Treading Water - 5. Chapter 5 Touching Bottom
You can only tread water for so long...
Even in the closed-tight cooler bag in the back seat, Craig was bombarded with mouth-watering aromas. Jared loved his mother’s secret-recipe fried chicken. With a mental start, it occurred to him this meal must have been prepared with him and the dark-haired man in mind. Carly didn’t eat anything fried, and way too much was put in the bag for just him and his mom to eat, not to mention the amount of potato salad, coleslaw, and biscuits he saw packed in. She had to have known he’d be returning to Jared’s. He smiled at the thought of how lucky he was to have such an amazing mother, and he hoped she was okay after what he'd put her through earlier.
The fond feeling didn’t last long as a physical shudder flashed through him… a delayed reaction to what had transpired with his sister? If he wasn’t careful, he could fall apart from the gut-wrenching sadness of the whole thing. Regrets? No way. She’d deserved to be called out… but it was a difficult new awareness to adjust to. Knowing his sister had resented him to such a degree was hard to accept. The fact she’d deliberately set out to ‘win’ something from him… no, take something from him… out of jealousy, screwing Jared’s life up in the process, was almost unfathomable. Many guys would have walked away from such a situation, but that wasn’t who Jared was, and she knew it. He could see now, his biggest mistake was confiding in his sister all those times about how much he liked the handsome jock, how incredibly nice he was, and speculating on whether he could possibly be gay. That was most likely the impetus for her disturbing actions. He just hoped Jared could handle the whole truth of them.
The saddest thing of all was the forgotten man. Maybe Ronnie Chilton had been the guy meant for her, but she had used him for his sperm and tossed him aside. What had such callous treatment done to the boy? He had certainly crushed on her for a long time. If she hadn’t been intent on manipulating other peoples’ lives, she might have been able to turn Ronnie’s misguided one around. It’s possible that, if she didn’t screw him over like she did, he wouldn’t be out there lying on city streets, high as a kite and begging for money, looking like death warmed over.
Craig was becoming overwhelmed. Something that used to happen a lot after he lost Harlan, but he needed to hang in there. He only knew one thing for sure. He had to look into the remembered rawness of those incredible eyes and take the pain away. He needed to see Jared.
Dammit. In his eagerness to get there, he’d done it again. He told Jared he would call, and his phone was still behind him on the floor of the Jeep. Well, he wasn’t stopping now.
When he pulled into the driveway, he took some time to actually see the marred beauty of the place. Yes, it was a little run down, but Jared was a contractor, so he imagined with a little money the man could return the house to its former respectable appearance. It might never have been a showplace, but the lines were clean on the generous two-story frame structure. The front veranda needed work, and the side porch looked to be a possible write-off, but still, there was a subtle grandness to its style and dimensions. The century-old maples were majestic, arranged like guardians of the house perched on the slight rise above them. Views from the inside must be spectacular, Craig thought. There were exceptional vistas from every direction, although the pond area could likely only be seen from the second story. He noticed there were no lights on. It was only just past six on a perfect summer evening, so that was probably the reason.
No response at the door told him otherwise, and for a second, he felt relief at his reprieve. Craig was nervous. How would Jared react to the brutal blow he was about to deliver regarding Bailey, and how he’d been duped. The confidence he had it wouldn’t matter in the end, was starting to waver.
Would the man have a problem with his paying all of the arrears? He hoped not, but Jared was proud, and trying to hold onto some dignity. Craig certainly didn’t want to take that away from him, but the $350,000 sitting in his bank, making him even more money, made it an easy decision to help the beautiful guy he cared so much for. Harlan would have wanted this, of that he had no doubt. He’d heard his voice many times lately, telling him to stop stalling and get on with his life.
He fished in his pocket for Jared’s card, and the mental picture of him doing the same thing earlier, caused Craig’s mouth to smile and his dick to swell. Fuck, the man was hot, and so obviously hung. It had been way too long.
He entered the number and the first ring wasn’t even finished before he heard an anxious voice.
“Craig?” The reception wasn’t the best, but it sufficed.
With his heart feeling like it was in his throat, he responded. “Yeah, it’s me. Where are you?”
“I’m at the pond. How did it go?”
“It went great. Not easy, but great. I’ll tell you all about it face to face.”
“Are you coming back over?” The excitement in that question really got to Craig. This gorgeous man loved him. Holy shit.
“I’m already here.”
“You are? I’ll be right there.” The phone went dead.
Craig walked over to look down the yard, and saw a figure burst out of the trees at full speed. It made him smile widely, at the same time his eyes teared up. He started walking quickly toward the fast-moving runner.
They met around the first little rise, fairly close to the house. Jared had slowed down when it became apparent he was being met partway, so he was only mildly out of breath. Craig greeted him with a big smile. “That was quick. Did you miss me?” His eyes twinkled at the slightly flushed man.
“I, uh… yeah,” he admitted.
His shy grin was adorable, and Craig had a strong urge to attack him where he stood.
“So, we’re face to face. Are you going to tell me what happened?” That raw, apprehensive look Craig had seen earlier made another appearance.
“Don’t worry, it’s all good, at least, I think so. Were you down there all this time?”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to go up to the house after you left. I would have started working out to keep my mind of what might be happening, and I already did that this morning. I get carried away sometimes.” He looked sheepish, and that aroused Craig’s curiosity. “I, ah, I trusted you, Craig, but I got scared after you left.”
“I don’t know. A lot of things, I guess. I think, no, I know… a part of me worried I’d never see you again, and I was a little freaked out. I’m finding being at the pond helps keep me calm.” He sighed as he stared intensely at Craig. “You have no idea what having you here at my place meant to me today. It’s like I’ve been treading water for a long, long time, barely able to keep my head above the surface. With you, I feel like I’m touching bottom, and I’m safe… you gave me that today… but it went away when you did. Sorry, I sound like I’m putting pressure on you, and I’m not. I was just trying to….”
“Jared, look at me.” He obliged, and the pain Craig wanted to take away was very much in evidence. “I understand all about treading water. It’s what I’ve been doing too. Maybe not as long as you have, but I know all about the struggle to keep going. I’m glad I make you feel safe because that’s what you do for me. You’ve always made me feel safe so don’t apologize for anything, okay? I’m happy to be your bottom.” As soon as he said it, he wished he could take the last sentence back. Embarrassment flooded him as Jared began to snicker.
“Well, that was easy. You didn’t even make me work for it,” he said, gasping for breath as gut-busting laughter took over.
“I didn’t mean that… I meant….” Craig gave up, and finally joined in. Hearing this sad guy in such a state was worth all the foot-in-mouth humiliation in the world. Jared ended up collapsing on the dry grass, and Craig joined him, chuckling at his obvious glee. “Are you done yet?” he asked, trying to be serious.
“Almost. Oh God. Sorry. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.” He was somewhat back in control. “Really, I am sorry, but you’ve got to admit it was funny.”
“Yes, it was… mortifying, but funny.” Sharing humor with this man made Craig feel just a little gooey inside, and he took pride that the pain had disappeared from those expressive eyes. “So, do you want to hear what happened with Carly?”
Instantly, the mood changed, and Jared’s face became troubled. “Yes.”
They had ended up knee to knee, and if they looked to the trees, they could see the sun in the middle of its descent. “Jared. It’s all good. Carly has agreed to draw up a new custody agreement, a fair one. I took the liberty of speaking for you.” Jared nodded eagerly, hanging on every word. “I said you would want every other weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday evening, two weeks in the summer or whenever your vacation is, and that you would split all the holidays? I also suggested you be able to take Bailey out for an hour or two, here and there. Is that about right?”
“She agreed to this?”
“Yes. She didn’t really have a choice.”
Jared looked incredulous, and then his expression clouded over. “Craig, did she agree to this to keep us apart? Is that what’s happening here?” His question was accompanied by an instant welling of tears threatening to spill over.
“No, no. Nothing like that. She’s agreed to accept whatever happens between us, I swear.” The relief that appeared next was a whole body one, as Jared let himself fall backwards till he was stretched out on the prickly grass, staring up at the sky.
“Whew. You scared me there. How the fuck did you do it?” He propped himself up on one elbow, and Craig was compelled to copy him, sprawling so they were about two feet apart, face to face.
“I had to promise not to tell you something. Not to tell anyone.” That was met with a frown. “I lied, Jared. I won’t keep this from you. I wouldn’t keep anything from you because lies could kill any chance we might have. You’ll have to decide what to do with it once I say what needs to be said.”
So he did. Jared didn’t talk. He just listened as Craig started from the beginning and replayed the conversation with Carly for him. Other than a few seconds of raised eyebrows, and nervous hand movements here and there, he stayed quiet, a pensive look on his face. He was unreadable to Craig when he got to the part about Bailey, and her true parentage. It was so difficult to say the words, and Craig felt drained by the time he’d finished. He laid his head back on the ground, and closed his eyes. He really didn’t know what to expect from the quiet man beside him, but thought there might be anger, so he waited.
There was a slight rustling sound before he felt succulent lips on his. It was a kiss that started out slow and gradually deepened until he let a tongue gently explore his own. It was a kiss to be remembered, and like a sudden, unexpected lightning storm, thrilling, and a little scary. It relayed things simple words could not, and when those lips left his, Craig opened his eyes to heart-stopping blue ones hovering close to his own. There was no pain present in them… only wonderment.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist. Do you have any idea how beautiful you are, inside and out?”
Craig looked at the uncertain grin curling Jared’s full lips. “Nope, but you can try to convince me,” he said before he asked the question on his mind. “You’re not upset?”
The brilliant-eyed man sighed and sat up, plucking a blade of grass and studying it. “No, not upset. I understand why you’d think I would be, but there’s something I have to say. It means a lot, what you did for me today, and I don’t mean the money. Or, not just the money. I’m going to pay back every cent of it.”
Craig didn’t respond. He fixated on the same piece of grass, and listened.
“You put your relationship with your twin on the line, and it couldn’t have been easy. You sided with me over Carly, and that blows me away… it really does. And you chose to tell me the truth, and break your promise to her.” Jared looked down toward the pond while Craig watched his jaw clench and unclench, an indication of the emotional battle going on.
“About my daughter? It’s not what I wanted to hear, not being Bailey’s biological father, but it changes nothing. I am her dad. And to be completely honest, I’m not all that surprised. I had a hard time believing the condom broke… and I have the same yearbook. I thought I saw a bit of resemblance about a year ago, when I was leafing through… I was looking at pictures of you on the gymnastics page,” he confessed.
Craig could feel his neck and cheeks heating up a little, and when he darted a glance at his companion, he saw a similar flush, but what concerned him now was how Jared felt about the revelation.
“I didn’t say anything because in the end it just didn’t matter. I chalked it up to one of those freakish coincidences and put it out of my mind.” He turned his head at that point, and looking at Craig, his admittance was direct. “But, deep down, there was this niggling doubt, and now I know. Never in a million years would I have guessed it was deliberate on Carly’s part.” He sat quietly for a few minutes playing with a fresh blade of pulled grass.
“It explains her red hair, anyway.” Jared exhaled a long, slow breath. “I remember how much Ronnie liked Carly… hell, everyone knew… but, like I said… Bailey’s my daughter. One day, though, I think it’s something Bailey should probably know. Craig? Stop looking so worried. Believe me when I say it doesn’t change anything… it doesn’t make me feel sad, or that I’ve lost something. She knows who ‘daddy’ is, and so do I, okay? I don’t even care that Carly did this on purpose. I hate her, but I don’t want to waste any more of my life or energy on her… dwelling on what she did. I want to move forward.”
The integrity of the man shone through, and Craig nodded. “Come on… I want to see your house.” He jumped up, and held out his hand. It felt like the right time to lighten up. When Jared took it in his, he hauled him up with a mock groan, but didn’t let go. As he started walking, Jared fell into step beside him, grinning like an idiot. It had been a hell of a day, but being like this with such a wonderful guy made it all worthwhile. The relief he felt was immeasurable, and Jared wasn’t the only one wearing a fool’s grin.
“Oh, there was something I forgot to tell you. I have food.”
“Food? Did you stop and grab something? I don’t really eat much at night.”
“No. I brought it from home. Mom’s fried chicken, and a bunch of other stuff.” Jared’s face lit up and Craig laughed. “I thought that would interest you.”
“Oh yeah. I could eat. You just made my day. I haven’t had that in ages.”
“My mom’s cooking made your day? I see,” he teased.
Jared snickered, and then held up their joined hands. “This makes my day. Marian’s chicken is just a bonus.”
“Good save.” He repeated Jared’s motion. “This makes my day too.”
With the cooler bag in hand, they walked through the side porch and entered the door opening directly into the huge kitchen. It definitely needed some work, but the dimensions were good. Jared set the bag on an ancient looking chrome and Formica table. It was something from another time, and Craig liked the classic retro look of it. The gray ‘crushed ice’ pattern surface was in perfect condition, and spotless. The entire kitchen was. There was a massive amount of white painted cupboards, in an L shape, that ran all the way up to what looked to be, at the least, nine-foot ceilings. Smaller, upper-cabinet doors over larger ones, denoted a time long past, and a stool would be required to access them. The biggest detractor was the ugly, orange laminate countertops from straight out of the seventies. The porcelain farm-sink, centered under a tall, west-facing window, while huge, was missing a big chunk of the white glazing.
“Interesting,” Craig observed. “Big, bright, and decently laid out.”
“Really? I thought you would hate it. It’s pretty much a gut job.”
“I think that would be a mistake, but it’s your house.”
Jared studied him. “Well, if it was yours, what would you do?”
“You really want to know?”
“Uh huh. You know your stuff. I remember the things you did with your and Harlan’s place. It looked amazing when you were done.”
“We never did get to finish it,” Craig said softly.
“Oh God. Sorry, Craig. I shouldn’t have brought that up.”
“Of course you should. You don’t think I’m over it, do you?”
“I’m… I really don’t know, Craig. I just remember how devastating it was, and how hard it was for you to climb out of bed every day.”
“Yes, it was tough, and there were times it was you, and only you, who kept me going. Believe me… I’m fine now, and I don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. I loved Harlan, but his name coming up doesn’t hurt anymore, and it doesn’t hurt to remember him. What we are doing now? I don’t want you to let Harlan come between us, because I won’t… just like I won’t let my sister… not anymore. Do you believe me?”
A smile exploded on Jared’s face. “I do now. I have to admit I’ve been worried, but not anymore. So, tell me what you’d do to this kitchen if it were yours.”
Craig matched the massive smile before concentrating on his answer. “I’d replace the countertops with a light granite, as close to the color of that table top as possible.” He laughed at Jared’s grimace.
“That table is headed to the dump, man. It’s ancient!”
“Excuse me? You asked my opinion, so you have to listen. This vintage table, for your information, is a treasure. It’s in perfect condition, and if you sold it, you could get possibly thousands for it. And if you do sell it, I would have to hurt you,” he teased. “It’s a part of your family history, for heaven’s sake.”
“Okay, okay.” Jared help up his hands in mock defeat. “The table stays, but do you know how long it took me to clean all that damn chrome on those curly legs?”
“And you did a good job. Looking around, I can tell you’re a good little cleaner. You’ll make someone a good wife someday.”
Jared laughed again, and it was better than music to Craig. “You think so?”
“Uh huh. I know so. Now stop interrupting me. I would leave the cupboards, but I would paint them a brighter white, and change the hardware… maybe black iron, or possibly chrome, depending on the design I settled on. A couple of those doors need realigning, though.” He received a thoughtful nod from Jared before he continued. “That brown stove is atrocious, but it’s in a good place. The fridge is another story. The perfect spot for it is where that doorway is at the end of the counter. What’s behind it, anyway?”
Jared looked amused and a little fascinated as he responded. “That’s kind of a junk, slash, mudroom right now, but it used to be a very small bedroom. There’s a few chairs and small tables piled at the back of it.”
“Is there another place to put the door?” Craig knew he was in house mode now, but the man had asked.
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, there’s another door for this room around the corner, and don’t ask me why it has two doors because I have no idea.”
“I do. When this house was built it might have been a walk-through pantry so you didn’t have to go through the main dining room entrance to leave or enter the kitchen.” Craig couldn’t help looking smug. “So anyway, I would rebuild that porch we came through, and use it for a mudroom, because you shouldn’t be walking across the kitchen to get to one, and I would close off that door and put the fridge there. It would be perfect at the end of the counter, and there’s plenty of room for a much bigger fridge, because the one in the corner is too small. Once it’s out of there, you can move this beautiful table down so it’s centered in front of the window. That way, you could get a good view of the south, and voila, there’d be room for a nice island with maybe a butcher block or granite top. And I’d rip up this awful linoleum, because I can see there are pine floors underneath.” He looked up. “The tin ceiling is awesome, but it needs a bigger, wider trim around it to do it justice, and some fresh paint.” Craig finished with a grand flourish of his hands, grinning at the handsome man. “You wanted my opinion, so there it is.”
“Hmm, that wouldn’t cost as much as what I thought it needed. What about the sink. What would you put in place of it? Stainless steel?”
“Heck no! I’d keep the sink and have someone come in and refinish it. I know a guy… he did our old claw-foot bathtub, and you couldn’t tell the difference from where the chips were. It needs new taps on the back of it though. But you could probably get the right kind from the recycle place on Hathaway Street, and maybe a vintage light fixture to replace that 1970’s ceiling globe.”
“Seriously, Craig. I never would have approached the renovation like you have. I figured I’d have to rip it all out and start from scratch, but your way sounds much better… nicer. I would like to keep the character, and I do have a lot of memories here. I’ve opened and closed these cupboard doors thousands of times so the idea of keeping them really appeals to me. The biggest cost to your plan would be the countertops and appliances, and with my contractor’s discount, I might be able to do this sooner than I thought I would. I can build a pretty cool island for next to nothing. A new furnace comes first, though,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s nice to look at this place and not think I’m probably going to lose it. Thank you for that, Craig, and I will pay you back.”
“I’m not worried, Jared. Now how about we eat, and then you can show me the rest of your house. We just need some plates and cutlery.” He was uncomfortable with Jared feeling beholden to him, and hoped it wouldn’t become an issue.
Craig pushed his plate away with a satisfied groan. The best part of their supper had been watching Jared eat. They fell into that easy camaraderie they used to have, although Jared initially rebelled at the food Craig kept pushing at him. He soon relented, though, and ate a substantial amount. Craig, feeling stuffed himself, stood up and took his plate to the sink, and started filling the bottom with water.
“Oh, no you don’t. You’re a guest here. I’ll do that,” Jared insisted as he came up with his plate to try to push Craig aside.
“I’m a guest?”
Jared looked uncertain. “No, you’re a lot more than that, but, well you brought the food, and I owe you, so….”
“You don’t ‘owe’ me, so stop thinking of us that way. Jeez, Jared. It’s not like we just met, and we’ve already admitted there are feelings here, on both sides. If I want to do the dishes, let me do the dishes, okay? You need to relax and let things happen. I know I’m not saying this right, but having supper with you, just you and me, sitting and talking, well, it feels good, and I haven’t felt like this in a long time. I don’t feel like a guest, and I don’t want you to treat me like one, and I for sure don’t want you thinking you owe me. I did what I did for us. So, I’ll wash and you dry, okay? It’ll make me happy,” he confessed, hoping Jared understood how important this little domestic sharing was to him.
It was quiet while they took care of the dishes. When Jared cleared his throat, Craig looked at him. “I want you to know I got what you were saying. This has to be a team effort, and I’m not used to that. I’ve felt alone for quite a while, so I get it. Doing this kind of thing with you means a hell of a lot to me too. Craig… I promise I won’t dwell on the money… I kind of was, but I see where that’s not a good thing. Thank you for giving us a chance. I’m going to do the same, okay?”
“Yeah, okay. That’s better. I’m craving a hug from a really hot guy. You don’t happen to know of any, do you?”
“Other than you, no, but will I do?” Jared’s teasing smile made Craig’s heart flip.
“You most certainly will. You’ll do for sure.”
The hug that followed was just what the previous tension called for, and this time it was Craig who initiated a kiss. “Wow,” they said at the same time, causing matching grins.
Craig’s semi-hardness was pressed against something that was making itself known, and Craig reluctantly separated himself in an attempt to regain some equilibrium. “How about the rest of the house tour you promised?” He had to divert his attention from the almost desperate longing he was seeing in Jared’s suddenly darker eyes. How fast should things progress? He wasn’t sure… he knew what he was feeling, but there was safety in caution. But man, now that the barriers had been removed and love had been declared, he was falling fast… and hard. Taking a deep breath, he blew it out. Jared had turned away, and Craig knew the reason… had felt the reason, and the brand of it was imprinted on his body.
“On second thought, maybe I should head out. It’s almost dark.”
Jared turned back towards him, looking stricken. “Do you have to?” Craig felt the plea of his question, and he wavered.
“No, I don’t have to, but it’s getting a little heated between us, and I don’t want to make any mistakes."
“What do you mean, mistakes?” he asked, with a look of hurt back in those eyes.
Shit. He never, ever wanted to cause that kind of look on Jared’s face. “I just meant I don’t want to move too fast.”
“Oh. Okay. I understand, I guess. It’s just… I thought you said we need to relax, and let things happen.”
“I didn’t mean to the point of ripping each others' clothes off, and I am dangerously close to doing that,” he said ruefully, more than a little embarrassed by his admission.
“What if I promise I won’t let you?” Jared responded playfully, his expression a bit brighter.
Craig laughed. “Do you honestly think you could stop me?”
“Is that a challenge?”
Craig laughed again. “I’m not sure,” he admitted with a blush. “Are you asking me to stay the night, Jared?”
“I’m asking you to stay forever, Craig, but you can take some time to think about it.” The sexy grin that followed, melted Craig’s fast-beating heart.
“Okay, now we are moving a little too fast,” he joked. “How about I stay tonight, and we’ll go from there?”
“Awesome! Thank you. I’d hug you again, but we both know what that does.” He displayed that knee-weakening grin again. The man was gaining some confidence, and Craig loved it.
“Yes, we do,” he said as his eyes darted down to the significant bulge still present in Jared’s worn jeans. “And you don’t need to thank me… I really don’t want to leave.”
“Tonight, or ever?”
Craig laughed as he felt the most wonderful warmth spread through him. That beaten man from earlier in the day was fast disappearing.
Many thanks to my Editor, Timothy M. and to all those who support this story. Please leave me your thoughts in a review, if you can.
Discussion of the story can take place in the COTT thread of the promising author forums:
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