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07 August 2012 @ 07:35 am
T&B: Between The Lines, Chapter 1  
Title: Between The Lines
Fandom: Tiger & Bunny
Pairings: Eventual Barnaby/Karina
Summary: It all started with Kotetsu's big mouth at her birthday party.
Rating: T
Alternate Link: fanfiction.net

Chapter 1: The High Art of Subtlety

Karina tried her hardest not to spin on the mod barstool as she smoothed the excruciatingly short skirt of her dress. Thanks to Nathan's adamant stance on picking her outfit for the evening, she was now adorned in a strapless silver dress and bubblegum pink heels. An equally pink tiara adorned her head, but she had drawn the line at the sash that had birthday bitch embroidered on it – she had to maintain some of her pride before the rest of the night taught her to forget.

"Do we really have to wait until midnight?" the fashionista himself whined to the bartender, pastel lips in a pseudo pout. His expression seemed to be deterring the young man more than anything else however. Karina couldn't blame him either, seeing as her group consisting of mostly older man friends were impatiently crowding the trendy new bar that was generally frequented by people…Well, her age. The only reason they hadn't been forcefully moved by the rest of the clientele was because half of the girls in the establishment there were content to line up for Barnaby's autograph on a napkin, regardless of the fact that he was quickly nearing thirty.

"I'm sorry uh, sir, but it's policy," the bartender replied, continuing to clean the same mixer he'd been at for the past ten minutes. He gave her the best look of encouragement he could under the circumstances. "Once the clock strikes midnight, she can have as many as she wants."

"You're lucky you're cute," Nathan scowled as his painted nails drummed the empty counter. He had insisted that everyone wait to drink until she'd had her first taste, but clearly his resolve and patience were both wearing thin. He wanted to get the show on the road.

"I already told you, you don't have to wait for me," Karina interjected for the fifth time. They'd been here for about half an hour now, and the others seemed to be in the same state as Nathan. Passing the time consisted of making small conversation and anxiously glancing at their call bracelets and phones for the hour. Well, for everyone except Pao Lin and Ivan anyway, who seemed to be too lost in each other's eyes to care. How she envied them.

"Come on now, there's only a few minutes left," Kotetsu said from the barstool to her left, throwing an arm around her shoulder. The old butterflies in her stomach began to flutter again as she fought to not lean into his weight. "It's your day, so we're gonna wait."

"Oh no you don't!" came a sharp cry from her opposite side, effectively causing Kotetsu to remove his arm and ruin the moment. Antonio had apparently taken her statement to heart and tried to order, earning him a violent slap on the wrist from Nathan. Rock Bison's arm shriveled in response and Karina sent him an apologetic glance, though she wasn't sure if he caught it through the defeated sip of his water.

"So, Miss Karina, are you looking forward to drinking legally?" Keith asked her in his usual chipper tone. Another pass at small conversation, but she appreciated the try nonetheless.

"I'm not sure," she replied truthfully, eyeing the many colorful bottles with an overwhelming type of interest. "I've never drank before, not even with family, so I don't know what to expect."

"Not even at your other job?" Barnaby asked instead in mid-signature as his fan waited eagerly. In the past, she would have suspected some ulterior motive behind the question, but seeing as Kotetsu probably reported everything to him, she hoped it was mere curiosity this time and not underlying sarcasm that could say, cancel her radio show. Yes, the idea in its entirety had been some stupid gimmick to feed and expand her fanbase, but he had still made a fool out of her during his guest appearance by acting like he was the one in charge.

"Never," Kotetsu interrupted her just as she opened her mouth to speak. "Our Karina's a good girl. Whenever I go and she's on her break, she's always sipping on some soda," he said very matter-of-factly before ruffling her hair in that infuriating platonic way of his that she couldn't hate completely. The blasted butterflies stirred anew as her hands moved to fix the damage to her hair. It was a reflex by now.

"Endorsing your product on both jobs," Barnaby quipped, and ah, there it was again, he feeling of wanting to gut him alive. But seeing the subtle upward curve of the corners of his mouth, Karina realized that he'd been merely joking. She reminded herself that if he held any true ill sentiment towards her, he probably wouldn't be here.

It's been five years and I still haven't gotten used to that sense of humor, she thought to herself, letting her shoulders slouch a little more comfortably on her stool. "I guess you could say that," she replied with a grin of her own before he went back to cranking out signed napkins like a printing press. And speaking of which –

"I kind of have an announcement about that actually," she stated loudly enough for all of them to hear, acquiring their attention with her sudden volume. She tucked her hair behind her ear, giving them each a nervous glance before proceeding. "I'm quitting my side job."

"What? But why?" asked Pao Lin with wide eyes. She was one of the first to know about her job as a bar songstress and had given so much more support than Karina's own parents ever did despite being a busy hero herself.

"Well it's just been really hard trying to juggle two jobs and attending college, you know?" the blonde said before taking a sip of her own water, though she was sure they knew her well enough by now to see through her feint lead-in.

"That and well, I guess one of our customers works for a major record label." she said, spinning a lock of hair around her finger as a slow smile began to creep its way onto her face. "He brought in his boss a few times throughout the past year and now and they want to…sign me."

The entire bar was quiet for a moment until Nathan's shriek of pure joy cut through the silence. "Oh honey!" he squealed, throwing his arms around her in a tight embrace, her tiara beginning to slip from the sudden impact. Realizing this, her flame type style mentor released his hold to fix her hair, smoothing it out in a motherly manner. "I'm so proud of you, you know that?" he said, putting the plastic jewels back into place.

"Yeah, that's great news!" Kotetsu cheered from her left, giving her an animated thumbs-up. "You're going to be living your dream now."

"Congratulations, and again, congratulations!" came Keith's trademark voice, soon followed by the chorus consisting of the rest which made her beam a little brighter.

"It's not going to be easy though," Karina remarked through the congratulatory sea as she traced the outline of her coaster. It was true though, and she doubted the rest of the group actually knew what the music industry was like, considering that they didn't have a hero record deal packaged with their contracts. "I still need to go through the process of being a trainee all over again since they don't know, and who knows when I'll actually make my debut –"

"That's not going to stop you, Karina," Pao Lin said knowingly. "We already know how badly you want to be a singer and we're going to support you all the way!"

"Yeah, don't sweat the small stuff," came Ivan with a nod and the rest of her Hero TV cast looked like they wholeheartedly agreed. "This has been your goal for so long now, I doubt any of that will faze you."

"As a pop idol, I cannot think of anything that needs improvement," Barnaby added, and she could only imagine that he was thinking of their short-lived days as BTB. She supposed he had gone through an abridged form of training during their practices, so he knew kind of knew what he was talking about.

"I'm sure that you will be successful in your endeavors," he finished to her surprise, and the uncharacteristic sentiment in his words was enough to earn him more a few brownie points in her book.

"Uh, I hate to interrupt but," Antonio's sandpaper voice cut in just as she was about to thank them all, lifting up his cell phone for her to see. She gasped in disbelief – a mere thirty seconds to midnight and they hadn't even realized it. All previous conversation was replaced by anticipation as they glued their eyes on Antonio's phone, honing in on the ticks like they would a deranged criminal.

Karina held her breath as the red hand on the clock made its steady ascent, and as soon as it finished its revolution, the speakers erupted with a shrill ring resembling party horns. The older man looked at her bashfully as if he was sorry for the pathetic attempt, but the simple gesture had her smiling from ear to ear.

"Happy birthday, Karina!" came the gang's collective voices before she was enveloped in loving body heat from all around. The tiara Nathan had only previously fixed was once again askew as Pao Lin all but tackled her in order to embrace her before the boys did, and once they did come, she felt like she was being suffocated in a mass of arms, lanky and burly alike.

From her squashed position against the bar, she recognized Kotetsu, Antonio, and Keith overwhelming her with their height as Nathan yelled "What are you doing? Get this woman a Cosmo on the double!" to the stunned bartender and couldn't help but laugh. She really loved her Hero TV members. Despite Kotetsu and Barnaby's choice join the Second League a few years back, all of them had still remained close enough to deem family. The fact that all of them had made time to attend was proof in itself.

"Thanks you, everyone," she said tenderly as she fought her way to get her own arms around whoever was to her left and right. But as soon as she had accomplished this feat, a pretty glass filled with something pink garnished with a pretty lemon wedge was sent her way by the bartender.

"One Cosmopolitan," he confirmed, setting the drink in front of her with a grin of his own. "Happy birthday, miss."

The blonde took the cocktail glass by the neck, examining it for a moment as her friends watched intently. She then brought it to her mouth to take a tentative sip, feeling the slight burn make its way down her throat. It wasn't nearly as bad as she'd imagined with the amount of fruitiness, but it definitely wasn't her cup of Pepsi Nex.

"How do you like it, darling?" Nathan cooed, letting one of his fingernails drag across the glass.

"Not bad," she admitted, pursing her lips in thought before unexpectedly downing the rest in the blink of an eye. She bit into the lemon wedge afterwards, tasting the pleasant sugared coating before the acidity hit and cut through the taste of the alcohol. She smiled, teeth completely overshadowed by the bright yellow peel as a joke.

"Now that," Kotetsu applauded before whipping out his own phone to snap a picture with a chuckle. "Is how it's done!"

Nathan squealed in excitement, looking as if his own daughter had grown up right in front of him before turning back to the bartender, "Lemon drops for everyone besides the other young lady over there – sorry, Pao Lin – now!" he demanded.

The bartender gave a quick nod of confirmation before getting to work, delivering each shot in front of its recipient with style and flair, remembering everything down to the sugared rim. Nathan looked mildly impressed before lifting his shot glass and making sure everyone did the same. "This one's for you, sweetie. I hope you have fun tonight," he said with a wink in Karina's direction. "Cheers!"

He threw it back with ease and Karina attempted to follow, eyes crimping shut at the sweet but pungent taste, but forcing it down all the same. She opened her eyes and stuck out her tongue, desperately salvaging the crystals on the rim as the older members of the group laughed. Apparently, she was the only one who'd had any trouble with it.

"Rest assured, there is plenty more where that came from," Nathan told her with a wicked grin. "No holding back tonight, everyone, the tab is on me!" he declared, resulting in an eruption of glee from Kotetsu, Antonio, and the rest of the bar.

"No, not all of you! I don't even know you!"

Karina gulped, shoving her empty shot glass to the side as Nathan rattled off the names more complicated sounding drinks. She nervously stared at her stomach, hoping to God that it would hold up for the rest of the night.

One Jager bomb, three jello shots, a buttery nipple, two kamikazes, and tequila sunrise later…

"This is reeeally good," Karina slurred, swaying on her barstool as she polished off the rest of her drink like she'd been doing it all her life. Even the garnish was not spared as she took the cherry into her mouth with a smack of her lips before biting into the sweetness.

"I'm glad you're enjoying it, hun," Nathan grinned, daintily sipping his own poison of choice – a screwdriver. Though the rest of the gang had retreated to the other tables or booths in the background, Nathan had chosen to stay by her side. She figured it was to keep her company, but the look in his eyes suggested that he wanted otherwise.

"Why are you still here, Nathan?" she inquired, mouth drooping in a faux frown. "You should go and have your fun too."

"With them over there ready to pounce?" the older man said, pointing a long finger at a table with a few boys seemingly engrossed in their own activities. "They may not look like it, but they've been eyeing you all night."

"They have?" she asked, eyeing them in disbelief.

"Of course they have!" Nathan exclaimed, a bit surprised by her blatant lack of faith. "Look at yourself! I think every single, straight male in this establishment has set their sights on you at least once tonight."

"Really?" she mused, a wistful look crossing her features as she looked towards the table again. She could feel the heat rush to her face when one of them caught her gaze and smiled.

"Karina, you're gorgeous," Nathan remarked, taking a few strands of gold from her head and primping them to his liking. "Trust me, if they're not looking at you, they're looking at me."

"Oh, Nathan, what would I do without you?" she chuckled melodically as the lights around them started to grow hazy. She took a quick glimpse her wrist which Kotetsu had insisted on marking with every drink. Was that…ten now? Oh nonsense, she could handle herself just fine.

"Be the little lamb for those wolves to prey on," he replied, sending a discreet glare in the direction of her obvious admirers. "You're out of their league, dear."

"But –"

"But what?"

"I…" she began, looking around for fear that someone might overhear. She leaned in a bit for confidentiality's sake, "Am I old?"

"What on earth are you talking about?" Nathan blustered in shock before pointing to Antonio. He was seated solemnly by himself, a complete contrast to the rest of the crowd. "Honey, that is old. You've only barely reached twenty!"

"No, no, no!" she repeated, waving her hands to emphasize his misunderstanding. "Not old like that but old for...A relationship I guess?"

"I'm not following," he said, putting his screwdriver down onto his coaster for a moment so he could listen properly.

"Well it's just that," the blonde stopped, biting her lip in apprehension before speaking in a hushed voice. "I haven't had a boyfriend yet, you know? Or even gone on a date, and I'm twenty years old! Is that normal?"

She started to quiver, letting out a choked sob as her inhibitions melted away, "I know being a hero and trying to be a singer takes up a lot of my time, but –"

"Oh, Karina," Nathan sighed with understanding as he accepted her into his open arms. "There's nothing wrong with being single at your age. It just means you haven't found the right person yet."

"That's what everyone says," she muttered into the shoulder of his leopard print button-up, but not even Nathan's comfort could stop her sudden flood of misery as she tore away from him.

"I'm a twenty year old virgin!" she wailed louder than her sober self would have intended, dramatically throwing her hands up before melting into the counter of the bar.

"That's what's got you down, birthday girl?" a familiar voice asked from behind, causing her to spin around fast enough to leave her with whiplash. To her horror, a very red Kotetsu accompanied by a stoic-as-ever Barnaby appeared in her line of vision thereby creating her worst nightmare. She was honestly surprised her jaw hadn't unhinged itself and clattered to the floor yet with the way it was hanging open.

Someone kill me now, she said to herself, realizing that a quick exit to the bathroom wasn't possible with two six-foot-tall men in her way.

"Well if it makes you feel any better," Kotetsu began, playfully elbowing his partner in the gut. "A few more years and this guy will be pushing for thirty year old virgin!" He laughed as if it were no big deal, Karina and Nathan taking in this new information quietly. They continued to stare for a moment, stunned at Kotetsu's sheer audacity and Barnaby's now hostile demeanor which suggested that the facts were indeed true. However Kotetsu, dense as ever, proceeded to take no notice, signaling the bartender with a wave instead.

"It's time to slow it down a bit. One Corona, please!"

"You'd better watch yourself, old man," Barnaby warned, now a bit red himself. Kotetsu grabbed the bottle with a grin before proceeding to stumble backwards, catching himself on Barnaby's sleeve before tripping on his own two feet.

"Whoops!" he laughed, straightening himself as Barnaby rolled his eyes. It looked like was once again going to be playing guardian to a man who refused to act his age.

"Please disregard him," Barnaby said, adjusting his trademark jacket while glancing at Karina and Nathan for the final word. "He has no idea what he's talking about."

"Oh my…" Nathan let out with his fingers pressed to his lips as the duo made their way towards where Antonio was, no doubt to keep him company. "I would have never thought Handsome to be in the same boat after all these years."

"Oh no, he heard me," Karina lamented, eyes wide and ignoring Barnaby's similar state of celibacy. She rose from her seat in a flustered frenzy, bringing her hands to her face in mortification, "What am I going to do?!"

"Relax," Nathan scolded her, putting his hands on her shoulders easing her back down onto her barstool. "Kotetsu will only remember that if he isn't knocked flat off his ass before the end of the night, which I'm sure he will be. And furthermore – oh, is that guy checking me out?" he suddenly asked, gesturing to the tall redhead who'd just made an appearance at the bar. Karina squinted at him with as much subtlety as she could muster, but she needn't have worried, quickly discerning that the man wasn't looking at her.

"I think he is," she whispered with glee, all previous worries of her virginity subsiding for a moment. She gave Nathan a suggestive shove, urging him to make his way over there and spit his game. "Well, what are you waiting for?"

"Are you sure?" Nathan asked uneasily, looking from her to the redhead in indecision. He didn't want to abandon one of his closest friends on her birthday, after all.

"Don't worry about me, I'm a big girl now." Karina stated breezily as her stool began to sway again. She raised her hand high in order to catch the bartender's attention just as Nathan stood to ready himself. "I can handle it."

"If you say so, honey," he replied, concern still eminent on his face but eager to snag his prize. "If you need to burn anyone to a crisp, you know who to call."

"I know," she smiled, waving him off as the bartender glanced at her, unfamiliar voices in the distance growing louder as Nathan got further away. No doubt the group from earlier. She straightened her back, sitting pretty on her barstool pretending to pay them no mind.

"One sex on the beach, please!" she demanded with a frenzied grin, no doubt to make up for her persisting chastity. Nathan, still close enough to hear, could only laugh with pride at her choice as he sauntered towards his the redhead, licking his lips as he did so. She was certainly learning.

"I don't like the way they're looking at her," Kotetsu mentioned, blatantly staring at the small group of men who had joined Karina at the bar with resentment. Two of them currently had their arms around her, one on her shoulder while the other claimed her waist. And from the looks of it, she was actually flattered by their showy affection for some reason.

"They're no good, all of 'em," he continued, sending them a deadly glare which couldn't have possibly been visible from their position across the room.

"Well she is an adult now," Antonio pointed out, watching the scene unfold with the rest of the older members of Hero TV. But even as he said that, a frown was making its way onto his face. It was difficult seeing Karina make the passage into womanhood after meeting her at the young age of fourteen. "Kaede's going to go through the same thing one day, you know," he mentioned offhandedly as a sort of warning to his long-time friend.

"Over my dead body!" Kotetsu hollered, slamming his bottle of Corona onto the table with a loud thud. Thankfully, his grip had been hindered enough to prevent it from shattering, but Barnaby winced at the sound all the same. He had remained completely sober in the probable case that Kotetsu were to do something like completely fall over.

"It is rather strange to watch," Keith agreed, crossing his arms as he surveyed the group with equal surmises. "But I do not think that Miss Karina would appreciate us interfering in her business."

"What do you mean? It's our job!" Kotetsu stated with drive before guzzling down the rest of his beer, adding the empty bottle to the small pile he had growing. Barnaby could count five excluding the harder drinks he'd had earlier, and the mention of his daughter had probably riled him up a bit. Not good.

"Our job?" Keith repeated with a questioning look.

"Yeah," Kotetsu nodded firmly as if it were law. "Our job as heroes!"

"As far as I know, our job as heroes does not entail saving women in bars unless they are somehow being threatened or assaulted in the premises. A lady like Karina being chatted up does not fall under those categories," Barnaby pronounced. Regardless of the environment, harmless domestic happenings weren't their problem, even if they were in the Second League. And if they did need to handle, then they at least needed a call about it first.

"But look at them, Bunny! You know what they're going to do once she can't tell what's right and wrong anymore?" Kotetsu asked, pointing accusingly at Karina's new mantourage. "They're going to take her somewhere sketchy and do all sorts of horrible things to her and you know what? It'll be too late to call for help!"

Barnaby shook his head in dismay as Kotetsu started making lewd hand gestures to illustrate his point. The old man's imagination tended to get out of hand when under the influence. But on the off chance that the group of young men did intend to take Karina with them at the end of the night, the rest of them would undoubtedly notice and come to her aid as friends. However, Kotetsu's fiery determination had the potential to become a problem before such a situation could even unfold.

"And what do you want to do about it?" he said, choosing to humor him in the meantime before he decided to bound out of his seat and fall flat on his face.

"Go rescue her obviously," Kotetsu drawled, giving his partner a scrutinizing look. Barnaby raised a brow as Kotetsu wrinkled his nose in acknowledgement as if he were confirming something to himself.

"But I think you'd be better suited for that job, Bunny," he confirmed, nodding to himself like a madman.

"Me?" Barnaby asked in confusion. "Why?"

"Because you're the youngest of all of us," Antonio said with an accepting swig of his boilermaker. Far past forty, he was far past his prime unlike the fresher faces of the group, most notably Barnaby and Ivan. "If any of us went, we'd look like her father."

"What he said," Kotetsu concurred, lazily tracing the rim of his latest bottle only to catch it before it threatened to tip. "That and you're like, more sexually intimidating and stuff."

"Excuse me?" he blinked, letting the statement sink in for a moment.

"Don't look at me like that! You know I'm right." Kotetsu demanded without any further explanation.

"He has a point, Mr. Barnaby," Keith seconded in agreement. "With your celebrity status, you would easily be able to whisk away Miss Karina from those scoundrels through sheer intimidation. That is not an easy feat."

"Yeah, exactly!" Kotetsu called enthusiastically despite the fact that he was unable to validate his own reasoning. Typical.

"Is that what you would have me do?" Barnaby asked with a dreary look in his eyes. He wasn't much for social gatherings like these in the first place, having been invited to many during this first few years as a hero. Getting directly involved with those distasteful youths would probably be bothersome as well. Not that he wasn't concerned about Karina's well-being, but if given the choice, he would have avoided the ceremonial bar run altogether. The present scenario was far too common in the present day. With the amount of drinks they'd treated her too and the lack of attire Nathan had presented her in, it should have been foreseen from the get-go.

"Yes," Kotetsu replied simply, causing Barnaby to deadpan. Leave it to drunk hero with traditional values about young women. His partner scratched his beard while sprawling out his limbs, disregarding Barnaby's own uncomfortable stance at the situation.

"That and I think we should head out soon anyway." Kotetsu continued, letting out a rather unattractive belch while he was at it. "Ivan and Pao Lin left ages ago, Nathan's on some guy's lap, and let's face it – we're way too old for this place."

The latter was the only part he could agree with. Karina herself looked like she was ready to fall asleep with the way her head was resting on one of her companion's shoulders. Rethinking his opposition, he realized that it would be best for him to get to her before the young group realized their advantage of the situation. He just hoped they'd let him take her without a fuss.

"If you insist," Barnaby sighed, standing and making sure to tuck his chair in before he proceeded in steady strides towards the bar. Even if it needed to be done, Kotetsu definitely owed him for this.

"And get me another one of these while you're at it, would ya, Bunny?"

Karina let out a languid croon, bending her head away from its perch as her new friend Steven whispered something about buying another drink into her ear. She was at a bar on her twentieth birthday with a group of handsome young men she'd only met a few hours ago. Her mother would be ashamed, but her judgment taught her to forget such trivial matters for the time being.

"Oh, I don't know if that's such a good idea," she stated unsteadily, still gripping her half-full glass of midori sour in one hand. She took another sip from her straw, feeling Richard move his hand to draw slow circles on her thigh. Another quick glance at her wrist and she realized she hadn't marked it sine Nathan left. "I think I've had about five too many and it's getting late…"

"What are you talking about, babe? We've got all the time in the world," came Lino's sultry voice, tracing his finger along the exposed curve of her shoulder. She involuntarily shivered and suppressed a giggle.

At the same time, the sound of someone subtly clearing their throat made itself known, catching her interest. She turned her head in search of the source, squinting tn the midst of the bright lights and the spinning room. Her gaze eventually landed on blonde curls and a face she would deem pretty had it not been on a figure that tall with spectacles bridging his nose.

"Karina," a familiar voice greeted as he approached her, choosing to ignore the questioning looks from her choice of companions and proceeding without a care.

"Barnaby," she mirrored dreamily with a smile. She twisted her barstool to face him properly, freeing herself from her human restraints at the same time. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to get you, of course," Barnaby said gently, extending his hand to her amidst the sea of shocked faces, male and female alike. He could hear the crowd beginning to murmur, steadily working to his advantage. "It's about time to go, don't you think?"

"Oh my God, she's with Barnaby Brooks Jr.?"

"What the hell? That is sooo unfair!"

"Lucky bitch!"

Sexually intimidating, huh? He thought to himself as he remembered Kotetsu's words. Maybe the old man did have a point.

Karina's entourage, as expected, looked far from pleased at his sudden appearance. They made a quick move to restrain her once more, but found themselves too late as she bobbed her head in an enthusiastic nod, abandoning her drink and entrusting her hand to his larger one. She gave a small hop off of her barstool in order to join him, effectively stunning the small audience that had formed.

On a whim of senseless dramatic flourish, Barnaby gently pulled on her arm causing her to stumble towards him in. But despite her surprised yelp, he made sure no accident was met, securely wrapping his arm around her waist and pinning him to his side. His hand hovered over the curve of her hip and Karina in turn let out a pleased gasp at the contact, wrapping her arms around his waist for more stability and fueling the flames of jealousy from the group she had just abandoned.

"Bye!" she cheered happily, giving them a flamboyant wave before allowing herself to be led away by Barnaby and his triumphant grin. His hold on her remained steady as they walked, all eyes on them as they made their journey towards Kotetsu and the others. Though Karina only vaguely noticed the attention, the still conscious part of herself was liking it, even if it was only because she was with Barnaby. She followed his lead until the came to an abrupt halt, and through her blurring vision she recognized Kotetsu, Antonio, and Keith all waiting for them.

"I've retrieved her," the taller blonde declared when they finally reached the table. Karina's significantly smaller figure was firmly latched to his side, safe and smiling brightly in greeting.

"Good work, Bunny! I knew you could do it," Kotetsu applauded, moving to stand himself. "Ready to go, birthday girl?"

Karina nodded again, face pressed flush against Barnaby's jacket. Her arms and legs were beginning to sway until Barnaby tightened his arm around her waist, determined to keep her upright.

"Are you alright?" he asked, earning a stifled sound of affirmation against his chest.

"I have to say bye to Nathan," she breathed slowly, struggling against Barnaby's grip in order to get her tired limbs to move and seek her friend.

"Nathan's a bit busy right now," Antonio pointed out, eyeing the flame type next who was straddling a complete stranger with no shame. "I'm sure you'll hear from him tomorrow."

"Okay…" she said, relaxing into Barnaby's grip again, relieved at the lack of effort she had to put in to stay standing.

"Where should I drop you off, Miss Karina?" Keith asked, honorable sense of responsibility making him an obvious volunteer for one of the night's designated drivers.

"The corner of 1st and 31st," Karina mumbled against the leather, clutching at the jacket's folds as if her life depended on it.

"Oh that's right, you moved out huh," Kotetsu mused, tapping his chin and swaying like a bowling pin in his chair. "In that case, why don't you drop her off, Barnaby? 1st and 31st is closer to your place, right? We'll hitch a ride back with Keith instead."

"I suppose so," he said, looking at the drunken girl uneasily. "But are you sure this is alright?"

"You can count on me to keep them safe," Keith declared before giving Barnaby a proud salute even though it obviously wasn't Keith he had been worried about. He would trust Sky High with his own life if it came down to it, but for him to take responsibility of Blue Rose? He would say that they were on friendly terms now, but it was still unfamiliar territory to him, especially considering her current state.

"What are you talking about? It'll be fine," Kotetsu replied, giving his partner a friendly pat on the shoulder and disregarding any possible complications. "Now let's go!"

Barnaby looked at Karina again, crumpled against his chest and half unconscious. To get her out the door would probably be a struggle in itself. The princess carry in very literal use came to mind as he eyed the piece of plastic on her head, but he supposed she wouldn't be pleased if she were to somehow remember in the morning or say, find a picture on Kotetsu's phone. So instead, he let the other three go ahead, using their bulk to clear a path and guiding her as best as he could in the same union he had used earlier. All eyes seemed to be on the two of them again as they made their way towards the exit, but after years of celebrity treatment from the public, he had learned to ignore it. He proceeded through as if it were nothing out of the ordinary, vaguely wondering if it was the same for Karina minus the costume as they left through the front.

The group reached the parking garage not much later without a hitch, Keith and Barnaby presenting their tickets to the valet attendants to retrieve their vehicles. Karina had mustered the strength to stand on her own as they waited, leaning on the parking booth with half-lidded eyes. She let out a giggle as Kotetsu and Antonio reenacted some sort of arrest they had been fighting over last week. Barnaby eyed the scene with something akin to fondness – some things never changed.

Keith's pulled up first, a mid-size silver sedan that looked like every other civilian car. As he took his keys from the attendant, Kotetsu hopped in the back, clearly ready for some sleep while the bulkier Antonio claimed passenger's seat for the leg room. Keith was the last to take his place, making sure to roll down the windows in order to give Karina an appropriate goodbye.

"Happy birthday!" the three said in unison with eccentric waving, which was of course followed by Keith's "and again, happy birthday!" before they drove away to make room for Barnaby's approaching sports car which he was too fond of to ever think of replacing.

He tipped the parking attendant generously before getting in, Karina having clambered in as soon as it pulled up. As he started the car, he couldn't help but notice the goose bumps beginning to rise on her crossed arms with mild concern.

"Are you cold?" he asked her. With the chilly night weather, the heating wouldn't fully circulate until they were at least down the street.

"I'll be fine," she said quietly, adjusting her seat to a severe reclining angle, suggesting that she planned to sleep during the entirety of the ride.

He guessed she was too tired to care at this point, but removed off his jacket to drape over her torso anyway. Not surprisingly, it proved to eclipse most of her dress. "You can use that if you'd like."

Karina gave a shy nod of thanks, dragging the garment up to her chin and letting her eyes fall shut as Barnaby drove into the night.

"Karina," a voice called through her slumber. She chose to wholeheartedly ignore it.

"Karina," it repeated again, this time accompanied with a gentle shake to her shoulder. She pouted in annoyance, turning the other way and clutching her cover close to her chest.

"Karina, wake up," Barnaby said, shaking her more roughly this time. "We've arrived."

"Wha –?" she began, wiping her eyes and unknowingly smudging the remains of her makeup. Oh well, not like she had anyone left to impress anyway.

"This is your apartment, is it not?" Barnaby asked, urging her to look out the window. She lazily lifted her head and sure enough, the familiar building greeted her through her squinted eyes, flashing left lamp post and all.

"Yes, that's the one," she confirmed, moving her arm to open the car door, only to have it fall short as fatigue overtook her again, dragging it down like a heavy weight.

"…Are you able to move?" he asked her wearily, brows furrowing behind his clear frames. The digital clock in the car read 4:23AM and he didn't want to spend more time here than necessary, especially considering his scheduled meeting with Ben that day.

"Yeah," she said, trying to effectively gather her strength again. She succeeded in opening the door this time, but caught her heel on the sewer grate as she stepped out, cursing as her ankle buckled under the lack of footing.

"Let me help you," Barnaby offered, wanting to leave before he got tired himself. He stepped around the car, opening the passenger's side door fully to make things easier. Karina rotated to face him, though she hadn't expected his hands to find a spot on either side of her waist and lift her off the ground. She remained frozen in shock as Barnaby promptly placed her on the sidewalk as if she were some kind of Barbie doll.

"T-thank you," she said, shaken at both his actions and the outside cold. Without thinking, she slipped her arms through the bigger holes of the jacket's sleeves before making her journey towards the apartment building. Unfortunately, her sense of balance seemed to have been hampered as well, making her stray far from the desired path and grabbing the nearest solid object for balance – which just so happened to be Barnaby.

Though her weight wasn't nearly enough to cause any significant impact, the frustrated sound she made implied that she was sorry, causing him to regret his rush in turn. He took her gently by the waist once more for aid.

"Let me help you up," he said in a more patient voice, taking a position like the one he had used to guide her out of the bar earlier. She wordlessly complied, doing her best to mirror his steps as they slowly made their way up the steps and finding it mildly amusing when he tried opening the main door with only one hand.

Barnaby was glad that there wasn't any staff in the lobby at this hour considering the fact that their current posture could have created more suggestive undertones. From his surroundings, he assumed that it was a university-owned facility, which would explain why she had moved away from her parents' home across town. If he remembered correctly, Sternbild's College of Performing Arts was only a few blocks away.

He pressed the button of the elevator as Karina continued to snooze against him. She felt like dead weight in his arms, and he wondered vaguely if he looked like a kidnapper dragging her somewhere instead of escorting her like he was.

All more reason for the lack of staff to be welcome, he supposed.

"Floor and room number?" he asked, giving her a quick rustle to get her attention.

"6-D," she somehow managed to say, and off they went.

Her apartment itself was easy enough to find and thankfully, it required modern forms of security than a mere key. "I'll be borrowing this, he warned her, struggling to keep her upright as he dug for her hand through the longer sleeve in order to pass the finger scanner. It lit up in confirmation of her limp hand, but that wasn't the end of it.

"Passcode?" he asked again, studying the number pad attached to the doorknob.

"2207," she uttered, and he pressed the numbers accordingly. The door unlocked with a soft click, and Barnaby managed to open it with his free hand before groping for the light switch, which was found easily enough. By the time he'd moved to close the door, Karina had slipped away from him and began to stumble in the direction of what he could only imagine was her room.

Deciding to make a detour, Barnaby headed to the kitchenette, opening the fridge and bypassing the impressive supply of health foods and picking out a bottle of water instead. He then proceeded to the bathroom where he found her headache medicine amongst a staggering array of skin care items.

Figuring this was all she really needed, he followed her previous trail to make sure he had actually made it into bed properly. He pushed the already partially open door to find her face-down into one of her pillows, tiara and heels taking a forgotten spot on the floor. Taking a quick look around, he spied a stack of post-its and a pen on her desk, scribbling some quick instructions on one before attaching it to the water bottle. Barnaby placed his loot on her bedside table as quietly as he could, but to his surprise, she actually stirred.

"You're leaving?" she asked, rolling onto her side to face him through her distressed locks.

"Yes," he confirmed before she caught him off guard again by making a movement to rise to her knees for more even leveling.

"Thank you, Barnaby," she whimpered meekly, throwing her arms around his waist in a strange form of appreciation he would have never imagined from the normal Blue Rose. He stood uncomfortably, unsure of what exactly to do. But before he could think, her languor had quite literally taken hold of her. Karina's midsection bent forward, head dragging itself against his chest until it touched her knees in some sort of crouch.

"I think you should sleep now ," he said stiffly, quite aware of how her forehead was pressed against his belt. The awkward position only grew when she proceeded to nod into his crotch before releasing her hold, falling weightlessly back onto the bed and completely unaware of the startled expression he was wearing.

"Good night then," she breathed, his jacket wrapped around her for warmth. No need to remove it if it allowed her to sleep easier, especially considering how she would be feeling in the morning.

Mostly content with her state of being, Barnaby switched off her lamp before another throaty mumble from the bed stopped him short.

"You've changed, you know?"

He stopped, his hand reeling back from its halfway position under the lampshade.

"Pardon me?" he asked, curious as to what her drunkenly honest was talking about.

"You've changed." she repeated again, rolling back onto her stomach and hugging her pillow. "You made friends with us and you're really kind…"

Barnaby remained quiet for a moment, processing her words with a newfound reverence.

"And you're going to listen to my CD one day, just you wait…"

He couldn't help but chuckle, remembering her grudge from his appearance on her short-lived radio show. Truth be told, he had been exposed to tracks from her previous CDs on the radio and television, though he had yet to actually take the time to listen to one in its entirety.

But maybe he would once her solo career as Karina Lyle took off.

"Good night," he said quietly before finally taking his leave. He heard nothing but a faint hum in response.