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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Where My Demons Hide (3/3)

December 12th, 2018 (08:42 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

Brody’s not picky, so he goes to the first bar he sees and sits down with a sigh of relief. With a flourish, he orders a drink, and when it’s served, he looks at it like he’s looking at an old friend.

An old lover, maybe.

It’s attractive as hell, and he feels his body screaming for it.

But for some reason, he can’t bring himself to drink it.

Shit, he doesn’t even want to pick up the glass.

He’s still sitting there, staring in frustration at the glass, when Mitch comes in a short while later. Brody’s not even surprised. Not by the fact that Mitch knew he was gone, not by the fact that Mitch knew where to find him. Not by the fact that Mitch sits down next to him like this is all part of his plan.

It probably is, honestly. Mitch probably has everything planned out perfectly.

Which is why it’s so silly that Mitch thinks he can fight this.

He can fight it, obviously. He’s tried to fight it.

The simple fact of the matter is, however, that’s he’s going to lose.

Shit, he’s already lost.

This stupid untouched drink in front of him is evidence of that.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Brody says abruptly.

“Can’t do what?” Mitch asks. “Run away?”

Brody lifts one shoulder. “Maybe,” he says. “Maybe I can’t stay anymore. Maybe I can’t do anything.”

“What exactly are you trying to do?” Mitch asks.

Brody looks at him. Like, looks at him. Brody sees Mitch, and he sees every person who came before him. He sees the other people who have cared about him that Brody wrote off. He’s sees the people who loved him that he never allowed himself to accept. He sees the lives he could have led but traded for a shitty deal on a crossroads.

“Honestly?” Brody asks, shaking his head. “I have no idea.”


Mitch nods, and glances to the bartender. He makes a motion and the bartender brings another drink, identical to Brody’s. Mitch takes his, and he pushes Brody’s towards him, waiting until he picks it up.

“Then maybe it’s time you figured it out,” he says, forcibly clinking their glasses together.

Brody drinks to t hat.

-o-

Mitch pays the bill without being asked, and he gathers Brody up without conversation. Together, they set out on the beach, but Mitch doesn’t head them toward home. Instead, they walk, up and down the long stretch, while waves crash against the shore.

It’s peaceful here; it’s hypnotic. The pool is perfect for speed, for going, going, going. The ocean, however, offers something more comprehensive. When you swim in the ocean, you’re not trying to go fast. You’re just trying to go.

Brody’s been a swimmer most of his life, but the ocean has taught him to swim in a whole new way. And that’s not just a physical change.

It’s not even mostly a physical change.

Sure, Brody can navigate riptides and cut expertly through the waves. He understands the changing tides and knows how to see through a churning wash.

But he feels different here. Swimming here is not about the next race, the next record, the next medal.

Swimming here is about the community, the environment, the people.

He watches Mitch, walking next to him, to lines of footprints in the sand.

Brody can’t.

Not anymore.

He draws to a stop, and Mitch stops, too, turning to face him expectantly.

“I don’t think I can do this,” he admits.

Mitch’s face is impassive. “Do what?”

Brody gestures, to the ocean, to the beach. To both of them. “This.”

“Are you unhappy here?” Mitch questions. “Do you want to leave?”

The question is so funny because Brody knows what he’s supposed to do. He knows what’s going to happen. And yet: “No. Shit, Mitch. This is the best place I’ve ever been.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Mitch asks.

Like it’s so simple. Like you get to know what you want and you just get to have it. Like it’s possible to find something that makes you happy and keep it. Like you just get to belong. Like something good can happen to you without the bad.

All Brody’s reasons to stay, all of his reasons to, and Brody isn’t sure what’s what anymore.

He just knows people get hurt when he stays.

The only person who hurts when he leaves is himself. And he has always been expendable.

Mitch isn’t going to buy into Brody’s shit, however. He’s not going to be dissuaded by his antics. All Brody has to offer him is ultimately the truth.

“I’m cursed,” he blurts finally.

He says it; he really says it. All these years, and he’s never said it outloud. Not even to himself. He’s kept it in, hidden it, sectioned it off. It’s controlled every part of his life, and this is the first time he’s actually admitted it to anyone but himself.

Brody has to admit: it sounds ridiculous.

Mitch somehow manages to look at him like he’s not crazy. “Cursed?” he repeats.

Brody sucks in a breath and nods his head. He has to own it now. There’s no feasible way to turn back. “I’m cursed.”

Mitch is processing this slowly. “Like supernaturally cursed?”

Brody shrugs. “I guess? Is there another kind?”

“I guess not,” Mitch concedes. He wrinkles his forehead, apparently thoughtful. “How does that work?”

“I don’t know,” Brody says, cheeks starting to burn. He’s been aware of the curse for years, but the specific mechanics are a little vague to him. “It just...bad things happen. Not to me, specifically, but to people around me. Every time I get something good in life, something bad has to follow.”

Mitch is plainly skeptical, though he’s also plainly not trying to make Brody feel like an idiot.

It doesn’t work.

Brody does feel like an idiot.

“But how do you know that’s a curse?” Mitch asks.

Brody’s frustration is only exacerbated by his embarrassment. “Because that’s the deal I made.”

This is a twist Mitch is not expecting. None of this is what Mitch is expecting. Though, really, what could Mitch possibly have been expecting? What reasons would exist for why Brody’s an asshole for no reason?

Except that he’s an asshole for no reason.

Or he’s cursed.

There are probably other reasons, but Brody’s at a loss for them.

Mitch still has to ask. “The deal?”

Of course Mitch has to ask.

And now Brody has to explain.

It’s not even that meeting a girl demon at a crossroads at night while drunk makes sense to him in his head. But damn, saying it out loud is basically mortifying. “I made a deal. With, like, a demon. I didn’t know it was a demon, she looked like this girl, but hot girls don’t usually hang out at crossroads in the middle of the night.”

Mitch blinks but somehow manages to not regard Brody like he’s an idiot. “Like, you sold your soul?”

“Kind of,” Brody says. “But, like, it wasn’t my soul. I don’t know. I sold out the other people. People who, I don’t know, care about me.”

“Why would you do that?” was Mitch’s immediate response. It’s the natural response any good person would have.

“Well, I mean, I was drunk, like, really drunk, and at the time, no one gave a shit about me,” Brody explains. “I mean, all I had were these foster parents and no friends and no one had ever wanted me around so I didn’t think it mattered.”

He says it in a rush, and he can’t look Mitch in the eye suddenly.

Mitch waits a long second before asking, “What did you get out of it?”

This whole thing is horrible to explain, but he hates this part the most. It reinforces exactly what kind of selfish bastard Brody is, and he’s not sure he could hate himself more. “Swimming,” he admits, and his cheeks are burning now. “I sold out everything to be the best in the pool.”

Somehow, Mitch is still standing there. When Brody ventures a glance, Mitch just looks vexed. “So you sold your soul to be the best swimmer in the world.”

“Yes,” Brody says emphatically. “And I went on to win two gold medals and set a world record.”

“And the curse?”

“Well, it’s not like I’ve had any relationships that last,” Brody points out. “Every time I win, shit happens. And here I am.”

Mitch is studying him now, more critically than before. “So let me get this straight,” he says. “You went to a crossroads, looking for a deal.”

“No, I was drunk and stumbled into a crossroads and found the demon. The girl. The girl demon.”

“Right,” Mitch says. “So you accidentally stumbled into a crossroad and found a girl demon who offered to give you anything you wanted in exchange for the well being of those around you.”

The way Mitch says it doesn’t sound right, but honestly can’t find anything to correct. “It was more like she, I don’t know, asked what I wanted and told me that getting it would require a sacrifice or something.”

“But she was definitely a demon,” Mitch clarified.

“It’s not like she went around announcing it,” Brody says.

“But she definitely said that it was a deal,” Mitch says.

But lets out a huff. “It was a long time ago. I was really drunk, okay. It’s a little hazy.”

“I’m just trying to understand.”

Brody throws up his hands. “I’m cursed, okay, and it’s my own damn fault. What is there to understand!”

Mitch is annoyingly undeterred. “Your story is just a little strange is all.”

Brody laughs, feeling hysterical. He’s in a beach here, not even close to drunk, trying to explain to his best friend why they can never be best friends. “Do most deals with demons sound normal?”

Mitch is still totally unbothered. “You were drunk. You talked to a hot girl about your dreams. Now, for some reason, you think you’re cursed.”

Brody all but gapes. What else is he supposed to do? Mitch is making his reality for the past decade seem like a figment of his imagination. “You weren’t there,” he protests. “You have no idea what it was like.”

“Did she say she was a demon?”

Brody thinks about that. It’s actually a little harder than he expects. “She said she wasn’t an angel.”

“Okay,” Mitch says. “And did she explicitly say that you were making a deal.”

“Yes,” Brody says, nodding with certainty. “She totally talked about a deal. And consequences. She said that the people who cared about me would pay the price for going after what I wanted.”

Mitch is still waiting, as if there’s supposed to be more.

Brody fumbles, searching for more. “And she was crazy weird, man. Like, she kissed me and I passed out and it was whack.”

“Yeah, you being drop dead drunk isn’t making your case any stronger,” Mitch points out with a hint of apology in his voice.

Brody feels himself starting to get a little agitated. He’s never told this to anyone, so maybe Mitch doesn’t appreciate exactly what Brody’s saying. “I thought it might have been crazy, too, at first, but after that, I don’t know. I started winning.”

“And it never occurred to you that you might just be working harder?” Mitch presses.

The short answer is: no. Of course not.

Brody will not allow himself to be baited into that answer. “And then shit started happening, man. All sorts of bad shit to people around me.”

“Well, bad things happen,” Mitch says. “I don’t want to downplay it or anything, but shit happening doesn’t mean you’re cursed.”

“My foster mother had a heart attack when I got a college scholarship,” Brody says. “And then my girlfriend in college was in a car accident and had to relearn to walk. This happened right after I started getting national attention.”

“Unrelated incidents,” Mitch insists.

Brody is not backing down now. “My best friend had to give up his dream job in order to go back and run the family farm when his father died unexpectedly in college. This can be directly linked to when I started competing internationally.”

Mitch does hesitate at that.

Brody pushes his luck. Or not his luck. He doesn’t have luck outside the pool, but he pushes it anyway. “And then, when I made the Olympic team, do you know what happened? My coach up and died. He died, Mitch. I went to the Olympics and his wife became a widow. He had two kids, Mitch. And while I got everything I wanted, they lost their dad.”

Mitch makes a face of actual shock. “Really?”

“Yes!” Brody exclaims, hoping that the curse is now self evident.

“That all happened to you? All of it?”


Brody throws his arms out. “Why would I make any of that up?”

Mitch sighs. “It sucks, man. You’ve had a bad run of things, worse than I even knew,” he says. “But it’s coincidence. You can’t go through life thinking everything bad is because of something good. It’s no way to live.”

“You think I want it like this?” Brody asks, pointing at himself. “I hate it, okay. I had to break up with my girlfriend. I didn’t even go to my coach’s funeral. I cut myself out of my best friend’s life, and why the hell do you think I never went back to Iowa? I can’t take hurting these people, Mitch. I can’t take it.”

“But the only way you’re hurting them is by cutting them out,” Mitch says. “You have to see it.”

“No,” Brody says. “And come on. You’re telling me that you think some stupid foster kid from Iowa who likes to get drunk is actually going to make the US Olympic team by himself? Like, do you really think I guy like me has any actual chance of winning two golds and setting the world record? Do you?”

Something ghosts over Mitch’s face, but he seems to hold it in. He tips his head to the side, studying Brody once more. “You really do believe this, don’t you?”

Brody almost bursts. “How can I not?” he asks. “I mean, seriously, how else do you explain my life?”

“And that’s why you’re pushing us away? Acting like an idiot and a jerk?” Mitch presses.

Brody scratches at the back of his neck, sobering somewhat. The color drains from his cheeks, and he tightens his jaw for a moment in regret. “Maybe, yeah. I don’t know,” he says, less forceful than before. “I just -- Baywatch is good, okay. Like, really good. Being here, being with all of you -- it’s better than winning gold medals. And I just know that, in my life, everything good is followed up by something bad.”

“So, what, then?” Mitch asks. “You make the bad instead of letting it happen?”

“Kind of,” Brody says, shrugging. “I mean, I figure if I can ruin the good thing on my own, then maybe bad shit doesn’t have to happen. Maybe no one has to get hurt. Maybe no one has to have their dreams taken away so I can be happy. Maybe no one has to die. I mean, I can’t take the chance of any of that, you know? Not with Baywatch or Summer or…” His voice falters, and he has to keep his gaze steady on Mitch’s. “You.”

That’s it. That’s the bottom line. That’s the hidden motivation, the driving force, the defining feature. It is almost Brody’s deepest secret, right after his inalienable belief that no one could ever want him by his own merit.

Now that he’s said it, he can’t take it back. It feels like he’s naked now, standing there and the beach, totally exposed. It’s the kind of vulnerability he felt as a kid when he was put in a new foster home; the hope of being accepted and the fear of being inevitably rejected.

You’d think Brody is used to it, by now.

You’d think Brody’s an old pro.

He is, on both counts.

That doesn’t make it any easier.

Mitch, however, doesn’t give Brody an appraising look. He doesn’t give Brody a once over and find him lacking. He doesn’t shrug his shoulders and say we’ll see. There’s no settling in or making do.

Instead, Mitch sighs. It’s not resignation, but something kinder. See, the thing is with Mitch: he’s already assessed Brody.

And despite everything, he’s deemed him not good enough but still somehow his.

“Well, you don’t get to make that choice alone,” Mitch finally says, filling the silence between them, voice riding over the sound of the waves as they crash across the beach.

Brody’s not even sure what to do with that answer. “But I’m the only one to make it,” he says. “I mean, I was the one who made it.”

“No, you made a choice when you were drunk and stupid as a teenager, but this choice, the one you’re making here at Baywatch, that’s a different choice,” Mitch explains.

Brody shakes his head. “No, it’s the same choice, the same consequences,” he says. “I can’t stand to let it all happen again. Not here.”

“But it’s a relationship. You and me, you and Baywatch,” he says. “Why do you think you get to make the decision alone?”

“Because I put you in danger!” Brody explodes. He jabs at his own chest. “Me!”

Mitch shrugs, like that much doesn’t even bother him. “And even if you did, why are you the only one who gets to decide how we respond to that danger?” he asks. “What if we think it’s a worth risk taking?”

Standing there, Brody’s flabbergasted.

Like, for a full 10 seconds, he’s speechless.

10 seconds doesn’t sound that impressive, but Brody can feel the weight of his chest as it pounds in the absence, and all he can do is stare. “But,” he says, struggling to formulate a response. He shakes his head vaguely. “If something happened, I wouldn’t survive it this time.”

He doesn’t tell Mitch that he thought about suicide. He doesn’t tell Mitch that he thinks it might be the only way to fix this, to fix him. He doesn’t tell Mitch that he thinks he’s just too much of a coward to do what needs to be done. He doesn’t tell Mitch how much the whole thing scares him.

Somehow, standing across from him on the sand, Mitch already knows. “That’s all you’re doing, though: surviving,” Mitch says. “And if you walk away from Baywatch, I honestly don’t know if you’ll recover.”

That’s the horrible truth of it. Brody isn’t sure he can survive staying, but he definitely can’t survive going.

He hasn’t actually thought about it, not so plainly. It’s obvious, of course, but when it’s spelled out for him so completely, Brody starts to feel a little overwhelmed.

A lot overwhelmed.

It’s a no-win situation.

Brody made a deal that would ruin his life one way or another.

As if he needs more evidence that he’s the worst person ever.

Mitch steps closer to him, dipping his head to try to meet Brody’s gaze again. “Look,” he says, and his voice is gentle now. “You can’t live your life afraid of how things might go wrong.”

Brody blinks rapidly, shaking his head as his breath feels tight in his chest. “But it always go wrong,” he says. “Always. I never do any of it right.”

His voice is shaking; he’s shaking. The night is warm, but Brody’s got goosebumps up and down his skin, and it’s suddenly very hard to catch his breath.

Mitch sighs a little, and he has the look like he wants to argue. But when Brody locks eyes with him again, Mitch understands what Brody’s saying.

Probably what he’s not saying, too.

Then, suddenly resolved again, Mitch nods. “Fine,” he says. “There’s only one thing to do?”

Brody drops his head miserably. He expects the answer is for Brody to leave. Brody has to leave, now probably. Maybe he should just accept the broken terms of the plea deal and go to jail and hope that it’s not as bad as he thinks it will be. Maybe they’ll have a pool, though Brody doesn’t imagine so.

But that’s not what Mitch says. Instead, he bobs his head. “We need to break this curse.”

Surprised by this, Brody looks up. “Wait -- what?”

Mitch shrugs. “We break the curse. We get you out of the deal.”

Brody’s still in such shock that he scoffs for lack of something better to do. “But -- like -- what do you know about curses?”

“Nothing,” Mitch admits, utterly nonplussed. “But neither did you when you made the deal.”

That’s true. Brody’s just not sure why it’s relevant.

But then, Brody’s at the point tonight that he’s not sure about anything, and he’s not sure anything will ever be relevant, because straight up, he has no idea what the point is even supposed to be anymore.

“So come on,” Mitch cajoles, starting back up the beach toward the bar. He turns back, gesturing for Brody to follow him. “We have a curse to break.”

What choice does Brody have except to follow?

-o-

He has lots of choices, okay. Brody knows that. He knows he can walk away. He knows he can run away. He knows he can laugh at Mitch, tell him he’s a dumbass. Brody can jump into the ocean and just swim forever for all anyone cares.

Well, that’s not true.

Mitch cares.

That’s the dangerous part of this.

Mitch cares.

That’s also the part that gives Brody hope.

That’s the part that makes him follow.

Because it’s been a hell of a long time Brody’s felt anything like hope.

-o-

So, hope, as it turns out, looks like tequila shots.

Brody doesn’t ask why after the first two.

On the third, Brody hesitates, eyeing Mitch skeptically. “Is there a reason you’re trying to get me drunk?”

“Are you actually complaining?” Mitch asks, paying the bartender for the shots.

Brody looks at the tequila, and considers that. “Not really. It just seems. I don’t know. Weird.”

“Don’t get too excited; it’s not going to become a habit,” Mitch tells him. “If anything, you should drink less.”

“So then why are we here?” Brody asks. “I mean, I confess to you my deepest and darkest secret, and your response is to get me drunk?”

“No, my response, if you recall, was to break the curse,” Mitch reminds him. “And what did you tell me about the first time you met your girl demon?”

“I was drunk,” Brody says, and he looks at the tequila. “You think I have to be drunk.”

“I think it can’t hurt,” Mitch says.

Brody frowns, eyes on Mitch again. “Then why aren’t you drinking?”

“Because I’m not the one trying to summon a demon to break some weird ass deal,” Mitch says. He pushes the tequila closer to Brody. “And because someone has to be sober enough to make sure you don’t get swindled. Or die of alcohol poisoning. Either one.”

Brody chews on the inside of his lip. It’s not clear to him if this is an excellent idea or a terrible idea.

What it is, however, is an idea.

Brody’s never had one of those before.

He takes the shot.

“Well,” he says, slamming the glass back on the table. “I guess we better get to work.”

Mitch orders another.

-o-

After several more shots, Brody’s feeling pretty good about this plan. Of course, if you give Brody enough alcohol, he feels good about anything. Alcohol is amazing like that.

When Mitch says it’s time to go, Brody is a little disappointed, but Mitch stops at a convenience store and picks up a bottle of something cheap to go.

Brody is eager to take it, but Mitch shakes his head. “This is for later,” he says. “In case we need it.”

“Uh, dude,” Brody says, not quite stumbling as he follows Mitch down the boardwalk and away from the beach. “I think we need it now.”

“No,” Mitch says, easily tucking the bottle away out of reach from Brody. “What we need right now is a crossroads.”

This seems like it should be an easy connection to make, but Brody’s had quite a bit of tequila tonight. He’s got nothing.

Mitch rolls his eyes. “To summon your demon? Isn’t that how it worked?”

“Um,” Brody says. “Yeah. I think.”

Mitch leads them down a few of the side streets. While there’s still people walking the boardwalk and hitting the night scene, the farther into town you get, the quieter it is. Honestly, Brody’s not been this far very often because his entire life seems to exist at the beach. In short, he has no idea where he’s going.

That doesn’t not seem important.

But then, Brody’s not sure what’s important.

Except the drink Mitch isn’t giving him.

“Or is there something else we should be doing?” Mitch asks. He prods Brody to get his attention. “What did you do last time to summon the demon?”

This is a hard question. Like, hard. That was a long time ago, and Brody’s drunk now and he was drunk then. “Uh. I, uh. Drank. A lot.”

“Yeah,” Mitch says, not quite sarcastic. “I think we’ve got that covered.”

“And then I wandered around until I ended up at a crossroads,” Brody says.

Mitch takes a random turn, and seems smugly self satisfied. “Working on that now.”

Brody almost misses a step, but not quite. Things are pleasantly hazy right now, but he’s not at passout levels of inebriation yet.

Inebriation is such a funny word.

He likes it.

But he likes all works related to alcohol right now.

“What else?” Mitch asks, and it seems like maybe he’s asked this more than once but Brody can’t remember.

“Well, I don’t know,” Brody says. He tips his head, trying to think. It doesn’t work. “I really just drank a lot. Then I was trying to, like, stumble back to my foster parents’ place.”

“So you literally just stopped at the first crossroads you saw,” Mitch says.

“It’s not like I was looking for a crossroads,” Brody protests. “I just stopped. And like, there it was. There I was.”

“You were drunk, walking down the middle of the road, by yourself at night?” Mitch asks, as if he’s trying to make sense of this. “And you were a teenager?”

“It was rural Iowa, and I was a messed up kid, okay,” Brody says, feeling a little indignant about this even though all of it is really super true. “I already told you, I make shitty decisions.”

“Okay, okay,” Mitch relents. “What happened when you got to the crossroads?”

Brody remembers the way the night had been surreal. He remembers the sky and the corn. The corn had been really tall. Freakishly tall.

That’s probably not relevant.

Demons probably don’t live in corn.

At least not exclusively.

“Brody,” Mitch says again, giving Brody a nudge. “What happened when you got to the crossorads?”

“I don’t know,” he says, shrugging in a very dramatic fashion. “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” Mitch says.

He’s come to a stop. So has Brody. He’s not sure how long they’ve been standing there.

Standing here.

A deserted street with a flickering streetlight.

Which just happens to intersect another street.

“Because we’re here,” Mitch says, gesturing around him. “We’re at a crossroads.”

Huh, is all Brody can think.

They’re here.

-o-

Mitch gives Brody a moment.

Actually, it’s probably more than a moment. Brody’s bad with time when he’s drunk. The only time he’s good with time is when he’s in the pool. And even then, he’s only good with time because someone else is timing it, and time is weird, okay. Mitch wonders why he can’t figure out military time, but it’s like, Brody’s not sure he can read a clock without digital numbers.

And Mitch probably doesn’t give the moment as much as Brody takes it out of necessity.

“So,” Mitch continues for him. “You got drunk; you went to the crossroads. And then…?”

This is a prompt. Mitch is watching him eagerly, waiting for him to continue.

“Oh,” Brody says, because he realizes that means he’s supposed to continue. That’s weird; the night is weird. It’s pretty out, but he wishes there were corn. He shakes his head, trying to focus himself. “This girl, like, showed up. Out of nowhere.”

Mitch is trying not to look skeptical.

He’s doing a shitty job of it; Brody can tell and he’s super drunk.

“Some random girl, on some deserted road, in rural Iowa,” Mitch clarifies.

Brody knows that this is supposed to sound ridiculous, but it’s legit. “She was really hot, too,” he adds, trying to be helpful.

“And you naturally concluded that she had to be a demon,” Mitch assumes.

Brody is indignant, even though he probably shouldn’t be. He is that stupid, and he knows it. “She said she was a demon,” he says, but that’s not totally true. He wrinkles his nose, trying to remember. “Or, like, kind of. She acted weird, okay.”

“Well, maybe she was trying to pick you up,” Mitch suggests. “She had to be looking for the party.”

Brody rolls his eyes. It makes his dizzy. And a little nauseous. “I was young. I drunk. I don’t know.”

“Okay, okay,” Mitch says, and now it sounds like he’s trying to get his focus in order again. He collects a breath, and lets it out tightly with a note of resignation that’s evident even to Brody in his current state. “So we just have to wait for a girl to show up.”

“A hot girl,” Brody says.

“A random hot girl,” Mitch agrees. “In the middle of a crossroads.”

Brody nods because that’s it.

That’s is.

Mitch pulls out the bottle, handing it over to Brody. He smiles as Brody takes it. “Go on,” he says when Brody hesitates. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this.”

Brody takes the bottle and cracks it open.

Hell, yeah. He’s so ready to do this.

-o-

In retrospect, Brody’s probably not ready for this. Whatever this is. He’s not really sure, though Mitch seems pretty confident. But then, Mitch seems confident about most things, even when he shouldn’t. He was all confident when they went on that fireworks barge and that ended with Mitch being shot and poisoned by a sea urchin.

They technically were successful, and Brody’s pretty sure that’s all Mitch cares about.

Because Mitch is crazy or something. That’s what differentiates him between all the rest. The foster parents, the girlfriends, the best friends, the coaches. Mitch is Mitch, this strange oceanic supernatural presence.

So maybe if someone can summon and demon and break a deal, then it’s Mitch.

That doesn’t mean that Brody’s ready for it.

He is, however, ready to drink.

At this point, he figures whatever works.

-o-

No one comes.

Time seems to be passing, though Brody’s already admitted that time is pretty wonky for him. However, he does measure it through alcohol, and he’s down to half a bottle when he reflects that no one has come.

No one’s here.

It’s an empty crossroads.

Except, that’s not true.

Brody takes a drink and looks at Mitch. They’ve taken a seat on the curb, which was a necessity when Brody started to sway unsteady on his feet because standing is hard. While Brody drinks, Mitch is sitting next to him like this is just another night for him. Like he always takes drunk people to crossroads in a bid to break curses. Even for all the crazy shit Mitch has done, Brody is pretty sure that he’s never done this.

So why is he so calm?

Why is he acting like this is totally okay?

Probably the same reason Brody’s foster parents wanted him to stay, even when he was an asshole. Probably the same reason that Monica wanted to date him, even when he was a worthless dick. Probably the same reason Grant was his best friend and his coach never walked away.

Brody doesn’t get it; how could he possibly get it.

Not when he’s drunk.

Not when he’s sober.

There’s no telling who will show up tonight, but Brody is suddenly very aware of who is already here. He’s also suddenly aware of how much of a difference that makes.

Maybe that means the demon won’t come. Maybe it means this won’t work.

Maybe it means that it will.

Brody takes another drink.

It seems like he’s been waiting his whole damn life.

A few more hours really can’t hurt

-o-

Brody finishes the bottle, and he gives it back to Mitch, though it takes several tries to get it there. It seems very late night, and Brody feels drowsy. Everything is tilted now, like the world is shifted by degrees on its axis, and the lights are brighter than they should be, strongly refracted in Brody’s blurred vision.

They’re waiting for a demon, but the glow off Mitch’s head makes him look like an angel.

For real.

Brody can’t stop staring.

“You doing okay there, buddy?” Mitch asks.

Brody nods. He thinks. His motor control is pretty much gone, and he has lost feeling in most of his extremities. His butt is also super numb. Probably from the sitting. Maybe from the alcohol. Or maybe his butt is always numb.

Mitch nudges him. “Brody?”

“What?” Brody asks.

“You sure you’re okay?” Mitch asks again.

This time, Brody remembers to answer. “You gave me a lot of alcohol.”

“Well, you didn’t have to drink it,” Mitch points out.

“If you give me alcohol, I’m going to drink it,” Brody slurs.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to work on self control,” Mitch comments.

That’s maybe a point, but how is Brody supposed to know. He doesn’t know; he’s not sure it matters. Though he suspects that self control might have prevented all this in the first place, but it’s a bit late to use logic now.

He looks at the bottle, wishing that somehow it would fill up again. But it’s really gone.

He looks up. He can see the stars above the streetlight.

“It’s not working,” he says, not really meaning to.

“Huh?” Mitch asks from next to him.

Brody looks at the crossroads again. “What if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t break the curse?”

Mitch tips his head up, and the halo intensifies. “You got to have faith, man,” he says.

When most people shit like that, it’s not legit. It’s ironic or whatever. But not Mitch. Mitch says bullshit and somehow it’s completely valid.

Brody looks up, wondering if Mitch sees something he doesn’t. “How?”

Mitch stays where he is, eyes cast out. “You just believe it,” he says. Then he looks at Brody, leaning a little closer to nudge him. “How did you do it at the Olympics?”


Brody looks back, nose wrinkled. “Uh, I knew I was going to win; I had to. It was the deal I made.”

This answer seems disconcerting to Mitch. “But then why did you lose the third race?”

That’s actually a point. It’s Brody’s biggest failure in the pool, and it started with him being drunk the night before.

Funny how that works.

He shakes his head, getting himself to focus again. “I blew that race,” he says. “Like, I knew it was dumb as shit to go get drunk the night before, but I was so terrified that I was going to win, that something terrible would happen if I won. I made the choice to lose before I even got in the pool. I made a choice because of the curse.”

“So you really think that was all because of your deal?”

Brody nods, emphatically now. “Yes,” he says. “That’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

“So you really don’t think you could have done it on your own?” Mitch presses. “You don’t have any faith in yourself?”

It seems like Mitch is going for something here, but Brody’s at a loss. Anyone who believes in him is let down. Always.

Including himself.

“Not really,” Brody says, and he looks blandly across the empty crossroads. He’s always so busy thinking about how much he screws up that the thought of doing something right just seems weird. “Never been much point.”

“Fine,” Mitch says, although he doesn’t sound like it’s fine, but he also sounds like he knows better than to argue with Brody when he’s drunk. Brody being drunk means he will either never agree or he’ll agree and never remember agreeing in the morning. Possibly both things might happen one right after another; Brody’s not entirely sure. Mitch inclines his head, though, as if to concede all of it. “Then have faith in me.”

Brody’s instinct is to protest. Brody has a lot of instincts like that. He has instincts to protest and run away. He has instincts to be an asshole and to push people away the second they start to get close. Outside the pool, he has the shittiest instincts in the world.

Drunk as he is, inhibition is not even a thing for him right now.

But it’s sort of weird. It’s also, like, what’s the point?

Who is he actually trying to kid right now?

And really, Mitch has a really good point. The kind of point Brody doesn’t know how to protest because it’s the truth and some truths are just true and how the hell is Brody supposed to do anything anymore.

Mitch seems to sense that Brody is having trouble this with. He smiles at Brody, reaching an arm around his shoulder and giving him a reaffirming side hug. It would seem weird except it doesn’t, for some reason. Mitch is about the only person on this planet who can pull that sort of thing off and seem supportive and manly all at once.

“Just for tonight, anyway,” Mitch cajoles, his strong arm steadier than Brody knows how to deal with. “Have faith in me.”

Mitch has him with that, and they both know it. Brody’s drunk and Brody’s stupid and Brody’s sitting at a crossroads, hoping to undo the worst deal he ever made. He has no idea how any of this will ever work, because he’s just Matt Brody, perpetual screw up and epic moron.

But he’s with Mitch Buchannon, who means everything he says and saves the bay day in and day out. There’s nothing Mitch can’t do when he sets his mind to it.

Even if that means saving Brody from himself.

“Well,” Brody says, looking back down at the empty bottle. “I am here, aren’t I?”

Mitch grins, joshing him again. “We both are, buddy,” he says, because they both know that matters. “We both are.”

-o-

Brody starts to get drowsy after a bit, and he catches himself nodding off several times. Next to him, however, Mitch is like a rock. He shows no sign of wavering. Some might attribute this to the fact that he’s sober. Brody knows Mitch is just like that.

So even though Brody is startled by the appearance of a girl in the crossroads, he’s not actually surprised. Mitch said it would happen, and Mitch means everything he says.

The girl looks to be in her 20s, probably. It’s a little hard to tell since Brody’s vision isn’t quite what it should be. Still, he sees enough to get the gist. Her dark hair is long, and her makeup is dramatic with bright red lips. She’s dressed in a miniskirt, but her red shirt is a tight fitting crop top. It’s got, like, sequins or something, because it dazzles in the streetlight. Either that, r it’s part of her demonic glow. Brody finds both option equally likely.

Shit. She’s here.

She’s actually here.

Still, Brody is slow to react, and he’s sitting like a dumbass with numb legs when Mitch gets up and crosses over to the girl. He reaches out and shakes her hand. “Hi there,” he says, like it’s normal to meet random people in crossroads in the middle of the night. “My friend and I were hoping for a moment of your time.”

The girl looks from Mitch to Brody skeptically. Apparently Mitch doesn’t realize that shaking a demon’s hand is not the typical way to approach things. “I was on my way,” she says. “And I don’t want any trouble.”

Mitch laughs. “I know, and I understand your hesitation. We don’t want you to feel unsafe, but we were hoping just to talk. Right here. In public. If you want to put yourself on speaker with a friend, I totally get it.”

The girl studies Mitch a little more intently. “You’re Mitch Buchanan, right? From Baywatch?”

“I am,” Mitch says, because now making introductions is a thing you do with demons. “And over there, on the curb, is my friend and coworker, Matt Brody.”

She looks at Brody again, and Brody wonders if she recognizes him from before. He wonders if this is the same demon or if there’s some demon network. At any rate, he suspects she must see that he’s cursed.

All she says, however, is, “The Vomit Comet?”

Yep, Brody thinks, face flushing. She sees that he’s cursed.

“Well, he’s more of a lifeguard these days,” Mitch says smoothly.

She still seems a little on edge, but she eases into the conversation a little more. “Why are you two sitting here?” she asks, nodding around to the crossroads. “Crossroads in the middle of the night?”

“It’s, uh, kind of a long story,” Mitch says with a glance back to Brody. Brody still hasn’t managed to get to his feet. In fact, he’s forgotten that he’s capable of movement altogether. Mitch seems to have things well in hand, however. He is about the only person who would have a meeting with a demon in hand. “But I did want to ask you a question, and I hope you don’t take offense.”

She gives a short, incredulous laugh. “That’s never a good way to start.”

“I know,” Mitch says, and he sounds like he’s sorry, because he is undoubtedly sorry, but he still pushes on anyway. “It’s just. Well. Are you, by chance, a demon?”

She stares at Mitch, blank for a moment. Then, she’s laughs. “That’s your question?”

“It is,” Mitch says, and he sounds like he’s telling her sorry without actually being sorry for asking the question.

“But why?” she asks, still sounding thoroughly amused.

“Well, my friend here, once made a deal with a demon,” Mitch explains, gesturing back to Brody.

Brody can only stare dumbly back at them, wondering if he’s supposed to say something now. Or, you know, never. Him opening his mouth rarely ends well.

She considers this; like, she’s actually considering this. “He made a deal with a demon?”

“He might be able to explain it better,” Mitch says.

This time, when they look at him, Brody is supposed to speak. The problem is, he doesn’t know what to say. Honestly, he’s not sure he remembers how. Mitch makes a soft sigh, crossing over to him again. Without waiting for any invitation, he reaches down and hoists Brody up by the arm. When Brody wobbles -- vertigo is a son of a bitch -- Mitch steadies him until he seems like he’s not going to fall over, and then Mitch leads Brody back to the center of the crossroads, where the girl is still standing.

This seems like quite a chore to Brody, but he’s not actually aware of his own feet moving. The sense of being totally disconnected from himself intensifies when he’s standing within a few feet of the girl. Looking at her upclose, he has to admit, he doesn’t recognize her. This is a different girl.

But the way she looks at him. The smile on her face. The red glint in her eyes.

More than any of that, that sense of dread in his own stomach.

All that he recognizes intimately.

It makes him want to be sick.

Or, he’s just so drunk that he wants to be sick.

There’s no way to tell at this point.

“Tell her about the deal,” Mitch prompts.

Brody startles a little; he realizes that he’s staring. And he has no idea how long he’s been staring. That’s weird. He’s weird. This is all weird.

“Come on,” Mitch says. “Tell her.”

She is watching him, expectant now.

Shit.

“Um,” Brody starts. “It was, uh, at a crossroads. In Iowa. It was late.”

“And he was drunk,” Mitch supplies.

Apparently that’s the most relevant detail, and understanding dawns on her sharp features. She looks at Brody again, a little curious. “What kind of deal did you make?”

“I wanted to be successful,” Brody blurts, the words tumbling out in a mess.

“Well, you won, what? Two gold medals?” she asks.

Brody doesn’t remember how to move his head. At his side, Mitch nods for him.

“So that seems like you made out okay,” she concludes.

“There was a cost, though,” Mitch says.

That’s the understatement of, like, ever. There’s a cost to a lot of things, but most of those costs don’t dictate your entire future. They don’t destroy your life just to build it. Shit, there’s been a higher cost than Brody’s even got the ability to pay anymore.

“So you aren’t happy with the deal?” she asks, and she’s looking at Brody again. He hates that, the way she looks at him. The way she sees him. Like he’s naked, standing stripped bare without a single pretense to cover him.

What the hell is he doing here again?

“No,” he finally says, the word sounding small as it barely resonates in the still air in the crossroads. “I’m not.”

From beside him, Mitch adds in with more helpful details. “We were hoping that you could help him undo it,” he says. “Being as that you are an attractive young woman wearing red in a crossroads at the middle of the night thus making you possibly a demon. No offense.”

She laughs. “I feel like that’s probably offensive, but given that you two seem to have spent all night here, in some stupid abandoned cross street, I can’t hardly fault you for the assumption,” she says. She winks at Brody. “I’m a little flattered honestly.”

Brody shudders. Visibly.

Mitch reaches out and steadies him out of instinct. That’s probably good; Brody realizes then that he’s dangerously close to falling over. “So,” Mitch presses on. “Are you a demon who can undo the deal?”

Her eyes are brighter than before and she flips her dark hair over her shoulder. “I tend to be anything people want me to be,” she says.

“I’m serious,” Mitch says.

He’s serious.

About demons.

Deals.

Brody isn’t sure if this is a drunken dream. Maybe the last ten years are a drunken dream. Maybe he’ll wake up at the crossroads in Iowa and think what a hell of a trip this was.

The girl does not appeared flustered. “I’m serious, too.”

“Then do you make deals?” Mitch asks her.

“Of course,” she says.

This demon seems a little more forthcoming than the last one. Though last time Brody hadn’t known what was going on until, like, way after the fact. Maybe all demons are honest, though that seems contradictory for some reason.

“Are your deals binding?” Mitch asks with a shrug.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she says. She’s waxing philosophical now, which is a strange thing for anyone to do when in the middle of a crossroads at night. Unless they’re a demon. “I mean, belief is the biggest factor, isn’t it?”

Mitch nods.

Brody has no idea what’s going on. Straight up, not a clue.

“So anyone who believes in the terms and conditions of a deal would, therefore, be bound by the deal,” she reasons.

Mitch is still nodding, like it is, in fact, reasonable.

Brody’s not sure if this would make more sense to him if he were sober, but he suspects not.

He snorts, because what the hell is happening. “What does that even mean?” he blurts, louder than he intends. The words aren’t quite precise words, and the sentence sounds a little jumbled.

A lot jumbled.

Or Brody’s hearing has been compromised by way too much alcohol.

She lets out a sigh, and she seems to be taking pity on Brody. Which is either a really good sign or a really bad sign. “You think you’re cursed?” she asks.

Brody blinks, and he’s not sure if he’s nodding or not.

She inches closer to him, lifting a finger to brush his cheek. “Curses aren’t something that demons can make come true. That’s up to you.”

Her touch is like fire, but it drains the heat out of Brody until he feels lightheaded and faint.

“So, he can make it stop?” Mitch asks, keeping one hand steady on Brody’s arm. His grip tightens just slightly, as if to keep Brody’s focus.

The girl lets her hand fall, perfectly manicured red nails reflecting ominously in the streetlight. “I imagine so,” she muses. “When he’s ready.”

When Brody’s ready?

How is Brody not ready?

What does that even mean? That he wants to be cursed? That somehow he thinks it’s fun or convenient or what the hell?

“Good,” Mitch says, and he sounds like he’s gotten what he wants. Which is impossible. Brody doesn’t even know what he wants so how does Mitch know to recognize it -- and what is it? “So it’s just as easy to make a deal as it is to break a deal?”

Her face tilts, the light illuminating her smooth skin like it’s glowing. Her eyes are locked on Brody’s, even if she’s talking to Mitch. She holds him there, holds him fast, and Brody feels more helpless than he’s ever felt before.

“Yes,” she says, voice like air between them. She draws closer to him still. “Deals are made to be broken.”

Brody’s breathing hitches, and his heart stutters in his chest. His eyes burn; his chest constricts. His stomach churns almost violently, and Brody is slipping away from himself.

“Can we, I don’t know, seal the deal?” Mitch asks. “Unseal it? Whatever?”

Her eyes flicker away from Brody’s to Mitch. “How would you propose we do that?” she asks, and there’s a suggestive note in her voice.

“A kiss,” Brody says, remembering this point more clearly than the rest. The girl looks at him; Mitch looks at him. “You seal it with a kiss.”

Now, she’s skeptical again. “Honestly, I’m not sure that’s legal,” she says. “Is he too drunk to consent?”

“It’s a kiss,” Mitch says. “And trust me. This is what he wants.”

She arches her brows. She’s looking at Brody again, her gaze unrelenting, uncompromising, far too knowing. “Is it?” she asks, and this time she’s talking to him.

Only him.

This is Brody’s deal.

She’s Brody’s solution.

“Even if it means giving up success? Is that what you want?”

That’s the question, isn’t it? That’s where this starts.

That has to be where it ends.

For Brody, this isn’t about giving up the dream. It’s not about giving up swimming or passing on the Olympics?

This is about accepting family.

Not just wanting it, but accepting it. Embracing it even when it’s not what you think it should be. It’s about believing that it’s possible, that change is possible. That you don’t have to be the same shitty person you were the day before.

He swallows, battling down the nausea. He blinks away the haze and he forces breath into his lungs. “It is,” he says, he vows, he straight out proclaims. And this time, he voice carries through the crossroads, loud and clear.

She says nothing, but moves in closer. She all but wrenches him from Mitch’s grasp, pulling him closer to her as her mouth envelopes his own for one, solitary kiss.

-o-

A kiss.

It’s just a kiss.

And so much more.

It’s a kiss of promise, of pain, of release. It’s a kiss of hope, of condemnation, of impossibility. A kiss he’s been craving for the better part of a decade. A kiss he’s been too terrified to even acknowledge.

It’s a kiss outside of time, outside of space. He’s well beyond the crosswalk, far away from Mitch and all of Baywatch. He’s transcending it somehow, existing beyond it. It’s enlivening and draining all at the same time. The surreal sensation surge within him, until he thinks he’s been well and truly spent.

She doesn’t yield, however, and he’s asked to give more than he knows how to sacrifice. This kiss asks for all of him, all his secrets and all his truths. It asks for the way he loved his foster mom, who made him brownies and came to his swim meets. It demands his passion for Monica, who made him feel like a better person than he was. It called into account his friendship with Grant, and how that mutuality could have defined him for the better. It even solicits his bond with his coach, who had found the best in Brody, the parts of him he didn’t know existed.

And then, when Brody thinks he has no more left to give, the kiss prises deeper, pulling out his dedication to Baywatch and his relationship with Mitch. This is the hardest one to lay bare, the one that he hasn’t rejected yet.

The one he has yet to fully realize.

This kiss could take it from him.

Or it could give it back.

Galvanized, Brody draws himself in closer, and he feels the girl respond to him as he presses in. This time, he knows what he’s doing.

This time, he understands.

All the same, when she pulls away, Brody still feels his energy leave him with a rush he can’t quite compensate for. As the girl lets him go, his legs go weak, and Mitch has to reach out to catch him before he crumples all the way to the ground.

“Um,” the girl asks. And she sounds different now. Or maybe Brody’s just different. “Is your friend okay?”

The answer is hard to determine. Brody doesn’t hear what Mitch says anyway.

He’s too busy passing out to pay any of it much heed.

-o-

That’s it. That’s how it end.

But then, when the night is over, Brody wakes up, blinking in the sunlight.

And what do you know.

That’s how it begins.

-o-

Brody’s awake. And he’s Mitch’s couch. And he’s sober.

Shit.

Not sober.

Hung over.

He trips over his own legs as he runs to the bathroom, and he promptly vomits the meager contents of his stomach for about three minutes straight before he’s done. He sits there, head propped up on the toilet, for another two minutes before he shakily gets to his feet and cautiously makes his way back out to the kitchen.

He’s looking for coffee.

He finds Mitch instead.

Mitch, at least, is holding a coffee out to him. He’s also smiling. Like knows something Brody doesn’t.

Brody wants to tell him to knock it off, Mitch knows lots of shit Brody doesn’t, but those words take too much effort. Instead, he takes the coffee and sits miserably at the table. After a few drinks, he starts to remember how to think again.

After another sip or two, he starts to have vague recollections of last night.

Squinting up at Mitch, he regards the smug expression a little more critically. “Did we really get drunk last night? You and me?”

“You,” Mitch clarifies for him. He’s drinking his own coffee, leaned up against the counter. “You got very, very drunk.”

That question was a gimme. Brody looks at his coffee, more quizzical than before. “Did we really go to a crossroads?”

Part of him hopes that was a dream, though he’s not sure why. He’s not sure if it’s a good dream or a bad dream or just the most screwed up dream ever. Because he remembers drinking. He remembers sitting at the crossroads.

“Yep,” Mitch confirms, like he’s just waiting for Brody to put it together.

The expectancy makes Brody feel especially stupid.

Or, you know, more stupid than usual.

Because there’s also this memory, this really clear memory, of a girl in red.

With red lips.

Red fingernails.

Red eyes?

Shit.

“Did I make a deal with a demon?”

The question is out there, plain and simple.

Mitch looks down his nose at Brody, and this time the affirmation is not so readily coming. “I’m hoping that you know the answer to that one on your own.”

And suddenly, Brody does.

Like, he does.

He remembers the drinking and the crossroads and the girl. He remembers the bartering and the lobbying and the kiss.

Okay, he remembers all of that.

And it’s not some magical event. It’s nothing mystical or curious. It’s not transcendent or surreal.

It’s just a drunk idiot talking to strangers on a street corner.

Really.

That’s all it is.

Brody didn’t break a curse or make a new deal.

Because there wasn’t an old deal.

This revelation is more sobering to him than the coffee, and he thinks that if he’d just talked to someone -- anyone -- when this happened ten years ago, it would have been pretty clear to him then as well. Because ten years ago, he’d just been some stupid, angry kid who was too young to handle is liquor and too defiant to believe that all the bad shit that happened was nothing but dumb luck and bad decisions. More than that, he’d been too scared to believed that the good shit was sincere. That people cared about him. That he was capable of doing things, being someone.

Those things had been so hard for him to believe. Impossible.

So he’d believed in a curse instead.

That curse had provided an emotional cushion for him through college. It had sequestered him during the Olympics. It had made it possible to approach Baywatch flippantly. Because life is easier to live when you think it’s all out of your hands. It’s more convenient to think that none of your choices matter.

That’s why kids in the system always believe they’re cursed.

Because the reality of rejection is so much worse.

Brody had never minded rejection when it was all he’d ever known. But once he got a taste for acceptance, he hadn’t known how to go back to what he was before. Who he was.

He hadn’t let anyone call him on this shit, all these years.

Mitch is too stubborn to not call Brody on it. He’s the asshole who will look beyond Brody’s stupidity and see the reasons why.

He’s the asshole who loves Brody enough to force him to finally accept that love.

And maybe -- just maybe -- start loving himself some day, too.

Somewhat in awe, Brody looks up at Mitch feeling gutted somehow. The revelation’s pretty profound, and it has implications for all the things Brody’s squandered. He’s not sure what to do with that. “There was never any deal. There was never any demon.”

Mitch nods, and he looks less smug now. A little more sympathetic.

Brody’s vision starts to tunnel a little as his breathing quickens. “All these years. I’ve just. I’ve just. What? Been making my own curses?”

“Any shrink could have told you that,” Mitch confirms.

Incredulous, Brody looks up at Mitch. His cheeks are burning now, heart starting to throb. “And you thought it’d just be more fun to make me relive it?”

This time, Mitch does look a little sorry. He crosses to the table and sits down across from Brody. “I knew you’d never believe me if I just told you this,” he says. “I knew that you had to figure it out for yourself.”

Brody can’t help it; he looks at Mitch desperately. “You got me really drunk and took me to a crossroads. Did you even know that girl?”

“No, but her name is Cindy,” Mitch says. “She’s a student at one of the colleges nearby. She’s studying chemistry.”

That’s just -- Brody can’t right now. “And you let me just go along like that?”

“Look, I knew that if we went through with it, if we relived the experience, one of two things would happen,” he explains. “One, you’d believe we broke the curse and you’d be able to start living your life again. Or, two, you’d realize like I did right away that you were using the idea of a curse as a defense mechanism to compensate for your abandonment issues and your lack of self worth.”

Brody can only stare at him now. He’s not even sure he’s exactly breathing anymore.

“Either way,” Mitch continues, undaunted. “I knew it’d be effective.”

“Effective?” Brody asks.

Mitch shrugs. “You don’t think you’re cursed anymore.”

Brody’s mouth drops a little further open. “You humiliated me out there!”

“Cindy was very sympathetic,” Mitch explains. “She gave me her number and wants to make sure you’re okay--”

Brody shakes his head. “Do you know what that was like? How scared I was? How utterly terrifying it all was?”

“Yes,” Mitch says. “It’s terrifying enough that you literally were willing to push everything you’ve built at Baywatch away. You were will to throw away your life because it scared you so much. And I wasn’t ready to let you go.”

That’s…

That’s one hell of an explanation.

This has been one hell of a night.

Unsure what to do, Brody looks blankly back at his coffee. He’s pissed and embarrassed and hurt and--

And he’s not cursed.

Like, he’s really not cursed.

Bad things are going to happen, but that’s not his fault. Not if he just makes the best decisions he can.

The realization is so overwhelming that Brody wants to cry.

Shit, he doesn’t want to cry.

He looks up at Mitch again, shaking his head. “You are the worst friend ever.”

The tension on Mitch’s face eases as he grins. “No, I’m your best friend.”

And that’s the winning argument.

That’s going to win everything.

Because Mitch is Brody’s best friend.

Mitch knows it.

Brody knows it.

And all the rest of the shit?

Doesn’t even matter.

“Now,” Mitch says, straightening himself up. “Are you ready to go to work and apologize to everyone for being a dick?”

All revelations aside, that one makes Brody hesitate. Knowledge is one thing. It’s important, okay. It’s really important.

But practice? Application? Whatever you call it?

“I know you’re still freaked out, okay,” Mitch says, implicitly understanding Brody’s hesitation. “But the team is going to be fine. All you have to do is apologize and--”

“No,” Brody says. He clamps his mouth closed for a second, not sure if he wants to continue. There’s no way around it, though. “I just. I know the team is going to be fine. But, I don’t know. I don’t know about me.”

This time, Mitch does get it. “Old habits die hard, I get it,” he says. “You’ve lived like you’re cursed for ten years now. It’s not going to change overnight.”

Except it has, kind of. Brody’s just not sure how to catch up with the reality.

“So, what?” Mitch prompts. “You think bad shit is going to happen if you come back?”

Brody doesn’t want to admit it necessarily. However, he also can’t deny it. He lifts one shoulder in a meager shrug. “Maybe.”

“Well, even if you were cursed -- which, you’re not and never were -- it’s a risk we’re all willing to take. We’re all in if you are.”

Mitch says it convincingly, and Brody knows he means it. He also know that the other would come around, that they’d forgive him. He knows they can be family again.

It’s just that family’s the great unknown.

Brody associates family with everything he’s not.

“I don’t know,” he hedges.

“Look,” Mitch says, and he puts his coffee down. “I’ll make you a deal.”

Reflexively, Brody flinches. Badly. “A deal?” he asks. “You don’t think I’ve made enough deals.”

Mitch is now utterly patient. “You come back to work and make things right, and I’ll help you look out for the risks. More than that, you stay as a part of this family, and I’ll work with you to make sure those risks don’t break any of us.”

Brody swallows, and he’s shaking a little. “That’s the deal?”

“That’s the family,” Mitch clarifies for him. “So, what do you say?”

What else could he say? Brody’s lived a long time in fear and the absence of hope. He’s still afraid, but maybe hope’s not such a terrible thing after all. He doesn’t have to be alone, and maybe if he’s not alone, the bad stuff won’t seem so bad.

Narrowing his gaze, Brody sighs.

It’s still a risk, but everything’s a risk. If he’s going to stick out his neck, he’d rather do it for Mitch than a random stranger he met at a crossroads while drunk.

That said: “Do we have to kiss?”

Mitch actually laughs at that. “I think a handshake will do.”

A handshake, Brody thinks, as he extends his hand.

Mitch takes his hand, grasping it firmly and decidedly.

It’s not surreal.

And that’s why Brody thinks that maybe this time it’s the real deal.

-o-

Brody, ultimately, doesn’t believe in curses.

That said, he’s also not sure that he believes he has control over his own destiny, not really. Because people don’t exist by themselves, not even when they try to isolate themselves. No, people exist in community, whether they want to admit it or not. One person never gets to decide.

It’s all of them.

Now, you might argue that that can be a curse sometimes.

And okay, maybe it can be a curse.

The good news is that it can also be a blessing.

In the end, it’s really a matter of perspective.

And, for the first time in years, Brody’s finally got the right one.