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Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (10/14)

December 26th, 2018 (02:18 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-

The kitchen, in Matt’s wake, looked like a disaster zone. The half finished dinner was strewn across the table, partially devoured potatoes mixed with the remnants of the grilled carrots. Matt’s fish was barely eaten, the perfectly cooked meat cut open and growing cold.

There was enough there to salvage, and Mitch wasn’t usually one to waste anything, but as he looked over it again, he couldn’t bring himself to try. Instead, he heavily took the plates to the trash, emptying them one by one before putting the dirty dishes unheeded in the sink.

The table was clear, but that only left a bigger mess in the sink. Faced with this, Mitch found he didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. Or maybe he just didn’t care enough anymore. The futility of the evening was suddenly insurmountable to him.

He’d done what he needed to do. He’d told Matt the truth, or as much of the truth as he could make sense of. It wouldn’t be a clean break, but it was a necessary break. Matt would never understand it, even if Mitch knew it was necessary.

He told himself that -- again.

This was what was best for Matt.

He thought about the way his voice had broken, the way his face had crumpled. He thought about the trembling fear that gave way to desperate rage. The look on his face, like no one had ever hurt him more than Mitch had hurt him tonight.

This was what was best for Matt.

It was just a shitty sort of fate that the only way to save the kid was to break his spirit.

Miserably, Mitch left the kitchen, unable to face the aftermath of the failed dinner any longer. He had hoped the living room would be a refuge, but that had been a naive sort of hope. Matt had infiltrated every part of his life; his presence was everywhere. Eradicating him wouldn’t be as easy as doing dishes and taking the garbage out.

The living room was still strewn with Matt’s toys, obviously from his playdate with Summer that afternoon. The Lego sets were staged on the coffee table, and the book was pressed open to chapter four on the arm of the sofa. There were three empty bottles of water and a package of half eaten potato chips on one of the end tables. The slips of paper Summer had used for her makeshift version of charades were scattered across everything.

Mechanically, Mitch tidied a few things, putting the bottles in the kitchen sink before finding a new bag for Matt’s things. He carefully put away the Lego sets, trying to keep the boat from getting damaged as he bagged it up, before using one of the slips of paper from charades for a bookmark in Captain Underpants. With the items neatly bagged, he took them to Matt’s room, hesitating on the outside.

He considered knocking, but he knew he wouldn’t be welcome. There was no sound inside, and Mitch doubted the kid was in the mood for playing. Instead, Mitch placed the bag beside the door, lined up and ready to go, just like Matt always kept it inside the room.

Mitch had never thought to help the kid unpack. He’d never thought to clear away a space on the shelves, to buy a small dresser -- anything. Maybe he’d known, just like Mtt did, that this would never work.

Lingering at the door, Mitch leaned closer, straining to hear any sounds from Matt. Silence and stillness greeted him.

He tried not to think about the possibility of Matt sneaking out.

Not when his real fear was that in a day’s time, he’d never have to listen for Matt again.

-o-

Mitch liked to trust his instincts most of the time, but his instincts were failing him entirely now. Sometimes, his instincts told him that this was how it had to be, that this was how it was supposed to be since Brody first started crashing on his couch all those months ago.

But then he had other instincts, stronger instincts than he expects, that want to march into Matt’s room and tell him screw it, screw everything he said. They can pick up right now, just the two of them and get a flight to a polynesian island and just disappear on the beach forever, far away from his responsibilities at Baywatch and far away from the legal system that had him in a bind.

Shit, he’d take Brody’s girl-ass balls for directions right now. Anything to make this a little bit clearer.

Stuck with this internal battle, Mitch resigned himself to the couch where he spent the next several hours staring vacantly at the far wall. Occasionally, he had a coherent thought about feeding the fish or closing the blinds. Once, he thought about texting Summer, but that impulse died as quickly as it came, unfulfilled. Summer probably deserved to know, but she’d ask questions and she’d look at Mitch with that look of hers, the one she used when she told Mitch that she was in love with Brody and that she’d do anything to keep Matt safe.

Summer would make this harder.

Besides, she’d take Matt’s side.

Mitch was so tenuous on his belief that he was doing the right thing that inviting another opinion was a terrible, terrible idea. A worse idea than donning a yellow shirt and loafers to work in a damn cell phone store.

Mitch was just full of bad ideas anymore. Sure, I’ll take the Olympic washout on my team as a publicity stunt. Of course, I’ll stop flakka from flooding into the bay while taking down the most powerful woman in Southern California. It’s absolutely no problem to let Brody stay on his couch indefinitely despite all inevitable conflicts. Obviously, he totally has it under control when an eight year old shows up instead. It’s cool.

Shit, he used to be good at this. He was supposed to be good at this. Everyone counted on him to know exactly what to do. They thought he was invincible, and he never gave them any reason to think otherwise. But he was falling apart here. In fact, he was pretty sure, with any kind of pressure at all, he’d be in freakin’ pieces.

This was necessary to protect Matt.

Rationally, he knew this.

But he hadn’t anticipated just how hard it would be. How much it would destroy Matt.

How much it would destroy himself.

The right thing was supposed to feel right.

Not like suicide.

Tomorrow it’d be better, he tried to console himself. Once the deed was done, once Matt was well and truly safe, things would get better. He’d have his old life back, the life he’d sacrifice when Brody was thrust on him in the first place. He was confident of that.

Mitch looked bleakly around the empty room.

He just wished he could be confident that that was the life he wanted.

-o-

Mitch could have put it off forever. He could have let the night slip away in silence. It might be better that way. There was no indication that Matt wanted to talk to him.

But Mitch was pretty sure the kid deserved better than that.

In the end, Mitch was still the adult here.

For one more night, Matt was still his responsibility.

Stiffly, he found himself in front of Matt’s door, rapping with his knuckles three times on the wood.

There was no sound from inside.

“Matt,” Mitch called. “Um, can we talk a little bit?”

There was still no reply.

Mitch did his best not to panic. He’d been sitting in silence in the living room for hours; he would have heard Matt if he tried to escape. The kid was still in there.

Mitch knocked again. “I’m, um, coming in, okay?” he said, putting his hand tentatively on the handle. He waited, not sure if he expected resistance, but when none came, he turned it, cracking the door open by degrees. When there was no response, he stepped inside, turning toward the cot.

Matt was on the cot, curled up on his side, facing away from the door. He was still fully dressed; the covers were still made up. Matt showed no signs that he was trying to sleep, eyes open and fixed on the stuff Mitch had stored on the far wall. Mitch followed his gaze, noting the camping gear Matt had asked about. He wished, momentarily, that he’d bothered to take the kid camping.

It hurt to think he’d never get the chance.

Forcefully, he cleared his throat.

Matt didn’t show any sign of acknowledgement. His face was impassive, drawn perfectly still. He had experience with this sort of thing; too much experience.

Mitch conceded that he deserved any cold shoulder treatment. That was why he was here, after all. “Look,” he started, not sure where to start. “I know you’re mad. I know you’re hurt. And I know it seems like I’ve betrayed you, even if that’s the last thing I ever wanted to do.”

Matt didn’t blink, didn’t move.

Mitch forced himself on. “None of this is something I planned. All of it -- you -- caught me off guard and I’ve spent this week struggling to keep up,” he explained. “But that’s me, and this whole thing, it’s on me. What I’m doing, as hard as it is for both of us, I’m doing it to keep you safe.”

The only sign that Matt was listening was the slightly clenching in his jaw. Otherwise, the impassive facade remained doggedly intact.

“If I could do this another way, I swear to you, on my very life, I’d change it,” he said, solemnly now, with certainty. “There’s just not always another way. Or if there is, I don’t see it. And I hate that. I hate it more than I can possibly tell you.”

The muscle in Matt’s jaw jumped, unclenching and clenching again as he blinked hard.

“I just, I need you to know, before we have to end this,” he said. “I’m going to miss you. More than I maybe expected. More than you could possibly know.”

He was saying this to Matt, the eight year old kid he’d wanted to fix but broke even more. But he was also saying it to Brody, the best friend he should have helped but pushed away instead. This was his apology.

This was his goodbye.

Because the second he let Matt go, he was letting Brody go as well.

Mitch’s sense of loss was heavy and palpable, and he felt it cloying in his chest.

“I care about you,” Mitch said. “And I wanted more time for us to figure things out, but time’s the one thing we don’t have.”

Matt was stoic. Although his breathing visibly tightened, he refused to look at Mitch in any kind of acknowledgement.

“Anyway,” Mitch said, crossing closer to Matt. “I just wanted you to know.”

He said it, reaching out to give Matt’s shoulder one more reassuring pat. At the contact, however, Matt flinched, almost like he’d been hit. With one touch, Mitch had managed to break through the facades that Matt was working so diligently to keep in place. He could feel Matt’s breathing quicken, and red suffused his face in anger, in embarrassment, in overwhelming discomfort. He still refused to look up, and his mouth stayed stubbornly and defiantly shut.

Mitch had no choice. There was only one thing left for him to do after all this.

Let go.

He let his fingers fall limply to his side. “I’m sorry,” he said, turning back toward the door. He moved slowly, carefully, but Matt didn’t call him back. There was no absolution; there was no closure.

There was only stillness and emptiness.

Mitch knew that Matt didn’t need his apologies.

As he closed the door behind him, Mitch knew he couldn’t give Matt what he needs.

He felt the door latch behind him, sliding with a damning sturdiness into place, erecting the door between them as a buffer. He closed his eyes, fingers still clutched on the handle.

Unfortunately, the apology was all he had.

-o-

Weary, Mitch didn’t have the heart to try to recreate anything tonight. After a week of making his best damn efforts on every front, he was ready to concede defeat. He’d lost Brody.

Tomorrow, despite his best intentions, he was going to lose Matt as well.

Mitch went outside and laid out on the lounge. He couldn’t bring himself to look up.

He didn’t have a wish left to make.

Or a hope left to believe in.

He closed his eyes and craved nothingness.

Anything to deaden the pain he felt inside.

-o-

Sleep was a refuge, if only temporary.

Mitch should have known something about temporary things after this week.

But Matt wasn’t the only one who had trouble learning these days.

-o-

He came to at the sound of a feral, inhuman screech. At first, the thought there was somehow a wild animal on the beach. Then, he thought someone was being attacked or even murdered.

Then, he realized dumbly, that it was just Mrs. Flores, screaming at him over the hedge.

This was disorienting, to say the least.

He just wished it was unexpected.

With a groan, he tried to sit up. It took him several minutes to get his bearings and conclude that it wasn’t morning. In fact, from the position of the moon and stars, it was barely midnight. Only then did he actually listen to digest Mrs. Flores’ screeching into actual words.

“--and you can’t fool me,” she was ranting. “I know you think you can, you arrogant bastard, but I know! I’ve known for days now, and I’ve caught you red handed!”

The words made sense, but they lacked all context. “What?” Mitch asked in sincere confusion.

“You are harboring that boy! The damn criminal child! Aiding and abetting him!”

Mitch blinked, still failing to make this parse. “What?” he tried again.

“The hooligan!” she all but yelled at him now. “The one you insisted you didn’t know!”

This time, Mitch couldn’t find his voice as his stomach started to sink.

Mrs. Flores was in full steam now, and with Mitch’s attention, she seemed eager to continue. “I saw him just now, the little brat! I saw him run out of your house, your front door. Ran right past me, didn’t listen to me telling him to stop or slow down, like he was beholden to no one! No respect at all, running out at this hour!”

Mitch was physically ill now, his stomach churning so violently he thought he might hurl.

Mrs. Flores lifted a bony finger at him in accusation. “And don’t act like you don’t know,” she hissed. “I saw you two together on the beach. I saw you with him, the same kid. Skinny, pale, brown hair. Fast and reckless and bad to the bone.”

Mitch was going numb now, a wave of cold sweeping over his body. “Where did he go?”

“Down to the sand, the water, how do I know!” she cried back at him. “Probably off to do something illegal. Steal something, burgle someone. Boys like that, they do drugs, I know. All sorts of bad things on this beach, my beach.”

She was still going, but Mitch couldn’t hear her anymore. The words sounded like droning in his ears, drowned out by the sound of his own deafening heartbeat. He had turned back to the house, crossing the back porch in a matter of steps, opening the door.

“You get back here!” Mrs. Flores crowed. “You get back here, you, or I’ll call the cops!”

The words didn’t matter anymore, and Mitch couldn’t bring himself to humor her this time, not with the more pressing, more terrifying notion. Mrs. Flores was annoying, and she could pose some risks.

But Matt.

Matt was more important.

And if Matt had really left…

He let the door slam shut behind him, Mrs. Flores still ranting in muffled tones beyond the glass. He was nearly completely numb now, his legs moving almost of their own accord. He crossed the kitchen, moving directly for Matt’s spare room.

But when he got to the hall, his heart skipped a beat.

The door was open.

Desperate, Mitch still pushed the door open, turning on the lights with no pretense. The cot was empty, the sheets rumpled but still pulled up. Matt’s things were lined up by the door, neat and orderly for the morning except for the bag of clothing.

That one was on the bed. While the shirts and shorts were still inside, Mitch recognized the shirt Matt had been wearing earlier that day folded on top. Mitch knew that top; it was the first one, the one Matt had tried to steal. All the other items were accounted for except the swim trunks.

Shit, who would sleep in swim trunks?

And where was he sleeping?

Frantic, Mitch ran through the hall, checking in the bathroom. It was dark and silent. The living room lights were still on where Mitch had failed to turn them off, but there was no one there. He made the circle back toward the kitchen, but stopped short when he saw the front door.

It was unlocked.

Matt was gone.

A little boy, far from everything he knew with no one to turn to. Even if he were inclined -- which Mitch knew at this point he wasn’t -- there was no caseworker to fall back on. There was no one in the system looking for him, accounting for him. If Matt left now, he’d just be gone.

Forever.

And it would be all Mitch’s fault.

-o-

Mitch stood there, frozen on the spot, staring at the unlocked front door. His panic was so driven that he couldn’t even fathom what it meant, what it could mean. He couldn’t bring himself to put it into coherent thoughts, the idea that Matt was gone, the idea that he’d lost him.

Mitch had never been one to fold under pressure, though. In fact, when faced with a situation that would terrify most people, Mitch had always had the natural inclination to rise to the challenge. It was what made him such a damn good lifeguard.

It was what made him Mitch Buchannon.

The last week had challenged in him that regard. It had made him question everything he’d once believed about himself.

But under pressure, when lives were on the line, he still knew what to do.

For the sake of the victim, he always had to.

For the sake of Matt.

The numbness dissipated, and the fire was born in his stomach. He flung the door open, exiting the house at a jog. At the beach, he paused to get his bearings, looking for any sign of Matt.

He was too far behind him, though, and the sand was too well traversed to make sense of the footprints. No, Mitch couldn’t track him. He had to do this on his instinct, his knowledge of Matt.

Matt undoubtedly could and would run away, but if that had been his intention, why wouldn’t he take his things? Mitch’s phone and wallet were still inside, safe and sound. And why would Matt run away in his swimsuit.

Simple: Matt wasn’t running away.

He was running to something.

There were two things, outside of Mitch, that had attracted Matt over the last week. The first was Summer, but the kid had no idea where Summer lived. Moreover, he had to know that Summer would call Mitch when he showed up, making her an unreliable refuge.

The second was the ocean.

It had transfixed Matt from the start. It had always been the thing that connected them, and all their best memories had been set upon the water. It was the only feasible reason to wear swim trunks.

But why would Matt want to swim? Did he just want to freak Mitch out? Was he looking for one last swim before he assumed he was getting shipped back to Iowa? Or was he hoping the ocean would take him far away, to the point beyond the horizon, away from the loss and disappointment this week had foisted upon him.

Whatever the reason, Matt wasn’t ready for a real swim. He might have thought himself ready. At this point, he might have not cared.

What Mitch knew for certain was that Matt was going to get in over his head.

Literally.

Sprinting now, he made the familiar trek down to the water in half the time it usually took him. At this time of night, the beach was deserted, and the sound of the waves seemed to roar at him mockingly. He scanned the darkness, looking for any signs of movement, any small figure bobbing in and out of the surf.

Any indication of Matt.

Lifeguards didn’t work at night. Not in such poor visibility, when the waves were almost indistinguishable from the sky. Not when a little boy would look like nothing but surf under the wan light of the moon. Not when the water was strong and encompassing, tempering all hope for success with the bleakness of reality.

Maybe this was fate. Maybe this was punishment. What right did Mitch have, after all? Going after the kid he’d determined to let go? By making that choice, Mitch had forfeited his right to care, his right to even know what happened next to Matt.

As if it hadn’t already felt like the worst decision he’d ever made.

Determination aside, Mitch was starting to feel his composure falter as he scanned up and down the shoreline again. Then, he saw the flash of movement. He thought it was nothing at first, but he watched it, the familiar movements, the trained motion of a body cutting across the surf.

“Matt!” he screamed, though he knew it was no good. In the water, Matt would never hear him. Mitch started to run, crossing the sand faster than he’d ever run before. “Matt!”

He watched as the little boy used the moves Mitch had taught him, the ones they’d practiced together. He was farther out than they’d been together, though. Too far. Mitch would never reach him in time.

“Matt!” he screamed now, letting his voice bellow across the expanse of the ocean. He splashed into the shallows. “Matt, come back!”

Matt turned, head above the water for an instant as he looked back, his eyes locking on Mitch’s for just a second.

Before the next wave took him under, and the undertow took hold.

Instead of bobbing back to the surface, Matt disappeared, and Mitch cursed, splashing in several more feet. He waited, scanning farther out on the horizon, waiting for a sign of Matt before he set out for a rescue.

There, bobbing above the waves farther than before, Matt gasped and flailed. He spluttered as another wave crested over him, his strong, steady strokes no match for the force of the ocean as it overpowered him.

With another wave pulling back from the shore, Matt slipped farther away.

His head above the waves, Matt struggled, trying to swim against the pull of the current. He was too small for it, but he tried valiantly, and Mitch couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t look for Mitch again.

In fact, Matt didn’t cry for help.

Maybe he knew, logically, that no one was around.

Maybe he just thought no one would bother to help.

Shit, maybe he didn’t even want to be saved.

Mitch could make no judgment on any of those possibilities. At the end of the day, he was still a lifeguard, and he had one, singular job. He’d failed at everything this week, but he would get this right. The place where both halves of his life collided: he had to get this right.

Mitch was moving out into the water, using his body mass to propel himself forward and ground himself in the swells. He used his understanding of the water, gauging its directionality and force, giving his best guess as to Matt’s general outward direction in the waves. He swam faster, and faster, pulling harder and harder until he got to the place he’d last seen Matt.

There was no sign of him now.

Treading water, keeping steady against the current, he scanned the water, looking for any sign of movement.

There, in the darkness, he saw one small hand surface before it was pulled back down again.

Biting back a curse, Mitch dove in, fighting against the strain in his muscles as he pulled farther away from shore. This was a risk for himself, too, at this point. Strong swimmers had been lost to the waves; Mitch wasn’t some cosmic exception to the danger. Without a flotation device, without backup, this was a risky move.

But all the reasons why he should stop couldn’t overcome the one reason to keep going.

He couldn’t give up on Matt.

Not now.

Not ever.

Ignoring any inhibitions, Mitch followed his balls this time, and he trusted those instincts from years on the water to take him directly to Matt. When he got there, the water was empty, and he scanned the horizon for several seconds, spinning in a circle while he treaded.

The water was empty this time.

Matt had gone down.

Mitch processed this news with only the faintest sense of dread. Matt had lasted longer than most people would have in his position, and Mitch had done more than his share of underwater recoveries.

Diving down, he knew immediately this wouldn’t be easy. But he’d done this before, too. He could still remember the first time he saved Brody, under the water in Leeds’ cage. The moonlight had cast a faint glow, enough to guide him to Brody’s faded form at the bottom of the harbor.

It was more chaotic here, in the waves, and the moonlight was hardly enough to make sense of the shifting landscape. With the first dive, he came up blank. He recalculated his position, and then went with his gut to the place he’d last seen Matt surface.

The second dive was no more fruitful than the first. Most people would have panicked by now, but this was Mitch in his element. This was Mitch doing what he was meant to do.

Saving the one person he think he was destined to save.

Then, he saw him.

A small, fragile body, suspended beneath the waves. Mitch swam to him, cutting through the water with an effortless strength, wrapping his arm around the skinny chest and pulling the boy close to him.

They rose together, and Mitch hoisted Matt above the waves with a gasp of relieve.

Short-lived relief.

Matt didn’t gasp; he didn’t move. His head fell forward, long bangs dripping with water as they reached back toward the water.

This wasn’t surprising, Mitch reminded himself automatically. He’d done enough of these rescues; he knew how they worked. He knew how long Matt had been under. He’d found him, though. That was the first step.

He leaned the boy back, keeping his head above the water as he started the swim back to shore. Each stroke felt harder than the last with the slight weight pulling him down. He wasn’t letting go.

Not this time.

When he hit sand, he found his feet immediately, drawing Matt up into his arms as he started to run clear of the waves. In his grasp, Matt was limp, head falling back and arms dangling at his sides.

He forced himself as far as he dared, and then he hit the sand with his knees, carefully laying out his small but important burden.

Matt was still as Mitch arranged him on the sand, falling back on the routines he’d trained and honed most of his adult life. With steady hands, he tipped back Matt’s head, tilting the pale skin up toward the pale light of the moon and the winking stars above them. He leaned down, opening Matt’s airway and watching for signs of movement in his chest.

There was nothing.

The impetus to panic was more pressing than ever, but if Mitch lost control of himself, he’d never get Matt back. He couldn’t do that, not when Matt was here, beneath his touch, right here.

He turned back toward Matt, ignoring the doubt that ate away inside of him. He pinched Matt’s nose, the skin cold beneath his touch as he pressed his mouth over Matt’s and blew two strong, steady breaths.

Watching, he saw Matt’s chest rise and fall. With two fingers, he felt for the pulse at Matt’s neck. The faint beat was all the encouragement he needed.

Bending back over, he breathed for Matt again.

Once more.

This time, Matt spluttered beneath him, his small body racked with a sudden fit of coughing. He was back; he was alive.

Mitch gathered him up, pulling him closer than a normal rescue would warrant. But he wasn’t a lifeguard, not anymore. Now, he was something more.

He kept one hand on Matt’s back, rubbing steadily while the boy hacked up water. With his other hand, he pressed Matt against him, close enough to feel the rasp of his breathing, the beating of his heart against his own chest.

How close had he come to losing this?

Worse, how close had he come to letting it go?

On the job, Mitch lived for the rush of the rescue.

That burst of adrenaline; the satisfaction of a job well done. He had always liked the notion that he could do his part and walk away, proud and complete.

Sitting here, though. Fingers laced through Matt’s hair. The messy, dirty, gritty aftermath.

It felt so much more important.

So much more transforming.

So much more.

It wasn’t a contest, when he compared them. Which one mattered more; which one he’d pick.

Clutching Matt tighter still, he’d pick this. Every time.

Sitting there, Mitch lost all sense of time. After a short while, Matt’s breathing started to even out as the coughing tapered off. As he regained his control, his chest started to hitch again. Mitch worried Matt had taken in more water than he knew, but this time, instead of bringing up dredge, Matt started to cry.

The first sob was small and stifled, as if Matt had bit it back with all the self control he had left. But when Mitch’s grip didn’t waver, the second sob wrenched itself free, strong enough for Mitch to feel it pulling at Matt’s strained lungs. Mitch didn’t let up, and by the third sob, Matt let it out freely, a soppy, messy sound that echoed over the sound of the waves still crashing against the sand a short distance away.

Mitch didn’t let go.

Within several more seconds, Matt was crying free now, and his little hands were grasping up at him, finding Mitch’s sodden shirt and wrapping themselves tight. It was a small thing, but a big thing, and Mitch steadied himself even more, making sure Matt was folded securely against him.

The stronger Mitch’s hold, the more Matt gripped him back.

Soon, Matt was sobbing so hard that his breathing was compromised, his wet cheeks pressed into the warm of Mitch’s chest. “I’m sorry,” he hiccuped. “I’m sorry for going, I’m sorry for being so stupid. I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean any of it.”

Mitch tried to shush him, smoothing down his hair.

Matt was too hysterical to be so easily comforted. “I’ll be better, I promise. I can be better for you. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to go.”

All of Matt’s facades; all of his carefully created fronts and facades and persons; they’d been washed away, left behind in the surf that had nearly taken everything from both of them. With the pretenses gone, Matt was just a little boy.

Desperate, needy and more alone than Mitch could have understood at first.

Tonight, when Matt finally let himself cling to Mitch, Mitch realized what he’d missed all along. For all that Matt was holding onto Mitch, it was Mitch who was holding him together. If Mitch let go, Matt would let go, too, but not just of Mitch or the beach. But of everything good inside of him, every hope, every promise, every dream.

The weight of this responsibility terrified him.

But not as much as standing on the shore, watching Matt go under.

“Please, let me stay,” Matt begged now. “Please, don’t make me go.”

Mitch couldn’t say no.

How had he ever thought he could say no?

This wasn’t about what was easy. It wasn’t even about what was better. It wasn’t about right or wrong or cost benefit analysis or any of that other shit.

It was about family.

Messy and complicated and unrelenting.

It wasn’t even close to rational.

The mistake was thinking that it should be.

Family wasn’t like that. No, family was like the ebb and flow of the ocean, turbulent and constant all at once. Family was a contradiction, a give and take that was never equal but never quantified. What it took from you, it gave back at haphazard and unexpected intervals. It drew you in and spit you out, and the things you surrendered were returned not quite the same, softened and smoothed at the edges.

Most of all, family was like the ocean in that you couldn’t fight it. If you fought it, you always lost. But if you went with it, you were in for one hell of a ride.

There, entangled together on the beach, the ocean had one last lesson for Mitch. Brody was his. Matt was his. His.

Mitch still had no idea what he was supposed to do with that.

But there was only one thing he could do now.

Embrace it.

He pressed his cheek to the top of Matt’s head, continuing to rub on the kid’s back in slow, steady motions until the sounds of his sobs trailed off and his breathing fell in tandem with Mitch’s own.

Embrace it.

And never let go again.

-o-

Matt was still shivering, wet hair and wet suit in the cool ocean breeze, so Mitch knew it was time to get him inside, dry him off, warm him up. It was time to bring him home.

Logically, Mitch knew that the near miss had been traumatizing for both of them, but that Matt was probably fine. There was no reason he shouldn’t walk himself back.

Except that his small hands were still fisted into Mitch’s shirt, and Mitch didn’t want to let go.

Logic was going to have to take a backseat for the night.

Effortlessly, Mitch got to his feet, Matt still tucked against him. He could feel the kid stiffen at the movement, but when he realized that Mitch wasn’t letting go, he relaxed again, easing into Mitch’s grip as the started the trek back up the sand.

He made his steps slow and careful, measuring each one with the rhythm of Matt’s heart. As they crossed Mrs. Flores’ house, he could see her framed in the window, but he spared her only a glance. His hardest, most threatening stare over the top of Matt’s wet head, daring her to say something, daring her to do something.

She was full of bluff and blunder, but she tutted to herself, pulling the blinds closed as he passed.

He’d have to deal with her eventually, he knew. Probably tomorrow.

But tonight was about Matt.

Inside, he carried Matt to the bathroom, gently putting him down on the closed toilet seat. Shuddering, Matt drew in on himself, teeth chattering as Mitch reached for a towel, draping it across his shoulders. He quickly found another, using it to rub the tufts of his hair dry.

As Matt’s shivering started to ease, Mitch went back to the bedroom to find Matt’s pajamas. He took them back to the bathroom, lying them on the counter while he kneeled down to look Matt in the eyes.

“You think you can get dressed by yourself?” he asked.

Matt was still whitewashed, his blue eyes looked bigger than normal as he looked up at Mitch. He looked terrified still, and Mitch wished he could say that it was just from the near-drowning.

“I’ll be right outside the door,” Mitch promised him. “I’ll stay there the whole time.”

It seemed to take effort for Matt to understand what he was staying, and it took longer still for him to realize that the offer was a compromise to allow him some dignity without asking him to do too much. Matt was shaken, but he finally nodded.

Mitch smiled, patting Matt’s head. “Okay,” he said, getting to his feet. “Everything you need is right here.”

He went slowly enough to see Matt get haltingly to his feet, and though he closed the door behind him, he kept his ear close enough to listen. He could hear the slow sounds of movement, the rustling of clothes. Two wet flops where Matt’s wet clothes hit the ground. He had to back up when Matt opened the door, standing awkwardly in his warm pajamas, not sure what to say or do.

As the adrenaline wore off in the aftermath, it was clear that Matt was not sure what to make of it. There was a touch of embarrassment in his stance, and shame seemed to make his shoulders ride low. What he’d done tonight was reckless and stupid, and he knew enough to regret it. But more than all of that, Matt wouldn’t quite meet Mitch’s eye, which suggested that Matt wasn’t sure that the promises made on the beach were valid or not when all things were considered in their proper context.

After all, he was a kid who heard lots of promises over the years.

None of them had come to mean anything.

This one would be different, Mitch resolved.

All reckless, shitty decisions aside.

For both of them.

“Come on,” Mitch said, hand on Matt’s shoulder as he guided him out of the bathroom. “Been kind of a long night. You’re probably tired.”

Obediently, Matt followed him with small shuffle steps. Tired was actually an understatement at this point. The day had been emotionally draining enough, and Matt’s close call on the beach had been a physical trial for them both. Matt was too tired to be angry or impassive; he just seemed like a small, shrunken version of himself, too weary to bolster up any of his facades.

That was just as well. Mitch was too tired to be anything other than what he was right now. With steady movements, Mitch led them into the spare room, where he promptly pulled down the sheets to the cot and fluffed the pillow.

“There,” he said, smoothing down the sheets with a small flourish. “Nice and cozy.”

For a moment, Matt stared blankly at the bed, like he wasn’t sure what to do with it. When he could come to no other conclusion about what to do with the situation that was being presented to him, he stepped toward the cot and sat down, facing Mitch.

In response, Mitch pulled the chair over, sitting down across from him. Tilting his head down, he struggled for a good look at Matt’s downturn face. When the kid determinedly avoided him -- a move honed with years of practice, no doubt -- Mitch couldn’t take it any longer. They’d been not quite seeing eye to eye long enough, and the results had been disastrous. Finally, he reached out, using his hand to tip Matt’s head up under the pretense of checking him out.

“How’s your breathing?” he asked.

Matt swallowed, a small, convulsive movement. “Fine,” he said, and although his voice was tiny, it sounded clear. There was no hint of wetness or lingering cough. Matt blinked a few times under the scrutiny, trying to shrink back without pulling away. “I’m fine.”

Mitch inspected him a little closer, this time with a more discerning eye. As a lifeguard, he knew what to look for in the aftermath of a drowning. Matt’s eyes were clear and reactive to light. He was responsive and coherent with no sign of mental defect. He was able to walk and move under his own volition. He was pale, but that was easily attributable to the shock of it all. And yet, Matt still looked uncomfortable as hell. “Nothing else hurts or feels off?”

Matt pulled his chin away, this time with a small shake of his head. Sitting rigidly, he cast his eyes down again.

Mitch sighed, letting his hand drop. His lifeguard instincts were ill placed now, and he had to fall back on something much more human. Mrs. Flores could wait until morning. Matt could not. “Look, what happened tonight--”

Matt flinched in anticipation.

“I think we both said and did some things we don’t mean,” he continued, remembering Brody’s first apology to him. An apology he understood a lot better today for a lot of reasons. “But you scared me tonight. When I realized you were gone; when I saw you go under…”

Matt’s eyes were burning with unshed tears again, and it was a clear effort for him to keep himself composed.

“It made me realize that I couldn’t lose you,” Mitch said.

Cautiously, Matt glanced up at him, the vestiges of his composure at their very frayed ends.

“So I don’t know how we’re going to make it work, but we’ll have to figure it out,” Mitch continued.

Matt blinked a few times in apparent shock.

“There are going to be things you don’t fully understand, issues that you won’t get, but I don’t know,” Mitch said. “If you’re willing to meet me half way with this stuff, we can make it work.”

Matt’s breathing had started to quicken again. “You mean -- I can stay?”

Mitch let out a weary breath. “There are a thousand reasons you shouldn’t, but I told you: I can’t lose you.”

It was a hope so daring, so desperate that not even Matt believed it yet. “You’ll work it out with my caseworker?”

“Something like that,” Mitch said, not quite lying.

Color rose in Matt’s cheeks, and his eyes were bright. “You promise? I can stay? Forever?”

“I promise that I will do everything in my power to make this your home,” Mitch vowed. “As long as you want it, I won’t turn you away.”

The hope was so appealing, but Matt still seemed to hesitate in accepting it. His eyebrows knitted closer as he processed this. “Even when I screw up?” he asked.

It was telling that he made no promises of perfection. Tonight had laid both their faults bare, and Matt’s propensity toward stupidity wasn’t changing. The kid was vulnerable enough right now not to deny it, but to look for grace in spite of it.

Mitch didn’t think much about his own faults, but he could see that he lacked a certain ability to change. For as much as he loved the bay and everyone in it, he’d always served as the force of changed. He’d rarely let someone mold him into someone different. He had thought that was a virtue, and most of the time it probably was.

But he had to admit he wasn’t perfect. He had to open himself up to living a different life than the one he’d planned. He had to accept that the ocean didn’t always give him what he wanted.

It would still give him what he needed.

He smiled gently. “Even when we both screw up,” he said.

Matt’s smile start to grow, almost as if he were afraid to believe it. “Really? Like, you’re not going to change your mind again? I’m not going to have to pack up in the morning?”

“Really,” Mitch said. “My mind’s made up. You can stay for as long as you want?”

“Forever?” Matt asked, voice cracking on the word. A word he’d said so many times but never believed. A word he’d thought was intended for everyone else but not for him. The word he’d wanted more than anything but learned to resent instead. A simple word that meant everything.

“If that’s what you want,” Mitch conceded because he knew better than anyone you couldn’t fight against the current. He was too tired to try anymore. If this drowned him, at least he’d die trying to do the right thing.

A wide smile slipped through the last of Matt’s defenses. “I want it,” he said. “I want to stay.”

Unexpectedly, Matt lurched forward, wrapping his arms around Mitch’s neck in a sudden hug. The force of it caught Mitch off guard, because Matt was safe and sound on solid ground again, but he was still clinging to Mitch as if he were the only thing keeping him afloat.

He probably was, Mitch reasoned.

He returned the hug, just as firm as secure.

Maybe they were keeping each other afloat this time.

It was Matt who let go finally, easing himself back into bed. The night had been long, and Matt’s energy was flagging. More importantly, the promise of a hopeful tomorrow seemed to be all he needed to let himself go.

Mitch’s chest ached a little, a happiness so profound that he didn’t know what to do with it. He reached out, tousling Matt’s hair. “Fine,” he said. “Then go to sleep. We’ll figure out the details in the morning.”

Matt obeyed, settling himself down on the pillow as he blinked sleepy eyes. The adrenaline had disappeared now, leaving something much quieter, much more gentle, much more complete in its wake. Now, there was no reason to fight. Now, giving in felt like the best thing to do, and Matt’s body conceded that fact mere moments after his mind had. “Thanks.”

“For what?” Mitch asked, adjusting the sheets over Matt as the kid’s limbs grew still and heavy.

“Saving me,” Matt told him, pausing to yawn.

“I’m a lifeguard,” Mitch reminded him, smiling as Matt blinked slower and slower. “That’s just what I do.”

Matt yawned again, and now when his eyes closed, they only opened halfway. “Well,” he said, snuggling deeper into his pillow. “Yeah, that, too.”

This time, when Matt’s eyes closed, they didn’t open. Mitch watched as Matt let out a long, deep exhale and sleep seemed to settle over his whole body. “Yeah,” he added softly, watching the rise and fall of Matt’s chest, the peaceful cut of his features as he slipped deeper into sleep. “That, too.”

All these years, Mitch had made a career of saving lives one way.

Meeting Matt -- meeting Brody -- he was finally mastering the other way.

Watching Matt sleep, safe and secure and happy, Mitch finally knew which one mattered more.