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Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (12/14)

December 26th, 2018 (02:24 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




If he’d thought the office would be an escape, he was sorely mistaken.

Mitch was making a habit of that this week.

Sure, he didn’t have to deal with as many people. He didn’t have to make polite chit chat and smile a lot. But the walls felt like they were a prison, and the view of the beach was a constant reminder of who he’d rather be with. It didn’t help that the view to tower two was crystal clear.

Worse, Brody was super active and in fine form today. He made several saves, and he caught a would-be mugger before they had a chance to get away. He was always talking to people, giving directions, smiling and making jokes.


Then he paused to give some kid tips on building a better sand castle, because apparently Mitch needed more reminders of how Matt wasn’t there.

By lunch, he’s made minimal progress on his paperwork, and he was mostly moving things from one pointless pile to the next when Stephanie knocked on the door.

Startled, Mitch tried not to look angry. He was angry, but not at her, and the last thing he wanted was for another person to say:

“Hey, are you okay?”

Mitch found a plaintive smile for Stephanie’s question. “Sure. Back at work. What wouldn’t be okay?”

The answer was everything, but he didn’t want to explain that.

Stephanie seemed moderately less credulous than before, damn it. Hedging, she found her way to one of the chairs, where she sat down without invitation. Mitch never would have minded before.

He wasn’t sure he minded now.

“Look, I know you haven’t said much about this past week,” she started, as if she’d been thinking about this. “But I can’t help get the sense that there was a lot more going on that you’ve told us.”

He had never been particularly convinced that his lies to Stephanie would hold any water, so the fact that she was suspicious was to be expected. She was a smart woman; Mitch’s lies had been atrociously bad. And now that it was all over, he wanted to come clean, but he wasn’t sure what the truth was anymore.

Had Brody actually been a kid?

Or had Mitch simply had a psychotic break for the past week?

Who was to say?

He smiled flatly. “A little,” he conceded.

She seemed ready for him to say more, but when he didn’t elaborate, she sat forward slightly. “You know, if you want to talk about it, I’d be happy to listen.”

Mitch didn’t doubt her sincerity, but he also knew that she had no idea what she was actually saying. Sure, it was tempting, to confess the whole thing about how Brody magically got turned into an eight year old who drove Mitch nuts until he nearly got himself killed and Mitch realized he couldn’t live without him.

If he said that, she’d no longer suspected something was off. She’d be calling the freakin’ cops to have him carted off to the psych ward.

Shit, at this point, he’d probably go willingly.

Breathing out, he fixed Stephanie with a composed look. “It’s probably not my story to tell.”

He didn’t say that it was probably no one’s story to tell because Brody didn’t remember shit and Matt wasn’t actually here anymore.

She nodded back at him, utterly sympathetic. “For what it’s worth, Brody’s great.”

Mitch mentally braced himself. Summer had been gushing all morning; he wasn’t sure he could bear it again.

“I mean, he’s obviously made a full recovery, but that’s not even what I mean,” Stephanie explained. “I know it’s been a struggle getting him integrated with the team and part of Baywatch, but he’s changed. Like, more than I thought was possible.”

That was an understatement. Just yesterday, Brody had been a mop-top kid with a gap in his oversized front teeth.

“I mean, if you had told me when he first showed up on our beach that he’d be a team member I trust, I never would have believed you,” she said. “You know that if he wasn’t up to it, I would have called bullshit, but on duty, he’s exactly who we need him to be. And he’s actually a team player. Like, really. So, the change is nothing short of astonishing.”

He couldn’t deny it, but he found it hard to validated. It was supposed to be a comfort, but Mitch didn’t feel particularly comforted by it. He shrugged one shoulder. “Most of that wasn’t me. Brody’s a grown man. He makes his own choices.”

She nodded. “He does, and he is,” she agreed. “But you’ve had more of a hand in this than you think. I see a lot of you in him, if that makes sense.”

“I’m not Brody’s dad,” he said, and the words tasted bitter somehow. Like a truth he wanted to prove false but couldn’t.

“No, but you’re better,” she said, getting up. “You’re his friend.”

It was totally the right thing to say.

And totally not what Mitch wanted to hear.

“Anyway,” she said. “I’ll let you get back to it. Great to have you back!”

“Yeah,” Mitch said, trying to sound enthusiastic and failing miserably. “Great to be back.”

-o-

The rest of the day was torture.

Was that overly dramatic? Yes.

Did Mitch believe it wholeheartedly? Yes.

The tedious details; the friendly people.

Where the hell was a sarcastic eight year old when you needed one?


Oh, they were at tower two, parading as 20 something dicks.

That wasn’t fair, of course. Brody was being great, like Stephanie said. Everyone was glad to have him back, like Summer said. And Mitch watched Brody.

Brody really was great.

But for some reason, he couldn’t see great things.

He just saw things.

Like the little self deprecating smile he made when the cockiness finally ebbed away. The way he fiddled with his hair like he wasn’t sure what else to do with his hands. The way he didn’t always quite look people in the eyes until he was sure he trusted them. Little things; little moments. Little reminders of Matt.

Even the way he ran on the beach, like a kid who didn’t want to wait for anything.

Shit, no wonder he fell down so much when they jogged. He was still eight years old.

Worst of all, he had no way of telling how that made him feel. Was he glad to see traces of Matt? Did he resent Brody for not being Matt? How was any of this rational? Were there support groups for people who had to deal with deaged and then reaged friends and family members?

At the end of shift, Mitch left the piles of unfinished paperwork and headed down to the locker room. He didn’t really have any need to change, but he knew Brody would be there. And for as much as he wasn’t sure he wanted to see Brody, Brody was also the only person he wanted to see.

One week of parenthood had made Mitch incredibly good at contradictory emotions.

He was attempting to change his own clothes, but after standing with his shirt in his hands for about two minutes while staring at Brody, Brody finally snapped.

“Dude,” he said, turning abruptly toward Mitch. “Seriously. What the hell is wrong?”

“What?” Mitch asked stupidly. A week as a parent had also made him purposefully obtuse. It was an amazing defensive technique against children.

Adults maybe not so much. “You’ve been staring at me, like, all day,” Brody said. “Are you still pissed at me or what? Because if you are, we can talk about it.”

Mitch shrugged, getting progressively more stupid by the second. “I’m not pissed at you.”

“You’re acting really weird,” Brody said. “Like, stalker weird.”

“No, I’m not,” Mitch said because denials that were plainly untrue were completely valid.

“Then why do you keep staring at me?” Brody asked, throwing his arms out.

Mitch feigned incredulity. “I’m just watching you,” he said. “I’m your supervisor, remember? I have to supervise.”

That almost made sense. Go figure.

Brody scoffed anyway. “But I wasn’t even late yesterday, and nothing in my job performance has been compromised,” he argued. “I know I’m an asshole at home sometimes, and you have every right to be pissed, but here? On the job? You don’t have to treat me like some kid.”

Mitch had been keeping his shit together pretty well, all things considered. But that one hurt.

A lot.

He wasn’t sure if he should be angry or devastated.

Ultimately he was a little of both.

And both manifested in nothing but a stare.

Across from him, Brody’s shoulders slumped. He was at a total loss. “What kind of fish.”

Mitch blinked, wondering if he’d misheard. “What?”

Brody breathed out his nose, gritting his teeth together. “The fish that I killed. What kind were they?”

“This isn’t about the fish,” Mitch said.

“Then what is it about?” Brody asked. “I mean, okay. You need to check up on me, fine. I probably have that shit coming. But you and me, man. We’re weird all of a sudden, and I don’t know what to do with that. I can’t fix it.”

Mitch’s mind reeled, replaying a conversation he wanted to forget.

Brody couldn’t fix it.

His mistake was thinking he could.

Brody sighed when Mitch didn’t respond. “I need to do something, Mitch,” he said pleadingly now. “To get us back to normal.”

Everyone else thought things were normal, so it was strangely comforting that Brody at least could see that it wasn’t. He wouldn’t ever know why, but at least he understood that something had changed. Something that neither of them knew how to fix.

“I know,” Mitch said, because he couldn’t admit much, but he could admit that. And it felt damn good. “Maybe we just need some time, you know. Just hang out together.”

Brody brightened at the suggestion. “I’d like that.”

“There’s a game on tonight,” Mitch suggested.

Brody hesitated. “Oh, well, tonight,” he stammered. “I’ve got that date, you know. With Summer.”

Mitch stared at him, back to being stupid.

“But I can change it, if you need,” he said quickly. “I mean, Summer’s cool. She’d get it.”

Mitch didn’t tell Brody that she probably wouldn’t get it, that she probably had a lot of plans for Brody tonight that Brody had no idea about. “No, no,” he said, trying to appear effortless. He used to be good at that shit. Now it felt forced. “I forgot. We’ll do it another time.”

“Seriously, man, I can reschedule--”

“No,” Mitch said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Go out. Have fun.”

“Dude, I want to make this right between us,” Brody said. “I owe you.”

But Mitch didn’t want payback. Mitch didn’t want the scales to be even somehow. Mitch wasn’t sure what he wanted, actually. “Seriously, it’s fine.”


Brody grunted in frustration. “You keep saying that! I feel like I’ve screwed all this up for good this time!”

“You haven’t done anything,” Mitch said. “Nothing that surprises me anyway.”

Brody managed to take that in the worst possible way.

“Just we’ll hang out tomorrow, okay?” he said. “I’ve got the day off, and you do, too. You and me and the beach. How about that?”

This time, Brody’s expression was quizzical. “Really?”


“Sure, you like the beach, right?” Mitch asked.

Brody considered this, as though for the first time. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”

“Then we’ll make a day of it,” Mitch said.

Brody looked confused and tentative, but he wasn’t an eight year old who saw Mitch as a stranger. They were coworkers and roommates. Even friends. Mitch had enough cred that Brody believed him, even if with some reservations.

“Okay, then,” he said. “Tomorrow.”

Mitch found himself smiling. For the first time all day.

Brody got the rest of his things, making his way to the door. “Oh, and just so you know, I may be late tonight,” he said, patting the wall of the locker room before he made his exit. “Don’t wait up!”

The thought struck him as weirder than it should.

But as he stood there in Brody’s wake, all he could think was, but what the hell else am I supposed to do?

-o-

With Brody checked out and Summer in his wake, Mitch found that he didn’t know what to do. As people converged on him for polite conversation, he made as quick of an exit as possible. He wasn’t actually sure he wanted to go home, but he knew for a fact that he didn’t want to be here.

He hurried home, and arrived, promptly wishing he could be somewhere else. The house was empty. Had it always been this empty? He’d lived alone for years, and it’d never felt this lonely before. All this space, all this quiet: what the hell kind of life was that anyway?

With no other responsibilities or commitments, Mitch could do whatever he wanted.

Yet he stood in the living room and wanted to do nothing.

Out of desperation, he made himself dinner, which he ate in front of the TV while watching a baseball game he didn’t care about it. He had been watching three innings before he realized who was playing, and after five innings, he conceded that he didn’t give a shit at all.

Miserably, he went to the kitchen to clean up. There were hardly any dishes to do, so it took no time at all. After that, he tidied up the things that weren’t out of place before checking on the fish.

To his surprise, the remaining fish were still alive.

Matt had fed them without asking, no doubt.

Damn it.

That was when he turned around and faced the thing he’d been avoiding. Matt.

Matt was gone, but Matt was still everywhere. Mitch still thought in terms of Matt. Matt’s favorite food. Matt’s favorite activities. Matt’s sense of humor. Matt’s things.

Matt’s thing.

They were still by the door.

Stiffly, Mitch leaned down and picked them up, opening the door to the spare room. He set the toys next to the clothes, lining them up by the door.

He stood there, looking at them for a moment. Matt had left them there, packed and ready to go.

Yet, Matt was gone and they were still here.

Matt was gone.

They were still here.

Something broke inside him, something he couldn’t explain or even begin to understand. His knees felt weak, and he sank to the cot, picking up the pillow.

It still smelled like him.

Shit.

Matt was gone.

His breathing started to quicken. His chest started to hurt.

Matt was gone.

The line of bags, toys and clothes Mitch had bought, were waiting for someone who would never use them again.

Matt was gone.

And Mitch had this big empty house and this big empty life.

Matt was gone.

And for the first time since all of this began, Mitch hung his head and cried.

-o-

The crying didn’t last very long. Not that it mattered. Mitch had nothing else to do. He was free to cry for as long or as little as he wanted. No one was there to see. No one would care. No one would even poke fun at him.

With that sobering notion, he put the pillow back down.

Matt was gone.

Getting to his feet, Mitch stripped the sheets of the bed to wash them. After starting the load of laundry, he picked up the bags of items and laid them out on the cot. Shuffling a few things around, he cleared away a spot on the shelves before retrieving a spare box from the garage. It was a bit of a tight fit, but he was able to fit all the items into the box, packing the clothing first before resting the toys and books on top.

Then, he put the lid on and packed it away on the shelf beside the camping equipment.

Matt was gone.

And that, Mitch concluded, really had to be that.

-o-

With everything in order, Mitch was out of things to do. He considered breaking out the video games that he’d neglected all week, but it just didn’t sound like fun. Even the games on his phone were no fun without someone trying to break his passcode all the time.

He thought about turning on the neglected CB, to try to get himself back in touch with the bay, but it was in the spare room. Brody’s room. Matt’s room.

He couldn’t bring himself to go back in.

Finally, for the lack of something better to do, he got ready for bed.

It was only about 10:30 by the time he pulled back his covers and slipped between the sheets, but he was tired. Matt had been many things this past week, and exhausting was chief among them. And it would be nice, even despite all of his other ambivalent emotions, to sleep in his bed again.

He had no wishes to make.

All he had to do was sleep.

After the week he’d had, that sounded pretty damn good.

-o-

It also turned out to be completely impossible.

It was too quiet, too comfortable. Mitch had complete ability to focus and think, which meant there was nothing to quell the combative thoughts in his mind. He kept thinking about Matt, and how the kid had never mastered swimming in the ocean. And then he thought of Brody, who didn’t understand what had changed.

And there was Summer, who was probably banging Brody thinking grateful thoughts to Mitch all the while.

When this train of thought proved too much, Mitch gave up and got out of bed. Sitting there for a moment, he tried to gather his thoughts.

But that was stupid. He didn’t want any of these thoughts.

Shit, he didn’t want anything at all except the things he couldn’t have.

Frustrated, he abandoned the bed and stalked out to the living room. The open door to the spare room mocked him, so he made a point to close it, leaving the front door unlocked despite the fact that he knew Brody had a key. He just wanted to be sure.

Of what, no one knew. That wasn’t important.

When all of this failed him, Mitch accepted the inevitable and went outside. It was approaching midnight now, and the air was cooler than it had been the previous nights. He found his way to the lounge and sat down, glancing over to see that Mrs. Flores’ house was dark and still before he laid himself back.

The stars winked at him.

Bastards.

Hope and infinite possibilities his ass.

They were just stars.

And this was just his life.

Tonight, as Mitch closed his eyes, he was out of wishes.

Mostly because knowing his luck these days, they might actually come true.

-o-

Mitch slept like shit.

He woke up feeling like shit, too.

Of course, the fact that Mrs. Flores was making a show of watering her stupid flowers didn’t help. Mitch was too tired to be polite. He rolled his head, squinting in the morning sun. “Up already, Mrs. Flores?”

She was fuming. It was hard to imagine how long she’d been watering her flowers, fuming like that. But Mrs. Flores was proving to be very persistent.

And she clearly didn’t actually care about her flowers because the things looked sopping wet already. He must have been pretty asleep.

“I saw you, you know,” she said without preamble. It was good probably that they were beyond pretenses now. Their relationship was making progress. Negative progress, maybe, but hey, beggars couldn’t be choosers. “I saw you and that kid.”

There was venom with that word, the kind that Mitch would never understand. Matt had done nothing to her except exist. That was all Matt had ever really done. So how did he manage to have such a profound impact on everyone?

“I ought to call the police,” she continued vehemently. This was clearly something that she had been stewing about all night. Mitch wondered how she had the energy for it. “Have them take care of that kid.”

Mitch sighed, but at least this time he could be honest. “There’s no kid, Mrs. Flores.”

Her indignation was supreme. “But I saw you! Both of you! The other night on the beach!”

“I don’t know what you think you saw, but I can promise you, there’s no kid, hooligan or otherwise,” Mitch said, and he hated the words as he said them. For all her indignation, they seemed to hollow out the pit of his stomach and leave him empty inside. “Don’t believe me? Go inside. Check it out. You won’t find anything or anyone.”

It was such a forward offer that she actually considered it before she realized that even she lacked that much gumption. Instead, she sneered. “I know you’re hiding someone in there,” she said. “I’m sure of it.”

“Hiding, no,” Mitch said. “I’ve just got the roommate. You’ve met him. Brody, remember? Works with me at Baywatch?”

“The short one?” she asked, almost as if she found the notion insulting.

“Sure,” Mitch said. “He is kind of short. You might have mistaken him for a kid when he goes out for a run.”

She shook her head, eyes narrowed. “He’s shifty, I’ll give you that,” she said. “But that’s not the kid I saw!”

“Well,” Mitch said wearily. “He’s the only one here besides me.”

It sounded lonely, when Mitch said it like that.

Shit, it was lonely.

And he had no reason for why.

“I’m still not sure you can legally have a roommate,” she said, picking up on the only thing she could find to attack. “Have you cleared it with the HOA?”

“Mrs. Flores, Brody works with me. I’m giving him a place to stay while he gets on his feet around here,” Mitch explained.

“So he’s a freeloader?” she pounced.

“He’s a friend.”

“And it’s temporary?” she asked, more persistent than ever. “He won’t be here forever?”

The question was framed to push him into a corner, but it caught him in a corner Mrs. Flores didn’t intend. This wasn’t about legality of room and board. This was about Brody’s place.

Mitch had been willing to take Matt forever, no questions asked.

What about Brody?

Was this his forever home?

Or was that a concept that was too far gone for a humiliated Olympian?

“I guess we’ll have to see,” Mitch finished lamely.

The answer was unsatisfactory to her, if the sound of her huff was any indication. “Well, I’d check with the HOA if I were you, just to be sure,” she said with a lingering air of a threat. “And if I see that kid again -- well, I don’t know what I’ll do. But I’ll tell you, that kid.”

“I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Flores,” he said. “If you see that kid again, I’ll track him down and bring him in myself.”

She harrumphed her way back inside, as if his offer of agreement had been the biggest insult yet.

Shit, he thought, watching her go.

If only either of them could see that kid again.

-o-

Now that Mitch was awake, it seemed like he had no other choice but to face the day. Inside, he tried to recall what it was to have a leisurely morning when he didn’t have to prepare another human being for the world. It seemed impossible to him, being able to do whatever he wanted. Except none of those things mattered much anymore.

Getting dressed was an acceptable place to start, which he did without much thought. He took a few minutes to scan the headlines on his phone, looking up a few sports scores -- things he’d fallen out of the habit of doing over the last week. The baseball stats hadn’t changed that much, though, and the world was still being run by idiots.

Whatever, Mitch thought as he put away his phone.

In the living room, he found the book he’d been reading, but the bookmark was missing and he couldn’t remember the page he’d been on. This was no doubt Matt’s doing; Matt had had a habit of picking everything up and playing with it before dropping it five times for no reason. The bookmark was probably under the couch.

Mitch could have looked, but he kind of liked the thought of it there for some inexplicable reason.

He put the book down instead and shuffled his way to the kitchen. As he passed the front door, he paused, and took note.

The front door.

It was locked.

He remembered distinctly: last night he’d left it unlocked.

Just to confirm his suspicions, he looked on the table in the entryway, where his own keys were stashed. His keys were there.

And there, right next to them, was Brody’s spare key.

Brody had said not to wait up for him, but son of a bitch. He’d come home.

Mitch wasn’t sure why this notion was so comforting to him, but he liked it. He liked thinking about someone tucked away in the spare room, and though it was easier to think about a little kid, he’d settle for a Brody instead.

They had plans today, after all.

A day at the beach.

Was it weird for two grown men to do that?

Mitch had decided no.

Was it weird for him to make a massive breakfast for his roommate?

Mitch had decided that he didn’t actually care.

It was something to do, after all.

Something that mattered, something that made him smile.

Something that might make the day better.

Grinning, he went to the kitchen and got out a mixing bowl, a frying pan and the biggest skillet he owned. All these months together, he’d never made Brody breakfast, but he had to think the kid still liked pancakes and eggs.

-o-

Now, if Mitch had been really kind, he would have made breakfast quietly. No doubt, Brody had been out late, probably at Summer’s place because undoubtedly Summer had wanted to make up for the week Brody still didn’t know what missing. Naturally, Brody would probably want to sleep late, as adults tended to do now that they didn’t go to bed at 2100 hours.

But the truth was, Mitch was making Brody breakfast, but he wasn’t exactly making breakfast for Brody. He was making it for Matt.

Who the hell was he kidding?

He was making it for himself.

It took some effort, even then. He banged around in all the cupboards, he clanked all the dishes, and he’d made an epic mess in the kitchen before food was sizzling and the aroma of fresh, hot breakfast food filled the house. Even then, he had to drop the metal mixing spoon in the sink several times before the door to the spare room opened.

Stumbling out, Brody looked like he needed more sleep.

Mitch found himself grinning unabashedly.

By the time Brody got his eyes to focus, he seemed completely uncertain as to what was going on. For him, it was probably surreal. He’d gotten in late, probably with the expectation of sleeping late, too. Mitch had never made a habit of bothering Brody unless absolutely necessary, and Mitch had always prided himself on being a generally unobtrusive housemate.

But Mitch had Brody beat in the surreal situation. He was still used to an eight year old who sometimes woke up before him and went through his things or snuck out of the house. In this light, Mitch’s actions made total sense.

Besides, it was a little amusing to see Brody try to make sense of what was happening.

His first response, which was delayed for several seconds, was, “Is everything okay? I, like, heard shit.”

This question was dumb. Obviously, Mitch was standing there happy and healthy with a massive mess of breakfast dishes around him. It didn’t require an advanced degree to figure out what was happening.

Brody didn’t have an advanced degree.

He was probably just a touch hungover.

Mitch just widened his grin. “Things are great!”

Mitch’s apparent enthusiasm did nothing to assuage Brody’s doubts or his confusion. He stared at Mitch; stared at the kitchen; then, finally shook his head. “You’re making a serious amount of noise.”

Mitch shrugged, pretending as if he hadn’t noticed. “Just making breakfast.”

This sounded plausible when he said it, but Brody had lived with him for months. The number of times Mitch had woken Brody up while making a massive breakfast spread were nonexistent.

Accordingly, Brody was duly perplexed. “So, you know, it’s not an emergency.”

“No emergency,” Mitch confirmed.

“You’re not being robbed or something.”

“Pretty sure that’s not the case,” Mitch affirmed.

“And you’re not, I don’t know, having a stroke or heart attack? Maybe a psychotic break?” Brody asked. “Because I did pass my first aid certification, you know.”

“It’s just breakfast,” Mitch said, flipping a pancake to prove his point.

Brody watched the pancake, then looked back at Mitch. “Okay then,” he said. “Good.”

With that, he turned, clearly intending to go back to his cot in the spare room. Leave it to Brody to make this hard. “Dude,” he called after him. “Wait.”

Brody stopped, turning back toward Mitch with his bed-head cocked to one side. “What?” he asked, like he hadn’t figured it out yet.

Like Mitch was seriously going to eat three dozen pancakes, a dozen scrambled eggs and a pack of bacon all by himself. Sure, Mitch knew he needed to eat more food than the average person, but that was ridiculous.

Even for him.

Either Brody trusted him too much.

Or not enough.

Mitch sighed, striving for patience as he reminded himself why he’d done this. “I’m making breakfast,” he said again, hoping this would make his intention self evident.

Brody looked at him, then looked at the food again. It seemed to register for the first time just how much food there was. “You must be pretty hungry, huh,” he observed. “Early morning workout?”

Mitch rolled his eyes. “It’s not just for me.”

Brody took this information critically, his brow creasing as he contemplated it. “You having company?”

“Dude, come on,” Mitch said, not hiding his exasperation. “It’s for us.”

Brody stared at him as though he was speaking a different language. “Us?” he asked, making it sound like the concept was utterly foreign to him.

“Yes, us,” Mitch said. “Some for me, some for you.”

Brody took a step back toward him, wetting his lips a little. “You made me breakfast?”

Mitch shrugged, trying to act like this wasn’t weird. “Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Brody admitted, making a small face with his nose wrinkled. “It’s just...not a thing we do.”

“It’s not a thing we’ve done,” Mitch corrected him, tossing another finished pancake on the stack. “But I thought, what the hell. We’re spending the day together, right? Might as well start it off right.”

Brody studied the pancakes studiously, almost as if he suspected they were a trick. “Right.”

When the younger man made no further move, Mitch gestured toward the table. “So, pour some orange juice! Get some coffee!”

Brody, for all the invectives, merely blinked at him.

“Sit down!” Mitch ordered.

Brody made another step, but stopped again, this time shaking his head as if he’d come to some kind of conclusion. “I don’t get it.”

The conclusion had apparently been no conclusion, but whatever. “I made a lot of food,” Mitch said by way of explanation.

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“So, you better help me eat some,” Mitch said.

“No, I get that,” Brody said. “But you’re being nice to me.”

This hardly seemed like a point to be hung up on. “Sure.”

Brody gave him a plaintive expression, like Mitch was the one missing the obvious this time. “But I’m an asshole.”

“Well,” Mitch said. “That comes and goes.”

Brody did not seem assuaged by Mitch’s indifference. “But two nights ago you kicked me out,” Brody reminded him. “Now you’re making me breakfast? After telling me how much you can’t stand me and how much I need to change?”

If it had really been two nights ago, Brody might have had a point. But try as he might, Mitch couldn’t still hold it against him. He couldn’t remember the anger or the frustration. All he remembered was Matt clinging to him with shaking fingers and the promise he’d made.

All he could remember was that Matt was gone and Brody was all that was left.

“Stuff got said that night,” Mitch said. “And you know better than I do that you need to change. I think I can work with it.”

Brody’s disbelief deepened. “Look, Mitch, I’m trying, okay? I’m really trying, but I’m getting all these mixed signals. I have no idea what you want me to do.”

Mitch sighed. There was no way to make it parse for Brody if he couldn’t even make it parse for himself. If he’d learned anything with Matt, it was that you didn’t have to fix everything.

You just had to give enough of a shit to keep trying.

“I’m not looking for anything right now,” Mitch told him. “I just want you to eat breakfast.”

Brody struggled with that, drawing his mouth together tautly.

“You, me and three dozen pancakes,” Mitch said with a nod. “What do you say?”

Although he was searching for a different answer, there wasn’t one. When the inevitable conclusion presented itself, Brody made a pathetic face. “Okay?” he asked, as if seeking approval.

Mitch picked up the plate of pancakes, setting them on the table. He grabbed the syrup and put it next to Brody’s plate. “Okay,” he said, because that answer was better than nothing.

It might just be the theme of the day.

Better than nothing.

He watched as Brody awkwardly pulled out the chair and sat down, waiting hesitantly for Mitch to serve him. Mitch started with four pancakes and a helping of eggs before pouring them each a glass of juice. He sat down, putting a stack on his own plate, watching as Brody finally grabbed the syrup and put a little on.

When he glanced at Mitch, Mitch smiled.

Brody smiled back, clearly uncomfortable.

But he dumped more syrup on top of the pancakes, until they were swimming.

Mitch grinned even more.

It was certainly better than nothing.

-o-

Mitch did his best to keep the small talk neutral and friendly to Brody’s interests. He made sure to provide plenty of food, and he made sure to continually offer Brody as much as he wanted. Brody obliged him, relaxing slightly as he started in on his 10th pancake, but it was obvious that he still wasn’t sure what to make of this situation.

He also didn’t see any way out of it, however, so he had seemingly decided to go with it.

As Brody tentatively took another piece of bacon, he had eased into the situation well enough to pose a question of his own. “I got back late last night,” he said. “I was worried I was going to wake you but you were outside.”

“Oh,” Mitch said. He tried to think of some way to deny that, but then, he didn’t see why he should. “I was.”

“That’s...different,” Brody said, taking a bite of the bacon.

“Eh,” Mitch said. “It was nice out.”

“I’ve been on that lounge, though,” Brody said. “Not the most comfortable for sleeping.”

“The fresh air made up for it,” Mitch said, and it could have been the truth. It made as much sense as his inability to break a week-long habit of inconsistent wish-making. “There are still some things you don’t know about me.”

This answer satisfied Brody well enough as he shoveled a few eggs into his mouth. “Oh,” he said, chewing and swallowing. “Also, I turned the CB back on for you.”

“What?” Mitch asked, pausing to take a drink.

“The CB,” Brody said. “It was off for some reason -- and I swear, it wasn’t me. I switched it back on for you, though. I know you hate to miss something.”

That was a funny thought. All those months Brody had begged for a reprieve, and Mitch had been too in need of his connection to the bay to shut the damn thing off.

A week without Brody, and he’d hardly thought about the damn CB.

Priorities weren’t always what you thought they were.

“Oh, yeah,” Mitch said, trying to appear indifferent again. “I turned it off the other night.”

Brody stopped mid-chew. “You turned it off”

“Sure,” Mitch said. “I mean, we don’t need it all the time.”

Brody was a little awestruck by this. “But I’ve learned to sleep with it on,” he said. “And it saved my life back when we took down Leeds.”

“I’m not saying I’ll never listen to it,” Mitch amended. “Just that, I don’t know. We can both afford to change.”

Brody’s incredulity deepened. “We can?”

It was hard to tell which possibility was more hard for Brody to believe: that he himself could change or that Mitch felt he needed to change. One spoke to Brody’s belief in him. The other to Brody’s mistrust of himself.

They were both probably true.

“Sure,” Mitch said, giving a shrug. After the week he had, he had no choice but to believe in impossible, improbable things.

“Since when?” Brody asked, naturally skeptical.

“Now, I guess.”

Brody looked at him for a long moment, then he shook his head. He folded another pancake into his mouth and chewed hastily. “Shit,” he muttered.”

It was pure instinct, now. “Language.”

Brody turned his gaze back up, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard that right? “What?”

Mitch wished he could keep himself from blushing. That one had slipped. Around Matt, he’d kept his tongue in check. One week, he’d managed to undo three months of unchecked profanity around Brody. Averting his own gaze, Mitch said, “You don’t need to swear.”

It was a testament to Brody’s faith in Mitch -- or merely his sense of indebtedness -- that he said, very slowly, “Okay.”

Shit, Brody trusted him as much as Matt did. More, honestly.

“Neither of us do,” Mitch added, a little bit sheepish. He looked up. “It’s not like it does anything for us.”

Brody chewed evenly, taking a swig of juice. “Okay,” he said again.

Mitch regarded him, hoping for something more.

Brody regarded him back, not sure what more was expected.

Finally, Mitch shook himself. “More pancakes?”

Brody looked at his nearly empty plate. “I guess.”

“Here,” Mitch said, forking over a few more. “And don’t forget the syrup.”

Obeying, Brody picked up the syrup, adding a generous portion to the top of his fresh pancakes. As he set to work, he quickly devoured the pancakes, simultaneously eating the rest of his eggs while snagging another piece of bacon while Mitch chewed his own meal in awe.

Watching Brody scarfing them down; it was a little like watching Matt.

Almost.

Brody used a pancake to mop up the puddles of syrup still on his plate before stuffing that in his mouth as well.

Mitch picked up his coffee to hide his smile.

This was probably as close as Mitch was going to get.

-o-

Breakfast was good, if a little weird. But Mitch was many things. The thing he was not, this past week had proved, was a quitter. He’d made a real go of it with Matt.

If he was stuck with Brody, then he’d make do with that, too.

Even if he didn’t know how much he wanted to.

The hard part was, he knew if he ditched Brody, Brody wouldn’t call him on it. Brody wouldn’t sulk in his room or go off and steal things to show that he was hurt. Brody would roll with it; he’d deal.

But Mitch had made a promise.

The stupidest promise in the world.

He hated that he couldn’t keep it to Matt.

All he had left was Brody.

So breakfast was just the start.

Now he just had to get through the rest of the day.

-o-

“So,” Brody said as they picked a spot on the sand. “The beach.”

He sounded underwhelmed. Mitch gave him a serious side eye. “The beach.”

Brody watched at Mitch laid out his towel, still holding his own items like he wasn’t sure what to do. “We’re going to the beach.”

“Sure,” Mitch said, setting up a few other things. He squinted up at Brody. “You like the beach, right?”

“I guess,” Brody said. “I mean, we’re on the beach every day.”

“You work the beach every day,” Mitch told him. “This is different.”

“Lots of sun and sand…”

“And the freedom to do whatever you want,” Mitch pointed out. He cocked his head, wondering for the first time if the idea of freedom and self determination were a novelty to Brody. If, at some point over the years, he’d learned to check his sense of wonder along with his sense of trust, family and stability.

Brody looked supremely uncomfortable. “Okay.”

“Come on,” Mitch cajoled, flopping back on his towel with his face to the sun. “Kick back. Relax.”

Brody shifted awkwardly for a second before finally laying out his towel next to Mitch’s. “You’re seriously weird, you know that?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mitch said, watching as Brody settled down next to him. “Just shut up and enjoy yourself.”

Brody huffed a little, rolling his eyes. “Yes, sir.”

-o-

Sunbathing together was admittedly a little weird. Matt had never had the patience to just sit, so he’d taken to building a sand castle. For some reason, Brody seemed to have no such inclinations, which left them paired together on towels for a little longer than was probably normal for two straight men.

So, when Mitch saw a chance to join a game of beach volleyball, he jumped on it. It wasn’t building a sand castle, but it was a bit more up Brody’s alley. He was a swimmer, but more than that he was a natural athlete. Where Matt had been lanky and too skinny, Brody had grown into his body and refined his reflexes. They played on opposite sides for a while, but when a new pair of guys wanted to play, they teamed up.

And smoked them all.

Brody followed Mitch’s lead, and he was a quick damn study. They were a good team.

A really good team.

They shared a lunch together, eating more than talking. When Mitch suggested a swim, Brody was even more keen on it than Matt was. He was better at it, too.

This, of course, was no surprise. Mitch had seen Brody in action before, but still, going head to head with him was a treat. For all that Mitch had belittled Brody’s speed, the kid knew how to use it well. He was a formidable opponent.

Honestly, no one else at Baywatch could come close to beating him.

Brody couldn’t beat him either -- obviously -- but he at least made it a challenge.

When they were both exhausted, Brody flopped back into the shallows with a groan. “Okay, I’ll bite,” he said. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?” Mitch asked, not hardly out of breath.

“How do you get through the water without being exhausted?” Brody asked, still panting. “That current messes with me. I feel like I’ve raced a 200k and we’ve barely gone 50 feet.”

Mitch chuckled. “You think it’s all brute strength is your problem.”

“Um, isn’t it?” Brody asked. “Because, dude, that’s all you are.”

“Well, yes, but that’s not how I beat the current,” Mitch lectured.

“Then what?” Brody demanded.

“You can’t beat it,” Mitch told him. “You have to learn how to predict it, how to use it.”

Brody thought about this with more care and understanding that Matt had been able to. He nodded a few times. “Teach me.”

“What?”

“Teach me how to swim it like you do,” Brody said.

“You serious?” Mitch asked.

Brody gave a short, curt now, as if pushing down the vestiges of his pride. “Teach me.”

Mitch stared at him, and he could still see Matt standing in the surf as Mitch held fast to his arm before it pulled him out to sea. Brody could hold his own, but he still had a hell of a lot left to learn.

“Okay,” Mitch said, noticing how the eager bent in Brody’s eyes hadn’t changed in all these years. “Let’s do this.”

-o-

Brody was bigger, faster and stronger than Matt, but he still had all the same weaknesses.

He saw what he wanted and he didn’t want to wait to get it. Some might call it recklessness. Mitch had from time to time. But it was born of something different, something more fundamental. It was a combination of a kid who knew hat getting what he wanted meant he had to take it and a kid who knew that no one actually gave a shit what happened to him.

Not the best combination.

Brody was less likely to get swept away than Matt was by the current, but that didn’t mean that Brody didn’t try to push. Always a little farther than he should, always a little closer than was smart. With Matt, Mitch had haul him from the waves by one scrawny arm.

Brody’s arm was less scrawny.

His reaction was much the same.

“Dude, what the hell?” Brody said, shaking him off.

“You’re going too far,” Mitch warned.

“I can do this,” Brody snapped back.

“These riptides take the best swimmers,” Mitch warned him. “Don’t underestimate it.”

Brody glared at him. “I won two gold medals; I know what I’m doing.”

He didn’t, of course. Two gold medals didn’t mean shit out here. And Mitch couldn’t baby him, even if that was probably what Brody needed, just as much as Matt had.

“Learn to listen,” Mitch coached.

“To you?” Brody asked sharply.

“Well, you did ask me to help you,” Mitch pointed out. “But I meant, listen to the ocean.”

“Are you serious with that shit?” Brody asked.

“Language--”

“Oh, for goodness sakes--”

“Try again,” Mitch order, giving Brody his space without straying too far. “Move toward the current.”

Brody was ready to fight, but he had to pick between the ocean and Mitch as his more pressing foe.

This time, he picked the ocean.

This time, Mitch was still his ally.

This time, they’d work together.

This time, Brody would win.

-o-

At the end of the day, they were both tired, but Mitch wasn’t ready to be done. They packed up and headed back home, and Brody waved heartily to Mrs. Flores, who scowled deeply in return. Brody cleaned up in the main bathroom, and Mitch hastily got changed, too, just in time to get a few things out for dinner.

By the time Brody made his way out of the bathroom, Mitch had already started marinating the meat.

“Dinner date?” Brody asked, rummaging in the fridge for something.

Mitch closed it on him. “You could say that.”

Brody looked both offended and confused. “You want me to get out of here?”

“No, moron,” Mitch said. “You’re the date.”

Brody did not appear to understand.

“We agreed, all day,” Mitch said.

“Like, all day, all day?” Brody asked.

“Unless you had other plans,” Mitch posited.

“Well. No,” Brody said.

“Then shut up,” Mitch said. “And get me some potatoes.”

“Potatoes?” Brody asked.

“You like potatoes, right?”

Brody looked uncertain. “Yeah,” he said slowly.

“Well, we’ll have potatoes and fish on the grill,” Mitch said. “We won’t find sweet corn around here, but we’ll skip the greens, okay?”

Brody had relaxed throughout the day. This exchanged seemed to be setting him back to square one again. “You’re making me dinner?”

“Well, I thought you could help,” Mitch said.

“But,” Brody started, and then he stopped. “Why?”

“I need a reason?” Mitch asked.

“Maybe?” Brody said.

Mitch sighed. “I just thought it’d be nice, is all.”

“It is,” Brody said. “And that’s the thing. It’s really nice. Why are you being so damn nice today?”

“You want me to be mean?” Mitch asked.

“I haven’t done anything to deserve nice,” Brody reminded him, looking vaguely nervous.

Mitch grunted, reaching for more spices. “I didn’t say you had to deserve it.”

“But I trashed your place. Two nights ago,” Brody said. “I was a total jerk. I mean, I know you have to remember that. You kicked me out.”

“Technically you volunteered to leave,” Mitch said, packing in some salt.

“And now you want to make me dinner?” Brody asked, his voice more incredulous than ever.

Mitch sighed, putting down the fish to look at Brody fully. “Yes, you were a jerk. Yes, you deserved to get thrown out,” he said. “But we all get second chances.”

Brody thought about this with a frown. “Third chances?”

Mitch’s stomach dropped; his heart skipped a beat. “What?”

With a one-shouldered shrug, Brody looked more thoughtful than sheepish. “Well, you gave me a second chance down on the beach, the morning after I screwed things up at the Huntley. So, you know, this is a third chance. Or whatever.”

Mitch stared at him, the sense of deja vu momentarily paralyzing him. Bigger, stronger, bitchier, maybe smarter: there was still something innately recognizable in this version of Brody. Finally, Mitch shook his head. “Third chances.”

Brody now had the sense to look embarrassed about it. “I was just saying.”

Chuckling, Mitch reached for the foil to start wrapping the fish. “Never change, Brody,” he commented ruefully.

Brody was more vexed than ever. “I thought that was the opposite of what you wanted me to do.”

“Either way,” Mitch said, avoiding the uncomfortable truths and the even more uncomfortable lies. “Go get a potato and start peeling.”

Brody complied, but his critical look was more pronounced than anything Matt could have mustered. “You’re really weird today,” he muttered, reaching for a knife and a potato.

Mitch started packing in the fish, watching as Brody awkwardly started to peel a potato. It was a skill no one had ever taught him. Reaching for his own potato, Mitch ready to peel his own as a model. “Honestly, Brody,” he said, as Brody watched him and slowly started to mimic his movements. “You have no idea.”

-o-

They ate together. It was casual enough. A little awkward. A little fun. As it turned out, Brody liked fish and still loved potatoes. It was kind of nice, complementing it with beer instead of water, too.

And there was no massive fight that concluded with anyone feeling like they were being rejected, so hey, that was a win.

Mitch would take it.

Not that he had any other choice.

-o-

When the dinner dishes were done, Brody loitered like he wasn’t sure if he had been excused yet. That was ridiculous -- he didn’t need to be excuse, he was a grown-ass man -- but Mitch also didn’t take it upon himself to clear up the misconception. Instead, he cracked open two more beers. Brody took his, tentative, and then followed Mitch out onto the back porch.

With Matt, the porch had always been Mitch’s place.

With Brody, all the rules were different.

Besides, it was kind of fun to watch Mrs. Flores get flustered when Brody smiled and said hello. She huffed like she’d been violated when he asked how her day at been. They watched as she returned inside with her dog, scandalized.

“When did she start disliking me?” Brody asked, sitting in one of the chair with a vague look of concern. “She was friendly enough the other day.”

Apparently, Mrs. Flores didn’t actually mind down-on-their-luck Olympians. Just children.

There was no way to explain that to Brody.

Mitch shrugged instead. “Weather’s been weird lately,” he mused, sitting down on his lounge. “Maybe the moon cycles affect her mood.”

Brody arched his eyebrows. “Is that mystical ocean mumbo jumbo? The kind that makes you talk about whales’ dicks and sharks that swim only when they eat?”

Or the kind that randomly turned grown men into children. “Something like that.”

Brody accepted that answer, drinking his beer. He looked out at the water before his eyes drifted up. “I never noticed how big the sky looks here,” he observed. “The way it stretches out over the ocean…”

Mitch smiled ruefully. “Nothing like that in Iowa, huh?”

“I mean, you get far enough, away from city lights and stuff, it’s pretty spectacular, even back there,” Brody said. “But here? Over the water? It’s like anything is possible.”

It was more succinct than anything Matt had ever said, though the enthusiasm and wonder were restrained. Brody had seen a lot more of the world than Matt had; but it was clear to Mitch that no place seemed to call him like the waters of the bay.

“Did you live in the country?” Mitch asked, not sure why the question seemed so important to him. He couldn’t help but think about the eleven placements in one year. How many Brody still remembered; how many he’d let himself forget.

Brody’s eyes were still up, cast across the stars as they reached toward the horizon. “Yeah, a few times,” he said. “One placement, they had all this land. They made us do chores and stuff, and there were like 10 of us kids, stuffed into this farmhouse from the 1800s. No air conditioning, so you slept with the windows open and the crickets were so loud that you couldn’t fall asleep at night.”

“Ah, so that’s how you manage to sleep with the CB,” Mitch joked.

Brody laughed at that, stopping to take a drink. “Believe it or not, I had some shit that was crazier than a CB radio.”

“Did you stay there long? On the farm?”

Brody made a face, shaking his head. “It was a temporary thing. Moved on quick enough.”

Mitch’s own smile faltered. He believed it more than he wanted to. “You don’t talk about it much.”

Brody looked to him, as if he remembered they were both there. “What? Being a foster kid? Everyone knows about that. The Olympic press coverage loved it.”

“Well, it is a good story,” Mitch agreed.

“Overcoming the odds, and everything,” Brody reflected. Then he grew somber. “At least, when I screwed it all up, people had a reason to point to. That way, the gold medals were the anomaly; not the other stuff.”

Mitch studied his own beer for a second, not sure what to say.

“It doesn’t matter,” Brody said, clearing his throat a little. “It’s all the past now. Not like I can go back and change it. You don’t get to redo your childhood.”

It was a joke, the way he said it.

But Matt hadn’t been a joke.

For either of them.

Brody made a point to finish his drink with a flourish, grunting as he got to his feet. “This was good,” he said, nodding to Mitch.

“You liked the fish?” Mitch asked.

“The fish, the potatoes, the beer,” Brody said. “Really, the whole day. I thought it would be weird, but…”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Mitch agreed.

Brody smiled at him, hesitating for a moment as he tried to think of something to say. There were mixed emotions in his eyes, as he seemed to oscillate between and apology and a thank-you. Finally, he settled for something else. “We have early shift tomorrow, right?”

“Right,” Mitch said, refocusing himself.

“I’ll be ready,” he said. He paused, nodding once more at Mitch in a purposeful way. “Goodnight.”

He watched as Brody made his way to the door. “Goodnight,” he said after him, his voice fading as Brody closed the door behind him.

Mitch sighed, leaning back on the lounge. He looked across the ocean, up at the stars.

Goodnight.

A good night.

He smiled slightly, finishing his own beer.

That sounded just about right.