It seemed like just another ordinary night with his friends at MacLaren's.
Barney Stinson had no way of knowing that it was a night that would change his life forever.
He arrived late to find that his friends had strategically arranged themselves in their usual booth, so as to leave him an empty seat next to Robin – who was, presumably, the only member of the group who was completely unaware of said strategizing. Barney flashed a quick, grateful smile in Lily's direction before taking his seat beside the object of his affections, and was rewarded with the briefest and most imperceptible of winks in return.
As was the usual these days when he was in her presence, Barney found himself trying a little harder, joking a little more, doing his best to make an impression on her – and he thought maybe it was working, a little. Robin shared his sense of humor, and laughed even when the jokes he made were dirty enough to make Lily blush and excuse herself from the table.
And Lily would just have to deal with it, because Barney knew that he would do anything to hear that musical laugh over and over again, and know that he had been the cause of it.
Eventually, it didn't matter how dirty Barney's comments were because Marshall and Lily excused themselves for the evening, going home early, as was the usual for them. Ted headed home too a little while later, claiming an early work day the next morning. Barney was silently grateful, rejoicing in his mind for the chance for a little alone time with Robin.
Unfortunately, he still couldn't figure out how to break out of the friend zone.
He just kept up his usual show, doing his best to amuse her and keep her too entertained to get bored and leave him as well. After one particularly vile joke, when Robin finally managed to regain her composure, she gave Barney a speculative look, her brow creasing in a thoughtful frown.
"So… why are you here, Barney?"
Barney blinked, immediately feeling a little bit hurt by the question. "What are you talking about? I'm always here."
"No," Robin replied slowly, a slight smile on her lips as she studied his expression a little too closely for his comfort. "You're always on the make. You come over here and sit with us when there's nobody in the room who's up to your considerably low standards, which is… not really all that often. Except for lately. You've hardly left the booth the last three nights." She paused a moment, and something in her soft, familiar tone made his pulse quicken as she asked, "What's your deal, Stinson?"
He swallowed hard, nervously tapping a finger on the side of his glass as he tried to maintain his calm and composure. He glanced down for a moment before looking up to meet her eyes, his smile a little more serious than usual as he spoke in a quiet, thoughtful voice.
"Maybe I'm… tired of having such low standards. Maybe I've decided that the awesomeness that is Barney Stinson is a little too good to be spreading around to every female in the state." He shrugged slightly, biting his lip a little before concluding, "Maybe I'm just… growing up a little."
Robin stared at him for a long moment, clearly taken off guard by his unusually solemn manner and completely unexpected words. Suddenly she let out a rather rude, unladylike "pfft" sound, rolling her eyes.
"Okay… almost had me there, Barney…"
"I'm serious!" he insisted. "I'm about to unveil to the world – Barney Stinson, 2.0…"
"Don't you mean 3.0?" Robin retorted. "It's not as if this is the first persona you've used…"
"… new and improved…" Barney deliberately spoke over her, giving her a warning glare at the reference to his former flower child days. "Half the sleaze, all of the awesome!"
Robin gave him a dubious look, a single brow raised, as if waiting for the catch. Barney sighed, rolling his eyes and looking away from her as he took a sip of his drink. He was afraid to look her in the eye right then, afraid that the sting of her doubt would show in his all-too-expressive gaze.
His eyes widened, his concerns suddenly changing when he noticed a familiar figure sauntering up to the bar and sliding onto a stool. He immediately turned toward Robin again, resting his elbow against the table and holding a hand up to his face to hide it, pretending to suddenly be very deeply involved in conversation with his companion.
It wasn't all that difficult to fake.
"What's up with you?" Robin laughed softly, glancing in the direction he had been looking prior to his strange behavior.
"Don't look over there!" he whispered urgently. "Don't draw attention to me!"
"Why not?" Robin asked, once again giving him that sharp look with an eyebrow raised – but at least she didn't look toward the bar again. "Who are you avoiding, Barney?"
Barney opened his mouth to respond – then frowned, puzzled. His voice was sheepish when he admitted, "I… can't actually remember her name. But the dishwater blonde who just sat down at the bar… let's just say we've met before."
"And which of the dozens of possible reasons does this particular chick have to hate you?" Robin still kept her eyes focused on him, resisting the urge to look toward the bar, but her lips twitched slightly with the beginnings of an amused smirk.
Barney closed his eyes for a moment, a shamed grimace twisting his mouth as he slowly ground out his reluctant admission.
"She was one of the ones I had over when Lily was staying with me. She thinks I'm married. She was… pretty pissed off when Lily walked in… said she wouldn't have gone out with me if she'd known…"
Robin shook her head slowly, her amused expression unchanged. She had heard the story of the brief cohabitation from Lily, who had confessed with some embarrassment the part she had played in getting rid of a couple dozen of Barney's conquests.
"Most women wouldn't, Barney," she informed him mildly.
He let out a snort of derision. "Are you kidding? A lot of women find it a turn-on."
"A lot of the kind of women you like to hook up with," Robin countered. "For most women… that still makes you look like a worthless cheating piece of shit."
Barney shrugged. "What do I care what they think of me afterwards? It's not like I ever intend to see them again."
Although Robin said nothing, Barney could clearly read the quiet disapproval in her eyes before she glanced away.
"But… that was the old me," he hurriedly added. "That was on the other side of the leaf I've just turned over. I'm moving up to a higher class of women… and a more reputable style of life…"
"Yeah," Robin drawled, giving him a sympathetic but somewhat condescending smile. "I'll believe it when I see it."
Barney was stung by her dismissal of his words – but also challenged by it. He straightened, dropping the hand that was shielding his face and slapping it against the table as his jaw squared with determination.
"Then, by God, you'll see it!" he declared, rising from his seat with dramatic flair.
"What are you doing, Barney?"
Robin sounded tolerant but vaguely bored as she watched him get up, draining the last of his drink before putting the glass down on the table a little more forcefully than necessary. He gave her a bright, prematurely triumphant smile, his tone smug and certain as he responded.
"I'm going to prove to you that I'm serious." He paused, glancing toward the girl at the bar before meeting Robin's eyes again. "I'm going to go over there to that girl… who very rightfully hates my guts… and apologize for disrespecting her and lying to her."
Now there was a spark of genuine surprise and interest in Robin's eyes, which slightly widened as she looked between Barney and the girl at the bar.
"Please, Barney. You're not really going to…"
"I am," Barney declared, his smile widening at her reaction. "Write it down, Scherbatsky. You're about to witness history in the making."
"Hi." Barney waited as the young woman on the barstool slowly turned to face him, already braced for the cold anger that immediately crept into her narrowed green eyes. He proceeded with his hurriedly planned words, regardless. "You… probably don't remember me…"
"Barney Stinson. Never thought I'd see you again." She sniffed disdainfully as she turned back toward the bar and sipped her drink before adding, "Too bad."
He did his best to be as charming as possible, giving her an apologetic grimace as he slid onto the stool beside her. "So… you do remember me, then. I'm… sorry, but…" He cringed inwardly, closing his eyes for a moment as he confessed, "… I don't actually… remember that part of you. The name part. I remember other parts…"
She gave him a withering glare as she spat at him, "Allison. Sharpe." She gave him an incredulous look as something suddenly seemed to occur to her. Her tone was aghast as she asked, "You weren't actually planning to fool me a second time, were you?"
"No, I was planning to apologize for the first time," Barney replied without hesitation.
That got the surprised look he was hoping for. "Excuse me?"
"I saw you come in, and… after my initial moment of panic… decided that I should come over and apologize for the way I treated you last time I saw you," Barney explained, pouring on the charm – which was decidedly more difficult when he wasn't trying to sexually attract the woman he was charming. He made sure to meet her eyes as he stated with slow certainty, "I was the worst kind of jerk… and I'm sorry."
She studied his expression for a long moment, a speculative expression on her face. Finally, he felt a sense of victory as her shoulders fell slightly, and the taut expression on her face eased into a reluctant half-smile.
"Thank you," she replied, a note of stern reproof still in her voice, despite her acceptance. "That means… something, I suppose."
"It means I'm a changed man," Barney told her, his eyes dancing with the good spirits that came with his success. He was too cool to look over his shoulder for Robin's reaction – but he could imagine it, and he imagined her looking at him as if he was utterly awesome. "I don't… cheat anymore."
He didn't see any need to go into detail about the full nature of his previous deception. He thought the apology was in and of itself impressive enough, given the fact that he had never once apologized to a woman he'd duped in his entire history of duping women. She glanced over his shoulder briefly, and for a moment he wondered if she was looking at Robin, but he didn't dare turn around to see. But then, the moment had passed and she was smiling into his eyes.
"Well, that's good to know. I'm glad you've gotten yourself together, Barney."
He nodded slowly, returning her smile with a dazzling one of his own. "Can I buy you a drink?" he offered, being sure to maintain an appropriate distance between them, though even still he hurried to clarify. "Not as a move of any kind – just as an apology."
"No, thanks." She shook her head. "I'm actually headed home… but I appreciate the offer." She glanced toward the door with a slight frown creasing her brow before looking back to him, a thoughtful, uncertain expression on her face. "There is one thing, though… Would you mind walking a lady out to her car? I had to park in the alley, and I'd feel a lot safer if I had someone to just… make sure I get there safely."
Barney suppressed a grin at the request – not exactly the type of request he got often.
"Give me just a second," he said with a nod, holding up one finger as he slid off his stool. "I'll be right back…"
He was beaming when he reached the side of the booth, where Robin was trying not to look as if she'd been intently watching the entire exchange. He gave her a smug smirk as he explained.
"The lady accepted my apology, thanks very much. And continuing in the vein of my new-found gentlemanly-ness, I am walking the lady out to her car in the alley."
"To her car. Right."
"Seriously. Just to her car. I'll be back in five minutes, tops."
Robin's dubious smile faded, a grudgingly impressed expression on her face as she realized that he was telling the truth. "You're serious. You actually just apologized to her, and you're actually just walking her to her car."
"Scout's honor," Barney affirmed, clearly quite pleased with himself. "BRB."
He left the table and returned to the bar, offering Allison his arm and leading her out the side exit into the alley where her car was parked – leaving a wondering, slightly awed Robin in his wake…
… which was exactly the reaction he'd been hoping for.
"So, like I said… I'm really sorry about everything that happened. It was entirely my fault." Feeling exceptionally gallant and chivalrous at the moment, Barney reached in front of Allison to open her car door. "If I had another chance to do things differently… you know I would…"
Allison turned and smiled at him, nodding as she prepared to get into her car. Barney was thinking that this had gone much better than he would have anticipated. He had managed to gain the forgiveness of this woman he had wronged, and in the process, to massively impress Robin.
This was a very good night.
And then, all at once… everything changed.
Strong, rough hands grasped Barney's arms from behind, yanking them painfully behind his back. Barney let out a startled yell, struggling to free himself from his as yet unseen attacker, but his attempts were useless against someone so much larger and stronger than himself. He fought desperately as he was shoved up against the side of the car, his arms pinned behind his back with one hand while another hand gripped his hair and slammed his head hard into the roof of the car. Dazed, Barney automatically ceased his struggles, fighting simply to hold onto consciousness.
That, too, proved to be a losing battle.
As the man behind him held his head down against the roof of the car, Barney blinked several times, trying to get his eyes to focus through the haze of pain from the blow to the head he'd taken. As he tried to figure out what had happened, tried to form some kind of coherent thought, Barney saw Allison's face come into focus directly in front of him, a cold smile on her lips.
"Don't worry, Barney…"
She spoke with soft mockery as she pressed a soft cloth that smelled of something thick and sickeningly sweet over his mouth and nose, her smile widening as he tried to pull away, but couldn't escape the firm grip of the mammoth goon behind him. She waited until his eyes had started to drift closed, and her final words echoed hollowly in his swiftly darkening mind.
"… you're going to get the chance to make it up to me after all…"
Robin waited in the booth for thirty minutes.
Finally, with a heavy sigh and a sinking feeling of disappointment in the pit of her stomach, she walked up to the bar.
"Hey, Carl? Can you walk me out into the alley? I just wanna make sure Barney's okay, but, um... if he's not... going out there myself is probably not the smartest thing..."
"No problem." Carl came out from behind the bar and headed toward the side exit with her. "If I know Stinson, though... he's probably just taken off with some chick..."
"Yeah," Robin sighed. "Probably so."
The alley was empty -- of Barney, and the girl from the bar, and the car he'd said was parked there. Her disappointment cemented, along with a sense of irritation and a little bit of hurt that he'd just taken off and left her waiting like that, Robin wearily made her way up the stairs to the apartment.
New leaf. Fresh start. Whatever, Barney.
She got into bed, drifting off almost immediately... thinking of all the ways in which she would rip Barney Stinson a new one the next time she ran into him.