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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (8/14)

December 26th, 2018 (02:12 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-

After moping around the house for a few hours, Mitch finally made dinner. It was a half-hearted attempt, and he made up a plate for Matt without much pretense that the kid would accept it. Instead of inviting him out, Mitch merely knocked on the door and took the plate inside.

“I figured you were hungry,” he said, not waiting for an invitation or greeting.

Matt was still on the bed. He looked at Mitch, only briefly, before stubbornly looking away, just as stiff and angry as he had been hours ago.

Mitch put the plate on the chair, next to a bottle of water. “You don’t need to come out, not if you don’t want to.”

“You’re the one who told me to stay her,” Matt reminded him coldly.

“Because you can’t walk out,” Mitch told him.

Matt sat up at that, as if surprised to engage the conversation again. “I didn’t walk out. I just...went to the beach. And that shit -- I didn’t steal it. I really didn’t.”

“You can’t take stuff that’s not yours,” Mitch said, not sure if it was wise to let Matt minimize the point. “And you did walk out. You walked out the front door and didn’t tell me. Do you know how that makes me feel?”

Matt gave him a strange, quizzical look. He didn’t know; he couldn’t know. Shit, the kid really didn’t have a clue.

Mitch sighed, realizing he was going to have to spell it out. “It scared me, all right? It scared me to think of you leaving.”

As he said it, it occurred to Mitch why these words would sound so weird to a kid bounced from placement to placement. Matt had spent most of you young life learning the hard lesson that everyone wanted him to leave eventually. He’d started to condition himself to that as a reality. For Mitch to posit something different would simply not compute.

Matt hedged, suddenly uncertain of himself even as he seemed reluctant to let go of his anger. “I came back, though.”

“And if something happened to you out there?” Mitch asked. Because that was what it was for him, when he got right down to it. If Matt was afraid of being kicked out, Mitch was afraid of being too late to pick up the pieces. That was why he’d stayed up that first night after kicking Brody out. Not just because he felt a little bad about what he’d said, but because he’d been struck with fear at not knowing what would happen to him.

In the end, Mitch knew that his life wasn’t much easier with Matt or Brody.

That didn’t mean he had any idea how to embrace that, even if sometimes he wanted to.

“I didn’t go into the water very much,” Matt said, his chest puffing out, slightly indignant. “I’m not stupid.”

“But you’re one kid -- and there’s this whole wide world out there,” Mitch told him. “A lot of it is great, sure, but there are things that are dangerous that you don’t think about.”

Matt appeared uncomfortable at the insinuation, and he set his shoulders even stiffer than before. “It would just make your life easier, then. If I didn’t come back. One less thing for you to deal with.”

Mitch sighed again. It seemed to be the only response he had today. To Matt’s antics. To Summer’s emotions. To Matt’s psychologically stunted reasoning. To life, plain and simple. “If you think that’s how this is for me, then you haven’t been paying attention this week,” he said, and he had to hope the kid would figure the rest of it out sooner or later, about how Mitch really felt.

From the bed, Matt shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I didn’t mean to piss you off, you know,” the kid said unexpectedly. “But this is a temp placement, right? You don’t have to put up with me forever.”

Mitch gave him a serious look. “You think that makes it better?”

Matt shrugged. “Maybe not, but it’s easier this way. Nothing for either of us to miss.”

It was a strange thing for a kid to say, but it was plainly something Matt had come to awhile ago. As though his best defense against the uncertainty of his life was to greet it like an asshole. That way, when people didn’t want him, at least he had a reason that made sense.

It was a lesson Matt had learned too well, too young.

Looking at the kid, he could still see Brody self destructing in exactly the same way. He traded mild expletives for the f bomb, and he upgraded from shoplifting to getting drunk but maybe it was still the same thing.

Maybe it was a lesson Brody had never quite unlearned.

“And if it doesn’t work that way?” Mitch asked.

Matt’s expression didn’t flicker, and he looked to grave to be eight. “Always has for me.”

What was Mitch supposed to say to that? What was he supposed to do? He was one guy, and this kid was a mess. Brody was a mess. There was no way to fix it, not really. But there was also no way to abandon him to himself.

He was angry, he was sorry and he was tired. Mitch was everything and nothing, and today had been too long and too hard to find the right words this time.

Instead, he nodded toward the dinner he’d left for Matt on the chair. “Be sure to eat, then,” he said, as though they hadn’t just admitted to the fear and uncertainty they’d just admitted to. “When you’re done, you can leave the plate outside the door.”

It wasn’t a resolution, but Mitch didn’t know if there was a resolution. If there would ever be any resolution where Matt or Brody was concerned.

Maybe they’d figure it out, but not tonight.

Mitch turned toward the door.

Not tonight.

The kid watched him as he left the room, and Mitch could feel him watching as he shut the door softly behind him. He stood behind the door, hand still on the handle, and he knew without seeing that Matt was still watching the door behind him.

Anger, Matt understood.

Punishment, Matt expected.

Abandonment, Matt had learned.

Concern, however, seemed to be something he was entirely out of his element with.

As it turned out, this was new territory for Matt.

Funny enough, it felt like brand new territory for Mitch, too.

-o-

His own meal tasted bland, and the dishes seemed to take forever. He tidied the house until it was spotless, and all he could think when he was done how he wished there was someone out and about to mess it up. An eight year old being a jackass. An Olympian getting drunk.

At this point, Mitch wasn’t feeling picky.

He checked on Matt a couple of times, though when he knocked, Matt barely acknowledged him with a grunt. The kid left the plate outside the door, and by the time Mitch finally did open the door, he found Matt already curled up in a ball, fast asleep in his clothes.

It looked as if Matt had been lying like that intentionally, hoping Mitch would come in and check on him, just to find him mad and sulky. It had probably been a ploy for attention, one that Mitch had been too late to gratify.

Maybe that was for the best; his common sense told him he couldn’t indulge the kid’s whims.

But seeing him like that, little body curled in on itself, shaggy bangs falling in his eyes, it didn’t feel like the best. It felt like a cry for help going unanswered, like Mitch had seen someone out in the surf struggling and failed to even get in the water. That was unthinkable to him as a lifeguard, not to save a drowning person.

There were many ways to drown, however.

He was pretty sure Brody had tried them all.

This could be one of Matt’s early attempts.

Mitch hated to think that he’d only get better at it as time went out.

With a sigh (resignation this time; so much resignation), he maneuvered the blankets out, tucking them around Matt snugly. He lingered for a moment, letting himself reach down to brush Matt’s hair out of his eyes, looking at him as he slept.

It was easy like this. Easy to sit and watch, sit and think. Easy to assume that it could be like this forever, just him and the kid. When Matt wasn’t screwing up and fighting him.

What was it that made the kid sabotage everything good? What was it about that Brody who seemed to pick the moment when people trusted in him the most to go off and let them down? It was a strange, innate sense to have, to know the precise time to piss everyone off for the maximum letdown.

It would be easier for Mitch if he could stop caring when Brody clearly wanted him to. It would be so much simpler if he could tell Matt that he was right, that Mitch wasn’t a permanent father figure, no matter how nice the idea might sound from time to time.

Matt snuffled in his sleep, his body unfurling slightly as his face turned up toward Mitch. His hair fell away from his face, and his small, pale features were peaceful in the dimness.

He thought about what Summer had said. About lost causes and family. Mitch believed in families of choice, but that meant there was a choice involved, right? And if someone chose to cut themselves loose, didn’t Mitch have to respect that, too? Brody had to know better, didn’t he?

Looking at Matt, he knew the kid didn’t.

And he had no way of supposing that sometime between eight and 25, Brody had figured it out any better, even if Mitch kept thinking he should.

What was Mitch supposed to do with that?

He closed his eyes before stepping away from Matt’s bed and heading toward the door.

What the hell was he supposed to do?

-o-

He paced the house that night. He tried watching TV without remembering what was on in front of him. He missed the crackle of the CB, wondering if it would still provide the comfort it once had. Somehow, he doubted it. He cracked a beer, found himself outside, wishing the hell he had the motivation to work out, to read, to anything.

Inside her house, Mrs. Flores made a show of locking her doors. He waved to her as she huffed her way out of her kitchen and turned off the light.

The night was finally clear, wide open and full of stars. The seemed to beckon him, almost begging him to make a wish, any wish, anything he wanted.

That was the problem, though, wasn’t it?

What did Mitch want?

After all this, after all the ups and downs, after all the fights and good times, what did Mitch want? Did he want Brody back? Did he want to keep Matt? Did he want to go back to a time before Brody was his concern at all?

None of this was his fault. Not one single part. Mitch knew this, and he knew it unequivocally.

He also knew, with even more ferocity, that the weight of responsibility was still somehow his to carry. He’d tried to divert. He’d tried to deny it. He’d hated it and accepted it in equal turns. But would he change it?

Would he?

Would he change the little boy who so desperately wanted a place to belong but was so scared to accept it?

Would he change the adult who had worked so hard to get to where he was but was always building up his own destruction as a backup plan?

Would he want one over the other or neither at all?

A world where Summer wasn’t falling in love. A world where Baywatch had hired someone with far more fortitude. A world where he’d taken on Leeds alone. A world where his spare room was his again.

It made things easier when you expected things to fail; that was what Matt had told him.

But did it make things better?

Mitch had asked the question, and Matt hadn’t had an answer.

Truth was, Mitch didn’t have an answer either.

All he had was tonight, this broken, beautiful night. The cool ocean air, and the smell of salt off the water.

Above, the stars winked at him, endless in their possibilities.

Mitch didn’t know.

He stared up at the sky, trying to figure it out, still working out the uncertainties until he fell asleep in the clear night air.

-o-

When the sun woke him the next morning, he wasn’t surprised to find Mrs. Flores staring him down.

At least this time she didn’t make any pretenses about it.

She was just standing there, her little dog up in her arms, as she gave him a hard look down the end of her ridged nose.

Mitch was too tired to even muster a sigh. Instead, he sat up, doing his best not to show how sore he was. Rolling his shoulders, he tried to get his eyes to adjust to the morning. “Good to see you, Mrs. Flores,” he said.

Her lips were pursed in a critical, cruel expression. “I know you’re up to something.”

“I’m hardly up at all,” he protested, managing to find his feet.

“You haven’t worked all week,” she pointed out.

“I do have vacation time,” he reasoned, even if it was a complete and total lie. He had vacation time, sure, but this was hardly a personal retreat.

She didn’t have to know the lie to completely disbelieve him. “All this sleeping outside. It’s not a coincidence.”

“A coincidence with what?” he asked.

“The things that have been happening! The hooligan on the beach! You’re tied to this somehow, and I know it!” she accused.

Mitch wasn’t sure if he was angry or terrified.

Shit, he was mostly too tired for this. “Mrs. Flores, I want to be a good neighbor to you. I have no reason to hold any contempt toward you. But this is my house, and I own it just as much you own yours. What I choose to do on my own property is entirely my own business.”

“So you admit it, then,” she said, seizing upon his words. “You admit that you’re hiding something!”

Mitch bit down hard, suppressing the overwhelming urge to growl. “This has been great, it really has,” Mitch said. “But I’ve got better things to do today than to sit here and argue with you.”

As he turned to leave, she made a small indignant noise. “Like what?” she demanded.

Mitch opened the sliding back door, marshalling his self control to ignore her.

“I’m watching you!” she yelled after him, stamping her foot as he closed the door behind him. “I’m watching you!”

-o-

In the kitchen, Mitch felt his composure waver.

It’d be nice to think Mrs. Flores was full of empty threats, but he actually believed her. Wary, he turned back to the door and drew the blinds. Normally, he liked the sunlight, but he was suddenly aware that she might be able to see a wiry eight year old running around if she looked hard enough.

Mitch glanced toward the spare room out of instinct. The door was closed.

He looked toward the front. That door was closed and locked, too.

Although nothing seemed wrong, he found that he couldn’t trust the stillness anymore. He crept to the door, cracking it just slightly.

Matt was still asleep, sprawled across the cot with his lanky limbs off the edges.

At least that much was still in order.

Closing the door with the utmost care, Mitch went back into the kitchen. Standing there, he contemplated what he wanted to do today. First things first, he texted Stephanie. He knew if he called her, he’d never be able to muster up a believable explanation for why he was going to miss a full week of work. He just hoped that Summer would have a more convincing alibi than his short and willfully obtuse message that Brody still wasn’t himself and that he’d check in the office this afternoon.

With that task done, he considered texting Summer to let her know that everything was fine, in a generic sense. Matt was safe, which was the good news.

Brody was still no closer to coming back to them, which was the bad news.

He opted to communicate nothing, letting her take the first move on that one. Mitch was concerned about her feelings in this process, but honestly, he had bigger fish to fry right now.

As in, the eight year old who had spent all of yesterday sulking.

Mitch was wary after yesterday’s incident, and he didn’t exactly trust Matt at all. That said, he also couldn’t bring himself to still be angry. He didn’t want to explicitly punish Matt, even if he didn’t want to grant him privileges or freedoms just yet. There had to be a middle ground, something where they could work on rebuilding the rapport between them without giving Matt too much leeway to get himself in trouble.

Brody had always done better with a short leash; Matt would likely be the same. Boundaries weren’t just good. They were entirely necessary.

That all sounded good, in theory. Mitch had lots of good theories where Matt or even Brody was concerned. But in application? When he actually had to interact with either one of them?

That was when he usually ran into trouble.

Matt had started the day off in the wrong way yesterday. Today, Mitch was the first one up. He could set the tone. He didn’t want to apologize, necessarily. He also didn’t want to reprimand him either. What could he do as a peace offering that didn’t abdicate anything?

Mitch looked around his kitchen, and he saw his skillet.

Pancakes, he remembered from their first day together.

Matt liked pancakes.

Mitch could make a lot of pancakes.

It wasn’t a solution, but what the hell. It sure seemed like a decent place to start.

-o-

The stack of pancakes was getting dangerously high when Matt finally got out of bed. Mitch wasn’t sure if Matt would still consider himself grounded, and the cautious sound of his footsteps across the floor as he made his way to the kitchen made it clear that Matt wasn’t sure either. He came haltingly into view, stopping when he saw Mitch and regarding him warily, like a rabbit might if it thought a predator was about to pounce.

Mitch, therefore, made himself as non-threatening as possible. He smiled broadly, gesturing to the table. “They’re still hot,” he said. “And I opened a new thing of syrup because I know how much you like it.”

Matt’s skepticism only deepened, and there seemed to be momentarily contemplation within his head, as if he wasn’t convinced he was indeed awake.

“Get started with it,” Mitch said. “If you want, I’ll throw on some sausage links, too.”

There was part of Matt that clearly wanted to say no, that probably wanted to opt for the dramatic and go back to his room. But Mitch made good pancakes, and the aroma had already filled the house. When Mitch threw on the sausage links, they sizzled, and Mitch could see that Matt wasn’t about to hold out any longer.

Without a word, he crossed over to the table. He sat down, watching Mitch the entire time. He seemed to be daring Mitch to say something as he took his first pancake from the stack, and he made slow and deliberate movements while he doused it with syrup.

With the sausage cooking, Mitch crossed over to the table as well. Matt visibly flinched, but Mitch picked up the kid’s glass instead, filling it with fresh orange juice. He put it down, and Matt seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Mitch, therefore, was determined to not let any shoes fall.

That was perhaps the dumbest saying he’d ever heard.

“Eat up,” Mitch said, choosing not to think about shoes anymore as he threw two pancakes on a plate for himself. “We got some stuff to do today.”

Matt had started to eat, small, careful bites.

When Matt made no sign of audibly replying, Mitch continued the conversation without him. “It’s going to be a nice one out, good sun, good waves,” he said, folding a pancake in on itself and running it generously through syrup. “Thought we might hit the beach.”

He pressed the folded pancake into his mouth while Matt stopped chewing. He appeared to think this was some kind of trick, even if his small brain could not fathom how.

Mitch swallowed, washing down the bite with a swig of juice. “Unless you don’t want to.”

Matt started at this. “No, I do,” he said. He hesitated, brow creasing. “I just...you know. The deal.”

There was no clear-cut explanation for this, except the fact that some people just needed more chances. Maybe they didn’t have to deserve them. “New day, new deal,” Mitch said. “Are you going to steal anything today?”

“No,” Matt said.

“You going to run off without telling me?” Mitch asked.

“I guess not,” Matt said.

“Fine, then we can go to the beach,” he said.

Matt gave him another, lingering look. “Seriously?”

Mitch was readily preparing the rest of his pancake for consumption. “Only if you eat your breakfast, though.”

That was all Matt needed to hear. Galvanized, he started to eat with more vigor. When Mitch got up to grab the sausage links, he gave a few to Matt, watching him as he consumed them in whole bites.

It was something to watch the kid eat. It was something to watch his hope rebound. It was something when the kid didn’t quite think of himself as a lost cause.

Mitch couldn’t do much, but for today, he could do that.

He put a few more pancakes on the kid’s plate.

He could do this.

-o-

Matt wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as before, but he still got ready for the beach in five minutes flat. He was obviously not trying to show his visible excitement, but he was waiting anxiously for Mitch at the door, trying and failing to look casual. Mitch chose not to comment on this, not when the mood between them was so tenuous.

Besides, Mitch needed a good day. This wasn’t just a question of Matt deserving it or not. This was about Mitch’s own mental stability. The thought of another day indoors with a sullen eight year old was not something he could quite stomach.

Which was to say, Mitch was ready in about five minutes as well. With their supplies packed, Mitch opened the door. Matt bounced on his heels slightly, willing himself to follow obediently while Mitch led the way to the beach.

For all the ways in which they didn’t work together, this would always be a place where they clicked, where they made sense. That was true with Brody; it was true with Matt.

Mitch staked out their claim on the sand, watching as Matt started to let go of his antipathy and play.

Here, Mitch could dare to hope, that maybe they’d make it through this after all.

-o-

Matt wanted to start off in the water -- of course he did -- but Mitch managed to talk him into a sand castle first. Though he’d only been on the beach for part of a week, the kid was already mastering the nuances of how to manage it, and his sand structure required very little input from Mitch as it grew in size and scope.

As the kid dug out the moat around it, all signs of reticence had faded. Instead, he was glowing as he begged the waves to come closer, watching as they liked up against it. He continued to build outbuildings until one by one, they were washed back out to sea and all that was left of his monument was a diminishing pile of wet sand.

Content, Matt sat down next to Mitch, who was lounging on a towel. The kid sprawled on the dry sand, digging his toes into the grit and wriggling them. For a moment, they sat in silence together, but Matt finally squinted up at him.

“You’re lucky, you know,” Matt said.

“Yeah?” Mitch asked. Luck was not something he had considered often in his life, and it was definitely not something he would have attributed to himself in the last few days.

Matt nodded. “This is your backyard,” he said. He grinned. “How cool is that?”

The sentiment made Mitch smile. “It is pretty cool,” he agreed. He let his gaze rest over the water. “I do love the ocean.”

Matt followed his gaze, and for another moment, they contemplated the water in silence again. “What’s your favorite part about it?”

“About living here?” Mitch asked.

“The ocean,” Matt amended. He gave a small shrug. “I mean, you’re a lifeguard. You live on the beach. You swim like you’re a shark or something. You look like you could live in Atlantis.”

“Atlantis isn’t real,” Mitch said, before he remembered that he was talking to a deaged version of his roommate.

“I’m serious!”

“Okay, okay,” Mitch said. “I mean, I do love the ocean.”

“So why?” Matt asked, and he sat up now. He was perched on his feet, leaning forward insistently. “What is it about the ocean that makes everything...different?”

It was an innocent question in some ways, the question a child would ask. But there was something unusually perceptive in the way Matt framed it. The way he understood Mitch’s inherent draw to the water; he could only imagine it was the same draw he felt himself. Like it was someplace they both belonged. Matt could sense that much, but he was still eight. He didn’t know why.

“Well,” Mitch said, looking back toward the horizon again. “It seems so vast, like some incredible divide, but when you think about it, it’s the one thing that connects us all. We’re all drawn together by the ocean, every continent, every people and culture on the planet.”

Matt was watching with him, as focused as Mitch had seen him.

“And you watch the waves, and you think it’s always moving,” he continued. “You forget that it’s all within the same shores. It’s static in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s not always moving, not always evolving. It’s how people should be. We’re trapped within our own circumstances but that doesn’t mean we can’t change how we meet those circumstances.”

Matt looked up at him, quizzical now. “You think people can change?”

“I think the ocean can teach us more than most people think,” Mitch said. “I mean, you look out there, you think how easy it is to get lost. But you forget that the ocean churns its own back out. You can throw something out there and try to forget that it existed at all but the ocean brings it back to you, spits it right back on the beach to remind you that you can’t outrun yourself.”

He thought of Brody’s gold medals, the ones that were still in his bag, lost with the adult version of Brody.

“Doesn’t that make you hate it a little, though?” Matt asked. “I mean, there are some things I’d like to forget.”

Mitch shrugged. “But maybe those are the things you need to remember. Maybe you just need to find them again to realize what you had all along.”

Matt thought about that, the big concepts that were hard for his little mind to grasp. For a moment, he chewed his lip, and then he cocked his head. “And do you surf?”


“What?” Mitch asked, taken aback by the abrupt change in conversation.

“Surfing!” Matt said. “Can you teach me to surf?”

Mitch found himself laughing. “I think we need to master swimming first.”

Matt was on his feet, reaching down to grab Mitch’s hand. “Okay!”

“Wait,” Mitch said, allowing himself to be dragged to his feet more by Matt’s eagerness than his actual strength. “That’s not what I--”

“I totally want to swim,” Matt said. “Please?”

Mitch would protest, but he was already moving toward the water. Whether it was the ocean that drew him in or Matt’s enthusiasm, Mitch wasn’t sure.

When he and Matt hit the water together, nothing mattered at all.

Just Mitch, Matt and the ocean that connected them.

-o-

Matt’s skills improved quickly in the water, and it was easy to see how he’d managed to overcome his life’s circumstances to become an Olympic swimmer. Matt had natural talent in the water, and for a kid with little else to excel in, it sure as hell had to seem like a calling at a young age.

Still, for all that Matt was fascinated by the ocean, he wanted to test its limits. This was probably natural; Matt wanted to test all limits. He’d been pushing Mitch’s boundaries since he woke up in the spare room several days ago, and he’d crossed all the lines Mitch set in place just to see what would happen.

And, more often than not, that shit blew up in his face.

Yesterday’s excursion was a case in point. Matt had tried to see what he was capable of, and he’d very nearly ruined his rapport with Mitch in one fell swoop. While it was possible to rebuild a relationship, the ocean wasn’t quite so forgiving. Matt didn’t quite get it, that he couldn’t push the ocean without the risk of it swallowing him whole.

Mitch knew this because he’s seen people do it every day at his job. He was a lifeguard; he knew that people were idiots sometimes. Being an idiot around the ocean? Well, it meant sometimes your idiocy took you too far to come back.

“You can’t go that far,” Mitch said, physically dragging Matt back out of the waves and plunking him back down in the shallows. Another waved rushed into them, strong enough to make Matt waver. “It’s stronger than you think.”

“I can swim through it, though,” Matt argued, completely undaunted. He took a few steps back toward the deeper surf.

Mitch stood next to him, keeping pace. “It’s not like a pool.”

“I can feel that,” Matt said, catching another wave that went to his waist. “But I want to see what it’s like to really let go. I think I can do it.”

“Someday, maybe,” he said. “But even I have to be careful, and I’ve been swimming these waves my whole life. You have to feel for the undertow.”

“I do feel it,” Matt said. “I know it’s there.”

“But you don’t know what it can do to you,” Mitch reasoned.

Matt furrowed his brow, looking longingly out at the horizon. “But there’s this whole ocean out there,” he said. “I just want to see what it’s like.”

When he said it like that, he made it sound like a reasonable thing. After all, for a kid who’d been denied just about everything his whole life, the idea of taking for himself was probably innate. And a place where the horizon seemed limitless? Had to be something Matt would want, even more than he wanted to be swimming laps in a pool. Brody had said it his first day on the beach: he was fast. In a pool, Matt swam like he was trying to escape something.

Here, though. On the ocean. That was where strength mattered. That was where fortitude really counted. Here, Brody had learned to swim as if he was trying to find something to save.

Matt hadn’t figured that out yet.

Mitch wanted to show him, but within reason. “You will, but you have to do it the right way,” he said. “We swim here, closer to the shore, until you’ve built up some stamina and know how to keep yourself upright in the bigger waves.”

This time, Matt’s face contorted in a whine. “That’s boring, though!”

“That’s safe,” Mitch said. He nodded toward the horizon. “That stuff out there, it can kill you. I’ve seen it. I’ve dragged out swimmers who are stronger, more experienced than you.”

Another wave crested at Matt’s chest, and he almost lost his footing. “But it might be worth the risk,” he said.

“It’s not,” Mitch told him shortly.

“But you’re right there!” Matt said, more emphatic now.

“I’m not always going to be,” Mitch reminded him.

He had meant it as a practical reality. The simple fact that no one could always be there, not even teammates, coworkers and best friends.

For a foster kid who’d ended up in eleven temporary placements over the last year, it didn’t sound like that.

Looking deflated, Matt’s eyes turned away from the ocean. When the next wave came, he didn’t try to brace himself, and he was swept off his feet. Mitch reached out, catching him and setting him right, but the vigor had drained from Matt’s expression almost entirely.

Mitch stifled a curse for not watching his tongue more carefully. No matter how hard Matt tried to act like he was cool and rolling with the punches, he was just a kid who’d picked up more baggage than Mitch could conceivably imagine. He was fragile in his own way, though he hid it well with a brusqueness that made him hard to like.

He wondered if that was still true for Brody.

Instead of coming to any kind of answer, he turned to Matt instead. “Look,” he said. “Let’s work on your stroke a little bit. I have a few tips to give you a little more power, a little more control.”

Matt looked hesitant.

“Those are the things you’ll need to master to start moving a little deeper,” Mitch continued. “Most people, it takes months. But you’re ahead of the curve. We can cut your learning curve down to weeks if you keep at it.”

“Really?” Matt asked.

“Really,” Mitch said. “Now come on, put your arms like this--”

He showed the stroke, letting Matt mimic the motion. He was a quick study, when he wanted to learn.

And Mitch was a good teacher, when he put his mind to teaching.

The trick was for the two of them to synch up.

Some things, unfortunately, were even harder than learning to swim against a riptide.

-o-

By noon, Mitch had to say the day was going better than he’d expected. Matt had pushed against the boundaries, but he’d ultimately heeded Mitch’s guidance, albeit only with direct guidance and constant reassurance. Matt was capable of being fun and engaging, but only with a persistence that Mitch could not deny was exhausting.

He would normally attribute this to all people under the age of 10, but he’d met Brody. He had a sneaking suspicion that this was a character trait for him. DNA, maybe. Environmentally distilled into him over years in the foster system? Likely.

Ultimately, no matter the cause, it was taxing, and Mitch was far too ready to break for lunch.

He’d thrown together a lunch to eat on the beach, but as Matt was digging through the sand for shells, he found himself hesitating. The beach wasn’t too crowded -- it was a weekday, and the popularity of the main part of the bay kept this beach less of a tourist attraction. He knew most of the other people on the beach, other frequent guests and people from the neighborhood.

It occurred to him suddenly that if he could see them, they could see him.

There was Carmen Donovan from two doors down. She was a nurse, who worked rotating shifts. She often spent her off days on the sand with her boyfriend.

Eleanor and David Rodriguez were across the street and down a few houses. They’d retired a year ago, and they were frequent mainstays on the beach. They weren’t much for swimming, but they liked walking and watching for dolphins out in the surf. They packed a picnic lunch, and Eleanor read romance novels while David finished the daily crossword puzzle.

He could see Kylie Withers and her two toddlers. There was Mrs. Evans, walking her dog. And even the people he didn’t know by name, he recognized by sight. He knew them all, in one way or another.

And here he was, parading around with some unknown kid like it was totally normal.

Really, there were a thousand explanations possible. Not one of them would think that Mitch had suddenly been cursed with a pint-sized version of his Olympic roommate.

But if one of them thought like Mrs. Flores did, that it was weird that he had some stray kid in his custody…

He glanced back toward his house and Mrs. Flores’ house next door. His own was silent, but he could see Mrs. Flores, framed in her window. Staring at him.

Stomach fluttering, he looked to Matt, who was still playing obliviously.

He hadn’t thought this through.

He hadn’t thought any of this through.

Shit.

Hastily, he tossed their items back into the bag. “Hey,” he called out. “Let’s head back.”

Matt sat up; he had been inexplicably rolling in the sand, and it was coating his body and his hair now. “Huh?”

“For lunch,” Mitch said, willing the child to be cooperative for once.

“But I thought you packed it,” Matt said.

“We took longer in the water than I thought,” he said. “I’ve got to head into work soon.”

“Well, I’ll eat quickly,” Matt offered.

“Not today,” Mitch said, trying not to be short with the kid while still trying to minimize debate. “I need to get this moving.”

“But I want to stay,” Matt said, and he was definitely whining now. “Why can’t we stay?”

Mitch huffed, too aware of Mrs. Flores’ piercing gaze. “Because I said so,” he said. “Now, pack up your crap and get your towel. We’re going.”

Matt slumped his shoulders, but obeyed. He took his time gathering his things, and he dragged his towel so that it was trodden underneath his feet on the way back. As he walked slowly past Mrs. Flores’ house, Mitch resisted the urge to yank the kid in step behind him. If anything, an overt display that Matt was his responsibility would only prove the case to Mrs. Flores. The last thing she needed was more ammunition.

From his front step, he watch Matt dramatically flail himself up the stoop behind him. If Mrs. Flores hadn’t noticed him before, she had to have noticed him now.

It was exactly what Mitch needed, as Matt made a display of throwing himself across the threshold with enough exasperation that Mitch may have been torturing him. A deaged roommate. A emotionally complex kid. A job he hadn’t been to in a week.

And a nosy neighbor that had the wherewithal and malice to ruin it all.

Mitch closed the door hastily behind Matt, turning to find the kid sprawled out on the tile, spreading sand everywhere.

He was so screwed.

-o-

They ate lunch together at the table, but Mitch couldn’t curb his anxiety.

Matt, for his part, couldn’t curb his absolute boredom. In fact, he was so busy lolling around dramatically, that he’d barely eaten half his sandwich by the time Mitch was done.

“Come on,” Mitch cajoled, draining the last of his water. “You’re taking forever.”

“So?” Matt asked, poking at a few grapes. “If I finish will you let me go back to the beach?”

Mitch did his best not to sigh. “I already told you, we’re done for the day.”

“That’s so stupid,” Matt said, flicking a grape across his plate with one of his carrot sticks.

“No, it’s not,” Mitch said. “It’s actually very normal.”

“Then it’s boring,” Matt said, herding the grape with another carrot.

Mitch watched with barely restrained frustration. “Life is about responsibilities.”

“Uh huh,” Matt said, bouncing another grape to join the first. “You have a responsibility to me. Or did you skip that in the paperwork, too?”

Mitch gave him a pointed look. “Just eat your damn food.”

Matt raised his eyebrows. “Language.”

“Do you want me to ground you again?” he asked.

“You might as well,” Matt told him, eating a grape out of what appeared to be spite. “I’m stuck in this stupid, boring house.”

This was typical kid shit, and Mitch knew it. There was no actual venom here. That didn’t make any lesson annoying. “I have to go to work.”

“Why? It’s not like you’ve really gone all week,” Matt said. “I mean, who only works like four hours total? Haven’t they fired you yet?”

Mitch forced himself to take a measured breath. “All the more reason I need to go today. You’ve been taking a lot of my time.”

“Uh yeah,” Matt said. “Again, you should have read the paperwork.”

“Would it have told me you were a smart butt?” Mitch asked caustically.

Matt didn’t flinch. “Probably. My caseworker hasn’t used those words but she looks at me like she thinks it.”

“Just...eat your food,” Mitch said.

“It’s boring food,” Matt said. “I think the carrots are stale. And this sandwich tastes like sand.”

“It tastes like every other sandwich you’ve eaten this week,” Mitch told him.

“No, it doesn’t,” Matt said. “This one tastes like shit.”

“Eat the food,” Mitch said, almost growling now. “Or I’ll throw it in the trash and you can wait until dinner.”

Matt gave him a diffident shrug. “It tastes like you got it from there.”

Mitch breathed again, searching for any kind of calm. “Just eat the food.”

Matt popped a grape in his mouth and chewed with disdain. “The grapes are bad, too.”

“I didn’t make the grapes,” Mitch told him curtly.

“You bought them,” Matt said. He ate another, nose wrinkled. “I wouldn’t be surprised if these make me sick.”

Matt was talking shit, Mitch knew that. But he was talking nonstop shit after Mitch had been nothing but nice to him. And it was nonstop shit after a week of nonstop shit and Mitch had turned his entire life upside down for, what? Shit?

That was shit, too.

This whole thing was shit.

Matt ate a carrot and actually gagged. “This has to be the worst meal I’ve eaten in all eleven placements--”

And that was that.

Mitch could take a lot, but he had his limits.

And Matt had just hit every single one of them.

His patience gone, Mitch got to his feet abruptly. He snatched the lunch from Matt, sending a few grapes flying as he turned and stomped to the trash can. Without as much as a word, he tossed the remnants of the lunch into the trash and turned back toward Matt with fiery eyes.
“There,” he said. “Problem solved.”

Matt stared at him, wide eyed.

“Now, you can sit there and stare at nothing or you can go to your room. I don’t really care,” Mitch said. “But I’m going to get ready for work, so I suggest you shut the hell up and leave me alone until Summer gets here to deal with your stupid, boring and annoying ass.”

With that, he left the room. Taking inspiration from Matt, he slammed his bedroom door behind him with such force that the whole house shook, reverberating in silence.

-o-

The dramatic exit had felt good at the time. He could see why the kid had developed a penchant for dramatics when he was upset.

It didn’t feel so good as soon as he closed the door, however.

Without an audience, all Mitch had was guilt, disappointment, frustration and doubt.

Sure, he’d made his point. He’d let the kid know that he as over the line with his complaining, and he’d made sure that Matt wouldn’t forget it any time soon. And it wasn’t like Matt hadn’t had it coming. If anything, Matt had spent all of lunch trying to push all of Mitch’s buttons, trying to elicit some kind of response.

But Mitch was supposed to be the adult here.

Even if he’d never asked for a kid in the first place.

Shit, he’d never even asked for Brody.

How the hell had he managed to keep things together this long anyway?

There was a soft knock on the door. Mitch was inclined to ignore it, but the knock came again, a little louder this time.

Sighing, Mitch had no way around it. “Yeah,” he called.

“Um,” Matt said, voice small through the wood. “Can I come in?”

Mitch groaned, moving back toward the door and opening it. Behind it, the kid was standing, looking duly sheepish.

“Look,” Matt said. “What I said. About the food and all. That wasn’t cool. I was being dumb. I don’t know why, and I’m sorry.”

Matt was only eight, but he really had mastered the art of the apology. He’d heard it second hand with the store manager, but he’d lived it in person when Brody came clean after getting drunk at the Huntley. Given Matt’s other quirks, it might be easy to think that he’d just mastered the manipulation of an apology, but that wasn’t what made his apologies effective.

They were effective because they lacked all pretense. They were honest. The words of someone with nothing left to lose.

For a down and out Olympian, that was one thing.

For an eight year old kid? Well, that was something else entirely.

Matt shrugged, feeble. “I don’t think most of the time.”

Mitch let out a short, bitter laugh. “I think I got that.”

Matt gathered another breath, clearly not done yet. “I know what I do, the way I act, who I am -- it’s shit--”

“Language,” Mitch said.

“It’s crap,” Matt amended. “I mean, it’s dumb, and I want to change, but I never know how.”

“You just do it,” Mitch told him. “There’s no thought involved.”

“I just told you what happens when I don’t think,” Matt said. “None of it comes to me like it comes to other people. It’s like, every time I think I’m going to change, everything else changes. A new home. A new family. A new school. A new life. And I don’t know. I’m just trying to keep up sometimes. I mean, even this, here, it’s temporary, right? You don’t have to put up with me much longer.”

And now all of it was guilt, roiling deep in the pit of Mitch’s stomach. Mitch was looking for ways to get rid of Matt, and Matt had been anticipating it every step of the way. Mitch had never intended to be cruel -- to the contrary -- but the effect on an eight year old kid was exactly the same. “We don’t need to go into this now,” he said. “We’ll figure it out at dinner.”

Matt made a small face of confusion. “Figure what out? That I’m an asshole?”

“Language,” Mitch reprimanded him blandly. “And no, we’ll figure out us, this, here. All of it.”

It wasn’t an explicit promise of anything good.

At the same it, it wasn’t an explicit declaration of anything bad.

That sliver of uncertainty was the strangest kind of hope. Mitch thought maybe he shouldn’t allow that, all things considered.

But seeing the hint of it light up on Matt’s face, he was reminded why he’d been unable to deny it to the kid yet, all complications aside.

Mitch knew in his head that this thing with Matt would never work.

It was harder than that to convince his heart, however.

“But this is a temp placement,” Matt said, trying to process the varying implications of Mitch’s statement. “And it’s already been most of a week.”

“Like I said, we’ll talk about it,” Mitch told him, striving for ambiguity. There was still the fact that Mrs. Flores was watching them; and the fact that Matt was bad one day and great the next didn’t make it an easy path forward. It’d help if the kid just knew how to be a jerk all the time instead of his 50/50 split. “But for now I really do need to get ready for work.”

Matt appeared contemplative, as if he wasn’t sure what to make of Mitch’s words.

Mitch prodded him. “And you should get changed,” he said. He lifted his eyebrows knowingly. “Summer’s coming?”

“Right,” Matt said, perking up a little more. He hesitated one more second. “You really want to talk about it? I mean, us. This. Here.”

Us.

Spoken with such definition.

This.

A word laden with hope.

Here.

A concept forged in hope.

None of which Mitch had the heart to throw in the trash like a maligned lunch.

“I do,” Mitch said, steering him toward the door. “And we will, okay?”

Matt smiled, a little slow, a little shy. “All right,” he said, and he gave Mitch a nod. “We’ll talk tonight, then.”

Mitch watched him go before closing the door and realizing that he had no idea what he would say.

Worse, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say.

But he had a pretty good idea what Matt wanted to hear.

-o-

Mitch got ready mechanically. Over the past few days, he’d made a habit of doing his personal business quickly to tend to Matt more readily. Today, the opposite was true. He found himself dragging his feet because he wasn’t sure he could face Matt again.

It might have been easier if he was still pissed off at the kid.

But knowing that Matt was now harboring hope.

Mitch didn’t know how to face that and make a rational decision at all.

He was so slow that he was still getting dressed when Matt hollered through the door. “Hey! Someone’s at the door!”

Before Mitch had a chance to tell Matt not to open it without him, he could hear the kid opening it. Terrified, Mitch burst out of his bedroom, still pulling on his shirt. He was hurrying across the room, sure he would see Mrs. Flores or worse, child protective services.

Instead, he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Summer come inside.

“Hey,” she said, still smiling as she looked to Mitch. His slipshod appearance and breathless expression must have been visible. Her expression wavered. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, we had to come in early from the beach, but I think it’s okay,” Matt said. He looked toward Mitch, a little proud. “Right?”

“Right,” Mitch said around the tightening in his throat. “Look, um, why don’t you go to your room, figure out what you want to play with Summer.”

Mitch was going for subtle, but Matt knew these deflective cues too well. It made Mitch hate himself more that Matt readily acquiesced. “Sure thing,” he said, half skipping off to his room.

Summer waited until the door had closed before she came closer, lowering her voice. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Mitch said.

“You look horrible,” Summer told him, even more urgently. “Did he sneak out again?”

“No,” Mitch said. “He was fine today.”

Summer shook her head, still not sure what she was missing. “But then what’s wrong?”

He thought about Mrs. Flores and her threats, but he couldn’t find the words for it. What was he going to tell Summer? That the police might arrest him any day now and take Matt into protective custody? If he told her that, it would just freak her out.

Worse, she might do something about it.

The last thing he wanted was to spur Summer to kidnap her deaged boyfriend.

This thing was weird and complicated enough as it was. Summer didn’t need to worry about that; she didn’t need to be pushed into that corner.

Matt had shown up in his spare room, not hers. He was grateful for her help, but he wouldn’t let her shoulder this.

Not for her sake.

Not for Matt’s.

“Nothing,” he said. “Kids are tiring, you know?”

This answer wasn’t outlandish, but it also wasn’t as dramatic as she’d been expecting. Wetting her lips, she regarded him critically. “Well, I can take him for longer,” she offered. “Maybe overnight tonight, if it’d help you out.”

“No,” Mitch said quickly. He tried to cover the urgency with a note of humor. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” she said. “I have tomorrow off even.”

“Not if you’re covering for me,” he said. “Can you swing my shifts at tower one?”

Summer hesitated. “All day?”

“The last time,” he said. “After that, we’ll figure out something more long term.”

She looked like she wanted to believe him, even if she seemed to know he was lying about something. It wasn’t a lie, Mitch tried to tell himself. Just a convenient retelling of the truth he hadn’t quite admitted to himself.

“I promise,” he said, adding it on earnestly, because she could never doubt him. No one on Baywatch could. He was Mitch Buchannon. He was above reproach. Summer would trust him with everything and anything.

Even the eight year old she was falling in love with.

And the fellow lifeguard she’d already fallen for.

“Okay,” she said. “Have a good time at work.”

“Thanks,” he said, as the weight of the truth tasted bitter on his tongue. “Maybe take him out, do something fun. Go to the pier; buy some ice cream.”

She brightened. “You don’t mind if we go out?”

“No,” he said. “You two should have some fun today.”

“Great,” she said, now sounding genuinely happy. “We will.”

“Awesome,” he said, making his way to the door.

He let his smile linger, the word resounding in his ears as he shut the door behind him.

Walking down the steps to his car, he felt anything but awesome.