken flower. I've never seen craftwork like it before, his mind insisted stubbornly. It would be a shame to pass it by. It is a gift to brighten her home, nothing more.

"You're not used to this, are you?"

"Oro?" Kenshin blinked, startled out of his reverie. The merchant grinned up at him with a knowing look.

"Oro, yourself. You're blushing like a teenage boy. Does she know you love her?"

Was he blushing? The thought made him flush more. "Sessha thinks you may be a little too forward, de gozaru yo."

"Yes, well, sessha can think that if he likes." Kenshin's eyes narrowed. Was the merchant mocking him? He stared at him, catlike, until the man held up both his hands in surrender. "Gomen nasai. I did not wish to try your temper. Sometimes," he smiled lopsidedly, "My words run away from me."

Kenshin suddenly felt guilty. Flustered or no, for him to take sudden temper out on a stranger was unlike him. He shook his head slightly. "It's alright, de gozaru yo. Sessha hasn't done this before. But…Sessha is only interested in buying for a friend. How much?"

"Friend, eh?"

Kenshin didn't answer. His attention had been caught by the merchant's upturned hands. The palms and fingers were calloused. He frowned slightly, his gaze traveling down to the ground, to see a shinai placed on the ground behind the sitting man.

"I travel alone," the man said, following his gaze. "I must defend myself, ne?"

Kenshin smiled. "True." And from what he could read of the man's ki, he was at least competent with his weapon. "Now. How much for one of your flowers?"

"They aren't cheap. Alas, I doubt you could afford one."

Kenshin was beginning to grow annoyed, despite himself. What kind of merchant insulted a customer, even one he suspected of being poor? "Sessha can assure you he will afford your price, Mr…?"

The merchant grinned again in appreciation. "Senzo Karanai. Gomen again. I do not wish to insult you. But for you, I am afraid, my price would not be measured in coin."

Not measured--? Kenshin raised an eyebrow. "The only other thing sessha has for barter is this tofu, Senzo-san," he said dryly.

"Not true!" Senzo raised a finger. "There is something else that I would accept from only you."

"Oh?"

The finger thrust upward, pointing at his chest.

"A duel."

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And now, feel free to review and tell me what I'm doing wrong. Er... or something.