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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Arrested Development (2/2)

December 26th, 2018 (08:18 pm)

Continued from Part One.



-o-

When Brody was finished throwing up, he was pretty well spent. Mitch wrapped an arm around him, propping him up as they started the walk back home. Suddenly, his decision not to bring a car seemed a bit more questionable. Brody was mobile, but only in the strictest sense. His coordination had been reduced and his coherency was questionable now that the adrenaline had left him.

That wasn’t to say Brody was making it difficult on purpose. To the contrary, Brody was entirely compliant now. There was no sense of defiance left in him; he was obedient and obliging, and he did his best to move his feet and perform the simple tasks Mitch asked of him. In a lot of ways, that should have made the situation better.

It didn’t.

Instead, Mitch found the compliance unsettling. Brody was too childlike, suddenly.

The irony was hard for Mitch to stomach.

Childlike, when Brody had been robbed of his childhood every step of the way.

By the time they neared Mitch’s home, Brody was flagging badly. Mitch increasingly shouldered more of Brody’s weight, but by the time they reached the threshold, he was all but carrying the younger man. This wasn’t an incredibly difficult task for a guy like Mitch; Brody had always been somewhat diminutive in comparison, and Mitch had no problem handling the physical weight.

But he couldn’t deny that the emotional burden was far more daunting. He couldn’t unhear Brody’s confession earlier. He had no way of unknowing the pain and frustration that Brody hid under a facade of attitude, drinking and cockiness. Brody had trusted him with the truth, willingly or under coercion, it didn’t totally matter. Brody had trusted him.

Mitch knew, in context now, just how much that meant.

With a grunt, he dragged Brody across the room, making it to the spare room and depositing Brody down onto the rollaway cot. At this point, Brody was mostly asleep, and the minute his head hit the pillow, his eyes closed and they didn’t open again.

Standing back, Mitch considered fussing with the blankets, but he didn’t want to jostle the younger man. There was no need to wake him, especially if his stomach might still be queasy. No, the best thing for Brody right now was sleep.

Mitch sighed, closing his own eyes.

The best thing for too much alcohol was sleep.

But Brody had more than an alcohol problem.

And Mitch was pretty damn sure that sleep wasn’t going to fix that.

So, Mitch wondered, opening his eyes again, what would?

He watched as Brody’s sleep started to deepen, his breathing evening out. Could Mitch really expect to rectify a second abandonment by a deadbeat mother? Did Mitch have any realistic means to combat a lifetime of neglect and trust issues? Mitch was a lifeguard, and people sometimes thought that made him superhuman, but he was just a dude. Two hours ago, he’d been ready to throttle Brody.

Here they were now.

Brody passed out on the cot in Mitch’s spare room.

Mitch standing watch, wondering how the hell he was supposed to fix this now.

Maybe it wasn’t his responsibility. Not was a coworker, boss or even a roommate.

But as a friend?

As a member of Baywatch?

Mitch nodded to himself, suddenly resolved.

He’d meant what he said to Brody. Family wasn’t something you earned. It was something you chose.

Moreover, it was something that chose you.

True, Mitch probably wouldn’t have chosen Brody if given the choice. But that choice had already been made now. Mitch couldn’t fight that; wouldn’t fight that.

This was definitely his responsibility now.

-o-

Stepping into the hallway, Mitch didn’t go far, and he left the door open by a few inches. He wanted Brody to sleep, this much was true, but he was pretty sure that he could make as much noise as he wanted, and it wasn’t going to make much difference at this point. In his drunken slumber, Brody was out cold.

If anything, Mitch didn’t want to go too far just to make sure that Brody was safe while he slept.

That said, several issues had to be addressed.

Mitch knew that fixing the past 25 years of Brody’s life was a tall order. That was something that couldn’t be rectified tonight.

But the arrest? The charges for public intoxication?

Mitch could try to do something about those.

Pulling out his phone, he brought up Ellerbee’s number. It was late, but he knew that Ellerbee would gladly take his call.

Mitch was right. The beat cop answered on the second ring. “Mitch,” he said, sounding anxious even as he tried to hide it. “You get Brody home alright?”

The answer had to be yes, though Mitch found it difficult to reduce Brody’s confession to such simplistic terms. But the how and why were not the purpose of this call. “Sure, yeah,” Mitch said. “He’s sleeping it off back at my place now.”

Ellerbee sounded audibly relieved. “That’s good, man. Good to hear. We all make shitty decisions sometimes. But I know Brody. He’s not a bad guy.”

“No, he’s not,” Mitch said. “Which was why I was hoping you could help me out.”

There was a small hesitation over the line. “With what?”

“Well,” Mitch started, being as diplomatic as he could. He wasn’t going to ask Ellerbee for anything unethical, but he wasn’t afraid to leverage all legal avenues. Not where Brody’s future was concerned. “About those charges.”

“I don’t have the power to drop them,” Ellerbee told him quickly.

“I know,” he said. “But your position on the case. You’d get to talk to the DA. Give your opinion. Wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Ellerbee said, a little cautious in his agreement.

“I’m just asking you to tell the DA what you told me,” Mitch eased on smoothly. “That Brody’s a good guy who is trying hard to turn his life around.”

Ellerbee sighed. “Public intoxication is a nothing charge. But he was already on probation. His gig at Baywatch was part of a deal. That’s already a part of his record.”

Mitch glanced anxiously back to Brody’s sleeping form. He was starting to snore. “Is that going to mess up his deal?”

“I ain’t no lawyer,” Ellerbee said. “But I know the DA has already been in. He’s in one of the conference rooms, talking on his phone right now.”

Mitch turned away, starting to pace up and down his hall. “You think that’s a bad sign?”

“Not necessarily,” Ellerbee said. “It just means a lot of stuff is at play.”

Biting his lip, Mitch stopped mid pace. “I need you to go talk to him.”

“Mitch,” Ellerbee started, sounding a little annoyed but not remotely surprised.

“Brody’s one of us, right?” Mitch pressed, not afraid to use emotional manipulation when he had to. “We have to stick together. We’re family here on the beach. We do what we can for family.”

It was the right pressure. He and Ellerbee had had their differences. Maybe they wouldn’t have chosen each other. But they both knew the value if the other. In many ways, their working relationship had chosen them for each other. The case with Leeds had merely forced them to accept it.

Mitch had meant what he said to Brody about family. That was hard for Brody to understand, but Ellerbee got it much faster.

“Yeah,” Ellerbee said, and he didn’t sound reluctant anymore. “Of course, man. Of course.”

Mitch was grinning now. “Thanks, brother.”

“I will talk to the DA, vouch for Brody, all that shit,” Ellerbee said, the hint of a warning in his voice. “But I don’t get to decide. Okay? I can only do so much.”

“I know, I know,” Mitch said. “And I appreciate the effort.”

“For you, for Brody, my family at Baywatch,” he returned. “It’s the least I can do.”

“Awesome,” Mitch replied. “You’ll let me know?”

“Give me an hour or two,” Ellerbee said. “Keep your phone on.”

“Will do,” Mitch acknowledge. “Thanks again.”

“Just keep an eye on Brody, will you?” Ellerbee said.

Mitch turned back to the open door, where Brody was still shuffling in his sleep. “Trust me,” he said. “I don’t intend on letting him out of my sight.”

-o-

True to his word, Mitch lingered in the doorway of his spare room, watching Brody sleep. The younger man hadn’t shifted in his position, but his mouth had fallen open as he snored lightly. The light from the hall seemed to make no difference to Brody; but then, Mitch figured he could probably turn the light on and ack up the sound on the CB radio and Brody wouldn’t know the difference. His sleep was so heavy at this point, Mitch didn’t expect him to stir until morning.

In that regard, Mitch could call it a night. It had been a long day -- for both of them -- and Mitch had probably more than earned a reprieve for bailing him out and hauling his drunk ass home. Any part of him that wanted to resent that, however, could still remember the way Brody’s voice had broken like shattered glass when he told Mitch the truth about the last few weeks. It had been like the pieces of a terrible puzzle finally coming into place, revealing a picture Mitch had never wanted to see.

But now that he did see it, he couldn’t ignore it.

Sighing, Mitch took to pacing again, wandering through his living and kitchen. He placed Brody’s locked phone on the counter, resisting the urge to smash it against the wall. He’d wanted to do that for three weeks now to get the damn kid off it. Now, he wanted to do it because he knew why Brody hadn’t been able to let it go.

What kind of person did that to someone? Much less their own child? If it had been Brody’s mother, how could she see Brody as nothing but an opportunity? How could she carelessly play with his emotions only to cut him loose when there was no profit in it for her? Could someone actually think that monetary gain or notoriety was the only thing of value? Was she really so quick to dismiss the fact that Brody was her son and, despite everything, still wanted to know her and be loved by her?

And what if it hadn’t been his mother? What if it had been a stranger, looking to exploit Brody? What did it say about Brody’s desperate need for acceptance that he’d gone along with it all so quickly, so readily? That it had destroyed him so completely within the span of a few short weeks.

Mitch turned away from the phone, pacing back toward the spare room where Brody was still asleep. No wonder Brody had gotten drunk. Right now, drinking himself into oblivion sounded pretty appealing to Mitch, too.

The problem would still be there in the morning, however.

And Mitch wasn’t the kind of guy who let these things slide. He attacked his problems; he dealt with them as soon as possible.

As far as he was concerned, this thing with Brody was overdue. By three weeks. By 25 years.

First things first, Mitch decided, he needed to make sure that the rest of Brody’s support system was in place. He’d talked to Summer earlier; it would only be proper due diligence to follow up. Stepping back into the kitchen, Mitch brought up Summer’s number on his phone.

He hesitated for a second while composing the message, not sure how much to tell. He wanted Summer to understand, of course, that Brody was going through a lot of shit right now. However, much of this story wasn’t his to tell. Brody had confessed it to him, but he’d been drunk at the time, and even without that conflating factor, Mitch could not assume that Brody was ready to tell even his girlfriend about the interaction with his mother.

On top of that, there was still the legal question. Summer deserved to know that as well, and not in a reactionary context. She needed to know that Brody was going to continue be going through more shit in the near future, but that he deserve support during every part of the process, no matter what Ellerbee worked out with the DA.

That was a lot of nuance for a text message, however.

Finally, after several moments of internal debate, Mitch settled on the following message:

Brody’s home, right where he belongs. Tomorrow’s going to be rough for all of us. Will explain more later.


Then, for good measure, he sent off a text to Stephanie as well, pulling himself and Brody from the schedule for tomorrow. He’d see if they needed more time than that when Ellerbee got back to him and when Brody woke up in the morning.

Before he could go back to check on Brody, Summer had already texted back.

So he’s okay?

That was a question, wasn’t it? A more complicated one that Summer had likely intended.

Mitch smiled tightly, fingers stiffly typing out a reply.

He will be.

Mitch put the phone down, utterly resolved. Brody would be okay.

Mitch would make sure of that himself.

-o-

Mitch wasn’t the type who hovered.

He didn’t mother hen.

Except that night, he totally hovered.

And he was totally a mother hen.

It should have been some comfort that Brody was so deeply asleep that he’d never know that, but somehow, given the circumstances, that didn’t make Mitch feel any better at all.

When his phone vibrated, he expected it to be Summer or even Stephanie, but when he saw Ellerbee’s name, he made quick strides away from the door to the spare room into the relative privacy of the kitchen.

“Ellerbee,” he said, answering without any preamble. “What do you have for me?”

Ellerbee took what sounded like a steadying breath before replying. “Well, I spent a lot of time in there with the DA talking about our boy,” he said.

“And?” Mitch asked.

“And,” Ellerbee said. “I hate lawyers. Like, I hate them. I get it, we’re on the same side of the law and all that shit, but damn, man. Lawyers are shit--”

Mitch bite back a sigh, but he did let himself roll his eyes. “Sure, but what did the DA say?”

Ellerbee’s grunt was one of exasperation. “I just want you to understand what kind of sacrifices I make for yours and mine in this shit,” he said. “An hour I spent in there. An hour talking to lawyers about legal shit and stuff--”

Mitch, while grateful, could feel his patience running dangerously thin. “Ellerbee.”

“Brody’s case is complicated because of his prior plea deal,” Ellerbee said finally getting to the point. “Now, it works in his favor that he pleaded guilty to a drug conviction. Technically, a public intoxication charge isn’t in direct violation.”

“That’s good,” Mitch said, not sure why Ellerbee didn’t make that sound like good news. “That’s good, right?”

“In theory, yes,” Ellerbee said. “But your boy worked out a very sweet deal with the DA to take the Baywatch job instead of going to jail. This was all a PR stunt, which makes another arrest look very, very bad.”

“But the conditions of the deal--”

“Ain’t nothing either of us know about,” Ellerbee said. “But the DA has enough, whatever those conditions are, to pull that first plea deal out from under Brody.”

Mitch’s stomach sank. “And will he?”

“I don’t think that’s what anyone wants,” Ellerbee said. “No, I don’t get all the stupid legal crap they talk about, but I could tell there was no way the DA wanted to give up on the deal. No one wants Brody to go to jail.”

Mitch swallowed, too anxious to allow himself to be hopeful at this point. “So they’ll work something out?”

“They’re ready to work out another deal,” Ellerbee confirmed.

“So he won’t go to jail?” Mitch pushed.

“That’s not what the DA wants,” Ellerbee said. “But I have warn you, I don’t know what the terms are. They want Brody in here tomorrow afternoon to talk through this shit and sign some papers. Does he have a lawyer?”

“Honestly, I have no idea,” Mitch said. “Tomorrow afternoon?”

“They wanted it at 8 AM tomorrow,” Ellerbee said. “I pushed it until 1:30. You’re welcome.”

Mitch had to smile at that. By 8 AM tomorrow, Brody would be lucky to be conscious. He would, no doubt, be hungover.

“You’re sure, though,” Mitch said, because he needed to be sure. “That this deal is a real thing. Brody’s not going to jail?”

“I saw the paperwork myself,” Ellerbee said. “Now, mind you, I have no idea what most of it meant. I’m a beat cop, not a lawyer -- thank God -- but there’s a deal on the table for your boy. All you have to do is get him here to sign it.”

“We’ll be there,” Mitch said. “1:30.”

“Cool, man.”

“And Ellerbee,” Mitch said before the cop could hang up. “Thanks for your help.”

“You and that damn shell phone,” Ellerbee muttered, but it was without malice. “Pretty soon, we’re going to be even, you know.”

Mitch chuckled. “Feel free to cash in the favor any time,” he said.

Because for Brody, Mitch owed him just about everything.

-o-

Mitch had fixed everything he could that night.

Standing in the doorway of the spare room, there was still the fundamental problem that started this, the problem that eluded him still. There was still Brody.

Mitch couldn’t fix Brody tonight.

Mitch wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to fix Brody. This wasn’t a few quick texts and compassionate explanations to friends and coworkers. This wasn’t even a complicated legal plea deal. You didn’t just make 25 years of loss and abandonment go away.

So what did you do?

Did you not try?

Mitch inched his way into the room, knowing he’d never be able to sleep anyway.

How could he not try?

Awkwardly, Mitch came closer. He stood for a moment at the foot of the cot, noting for the first time how small it was, even for Brody’s smaller stature. It didn’t look particularly comfortable; nothing like Mitch’s own pillow top king bed in his own master bedroom. He’d never thought about before, not after the first night he’d agreed to give Brody a place to crash. It had seemed like an apt temporary arrangement; he’d even thought it generous of himself to let Brody, who was such a pain in his ass, to stay in his spare room.

That had been months ago. Brody had changed a lot.

The spare room didn’t show any of that change. It was the same sparse, impersonal, cluttered room it had been when Brody first showed up. Most importantly, it was still Mitch’s. Lined with Mitch’s things, housing Mitch’s CB radio. Mitch’s.

It wasn’t Brody’s home.

But if not this, then what would be? It wasn’t like Brody had a home in Iowa to go back to. All he had was a threadbare bag with a few items of clothes and two gold medals.

Sighing, Mitch pulled a chair from the side of the room, dragging it until it was at the bedside. He sat himself down in it, wondering why it had never occurred to him that that might not have been enough. Mitch talked big about Baywatch; he called it family.

This wasn’t family, though. This wasn’t how family acted.

Mitch had been a generous boss and a good friend. He’d done more than anyone would expect for a stranger who rolled into his beach with an attitude. But a boss wasn’t family. Just like a spare room wasn’t home. Brody had never asked for more, but why would he? When he’d spent his whole life learning that he wouldn’t ever have it?

Brody wanted more, but Brody was too scared to ask for it. Brody needed more.

Mitch had to think, Brody deserved more.

Everyone did.

The real question, then, was whether or not Mitch was able to give it.

Or, more simply put, whether he wanted to give it.

Mitch pursed his lips, whittling himself down to the crux of the issue. Why hadn’t he done it yet? If Mitch had been the family he claimed to be, Brody wouldn’t have gone through this alone. He wouldn’t be sleeping on a cot in Mitch’s spare room. He wouldn’t have closed himself off and gotten drunk instead of seeking the support he so desperately needed.

The past three weeks had taken Brody’s world apart, and his had been a precarious, slipshod structure held together by sheer force of will. Mitch’s, on the other hand, had been easily dismantled in the course of a single evening.

Honestly, he wasn’t sure what to do with that.

Not for himself.

Not for Brody.

Chewing on the inside of his lip, he watched as Brody snuffled again, briefly shifting his weight and closing his mouth, before settling back into stillness again.

At the very least, he could be sure of this much: Brody didn’t deserve to be alone tonight. Moreover, Mitch had no intention of leaving him alone. The chair was hard and uncomfortable; hardly a step up from the rickety, thin cot he’d let Brody sleep on for months now. Maybe that was the perspective he needed.

No one should sleep in a spare storage room, filled with Christmas decorations and camping supplies.

That was, quite possibly, the point.

It was why Mitch had to stay tonight.

And he’d make the necessary changes in the morning.

-o-

Mitch stayed up most of the night. The chair was that uncomfortable, after all.

And he watched Brody breathing the whole time through, measuring time by the slow inhalations as the hours ticked by. His own heart slowed in time until he and Brody were perfectly synchronized when dawn approached.

This was a safety precaution. Brody, as deeply asleep as he was, would be prone to choking on his own vomit.

This would be the story Mitch would tell anyone else if they asked.

He knew the real reason why.

He had to hope, when Brody woke up, that he’d understand it, too.

-o-

Brody slept like a log that night.

Mitch didn’t sleep at all.

Morning found them both feeling like absolute shit.

When Brody had started to rouse, Mitch had done what was best for both of them and quietly exited the room. He had started a pot of coffee in the kitchen, putting on some water and milk for his oatmeal, when Brody finally came trudging out of the spare room, looking much worse for wear.

Mitch watched as he shuffled to the table, and he stopped there, looking down at his phone, where Mitch had left it the night before. He stared at it for a long moment, and Mitch regretted not following through on his instincts to smash it against the wall. To his relief, Brody didn’t touch it. Instead, he looked up, squinting at Mitch. “I, um, don’t suppose last night was a dream,” he croaked.

Stirring his bowling water, Mitch started to stir in his oats. “Depends,” he said, trying to remain impassive. He didn’t want to be harsh, but he also couldn’t afford to be flippant about any of this. “What do you remember?”

The look of utter misery on Brody’s face indicated to Mitch clearly enough that Brody remembered enough.

More than enough.

“I got really drunk,” Brody told him. He might have gone red in the face if he’d had any color in his complexion at all. “I always get stupid drunk when shit goes down.”

Mitch gave a small shrug; there was no need to comment on that.

Brody sighed, increasingly looking dejected. “The hazy part is when I left the bar,” he said. “It’s possible I peed in a few alleyways, broke a few windows and yelled obscenities at people before picking a fight with a bouncer who was ten time bigger than me.”

“Well, they only caught you on one window,” Mitch told him with a faint smile. “But lots of people saw your peeing antics.”

Brody groaned, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he looked abjectly resigned. “So the part where I got arrested?”

Mitch had no quips for this. He nodded. “Was real.”

Brody exhaled heavily. “What was the charge?”

Mitch turned down the temperature on the stove to let the oats stew. “Public intoxication.”

Making a face, Mitch could see Brody’s sluggish brain trying to process that. No doubt, he was comparing that charge against the list of restrictions on his plea deal.

“You’ve got a meeting with the DA today,” Mitch said. There was no need to delay this part of the conversation. Comparatively, this was the simpler task anyway. “They’ll talk about the charges and your plea deal.”

Brody flinched just slightly. It wasn’t a secret that he’d come to Baywatch after being forced to accept a plea deal. But, like so many things, they just didn’t talk about it. Brody, though shaky now, at least took the news like a man. He cleared his throat, nodding. “The first plea deal was for a drug charge,” he said, clenching his teeth through the obvious humiliation. “So this isn’t exactly related, but, um, the publicity thing was a big deal. I, uh.”

He ducked his head, scratching at the back of his neck uncomfortably.

He looked up again, his countenance somewhat sickly. “I’m pretty sure the DA’s going to be pissed about this,” he concluded with a forced smile.

“Well, Ellerbee said they’re looking to cut you another deal,” he said. “I don’t know what the specifics are or anything, but that’s what the DA will tell you about this afternoon.”

This was news Brody had clearly not expected. “Wait, what kind of deal?” he asked. “The same deal?”

Mitch put up his hands. “I couldn’t say,” he said. “But Ellerbee was confident that the DA’s office isn’t looking to put you in jail.”

“The terms of the first deal were pretty explicit,” Brody ventured uncertainly.

“Ellerbee wouldn’t lie to me,” Mitch said. He lifted one shoulder, holding his gaze steady on Brody. “And I wouldn’t lie to you.”

He maintained eye contact, daring Brody to contradict him. This may have looked like a power play, but it was an attempt at solidarity. Mitch could badger Brody into anything, but he wanted Brody to know certain truths for himself.

The truth, however, only seemed to unnerve Brody even more. Looking down, he struggled to control his breathing. “I just -- I screwed it up,” he said, giving a small laugh that was an effort to mask a tiny sob. “Somethings you can’t fix.”

Mitch knew what he meant. Not just some things. Brody believed that about some people.

He believed it about himself.

“We’ll go down, both of us if you want, and we’ll sit down with the DA and we’ll hammer out the details,” Mitch promised, turning the heat off on the stove completely now that his oats were done. “If that’s what you want.”

Brody blinked rapidly a few times, but he looked up tentatively. “I can’t, um. I can’t afford a lawyer.”

“So we’ll get a public defender,” Mitch said. “And if you still don’t want to do it alone, then I’ll be there, okay? Every step of the way.”

Brody’s expression flickered, confusion and uncertainty making his brows crease. “This afternoon?” he asked with hesitation.

“We’ll head over after lunch,” Mitch said, pouring some oatmeal into a bowl for himself. Then, he took the liberty of pouring some into a second bowl for Brody.

Sliding the bowl over, he put the contained of sliced fruit between them with a few spoons. Brody stiffly took the bowl, putting a few strawberries and blueberries and mixing them in with his oats. Finally, he blew out the breath he’d been trying not to hold. “What about this morning?” he asked.

Mitch was busy adding banana and strawberries to his own bowl, topping it with almonds. “We have other plans for the morning.”

Brody continued stirring his oatmeal with no sign of actually eating. With vague concern, he asked, “And, um. What about work?”

Easily, Mitch took a bite of his breakfast, not quit acting nonchalant. “You have the day off,” he said. “We both do.”

Brody looked almost nauseated now. “Am I fired?” he asked, and the waver in his voice gave away how terrified he was at the prospect.

“No,” Mitch said, and this time he did go for nonchalance. That was a non-question, and he wanted Brody to know that it was entirely not on the table. “You have the day off. You can go in for your shift tomorrow when you’re not hungover.”

There was nothing about that answer that Brody expected or apparently even knew what to do with. He looked down at his oatmeal, as if they might have an answer for him, but he came up blank.

Mitch couldn’t stand to see him struggle like that. So he shrugged. “Besides,” he said. “You and I have other plans today.”

Brody nodded, a small, slight movement. “I may need to borrow a tie for the meeting with the DA,” he said, eyes still on his oats.

“Well, that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m talking about,” Mitch told him, shoveling more food into his mouth.

Confused, Brody looked up. “Huh?”

“You and me,” Mitch said again. “We have a few errands to run today.”

This made no sense to Brody. He shook his head. “Mitch, I don’t remember much about what happened after I got arrested,” he said. “But we talked, right? On the beach?”

Brody’s expression went from concerned to tormented. This was not a conversation Brody was ready to have sober.

As far as Mitch was concerned, they didn’t have to have it on Mitch’s account. Only when Brody was ready.

Only then.

So Mitch gave him an easy out. “We talked, but nothing you said changed anything.”

Brody’s frown deepened. “But I screwed up. I got arrested. You should fire me,” he said, more emphatically than before. “You should kick my ass to the curb, and let the system eat me alive. I don’t deserve any of this. I don’t deserve a plea deal. I just -- don’t.”

Only in that was Brody certainty. Only in the condemnation of himself was Brody confident. No one was more frustrated with Brody than Brody himself.

They didn’t need to talk about last night.

But they needed to talk about Mitch’s failure over the last three weeks.

“You’re a part of the team, Brody,” Mitch said, putting down his half empty bowl now. “That means you’re part of the family.”

Brody was shaking his head already in protest. “I haven’t earned a place there, especially not after last night--”

“Everyone earns a place on the team, but that’s not even what I’m talking about,” Mitch said. “You can earn a job. But a family? Brody, I made the choice to make you family. Nothing you do, no matter how stupid, will ever change that.”

Brody’s breathing had intensified. His eyes were shining and when he spoke, his voice was thin and tight. “Why are you being nice to me?”

“Because you had a shitty night,” Mitch told him. “But that doesn’t make you a shitty person.”

It wasn’t the nicest way to say it. It wasn’t the most eloquent. It wasn’t how he’d explain it to Summer or CJ or Ronnie or Stephanie.

But it was the way Brody needed to hear it.

Flat, uncompromising and honest. Brody didn’t need to be absolved of his wrongs. He didn’t need someone to pretend that he hadn’t done something stupid. He just needed someone to tell him that they saw him for who he was.

And still accepted him.

Still wanted him.

That someone still chose him anyway.

That was what Mitch was doing today.

He was choosing Brody.

The emotion was barely controlled on Brody’s face. Last night was still weighing heavily on the younger man, both physically and emotionally. He was visibly pale and shaky, and he looked brittle enough to break. Mitch didn’t doubt that if left to his own devices, Brody would do just that. He’d shatter into a thousand pieces.

And hey, if that happened, Mitch would still be here.

No matter what.

“So come on,” Mitch said, reaching for his own bowl again. “Eat up and take a shower. I want to leave in 20 minutes.”

With three large bites, Mitch ate the rest of his oatmeal and poured himself a cup of coffee. Brody was still standing there, staring at his breakfast, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do. Mitch made his way around, patting him on the shoulder as he moved toward the bedroom. “It’s going to be a long day, I imagine,” he said. “You’ll make some difficult choices today.”

Under his touch, Brody was trembling.

Mitch squeezed harder. “But this choice, right now?” he said. “That’s an easy one.”

Brody swallowed, glancing up at Mitch. “Is it?”

“Sure, it is,” Mitch said, finally letting go. “If you want it to be.”

Brody stared at him, and Mitch could feel his eyes on him as he went down the hall.

“I’ll be in the car in 30,” Mitch called back. “It’s your choice whether you want to be in there with me or not.”

-o-

Mitch had spoken with confidence. It was easy for him to do that. He had presence, he was a natural leader. When he spoke, people listened without fail. He would be the last person that would be suspected of self doubt.

Most of the time, that wasn’t even a facade for him. Most of the time, he really was just confident and self assured. He rarely had cause to doubt himself.

Brody was an exception to that rule. As it turned out, Brody was the exception to a lot of rules where Mitch was concerned.

So Mitch had spoken with confidence. Confidence that was based on a real, needy hope. Not a confidence, however, that was based remotely on certainty.

Standing in front of the mirror, getting ready for what was likely to be a long and difficult day, Mitch had never felt less confident.

After all, he’d just given Brody a choice. A choice to be a part of a family or a choice to walk away. On the surface. To most people, it probably didn’t seem like a choice. Especially given what Mitch knew about Brody’s history. Brody wanted a family, almost desperately. It was his most basic craving, the thing that had defined him and nearly ruined him.

Which was why Mitch was worried. Brody had a habit of blowing up his chances when they got too close to coming true. It was why he’d gotten drunk at the Huntley instead of keeping watch. It was probably why he’d puked in a pool on the world’s stage instead of taking home the gold medal like he could have with ease.

Mitch patted his face dry, reaching for a fresh shirt to pull on over his head.

There was likely deep psychological trauma at work. Brody probably preferred to create his own chaos instead of waiting for the failure he deemed inevitable. At least that way, he had a way of explaining it. Otherwise, he was just faced with the fact that life just sucked and he had no say in any of it.

Mitch grabbed clean shorts next, pulling the up and adjusting the waist.

Three weeks ago, Mitch would have called that bullshit. But then Brody’s mother had tried to exploit him for quick cash and left him high and dry with nothing but a shattered heart. So maybe it wasn’t the craziest coping technique Mitch had ever heard of.

Still, while it was understandable, it also made Brody’s decision-making a bit of a wild card. He couldn’t count on Brody to always do the smart or sensible thing. He couldn’t count on Brody even to do the thing that would make himself happiest. Mitch was hinging a lot in Brody making a right choice when he’d just made some spectacularly bad ones.

Mitch looked in the mirror, wondering if there was more he could do. He wasn’t sure he was ready to face this day any more than Brody was.

He, however, knew he could talk himself into doing everything that needed to be done. Mitch had self control like that. And honestly, he had no problem with the notion of forcing Brody to come along with him. He trusted, that given enough time, Brody would come to agree with him. Brody would probably even thank him for it in the long run.

Mitch sighed, turning back toward the bedroom door and glancing at the clock. 20 minutes had past, which meant push was about to come to shove. What would happen if Mitch went out to the car and Brody didn’t join him? What would happen if Brody made the choice not to take Mitch up on his offer?

It was entirely possible that Mitch was giving Brody too much power to make his own decisions far too fast. Just last night, Brody had made the dubious decision to drink himself into a stupor before defacing public property and peeing in alleyways. It was probably even somewhat likely that all Mitch was doing this morning was giving Brody too much rope. Mitch intended the rope to let Brody save himself.

Was he ready for the reality that Brody might just hang himself instead?

Worse, would he ever really know if Brody made that choice on purpose or by accident?

Wearily, Mitch gathered his things, sliding his phone into his pocket and stuffing his wallet into the back of his shorts. These were, quite clearly, valid concerns, but that didn’t mean he should indulge them. Not if he wanted to do this the right way.

Brody needed to make these choices today. That was the only way they had any meaning. If Brody didn’t make the choices for himself, then he was still at the whims and wills of the world around him. Mitch had seen first hand in the last three weeks how vulnerable that left Brody. If Brody was going to be a part of a family, he had to embrace that for himself.

Mitch needed to make the offer clear, compelling and without conditions.

But Brody had to choose to accept it.

That was the definition of family.

That was how it worked.

They both had to put their cards on the table. No secrets, no reservations. No one could be coerced or cajoled.

The choice had to be mutual.

Mitch looked at the door.

He looked at the clock.

It was time for him to go.

That was the choice he’d made.

All he could do was stand by it and hope that Brody made the same decision today.

-o-

It was hard to walk through the house without saying anything. It was hard to pick up his keys and open the front door without calling back to Brody to see if he were coming. One last glance at the clock confirmed that it was 30 minutes on the dot.

Mitch’s stomach churned as he closed the door behind him, a little louder than necessary.

He took his time making his way out to the car. He dallied a bit, trying to appear casual when in fact he was starting to sweat with anxiety. By the time he reached his car, his fingers were actually shaking. When he sat down behind the steering wheel, he was starting to feel sick.

From the outside, it would be easy to think that this was all about Mitch doing Brody a favor. To anyone else, it would just seem like it would be all the same to Mitch no matter what Brody did. What did it change for him if Brody showed up or disappeared? Wouldn’t things be easier if Brody decided against this whole family thing?

He’d been too quick to frame their relationship that way himself. In his mind, he’d been the benefactor here, providing Brody with a place to live, on the job training and free life coaching. He’d been giving more than he was getting in the grander scheme of things; Brody, if anything, owed him.

Except it wasn’t that simple. Family, Mitch reflected as he sat in the car, glancing anxiously in the rearview mirror, rarely was. Sometimes the things you gave weren’t easily quantified. Sometimes the things you received were easy to overlook until they were gone. If Brody didn’t show up, Mitch knew it wouldn’t seem like any skin off his back.

Nonetheless, he was fairly confident it would still rip out a piece of his soul that he wasn’t sure he’d get back.

Sighing, he glanced at the time. 32 minutes.

Dejected, he put the keys in the ignition, turning the engine over.

But before he put the car into gear, there was a flurry of movement behind him. From out of the house, Brody came running, skidding in his sandals beside the door, and opening it with a breathless huff as he sat down in the passenger’s seat.

Mitch looked at him, trying his best not to beam.

Brody looked back, letting out a long breath. Not quite resigned. Not quite defeated.

Just accepting.

“Sorry,” he said. He held up a cup of coffee that was in one hand; his hair was still dripping dry. “I, uh. Was pretty sure I was going to need more coffee.”

He took a quick sip with a wince.

“A lot more coffee,” he muttered to himself, as he sat back against the seat. “If I’m going to have any chance to get through the day.”

Mitch grinned, putting the car into gear. “No problem,” he said easily, as he started backing up out of the driveway. “Let’s do this thing.”

Brody sighed wearily, eyes fixed ahead of him as he agreed. “Let’s do this thing.”

-o-

Over the last few months, he and Brody had done a lot of shit together. Mostly, they had worked together. Moreover, they had worked out together. But they’d also done a few minor household repairs together. They’d grilled together. On occasion, they had gone grocery shopping. Such things were inevitable when you lived with someone, and Mitch had been more concerned with their cases than domestic pursuits.

Therefore, they had infiltrated various warehouses and shipping industries, but they had never gone furniture shopping.

Until today.

It felt a little weird parking outside the store, but Mitch tried not to let it show how awkward it was for him.

Such subterfuge was not necessary.

Brody was sitting in the passenger’s seat, too transfixed with how awkward it was for him. He had no extra energy to consider how Mitch felt at the moment.

Despite his obvious discomfort, Brody said nothing as Mitch parked the car and they piled out together. Brody was fidgety as they walked up, and he looked excessively pale as Mitch opened the door to the store and let them both inside.

They had made it all the way to the bedroom displays before Brody finally broke down and asked the simplest version of the question he had rattling around in his head. “So, uh. Are you, like, remodeling?”

He was going for casual, but the question sounded the opposite of casual. There was no nonchalance in the question; all of Brody’s insecurities bled through.

It only occurred to Mitch, as Brody stared wide-eyed at the price tags, that Brody had probably never been furniture shopping before. You only shopped for furniture if you had a home.

Mitch forced himself to smile despite the clenching of his own stomach. “Well, I do have a spare room,” he said, and his affectation was more convincingly casual. He shrugged. “I was thinking we needed to change it up.”

Brody looked downright startled, misreading Mitch’s intentions entirely. Instead of hearing the implications of the word we, Brody assumed what he had always assumed: that he was superfluous and expendable. Moreover, that he was ultimately unwanted.

For once, he didn’t try to hide it, however. He made no attempt to play it cool or to deflect or ignore. Instead, he asked, voice a little raw, “You want the storage room back?”

There was no in between reality for Brody. He had not considered any possibility other than that he would be a guest in Mitch’s spare room indefinitely or that he would eventually be kicked unceremoniously to the curb.

Worse, he seemed to consider it a real possibility that Mitch would kick him to the curb by asking him to help redesign the room without him.

Brody assumed callous cruelty before acceptance.

Like Mitch needed to feel worse about things.

“Relax,” he said, trying to ease Brody’s obvious anxieties. “I’m not kicking you out.”

Most days, Brody probably would have been able to hide it better. He was still hungover, however, and the promise of a meeting with the DA this afternoon to discover charges of public intoxication had taken their toll on him. Whatever courage Brody was able to rally to face a normal day with attitude and charisma had been badly depleted.

Today, all he had left was bald uncertainty.

And barely controlled fear.

Mitch smiled patiently. “You’ve been in there, what? A few months now?”

Brody regarded him like that might be a trick question. “Yeah,” he said slowly.

“Okay,” Mitch said smoothly. “A few months is too long to sleep on a cot with someone else’s shit all around. Not to mention that CB radio every night.”

Brody still looked deeply skeptical, like he was waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Or, possibly, a dozen other shoes.

Mitch gave a shrug. “So I thought you might like some actual furniture, some stuff you like,” he suggested. “Just to make the place feel like home.”

Even though Mitch had made his intentions explicit, Brody still did not grasp the them. Either that, or he simply hadn’t allowed himself to grasp it. It was all too likely that Brody had spent so long wanting a home that he didn’t know what one looked like when it was being offered to him.

Just like he had no idea what family was when the choice was laid out in front of him.

Brody shook his head, brow creased. “I can’t afford it.”

Of course Brody thought there was a catch. Contingencies. Conditions. He still thought he had to earn it, that he had to buy it, pay for it. He still thought, after years of rejections large and small, that he’d never be able to build up enough equity to deserve it.

That was a hard, painful truth.

But Mitch smiled because he had to.

For Brody’s sake in this shitty mess, he really had to. “Fortunately,” he said, his expression the same easy one he used with recovering victims on the beach. “I can.”

Brody was already shaking his head, feet suddenly planted to the ground. “I can’t ask you for that. And I can’t pay you back. I wouldn’t be able to pay you back, like, ever.”

In Brody’s mind, that was still how it worked. Relationships were a give and take, but he believed the exchange was equal. That all parties had the same things to offer and had the same needs to fill. “You’re not asking,” Mitch clarified. “And I’m not looking to be paid back.”

Somehow, this explicit show of generosity seemed to terrify Brody. Mitch had never seen him more scared, and that included the time he’d had a gun to his head on a fireworks barge in the middle of the bay. Brody had gone to the Olympics, survived Baywatch training, outed a massive drug and real estate scheme -- all without flinching.

And here he was.

Standing in the middle of a furniture store, looking like he might throw up.

Again.

Mitch knew the queasy nature of Brody’s stomach. He wouldn’t put that past him.

Nonetheless, Mitch had a point to make. Now was the time to make it. “This is what family is about, Brody,” he said, breaking it down to its simplest, truest form. “It chooses you, and you choose it.”

Brody blinked, the hint of memory coming over him. Last night was undoubtedly hazy for him, but he remembered this. Some part of him, some important, critical part, had to remember this.

If only because, Mitch knew, he wanted it so badly.

“So here it is,” Mitch said, gesturing around the store room. It was about furniture on the surface, but they both knew now it was about so much more. “I’m making you a straight offer, no strings attached. All you have to do is accept it.”

Brody drew a breath, the tension building in his shoulders. “Is this like the plea deal the DA is going to force me to sign this afternoon?”

“Not even close,” Mitch said. “I don’t give a shit about your mistakes. I know you’ve made them, and fine. We’ll work on moving past them together. This isn’t even a bargain or some kind of deal where you’re promising me that you’ll get better. This is just family. It’s people who decide, what the hell. Doing life together is a lot better than doing it apart.”

Brody swallowed, stepping closer as he lowered his voice. “I’m going to screw up again,” he said, almost as if he were warning Mitch. Almost as if this was his last chance to press the abort button. “I always do; you’ve seen that now.”

Mitch had seen that.

He’d seen a lot of other shit, too.

“I know,” Mitch said, because he wouldn’t deny it. This wouldn’t work if they were lying to each other or themselves. There could be no false hopes, no cheap promises. “And I’m going to call your ass out when you make those mistakes, and I’ll help you pick up the pieces when you do.”

Brody exhaled, short and hot. “But--” he struggled to find the words. “You should be kicking my ass to the curb right now, not buying me furniture. I’m really not worth it.” He gestured around to the furniture store. “Like, any of it.”

“You don’t get to decide what’s worth it to me, buddy,” Mitch told him. “And hey, if you don’t want this--”

Panic flashed through Brody’s eyes.

Mitch shrugged again. “The offer still stands.”

Brody was breathing quickly now, eyes darting from Mitch to the store, the store back to Mitch. He pressed his lips together, not exactly weighing his options, but gauging the veracity of the offer. His hesitation wasn’t an insult to Mitch; it was a sign of how much Brody had suffered in the last few weeks -- not to mention the last 25 years. Because on the surface, sure, Mitch was offering a lot more than he was standing to get here.

On the other hand, Mitch was asking Brody to trust him. When every other instance in Brody’s life had sought to undermine his basic trust in the idea of family.

In essence, Mitch could not possibly ask Brody for more.

And Brody had nothing more valuable to give.

He inhaled sharply through his nose, blinking rapidly a few times. Then, he nodded. With another breath, Brody nodded again. “Okay,” he said, his shaky voice slowly finding its strength. “Your cot is pretty uncomfortable. And, like, my clothes are always wrinkled when I keep them in my bag.”

Mitch did his best to respond to the concession as a mature adult, nodding along intently. “Good, that’s good.”

Then Brody’s eyes widen, as if he’d remembered a very important, very serious point. “But the CB stays,” he said. “I like the CB.”

That attempt at maturity dissipated quickly, and Mitch grinned his widest, truest grin. “That’s even better.”

This shit storm might have started three weeks ago. Maybe it started three months ago when he hired Brody. It could have started 25 years ago when a pregnant teenager gave up her son for adoption.

But, as far as Mitch was concerned, the part that mattered most started today, just the two of them, in a furniture store.

And the whole future ahead of them.

-o-

The shopping trip went pretty well, even from a shopping perspective. Brody was a little hesitant about his choices, and it was clear he’d never bought any furniture in his life. He was extremely nervous about the price of a new headboard, frame and mattress. He seemed particularly vexed when Mitch explained that they needed to purchase a box springs with the mattress since he had not chosen a platform bed frame.

Things did not improve when Mitch directed to the dressers. Here, Brody looked like he might actually faint. The vast selection alone was overwhelming -- did he want an upright dresser or a long one, did he need a mirror with it or did he value more storage -- and he seemed to think the prices must be some kind of joke. Mitch had to explain the concept of laying out the space, comparing the size of the bed to the size of the room to determine how much space they had left for a dresser. Brody nodded along like he understood, but his glazed expression suggested to Mitch that math was another subject that Brody was not well versed on.

The fact that he picked out a bed and a dresser in two different wood tones with two different styles was notwithstanding. It had taken him half the morning to sell him on the concept of family. Some things were just going to have to be let go.

Besides, the design didn’t matter. Honestly, the math didn’t either.

What mattered was the look on Brody’s face when he realized that Mitch was serious. The confidence grew with every item they amassed, and Mitch watched the certainty solidify as Mitch stayed true through all of Brody ridiculous and redundant questions.

On the way to accessories, Mitch picked up the slip for a bedside table, deciding not to take the time to explain to Brody why one might be useful. Instead, he let the kid loose on the lamps and clocks, trusting that once they had those items delivered, Brody would come to the obvious conclusion himself.

It was a smart play because Brody was thrilled by the selection of accessories. He took it upon himself to turn on every lamp, even going so far as the plug in models that were not next to outlets. He tried to set every clock to the correct time, and he seemed to think it was quite telling that none of them used military time.

All in all, by this point, it was like watching a kid in the toy store.

When Brody asked if he could buy the tacky and ridiculous looking abstract modern art for the wall, Mitch did his best not to roll his eyes. Brody looked so pleased with his selection that it was downright impossible to tell him no.

At the checkout, Brody blanched as the totals rang up, but Mitch paid the bill with a smile, providing the necessary details for delivery, which was schedule for a week or two from now. In truth, the price had been a little higher than he anticipated, but he could afford it. He saved a good portion of his income every month, and he made smart spending decisions on the whole.

Besides, he thought as he stole a glance at Brody who was positively beaming next to him, family’s a worthwhile investment.