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Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (11/14)

December 26th, 2018 (02:21 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-

He stayed there, sitting by Matt’s bedside, watching for longer than he normally would. On the one hand, he could justify it in terms of Matt’s safety. The kid had taken in some water from the ocean earlier; Mitch had reason to make sure his breathing was uncompromised.

On the other hand, he didn’t want to leave. Matt’s breathing was fine, that much was plainly obvious once the kid calmed down. In sleep, the restful lilt of his inhalations was reassuring -- but not to the lifeguard in Mitch.

He’d used to hang out in this room, listening to the CB. It had been his way of finding meaning, being connected. Now, the CB was collecting dust, and Mitch never felt more confident of his purpose.

Because this wasn’t about a job. This wasn’t a duty.

There was something more to it. Something so much more.

Something more that kept him here. This wasn’t what he’d wanted -- shit, he’d never even wanted Brody in the first place. The whole situation had been foisted upon him, and he’d rolled with it because that was what he did, but he’d never intended it to get this far. Brody had proven himself, both as a member of this team and as an inconsistent human being, and Mitch had been struggling to reconcile those two varying sides of the man when the universe saw fit to give him Matt instead.

And where Brody had been difficult, Matt had been nearly impossible. The lows were enough to make Mitch want to tear out the hair he no longer had. But those highs…

Shit, those had never been better.

This past week, Matt had turned Mitch’s entire life upside down. He’d redefined and reoriented it, and Mitch had struggled to make sense of the shift. He’d tried to sort through the different responsibilities, coming to some kind of compromise, and when push had come to shove, he’d thought he could give Matt up.

There was no way.

That was what this night had taught him.

Sure, none of this was what he wanted. It would throw everything out of balance, and Mitch would have to make drastic changes to everything, but there was nothing else to do.

Well, there was. But there was nothing else he wanted.

That was the fact he’d fought again all week, but Matt was like a riptide pulling him back and back until Mitch had let go entirely.

This wasn’t the life he would have chosen, but it was his now.

He watched as Matt snuffled in his sleep, turning toward Mitch as his mouth opened slightly as he lapsed into dreams.

This was his.

And there was nothing he wanted -- nothing he wanted -- more.

-o-

After a while, Mitch finally got up, stretching his tired legs as he went back out to the kitchen. He cracked a beer, taking a long, hard drink as he tried to process everything that had happened today. Restless, he felt exhausted, but there was no way he could sleep just yet. TV didn’t sound appealing, so he cracked the window so he could hear any sound of movement before he settled outside on the patio.

The light in Mrs. Flores’ house was mercifully off, and Mitch could appreciate for the first time just how lovely the night was. The sky was clear, and full of stars. The moon glinted at him, the crescent shape almost smiling.

He sat down heavily on the lounge, taking another long drink of his beer.

It was one thing to make a choice.

It was another thing to make it happen.

Despite his newfound resolve, Mitch knew there were still issues to contend with. Matt was his in spirit, but that didn’t clear up the problem of paperwork. He thought about what Summer had suggested earlier, about recruiting Ronnie and CJ. If he explained it to them, they might help. If they met Matt, they’d understand. Ronnie had the ability; forged documents might be possible.

Mrs. Flores might be harder to deal with, but Matt could go by, introduce himself and apologize. Everyone had a hard time ignoring Matt when he set his mind to apologizing. Matt could offer to do a few chores for her, weed her garden or walk the dog. She had never been won over by Mitch, but Mitch wasn’t a blue eyed kid with a killer smile.

Besides, if she called the cops and Mitch had the forged paperwork, there was nothing they could do about it. In the fall, Matt could enroll in school, and Mitch could scale back his hours in the summers, bring Matt on as an apprentice at some point.

And there were lots of swimming programs. They could join the YMCA and let Matt start doing laps. Join swim team. If they kept his grades up, he could do all sorts of things. And Mitch would give Matt enough to keep him busy, which would help keep him out of trouble. Mitch wasn’t naive -- he’d knew there’d be complications down the line -- but he was possible.

He could still hear Matt asking about forever.

And Mitch had given the promise, singular and inalienable.

Of course, the risks were inherent. If the paperwork didn’t hold. If Mrs. Flores wasn’t won over. If someone found out. And down the line, if Matt pursued elite training, too, someone was bound to make the connection. And the Olympic committee, they were bound to do testing.

Forever was a hell of a long time.

It was also a hell of a big promise.

The person who stood to lose the most in all of this was still Matt. The notion that a clean break now, before Matt grew more attached, still stood as a reasonable and viable truth. Mitch had no guarantee this would work out, and if it didn’t, he knew that Matt might not recover.

Finishing the beer, he set the bottle aside, and he studied the sky with a shake of his head. “I just want to keep him,” he admitted, and the words lifted off him like a burden he’d been keeping. “I don’t care how. I just... want him.”

That was all there was.

Just that.

Mitch breathed out, sinking back against the lounge.

He closed his eyes, thinking of Matt tucked safe in the other room.

Just that.

Above him, a single star streaked across the sky. It seemed like something important, something Mitch should remember.

But he was already asleep before he could figure any of that out.

-o-

Mitch slept that night.

Long.

Hard.

All the weight of the promise.

All the effervescence of hope.

Like a dream that he never wanted to end.

Like a dream--

-o-

He startled awake, and realized abruptly that it was morning.

The instant he had that revelation, he questioned it. Because the sun was out, but he felt like shit. Sore and heavy, it hurt to move. Sitting up, he felt like he’d aged ten years in one night. By the time he managed to clear his vision, his stomach roiled like he had the worst hangover in the world.

With a groan, he looked around, attempting to get his bearings. That was when he saw Mrs. Flores, peering at him over the hedge.

“Stargazing?” she asked, caustically skeptical.

“Uh,” he said, not sure if he could fathom a better lie. “Yeah.”

She harrumphed at him, turning abruptly to go back inside with a huff.

That was about as much as Mitch could hope for on that front.

On the other fronts…

He turned, regretting it immediately. The movement ignited every synapse in his body -- in the worst way possible. He pulsated with pain for a moment, and it took him several seconds before he was able to pull the sensations back into check.

With effort, he hobbled to his feet. His entire body felt weird. Off and heavy. Blinking his eyes, he tried to dispel the vestiges of sleep, but he found it harder than he expected.

He was in the kitchen, bracing himself on the counter when he finally remembered the critical point about today.

Matt.

He’d promised everyone a definitive decision today, but all of those decisions started with Matt. With a deep breath, Mitch found his stability, moving quickly to check in on Matt before the day really got started.

He was reassured when the door was closed; maybe this would give Mitch time to make breakfast, get them all mentally ready for what they had to do today. Mitch would have to talk to Stephanie about shifting his hours permanently. He would have to ask CJ for help watching Matt so he and Summer could pull shifts. And he’d have to see if Ronnie could help him come up with some kind of documentation to make this official.

And he had to tell Summer, of course. She’d be relieved, naturally.

But mostly he wanted to make sure Matt knew he was serious.

This thing wasn’t temporary.

This thing was forever.

No matter what.

Cracking the door, he expected to see Matt, tufts of hair sticking out, curled up on his side, sheets a mess.

The bed was empty.

The bed was made.

Mitch froze, trying to make sense of this.

His breathing was caught in his chest as he looked throughout the rest of the room. The chair was back against the wall. Matt’s bags were lined up neatly by the door.

But no Matt.

Mitch shook his head, trying to keep himself from panicking. Quickly, he went back into the hall, moving to the bathroom. The swim trunks and towel were still hanging in the bathroom, drying off. Still, no sign of Matt.

The living room was empty. There was no sign of him in the master bedroom or bathroom.

Had he run away again?

But why?

Why would he do it now, after all they’d been through last night? Did Matt change his mind? Did he think it was a lie? Had something else happened?

Heart pounding, Mitch moved toward the front door. He made it two steps and stopped, dead in his tracks.

Because the front door was unlocking. He could see the lock moving, hear it shifting into place. Fists clenched, Mitch was ready for anything when the door opened.

But what came through the door sucked all the air out of him. It was all he could do to keep his feet.

Because walking through the front door, sweaty, tired and carrying his bag, was Brody.

-o-

All he could do was stare as Brody came inside, tucking the spare key Mitch had given him back into his pocket. It was surreally normal to watch him, going about his morning like everything was normal. Dressed as he was, it was obvious he’d been out for a jog, and he was putting his bag down quietly behind the door when he looked up and saw Mitch.

Mitch continued to stare, absolutely dumbfounded.

Brody, also caught off guard, stared back.

For a moment, they stared at each other.

Mitch in utter disbelief.

Brody in anxious uncertainty.

It was the most surreal standoff of Mitch’s life.

After the prolonged, awkward silence, Brody grimaced. “Hey,” he said. “I, um, hope I didn’t wake you.”

Mitch found that he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move. Shit, he wasn’t sure if he was actually breathing anymore. Was this a dream? This had to be a dream, right? Some weird, twisted, unusual dream that made absolutely no sense because he’s spent too many nights sleeping outside.

Brody, for his part, seemed to not realize that it was a dream. Instead, he hemmed like he was genuinely nervous, wetting his lips and appearing more uncomfortable by the second. “I know we said some shit last night, so if you want me to go, I’ll go,” he said, making a gesture to the door.

Clearly, Brody wanted a response to that. That was why people normally talked, and Mitch knew that. It was just -- that was the only thing Mitch knew for certain at the moment. He’d gone to bed last night embracing one reality. He had awoken to something entirely different. It had to be possible, of course, considering that he’d been able to accept the de-aging a week ago. Why should the re-aging be so weird?

Why shouldn’t it?

What they hell was going on here?

Brody was still waiting, growing more anxious by the second, but Mitch discovered that there were no longer coherent thoughts being formed in his head. Just spastic notions about Matt, Brody and the inconsistency of the whole damn universe.

Finally, without a better way to respond, Brody took this silence as a momentary acquiescence. “And, I mean,” he continued, clearly pushing himself to keep speaking despite the fact that Mitch might be having a stroke right there in the middle of his living room. “About last night.”

Something triggered in Mitch’s mind, a piece of information more confusing and disparate than the rest. This whole situation made no sense, but that key detail, that weird detail didn’t fit with any narrative he could come up with in his head. He made a face, because, what the hell? “Last night?” he parrotted back in disbelief.

Brody blinked at him, surprised. “Yeah,” he said, a little slowly now. He was cautious as he continued. “I was an asshole last night, no excuses. I mean, you’ve been nothing but nice to me man, and I went and got drunk on your beer and made a mess of your place. I even let your fish die.”

Slowly, Mitch started to understand something. Brody was talking about last night. Not the literal last night, where Mitch had tried to kick Matt out and then dragged him unconscious from the ocean. Not last night when Matt had cried and clung to him and Mitch had promised that he could stay forever. Not last night when Mitch made a wish to keep Matt, no matter what, no holds barred.

Not that night.

But Brody’s last night.

The night Brody had acted like a pig headed asshole and gotten drunk in Mitch’s house. The night Mitch had gotten fed up with Brody’s antics and unceremoniously kicked him out on his ass. The night Mitch had stayed up late and wished for Brody to grow the hell up. The night Brody had disappeared and the night Matt appeared.

That night.

Mitch had lived a whole week since then, but Brody still referred to it as the night before.

Shit.

Really?

Had it only been a day for Brody?

Not only was Matt gone, but Brody didn’t know anything about what Mitch had been through. He knew nothing about what Mitch had learned -- about Matt, about Brody, about his own damn self.

Last night.

As if he could erase the best and worst week of his life with two single words.


“Oh,” was all Mitch managed to say.

Brody drew a breath, taking a step forward into the house. “I don’t know why I do that shit,” he said, shaking his head sheepishly. “You’ve let me crash here for free, and I completely take it for granted. You don’t deserve that kind of thing. At all.” He sighed, meeting Mitch’s eye with an apologetic shrug. “I’m sorry, man. Really.”

It wasn’t that it wasn’t a good apology. It was. Brody was damn good at apologies. He knew how to be specific and sincere, and you wanted to believe him. And Mitch did believe him.

But Mitch didn’t know what to do with this particular apology. Last night to Brody probably still seemed super important to Brody, but Mitch wasn’t sure it meant shit to him. He was still hung up on what had happened to him and Matt last night. He wanted to resolve that, not some week-old conflict that had faded into regret and unimportance.

He couldn’t tell that to Brody, though.

Or he could, but it wouldn’t make any sense.

Brody would probably just think he was trying to get rid of him.

Again.

Shit, shit, shit.

Brody’s expectant face was still on him, and Mitch truncated his internal monologue as best he could. “Yeah,” he said feebly. “I guess.”

His lack of enthusiasm or acceptance seemed to unnerve Brody. He was still able to read a situation relationally; he was still able to tell when someone was treating him not quite right. Sometimes, it made him shut down. When he cared enough, it made him try harder. “I’ll buy the fish,” he offered. “I mean, new fish. And I’ll feed them every day, just like I’m supposed to.”

The fish. Mitch had forgotten about the damn fish. The rest of them were probably dead by now thanks to Mitch’s preoccupation with Matt.

His stomach hurt at the thought.

Was Matt really gone?

Forever?

It had been a word of hope last night.

This morning it felt like a condemnation.

He had to close his eyes.

Brody took this as a bad sign. “And I’ll replace the beer,” he added on, voice desperately seeking absolution. He let his shoulders fall. “And I thought about it last night. Or, this morning, when I woke up sober. I thought about looking for a place to live. Summer’s place is really affordable, and it’ll take me a while to get a deposit together, but in a month or two I can probably put together enough.”

The desperation in Brody’s voice made Mitch open his eyes again. Attached as he’d become to Matt, he’d still cared about Brody.

A lot.

Probably more than he’d let himself realize.

And, he had to remind himself, they weren’t separate entities. Matt was Brody; Brody was Matt.

Mitch stared at him a little more, trying to remind himself that this was what he’d wanted. All week, this was what he’d been waiting for. He’d wanted Brody back. He’d needed Brody back in order to resume his normal life.

But if Brody was here, did that mean Matt was gone forever?

The silence continued to put Brody ill at ease. Mitch could tell, but for the life of him, he couldn’t quite do anything about it since he had no idea what to say. How could he explain that he’d fallen in love with the dude’s eight year old version to the point where he didn’t know what to do with the actual version? Shit, deaging didn’t even make any sense.

“I know this is a favor you’re doing for me, it’s temporary,” Brody said, and his voice was deeper and steadier but he still sounded like he was eight years old. How was that possible? How did someone do that? Brody forced a smile. “And until then, I’ll keep the screw ups to a minimum, okay?”

Until then.

Until then?

“Until then,” Mitch repeated, and he was still trying to remember what Matt had looked like, the color of his hair before those stupid blonde tip and the size of his rib cage before all the years of training. He thought about how it had taken a week for the kid to trust him, and now he was gone.

Until nothing.

Brody cleared his throat, not sure what else to offer as recompense. “Well,” he said, reaching back to snag his pack. “I’ll, um, go get ready. I’m in tower two all day, and I think I have enough time to clean up. We leave in five, right?”

Five minutes, Mitch remembered. Wasn’t that what he’d told Brody before? That he had five minutes or Mitch would leave without him.

Because work had been more important then.

Shit, Mitch wasn’t even supposed to work today. He’d had Summer take over his shift at tower one so he could wrap things up with Matt. His plans had changed last night.

Standing face to face with Brody, it was apparent they’d changed again.

Mitch still couldn’t make sense of it.

At all.

“Mitch?” Brody asked, standing with his bag over his shoulder and regarding Mitch hesitantly. “Is everything okay?”

Mitch thought about it, longer than he should have. Brody was back. Brody was ready to go to work. Mitch could go to work, resume his normal life.

Normal.

No eight year olds.

Brody was even looking for a place to live.

It could go completely back to normal.

Nothing felt okay, but he couldn’t find any reasons why outside the deep ache in his chest.

“Yeah,” he said finally, the word falling off his numb lips. “Sure, everything’s fine.”

Because what could be wrong when Mitch had everything he’d wanted.

What could be wrong now that his life was simple and straightforward again?

Everything had to be fine.

Brody, damn it, believed him. His face widened into a smile as he visibly relaxed. “Great,” he said, making his way past Mitch to the spare room. “Five minutes, right?”

Mitch watched him go, remembering what Matt had looked like when he skipped off down the hall. He’d always been running. When they were going to the beach, he’d be ready in less than five.

“Five minutes,” Mitch echoed, and his own voice sounded hollow in his chest.

Last night, Mitch had been planning a lifetime with Matt.

Watching Brody trot off down the hall, he resigned himself to contending with the next five minutes instead.

-o-

Brody was ready promptly in five minutes. Mitch wasn’t really ready, but he climbed into his car after Brody anyway. Despite the fact that he’d probably slept on the beach last night, Brody was in good spirits, humming the drive in. Though he was supposed to be driving, Mitch found himself inexorably distracted by this.

Not the humming, necessarily.

Just Brody.

His deeper voice.

His bigger build.

His brazen overconfidence.

When they parked, Brody paused and gave him a serious look. “You sure everything’s okay?”

“What could be wrong?” Mitch asked, hoping the rhetorical question could hide the fact that everything was wrong.

Brody wet his lips, debating if he wanted to push this issue. “I mean, you’re okay with it,” he said. “Me staying a little longer. Because if you want me to leave--”

Mitch was shaking his head, the sound of his own voice too loud in his ears to ignore. “No, you can stay,” he said.

Matt had been completely convinced by this promise.

Brody still had reasons to doubt. “You sure? Because this morning just seems...off.”

“Well,” Mitch said, killing the engine. “Last night seemed to last a lifetime for me. I think I’m just struggling to make sense of it.”

Brody looked like he was ready to apologize again, like he wasn’t sure if this was his doing or something else. He settled for a weak smile. “I know your life was easier before I came,” he said. “I’ll never be able to repay the favor, but I’ll try. Maybe we can stop by a pet store tonight, pick up those fish.”

With that, Brody got out of the car, toting his bag toward HQ.

Easier, Mitch thought as he climbed out after Brody. But maybe not better.

-o-

Brody went inside HQ like nothing had changed.

Mitch followed after him, bracing himself. He wasn’t sure if he was scared to learn that Brody was right or if he was scared to discover that Brody was wrong. A few steps behind Brody, he was able to study the man’s every movement. The comfortable familiarity of it all. Like he had literally done this yesterday.

Maybe he had, Mitch reasoned. Maybe the past week with Matt had been nothing but a dream. A really weird and vivid dream spurred on by alcohol, ocean air and a really uncomfortable lounge.

He had nearly accepted this version of his reality when Brody turned a corner and nearly ran into Stephanie.

Stephanie promptly did a double take. “Oh,” she said. She glanced to Mitch, her expression brightening. “Hey! You’re here!”

Brody grinned back, apparently convinced that she was just happy to see him. “Hey!”


Stephanie, who had been flustered all week, appeared at a loss for words. “You look like you’re feeling better.”

Brody gave her an odd little look. In his world, he had merely been hungover. But, in his time at Baywatch, he’d also grown accustomed to being thought of as the resident screw-up. He offered a somewhat abashed smile. “Oh, sure,” he said, with a dismissive shrug.

Stephanie looked more genuinely relieved by the minute. “You were pretty out of it there, Mitch said,” she told him.

Brody blushed, taking it entirely in stride that Mitch would complain about his drunken binges. “Well, you know Mitch,” Brody said effortlessly. “He made sure I got through it.”

Stephanie nodded her approval. “That’s great,” she said. “I still have you penciled in for tower two if you’re up for it.”

“Of course,” Brody said. “You couldn’t stop me.”

“That’s the attitude,” she said, clapping him on the shoulder as he disappeared into the locker room. Before Mitch could follow, she sidled up to Mitch. “He’s better!”

“Yeah,” Mitch said. “So it seems.”

“You made it sound so serious,” she said. “I was a little afraid we were going to have to hold an extra tryout for a replacement soon.”

That confirmed that Mitch wasn’t crazy, at least. The last week had happened for Stephanie, too. That would have been reassuring if it solved anything at all. Sure, all of his life technically made sense again.

But none of it made sense.

What was he supposed to do with a Brody when he’d just accepted a Matt?

“Yeah,” he said, aware that Stephanie still thought that Brody had been out sick all week. “It was a remarkable turnaround. Almost like magic if i didn’t know better.”

She smiled warmly, oblivious to the fact that Mitch was unnerved. “As long as you’re both back,” she said.

Mitch laughed, feeling vaguely hysterical even if he couldn’t let himself indulge that. Things were normal again. He had to be normal. “It does seem that way.”

He didn’t feel normal.

He had never felt less normal.

And Stephanie couldn’t see it, any of it. She was checking her clipboard. “I still have Summer down to fill in for you today, but I’m sure she won’t mind--”

“No,” Mitch said, a little quicker than he probably intended. He covered his brashness with a smile that felt so fake that he wanted to slap himself. It was a sign of just how out of sorts Stephanie had been over the last week that she said nothing. “Keep Summer on tower one. I, um, need to catch up in the office today anyway.”

Stephanie looked up, grateful. “You know I could use the help.”

“Of course, got to get things back to normal around here,” he said, wondering if he’d sounded this fake and saccharine to Matt most of the time. The kid had had the sense to know it. Stephanie was completely credulous for now. “But, uh. I might spend some time out there on the sand. Get my feet wet, so to speak.”

“Sure,” she said. “Whatever you need. I’m sure you’ve been dying to get back out there. I know how much you love tower one.”

“Oh yeah,” Mitch said. “Can’t live without it.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie. A week ago, it was the complete and total truth.

Today, though. Today the thought of tower one seemed like a far cry from where he was supposed to be.

Where he’d never be again.

“Whatever you want, then,” Stephanie said. “We’re just so glad you’re back.”

Mitch gave a resolute nod that he didn’t feel at all. “You know it.”

She grinned back. “This place isn’t the same without you.”

He smiled back at her, watching as she disappeared back down the hall. He didn’t know how to say that he hadn’t missed this place as much as he thought he would over the last week.

In fact, if given the choice, he wasn’t sure he’d be here at all.

This disconcerting thought threatened to derail his best defenses. He might have allowed it to happen until he saw who rounded the corner next.

“Summer!” he said, heart skipping a beat. Shit, he hadn’t thought to call Summer. He hadn’t texted her a heads up. He hadn’t warned her that Matt was gone.

“Hey,” she said, clearly surprised. She was starting to smile, as if she thought his presence indicated good news. “Where’s Matt?”

And maybe it did indicate good news. She’d always had her focus on getting Brody back. So maybe she’d be happy. Of course she’d be happy.

Mitch fumbled for the words, wondering how to tell her that her de-aged boyfriend was an adult again. Possibly, she needed to sit down. Possibly, he needed to get her a drink.

Possibly, none of it mattered when Brody came back out of the locker room. “Hey, Mitch, is it okay if I grab an extra suit?” he asked. “Mine smells a little funky--”

He stopped when he saw Summer, face brightening.

Summer stopped when she saw Brody, the color draining from her face. When Brody crossed over to her, he kissed her on the cheek. “Hey!” he said. “I meant to text you this morning but my phone died.”

Brody stepped back, looking at Summer. Her stunned face made his expression falter. He looked to Mitch and found no resolution. Awkwardly, he laughed. “Wow, did I miss something?”

That was an understatement. Brody had missed a week as an eight year old, wherein Mitch played his father and Summer had turned into his mother. Brody had missed everything.

When Mitch couldn’t come up with something to say, Brody looked to Summer again. She appeared unable to speak. She might have even stopped breathing.

Mitch would intervene on her behalf but he wasn’t entirely sure he was still breathing himself. He wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t going to wake up on the porch soon because this whole situation was just surreal.

“Um,” Brody started, clearly not sure what to do. “Is everything all right?”

“What?” she asked, almost crying on the word.

“Do you feel okay?” Brody asked with genuine concern. “Do you need to go home?”

“I feel...fine,” she said, as if the conclusion had just come to her. “And you -- you’re. Fine.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Like I said, my phone just died. My own fault, but it’s cool.”

She stared at him, nodding absently. Mitch knew how she felt.

Brody had no idea how either of them felt, and he was increasingly caught off his guard. “Right,” he said, grasping for something to say to elicit a stronger response. “So, um, are we still on for tonight?”

Summer blinked, realizing that he was addressing her. “What?”

“Tonight,” Brody repeated. “We have a date, right? I was going to take you for dinner.”

“Right,” she said, as if she’d just remembered. More accurately, as if she’d finally put the pieces to the puzzle together. Her plans from a week ago were suddenly in a context that made sense to her. “We’re supposed to have dinner. A date.”

Brody regarded her cautiously. “If you have to cancel or something--”

“No!” she said, too forceful and too quick. Mitch could hear the note of desperation she probably hadn’t meant to betray.

Brody stared at her, more perplexed. He’d heard the desperation, too, but he didn’t know what it meant. He didn’t know that it had everything to do with an eight year old who’d had a major crush on his babysitter.

He didn’t know it had everything to do with a babysitter who’d fallen in love with the kid she was babysitting.

He didn’t know just how complicated and weird that was.

Which made the normalcy of this interaction weird, too.

Brody mostly didn’t know shit.

“I mean, no,” she said, and she seemed to remember how to breathe again. How to think, how to act, how to be. “I wouldn’t miss tonight for the world. You and me, right?”

Mitch was actually jealous of her recovery. He’d had all morning with Brody, and he still hadn’t come to terms like that.

“Yeah,” Brody said, his confidence rebounding at the slightest hint of positive feedback. He leaned in to kiss her again. Noticeably, this time she kissed back. “You and me.”

She inhaled deeply now, and a real smile was flitting across her face. “Awesome.”

The moment faltered, and Brody looked from her to Mitch again, trying to make sense of what still felt off. It wasn’t Summer. For all of her initial shock, she seemed to be recovering a lot faster.

No, it was Mitch.

An hour into the re-transformation, and Mitch had no clue what to do, think, say or feel.

Brody chewed the inside of his lip thoughtfully for a moment. “Are you guy sure there’s something I’m not missing here?”

Summer looked at Mitch, eyes wide and pleading. She wanted him to do something, clearly. But what? What did she want? Shit, he didn’t even know what he was able to do at this point? Should he tell Matt the truth? Did he even have confidence that he knew the truth for himself at this point?

Minutely, Summer shook her head, somehow answering all of his questions at once.

Mitch drew a breath of his own and looked squarely at Brody. “It was a long night last night,” he said, and Summer visibly relaxed as he managed a smile. “For all of us.”

Brody seemed to accept that answer, probably as a consequence of his own actions. Brody had a habit of screwing up, and he had the innate ability to face those consequences head-on. Mitch had always thought it was one of Brody’s best attributes; indeed, it had probably been his saving grace here at Baywatch.

And what the hell. It was something he’d been able to do since he was eight years old.

Shit, Mitch couldn’t stop doing that.

“Well, today’s a new day,” Brody said, beaming from Mitch to Summer proudly. “And I, for one, am looking forward to it.”

With that, he kissed Summer again, heading back in to finish getting changed.

He was barely out of sight when Summer rushed to him. “Why didn’t you tell me!”

“It kind of caught me off guard!” Mitch whispered back.

“But he’s Brody again!”

“I know!”

“And you didn’t tell me!”

They leaned closer together, cutting off as someone passed by. When they had gone, Mitch gritted his teeth. “I was still reeling myself,” he admitted.

“But what happened?” Summer asked.

“I have no idea,” Mitch replied.

“Something had to have happened.”

He didn’t know how to tell her about dinner or the fight that had ensued. He didn’t know how to tell her that Matt had nearly drowned in the ocean before Mitch had saved him and promised him forever. He didn’t know how to tell her that he’d been planning a lifetime and now all he had were memories. “I don’t know,” he said simply.

Another person passed by.

Mitch shook his head. “Look, head out for shift, I’ll join you out there.”

Summer’s eyes were wide, pleading. “But--”

“We’ll talk there,” Mitch told her. “Okay?”

It didn’t look okay to Summer, but Mitch went into the locker room. They were all going to have to live with things being slightly less than okay for a while.

-o-

After getting changed, Mitch stopped by the office, just to get a sense of things. This was his custom.

Or, it had been.

A week ago.

A week ago?

It felt like he was going through the motions, but what else was he supposed to do?

What else was there for him to do?

Just his job.

That was it.

Getting himself in line, Mitch talked with Casey Jean, organized a few things with Stephanie, and then did a once over at his desk. He took a few minutes to check his paperwork, organize the piles by priority then checked the time before stopping at the window for a long view of the beach.

He’d never cared much about an office, but he’d accepted it as a necessity of the job. It was mostly a place to store shit and do paperwork, but he had to admit, he’d always liked the view.

The view from his office looked down the beach, giving him a clear sight on most of the towers. He had a line on towers one and two in particular, the two most popular stretches of beach. He often used this perch to verify that things were moving as they should on the beach.

Looking out it today, he was struck by how life had gone on so easily without him.

The beach was bustling, and he recognized many of the people crossing up and down. He knew the joggers, the surfers, the local beach bums. He could make out the tourist families, the people taking a day off from the grind. All these people, going on as if life were normal.

Because life was normal.

Wasn’t it?

From here, he could even see Brody making his way out to tower two. Summer was by his side, fingers wrapped in his. As they reached the beach, he started to pull away, but she held on a moment longer. Brody turned to her, smiling, and she was staring at him like she’d never seen him before.

Like she was afraid he’d disappear.

He watched as they lingered for a moment, her fingers almost afraid of touching his face. He kissed her once. Mitch watched the tension in her body unfurl, as if she was letting the previous week go in a way Mitch couldn’t. She kissed him back, running her fingers through his hair and drawing him nearer.

Not normal, then.

Better than normal.

“Mitch?” Stephanie asked him. “You think you’ll do some paperwork now or…?”

“No,” he said, remembering where he was. What he was supposed to be doing. He feigned a smile. “I need to get back on the beach. Remember who I’m supposed to be after a week away.”

Her smile in return was warm. “Mitch Buchannon will always belong in tower one.”

The way she said it, she made it sound normal, too. She didn’t have any doubts about it, and why should she?

Why should he?

His answer couldn’t be about an eight year old who didn’t exist anymore. Who’d never really existed.

Mitch has to get back to normal, just like everyone else.

“You bet,” he said, trying to sound like he believed it. “Just another normal day at the beach.”

-o-

The trek to tower one was a path he knew well. It had only been a week since he’d walked it.

It felt like a lot more than that.

Still, step by step, he forced himself along, trying to feel like this was a natural, normal thing. He could still do all the stuff he could before. He could smile and nod and wave. He could call people by name and ask them about their kids, their jobs, their hobbies. He still fit here, like he’d never left.

The bay, tower one, Baywatch. It was what had defined him. He had belonged here.

Step by step, everyone still thought that was true.

Mitch was clearly the only one with doubts.

Because every step felt wrong.

Or, more aptly put, Mitch felt like he was making them wrong.

Maybe that was the distinction he needed. Everyone else was the same, all the things and people were in their proper places, but Mitch was different. It was the same walk to the same tower and the same beach -- but Mitch Buchannon wasn’t the same man.

All his years as a lifeguard, Mitch had never had this kind of metaphysical crisis. He’d never sat and wondered who he was or what he was destined to do. Because, before, he’d always been confident. He was supposed to be a lifeguard; he was supposed to be a central member of Baywatch, devoting his entire life to defending the bay from threats large and small.

One week couldn’t change that.

One smart-ass kid couldn’t change that.

One screwed up wish come true couldn’t change that.

Could it?

Climbing the ramp to the tower, Summer was already settling into duty for the day. Her name was written proudly on the board, and she was standing on the deck, actively scanning the beach and water in front of her.

Still, when Mitch approach, she couldn’t help but smile at him. “So,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “It worked!”

“Uh, yeah,” Mitch said, taking up a position next to her. His eyes roved the beach as she watched him. “Crazy, huh?”

“Yeah!” she said, nudging him a little. “What did you do differently last night to get him to change back?”

She had no idea that was a loaded question. After all, he’d never told her what his intentions for the previous night had been. He had decidedly not told her about his plan to turn Matt over to the system, which means he had also not told her about how poorly Matt had taken the news.

All of which meant she obviously didn’t know that Matt had run away and nearly gotten himself drowned before Mitch pulled him out of the surf.

And if she didn’t know that, she couldn’t possibly know that Mitch had promised Matt he could stay forever and that his last wish last night had been that he would get to keep Matt, no matter what.

Mitch made a face, omitting all of those salient details. Instead, he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, which was technically true. He still had no clue what the rules regarding deaging actually were and whether or not he’d managed to manipulate said rules twice. “I did the same basic routine. But this morning, I woke up and Matt was gone.”

He noted the words when he said them. Matt was gone. Not Brody was back, which was clearly how Summer was looking at the situation.

“That’s so weird!” Summer said, commenting as though she was talking about Ronnie’s dance style instead of her boyfriends sudden shifts in age. “You really have no idea why?”

Mitch had lots of ideas. Ideas about irony and fate’s cruelty. Ideas about letting go, hanging on and finding what matters most just to lose it. “Like you said, it’s just weird.”

For a moment, she was silent, watching the beach alongside him. Then, she glanced at him. “You know, maybe it doesn’t have to make sense.”

Mitch gave her a quizzical, tired look. “What do you mean?”

She shrugged. “I mean, it was always Brody, right?” she said. Her gaze shifted down the beach to tower two, where Brody was dutifully manning his post. “That’s what this last week has shown us, I think. He’s better at hiding stuff now that he’s an adult, but Matt’s still in there. Just as excited and fun and scared and angry as ever. Maybe this last week was just to show us that, help us understand him.”

“You mean some de-aging fairy godmother?” Mitch asked her.

“I don’t know,” Summer admitted. “It makes as much sense as anything else.”

Mitch shook his head. “That’s shittier than Cinderella only getting to midnight,” he said. “I mean, Matt was a pain in the ass and I worked hard to make things work with him. The second I start thinking maybe we’ll be all right, and then I get the adult asshole back again. What am I supposed to do about the kid who I spent a week devoting my entire life to?”

It was more than he’d intended to say, maybe. More than he’d allowed himself to admit so far.

And still, somehow it didn’t come close to capturing the depth of what he felt. The utter loss he’d experienced the minute he saw Matt’s empty bed.

“But that’s it, though,” Summer said, a little emphatically now. “That kid is still there, he’s still there.” She nodded to tower two, where Brody was helping direct a beach goer. “He’s just...bigger. More self insulated.”

She made it sound so simple. Like Matt or Brody, Brody or Matt, the whole thing was interchangeable. “He’s just a bigger pain in the ass,” Mitch growled.

She turned, staring at him until he looked back. “Do you actually believe that?”

Under her direct eye contact, he found himself withering. “Not exactly,” he conceded. “But....it’s not the same.”

“And that’s good,” she said, touching his arm now. “I mean, this last week was hard for you. You had to give up everything, and I know you took most of the shit Matt was dealing out. And now we have our Brody back. He’s ours.”

Mitch pressed his lips together, dubious.

“And now we can see him better, appreciate him more,” she said. She shook her head, looking out across the beach again at Brody. “He’s an adult, and he can do a lot more, but he still needs us.”

“Because he’s still a disaster,” Mitch commented.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. She looked to Mitch again. “But what we’ve managed in the last week with Matt. I think we’re up to the challenge with Brody.”

He sighed, wishing he had her certainty. Wishing it were really that simple. “You don’t miss Matt?”

“I still have Matt,” she said. “You do, too. And I don’t plan on letting him go again.”

Mitch looked out across the sand, where Brody was flipping a flotation device as he scanned the horizon.

“Yeah,” he said wistfully, struck by how he’d never brought Matt here. “I guess that’s a good plan.”

After all, it wasn’t like Mitch had a better one.

Much less any plan at all.

-o-

Mitch had intended to hang out at tower one longer; he had thought that talking to Summer would provide him some form of comfort, if only in commiseration. But he found her unexpectedly optimistic and upbeat. Like today was the best day in the whole freakin’ world.

And why not, he tried to reason with himself. Brody was back. After a week of putting their lives on hold, Brody was back. That had been the whole damn point.

Still, it hurt somehow, to hear Summer talk about the things she wanted to do with Brody. The dates she wanted to plan, and the places she wanted to take him.

“We haven’t even gone to get sundaes, can you believe that?” she asked.

Mitch could; Brody was broke.

But Summer was chuckling to herself, shaking her head. “But can you imagine how much ice cream he’d be able to put away as an adult?”

When she started to talk about teaching him to fish at the pier and taking him swimming, Mitch finally excused himself and headed back to HQ.

Before he left, Summer held him back, hesitating for a second before wrapping him with a quick, awkward hug.

“What’s that for?” Mitch asked.

She shrugged, still smiling. “A thank you I guess.”

“For what?”

“For keeping him safe,” she said. “And bring him back to me.”

Normally, Mitch was gracious, but he honestly didn’t know what to say to that. He’d just done what he had to do, which was maybe more than more people would have done, but the simple fact was that he hadn’t tried to bring him back.

That was it, wasn’t it?


Mitch wasn’t sure he was grateful at the transformation.

Still.

He couldn’t say that to Summer.

Summer who had never been happier and more confident. Summer who thought the entire world had finally tipped in her favor. Summer who knew what she wanted and recognized it when she had it.

“It’s Brody,” he said simply, giving a shrug that did little to convey the depth of his ambivalence. “What else was I going to do?”