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Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (9/14)

December 26th, 2018 (02:15 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-

It only got worse when he arrived at work.

Worse, as in, everyone missed him. Every. One.

Mitch knew he was popular in the sense that he knew a lot of people and he had spent some time investing in their lives. He had known all along that made people feel better about themselves; that was why he did it.

He had just never quite realized the intensity of the reciprocity such things elicited. He would happily be a friend to everyone. As a result, he was no friends with everyone on the bay.

More than that, he was beloved by them. That was the sort of shit people said, and Mitch chuckled along and said that that was what family was all about. But when the habit was disrupted. When he was able to see what such bonds were like outside the normal.

It was a little surprising to him.

They clung to him with a ferocity that didn’t even surprise him any more, and he was nearly hugged by every lifeguard he ran across in HQ. Everyone wanted to know how he was, they wanted to see what he was up to. They told him how much they missed him, how the bay wasn’t the same without him. They hadn’t heard him on the CB for awhile, and they hoped everything was okay.

The CB. Had it really been close to a week? There’d been a time that would have been impossible, but he hadn’t thought about it in days. Not since Matt showed up. He hadn’t missed it, news of the bay.

The bay had missed, though.

How was it possible that Mitch meant this much to this many people? How had he managed to help define so much of what life was on the bay? Still reeling from Matt’s total dependency, the realization of his critical role in the lives of the rest of his acquaintances was really almost too much.

He had hoped that finally getting to his desk might provide from solace.

The stacks of paperwork were hardly a comforting sight.

And Stephanie’s frazzled, vaguely wild-eyed look told him that things had not been running as smoothly as he’d hoped without him.

“Things going that badly?” Mitch asked as Stephanie sat down without invitation across from his desk. Sit down was a generous description. In truth, she more like collapsed.

“I want to tell you that it’s fine,” she said, her expression baleful. “But I’m too tired to lie effectively to you right now.”

Mitch winced in sympathy. “But things around here are a well oiled machine,” he said. “I’ve got you all trained to do this without me.”

“Oh, we have your procedures and your policies. We know how it’s supposed to go,” Stephanie said, but she shook her head. “But everything’s just off, you know? And I don’t know, I thought I was ready for this sort of thing -- I really did -- but I’ve been falling further and further behind all week. How do you do this, Mitch? Like, really. How. I’m starting to think you may be superhuman.”

“Nothing superhuman about it,” he said. “You’re more than capable.”

“Am I?” she asked. “Because I don’t know where all that paperwork is coming from, and I don’t know what to do with half of it. No one is quite the same without you, and every day you’re gone just makes it a little worse. Like we’re falling further and further out of synch with the way the bay’s supposed to be run.”

It was a plain assessment, and Mitch suspected there was something to it. He had probably failed to assess his own role in things at work as much as he had at home. He had always thought himself to be creating systems that were self sustaining, but he seemed to be creating galaxies wherein he was always the sun. Without him, Brody would crash and burn, and Summer’s relationship would fall apart.

Without him, the bay would fall into disarray and Baywatch would be chaos.

Some people might find that flattering or reassuring somehow.

Mitch found himself sorely disappointed.

In himself, more than anything else.

This was his failure, not theirs. He’d failed to equip his team. He’d failed to prepare the bay for any eventuality without him.

Just like he’d failed Matt, and Brody before him, to handle living without guardrails.

They all needed him, and that was the problem.

Because Mitch was just one guy.

And something had to give.

“We’ll just have to sit down together, talk about it,” Mitch said. “I’m sure with a little more guidance, you’ll see how things fall into place.”

Her face brightened, like this was possibly the first good news she’d heard all week. “Really?”

“Sure,” he said. “I know you’re lieutenant material. And I’d be more than happy to get your confidence up to the point where you feel like you can step in for me at any time.”

“So that means you’ll be back soon?” she asked. “You’ve got shift tomorrow.”

Mitch hedged. “Well, I asked Summer to cover it for me,” he said. At her look of crestfallen disappointment, he added hastily. “But this is the last time, I swear. I’ll be back to work next week.”

Her look of utter relief was impossible to miss. “That’s so good to hear,” she said, grinning now. “And Brody? He’s feeling better?”

This time, Mitch hesitated with even more uncertainty. “Hard to say,” he said. “Things with Brody have been...complicated.”

“Summer’s pretty vague about it,” she said. “What’s actually wrong with him? Are you sure he’s okay? This sounds like more than the stomach flu.”

It was such a poorly fabricated lie that Mitch hardly knew what to do with it.

But the truth was so much stranger that he had nothing to fall back on. “Honestly,” he admitted. “It’s just exposed a lot of things Brody’s been avoiding. He may need more time than I can give him.”

Stephanie’s concern mounted again. She’d never been very fond of Brody, but she was a part of this team, and she still thought Brody was a part of the team, too. Her concern for a guy she’d previously hated was about the only sign that Mitch had done anything right in the last six months. “Well, we’re all here for him, if he needs it,” she said. “Just say the word.”

Mitch wanted to. Shit, he really wanted to. If only it were that easy. If only he could tell her the truth and they could concoct some ridiculous scheme. If only Ronnie could forge documents. If only they could share babysitting duty. If only Matt would be their honorary sidekick, a lifeguard in training as he grew up.

It would be family in action. Everything that Matt could need and want.

Maybe they could pull it off.

Maybe it’d be the happily ever after they all needed and wanted.

Or maybe they’d get caught. Maybe they’d all end up in jail, and Matt would be betrayed on every possible level.

He could train Stephanie to take his place. He could coach the rest of the bay into living without him. But Matt was a problem he could fix. Brody, maybe. But an eight year old kid?

Mitch could save them all, but he was more likely to destroy them.

“I appreciate that,” Mitch said thickly, trying to find a smile, wishing it could be enough. “We can talk about it when I’m back full time next week.”

She smiled as she got to her feet. “The sooner the better,” she said. “I think we all share that sentiment.”

“Yeah,” Mitch chuckled, but he felt dead inside. The laughter ached in his chest and tasted like ash on his tongue. “Just tell that to Brody.”

“Drag his ass in here, and I will,” she said. “But anyway, I’ll let you get to it. It’s so good to have you here. I’d ask for more than a couple of hours, but if you’re coming back next week--”

Mitch nodded woodenly. “You bet.”

“We really do miss you, Mitch,” she said at the door, giving him one last smile.

“I know,” he said softly, taking it all in around him. The view he knew so well. The people he liked so much. The bay that he called his home. The team he called his family. The only thing missing was the man he hadn’t quite called his best friend. Or the kid he might have called his own. “I miss you -- all of you -- too.”

“Well, no much longer now!” she called on her way out.

He watched her go, shoulders starting to slump. “Yeah,” he agreed weakly, thinking of Matt at home with Summer. “Not much longer now.”

-o-

By the time Mitch started in on his paperwork, he felt more than a little confused. Between Matt’s willingness to hope, Summer’s insistence that they were doing the right thing and Stephanie’s exhaustion in his absence, Mitch had no idea what his priority should be. All he knew was that there was a stack of papers in front of him, and all he could think about was what Matt might be up to with Summer.

In fact, the longer he sat there, going through the motions of his job, the worse he felt about everything. The details were tedious to him suddenly, even though he knew why they mattered. The routine tasks he used to take so much pleasure in completing didn’t seem to mean anything to him now.

Even the people, whom he loved and valued, seemed like distractions from what really mattered.

But what actually mattered?

Was it the eight year old who wanted him to make a family?

Or was it the 20 something Olympian he was supposed to be getting back?

And was it possible that Matt and Brody and all his iterations was actually the distraction? That this paperwork in front of him was the real world he was supposed to be getting back to?

Mitch was a man marked by confidence, and he didn’t have a clue.

With each paper he completed, he felt like even more shit.

In fact, within an hour of arriving at HQ, he felt physically sick. His limbs felt heavy; his stomach was unsettled. If only he were actually coming down with the hypothetical sickness he’d told Stephanie that Brody was out with.

It wasn’t that easy, though. Nothing was that easy, not anymore. The real problem was emotional, and Mitch knew that. He was being pulled in a hundred different directions, and he had no idea which one mattered most. All the things he wanted to do were good, important things. But by trying to do them all, he was half-assing every one of them.

Even now, getting through the pile of paperwork, he read the same page three times before he remembered what the hell it was about. He couldn’t remember any of the system codes, and each word he wrote felt like he was trying to etch it in stone. The papers were sloppy, unprofessional and well beneath the standards Mitch himself had set.

What could he do about it, though? Every time he started to get into the zone like he used to, his mind just drifted. He was filling out a requisition form for new swimsuits, and he absently wondered if they came in Matt’s size. He was screening applications for new lifeguards, and he wondered how many years of training Matt would need before he could be considered. As he processed a complaint about aggressive beach vendors, he thought about how much Matt would like to visit one, aggressive or not.

Invariably, his mind drifted to Matt.

It always came back to Matt, no matter how hard he tried.

He wondered if Summer had gotten him ice cream. He also realized he’d never bought the kid ice cream. Did he like mint chocolate chip like Brody? Or maybe he was a fan of cookie dough? He’d be one of those kids who wanted sprinkles and cookies and fudge on top -- the more the better. There was this place down by the pier, this place where you built your own sundae. Matt would love it.

He’d have to ask Summer about it.

Not that he knew why it mattered.

He’d told Stephanie he’d be back full time next week.

That meant Matt couldn’t be around full time next week.

Someone else would have to take him for sundaes. Someone else would have to learn what his favorite ice cream flavor was.

Those thoughts were idle thoughts; they were distracted thoughts. He’d let himself be compromised by things that were outside his control. These things didn’t matter, not really.

Except they did matter.

As he flipped mechanically to the next form, he knew that those details were expendable and more important than anything he was doing here. There was a contradiction there, one that he was sure all parents had to face. The needs of the world versus the needs of their own child. The fact that Matt wasn’t his should have mattered.

It didn’t.

He finished another form and pulled out one more. It was an incident report; something flagged important. Mitch could barely force himself to read it; he would rather be home with Matt. The next sheet was the schedule for next week, pending his approval, and he saw his own name in bold next to tower one.

That had mattered to him once, too. It had given him purpose and vitality. It had defined him.

Therein was the fundamental problem.

Matt had not merely preoccupied him. Matt wasn’t a mere distraction that Mitch had to tolerate for a short period of time.

No, somehow, in all the frustration and joy and stress, Matt had redefined him in the most encompassing ways imaginable.

The good things had given him more joy than he thought possible. Spending time on the beach together, eating pancakes for breakfast, reading a book or playing games -- those things were more important than everything else he’d ever done.

The bad things, by contrast, had moved him from reason to reckless abandon with a force he would have attributed to a person with lesser will power in the past. He’d always been proud to be even-keeled, and he’d taken comfort in his ability to confront any issue head on and keep his cool. Matt’s antics, however, pushed his emotions all over the map. The stealing, the swearing, the sneaking out -- Mitch had taken on drug dealers and murderers, but the eight year old had very nearly broken him.

Had it really been less than a week since Matt came into his life? Mitch had changed so much and so completely in that time that it was hard to believe. But what about Matt? Had Matt changed?

Physically, the answer was no. Seeing that Matt was a de-aged version of Brody, the lack of a physical transformation had been more than a little disconcerting. In fact, it was the only thing that technically mattered.

So why was Mitch so worried about the rest? Why did he care if Matt became a better person? What was the point in making sure Matt was better adjusted? When the change he needed was physical, he sure as hell spent a lot of time angsting about his emotional changes instead.

Mitch tried to fill in a few words on his paperwork, but all the letters looked foreign. Every time he started reading a sentence, he forgot what it was saying halfway through. Instead of policy codes, he was thinking about Matt’s apology this morning.

The kid was good at apologies, Mitch had to give him that. Probably because all the times he’d screwed up, he’d had to make more than his share of apologies at the age of eight. But that just proved that the kid was shit at changing. In fact, Matt had admitted as much, so Mitch’s dogged hope to see palpable change in him within a week’s time was probably ridiculously optimistic.

The problem was that Mitch was ever confident that Matt could change, with the right support and constant supervision. And maintaining any change for an extended period of time -- well, Matt needed a full time parent.

He needed Mitch, all of Mitch, all the time. He needed Mitch to be his constant, his unwavering bedrock in choppy seas.

Mitch looked forlornly at the stack of papers. If he gave Matt what he needed, he’d have to deny everyone else. All other parts of his life -- Baywatch, the bay, all of it -- would be put in second place. There could be no early morning paperwork sessions. He wouldn’t be able to pull a double shift at tower one over the weeked. He wouldn’t be able to train Stephanie or keep up with the lives of everyone who wandered in and out of his bay.

Just Matt.

For everything.

And even if he did make that choice -- that imbalanced, impossible choice -- there was no guarantee it’d work. That was the worst part about it probably. For all that Mitch knew that it was a bad trade, taking Matt at the cost of the rest of his life, he was tempted to do it despite the cost benefit analysis. But the choice would ultimately be moot because Matt really wasn’t his.

He had to remind himself of this.

Matt wasn’t his.

Mrs. Flores had seen Matt. She had to know by now that Mitch was harboring him. By not coming clean about the kid, she would suspect something was amiss immediately, and it wasn’t like she needed a valid reason to try to screw him over. She just didn’t like him, plain and simple. After winning over everyone else in his life, Mitch had failed to procure affection from the one person that could break him.

If she called the cops, social services would get involved eventually. Even if Mitch made the drastic choice to leave the neighborhood and the bay, it was just a matter of time before the farce fell apart. Matt would have to go to school someday. He’d want to join a swim team. Hell, even a driver’s license. None of which Mitch could give him because of the lack of paperwork.

Sooner or later, Matt would realize it was a lie.

Sooner or later, someone would take Matt from him.

Mitch shuddered, pen slipping across the form he was failing to complete. This wasn’t just about facing possible jail time. This was about what it’d do to Matt. If he let Matt think this life could be forever and permanent, what would it do to the kid when it wasn’t? All the sacrifices Mitch made on Matt’s behalf would be for nothing. Any sense of stability in Matt’s life would be completely and irrevocably undermined. Matt would be worse off than he was now.

Drawing a breath, he glanced at the paperwork again. He was struck by the stark reality that he couldn’t fix Matt. And trying to fight that battle would force him to sacrifice all the things he actually could fix. With his head screwed on straight, he’d be able to come back to Baywatch. He’d be able to finish the paperwork, get his lifeguards in order and train Stephanie. He’d be able to be that constant presence for everyone who passed through the bay.

Everyone but Matt.

It was a stark juxtaposition, an all or nothing choice. Choosing Matt would cost everyone everything. Choosing the bay would hurt Matt in the short term, but he was young and resilient. In real life, Brody had overcome those odds. Matt could, too.

Besides, what did Mitch really think he could give Matt? In one week, the mild gains were eclipsed by setbacks. The kid was still an asshole. He wasn’t demonstrably better than when Mitch had found him in the spare room. There would be more mistakes; there would be more fights. Mitch would send the kid to bed angry, and Matt would scream and rage at Mitch about how unfair life was. Maybe someday they’d make a family. Maybe someday Matt would grow up into a good person, a balanced person, a happy part of a family.

That was a lot hinging on the word maybe.

All of it felt important, but Mitch was making best guesses where the kid was involved. The past week, he’d mostly been spinning his wheels where Matt was concerned. There was no evidence to suggest that he was doing the right things for Matt, that he was giving the kid what he actually needed. Mitch might trade the rest of his life for nothing.

Matt was one kid. One smart ass kid.

The bay, though.

The bay was so much more. A community. A family.

Which one needed Mitch more?

Which one deserved him?

Which one did he want?

He wanted those questions to be rhetorical. He wanted the answers to be easy.

But all he could think about was whether or not Matt still wanted to finish reading Captain Underpants with him.

The look in Matt’s eyes. That hope. That thing that pulled Mitch to Matt every single time.

That was why this had to end.

Mitch was going to disappoint Matt sooner or later.

He had to make it sooner.

For Matt’s sake.

And his own.

The longer he put this off, the more Matt was going to be hurt. The worse the aftermath would be. There was only one logical choice. He had to give Matt up, and he had to do it soon.

Dropping the pen, Mitch buried his head in his hands. It was the right decision, he told himself.

He lifted his head, looking wearily at the mounds of work waiting for him. It was the only decision. With enough distance from the situation, Mitch had to accept that. Summer would, too, with enough time and space.

The only person who would never come to accept that was Matt.

Mitch picked up his pen again, trying to get a little work done. Matt would never see that it was necessary, that Mitch was doing this for him.

It would just feel like betrayal, like rejection.

Mitch finished a form, sifting through to the next.

He tried to focus, tried to bring his attention back to the problems he could fix. He tried not to think about how Matt would be right about it.

It had to be done, Mitch said, moving his pen in rigid strokes across the paperwork.

This weekend, before things got out of control. Before Baywatch fell apart, before Matt got too attached.

Mostly, this weekend, before Mitch completely lost his nerve.

-o-

On the way out, he talked to everyone who smiled at him. He took the time to greet them all, to call them all by name. He asked Kari Jones how many miles she was running these days. He talked to Alan Shorling about the litter of puppies his dog was having. Mrs. Dominguez had lost weight; Mr. Vance was hosting his daughter who lived in Ohio. Jaime Hudgens was entering a surfing competition. Joy Filion had a son who was moving to Oregon for college.

He tried to remember these things, commit them to memory. He tried to remember the man he’d been. He tried to be that man again.

They smiled at him and hugged him. They shook his hand and told him how much they missed him.

It was gratifying to remember that he was loved, that he had a whole life out here that needed him.

It was perspective, he told himself. A necessary reminder of why he was making the inevitable choice. He wanted to put things into focus. This was clarity.

Not a distraction, he insisted to himself as he finally climbed into his car on numb legs. Not an intentional delay so Mitch didn’t have to go home to face Summer, to face Matt.

To face the life he was giving up.

For the one he couldn’t bring himself to believe mattered more.

-o-

The drive home wasn’t nearly long enough. Although he’d resolved the right path to take regarding Matt, he dreaded having to tell Summer.

He hadn’t even started thinking about telling Matt.

One terrible task at a time, he decided.

Still, when he parked in the driveway, he nearly lost his nerve. He thought about going in and forgetting all the things he’d promised himself he’d do.

Hell, he’d rather just turn around and leave, never coming back. Maybe Summer would have more luck doing right by Matt than he was having.

That wouldn’t work, though. And that wasn’t fair.

Matt had shown up in his spare room.

Mitch had been the one to make the errant wish.

He had to be the one to man up and take responsibility here.

With a solidifying breath, he turned off the engine and made his way inside.

-o-

He heard them laughing before he even opened the door, and he stopped short in the entryway when he saw them playing what could only be described as the most animated and ridiculous game of charades ever. Matt was attempting to mime something, but mostly he was flailing about while Summer laughed. By the time Mitch had closed the door, they were both dissolving into a fit of giggles that probably would have gone on for a long time if Mitch hadn’t made a point to close the door a little louder than necessary.

They both looked up, surprised to see him. Summer tried to collect herself -- as though she could pretend that she was being a mature adult and not an awesome playmate -- but Matt didn’t bother. Eyes bright, he bounded over to Mitch. “Hey! You’re back! Summer said you’d probably be back for dinner, but I said I didn’t know, and she said she was sure, but I thought we should maybe start making something, but she didn’t think so, and it’s okay because I’m not really hungry yet anyway.”

Mitch deposited his keys on the table, trying to not look as uncomfortable as he felt around Matt’s sudden exuberance.

Matt, for his part, didn’t notice. “She took me to the pier!” he continued. “And we watched the boats, and there were people fishing but I didn’t see them catch anything, and there were all these tourists, and we spotted dolphins out in the water, and then she bought me ice cream!”

Something inside of Mitch clenched painfully. “Yeah?” he asked. “What kind?”

“Like, four kinds,” he said. “She took me to this place where they let you build your own sundaes, and I put, like, in all the toppings, and it cost like ten bucks because they make you pay by the weight, and I was, like, maybe I should put some back, but she said it was totally cool. Right, Summer?”

She had joined them now, marginally more sedate. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, we couldn’t really put it back anyway.”

Matt nodded excitedly. “And we ate it outside, looking out over the water,” he said. “There were so many boats out there. I’d never seen so many boats. Like, big ones and small ones. Summer said the small ones were, like, ones that people owned, people like you, but she didn’t think you owned a boat, do you?”

“Uh, no,” Mitch said, feeling more numb with every word Matt spoke.

“But she said you use them all the time, on your job, which I think is so cool,” he said. “Lifeguards in Iowa, they like sit in chairs and hold floaty things. They use whistles and stuff, but not boats. Can we go boating sometime?”

The afternoon had clearly been good.

Shit, it’d been amazing.

Matt was as happy as he’d seen him. Mitch would like to think it was all about Summer and ice cream and boats. Mitch knew better, though. He knew that it likely still had a lot to do with the promise Mitch had insinuated in the morning. That they’d talk about what came next.

Mitch hadn’t made anything explicit, but it was clear that Matt was letting himself get comfortable. He was letting himself believe that this place could be home, that this makeshift family he was discovering might have a future for him.

He was starting to let himself belong.

And Mitch had resolved to end it.

“We’ll see,” he said, as noncommittal as possible.

Matt, for one, didn’t notice his ambiguity. “Well, it’d be cool, is all,” he said. He gave Mitch a curious look, then glanced at Summer. Matt was intuitive about people; he’d picked up on the pattern. He knew that Mitch and Summer liked to debrief after she watched him. Maybe he thought he paid her. Maybe he thought she simply reported on his behavior. Maybe he still thought they were banging each other. Whatever the case, Matt was falling into the pattern well enough. “I can go to my room for a bit. I was going to try to take apart the Lego and rebuild something. Maybe I can combine the boats into a bigger one before dinner.”

Mitch nodded, strangely grateful that Matt wasn’t going to make this hard. The compliance, however, made what was coming even worse to think about. “Great,” he said. “Thanks.”

Matt grinned at him. “Sure,” he said. Then he waved. “See you, Summer!”

She tousled his hair affectionately. “You bet, Matt.”

Matt skipped off, and Mitch felt his throat threaten to close up entirely as Summer shifted her weight from foot to foot and turn her eyes to him. She was waiting for him to speak, waiting for him to take the lead. Just like she always did, just like he always had.

He didn’t want to this time. Not that he had changed his mind, because there was no other decision he could make. But if it was breaking his heart, he didn’t want to think what it would do to her.

He couldn’t even bring himself to look at her. She had fallen in love with Brody. She had implored him to keep Matt safe. And if Mitch couldn’t do that? If he had to betray her trusts as much as he had to betray Matt’s?

Finally, she cleared her throat. “I’m sorry about the ice cream,” she said. “He had piled on so many things before I could stop him, and you should have seen his face, Mitch. I know we can’t spoil him or whatever, but I couldn’t say no. You know what it’s like when he looks at you with those eyes.”

Mitch swallowed hard, and nodded. “I know,” he said. “It’s fine.”

“I just kept thinking, when was the last time someone did that for him, you know?” she asked.

He nodded again, wishing this didn’t hurt as much as it did. “I know.”

“And I don’t know, discipline will come, I think,” she said. “Once he feels safe and secure. He’s just been all over the place. He needs to be grounded. Like, not punished. But connected.”

She was explaining it all unnecessarily. Mitch knew this. He’d had the same thoughts only hours before. Only she hadn’t taken those thoughts to their natural conclusions. She hadn’t thought the whole thing out. She was still thinking that things could change for the better, just like Matt.

Mitch was forced to be the one to contend with the reality.

“I’m glad you had fun,” he said honestly, giving Summer a small smile. “Both of you.”

She smiles back at him, clearly somewhat relieved. “It was fun,” she said.

She waited for him to follow up, to ask another question, to tell her the latest. Mitch found his words were stuck in his throat. The things he needed to say were the things he couldn’t bring himself to speak.

“And work was…?” she prompted after a few seconds of silence.

“Fine,” he said, and it was kind of true. Good or bad, the ultimately conclusion was that he had to deal with both. “Seems like I’ve been gone forever.”

She laughed. “Yeah, this has been one crazy-long week,” she agreed. When Mitch couldn’t bring himself to laugh, she hemmed herself in. “Are you sure there’s nothing you want to talk about?”

The way she said it -- what he wanted to talk about. He didn’t want to talk about any of it. He didn’t want to think about any of it. He wanted to exist in some alternate plane, a plane where paperwork didn’t matter, where age was just a number, and Mitch could put one life on hiatus in order to pursue another. He wanted a life where he could be all things to all people, where time and energy weren’t an issue. He wanted a world where he could keep his job, bring Brody home and keep Matt all at once.

That was what Mitch wanted.

He wasn’t going to get most of it.

If he were lucky, he might get to keep some of it, but only at the greatest cost imaginable.

“No,” he said, and at least that much was true. “We’ve talked around it enough. We both know what we have to do.”

She nodded, although she had no idea what he was talking about. Still, she continued on with renewed enthusiasm. “I was thinking about work, though,” she said. “I’m still good to cover for you tomorrow, that’s not a big deal. But if Brody doesn’t come back this weekend, we’re going to have to get some extra help. And I’m with you on the fact that we want to keep this quiet, but I think there are enough people we can trust at Baywatch to help us out. I know for a fact CJ would be down with it, and Ronnie, too. We all know what Brody is to Baywatch; I know they’d want to help. Between the four of us, we can manage. And who knows? Maybe they have some ideas to help us turn him back.”

It was a wildly optimistic plan.

A wildly naive one.

How long was it until Mrs. Flores was able to confirm her report about an unattended child living with Mitch? How long was it until the police paid a courtesy visit -- or worse, child protective services? Could they be on their way now?

“It’s up to you obviously,” Summer said, reading Mitch’s hesitance. “I mean, I’m with you, behind you, whatever you decide.”

She meant it. She just had no idea what that meant.

She’d hate him for what he was going to do.

He’d like to say that not telling her would be the kindness thing for her, but he couldn’t face her. Not knowing that she was never forgive him for it.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing back the thoughts and emotions as best he could. “I’ll think about it. We can talk through it soon. Maybe tomorrow.”

It was a horrible lie, one more overt and poorly thought out than the one he’d told Stephanie. They weren’t going to talk about anything tomorrow. At least, not anything beyond Mitch’s cowardice and betrayal.

“Awesome,” she said, beaming a bit now. “I know we can find a way to work this out. We can do what’s best for Matt.”

That was the bottom line, the one he’d come to. In his heart, Mitch knew that was what he was trying to do.

“What’s best for Matt,” he agreed, willing himself to believe it, to know it. “As long as we remember that’s what we both want.”

“Anyway, you want me to stay for dinner?” she asked. “I don’t mind helping out--”

Mitch was shaking his head. “No, no,” he said. “You’ve done enough today.”

“I really don’t mind,” she said.

“I know,” he said, but if she stayed, he’d never do what he had to do. If she stayed, he’d lose his nerve. If she stayed, he believe the fantasy that they could be a happy family. If she stayed, this whole thing would fall apart. “But I need some time with Matt tonight. Just me and him.”

She nodded in her understanding. “He’s in a good mood,” she said. “You should see him play charades. He’s terrible at it. But hilarious.”

Mitch gave her a wooden grin. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

She hesitated, looking for a reason to say. When Mitch gave her none, she finally ceded her position and moved toward the door. “You’ll call me? If anything changes?”

“You’ll be the first person,” he promised.

“Well I’d be the only person,” she joked, opening the door. “Say bye to Matt for me.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured her falsely, closing the door behind her as she left. She had no idea what kind of goodbye she was saying.

Mitch looked toward the door of the spare room.

He was going to have to say goodbye for all of them.

Goodbye to Matt.

Probably goodbye to Brody.

Goodbye to the team he’d built and the family he’d created.

Goodbye to happiness and trust.

Goodbye.

A simple word that had the power to tear every last thing apart.

-o-

Facing Summer, he’d chickened out.

He didn’t have the option where Matt was concerned.

No, he had no option where Matt was concerned. It was tempting to put it off. Hell, it was tempting to simply drop the kid off at the police station and get out of town before anyone could question him. That would be his easy way out, for sure. As if somehow cutting and running on his entire life was easy.

And if it was just him, maybe.

If it was just Summer, possibly.

But there was a bright eyed eight year old boy who thought he might have found a home. If Mitch was going to crush that dream, he had to afford the kid the dignity of an explanation. He knew that the only hope he had of Matt recovering from this was if he was told explicitly it wasn’t his fault.

Mitch knew it was likely Matt wouldn’t believe him, but if he didn’t explain himself, if he ditched the kid without a word -- then he’d never had a chance. He’d spent too much time around Brody to think that was okay.

Shit, he’d heard the kid talk about his eleven temp placements over the last year too much to think it was okay.

Either way, Matt would never forgive him.

Mitch wasn’t sure he deserved to be forgiven.

Even if none of this was actually his fault.

Shit, shit, shit.

Maybe cutting and running was a better option after all.

No, he resolved. He had made his choice. He had to stand by it. If this was truly in Matt’s best interests, then he had to stand by it.

With this, he knocked on the door, readying himself for a confrontation.

When Matt opened the door, he greeted Mitch with a smile.

Just that fast, Mitch felt all his resolve threaten to crumble. Anger, deviancy, pain -- he could handle all that. But hope?

What the hell was he supposed to do with hope?

Except crush it into a thousand little pieces.

“Hey!” Matt said. “Is Summer gone?”

“Um,” Mitch said, trying to get his voice back. “Yeah.”

“I hope you’re not mad at her about the ice cream, because that was me,” he said, confessing readily as if he expected Mitch to be upset about too much dairy and paying too much for a sundae. “I didn’t realize you paid by the weight. I’ve never been to a place like that. I don’t think we have them in Iowa yet, but they’re super cool.”

“The ice cream is fine,” Mitch said, and there was that word again. He had said fine so much today that the word had officially lost its true meaning. He tried to lighten his own mood. “I just hope that you saved a little room for dinner.”

Eagerly, Matt nodded. “I could totally eat dinner.”

“Great,” Mitch said. “I was about to get it started, but I thought I’d see what you wanted.”

“Anything’s fine,” Matt said amiably. Unlike Mitch, he still seemed to think that word carried resonance. Damn kid meant it.

“Sure, but I want to know what you want,” Mitch said. “Anything at all.”

“I mean I know you still have lunch meat,” Matt said.

Mitch rolled his eyes. Of all the times for Matt to start acting mature. “We’re not going to relive that meal,” he said. “Besides, think bigger. Anything you want.”

Matt seemed to realize that Mitch was more serious about this than he realized. “Like, McDonalds?”

Mitch shrugged. “If that’s what you want more than anything else.”

“Well,” Matt said. “I mean, I was also thinking about fish. After this afternoon and all. And, like, we’re on the ocean. We don’t eat a lot of fish in Iowa and stuff, and I just keep thinking you probably know how to make really good fish.”

“And that’s what you want?” Mitch prodded.

Matt nodded, a bit more enthusiastic again. “We could grill,” he suggested, his voice gaining some momentum. “With sides or something. Do you have corn here? We have a lot of corn in the summer back in Iowa.”

“I’m out of corn,” Mitch said.

“Well, potatoes,” Matt said. “Like, you can put them in foil and use spices or whatever and they’re super good and stuff.”

“Potatoes we can do,” Mitch said.

Matt was on a roll now, his excitement building. “And nothing green,” he said, a little bit adamant now. “Like, we can grill some carrots, too, and I’d eat an orange or whatever, but no salads or whatever. Not tonight.”

“Copy that,” Mitch said. “Nothing green.”

Matt stared at him, a little awestruck. “Are you serious?”

“Dead serious,” Mitch said. “The sky’s the limit on this one. So go big.”

Matt’s eyes went wide with absolute credulity. Figured, the kid went and trusted him now. Right before he was going to destroy that trust. “Can we throw in some beans? No one else likes baked beans, like, anywhere, but I think they’re good.”

“Baked beans, check,” Mitch said. “I think we can throw something together.”

Matt was smiling now. “Really?”

“Kid, tonight’s your night,” he said. He didn’t add that this was the last night, possibly the only night. Instead, he forced a smile at Matt’s beaming face. “So make it a good one.”

-o-

Matt did.

He helped with every part of dinner, stumbling over the recipe for baked beans and throwing too much oil on the potatoes. His poorly wrapped foil packets leaked everywhere, and he put in too much ketchup for the baked beans, but when the fish and trimmings were served, Matt looked like he as about to eat a feast fit for a king.

For a while, Matt was so transfixed with the opulence of the meal, that he barely noticed that Mitch was strangely subdued. Instead, he raved about the seasoning and the sides, and he talked about the things they could do different -- next time.

Mitch found, after several minutes of the happy monologue, that he couldn’t even nod along anymore. The happier Matt seemed, the worse Mitch felt. Because he knew -- he knew -- that Matt would handle the news even more dramatically the happier he felt.

At the same time, how could he begrudge the kid this?

A last meal?

One last fleeting night of fun?

Across from him, Matt shuffled in his chair, looking self conscious at Mitch. It was then that Mitch realized he’d spaced out for several minutes. He hadn’t noticed.

Matt had. He feigned a smile, his expression conciliatory. “So, you said we’d talk,” he started, and he didn’t sound like an eight year old this time. He sounded too experienced for that. “And I was thinking about it, you know. A lot.”

Mitch had to keep his mouth closed; he wasn’t sure what he would say anyway.

“And, um, I know having me around is, like, hard,” Matt began, almost as if he’d been reciting it to himself over the course of the afternoon. “But I mean, we’ve had some good times. And, um, I think I can be better. You know. Like I was today.”

He was offering that up, almost as a negotiation tool. As if he were bargaining for more privileges and not the fundamental right to have a home.

Matt drew a long, deep breath. “And I know you have to work, okay, and I know Summer can’t always watch me, so I thought, you know, what if I were able to help you out during the summer,” he said. “I mean, in a month or whatever, I’d start school, so that’s not a problem, but you can take me to your job. You’re on the beach or whatever, and I can hang out nearby. Or I can even, you know, help you do stuff. Chores or whatever you do. And I mean, if your boss isn’t cool with that, I can be barely noticeable, I swear. I’ve done that loads of times.”

The plan was thought out and so naive. He wished it were the easy, and you know? If there was paperwork involved? If he could enroll Matt in school? It might work.

But Mitch had no paperwork.

He’d have to break all kinds of laws to get Matt any kind of documentation to be in school.

And everyone would notice a bright eyed kid from Iowa running around the beach. Questions would be asked. Questions Mitch couldn’t answer.

Matt sensed his hesitation. His enthusiasm flagged, but he rallied it quicker than Mitch might have expected.

“Or, you know, I can stay home by myself,” Matt offered. “I mean, I know they don’t want you to do that or whatever -- it’s probably in the paperwork, too -- but I’ve done it before. I’m good at it. You know, responsible or whatever, when I need to be. And I wouldn’t tell. And I wouldn’t sneak out, I promise.”

Mitch couldn’t keep listening, not to the promises Matt would never be able to keep, not to the promises an eight year old should never have to make. Not to the promises that suggested all the hope that Mitch had to shatter. “We do need to have that conversation,” he said finally, rallying what he could of his integrity to do this right. “And I’ve been thinking about it, too.”

His approach was cautious, cautious enough for Matt to notice. Matt’s expression flickered, his hope wavering just slightly. He seemed to know that it wasn’t his turn to talk now; he seemed to know that his plans would inevitably be subjected to Mitch’s interpretation of things. He just hadn’t quite put it together how far off their plans would be.

Mitch gritted his teeth together, and the words were painful to form when he spoke. “The situation with us. It’s...complicated.”

This time, Matt trembled a little. His smile had fallen, and he blinked a few times, trying not to look scared. Trying not to be scared. “It’s always complicated, but the caseworker -- she can figure it out for you,” Matt said. “I’ve heard of it happening before, when temp placements become permanent. I know it’s a thing. If you want it, they’ll make it a thing.”

He was giving Mitch all the reasons why it could work.

If only he understood the reasons it couldn’t.

But how could he know? What did Matt know about mystical processes of deaging?

For a second, he was tempted to explain it, but Matt would take it as an insult. Another lie from another person who had ultimately not wanted him. “I know,” Mitch said, each word heavier than the last as he forced himself to keep Matt’s gaze. “Your paperwork, though. It’s more complicated than you think.”

“What, it’s been flagged or something? You can’t blacklist kids, not even the worst ones, the ones who freak out and try to kill people or burn down houses,” Matt said, starting to ramble now. He was on the verge of breaking now, and Mitch could see tears starting to burn in his eyes. His breathing picked up; he blinked rapidly. When he continued, the words took on a desperate, pleading tone. “You said we’d talk about it.”

“And we are,” Mitch said. “We’re talking about it.”

Matt shook his head, denial setting in over the fear now. “Is it the stealing?” he asked, voice pitching just a little. “Because I can stop that. I can. No problem.”

Mitch sighed. “It’s not the stealing--”

“The language, then,” Matt interjected quickly. “I know it’s bad, and I shouldn’t do it. I can stop that, too. I mean, I could slip up a little, but I’d try. I’d try real hard.”

He was making promises, each one more desperate and needy than the last. Although he had the sense to barter like an adult, he sounded and looked increasingly like the child that Mitch couldn’t deny that he was. “It’s not that either,” he said, trying to keep himself stoic. If he showed how much this hurt him, he’d never make it through this. If the kid knew that this was breaking his heart, then they’d both be lost. “It’s just more complicated than you could ever know.”

The denial was giving way to panic, and it was written plainly over his young features. “But we’ve been making it work,” he said, his entire body quivering now. “I know I’ve been bad, but I can try harder. I really can.”

“It’s not that easy,” Mitch tried to explain, in some vain attempt to make Matt see.

Matt shook his head. The tears were filling more rapidly, giving his blue eyes even more of a vibrant shine. “But we can do it, you and me,” he said, voice so taut that it sounded like it would break. “Can’t we?”

If Matt was visibly shattering, Mitch was just holding his in. “Matt, I can’t--”

Matt shook his head again, and when he blinked this time, a tear slipped free. “You mean you don’t want to.”

“It’s not that,” Mitch tried to intercede quickly.

Matt’s breathing caught, and he was just shy of breaking down entirely as another tear splashed down his cheek. “Then what?” he asked, wobbly badly now. “What is it?”

There was no answer that was satisfactory. No answer that wouldn’t make a rejected kid feel like the world had chewed him up and spit him out again. There was no answer that wouldn’t take Matt’s sense of self and tear it to shreds, that wouldn’t take his idea of family and trust and mutuality and turn it all into a farce.

Mitch didn’t have an answer that made any of it right.

“I just...wasn’t equipped for this,” he tried anyway, because the sight of Matt’s shaken countenance warranted something. “I’m not...approved for anything more than a short term placement. I never should have let you think otherwise.”

It was a lie told in kindness, but Matt found its weaknesses immediately. “But you can talk to my casework,” he insisted. “I know I talk crap about her, but she’s not all bad. She’ll be happy if someone wants me. I know she will.”

“But I have other commitments,” Mitch pointed out, hoping to steer the conversation back to the realities of his job and his connections throughout the bay. To his adult mind, that logical comparison made sense.

To Matt, it made sense, too. But not the kind of sense Mitch had intended.

Instead of understanding, Matt’s face fell. His shoulders lowered and his body caved in. Mitch could see it happening, the way the hope drained from him, evaporating from his entire self in a fast, fluid motion. In an instant, Matt went from an upbeat, confident kid to the downtrodden mess who had shown up in his spare room less than a week ago.

Mitch hurried his words, trying to find some way to make it better. “I want to, I do,” he said, hoping that his positive tone was enough to change the course of this conversation. “This whole thing, I swear it has nothing to do with you.”

But Matt was shaking his head.

Pushing on, Mitch tried harder. “You need something permanent, someone who can give you more than I can,” he said. “I know it’s hard to understand, but you’ll find something better.”

He ignored the fact that Brody had never found anything better than Baywatch. He couldn’t deal with that, not if he was going to get through this conversation.

Matt was crying now, wiping the tears from his cheeks with stiff motions. “Eight years. I haven’t found anything better,” he said. “There’s nothing better, not for me.”

Mitch could feel his own eyes starting to burn. “It’s not that I don’t want to.”

Something twisted in Matt’s expression. None of this surprised him; in fact, Mitch had the sense that Matt had had this conversation before. Too many ties. “Just that you won’t,” Matt deduced, lips contorting into a sick smile. He recited it, like it was a line he’d heard so often that he knew it by heart. “You’re busy. I’m hard. It’s a bad match. It wasn’t meant to be. I’ll find something else out there. There’s a family for me, maybe in the next placement. Or the next one. Or the next one. Always the next one.”

The recitation was far too jaded for any eight year old. Matt’s tears had stopped now, but his eyes were still red as he wet his lips.

“It’s always the next one,” he said. “Never this one.”

Sighing, Mitch wanted to reach out, but he didn’t figure the kid wanted to be touched. “Matt--”

“No, I get it,” Matt said quickly, defensively almost. It was a bleak sort of absolution in his tone, the kind of resigned acceptance that one only got from years of losing anyway.

“You don’t, though,” Mitch endeavored to explain.

“No, I do, really,” he said, eyes going a little wild as he shook his head. The plate of his half finished dinner was sitting forgotten in front of him, all the sides, the perfectly cooked fish a paltry offering that could never compensate for this conversation. “You’re not so special, either. I’ve had this conversation so many times I’ve lost count. You’re not the first. You won’t be the last.”

Mitch hated it, being grouped in with all the others. To think that he might be talked about like the Fredericks or the Barnabys. Another person who had turned Matt’s idea of family inside out. “It’s not the same thing,” he said. “If you understood--”

Matt didn’t let him finish. “I have to leave, right?”

Mitch blinked hard, his voice faltering at the bluntness of the question. “Well…”

“See, it’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “The Fredericks told me they couldn’t give me the support I needed. The Barnabys said that they didn’t have enough time for me, that I’d be better at a home where I could get the attention I needed. Sometimes I cause too many problems with the others kids. Sometimes I’m making trouble at school. Sometimes I just don’t have any hobbies or activities and I’m not actively engaged. Sometimes they say things just ran their course, but it was good to meet me and they hope for all the best. Some of them don’t even tell me, they just put my packed bags by the door for when the social worker comes. They might say that they’re sorry, but they’re not. I’ll bet none of them think of me when I leave, just like you won’t think of me either.”

“That’s not fair,” Mitch said, almost recoiling as if Matt had hit him.

“Of course it’s not,” Matt said. “Nothing’s fair. You’re just lucky it only took you a week to figure it out. Some people put it off too long.”

“I am trying to do the right thing by you,” Mitch said.

“No, you’re not,” Matt told him flatly, refusing to offer any absolution now. “You make promises, all this big talk. You say all this shit--”

“Language--”

Matt didn’t even miss a beat. “But you didn’t mean any of it.”

Mitch felt his own breathing quicken, his heart skipping wildly in his chest. “I did mean it. All of it.”

Matt’s brows knitted together and he gave a short, horrible laugh. “Bullshit.”

Mitch growled, more hurt than angry. He was the one in denial now, denial that was mounting second by second to rage. “Language!”

If Mitch felt his rage mounting, Matt had already given into his. “You’re a liar,” he seethed, his expression darkening with pure vitriol.

Brody had always known how to push Mitch’s buttons, how to pick the attacks that were meant to hurt Mitch. He’d been good at it, getting under Mitch’s skin when his intentions were conciliatory. It was clearly a skill Matt had learned young.

And it was a tactic Mitch was not well versed in avoiding. “Matt--”

“You lied,” Matt pressed, knowing he’d hit the right button for a response.

With Brody, he would have responded with measured retaliation. At Leeds club, he’d scared the asshole into the pool. At the tryouts, he’d let Brody exhaust himself before rubbing his face in the sand. In his own damn living room, he’d called Brody’s bluff and thrown him his bag, taunting him to get the hell out.

This was Matt, though. It was all Mitch could do to keep himself in check. “Matt--”

Mitch was pulling his punches, but Matt had no intention of playing fair. He refused to be placated. “You’re as bad as the rest of them -- no, worse,” he said, pointing each word at Mitch like a dagger, aimed straight for the heart. “But you made me think you cared. You pretended like this was some kind of family when it was nothing but some stupid, shitty temp placement.”

The language barely registered. Mitch shook his head. “You’re the one who kept reminding me it was temporary.”

“And you made me believe it wasn’t!” Matt roared back. He was as angry as Mitch had ever seen him before; his entire body pulsated with it, as if his small frame could barely contain it.

It was a startling thing to see, a transformation from hope to disillusionment, happiness to rage, companionability to betrayal. “Matt--”

Matt shook his head violently, sneering nastily. “You’re the worst person I’ve ever met!”

Matt was lashing out because he was hurt, Mitch knew that. But he was hurt, too. This wasn’t easy for him, and he’d asked for none of it. This was not a situation anyone should have to deal with, and yet here Mitch was. He’d borne the brunt of it all week, and he had his breaking points.

Even he had his breaking points.

“You’re just an asshole is what you are!” Matt shouted, hurtling the words with as much force as he could. “A shit-faced asshole!”

“And you’re so broken that I can’t fix you!” Mitch said, his voice finally rising to a shout in return. He could feel the words reverberate in his chest, echoing loudly off the walls of the kitchen with enough force to stun Matt into silence. “Don’t you get that? I have given up everything for you this week, no questions asked, and you still run around like a self entitled brat doing whatever the hell you want. You are not the center of the universe, okay? I have a job. I have a life. I have responsibilities that go beyond cleaning up your messes. And the thing is, I don’t know how to fix you, Matt. I tried being nice. I tried tough love. I tried parenting you, being your friend, all of it, and you still act like this. So when I tell you that I can’t do this, you can’t say that I haven’t tried.”

It was more than he’d intended to say, and less than he actually wanted to say. The words were all wrong, the tone was too angry, but the essence of his frustration wasn’t something he could deny.

And none of it was something he could take back.

This time, at least, Matt listened to him.

This time, he’d said something Matt hadn’t heard before.

Something so deep, so personal that it made Matt reel, and his eyes were wet again. Blinking rapidly in the chair across from Mitch, Matt looked like a kid again, small and trembling and helpless.

And Mitch wanted to take it all back. Everything he’d just said, the whole last week. Maybe the last six months if it meant he could spare Matt from this.

“I know you can’t fix me; no one can,” Matt said in the smallest voice Mitch had ever heard. “That’s not what you did wrong. Your mistake was thinking that you could.”

He pushed back from the table, the tears spilling over his cheeks again.

“And my mistake was believing you,” he said, words in a rush as he tripped over the leg of his chair.

“Matt,” Mitch started.

Matt ignored him, charging around the table blindly. “I hate you.”

Mitch snagged him by the arm on his way by, but Matt shook him off violently. “Let’s talk about this, calmly and rationally--”

Matt’s eyes flashed. “Fuck you,” he said, the words barely composed as he turned away, slipping free of Mitch’s lax grip.

He was still sitting there, chest aching and empty handed, when the door to the spare room slammed shut behind Matt, and the expletives continued to ring with condemnation in Mitch’s ears.