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

December 26th, 2018 (02:29 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-

Taking a day had seemed like a fair way of doing it.

Except this: a day wasn’t long enough. Even if Brody figured out what the hell he wanted, Mitch didn’t have a clue what he wanted.

It was some solace that he was in tower one all morning. At least that meant he had something to preoccupy himself with. Something to keep him from thinking about Brody.

And what Brody was doing.

What Brody was thinking.

Brody.

When the hell had Brody become the centerpoint of his life?

And how the hell was he going to get it back in balance?

Because this? Pining after a asshole grown man while on duty?

Was not what he wanted to do.

Mitch kept his steady gaze on the beach, trying not to ask himself the next logical question.

So what did he want to do?

-o-

When he was finally relieved from tower one, Mitch was ready to lock himself in his office and pretend to work. The stack of paperwork had almost been reduced to normal levels, but Mitch was sure he could still find something to do with himself in the meantime.

He had told Brody to think.

He had to do the same.

He was mentally preparing himself when he turned a corner and walked into Summer.

She looked surprised, then relieved. “Hey!” she said, smiling at him. She gave a furtive glance around before pulling him to the side. “Thanks for making sure Brody was okay last night!”

This seemed like a generous interpretation of the events last night. “Uh, sure.”

“He texted me last night, said he missed me. I offered to come over but he sounded like you two were hanging out,” she said, clearly no aware of any of the details.

The expression on his face must have given it away.

At that, her own expression finally faltered. “What didn’t he tell me?”

It probably wasn’t a cool thing to do, to rat out a guy to his girlfriend, but the situation here was unique. “I found him, doing his best to get drunk last night.”

She listened, nodding along. She clearly knew there was more to it than that.

“I found him in the Huntley,” Mitch concluded.

That realization sunk in fast and hard. “The Huntley?”

Summer remembered the Huntley, too. She remembered the look on Brody’s face when he’d vomited in the pool. She’d been right there, poolside, when Brody had embraced his failure and accepted his humiliation. She understood the implications.

“Yeah,” Mitch said. “Needless to say, he didn’t take it well when I took him home.”

She sighed, enthusiasm thoroughly dampened now. “Well, that’s not exactly surprising,” she said. “It sounds like something he’d do.”

“Yeah, which is the problem,” Mitch said. “You were literally gone for one night. He couldn’t deal with shit alone for one night. Are we supposed to constantly babysit him?”

“It’s not babysitting,” she said. “It’s just...watching out for him.”

“This isn’t Matt anymore,” Mitch countered. “He’s not eight. When does he take responsibility for himself?”

“I know it’s not Matt, but Matt’s why I know Brody needs the benefit of the doubt here,” she said, lowering her voice as a few people passed them. “We both saw Matt and his inability to even understand family. He lacked all stability.”

“But Brody’s an adult,” Mitch said.

“Who never had the chance to grow up with a support structure,” Summer argued. “I mean, we can’t expect some miracle cure.”

“I’d settle for some progress,” Mitch said.

“But you’re assuming that we have to see that progress in Brody first,” she said. “What about us?”

“Us? Summer, I have literally turned my life upside down for him,” Mitch said. “Every step he takes forward, he ends up taking two steps back. With Matt, I got it, okay, but Brody--”

She leaned forward, intent. “But Matt is Brody. He just couldn’t hide it when he was a kid. That’s what that week with Matt has given us. Perspective.”

Mitch was shaking his head. “Then maybe you should take care of him. You be the full-time caretaker.”

“You can’t act like you’re babysitting him,” Summer said.

“That’s what it feels like!” Mitch hissed, a low and angry current in his voice.

She sighed. “He still needs you.”

Mitch rolled his eyes. “I can’t fix him.”

“You made things better with Matt,” she said. “I’m convinced that’s how we got Brody back.”

“I have no clue how we got Brody back, but I can promise you, Matt was still messed up when he disappeared,” Mitch said. “I have no idea how any of this work.”

“You, of all people, know exactly how this works,” Summer said. “Baywatch isn’t just a job or a team. It’s a family, remember?”

He recoiled slightly, stiffening his jaw. “That’s not fair.”

“I know,” she said. She blew out a long, steady breath. “I’m sorry. I just, I see how good you are for him. But I know he’s hard. And you have every right to be tired of it. You have every right to be done.”

It was too much absolution, too fast. “But?” Mitch prompted.

She shook her head. “No buts,” she said. “We’re not coparents or something. I’m his girlfriend, and I’ll be his girlfriend no matter what you choose. That’s the thing, though. You have to choose. What you want.”

He drew silent, feeling oddly guilty.

She pressed her lips into a smile. “Should I stop by tonight and see if he’s up for going out?” she asked. “Or do you think you two need to talk?”

“I don’t know,” Mitch admitted.

“Well,” Summer said, lifting her shoulders slightly. “Let me know.”

He watched her go, and he found himself envying her. She was able to be so sure of her choice. Like she had it all figured out, what she wanted.

And Mitch? He still didn’t have a clue.

-o-

In his office, Mitch tried to work.

Tried.

And mostly failed.

It was Summer’s fault this time. Every time he tried to do anything, he heard her throwing his own words at him. Baywatch is family.

Family was the good and the bad.

Most of the time, the bad included sick days, breakups, tough saves. Maybe even moving.

Did it include repeated patterns of self destructive behavior? Was there a point where family could call bullshit and cut ties? Wasn’t it okay for family to protect itself first and foremost?

Family was about putting yourself second, and Mitch knew that. But it wasn’t about being a pushover. It wasn’t about never paying attention to yourself. Mitch had been the heart of the Baywatch family because he was so self assured. Because he had enough presence within his own sense of self to be the anchor for everyone else.

If he lost that, there was a problem.

If something compromised that, it was a threat to Baywatch.

And if it was someone?

If it was a member of Baywatch?

Where did Mitch draw the line?

Where did he want to draw the line?

Sure, he could be that stability for Brody, but it would cost him more than he’d been willing to give so far. He’d have to rearrange his whole life.

And for what? So he could screw up again?

Third chances, fourth chances, how many chances?

He tapped his pen absently on his paperworking, thinking about Matt. Matt had made things so clear in the end, but there was a certain fallacy there. When Matt had left, it’d been a moment of resolution. If Matt had stayed, he still would have been a difficult kid with a lot of baggage. He probably would have stolen something again. He would keep swearing; he’d probably even sneak out.

Matt wouldn’t have been easy, and not just because Mitch didn’t have any paperwork to make it legal. Matt would have challenged him, but Mitch had promised him forever. He had promised it without any strings attached.

While it was true he probably hadn’t thought of it like that, he also knew that he’d been all in. His willingness to take a risk on Matt had been a whole-hearted commitment from him.

That much was inarguably true.

But Mitch couldn’t shake the sense that this was different. He still felt the loss of Matt profoundly, deeper than he probably should have. Why did Matt still feel like his?

When Brody still felt like someone else’s?

Summer insisted they were the same, but Mitch knew the difference. Mitch understood the differences. He knew that promise he’d made to Matt didn’t stand with Brody. No one would know if he betrayed it. Not even Brody himself.

And no one would blame him. Everyone, even Summer, even Brody himself, would understand.

He couldn’t keep pretending like it was the same thing.

He couldn’t keep acting like Brody was Matt.

He couldn’t keep giving up his life for someone who didn’t even ask for it.

Pushing the paperwork away, Mitch glanced at the clock. He was off duty now; that meant he could go home.

Was he ready for that? Had he made up his mind?

He couldn’t get Matt back and Brody couldn’t serve as some sort of lackluster replacement. Brody could and would make his own choices. Mitch had to let him.

For once, he would have to follow Brody’s lead.

God help them both where that may lead

-o-

Honestly, Mitch wasn’t sure what he expected when he made his way back home.

When he opened the door, he heard the sound of the TV. Dropping his keys on the table, he glanced into the kitchen, in which the cabinets had been laid bare and half-eaten food packets were strewn over the counter with an impossible number of dishes stacked in the sink. In the living room, Brody was sprawled on the couch, empty beer bottles around him, one still in his hand as he glanced toward Mitch with something akin to a smirk.

The whole thing wasn’t surprising.

In fact, as he closed the door behind him, Mitch thought he probably should have seen this coming.

It was nearly an exact replica of the scene he’d walked in on two weeks ago. The scene that had led to that last fight between them, the one where Mitch had finally sent Brody packing. The one that had brought Matt into his life.

For as much as he wasn’t surprised, Mitch also didn’t know what to say.

Brody grunted, breaking the silence between them. “Hey,” he said, voice slurred. He wasn’t completely hammered yet, but he had drunk enough that he’d be feeling it tomorrow. “Just so you know, I did feed the fish.”

Mitch wasn’t sure if this was actually supposed to be some kind of consolation.

“But I think I drank all the beer,” Brody told him with an earnest nod. “Unless you hid some somewhere, in which case, you’re a bastard.”

Yes, because it was entirely his own fault for not hiding all the beer.

“Also, rent is like super expensive around here,” Brody continued, unbidden. “And beer is expensive too. So, like, I may be sleeping under the pier for a while if that’s okay with you.”

“You’re looking to go then?” Mitch asked, finally stepping into the living room to take in the tableau with more accuracy.

“It’s going to end that way sooner or later,” he slurred. “I guess there’s no point dragging it out.”

That was that, then.

For all of Brody’s dramatics and assholery, he had done what Mitch told him to do. He’d made his choice.

That was what he’d wanted Brody to do.

He’d wanted Brody to decide because Brody was an adult who was capable of making his own decisions.

His own flippant, stupid decisions.

Mitch had resolved to accept that.

But it was like accepting Matt telling him to fuck off.

It was like accepting Matt telling him that he didn’t care.

Because that was what it was like.

Standing there, looking down at Brody, he was an adult who was drunk on Mitch’s beer and trashing Mitch’s house. He was itching for a fight; he was practically begging for a blowout that would end with him out on his ass again.

Angry, drunk, vitriolic.

And terrified.

Underneath all of it, Brody was terrified.

Sitting there, looking like he did, Brody looked like he was eight again. They both thought it was different somehow, that Brody’s choices meant more because he was legally old enough to be held accountable for them. But those choices didn’t mean the things Brody thought they did.

They didn’t mean the things that Mitch thought they did either.

That was the lesson Matt had taught him. It was the same thing he could see in Brody now. All this pretense, all this drama -- it was his way of cushioning himself against a rejection he thought to be inevitable. He still believed -- with his packed bags and flippant attitude -- that it was just a matter of time before someone didn’t want him anymore. Instead of waiting for that rejection, Brody was going to make it happen.

Matt ran away and stole shit.

Brody got drunk and picked fights.

It was the same thing.

The same damn defense mechanism.

Brody grew up, but he never outgrew that.

“Also,” Brody said. “I think I threw up earlier in the bathroom. But I don’t think I got it in the toilet. I was going to clean it up, but then I sat down and I think my legs stopped working.”

He was trying to make this worse.

He wanted Mitch to chew him out, berate him.

And it would be easy to do that.

Brody had to change, after all. Brody was a mess, a bigger mess than Mitch knew what to do with. Brody was an asshole of his own making, and it was all his own damn fault.

But Brody was also a kid who had no idea what family was. He was still some idiot kid who didn’t believe that anything in life was permanent. And that wasn’t his fault, either.

Which mean, Brody needed to change. But before he could fix the problems that made him an asshole, he had to fix the problems that made him incapable of being a normal human being. He couldn’t be a better person until he believed that he deserved to be a better person.

That change didn’t start with Brody.

That change had to start with everything around Brody.

And that was what Brody wanted, even if he was far too proud -- far too scared -- to ask for it. He would get drunk, curse and act like a jerk. All because he didn’t know how to ask if he could stay forever.

Mitch could still feel it, the way Matt’s fingers had clung to him. Only when Matt had lost everything had he been that vulnerable. Brody, as an adult, wouldn’t let himself break down now. Mitch could push him; Mitch could make him.

He didn’t need to.

Not when he knew the choice Brody had made.

And not when he knew the choice Brody actually wanted to make.

“We’ll clean it up later,” he said, crossing over toward the chair adjacent to the couch. He sat down. “We still need to talk.”

Brody screwed up his face. “I said everything I need to say.”

“No, I don’t think you did,” Mitch said. “You said what you thought I’d say. You just said it first so it wouldn’t hurt as much.”

In Brody’s current state, it was plain that none of that made any sense. “What are you talking about?”

Mitch nodded patiently. “To be clear, you do have to follow the rules.”

“There are rules?” Brody asked.

“For this house, yes,” Mitch said. “We’ll need to agree upon those rules and stick to them.”

“I don’t want your stupid rules,” Brody said back bluntly.

It would be tempting to snap at that, to give into Brody’s reckless impulsiveness, but Mitch felt no malice now. He was as calm as he’d been since...well, since before Brody came into his life. Things made sense suddenly. Brody had put his world in disarray, but Matt had given him the clarity to see through it. “Rules are a part of family.”

“We’re not family, though,” Brody said heavily.

“You are, though, whether you like it or not,” Mitch said. “You accepted a place at Baywatch. That means you’re family to all of us, but especially to me.”

Brody hesitated, visibly trying to make sense of this. “You don’t want me in your family. Just like you don’t want me in your house.”

“But it’s not always what we want,” Mitch said.

“So, what, I’m an obligation?” Brody asked.

“A little,” Mitch said. “Just like you’re obligated to me. That’s how family works, give and take.”

Brody started at him, at a complete loss now.

Mitch continued. It was a little like talking to an eight year old. Fortunately, he had some practice with that. “I know that’s hard for you. I know you have no frame of reference for it,” he said. “So I’m willing to give a little more until you learn how to give back. It’s what makes family so important.”

Brody wanted to be angry, but his anger was flagging. Something morose came over him instead. He shook his head. “I’m a screw up, Mitch,” he said, the words somehow clearer than before. “I know you see that. I know you know it.”

They were words of desperation. The words of a kid already deep in the surf, knowing he was about to drown but too scared of being ignored to ask for help.

“I do,” Mitch said, because this wasn’t about lies. This wasn’t about glossing over the truth. This was about facing it, and embracing all its implications. “But if you really wanted to be cut loose, if you really wanted out of this family, you wouldn’t keep trying to make it right.”

“But I’ve got to run out of chances, right?” Brody pressed, almost as if he needed Mitch to end things now before he started to believe him. “At a certain point, you’ve got to cut your losses, man.”

Somehow, hearing his own logic made it seem more impossible than it had earlier. He’d come to the same conclusion a mere hour ago. Hearing it again, though, Mitch couldn’t imagine how.

He nodded toward the back door, gesturing to it. “It’s like the ocean.”

Brody stared at him, utterly blank. “What?”

“Family is like the ocean,” Mitch clarified. “It has an ebb and flow, a back and forth. It’s a rhythm that doesn’t always make sense to us but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Brody was watching him, almost enamored.

Mitch found the words to keep speaking. “It’s bigger than we know how to explain, deeper and scarier and more beautiful. And it’s always different when we look at it, so different that we don’t realize that it’s always the same.”

“I honestly have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” Brody said with wide blue eyes fixed on Mitch.

“Family, man,” Mitch said, the passion rising in his voice now. “Life. The way change makes us miss how constant some things are.”

“Shit, Mitch,” Brody said, sounding like he might cry. “Just tell me what you mean.”

Mitch cleared his throat; cleared his mind. He thought of Matt, standing out, looking over the waves in awe. He thought of Matt, drawn to it with no idea how to navigate it. He thought of Matt, almost slipping through his fingers as they both fought the current together.

He thought of Matt.

And he finally saw Brody.

“The ocean is like family,” Mitch said, as plainly as he could. “I mean that it’s strong and powerful. It’s beautiful and terrifying. You can’t swim against the current, not without risking everything. You can try to get out of this family if you want, but you’ll just end up farther out to sea. You want to ride high? You want to experience the best that life has to offer? Then go with the current. Trust it. That’s what family is.”

He pointed to Brody, who blinked as if he’d actually been touched.

“You need family, but if you don’t accept the good with the bad, you’ll never make it work,” Mitch said, as much for Brody’s sake as his own. “Family’s just as strong and powerful as the ocean. But it’s even more beautiful. And a lot more terrifying.”

Brody closed his mouth, swallowing hard. “I don’t know shit about family, Mitch.”

It was so raw, so unbelievably honest, that Mitch almost laughed. As it was, he hemmed in his smile. “No,” he agreed. “But I’ll teach you.”

They were words he’d said before. Words he’d spoken to Matt; words about the ocean.

But had they really been about the ocean? Or had Mitch been promising this since the beginning? Mitch used the ocean as an allegory for everything, even family.

Especially family.

Matt had been only too eager to accept.

He watched Brody’s expression, tighten for a moment then open slightly, a guarded but foundling hope starting to kindle on his features. His eyes widened; he swallowed reflexively. The hope was guarded by uncertainty, but in his drunken state -- or simply in his desperation -- Brody couldn’t hold it at bay. “You will?”

It was hard to imagine, when he’d had Matt, that the kid had never had this kind of offer before.

Standing there with Brody, over a decade more experienced, he realized that he still hadn’t had that offer.

“Sure,” Mitch said, his own confidence growing. “Me, Summer, all of us.”

Brody hesitated, wetting his lips as he tried to weigh whether or not this was legitimate. “You promise?”

It was a childish question, probably. It would be easy to write off as a drunken gambit, but it was more than that. It was something he’d seen in Matt.

Because Brody was Matt. He was still Matt. He’d always been Matt.

Matt was always going to be here, part of his life -- as long as Brody was. He couldn’t keep one without the other.

“I promise,” he said, for the second time in his life. “I absolutely promise.”

He had nothing else he could offer Brody. No quick fix, no magical solution.

But the hope that lit in Brody’s eyes hadn’t died. Mitch didn’t need more than a promise. He was worried about how much it would take to help Brody, but the promise was simpler than he realized. A promise to try. A promise to stay. A promise to remain.

Just a promise.

“Come on,” Mitch said, getting to his feet. “Let’s get you to bed.”

Brody didn’t fight him, not as Mitch dragged him up by a hand and held him steady while he wobbled on drunken legs. In fact, he let himself be led like a child back to the spare room, and he complied when Mitch pulled back the covers on the cot and guided Brody down. Laying back on the pillow, Brody looked up at him, like he still wasn’t sure if this was real.

“I want to learn, Mitch,” he said, the words soft and surprisingly coherent. “I really do.”

“I know,” Mitch assured him, hovering awkwardly before he pulled up the covers.

Brody said nothing as Mitch tucked him in, and by the time he straightened back up to a standing position, Brody was already asleep on the pillow. Being drunk could do that to you, making you too vulnerable to fight the suggestion.

So could being accepted, make you too open to the idea of trust.

It wasn’t the worst way to end a day, Mitch decided as he turned back to the door.

He stopped short, however.

The duffle bag was still packed, primed and ready by the wall. Brody was still ready to leave.

It was up to Mitch to convince him to stay.

A family was more than words.

A family was action.

And this time, the next move was entire up to Mitch.

-o-

Mitch had a lot to think about, and he set to planning that night on the back porch. He didn’t have time to stargaze, and when he fell asleep, it was entirely by accident.

He woke up with the dawn, and greeted Mrs. Flores with a smile.

“I think it’s going to be a good day today,” he told her with a broad smile.

“How can you be so sure?” she asked jadedly.

He grinned at her. “Because I have a good feeling,” he said. Then, he had the audacity to wink at her. “And, more importantly, I have a plan.”

-o-

The plan didn’t include a big breakfast for once. It was tempting, of course, but that many days of heavy carbs made Mitch feel sleepy just thinking about it. Besides, he needed Brody on his A game today -- and that meant getting the kid out of the house promptly.

Instead, he made some coffee and helped himself to a steaming bowl of oats while he read over the morning headlines. He was already dressed, and he was able to throw most of the dirty dishes into the dishwasher for a quick clean. He kept a keen eye on the time, but it proved to be an unnecessary concern. Early -- far earlier than Mitch had probably expected -- the door to the spare room opened, and Brody came trudging out.

Brody was moving slowly, and though he did look hungover, Mitch got the sense that that was the reason for his care. His pale complexion looked braced; and his anxious eyes wanted to look at Mitch and look at anywhere but Mitch. No doubt, he remembered last night. He just wasn’t sure he remembered it correctly.

That was just as well. Mitch would make his point more clear in the sober light of day for both of them.

Tentative, Brody poured himself a cup of coffee, still regarding Mitch uncertainty. Mitch went about his business, offering Brody a banal smile of familiarity that only served to weird Brody out more. “There are more oats in the cupboard,” Mitch offered. “But we’re running a little low on fruit. I’ll stop by the store later.”

Brody nodded stiffly. “Okay.”

“Oh, and can you do me a favor?” Mitch asked.

Slowly, Brody nodded.

“Tell Stephanie that the paperwork for funding grant need to be turned in today,” he said. “It should all be there, signed off, but she’ll need to make sure it crosses Casey Jean’s desk.”

Brody started to frown. “Can’t you tell her yourself?”

“I could, but I’m not going into work today,” Mitch said, shrugging his shoulders as if this was absolutely normal.

Brody stared at him even harder. Brody had missed the week of Matt; he didn’t know that Mitch was even capable of missing work. His mind was scrambling, clearly trying to process how this was his fault or how this was some kind of retribution for the night before. “But--” he started and fumbled. “Aren’t you in tower one today?”

“I was, but I’m taking the day,” Mitch said conversationally. “Believe it or not, I’ve got a lot of vacation time saved up.”

Even after his week off with Matt, he had time to burn. All these years, he’d done nothing but work out of dedication to the team. He was able to see now that such dedication didn’t always happen on the clock.

Brody was more disconcerted than before. “If this is about last night--”

“Last night’s over,” Mitch told him. “You look a little peaky, but it looks like you’ll manage okay. You’ve still got plenty of time to get showered and ready.”

There was no argument Brody could pose to this, though he looked like he did badly want to argue. “I -- guess,” he said. He watched as Mitch finished his coffee, biting his lip. “Are we cool?”

“Definitely cool,” Mitch said. “I want you to have a great day at work.”

Brody’s confidence was diminishing by the second. “Okay.”

“And you need to be back here tonight, no exceptions,” he said.

“You don’t need to babysit me,” Brody ventured hesitantly. “I promise, I won’t screw up tonight, too.”

Mitch made no comment on the likelihood or possibility of Brody being an idiot. He was looking for change, not miracles. It would be a mistake to assume in the latter without working on the former. “No babysitting, but I do have plans for us,” he said. “Just tell Summer I want to hang out. She’ll understand. Trust me.”

The last thing Brody wanted to do was to trust anyone. But the conversation from last night was clearly still pressing on his mind, and since he didn’t know what else to do with any of it, he had no real choice. He nodded woodenly. “Okay.”

Mitch grinned, moving around to slap Brody on the back. “Awesome,” he said. “I think today’s going to be a good day, what do you think.”

Brody looked entirely unconvinced. “Maybe?”

Mitch grinned wider, patting Brody’s shoulder again. “Maybe,” he agreed resoundingly. He knew Brody was uncertain, and that was okay. Mitch was certain enough for both of them right now. “Maybe.”

-o-

Brody was quiet as he got ready. Mitch did his best not to watch him, but that was all he did. He watched as Brody drank a tentative cup of coffee. He watched as Brody ate an energy bar. He watched as Brody cleaned up after himself, quickly, quietly and warily.

He watched the bathroom door when he took a shower, listening to the short-lived sound of the water as it ran. He watched his watch, checking the time as Brody came out, dressed and ready to go with plenty of time to spare.

“You taking the motorcycle in?” Mitch asked, despite the fact that he knew Brody hadn’t driven it in weeks.

“Oh,” Brody said. “It’s, um, out of gas.”

Mitch nodded. “Need to borrow some cash? Gas it up?”

This was not a suggestion Brody knew what to do with. “Um, no,” he said, clearly not ready to accept any generosity at the moment. “It’s early, right? I can walk.”

“Well, suit yourself,” Mitch said. “Tell everyone I say hi.”

“Won’t they, um, be worried about you?” Brody asked.

Mitch chuckled. Two weeks ago, they probably would have. “I think they’ll be ready for it more than you realize,” he said cryptically. “Oh, and you’re on tower one today. I already talked to Steph. Everything’s in order.”

Brody listened to that like he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Everything in order: that was how Mitch lived his life. It was the opposite of how Brody lived his. He looked freaked out.

And he had no idea what was coming.

Mitch smiled. “Have fun today, man,” he said, and he meant it. “I’ll see you when you get home.”

Brody regarded him uncertainly for another second. For as much as he wanted to argue, to question, to express concern, he didn’t know how. Mitch did not appear to want explanations or apologies, which were about the only two things Brody knew how to give. Maybe Mitch could have entertained those; Brody had screwed up last night.

But Mitch didn’t need them.

And Brody didn’t need to give them.

Last night had been one thing.

Today was going to be another.

“Okay,” Brody finally said, the words falling lamely between them as he made a vague motion for the door. “I guess, I’ll, um. Be off.”

Mitch waved, watching as Brody backed up, still looking over his shoulder as if waiting for Mitch to call him out. He was still watching warily as he closed the door behind him, and Mitch could see him out the front window walking anxiously down the walk with his head turned back. Brody was waiting for a rejection.

Getting to his feet, Mitch rubbed his hands together.

Today was a day about acceptance.

-o-

Mitch didn’t wait to get to work. He’d spent the last two weeks not sure what to do with himself. Today, however, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. For two weeks, he’d been trying to make the disparate pieces of his life parse. Today, everything seemed to fit together perfectly, so perfectly that he couldn’t quite figure out how he’d had such a hard time seeing it before.

He started with cleaning up, putting away the dishes and cleaning up after the bare bones breakfast. He helped himself to another cup of coffee, spending a few moments texting Stephanie about the other tasks she’d need to attend to during work. He took the time to text Summer, assuring her that all was well and that he’d talk to her more about everything tomorrow. Mostly, he told her not to worry.

He really did have it under control this time.

After this, he started a load of laundry before checking on the fish and making his way into the spare room.

Brody’s room.

Inside, he drew a breath. It sure as hell didn’t look like Brody’s room.

It was about time to change that.

With Matt, he’d taken him out and bought some toys. He wasn’t about to buy Brody Legos, but he could at least make sure that the kid had some space to himself. With a look to the shelving unit, Mitch started to mentally sort the items. He had space in the garage; some of that camping equipment would be just fine out there.

It took an hour or two to reorganize the shelves, maneuvering the items so that only the necessary items were being stored indoors. The rest he moved into the garage, shifting items around in there so that they fit sufficiently. Eventually, he could invest in a few more storage bins for the garage to get things better sorted, but this would do for now.

The garage wasn’t actually his primary concern.

Back in the spare room, he gave the rest of the items a critical once over. He’d have to clear out at least some of the furniture. In the end, he decided to move an entire shelving unit to the garage along with some of the remaining items, moving out a few of the extra chairs he had stored in the room as well.

With these items gone, the room was much more spacious. As a final touch for his morning task, he unplugged the CB radio and moved it to the kitchen. He’d find a better spot for it later.

He checked his watch.

Right now he had more pressing chores to complete.

-o-

Mitch allowed himself a quick lunch, scarfing it down quickly before he headed back out. As he made his way up the bay, he smiled at the people he saw, pausing to talk here and there. But he didn’t stop for long. He only had until tonight, and his focus needed to be singular.

Chen owned several businesses up and down the bay, and while he frequented the diner most often, the furniture store was where he’d purchased his new coffee table last year. Mitch didn’t have much of a flair for design, but he liked Chen. Plus, it was close, convenient and fully stocked.

When he perused the showroom, he was greeted warmly by one of the sales associates. “Can I help you today?”

“Uh, yes,” Mitch said, looking absently at the selection of bedroom furniture. “I need some things for a bedroom.”

“Of course,” the young woman said. “Well, for a man of your stature, we have some lovely king sized selections--”

“Oh, it’s not for me,” Mitch said.

“Oh,” she said. “Then who are we shopping for today?”

That was question, wasn’t it? A friend? A roommate? “Family,” Mitch settled on finally.

She smiled at him warmly. “Very good, then,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking about?”

-o-

After an hour and a half, Mitch had selected an oversized twin bed with a mattress, a bedside table and a small dresser. He threw in a lamp and some decorative type rug. The wall mirror was a suggestion from the sales girl, and he said that if she could have it all delivered to his house by the end of the day, they had a deal.

Happy to make her commission, she readily agreed.

With that task done, Mitch made his way back home, fielding a few texts from Stephanie about work. He tossed his phone in the seat next to him as he put the car into gear and made his way down to the store.

He hadn’t been to this store since Matt had shoplifted, and he had to admit, it was a little weird. He wanted to look through the toy sections, but he knew there wasn’t any need. Instead, he made his way through the housewares section, picking up two pairs of sheet and a nondescript comforter with a pair of new pillows.

Shopping for clothes was even weirder, but he’d lived with Brody long enough to knew his basic sizes. And, given that Brody only had three functional shirts and two bottoms, he had to guess that he wouldn’t be picky. He picked up a half dozen shirts, mostly t-shirts and two button-ups. He had to throw in the Nike one just for the hell of it.

He took a flyer with a pair of jeans, and found a few pairs of shorts that looked appropriate. He bought a pair a sandals a few sizes smaller but completed identical in style to the pair he wore all the time.

Was it weird to buy a wardrobe for a grown man?

Yes, it was.

But Mitch had spent a week with the eight year old version of Brody.

They were well past weird.

Besides, he was pretty sure Brody would understand the gesture when take in its full context.

Mitch checked his watch, and forced himself to hurry. He was running out of time.

-o-

He picked up some groceries on his way out, but made one last stop at the pet store. They wanted to know how his fish were, and Mitch didn’t have the heart to tell them how many had recently died. Instead, he asked if they could do a custom order.

“Like last time?” the guy at the counter asked.

“Almost,” Mitch said, a twinkle in his eye.

“For you, anything,” the guy replied.

“Have it ready in an hour?”

“No problemo, Mitch!”

“Thanks!” Mitch said, grinning. “I’ll pick it up there!”

-o-

Back at his place, he unloaded the groceries. As he put the last of it away, the doorbell rang. Mitch answered it, relieved to see that it was the delivery truck from Chen’s.

Mitch helped the workers unload the items -- he could do it faster than they could, and frankly, he was starting to feel impatient about completing his task -- and then he spent the next 30 minutes arranging things just so. The fit was a little tight, but the bed fit nicely against one wall. When he moved the desk, he was able to squeeze in the bedside table, and the dresser fit perfectly where the vacated shelves had been.

Hastily, Mitch hung up the mirror, putting the new clothes in the top drawer of the dresser. He made up the bed with the fresh linens, putting Brody’s still-packed bag on the top of it. He hung the mirror, plugged in the lamp and stepped back to give it all a once over.

It was a little haphazard; it wasn’t the most spectacular room in the world. But it looked like a bedroom now.

More importantly, it wasn’t Mitch’s spare room anymore.

It was Brody’s room.

Mitch grinned, turning out the light as he made his way back out to the kitchen. He checked his watch. He had one last stop to make before Brody got home.

-o-

When Brody got home, Mitch was ready for him. In fact, it was all he could do not to stand waiting at the front door. Instead, he managed to position himself in a not-so-casual manner right outside of the spare room.

He stood there, hoping that it would be spare for much longer.

Mitch heard the front door open; he heard the sound of the key on the table. “Mitch?”

“Back here!” Mitch said.

Brody was moving slowly, like he was expecting some kind of attack or something. When he finally made his way around the corner, he looked increasingly distressed. The sight of Mitch, poised and waiting outside the spare room only served to heighten this sense.

“Uh,” Brody said, glancing around and searching for some sort of explanation as to Mitch’s unexpected behavior. “Good day off?”

“Actually, yes,” Mitch said. “Got a lot done.”

Brody took one step forward, struggling to find something to do with himself to appear less awkward. “Good,” he said. He swallowed, trying to mask a face of obvious distress. “Work was good.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” Mitch said.

When Mitch did not elaborate, Brody’s resolve finally broke. “Look, we’re supposed to talk, I think,” he said, the words pouring out of him in something of a rush. “And I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I don’t know, because I feel like I’m running out of apologies or something, I just keep apologizing and apologizing and--”

Mitch shook his head, curtailing what would have been a long, rambling too sincere attempt to set things right. Brody meant well, but he was missing the point this time around. “We’re going to talk,” he said decisively. “But first, I need you to go in here.”

Mitch gestured to the spare room. Brody looked from Mitch to the room, hesitating. “The spare room?”

“Yep,” Mitch said.

Brody’s mind visibly started working, as he tried to piece together a reason why. He seemed to be thinking of things he could have possibly done wrong to warrant this type of what he perceived to be a confrontation.

Mitch rolled his eyes, putting Brody out of his misery. “It’s not a bad thing.”

Brody looked dubious.

“I promise,” Mitch said.

That word carried weight between them, a weight that Brody hadn’t full realized yet but was too needy to disregard. Slowly, with his eyes on Mitch, Brody made his way to the door. He blinked rapidly, eyes finally diverting as he got closer, ducking his head slightly as he went inside.

He made it two steps and then stopped.

Mitch followed in behind him. While Brody stared, confused, at the room, Mitch stared, transfixed, at Brody.

They were both waiting for Brody to understand.

Eyes roving over the room a second time, Brody’s breathing visibly changed. “What’s this?” he finally managed to ask, voice hollow and uneven.

Mitch strode in a few steps, until he was right behind Brody. “Your room.”

Brody actually laughed, a short, desperate noise as he shook his head. He turned, eyes widened slightly as he looked at Mitch. “I don’t get it.”

This didn’t surprise Mitch. He knew that Brody had probably spent the day trying to figure out how to change himself. Mitch had spent the day trying how to figure out their shared mindset. It was the only way to fix both of them.

The fact that it would never occur to Brody was why it mattered to Mitch that he got this right.

“You said yesterday that this was temporary,” Mitch explained. “And hey, if that’s what you want, then I’m not going to stop you. You’re a grown man, you can make your own choices about where to live and what to do.”

Brody looked a little scared now about where this was going.

Mitch continued, shrugging easily. “But if you want to stay -- stay here, with me -- then you can stay,” he said. “And it can be your place, your key, your room. Your home.”

Brody was still tense, almost so stiff that it looked like he could shatter. “My home,” he repeated, trying to make sense of it. “Like, my home? Forever?”

With a steady gaze, Mitch did not waver this time. “As long as you want.”

The offer was plain enough, but Brody was still trying to figure out what the catch was. Like he knew there had to be a catch. “So, like, you want rent now?”

It could have been easy to construe that as selfishness, but Mitch could see through it now. He could see the vulnerability of the question. Like the idea of home had to be tied to something he could give in return.

And the horrible truth that Brody believed there was nothing he could give.

Not even money.

“Maybe, someday,” Mitch said. “We can talk about it after you set up a bank account and manage to pay your phone bill consistently.”

With this line or reasoning debunked, Brody shook his head again. “I don’t get it.”

So Mitch had to spell it out.

Again.

It had taken him this long to come to the conclusion himself, he couldn’t fault Brody for needing a little more time.

Or a lot more time.

This was a lifetime of shit to unlearn.

Mitch nodded around the room, gesturing with one hand. “This can be your home,” he said. “That’s your bed, your dressed. This is your room. We can paint the walls, put in carpet. You can hang up posters of swimming pools or whatever it is that gold medalists dream about.”

Brody was staring at him like he may have lost his mind.

“It’s not my spare room anymore,” Mitch continued. “You can have it, no strings attached.”

The words were too plain to misinterpret, but Brody still shook his head, even more determined than before. “But you don’t want me here,” he said, as if hoping to remind Mitch of this fact. “I’m a total asshole.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m aware,” Mitch said, because his decision today didn’t negate the last three months. It didn’t change the number of times Brody had utterly failed and disappointed him, and it didn’t change the future incidents that would cause conflict between them. “But you’re my asshole, as it turns out. More importantly, you’re family.”

Inhaling sharply, Brody held a breath. He let it out, long and slow, blinking his eyes purposefully. He had run out of denials. He had run out of alternative explanations. When left with the truth, he hardly knew what to do with it. “I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m not looking for a thank-you, just a yes or no will do,” Mitch said. He shrugged. “Consider it your third chance.”

“Fourth,” Brody said, almost despite himself. His eyes looked a little wet, even as he bushed. “Fourth chance.”

Mitch smiled back. “Fourth.”

With one more look of panic, Brody grappled one last time with the possibility of rejection. “I’m going to screw up again,” he said. “You’re going to do this thing for me, and I’m going to screw it up.”

“I know,” Mitch conceded.

Brody was adamant about this. “Like, more than once.”

The more Brody said it, the less it actually mattered. “I know.”

Brody let out a short, vaguely hysterical breath. “But how many chances to you really have in you? You don’t owe me something, Mitch.”

How many times? How many chances did you give the heart to love? How many times did the ocean meet the sand? “As many as it takes, I guess.”

There was a last, long pained look in Brody’s eyes. His last line of defense. “But why?”

The simple question hid a lifetime of pain and rejection. That simple question explained so much of who Brody was and how he’d learned to interact with people who might care about him. A lifetime of having to justify himself left him always coming up short, even after two gold medals. A simple question that showed why unconditional love mattered at all ages.

“You can’t fight the current, dude,” Mitch said. “You just have to go with it.”

It was a random, obscure sort of answer. The kind Brody usually hate.

This time, though, the reference made him smile.

“That one,” he said with a slow but solidifying nod. “Is a reference I think I understand.”

Mitch was grinning now. “So that’s a yes?”

“Hell, yeah,” Brody said, face splitting wide now. “Remember, though, this was your choice.”

“Oh, I know,” Mitch said, watching as Brody finally let himself look closely at the room and its changes. He stepped on the rug, looked in the mirror, sat on the bed. “I couldn’t possibly forget.”

-o-

That night, Mitch finally kicked back and relaxed. He broke out the video games he had neglected, and he played loudly while Brody got situated in the spare room.

No, in his room.

Honestly, given that Brody only had one bag, Mitch wasn’t sure why it was taking so long.

But then, Brody had probably never felt at home. The novelty alone would probably make it a drawn out process for him.

Mitch was defeating the enemy with gusto when Brody stuck his head out of his room. “Mitch!”

“Yo!” Mitch called back.

“I found this box in here,” he said.

“Yeah, I still have some boxes,” Mitch said. “If you need them out--”

“No, I don’t need the space, and I probably shouldn’t have peeked--”

“I don’t have secrets,” Mitch said. “You can look through my old yearbooks and family photos.”

“That sounds tempting,” Brody said. “But what is this?”

Mitch turned, glancing down the hall where Brody was standing with the box Mitch had just packed. In his hand was a Lego boat.

“I mean, Legos? Captain Underpants?” Brody said. “Were these yours?”

“Uh,” Mitch said, not sure if a lie was appropriate when the truth was nonsensical. “Kind of.”

Brody sifted through it again. “I had shit--”

“Language--”

Brody continued without missing a beat. “--stuff like this when I was a kid.”

This time, Mitch pressed start to pause the game. He looked back at Brody quizzically. “Really?”

Brody smiled fondly, looking at one of the t-shirts. “Yeah,” he said. “I can’t remember where I got them or when I lost them, but they were some of my favorites when I was a kid.”

There was something oddly reassuring in that. Something that made Mitch wonder if his impact had been more pronounced than he thought. SOmething that made him question if his week with Matt had been so fleeting after all.

“Well, they’re yours if you want them,” Mitch said, trying to sound and look casual.

Brody wrinkled his nose. “Dude, I’m not a kid anymore.”

“They’re still pretty cool, I think,” Mitch offered.

Brody scoffed, making his way back inside. “Whatever, man.”

-o-

When Mitch sat out that night, he took comfort in knowing that this was temporary.

Inside the house, that was permanent.

Which was why Mitch would be sleeping in his own bed tonight.

He smirked up at the stars. “See,” he said. “I figured it out.”

The stars didn’t answer. Instead, the patio door opened and Brody stepped out. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Mitch replied. “Get unpacked?”

Brody grinned boyishly. “I did,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Anything else you need?” Mitch asked.

Brody laughed, as though it was a joke. “You’re kidding, right?”

Mitch shrugged.

“Mitch, you’ve given me more than I deserve,” he said. He made a fleeting gesture toward the sky. “More than anyone else.”

“Well,” Mitch said, because he didn’t want to take credit for anything. He didn’t want to create an imbalance. He wanted this to be the give and take of family, the ebb and flow of the ocean. “If you think of anything…”

Brody laughed again. “I will let you know.”

They fell into silence, the sound of the waves against the short filling in the gap.

“You know, I did have one more question,” Brody said finally.

Mitch looked up, curious. “Oh?”

“The fish tank,” Brody said. “I was feeding the fish just now and I noticed something in there with Little Mitch.”

Mitch almost smiled.

But he waited for it.

Brody looked a little uncertain again. “Did you make a miniature version of me to put in the fish tank?”

“Sure,” Mitch said, as though that should have been obvious. “Did you think they just appeared out of nowhere.”

“I think I was hoping,” Brody admitted. Then, he grinned. “Any reason why?”

Mitch shrugged. “Little Mitch got lonely, is all,” he said. “And this isn’t just his place anymore.”

“That’s weird, man,” Brody told him. “That’s straight up the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“If it bothers you, Little Matt can come out,” Mitch offered.

Brody shook his head, but he was still grinning. “Good night, Mitch.”

Mitch watched him open the door. “Good night, Brody.”

-o-

Later, when Mitch went back inside, he checked the front door and turned off the lights. He saw that Brody’s door was close, and he checked in on the fish before calling it a night.

Little Mitch was still there, standing proud.

Little Brody was still next to him.

Like he’d belonged there all along.

-o-

The days that followed were good.

The weeks that came after had their moments.

It wasn’t always easy, which was what Brody had promised him and Mitch had suspected. It was like the ebb and flow of the ocean, the ebb and flow of a family. The ocean had taken a lot of from Mitch, but it had given just as much back. None of it was the same as it had been, the edges were rounder, softer, and the top was polished, but Mitch could recognize it for what it was now.

It had taken him long enough, but he recognized it now.

More importantly, he knew enough to value it, hold onto it.

And never let it go again.

It wasn’t always easy.

But it would always be better.

-o-

It wasn’t a particularly special morning, and Mitch woke up ready to go. Brody was slower, dragging his feet and whining about everything. Mitch didn’t have much patience for it this morning, and he hurried himself through breakfast, barking at Brody from the kitchen. “Come on! We need to get moving!”

Brody cursed from his bedroom, before poking his head out, still trying to run a comb through his hair. “We’re not even late!”

“We will be if you sit there and preen!”

“I’m not preening,” Brody snapped at him.

“Uh, huh,” Mitch said. “Just get your coffee to go and meet me at the door.”

“And who’s making us late now?” Brody asked as Mitch brushed past him.

“You’re the one who forgot to switch over the laundry,” Mitch scolded him, making his way to the washing machine to pull out a dry pair of extra swim trunks. He hurried through the task, grabbing Brody’s dry towels for good measure. On his way out, he poked his head into Brody’s room to toss them on the bed.

It still made him pause.

Every damn time.

Brody’s bag was still by the door, but the bag itself was empty now. The clothing was unpacked in the drawers, and there was a growing collection of knick knacks on the dresser. Mitch had helped Brody create a display for the gold medals, and they were hung on the wall next to several framed pictures of Summer and the rest of the team from Baywatch.

On a shelf, installed next to the gold medals, the Lego coast guard set is still built and displayed. The copy of Captain Underpants is worn and read with a small stack of other books on Brody’s bedside table.

“Mitch!” Brody yelled. “I thought we were going to be late!”

Mitch smiled, turning off the light as he closed the door behind him. “I’m coming!” he called, making his way after Brody.

Grabbing his keys, he ushered Brody out the door. They piled into the car together, and Mitch started it, making his way to Baywatch with a grin that he couldn’t quit.

This day wasn’t so bad after all, he decided.

In fact, if he had to guess, he might say it was going to turn out a lot better than he expected.

Next to him, humming in the passenger’s seat, it was clear that Brody had the exact same idea.