While it was only late afternoon in California, night had already fallen in Chicago. Taggerty's was busy and full of noise, like it was nearly every night. Champ was walking across the crowded room, restocking the bar. Apparently, Linda wasn't too eager to have him bartend again. As he bent down behind the bar, out of sight to put things away, the front door opened and a nondescript delivery man walked in. He looked plain enough, wearing a simple delivery uniform and carrying a long white box. The man walked up to the bar and turned his head, obviously looking for someone.
"Yes?" Champ rose suddenly from behind the bar, startling the delivery man. Several nearby customers looked over and were now watching the proceedings with interest.
"Mr. Terrace, I have a delivery for you. From someone named-" The man shifted the box he held as he checked his clipboard. "I... know it's here somewhere..."
Champ smiled. "Jaclyn?"
"Yes. That's it. Jaclyn." The delivery man gave Champ a long look. "I, umm, need you to sign for this..."
"Oh." Champ smiled as he tossed his apron aside and came out from behind the bar. "Sure."
The delivery man handed Champ the clipboard and stepped back, looking him skeptically over from head to toe as if he were surprised somehow.
Champ noticed, the pen stopping in his hand as he gave him a level stare. "What is it?"
"Nothing." The man shook his head, smirking a little. "It's just that I usually can tell when a guy-.... Well, you really don't strike me as the type."
Champ only glared at him, having no idea what the man was talking about.
The delivery man shrugged it off with a casual smile. "It's nothing..."
"There you go." Champ finished signing the clipboard, handing it back to the delivery man. The man took it and stepped back a little bit. He carefully put the long white box and the clipboard on top of the bar.
"So where's the delivery?" Champ asked excitedly.
The man took the lid off the box. "Why it's right here Mr. Terrace."
The delivery man reached into the box and pulled out... an expensive looking portable cd player, placing it beside the white box on top of the bar. Before Champ could speak, the man pushed play and turned to Champ. When the music started, loud and raucous, the delivery man suddenly ripped off his shirt in front of the whole bar. He began gyrating his well oiled, well muscled chest in fluid, fairly explicit, movements done in time with the music.
Champ's face froze in a look of utter shock, his jaw dropping slowly.
All around the crowded bar, people turned and gawked as the oiled man wiggled like a snake, moving closer and closer to a stunned Champ. The two men were instantly the main focus of attention in the entire room. Champ looked like a deer caught in the headlights. The delivery man/stripper put his hand on Champ's chest and pushed him down onto a bar stool as the whole bar whooped and hollered.
The dancer continued, with a bump and grind strip tease that would have made a porn star blush. His hands rubbed slowly over his oiled chest, keeping seductive rhythm with the music. All the while his eyes were watching Champ, flirting heavily with him.
Champ was speechless.
Suddenly the stripper reached between his legs and ripped his white, break apart pants cleanly off as a cheer went up in the gathered crowd. He wore some very small golden, sparkling underwear underneath, glittering as he gyrated his pelvis to the heavy drum beat. His now exposed legs had apparently been pre-oiled too. It took a while before Champ realized that there was writing on the man's gyrating underwear. Champ's head bobbed along with the man's movements, trying to read it.
Smile for the camera, Champ.
Suddenly Jaclyn was there in the crowd, being led out of the back room by Linda and trying desperately not to laugh. As the virtually naked, and well oiled man fell into Champ's shocked lap, Jaclyn gleefully raised the camera she held.
Champ suddenly realized what she was about to do. "Jaclyn, don't you dare!"
"JACLYN-" Champ raised an outstretched hand, eyes wide. The oiled man was still drapped across his lap and kissing Champ playfully on the cheek just as the flash went off. Everything went black as the crowd's raucous applause faded away.
Champ moaned as he held the polaroid in his hand. It showed him panicked and reaching desperately for the camera, the flash bright in his face as it glistened off the man kissing his cheek. Champ held the picture, resting his elbows on the bar as he stood behind it, leaning forward. He looked up and smiled at Jaclyn, who was seated across from him on a barstool and leaning in close too. The bar around them was back to normal again now that the stripper had left and the commotion had died down. But Champ was certain he still heard snickers in the crowd.
"I'm going to get you for this, Jaclyn." He laughed. "But I have to admit. It's quite a gift. Still, I'm not really sure I should say thank you. You know that this picture is going to make the rounds for years..."
Gleefully, Jaclyn nodded. "Umm-hmm. Linda's already made fliers. She might even post it on the internet."
Champ's eyes widened slightly, but he took it in stride. He nodded back at her, glad she was so near. Pursing his lips, he smiled, not really upset at all. "If it had been anybody else who had done this, I would have killed them. But since it's you... I will get you back for this, Jaclyn. I promise."
She leaned in, smiling as her face came within inches of his, enjoying his friendly challenge. Her gaze moved across his lips for a moment, before looking up into his eyes. Champ felt dizzy at her being so near. She reached across and took the picture out of his momentarily stunned hands.
"Take your best shot, Champoo. Guess it's your move..."
Jaclyn smiled and pulled back, starting to leave. She looked playfully over her shoulder at him, waving the small picture with a flirty glint in her eye. A warm feeling swept through her as she paused, seeing Champ's eyes hadn't left her, and that made her good. Slowly she turned and walked out the front door.
Champ smiled to himself as he stood behind the bar, thinking of her. He hoped he hadn't blushed when she leaned in close to him like that. He had been embarrassed enough already for one night. Jaclyn had thrown down the gauntlet. It was his turn to pick it up. He was already considering what he could do for a response. He had an idea. Something he had never done for anyone before. Something he had never even dared attempt before.
Champ nodded, already going through the plans in his head.
Trevor was on a roll.
"And then Claire stumbled out of the supply closet and out in front of the whole crowd. I mean she was as naked as a minotaur on molt day." Trevor laughed. This was the eleventh person he had talked to at the reunion, and all of them had known Claire. Apparently, she had been a well know fixture in high school. Trevor continued to tell his ever more elaborate story, face animated and enjoying his tale all the while.
Ellie laughed as she listened. She couldn't believe her ears. "Our Claire Allen? Wow. That's so unlike her!"
"Well there's more to Claire than meets the eye. As everyone at that hockey stadium could visually attest to. She actually made going to a BlackHawks game entertaining for once! Not to mention the previously unheard of feat of making a love god blush. Claire's quite a kinky little genie once you uncork her bottle. Once you kindle her kindling. Once you-... Well, let's just say Pandora would be proud."
"I never even suspected, Mr. Hale. Claire was always so reserved." Ellie smiled, surprised.
Trevor nodded in agreement. "Neither did I. I really hope no one spiked the punch today, because get a little of the spirit into her, she could do it all again. And believe me, that would turn this reunion into one for the history scrolls."
Suddenly a woman touched his arm and Trevor jumped slightly, as if Claire had caught him. When he turned, he realized it was Joanne.
"Joanne!" He said. "I've been hoping to find you here. Hey. It's good to see you. You look great. Haven't had the pleasure of your smiling face for awhile. How are you sunshine?"
A woman with blond hair and sad blue eyes was standing in front of him, and she was smiling... a little. She hugged Trevor warmly, genuinely happy to see him again. "Hello, Trevor. It's good to see you too. I wanted to thank you for all your help at the bachlorette party back in Chicago. You and Claire... really helped me to get through it. To figure some things out. I know you didn't have to do it."
"Hey, I didn't mind at all. I was glad to help out." Trevor was silent, holding back.
Joanne nodded, inhaling slightly. "I... already know, Trevor. You don't have to hide it. I already saw them here. Ben and Heather... I mean."
His voice took on a sympathetic tone. "Ben and Heather. Right."
Joanne took another breath. "Don't worry. I'm... fine with it. I'm fine. Really. It's just a little hard seeing them together. But I've moved on, Trevor. My life hasn't ended or anything. I'm happy."
Trevor smiled. "No reason why you shouldn't be."
"So what are you doing here, Trevor? Did you come with Claire? I thought I sensed a little something between-"
Trevor interrupted her. "I didn't come with Claire."
"Well, I came with-"
Joanne looked over Trevor's shoulder, finishing for him. "Mara..." she said coldly.
Mara was suddenly with them, having walked out of the crowd behind Trevor. "Trevor there you are." She said. Mara touched his shoulder, and looked over at Joanne, recognition passing between them.
"Hello, Joanne." Mara said simply, trying to be civil.
"Hello, Mara." Joanne spoke as politely as she could, but the two were obviously not very friendly. Trevor gave Mara a subtle look, implying he needed more time with Joanne. Mara picked up on it quickly. She nodded and slowly smiled, understanding. It surprised Trevor that she already knew him so well.
"Well Trevor, this has been fun, but I think I... I see someone I know." Mara searched around. "Ellie! Why are you hiding over there? How have you been? It's been so long!"
Mara tried her best to be enthusiastic as she gave the startled Ellie a hug, as if just finding her. Ellie had been standing next to them in plain sight. Mara grabbed her shoulders and started to lead her away. Ellie's expression was bewildered, knowing who Mara was, but not anywhere near as friendly with her as Mara seemed to think they were.
"So how are you?" Mara asked as they walked away. "You don't have kids, do you?"
Her voice faded away as Trevor turned back to Joanne, the two of them alone.
"Trevor, I'm a little confused," Joanne said. "When I saw you here at the reunion, I assumed you were here with... well, Claire. How do you even know Mara?"
"I met her in Chicago a few days ago. Don't you just love that sister dynamic? Mara's the ID to Claire's PSYCHE. She and Claire were coming to the reunion anyway, so Mara invited me. Besides, Claire came with Frank."
Trevor seemed uncomfortable. "Umm, Claire's latest boyfriend."
Joanne seemed surprised. "But... do you have feelings for Mara?"
Trevor thought about it. "It's complicated, but... Yeah. Maybe, I might. I mean she's beautiful, she's kind, she's generous, everything anyone could want. But... I don't know. Something keeps stopping me. I can't explain it, because there's really something between me and Mara. Even after only a few days. But I keep fighting her advances, and I can't come up with an answer as to why. No answer that makes sense."
Trevor blinked, surprised he had said so much. Amused, Joanne gave him a knowing look, understanding more than Trevor was letting on. She saw someone else approaching again and she smiled, as if that were answer enough.
"Oh really, Trevor?"
Claire came out of the crowd and walked up to the two of them. She spoke into Trevor's ear as she passed him, moving towards Joanne. "Trevor, my ears are burning."
Trevor looked her over. "And the rest of you isn't bad either."
Claire moved over and hugged Joanne warmly.
"Joanne, I'm glad you came."
Trevor's face brightened a little now that Claire was with them. He watched her hugging Joanne with a smile. "Claire, you and Joanne could really make a bundle if you charged people every time you two hugged like that."
Claire smiled at him over Joanne's shoulder. "It seems the god of love is also the patron saint of pay per view." She came out of Joanne's arms and walked over to him. "Trevor, can I talk to you? We'll talk later Joanne, ok?"
Joanne looked back and forth between them as they stood side by side. "Sure," she said with a smile.
Claire and Trevor began to walk away together. Claire looked at him, suddenly realizing she had missed him a little, since she hadn't spent much time with him lately. She did her best to try not to think about what had or hadn't happened last night.
"The reason my ears are burning, Trevor, is because I've talked to a lot of old friends today. So I've been meaning to ask you. I've been hearing a lot of.... rumors."
"Well that's bound to happen at a reunion, Claire."
"Rumors about me."
Trevor smiled, embarrassed, but only a little. He tried to keep a straight face. "Really? What about?"
"About my wildly exotic and exhibitionistic sex life back in Chicago. It's all the rage. Apparently, some love god or other has been busy telling tales. Any idea who that might be, Trevor?"
"Hey, I'm just trying to do you a favor, Claire."
As he looked at her, he tried not to laugh, knowing he had been caught. "Look at it this way. You could really use a little tweaking of your image. Maybe I can win you an award. You're a shoe in now for most changed since high school."
Claire laughed softly. "I guess so..."
"So tell me Claire. What's the deal with you and nerdy glasses guy?"
She exhaled. "Don't ask."
"Do you know him?"
"Yes. I know him, Trevor. We went out once. Just once. Back in high school."
He smiled. "Really..."
"Look, it was back when I was young and stupid, Trevor. I really thought I was open minded enough to..." She looked at him smiling. "You're really enjoying this aren't you?"
"Ok. Fine. I'll admit it. It was a pity date, ok?"
"Well, at least it must be comforting to know that he took pity on you," Trevor said.
"It was a one time thing." Claire could still see amusement in his eyes. "I was totally uninterested in him, but he's never let up all these years. Every once and a while he makes another advance. Can you believe he actually had the nerve to try that SureScore stuff on me?"
Trevor smiled. "I might be able to believe that. But maybe you should consider giving him a go, Claire. He could be the one."
"Trevor, you have no idea how much of a hassel he's been."
Trevor couldn't believe she had said that. "Calling him an obscene name like that is a little harsh, don't you think?"
She looked at him, not understanding, then she shook her head. "No, I said hassle. With an H."
Claire gave him the look. "I really wish you wouldn't encourage him, Trevor."
"Hey, figured it was worth a shot. Sometimes you never know-" he looked into her eyes, "-who might be the right one."
Claire looked back at him. "Yeah. I know... Trevor."
She smiled as she turned away. "Trevor, sometimes, but only just sometimes, I'm glad that you don't change."
"Yeah, sort of like I have an immortal charm."
"Do me a favor. Don't lose that, Trevor. Hold it tight. No matter what does eventually... change." Mara was suddenly very much in Claire's thoughts.
Suddenly Patty appeared from the dance floor, dragging Frank behind her towards Claire and Trevor, having finally had her fill of dancing. As she stood in front of Claire, Patty saw Joanne a standing a few feet away, and waved her over.
"Joanne! Come over here. See what Claire brought!"
Joanne walked over, glancing once at Trevor before she looked at Frank. "Who is this?" she asked.
"Joanne, this is my boyfriend Frank. He's... a carpenter." Claire tried to say it matter of factly, almost pulling it off. Almost. Frank lowered his eyes.
Across the room, Mara looked over at them, watching as they all began to talk. Claire was on Frank's arm, surrounded by her friends. Trevor was off to the side, looking like a fifth wheel. Mara really hated seeing Trevor like that, and she walked over, coming across the room. She walked straight up to him.
"Come on, Trevor." Mara smiled, taking his hands. "There's a dance we need to finish."
Without looking once at Claire, she kept her gaze on him and led him away. Claire's eyes followed them across the room.
Mara led him out onto the dance floor, and this time Trevor didn't fight it, caught up in the moment. It was another slow dance, and Trevor was growing suspicious as to whether Mara always timed it that way. If she had, he reminded himself to thank her later.
They stood in the middle of the dance floor, swaying slowly back and forth in each other's arms. It seemed easier this time. Mara gazed into Trevor's eyes, enjoying how handsome he was. As Trevor looked at her, her face seemed to glow, soft and radiant. He couldn't help but glance into the crowd, a little nervous, but he didn't pull away.
"Trevor, why haven't you tried to kiss me?" Mara asked bluntly.
Trevor looked back at her, smiling at her directness. "I'm not really sure I know how to answer that."
Almost imperceptibly, Mara's face started to lean closer to his. She paused, lips parting.
"It's not that hard, Trevor. People do it all the time. You should know. Two people just get close to each other, like we are now. They hold each other in their arms, like... this. And then they just,..." Her last words were a whisper, as she looked into his eyes. "...kiss me."
Trevor felt himself drawn forward. It was taking everything in his power not to kiss her, unable to deny how attracted he was to her in that moment. And without realizing it, he was leaning closer too, and closer still, until...
"Mara, there's something I need to do..." Trevor pulled back.
"Trevor..." Mara sighed, disappointed. "You're doing it again."
"You're pulling away from me. You don't have to fight this, because there's nothing wrong with it. Kiss me. I want you to. It's easy. Just one..." Mara touched his lips softly with her fingers, smiling. "Two..." Her fingers grazed lightly over her own lips. "Three..." Her face came slowly forward again, as she closed her eyes.
Trevor exhaled, as if breaking a trance. He slipped out of her arms.
"No, there's really something I need to do." He smiled. "Surely someone somewhere must need my help."
Mara looked at him softly, taking his hand. "The man standing in front of me certainly does. Look, I know I'm not just kidding myself here. We both know that. You feel something too. Why won't you kiss me when... we both know you want to?"
Trevor looked at her. "I... really need to be somewhere else, Mara. Preferably submerged in ice water. Really, I just need to do something, I promise."
Mara saw it for the excuse that it was. She conceded for the moment, looking at him with a glint in her eye. "Ok, Trevor. But the kiss is still on the table..."
Trevor nodded. "All over it."
He turned, and for a second time, left her alone on the dance floor. Mara watched him leave with a smile. Not what she had hoped for, but she wasn't giving up on him.
Suddenly Claire was behind her, touching her shoulder and turning her around. She had watched Mara trying to kiss Trevor and had stormed over, having seen enough. Claire stood there, quietly fuming as the specks of light from the mirror ball flowed over the two of them.
"I finally figured it out, Mara. I know what you're doing." Claire's eyes glittered dangerously, her voice soft and angry.
Mara sighed as she looked at her, tired of the continuing argument. She turned and began to walk off the dance floor, Claire right behind her. "And what am I doing, Claire?"
Claire was still upset. "You're not really attracted to Trevor. This is just your latest little competitive game to get back at me, like always. To take Trevor away. You've always tried to compete with me, Mara. You always try to outdo me and that's what you're doing now. You're only trying to seduce Trevor because.... well, you obviously think that I'm-" Claire stopped, not able to bring herself to say it.
Mara glared at her but said nothing as she continued to walk, in no mood to make it any easier for her. The crowded gym slid past around them, the streamers hanging above, people dancing all around, as they moved to the perimeter. Mara shook her head before she spoke.
"I obviously think you're what, Claire?"
"You know what I mean, Mara!"
"No. I don't."
"You only want Trevor because you think that I'm interested in him romantically."
Now Mara was angry, seeing her feelings brushed aside like that. She turned on Claire, furious. "Are you?"
"No! Of course not!"
"Then that can't be the reason I'm attracted to him, now can it? You don't have any special claim on him, Claire!"
"I've never said I have any claim-"
"So is that why you hoard your relationship with Frank over Trevor?"
"I do not!"
"Yes! You do! You not only hold your relationship over his head, you rub his nose in it! Are you afraid what would happen if you didn't always push Trevor away?"
Claire scoffed. "That's ridiculous..."
Mara glared at her, standing her ground as she continued. "I'm interested in Trevor, Claire. He's interested in me. And I am going to see where that leads. If you want to stop me, you'll just have to admit your feelings and take him for yourself, now won't you? You can't have it both ways. Guess it's time for you to put up or shut up! But, call it a hunch, I don't think you'll find the courage in that college educated heart of yours to do that!"
Mara turned and began to walk out of the gymnasium, having had enough fighting.
"I'm not letting you run away that easily, Mara!" Claire followed right behind as they walked out of the gymnasium and into an empty hallway. Mara didn't stop, and exasperated, Claire reached out and turned Mara towards her.
"You're right Mara. It is time to put up or shut up." Claire continued, voice incredulous. "About me and you. Why is it always like this? Always arguing, always... I'm tired of fighting with you, Mara. Tired of always competing with you!"
Mara scoffed. "Yeah, some competition, Claire."
Claire's voice grew louder in the quiet hallway. "Yes it was, Mara. It was always you and me. I was... I was always so jealous of you. Jealous of how much closer you were to dad than I was. Remember that time you two toured together for a little while? Playing in all those bars? The two of you together, like kindred spirits. Free thinkers who went their own way without consideration for the responsibilities, the consequences to the people they left behind! You always got to do whatever you wanted, Mara! But not me. Never me. I've had to be the responsible one since I was thirteen, when dad left."
Claire's eyes were angry, but a little sad, letting it all seethe out. Mara watched her tirade coldly, seemingly unaffected as Claire continued.
"What, did you think this was the only life I ever wanted, Mara? I bet you didn't know that at one point I wanted to be a photographer. It's all I dreamed about growing up. But no. I ended up having to heal and comfort the tortured, hurting souls of Mom and Dad as their marriage fell apart. Heaven knows I was the only one who acted like an adult during the divorce, keeping things together. I was there for you, for mom, for dad, for Josie. But who was there to keep me together? Who was there to comfort me! No one. In a house crowded with people, I was alone. And I became so good at healing other people's shattered psyches, I guess I just became a psychologist. Inevitable, in a way. Just my little niche, huh? My place in life! Meanwhile you were free to do whatever you wanted. Get away with whatever you wanted. Be forgiven whatever you wanted. Because everyone knew Claire was the responsible one. The one who would clear it up. My namesake, I guess. Well, I'm sick of it!"
Mara was growing more angry as she looked at her, and she countered hotly back. "You know what? Atlas called, he want's the world back from your shoulders, Claire. Get over yourself! Don't blame me for the choices you made in your life! No one is stopping you from being a wild child yourself! Hell, Trevor's been going out of his way today to make that life up for you on your behalf!"
Claire glared back. "Yeah, I tried that. I tried being wild, spontaneous. But every time it was a complete disaster! I went completely wild back in college, only to end up feeling empty! I went wild with my pilot boyfriend Jack, and that just drove him away! He flew out of my life as fast as he could go! Every time I've let loose, gone wild, it's been a total disaster! I can't be you, Mara! Guess I was trained to well by actually growing up!"
Having heard enough, Mara shouted back at her. "You've never even bothered to ask why I was like that, Claire!"
Claire was exasperated. "Because you just were! Because you were Mara! I don't know. Enlighten me then!"
"Because I couldn't compete with being you!"
Mara's voice was loud for a moment, full of anger, before going quiet again. "Because I couldn't live up to being you, Claire. I'm not as smart as you, not as successful, not as beautiful, not as in control. But at least I'm not running from my feelings. You stand there and act like a care free and free spirited lifestyle is always this great thing, well, it's not! Sometimes I wonder if there's ever anything solid under my feet..."
Claire shook her head. "That's no excuse for-"
Mara stopped her. "For what? Being promiscuous? Being a slut? Say it, Claire. You were thinking it."
Claire's eyes were hard as she looked at her. "That's not what I was going to say and you know it."
Mara didn't listen. "Why don't we compare? How many lovers have you had, Claire?"
"I'm not playing this game."
"How many?" Mara persisted. "I bet you've had more than me."
"I've had five, Claire. How about you?"
Claire blinked, surprised. "Nine," she said absently, before realizing she forgot Frank. "Wait... I mean ten."
Mara nodded angrily. "Interesting how perceptions change, isn't it? Now out of all the lovers we've had, there's only been one that we share in the null set between us. Only one, and you've never forgiven me for it."
Claire grew angry at the memory. "Because you took him from me! You just had to have Brian! You just had to steal him away from me."
Mara shook her head. "That was high school, Claire. We were kids then."
Claire continued. "Yeah, but old enough apparently for you to do what you did. You know what hurts the most? You knew. You knew how much I cared about him. How much I... But you offered him something I wasn't ready for yet. You moved right in between us, and tried to sleep him away from me!"
Mara didn't understand. "Tried? I did more than tried. Who are we talking about here, Brian or Trevor?"
Claire didn't answer. "Why did you, Mara?! Why did you do it! For what possible reason? Why are you always competing with me!"
"Trevor isn't a competition, Claire."
"I'm so sick of this ongoing rivalry between us! Why did you take Brian away?"
Mara's voice was loud and anguished. "Because I was tired of everyone loving you more than they loved me!"
The two women looked at each other, silent for a few moments.
Mara's voice was soft and hard, but her eyes were beginning to mist over. "Let's face it, Claire. The truth. You were more popular than me in high school. You're more popular in Chicago. That's why I don't live there. You say that we're competing, but the truth is, I've always been the one that's been jealous. Jealous of you! Jealous of all you are that I'm not. And will never be. Believe me, I know all about sibling rivalry. I lived it. I mean, there was Josie of course, but she's younger than the two of us. We both love her to death. It's not the same thing. It was always you and me who were compared side by side. And believe me, I lost every time! So instead of trying to live up to you, I went with what I was good at, Claire. Living down from you..."
Mara's voice broke and she turned away, not looking at her. A tear rolled down her cheek as she stormed off. Claire stood there, speechless, never having heard any of that before. She felt her anger fade away to nothing. Claire blinked. After all these years, she had never known how Mara felt. She wanted to say she was sorry, to say that none of those things were true, that she had no reason to feel that way, but Mara was gone. Claire sighed, she lowered her head and turned away.