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Baywatch fic: Like the Ocean Tide (13/14)

December 26th, 2018 (02:27 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT
PART NINE
PART TEN
PART ELEVEN
PART TWELVE
PART THIRTEEN
PART FOURTEEN



-o-

It was an okay week.

That was about the best way to describe it.

Mitch still felt like something was missing, but everything had gone back to normal. In fact, if he had to be honest, everyone seemed to be stepping up their game. Stephanie was being more proactive at work, taking over more duties and filling in more gaps when Mitch was a little behind. Summer was completely on point, active and energetic and as happy as Mitch had ever seen her. She had meant what she said about Brody, and she was sticking to him like glue. They were inseparable, and all signs pointed to their relationship moving ahead at a much faster pace than before.

Brody seemed to handle this well. In fact, he handled it really well. He was kind and considerate to Summer, and he was the model employee at work. Mitch received more compliments about the lifeguard in tower two than he did any of his other lifeguards that week. They said he was polite, kind and proactive. A few women asked if he were single. Mitch watched their barely restrained disappointment when he told them no.

By all accounts, the week with Matt had never happened. No one talked about it. No one needed to talk about it. Not when life was settling back into normalcy, and everyone was happier and more fulfilled than everyone.

Everyone, that is, except Mitch.

He had no reason for it; at least, no reason that he could actually specify. It didn’t make sense for him to be reticent when things were going so perfectly. He had his life back, he had his job back, he had his purpose and meaning back. His routines were in order. He had time to work out, to be social, to catch up on work. He even managed to start sleeping in bed instead of the back porch, much to Mrs. Flores’ obvious relief.

So why were the only things he could think about were swimming lessons and Legos?

Why was he preoccupied with how Captain Underpants ended?

Why did he want to buy Nike t-shirts whenever he was in the store?

Why did he crave pancakes every single morning?

Mitch knew why, of course.

But it was a reason he could never admit.

A reason he could never fix.

A reason that he was stuck with.

Forever.

-o-

Forever was a big word, especially where Matt Brody was involved.

Normal was a scary word, too.

In that context, it was really only a matter of time before he screwed it up.

Just a matter of time.

-o-

It started when Mitch asked Brody if he’d be home for dinner.

“No, man,” Brody said, smiling brightly. “I’m meeting Summer tonight.”

This wasn’t a surprise. In fact, this was by far the typical situation, but Mitch still found himself asking every day regardless. “Okay,” Mitch said. After a week, when he said shit like that, he actually sounded like he meant it. “You going to be late?”


Brody blushed a little. “Probably a little.”

Mitch rolled his eyes, and resisted the urge to lecture Brody about the importance of safe sex. He’d tried that earlier in the week, and Brody’s response had been both mortified and offended. At least he hadn’t needed clarification. Mitch thought about how Matt would have responded to such a lecture. All the questions he would have had.

“Well, see you later then,” Mitch said, giving Brody a wave as he went back to his desk to finish his work.

An hour later, he was surprised when Summer stopped in his office. “Hey, I was wondering if I could get these requisition forms expedited. We’re in serious need of more gauze out in tower one. This kid today had a massive bloody nose and we’re totally out.”

“Sure,” Mitch said, taking the form from her. “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere? I saw Brody take off an hour ago for dinner.”

“I know,” Summer said. “But there was no one to fill in on late shift, and I didn’t want to leave tower three unattended because we’ve been so crowded this week.”

Mitch tried to look at the form but found himself utterly distracted. What she was saying was normal, extremely normal. Normal in a way that the last week hadn’t been. “So Brody is…”

“I texted him, and he said it was cool, that he’d head back to your place and hang,” she said quickly. But then she stopped because the normalcy was getting to her too. “But I thought you were off early tonight.”

Her voice trailed off as she considered that.

With both of them here, who was with Brody?

Normal question.

Normal answer.

Normal, however, was not always synonymous with good.

“He’s fine,” she said, filling in the obvious answer. Because Brody wasn’t Matt. Brody was an adult who had been on his own plenty. They weren’t responsible for Brody, not like they had been for Matt. “I’m sure he’s fine.”

She sounded less sure the second time she said it.

Mitch was vaguely gratified that someone else finally recognized the drawbacks of normal.

In this context, however, he could not find it in himself to gloat.

“Right,” Mitch said, stomach turning uneasily. “He’s probably back at home, drinking a beer and watching a game.”

“Maybe I should go check on him,” Summer said, biting her lip.

Mitch scribbled his name on the requisition form, handing it back to her. “File this, finish up your duties and go home,” he said, taking charge of the situation. “I’ll go back and check on Brody. It’s time for me to clock out anyway.”

Summer had no reason to argue, but she hesitated. “When you find him, you’ll text me?”

“Summer, you can always text him if you’re that worried,” Mitch pointed out, gathering up his things.

“I can’t be too clingy,” she said. “I’m moving faster than he knows what to do with, and I don’t want him to get scared. He’s handled it all so well, but I can’t mother him and be his girlfriend. It doesn’t work, but I did cancel on him tonight. Just...let me know he’s okay, that’s all.”

Mitch nodded, not having the heart or energy to disagree. Summer had enjoyed her role as girlfriend this week, and there was no doubt Brody did better with her. But it was also possible that Brody still needed someone to parent him.

That couldn’t be Summer.

They both knew it was him.

With Matt, it had been one thing.

He wasn’t sure what it was with Brody.

It was probably time to find out.

“He’s been great this week, you know,” he said, trying to believe it. Trying to pretend that neither of them remembered what happened the last time Summer canceled a date. “I’m sure he’s fine.”

Summer nodded, her smile more forced than before. “He’s fine.”

Still.

Mitch hurried his way out, Summer watching him the whole time.

-o-

Mitch had some hope it would be just like they said. That Brody would be at home, sprawled out on the couch with a game on while he drank a beer. He’d smile at Mitch, and they’d commiserate over canceled dates before ordering Chinese and watching the Padres get trounced.

It wasn’t the exact thing Mitch wanted, but it didn’t sound too bad.

Hope was fickle, though. Sometimes it saved you.

Other times, it was the very thing that did you in.

Matt had taught him that.

Brody was determined to reinforce it in his own way.

-o-

The house was empty when Mitch got back. Brody wasn’t at the tv. He wasn’t in the kitchen. In fact, all of the beer was there, still untouched. Brody wasn’t in the bathroom or the spare room. He wasn’t hiding in a closet or speaking through Mitch’s things. He wasn’t on the back porch, making nice with Mrs. Flores.

His key wasn’t on the table.

His stomach sank with dread.

He could still remember that feeling, that horrible awful realization he’d had when Matt had ran away. That knowledge that Matt could be anywhere and Mitch was powerless to stop him.

Matt had been eight.

Brody was an adult.

So why was the feeling exactly the same?

It didn’t help that at that exact moment, his phone vibrated. The text was from Summer.

Everything okay??

Mitch grimaced.

Another text followed quickly.

Is he there?

Her panic was barely veiled. And to think, she didn’t even know what trouble Matt had gotten into when he flew the coop. However, her panic was also solidifying. If she was panicking, that meant he had to be calm.

He had to be calm.

Forcing his fingers to still, he texted her back. Brody’s an adult. Chill.

Before Summer could send a frantic reply, he added.

Working on it. Will let you know.

It was vague but still informative enough to hopefully quell her anxiety. He figured he had about 20 minutes before she up and followed him. And then they’d have a mess of a panicked girlfriend and a confused boyfriend to add into whatever the hell else Brody had gotten himself involved in that night.

The simple fact of the matter was that Mitch had found Matt. He’d dragged him out of the ocean and brought him back to life.

How much harder could it be with Brody?

With that resolution, he set back out into the evening.

-o-

With Matt, he’d been freaking out.

With Brody, he had to show some control. He couldn’t run frantically around when there was no indication that Brody was in actual peril. He was after all a grown man. He couldn’t run up to strangers and ask where an adult was without some evidence to suggest that the stakes were as high as they felt.

No, all Mitch had to go with was Brody’s history. He had a propensity toward disaster. Not usually a real disaster, but the kind that was created by his own bad decision and short-sightedness. It had been his recklessness that had nearly gotten him killed twice the night they took down Leeds. It had been his habit of falling back on destructive routines that led him to getting drunk repeatedly on work nights. And getting drunk only made him more likely to say shit he didn’t mean, which was more likely to alienate those around him.

That was how he got himself thrown out on his ass and then de-aged.

So, he had reasons to be worried, but not reasons to be frantic.

That was an important distinction for Mitch somehow as he made his way to the main drag along the beach. He smiled politely when a few people said hi, but he was focused on trying to figure out what the hell to do next. He had to rely on Brody’s history -- and Matt’s too for that matter. When Matt had been scared and desperate, what had he done? He’d run to the thing he wanted most, maybe. But he’d also run to his latest disaster. The beach had been the thing they’d fought about the most over the week, and Matt chose something divisive to call Mitch’s bluff in the most dramatic way possible.

Brody was a lot older, but his tendency was still the same. Why else did he keep getting himself drunk when getting drunk was the source of all his problems? Possibly, he had a problem with alcohol, but it was also just possible that when he felt disaster coming, he sought it out instead. As if he could head off one disaster by making another.

A flawed logic. A child’s logic.

Brody never outgrew it.

Mitch would have to address that someday, but for tonight, he’d use it to find Brody. Because when Brody was alone, what was he going to do? He was going to find the closest source of alcohol and drink until he couldn’t feel anything -- much less rejection. Being numb made it easier. Being drunk was a scapegoat.

Seriously, did you find him?? Summer pinged him again.

Mitch ignored the text, focusing instead on the task at hand. He could text her when he had good news.

He made his way to the first bar he saw, knowing that Brody’s motorcycle was out of gas and in storage in his garage. This one was cheap but friendly; Mitch had frequented it from time to time when he wanted to hang out. The owner chatted with him at the bar, but told him that he hadn’t seen Brody in a while.

The second bar offered a similar report, saying that he and Summer were in often for dinner, but that they hadn’t been in tonight. The third took him closer to the bay itself but turned up nothing, and he looked in Chen’s for good measure. Chen insisted that he take a smoothie for everything he’d done, and Mitch had accepted only to get out of there as quickly as possible. He liked Chen, but he had other priorities tonight.

Outside of Chen’s, he was on the loop that went directly around the bay. This was the loop Leeds had tried to buy up for her own goals. After her death, a lot of it had been sold off and several properties were tied up in court, contested by her bribery and blackmail. It hadn’t affected the business, however. It was a nice night; business was hopping up and down the bay.

The next place was another one of his personal favorites, but no one had seen Brody. He knew the third was one Summer enjoyed, but they said that Brody hadn’t been around. It was remarkable how many people knew him by name now. Only three months in, and Brody had made a name for himself in the bay -- a good name.

Yet, it was a tenuous reputation. Mitch knew that because he lived with Brody. He knew that Brody valued that reputation -- almost as much as he feared it. If the kid sensed a good thing coming, he was just as likely to blow shit up as he was to embrace it.

By this time, Mitch had made his way to the Huntley. It was still named that, even though the ownership had changed. He considered quickly passing by, writing it off as too extreme, even for Brody. None of them had fond memories of the Huntley, especially Brody. It would be stupid for him to go in there.

Mitch considered that in a broader context. Stupid, huh. Given the history.

That was exactly the reason he had to go inside.

-o-

As he walked inside, he was struck by the fact that he didn’t have to be here. Despite Summer’s concerns, Mitch could step back and let well enough be. It wasn’t clear to him if this was his responsibility. Or even his place. Brody wasn’t asking for his help.

But then again, Mitch could still remember Matt going under in the ocean. He hadn’t asked for help either. Too stupid, or just too convinced that there was no one left who gave a shit.

Did Mitch give a shit?

Did he have a choice but to give a shit?

Inside, the Huntley had only undergone modest changes. Whoever had purchased it had clearly agreed with Leeds’ tastes, though Mitch could only hope that was the only thing the new owners shared with Leeds. It was still one of the most popular venues on the bay, and it was about the only place where the employees didn’t know Mitch by name.

This was fine by Mitch. He hadn’t liked the place before. He really didn’t like it now.

Besides, a little anonymity made it easier for him to get to the bar without being waylaid.

Carefully, Mitch scanned the area, checking out the tables before finally making his way out to the pool. Surely, he thought, Brody would want to avoid that particular scene. The look on his face when he’d been branded the Vomit Comet had been one of humiliation.

That was probably why Brody was right next to it, poised at the exact bar Mitch had caught him when he was supposed to be lookout all those months ago.

In fact, the whole scene was so familiar that Mitch felt a surge of irrational rage. He’d been so pissed off that night -- so disappointed. He’d been ready to cut Brody loose that night and never take him back. No regrets.

Brody had made nice the next morning; he’d proven himself true after that.

But being here? Drove home just how screwed up Brody was.

And just how close he was to drowning again.

In fact, watching Brody order another drink, Mitch got the sneaking suspicion that Brody was always close to drowning, always swimming against the riptides and barely dodging the currents of life. He was good at faking it.

Until he wasn’t.

Brody took a drink and Mitch couldn’t wait anymore.

Despite his trepidation, Mitch approach it like he would any save.

He dove right in.

Cutting across the crowd, Mitch sat down at the bar next to Brody, shaking his head to the bartender when he approach. Brody glanced at him, then did a double take.

“Mitch?” he asked, sounding like he wasn’t quite sure if Mitch were real or not. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Mitch gathered a breath, keeping himself measured. “I could ask you the same thing.”

Brody grinned; he hadn’t picked up on the graveness of Mitch’s expression yet. “Just getting a drink, that’s all,” he said. “Do you want something?”

The offer wasn’t exactly spurious, even if it was silly. Mitch didn’t want a cocktail, and Brody didn’t have enough cash to buy him one anyway. In fact, Mitch was loathe to think how Brody was going to pay for the drinks he’d already bought anyway.
“No,” Mitch said flatly.

Brody shrugged, taking another drink. “Didn’t think I’d run into you tonight.”

“Well, at the Huntley? I don’t think you’d run into anyone you’d know,” Mitch said.

Brody made a small noise of diffidence. “It’s not so bad,” he said, as if that covered all the things that Leeds had done. “It’s actually my first time back here, too.”

“And it should probably be your last,” Mitch said. He nudged Brody. “Let’s go.”

“Whoa,” Brody said. “I’ve still got a drink here.”

“A drink you don’t need,” Mitch told him.

Brody looked at him, his quizzical expression underlined with a hint of suspicion. “Are you here checking up on me?”

“Summer told me she canceled. She was worried,” he said, leaving out the part where he was worried, too.

“You’re checking up on me?” Brody clarified, a bit more offended this time.

Mitch glanced around, eager not to make a scene. He’d do it if he had to, but it wouldn’t be in Brody’s best interest. “I’m trying to keep you from making an idiot of yourself.”

“An idiot?” Brody asked with a scoff. “It’s a few drinks, Mitch. I’m an adult.”

Technically, yes. Emotionally, Mitch had his doubts. “Let’s just get out of here.”

But Brody was indignant now. “A few drinks,” he said again. “I’m not even drunk yet.”

He said it like that was some kind of measuring stick. Mitch sighed. “Yet?”

Brody rolled his eyes. “And if I was?”

Mitch looked around again, ignoring a look from the bartender. He leaned closer to Brody. “You think the only options are hang out with Summer or get drunk?”

“Whatever,” Brody said. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?” Mitch asked. “Here?”

“It’s just a bar, Mitch,” Brody said sharply.

Mitch did not back down. “And you have work tomorrow.”

Brody groaned. “Oh, shut up about it. I haven’t been late, not once, not since I got off probation with you or whatever.”

“Because I literally drag your ass to work every morning,” Mitch reminded him.

Brody was shaking his head. “That’s not true.”

“It is true,” Mitch said. “You end up alone for one night, and you keep doing the same stupid stuff. You can’t go on a bender just because there’s no one here to stop you. You have to be more responsible.”

Brody’s eyes flashed. “I act responsibly all the time, every day at work, back at your place,” he spat back. “It never means shit to you.”

“Language,” Mitch intoned.

It was a reflex Mitch hadn’t shaken yet. Matt had humored him, probably because he’d been a kid who still harbored some innate respect for adults.

It was not the thing to say to Brody, a man who had long since learned that he didn’t have to respect anyone -- including himself.

“Shit,” Brody said, his voice starting to rise. “Shit, shit, shit!”

Mitch pressed his lips together, noticing that a person or two on the bar were staring at them now.

“I get to swear, Mitch,” Brody said, apparently oblivious. “I get to say any shit I want. We’re not on the clock here. I’m not back at your place.”

The open defiance was hard to abide, but Mitch didn’t want to make a scene. Besides, he reminded himself why he’d come. Because he cared about Brody. Because even when Brody didn’t give a shit about himself, there were people in his life that gave a shit about him.

Although, sitting there watching Brody devolve, Mitch questioned himself as to why. Brody, almost drunk and wholly belligerent, was a far cry from Matt. He didn’t elicit the same concern or sympathy. He made it harder to want to save him.

But Mitch had made a promise. To Summer. To Matt.

Brody didn’t know how lucky he was.

Decided, Mitch kept himself steady. “You really think it’s a coincidence that you’re here.”

Brody’s expression suggested that he had no idea what Mitch was talking about. It might be easy to attribute this to stupidity, but Mitch had seen Brody learn too much to write it off so quickly. It wasn’t that Brody didn’t know better, it was that he had learned to ignore those common sense warnings. Either that, or he’d learned to actively embrace them for self destructive reasons. “Yes, here. The Huntley.”

“So? Just because Leeds was crazy doesn’t mean the place is evil or something. It’s just a bar.”

It was almost rational, the way he said it. Except: “It’s not a place where you are known to do your best.”

This time, Brody actually laughed. “If I avoided every place I screwed up, I’d have nowhere left to go,” he said, stopping to finish his drink. “Who the hell even cares?”

Flippant, So well honed that Mitch had bought it in the past. Not tonight, though. Not when the riptide was this strong between them. Mitch squared his shoulders, looking Brody in the eyes unrelentingly. “You do.”

With enough external pressure, Matt would have cowed to that. Brody was proving tonight just how different he was from his younger self as his lip curled into a sneer. “No, I don’t.”

“I was there, remember?” Mitch said. “I was there when you humiliated yourself in front of people who might have cared about you and complete strangers alike.”

“Well, thanks for that pleasant reminder?” Brody quipped, looking back at his now-empty drink with something akin to regret.

“You can’t tell me that that hasn’t been on your mind since you came in here,” Mitch pushed. “You remember it better than I do.”

“No, what I remember is you being an asshole and walking away,” Brody snapped, looking up again. “I remember being asked to follow your stupid orders without being given a single good reason why.”

“Then you also remember the fact that you let me down,” Mitch said, his temper barely contained inside him. “You tried to pick the fight. You tried to be the big man but didn’t have the balls to back it up. You remember that you screwed yourself over, you and no one else.”

It was more than he intended to say.

He’d come to bring Brody home, not to push him further away. He was a complicated mess of a man, however. Mitch was beginning to suspect you couldn’t do one without the other.

Or, more simply put, he might not be able to do the one.

Or maybe he just didn’t want to.

Because when Brody was drunk, when Brody was an asshole, it was hard to remember the big blue eyes of an eight year old kid he’d cared about against his will. It was hard to remember how hurt Matt had looked when pinned with the truth.

Brody didn’t look hurt, though.

He just looked pissed. “Maybe I do,” he said, bitterly sardonic. “That’s why the drinking never seems like that bad of an idea to me.”

It was a valid cop out to some degree. But this wasn’t about the drinking, not tonight. This was something more fundamental. “But why here?” Mitch challenged him.

“Because it was close and I don’t know,” Brody said forcefully. “I just went inside. There wasn’t a lot of deep meaning behind it.”

Maybe Brody believed that. Mitch shook his head. “Where were you supposed to meet Summer?”

“Down a few doors, that Mexican cantina she likes,” Brody said. “Not that it should matter to you.”

“So, what, then?” Mitch presumed. “She bailed on you, you ate the free chips and salsa, drank a few drinks and then left? The walk home seemed too lonely? Too long? So you decided you needed to stop after fifty feet and get another drink?”

“Maybe,” Brody said, like he believed it was possible.

Mitch raised his eyebrows. “Here,” Mitch said, repeating it to emphasize his point. “You thought, what better place to be alone than the place you nearly screwed your whole second chance up?”

“They have good drinks!” Brody exclaimed, voice rising again. This time the bartender gave them a cursory look, wondering if it was time to call security. “And what the hell is the point of second chances or third chances or whatever chance we’re on, if you don’t get to use them!”

“You’re not using them, you’re throwing them away,” Mitch said. “You have to see that.”

The thing was, Brody didn’t quite see it. Or he didn’t let himself see it. Matt had been stupid, but he’d been transparent at least. Brody, on the other hand, had had too many years to believe his own shit. The fact that he was older and stronger than Matt might make it seem like he was less likely to get in over his head, but it just made it more likely that he was going to ignore all the warning signs and proceed anyway.

It was denial. Matt had used facades, but Brody had mastered and interalized them. Matt acted like an asshole. Mitch had to entertain the possibility that Brody simply was an asshole at this point.

That point didn’t seem worth debating.

The point he still had to contend with, however, was whether or not this asshole was still his obligation.

His promise to Summer seemed to indicate he was.

His promise to Matt might still hold some weight, too.

But did he owe anything to Brody? The asshole himself?

Mitch gritted his teeth, unwilling or unable to answer that question for himself. “Okay,” Mitch said, reaching into his wallet and laying down some money for the bartender, including what he hoped was a generous tip. He got to his feet. “We’re going.”

Brody stayed stubbornly on his stool. “What?”

Mitch returned his wallet to his pocket, jerking his head toward the door. “You and me,” he said, reaching out and giving Brody a not-so-subtle nudge on the arm. “We’re going.”

Brody recoiled, more dramatically than necessary. “Dude.”

Mitch looked warily. A few people were still watching them, and he pressed his lips together in a thin, dangerous smile. “Do not make me knock you on your ass and carry you out of here, kicking and screaming,” he threatened in a low voice. “Because you know I can do it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Brody asked, more incredulous than ever.

Mitch didn’t hesitate. “Be smart, Brody. I don’t say things I don’t mean,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

Brody stared at him in disbelief, and Mitch lurched forward suddenly, enough to frighten Brody off his stool. He recovered quickly, swallowing hard and rapid as he looked back at loathing with Mitch. “Okay, okay, I’ll come,” he muttered as his face flushed red. “Shit.”

Mitch forcibly grabbed Brody by the arm, dragging him away from the bar. “Language.”

It was instinct, when he said it.

Not his best instinct, either.

Because Brody responded with about the maturity level of an eight year old, by cursing as loud and vehemently as he could until Mitch had thoroughly dragged his ass all the out into the cool, night air.

-o-

It wasn’t actually that long of a walk back. Mitch lived close to the bay.

It felt like the longest walk of Mitch’s life.

Brody had stopped swearing about halfway there, but he had walked under extreme duress, making a visible show of following exactly two steps behind Mitch with his face set in the darkest scowl Mitch had ever seen.

Mitch didn’t bother to say anything on the walk back. He knew that anything he said would be taken as an invitation for an argument -- and invitation that Brody would undoubtedly respond to in the harshest, loudest and most obscene ways possible. If he was going to have a fight, he would at least like to have it in the privacy of his own home.

Also, he didn’t know what he was going to say.

What was he supposed to say?

Was he supposed to get on Brody about the drinking?

Was he supposed to remind Brody that a night alone didn’t mean that he was without connections or responsibilities?

Was he supposed to make him care somehow?

Or was he supposed to stop caring altogether.

When he opened the front door to his house, he found that his hands were shaking. He dropped the keys quickly on the table and went directly to the kitchen, where he poured two glasses of water. One, he drank himself within seconds. The other, he carried over to Brody, holding it out.

Brody, standing two steps behind him still, stared at the water with willful ignorance.

“Come on,” Mitch said, holding the water out again. “Take a drink; cool down.”

“I was cool,” Brody reminded him. “Until you pulled me out of a bar for doing nothing wrong.”

Mitch held the water steady, giving this one more try. “Just take a drink. You need to clear your head.”

“My head is fine,” Brody seethed. “I wasn’t drunk.”

Mitch put the water down on the counter between them. “And if I hadn’t showed up?”

Brody made a face. “And how is that any of your business?”

“You’re my lifeguard; you’re on my team,” Mitch said. “You live in my house. Of course it’s my business.”

Brody’s scoff was bitter and vitriolic. “I’m sorry to inconvenience you, Mitch,” he hissed. “I told you, if you want me to move out, I’m out!”

That wasn’t exactly what Mitch had said, but it wasn’t exactly what he hadn’t said, either. Mitch didn’t know what to tell Brody because he wasn’t even sure what he thought. They both needed to cool down. “Just drink the water and get some sleep,” Mitch said, flat and even. “We can talk about this in the morning.”

At this point, Matt probably would have obeyed.

Brody crossed his arms over his chest and showed no such common sense. “I don’t want to.”

His countermanding was entirely adult.

He still managed to sound like a damn child when he did it.

Mitch took a small but looming step forward. He hadn’t liked to intimidate Matt, but Brody was much easier to justify. “I didn’t ask if you wanted to.”

Brody was just buzzed enough, just angry, just desperate enough: he didn’t back down. “I’m not a kid,” he said, more emphatically than before. “I told you, we’re not on the clock here. You don’t get to order me around like you’re my dad or something.”

Mitch stood up taller, straightened his shoulders so his chest puffed out just enough. “You could use a dad.”

“Maybe,” Brody conceded with a snort. “But you’re not it.”

The reminder was strangely deflating, and something in his chest ached. Grinding his teeth together, Mitch shook his head. “This is your home. That has to mean something, doesn’t it?”

But Brody looked like he had no idea what Mitch was talking about. “My home?” he repeated, almost in total disbelief. “I’m sleeping on a rollaway cot in your storage room where your CB radio has more of a place than I do. This is temporary, right? I mean, you said it yourself two nights ago. You wanted me gone, you threw me out. So what the hell is this? Why are you suddenly dragging me out of bars when all you really want is for me to disappear? We both know you don’t want me here. Not forever.”

Mitch wanted to argue. He wanted to protest and insist that it wasn’t true.

But was it true?

Wasn’t it?

Two nights ago for Brody; a lifetime ago for Mitch. All those promises he made to Matt; they didn’t mean shit to Brody. His feelings were confused, unable to sort out one from the other, but he remembered the frustration now. The way Brody had consumed his life more than he wanted. The way he’d wanted him to leave.

So what the hell was this? Was he doing this for Brody?

Or was he doing it for Matt?

And what was he going to do for himself?

Brody sighed, shaking his head in disgust. “Maybe you’re right,” he muttered. “I probably do need to sleep.”

With that, he brushed past Mitch on his way to the spare room.

Mitch knew he should call out, stop him. He knew he should tell Brody that it wasn’t that simple, that it wasn’t exactly true.

He couldn’t find the words.

He couldn’t find anything.

He was still standing there, heart stuck in his throat and stomach tied in knots, when Brody slammed the door shut behind him and the house settled into silence.

-o-

It was a common problem Mitch was facing. What to do with himself when the rest of the world went to sleep. There’d been a time when he had plenty to do. He still had plenty to do, but for some reason, none of it seemed to mean anything.

The world had turned on its head, and Mitch was barely treading water anymore. The pieces of his life were slipping away, and he was going to lose everything if he didn’t orient himself soon.

He skipped all the pretenses and made his way outside. Sitting down, he pulled out his phone. He had a half dozen texts from Summer, each more frenetic than the last. Wearily, he texted her back that Brody was home. No, scratch that. He deleted the last word. Brody was back.

That was a critical difference, one Mitch hadn’t appreciated until Brody had spelled it out for him. Mitch had accepted him to an extent; he’d let the kid crash here, but there was no formal invitation. There was no official arrangement. Matt had known that from the start because of the paperwork. Brody, however, just assumed.

After years of temporary placements and makeshift arrangements, who could blame him?

More to the point, it wasn’t Mitch’s fault. He had been kind to Brody, giving him a place to stay. That didn’t mean that he was obligated to create a home for him. Unlike Matt, Brody had options. Lots of them.

It might be time for Brody to go and make those choices.

Brody wasn’t Matt.

Brody would never be Matt.

The promise that Mitch made, it was to Matt. Brody had never asked for it.

He flopped back against the lounge, looking up at the stars. They twinkled, almost mocking him. “No wishes tonight, jackasses,” he muttered at them.

The continued to shine, the bastards.

When Mitch couldn’t take it another second, he got up with a huff and went back inside. He didn’t feel any better inside, but he supposed it would alleviate some of Mrs. Flores’ anxieties if he slept inside.

He made a long loop around the house, trying to pretend like he was being purposeful. He checked the front door, turned off all the lights. At his own bedroom, he hesitated but didn’t go in. Under the pretense of checking the fish, he walked down the hall where the tank was lit.

Little Mitch looked up at him, a disappointed expression on his face.

Mitch reached to feed the fish, but found they’d already been fed.

Shit, Brody had fed them.

Damn it. Why did he have to go and do something right when Mitch was determined to make a list of all his wrongs?

He turned, looking at the spare door. He inched closer to it, leaning his head close. He listened for any sounds, any rustling of movement or indication that Brody was still awake.

It was quiet.

Brody was probably asleep, which was what Mitch should also do.

But…

Mitch glanced down the hall, not sure what he expected to see. He looked at the door.

He put his hand on the handle, and wondered if he was really going to do this.

Too late; he already had.

The knob turned, and he pushed the door open, mindful of its creaky point a third of the way in. He eased it back, enough to glance in.

When there was no sound of a response, he opened the door further, enough to squeeze himself inside. Standing there, in the doorway, light from the hallway flooded in, revealing Brody.

Stupid kid, still slept curled up on his side. He didn’t look eight without the floppy hair and slight build, but he also didn’t look like the smartass adult Mitch wanted to kick out on his ass. He barely fit on the cot; it didn’t look comfortable.

From behind him, the CB crackled. Brody hardly flinched.

Guiltily, Mitch crept over to it and turned it off. This might still be his spare room, but there was no need to torture Brody unnecessarily. The bay had survived just fine without him over the last week. What was another night.

As he made his way back to the door, he stopped short.

The bags he’d bought for Matt had been cleared out, but the space wasn’t vacant. There, lined up by the door, was Brody’s duffle bag.

It occurred to Mitch that that duffle was, in fact, his only bag. Everything he had fit inside of it.

He’d known this all along, of course.

But it hadn’t really sunk in, what it meant.

And it hadn’t occurred to him that Brody had kept it packed, poised by the door, ready to go at a moment’s notice. This might strike some people as pragmatic. It might seem like an issue of privacy.

Mitch knew better than that.

He knew that it was a sign that Brody was still ready to leave because he still expected to be asked to go. This whole thing was a temporary placement to Brody. He didn’t think it’d last. It wasn’t a question of want for Brody, not at this point in his life. It was an inevitability he’d given up fighting when he was eight years old.

This was the promised he’d made to Matt, and he’d done a shitty job of keeping that promise to Brody. The question remained, however. Was it the same thing? Did one necessitate the other? Were Matt and Brody interchangeable? Did it owe it to one more than the other? Did Mitch even want any of this?

This wasn’t sustainable; no way, no how. Brody needed to change. He couldn’t crash and burn the second he wasn’t supervised. Something had to give.

Unfortunately, there were just two people in this situation. Two static forces at odds.

Mitch or Brody.

Brody had proven himself slow to change.

And Mitch was just unsure if he had the energy to do it again.

Moving toward the door, he refused to look at the packed bag. Refused to think about it as he closed the door and left Brody alone.

-o-

That night, Mitch dreamed of Matt in the surf.

The harder Mitch swam, the farther away Matt got.

The faster he swam, the quicker Matt slipped from his fingers.

When he finally reached him, his fingers laced around Matt’s tiny wrist, but when he pulled him out of the water, it was Brody who was spluttering for air.

Worse still, when he was on dry land, all he was holding was a duffle bag with three pairs of clothes, swim trunks, two gold medals and a copy of Captain Underpants.

-o-

Needless to say, Mitch was up early. He didn’t make a big breakfast this time, but he brewed some coffee.

Lots and lots of coffee.

He was dressed, showered and on his third cup when Brody stumbled out of the spare room.

For all that he claimed he wasn’t drunk last night, it was clear that Brody was hungover. To be fair, compared to some of Brody’s hangovers, this one wasn’t all that bad. He hadn’t vomited yet, which meant that he probably felt like shit but that he’d definitely had worse.

Still, Mitch didn’t feel much like an I-told-you-so this morning.

Instead, he silently poor Brody a cup and placed it on the table across from himself.

Brody looked at it; he looked at Mitch. Deciding that pride was something he clearly no longer had, he slumped down miserably in the seat across from Mitch and started to drink.

“I don’t suppose I dreamed what happened last night,” Brody said, taking a large, bitter gulp.

“You mean the part where you didn’t know what to do when Summer had to work late so you ended up getting drunk at the Huntley?” Mitch asked, not looking up from the articles he was skimming on his phone.

Brody winced. “I meant the part where I screamed profanities at you and then told you that you weren’t my dad.”

“Yeah, that was real, too,” Mitch said.

Brody sighed, looking at his coffee as though it might offer some sort of solace.

Mitch was fresh out of comfort this morning.

Brody seemed to give up on that thought and took another drink. “I’m stupid when I drink,” he said.

“So don’t drink,” Mitch suggested.

Brody ignored him wearily. “I still meant what I said. I’m trying to get my shit--”

Mitch glanced up at him.

Brody corrected himself. “My stuff together to move out,” he said. “You’ll have your space back.”

Mitch wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted or not.

Mitch wasn’t sure of anything.

“Why don’t you take the day,” he said finally.

Brody looked at him as though he might have misheard it. “What?”

“Take the day, feel better,” Mitch suggested. “We can talk it through when things have calmed down.”

“The day?” Brody repeated. “But I’m not even close to being late.”

“I know,” Mitch said. “But you look like crap.”

“I can guard fine,” Brody argued.

“We don’t want you to guard fine,” Mitch told him. “We want you when you’re at 100 percent. You can’t half-ass your job.”

Brody’s mouth dropped open. “I never half-ass the job.”

Mitch sighed; he hadn’t been looking or a fight. “The day off might do you some good,” he said. “Some time to yourself. Time without drinking.”

Brody grew more indignant with every word. “Is this some kind of twisted sympathy?”

“Maybe,” Mitch said, putting his coffee cup down.

Brody’s fingers unfurled from his own cup. “What the hell do you know about it anyway? What I need, what I want.”

“I know more than you think,” Mitch said curtly, getting to his feet and pocketing his phone. “Take the day.”

“No,” Brody said.

“Well, do what you will,” Mitch said, shrugging. “But I already pulled you from the schedule. Ronnie’s in tower two, and if you fight him, CJ will kick your ass.”

Brody stared at him. “Are you serious?”

Mitch shrugged. “As serious as a hangover on a workday.”

Brody’s expression was shocked. Mitch walked to the door without leaving him any opportunity for a rebuttal.

From the doorway, Mitch turned around. “Think about what it is you want,” he said. “That’s what we’ll talk about when I get back tonight.”

With that, Mitch was out the door and on his way to work.