Note: I am so so so sorry. This is why I didn't want to take on Secret Santa – I kept putting it off! But DoubleKK, I do hope you found this worth it. I haven't written for HM in months, I feel a bit rusty! Karen x Jack at your service.

Disclaimer: While Scarlet owns her bad habits, she does not HM 64.

Gambling Man

The bar wouldn't be a bar without Karen. Well, technically, it'd be a lot of morose old men sipping wine and muttering about women, but with Karen it transforms into a place full of laughter and rich with toasts to the night. All she has to do is seat herself on the counter, take a swig from a pitch black bottle of wine, and ask, "So what are we up to tonight, boys?"

And that's the magic about Karen. Her very presence is effortless.

So, I guess a guy from the city notices the nice things about a small town, and it's hard to ignore Karen. Just like skyscrapers block the beautiful night sky, clubs shroud women like Karen in mist and fog, forcing cheap harlots into the spotlight and hiding the true gems. Five years ago, I wouldn't have told you that a girl could look stunning in a vest, T-shirt, and khaki pants. Now, I can't imagine a girl looking beautiful in anything but that.

It's weird, isn't it? How people hit you sometimes.

Guess I'd be lying if I said I'm some kind of loverboy, as I know romance about as well as Popuri does blacksmithing. Not the most convincing analogy, but eh. So I didn't really intend to act on the fact that Karen completely captivates me. She captivates everyone. That doesn't make me special.

All kind of changed one night. Unexpectedly, but it changed.

Minding my own business, I'd sat down at the bar for a few drinks with Duke. Good man, Duke, keeps to himself kind of like I do. We chat politely over wine, swap jokes, you know, nothing fancy. I watch Karen with the rest of the men as she flirts and drinks and loudly teases the bar-goers, all while I'm sipping my drink all calm-like. But tonight Karen gets this idea in her head, and the entire bar can't miss it as she sits up, struck by the genius of her newest plan.

"Let's play poker!" she exclaims, cheeks rosy from the wine. "Harris, wanna have a go?"

I watch in amusement as the timid postman shakes his head and the other bar-goers attempt to look busy as well.

"Can't," Harris responds sheepishly. "Date with Maria tonight. I, ah, don't want to overspend…"

A trilling laugh leaves Karen's lips as she grins, nodding. "Smart man, smart man. How about you, Jack, you fancy a gamble?" Mischief sparkles in her green eyes and she crosses her legs, glancing at me from over her shoulder. "Well? Coward or no?"

I blink for a moment; I'm not used to being the shiny object that catches her attention. "I suppose I have time on my hands," I say slowly.

"Hah!" Karen crows. "What, you don't have a pretty girl to go to like Harris? Ladies in Flowerbud not good enough for your fine, fine city tastes?"

I smile faintly at that, putting my drink down. "Maybe I'm not fine enough for them, eh."

"Well, considering you are the only man stupid enough to take on my challenge…"

Laughter greets the statement as Karen hops off the counter and nudges Hall into letting her take his seat. And rightly so: she's queen of this place, and her desires are met almost immediately by her serfs and gentry. Leaning back into her wicker throne, Karen reaches into her vest pocket and pulls out a deck of cards that she spills across the tabletop.

"Half of this is luck, really," I comment as the other bar-goers begin to crowd about us. "Skill only gets you so far."

Karen tilts back her head a bit and to the cheers of the bar begins to chug nice, long draughts of wine that burn like fire down her throat. I watch until she has finished her little display, laughing heartily as she slams the drink down. "Well!" she says finally, wiping her mouth, "It's a good thing I have both on me, isn't it? Deal 'em out, farmer boy."

We steal glances at one another from behind fans of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs as the other men poke their heads over both my and Karen's shoulders. I haven't played poker since college, and the rules come back to me hazily as I stare at my hand: so if they're all one suit, and I have an ace, ten, seven…

"Nice hand, boyo!" Zack cheers as he smiles at me, and I blink, Hall whistling as he and Karen exchange knowing glances.

"A simple 'nice' hand won't do against this," Karen snickers, and she props her legs up on the table comfortably. "Alright, Jacky boy, what are we betting here? I'm pretty confident, and seems like you are, too. So let's make this interesting."

I study my hand a bit more and the rules flood back to me: ace, ten, seven, five, four, all the suit of clubs…this is a flush. This is a great hand, all things considered. Not excellent, mind you, but definitely worth betting over.

"We could have the loser take shots," I suggest, and Karen erupts into peals of light laughter.

"Oh, Jack, how predictable of you. If I wanted you to take shots, I would just dare you to. If you wanted me to take shots, I'd do it regardless. No, try and be creative, let's do something fun." Karen purses her lips in thought, cupping her chin in her hand as she ponders.

Her question, after the silence, is almost startling: "You don't know what today is, do you?"

"Starry Night Festival," I respond. She nods, and I would swear that she's surprised to learn I'm aware of that. "For couples and such."

"I'm going to take a wild guess and say you don't have a date tonight, farmer boy."

"And I will make the same guess about you?" Honestly, it couldn't be for lack of interest; not to discount the other ladies in Flowerbud, but Karen simply radiates confidence. I've watched that young Kai boy dote on her in the winery, though somehow I think Karen hasn't really caught on. "What about it."

Karen scans her eyes over her cards and grins, gazing up at me once more. "Here's what I'm proposing, then. I win this, and you have to ask out whatever lady I choose tonight. Whether it be the midwife, May, or perhaps my mother."

Startled laughter resounds from the bar, and I manage a weak chuckle, though the idea of this is somewhat horrifying. Several reasons for that: if she chooses someone as a joke, I'm liable to get slapped in the face by the good midwife, or Karen's father. If she chooses someone seriously…well. Can't say that'd be good either, leading a girl on like that.

"Of course, if you win, Jack, you get to do the same to me."

And yet.

What if I win. What if I get to ask Karen to go out with me, tonight, even under the pretense of a bet? Call it cowardly, but it's easier than asking her in other conditions. Certainly easier than being bold of my own accord.

"Sounds like a plan, then."

Rapt eyes drink in the scene as I drop my cards, revealing them in the dim light of the bar. "Flush," I say simply, and there are a few shouts and cheers at my hand. Sweat drips down my brow despite myself as I look at Karen expectantly, her expression unreadable.

"Not bad," she comments insouciantly, inspecting her nails. "Not bad at all, Jacky boy. However…" And as her cards fall to the table, my heart sinks with them. She smirks. "Royal Flush."

My heartbeat has become erratic, skittering and skipping while my face remains expressionless. I force myself to laugh a bit, and politely applaud Karen as she does an exaggerated bow before taking a draught of wine. The whole bar has begun a chorus in her honor, and she saunters over to me and drunkenly wraps an arm about my shoulder.

"So, Jack. Jacky boy. About this Starry Night Festival Thing." She hiccups. "I was thinking, maybe, you need a break."

I raise an eyebrow. "A break?"

"C'mon, man. Don't you get tired of farming, milking cows, whatever it is you do?"

"I don't…farm during the Winter, Karen."

"Right. Like I said." She wobbles a bit and I stare implacably at the bottle of wine she has left, empty, on the tabletop. "So I have a perfect partner for you in mind."

"That being?"

"Someone interesting!" she exasperates with a wave of her hand. "Obviously. You…you need to stop this whole, busy, thing. It's boring, you know. Really boring. I mean, how can a girl like me talk to someone like you when you're being all…secluded, and quiet, and responsible, and all. Damn near impossible."

For a moment, I wonder what on earth Karen's trying to say. Then the moment passes and I realize, more importantly, she hasn't named who she's assigned me to yet.


"You really should just ask me, y'know," Karen continues, and before I know if she is yanking me up from my chair, urging me towards the door. "I would say yes, you big doofus. Just kinda means you have to ask me first."

The gears in my mind slowly register this information, but I don't trust it, and I continue to stare at her blankly. "Karen, who are you assigning me to exactly."

"Jack, you're so stupid sometimes!" she laughs, and before I know it she is leaning on my shoulder, looking up at me expectantly. "I'm your date tonight. And…and I bring my own booze and…" She hiccups again, and this time I laugh. "Scuse me. I'm a bit drunk."

"So you are," I agree, amused.

"Not exactly classy, but that's what you get for losing poker. The girl in Flowerbud with the worst manners and all that." Karen turns towards me, grinning, and points towards the door. "Well what are you waiting for! Whole bar's staring at you, now serve your bet, farmer boy. Let's go!"

I don't think about the fact that every Winter from now on, Karen is going to take my arm like she is, right now, and follow me out to spend a night under the stars. I don't really consider the fact that this means the odds, this entire time, have been completely in my favor. Her perfume, and the scent of the alcohol, kind of distract from that.

And I don't mind, being the sucker who lost this time around. Not one bit at all.

End Note: Totally not worth the wait really sorry. :(