?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (2/14)

December 26th, 2018 (01:58 pm)

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-

With the third helping of breakfast done, Mitch turned to serve the fresh food and was surprised to find Matt ready, waiting and distracting himself with Mitch’s phone. He hadn’t made it past the security lock, but he didn’t even try to disguise the fact that he was adamantly trying every six number combination he could think of.

Setting the food on the table, Mitch promptly took the phone away from Matt. The kid looked only vaguely disgruntled as he promptly turned his attention back to food. With a wary once-over, Mitch asked, “Are you sure you’re still hungry?”

Matt helped himself to several pancakes, and it was impossible to fathom how a kid that skinny could eat as much as this one had. Then again, skinny as he was, it was entirely possible that Matt didn’t see a large meal very often, which made an unlimited style breakfast a novelty that an eight year old wouldn’t be able to resist. “You make good pancakes,” the kid said by way of explanation, dousing his plate with far more syrup than necessary.

Rather than comment on the sugar count involved with such portions, Mitch stacked his own plate with food. For a few moments, they ate in silence. Rather, Mitch ate in silence. Matt, for his part, devoured his food with vigor, greedily drinking a large glass of orange juice that Mitch wordlessly provided for him. When Mitch refilled the glass, Matt took it without thanks, but before he drank, he gave Mitch a look of cursory interest. “So, what’s the plan for today?”

The question was casual enough, but when paired with the slight kid in front of him, it was a strange thing. Matt looked younger than eight by appearance alone, but his demeanor suggested that he was much older. The way he spoke, the way he looked at Mitch and carried himself -- it indicated that whatever had happened in Matt’s young life, it wasn’t what the normal, carefree eight year old would experience.

That alone made it hard to answer Matt. The fact that he had no idea what they were going to do today was another reason it gave him pause.

“Well,” Mitch said, rapidly cycling through the things he was supposed to do today and weighing whether or not they were possible with a much smaller version of Brody. “I am supposed to work today.”

Matt had downed half his orange juice, putting it on the table to pick up his fork again. “So, what, then,” he said. “Do you have a sitter in mind? Or do you have a wife or something that I haven’t met yet? It’s summer, so there’d be no school to put me in, even if you could sign me up that quickly.”

In a matter of seconds, Matt had contended with all the practicalities that Mitch had not been able to process yet. Brody was always a little dim-witted, but seeing him in smaller form suggested that he’d simply had a different sort of education than most of the other people in the world. Matt had learned to be an expert at people and practicalities, which meant he knew shit about history, math, science and literature. But he was still bright enough, and at this age, he probably hadn’t realized just how far behind he was compared to other kids his age.

Or, given the jaded set of his shoulders, maybe he had. But without his chiseled abs and roguish good looks, he probably hadn’t realized how easy it was to play the dumb pretty boy.

“Yeah, this was, um,” Mitch said, wondering what the right thing to say was. He shrugged. “Kind of sudden.”

Matt was wholly unimpressed by this answer. “They don’t like it when you leave us unattended,” he said plaintively. “But I won’t tell.”

This promise seemed legitimate if only because Matt had probably already thought of fifteen things he’d like to do that a rational adult would disallow. Hell, he could barely trust adult Brody on his own. But there wasn’t much to be done for that now.

And besides, what exactly was Mitch supposed to do with the kid? Especially when he wasn’t sure if this kid was even real or if he was somehow an actual de-aged version of his asshole roommate?

Shit, Mitch wasn’t even sure which scenario seemed more desirable to him, much less which one seemed more realistic.

“I’ll call in, take the day,” Mitch said.

Matt continued to eat, mostly unimpressed by anything Mitch said or did. “What do you do anyway?”

Mitch’s answer was so ingrained into him that he didn’t even think twice. “I’m a lifeguard.”

Matt’s surprised look reminded him that he probably should have thought twice. “Like at a pool?” he asked. He tilted his head, trying to make this bit of information parse. “That’s, like, what teenagers do in the summer. That’s not a job.”

“I don’t work at a pool,” Mitch said, unable to hide a tinge of exasperation. “The ocean is all-year round.”

Matt stopped mid-bite, staring at Mitch as if he’d misheard him. “The...what?”

The blank look on Matt’s face took Mitch a moment to register. Then, he realized his mistake.

Because the little boy in front of him hadn’t spent his life in Southern California. Brody had told him on day one that he was from Iowa. Mitch had made a thing about that, reminding him that Iowa didn’t have oceans. Just swimming pools and lakes. Lifeguards existed in Iowa, no doubt, but they weren’t full time professionals. They weren’t skilled elites.

Mitch had been grappling with how he’d ended up with an eight year old all morning.

Matt was now suddenly forced to grapple with the fact that his world, precarious as it already was, was about to get a whole lot more unstable.

Mitch drew a breath, striving to project a calm facade at the slow mounting panic on Matt’s face. “I can explain--”

But Matt was already shaking his head. “There aren’t oceans in Iowa,” he said, looking from Mitch around the room. He looked out the window, studying the view for the first time. For the first time in his life, Mitch regretted that he had oceanfront property. There was sand and waves right outside; it was a miracle that Matt hadn’t noticed them yet.

“I know,” Mitch said evenly. “And obviously, this isn’t Iowa.”

He had hoped honesty was the best policy, but Matt tensed up badly, dropping his fork back down to his plate. “Dude, how many drugs did they give me?” he asked, voice hushed and rushed suddenly. He swallowed convulsively. “Am I still on them? Is that what this is?”

The fact that a kid Matt’s age thought it plausible that he was tripping on medication was one thing, but strangely enough, it wasn’t the most pressing thing at the moment. “You’re fine,” Mitch said, putting his own fork down and extending his hands in placation. “If you let me explain--”

Matt jerked backward, shaking his head rapidly. “But there aren’t oceans in Iowa!” he said, voice rising this time, as if repeating this fact might make everything else make sense to him.

“I know,” Mitch continued, and he pushed his chair back, getting to his feet. He racked his brain, trying to think of a how and a why that might make sense to the kid. This was hard, considering there were no hows or whys that even made sense to him. “Just calm down.”

Matt got to his feet just as abruptly, almost tripping over the chair as he backed away from Mitch a few steps. “They don’t do out of state placements,” he said, babbling a little now as his little voice cracked. “Not for anything but family, and I don’t have any family that wants me.”

Cautiously, Mitch stepped around the table, approaching the kid as he might approach a scared or wounded animal. “Why don’t we just sit down--”

Matt took another step back, and his eyes were wide and alert, his breathing rapid as his cheeks flushed red. “Like, the ocean’s far away, though, right?” he asked, not really wanting an answer. “Like, you have to take a plane, right?” He shook his head, his expression turning even more stricken as he looked around for the exits. “I’ve never flown before. I don’t remember a plane.”

“That’s normally how it works,” Mitch said, pretending as if he’d known this all along. “But they made an exception in your case.”

This only seemed to worry Matt more. He took another step back, eyeing the hallway to the front door with calculated interest. “But I’d remember flying,” he reasoned, the thoughts shifting over his small features visibly. He shook his head, looking up at Mitch with something akin to fear. “I’d remember it.”

Mitch could still remember what Brody had told him that first day they met on the beach. Mitch was big; Brody was fast. This was true in the water, and looking at the boy in front of him, he had to wager it’d be true on land, too. In fact, given how quickly the kid had poised himself to fight or flight mode, it seemed likely that he’d bolted before when he thought it was necessary.

And with eleven placements in the last year? Mitch could speculate that it’d been likely.

Matt took another step, closer to the front entryway. He was regarding Mitch now, judging his size and his position, mentally assessing if he had the speed and size to slip past him and make a run for it. From the kid’s perspective, he could only imagine how it seemed to wake up in a strange home with a strange man, just to find you’ve been transported across the country with no memory of it at all. Couple those facts with the reality that Mitch hadn’t read the paperwork on Matt and that he had no obvious makings of an actual foster parent, and Matt’s conclusion that he was in danger seemed like the right one to make.

After all, who would possibly conclude that a magical de-aging process had occurred to get them here? Mitch wasn’t even sure he believed that.

That said, he understood Matt’s reaction, but he couldn’t exactly let eight year old Brody run out into the beach. Matt was too young, and he had nowhere to go. He’d get himself into trouble, one way or another, and if he did get picked up? If he got put in the system here?

Worse, if he identified Mitch as his kidnapper?

No, Mitch had to keep this under control. At least until he figured out what the hell was going on. “It was late,” he explained, careful not to take a step to intercept Matt for fear of making him run for real. “You were pretty tired when they brought you in.”

Matt’s breathing quickened again, and his countenance trembled. The smart-ass facade had dissipated. The confidence hold of his shoulders had given way. The kid before him looked like the child that he was. “But you’re a temp,” he said, licking his shaking lips. He sounded like he wanted to cry. “I haven’t got any money. Why would they ship me across the country?”

Mitch shrugged, hoping to appear easy. “Beats me, kid,” he said, shaking his head in commiseration. “The system is messed up. I can never make sense of anything they do.”

That was a line designed to get Matt to calm down, but Mitch had to admit that it was true. In the short time Mitch had known Matt, his insight into the system had not been positive. Eleven foster homes? Temporary placements that lasted a matter of weeks? Dosing a kid with ritalin to the point when he lost track of time?

How could anyone go through a system like that and not be screwed up in some way?

The conclusion that Mitch had come to in a matter of minutes was the one Matt had clearly come to years ago. He let out a breath, blinking a few times as his shoulders started to relax. “It is messed up,” he agreed. Notably, he kept his stance ready to move, but he made no further motions toward the doorway.

Mitch smiled, his brightest, most disarming smile. That smile worked on everyone.

Even eight year olds.

“With all that the system screws up, though, they’re bound to get it right sooner or later,” Mitch continued with an easy confidence he did not feel. “Maybe this will work out for both of us.”

Hesitantly, Matt smiled back.

“Besides,” Mitch said, making his way back to the table in a way that encouraged Matt to follow him. He sat down. “You’re going to love the beach.”

Matt took the cue, taking small steps back to the table, where he sat down gingerly across from Mitch again. “Yeah?”

“Sure,” Mitch said, trying to put the kid even more at ease. “I’ll show it to you later. Maybe let you swim a little.”

This piqued Matt’s interests even more. Despite his misgivings only a moment ago, he perked up considerably. “You will?”

“Of course,” Mitch said, making a point to eat the last bit of food on his plate. He nodded to Matt’s own plate, which was close to clean as well. “But first, finish your breakfast.”

The doubts had melted away now, and Matt picked up his fork, digging back into his breakfast with enthusiasm.

Mitch watched him, not sure what to make of it. Was it good that he’d talked the kid into staying? Should he be concerned that the kid thought for a moment he was a kidnapper -- or worse? Should he be concerned that all he’d had to do was promise to show the kid the ocean to get him to trust him again?

As with most things regarding Brody, there was never a simple right or wrong answer. There was just weird, complicated and hard.

And, Mitch had to hope while he watched Matt finish the last of his orange juice eagerly, he had to hope there was some good, too.

-o-

Breakfast had been the first step.

After breakfast, however, Mitch realized that he had no idea what that step was taking him toward. He had a job and a life, none of which was geared for a child. What the hell was he supposed to do with an eight year old all day?

From the way Matt watched him as Mitch cleaned up the breakfast dishes, Matt was clearly wondering the answer to that question, too.

When it became clear that finishing breakfast would not magically turn Matt back into an adult, Mitch faced the apparent reality with as much confidence as he could. Turning around, he found the kid poking in six digits codes into his phone again. Whatever he was going to do, he had to do it soon before Matt guessed right.

“Okay,” he said, taking the phone away from him without comment.

Matt gave him a belabored look.

“Why don’t you go get dressed,” Mitch suggested.

This seemed reasonable, as Mitch himself needed to get dressed.

Matt, however, didn’t respond to reason the way Mitch had expected. At least some things never changed. “Is that closet thingy my room?”

“What?”

“The place where I woke up,” Matt said. “It’s like a closet. Is that my room?”

“Um, yes,” Mitch said, wondering why the question seemed so reasonable. Brody had slept there for three months and the only thing he’d complained about was the CB radio. “Why?”

“Most people at least try to make me feel like they want a kid,” Matt observed, a little disdainfully. “Until they get to know me.”

“What do you mean?” Mitch asked.

“You have a cot in a closet,” Matt pointed out. “It’s not exactly made for kids. Or, like, people.”

Mitch frowned at this assessment, forcing himself not to point out the obvious fact that he had never intended it for long term guests. The fact that Brody had lived there for three months, notwithstanding. “We’ll look into it, okay?” Mitch said, trying to distract the kid. “But we need to get up and dressed.”

Matt sighed, sounding utterly bored by that request, but he trudged off to the room anyway, closing the door behind him. Mitch waited a second, pausing to take a breath and get his bearings. He was just contemplating how this had happened when the door to the spare room opened again.

“Where’s my bag?” the kid asked.

“Your bag?” Mitch replied, not sure what to say.

“Yeah, like, my stuff,” Matt said. “It’s not in there.”

Mitch crossed over, opening the door to look around the kid. He wasn’t sure what he’d hoped to find. As if somehow the age regression that had happened to Brody might have happened Brody’s bag as well. The bag, however, wasn’t even present. He remembered vaguely that he’d thrown it at adult Brody when he kicked him out the night before.

Not that it would have done any good. Adult Brody had about five shirts, and even if he was small, he wasn’t this small, and the last thing he needed was for Matt to find Brody’s ID and personal effects and start thinking something weird was going on again.

This ignored the fact that something super weird was going on, but Mitch needed to focus on his own freaking out. He couldn’t deal with the kid’s.

“Oh,” Mitch said, hoping to sound like this was a surprise to him. “Well, you know, it may have gotten lost in the airport.”

Matt’s eyes glinted with suspicion again. Mitch made a mental note: avoid talking about the plane ride that Matt couldn’t remember taking because he didn’t actually take one.

“No big deal,” he said, turning back to the kid with a smile. He looked the kid up and down, noting the holes in the kid’s jeans and the threadbare nature of his University of Iowa t-shirt. The shoes he was wearing had soles that were coming off. “We can go get some more.”

“I don’t have any money,” Matt told him abruptly.

“Of course you don’t,” Mitch said wryly. “You’re eight.”

“Temp placements don’t pay you very much,” Matt said, a little more pointedly this time. “You can’t spend that much without losing cash on this deal.”

Mitch tried not to show how disconcerting this conclusion was. The fact that there was a cost-benefit analysis to being a foster parent was weird. The fact that an eight year old was keenly aware of this was unsettling.

“You need the clothes, right?” Mitch asked, conveniently overlooking all the details Matt had presented him. “Unless you want to keep wearing that thing. Which, for the record, you definitely can’t swim in.”

Matt’s face brightened immediately. “We can get a swimsuit?”

“We’re on the beach,” Mitch pointed out to him. “Half my wardrobe is swimsuit.”

Matt started to smile, a small, uncertain half smile. “Okay, then.”

Mitch clapped his hands together. He hadn’t resolved any of the real issues he was facing this morning, but if he could resolve this one, then okay. He’d take any victory he could get this morning. “Okay, then,” he agreed. “Go to the bathroom, wash up. I’ll be out in five and we can go.”

-o-

Sending Matt to the bathroom, Mitch took a few moments to prepare himself for the day. He paused at his closet, foregoing his normal Baywatch uniform. There was no way he could work today. Matt was right; he couldn’t leave the kid alone. And he wasn’t sure he was ready to take Matt to a place where other people might recognize him as a younger version of Brody.

He contemplated this while he picked out a t-shirt and a pair of shorts from his closet. It might be nice to tell someone about this, if only to verify his own sanity. The others might be able to help him figure things out. They might have answers.

Because Mitch? Did not have any answers.

All he had was an eight year old who talked like he was 25.

Besides, he reasoned as he pulled on his clothes, if this really was Brody, then he couldn’t let it be common knowledge. This was complicated enough as it was, and if more people found out, there was no telling what might happen. Either Mitch would be arrested for kidnapping, or the Internet would catch wind of it and make a viral story out of how a de-aged Olympian was living in Southern California.

No, Mitch couldn’t deal with either outcome. Not yet. Not when this might still reverse itself. He could go to sleep tonight and wake up and find out that everything was back to normal.

Brody would be an adult, an asshole and a pain in the neck, but an adult.

Mitch sighed, reaching for his sandals. Normal was overrated anyway. He’d never aspired for normal. He couldn’t forget that three months ago he’d actually stabbed himself with an urchin while nursing a gunshot so he could blow up some crazy lady with fireworks. So Mitch didn’t do normal.

And Mitch didn’t back down from challenges.

He went to his bathroom, washing his face and brushing his teeth as he let these thoughts rally him. There was no challenged he’d ever backed down from. Not one.

That was all this was, he told himself, looking in the mirror with a nod to himself.

Eight year old Matt was a challenge.

He didn’t have an easy solution for the challenge right now, but that didn’t mean he had to be idle about it. There were plenty of ways to be proactive. He could make sure the kid was fed and clothed; he could keep him safe and secure. He might even be able to make the kid feel happy.

With this resolution, Mitch headed back out, ready to face his day, little Matt Brody included.

-o-

He found Matt poking at the fish tank again, making a face at Little Mitch. “Is that supposed to be you?” he asked, craning his neck to look up at Mitch.

Mitch grunted. “It’s just a decoration.”

The kid remained resolutely skeptical. “That’s weird shit, man.”

“Language,” Mitch reprimanded absently. He patted down his pockets, glancing over the counters. “Have you seen my--?

He stopped short when Matt produced the phone, not even looking a little chagrined. “What’s your birthday?” he asked, handing it over.

Mitch glared at him, taking the phone. “None of your business.”

“Do you have a wedding anniversary?” Matt probed.

Mindful of how closely Matt was watching him, Mitch pulled away, obscuring the screen as he tapped in his security code. “No,” he said.

Matt was undeterred, standing on his tiptoes in an attempt to see. “High school locker combination?”

Mitch lifted the phone to his ear, giving the kid a glare that usually curbed questions from beachgoers.

Matt didn’t get the hint. Or, at any rate, he refused to obey the hint. “Measurements of your favorite girl?”

Pulling up Stephanie’s number, Mitch’s expression turned quizzical. “What do you know about that?”

“Nothing,” he said with a casual shrug that suggested he knew everything. “Just curious.”

Mitch glowered at him, turning away as Stephanie picked up on the other end.

“Hey, Stephanie,” he said when she picked up. “I hate to do this to you last minute, but I don’t think I’m going to be in today.”

Stephanie sounded surprised on the other end of the line, and Mitch stepped farther away from Matt for some semblance of privacy.

“Yeah, I’m just not quite feeling well,” he said. He spared a glance back at Matt, dropping his voice so the kid couldn’t hear it. “Brody’s not really himself either.”

Mitch didn’t like lying, especially not to his coworkers and friends. Baywatch was like family to him, and he’d never had cause to mislead Stephanie before. But, with a small smile to Matt in the distance, he knew that this was for the best. Whatever the hell was going on, Mitch needed to figure it out before he got other people involved. He’d nearly gotten the whole team killed when he went over Leeds, and he wasn’t about to repeat that mistake.

Anyway, if he was crazy, he wasn’t ready to admit it just yet.

Even if he felt like it.

“Thanks, Steph,” he said, feeling genuinely relieved when she said they could cover for them. “You have no idea how much I need this day.”

With that, he hung up and crossed through the house, back to where Matt was watching him intently. “Was that your girlfriend?” he asked.

“Coworker,” Mitch said.

“She sounded pretty,” Matt said.

“That’s probably a little sexist,” Mitch said.

Matt blinked at him, nonplussed. “What’s her birthday?”

Mitch pocketed his phone next to his wallet and keys. “Shut up.”

He started toward the door, Matt bouncing behind him just a step. “Her measurements?”

Mitch took a breath and let it out, long and slow, hoping against hope that he made it through the day.

-o-

Focused on his mission, Mitch was already to the Jeep when he realized that he’d lost Matt somewhere between the front door and the car. Vexed, he backed himself up, reminding himself that the key to successful parenting was to not lose the kid.

Fortunately, Matt hadn’t gone far. He was merely at the end of the drive, staring around the back of the house where the ocean was stretched out behind them. He was standing, apparently awestruck by the sight, and Mitch had to smile as he came up alongside him.

“Sorry, I forgot,” he said, standing side by side with the kid. “You’ve never seen it before, right?”

“Like, in movies,” Matt said, and without the sarcastic note in his voice, he actually sounded like a legitimate eight year old. “But it’s huge.”

“I know,” Mitch said, following Matt’s gaze to appreciate the ocean himself. “I’ve seen it every day of my life, and it still impresses me.”

To that, Matt didn’t say anything. He didn’t have a comeback, and he clearly didn’t know how to put the sight into words. It was something that adult Brody had never let him see, the boyishness of wonder and awe. For all that Brody made fun of him for talking about the ocean all the time, it was plain to see in Matt that he felt the exact same way.

If Brody were an adult, it could have been an I-told-you-so moment.

As it was, standing side by side with Matt, it was humanizing. A point of connection Mitch had always known they had, even if Brody had been too messed up to admit it.

Grinning, he reached down to tousle Matt’s hair. “You’ve got good instincts, kid,” he said. “One look, and I know you’re hooked.”

Matt looked up at him, grinning hopefully. “You said we could swim,” he said eagerly. “Can we, please.”


“This afternoon, maybe,” Mitch said with a chuckle.

The smile faded, and Matt shook his head. “But it’s right there!” he said with a whine. “Can’t we go now?”

“It’s not that simple,” Mitch said. “This isn’t like a pool. You have to learn safety first.”

“You can teach me,” Matt pressed on eagerly. “Besides, I’m a super good swimmer. It’s, like, the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”

He’d seen Brody swim as an adult, both in the ocean and in the pool. He didn’t doubt that the kid had natural talent. All the same. “You don’t even have trunks.”

At this, Matt’s expression turned cross. “But I can do it,” he insisted petulantly.

“And you will,” Mitch agreed. “But not yet. Let’s go shopping, get you set up with some stuff--”

Scowling deeper now, Matt huffed. “Why don’t you have my stuff, anyway?” he muttered. “None of the other placements lost my shit.”

“Language,” Mitch said. “And I told you. It must have gotten mixed up at the airport.”

“So go get it!” Matt said. “I don’t want to go shopping.”

The good feeling from moments earlier had quickly evaporated in the face of Matt’s sullen turn. It was remarkable how the kid could like an adult and then a child in equal turns. And still manage to be an asshole the whole time “Look,” Mitch said. “The stuff in your bag, is it any nicer than the stuff you’ve got on now?”

That wasn’t the question Matt had been expecting. He made a face. “What?”

“I mean, your pants have huge holes in them, and that shirt won’t survive another washing,” Mitch pointed out. “Not to mention that kids your age don’t wear jeans and t-shirts like that in California.”

This wasn’t entirely true, but Matt didn’t know that. Given his look, he seemed to find it a credible threat.

“We go shopping, pick up a few necessities and get you real clothes, better clothes,” Mitch said, adding a note of optimism to his voice.

“But,” Matt said, a little slowly this time. “Everything I have is in the bag.”

Now it was Mitch’s turn to be caught off guard. This wasn’t about mangy t-shirts and holey jeans. It was about the fact that Matt’s entire existence could be packed into a backpack and carried around.

He sighed. “I’m sure it’ll show up soon,” he promised, knowing full well it was another lie. “In the meantime, let’s go get you some clothes and a pair of swim trunks so we can enjoy the beach this afternoon.”

Matt still seemed a little thrown off by the conversation, but he looked longingly at the ocean. It was the only leverage Mitch had really needed. “Okay,” he said, dutifully turning away from the ocean and allowing himself to be led to the Jeep.

Baby steps, Mitch told himself unironically as he watched Matt pile into the backseat of the Jeep. Baby steps.

-o-

At the beach, Mitch had been a little encouraged after sharing a nice moment with Matt.

At the store, Mitch realized that parenting Matt would be a lot more than a nice moment or two. In fact, he concluded as he tried to find clothes to fit a skinny eight year old, parenting Matt might actually be the hardest thing he’d ever done. No doubt, if having a de-aged Brody in his life wasn’t a sign that he was crazy, actually living with little Matt would make him crazy.

Either way, this did not bode well for Mitch.

Deep breaths, he instructed himself while flipping through a pile of stacked t-shirts. He was a world-class lifeguard. He’d saved people’s lives. Surely, by the grace of all that was good in the world, he could make it through a day without murdering one eight year old.

They had been at the store for approximately fifteen minutes. It had taken five minutes to find the boys’ section, and it had taken another five to figure out what the hell size to look for. Then he’d spent the last five minutes trying to find clothes that looked like a normal kid might actually like to wear while Matt did his best to disappear around every clothes rack in the store.

He was just about to search for him a third time, when the tawny head popped up again, seeming out of nowhere.

“Hey,” Matt said, acting like he hadn’t been playing a sadistic version of hide and seek. He magically produced a shirt in his hand. “What about this one?”

Mitch looked at it, and immediately realized that it was a shirt promoting a beer brand.

Matt grinned. “Or this one?” he asked, holding up another.

This one had a picture of a woman with unusually large breasts.

“No, of course not,” Mitch said, snatching the clothes from him. “These are entirely inappropriate. Where did you even find them?”

Matt pointed innocently across the store to an area Mitch couldn’t come close to identifying. “Over there,” he said, as if that explained everything.

They were clearly men’s shirt, but seeing as Mitch didn’t know where the men’s section was, he shoved the inappropriate t-shirts in the center a rack and hoped that another child wouldn’t find them by accident later. “They aren’t even your size,” he said sharply. His irritation was rising, and he was finding fewer reasons to keep it in check. “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re tiny.”

Matt handled the sleight to his height with easy. “But it’s cool,” he argued instead.

“No,” Mitch said, producing a shirt that looked like it’d actually fit Matt. “This is cool.”

Looking disappointed, Matt wrinkled is nose. “It’s got superheroes on it.”

“Sure,” Mitch said. “Batman. Superman. Cool stuff.”

Matt did not look convinced. “That’s for babies.”

“No, it’s not,” Mitch said. He gestured to the other shirts. “There’s a bunch more just like it, all in your size.”

“But it looks stupid,” Matt said, a little more contrarily now.

“You’re eight,” Mitch said. “Eight year olds like superheroes. Don’t they?”

The question had seemed obvious to Mitch, but Matt just shrugged like he genuinely had no idea. Mitch stared at him for an awkward moment, before realizing that Matt wasn’t being a shit head right now.

“Well, fine,” Mitch said, shoving the Batman shirt back on the shelf. “What do you like besides beer and boobs?”

This question caught Matt even more off guard than the first. “I...don’t know.”

Mitch reminded himself that he always had to act like the adult where Brody was concerned. At least, this time the asshole actually looked like a kid. “Look around here, then,” he said. “Pick a few things that don’t look stupid, and we’ll try them on.”

It was an honest offer, but Matt regarded him with more skepticism than before. “Anything I like?”

Mitch made a large, futile gesture. “Anything, kid,” he said. “Just so we can get this over with.”

-o-

With this new direction, Matt picked out several items of clothing very quickly. He veered toward plain shirts, solid colors and stripes, and he chose several versatile pairs of athletic shorts in addition to a pair of swim trunks with sharks on them. Feeling satisfied, Mitch marched them over to the dressing rooms, waiting outside for Matt to show them how well the items fit.

Matt was a reluctant model, and he clearly felt self conscious when he came out of the room for Mitch to see how things fit. The shorts were fine, and the t-shirts were a little baggy, but kids liked things like that. Besides, it would give Matt room to grow.

That was one of the stupidest thoughts he’d had all day, considering that he wanted Matt to grow back into an adult right now.

When Matt came out with a pair of jeans -- Matt’s insistence, not Mitch’s -- he took extra time to see how they fit around the waist. Without an elastic band, there was a good chance they’d fall right off, and Mitch needed to see if a belt would be necessary.

“Are they a little big?” Mitch asked, trying to see as Matt skillfully hid his waistline with an orange shirt with blue sleeves.

“They’re fine,” Matt said dismissively.

“No, they’re not,” Mitch said. “Come here, let me see.”

“No,” Matt said, pulling away as Mitch beckoned him. “We can look for a smaller size.”

“If we go smaller, they’ll be too short,” Mitch said. He reached over, pulling the kid by the arm until he was closer. Gently, he patted the kid around the side, trying to see where the pants fell.

“Hey,” Matt yelped, backing away quickly.

Too quickly. His hand slipped, and the pants fell down a little. Not a lot, but enough for Mitch to realize that there was something amiss.

“Matt,” he said, keeping his tone even. “What are you trying to hide?”

At first, he worried that the kid was hiding horrible scars or signs of abuse.

When he patted the kid down again, he was relieved to find that there was a soft lump protruding from the back of the pants.

That relief was short lived. Lifting the back of the shirt, he saw another shirt folded into the elastic of Matt’s underwear. Pulling it out, Mitch let it unfurl. It was a brand new Nike shirt, tags still on.

In front of him, Matt hastily grabbed the waist of his pants again, jaw locked as he stubbornly looked at his feet.

Looking from the shirt to Matt, Mitch remembered to keep his cool. “Did you forget how to put on a shirt?” he asked. “I know we’ve been trying a lot on so it’s hard to keep up, but really…”

Matt’s face flushed red. “I don’t know how that got there.”

It was a bad lie, not just because it was so stupid that no one would believe it. But Matt was just a bad liar when confronted. He clearly did not always respond well to direct confrontation. “Anything else I should know about?”

Matt’s jaw tightened further, indicating a sure sign of guilt.

Sighing, Mitch took Matt by the arm, leading him back to the dressing room. Opening the door, he led the kid inside, forcing him to stand and watch while Mitch went through the rest of the items. In the jeans he’d worn in, Mitch found a pair of new sunglasses and an unopened candy bar. There was an empty package of gummy bears in there, too, still smelling fresh.

On the beach, Mitch dealt with all kinds of criminal behavior. He dealt with minor thieves to criminal masterminds. This sort of shit, it happened all the time, and he dealt with it accordingly and easily when he was the lifeguard.

When he was the person in charge? When it was a kid in his care doing it?

Damn it if Mitch wasn’t in deep waters now.

Rallying his patience, Mitch turned back to the kid. Matt seemed to have shrunk into himself again, but this time Mitch didn’t feel any swell of sympathy. Instead, he looked at the kid hard and unrelentingly. “You want to tell me why you’re trying to steal stuff when I promised to buy you things?”

Cowed though he was, Matt’s spirit hadn’t broken. With a flash of defiance, he met Mitch’s gaze. This time, he didn’t try to deny it. “I can read the prices,” he said. He nodded to the Nike shirt in Mitch’s hand. “I know that one’s, like, way more expensive.”

“But I told you to pick the ones you liked,” Mitch reminded him.

“That’s not what people mean,” Matt said, giving a small, incredulous shrug. “I’m a temp placement. You don’t spend a lot of money on a kid you don’t even want to keep.”

Damn it. There the kid went, making Mitch feel like shit when he hadn’t done anything wrong. When Matt was the one pissing everything up. “I say what I mean,” Mitch said. “Always.”

Matt looked like that made absolutely no sense to him.

“When I said to pick out what you like, I meant it,” he said. “There weren’t any exceptions. If you were worried, you should have just asked.”

“But you would have said no,” Matt argued. “Whatever. I don’t really need new clothes. Let’s just go.”

Now Matt was deflecting, and Mitch felt even worse. How many insecurities could one child actually have? “Listen,” he said, holding up the Nike shirt. “You like this one, right?”

Matt gave a slow, reluctant nod.

“Then let’s get this one,” he said. “Then let’s go back there and pick out six other shirts you like and six other shorts you like. Swim trunks, underwear, shoes. I’ll even throw in the sunglasses and the candy bar.”

Matt had stiffened considerably, even more on edge than before. “What’s the catch?”

“No stealing,” Mitch said, pointing his finger at Matt. “If we’re going to hang out together, we’re going to do things the right way, no exceptions. You do things right, and I’ll do things right by you. Deal?”

He turned his pointing finger into an extended hand. Matt stared at him for a moment, not sure what to make of the offer.

Finally, slowly, he reached out, meekly offering his hand. Mitch took it up in his own, feeling the small fingers curl up reflexively. “Fine,” Matt muttered, looking away again. “Deal.”

-o-

Mitch let Matt change back into his normal clothes, and he made a point to collect every item from the dressing room himself. He returned the cheap, plain clothes to the racks, keeping hold of the Nike shirt, sunglasses and candy bar before gesturing to Matt that he should continue shopping.

Matt hesitated, but when he seemed confident that Mitch wasn’t going to put his preferred items back when he wasn’t looking, he started back through the racks, this time with more purpose. Within another five minutes, the kid had produced a much more definitive wardrobe. It was filled with name brands, and when Mitch let him pick up designer socks and briefs, Matt looked over the moon.

“First time buying name brands?” Mitch asked at the checkout line.

“First time buying anything new,” Matt told him with a stupid grin on his face. He was studiously watching the cashier as she scanned and bagged every item.

“First time ever?” Mitch asked.

“First time that I remember,” Matt clarified for him, looking awestruck when a new pair of sneakers was bagged up alongside his brand new sandals.

Mitch tried to force a smile, glad that the kid was too transfixed with their purchases to notice how badly he failed.

“Come on,” Mitch said, letting Matt grab up the bags himself. “Let’s get some lunch.”

Matt followed him, nipping his heels like an anxious puppy. “Lunch?”

“Sure,” Mitch said. “You like McDonalds, right?”

“Can I get a Happy Meal?” Matt blurted instantly.

Mitch gave him a curious look. For a kid concerned with looking cool, a Happy Meal seemed like an odd choice. “Really?”

“Uh, yeah,” Matt said. He looked up, eager and expectant. “Can I?”

Mitch gathered himself up. This far in, what was he going to say? “All right,” he said. “One Happy Meal, coming right up.”

-o-

The truth was, Mitch didn’t like McDonalds. He just couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to take a child. Matt may have thought superheroes were for babies, but he seemed positively giddy to get a Happy Meal. The portions were too small for him -- he finished the fries in three bites -- but he played with the cheap plastic toy for the rest of the time while Mitch finished his lunch.

Giddily, Matt also filled up his fountain drink three times, making a point to mix every possible flavor together until the drink looked disgusting. When all of that became boring, he took to eating ketchup directly from the packets.

It was gross and entirely ridiculous, but it was also the happiest Mitch had seen Matt all day long.

“You need some ice cream?” Mitch asked, finding that he wasn’t ready to go home yet.

Matt’s expression of glee was the only answer he needed.

-o-

Matt’s good mood lasted the whole way home, and when Mitch unloaded the bags into Matt’s room, the kid was already tearing through them, yanking out his swim trunks and ripping off the tag. “Can we go swimming now?” he asked, practically bouncing on his feet. “Can we?”

“Maybe we should unpack first,” Mitch suggested, keeping the bag of toiletries to put in the bathroom as he laid the rest of the bags on the floor by the cot.

Matt barely noticed. “You promised!” he pleaded. “Please?”

“Um, well,” Mitch started, trying to think of a reason to say no. This was hard when Matt was plying him with blue eyes that were too big and bright for his own good. “I guess.”

Matt cheered, jumping up and down.

Mitch had been a parental figure for less than a day, and already he was starting to figure this shit out.

-o-

Overconfidence was a bitch.

That was the lesson he’d taught Brody his first day at Baywatch.

It was a lesson that eight year old Matt was teaching him their first day together.

For a little while, things went fine. Matt allowed himself to be slathered with sunscreen, and he waited for Mitch to lock up the house before he ran out to the beach. But the instant they got to the water, Mitch started talking about rules.

Matt liked swimming, and he like Happy Meals, and he even liked new clothes, but Matt did not like rules. He questioned every boundary Mitch gave, and he whined incessantly about the things he wasn’t allowed to do. The positive energy from earlier seemed to have been entirely misdirected, and Matt saw every rules as a fight worth having.

“I just want to swim out a little bit,” Matt said. “You haven’t even let me get off the sand yet.”

“Because the ocean is dangerous, I’ve told you,” Mitch said.

Matt pointed out at the other people in the water. “Other people are doing it,” he said. “There’s a kid over there, he looks younger than me.”

Mitch knew that kid; a kid who had been born and raised on the water. Not some transplant from Iowa. “We just have to get there slowly.”

“But I don’t like being slow,” Matt whined. “You said we’d swim.”

“And we will, but you have to let me teach you,” Mitch said. “Remember that part?”

Matt pouted, and it wasn’t clear that he remembered or not.

Mitch remembered, though. He remembered standing on the beach, giving adult Brody the same safety lecture and having him ignore it. He’d had to learn the hard way. For an adult, Mitch might let that slide. For a punk ass eight year old? Mitch didn’t have that luxury.

Besides, he’d spent the whole day with Matt. He knew the kid had rough edges, but he was teachable. He could listen. He could even learn.

Mitch just had to figure out the right way to do it. “Come on,” he said, holding out his hand.

Matt looked slightly horrified.

Mitch kept the hand out. “Come on,” he said again, more insistently this time.

Slowly, Matt took his hand. He followed as Mitch took several steps out into the surf. A wave came in, cresting above Mitch’s ankles. It nearly hit Matt in the waist. Mitch led Matt another few steps, until the waves were to Matt’s stomach. Then, he waited, watching as a large wave came in.

Brace and ready as he was, Mitch kept his feet easily.

Small and unprepared, Matt’s feet were swept out from under him. Mitch saw terror flash across his face as the force of the undertow dragged him toward the open water. Mitch felt him pull away, but tightened his grip, holding fast to the boy’s arm while he fumbled to get his feet beneath him again.

“See?” Mitch said, looking down at Matt. “You can’t fight the ocean. At least, you can’t fight the ocean and win.”

It was a point well made, and Matt nodded. Another wave was coming, and Mitch was prepared to brace Matt again. To his surprise, Matt squared his shoulders, readying himself for the onslaught. The force was still too much for Matt, but he recovered faster this time, and there was no terror in his face as he felt the current, riding it until Mitch gently tugged him back and held him steady to the shore.

“Do you understand me now?” Mitch asked.

Surprisingly, Matt grinned. “I do.”

“Good,” he said, leading them back out of the surf. “Then that’s enough for one day.”

Immediately, despite the good rapport they’d just shared, Matt dug in his feet. “But I don’t want to go yet.”

“We’ve been here long enough,” Mitch said. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Matt’s shoulders slumped.

Mitch nudged him on the arm, letting go of his hand when they were clear of the surf. “We will come back,” he said. “I promise.”

Matt looked up at him. There was doubt on his face, but Mitch’s word had proven solid so far. The kid gave a small nod and followed Mitch back to the house with a wishful glance behind him.

-o-

Normally, Mitch could spend all day out on the beach, enjoying the sun, taking to the water. He liked to swim. He jet skied. He surfed. Most of his recreational pastimes were right there in his own backyard.

Sharing that with Matt had been something special.

It had also been exhausting.

He’d never considered how many things could go wrong. Sure, he’d rescued people from varying degrees of danger but he hadn’t really thought about all the shit parents had to do to make sure their little people stayed alive when on the beach. It had started with sunscreen, but Mitch had been keenly aware of sharp shells, drunk beachgoers, jellyfish in the surf, surfers not paying attention, drifters who might want to sell drugs to children.

These things happened. And Mitch could take care of himself just fine, but Matt had absolutely not sense of self preservation on the beach. For all that the kid had learned to fend for himself in the foster system, he was oblivious to the things that could and would harm him in the great outdoors.

In short, after an hour on the beach, Mitch had been exhausted and more than ready to call it a day. Convincing Matt to come inside had solidified this decision as the right one, but the instant he got inside, he realized his mistake.

Matt flopped down, still damp and covered with sand, onto a kitchen chair. He slumped, resting his chin his hands, which were held up by elbows propped up on the kitchen table. The had been inside all of two seconds when Matt announced, “I’m bored.”

On the job, he would redirect bored children to play in the sand, pick up a ball, find a kite or look for dolphins in the distance. If all else failed, he’d take the kid back to their parents and abdicate all responsibility.

None of that was going to fly now. Because he was the parent figure, and he didn’t want Matt in the sand, throwing balls or looking for dolphins. Mitch didn’t even have a kite. He just wanted the kid to sit still and do nothing while Mitch took a moment to collect his thoughts and process the sheer amount of insanity he had endured today.

Matt gave him a look of dismal desperation. “Do you have anything to do?”

On the one hand, this wasn’t an outlandish question. Matt had woken up in Mitch’s storage room and the only things he’d found to play with were Mitch’s phone and a tank of mostly dead fish. Considering this was day one for Matt, it was natural that he would be curious about other recreational options.

On the other hand, it had literally been two minutes. Matt had only been without entertainment for two minutes. Surely children had to be able to self regulate a little.

Matt picked up Mitch’s keys from off the table and began looking at each one in great detail. When he got to the Jeep, he pressed the emergency button and seemed utterly pleased with himself with the alarm went off through the walls.

Reaching over, Mitch plucked the kids from the kid, who immediately looked like Mitch had just taken away his favorite toy ever. “Man,” Matt whined. “This is so freakin’ boring.”

Annoyed as Mitch was, he became aware quite quickly that he didn’t have anything meaningful to divert the conclusion with. Mitch had plenty for himself to do, but he didn’t have anything that was appropriate for children. None of his books would interest an eight year old, and he somehow doubted that if adult Brody struggled with words that little Matt would fare better. His movies weren’t family friendly, and though he owned two board games, the thought of playing Yahtzee with Matt one-on-one made him sort of want to scream.

He didn’t have crayons, though Matt was probably a little beyond coloring. He didn’t have toys, but if the kid didn’t like superheroes on his shirt, then he probably didn’t do much creative play.

Shit, what did Matt do?

He tried to think of what Brody did as an adult, but working out, drinking beer and going out with Summer hardly seemed applicable to a kid.

“Well,” he said, still drawing blanks. “What do you want to do?”

“Go to the beach,” Matt said quickly.

“We’re done on the beach,” Mitch responded just as quickly.

“Can I play with your fish?” Matt asked.

“You can watch the fish,” Mitch countered.

Matt shook his head, clearly uninterested. “Can I play with the little weird dude inside your fish tank?”

“It’s not a toy,” Mitch told him.

Matt gave a shrug. “It looks like a toy.”

“For fish,” Mitch corrected.

Matt wrinkled his nose. “So you have toys for fish but nothing for kids?” he asked. “What the hell kind of placement is this anyway?”

Mitch sighed. “Language.”

“Can I play with your phone?” Matt prodded next.

“No.”

“Do you have any video games?” Matt asked.

Mitch considered his copies of Dragon Age, Final Fantasy and War Craft. “Nothing for you.”

Matt perked up at that. “So you do have video games?”

Mitch immediately thought of the best way to hide his PlayStation before Matt figured out where it was. “You’re not playing video games.”

With a groan, Matt seemed to dissolve into misery. “Then what are you going to have me do? Don’t tell me you have chores?”

“Do you usually have chores?” Mitch asked.

“They build character,” Matt told him with a frown. “People think I need character. I don’t even know what character is.”

There were many things wrong with that statement.

But there were many things wrong with Mitch’s life right now.

All he wanted was a minute of peace and quiet, and without anything for Matt to do, he was never going to have that peace and quiet.

Which meant Mitch finally understood why tired parents gave kids an iPad under the beach umbrella. Because when you ran out of energy, a digital babysitter was better than nothing.

“Fine,” Mitch said, clomping toward the living room. “You can see what’s on the TV.”

Matt got to his feet, looking somewhat interested. “Do you have cable?”

Mitch picked up the remote, tossing it to Matt. “No, but the signal’s not bad around here. You should be able to pick up ABC, CBS and NBC. Fox if you’re lucky.”

Catching the remote, Matt looked instantly displeased again. “But those are boring channels!”

Mitch shrugged. “If you’d like me to come up with some chores…”

Matt sighed, far more dramatically than necessary as he collapsed into the coach. “Fine.”

Fine was a word Matt seemed to use a lot.

Mitch used to know what it meant, before today.

After today?

Mitch was pretty sure the word had lost all meaning.