?

Log in

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

Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (4/14)

December 26th, 2018 (02:02 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 Matt occupied, Mitch gratefully took a few minutes for himself.

He could use a reprieve, to take a shower, to get dressed, to brush his teeth. To think, orient himself, be a human being.

He’d just taken off his shirt when Matt knocked at the door.

“You’re supposed to be getting ready!” Mitch called through the door, perturbed.

“I’m done!” Matt called back.

Mitch stopped, turning toward the door in surprise. “You’re done?”

“Yep.”

“You put away your laundry?” Mitch asked, stepping closer to the door.

“Uh huh.”

“And you got dressed?”

“Yeah,” Matt said.

“And you brushed your teeth?” Mitch asked, disbelievingly now.

“Yeah.”

Frustrated, Mitch opened the door. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t expected Matt to be standing right behind the door, dressed, clean and generally ready to go.

“Hey, I found a fishing pole in your spare room,” Matt said. “Can we go fishing?”

Mitch took a breath.

He let it out.

He took another breath.

“I’ve never been fishing, either,” Matt said. “Are dead fish gross? You have two dead ones in your fish tank.”

Mitch let out the breath. “Why don’t you go watch some TV for a while,” he suggested.

“I guess,” Matt said, as he disappeared down the hall.

Closing the door, Mitch closed his eyes two, resting his head against the wood frame.

Shit, he thought to himself while he heard the TV flip on. Shit, shit, shit.

This day was going to be even longer than the last.

-o-

Mitch had never been so glad to be in the shower in his entire life. The water was warm and refreshing, and it felt like heaven to wash away the stress of the last day. The sound of the water was encompassing, pulling him in and taking him away from the realities that faced him just outside the door.

It was his first time to think, to really, really think, in what felt like years. Had it really been just over a day? He could still remember the look on Brody’s face when he’d called his bluff. He could remember the way his eyes flashed when he threw the bag at him.

All he’d wanted was a chance to make that right. A chance to talk it through.

He and Brody, they could make a good team, but Brody was a work in progress. Mitch knew this, and he was patient with it for the most part. But that didn’t mean that it was always easy. He was allowed to get pissed, and Brody knew that.

Didn’t he?

Mitch had been so sure that Brody would show up yesterday morning, hang dog and apologetic. And he’d been sure last night, after all the crazy shit that had happened, that Brody would be back this morning, ready to make nice.

He hadn’t realized just how much he’d been counting on it.

How much he wanted it.

Damn it, he missed Brody.
That wasn’t something he’d admit, not outside the refuge of the shower. And even then, he’d probably never have forced himself to admit it at all if his Brody were the one shacked up on the couch.

He washed, letting the flow wash over him even more.

He needed this.

Calm.

It gave him perspective.

Time to be one with his own thoughts; to remember who he was and what mattered to him.

Quiet.

Mitch stopped washing, and listened. Over the sound of the shower, it was very quiet.

Too quiet.

Was Matt still watching TV?

Would Mitch hear him if he opened the door?

Just that fast, Mitch’s refuge turned into a cocoon of potential disaster. Worried about what he might find when he got out, Mitch hurried through the rest of the shower, barely toweling himself dry and throwing on a pair of underwear and some shorts before opening his bedroom door to peek out.

He was more relieved than he expected to see the kid still sprawled on the couch, tossing a throw pillow in the air and catching it while the Price is Right played on the TV.

He was safe, at least.

Mitch closed the door, hurriedly finishing his morning routine.

After losing one Brody already, Mitch would have to settle for what he could get

-o-

When he was done in the bedroom, somehow converting his 30 minute routine into a ten minute rush, Mitch found himself out in the living room. He’d been so set on getting ready, that it didn’t occur to him until he was standing there, watching Matt watch TV, that he had no idea what he was ready for.

It was inconceivable that he could be truly ready, at this point. The whole age regression thing had made the idea of preparedness almost funny to Mitch. Still, he was naturally inclined to try, but that inclination only left him floundering.

Matt had become completely divested of all signs of intelligence. This could be argued to be a natural state for Brody, but Matt had showed signs of inquisitiveness and interest -- and, to be fair, so did Brody under the right conditions. If Brody could win two gold medals at the Olympics, then he wasn’t slothful. It had been apparent to Mitch early on that Brody just needed good outlets to channel his energy.

That was a trait he’d apparently picked up young.

For as much interest as Matt had shown in the beach and Mitch’s shit, the kid was completely zoned out on the television. Mitch sat there with him, watching while some idiot lost his chance at a motorcycle, for about five minutes before he realized that the television had well and truly turned the kid into a zombie.

In short, if Mitch didn’t do something, Matt would sit here all day, staring at this television screen.

He had an awful suspicion that this had happened more often than not to Matt.

That would definitely be the easy way out, and Mitch could reason that Matt wasn’t even supposed to be here. If all he wanted to do was keep Matt preoccupied until they got Brody back, then maybe this was the way to go.

Mitch sat, watching through another commercial break, watching as a woman way overbid on a chaise lounge before the person who bid a dollar got to play.

Easier wasn’t always better.

If he’d only learned that lesson two nights ago, maybe they wouldn’t be here. Mitch couldn’t very well take that back now, but he couldn’t pretend that this was okay for Matt. He had failed to keep Brody from his mistakes. He had the chance with Matt, right here, right now.

Besides, he’d promised Summer he’d look after the kid. No doubt, if Mitch let him sit on his ass all day, Matt would rat him out, accidentally or on purpose, to Summer.

Thus convinced, Mitch grabbed the remote, turning the television off while Matt squawked in protest.

“Enough TV for one day,” Mitch said.

Matt groaned, rolling onto his back. “But you have nothing else to do now that you took away your phone.”

Mitch grabbed the pillow, putting it neatly back into place. “That’s why we need to find something else you want to do.”

“The beach?” Matt asked hopefully, somehow finding another throw pillow to balance on his chest.

“If you’re good and listen to me while we’re out, maybe,” Mitch conceded.

Matt eyed him, dubious. “Are we going to go to your work?” he asked. “Do the girls wear swimsuits there? They have to, right? Does Summer wear one?”

Mitch ignored this. “We’re going to the store,” he said. “Find you some books or something. Activities.”

This did not appeal to Matt as much as Mitch had thought it would. “Are you going to buy me superhero action figure?”

“Probably not,” Mitch said.

“So, like, just books, then?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll talk about it,” Mitch said. “Work with me here and we’ll find something you like that won’t rot your brain from the inside out.”

“You could take me camping,” Matt offered. “On the beach.”

Mitch grabbed the throw pillow, which was now being tossed in the air. “Get up,” he ordered curtly. “Or we’ll try something that involves character building.”

Matt huffed, but sat up. “You’d never make it work.”

“Oh, I have plenty of chores,” Mitch threatened.

Laboriously, Matt got to his feet. “No, I mean, it wouldn’t give me character or whatever,” he said. “People have tried. It doesn’t work on me.”

Mitch frowned at him, wondering if someone had told him that or if he’d come to that conclusion on his own. Honestly, Mitch wasn’t sure which answer he liked better. “Sometimes character is something you can’t see in yourself,” he said. “Sometimes other people see it first.”

He wondered absently if Brody needed to hear that, too.

“You’re kind of full of shit,” Matt told him.

Mitch growled, turning toward. “Get in the car, kid,” he said, trusting Matt to be smart enough to follow. “Or I’ll carry you myself.”

-o-

Matt followed him, a step behind. Clearly, he didn’t necessarily agree with Mitch’s take on things, but he knew enough not to argue.

It was weird to Mitch, adjusting his mirror to watch as the kid buckled himself into the backseat. With Matt, some things seemed totally different.

Matt scowled at him, still mad about having to give up his TV show. He flashed Mitch the finger.

Mitch rolled his eyes.

And some things were totally the same.

-o-

In truth, Mitch expected Matt to enjoy the process of buying new things. However, at the store, Matt hardly seemed to know what he was doing. He refused to take the lead, instead slinking after Mitch with general indifference. Mitch took to picking up items to show to the kid, putting items in the basket that elicited a shrug and reshelving the ones that didn’t even warrant a comment.

And that was in the toy section.

Mitch skipped the video game section, opting instead for books and games, which was even more of a struggle. After an hour, Mitch had found three books and a book of mazes for Matt, which joined the box of Lego bricks and a handful of Pokemon card packs.

He got a bit more interested when they went to look at board games, and the display of mild enthusiasm encouraged Mitch to buy two more games. He needed something to kid the kid engaged -- anything.

As they checked out, Matt watched impassively, hands in his pockets. It was a far cry from the displayed he’d showed yesterday when picking out clothing. What sort of kid got more excited about clothing than toys?

Grabbing the boys, he herded Matt out the door while he shuffled his feet. “Will you take me to the beach now?” he asked.

Mitch looked at him, and he suddenly understood. Matt had spent most of his life playing by himself, probably have people invest minimal time and effort into him. Eleven foster homes in a year, after all. Matt didn’t want toys.

He wanted attention.

The problem was, he wanted more than Mitch felt he probably had to give. He was just one guy, one guy who’d never intended to be a parent at all. And Matt? Had eight years of messed up living. Mitch couldn’t compensate for that.

He wondered, though, if he had the obligation to try.

“Please?” Matt asked.

More than an obligation, if he wanted to try.

What he really wanted was Brody back.

He tried not to think about how the needs of adult Brody might not be that different than Matt’s.

“We’ll see,” Mitch said, opening the car door and letting Matt inside. “I do have things to do today.”

Matt sighed, as if he’d expected this.

“Here,” Mitch said, handing Matt the bags. “You get to keep these.”

Matt took the bag, depositing it on the seat next to him. Mitch watched him the whole drive home, the bag by his side, untouched, while he looked out the window. The whole morning, Mitch had craved this kind of silence.

Now that he had it, it had never felt so wrong.

-o-

At home, Matt piled out of the car behind him, and he dumped the bags on the table before slinking off to his room without being asked. Mitch felt inexplicably guilty. None of this was his fault; he’d literally just bought the kid new toys. No reasonable person could be expected to personally entertain another human being all the time. Mitch had done more than his due diligence by the kid.

Yet, he hated seeing that look on his face. It had to be a hell of a thing for a kid to think no one wanted him.

Mitch remembered the look on Brody’s face again, right before he stormed out the door.

It was hard at any age.

Unable to control the guilt, Mitch resolved to spend a little time with the kid. Summer would be over in the afternoon to give him a reprieve; Mitch could spare a few hours at the beach.

He knocked once on Matt’s door, opening it. “Hey, kid--”

Matt startled on the bed, moving fast.

At first, Mitch worried the kid had been jacking off. But he realized quickly that despite Matt’s like of girls in bikinis, he was still only eight. Besides his pants were still completely on, and his hands were tucked behind him.

And his face wasn’t flushed.

It was pale.

It took Mitch a long moment to put the clues together, longer than it probably should have. If he’d been on duty, he would have known in an instant what was up. But, here, at home, with a kid he’d been going out of his way to treat well -- he’d let himself believe that things were okay.

To make matters worse, Matt smiled. A charming, fake smile.

Damn it.

“Dude,” Mitch said, mentally cataloging the possible things that could be behind Matt’s back.. “Are you hiding something?”

Matt blinked rapidly, shaking his head. “No.”

The lie wasn’t convincing on any level, the least of which involved the fact that Matt’s hands were still clutched behind him, making him lie on the bed in the most awkward fashion.

Mitch took a step inside and drew a weary breath. At least he knew his phone was in his pocket, and he didn’t keep his other valuable just lying around. Given how much the kid ate at meals, maybe he had decided that granola bars were too scanty for breakfast and sneaked out some food from the kitchen. “Show me your hands.”

Matt visibly maneuvered, taking too long to position himself before he produced his hands again.

MItch pursed his lips, resisting the urge to manhandle the child off the bed so he could see for himself without pretenses. “Get up.”

Matt froze at that, clearly not sure what to do next. Needless to say, his plan was clearly a little lacking.

“I said, get up,” Mitch said, a little louder this time. This tone usually worked with most people, at least those with half a brain. As this was Matt, that was probably a stretch.

Matt swallowed, his mind racing to come up with an answer that clearly did not exist.

It was just about more than Mitch could take.

After all, Mitch had had a long few days. Like, really long. And really surreal. Brody had been hard enough, and now he was grappling with the aftermath of some freak-ass age regression that made absolutely no sense. For the record, he had no obligations here, not really, but he’d taken it upon himself to make sure that Matt was taken care of. He’d committed himself to it, in fact. Wholeheartedly.

He’d let the kid eat all his shit. He’d spent hundreds of dollars and clothes and supplies. He’d been nice, and he’d been patient, but Mitch had his limits.

Brody had probably hit that limit two days ago, which wasn’t maybe fair to Matt, but none of this was fair to Mitch. Whatever the hell Matt was trying to hide, he had no desire to beat around the bush.

That wasn’t his style anyway. He didn’t say shit he didn’t mean, and he didn’t avoid issues or problems.

Even when other people want to.

Instead, he stepped forward. Matt flinched as Mitch reached down, bodily hauling him off the bed. Matt squawked, but he had no means to fight as Mitch deposited him safely on his feet next to the cot, leaving the items he was hiding exposed on the rumpled sheets.

It took Mitch a minute to process what he was seeing.

They looked innocuous enough. A miniature Lego set; a pack of Twizzlers; a keychain flashlight.

If they were truly innocuous, however, Matt wouldn’t have hidden them.

That led Mitch to three rapid conclusions.

First, he realized that these were not items that they had just purchased.

Second, he concluded that they were not items Matt had had with him.

Third, he knew they were things he himself owned.

Which meant.

“You stole these?” he asked, the question laced with more disappointment than anger.

Matt shrank into himself, keeping his gaze downcast. With them both standing like this, Matt was barely half Mitch’s height, and his slight frame made him look like a twig. Mitch wasn’t trying to be imposing, but his mind was reeling too much to actively address the disparity.

With a small shudder, Matt shrugged. “I guess.”

The disappointment abated, just as fast as it had come. This time, anger was rising to take its place, pounding in Mitch’s chest, churning in his gut. Maybe a lie would have been better, better than a half-hearted admission with noncommittal passion. “You guess?”

“I don’t know,” Matt said. He chewed his lip, somehow ducking alittle lower as he shrugged again. “Yeah.”

A lie definitely would have been better, Mitch decided. At least then he could have known that the kid was just an asshole and be done with it. But standing there, looking like a puppy caught with a chewed up shoe in its mouth, Matt didn’t look like an asshole. He looked like a stupid kid, a kid who almost didn’t even know what was right and what was wrong.

Which was stupid.

It was so stupid.

Mitch had been at the store specifically for Matt. He’d spent the whole trip buying shit for the kid, begging him to like something.

What made it worse -- and Mitch wasn’t sure why it was possible to feel worse about this situation -- but they’d just been through this.

Yesterday.

Like, literally.

He’d caught the kid shoplifting and been super cool about it. They’d talked about it reasonably, and Matt had responded well.


So why the hell would the kid feel like he needed to do it again?

“You want to tell me why?” Mitch asked, his rage barely contained.

Matt looked studiously at this feet. “I don’t know.”

The way he said it, it sounded like he could have meant it. Maybe Matt didn’t know. Maybe Matt would never know. Maybe that was why Brody did the same dumb ass shit every time and never learned. “I was begging you to ask for stuff,” Mitch said, trying to make sense of it. “Remember? And you showed no interest, and yet you cared enough to dump crap in your pocket and lie to me.”

At that, Matt looked up. It was surprising to Mitch, why this bothered Matt when none of the rest seemed to make an impression. “I didn’t lie.”

“Really?” Mitch snapped back. “So the part where we talked about this yesterday…”

Matt shook his head, a hint of vehemence. “That’s not lying. I didn’t lie.”

“No? I guess it’s just you being a total jerk.”

Matt winced, dropping his gaze again.

But Mitch was too pissed off to stop now. In fact, his anger was mounting with each and every word Matt spoke. Most people, when they explained themselves, made sense to Mitch. They used reasons that Mitch didn’t always agree with but could at least relate to. Brody, though -- he’d always reasoned like he had his head stuck in a paper bag.

With Matt, Mitch wasn’t even sure the reasoning was that sound.

“Honestly,” he said. “How do you expect people to do nice things for you when you turn around and do stuff like this?”

“I don’t know,” Matt mumbled, even meeker than before. “I guess I don’t expect them to do nice stuff at all.”

“But I was,” Mitch said, voice starting to pitch. He made a wide gesture with his hands, causing Matt to draw back another step. Because he’d been trying so damn hard. He was always trying where Brody was concerned, and Brody just seemed to keep screwing it up. “I was trying to do something nice for you.”

Matt glanced at him, only momentarily, clearly weighing these words. Somehow, he looked surprised, as if this interpretation of the situation hadn’t actually occurred to him. As if he hadn’t realized that Mitch had been doing him an actual favor, no strings attached.

The kid needed to learn. Damn it, why couldn’t Brody ever learn?

Drawing a breath, Mitch tried to reign in his frustration again. Gritting his teeth, Mitch picked up the items, holding them in front of the kid. “Didn’t yesterday prove anything?”

Head down again, Matt shrugged.

“I’m serious,” Mitch said, shoving the items closer to Matt’s face. He needed Matt to face this; he needed him to acknowledge it, understand it. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Matt said again, the words sounding more pathetic each time he uttered them. “They were just there. No one was looking. I don’t know.”

It defied logic, how the difference between right and wrong could be so easily obfuscated. Worse, how smart and stupid seemed to be a conflict Brody had no idea how to combat when left to his own devices. It didn’t make sense, how someone could take all the chances they were given, all the kindness they were extended, and shit all over it.

Seething, Mitch didn’t just see an eight year old kid. He was a full grown man, getting drunk on his couch. The particulars didn’t matter. It was all about the same fundamental character flaw that Mitch had never had much tolerance for.

“We made a deal, remember?” he asked.

Matt inhaled sharply, blinking a few times even as he refused to look up. “I’m sorry,” Matt mumbled, his voice hardly audible.

Sorry wasn’t enough, not from Brody. And he couldn’t kick a kid to the curb, but that didn’t mean he wanted to look at him right now. Furious, he closed his fist around the items, letting his hand drop. Matt watched him warily through hooded eyes while Mitch drew up to full height and took a step back.

“You can stay here,” he said. “In this room, thinking about what you did.”

Matt seemed to take this declaration hard. He looked up, a slight tremble in his voice. “I said sorry, okay?”

Mitch shook his head, a bitter smile on his lips. “You probably say sorry a lot, kid,” he said, because Mitch knew how many times he’d heard it from Brody. “But it doesn’t mean anything unless you change. At this point, I’m not sure you can.”

With that, Mitch turned, stalking out the door. He closed it behind him, not waiting to listen to Matt’s excuses. He had to figure, as well as he knew Brody, he’d probably heard then all before.

He kept walking through the kitchen aimlessly, through the living room. He was at his own bedroom door, closing it behind him as he finally remembered to breathe.

Inside the isolation of his own room, Mitch realized that his knees were weak. Mitch had confronted some big guys before. Hell, he’d taken on people with guns before, no fear at all. But a fight with the kid?

Shit, Mitch needed to sit down.

He sank to his bed, feeling the rush of adrenaline flow right out of him.

Shoplifting?

Had the kid really just done that?

Mitch had wanted to believe that things would be better today, but they’d gotten worse. He’d done everything he could to provide Matt with the structure he needed, and for what? For him to throw it back in his face like that?

All his work, all his effort, and the kid was still an asshole. Sure, Mitch knew the kid had issues, but that didn’t make it right. How was Mitch supposed to fix that kind of shit anyway?

Hell, he didn’t even want to fix it.

This wasn’t what he’d signed up for. He’d taken Brody in for a night when CJ dropped him off, and that night had turned into more. Somehow, it’d turned into months and okay, that was Mitch’s responsibility to his team. It was never supposed to be permanent. Mitch was generous, but he wasn’t a babysitter.

Not to the adult version, who could usually clean up his own messes.

Not to the punk ass kid, who clearly could not.

Sighing, he looked up at the ceiling imploringly. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”

When there was no answer, Mitch flopped back on his bed, shaking his head.

This time, he whispered, in resignation this time.

“What the hell am I supposed to do?”

-o-

Mitch didn’t get an answer, and exhausted as he was from the confrontation with Matt, he couldn’t sit on his ass forever. He tried to get up and go about his business. He tried to clean up, pay some bills, read a book -- but his efforts were half-hearted at best.

He thought about getting out a video game and playing it, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. When he changed the passcode on his phone, he typed in the simplest password he could think of because he felt mentally stretched too thin to do anything more.

This was ridiculous, of course.

Mitch, by every possible interpretation, had done absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, he’d been really cool about everything. He had every right to enjoy a little peace and quiet, which he’d been in desperate need of for more than a day.

Now that he had it, however, he found he couldn’t enjoy it. Matt was the one being punished.

So why did Mitch feel like crap?

He caught himself on and off, looking at Matt’s door. He wondered if he’d left him in their long enough, but he reminded himself that shoplifting wasn’t okay. Matt had to know that, and he had to know that Mitch took it seriously. That wasn’t being cruel; that was being responsible.

That was the best way to do right by Matt.

Even if it hurt Matt.

Even if it hurt Mitch, too.

-o-

At lunch, Mitch threw together some sandwiches, but when he knocked on Matt’s door, there was no reply. For a moment, he worried that the kid had snuck out through the window somehow, but when he cracked the door open, he found Matt lying on the bed. On his back, he was staring up at the ceiling. He didn’t look when Mitch poked his head in.

“Hey,” Mitch said, keeping his voice soft. He didn’t want to pretend like nothing had happened, but he also didn’t want to act like it was something they couldn’t deal with. “I got some food ready.”

Matt made a noncommittal sound, but he didn’t make a move to get up.

Mitch cleared his throat, taking a step inside. “Thought you might be hungry.”

Vaguely, Matt shook his head. “No, thanks.”

To that, Mitch wasn’t sure what to say. Could he force the kid to get up? Sure, but that wasn’t exactly what he was going for right now. He already felt like shit after this morning; browbeating the kid into a meal wasn’t going to make matters any better. Instead, Mitch wet his lips, hesitating before he responded. “We picked up some of those chips you like at the store this morning, remember?” he asked, conveniently skirting all sources of conflict from said trip. “They’re terrible for you, but we could break them out…”

But Matt just shrugged.

Mitch sighed, not sure what tactic to use next. He couldn’t bring himself to smile, not when the kid had shoplifted this morning. There had to be a middle ground, between forgiveness and consequences, but Mitch was damned if he could find it. “Okay,” he said finally. “I’ll bring you a plate in here, and you can eat it when you’re hungry.”

If he’d been hoping for some response from Matt, he would have been disappointed. Though, he was probably destined to be disappointed no matter how this went. That was how Brody seemed to be sometimes: a force of disappointment. For all the good he tried to do, for all the changes he wanted to make, somehow they always ended up back at the start. Brody was too flippant sometimes, too serious the next. He was too impulsive, and then he was too reticent. Brody could never make up his damn mind, and it drove Mitch crazy.

He watched Matt a moment longer, and found himself wondering. Was that what Matt was trying to do? Was the sulking some kind of emotional manipulation to make Mitch feel guilty? If it was, it was pretty damn good, because Mitch did want to apologize even though none of this was his fault. He felt compelled to make things right when he’d done absolutely nothing wrong.

But he glanced around the rest of the room, and he knew there was no signs of anything being amiss. He’d seen this kid in action; he knew his attention span was about as long as a flea. If he’d been trying to put on an act, there was no way he could have sustained it for hours at a time. Yet, nothing else in the room was out of place.

In fact, the room was virtually untouched. There was nothing out of place on the shelves, and all of Mitch’s belongings seemed to be perfectly in order. More noticeably, the bags they’d bought from this morning were still neatly lined up by the door with the items unopened.

He looked at Matt again, and there was really no doubt about it then. Matt was a perceptive enough kid at reading people, but Brody had never been a genius. He was eight, and even at 25, he’d hardly been a criminal mastermind. No, the dispirited, vacant look on Matt’s face -- that was real.

In one morning, Matt’s entire disposition had changed. It was like the energy had been sucked right out of him. All the enthusiasm, curiosity and fight -- it’d been completely depleted. The kid on the bed wasn’t Matt Brody anymore. It was a shell of the kid who’d magically shown up two days ago.

A shell of the man who’d earned a place on Mitch’s team.

It was easier to hate him when he was full of shit, swearing off his ass and lying badly.

Seeing the kid screw up so bad -- and then accept it? Brody had always shown an ability to own up to his shit-storms -- that was the only reason he’d made it at Baywatch this long -- but the kid in front of him showed no such ability. It was like he hadn’t learned that he was capable of fixing things. Like mistakes were permanent to him somehow, that consequences weren’t reversible.

Some might think Matt wasn’t sorry, but Mitch suspected that the kid didn’t know he could fix things. After all, this kid hadn’t won two gold medals yet. He was just some kid in the foster system in Iowa, bouncing from one house to the next.

As an adult, Brody had learned enough to try picking up the pieces.

As a kid? Shit, he seemed to accept that he was broken.

He lingered another moment, but Matt paid him no notice. When he closed the door, Matt didn’t even look at him, not once.

Great, Mitch thought to himself as he skulked out into the kitchen. Like he needed to feel worse.

-o-

Back in the kitchen, Mitch did his best to keep busy. Idleness was not a habit of his; when he’d been temporarily fired from Baywatch, his willingness to shut down had nearly cost him his team. That said, with a kid in the house, there wasn’t exactly a lot he could do.

He settled for making up a plate for lunch for himself, and then he made one for the kid, adding an extra handful of chips to it just because. With a bottle of water to drink, he took it to Matt’s room, knocking once before entering.

Still on the bed, Matt showed no indication that he had moved at all. His lack of acknowledge didn’t surprise Mitch this time, but he couldn’t dwell on it. Instead, he tried to keep his voice mildly upbeat. “I brought you your lunch,” he said, putting it down on the chair Brody had kept pushed to the corner when he more or less moved in. “That way you can eat when you’re hungry.”

Plus, Mitch had to hope, this way Matt would at least eat. Punishment was one thing; starving a child didn’t qualify. He wanted Matt to eat, with or without him.

Setting it down, he considered pulling the chair closer, just to encourage consumption. But with another look at Matt, he figured it probably wouldn’t make much difference.

“Okay,” he said, moving toward the door again. “I’ll check on you soon.”

He’d meant it as a promise, but part of him wondered if Matt could construe it as a threat.

Mitch exited the room with the distinct feeling that procreation was far more complicated than most parents let on.

-o-

Mitch ate his own lunch, checking the local news on his phone. When he’d read every article, he did the dishes and swept the floor. Then, for the lack of something else to do, Mitch tidied up the fridge, which Matt had left as a disaster zone yesterday, though it was virtually untouched today.

This took him all of fifteen minutes.

Vexed, Mitch sat down in the living room, bouncing his feet anxiously. Yesterday, he’d been desperate for two minutes alone. Now that he had hours of silence he didn’t know what the hell to do with himself.

The easiest thing to do, of course, would be to go into Matt’s room and make nice. He could find something to make the kid smile, even if it involved video games and phone apps.

That would defeat his purpose, though. He had to remind himself: Matt had screwed up. Matt had made a point to steal three items in direct contradiction to terms they had set out yesterday. It had been stupid, selfish and totally without merit. Mitch would be a bad person if he let the kid get away with that.

But where was the lesson for Matt here? Mitch’s actions were reasonable, but their implications were not what he had intended and they weren’t what he really wanted.

How did people become parents when there was no training at all? Did all parents feel as oblivious and conflicted as he felt now?

Because Mitch wanted to help the kid not screw up. He wanted Matt to understand that he had the ability to make a better choice next time, no matter how many times he’d screwed it up before. But how did he break those habits without breaking the whole damn kid?

Or was it possible that this was part of the process? Was Matt supposed to look like he’d been sucked of all vitality? And what Mitch supposed to feel like he’d kicked a puppy? Mitch had embraced tough love where Brody was concerned, but this love was just too tough -- for Mitch, even if not for Matt.

How the hell was Mitch supposed to have any clue? He wasn’t even remotely qualified for this. Worse, this wasn’t the sort of shit you could half ass, not when there was a young and impressionable kid in the balance. This was why people studied child psychology, did case studies on kids in difficult situations and became certified to handle these situations.

He wasn’t quite sure what to do with the coming conclusion. Mitch chewed his nail absently, trying not to come to the obvious end of that train of thought.

This was why the system existed.

This.

Right here.

Kids who needed help.

Families that weren’t equipped to provide said help.

Matt made it sound traumatic, but foster families were trained, screened and monitored. A lot of really good people went out of their way to helps kids who had no other place to go. Those were people who cared about kids, who wanted to do this sort of thing. That alone put them miles ahead of Mitch.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy.

Damn it, with Brody, it was never that easy.

That was why Mitch had to reverse this. They had to get Brody back. Because Mitch could watch a kid for a day, maybe two, but more than that?

Mitch was suddenly aware of his need to keep his options open.

He watched the door, wishing for some sort of sign.

For himself, and for Matt as well.

-o-

After spending an hour talking himself into looking at other options for Matt, Mitch felt a tad guilty when Summer arrived.

Mostly, though, he felt relieved.

Sure, he hadn’t had to do much of anything this morning, but being inside the house with a morose eight year old was emotionally draining. Not to mention the fact that he was starved for adult interaction. He had to resist the urge to bombard Summer with a thousand questions, and instead tried to act totally nonchalant, like he hadn’t inadvertently traumatized his age-regressed roommate.

“Where is he?” Summer asked, because while Mitch was ready to talk about anything exception child rearing, Summer, who had not been stuck with the sullen child all day, wanted only to talk about that. “I would have thought he’d be, I don’t know, doing stuff.”

“Yeah,” Mitch said. “We had kind of a rough morning.”

Summer looked both startled and concerned. “Did someone find out about him? Is he okay?”

“No, nothing like that,” Mitch amended quickly, trying to assuage her fears. “We went out, tried to find a few things for him to do, and when we got back I found out he’d lifted a few things from the checkout lane. I had to punish him.”

From Summer’s fear of the worst, Mitch’s rendition of reality seemed to take a minute for her to process. “That’s it?”

“He stole,” Mitch said.

“Well, he’s eight.”

“That doesn’t mean he can steal,” Mitch said.

“Well, sure, okay,” Summer said. “But I thought our main concern was turning him into an adult again.”


“But I can’t have a kid who steals living in my house,” Mitch said. “That doesn’t work.”

“Oh, like you never shoplifted?” Summer asked.

Mitch’s mouth fell open. This was not the response he’d expected. “You’re taking his side? The klepto eight year old with an attitude problem?”

“I’m just saying it’s a thing kids do,” she said. “I did it. And Brody grew up in the system. Eleven homes in a year. Come on, Mitch. What do you expect?”

“I expect him to show some respect,” Mitch said. “I’ve gone out of my way to take care of him, to buy him shit, and he walks around stealing. He has to grow up.”

Summer stared at him. “Were you trying to be ironic?”

Mitch scowled. “No.”

“Even better,” she said. Then, she shook her head. “Obviously, he can’t go around stealing. Of course you had to punish him.”

The validation was belated, and it felt a little forced, but Mitch found it gratifying all the same. “Thank you.”

“And it does sound like a rough morning,” Summer said. “I don’t know what I would have done.”

“It was challenging,” Mitch said, a little more put out than he intended.

“That’s really more reason why we still need to figure this out,” Summer continued. “Have you thought of anything else we can try?”

Still feeling moody, Mitch gave a half hearted shrug. “Not really.”

Frown lines deepened on Summer’s forehead. “You tried recreating it last night? It didn’t work?”

“I did what I could, but it’s not like I was trying to do this in the first place,” Mitch said, voice low. “I could have missed something.”

“You should sit down, write out what you remember,” Summer advised.

Mitch scoffed. “With all the free time I’ve had.”

“Well, I thought Matt was grounded all morning,” Summer said.

“It’s not that easy,” Mitch said, not sure how he could account for where his time had gone all morning, but knowing that it had indeed been used up holistically. He came to the conclusion with a touch of resentment that Summer, popping in and out for mere hours at a time, would never fully understand.

“I know,” she said, but her sympathetic fell short of true empathy. “I’m just trying to help. You and Brody.”

Mitch still felt cross, but he knew he couldn’t fully hold that against Summer. “I’ll try again tonight,” he said. “But we need some more information.”

“About what?” Summer asked. “Age regression’s not actually a thing.”


“Tell that to the eight year old who got drunk two nights ago,” Mitch said. “It has to be a thing, but maybe we’ve just never looked in the right places. What you said before, about magic or whatever.”

“I don’t even believe in magic,” Summer said.

“And neither did I, until about two days ago,” Mitch said. “It’s our only shot.”

This appealed to Summer’s logic, even if it wouldn’t have seemed logical to either of them two days ago. “It can’t hurt,” she said. “And I can totally stay with Matt this afternoon, as long as you need.”

She was being genuine, and she was being generous. Mitch wasn’t sure why he still felt reticent about it all, except that this had been a long morning. Longer than anyone, even Summer, would understand. “I’m going to give it a try,” he said. “But if you stay with him, you have to remember that he’d in trouble.”

“Sure,” Summer said unconvincingly.

“Like, you can hang out with him, but you can’t reward him,” Mitch continued.

The frown lines edged closer together on her forehead. “Okay,” she said, drawing out each syllable.

“He has to know that stealing’s not cool,” Mitch reiterated.

Summer gave a shrug, like she knew. “I know.”

She didn’t know. “I’m just saying, we have to be a united front.”

“Mitch,” she said. “You need to remember the goal here. We don’t want to parent Brody, we want to change him back.”

“Right, but you weren’t here when he shoplifted,” Mitch said.

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, I got it,” she said, more sharply now. “You should go.”

Mitch moved to the door, taking his keys out of his pocket. “Also, his lunch is in his room,” he said. “Make sure he’d eaten it.”

Her expression was one of outright exasperation. “Mitch.”

“Fine,” Mitch said, opening up the door. “I’m going, I’m going!”

-o-

For all he wanted to go, he found it hard to leave.

Worse, now that he had the chance to do anything he wanted, all he could think about was the damn kid.

Parenting had to be full of the most ridiculous contradictions.

Feeling conflicted, Mitch made it to his favorite coffee shop, ordered a drink and sat down with his phone. The caffeine tasted amazing, but the moment he entered “age regression” into the search bar of his phone, he knew that the caffeine wouldn’t be enough to save him.

There were links for age regression. Most of them just happened to be fan fiction stories written by all-too-avid fangirls. The others links he found were hardly reputable, and most involved people who believed in a whole range of fantastical conspiracy type theories.

He had a bit better luck when looking up cultural beliefs on age regression, though nothing moved much beyond the realm of legend and myth. There was some information on rituals, which might have seemed promising if Mitch had done anything remotely similar to said rituals to kick this whole process off.

In short, there were no recent credible reports of age regression.

Shit like this didn’t just happen.

Only to Mitch, apparently.

He left a tip for the barista and got to his feet, feeling wearier than when he’d came.

-o-

His next stop was the police station.

For a moment, he thought about confessing to Ellerbee that he was losing his mind, but Mitch was too far gone in this delusion to give a shit about it anymore.

“Hey,” Mitch said, knocking on the cop’s office door. “Wondering if I could have a minute.”

Ellerbee looked up with a smile. “Anytime, my man,” he said. “That shell phone goes two ways.”

Mitch chuckled, good natured. It felt good to interact with other adults in a normal fashion. Like, really good. “Good to hear, brother,” he said, making his way inside.

Ellerbee put aside his paperwork, watching Mitch as he sat down in a chair across the desk. “You got more mayhem and mischief in the bay?”

“You know, for once, I don’t,” Mitch said, suddenly aware that he’d been out of touch from work for two days now. When it came to the bay, he had no idea what was up. He had no idea about anything outside his own freakin’ eight year old. “This is a bit more of a personal matter.”

Ellerbee looked perplexed -- and vaguely concerned. “Nothing serious, I hope?”

“No, no,” he said. “I just have this...friend.”

He did his best not to wince at how contrived his set up was.

Ellerbee, thank goodness, appeared to trust him anyway.

“Who was thinking about becoming a foster parent,” Mitch said, hoping that the words sounded more casual than he felt. His palms were sweaty, and he resisted the urge to wipe them on his shorts. “He likes the idea, you know. Helping kids. But, uh, he’s worried about, well, the integrity of the system.”

To his relief, Ellerbee took the scenario seriously. “Foster parent, huh,” he said. He chewed his lip, rocking back in his chair. “Your friend sounds ambitious.”

“Ambitious?” Mitch asked.

“Now don’t get me wrong,” Ellerbee said. “It’s a good thing, and we need good people in the system, people who are doing it for the right reasons, but there’s a reason most people don’t want to do it, why most of them wash out.”

This made Mitch sit up, though he tried not to show just how much his interest was piqued. “Wash out?”

“It’s a stressful job, especially for kids who end up in short term placements, bouncing around, all that shit,” Ellerbee said. “Those damn kids, they hardly have a chance, and the longer they get bounced around the system, the less the parents have a chance either. I mean, way I figure it is, these kids, they don’t grow up with stability. Their concept of family? Not like yours or mine. I mean, that shit ain’t something you learn on your own. And without that? Making the right choice is damn near impossible for those kids.”

This was not really the information Mitch wanted to hear. He tried not to think of how that applied as much to Brody as it did Matt. Instead, he shook his head. “But there are people in the system who can help kids like that, right?”

“Well, in theory,” Ellerbee said, sounding wholly unconvinced. “But I mean, it’s hit and miss, just like any system. So, don’t get me wrong, okay. There are some amazing foster parents out there, like, real saints. And I’ve me some of the caseworkers, and they’re the real thing, man. They’re there to help kids, plain and simple. But it’s not exactly a field that attracts the top talent, you know what I mean? Pay sucks, working conditions are stressful -- it’s shit, man. Just like wearing a badge, it’s shit.”

Mitch nodded, trying to seem appropriately sympathetic without letting on just how sick he was started to feel in the pit of his stomach as Ellerbee went on.

“And the worst part of it is, the good parents and the good caseworkers -- the ones who go above and beyond to make sure the kids have what they need -- they get so stressed out from it all, they burn out. Pretty soon, most of what you got is passionate newbies who haven’t realized the whole system is shit, and broken down career drudges, who are just trying to make a paycheck. It’s like, you get people who are ready to have their heart ripped out of their chests with every kid, or you get the parents who stop caring altogether.”

This assessment was brutal, but Mitch trusted that it was honest. Ellerbee had never been one to mince words, which was why Mitch had always liked him, even when Ellerbee hadn’t liked Mitch. He respected the man’s commitment to his job, and he respected his ability to see a situation accurately and respond accordingly.

After the situation with Leeds, Ellerbee had finally returned that respect, and it’d been a good relationship. He had no reason to doubt anything Ellerbee was telling him.

But he had every reason to dread it, what with an eight year old of questionable legal status stashed away in his house. Not to mention an eight year old who swore, lied and stole for shits and giggles.

Ellerbee drummed his fingers on his desk absently as he contemplated the system he was so bluntly describing. “And the real victims in all this -- I mean, it’s still those kids,” he said. “Sure, I get them when they’re assholes, breaking crimes and doing stupid shit. But you’d be surprised how often I hear the same story. Broken homes, mom and dad gone or in and out of prison. Growing up like that, you don’t learn jack about being a part of a whole. There’s plenty that make it, but those kids got the deck stacked against them if you know what I mean. So when you do see one that makes it? Who goes and does something good with their life? That shit impresses me.”

Mitch shifted uncomfortably in his seat, wondering if winning two gold medals and becoming a member of the most elite lifeguarding squad in Southern California counted.

He didn’t need to ask.

Mitch pressed his lips together, forcing his lips into a thin smile to hide his own growing nausea.

Ellerbee rocked in his chair again, giving Mitch a more careful look. “But a friend of yours is thinking about joining the system?” he asked, voice buoying up. “A friend of yours sounds like someone the system needs. Hell, can you imagine what you could do for a kid? You’d be Super Dad.”

Mitch laughed, a short bark that was wrenched from his chest painfully. “I couldn’t possibly,” he said, feeling just a touch hysterical now. “I mean, I’ve got enough on my plate with Baywatch.”

Ellerbee chuckled, nodding his head along. “I would have bashed you for that six months ago,” he said. “But I know that there’s more to it than splish splash now.”

“It certainly does have its unexpected obligations,” Mitch said tightly.

“That’s cool, that’s cool,” Ellerbee said. “But hey, if your friend is serious, let me know. I have some connections over in social services, so I can get things moving ahead. They’ve got more kids than placements, and if foster families are hit and miss, the group homes are worse. I mean, necessary, sure. But what do you think a kid learns from being in a group home? Ain’t nothing good. Best intentions and all, but a kid needs a family, someone to love them, am I right?”

Mitch managed a hoarse laugh. “Right on, brother,” he said, feeling the emotion start to choke him now. Ellerbee’s grim picture didn’t meant that Matt would be destined for horrible things in the system, but it also meant his chances of being better off were slim. With eleven short term placements in the last year, Mitch could only imagine how Matt would act in the next one.

Matt had baggage, that much was certain.

He couldn’t deny anymore that Brody didn’t carry that same baggage, even so many years later. As much as Brody screwed up, the fact that he was still trying to find his place on a team probably said something about him. Something Mitch had never quite given him full credit for.

“Is that all, man?” Ellerbee asked. “Because I got to admit, I was sort of hoping you had a case for me. Human trafficking? Organized crime?”

“Not right now,” Mitch said, getting stiffly to his feet. “But the minute I come up with something, you’ll be the first person I call.”

“That’s how we work it,” Ellerbee said, beaming at Mitch enthusiastically.

Mitch gritted his teeth together, offering Ellerbee one last fist bump. “That’s how we work it.”

With that, he made his way out of the office, wondering three simple things.

First, what Ellerbee would say if he found out that Mitch was keeping an eight year old illegally.

Second, what would happen to Matt if the system got ahold of him again.

Third, how the hell was he going to face going back home?