Sitting there by himself with Brody is hard. It’s uncomfortable and it leaves Mitch plagued with doubts he can’t stomach and thoughts he can’t settle.
It’s harder still when other people visit.
And a lot of people visit.
When Brody first joined the team, he’d been the odd guy out. He’d been brash and offensive, and honestly, he hadn’t gotten it. As lieutenant, no one had wanted anything to do with him. In many ways, Mitch has preferred to think of him as the perpetual outsider.
It’s clear, however, that Brody is not that guy anymore. He’s a well liked, thoroughly respected member of the team, as evidenced by the fact that everyone on Baywatch stops by to visit him. Ronnie sits with Brody and tells him that he’s been trying to keep up on the workout regimen but that he still needs some help because the idea of lifting his own bodyweight is actually physically impossible for him. CJ comes by and squeezes Brody’s hand, telling him that he’s made tower two a better place than she ever imagined it could be.
People tell him that he’s funny, that he’s made good saves, that he’s been a great team player. They thank him for filling in extra shifts and for providing key backup during cases on the beach. They compliment the way he sings in the shower, the way he doesn’t barf in the ocean like he does in the pool and the way he fills out the Baywatch uniform like no one else.
Then, to make matters worse, they always turn to Mitch and say how lucky Brody is that Mitch was there to save his life.
Like Mitch isn’t the reason all this started in the first place.
Those are bad, but the worst is still Summer. She doesn’t ply him with platitudes anymore; in fact, she largely takes to leaving him alone. Summer is there for Brody, almost exclusively, and watching her hold his hand and watch him breathe reminds Mitch that this is more than a job.
Brody’s more than a lifeguard. He’s got a life now; he’s got connections.
Mitch hadn’t thought about any of that when he ordered Brody to pursue a lead without backup.
It’s all he can think about now.
Sitting there, Mitch realizes just how much Brody has changed since he first showed up at Baywatch. He’s done everything Mitch has ever asked him to do -- and then some. He’s become a damn good lifeguard. He’s become an even better person. He’s become a friend, a coworker, a lover, someone that everyone else values as a person.
Not just a commodity on the job.
Mitch has somehow overlooked all of this.
He’s taken it for granted.
And here they are, Brody in the bed with his ribcage held together by screws.
Brody shouldn’t be here.
Finally, after several hours of enduring this torture, Mitch knows he can’t be here either.
Clearing his throat, he gets hastily to his feet, trying not to look Summer in the eyes. “I should probably go.”
Summer is still holding Brody’s hand as she tilts her head back at him. “What?” she asks, like she’s possibly misheard him.
She hasn’t, though. Mitch can’t take it back mostly because he’s not sure he can physically do this anymore. “I should go,” he says again, gesturing to the door like it’s totally normal to leave your best friend when they’re laid out in a hospital bed after taking a bullet for you.
Summer frowns. “Now? But why?”
She asks it like there’s no possible reason to justify this choice. And really, there’s not. Mitch can’t justify it.
Instead, he falls back on the only line he can think of that makes any sense. “I need to go back and check in with work.”
This seems quite sensical to Mitch, but Summer appears incredulous. “Work?” she asks. “Why?”
That is the question, isn’t it? Mitch only has a canned response that sounds hollow when he says it out loud. “I can’t leave Baywatch unattended,” he says. “It’s my job.”
Like that means anything. Like Brody wasn’t his job. Like keeping his people safe wasn’t his job.
Summer is kind enough not to go that route. Instead, she turns toward him a little more. “Stephanie’s got it,” she says. “She and I talked about it; she’s cool with picking up the slack until we’re able to get back to work. Until Brody’s awake.”
Of course this is the case. This is naturally what Stephanie would do, even if she weren’t explicitly asked. She’s smart about these things, and she knows how to operate Baywatch. She’s also keenly perceptive. She knows who Brody needs most, and she’d prioritized time off for those key players. Summer’s an obvious choice.
Mitch, undoubtedly, is too.
Still. Mitch doesn’t blanch. “I’m the lieutenant,” he says, as if it means something now. “It’s my responsibility.”
Summer looks like she wants to remind him that this is his responsibility, too. Like she wants to point out that Brody’s his responsibility. But they both know how well that turned out.
Ultimately, her fingers still locked on Brody’s, she concedes that she has other priorities right now. She wants to stop Mitch, maybe even to help Mitch, but Brody needs her more. Brody deserves her more.
Mitch won’t begrudge her that.
He wouldn’t begrudge it on Brody’s behalf either.
And honestly, he’ll use whatever he needs to. He just needs to get the hell out.
“Anyway,” he says. “I’ll check back later.”
“Mitch,” Summer says, stopping him before he leaves. She looks back at him, looking sadder than before. “Just remember that this is about more than responsibilities, okay?”
He nods at her, but acknowledges nothing. He turns, heading out the door, moving blindly down the hall. It’s easy for her to talk about responsibilities when she hasn’t dropped the ball on all of hers.
With a few sharp turns, he finds himself outside, squinting in the sunlight.
Mitch has forfeited most of his responsibilities now. Whether he goes or stays, he’s pretty sure he can’t rectify that now.
Forcing himself to breathe, he starts off down the way toward HQ.
If he can’t figure out how to be a good friend, then maybe he can start with being a better lifeguard.
Maybe, he thinks.
At least, until he actually gets to HQ.
The second he gets there, he has serious doubts about this choice. He feels out of place, and the familiar rooms are suddenly foreign. Nothing has changed; nothing except him.
Worse, maybe he hasn’t actually changed. Maybe he’s still the same guy he’s always been but he’s just never seen things, seen himself, clearly until now.
By the time he makes it to his office, Mitch knows that this is a mistake. However, he also knows that some mistakes are like bullets. Once they’ve been discharged they can’t be put back in the gun. Especially after they’ve ripped through someone’s chest.
He’s still standing, looking at his office like it belongs to a stranger when Stephanie’s voice comes from behind. He should probably be startled. He’s not.
“Brody awake?” she asks.
He turns toward her. She’s leaning against the doorframe in a casual pose, but the question is anything but. “Still in and out,” he replies.
She considers that as she considers him. She’s studying him, gauging his physical and emotional state with silent rigor. “I would have you’d stay,” she says, a little cryptically. She’s trying to ask him why without using the words.
Mitch’s answer is equally obtuse. “It’s not a question of wanting to,” he says. “But I have a job here. Responsibilities.”
“Exactly,” she says. “And the team is the job.”
Everyone keeps saying that. He hadn’t realized how influential he was until his own words were used against him. Until he was the only one who couldn’t remember.
Mitch knows he has no defense. Feebly, he looks back to his desk, settling for an excuse instead. “I’ve got to be behind with the paperwork,” he says, looking at it on his desk. He makes no attempt to pick it up. “I’m the lieutenant.”
“When ch means you can delegate,” she points out. “To me.”
“But I’m supposed to sign off,” he says, weaker than before. “I’m the one responsible as a lifeguard. That’s my job.”
The way he says that, it’s almost a desperation. As if he can fix this through paperwork and protocol, both of which he disregarded yesterday.
“Mitch,” Stephanie says as she steps inside the office now. “Your job has always been the team, before anything else. That’s why it works. That’s why you need to just go back and be with Brody now.”
He doesn’t know how to explain it, how to tell her that nothing works anymore. That he’s not sure he’s the best thing for the team at all.
“I wasn’t thinking about the team yesterday,” he reminds her dully.
Her face contorts. “Of course you were,” she retorts. “You were protecting us against a real threat, and that was a threat that paperwork and protocols never would have fixed.”
“Police backup was right there,” he says, the same facts tumbling through his weary head. “I’m a lifeguard.”
“You’ve never been just a lifeguard,” she says.
“And if I should be?”
She scoffs but her face softens. “Then this wouldn’t be Baywatch,” she reminds him. “Because you made us more than lifeguards. Because you made this team a family. Your job isn’t here right now. It’s back there. With Brody.”
She says it with such conviction that Mitch knows there’s no way to disagree. All he has is the vulnerability of his doubts, the ones he can’t hide anymore. “And if I cant do the job anymore?”
At this, she is genuinely taken aback. “Mitch.”
He looks away, his thin resolve starting to fray. “Steph.”
She reaches out, putting a hand on his arm. “You really blame yourself, don’t you?”
The question is gentle and so compassionate that Mitch finds himself bristling. It’s not that he’s too manly to accept comfort; it’s that he doesn’t think he deserves it now. He doesn’t want to feel better about this. He wants it to have never happened.
Stephanie’s look is discerning. “You do realize that you’re not a superhero, right?”
“Then why do I keep acting like one?” Mitch returns with a quiet, tremulous vehemence.
She shakes her head, refusing to accept his bitter self-pity. “You don’t,” she says firmly. “You just act like a lifeguard.”
Mitch actually scoffs at that, pulling away from her touch. “A lifeguard? Seriously?”
“Yes, seriously,” she says. “But you just expect too much from yourself. You teach us to make the hard choices and to live with the consequences. You just forget that you can’t control all the consequences.”
Mitch groans. “Why will no one say that it was a bad call?” he says, rubbing a hand tiredly over his face. “I dragged Brody out in pursuit of a subject without calling for police backup. I made that choice over his objections and he got shot for it.”
“It was a judgement call,” she says. “We make them all the time in the field based on the information we have on hand, not the infinite possibilities that could occur. You can’t protect anyone if you’re not willing to trust your own judgement.”
“This isn’t about a dangerous rescue or tackling sand bandits,” Mitch says. “I pursued a dangerous suspect without backup.”
“We had no idea what this guy was capable of,” Stephanie says, refusing to back down from him now. “And we know that police backup is not the same thing as lifeguards on the beach.”
“It was a risk!” Mitch explodes, feeling the emotions brimming too hot now.
She steps toward him, shoulders squared and face defiant. He’s trained her too well. “If we were scared of every possible risk, we could never do the job; we’d never get off our towers,” she says.
Mitch sighs, wishing he could make this clearer. “But this was a gunman, not a heavy surf,” he reasons. “The police were literally on site to handle it.”
“You say that now because of what happened, but I trust your judgement, Mitch. We all do.”
“Sure,” Mitch shoots back, more caustically than necessary. “Brody trusted me enough to take a bullet through the chest.”
He says it loudly, loud enough to echo off the walls. Stephanie does not flinch; if anything, she only looks sad. “You always tell us to make the right choice in the moment because that’s the only thing you can do,” she says. “You’ve taught us -- including Brody, especially Brody -- to live without regrets because you make the right choices in the moment. And we don’t know where those choices take us, but we know, every time, that we’ve done the best we can.”
He grows quiet, feeling her words tighten like a vice around his chest. “And if I didn’t make the best choice?”
“Then you try the next moment,” she says. “Look, I wasn’t there. I don’t know if you were right to pursue the lead, but I know you. I know you were doing what was best for the team; what was best for the beach, for the bay. And maybe it was wrong, okay. Maybe. But you can’t change that. All you can do is make the best choice in this moment. And I can’t speak for the moment on the beach, but I can speak for this one right now. You, being here, it’s not the right choice. And you know it.”
She is uncompromising in this, unrelenting.
She’s also unequivocally right.
This time, when he sighs, it’s not just weariness. It’s tantamount to defeat. “I should be with him.”
“Yeah,” she says, barely keeping her voice from sounding like I told you so.
He meets her gaze again, more resolved this time. Not quite resigned. “Steph, I’m sorry.”
“You don’t owe me an apology,” she says. “And for the record, you don’t owe anyone an apology. No one blames you for what happened. No one. This is all in your head.”
It’s not quite that simple, but he recognizes the point she’s trying to make. If this is a team that permits second chances, then he needs to embrace his as best he can. It’s not about deserving it -- if it was, Brody wouldn’t have been on the team in the first place. It’s about wanting it enough to work harder. “Thank you,” he tells her, because he can’t agree with everything, but he can agree with that much.
Now, when she smiles, it’s soft and real. “Nothing you haven’t done for each and every one of us,” she says. “Because you talk like we’re just lifeguards, but you know that’s not what Baywatch is.”
Mitch nods, because he knows how this ends. “We’re family.”
“Family’s messy and weird and uncomfortable,” Stephanie says in commiseration.
“But it’s worth it,” Mitch concludes for her, even though the words are hard to say this time.
They’re harder to live out.
But Mitch can’t bow out on this now.
Not when it’s someone else living out the consequences for his action.
It’s about time for Mitch to give as good as he gets.
Still, resolved as he is, Mitch isn’t sure how to go back.
Maybe because, when he thinks about it, he’s not sure how he got here in the first place.
On the way back to the hospital, Mitch meanders along the beach. To anyone else, his pace might look leisurely, but Mitch is taking in every sight, every smell, every sound. He’s trying to remember how he came to love this bay, how it became a part of him and how he became a part of it.
He loves it here; always has. That’s why he became a lifeguard in the first place; there simply hadn’t been any other option. And when he first took the job, when he first earned his place on the team, being a lifeguard had been everything he’d wanted. He’d scanned the water, patrolled the beach. The first time he’d seen sand bandits, he hadn’t known what to do. The first time a school of manta ray showed up off the pier, he’d actually gone and called animal control. He never would have, not in a million years, pursued a stalker on his own time without police backup.
He’d been a lifeguard, simple as that.
So when had it changed?
He walks the familiar sands, trying to remember his first case. He tries to think about the first time he went above and beyond.
Then, he thinks about the second time, the third. He tries to remember when the exception became the rule. Hell, when did he start thinking of them as cases at all?
When his mentor had left him in charge, Mitch had expanded his case work, and he’d started to train others to think like him. To protect the bay, he’d argued. It’s all implied in the job description.
All these years down the line, he’s forgotten that it started simpler.
He’s forgotten that he started a little like Brody.
Not that he’d been an Olympian who fell from grace. Not that he’d joined Baywatch as a community service publicity stunt to avoid prison. And not that he’d ever been as lazy or entitled as Brody started.
But is Brody the crazy one? Is he wrong for thinking that lifeguard cases were a bit extreme? Is he stupid for questioning what they’re doing?
Or is Brody’s common sense expected?
More than that, is it something Mitch might possibly need?
Mitch mocks him, lectures him, trains him, but Brody’s got a point. Does he get any leeway for thinking that the job is just the job?
Or does he just get shot?
Mitch looks at the water, watching the people swim and play. Lifeguards can drown. They get sunburnt. It’s not a job without risk.
But gunshot wounds?
Isn’t part of the job description, not even in Mitch’s exaggerated standards.
Yet Mitch has asked that of Brody, more than once.
Maybe this is about Brody not getting it. Maybe it’s not that he doesn’t love the bay or care about the team.
Maybe Brody just wants to be a lifeguard, just like Mitch did once upon a time.
That’s not such a terrible thing.
Mitch stands on the beach, the place he belongs, the place he loves, the place that is a part of him, and he knows it’s not a terrible thing at all.
By the time he ends up back at the hospital, Mitch isn’t sure he’s figured any of this out, but he’s figured out that he probably needs to try. Whatever that means, Mitch isn’t totally sure, but it’s something he’s hoping he can figure out.
With his team.
Before he gets to Brody, however, it’s clear he’s going to have to go through Summer first.
She all but accosts him in the hall, taking him by the arm and drawing him to the side, her blue eyes wide with a look just shy of panic. “Where have you been?”
“I told you, I was at work,” he says, starting to frown at the intensity of her look. “Is Brody okay? Did something happen?”
“Brody’s fine,” she says, as if this somehow a moot point. “But I talked to Steph. You left two hours ago.”
Mitch glances at the clock, realizing that she’s right. He’d taken the long way here, no doubt, he he hadn’t known that that much time had passed. “Huh,” he says. “I guess I lost track of things.”
She looks incredulous. “I know you’re having a hard time with this, Mitch, but Brody’s in the hospital. He needs you.”
“I thought you said everything is fine,” he says.
“It is!” she says. She pulls her emotions back into check with some obvious effort. “I mean, he’s been in and out. I don’t think he’s been coherent yet; not until tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Mitch starts.
“But it’s not okay,” Summer interjects with some force. “Because every time he opens his eyes, I’m the first one he sees but you know what he does? He keeps looking. He’s asking for you.”
Mitch’s frown is deepening. “I thought he wasn’t coherent yet.”
“He’s not,” she says. “But you’re the one he wants right now. The only one he wants.
“Well, I was the last one he saw before he passed out,” Mitch reasons.
Summer actually rolls her eyes. “Maybe, I don’t know,” she says. “Or maybe he’s looking for the person he trusts most in the world, and he’s not here.”
She’s a little hurt by this, but that’s not what she’s upset about. There’s more to it.
She shakes her head a little. “Brody and I have something, okay, but you and Brody -- that’s different. And sure, I want to sit there and hold my boyfriend’s hand, but right now, I’m not the one he needs. I can sit here and feel bad about that but I know you two. I know that friendship you share. So what pisses me off is that he needs you, and you’re not here.”
It’s too much to take in; too much to grasp. Mitch steps back just slightly. “Summer--”
But she shakes her head again, more vehement than before. “I don’t know what you’re going on about, but I’m not mad at you. Not about Brody needing you, not about you being messed up, not about Brody getting shot,” she says. “We all knew what the job was, all of us. We signed up anyway.”
“I’m not sure Brody did,” Mitch replies honestly.
“Of course he did,” she snaps. “Maybe not at first, but after the stuff with Leeds? Why the hell did he take a full time position if he didn’t want it, all of it?”
“Honestly?” Mitch says. “I’m not sure.”
“You do,” she says, jabbing a finger at his chest. “He knows it better than all of us; that’s why you trust him with everything.”
“But he’s the one who tries to talk me out of things,” Mitch says. “He’s still the one who points out what we shouldn’t do as lifeguards.”
Summer shrugs. “Sure, because Brody has a highly developed sense of self preservation,” she says. “And now it’s not just about him; now he wants to keep you -- all of us -- safe.”
“I don’t need to be protected,” Mitch protests, but it’s pretty laughable the moment he says it.
“You’ve already admitted you didn’t see the guy,” she says. “And do we need to review the part where you stabbed yourself with a deadly sea urchin?”
“Okay, so point taken,” Mitch concedes, going slightly red in the face.
“But that’s the thing,” Summer continues, even more animatedly. “Brody has an overly developed sense of self preservation. You basically don’t have any sense of self preservation. You balance each other out perfectly. It’s why you two are so good together.”
Mitch doesn’t know quite what to make of that. “What?”
She makes a vague gesture. “Partners, mentor/mentee, roommates, friends: whatever you want to call it, it works.”
This still doesn’t quite click for Mitch. “What works?”
“His common sense definition of lifeguarding mixes with your over the top heroic version and you meet in the middle where every job gets done and everyone comes home safe,” she says.
“We didn’t, though,” Mitch says. “Not this time.”
“Well, sure,” she relents. “But that’s because you’re just--”
“Lifeguards?” he provides for her.
She looks a little surprised. Then she tilts her head, giving him a quizzical look. “Human.”
There’s the bottom line, Mitch thinks. No matter what definition of lifeguard you go with, at the end of the day, they’re all just human. Humans are weak, vulnerable, prone to being wrong. They’re also brave and stupid, prone to getting it right at the worst times possible. They do better together, even if it makes them stronger and weaker in equal measures.
Mitch has to accept being human first with all its foibles.
Then, maybe, he can figure out what it means to be a lifeguard anyway.
When Summer exhales, she seems to let go of her anxiety and her frustrations. Instead, she smiles at him, a tired, weary sort of smile. “You should go in there,” she says. “I’ll check back later, okay?”
He wants her to stay; he wants her to give him another option; he wants anything but this.
But this is what there is.
Mitch has to take it.
Mitch will, if not for his own sake than for Brody’s. Mitch dragged Brody into this; Brody can drag Mitch back in to see it through.
Finally, Mitch nods of his own free will. “Okay,” he agrees.
It’s possibly the best choice he’s made all day.
Mitch has come a long way today, but that doesn’t make it easier to sit with Brody again. If anything, Mitch is looking for dramatic change, but Brody is much the same as he was when Mitch left him. He’s still pale, but the color is starting to recover by the smallest degrees in his cheeks. He’s still heavily bandaged with a continual IV drip while the monitors display his vitals. Mitch doesn’t choose to ask questions about some of the other tubes and monitors, though he’s pretty sure Brody will find them most disconcerting when he wakes up.
That said, Brody appears to be in no danger of actually waking up. According to Elodie, who checks on them from time to time, Brody’s on some serious painkillers in addition to his antibiotics. Although he’s not technically sedated, most people are better off sleeping with these drugs in their systems. It’s better than being awake and aware of the hole that’s been barely stitched together in your chest, Mitch figures.
With this in mind, Brody lapses in and out of sleep at random times, and though he opens his eyes more now, nothing he says is remotely coherent. Instead, he makes odd commentary about Little Mitch flirting with the fish in the aquarium and how there’s a secret message on the static on the CB radio.
This is probably a little too much insight into Brody’s mind, if Mitch is honest.
It’s not the hardest part, though.
The hardest part isn’t even Mitch’s guilt. It’s not that Mitch still remembers the sound of the gunshot or the look on Brody’s face when he asked if he was dying. It’s not the blood on his hands or the fact that Brody hadn’t wanted to run recon without backup.
The hardest part is when Brody opens his eyes, he asks for Mitch. It’s the first thing in on his mind, and when Mitch scoots closer, clasps Brody’s limp fingers in his own, he can see the comfort ease throughout Brody’s body. The last thing he says, every time before his eyes close again, is Mitch’s name again. This time, with relief.
Mitch is the reason Brody wakes up searching.
He’s also the reason Brody falls back into a restful sleep.
Everyone’s right: this is his job. Maybe it’s not the job he started, but it’s the one he has now. He won’t abandon it. It’s not just being a lifeguard. It’s about being a friend.
Because Mitch starts what he finishes.
No matter what.
Summer is skeptical when Mitch announces that he has to leave again.
“But you just got back,” she reminds him.
“I know,” Mitch says. “But it’s different this time. I need to finish this case.”
“I thought that was what you were doing before,” she says.
“I was running away before; I wasn’t finishing anything,” he says. “But I owe it to Brody to see this case through.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure he cares right now,” she says, looking over to where Brody was still sleeping fitfully.
“Not now maybe,” Mitch agrees. “But he will. When he wakes up.”
She may not agree with the sentiment, but the way he says that last part, the confidence, the assurance --
No one can disagree with Mitch when he’s making a choice he believes in.
“Okay,” she says, and she doesn’t sound resigned exactly. Just trusting, if wearily so. “We’ll be here when you get back.”
Mitch flashes her a grin. “Just tell him I won’t be long,” he says. “I promise.”
After all this, Summer doesn’t doubt him.
That’s because Mitch knows that he’s just a lifeguard.
Mitch is making the right decisions now, but that doesn’t mean that every decision he’s made has been right. He still has to contend with that; he still has to reckon with what might be his most grievous errors.
That’s why talking to Ellerbee is so important.
First, Mitch can close the case. This he does within ten minutes of arriving at the station. He ID’s the perp, gives a full statement and submits to questioning as needed. His account fully verifies other witness accounts, and Ellerbee is confident that this case is a done deal.
Mitch is ready to do more, but Ellerbee tosses the case file on his desk and rocks back in his chair to look at Mitch. “You didn’t have to come down here.”
“I started this case with you,” Mitch says. “I wanted to make sure I finished my part in this.”
“Sure, sure,” Ellerbee drawls. “I just thought -- given the circumstances -- that you might want to be with Brody.”
“I do,” Mitch says. “But neglecting the case won’t help anyone except the guy who did this.”
Ellerbee concedes this with a tilt of his head. “Brody’s still doing okay, right?”
“Better than expected,” Mitch says.
Ellerbee chuckles, a little fond. “He’s tougher than he looks, the son of a bitch. He takes after you.”
“For better or for worse?” Mitch quips.
“Both, probably,” Ellerbee says back. “He wouldn’t have let this shit slide either. You should have seen him after you got fired. Bastard played me. But he also bought me a double chocolate smoothie, so I won’t hold it against him.”
“We’re all on the same team here,” Mitch says congenially.
Ellerbee nods along, as if this is the best thing he’s heard in awhile. “We are, aren’t we?” he asks. “Better that way, if you ask me. I know I didn’t always see it.”
“We make the best choices we can in the moment,” Mitch answers diplomatically. “It’s not like I’ve made the best choices throughout this case.”
Ellerbee wrinkles his nose. “You kidding me?”
“Hey,” Mitch says, holding up his hands almost in surrender. “I know I stepped outside my jurisdiction on this one. You tried to do right by us, assigning extra patrols. And I still didn’t pull in the backup when I was supposed to. I’m sorry for it.”
“My man,” Ellerbee says, sounding genuinely vexed. “You do realize that you caught the dude. I mean, I spent a week on that case, full time, nonstop. I had nothing. You and your white ass friend went out there and had him ID’d in an afternoon.”
“But without proper jurisdiction,” Mitch points out. “People could have gotten killed.”
“Only because you were the first ones to get close enough to spook him,” Ellerbee says. “I mean, honestly, if he hadn’t made a scene in public, this case wouldn’t have ended with an arrest.”
“Still, there are protocols and procedures. We had a plan,” Mitch says. “And I put everyone at that beach in harm’s way. Brody took a bullet because of me.”
Ellerbee looks like this insinuation offends him. “You didn’t bring that gun to the beach,” he says. “And you sure as hell weren’t pulling that trigger.”
Mitch sighs; he’s just trying to do the right thing here. He’s trying to learn, to make better choices. “I know, but I remember what you said about our pursuit of the thugs in the Leeds case. The same principle stands. I didn’t learn, and the results were worse this time.”
“Like, you know the ocean and the sand and shit, but I know criminals,” Ellerbee says. “Your shooter there, he brought that gun for a reason. He was looking to escalate this shit. If you hadn’t gone looking, there’s a good chance that he would have used that gun later, without witnesses and without anyone to stop him. And then he’d be looking at a murder rap and you’d be burying someone instead of watching them recover in a hospital.”
It’s blunt, which Mitch appreciates on one level.
But it’s also hard to hear.
Partly because Mitch doesn’t like to think of this being worse.
And also because he knows that was one of the reasons why he pursued the suspect in the first place. In all of his self doubt and recriminations, he’s forgotten that he had a plan, that he had reasons. Were they justified? Mitch isn’t sure. Sitting with Brody, it’s hard to pretend like they are. Sitting here, listening to Ellerbee, it’s almost impossible to say they aren’t.
“Look, I’m all for restraint, man. You’ve got to play by a few rules or you screw up the case on my end, too,” Ellerbee says, sitting forward again. His elbows are resting on his desk. “But you know your shit. That’s your beach out there; you know it better than me. I made the mistake once of downplaying that, but you’re the lifeguard, man. I can’t question that, and neither should you.”
There’s no point in arguing that, even if Mitch wants to.
As it is, he’s not sure he does.
Instead, he gets to his feet, offering Ellerbee his hand. “Thanks,” he says. “For everything, but especially for closing this case.”
Ellerbee takes his hand while getting to his feet. “And thank you for helping me do it,” he says. “Cops and lifeguards; we make one hell of a team.”
Mitch smiles. “We probably do.”
“Definitely,” Ellerbee says. “And hey, call me when Brody’s awake? I owe him a double chocolate smooth with extra protein.”
Mitch nods his head on his way out. “You bet.”
Mitch smiles the whole way back.
The case is closed; the job is done.
Now, Mitch tells himself, he can get back to the job that really matters.
It’s later than he expects when he makes it back to the hospital. In fact, he quickly realizes that he’s frittered away most of the day feeling numb and sorry for himself. Closing up the case with the stalker had taken the rest of the time, and tying up the loose ends with his other friends and cohorts had preoccupied the more than he’d intended.
By consequence, visiting hours were over.
And Mitch’s most important task isn’t resolved yet.
He frets for a moment, wondering about his best course of action. Everyone else has apparently gone home, but Summer is in the waiting room. He thinks to wake her, but she appears to be sleeping -- possibly for the first time in over a day. Summer deserves to sleep.
Mitch can figure this out on his own.
Well, not entirely on his own.
He’s a lifeguard, after all. He needs someone who works in the hospital to give him a helping hand.
Fortunately, Mitch is good at making friends. At the desk, Elodie recognizes him before he has a chance to greet her.
“You’re too late!” Elodie croons at him. “All your friends went home until morning, except I think for that one with the pretty blue eyes. You might find her around her.”
“I saw her, actually, sound asleep,” Mitch says, pointing over his shoulder toward the waiting room.
Elodie smiles sympathetically. “Which is probably what you should doing,” she says, sounding like she’s scolding him. “Your friend is in good hands tonight, I promise.”
“I know,” Mitch says. Then, he postures. Just a little. Just enough. “It’s just I was hoping to see him.”
Elodie eyes him curiously. “The hospital has rules,” she reminds him, but her voice isn’t exactly stern.
“I know,” Mitch says. “You all have jobs to do, and I don’t want to interfere with that.”
Elodie raises her eyebrows, expectant. “But?”
Mitch inclines his head. “But I have a job to finish, too,” he says. “And that job involves Brody.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Elodie hedges. “If I bent the rules for everyone with a good line…”
“Then don’t,” Mitch says honestly. “Just look at the facts. Consider what you know. And make the best decision you can right now. I promise, I’ll accept your decision either way.”
Maybe it’s the fact that he’s earnest. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s been shell shocked all day long. Maybe it’s just the fact that Elodie can see it in his face, that this is something Mitch needs to do.
She sighs, but it’s mostly for effective. “Come on,” she whispers. “I’ll let you into his room for the night, give his nurses a heads up for you. They’re nice enough about exceptions, but you listen to them, you hear?”
Mitch nods his head obligingly. “Of course.”
“And you should know, no one expects him to wake up yet,” Elodie warns, even as she starts to lead him down the hall. “Not until tomorrow.”
“I understand,” Mitch agrees.
She’s trying to look annoyed, put out, but the smile is playing on her lips. “He keeps calling for you anyway,” she says. “So I’m doing this as much for him as I am for you.”
“Trust me,” Mitch says. “That is absolutely fine with me.”
Elodie is good to his word, and she converses quietly with Brody’s nurses, who seem to warm up to the idea faster than she does. When they let him into the room, they tell him to be quiet and keep the lights off. The ward is sleeping; Brody needs to sleep, too.
Mitch will abide by these rules, and in the dimness, he pulls the chair as close as he can to Brody’s bedside and settles himself down. Up until this point, he’s been pretty clear on what he has to do, but he has to admit, sitting there, watching Brody sleep, he has some trepidation.
It’s easier when Brody’s the one who needs to make amends. It’s easier when Brody has to clean up his messes and Mitch has to gracefully accept his apologies. It’s easier when Mitch is never wrong and Brody always is. It’s easier when this isn’t a partnership.
But it is a partnership. And Mitch needs to clean up this mess and make amends. Sometimes, even when Mitch does everything as best he can, he’ll still get it wrong.
“I’m not going to start with an apology,” Mitch says, voice low but clear in the stillness. It carries over the sound of the machines. “Because I know that, given the circumstances, I’d probably make a lot of the same decisions that I made.”
Brody is still sleeping, but he tips his head toward Mitch, the faintest of hitches in his breathing.
“The thing that I’ve to realize today is that those decisions can have consequences I don’t foresee,” Mitch continues. “Which is why I owe you a thank-you instead.”
Brody sleeps on, the rise and fall of his bandaged chest steady and sure.
“Thank you for going there with me, for seeing what I didn’t,” Mitch says. “The reason I didn’t think we needed police backup was because I knew I already had the best backup possible: I had you.”
Brody’s face remains impassive as the heart monitor continues its steady pace.
“I didn’t appreciate what that meant before,” he says, and he lets out a breath. “I appreciate it now.”
He appreciates everything, from Brody’s contrary disposition to his love of the team. From his two stupid gold medals to the way he loves wearing the Baywatch uniform. And, more importantly, he loves that Brody’s still alive, still fighting, still right here by Mitch’s side.
“You’ve grown into an amazing lifeguard,” he continues. “I don’t tell you that often, but you’ve become the person I trust most out there. You are everything that makes Baywatch what it is. You are the very definition of a lifeguard.”
It’s a compliment he should have paid weeks ago, a point that he hopes Brody knows even if Mitch has never taken the time to say it.
“More importantly, though, you’ve become a good person,” Mitch tells him with a stolid nod. “And one hell of a best friend.”
Brody shifts a little, nose twitching slightly.
“So thank you,” Mitch says in conclusion. “For saving my life, but mostly for being my friend.”
That’s really all Mitch has to say.
It’s only then that he realizes that this has taken him all of five minutes.
Awkwardly, he wonders if the nurses will think it’s weird if he tries to leave now.
But he refocuses himself, reminding himself that he’s done what he has to do, but this isn’t just about him. Give and take; two-way streets. It’s Brody’s turn.
If Brody’s sleeping now, if Brody’s recovering, then Mitch will just have to wait until he’s ready.
However long that may be.
Brody makes him wait.
But not as long as you might expect.
No, Brody lets Mitch fall asleep, an awkward, uncomfortable sleep in the chair at his bedside, before he rouses a little past three AM with a string of mumbled gibberish.
Mitch opens his eyes, ready to pat Brody on the shoulder with a reassuring word. Over the last several hours, this has been all Brody has needed to slip back into a restful sleep.
“It’s Little Mitch, though,” Brody says, as if he’s protesting some imaginary conversation Mitch isn’t a part of. “He’s just not himself.”
Mitch chuckles tiredly, resting a hand on Brody’s forearm. “Little Mitch is fine, as far as I know,” he assures the other man.
But Brody shakes his head, his eyes narrowing with a keenness Mitch hasn’t seen in two days. “I heard them talking, though,” he rambles. “On the CB radio.”
Mitch sighs. “I’m really going to have to move that out of your room, aren’t I?”
Brody appears alarmed. “But if you do that, we’ll never find out who Little Mitch is talking to!”
The adamant note in Brody’s voice is humorously misplaced, but Mitch gives his arm another squeeze. “We can talk about it in the morning,” he says.
To his surprise, however, this does little to assuage Brody’s concerns. Instead, he cocks his head, and he blinks a few times. “Mitch?”
There’s something in the way he says it; something in the way he looks at Mitch. Mitch sits forward, suddenly serious. “Brody?” he asks. “You with me?”
A tremor passes over Brody, as if he’s aware of his body for the first time since the surgery. “It still hurts,” he says, sounding somewhat surprised. He inhales with a grimace. “I got shot?”
All this time, Brody’s never been in acute pain. He’s also never talked about what happened.
Mitch bites back a curse because he realizes abruptly that Brody is awake. In pain -- obviously, confused -- understandably, but increasingly aware. “Yeah,” he says, trying not to make it sound alarming. “But they’ve taken real good care of you. You’re on the mend.”
While semi conscious, Brody had been easily placated. Confronted with both awareness and pain, Brody is not so readily calmed. He takes a ragged breath, as if experimenting with the pain levels in his chest. Clearly, he finds it wanting. “Shit,” he says, giving voice to what Mitch is thinking. “This feels terrible.”
Mitch sees no need to tell him just how terrible it is. He’ll learn about the screws in his ribcage and the hole stitched together through his chest soon enough. “I know, buddy,” Mitch says. “I can get a nurse, see about adjusting your pain meds.”
But Brody is shaking his head. “No, I--” he starts and falters. He has to visibly gird himself. “I don’t know if I can -- be awake much longer.”
“Well probably not,” Mitch says. “They’ve got you on some serious drugs right now.”
Brody winces. “I could probably use more,” he says. “Not because I like drugs. Because I mean that’s not what I mean. I just.” He has to pause, shuddering through another wave of pain. “Getting shot sucks.”
Mitch can’t help but laugh. “No arguments there.”
“You, you made it look easy and cool,” Brody says, voice gaining a little strength now. “But no joke; I thought I was going to die.”
Mitch remembers but he doesn’t say that. Instead, he smiles. “It happens.”
“No,” Brody says, a little intent now. “Like, I saw my life flash before my eyes. Like, all of it. And it sucked. Little Mitch was there.”
Mitch does his best to keep his nod earnest. “That does sound terrible.”
Brody looks at Mitch with a new wave of concern. “I’m not dying now, am I? It doesn’t feel like I’m dying.”
“You’re recovering very well,” Mitch tells him. “The doctors were amazing. And I mean, the cops got the guy.”
This seems to occur to Brody slowly, the idea of other people working to save his life. “Cops and doctors?”
“All hands on deck, dude,” Mitch says.
“Funny,” Brody says quietly. “I’d still take a lifeguard any day.”
“Ah,” Mitch says, sitting back in his chair and averting his eyes. He’s made his peace for the most part; but this bit is still difficult. “Well, as lifeguards, we probably shouldn’t have been involved.”
“But we couldn’t just let it happen,” Brody says. He breathes in and out, gritting his teeth against the obvious pull of pain in his chest. “If we had, who knows what he would have done. I mean, your ideas are always dangerous and sometimes I’d like to not die all the time, but I’m so glad I was there.”
Brody’s weak, he’s in pain, and he’s also completely resolute.
He’s glad he was there.
Not just to stop the guy.
No, Mitch understands the implications.
He’s glad he saved Mitch’s life.
Brody seems to still be thinking about this; it’s possible he’s coming to the conclusion a second behind Mitch. “Like, I was thinking about it,” he continues. “Or, dreaming about it?”
“You’ve been pretty out of it,” Mitch confirms gently.
“Well, it was Little Mitch, you see, he’s the one who told me,” Brody says, and his blue eyes are gleaming with seriousness. “He said that taking risks is the only way sometimes and that it’s worth it when you take the right risks. Like, smuggling drugs while at the Olympics, that’s a bad risk.”
Mitch wrinkles his nose. “What?”
Brody hardly hears him. “But jumping in front of bullets to save your best friend,” he says as if this is some kind of epic revelation. “That’s, like, totally worth it.”
Brody is grinning now, a widen half-drunken smile.
“I mean, we’re lifeguards,” he adds emphatically. “Saving people is what we do.”
“It is,” Mitch agrees. “But getting shot isn’t part of being a lifeguard.”
“For normal lifeguards, sure,” Brody says. “But, like, we’re not just lifeguards. Did you hear the message on the CB?”
He doesn’t have the heart to tell Brody that the CB radio isn’t here.
Brody hardly seems to notice his hesitation anyway. Coherency is becoming questionable again. “We’re Baywatch lifeguards,” Brody says. “Even Little Mitch agrees with me.”
Mitch narrows his eyes; he can’t let this one pass. “You do know that we’re in the hospital,” he clarifies. “The fish tank isn’t here.”
At first, Brody looks like he thinks Mitch is joking. Then he looks a little confused. “So, it’s like not on the wall?” he asks, nodding toward the window where an extra chair is abandoned. “Glowing?”
“No,” Mitch tells him.
Brody processes this answer, studying the wall. He looks at Mitch again. “And Little Brody isn’t the size of a surfboard now?”
“With a CB radio for a hand?”
Mitch shakes his head. “Afraid not.”
Brody seems truly perplexed by this. “Huh.”
Mitch gathers a breath and sighs. “I think whatever they’ve got you on is making you really high right now.”
Brody looks at him with a dream-like gaze. “Yeah, I think you may be right,” he says. “I haven’t been this high in, well, a while.”
Mitch doesn’t want to ask how long.
“Still,” Brody says. “This is all, like super clear to me right now.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Mitch says in commisration. “I just can’t say you’re going to remember all this.”
Brody is incredulous. “Of course I will,” he says. “The important stuff. Like how I should always listen to your balls, man.”
Mitch takes that one as it comes. Little Mitch; CB radios; balls. All to be expected, he supposs. “Even so,” he says, not willing to have an argument in a hospital with a drugged up Brody about the integrity of his balls. “Next time, we call the cops first.”
He pats Brody on the arm, a little firmer than before.
Brody winces, and it seems to have a sobering effect. “Yeah,” he says, gritting through another grimace. “That’s probably a good call. Do I have a hole in my chest? Because it kind of feels like I have a hole in my chest.”
“It’s stitched closed, don’t worry,” Mitch says, as if that statement would ever make someone not worry.
“Oh,” Brody says, looking down. “Wow. Thanks, man.”
“Not this time,” Mitch says. “You were the one playing hero this time. I’m the one who needs to thank you.”
Despite the fact that Brody remembers what happened, this thought seems to have not occurred to him. The genuine surprised makes Mitch almost ache. “Why?”
“Well, you did jump in front of a bullet meant for me,” Mitch says. “You probably saved my life.”
Brody blinks, his eyes wider than before. “I did?”
“Yeah, man,” Mitch says. “It was a big deal, what you did. You’re my hero, man. No doubt about it.”
Brody looks like this is possible the most amazing thing he’s heard in his whole life. Part of this is due to the drugs.
But not most of it.
“Wow,” Brody says. “Who knew that being a lifeguard could be so satisfying?”
And that’s what it comes back to, when Mitch thinks about it. Brody’s common sense; Mitch’s refusal to settle. They are constantly at odds, which is why they make perfect complements. Two halves of the perfect lifeguarding team, the first and last line of defense that the team and the rest of the bay needs.
“Yeah,” Mitch reflects, grinning at Brody now. “Who knew?”
After a moment, Brody’s smile fades. He blinks, somewhat sleepily now. “Mitch?”
“I think I’m going to fall asleep now,” he says, a little distantly.
“That’s a good idea,” Mitch encourages him.
Brody looks at him, keeping his eyes open. “You’ll be here?” he asks. “When I wake up.”
Mitch sits forward, hand on Brody’s arm one more time. “Of course,” he says while Brody starts to fade again, slipping back into sleep. “This is where my job is.”
This is where it ends.
But mostly, this is where it really starts.
Because neither of them could ever ask for more.