Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and all characters therein belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki.

AN: I thought about posting this like an update to "Wild" because this short belongs in that same story line. But it comes so much later that I decided to post it on its own. That way, if anything other shorts want to sneak in from that one, it won't seem so disjointed. So on that note, if you read "Wild" first, you've got what's more or less the back story to this one.


Half Past Late


Kaoru sighed and turned her wrist up to check her watch again.

A frown tugged at her lips, but she resisted the urge to reach for the cell-phone sitting so innocuously beside her water glass. Kenshin had already called a half an hour ago, all apologies and worry at being held over in a meeting that they both knew was likely going to ruin their plans for the evening. It had to have been a bad day with how embarrassingly easy to convince him she'd still rather wait up for him and spend the evening together. So in exchange, she'd let him talk her into which bar to meet at relatively painlessly.

Bless his heart, the man could worry.

Thinking about it, it had to be a downside for having such a damnably active mind. And if there was one thing she'd figured out early it was that Kenshin was always already at least ten steps ahead of whatever was in front of him. She still had to rein him in from time to time and bring him back into less-expansive perspectives when he got carried away.

Unless she was bored.

There weren't many things more entertaining than purposefully doing something to get him over-thinking every tiny detail of his behavior and watching him however long it lasted. The hesitant, almost awkward side she could occasionally coax out of him was just as endearing as his confidence was sexy. It was a strange mix that made up his very unique personality, one that could easily take years to explore without ever fully getting a handle on everything. But that didn't mean she wasn't planning to have fun trying.

Absently, Kaoru turned her wrist to check how much time had passed.


Kaoru's teeth clenched at the interruption, and she discreetly turned her face away from that voice to roll her eyes in silent exasperation. Taking a deep breath to quell the tiny urge to let her own agitation carry over into an unnecessarily rude response, she glanced over and found an attractive man about her own age sliding onto the empty stool beside her. Silently murmuring to whatever higher powers might be listening that this wasn't what she suspected it to be, she instead forced a polite smile and asked, "Can I help you with something?"

"Actually," he corrected with a smile, "I thought maybe I could help you."

Kaoru arched an eyebrow suspiciously at that, leaning away from him and hoping he'd pick up on her lack of interest through her body language. Regardless of how she was feeling, there wasn't any call for her to be mean just because he was trying a cheesy pick-up line. This was a bar, and to strangers she probably looked like fair game sitting here alone and nursing a glass of water. It wasn't entirely uncommon to draw in strays looking for company, innocent or otherwise.

Trying not to look as annoyed as she felt, Kaoru crossed her legs and tossed out the usual conversation killer. "Thank you, but I'm waiting for my boyfriend."

Her hopes for the standard apology and retreat were promptly dashed when the man's smile only widened. Picking up his own half-finished drink, he tipped it slightly towards her hand, or -more accurately- to her watch, before bringing the glass to his mouth. "I noticed you've been waiting a little too long."

Oh this is just brilliant. Kaoru propped her elbow on the bar, letting a bit of an edge creep into her smile to show he was rapidly becoming less welcome. "I really think you should be more careful about 'noticing' other people's business. You never know when you're going to call it wrong and end up with your foot in your mouth."

"Calculated risks." He shrugged one shoulder carelessly and flashed her that boyish smile she was certain had worked on all kinds of girls in his past. Under her attention, he sat up straighter and abandoned all pretenses of having just innocently picked that seat. Twisting on the stool to sit facing her, he made a show of taking her in from head to toe. "Besides, you don't look like a woman who came out for a date that early."

Kaoru picked up her phone, moving it to the other side of her glass in case this turned into a problem. "That's really not any of your business."

The man set down his glass, trailing his finger slowly around the rim as he slanted her a decidedly sly look. "See? He's late."

Now it was time to start frowning. "Maybe you've had a little too much to catch the hints, so I'll say it a way you'll understand. Not interested."

"It really is a waste," he continued on as though she hadn't spoken, clucking his tongue to emphasize the disapproval in his voice. "Seeing a beautiful woman neglected on such a nice night. You just can't help but wonder what kind of man would let that happen."

"A professional one with a busy schedule," Kaoru muttered and rolled her eyes, holding her hand up to get Katsu's attention. If this was going to keep up, she needed a stronger drink.

"That's hardly an excuse." He reached for her hand, and when she pointedly moved it away, he chuckled softly. Recovering from the rejection, he instead drew out his wallet and pushed a fifty to the approaching bartender. "Bring her whatever she'd like, and I'll have another scotch."

Kaoru smiled tightly at him. "I can pick up my own ticket."

The man gave Katsu a conspiratorial wink before focusing his full attention back on Kaoru. "I'm sure you can, but I insist. Let me show you that not every guy puts a lady second to his career."

Kaoru set her water down hard enough for the thick glass to make an ominous thump against the wood. She met his gaze squarely with warning scowl. "Now you're irritating me."

"It's always hard to admit you're not being taken care of properly," he assured her in what he probably thought was a soothing tone. "Why don't you let me take you out somewhere nicer than this? We can catch a late dinner, and I promise you'll have forgotten all about being stood-up by this bastard come morning."

Katsu set the two drinks down in front of them, catching Kaoru's eye and giving her a questioning look. Kaoru shook her head, not wanting to draw any more attention than necessary and fully confident she could handle one very mistaken stranger without too much trouble. She pretended not to notice he stayed close, fiddling with bottle and glasses within earshot, just in case.

"Let's try this again." Kaoru reached into her glass and plucked out the cherry, sucking the liquid off it before any of it could drip onto her pants. She held it in her teeth and pulled off the stem, setting it down on her napkin before looking back to meet her unwelcome "guest's" intense stare. "I don't find you nearly as romantic as you think you are. So why don't you get off that stool and make the rounds again until you find someone who buys into the self-sacrificing display of chivalry?"

"I don't usually troll the bar-scene." He braced his foot on the brass pipe running along the base of the bar, leaning back on the stool and letting his dark eyes travel over her from head to toe. "It's not every day there's someone worth the effort."

Kaoru snorted at the roundabout compliment and took a sip of her drink while debating whether she should just turn around and ignore him or give into the morbid curiosity to see what he'd say next. Propping her elbow on the bar again, she rested her cheek on her hand and wondered out loud, "Do you actually think if you stay here and keep talking that I'll give up and say yes?"

"Fortune favors the bold," he quoted, raising his glass toward her in a salute.

"Virgil only works on philosophy majors," Kaoru informed him with a faintly amused smirk. "Try the coffee bar down the street, but don't hold your breath on catching one old enough to join you in here."

He laughed louder this time, pushing his empty glass out of the way and picking up the new drink. "I have the right pick."

"Taken," Kaoru reminded, tapping her fingers on the bar and resisting the urge to look at her watch again. "I got caught by a better man than you, and honestly, you would probably rather not meet him."

"You'll forgive me if I'm not particularly turned off by the thought of a man who asked his girlfriend to wait on him in a bar at this time of night." He slid his hand into the front pocket of his slacks, cocking his head to give her another of those charming smiles. Rocking his weight back enough to tilt the stool up onto two legs, his eyes took on a darker gleam. "I'd be smarter than to leave my own girlfriend somewhere that-"

He cut off abruptly when the stool overbalanced, sending him crashing to the floor at her feet. Kaoru looked down at him, picking up her drink and taking a sip before she drawled out sardonically, "Somewhere that her boyfriend's over-protective best friend bounces part time?"

Sano huffed at that description, reaching out and ruffling her hair before she could stop him. "Now, Jou-chan, I'm just looking out for a friend of mine."

Kaoru glared at him, finger-combing her hair back into place. "Of course you are."

"Hey, you were my friend before Kenshin snuck himself into that boyfriend slot. Now I gotta default and side with him for your own good under certain circumstances." He grinned at her cheekily before looking down at the man picking himself up off the floor. The grin turned predatory and he cracked his knuckles a little too enthusiastically. "You wouldn't be thinking about breaking the rules for horseplay on one of our fine barstools, were you?"

"What?" The man's brow furrowed in confusion, looking from Sano's towering form to the stool and to Kaoru before deciding Sano was definitely the most threatening piece of this new equation. "I wasn't-"

"Legs on the floor, Romeo," Sano cut him off and rapped his knuckles on the stool's cushion. "We run a classy place here."

A dull flush spread up his neck at the censure, but he stood firm in front of the taller man. Visibly taking a calming breath, he smoothed his hands down his shirt and pants to correct the damage the little tumble had done to his appearance. "It won't happen again."

"You're certainly right about that." Sano took a step forward, slinging his arm across the man's shoulders in a feigned gesture of companionship, and dragging him away from Kaoru. "Let's you and me go have a chat about respecting the privacy of uninterested customers."

Kaoru's lips twitched in amusement at the flabbergasted look on the man's face, shaking her head at Sano's antics before she gave the bartender a knowing look. "I was handling that, Katsu."

He shrugged, not bothering to deny his part in Sano's sudden interference as he took away the empty glass and man's scotch. "Sano handles it faster."

"You're all paranoid," Kaoru scolded him half-heartedly.

"Damage control, sweetheart. I, for one, don't want your boyfriend getting messy in my bar because you picked up a tenacious one tonight." Katsu patted her hand comfortingly and headed off to the group calling for his attention from the other end of the bar.

Before Kaoru could call out a few choice comments at him, she felt a cold arm slide around her waist and an even colder set of lips press behind her ear. Shrieking in outrage and the temperature shock, she brought her elbow back into her tardy boyfriend's stomach and twisted to scowl at him. "Holy frozen hells, did you walk, you idiot man?!"

Kenshin's eyes fairly glowed with silent laughter, and he brazenly ignored her loudly-voiced displeasure to wrap both arms around her waist. Cuddling her much warmer body to his chest, he pressed a kiss to her forehead and admitted apologetically, "My car didn't have time to warm up on the way over."

"It's your job to generate heat in this relationship," Kaoru reminded him with a huff. However, she still stroked her palm down his side and smiled to herself at the way his muscles twitched at her touch. Tilting her head back to look up at his face, she couldn't resist teasing in a lighter tone, "I'd almost think you were in a hurry."

"I can't imagine what gave you that idea." Kenshin hooked his foot around one leg of the empty stool beside her and dragged it closer. He reluctantly released her from his embrace and sat down, but caught her hand and laced their fingers together to keep in contact. As he gave the captured digits an affectionate squeeze, his smile turned slightly pained. "I'm sorry you had to wait so long. I didn't think the meeting would run that late, but things just kept coming up and we had to handle it."

Kaoru felt a laugh bubble up out her at the predicted worry sneaking into his voice, tapping his leg with her foot in gentle chiding. "It happens. It's not like you didn't call and warn me."

Kenshin smiled wryly, reaching up and brushing her hair away from her face. "Still-"

"Kenshin," Kaoru interrupted and tugged on his hand to stop him from making any more apologies. "I'm fine. There was even a nice guy here keeping me company while I waited."

His brow furrowed in displeasure.

Kaoru snickered at the instant change, leaning in to give him a light kiss before she pressed her finger on the crease that had appeared between his eyebrows. "Don't make that face."

"I'm not making a face," Kenshin denied.

She arched an eyebrow, tugging her hand out of his and poking his cheeks. "What do you call this?"

Kenshin schooled his expression into something entirely innocent, taking hold of her hands and bringing them down to his mouth. Rather than answer, he pressed a lingering kiss to her knuckles and turned her left wrist up to place another directly over the network of blue-violet veins visible under her pale skin.

Kaoru could feel her shoulders relax at the warmth his lips sent through her blood, more than happy to let him distract her in favor of much more enjoyable ideas. At least until she opened her eyes and caught him casting sidelong glances around the patrons. Obviously searching through them for some hint of which man had approached her.

She flicked his jaw, snickering at his startled jump and taking advantage of that surprise to tug her hands free. "If you're going to play dirty because I'm not helping you intimidate some guy who happened to be just as stubborn as you, you can always go home by yourself."

"You like my bed better," Kenshin reminded her, but he did obediently stop giving the men those potentially evil stares.

"I'm prepared to sacrifice comfort for principle," Kaoru warned him. She turned around to face the bar again and picked up her drink. Sending him a sideways look through her lashes, she bit down on her straw in a decidedly flirtatious way. She watched his throat work to swallow as she slid the tip of her finger down the straw and smiled in satisfaction. Tapping her finger idly on the side of the glass, she looked up at the ceiling with exaggerated innocence. "If I leave now, I can grab some food on the way and-"

Kenshin reached out, tangling his fingers in her hair, and pulling her back around to meet his kiss. He felt her smile, felt her shake slightly with silent laughter, and bit her lower lip in retaliation. The sound of her glass meeting wood with a little more force than necessary following that had him sliding his other hand up her thigh, firmly kneading the taut muscle until her lips parted.

Everything else faded away, just as it had from their very first kiss. The taste of Kaoru and the feel of her lips moving under his completely consumed his senses. Left his hands shaking with the desire to touch her, to memorize every line of her body all over again and listen to her still beg for more. He inhaled a shaky breath and slid his fingers out of her hair, cupping the back of her neck and pulling her closer. When his tongue slipped past her lips to brush across hers, he inwardly smiled at the answering shiver run through her body. Making his skin tingle everywhere they touched, and starting that familiar curl of heat in his stomach. But it wasn't until her hand moved caressingly up the slope of muscle leading from his shoulder to his neck that he forced himself to ease away from her mouth.

Sighing, he closed his eyes and rested his cheek against hers, struggling to remember of all the reasons why it would be a bad idea to pull her onto his lap in the middle of a bar. He settled for moving his hand up and down her spine in long, unhurried strokes, urging her to lean into him a little longer until the had both cooled down to more manageable levels.

"So about that food," Kaoru trailed off suggestively.

Kenshin laughed at the oh so subtle suggestion. Giving her one more kiss, he stood up and reached for his wallet. "All right, honey, all right. Let's get home and I'll make you something fresh."

"My tab's already taken care of." Kaoru held up a hand to stop him from trying to pay for her drink, even as she grabbed her phone and accepted his help down from her seat.

Kenshin's eyes narrowed slightly. "Oh?"

"I might have paid it myself, you know," Kaoru pointed out, turning off the ringer and dropping the phone into her bag.

Kenshin tucked his wallet back into place. "Did you?"

"I would have." Kaoru looped her arm through his. "Blame Katsu if you want, he took the money."

Kenshin made a sound of displeasure as he pulled her up against his side. "Maybe next time you should wait for me at home." His smile took on a devilish slant at the frown she turned up at him and he dipped his head to whisper against her ear, "That way I won't have to wait as long to say hello properly."

Kaoru couldn't help but smile at the promise in his voice, or the way it widened when his teeth playfully grazed her ear and sent chills racing down her spine. She wrapped her arm around his waist, and leaned up to press a kiss under his chin. "Now that you mention it, I happen to have it on good authority that you've been neglecting me."

Kenshin's arm came up around her shoulders. "Is that so?"

"Absolutely." Kaoru nodded, keeping pace with him as he guided her through the light crowd to where Sano had resumed his post by the entrance.

"Hmm." Kenshin gave her a speculative once-over while he held his hand out to Sano for her coat. Deciding it was better to ignore the knowing smirk on his friend's face in favor of shaking the heavy wool out and helping Kaoru get her arms into the sleeves before he used it to turn her around to face him. His hands slid down to the zipper, hooking the ends into place, and dragging it up its path over her chest much slower than necessary.

Once he'd reached her neck, he stopped to brush his thumb across her throat and murmured softly, "I guess I'll just have to fix that, won't I?"

Kaoru slipped her hand into his with a smile. "Starting with food."

"Starting with food," he obligingly agreed, finally meeting Sano's gaze over her head.

Sano casually folded his arms over his chest and dipped his head meaningfully to his left. Discreetly glancing in the direction he'd indicated, Kenshin unerringly locked eyes with a frowning brown-haired man sitting at the end of the bar. He brought one hand up to the small of Kaoru's back in a gesture that was both protective and possessive, making sure to hold the man's gaze the entire time.

Kenshin's eyes narrowed in silent warning when he failed to look away. He took a step to block Kaoru from that man's line of sight before turning his back in pointed dismissal. He reached around Kaoru to open the door, not the least bit surprised at the way she pressed back against his chest with the rush of cold air that swept over them.

Kaoru stopped to pull the charcoal-grey scarf she'd "borrowed" from him out of her bag with a muttered curse. Kenshin shook his head in amusement and silently lifted her hair out of the way to make it easier for her to wrap the scarf around her neck.

"All set?" Kenshin let her hair slide through his fingers once she stopped fussing with it and smoothed her hair back into place with extra care.

Kaoru tucked the ends of her scarf into her coat and nodded. "All set."

"Be good, Jou-chan," Sano called after her, getting her attention long enough for Kenshin to get in one last frown over his shoulder. "Don't forget to tell Kenshin what a great friend I am."

Kenshin nudged her outside before either of them could gear up for one of their infamous arguments and let the door swing closed. The music and voices immediately dropped down to a vague hum, and Kenshin felt the tension ease out of his shoulders. Breathing in the quiet of the night air, he pulled her against his side again and wrapped his arm around her shoulders to steer her toward his car. "Next time you won't have to deal with that."

"It's not a big deal, Kenshin," Kaoru scolded. "That's what happens when one of the places we go is a bar."

Kenshin was quiet for a moment, hugging her as close as he could manage without hindering their progress. He rubbed his hand up and down her arm, trying to keep her from getting too cold. Resting his cheek on her hair, he murmured, "Maybe by the next time I'm running late you'll have something a little more obvious to keep them away."

Kaoru laughed. "What are you going to do? Get me a shirt with a warning label?"

Kenshin's smile took on a more secretive tilt. "I think I can do better than a shirt."

"Like what?" Kaoru tilted her head curiously.

Kenshin pressed a kiss to the top of her head and answered vaguely, "I'm sure I'll think of something."