Welcome to my Johale crack fic. Well, it won't be quite a cracky as some of my other stuff but it's def a comedy piece so characters will be exaggerated and used to comedic effect. Overall it's mostly a Johanna character piece that charts her progression post Mockingjay and how she deals with both the after effects of her experiences and her feelings of self worth. It's also an AU where everyone lives, so there's that. The title is a riff off of the nineties classic, "So I married an Axe Murder."

This piece was entered into the Caesar's Palace forums Unsexy Dialogue contest.

Many thanks to foojooles for the beta, reining me in, and helping spot the trouble areas.


The First Date

On the day the Hunger Games ended, as the Capitol crumbled into the hands of the rebellion, a lone figure trudged up a neglected mountain trail.

No more than a drab dot from an aerial view, zoomed in the hiker was scrawny, head crowned with a close-cropped fuzz of hair. Drowning in baggy, neutral clothing and devoid of any distinguishing features, by looks alone the panting, perspiring climber could have been just about anyone – but there was no mistaking the stream of expletives:

Huff, puff. "Damn it, Snow!" Huff, puff. "Damn it, Katniss!"

It went on in this vein for two hours – the average time required to accomplish the harrowing trek up to the nearest lookout point of the mountain range that encircled the ravaged Capitol like anthills around a carcass. But she considered it worth every bead of sweat. After all, the view was much better from up here, where she could witness the full panorama of pandemonium, take in the sweeping chaos of the decimation in all its massive proportions: scattering citizens painted with blood and terror; buildings once tall and unbreachable now disintegrated to rubble, their steel girders propped in the air like so many broken limbs. Flames sprouted across the city, unfolding themselves into blooms of fire, petals of ash that fell with the harshness of a blizzard.

Johanna Mason gave a deep and contented sigh. "I've never seen anything so beautiful in my life."

"So. You like destruction?"

She leapt to a fighting stance, hand darting to her side, grasping for the handle of a hatchet that wasn't there. She hadn't noticed anyone creeping up the trail after her, but there he was, toes lining the rim of the perch, eyes plastered to the scene far below them, a strong and upright stance that held a faint degree of menace, like a thunder god about to zing down a lightning bolt.

Johanna relaxed. It's just the reject. "Death, mostly," she replied with a shrug. "But destruction's nice, too."

The wind had battered his cheeks to a pinkish tint that stood out against his swarthy skin. With a rather becoming glow, an evil relish twinkling in his eyes, Gale Hawthorne turned towards her and smiled.

That was how it began.


"So I said no – of course."

Katniss blinked once. "Uh-huh."

"I mean – does he really think I want your cast-offs? That because you don't want to date his pathetic face I'll be happy to snatch him up at half price?"

"Uh-huh."

"Do I look like the type that wants your sloppy seconds?"

"Uh-huh."

"So I told him he could take his offer for dinner, slice it into a thousand pieces, and feed it to the swines!"

"Uh-huh."

Johanna folded her bony arms. The Mockingjay, who had reverted from the skintight leather costumes back to the customary grey and brown cottons of District life, was seated opposite Johanna in a floral wing chair. They faced a floor to ceiling window through which Katniss mildly stared into the middle distance, a fifty-fifty chance – and those were generous odds – that she had heard a single word of the tirade.

"And then I took my axe and chopped him in half!"

"Uh-huh."

"Katniss!" Johanna leaned over and swatted her on the shoulder. "Are you even listening?"

"Yes." Katniss rubbed the sore spot, but her expression didn't ruffle. She raised one shoulder in approximation of annoyance, and probably a hundred other volatile feelings. Johanna rolled her eyes. You just never knew what was bubbling under the surface with that girl. One minute she's so boring she could be technically classified as deceased, the next she's trying to syringe you to death. But then she surprised Johanna by looking her straight in the eyes and saying in a terse, low voice, "You don't want to date Gale. I get it, Johanna. Believe me, I get it."

Mollified, Johanna relaxed her glower. Katniss reclaimed her vigil of the foliage.

The price for friendship with the revered Mockingjay being long stretches of untouchable silence, Johanna amused herself by admiring the intricate crown moulding, counting the number of embossed blossoms in the ceiling. She, Katniss, and the other surviving Victors, along with key figures in the rebellion, had taken up residence in the former President's palace to await the trials, sentencings, and the hotly anticipated executions.

Johanna, naturally, had lobbied for decapitation. "Why do you need to hire an executioner, I'll do them all for free!" But the majority rule from thirteen had carried the day: An arrow through the heart for Snow, and the gallows for everyone else.

The two currently sat lounging in Katniss' room, apartment of the former Vice President of Panem whose name nobody bothered to learn before the rebellion and no one would bother to learn even after her limp body swung from the round end of a noose, her life and contributions memorialized forever in an epitaph that would most likely read: "Here lies the last Vice President of Panem."

Johanna pursed her lips. I can relate to that. She threw a hostile glance to Katniss. "For someone who was your best friend," she clipped, "you don't seem to have a high opinion of Gale."

"People change."

"Regimes change. Ideally with blood and fire and anguish. But people?" She gave a trilling laugh. "People don't budge, even at knife point – and I should know."

"Fine. Let's just say you're right, that Gale's the same Gale he's always been. But recently I've learned some things about him that make it impossible for me to be with him, or even recommend him to others." She blinked. "Satisfied?"

Johanna's sharp eyes flicked to her lap. Her wiry body shifted in her chair. Her limbs were antsy, the same sensation as when too many pine needles accumulated in her undergarments while out on an overnight logging detail. She finally looked up with a composed smile. "Alright," she said airily, dandelions in the wind. "Then we're agreed. Neither of us will date him."

"I was never gonna date –"

"Neither of us will date him."

"Fine." Katniss shrugged. "Whatever."

She smirked as though she'd just won a bet, although wondered if she could truly define "not dating Gale" as a definite prize. Regardless, Katniss evidently couldn't care less, her features placid as blue skies after a storm. Large flowery eyes stared with gag-worthy pathos out the window – at pegasus topiaries and ivory rose bushes – her body motionless as a statue. And Johanna had little doubt that stone monuments of Katniss would soon be littered across every fountain, garden, and public park in Panem. Because even while sitting down and doing absolutely nothing, as she was right at this moment, the Mockingjay exuded a magnetic presence, cast a long and inescapable shadow under which anyone who fell would be forced to wallow in a pool of comparative mediocrity.

In fact, the cloud of people surrounding Katniss Everdeen seemed individually defined by their relationship with her, and therefore Johanna considered it only a matter of time until her own gravestone would proudly display:

Johanna Mason: someone who once knew the Mockingjay

(and tried to kill her)

Listless legs drove her to her feet, propelled her to the dresser, a nine-drawer mahogany number boasting ornate carvings of teenagers in various stages of dismemberment (Johanna was gratified to note that one of her kills had made the exclusive collection), that dominated the opposite wall. As if I even care. Kneeling over an open drawer, Johanna fished her hand inside, scoffed at a prosaic cardigan, and tossed it scornfully over her shoulder. And I'll tell anyone with the stupidity to ask that I don't give a tracker jacker's pointy ass over what people etch onto a hunk of granite pushed over my rotting corpse. Digging deeper into the pile of cashmere, she palliated the subtle, traitorous pangs – the ones that pricked the cordoned section of her heart, the dwelling place of her father's beard and her sister's baby blanket – by enumerating the many practical advantages, in an era of insurgency and war, to have nobody left to care for (or to care for her). Who buys this many cardigans, anyway?

Johanna laid them all aside. Heavy, languid limbs sank onto the carpet. She kneeled there, turned her head and gazed with bone dry eyes out the window. At hedges and rose bushes, and something far beyond these – a gathering place of loss.

It reached from the garden and through the window, through the decades of her life – from timbre yards to killing arenas to Capitol sub basements. Reached and held her captive by its anesthetizing beauty: pristine as an uncharted forest, undisturbed and reserved only for her.


Katniss, who had slipped from desolate contemplation into a rather refreshing doze, sprung awake at a jolting shake to her chair.

"Katniss!" Johanna barked. "Are you awake?"

"Johanna! What are you –?"

Johanna silenced her by sitting down in her lap. "You know, brainless, I'm starting to think I should feel insulted."

Katniss squirmed into the back of her chair as if hoping it would eat her. "What are you talking about?"

"Gale." She waved a hand through the air, as if it were obvious. "Obviously!"

"I think Gale is rarely ever the obvious choice," she said, sucking in her cheeks, which were by the second taking on the distinct hue of radishes.

"Why is it that this guy who I barely know, who I've spent all of five minutes in conversation, suddenly has the gall to ask me out on a date right after you dump him?" She ran a self-conscience hand over her peach fuzz scalp. "I mean, why would he do that? Was it some kind of joke?" Fire surged to her face. "If he's messing with me, then that pretty face is about to get a lot uglier."

"I doubt it. Gale doesn't do jokes. Or humor."

Johanna rose, to the visible relief of Katniss, with a feline grace and a pair of arched eyebrows. "Sounds kind of like you," she said, reeking with disdain as she moved to the bed and stretched her thin, pale form across silky sheets.

Katniss said nothing. She squinted at Johanna over the back of her wing chair. Prone to miss things that were right in front of her face, especially if it in any way concerned other human beings, Katniss nonetheless had spent a lot of unhappy times with Johanna, even more with Gale, and had silently come to a few startling deductions. "You didn't seem so opposed to him back in Thirteen."

"What are you talking about?"

"Gale, obviously." Johanna snorted. Katniss raised an eyebrow and countered: "'Are you, gorgeous?' – ring any bells?"

"Oh, that!" Johanna dismissed the accusation with a laugh. "That's when I thought he was your boyfriend."

"And you find other people's boyfriends more appealing than someone that's available?"

"Who doesn't? I can't count the number of times I tried to pry Finnick off of Annie, but they're like barnacles, those two."

"Right." Katniss stood and walked over to the bed, subsided gently upon the edge. "And I guess back in Thirteen Gale seemed more like helpless prey than a predator."

Johanna rolled over onto her stomach, eyes narrowed. "What are you getting at, Everdeen?"

"Nothing. But I should warn you, Johanna – Gale's persistent."

"Tell me about it. He's already called me three times! I think I'd kill myself if I were that desperate."

"The thing with Gale…sometimes he needs to be shown that something won't work."

"So what are you saying? That I should…." She gently swayed her head, pondering the options. "Beat him senseless?"

Katniss' lips became a thin line. "Maybe not quite that. Maybe just go out with him. And then, when it's a total disaster…."

Johanna nodded gamely. "I can do disaster."

"I know you can. And then, when it's a total disaster, he'll back off." Katniss shrugged. "Like reverse psychology, or something."

Johanna frowned, suspicious. "What the hell is that?"

"Just go out with him."

Johanna hopped off the bed. "What can I say? My idiot head doctor keeps telling me I need to 'move forward' with my life, whatever the hell that means. And one doesn't contradict the Mockingjay." With a farewell wink she bounded out the door.


The two set out for Gale's room, who had been assigned the suite of the former Secretary of Intelligence and Torture.

"He told me he picked it himself," Katniss explained with a faint look of disgust.

"Really?" Johanna appeared impressed. "Despite his complete idiocy, you can't fault the guy for his taste."

Together they strode down the long corridor that led to the palace's east wing, the walls on either side decked with an unending line of portraits, an homage to all the Capitol's past and present leaders. The haughty smiles of former presidents and the calculating gazes of past gamemakers bore unnervingly down on Johanna, who had trouble focusing on the task at hand while envisioning each of their grotesque hairstyles fraying and knotting as they rolled around on freshly decapitated heads. They'd make a great game of lawn bowling. She felt a sudden stab of disappointment that most of them were already dead.

Katniss abruptly stopped and pointed to an unmarked door. "That's Gale's room." Then, with a succinct turn of a heel, her boots click-clacked from whence they came.

"Hey!" Johanna called, hip thrust out and both arms in the air. "Why are you running off?" She folded her arms. "Don't tell me you have an appointment with some pottery that's begging to be stared at?"

A brown braid flicked as Katniss called over her shoulder, legs hurrying her away. "No," she called. "I'm just not really in a Gale mood. But don't let that stop you from having fun." And her braid swished again as she vanished around a corner.

Johanna fumed. Let her leave. She didn't mind. She was Johanna Mason, victor of the Seventy-first Hunger Games, and she didn't need an escort to ask some random loser out on a date. Sure, she might look like the spokesperson for starvation diets, thin as a wire, her scarred, gaunt face more appropriate for a mausoleum than a restaurant. And sure, the last dregs of her empathy might have been zapped away by buckets of unrelenting water and five hundred well placed volts, an unabating heat that melted her from the inside out, left her a hollow and brittle shell, liable to shatter at the smallest provocation, or even none at all.

But didn't she still have a lot to offer? With small, halting steps, Johanna lapsed the remaining distance to the door. Just yesterday she had thrown an axe hard enough to split a nude miniature of Finnick Odair – contrapposto – that stood as the centerpiece of the palace's atrium clean in half, which had to count for something.

She took a deep breath and knocked.

She knocked again.

Of course he had the audacity to let her knock three times before opening the door with a slow creak.

A dark head emerged. "Hey." And someone had better strap her down, the way his eyes roved up and down and up again, like she was some kind of naked statue.

"Eyes up here, Hawthorne, unless you want them gouged out." She hurled a glare through slitted eyes, a slow and dangerous nod of her head. "I thought I had warned you off for good back on that mountain top. But you truly must be either a natural born idiot, or learned the skill through inhaling coal dust instead of oxygen twelve hours a day."

Gale swayed his head from side to side. "A little of both?"

Johanna brought her hands together. She cracked a knuckle. "Fine, you want to do this? Ground rules, non-negotiable: Absolutely no touching, and as for kissing – ha! I will cut. Your. Tongue out." Crack.

"I'm not much for rules." He cocked his head. "But you make a pretty convincing argument. Is there some kind of contract I need to sign? Should I get a pen?"

"I'm not much for contracts." She flicked her eyes to her fingernails (fully regrown after the Capitol's torture masters had had their way with them) and examined them with indifference. "I prefer alternative guarantees: word is my bond, always make good on my threats – that sort of thing."

"Gotcha."

"So?" Johanna stuck out her chin. "You still interested?" She held her breath.

He smiled. "I'll drop by your room at eight tonight." And his parting smirk disappeared behind the door.


She had raided every unlocked room in the palace, snagging anything that shined, shimmered, or sheened, and had carried the load in both arms to her walk in closet, the size of which rivaled her entire house back in Seven.

The only thing visible within the mass of silks and polyesters were two wide, brown eyes, a pinky finger, and her right foot. "Can you guys smell it?" came muffled from a layer of ruched taffeta. "The scent of fashion!"

Finnick leaned over and took a sniff. "It smells like moth balls. And really, Johanna, how many clothes does one person need?"

"It's not about necessity." Johanna swam to the top of the pile. She shot to her feet, brushed a lacy pink thong off her shoulder as she wound up for the harangue: "Fashion is a way of expressing yourself. Our bodies are like these blank canvases, an outside surface that reflects the inward man, and with every layer…." Although endowed with an apathy that rivaled brick walls, Johanna was nonetheless liable to burst into paroxysms at anything wardrobe related. Her eyes blazed with each fevered word she spat out to the ever-glazing eyeballs of the recently married Odairs. "Fabric, cut, color, texture – it's a three dimensional art form."

In due time her audience gradually abandoned any pretense of attending the lecture, and resumed their base operational mode of gazing rapturously into each other's eyes.

Johanna threw a shoe at Finnick's head – "You know what, just get out of here! Both of you!" – and shuffled them without protest out of the closet.

She exhaled a calming breath, and recommenced her exploration of the clothes pile. A red blouse bedazzled in sequins. No. A long black gown hung low in the back. Hideous. A ruffled green tube top paired with ribbed, tight leather pants in bark brown. I guess my stylist wasn't executed after all. Every ensemble she assembled seemed like it wouldn't even fit, let alone enhance her pitiful appearance.

She kicked the top of the pile. A spray of clothes smattered the full length mirror. Alone, confronted with her head to toe image, she scrutinized her face and body with a sinking frown. She ran a finger across her scarred skin, lightly grazed the hair sprouting in uneven patches. With her straight spine and inflexibly erect posture, one might have surmised that her emaciated frame once walked with dignity and strength. But those were past artifacts, light years away. Nothing of her former glories remained in her reflection, nothing left but dull brown eyes to stare back at her, twin stars long extinguished, without hope of rekindling.

Happy laughter tinkled from outside the closet door – the nauseating sounds of love. Johanna quelled a groan. Finnick and Annie, to her dismay, had been assigned the suite adjoining hers, their two rooms separated by nothing but a panel door and paper thin walls. With the Odairs still in their honeymoon stage, it made for uncomfortable nights, mornings, and most afternoons. But Johanna admitted to some benefits; a pair of friends routinely on hand could prove useful, and after much consideration, Johanna opted for a style that had never before failed her, gave herself a quick once over in the mirror, and exited the closet to seek her friends' approval.

"What do you think, Finnick? Too racy for a first date?"

Finnick's mouth parted. "Johanna, you're….naked."

"Yeah, you're probably right – too much too soon." She clapped twice. "Annie! Help me find a dress!"

Annie, lounging on Finnick who in turn lay lounging on a chaise, expelled a bell-like laugh. "I don't think I can help you. I'm not an expert on clothes. I'm not even used to wearing clothes."

Johanna looked at her askance. "So, what? Do you just go around half naked like some kind of pampered puppy?"

Annie shrugged. "Only on hot days."

"Huh." She flicked her eyes to Finnick. "And here I thought prancing around like a newborn fairy was just your schtick, golden boy."

"No. As a society, we tend not to wear a lot of clothes in District Four."

"It's not really a thing in District Four," Annie agreed.

"It's not a thing?" Johanna gaped. "Wearing clothes is not...a thing."

"No."

"No!"

Johanna walked back into the closet without a word, and slipped a purple mini dress over her head. "I need new friends."


Katniss had forewarned Johanna that punctuality was possibly Gale's only virtue. And true to her prediction, at eight o'clock on the dot an aggressive knock sounded at her door. Johanna armored her features, her face promising wrath and carnage as she opened the door.

Gale grinned like the cat that got the cream. He appraised her from head to toe. "Wow, you look…"

She stiffened. "What?"

"Hot. Really hot. I mean, that dress?" His smile slipped to a punch-inducing smirk. "You took some time out for little old me."

Fist half-cocked, Johanna forced her arm to her side and her fingers to relax. She slung a black purse over her shoulder. "Keep up that kind of talk, and I will murder you in your sleep."

"Does this mean you're gonna sleep with me?"

She brushed past him on her way out the door, muttered, "No wonder she picked Peeta," under her breath.

Gale held his hand over his heart as he followed her down the hall. "I think I'm falling in love already!"


Heaps of rubble littered the streets. Ash and dust still clung to the air, peppering the couple as they strolled through the Capitol proper. Brushing the debris off her bare shoulder, Johanna was disappointed to note that most of the infernos had already been put out. A few stubborn spirals of smoke billowed in the distance, and she blessed them with a smile and silent encouragement. Burn, baby, burn.

A new vivacity laced her movements. "So where are you taking me, Hawthorne?" Acrid smoke filled her lungs, a ruined city lay at her feet, and she had to confess to the invigorating effect on her mood, as well as her expectations. "I find it hard to believe anyone could live in this wreck, let alone stay open for business."

"A few of the Capitol rebels are restaurateurs – if you can believe it – and a large reason the invasion was so successful. They were consigned to supply rations to the influx of Peacekeepers defending the city, and knocked at least a quarter of them out by poisoning their food."

Johanna raised an eyebrow. "One of your brilliant ideas?"

Gale looked to his feet. He looked to the sky. "I can't take full credit for it." He adjusted the shoulders of his jacket. "It was a roundtable decision."

"Yeah, right." She scoffed, rolled her eyes. "Those marshmallows at the top would never come up with poison. They'd rather flash fancy commercials or give motivational speeches, hope that if they sit underground and play dead for seven decades the Capitol might toss them a scrap of freedom like a doggy bone." She met his eyes. "You get results, Gale. And you don't need to be humble with me. I think it was a fantastic idea – killing them with their own excess." She barked a laugh. "I would have loved be there, watching them writhing on the floor, clutching their overstuffed bellies."

"I could hook you up with some footage, if you want?"

"Dinner and a movie? You sure know how to treat a girl, Hawthorne."

"I try." He maneuvered them across the street, to a half-standing building decorated with a colonnaded facade, no doubt once a premiere example of Capitolite sophistication, and now graffitied over with – the odds are in our favor now, bitches! "One of our allies owns this place," Gale said. "He kept it open so the rebel forces could have a place to unwind while we sort everything out. Reservations are at a premium, but they were willing to squeeze us in."

"You mean squeeze you in." A hostess with magenta curls ushered them to a small, inconspicuous table set in a dark corner. With the power grid still unstable, the only sources of light were a roaring fire crackling in a nearby hearth, and moonlight that sparkled onto a blood red tablecloth through a gaping hole in the roof. "If I'd known we were dining alfresco I would have snagged a cardigan."

"And deprived me of the view?"

A waiter materialized, ironically a former avox. He handed her a menu, which Johanna perused for five seconds before chucking it onto the table. "That thing is indecipherable!" All luxurious sauces and unpronounceable titles, a list of fifteen obscure ingredients from parts of the world she had no interest in sampling. "I just want some grilled meat, is that so much to ask?"

The waiter bowed. He brandished a white board and marker out of thin air, and began scribbling furiously. Of course, Ms. Mason. And which kind of animal product would you prefer? We boast a large variety of meats and poultry, from beef to pork to venison to turkey –

"All of them." The waiter lobbed her a beleaguered look. "I'm in the Capitol," she said with a shrug. "I may as well eat like it."

"I'll have the same," said Gale with a smile, and handed the waiter his menu. "And a bottle of wine, please."

The waiter scurried off. Alone, close quartered for the first time with the ex boyfriend of the legendary Mockingjay, Johanna used the opportunity to study Gale in the intermingling light – fire and moon, gold and silver. The contrasting glows seemed to burnish his skin to a sparkling bronze. He was handsome, no denying it, strong features, a dependable jaw, his face a mask of cool equanimity.

She leaned back in her chair with a slow curving smile. "So what's the deal between you and Katniss?"

The facade slipped. "What?" For the first time she'd known him he looked like an eighteen year old boy.

"You two were as cozy as conjoined twins back in Thirteen. So why did she up and pick Peeta in the final hour?"

Gale frowned. He turned his eyes to his elaborately folded napkin, picked it up and spread it laboriously over his lap. "Did she?"

"Well she sure as hell didn't pick you." This sparked several seconds of cackling that was only waylaid by the return of the waiter, a bottle of wine and two glasses in hand. "Leave the bottle," Johanna ordered. "And you can take my glass away, I won't be needing it." She took a long swig.

Johanna relinquished the bottle to Gale and he poured himself a glass. He stared at the jewel red liquid, swirling the glass in his hand. "The truth is," he finally said, "Katniss had some...issues over one of the weapons I developed with Beetee." He took a sip. "She felt it went beyond the proper boundaries of polite warfare."

Johanna wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Wait, what weapon?" Her eyes narrowed. "Are you talking about the double explosion outside the palace?"

"That's the one."

Johanna snorted. "Why? It's what won us the damn war!"

"I know, right?"

"So Miss Perfect Purity Princess is upset that you blew up a few kids?" She shook her head in disbelief. "As if the Capitol hasn't been exploiting the deaths of children for decades."

"That's exactly what I told her. But according to Katniss…." He held out his palms. "My hands are dirty."

"So are mine." She took another swig. "And so are hers. So where does she get off judging anyone when she's killed just as many people as you or me. Probably more!"

The topic was dropped at the approach of their waiter, both tempers assauged by the sight of seven deftly balanced trays.

Forgoing her knife and fork, Johanna reached for the nearest platter, lifted a sizzling steak to her mouth and sank in her teeth. "Seven plates," mused Johanna between chews. "Good number."

"Your home District, right?"

"Sure." She swallowed. "As much a home as any one of us can have in this hellish nation."

Gale began cutting into his squab. "So tell me about District Seven."

Fingers of heat traced up her neck and caressed her face. Johanna reached for the bottle. What was there to tell?Oh, she could rattle a few things off, maybe. About the ancient firs, perhaps. And the acres and acres of mighty trunks that pierced the clouds, dense thickets spliced with cool and sprinting waters. Mountains bedecked with pines, festooned with limpid lakes, and how she would gaze at those crystal surfaces for hours, hoping they could represent even a small part of her soul.

She said: "I heard a statistic once. Apparently, we had the highest on the job fatality rate in all of Panem. Yeah, you guys think you had it bad in Twelve, in the mines? Try getting diced by flying hatches or the occasional accident at the wood chipper. That's Seven!" She pointed both thumbs at herself. "That's my home."

"Do you ever want to go back there?"

"What did I just tell you?" She paused for another bite. "It's nothing to me. Nothing but dead trees and bad memories."

"There's a lot of those." He laughed. "The memories I mean, not the trees. And everyone's got them." He grew quiet, his face pensive. His eyes strayed from her face, lingered at an obscure spot over her shoulder, on what she could only assume was an assortment of his own unique horrors. He dispelled the moment with a shake of his head. "That's why I wanted to take you here." He gestured to the dilapidated walls, the crumbling roof. "Candlelight, good food, good company. I'm tired of making more bad memories. I'm tired of grasping at a past that's gone. I want to move forward."

Johanna chewed slowly. She had to admit his eagerness was cute, even if he was a total failure at execution. Over a mouthful she said, "You'd make a good shrink. 'Moving forward' – that's all my idiot doctor ever talks about."

"I think he's right. And I was thinking – and I hope saying it out loud won't make you murder me in my sleep – that I'd like to make some new memories, some better memories, with you."

Johanna's fork froze halfway to her mouth. "What?" It dropped to her plate with a clatter. "I've done nothing but insult you and act like a complete boor." She held up her greasy hands. "Literally, I'm eating like a boar!"

Gale shrugged. "So? Johanna –" he said the word like he was reminding her of her own name – "You're pretty and feisty and you make me laugh – you make everyone laugh. I figure you can eat with manners when you want to – same goes for being a pleasant human being. So if you think you can scare me off with a few insults and some belching, forget it." He looked down at his plate. "If you're not interested, that's fine. Just say the word." He looked up again. "But I think we could work, in an odd way. What do you think?"

And when he smiled he wasn't calculating the odds. No games, no deception. Just a simple honesty, a simple entreaty that called for a simple yes or no. This idiot would have never survived the arena.

That was why she said yes to a second.


Thanks for reading :)