115 Ashan 720
"Help ya with somethin', love?" Victoria Bedham, bartender of the Red Hand called out over the mild buzz of clients still lingering about. It took the frozen, lithe blonde standing idly in the doorway a bit to realize the question was intended for her. Her sharp, surprised features moved to spy the expectant, suspicious gaze of the black-clad employee. "Or are ya lost?"
"This is The Red Hand?" the newcomer inquired cautiously.
"Aye." Victoria dropped a filled tankard of poor mead in front of an olive-toned man seated at the bar. "Don't be shy. Find your fancy at your own pace, yeah? Here, come sit." She patted a space on the counter in front of a stool a few down from the man drinking his mead. His eyes, distrusting and narrowed, followed the blonde woman's journey further inside the house of sin. His guarded reaction didn't go unnoticed by the quick bartender. "Don't mind him, love. Vinny's shift is 'bout up. The last couple of nights haven't been kind on him."
Vinny grunted at Victoria's spoken truth, finished his drink, and rose from his seat. He didn't say a word to the new patron seated near him. He merely dropped the tankard gently back down on the counter for the bartender to clear, pushed in his chair, and saw himself out of the establishment without a word. His silent retreat didn't seem to bother Victoria. She scooped up the tankard off the counter and set it aside. Then her attention was back on her newest, and likely last, patron of the night.
"Can I fix ya some poison?" Victoria asked, placing herself to stand across from the blonde woman who looked so obviously out-of-place. "Somethin' to loosen ya up...?"
"Oh, my name is Mina," the slender, silk-tongued woman filled in the blank politely.
"Mina." Victoria leaned back and regarded the woman with fresh eyes. She was silent for a moment but her opaque, hard gaze was critical. The stare didn't make the visitor comfortable, but the look Victoria gave her wasn't unkind either. "A face to the name, finally."
Victoria turned her back for a bit. When she spun back, it was with two cups and a bottle of rum. She poured the shots, set the bottle down, and extended her hand to explain, "I'm Victoria. I do believe you'd recognize my penmanship."
"You wrote the letters then. Pleasure," Mina returned with a small smile and a shake of Victoria's hand. "Then you know who I'm here for?" Victoria nodded. Mina waited for the response, but it didn't readily come. "Where is Max?"
Victoria sighed and smiled politely at the visitor. She merely pushed the shot of rum she poured for Mina toward her, and lifted her own. The bartender threw the drink back without so much of a flinch. Mina followed suit, expression subtly twisting as she tasted the burning liquor on her tongue. Still no readily given answer. Mina's face began to fall, eyes widening with the nervousness that came with the unknown truth. Victoria noticed the change in the woman and quickly shook her head.
"She's here," the bartender clarified quickly. The tension in Mina's shoulders fell away as she sighed relief. Victoria's expression remained more cautious. "Maybe you'd like to come back another time, love."
"I came all the way from Rharne. I'll see her now."
"No, love." Victoria shook her head. Her voice was stern but it wasn't a command. "You'd like to come back another time."
The two women stared at each other in rigid silence. Mina searched the woman's expression, but she found no answers in the bartender's eyes. The slender blonde suddenly stood up from her seat. Victoria frowned and put the cups and bottle away. She knew where this was going, even if the smoldering, blue-eyed beauty did not. Mina turned her head about the mostly empty establishment, searching. Well beyond most place's last call, a balding, middle-aged man let his beer goggles guide him upstairs behind a pixie-cut, half-toothless prostitute. She could smell the desperation just as plainly as she could predict the remorse that would come in the morning. Beyond that unfortunate, drunken pairing, she did not spy the brooding, raven-haired woman she was seeking.
"Where is she?" Mina asked again, voice more demanding than inquiring when she turned to find Victoria. The bartender rounded her way out from the behind the counter with pursed lips. Mina pulled the bag on her arm a little closer and straightened up. "Max?"
"Unless you're going to tell me where she is, I'm not interested."
"I don't know where she is," Victoria admitted softly. "She's here somewhere, I'm sure, but...you should come back."
"I'm not leaving until I see her. Max?!"
Victoria followed Mina as she moved indignantly about the mess of The Red Hand at a careful distance. The two looked about, popped open the office and rentable rooms upstairs with quick apologies. Back downstairs in the empty lounge, both were prepared to resign when they heard something. The bartender's face paled and she cursed quietly. Mina looked to Victoria with a questioning expression. Victoria beckoned Mina to follow her. The bartender popped out the back door into the alleyway. At first glance, the Etzori orphan didn't understand. Then she and Victoria saw her.
"There she is," Victoria murmured tensely, but the urgency in which she propped the door wide open suggested concern. Mina, wide-eyed and bewildered, stepped into the alleyway to drop down to her knees in a panic beside the unconscious, prone ex-convict.
"Max?!" Mina shook her limp figure with no response. She swept the dark, rain-soaked locks of hair from Maxine's face to find the situation more dire than it already looked at face-value. The sound they'd heard moments ago, she knew now, was the sound of someone choking on their vomit. "Fuck!" Heart racing, the blonde rolled the ex-convict sideways to rest her head on her lap. "Max! What did you do!?" Well-manicured, shaking hands cleared the obstruction. "Don't do this to me!" A gagging cough rose from Max, a reflexive breath now that her airway was open. Victoria returned with a bucket by the time Max seemed to rouse for a moment, before promptly throwing up into the offered container.
"You're going to want to back away," Victoria warned Mina gravely.
"What?" Mina, too alarmed to grasp the instruction asked. "Why?"
"Fuck off!" Maxine slurred, elbow suddenly coming up to violently swing for whoever was touching her. Victoria pulled the bucket away before it was knocked over. Mina barely dodged the elbow. Max, unbalanced and incoherent, somehow flashed up to her knees to spin and grab Mina by the collar of her shirt. Her fist was cocked back, lip curled, and thousand-yard stare filled with an empty hate.
"Max, don't!" Victoria called out. She knew better than to reach out to stop her. The fist started to move toward its target anyways.
"It's me!" Mina yelped with arms rising to cover her head rather than fight back. "It's me, it's Mina! It's Mina!"
The fist paused. The briefest furrow came to Maxine's brow, but there was no understanding in her expression. She leaned back toward her heels and fell over backwards instead. The ex-convict grunted upon landing, but that was all. Her fingers fished around for a flask, and she nearly found the empty one in the alleyway before Victoria slyly kicked it away. Max rolled back onto her side, murmuring a slew of inexplicable nonsense. Mina slowly let her defenses drop. Her wounded, shocked stare found Victoria. The bartender frowned.
"What happened tonight?" Mina asked quietly, chest heaving as she watched Max where she laid.
"Tonight?" Victoria slowly eased closed to take a look at her drunk employer. She was quiet for a bit before she elected to tell the truth. "Love, this is every night."
"I don't understand."
"It used to be manageable. When she first opened this place. Then, over the last couple cycles?" The bartender picked up the flask. She sniffed the empty container before tossing it aside with a huff. "I don't know what the fuck happened. A big piece of it's the drugs, but..."
"We grew up together," Mina said hollowly. "We knew everything about each other. We had nothing but each other. She was my family. This...this isn't her." Tears welled in her eyes. She set her back down on the ground and gently brushed more matted, wet hair from Maxine's face. "This isn't Max. I don't understand. What happened to her?"
"I'm sorry, Mina. I can't. I don't know the whole answer to that, but from what little I do? I don't want to even tell you if you knew her before all this. It's just too damn sad, love."
Victoria placed a hand over her mouth. For a couple bits the two just watched the unconscious, nearly unresponsive woman between them in the alleyway. Neither of them could answer the question Mina asked. Everything the stunning blonde had said was true. Once, in an orphanage long ago in Etzos, this image was unthinkable. The sister she'd chosen was as fearless as she was selfless. For Mina, there was no one Maxine hadn't stood her ground against regardless of the cruel outcome. When the terrible sickness ravaged the orphanage, it was a death sentence to get the illness. When Mina contracted it, she'd never been more afraid. Sweaty with fever, shaking with chills, she was sure she was going to die. Max didn't care. She never left her sick bed.
That person was the Maxine that Mina had known and loved. This shell of a person laying in this wet, cold alleyway in the middle of the night couldn't be her. This drunk junkie she found choking on her own vomit couldn't be her. It didn't add up. She didn't recognize any of it. In Rynmere, when Max found her and set her free, she'd told Mina that she was different now. She warned Mina she didn't know her anymore, to move on. Mina hadn't believed her then. She hadn't seen this.
And it destroyed her.
"Help me?" Mina softly bid Victoria, fighting the choke in her voice that came with a waterfall of unwanted tears. Victoria nodded and the two gently eased Max up between them. The bartender had clearly become practiced at this art. Every time Max stirred, she managed to whisper just the right thing to prevent the ex-convict from attacking her caretakers in her stupor. The stairs was a horrid experience, but Victoria did manage to aid Mina in getting Max up the stairs. They wandered their way through the dark of The Red Hand until they got behind the closed door of Maxine's room.
"Every night?" Mina knelt beside the bath tub they'd dropped the drunk into.
"Just about." Victoria had filled buckets that weren't soiled with puke and brought them into the room to draw a bath at Mina's request. "If she's here at all, it's never in the same spot. I've found her in closets."
"Why do you do it?"
"Clean her up. Listen to her cuss at you and try to fight you, she's so drunk she doesn't know who you are. No offense, but you're just the bartender."
"Same reason as you, I reckon." Victoria knelt down on the other side of the bathtub. "There's a lot said about Max. None of it is good. She's fucked up." She turned over one of the ex-convict's arms where it rested on the tip of the tub. "If you know her, though, really know her even a little bit? And she gives a damn about you? You know one thing: whether you're right or dead fucking wrong, she still shows up." A lump grew in Mina's throat. It was nearly impossible to hold back the tears that rolled hot down her cheeks now, and the feeling of them frustrated her. Victoria touched a couple spots along the inside of Maxine's arm and her face drained.
"What do you see?" Mina leaned forward, wiping away one of the stubborn, falling tears. Victoria glanced toward Mina and then back toward Maxine's inner arm. She bit her lips. Then she relented.
"Katomise," Victoria admitted her observation grimly. "That's new for her. It's some really bad shit. She's been injecting it." The bartender prodded the little holes in the skin for Mina to see before she rolled Max's arm back over. The woman ran a hand down her face, masking whatever it was that she felt or perhaps wanted to say.
"Go," Mina bid her. "I needed to see this."
"I'll be cleaning up just downstairs," Victoria reminded Mina, slowly rising to her feet. "Call if you need me. Please."
Then the bartender was gone, leaving Mina with the shell of the one person in the world Mina loved the most.