Ce Jeu

Work Release 

 The whole of Belle Vista smelt like a cattery and old money, and while it was hardly her style - she knew it was Vampire safe (for the most part) and that Larkspur was leaving her restless. Typically after this long in any one spot she would be on the road again - all her possessions haphazardly parked into the back of a budget moving van with questionable power steering.

 But do you know what didn't sound good? The stress of finding a new state, a new city, a different apartment when you were basically a fucking Animorph. So she felt stuck, pinned down like a butterfly behind glass in regards to her life as a whole. The fox situation, the touch-and-go situation that was the comic book shop, the cold case of the fanny pack fox girl.

 So to satiate that sense of wonder she had tried to spend her days off exploring the greater area in full, tried to keep herself occupied and distracted and - this legitimately looked like a bowl of cheerios. She squinted a little, as if the stretched canvas in front of her was some sort of optical illusion - leaned in a bit closer and made sure to keep her hands behind her back to avoid touching. It was then that she glanced over, caught the name, the artist, the materials, the price tag that rivaled her rent. Coughing at once to mask the gasp and the slight outburst of choked laughter in what was a particularly quiet and calm space.

If his mother ever came to visit him in Colorado, this would be the place she'd vacation at. By vacation, he meant wander the shops with a dainty purse, her travel furs, and probably a thermos of shiraz. She was truly one of a kind. Damn he missed her.

She was the reason he was here actually. Some famous artist, one of her favorites, was displaying a few pieces at this gallery and he was tasked to scope them out. Apparently there was one that would be - "The absolute envy of my book club Zachary!" Only problem was that he had been half listening to her description of which painting and only had a vague understanding of what to look for. Lots of shapes, lots of blues, and a huge owl or maybe an eyeball?

So far nothing matched that description, but Zachary was no art expert. He continued to wander aimlessly, stopping to check the artist name to see if anything sounded familiar. There were only a few other people here. Most looked as stuffy as the artwork. His eyes lingered just a little longer on a girl his own age who was leaning to get a better look at a particular piece. Art student maybe? He creeped up closer to get a better look at the art she checking out.

At that moment, she burst into a fit of laughter. It startled him enough to cause a very embarrassing squeak of surprise to escape.

 When she had first stepped into the gallery, first taken off her sunglasses and glanced over the front desk - there had been a particularly stern faced Were who'd shot her the mom glance. Something that bordered on loosely threatening and seemed to imply a single word - behave. And while she had not said it in so many words, when she broke the quiet like a shot she was almost sure the feline was going to be over her shoulder scowling.

 Instead she glanced back, jumped a little as she looked over the completely unfamiliar man there instead. Good job Chloe, if it was a snake - it wouldn't be a very well maintained gallery. It was then that she replayed the sound she'd heard in her mind, a little mousy squeak that made her chuckle a bit as she matched the face to it. "Sorry." And honestly she was, mouse boy.

 Feeling like she was in high school whispering in study block again, she leaned back a bit to glance towards the front before she shuffled backwards to be more or less in line with the guy. She jerked her head back, nodded to the plaque beside the painting and leaned in a bit, still kept respectful (at least in her book) about personal space. "Checkout that price tag." A very, very, very low whisper.

The mortification would wear off eventually. Zachary wasn't a stranger to botched first impressions. This girl seemed forgiving enough. In fact, she even moved closer until they were side by side. From this distance, the painting in front of them looked less of an eye sore.

He almost didn't catch the her whispered request. The price tag? Now he had to look for himself. Zachary leaned down to catch the small name plate and let his eyes widen. That really was a ridiculous amount of zeros. "Who pays that much for - what ever this thing is?"

Actually, there were a lot of shapes on this one. God, he hoped this was not his mother's intended piece.

 As soon as she said it, a part of her worried that maybe he was loaded and this seemed normal to him. Maybe he would gasp and tell her it was a steal. Worse still, maybe he was a painter - maybe he was the painter. She tried to picture the quickest and most pain free exit available, just to be on the safe side. Good news, it seemed like he lived in the harsh light of day like most of the population - small relief.

 "Uh ... huh, well ..." She considered how put together he looked, tugged a bit on the sleeves of her blouse and squinted at the painting, as if she could offer some sort of deep insight. "I sort of though that looked like a bowl of cereal, you know?" She tilted to the side, waved her hand towards the left in a circle, as if to paint over it for him.

Ah now he saw it. Mirroring her stance did result in the painting resembling a hazy bowl of cereal. Crossing his eyes improved the results further.

Chuckling, Zachary's drifted to the artist's name. "Well, I don't think Sir Jairon Dante Aontonie has even seen an actual bowl of cereal in his life."

He didn't know what had caused his good mood, but Zachary was just going to roll with it. He shot his hand out and covered the name plate. "Quick. What do you think he called this masterpiece?"

 "That's not a real name." Which, maybe it was - but, holy smokes that was a mouthful. The sort of name that someone was born with and it was pretty much established that they were either going to do something amazing or be laughed out of every single meeting and job interview forever and ever, amen.

 But any hyper-criticism she had was shelfed at the challenge, laughing as she straightened up and squinted at the canvas, considered it's wealth of mainly cool tones as she tapped an index finger repeatedly at her chin. "Maudlin-O's in Still Life." She snapped her fingers, waved in the air a bit. "No! Uh ... crap, Honey Nut Scooters, those look off brand."

"Those are fantastic guesses. The work clearly inspired you." He almost didn't want to reveal the actual name since there was little that would compare to Honey Nut Scooters. Had he been an art critique he would have quoted her directly in his scintillating review.

Zachary let his hand slip down the name plate to reveal the actual title. " Sir Jairon took a different approach. He called this stunning work of art, wait for it.." He paused for dramatic effect. His hands gliding out to frame the art in a mock interpretation of a late-night TV model showing off incredible deals. " Lustful Excellence In Capri No. 227"

He lasted only a few second after the reveal before his face crunched up and Zachary began laughing.

 "Lustful Excellence." She dropped her voice, made it something over the top and smoky as she wiggled her fingers in the air. "What does that even mean?" It still looked like part of a healthy breakfast - a salacious bowl of cereal. "I got into the wrong field." Which, she supposed, at her level wasn't so much getting into a field as it was needing money and going for the first thing that paid halfway decently.

 At any rate the laughter was contagious, eyes burning as she tried to stifle herself and keep her composure, as she waved a hand in front of her face and breathed in and out. And while it took effort to compose herself enough to ask, she dropped her voice, managed to squeak it out. "Does that mean Sir Antonie made two hundred and twenty-six other paintings of sexy breakfast?"

His laughter was decidedly loud for the posh location. A gruff looking security guard at the end of the hall was glaring directly at them. Probably a good idea to quiet down before they were asked to leave.

However, her comment made him struggle to stifle his giggles. Zachary forced himself to take a breath, then exhale. "God I hope not. One of these is bad enough." As he spoke he could feel a small pocket of air fly down his throat. That was weird, but it didn't mean that...

Zachary cleared his throat and continued. "I mean can you imagine -hic- 200 more?"

Oh no.

 If he wasn't more or less a total stranger, she would have swatted him in the arm - hoped to cut the laughter as she bowed her head and forced herself to take a deep breath. She glanced up, chuckled at the first hiccup and wrinkled her nose before she nodded her head to the side, further into the room and away from the security guard. "Before we become wanted men."

 Her hands found their way into the pockets of her shorts, jingling her keys as she wondered to the next hanging canvas. This one was definitely a face, she would fight anyone who might have been inclined to argue otherwise. "Steamy grits, sexy egg scramble, ...." Okay so, maybe she wasn't done completely.

He followed after her. Not because the security guard was creeping him out or anything. There was just safety in numbers.

The hiccups were not backing down. His body gave a little jerk each time one bubbled up his throat. What was the cure for hiccups again? Holding his breath never seemed to work. If only it were possible to briefly scare yourself. That would do the trick.

Her commentary got to him again and another round laughter escaped his previously sealed lips. He couldn't hold back from joining in. "Don't forget hot toast and sticky buns -hic-." Looks like the hiccups were staying. Zachary might as well embrace them for now.

"So, what brings you here anyway? -hic- Are you an art student?" He wasn't sure if his initial guess was true based on their silly critiques. However, modern art was an acquired taste and it was possible to appreciate art without enjoying sexy breakfast interpretations.

 "Sticky buns." She gasped, seemingly amazed and equal parts appalled at that one, somewhat annoyed she had not been the one to take things there. "Definitely not an art student - I just thought I'd explore a little ... you live around here?" He seemed well groomed, she knew better than to judge people too harshly these days.

 "It's a shame we don't have access to sugar. ... When I was growing up, my grandma used to give me a spoonful of sugar when I had the hiccups." She glanced over her shoulder, took in a sharp breath and replicated the sound as best she could. "There, now you're not alone."

So she also wasn't an art student and by her account was simply a curious soul who ended up at the gallery. However, there was also a tiny possibility that she was secretly an art thief. Even if this was true, her sympathy hiccup was the kindest thing a stranger has ever done for him, so he was now indebted to her and a willing accomplice.

He gave a toothy grin, "I'll need to remember a spoonful of sugar for next time. I work around sugar all day -hic-." Hazzah! The time between hiccups was lengthening. Perhaps he was turning the corner.

"I don't live around here. I'm -hic- doing an errand for my mother. She's one of those people." He dropped his voice and shifted his eyes side to side, "A sexy breakfast enthusiast"

 The sound she made was somewhere between a gasp and a scoff - a contradictory jumble as she almost choked on air. A sexy breakfast enthusiast. That was a t-shirt, a keychain, a fridge magnet, a coffee mug - a whole slew of marketable options all rolled tightly into one. Except she decided to backtrack and focus on the other little tidbit, hardly palatable but enough to latch onto and shake to see what came loose.

 "So if you're not an art student are you ... a baker?" That would explain a whole lot of sugar, and he looked like ... something detail oriented, maybe.

Karma was going to get him for poking fun at his mom. He could already feel her perfect french tips pricking on the back of his neck. Didn't matter that she was across the country. Victoria Ellis always knew when her children spoke ill of her and fought back with her motherly disapproval of their life choices.

Speaking of life choices, the girl had asked about his job. It wasn't what his parents had envisioned for him, but Zachary was damn proud of his little lot in life. "Nah, I work at the local ice cream shop in Crestview. I'd be a disaster in a bakery." If it didn't come in a box with less than three steps, then he'd ultimately screw it up. If there was a market for salty brownies, Zachary had the monopoly.

It occurred to him that maybe his presence here wasn't completely clear. "Um. I'm not a big fan of this kind of art. My mother, however loves this stuff. She wanted me to scope out some famous artist and report back." He turned to stare back at the next painting in line. The price tag on what looked like the melted remains of a school bus was hilarious and upsetting. He peered back at her from the corner of his eye. "And you? You work around here?"

 She knew a lot about Crestview, actually. Knew that it had the Food Rally and that one truck once in a blue moon with the heavily loaded grilled cheese sandwiches she would happily eat three of in one sitting. She also happened to know that it was hyena territory - but out of those two little factoids she only really had any intention of sharing one.

 "It just so happens I'm a very big fan of ice cream." Food, really, these days. And while he hadn't asked for it, she was poised and happy to put her seal of approval on his choice of profession. "My illustrative talents begin and end with the fact that one time I drew an eye that wasn't just a circle inside an oval." So long story short, they were in the same boat where all this brand of talent was concerned.

 "I'm just out seeing what I can get myself into, I actually work in Larkspur ... Comic book shop. " She didn't bother to ask him if he was a fan, half anticipated him to say something about Batman or Superman. It almost always went there first.

He hadn't explored Larkspur yet. That was something he should add to his list. A comic book store had to be a pretty cool place to work. When he was younger, Zachary was an avid reader. Sadly, as he got older things changed and his free time was spent on Netflix. How long had it been since he read a book? Way too long.

"A comic book store sounds awesome. I never read many comics growing up. Only exception was this huge collection from the series Runaways. I enjoyed those." He paused for a moment, lost in a memory of sneaking into his sister's room and taking the next installment to read under the covers at night. The story was great and the stealth mission required to read each new chapter made the experience so much more fun. He wondered if any of those comics made it with him to Colorado. When he left, he had packed up everything in his room, so there might be a few loose ones hanging around.

"You ever deal with weird customers?" He was always interested in swapping retail stories. "You'd be surprised by the people that come in for ice cream, especially at night. " He had his suspicious about some of them of course, but asking personal questions as you scooped a triple rocky road into a cup seemed unwise.

 "Oh yeah?" She perked up a bit then, flashed a genuine smile at the prospect of someone who didn't instantly defer to the front line classics. "We might have one or two of those ..." Her eyes narrowed and she bit at the tip of her tongue - tried to draw to mind some hazy cover image. "Don't quote me." Better to ere on the side of caution, anyway.

 As for weird customers - well ... it was a bit inappropriate, but she couldn't help but snort at the mere notion. "You could say that I've met a few." The knife wielding man-hyena, for example. But maybe that was a story she would sit on for the time being. "Wait - are we talking about regular weird or like ... supernatural weird?" Treading with caution as she wondered into the next room and skimmed over black and white portraits of architecture.

He was fully expecting some story of a rowdy mega fan or a customer that bought thousands of dollars worth of garfield comic books. Instead, she threw him off and just straight went for it. He was still feeling her out. It was very possible that she was something more, but he wasn't very good yet at knowing how more just by looking at a person.

People knew the supernatural existed. Only those in total isolation or the insanely stubborn continued to live in ignorant bliss. And! She too worked in retail. If anyone knew about the supernatural it was retail employees. When the news came out most of them probably said something similar to, 'why am I surprised? I already knew that.'

He could keep his own supernatural orientation close to his chest for now. No reason to blurt out everything to a stranger. But he didn't need to gloss over reality. Customer service was a world in itself.

Mind made up, Zachary followed after at a respectable distance. At worst, she'd decline to continue their conversation and he'd have to buy any future comics online. "Both make for good stories. Had a toddler demand a waffle cone and immediately start wearing it as a hat. Same day had a woman float her milkshake and a spoon to her hand before leaving."

 "No shit, really?!" A bit sharp, a gasp more or less as she tilted back to get a good look at him. Except - she hesitated, decided to correct herself for the sake of conversation. "About the woman, not the toddler ... but that's funny too." She tried to imagine something like that - some second cousin twice removed from the guy who lit himself on fire during that Vampire attack. And while people said garbage all the time about the shade of grass on the other side, she was pretty sure she would have preferred to bend spoons with her mind over breaking every bone in her body when she got a little hangry.

 "I have a regular who buys about fifteen bucks in comics every week - except he exclusively pays me in coins." That one, she had a hard time hiding her disdain. But then it was a matter of deciding what to share and what to leave out - but she decided on a gamble all the same. "Back when that tiger guy fought that Vampire lady on national television? I was working that night, and I saw ... I don't know if you were around here when that hit - but the streets were nuts."

"Yeah, I do remember that." His shoulders tensed up at the memory. "I was back home in New Jersey at the time. The news ran the footage for days after." There was panic all over the country and it probably leaked out to other countries as well. People were suspicious of each other. A bunch of schools closed for a few days because parents didn't want their kids out of the house.

He stuffed his hands into his coat pockets. Things were scary for a little while. Zachary had worried for a time that the government would suddenly declare supernatural war and things would end up like some classic monster movie. Humans live, monsters die, and the shirtless hero gets the aspiring model. He sighed and shuffled his feet. "As crazy as things got I'm honestly surprised how quickly people calmed down."

He turned to face her for the first time in awhile. Something had been bothering him for a bit and he finally figured out what. "Before we continue, I want to introduce myself." He held out his right hand. "I'm Zachary. I work at an ice cream shop in Crestview, I'm not a fan of modern art, and I have a regular customer who I'm 94% sure is a vampire."

 "That must have felt weird ... being here was one thing - but sometimes it's easy to forget that this isn't just - that it's everywhere." She waved her hands, a wide circle as if to signify the general atmosphere. The knowledge that there were just as many Vampires in Mountainside as there were in Fresno or San Antonio or - it was all crazy.

 But she shelfed that when he introduced himself properly, taking his hand with her own and giving it a firm but brief shake. Her face fell a bit about the Vampire remark, brows knitting as one corner of her mouth tugged down a bit further than the other. "Chloe - not a friend of sexy breakfast, I've seen a man turn into a fox right on the friggin' sidewalk, and how do you know your ice cream aficionado is a Vampire?"

She looked skeptical, but he was prepared for that. "I have evidence to back up my claim." He began ticking off his reasoning on his fingers. "First, he comes only during the night. Second, he rarely buys anything. Just comes in and stares at the flavors for a while, then leaves. Third, when he does buy he gets a tiny portion and always looks so sad after the first bite."

These facts were all circumstantial at best and Zachary's initial research had lead to a variety of explanations. But he had been determined to find the truth and what followed was a full blow investigation leading to his best piece of evidence.

"And finally, the last time he came in I asked if he was a vampire...he said yes! Which is why I'm 94% sure I have a sad vampire customer who can't enjoy the wonders of ice cream anymore, but still longs for it." He waved his hands out during the big reveal. Sure his detective skills needed work, but he got results.

 She kept her expression vacant, nodded along with each point that he ticked off and stopped at a set of portraits in extreme close-up and detail. "Well - shit." A simple answer as she twisted to look at him and lifted her arm out a bit, just enough to bump him with her elbow. "Be careful with those types, yeah?"

 Her thoughts wondered to Heather's probable fate, then to the Vampire that she had met at the skating rink. "Some of them might be nice - but there are others that can be nasty." She hesitated then, chuckled without any genuine mirth. "Like everyone else I guess - but you know, deadly."

He laughed, mostly at himself. "Trust me. I know how stupid I was to ask. Want to blame it partially on lack of sleep at the time, but yeah." He'd never been the type to be that reckless, but he recently found himself diving carelessly into uneasy situations. That was going to become a problem if he didn't stop to think things through more often. He might be a little hardier than the average person, but there were an untold number of people out there how could easily tear him apart.

He realized with a bit of clarity that this fear was probably why things calmed down after the reveal. People found minding their own business easier than the alternative.

"I've been lucky so far with people I've met. You're right though. You never really know what people are capable of." He hadn't paid much attention to the art for some time. However, the work in front of him, a dark canvas with a bunch of tiny lights poking through, was kinda fitting for the mood. Lighthearted, with something serious floating in the background. His lip quipped up slightly. Perhaps modern art wasn't always so bad.

 After a moment or two of standing still, her hands easily fell into the deep pockets of her shorts - pursing her lips as she considered the artwork ahead of them. Even so, her brain wasn't on brushstrokes or the small nuances - her thoughts were on the plot of her brain that was all animal. The part of her that fused together roughly and left a jagged scar.

 She could probably kill him. A sideways glance from the corner of her eye more or less confirmed it, and immediately she felt all that much more disgusting for thinking it. But it was fact, if you plucked out all the morality and human emotion. She could kill most people these days, in a bare hands brawl.

 So maybe capability wasn't the issue when she was still the person who tried to negate the pounds of red meat she had to eat to keep herself in check by catching spiders in cups and setting them free. "I guess ..." She didn't want to encourage him to take stupid risks, also didn't want to fear monger. "No risk, no reward - right?"

He nodded along at her remark. No reward for playing it safe, unless being safe was the reward itself. Hard to tell with the temptation of what lay beyond the risk. A temptation that Zachary unwittingly reached for often enough. "I think my problem is sometimes I take too many risks. Or maybe don't see the reward."

Even the few examples he could think of were messy. Moving here and living alone was a risk, and now he was independent. Using his power in public was a risk, and it had lead to him meeting others like himself. Those examples didn't make a for a standard rule. He was independent, but alone. Stronger than some, but not all. It was such a tricky balance.

He crossed his arms in front of him, turning his head briefly to look into the next room. They were finishing with the paintings and moving towards the sculptures. He had missed his mother's favorite artist somewhere behind them. "Speaking of risk. I shouldn't risk my mother's wrath. There is a painting I need to find."

 Turning the corner and into the next open space of a room, she hesitated as she saw pedestal after pedestal lining the room. Marble, stone of all different sorts, mixed media abstract sculptures that made her squint. The true mark of someone that had too much money for their own good, a stand with a four to five figure price take and a bundle of wire and safety pins.

 "Oh - yeah, right." She shook her head - felt her face get warm for a fleeting couple of seconds as she realized she'd latched on for a room or two. "Well, I hope you find what you're looking for, Zachary - it was nice to meet you." Hesitating for a second before she offered her hand stiffly out to him in order to shake. A little formal, perhaps - but ... leave her alone, she'd only really thought about it once she had committed.

He took her hand warmly and shook. "Really nice to meet you too Chloe. I'll have to stop by your comic store sometime."

She had made this excursion to the gallery far more enjoyable. Not that she'd ever know, but her words helped settle some things in his mind.

He started to head back towards the beginning of the gallery, but paused to look at her again. "Hey, thanks by the way. It was fun talking with you." He knew his face was likely heating up, so he turned quickly. Hopefully he only came across as only slightly awkward.

Maybe they would meet again at some point. After all, they did share a connection over poorly drawn breakfast.

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