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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (1/14)

December 26th, 2018 (01:56 pm)

Title: Like the Ocean Tide

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Rating: M

A/N: So this is my de-aged square for hc_bingo. I wasn’t sure I really liked this prompt but 120,000 words later, I guess it went okay. No beta.

Summary: Mitch has no idea what to do with Brody most of the time. Then, Brody turns into an eight-year-old, and things get a little harder.


PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT
PART NINE
PART TEN
PART ELEVEN
PART TWELVE
PART THIRTEEN
PART FOURTEEN



-o-

Mitch woke up and decided that today was going to be a good day.

Not just a good day, a really good day.

The sun was shining, the water was warm, the birds were singing.

It was going to be a perfect day.

Unfortunately, he lived and worked with Matt Brody.

And Brody, damn it, had different plans.

-o-

It started at breakfast.

Mitch believed strongly in have proper, balanced meals, and seeing as he always made a breakfast for himself, making a little extra for Brody had never been something that had been too trying. In fact, he kind of enjoyed it, not that he was about to admit it. To be thoughtful -- and Mitch was thoughtful -- he also stocked granola bars and cereals as a backup. He wanted to make sure all his lifeguards were prepared to do their jobs, and that started with breakfast.

Mitch liked to be thorough like that. It always seemed like the right way to be.

Every other lifeguard on his team responded to his kind logic with vigor.

Every lifeguard except Brody. Hell, Brody didn’t seem to respond to any logic on a consistent basis.

Sure, sometimes he was all in, but then there were some mornings when he forgot how to be a rational, well adjusted adult. Mitch had tolerated these things when Brody was a smart-ass recruit he’d been forced to mentor. Now? After three months on Baywatch?

The relapses were wearing thing.

Mitch gritted his teeth together, looking at the time again.

Really thin.

“Yo!” Mitch called, putting his own breakfast plate in the dishwasher with a growing twinge of frustration. There was still a pile of eggs and bacon waiting for Brody, who wouldn’t have time to eat them due to the fact that their shift was starting soon. “We got to head out of here!”

Frustrations aside, Mitch tried not to push too much. That was not the role Mitch wanted to play; it never had been. He wasn’t Brody’s dad, and he wasn’t going to baby the man. If Brody wanted to sleep late and skip breakfast, then that was his problem. He was, however, Brody’s boss, and letting him skip work was not cool.

“Brody, come on!” he called again, a little louder and more insistent this time.

Shit, he sounded like his own old man. He had allowed himself to take in strays over the years as needed, but Brody was the only one who had never quite gotten his act together to leave.

When no reply came, Mitch glanced at the time, even though he already knew what it was going to say. They were out of it. Now his frustration was reaching the point of action, so he clomped back to the storage room and rapped loudly on the door. “Brody, we’ve got to leave.”

From within, this time, Mitch heard a muffled groan. Vague as it was, Mitch decided he needed to investigate in the off chance that Brody was actually sick.

Opening the door, he poked his head in. “You alive in here, bro?” he asked.

Brody opened bleary, red-shot eyes. “Mitch? What the hell?” he croaked.

Brody looked sick, but not the kind of sick that might elicit sympathy. It wasn’t hard to deduce. Brody had been late getting in last night, and Mitch had foolishly assumed that he was just out with Summer. She was generally a positive influence on Brody, and nights out with Summer could leave Brody without sleep but decidedly refreshed.

However, when Summer had other plans, Brody was sometimes left to his own devices.

This usually involved him ending up at a bar.

Now, you would think that given the fact that Brody was broke, he couldn’t get into much trouble. But he was a well recognized, if mocked, Olympian. He had a tendency to attract attention and sympathy, which often involved people buying him alcohol so they could get a selfie with a drunk gold medalist.

Hence: this result.

Maybe he was making assumptions, but with Brody, such assumptions weren’t without basis.

And they were usually right.

Mitch sighed. He’d been living with Brody for three months now, and each time this happened, Brody profusely apologized and insisted it wouldn’t happen again.

Maybe Mitch was the stupid one for believing him.

“Seriously, man,” Mitch said, shaking his head. “Are you hungover?”

Brody made a face of abject misery. “No, you’re just really loud,” he said. “And I think I want to hurl.”

“In the toilet, dumbass,” Mitch noted, voice devoid of sympathy. “And hurry up with it. We’re going to be late for work.”

Brody groaned again, even more agonized this time. “Come on, Mitch,” he said, flopping an arm dramatically over his eyes. “I feel like shit.”

“You look like shit, too,” Mitch commented dryly. “That’s why you shouldn’t get hammered, especially not on a work night.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Brody muttered, swallowing hard against an apparent swell of nausea. “But Summer had to bail last night, and there was this dude in the bar, and we started doing shots and I don’t know, man.”

“Sure you do,” Mitch said, rolling his eyes. “It’s the same thing that happens every time we end up here.”

Brody lifted his arm, looking pathetically over at Mitch. “I screwed up, okay?”

“Yeah,” Mitch said tersely. “Again.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Brody promised again, a bit of a whine in his voice.

Mitch didn’t have the patience for it. “Look, I don’t care, okay?” he said. “I’m not your dad, and I’m not your keeper. But I am your boss, so if you don’t have your ass up and out of this bed in five minutes, I am leaving without you.”

Before Brody could offer another pathetic explanation, Mitch closed the door. He paused just outside, taking a deep breath and reminding himself that Brody was a decent human being when he tried to be. And he was good on the job when he had his shit together to show up on time. He had hoped, after this many months, that he could make such declarations without caveats, but some people were a work in progress.

From inside the door, he could hear Brody hurling.

Mitch drew a breath, striving for calm.

Some people more than others.

-o-

As promised, Mitch waited by the door for five full minutes. At four minutes, Brody grumbled, shuffling his feet as he got out of bed and slumped his way to the bathroom. Mitch checked his watch, tapping his foot restlessly.

When the minute changed, Mitch listened for any sound of movement. He heard Brody start the shower instead of opening the door to come out.

Figured.

Mitch glanced toward the door, contemplating his options. They’d done this before; if he waited for Brody, they could still make it on time. Brody could shower quickly, and they’d be out the door within minutes.

He looked at his watch again before glaring at the bathroom door. If he waited for Brody, he’d only be reinforcing a negative pattern of behavior. He was tempted to open the bathroom door and drag his ass out, naked if necessary, to make his point, but that wasn’t his job. The kid had to learn, and Brody wasn’t going to do things the easy way, then Mitch could make them hard.

Tough love, he thought to himself, pulling his keys out of his pocket opening the front door. He closed it behind him, shaking his head in disappointment. Brody needed it.

Brody needed something at any rate, and Mitch was tired of trying to figure out what.

He locked the door, making his way down the beach. The sun was shining, the waves look perfect, and Mitch still somehow felt horrible.

So much for a good day.

-o-

Mitch arrived at work early, and he promptly got to work. He could certainly understand Brody’s propensity to pout and sulk and make bad decisions. He just had learned enough self discipline to never indulge such things. Because he was an adult with a real job, and he knew how to act like it.

So if he looked like he was sulking while preparing his morning briefly for the crew, then that was entirely coincidental.

With perfect weather, Mitch told everyone to expect a busy day. “But a good one,” he added with a smile that felt forced. “I’m trusting each of you to make sure it is a good one for every person on your beach.”

The team nodded, sufficiently roused by his speech. He had to admit; he liked that. It was good to see CJ nodding along. He loved to see Stephanie taking notes while he spoke. Ronnie and Summer still hung off his words like he knew no wrong.

Mitch didn’t need his ego to be stroked -- that wasn’t what this was about -- but it was nice when people acted like adults, too. He used to expect it from everyone, until Brody had taken up residence in his house and never left. Literally like a stray dog.

Now he was stuck for what -- ever?

Even a damn stray dog could be trained, though.

Mitch wasn’t so sure about Brody.

Out of breath, hair still wet, Brody made that point abundantly clear for Mitch when he showed up as everyone else collected their tower assignments. Huffing, Brody strutted up to Mitch like he was the one who was pissed off. “What the hell, man?” he asked.

Mitch gave him a diffident shrug. “I’m the one who should be asking that,” he said. “You’re late.”

Brody rolled his eyes. “Like ten minutes, and my shift doesn’t actually start for fifteen.”

“You missed briefing,” Mitch said.

“Clear sky, big waves, keep people safe,” Brody said sarcastically. “Is that about right?”

Mitch gave him a long, hard look. “I thought you wanted to be part of this team.”

“Uh, I do,” Brody said. “But you left without me.”

“I told you I was leaving in five minutes,” Mitch reminded him.

“I was getting ready!” Brody protested.

Mitch watched as the rest of his team filed neatly out the door. Stephanie lingered with a glance, but Mitch shook his head. Brody, for whatever reason, was unfortunately his responsibility on days like today. “No, you were dragging your feet because you were too hung over to get out of bed,” he said. “I’ve told you that you can’t do that. You shouldn’t be drinking when you know you’ve got a shift in the morning.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Brody said. “It just happened.”

“To you, Brody,” Mitch snapped. “It always happens to you. If you haven’t noticed, everyone else at Baywatch can handle the simple responsibilities of adulthood just fine. You’re the only one who seems to forget.”

Brody threw up his hands incredulously. “It’s happened, like, three times! In three months!”

Mitch didn’t back down; in fact, the incredulity only heightened Mitch’s own. He loomed over Brody, a step closer now. “That’s three times more than I’ve tolerated from any other member of the team.”

Brody dropped his hands, mouth falling open. “I’m trying,” he said. “I screwed up.”

“Yeah, again,” Mitch said. “I seem to remember you promising me that wouldn’t happen when you begged me to give you a second chance that you clearly didn’t deserve.”

It was a bit harsher than Mitch had intended, but it wasn’t like Brody hadn’t been asking for it. Still, it registered on his face, first with shock. Then with hurt. Then, finally and resolutely, with anger. “You’re an asshole, Mitch.”

Mitch shrugged. “And you’re a jackass, Brody,” he said.

Puffing out his chest, Brody snarled at him. “Screw you.”

“Grow up!”

Snatching his tower assignment, Brody glared at him. As he stalked away to the beach, he gave Mitch the finger.

Mitch sighed wearily.

Growing up would have to be shelved for another day.

-o-

And yet Mitch was still required to be an adult.

All. Damn. Day.

He was so pissed off that he didn’t enjoy his shift at all. He chewed out a couple of kids for playing ball around a baby, and when he dragged a woman out of the surf, he reprimanded her far too harshly for not paying attention to the riptide. He had no patience for his lifeguards, and the small inconveniences of day to day beach life seemed far too much for him to handle.

All because he could still see Brody, dutifully manning tower 2, like nothing was wrong.

At tower 2, nothing was wrong. It was infuriating the way Brody could pick and choose his moments. How he could be an adult when he was on duty, but the instant he clocked out, he could be a total immature idiot again.

How the hell was that fair? Why did everyone else get Brody’s best and he got his absolute worst?

Would Brody ever make any sense?

Mitch scowled, determined to finish his shift without thinking about a bleached blond asshole from Iowa at all.

-o-

It was all he thought about, though. It was all he thought about as he finished his paperwork, as he said goodnight to the team, as he cleaned up and went home.

Brody had left without him, which was indicative of the fact that they still weren’t on good terms after this morning. On the walk home, Mitch considered the fact that maybe they could talk about it. Maybe they could face each other like rational adults and come to an amicable and fair conclusion.

Those hopes were dashed the instant he opened the door.

Mitch was always one who was prone to optimism. He’d considered it a good quality to have.

At least, he used to, before Brody had moved into his house and made himself an inalienable part of his life.

Most of the time, Brody was a respectful houseguest. He usually kept his things in order and kept to himself. In those moments, he could almost see Brody as a reasonable peer.

Brody had already proven that this was not one of those times, and his trail of messes was a indication of what was to come.

There were dishes all over the kitchen. How this was possible, Mitch wasn’t sure, since Brody didn’t know how to cook. However, it appeared that he’d tried to use ever dish he could find -- for no other reason than to make the point that he was still pissed off about the morning’s altercation.

This was a purposeful obfuscation of the fact that this morning had been entirely Brody’s fault.

For now, Mitch ignored the dishes. Instead, he opened the fridge to grab himself something to eat and a beer to help him unwind. If he was going to have a conversation with Brody tonight, a little social lubricant was going to be necessary. A beer wouldn’t be enough, but given that Mitch was on duty tomorrow, it would have to do.

There was no beer, however.

The entire six pack, which Mitch had put in there only yesterday, was gone.

So Brody had no only taken it upon himself to drink all of Mitch’s beer, but he’d also gone above and beyond and gotten himself buzzed on a work night.

Again.

By now, Mitch was having trouble keeping his temper in check. He made his way to the living room, pausing to stop at his fish tank, where little Mitch had his arms crossed in consternation. With two dead fish floating on the top, Mitch could see why. Frowning, he checked the food supply. It still had plenty, but it was Brody’s responsibility to feed them.

Clearly, he’d been taking the responsibility as seriously as all the rest. Perturbed, Mitch dumped some food in for the rest of the fish, making a note to dispose of the two dead ones soon. And he’d have to review with Brody about the importance of living up to his promises, on and off the beach. He wouldn’t pull this shit with Summer, and Mitch didn’t know why he expected him to tolerate here.

When he made it to the living room, it was all Mitch could do not to pick the kid up and throw him forcibly out the front door. He was on the couch, a beer in hand with the other five spread empty across the coffee table. There was an open bag of chips in front of him with crumbs all over the couch.

He was watching the Chicago Cubs on the television set, acting like nothing was wrong.

“Hey, Mitch,” he said, nodding his head with a flippant smile. “I meant to save you a beer, but…”

He was baiting Mitch. Mitch knew that, and he hated to give into it.

But damn it, Brody could be such a dick when he wanted to be.

And he really wanted to be now.

With as much self control as he could muster, Mitch drew a breath. “Nah, that’s okay,” he said. “Watching you drink is a good reminder why Al Anon exists.”

Brody snorted, as if he thought it was actually funny.

“By the way, did you remember to feed the fish?” Mitch asked, casually as he could.

Brody made a face. “Oh, shit,” he said. “That was my job, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. Once a day,” Mitch said.

“Well, I’ll get to it,” Brody said, shrugging as he reached his hand in for a handful of chips.

Watching Brody stuff a greasy handful into his mouth, Mitch wondered what the hell Brody expected him to do with this performance. Brody knew Mitch was pissed, and Brody knew why. Even Brody, dumb as he could be, couldn’t be that blind. Why did he want to pick a fight? This wasn’t Brody’s typical behavior. Usually he was active and involved. He would work out or go on dates. He usually tried to help out around the house. As long as he had structure, he seemed fine.

The instant anything changed, though. The moment he was left to his own devices.

It was like he was eight years old again.

“I think I’ve got it from now on,” Mitch said.

“I think Little Mitch would like that,” Brody observed, words slightly slurred.

Mitch was unamused. “I think the fish would like it so they stop starving to death.”

Brody looked like he had no idea what he was talking about.

Mitch sighed. “Look, I know you think that when you screw up, that you have to screw up dramatically.”

“Whoa, I didn’t screw up,” Brody said, holding up his hands in dismay. “I made my shift. No one died.”

“Except my two fish and my entire six pack of beer,” Mitch pointed out.

Brody had the audacity to roll his eyes. “You make such a big deal out of little shit,” he said. “It’s all fine.”

“No, it’s not fine,” Mitch said. “Not when you’re living in my house.”

Brody appeared completely indifferent.

Mitch ire was raised. He stared Brody down hard. “Rent free, I might add.”

This time, Brody picked up on the implicit threat. With a scoff, he managed a look of indignant surprise. “What, you want me to leave?”

“No,” Mitch said with an emphatic nod. “I’m just making a point, asswipe.”

Brody made a dramatic wave of his hands, exaggerated by his lack of coordination at the moment. “Oh well, I’m so sorry,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows in an unnecessary fashion. He’d never been less sorry. “I thought we were friends.”

“Sure, but friends don’t treat each other like shit,” Mitch countered sharply.

At this, Brody sat up for the first time. “Dude, you have weird expectations,” he said. “I sleep in your freakin’ closet, man. It’s not like it’s the ritz.”

“And you pay no rent,” Mitch reiterated gruffly.

“The shit I put up with here, you should pay me rent,” Brody said, making a wide sweep of his hand and knocking over an empty bottle of beer. “That CB is stupid, man. And I can’t bring myself to feed the stupid fish because Little Mitch watches me. It’s weird, dude. The whole thing is freakin’ weird.”

“Well, there’d be more fish and less of Little Mitch if you ever bothered to feed them!” Mitch said, voicing pitching now.

Brody huffed in anger. “Feed your own damn fish!”

It was more than Mitch knew how to take. Even he had his breaking points, and Brody had managed to find every single one. “Then find your own damn apartment!”

Brody, buzzed though he was, registered those words with abject clarity. He blinked as though he’d been hit, and then he got clumsily but decidedly to his feet. “Fine!” he said, stumbling as he crossed the coffee table toward the door.

Mitch turned to follow him. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

“You just told me to leave, didn’t you?” Brody asked.

“Great, so you can go out and find another bar to run you a tab to get you smashed?” Mitch asked caustically. “Then you can wake up hungover in my spare room. Again.”

Brody’s face contorted. Hurt, maybe. Anger, definitely. “Well, maybe I’ll just find another place to crash,” he ventured wildly. “Permanently.”

Defiant, Mitch crossed his arms over his chest. “That’d be a convincing threat if you had the balls to follow through,” he said. “You don’t even have your bag.”

The wild expression on Brody’s face intensified with a hint of disbelief. “You really want me to go?”

The answer should have been no. If Mitch had been calm, if Brody had been sober -- then the answer would have been no. Mitch knew, when he could think on it clearly, that one night didn’t define a relationship. And he also knew, when things were calm, that Brody was good more often than he was bad anymore.

The problem was, of course, that when Brody was bad, he was really bad. For Brody, doing the right thing on a daily basis took a huge amount of work and concentration. But screwing up? Being a douche? That was like second nature to Brody.

So Mitch knew Brody needed a little extra time and attention. Usually, he could pull that off.

But sometimes, Brody knew how to piss people off a little too well.

And this was definitely one of those times.

So tonight, the answer wasn’t just yes.

Tonight the answer was to storm back to Brody’s cot, grab the still-packed and bring it out to the living room before throwing it forcibly at Brody.

Shocked, Brody still managed to catch it, staring at it blankly while Mitch seethed.

“I’d like to see you do it,” Mitch said, daring him now. “Be a big man. Live up to your word for once.”

Brody looked up at him, fuming. Mitch was calling his bluff, and he wasn’t leaving Brody any easy outs. And Brody, more proud than he was smart, was too far into this to back down now. “You know what,” he said, face red as he clutched his bag closer. “I don’t need this shit, man.”

With that, Brody turned sharply to the door, pulling it open and storming through before slamming it shut behind him, loud enough to rattle the walls.

He’d called Brody’s bluff.

Now, standing there alone in his own living room, Mitch realized that Brody had called his, too.

-o-

Mitch tried to go about his night as normal.

After all, this wasn’t his fault. This wasn’t even his doing. Brody, even when he acted like a child, was a grown man. He had every right to make the decisions he wanted to make, no matter what Mitch thought of them.

That was what Mitch told himself as he picked up Brody’s mess. It was what he reminded himself of as he collected the beer bottles and swept up the chips into a trash sack. He’d already gone above and beyond for Brody. What else could he possibly be expected to give?

Standing at the sink, doing Brody’s dishes, he couldn’t stop himself from feeling regret. Because it wasn’t his fault, but he knew what was going to happen to Brody tonight. Brody was already buzzed, and Mitch had humiliated him. That meant he wasn’t going to be stupid enough to go to Summer, who was probably smart enough to tell Brody that Mitch had a point.

No, Brody was going to head out to a bar, looking for anyone who will agree with him.

Or, at the very least, anyone who will buy him a drink.

When Brody was drunk, the chances of him making a wise choice were slim to none.

In the end, Mitch had wanted Brody to grow up.

He hadn’t wanted to watch the kid crash and burn.

His only solace was the fact that the bars closed at some point, and Brody still had his key. He hadn’t slept under the pier in a long time. Brody would be back.

Mitch settled down with his own dinner in front of the TV and tried to tell himself that.

Brody would be back.

-o-

Mitch believed that Brody would be back as he flipped channels on the couch until midnight.

He reasoned that Brody had to return as he worked out from midnight until one.

At two, he hoped Brody would be back when he paced out on his back patio.

By three, he sat down on the lounge chair and told himself that this was stupid. He was sitting here, fretting like he was Brody’s dad or something. Brody wasn’t his kid; really, he wasn’t actually Mitch’s responsibility. If he wanted to crash and burn -- which he clearly seemed to want to do -- then Mitch had no business trying to stop him.

Much less worrying about him.

This had never been part of the deal.

Mitch hadn’t asked for this.

He stared up at the sky, wishing he believed that mattered. The night was clear, the air was cool. He sighed, watching as the stars twinkled.

Shaking his head, he sighed again. “Damn it,” he muttered to himself. “I just wish Brody would act his age for once.”

Far above him, a single star streaked across the sky, falling quietly from view.

It was the last thing Mitch remembered before falling asleep that night.

-o-

When he woke up, his first thought was that this was not going to be a good day.

He was sore from sleeping on the lounge chair, and the ocean air had dried out his mouth so his tongue felt sticky. Sitting up, he felt strangely disoriented, and moving his limbs made him feel sore and achy all over. He hadn’t been drunk since college, but this felt like the worse freakin’ hangover in the world.

Struggling to get his bearings, it took Mitch several minutes to get to his feet. When he finally got his eyes to adjust to the morning sunlight, he was surprised to find Mrs. Flores from next door peering over her hedge row at him. “I was stargazing,” Mitch explained, trying to sound chipper but merely sounding pathetic. “Must have fallen asleep.”

She harrumphed at him but stalked back inside. Mitch wondered vaguely how long she’d been there, glaring at him in his sleep, but he looked at his watch and realized he didn’t have time for this. He was running late -- and he had an early shift this morning.

Shit, that was totally a Brody move.

And it was totally Brody’s fault.

Speaking of Brody…

Surely, he’d be home by now. Drunk, probably. Belligerent, likely. But safe, tucked into Mitch’s spare room, just where he was meant to be.

Inside, Mitch made his way through the kitchen. “Brody?” he called, listening for any sort of groaned reply. “You here?”

There was no reply, but that didn’t mean much. When Brody was hammered, he tended to sleep heavily. At the door to the spare room, Mitch knocked. “Yo, Brody.”

Common politeness dictated that Mitch wait for some indication before opening the door. But given the blow out they’d had last night, Mitch had indication enough.

“Brody, you back?” he asked, opening the door.

And he nearly closed it again immediately.

Because it wasn’t Brody in the bed.

Brody was smaller than he was, and he made fun of Brody’s small stature when appropriate, but he still filled out the cot. The person the cot today, however, was small. Even when stretched out, the figure didn’t stretch more than two thirds of the way down. Worse, the tawny head that poked out from under the scratchy blanket had no bleached blonde streaks. It was easy to see that the body beneath the blanket wasn’t trim and lean like Brody. Instead, it was thin -- almost fragile looking.

Then, the figure roused, lifting up its head and blinking up at Mitch with bleary eyes. “Yeah?”

Mitch stood for a second, dumbfounded. The kid on the cot studied him with bright blue eyes, which peeked out from the too-long fringe of his lanky brown bangs. His t-shirt was old and faded with the University of Iowa logo on the front, and the gap between his front teeth made him look even more diminutive than he already was.

“Dude,” the kid said, wrinkling his nose as he threw his legs over the side of the cot. “You calling for me?”

“Uh,” Mitch said, not sure what to say to a random child who had somehow ended up in his spare room. “I was looking for Brody.”

The kid yawned sleepily and stretched his neck. “Most people call me Matt,” the kid said. “But you know, whatever.”

“Wait,” Mitch said, wetting his lips as he tried to adjust his stance. “You’re Matt Brody?”

The kid got up, giving him a quizzical look. “Course,” he said, almost offended at the insinuation. “Were you expecting someone else?”

Mitch had no response for that because he had been expecting Brody.

He had not expected a random child to pass as Brody, however.

The kid grunted his indifference, making his way to the door. “Whatever, man,” he said, making his way past Mitch. “You got something for breakfast or what?”

Mitch stared at the child, making his way to the kitchen. When nothing happened -- no big reveal, no apparent startle as he woke up from a dream -- he followed the kid to the kitchen.

Already seated at the table, the kid was inspecting his surroundings quite critically. “Kind of a small place you got here,” he observed. “Do you have a pool? The best places have pools.”

“Um,” Mitch said, still struggling to make sense of this turn of events. “No pool.”

The kid looked disappointed. As if to console himself, he reached for Mitch’s phone and promptly began trying to break the password. This proceeded for several moments before the kid looked up at him again, more annoyed before. “Seriously, are you going to feed me?” he asked. “Because I’m super hungry.”

Mitch gaped at him for a moment, wondering if he had somehow agreed to adopt a child. Was it possible that he had inadvertently become a Big Brother? Was someone’s niece or nephew in town and did he agree to watch them? At the very least, was some stray kid wandering through the neighborhood and assumed that Mitch’s unlocked door was an invitation for...everything?

Or maybe Mitch was having a stroke.

He finally shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing because this had to be a dream. A joke. A freakin’ delusion. “But who did you say you were again?”

The kid put down the phone, apparently thoroughly exasperated now. “Matt Brody,” he said flatly, as if Mitch should have easily recognized the small child instead of his screwed up roommate. “And who are you, jackass?”

The hair was easy enough to overlook. The bright blue eyes could have been a coincidence. The slump of his shoulders, the stiffness of his gait -- all easy enough to explain away. But the cutting bite of his voice, the surly sound of his words when he addressed Mitch.

It was Brody.

Shit, Mitch thought as the blood drained out of his face and his head started to spin. This kid was Matt Brody.

-o-

Mitch was usually cool and collected under pressure. It was a trait he was proud of, one he had honed meticulously over the years.

It was also a trait that completely failed him now.

Because what the hell was he supposed to do with a pint sized Brody? He barely knew how to handle an adult version, much less a kid. And how the hell was Brody a kid anyway? Last night, he’d kicked Brody out and he’d been a 20-something asshole. Mitch woke up this morning, and there was a kid instead. Still an asshole.

But a kid.

Shit.

Panicking, Mitch turned to the counter as if that could somehow hide the fact that he was freaking out. Bracing himself against the counter, he racked his mind, thinking of a way for this to be plausible. Except it wasn’t plausible.

Adults didn’t turn into children, no matter how much they acted like them.

He could be dreaming, still. On the porch. Dreams made as freakin’ weird as possible by alcohol and the sea breeze.

His stomach roiled, and he fet vaguely like he was going to be sick.

It was too real for a dream.

So a hallucination? Did he have a fever? Was this what an aneurysm felt like?

Or drugs? Did someone give him drugs somehow? While he was in his own backyard?

Really, it was probably just a psychotic break. Mitch had just freakin’ flipped his lid and was now certifiably insane after too many years of direct sunlight on his bald head.

“Uh,” a voice from behind startled him. “Like, you okay?”

He turned, badly rattled. The kid was still at the table, but the phone was lying idle in front of him. Instead, he was watching Mitch with apparent concern.

“Like, are you having a heart attack or something?” the kid asked, looking wary now. “Because it’s starting to freak me out.”

It was starting to freak him out? What about Mitch? What the hell was going on here?

“Should I call the cops or...something?” the kid ventured awkwardly.

The cops, Mitch thought. The cops might be a good idea. He could call Ellerbee and…

Shit, and what?

What was he going to report?

That a kid had broken into his house?

That his roommate had been turned into a child?

They’d commit him for sure.

He rubbed a hand over his eyes. Maybe he needed to be committed.

“Because, like, I don’t know CPR or shit,” the kid said.

He sounded just like Brody.

He looked up, studying the kid again.

He looked just like Brody.

Except Brody was an Olympian with a drinking problem and a bad attitude.

This was a kid.

This wasn’t Brody.

This was...Matt.

The kid looked like he was preparing to run. “This isn’t cool, man,” Matt said. The kid’s name was Matt. “This isn’t normal.”

At that, Mitch gave a short, hysterical laugh. “Well, you’re not exactly acting normal yourself.”

Inexplicably, Matt took offense at this. “How would you know?”

Apparently, Matt had no memory of Brody’s life. That made things...complicated.

But who was Mitch kidding -- this whole thing was complicated.

He managed to steady himself, long enough to give the kid a nod. “Because what the hell kind of kid talks with a mouth like that?” he asked pointedly. “How old are you anyway?”

From his seat, Matt puffed out his chest, as if to be intimidating. So bravado was a trait Brody had learned young. “I’m eight,” he said, as though this was some kid of accomplishment.

“Eight?” Mitch clarified, not sure if he could believe it or not. Slight as the kid was, he looked younger than that somehow. But then, he talked like a teenager and Mitch had minimal experience with young children outside safety lessons at the beach.

“Yeah,” Matt said, still holding his chin up proudly. Then, he made a face. “But you should know that, right?”

In the long list of impossible things Mitch had experienced so far this morning, there was no reason this question should be one he took issue with. “Why should I know that?”

Matt looked at him like he was still crazy. “Well, this is a temp placement,” he said, as if this assumption was obvious. The attitude was couched with the tiniest hint of doubt. “Right?”

Mitch felt uncharacteristically slow on the uptake. He wondered if this sense of disillusionment was what Brody felt all the time. “A what?”

His uncertainty seemed to only unnerve Matt further. “A temp placement,” he said again, as if hoping that by repeating the term it would suddenly make sense to Mitch. “I mean, I know I pissed off the Fredericks last week, so they’re not taking me back, and the group home isn’t meant to be for stays longer than a week.”

Mitch stared at Matt, wondering again about the likelihood of a psychotic break.

Matt seemed suddenly self conscious because of this, and he hunched his shoulder, drawing in a little defensively on himself. “And okay, I know the meltdown at school last week didn’t help, and they’ve upped my medication doses again, and that shit wipes me out, man,” the kid said, rambling more than a little. He gave a twitchy shrug, as if to be diffident with a strained smile on his face. “Must have upped it a lot, because I really don’t remember coming here.”

So maybe Matt was the one having a psychotic break and Mitch was just along for the ride. He shook his head, putting that thought aside as it was counterproductive. “Your medication?” he asked, hoping to at least clarify what that meant because from his knowledge, Brody was healthy enough to be a stupid asshole. His kid self shouldn’t have had a chronic condition, so what the hell was going on with this kid?

His question made Matt even more on edge. “The ritalin,” he said. “Like, for the ADHD or whatever they think I have. I know the Fredericks liked me a lot better when I slept all the time, but it’s freaky when you wake up and don’t remember how you got there.” He gave a nervous laugh that Mitch didn’t share, which only served to make Matt more nervous. “But this is all in the paperwork for the temp placement. It always is. Everyone knows my whole life story before they even meet me.”

Nothing about this made sense on a large scale, but Mitch was starting to figure out a few of the details. Brody had never talked much about his past, but the snippets he’d gleaned over the last few months were put into context by these simple revelations. Matt was a foster kid, skipping through the system. That was what he was talking about with a temporary placement. Matt thought, for whatever reason, that Mitch was his new foster parent.

That didn’t explain the medication or the Fredericks or why the hell an eight-year-old would think it’s acceptable to wake up with no clue how he got there.

And of course there was still the fact that Brody was a child instead of a full grown man.

With Mitch’s silence, Matt apparently didn’t know what to do with himself. Instead of shutting up, he let his mouth run, showing that some traits really did start young.

“And you’ve got to be a temp, right?” Matt assumed, as if this was a foregone conclusion. “I know they keep talking about something permanent, but I’m a lost cause. They all know it. I can see it when they talk to me. So I don’t know. Maybe you’ve got the right idea, skipping the paperwork. Nothing you could do that someone else hasn’t already tried.”

Mitch narrowed his eyes, assessing the kid more completely. He was brash, but as a defensive mechanism, it wasn’t as well developed as it was for adult Brody. Most people would be put off by his vulgar language and sarcastic disposition, but this was a kid talking about the system trying to essentially swallow him whole. “You sound like you’ve done this before,” he observed.

Matt’s expression was so incredulous that it was almost comical. “Wow, man, you really didn’t read shit, did you?”

The swearing was undoubtedly for shock value, but he’d heard Brody swear for three months while making dick jokes. Mitch wasn’t shocked, but he was tired of it. “Language, kid,” Mitch instructed, realizing for the first time that in this form Matt might actually listen to him. “And humor me.”

With an overly dramatic flair, Brody rolled his eyes. “I’ve done this loads,” he said. He lifted his chin again, as if he were proud of this. “I’m an old pro.”

Mitch was determinedly unimpressed. “How many placements?” he pressed.

Matt shrugged. “Like, in the last year? Or, you know, overall?”

That was a horrible distinction for any kid to make. “Let’s start with last year,” Mitch said, because honestly, he couldn’t imagine anything more than that right now.

At the directness of the question, Matt’s bravado seemed to steel itself into sullenness. With his eyes down, he shrugged. “I dunno,” he mumbled.

This morning had been too weird to let him get away with that shit now. “Ballpark,” he insisted.

Begrudgingly, Matt folded further in on himself. When he looked up, the blueness in his eyes looked dimmer somehow. “Eleven.”

The word was so flat, so plain, and yet so exact. Like hell the kid hadn’t been keeping track. He remembered every placement, short or long, good or bad.

And damn, eleven? In a year? He couldn’t have stayed in any one place more than a month at that rate. Moving around that much, living with different people -- it would be disorienting for anyone, much alone a kid who’d never even had a family to begin with. No one he walked around like he had something to prove. Eight year old Matt Brody probably felt like he had everything to prove.

He studied the kid, not sure what to make of all this. “And over your lifetime?”

The question seemed to offend Matt, and his sullen disposition worsened to petulance. “Well, it’s not like I remember most of them,” he said. He clearly tried to rally himself, squaring his shoulders with the indication of defiance. “But the caseworker says I could be going for some kind of record, way I’m going.”

That sure as hell didn’t sound like a record anyone would want to break. Kind of like the record no one would want to break for random age regression. Matt Brody was full of surprises. “And how long do most of these placements last?” Mitch asked.

“A few weeks, usually,” Matt explained. “Sometimes, less if I get someone too soft. I made it a few months with the Fredericks, and they talked all big at the beginning, telling me that it could be my forever home and all that, but after a month, I knew it’d never happen. They stuck it out another few weeks after that, but you can tell when they don’t want you.”

Mitch tried to think of it from the Fredericks position, about how they might have wanted a kid to love and ended up with this smartass instead. Mitch hadn’t even been looking for a kid, and here he was, trying to make heads or tails of the bundle of sarcasm he’d been given for whatever reason.

Matt drew a breath, as if all of this was entirely incidental. “I was with the Michaels for a few years, though,” he said, his face brightening a little at the name. “It was cool there; I can still remember it. I didn’t leave until I was six, and that was the only time it seemed like it might actually work out.”

The change in Matt’s tone made it obvious: he missed the Michaels. He’d liked the Michaels. Which led to the simple question: “So, why aren’t you still there?”

Matt’s expression darkened immediately, and the kid wasn’t able to hide the wounded look in his eyes fast enough. “They had their own kid, that’s what,” he said. “A miracle baby or whatever. After that, they didn’t need some shitty version like me.”

“Dude, language,” Mitch reprimanded without thinking, without letting himself process the horrible weight to what Matt was telling him. It was a hell of a thing for a kid to know he wasn’t going to be loved by a family he was placed with; it was entirely another for a kid to face rejection when he expected acceptance.

Shitty wasn’t a strong enough adjective.

Matt shrugged, completely unapologetic. “I’m just saying.”

Mitch shook his head, trying to round back to the relevant information again. “I know, I know,” he said hastily, even if he didn’t have a freakin’ clue.

Matt’s eyes narrowed in on him again, regarding him skeptically. “You really didn’t read the paperwork?”

At this point, Mitch just wished there was paperwork. A document to explain Matt, and to explicate where the hell Brody had gone. Those answers would only freak a kid out, so Mitch gave a weary shake of his head. “I find that hearing things from the source is usually the best,” he said, and when Matt looked like he didn’t know what that meant, Mitch added, “You tell your story best, kid.”

It was meant to be reassuring, but Matt made a face of discontent, like he had no idea what to do with a positive sentiment. Instead, he raised his shoulders dully. “Whatever you say.”

When Matt didn’t add onto that lukewarm sentiment, it occurred to Mitch that this wasn’t a surreal impossible situation for the kid. The kid was a little confused about the hows and whys, but he had learned to trust the system enough to know that he was going to be clothed, fed and generally provided for, even if by strangers.

In this case, the stranger was Mitch.

Because there was no one else around unless he wanted to try to explain age regression to his friends at work. Or worse, the cops, who would probably arrest him the minute they realized Matt didn’t have the paperwork he kept talking about.

The conclusion to this weird turn of events, complicated as they were, was ultimately really simple. Mitch had to be the parent figure.

At least that was something he had some practice with.

“All right, then,” Mitch said, trying to sound upbeat but faltering badly. There was no way in the world this wasn’t the most insane morning of his life, and he had to pretend like everything was completely normal or risk a meltdown from an eight year old Matt Brody. He couldn’t imagine, and he didn’t want to find out. “So, how about breakfast, then?”

Mitch hadn’t expected much probably, but Matt’s completely indifferent scowl was hardly heartening. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “They really will get after you, even when you starve the hard cases.”

Hard cases, Mitch thought ruefully as he reached down to retrieve a pan. He flashed an awkward grin back at Matt, knowing that the system had no idea just how hard this case was.

-o-

It was weird.

It was just yesterday he’d made breakfast for Brody, who’d left his plate on the kitchen counter. Now, little Matt watched him carefully as he scrambled the eggs and flipped the pancakes, and when Mitch offered him some, he didn’t hesitate to scarf everything on his plate down before Mitch could make more.

In some ways, it was a little gratifying. Adult Brody had been polite most of the time, but he’d rarely showed this much enthusiasm toward the simple pleasures of food. Matt devoured food like he’d never eaten it before and like he wasn’t sure when he’d eat it again.

Mitch decided not to consider those implications as he made another batch of eggs and pancakes for them to share.

Besides, he still had bigger issues to deal with. Namely, the fact that he had to distinguish between little Matt and adult Brody at all. He still thought this was quite possibly the worst dream of his life. Or, maybe he’d died last night and this was hell, where he was cursed with all eternity with a pint sized Brody.

It was easy to get lost in this, how it all affected him. But as he cooked, he couldn’t help but remember that he wasn’t the only person in this situation. Brody was involved, too, and the fact that he was Matt now didn’t exactly make that any easier. Because weird as this was for Mitch, Matt was completely vulnerable and he didn’t even realize why.

For a moment, he contemplated telling Matt the truth.

But then he looked at the kid, who was milling around the house restlessly while he waited for more food to be made. He lingered by the fishtank, prodding the dead ones that Mitch hadn’t gotten around to removing before squinting at Little Mitch. He looked at Mitch questioningly, but Mitch steadfastly looked away to flip a pancake.

With a shrug -- Matt had probably seen weirder, what with eleven temporary placements in the last year alone -- the kid continued his curious journey around the house. He passed over the photographs casually, studying instead Mitch’s surfing gear with interest.

“Hey,” Mitch said, dumping another helping onto a plate. “You need some more?”

Matt looked up, eager. “You bet,” he said, rushing to the table before reaching for the syrup and pouring a hearty helping over everything.

“Hey,” Mitch said, grabbing the bottle from him. “Save some for me.”

Matt was wide eyed for a moment, his expression poised between fear and defensiveness. It was evident that he didn’t realize that Mitch had been kidding. Adult Brody would have been able to figure that out, but Mitch forgot that he was naturally imposing and that Matt was tiny. The way he braced himself against Mitch’s voice made him think a few other things, but Mitch had enough to deal with right now.

Softer now, Mitch made a point to smile. “I just want a little,” he clarified lightly, adding a small amount to his own plate. He put the bottle back down, close to Matt again. He kept smiling. “Still plenty for both of us.”

Matt looked dubious, but he tentatively reached for the syrup, adding more to his plate, as if he wanted to be sure he actually could.

“Another round after this?” Mitch asked, making his way back to the stove.

“You can make more?” Matt asked, almost like he thought it might be a trick.

Mitch reached for the eggs. “Why not?” he returned, cracking one over the pan. All the shit that had happened this morning, that was the best answer there was. Age regression. Temporary foster home placements. Younger versions of asshole roommates. A dozen eggs and three dozen pancakes for breakfast.

Why the hell not?