|Between The Lines
Author: raiko.EXE PM
And to think it all started with Kotetsu's big mouth at her birthday party. Barnaby, Karina, and the beginnings of a placeholder romance.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Friendship - Barnaby Brooks Jr./Bunny & Karina L./Blue Rose - Chapters: 2 - Words: 17,265 - Reviews: 12 - Favs: 7 - Follows: 12 - Updated: 08-15-12 - Published: 08-07-12 - id: 8403027
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
It was hot and stuffy and she felt like she had swallowed a few sheets of sandpaper in her sleep.
Karina opened her eyes with a start, greeted by the familiar scenery of her bedroom. She let out a hoarse groan, breaking free of the offending garment on her shoulders and wincing at the natural light streaming through her window. There seemed to be some sort of constraint around her midsection as well, she noticed with annoyance. She looked down to find her dress from last night bunched up and riding high on her hips. It wasn't long before she wriggled out of that as well, fumbling clumsily for the zipper and letting the strip of silver pool onto the floor.
The alarm clock on her bedside table read 9:36, much earlier than she would have wanted to wake up on a Saturday morning with her first hangover. She cursed the world, half wishing she hadn't woken up at all with the raging full body pain tugging at her tired muscles. That along with her inability to breathe without feeling like shards of glass were stabbing her throat had made for a rude awakening indeed.
The blonde settled into a sitting position, limbs hanging lifelessly at her sides as a strained breath left her lips. It was then that the water bottle caught her eye, sitting pretty while reflecting the digital numbers of the clock. With her throat in desperate need for hydration, she wasted no time in grabbing it, reading over the attached note as she unscrewed the cap.
Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest.
She blinked at the neat scrawl, reading it again for good measure and once more just to make sure she'd gotten everything the one measly sentence could mean.
Well that was straightforward.
Karina's eyes went from the note to the lonely red jacket she had shrugged out of before fitting the pieces together. So that had been it. She vaguely remembered something about Barnaby escorting her home, but her mind was far too fuzzy to recall much else. She brought a hand to her temple, hoping she hadn't caused her ride much trouble. After all, he'd been nice enough to make sure she'd slept in her bed and ready some water for her in the morning.
With that thought in mind, she proceeded to heed the blunt set of instructions, downing a good quarter of the bottle before a sudden tremor stirred in her abdomen. She put her hand to her mouth to prevent herself from spilling, quickly setting the water bottle aside and making a break for the bathroom. The blonde threw herself onto her knees in front of the toilet, nails biting into the seat just as her stomach began to empty itself. Her eyes began to tear in reflex, throat forcing remnants of whatever she'd had last night up and out at a violent pace. The substance was streaking the sides of the bowl an unsightly orange that only made her more nauseous.
This continued until she was trembling in the aftershock, using her remaining strength to tear a few sheets of toilet paper to wipe her mouth. By the time she flushed, the smell had already overtaken the bathroom and she struggled to pick herself up in order to switch on the vent. She stood on wobbling knees before successfully hitting the switch, tucking her disheveled hair behind her ears and looking at her reflection.
She was a hot mess, clad in nothing but her underwear and an ill shade of pale with her palms pressed against the counter just to keep her upright. Her bloodshot eyes were watery and smudging the makeup she had left and whatever hadn't escaped there was streaming through her nose. She sniffled, bringing a hand to massage the ridges of her aching windpipe only to have the horrid feeling in her gut return.
I am never doing that again, she thought miserably as she made another desperate dive for the toilet bowl.
"Thanks for making it on time," Ben greeted the hero duo and gestured to the chairs facing his desk. His current office at Apollon Media resembled Mr. Lloyds', large and pristine and about twice as large as his shabby office at Top MaG.
"No promlem," Kotetsu asked, removing his hat respectfully and seating himself onto the leather upholstery with a plop. A jacket-less Barnaby did the same to his right, noting amusedly that his partner's loose, outstretched stance was very much akin to that of a large cat. "So what'd you need us for, Ben?"
"Well to be honest, this concerns you more than it does Barnaby, though I figured he would need to hear it as well," Ben began with a more serious tone weaved into his words.
"Well shoot then," was Kotetsu's chipper as ever reply in an attempt to keep the mood bright.
"Kotetsu," Ben sighed, wondering how he managed to act like that despite the ominous note. The man folded his hands together, brows knitted above his pensive gaze before getting straight to the point. "How much time does your Hundred Power last now?"
Barnaby physically stiffened and sensed Kotetsu doing the same to his left. The older man's declining powers had remained a sensitive subject throughout the years. Though he still boasted the name Wild Tiger 1 Minute, the time limit for his abilities had continued to drop over time with no signs of stabilizing. They all knew that the complete disappearance of his powers was inevitable at this point, but Kotetsu's sheer resolve to remain a hero had mostly defeated their previous attempts of highlighting the risks involved.
Kotetsu's eyes flicked nervously from Ben to Barnaby, who were waiting expectantly for his answer. He ran a calloused hard through his hair – a nervous tick – mouth twisting as he struggled to speak.
"Half a minute more or less," he said in the most convincing tone he could muster. Neither of them bought it.
"Don't lie to me, Kotetsu," Ben warned with a scolding stare. "The broadcasts have timers, I've seen them."
"23.18 seconds," the veteran hero admitted with startling accuracy. The dejection in his voice was hard to miss when had been keeping these records so regularly for himself, and the little logbook located in his pocket of his vest suddenly felt like a heavy weight.
"Kotetsu!" Barnaby shot out in alarm. Though he had been trying to keep an eye out for Kotetsu's time limit as well, had no idea the number had plummeted so low in less than two years.
"That's walking the line, old friend," Ben said with a dark sense of foreboding. He took the projector remote from his desk to display some sort of graph onto the side wall. The plotted data resembled exponential decay with the axes labeled time limit and years elapsed, but they didn't need to thoroughly analyze it all to know what it meant.
"Saito put this together for me the," he told them, using his pen as a makeshift pointer and leaving his seat. He indicated the horizontal blue line parallel the x-axis that cut through the curve in a single spot.
"This is the lowest number he's deemed stable, about 20 seconds give or take," he explained with a frown. "Which isn't far from what you're working with now."
"So what's what supposed to mean?" Kotetsu asked, fidgeting with his ring even though he already knew the answer in his head.
"It means," Ben said sternly, looking Kotetsu dead in the eye. "That maybe you should start thinking about retirement. At the end of the season, to be more specific."
"No way!" the veteran hero said outright, the familiar struggle sounding like some sort of broken record. "I told you before, Ben, I'm doing this to the very end."
Barnaby remained silent on his end, concern ebbing through his conscience as the other two began to argue. Kotetsu was ridiculously stubborn old man when it came to talks like these, thinking he could still do it all even if the odds were dangerously against him. Though their responsibility of handling minor crimes with the Second League weren't as strenuous as say, saving the city from a manipulative CEO affiliated with a criminal organization, he was only human without his Hundred Power activated. The little time of his Hundred Power left was putting his safety in great jeopardy. Even if he had the surprising tenacity of a cockroach, Barnaby would never be able to forgive himself if something were to happen to Kotetsu on the job. The scare with Maverick had been devastating enough.
"Shouldn't I be working to save people with the power I still have?" Kotetsu said, eyes holding so much unfulfilled purpose despite the ten plus years since his debut. "Even if I only have a second of it left, I want to put it to good use."
"Besides, I made a promise," he added, glancing at his ring forlornly as something constricted in his rib cage, resonating with the little book pressed against it. A promise to a grave.
"I'm telling you this as your friend, not as your manager," Ben stated with nothing but Kotetsu's best interests in mind. "Any less than 20 seconds and you're more likely to become a liability rather than a hero. You're only human without your power, and you could get seriously hurt or worse."
"You think I don't know that?" Tiger shot back louder than intended, craning his neck to look at the floor as he fingered his hat. He looked at Ben apologetically, "It's just that being a hero is all I know. I just want to help them, Ben."
"I know," Ben said with an understanding. It's not like he could blame Kotetsu for his objections. The man was virtuous, determined to do good. He switched the projector off for now and took his seat once more, hands folded neatly on the desk. "I'll always be a fan of Wild Tiger, but Kaede needs her dad and I don't know what I'd do without you."
This was enough to render him silent for a bit, undoubtedly weighing his options in his head, and Barnaby took this as an opportune time to speak.
"If Kotetsu is going into retirement, then so am I," he said adamantly. There was no point for him to continue being a hero if Kotetsu weren't by his side, which is why their one year hiatus had happened in the first place. That and he couldn't imagine not working with the old man; it would be too lonely to continue on his own.
"Don't jump to conclusions, Bunny," Kotetsu pointed out with as much conviction as he could muster. "No one said I was retiring just yet."
Barnaby remained unconvinced as Ben eyed them wearily. Despite their agreeable teamwork, the balance was fragile, relying on each other's presence more than anything else. Apollon had pleaded Barnaby to re-join the First League multiple times even during their hiatus, but he'd flat out refused without Kotetsu there. Even if he were to do good for the city, remaining in the hero business would just be continuing Albert Maverick's warped plan for his future, which he had sworn to break away from. Kotetsu was literally the only thing keeping him here. The man had helped him change, and he was indebted to that.
"I expected you'd say that," Ben replied, eyeing the blonde with empathy. "You're free to do as you choose, but I was hoping you'd reconsider. Just because Kotetsu's powers are declining doesn't mean you should put your own to waste. Sternbild is always in need of heroes, and not just for our ratings."
"We'll think about it," Kotetsu cut him off before Barnaby could add his own input on the matter. He turned to Ben again hoping to wrap the unsettling matter up quickly, "Was there anything else you needed us for?"
"Well if it's okay with you, Saito's willing to do some physical analysis to pinpoint roughly when your powers will decline to dire levels," Ben mentioned. "He'll need a few days, but he says you can come in at the end of the week for the testing."
"Man, and here I thought I was going to finally get a raise or something," Kotetsu joked, but the underlying discomfort was still obvious. He repositioned the hat on his head, "I'll schedule it with him later. If that's all, we'll be going then, boss."
"Think about it, Kotetsu," Ben emphasized as his final word, gesturing a goodbye to both of them as they made their exit.
"Yeah, yeah. Let's go, Bunny!" he declared, trying to sound as genuine as he could. They entered the elevator and descending the floors in a smog of thick silence.
"I meant what I said you know," Barnaby stated, looking to his musing partner. He would gladly halve his own time and give it to Kotetsu if there were a way.
"Yeah," he merely replied, eyes trailing the river beyond the city's borders. They watched the buildings of the Gold Stage grow larger and larger as the elevator made its steady drop.
"I think Ben is right though," Kotetsu finally said, giving the blonde a weak grin. "It'd be a shame to quit just because of me."
"But Kotetsu –"
"Tell me, Bunny, why did you become a hero?" Kotetsu asked, cutting him short with his uncharacteristic seriousness.
"Because of Mr. Maverick's plan," he answered automatically because that was the true reality of it. If he'd been given the chance to live a normal life with his family, NEXT or not, he probably would have never dreamed of becoming a hero.
"You don't think there's any value in being a hero?" Kotetsu proceeded, scrutinizing the blonde in the same manner he'd done last night. Drunk or sober, Barnaby knew by now that there was always meaning in that stare.
"Not without you," Barnaby admitted, causing the older man to shake his head at his simple answer. He didn't look particularly displeased, but Barnaby guessed that he'd said something wrong.
"Not even the lives of the citizens?" he asked slyly, confirming his suspicions.
He turned red, embarrassed at his hasty judgment, "That's not what I –"
"Listen, Bunny, there really is no point in wasting your powers just because you can't work with an old geezer like me," Kotetsu began with a sense acceptance, translated into a flare of warning to his unsettled partner. "You should use your powers for good, while you still have them."
"But I don't want to do this without you," Barnaby confessed, emotion shining through the frames of his glasses. His fingers made a fist around the railing as he tried to retain his composure, "Or rather, I can't. I don't know how."
"Bunny, you have the power to make a difference," Kotetsu said in that comforting tone of his capable of quelling even the most vehement of his storms. He put a reassuring hand on the blonde's shoulder in understanding. "This might sound selfish, but if I can't save the people of Sternbild, then I would want you to do it for me."
You're incapable of being selfish, Barnaby wanted to say, because Kotetsu was the type to put the needs of others before him – the needs of the people before him – whether or not he was recognized for it. He'd lost his wife and endured a tumultuous relationship of his daughter and remaining because of it, and was now suffered from internal struggle because he would all of a sudden be forced to do nothing at all.
"I understand," he said despite his still standing objections. If Kotetsu's only wish was for him to continue his legacy, he would try his best to honor it.
"Good. But remember, I'm not completely out of the picture, so don't look so down!" the old man grinned, falling into a more casual stance to lean on the glass. The elevator let out a ding, signaling that they'd made it to the parking garage.
"Oh hey," Kotetsu said while Barnaby readied his car keys. "Do you mind if we stop by headquarters for a little bit?"
"Why?" Barnaby questioned as they approached the car in Baraby's special parking spot, the closest to the elevators.
"I have to drop something off real quick," he replied vaguely, gesturing to the bag he'd left in the passenger's seat. It was plain white and opaque, making it impossible to guess what was inside.
Kotetsu gave his partner a wink, "It'll only take a minute, I promise."
Karina strode as briskly as she could towards the center of the city. It had taken her a whole half hour to finish gagging (what had she been trying to throw up, her pancreas?) before finally crawling into the shower to wash off last night's filth. She'd then searched up hangover remedies on the internet before coming across the solution of exercise, and off she went towards Justice Tower with the intention of working the hangover out of her body. Her stomach had some odd yearning for greasy sustenance on her way however, and she was currently munching on the cheeseburger she'd ordered against her better judgment. Even if she didn't usually stomach mass produced chain brand fast food, it was the best tasting thing in the world right now and she had no regrets.
She made sure to devour her sorry excuse for a late breakfast before escalating the front steps, not wanting to leave any evidence behind to avoid Nathan's scolding about how bad it was for her hips. The usual group of staff greeted her good afternoon as she made a beeline for the elevator, already clad in her workout attire as she pressed the button in vigor. Her casual clothes were in her duffel bag for a change along with five bottles of water to heed Barnaby's written advice.
Beauty can wait, she thought, riding the floors to the upper levels.
"Well look who it is," came Antonio's burly voice from the gym as soon as her visibly exhausted figure strutted in through the double doors. He let out a warm laugh, having seen the hangover from a mile away. She shot him a glare despite his joking intentions, fighting the sudden urge to throttle him – Significant difference in body mass and his stupidly useful NEXT power be damned.
"How do you feel, princess?" Nathan called from his position in mid-lunge, smiling at the under eye circles she hadn't bothered to conceal this morning.
"Like dying," she lamented, setting her bag on the closest bench before joining Nathan in his stretches. She had to hold her breath to prevent her cheeseburger from making a comeback as she bent to touch her toes.
"My little girl's all grown up," he cooed as she struggled to keep from fainting altogether. Stretches had never been so difficult to accomplish.
"Can I pass on the drinking thing for my twentieth birthday?" Pao Lin asked meekly, approaching them with her towel around her neck and a bottle of what looked to be some kind of Chinese bottled tea.
"Absolutely not!" Nathan insisted, causing Pao Lin to jump a bit at his demanding finesse. "It's a rite of passage, honey."
"Aw man…" she frowned, sipping at her drink and fearing three years ahead.
"How was your night, Nathan?" Karina inquired in order to stay mentally conscious and remembering the redhead at the bar. She flipped onto her back and extending a leg to the ceiling in order to stretch her hamstring, "You were too busy for me to say goodbye."
"Sorry about that," he smiled, eyes livid with memory as he sank into the splits. "Let's just say it was amazing. Best lay I've had in –"
"Don't need to know that," Karina cut him off abruptly, speaking for Pao Lin's disturbed grimace.
"Oh, how do you ever expect to get some if you're still so immature about these things," Nathan huffed, pointing an accusing finger in her direction. "And it was only a time thing – he's unemployed."
Karina ignored him, sitting up to rotate her neck in slow circles. At this point, she didn't even care if she was a virgin anymore, not since practically declaring it to the entire world aka Tiger and Barnaby. Mostly Tiger though, because even if she told himself she was over him, there was just something about that goofy grin of his that made her heart beat in a frenzy.
"As long as you enjoyed yourself," the blonde replied, hoping to clear her mind of any images of cat-like beards.
"Believe me, I did," Nathan said dreamily, clasping his manicured hands together for emphasis. Karina shook her head, hoping this wouldn't escalate into a full tangent concerning Nathan's sexcapades. This in itself had become an increasingly hot topic on his end ever since she and Pao Lin were deemed old enough to talk about it, despite the fact that they would probably always be uncomfortable discussing it.
"But speaking of which," he began, eyeing Pao Lin with a wicked smile. He spoke in a hushed whisper, "Have you and Ivan done it yet?"
The girl in question began to choke on her drink, sputtering like a fish out of water. "What?!" she exclaimed hoarsely, hand on her throat to coax the tea out.
"Nathan!" Karina cried in warning, moving to Pao Lin's side and rubbing her back in assistance and kind of wishing Nathan had focused on his own sex life instead. Imagining Pao Lin having anything to do with that was…No. Just no.
"W-What kind of question is that?" the youngest member of their feminine triad managed between coughs.
"A simple one," Nathan shrugged as if he'd said nothing out of the ordinary. "It's either yes or no, honey."
"B-but that kind of stuff is private, and it's not like –" Pao Lin began to rant with a furious blush. But despite her efforts, her string of nervous stutters received a knowing look from the instigator himself.
"So you have!" Nathan declared accusingly, curiosity now infinitely piqued with interest. "Since when?"
"What?" Karina gasped, eyes wide and mouth gaping. No way, it couldn't be true. After all, this was Pao Lin – their Pao Lin – the girl who had disregarded anything effeminate until recently, the girl who had only filled out enough to show some skin and change her hero name to Dragon Maiden last year. She was only seventeen! Could her and Ivan actually have…
"I never said that!" she whined in defense, voice escalating to an uncharacteristically girly pitch high that threatened to break the TV. Even Antonio jumped at the shrill noise, shooting the maniacal group his what-the-hell-is-going-on look from the sofa.
"It's written all over your face, sweetie," Nathan nodded, pointing an accusing finger at her slipping composure.
"It is?" Pao Lin asked, falling directly into this trap. Karina felt herself die a little inside.
"You naughty girl!" Nathan squealed in delight, grasping the younger girl's hands like it was something to celebrate about. "You have to tell me everything. How many times?"
"Nathaaaan!" she wailed in embarrassment, proceeding to turn as red as a tomato. She ripped her hands free in misery, bringing them up to hide her face while being prodded for more details.
Karina stared at the two, lips still drastically parted as she took a moment to process all this. Pao Lin had lost her virginity before her and the girl wasn't even legal yet. There were so many things wrong with that.
"Is it good?" Nathan inquired with a sultry emphasis that made Pao Lin look like she wanted to cry. "Wait, don't tell me you two left early so you could –"
Karina let herself fall lifelessly onto her side. She hit the floor with a dull thump and threw her previous statement about not caring if she was a virgin completely out the window.
She needed to get laid.
The elevator doors opened to reveal the familiar floor dedicated to First League activities. Barnaby followed Kotetsu's long strides towards the end of the hall to the training center, eyeing the plain white bag with muted interest. He couldn't help but wonder who exactly the recipient might be, especially with the given occasion.
"Yo!" Kotetsu burst out cheerfully, walking through the sliding doors like he owned the place, all eyes turning to the two of them. It was impossible to ignore the obnoxious entrance. "What's up, guys?"
"My, that's quite the look on you, Handsome," Nathan mentioned, completely ignoring Kotetsu to comment on the form-fitting shirt clinging to the muscles of Barnaby's upper-half.
"Hey, you two," Antonio said gruffly, concentration currently on the weighted bar he was in the process of lifting. He set it back down onto the bench press, lifting himself from under it and grabbing his towel. "Came to work out with us?"
"Nah, I'm just here to deliver something," Kotetsu mentioned with a smirk, holding up the mystery bag for everyone to see. "Is Blue Rose here?"
"Huh?" came Karina's voice from her half-assed workout on the butterfly machine. She released her grip, weights dropping with a loud clang before rubbing her sore arms. "What do you need, Tiger?"
"Ah, so you are alive!" he grinned, bypassing her completely baffled expression before making his way over for her convenience. He held the bag to her eye level with a smile, "This is for you."
Karina looked at it skeptically for a moment, questioning the motives of its origin more than the contents itself. "What is it?"
"Your birthday present," Kotetsu explained, giving it a shake for emphasis. "I figured it would be better to give it to you when you were sober."
"Thanks," she said, taking the bag reluctantly and finding it to be heavier than she'd expected. The blonde bit back a laugh as she plucked what looked like a badly wrapped box inside, tape and staples peppering the jagged seams. The blonde viciously clawed at the wrapping paper, ripped remnants still clinging to the stapled bits, before throwing open the top. Her nose wrinkled in offense at the contents.
"You got me alcohol?!" she all but yelled, grabbing the bottle of sake by the neck and waving it wildly in his face. Another bottle was the last thing she'd wanted to see.
"Yeah, I'll pour you some later," Kotetsu replied cheekily, ignoring her blatantly disgruntled look she was giving him. "But that's not all, keep looking!"
Karina set the bottle aside for now, no plans of taking him up on his offer before turning back to the box. She grabbed whatever had been lining the bottom, holding it up and letting the folds come undone.
A familiar, badly-drawn snake positioned over Kaburagi Wine & Spirits was printed on what appeared to be a T-shirt. She stared at it for a good moment, the green serpent mocking her with its stick tongue. She could hear Barnaby's snort, obviously recognizing the design as well.
"Do you like it or do you like it?" Kotetsu asked, proud of his present and oblivious to her wide-eyed disbelief. The audacity –!
She opened her mouth to object when that pleased grin of his made an appearance and consequently caused the butterflies to flutter. She pursed her lips, eyeing the older man with an evaluative stare. Of course he'd never meant to offend her, Kotetsu was too selfless for that. In reality, it was just Kotetsu being Kotetsu with present that he had prepared with the kindness of his good-natured heart. He didn't deserve to be victim to her hangover-influenced temper when he'd only been trying his best, even if the present was a bit ridiculous.
"Yeah, it's great," she smiled giving him the most appreciative glance she could muster at the moment instead of biting back with the same response she'd given the towel. She folded the shirt with care as the veteran hero raised his fist in victory.
"I knew you would," Kotetsu said, nodding to himself triumphantly. "I mean, after you told me how much you liked the towel that one time –"
"H-hey, don't mention that!" Karina interrupted, violently lunging to clamp his mouth shut with her hands before anyone could hear.
"Come on, what was that for?" he inquired, dodging her flailing arms with experienced finesse. "Is that any way to thank me?"
The girl eventually gave up, plopping down onto the seat of the butterfly machine with a frustrated huff. She grabbed the sake bottle on the ground to examine it more closely and tilted her head - the frosted glass and intricate Kanji certainly made it pretty to look at, even if she wouldn't be drinking it any time soon.
"I honestly don't know what I'm going to do with this though," she said in dismay. "With this, the 12-pack from Antonio, and the champagne Agnes sent me, I probably won't be able to fit anything else in my fridge –"
The shrill beeping of the first league bracelet suddenly cut her off, almost dropping the bottle in alarm. She set it down carefully into the box before an accident happened as Antonio pressed the button on his bracelet to take the call.
"Bonjour, Heroes," Agnes Joubert's digital projection greeted on cue. "We've got a stolen vehicle making its way through the Gold stage, current position is 2nd and 16thand heading towards the center of the city. You are to stop it and apprehend the hijacker, preferably before it reaches Justice Tower."
"Stolen vehicle?" Pao Lin repeated in confusion. "Why do they need us to stop a stolen car? Shouldn't the Second League be in charge of that?"
"Hey!" Tiger called from the background in offense.
"Because it's not a car," the producer-turned-CEO clarified with a motivated gleam in her eye. "It's a tank. It was stolen from one of Sternbild's elite who collects war memorabilia."
"Honestly, why do people even have these kinds of things," Nathan muttered with an annoyed pout. "They're just making our jobs more difficult."
"Are there any injuries?" Kotetsu butted in, pushing his way in front of the camera.
"Wild Tiger?" Agnes asked, visibly bewildered as to why they were there in the first place. Technically, the two were now required to use the Second League facilities on the floor below, but she supposed that didn't particularly matter at the moment, "No injuries, all property damage."
Kotetsu let out a relieved breath before pulling Barnaby into the camera to join him, "Did you want me and Bunny to go out as well? You know we can handle!"
The brief look of concern that graced Agnes' usually polished features did not go unnoticed, and Kotetsu wondered if Ben had reported his findings to her as well. That or Agnes had developed a soft spot for him, which he highly doubted considering all the property damage and ensuing lawsuits he had been responsible for over the years.
"That won't be necessary," she said, all-business attitude back into place. "The slow speed of the vehicle allowed us to send the evacuation warnings prior. We'll call you if we need your assistance."
"Acknowledged," Barnaby answered for the both of them before Kotetsu could argue. Kotetsu relented as Agnes to turn her attention back to the First League members.
"I want you all to stop the thing before the cost for repairs skyrockets. Who knows how much that would take away from our funding," she ordered. "I've already informed Sky High and Origami Cyclone. Now go and suit up, we're airing this live."
"Yes, ma'am," they said in unison before Agnes ended her transmission. The summoned heroes quickly grabbed their belongings before making for the door with the First to Arrive and Capture points on their minds.
"You should stop by more often, boys!" Nathan called with a frivolous wink before bounding down the hall with his long legs, Pao Lin and Antonio on his heels. Karina was a stride late, grabbing the white gift bag and holding it tight in her arms before erupting in a clumsy sprint. She hoped they would wrap this up quickly considering she hadn't fully shaken her hangover yet.
"Thanks for the present, Tiger!" she called behind her before she forgot. She gave Barnaby a glance as well, looking strangely as if she were internally torn about what she intended to say.
"And I'll get your jacket back to you later, Barnaby," she said quickly before the sliding door closed with a swish, leaving him no time to reply. Kotetsu looked to his partner, brow raised inquisitively at the musing blonde.
A beat passed.
"You all bought her something?" Barnaby asked, a slight tinge of guilt tugging at his conscience.
"You didn't?" Kotetsu asked in surprise, making the guilt escalate instead of regress.
You've made friends with us and you're really kind…
Barnaby said nothing as her words wracked his brain while Kotetsu scratched his beard in thought.
"Well she has your jacket, doesn't she?" the older man said with a wistful grin before suggestively elbowing his partner in the ribs. "You stud."
"Shut up, old man."
True to her word, Karina whipped out her phone the next day to send Barnaby a text during her short vocal lesson break. She'd made sure to stuff the jacket in her bag that morning with the intentions of returning it to its owner that day. She fished his name out of her contacts, he sun was setting through the window of the hallway and bathing the floor beneath her feet in a bright orange.
Can I drop off your jacket tonight after I get out of the studio? She typed hastily before hitting send. His reply came right before her vocal coach called her back in.
That's fine. I've attached the address below. It read in the same concise fashion as the note on the water bottle. The blonde pulled up the map as she walked, deeming it to be almost halfway between the record company and her apartment. Perfect.
"Karina!" her vocal teacher resonated in her annoying sing-song voice from around the corner before she could shoot him a confirmation. The blonde frowned before stuffing her phone back into her pocket. She supposed she'd just have to ring the bell when she got there.
Hopefully today's session won't take forever, she inwardly droned, dragging her tired feet back into the soundproof room where her ridiculously animated instructor was waiting.
The session ended up lasting for three hours.
"I'll see you tomorrow at noon!" her graying instructor chimed like she had just woken up. Karina on the other hand was busy wondering if the carpet would be a comfortable place to sleep.
"Yeah," she breathed, slinging her bag around her shoulder and making for the exit as fast as she could. How does this woman breathe?
Karina stepped outside, bristling at the slight chill of the night. She made a note to stop wearing sleeveless blouses to the studio while hailing the first cab that came by.
"Where to?" the driver asked as she hopped into the back seat, pulling out her phone to recite the address, noting that it was almost 9:00.
"The Terrace on 17th and Grand," she replied, earning a nod from the driver as the car started in that direction.
Karina kept herself busy by admiring the evening lights as the cab rounded a corner onto Grand. From there, the numbers of the perpendicular streets increased at a fairly fast pace due to the lack of traffic, and they made it to the building in just under ten minutes. She paid the fare plus a small tip as thanks before he driver sped off, leaving her to her business.
Barnaby's condominium was in one of the nicest residential parts of the city, situated across the street from a park for appropriate family life and close to the center of Sternbild, making it easy to access from any of the business districts. She looked up to try and count the floors, but gave up after twelve. He probably lived on one of the uppermost floors anyway.
The blonde took a moment to retrieve the jacket from her bag, smoothing out the leather and draping it over her forearm as neatly as she could before proceeding inside. The sliding doors revealed the stylish lounge area of the ground floor, ornate chandelier shining on the marble tiles and equally white furniture rendering her snow-blind. There were no security or residents present, but Karina still felt underdressed in her jean shorts and boots.
Karina made her way to the elevator with its mirrored walls and just like she'd expected from a man of his stature, Barnaby lived at the top. She gazed at her reflection from the available angles, fixing her hair with her free hand while imagining what the interior of his suite looked like. When the elevator finished its ascent, she was surprised to find that there was only one door on the entire floor.
Must be nice inside, she mused before walking up to the doorbell, which was more complex than she thought. She regarded the microphone and camera, wondering if they were already on before pressing what she hoped was the actual doorbell.
Barnaby had been sitting in front his computer when the doorbell rang, Karina's enlarged face suddenly obscuring his research on NEXT powers disappearing. He actually thought she wouldn't show up considering the hour, but his jacket in her bare arms had proved him wrong.
"Do they always keep you this late," he spoke, smirking in amusement as she visibly jumped on camera at the sound of his voice outside.
"Only sometimes," she admitted with a startled flush, looking annoyed through the camera. "Can you open the door now?"
"Just a moment," he said before putting his keyboard on the small table attached to his lone chair and heading towards the front. It slid open with a swish upon pressing the correct locks, revealing a meager looking Karina waiting for him.
"Here you go," she proclaimed, extending her arms and offering the jacket to him. "Thank you for letting me borrow it."
"You're welcome," he replied, pleased to find no unsightly stains on it. He did sense an unfamiliar, flowery smell lingering on it however.
"I was afraid that it might smell, so I used some perfume on it," Karina explained in embarrassment, noting the twitch of his nose. "I only sprayed the inside, so don't worry."
"It's fine," Barnaby reassured her. The feminine scent would fade away after a few wears, and the worst it would do was give Tiger another reason to poke fun at him.
"So this is your place, huh?" the girl asked, peering around his taller frame into the living room. Or what was supposed to be a living room, anyway. She'd recalled Pao Lin calling the place minimalist, but this was a bit much. The computer and chair were completely isolated, other ways of entry blocked by doors similar to the front.
Barnaby nodded, stepping aside so she could get a better look. But apparently, Karina had taken this as invitation inside instead, sidestepping his figure and taking a look around.
"How do you even live here?" She asked, staring at the massive screen that took up the entire wall. With only one chair, she suspected that he didn't have company often besides Kotetsu.
"My earnings," he answered smugly before accompanying her in the center of the room. She hovered around the chair for a moment before noticing the window, straying towards it as if she were in a trance.
"It's a nice view," she commented, taking a moment to appreciate the many colorful lights illuminating Sternbild's skyline. The girl tentatively reached her hand out only to have it relent, falling back to her side as if she were afraid it might shatter the picture.
Barnaby observed her in silence, wondering how long she intended to stay like that. Not that she wasn't welcome, but being alone with Karina was still a new concept to him. The only interaction he'd had with her prior to her drunken escapade a few days ago were merely for work, and even when escorting her home, she had been too tired to make conversation until the end of the night.
You've changed, you know?
Her fatigued voice echoed through his head like church bells. It was that night that had caused all this, he was sure of it now. Despite their long-standing professional relationship, that short conversation had made it personal, made them something between acquaintances and friends – a grey zone he wasn't quite sure how to break out of.
He placed his hand on the table, palm coming in contact with this month's issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly. The issue of his lack of a birthday present for her came to mind once more, and he decided to try using her own tactic on her while she was conveniently here to put his mind at ease.
"Is there anything in this magazine that you would be particularly interested in?" Barnaby asked robotically, causing her to spin around in confusion. She blinked at the cover, a scantily clad female model donned on the cover splayed across a picnic blanket in celebration of summer.
"Excuse me?" she asked, as hesitant to touch the simple magazine as she was with Tiger's present, even if it had been her own tactic to begin with.
"Is there anything in here that you would like?" he reiterated in simpler terms. He followed her gaze to the cover, wondering if it had anything to do with her reluctance. "They're not all like that."
"No, it's not that but just…Why?" she inquired, taking it and scraping the pages with the pad of her thumb.
"For your birthday, I mean," he admitted carefully, turning a bit shy himself. It was widely known that Barnaby wasn't the most sentimental of people, but her blasted drunken honesty had rendered his conscience guilty for not accomplishing such a simple gesture.
"What?" Karina said in surprise, clutching the magazine to her chest and backing up a step. "It's okay, Barnaby. I mean, you drove me home. That's good enough for me."
"That was more of a favor," he corrected her, intimidating stare exerting pressure on her resolve. The difference in his general behavior had left her a bit apprehensive. It wasn't like him to be so adamant about these kinds of matters.
"It's not that big of a deal," she tried to convince him, tightening her grip on the reading material like it was some sort of shield. "I can't think of anything that I immediately want anyway, don't worry about it."
"Please," he stated in a gentler tone than his previous efforts as if he'd sensed her apprehension. She thought about what possible reasons he could have to feel guilty about not getting her anything. With it being Barnaby though, he probably wouldn't let her leave without agreeing to it. "I insist."
"I suppose I could try then," she finally muttered in compliance, using the three tiers of steps surrounding the room as a makeshift seat with the magazine in her lap. Barnaby took the liberty of leaning on his chair rather than sitting on it, placing his jacket on the seat in the meantime. He adjusted his frames, watching her quietly from his perch.
She went through a third of the magazine with no interest. It didn't help that the products and advertisements were geared towards men either, but a particular fragrance ad caught her eye for all the wrong reasons. An embracing couple whose limbs were conveniently placed for censorship were splayed on their bed behind the bottle, causing her to emit a sigh. Her thoughts strayed to the day before, remembering that she was still a lonesome virgin who hadn't even kissed a boy, much less gone on a date.
Then again, Barnaby was suffering from the same problem.
"Was what Kotetsu said true?" she asked before her common sense could tell her otherwise, stopping her leisurely flipping to gauge his reaction. "At the bar, I mean."
His eyes registered stoic discernment, and she suddenly hoped he hadn't taken it offensively. It was a pretty personal question, after all, and he hadn't looked two pleased when Kotetsu put him on blast.
"Relationships and intimacy were never much concern to me," Barnaby replied in vague confirmation. "The majority of my youth and early adulthood was focused on…other matters.
His parents, Karina told herself, suddenly wishing she hadn't said anything at all. Unlike her who simply didn't have the time for a relationship, Barnaby had spent his entire life prior to becoming a hero looking for answers concerning the murder of his entire family. He'd been forcefully deprived of the ordinary life and upbringing that most people took for granted.
"Do you find it strange?" he asked her in return, breaking her train of thought and quietly alluding to her own embarrassing exclamation from that night.
"Not at all," Karina said quickly, not wanting to offend him. Her own internal angst made it such a big deal for her, but his situation was different. It made sense though – had she been in his shoes, she probably wouldn't have paid much attention to the opposite sex either.
"It's more surprising than strange," she continued, shifting away from that topic and instead focusing on her first impression of him. Being the only hero to reveal his face, he had managed to gain incredible popularity with the ladies throughout his career. "When you first made your debut, all the women of Sternbild wanted you. I wouldn't be surprised if more than half of them still do."
"I'm not interested in the superficial," Barnaby informed her, and she could have sworn she caught him smirking. Her lips slightly parted in wonder. Maybe he wasn't as asexual as she thought. She turned back to the magazine where the risqué cologne ad beckoned her, the possible fun of provoking him about the subject suddenly coming to mind.
"I want this," she declared, folding the magazine at its spine in order to emphasize the advertisement page. She held it out with confidence as he bent forward for a clearer look.
Barnaby looked at her in bewilderment, "Men's cologne?"
"No, not that!" Karina exclaimed in disbelief, wondering if he was actually unaware or if he was messing with her. Regardless, his sudden change in attitude had left her a bit frazzled. That combined with her forever cemented chastity and the countless hours in the studio had left her with a few mental bolts loose.
"That," she emphasized, pointing to the scene in the background with a slender finger.
Barnaby remained infuriatingly silent, not a hint of emotion in his face.
"You know what, never mind," she deadpanned, propping the magazine up on her thighs to block everything below the bridge of her nose and forcefully flipping the page. Kotetsu's denseness must have rubbed off on him.
"You want sex for your birthday?" he inquired in a less eloquent manner than she would have ever imagined from him. She half debated on throwing the magazine at his face just because of the way he said it, the smug bastard.
"Wha – No," Karina replied with control unlike the flurry of explicit thoughts wracking her brain. She could feel the heat slowly making its way to her cheeks. She was the sad victim of her own morbid sense of humor. "It was a joke, Barnaby, a joke," she lamented, resolved to never touch on sexual innuendos in his presence ever again.
"Are you sure?" he asked, and now she was positive that Kotetsu had something to do with his partner's sudden audacity.
"Positive," she said rather pointedly, trying to focus on the magazine to quell her exasperation. "It was the part of me that's tired of being alone talking."
Barnaby was looking at her like she were partly insane, and maybe she was considering that the tired-of-being-alone part of her was refusing to shut up.
"Well now that I think about it, it wouldn't be such a bad gift to get from the right person," Karina ranted, flipping through the pages like a hurricane, "But I doubt I'm going to be meeting him any time soon and I'm already twenty." The number of ridiculously attractive men in underwear ads wasn't helping the abruptly warm temperature of the room. Neither was the men's health section that came right after.
"And it's annoying how all my friends are getting some and talking about how good it is. I can get myself off just fine, but according to them, it's not even close to the feeling of a good lay," she continued, unleashing all of her frustrations from the past few days onto the unwilling recipient that was Barnaby Brooks Jr. of all people. Not that she cared at this point – She'd been love overdue for a good vent with someone who understood her pain, and a fellow virgin was hard to come by these days. "Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to give my first time to someone I knew well enough, as long as he wasn't weird about it. It's hard to not be curious about it, anyway, so why not?"
"Karina –" he tried to no avail, startled about the content leaving her mouth.
"I mean, are there any other virgins in the universe besides us?!" Karina practically shouted, only catching herself when she noticed the worried look Barnaby was giving her. Her mouth snapped shut, face turning a brilliant shade of crimson. She couldn't even bring herself to apologize with the sheer amount of embarrassment she had just caused herself. She suddenly wished she had Albert Maverick's powers, even if he had been a gross old toad.
But another look in Barnaby's direction struck her with an epiphany rather than remorse. Yes, she had practically spewed out all her sexual frustrations in a span of five minutes, but he was in the same boat. The phrase "beggars can't be chooser's" suddenly came to mind, but this was Barnaby – she wouldn't be settling for less at all. He was decidedly attractive for a man going on twenty-eight, even with his Farrah Fawcett hairstyle that would probably make him prettier than her in drag. But more importantly, he had shown that he could in fact be a nice guy with the dropping her off and feeling bad for not getting her a present thing. He was the first person to ever do that for her, even if it had only been a favor.
"Say," she began, setting the magazine down on the floor and pushing off from the small set of steps to stand. She approached him slowly, purpose in her stride and a sway in her hips. "What if I were serious?"
Now it was Barnaby's turn to back away, looking as timid as his dreaded nickname's sake. But one step backwards and he was blocked by the chair against his back, "I'm not–"
"Let's face it, Barnaby, we're not getting any younger," she cut him off, mustering all of her courage to proceed. Her normal self would never be so forward or brash, especially with a subject like this, but there was a certain fire in her veins that prevented her from restraining herself. She'd wanted this, and a golden opportunity was right in front of her. "We won't have to wonder anymore, which would benefit the both of us, don't you think? That and well…"
"I trust you," she said after a moment of hesitation, because even this Karina didn't give compliments lightly, especially to someone as foreign to her as Barnaby was. But she supposed that had been before. They had a connection now. "We're friends, maybe not good ones, but friends nonetheless. And I don't think I'd regret giving my first time to someone like you," she confessed, a modest flush on her cheeks.
Barnaby was visibly stunned now, glasses threatening to fall off the bridge of his nose. She was almost directly in front of him now, cornering him like some kind of hunter as his back bent against the chair. He never thought her simple joke would escalate so quickly. She had clearly been upset at her standing virginity at the bar, but for her to ask him outright? That kind of daring was unlike her.
"I can't be Kotetsu," he told her quietly, just to make sure she knew what she would be getting herself into if he consented. To have her wake up the next morning full of regret wouldn't bode well for either of them, and he was still confused about their current standing as it was. But to his astonishment, a temper began to flare in her large brown eyes.
"I don't want Kotetsu anymore! How many times do I have to say it?" Karina wailed in frustration, indicating that the others had inquired about that subject recently as well. "I came to terms with that years ago," she informed him briskly, taking another step forward and completely invading his sense of personal space. Her full lips were in a pout, head was tilted upward to make up for the height difference and effectively intimidating him from below.
"I'm asking you because I want to, Barnaby," she said honestly, jabbing her finger into the dip of his collarbone. His breath hitched as her nail dragged across his chest, stopping right above his heart. "Now what do you say?" she asked, applying some pressure for good measure as she rode the high of her adrenaline.
Barnaby on the other hand, was completely floored. Though he was capable of being just as curious about the matter as Karina was, he had never expected someone to offer a solution like this. He swallowed, unable to think reasonably between the anticipating female in front of him and the heavy drumming in his ears.
"I would ask," he began hesitantly as she observed him. "If I should take you out to dinner first."
She unsuccessfully bit back a smile and Barnaby wondered when she'd gotten so charming.
"I'll take that as a promise."
I wanted to get this up sooner, I really did, but the last part itself took me about three rewrites and I still can't say that I'm happy with it. But I suppose the hardest part is over. Expect mature content beginning in the next chapter, which I'll try to get up soon. Spare a review in the meantime?