All Your Colours Start to Burn

Iron's Craft Brewing Co. 
#1


Maxine was one year older. One year closer to thirty. One year until thirty. This meant she happened to be treating her birthday like she was, basically, turning thirty. It was close enough.

The entire day was already depressing, even though she was trying hard to avoid that. She’d taken work off - this was news - and bought herself this jacket for herself. And, uh... alone as she were, she was reminded that Rhett worked here, and she’d been invited here by him, and even though she’d only met him once and he probably wouldn’t even be working at noon, she figured going to this Iron’s place would be better than any other plans she had. Which were none! So... yeah.

Maxine would continue to try and make this a good day, but being alone for any kind of celebration yet being someone who enjoyed celebrating was an upsetting combination. And being in a state of trying to figure out what she had even achieved in her thirt- twenty-nine years of life and getting nothing didn’t help.

Maxine was, at least, really pleasantly surprised by the place once she walked in, shoving her keys in the pocket of her jacket. She would head to the bar, and sit at the one free spot which she saw immediately. Smiling all the while, and really, really, trying to see today as good.

Actually, there was one positive beside the interior of the bar. And that was that she wasn’t feeling the itch of the full moon.
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#2
outfit!

 Esperanza was at Iron's with the intention of buying a potentially fancy brand of locally brewed alcohol for her weekend plans. She had driven past it many times - almost every day - and the fact that she could support a business less than ten minutes from her house was an opportunity she couldn't pass up.

 With Alejandra at school and a few hours to spare before she had to be at work, the bear pulled up and parked just a few feet from the entrance. She walked with a confident gait, a smile on her mouth, hair flicking back on the wind as her purse swung gently from the crook in her arm. It was going to be a good day, she had decided.

 The woman pushed her shades to the top of her head once she was inside, admiring the building's design for just a moment, until she felt her beast tugging for her attention. There was something important in here. Cat? Yes, but no. More importantly, there was another bear in here, and her scent was warm and strong enough to suggest that she was still here.

 She walked carefully now, observing the few patrons inside, before settling on a certainty that it was the young woman seated at the bar. With a renewed smile, the woman walked forward and settled on the stool just beside her. She took a moment more to observe the beauty of the place, before turning her twinkling eyes into the other lady. "Hello there," she chirped.
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#3
Maxine had made herself comfortable, watched the seat beside her become available, ordered a beer, and rubbed her eyes many times until she heard a voice trying to get her attention.

She wouldn’t have thought any kind of greeting was directed to her if her own nose hadn’t picked up the scent of the other bear when it’d gotten closer from behind her.

Maxine glanced to her left, gently surprised, as she stared at the woman. She blinked as the black bear evaluated the other bear... who was her size? It was a very different sense of evaluation than what she’d felt with the polar bears, or the brown bears. Far less tentative. For more eager.

Maxine was completely perplexed as her bear struggled to not display her playful curiousity.

”Uh-“ she blinked, shaking her head a little. She had been staring for at least... well, way too long to get away with acting like she hadn’t. ”Afternoon,” Maxine added with a confused smile, straightening up and extending her hand firmly to the woman. She never shook hands so immediately, but then again, this was the first time her bear ever felt so involved in the process.

Shake? Really, Maxine was seeking to hold.
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#4
 Esperanza's own beast was watching intently. Not only was this another bear, but another black bear, and another female. The chances of having a friendly encounter seemed likely, and so it rocked its weight to and fro between its four grounded paws as it waited for a chance to greet. The only thing that kept it from barreling forward was the somewhat heightened power signature that emanated from the other woman. She was seemingly stronger than the average Were, so she didn't want to step on any toes.

 Her smile was unwavering, even as the girl stared at her almost blankly, as if Espy had stunned her. Her eyebrows rose slightly in a mildly concerned manner, but before she could say anything, there was movement, talking. She greeted Esperanza, and extended her hand suddenly, without even giving a name. Still, the woman laughed and moved to accept the shake, her grasp firm yet gentle, her hand warm. When they touched, her bear would dare to move forward, nose wriggling curiously as it sought greeting contact. "Esperanza. It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms..."
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#5
Maxine was entirely confused as to what kind of bear this was, but the more the black bear sniffed and studied, she decided she wasn’t all that unlike her. Which seemed to be taken as a good thing.

She had, admittedly, heard of black bears which were a different colour in her adult life, mostly because of work. What were they called again? Was she one of these? She’d have to... investigate on the internet later, because asking was odd. Surely.

In any case, it was only moments into holding the woman’s hand that Maxine actually regarded her. She looked older - more mature, more the kind that had her life together - and was expensively dressed. Formal meant expensive... usually. No?

The curiosity from the other bear was taken well, as the black bear sought to cover more of the distance at a walk. She grunted, going to rub against the lighter bear’s side confidently with an unintentionally strong thud.

Was this the wanting to be with your own kind Levka had asked her about once?

Esperanza. A pretty name. Definitely not from around here, and if the lady’s accent was anything to confirm that suspicion, then, well, definitely not from around here.

”Myers,” she finally grinned, loosening her hold on Esperanza’s hand and letting her pull back, if she so liked. ”But Maxine’s fine.” If there was a way to brighten her mood, it was by whatever was happening right now. ”Yeah. It’s really nice to meet you,” she echoed genuinely.
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#6
 The handshake might seem to last a little longer than normal to anyone watching, but for Espy, there was nothing unusual. Her beast would gladly rub up against the other bear, even after having to steel her weight against the excited push. It pleased the woman.

 Was this one of Lee's friends? She wondered absently, but her attention was more absorbed by the present moment. Her smile broadened at Maxine's words, and she would repeat the name, as if to lock it in place. "Maxine." Then, after a moment more of holding her hand, Espy released her and settled back on her stool.

 "Are you from around here?" she queried, as she picked up a nearby pamphlet that would hopefully contain a list of the things they sold. "Or just dropping in to quench your thirst at high noon?" The follow up question was worded in a gentle tease, a telltale sign of her good-natured humor.
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#7
She released her hand after a moment, and Maxine pulled her own back, almost knocking the beer the bartender had just delivered in the same instant. ”Oh God,” she reacted immediately, pulling her hand back quickly with an apologetic smile to her. ”Thanks.”

Back to Esperanza her brown gaze went, enthralled by the presence of another black bear. There was some sense of companionship and support her bear dared to feel at the fact that she was female, too.

Maxine watched Esperanza pick up a pamphlet, silently excited at the prospect of her staying for a drink. Or meal. There was a very brief chuckle awarded at the woman’s words, before she replied. ”Ahh, no,” she admitted, slightly abashed as she looked to her beer, bringing it closer. ”The Glenn, actually, but it’s my birthday today, so...”

Maxine immediately felt like an idiot when she confessed that, because now Esperanza knew she was here, celebrating her birthday, with nobody around. Could she come across as any more of a loner?

She looked back at the woman, smiling a little. ”I just wanted something... quiet. A lot’s been changing in my life.” It wasn’t untrue, but the words were spoken more so to save herself from looking like a loser than anything else.

This was ideally not how Maxine wanted to spend her birthday, but it was what it was. The only person who wasn’t a colleague or family and even knew of it was... Lee, and. Yeah. She didn’t expect anything there. Things were different, now. She hadn’t even seen him since November.
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#8
 Espy would take her eyes from the younger lady only to give the bartender a small hand signal that asked for a moment of patience. She would ask for a case of beer and possibly some food - who are we kidding, that was very likely - as soon as she got a little deeper into the conversation.

 Oh! A birthday! Esperanza smiled, her eyes bright, though of course she felt an instant twinge of pity. Why was she alone on her birthday? There were a million potential reasons, potentially painful ones, and she knew better than to even ask. Still, her first instinct was to grab Maxine and squish her in a literal bear hug. She didn't, but would do the next best thing.

 "Oh! Happy birthday!" she piped excitedly, probably drawing attention to them with her flamboyance. "Please, let me buy you a beer. Are you hungry? Lunch on me, come on." She flashed a big smile again. What Were could turn down free food?
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#9
Her reaction seemed to display no sign of pity, which reassured Maxine that she was not just the saddest and loneliest person ever. Expect the part where Esperanza exclaimed exactly what the day was, and though Maxine didn’t look around, she could just feel the eyes on them.

Esperanza, you are lovely, but your enthusiasm had Maxine covering her growingly red cheeks. Still, underneath that, she was grinning. Uncertainly, but she was definitely grinning.

Maxine hadn’t even finished her first beer. And she could just hear her abuela telling her to not encourage someone else to pay for her food. But Esperanza seemed genuinely thrilled by the idea, and Maxine didn’t know if accepting or denying was worse given that.

Her hands dropped from her cheeks, being warm as they were and doing absolutely nothing to soothe the heat in her face, before she regarded Esperanza fully. ”Are you going to buy me both even if I say no?” Maxine smiled welcomingly as she made the jest, daring to guess the kind of person Esperanza was based on... very little. It was just a sense.
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#10
 Oops! Esperanza hadn't meant to embarrass the poor thing - that was something she wasn't good at gauging - but judging by the bright flush of her face, she had done just that. It was adorable, quite frankly, but she didn't want to worsen the situation by saying anything, so only giggled behind a hand.

 Maxine's question put her full smile back in place, accented with a dramatic sigh. "Well. Maybe not the beer," she retorted lightly. "Food, though. I insist. Really. Unless you're not hungry." The last sentence was said with something that was almost sarcasm, a doubtful sort of humor, but still. Not all Weres were always hungry like herself. Besides, She didn't want to be that crazy woman who shoved food down someone's throat just minutes after meeting them. Like her mom.
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#11
She chuckled, the red fading from her cheeks as she took a drink of her beer. Esperanza insisted on food though, and Maxine found herself considering making a deal! She didn’t need to buy her anything at all as long as she stuck around for something herself.

... But Esperanza had been reading the pamphlet, so no doubt that’d been her intention, anyway.

”Okay, but that’s really kind of you,” Maxine accepted with a smile, making a note for the next meal they ever had - if they did - to be on her! ”What do you recommend?” she added, glancing to the pamphlet and back to Esperanza warmly.

She wasn’t a fussy eater. If it was filling she would eat it. It wasn’t even the bear influencing that side of her.

Esperanza was so... normal? Giggling and being friendly and everything. Maxine found it refreshing and she was grateful in ways she thought best not to explain out loud.
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#12
 Espy beamed once more as Maxine conceded, always happy to feed someone, even if it wasn't her own cooking. At her question, however, the woman hummed, taking on a more thoughtful look as she looked again at the pamphlet in her hand. "I've never been here before, actually," she confessed, eyes roving over the choices. The menu was relatively small, which wasn't surprising, seeing as how this place was majorly a brewery. They likely sold more alcohol than anything here.

 "Their burgers sound good," she said after a moment more of perusing. That seemed to be the most popular option, as there were several different kinds, all boasting various ingredients that sounded heavenly. She really should pick something that wasn't terribly messy; she was usually an impeccably neat eater, but things happened. "I think I'll get myself a mushroom swiss burger. Even though the patty melt sounds amazing."

 She then flipped over to the beer selection. It occurred to her that she didn't even know what kind of beer Asha or Abraham liked, if they liked beer at all. Hmm. Maybe she would just stick to an offering of wine she had at home, and be happy with Iron's food instead. She glanced up at Maxine again, holding the pamphlet closer to the woman in a gentle offer for her to take it should she so desire.
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#13
Burgers were always good, unless they were over cooked. Otherwise unfussy beyond that, Maxine watched Esperanza pick out something for herself.

Whether or not she’d realised it, Esperanza had picked a meal for Maxine even before she offered her the same pamphlet. Maxine still took it with a polite smile though, glanced over the burgers briefly, before she lay it flat near her beer.

”I’ll get the patty melt, and that way you can try some, too,” Maxine decided pleasantly. They were completely human manners talking. Whether or not her bear was reluctant to commit to this idea was an entirely different thing.

Maxine glanced over the bar to see the tender momentarily occupied, before looking back to Esperanza. ”How about you, Esperanza?” Maxine asked. ”You live nearby?”
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#14
 Esperanza had already decided that she liked Maxine. She was a sweet girl, especially with her offer to get the patty melt so that Espy could try some for herself. She beamed brightly at her once more, leaning against the bar with a content nod of her head. "That sounds lovely!"

 The conversation moved on, and Maxine's question reminded Espy that she had said she was from North Glenn. She realized that she probably did know of the other bears. Yay! "Yes, I do live here in Larkspur," she commented with a grin. "I drive by this place every day and decided to check it out. I'm glad I did!" She giggled quietly. "You said you're from North Glenn. Do you know... the others?"

 Of course, the bartender would return now, and Espy was quick to give him her order. Mushroom swiss burger with fries and a coke. She was eager to move along with their conversation, though the public setting would surely limit how much they could discuss it.
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#15
Esperanza was so normal. Had she mentioned that? Well, besides looking like she was relatively well-off, but that was her own, private, thing, and there was nothing wrong with it.

Maxine smiled as the woman giggled, explaining her reason for happening across Iron’s.

Crazy luck, if you asked Maxine. She was thankful for it, though. Maybe her birthday wasn’t such a curse and burden, after all. She’d wait until tonight to see if that was true.

”Uh-“ Maxine began, blinking at Esperanza and clearly finding her knowledge of the bears in North Glenn unexpected.

... Nobody had told Maxine of her?

It just so happened that the bartender returned then, and Maxine physically choked down her surprise. Esperanza ordering first gave her a moment to find her words and remember how to speak, so when she glanced her way, she ordered herself the patty melt, as planned. Maxine smiled a little sheepishly at the woman working, before returning her attention to Esperanza.

”Yeah, I do. I’m surprised... you do?” Not in a cruel way, only she’d never heard of another black bear? Maybe Esperanza had no interest in them - the Glenn - though, and that’s why she didn’t know of her.

Yeah. That made sense.
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#16
 Apparently the question had taken Maxine by surprise. Esperanza's brow rose slightly, curiosity coloring her features as the other woman spoke. "Well. I met the... the Russians, and here recently, a man named Lee, but I haven't heard much from them lately," she confessed. It saddened her somewhat, but she understood that they were all likely busy with lives of their own. If anyone understood the struggle of balancing human and animal life, Esperanza did. Having a kid did that to you. "But, I have not reached out to them either, so I cannot be too upset." She smiled then, almost sheepishly as well, laughing softly.
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#17
Maxine listened intently, nodding along and finding Esperanza really didn’t know much about them? At least, that was how it seemed. Had just met them?

The Russians was one way of grouping people together, but she understood who Esperanza was referring to, if nothing else. She scarcely thought on the fact that not one of the three polar bears were actually from America, and consequently never saw them as... the Russians.

Maxine angled herself a little more towards Esperanza, and spoke almost immediately once she’d finished.

”You are interested, then?” Maxine asked, unable to prevent her voice from raising a little in pitch towards the end. The idea thrilled the black bear in equal measure to its human counterpart.

It was a very fast development of interest on Maxine’s end, and it was new. Different to meeting another bear - Esperanza was her kind. Her blood. Even if not quite true at all, that thought had settled in her mind and it was not budging.
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#18
 "Very much so," Esperanza responded with the same wide smile, her head nodding affirmatively. She could not properly display her enthusiasm here, or express how much she felt she needed this. So badly. She hoped that Maxine was of the same mindset. "You, as well, yes?" She asked, her voice hopeful, smile still in place.
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#19
Wow. What were the odds?

To prying ears, the conversation would appear as little more than talk about work, or friendship circles, or something recreational. Even so, Maxine’s gaze split away from Esperanza as she spoke, doing a quick survey to ensure there were no eyes or heads turned their way.

When her brown eyes settled back on the woman, she nodded with a slight smile, fingers wrapped around her beer. ”Well... I’m in it, so we’ll see what the future holds.” Maxine’s words were not reluctant, but perhaps the phrasing indicated she was not cuddly with everyone.

Everything had turned serious when all she wanted was... this. Here. Right now. Conversation. Mutual kindness. Maybe it was too much to ask from people who had their sights set on a goal rather than friendships. Maybe, for them, it was easier to stick their neck out on the line, or trust a complete stranger.

For Maxine, it wasn’t. She needed more.

She lifted the beer, taking a sip, before focusing back on Esperanza. ”Do the others know you’ll be joining us?”

It was January 4th and by now Maxine herself was really wondering why there was no further contact about the Sleuth. Or the... training thing, Levka had promised her. She’d give it some more time, deem herself as just being obnoxious or high maintenance in the meantime.
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#20
 Maxine's response made her seem pensive, as if she was less than confident about joining the Sleuth. She was fairly certain now that she was one of the friends that Lee had mentioned - wary of the polar bears and all. But! She said she was in it, and at this point, that was the most important factor to Esperanza. She would be glad to share in that family element with this woman.

 "Yes," she chirped quickly. "I am... anxious to see everyone again." Whatever drama had taken place prior to her becoming privy to the forming group, Esperanza wasn't sure she wanted any part of it. She knew better than to think she could avoid it, because if it happened, it happened. She was predisposed now to the notion that not everything was roses and tea parties. Still, ever the optimist, she was looking forward to what the future might hold.

 Gently, she reached out and squeezed Maxine's shoulder in an affectionate gesture. "I am glad that we will be a part of this together."
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#21
So they did know she was in? And Maxine had never heard of her? She presumed Cliff, either. It warranted a frown, but she refused to spoil her time with Esperanza with nagging thoughts she could reserve for later.

Especially when Esperanza extended a hand to her shoulder, which left her smiling very warmly, and feeling very warm, and it most certainly wasn’t the half a beer she’d had so far because that did nothing for Maxine. She raised her own hand, between petting and holding Esperanza’s on her shoulder, before she let it fall back onto the surface of the bar.

It only strengthened the greeting, on the black bear’s end. She decided she liked her. Quite a bit. The idea of scavenging for food together was enough that Maxine had to hush her, mentally.

She definitely felt crazy sometimes.

”So tell me about yourself, Esperanza,” Maxine began, shaking her head in a motion that wasn’t to deny but to sort of express her disbelief but enthusiasm at this woman existing. This bear existing? Being in front of her! ”What do you do for work? Where are you from?” Anything at all.

(Everything at all).
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#22
 Esperanza was already a touchy person - it was the way she had been raised. But the bear magnified this, pleased and rumbling happily as the women made contact. But when Maxine dropped her hand, so would Esperanza, leaning against the bar once again, resting her chin against the palm of her hand.

 Maxine wanted to know more about her? Espy's smile widened. She supposed that was a good thing - it felt nice, encouraging. "Well, I'm head chef a few blocks away at Genevieve's, where I work five to six days a week. I was born in Mexico City, moved to Texas with my family when I was a teenager, and then things got, ah... a little hairy," she paused with a chuckle, "so I moved here a few years ago. I recently regained custody of my five year old daughter, so we're just... living life, you know? I am hopeful that... having more friends will make that easier." She paused, watching the woman to try to gauge her reaction.
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#23
That was... quite the life, and Maxine was taken aback by how willingly Esperanza had offered some of that more personal information. Namely the, ah, custody thing. She knew divorce had left her both more insecure and... disinterested. She couldn’t imagine fighting for custody, and the effects of that.

But things sounded good, now? And Maxine was not in the least shocked that the woman across from her had a five year old. She’d said she carried herself more maturely as soon as she set eyes on her. Around this age most folks had children anyway, didn’t they? That was... nice, for them, and for Esperanza. It also told her whenever Esperanza had become a Were, it’d happened after her daughter.

All in all, the mention of a child, the mention of where she was from - and everything else - made Maxine’s eyes light up.

”Wow... that’s one hell of a ride,” she admitted, briefly breaking her gaze in a thoughtful fashion before looking back. ”And uh, definitely, Esperanza. Whatever you need,” Maxine nodded, mostly carrying on from the thing the older woman had left off on. ”Let me give you my number?” she added, already seeking her phone in her pocket.

In case she happened to forget like with Abraham.
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#24
 When comfortable - which was a common theme in the company of bears - Esperanza was an open book. They already had a bond that could not be seen by the human eye, and for that, the mother bear was drawn to the young woman and had already placed as much trust in her as she had in the others she had met.

 She smiled brightly at Maxine's response, a soft giggle escaping her. "Yes! Definitely!" Came her response in a voice that belied her excitement, mirroring the other bear's movements to retrieve her phone from her purse. She gave pause only to make room for the food that was coming out, smiling and thanking the bartender until the two of them were alone again.

 She would take down the girl's number readily, putting her under the name "Max" before sending her a text message with her own name and a smiley face. When it was all said and done, she put the phone away and reached for a nearby bottle of ketchup, shaking it a few times before squirting a puddle of it onto her plate beside her fries. "Now it's your turn. Tell me about you!"
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#25
Maxine continued to smile as her company giggled, finding it plain adorable. Esperanza was great. And, like Esperanza, when the food came, Maxine made room before exchanging her number. Moments later, a text came through with her name, and, once again, Esperanza was great.

Not that Maxine would have muddled up the letters in her name...

She likely would have, but having it written and read made it commit to her memory. Esperanza. To be fair, she probably butchered it anyway each time because the accent was different than intended.

Once that was done, Maxine tucked her phone back away and stared at her meal longingly. Anything that looked remotely unhealthy, disgusting, greasy, or fattening was delicious. The patty melt was no exception. Fruits and berries were equally as nice, but not as fulfilling to her belly.

Oh! About her!

Maxine had already... gone in for a giant bite of her meal when the question was turned her way. She put the sandwich back down, wiping her fingers and chewing as she thought.

She, unfortunately, was not half as accomplished or interesting as her present company.

”Well... I was born in Canada. My Mum’s side’s actually from Mexico though, so,” Maxine added that in randomly with a small smile to Esperanza, wondering how she’d take it. ”Uhhh, I moved around a bit. And then after college I lived in South Africa for a while. The guy I was with had a work offer, so we decided to take that step.” For all of Esperanza’s truthfulness, Maxine was kind of... missing important points. But she really did not want to kill this conversation with a sob story. So, with a little more enthusiasm, she added, ”now I work as a ranger for one of the Glenn’s parks, so, that’s that.” She grinned. ”No kids or head chef like you, but, yeah.”
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#26
 While Maxine gave a taste of her own life story, Esperanza listened, dipping a couple fries in ketchup and popping them in her mouth. Crispy, salty and savory - who cared if they were empty calories? They were delicious. It was hard to mess up potatoes, as far as she was concerned.

 Her eyebrows rose pleasantly at their common heritage, though she didn't dare smile with a mouthful of food. Still, her expression betrayed her growing impression, eyes bright at the idea of traveling so much, especially to a place like South Africa. She didn't quite understand what the other woman meant by "taking that step," but figured fell enough to know that the man she mentioned was no longer in the picture, and so would not pry. She knew well how that went.

 "That is very cool," she remarked with a grin. "All that travel sounds so fun! And being a park ranger, wow. I bet that is a really great job." She didn't outright say it, but she thought afterwards, especially for someone like us. "Do you enjoy it?" She would punctuate her question by picking up her own burger then and taking a bite out of it that might be a little larger than considered "lady-like," but wiped her mouth as she chewed and peered at Maxine with an eager curiosity in her eyes.
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#27
In truth, Maxine didn’t see it as a lot of travel. But given that that was the remark almost everyone gave, she did suppose, compared to just staying in one place your entire life, it was pretty... extravagant.

Well. Frankly, it wasn’t as though the plan had actually been to return from South Africa.

Maxine took another bite of her sandwich as Esperanza spoke, smiling close-mouthed, and nodding along.

”Yeah, I do. I always wanted to do something in that direction.” Something preferably hands on, with animals, but as a result of... everything, this was the best Maxine could take. And she would take it. It was a job that had come to mould her as a person over the past few years.

Plus. She really liked helping people.

”It’s good. And we get kept in the loop about things on our end of the city.” Though she had heard nothing about two polar bears in North Glenn at work, which was still utterly puzzling.
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#28
 Esperanza was genuinely happy that Maxine could do her desired field of work. It struck her then, too, that the younger woman was most likely a nature lover to have such an ambition, which only served to further her opinion of Maxine as a sweetheart. She nodded her head, listening as she ate, managing to split her attention evenly between her savory meal and good company.

 "I'm glad to hear that," she remarked after swallowing, a renewed smile on her face. She took a sip of her soda, and then took another bite, taking a moment to eat before her food got cold.
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#29
She smiled a little at Esperanza, before taking another bite of her sandwich, followed by a generous sip of beer.

Licking her lips, Maxine looked back towards her company.

”What’s your daughter’s name?” she asked. She had, silently, told herself to not pry. But Maxine loved kids probably... far too much. ”It’s nice to hear of um,” she began, not sure how to word it. ”Someone who’s still... normal. Like that.”

That did not make sense, Maxine.

In all honesty, she just meant she was happy for her. That Esperanza could continue a mostly normal life, with a normal daughter, despite becoming a bear every month, and having a bear sharing her body.
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#30
 Espy was far from displeased when Maxine asked another question, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips as she chewed. The statement that followed almost made her laugh, but she didn't. She was happy to appear so normal, with her human job and human child, but... even so, she did not always feel so normal. Rough day? PMS? Full moon getting close? She was not her old self, but she could admit that she was leagues from that wild creature she had been when she was first infected. She was toeing a line when her beast was near the surface and she had her daughter so close, but, all things considered, she had come a long way. In the end, Esperanza decided not to divulge that information, likewise preferring to keep things light. There was no need to put a damper on the birthday girl's mood.

 "Thank you," she purred instead, her expression gentle, a mix of amusement and endearment. "Her name is Alejandra. She is wonderful." Pause, sip of soda. "You will probably meet her soon. I intend to have her around everyone regularly, so that she can get comfortable with our, uh... new family." She chuckled. "She's very shy, so she takes a lot of warming up to show her true colors."
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#31
Now Alejandra was a name she could say in the way it had most likely been intended to be said. And frankly, it was a beautiful name. Not that Maxine sought to compare herself to the child or her mother, but Maxine Myers sounded like a character from a comic strip.

Being as... expressive as she often was in her face, it was extremely difficult for Maxine to not react somehow at the news of Esperanza’s intentions. At the very least, she looked... pensive.

Not that it didn’t make sense... sort of? Not that she wasn’t thrilled by the idea of having a child as part of them. But she was... human? No? Human, and five years old, and with animals it didn’t matter how much you trusted them, they could flip the switch suddenly.

This wasn’t even something Maxine had learned from being a Were. She’d been trained when she’d worked with the big cats down in South Africa.

Maxine took another bite of her sandwich as Esperanza wrapped up, processing how to respond in a way that was normal. Part of the reason she had left Kanas was to keep all her brothers’ youngsters safe.

”I can’t wait to meet her,” Maxine decided on with a small smile, if a little worry evident in her gaze. ”You will always be around when she is...?” Shut up, Maxine.

Alejandra did not need to witness Jackal being naked. Levka’s fiery gaze. Maxine trying to hit said fiery gaze man. Knives being carried. Cliff shifting into a giant bear. Lee reeking of booze.

On the other hand, Esperanza please soothe her worries.
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#32
 Maxine could not yet know it, of course, but Esperanza was putting a boatload of faith into these bears - into their King. The Sleuth, in her mind, was her best bet. She could not entrust any human to help protect her child from the dangers of this world, where natural and supernatural blended together. She needed the bears, and God, and hope that the forces that be combined behind the best choice she felt she could make. Asha had expressed her own brand of concern over Espy having her child around the bears, and a similar note was apparent somewhere in Maxine's expression as she spoke.

 "Perhaps not always," she said truthfully. "I may need any of them - or you - at any given point for some reason or another. They may have to protect her from me on a bad day." Her shoulders rolled in a gentle shrug. She could go on; the possibilities were endless. "The future is never certain."
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#33
She listened, trying to take it in calmly. Deep breaths, or something like that, were taken, and Maxine nodded along.

What did Esperanza do now, without them, on a bad day? She was curious to know more, but that was certainly prying.

It worried her only because... well, it wasn’t worry which came from distrust, necessarily. She trusted Cliff, when it came to herself. But even when he’d turned - which had threatened to happen more than once - she hadn’t felt safe. It’d taken Lee and her both being there to bring him back in control.

If Alejandra had been there... a human, who Maxine was regularly reminded weren’t very important by her bear.

Heavens, Esperanza. She didn’t dare say it.

”I understand,” she nodded, extending her clean hand to hold hers. ”Whenever you need. But just know that not everyone might be... ready, for that.” So just be aware, Esperanza. Not that the woman seemed anything but, but Maxine wanted to just... verbalise that.

The last thing any of them needed was a five year old witnessing a human turning into a bear.

A five year old definitely couldn’t survive being infected.
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#34
 Maxine did not pry any further. Instead, she seemed to accept Espy's reasoning, offering one last morsel of advice as she put out her hand. The older woman smiled warmly in turn and grabbed that hand with one of her own - hopefully it wasn't covered in burger juice - and nodded her head. "Of course. Thank you, Maxine," she said gently, giving her hand a squeeze. She knew better than to let her optimist blind her - she could be as unpredictable as the next Were. But she had faith in the whole "power in numbers" theory. "Only time will tell who can handle it, right? You... you seem pretty strong." Espy's eyebrows raised slightly. She was talking about the vibe, the heightened power signature that Max gave off. "If I've made it this far, you can do it."
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#35
Her hand was squeezed in return, and Maxine smiled warmly at Esperanza. It wasn’t... exactly quite what she’d meant by her words, but it was honestly relieving that unlike someone, she wasn’t being offended, or rolling her eyes at her, or yelling.

Or completely ignoring what she said.

”Thanks,” Maxine started with a bit of a sheepish grin, thinking it definitely wasn’t a negative thing. She had never been called strong before, so silently, it was overwhelming.

Maxine was... getting better, at handling her bear, she thought. Different to how it’d been, to say, two months ago. She’d noticed. She’d noticed it with Lee, too. This wasn’t to say Maxine would trust herself to be left with Esperanza’s daughter alone, at least not for a significant period of time. More than Cliff, sure, but... baby steps. Still, the offer to try was there. She liked children, and she definitely liked Esperanza.

Pulling her hand back, Maxine wiped her hair behind an ear.

”What do you think of everyone?” she asked, only curious, taking another bite of her sandwich.
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#36
 All in all, Esperanza was still optimistic about the whole situation. She understood the risk she was taking, but again, it was her best bet so far. If nothing else, she was happy to witness some part of Maxine that was both realistic and yet not hopeless.

 Espy released the woman's hand, munching on a few more fries as she considered the question. "So far, so good," she piped, as cheerful as she had been moments ago. "I haven't really gotten to spend much time with anyone, but I have been left with good impressions." That could be partially attributed to the fact that she was eager to be a part of a Sleuth still, but it was a true statement. No one had yet left her feeling strange or uncomfortable. Maxine was a pleasant addition.
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#37
Again, Maxine found herself wanting to know more. And while her bear felt an instantaneous connection - something so bizarre to Maxine - they were more than just bears, and manners and boundaries still had to exist. She’d only met Esperanza, and the last thing Maxine wanted to come across as was pushy. Especially given the problems and obstacles she’d faced this far with some of the others.

So... she nodded, simply. It did not sound as if Levka had grabbed her, too, or if he had, Esperanza seemed to think it was normal. But she didn’t strike her as someone who would.

”Good,” Maxine decided on with an approving look, before taking another drink of her beer. It was almost finished, like her meal, and while she wasn’t full - was she ever? - she definitely felt satisfied for lunch. ”And are you going to continue living in Larkspur?” Maxine inquired, before lifting her palm near her chest, facing Esperanza, and smiling gently as if to justify. ”Not that you have to move. I’m just interested.”
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#38
 Esperanza was content. A good meal and conversation with good company was a simple pleasure that filled her soul. "That is the plan for now," she said after swallowing a bite of burger. "It is a good place for Ali - close to everything. Convenient. Pretty safe." At least, all things considered. "If I feel that moving becomes my best course of action, I would probably be in the Glenn in a heartbeat." She beamed, and continued, "And it is so beautiful in that area. Definitely a plus!" She could see why Maxine would like to live and work there. She hoped that, should that be in her future, she could find suitable amineties for Ali.
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#39
Ali! A nickname. A very sweet one, too. Maxine tucked it away for memory, as she had the mention of her shyness. Some children were tentative, she knew this, so memorising the little things so you didn’t overwhelm them or make them uncomfortable... it was important!

Whenever that day to meet her came, anywho!

Maxine did imagine things were closer here. For Esperanza’s work, for her daughter’s needs - school, sports, all the things kids did - but the benefit to the Glenn was, well.

None of these broadcasts had happened in more remote areas. She was, though, certain Esperanza was aware of this, and aware of what was best for her and her daughter, as illustrated by her flexibility when it came to moving.

”It is one of a kind,” Maxine agreed. ”Nothing like the smell of the woods.” It pleased both Maxine and her bear. She took another bite of her patty melt, before realising this was the end.

God!

Covering her mouth as she chewed, Maxine glanced to Esperanza. ”Would you like to try?” she motioned to her meal eagerly. There were maybe... two bites left. Or one really generous one.
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#40
 Espy nodded her head in agreement as she took another bite of burger. The smells of the city could not compare to the sweet scent of evergreen; likewise, she and her beast had that in common.

 Her eyebrows rose at Maxine's offer, brown eyes glancing down to what remained of the patty melt. She smiled warmly. She didn't want to deny the woman or her bear the last fine morsels of greasy goodness - hers was nearly gone as well. "That is quite alright, my love. Go ahead and finish it. Then I will just have one more reason to come back here."

 The bartender returned with two checks for the meals, interrupting Espy's return to the thought of how sweet Maxine was. Quickly, with a bit of flailing in her hands, the woman made to grab both checks, flashing a smile at the other bear. She intended to follow through on buying her a birthday meal.
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#41
If this was someone Maxine knew better, she would have maybe taken the patty melt, and guided it to her mouth so that she simply could not deny it. But there was also her greedy bear here, who took the denial in a very pleased fashion.

It was such that Maxine finished the sandwich in one bite, hand heading for the beer when the bills came.

Esperanza’s reaction to them was not unseen of in Maxine’s world. It was, quite honestly, the exact flailing she would have done under normal circumstances.

Maxine only pulled her lips away from her glass, staring, before her throat made a sort of... hum combined with a cry, as if she felt guilty or ashamed that Esperanza was paying for her. Her eyebrows lowered, resembling a puppy more than a bear.

If nothing else, it was reassuring to know now that she’d be seeing Esperanza again. It meant there would definitely be an opportunity for her to flail towards the bill.
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#42
 Esperanza only chuckled at Maxine's little display of protest, quickly wiping her fingers of one hand on a napkin before reaching back into her purse to fish for her wallet. She pulled out her card and put it on the bar on top of the tickets, so that they would be easily accessible when the bartender came back by.

 She paused to glance at the dainty gold wristwatch on her arm, noting the time before she turned to Maxine again. "I'll have to go soon. I have work in a couple of hours. But we need to get together again. Soon!"
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#43
Maxine watched Esperanza as she focused on finishing her beer, rather than think about the fact that she was paying and there was nothing she could really do about it. Then she’d just be... overbearing.

It was why she welcomed conversation enthusiastically, grinning at her as she set her empty drink down.

”Soon!” Maxine mimicked her enthusiasm sincerely. ”My work schedule is pretty wonky sometimes.” So she couldn’t really tell her when she was available in advance. ”But finding time is easy.” Maxine paused briefly, thinking. ”I’d like to meet Alejandra, but, of course, whenever you decide that it’s the right time.”
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#44
 Esperanza nodded knowingly as Maxine explained that her work schedule was unpredictable, blinking away from her face only to smile at the bartender when her card was collected. Espy's own work schedule was somewhat similar - it was no nine-to-five, Monday to Friday gig, but she could always peg down days off and wiggle shifts around.

 "Yesss," she cooed with a grin, her nose wrinkling in delight. "Perhaps you can take us on a tour of the woods, or a park in North Glenn?" she mused aloud, her expression suggestive. "She loves nature." That much was true, and so fitting - already, Esperanza could see Alejandra having much admiration for a woman like Maxine, who could tell her all about the local plants and animals.
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#45
She felt her toes wiggle within her boots in delight. Her fingers would have, if doing so wouldn’t have been so obvious.

Frankly, it was fantastic news, and Maxine grinned.

”Has she ever seen a waterfall?” Children loved that kind of stuff especially, didn’t they? Well, she hoped Esperanza’s little one would. They could do that. Just... not too much walking for her, right?

Not that any child would weigh more than a feather for a Were, though.
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#46
 Maxine's smile suggested that this was an agreeable idea, before she even worded her response. It was a contagious sort of grin, and Espy's own mouth might seem permanently etched into a mirrored, toothy curve. "You know, I am not so sure." she confessed after a moment of though, her eyes having rolled around in their sockets as if she could spot the answer in the brewery. "But I am sure she would be totally thrilled to see one."
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#47
Then the plan which Maxine’s mind had immediately started to devise sounded like it could be a very promising one. And... there was something so sweet, about the idea of taking a mother and her daughter out for a little adventure.

Almost like being invited into the family.

She didn’t say this, of course.

”We’ll make a day out of it!” Maxine concluded. She edged off the stool and zipped her jacket up, but waited right there beside her company. They could head out together. ”Thanks again, by the way. For the treat,” she smiled.

Esperanza wasn’t to know that she’d made an otherwise miserable day wonderful, but she had.
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#48
 The bartender returned with Esperanza's card and a receipt, and the woman would smile cheerfully before stuffing a few dollars in the tip jar. Her broad grin was turned on Maxine as she gathered her belongings into her purse, watching her step down from her seat. "Yes! That sounds marvelous," she purred, turning to ease herself down to her feet as well.

 "Oh, you are so welcome," Espy responded, lifting a hand to squeeze the other bear's shoulder as the moved out the door. She would stop her there on the sidewalk and move to pull her into a tight hug. "Happy birthday, dear. I hope the rest of your day is fantastic." She pulled away, giving Max another gentle squeeze with her hands, smiling warmly. "Give me a call, okay?"
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#49
Maxine did not think she’d seen Esperanza look anything but delighted this entire time. How someone could maintain and radiate such happiness... least of all someone who knew what the real world was like - and Maxine meant that in more ways than one.

It was something to aspire to. Something of... the person she tried to be.

The squeeze on her shoulder was taken well as the both of them walked to the door, and stopped just outside of it. Maxine was being hugged tightly, and honestly she found calmness in it despite how tight it was. She could stay like this for a while. Forget about the stress she’d been feeling.

Maxine, of course, returned the hug, bringing both arms around the back of Esperanza’s neck even though she wasn’t taller. They were actually about the same height, she realised at some point.

”Thank you,” she replied at Esperanza’s birthday wishes, squeezing her one last time and rocking left and right before releasing. ”You can count on it,” Maxine added at the instruction.

This. She had needed this.
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#50
 The black bear within Esperanza rumbled happily at the contact between the human forms, rubbing its broad head against the darker bear's shoulder with equivalent affection. Espy smiled at the other woman, releasing her in turn. "Excellent. Hasta luego!" She left Maxine with those parting words, turning to make her way back to the Tahoe as she fished her keys out of her purse. What a wonderful happenstance that had been; she was looking forward to their next encounter.

-fade thread-
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