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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Rocks and Hard Places (7/10)

December 21st, 2018 (10:45 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT
PART NINE
PART TEN




-o-

As much as the events threatened to unnerved Mitch, they also presented practical realities with which he had to contend. The most pressing concern was Brody’s position on the sand. With vomit now in his current bed location, Mitch had no choice but to move him. This probably made sense anyway, given Mitch’s newfound commitment to building the biggest bonfire possible. It would be safer and smarter -- and now, cleaner -- to move Brody.

This was also not an ideal time to move Brody, however. Sick as Brody was, he would not be able to help with the process. Mitch decided not to bother with trying to get Brody upright. Instead, he carefully scooped Brody up, tucking his own arms around Brody’s chest and under his armpits before dragging him a little ways up the beach.

Brody did not so much as make a noise during this process, his arms dragging in the sand and his head tipped forward with the movement. Mitch took him a little ways up the beach, mindful to be close enough for the fire for heat but not too close to present any kind of risk from sparks. Mitch took some time with this process, arranging a comparable bed in the sand, building up a pillow with more concern toward keeping Brody’s airway open. As his condition deteriorated, even details like that would matter.

When the bed was made up, Mitch positioned Brody in it, adjusting his head for him and easing him onto his side while arranging his limbs so that he looked comfortable and stable. If Brody had any objections, Mitch would have happily entertained them. As it was, Brody was deeply unconscious now, hotter than ever as Mitch cushioned him further with the blanket.

Next, Mitch turned to the task of cleaning. The vomit on the ground was easy enough to deal with. He merely covered it with sand and left it in the indentation of Brody’s old bed -- mostly so he didn’t accidentally step in it. Cleaning up Brody, however, was more daunting.

Not really, of course. Mitch had been cleaning him up for days now, and wiping his chin a little more was hardly difficult. However, the practical approach was beginning to wear thing. Even within the few hours since Mitch had last tended the wound, it looked worse. The red streaks were progressing, now running from both the front and the back wound. Moreso, the heat on Brody’s skin was not responding to any of the cooling treatments. The fever had shut down Brody’s consciousness altogether.

Mitch knew it was only a matter of time before it shut down everything else as well.

That was the reality of the choice he’d let Brody make yesterday. That was what he’d promised to do. He had not merely promised to stay and fight. He had promised to stay and make sure Brody didn’t die alone. They hadn’t said it, but they had both known it. By staying on the island, Mitch was giving up all control over the outcome. He was allowing other people to determine who lived and who died. Mitch was accepting, irrevocably, that he would do nothing but watch as Brody died a slow, painful, messy and lonely death on an island that no one knew the name of.

He would be there when Brody’s brain started to fry.

He’d be right there when Brody’s breathing started to lapse.

He’d be there when the other organs shut down, one by one by one.

He’d be here, right here, when Brody took his last breath.

If there was pain, Mitch would assuage it. If there was fear, Mitch would comfort it. If there was bleakness and loss, Mitch would be its last and only witness.

It made sense, in a way. Brody had spent his whole life looking for a family, for a place to belong. He’d found it at Baywatch. The last thing he wanted was to die without it.

Making the promise yesterday hadn’t exactly been easy, but it hadn’t been this hard. He’d accepted Brody’s choice; he’d embraced it. Last night, he’d committed to it, embellishing it with as much duty as he could muster up.

But in the harsh light of day, that commitment was faltering. That sense of duty was failing him now. Mitch wasn’t oceanic; not really. He was just some asshole of a guy.

A guy who was stranded on some shithole island in the middle of the ocean.

A guy who was watching someone he cared about die.

After all, Mitch had seen people die before. He’d had them die in his care, in his own arms. But this was someone he knew, someone he cared about. This was someone on Baywatch, someone he worked with. This was Brody.

Brody.

How the hell was Mitch supposed to make sense of that?

It might be easy to write this off as guilt, to say that he just felt responsible because the boat trip had been his own shitty idea. He could say that this was just because Brody was part of Baywatch. He could argue that it was because he’d spent more time with Brody, taken a vested interest in training him as necessary. Brody was Mitch’s protege.

But it was more, wasn’t it?

All these months of living, working, training. These months of bantering, laughing, being.

Brody was more than all of that.

He’d become more than Mitch’s best worker.

He’d also managed to become Mitch’s best friend.

How? How did it happen? And how the hell did Mitch not see it until the ocean stripped everything else they had away?

If these revelations were daunting, the next one was even more harrowing.

Because if Mitch did this. If Mitch respected Brody’s choice, that shitty choice between the hardest rock and the rockiest hard place. If Mitch did that.

How was he going to face going back if Brody didn’t make it?

How was he going to pick up the pieces of his life alone?

Brody was dying, there was no way around that now. Mitch could leave now and Brody would probably never know. In fact, it was likely that Brody wasn’t going to open his eyes again. He would probably have no idea that Mitch went back on his promise and negated Brody’s choice.

And Mitch could make swimming. This wasn’t a question of his skill or strength; it was a mere matter of determination. Mitch would make it to shore and it was the best chance Brody had for a timely recovery. It might give Brody a fighting chance.

Brody had known that, though. He’d been coherent. He’d known the implications.

Brody had chosen Baywatch because he fell in love with the team.

Brody had picked family first.

And he’d picked family last.

As much as Mitch wanted to, Mitch couldn’t leave Brody.

Not even to save his life.

Exhausted, resigned, committed, Mitch sat down on the beach next to Brody.

The choice was made.

All that was left were the consequences.

-o-

Mitch knew things weren’t going to get better. No matter what he did, Brody’s condition was just going to get worse. It was just a question of how fast.

So Mitch wasn’t surprised to find that Brody stopped trembling over the course of the afternoon. He noticed first after returning from a scavenging trip. He’d been carrying an armful of wood when he saw how still Brody was. He’d been frozen for a moment, fearing the worst. Dropping the wood, he had run the rest of the way, pressing his fingers desperately into Brody’s pulse point.

The pulse had been there, thank goodness, but Mitch was able to appreciate the gravity of the development.

Over the next few hours, Brody stopped sweating, no matter how much water Mitch tried to get down his throat. His breathing grew even more shallow and took on a keening noise as it hitched uncertainly. Bit by bit, Brody was losing the fight.

Mitch, for his part, was running out of fronts to fight on. He was persistent in feeding Brody water, and he dutifully changed the cool compress, twice an hour now. There was no indication that it was doing any good, but doing nothing would be worse. When Mitch wasn’t minding Brody, he turned his focus nearly singularly to the fire.

The fire remained the most viable way to get off the island, since swimming for it was no longer on the table. The afternoon would be the prime search window. Before he’d compared finding one island in the ocean like locating a needle in a haystack. But if that haystack happened to be on fire, then it would be much easier to find.

By this logic, the bigger the fire, the bigger the haystack. The better the odds of attracting attention.

At this point, Mitch was burning everything. If he thought he could control it, he’d set fire to the forest itself and let the whole damn island burn. But the last thing Brody needed was smoke inhalation. The bonfire would have to suffice.

As it was, soon the fire took over the entire corner of the beach. Mitch showed no restraint as he built it now, putting all of his energy, effort and hope into its towering flames. He’d do this all night if it helped.

For the record, it didn’t help. Mitch signed his fingers, burned their shelter and none of it helped. Rescue didn’t come. Brody was still dying.

And all Mitch could do was rage ineffectually at the unfairness of it all.

-o-

As the afternoon started inching toward evening, Mitch was stubborn about it. He refused to admit that it was time to eat and instead ignored the rumbling of his stomach and stoked the fire instead. When he made his way back to Brody to change his compress for the second time in the last hour, he was completely surprised to see Brody looking at him.

The last few days had been full of surprises, most progressively worse than the last, so this turn of events was not what he had been expecting. He’d been so afraid of coming back to find Brody dead that the sight of him looking straight at Mitch with recognition in his expression made Mitch stop cold.

And the he smiled. “Brody,” he said, trying not to sound as completely thrilled as he was. He went to his knees, lowering his head to make it easier for Brody to see him. “You’re awake.”

The declaration was simple, but Brody blinked slowly and Mitch realized it might have been premature. Brody seemed to recognize him, but he was slow in processing the situation. In fact, as Brody studied him, Mitch wasn’t sure how much Brody was processing at all.

“Mitch,” Brody said, the word no more than a breath on the ocean breeze.

“Yeah, man,” Mitch said, and his smile faltered but he did not relinquish it yet. “How’re you doing?”

Brody didn’t answer that question. Instead, he gave Mitch a long, puzzled look before his gaze drifted away. Mitch made a move to gain his attention again, but then he realized that Brody wasn’t staring into nothingness. His expression wasn’t vacant. He was still looking keenly, but this time he was looking at the ocean.

The tide was rising, and the waves were massive swells against the pristine shores. The sky ahead of them was clear and endless, stretching for miles and miles and miles while puffy clouds sauntered by. From this vantage point, you couldn’t even see the smoke as it plumed above them, not when you fixed your eyes on the white tips of the waves, which continued their rhythmic course against the rock.

Brody was transfixed, as if he were seeing the waves for the first time in his life.

“I get it,” Brody said, the words no more substantial than air. “Why you like it.”

Mitch looked at Brody, watching as he took the shallow, stunted breaths that barely gave him enough energy to speak. “Why I like what?”

“The ocean,” Brody said, somehow making it sound like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Look at it.”

Mitch had no choice but to comply.

Brody continued, the same quiet voice that sounded like it was burning on the embers of the fever that had ravaged him so completely. “It’s everything,” he said, and he nearly sounded surprised. “It washes away -- everything. It takes everything. Y-you can -- forget.”

Mitch found his mouth turning down. “Forget what?”

Brody’s gaze didn’t waver; didn’t flicker. The awe and wonder made his fevered features look younger than he was, too young. “Where you end,” he said. “And it begins.”

The finality of it, the complete surrender in his voice. Like the world was coming full circle, like life and death had come to pass and all Brody could find was the peace in the waves. “Hey,” Mitch said, turning back to Brody. He shook him, a little harder than normal. “Don’t talk like that.”

Brody didn’t acknowledge him, though. “We all end,” he said instead, almost smiling now. He looked like this was the best revelation of his life. “And the ocean -- it just -- goes on forever.”

Mitch shook him again. “I’m serious, Brody.”


But Brody looked enamored now, the smile lifting all the way to his weary eyes. “It’s beautiful, Mitch,” he said, and he spoke now like a true believer. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Mitch’s protests rose in his throat, but they found no voice, stuck there inexorably as Mitch looked at Brody. There was no way to discourage Brody from this; even if there was, Mitch wasn’t sure he had the heart, not when Brody looked like he was at peace after four days of misery.

Finally, after agonizing seconds, Mitch tore his gaze away, following Brody’s gaze to the ocean. The protests receded, falling back into the pit of his stomach, as he watched the waves come in again and again, again and again.

“Yeah,” he said, eyes settling back on Brody. “It is.”

That was the first truth, the one Mitch had started this adventure believing.

It was the last truth, the one they would both end this adventure knowing beyond all doubt.

The only truth.

Until the tide washed it away with everything else.

-o-

It felt like the end.

Mitch didn’t want to admit it, but he didn’t think he had the ability to fight it any longer. He did the best he could, prepping wood and manning the fire. He got water and forced himself to eat, but when the sun started sinking toward the horizon, Mitch knew he was out of time.

Just like he was out of options.

Brody had fallen asleep, face turned toward the beach, and though Mitch gave him water, he made no further efforts to wake him. He let him lay, poised with his face out, as if toward the possibilities that simply weren’t coming.

The sky was brilliant that night as the sun went down, reflecting a multitude of hues across the water in the distance. Without any boats or structures to obscure the view, it was about as perfect as it could be. Mitch had never seen the ocean look more spectacular than it had that night.

A dull ache started in his chest as the protests in the pit of his stomach roiled. He could feel the denial tingling in his fingers, but he no longer knew how to indulge it.

Sitting there, watching it, Mitch knew he had one hell of a view.

And to think, he’d give it up in a second, in a damn heartbeat, if it would save Brody’s life.

Because Mitch loved the ocean, but he understood now. He loved his team more. There had been a lot of hard choices over the last few days, but that one was easy.

He looked at Brody, still poised against the exquisite backdrop. His face was hollowed out; his breathing was staggered, like each breath could easily be his last.

The easiest decision in the world.

The sun disappeared, one last burst of light, before the darkness settled.

Mitch looked out the skyline again, which was now shrouded in bleakness.

If only he’d made this decision a hell of a lot sooner.

-o-

Mitch gave up his schedule that night.

Mitch gave up his routine.

Ultimately, Mitch gave up his hope.

Instead, he laid himself down, close enough to Brody to touch, lining them up parallel. Slowly, he reached out, a steadying hand on Brody’s shoulder, leaving it there until he could feel the rise and fall of Brody’s chest with each hampered breath. He could feel the heat; he could feel the resonating stillness; but he kept his hand there longer until he learned the uneven rhythm of Brody’s heart as it skipped in tandem with the waves.

Sleeping, waking, it didn’t matter much. What mattered was Brody’s heartbeat against his hand and the promise that they would not face this night alone.

-o-

The tide rose; the tide fell.

When the dawn broke, Mitch was still there.

Somehow, despite the odds, Brody was, too.

But only just.

His breathing had become diminished, somehow quieter, as if he wasn’t even inhaling enough to reached the sodden portions of his lungs. Now, it was nothing but shallow gasps, the smallest huffs of air to keep his failing body alive.

The fever was encompassing now, so hot for so long that Mitch no longer had any ability to figure out what temperature it was. Brody’s skin was hot and dry, and the wound was redder than ever.

It wouldn’t be long now.

Not without a miracle.

Mitch looked out, past the diminished scale of his flames to the water before. Brody had said it last night, how beautiful it was.

Where one thing ended.

And another began.

That fluid boundary had always fascinated Mitch, the way it was constant and still unpredictable. The last and first truth.

Brody had seen it.

In the naked morning light on an abandoned beach, Mitch could see it, too.

It started with the ocean.

It would end with the ocean.

Carefully, he drew Brody into his arms. The hot body was pressed against his chest as he heaved him upward, keeping his head tipped against him as one arm swung down.

With strong, even paces, Mitch made his way down the sand, past the HELP sign and into the low tide where it pulled away from the wet sand. Mitch waded into it, keeping his feet firmly in the mire, keeping Brody balanced against him as the first waves hit him in the legs.

He waded deeper, until the water was too his knees. When a wave crested at his waist, Mitch planted himself down, lowering Brody into the next oncoming wash of water. The water was still cool in the morning sun, washing over them both with a relief that defied explanation or rational thought.

Mitch would explain it later, to anyone who asked, that he took Brody to the sea to cool him down, a last-ditch effort to lower his fever before it killed him. It made sense, in that regard. If bathing the forehead had helped before, dousing the whole body could only help more.

But Mitch knew, as he held Brody in his arms and the surf washed over them again, that it was more than that. He knew that Brody had seen this ending long before he did, that he had accepted it before Mitch had even known it was a possibility.

Brody didn’t fight him; Brody didn’t fight the water. Brody had never wanted to fight.

Together, in the ocean, they weren’t just united. This time, they were the same. Where one ended, the other began, and the ocean washed away all the things that defined them, all the things that kept them apart, all the things that had gotten them this far.

Beautiful, Brody had called it.

Mitch lowered his head to Brody’s, closing his eyes while another wave swept over them.

Beautiful.

-o-

The ocean had no concept of time; at least, no concept that made a difference to the rest of the world. Variable and constant, the ocean did things in its own way, and Mitch had given up trying to think otherwise.

Therefore, he wasn’t sure how long he stood there, letting the waves crest over himself and Brody. He wasn’t sure how long he bathed away the worst of Brody’s fever in the rising dawn. He wasn’t sure how much time he had left in the fleeting moments of Brody’s fight.

All he knew was one wave after the next, uncertain and predictable like Brody’s next breath.

Then, he heard something else.

It took him several moments before he realized that there was in fact a sound. It was several more moments before he understood that the sound wasn’t part of the ocean’s natural ebb and flow. Several more ridiculous seconds and he finally looked up to see a plane, moving across the horizon within clear view of the island.

Mitch watched the plane, moderately dumbfounded. Four days, he’d been waiting for a plane. Now that one was there, he couldn’t remember why it was so important or what the hell he was supposed to do.

Another wave reached him with more force than he expected. He staggered back, having to work extra hard to keep Brody above the water as it flooded toward the sand and back again.

Shit.

Brody.

A plane.

Scrambling a little now, Mitch backed up, making broad strides to the shoreline. Glancing to the fire, he was somewhat assured. It was smaller than yesterday, having burned down somewhat over the night, but it was still making a continuous line of smoke in the sky. Visible.

Mitch squinted out to the horizon again where the plane was still streaking by. It wasn’t a jetliner. It probably wasn’t commercial. It could even be a search plane.

Visible.

It had to be visible, right?

Mitch was not an indecisive man, but he couldn’t make a decision to save his life at the moment. To save Brody’s life. The choices were impossible; the choices didn’t even make sense right now.

He was torn between watching the plane and running over to put more wood on the fire, and he hesitated, Brody still heavy in his arms as the plane slipped further from view, disappearing down the horizon line.

Mitch stood, more dumbfounded than before.

Had he just blown it?

Had he stood by and wasted Brody’s last chance?

Shit.

Shit.

He took several more steps up the beach, intent on starting the fire again when he heard another sound.

Not a plane.

He turned, looking back toward the water. The sound echoed off the waves again.

A horn.

From a boat.

Moored just beyond the rocks where Mitch’s own boat had gone down.

Rescue, Mitch realized dumbly.

He looked at Brody, still unconscious in his arms.

It was about damn time.

-o-

The boat was taking longer than Mitch wanted to navigate the shallows, and someone as lowering a smaller boat to circumvent the last, most precipitous portion of the ride. Mitch had lowered Brody back to his sand bed to watch, and he saw one of the figures on the boat jump out entirely, using a flotation device as she cut toward the shore on her own.

Mitch knew it was Stephanie before she came up the beach. She was panting, soaking wet and smiling.

“Son of a bitch!” she exclaimed breathlessly as she got to her feet out of the water. “You’re alive!”

Mitch welcomed her, embracing her as she moved to hug him.

Her face was pressed against his shoulder. “We were worried we’d lost you,” she said in his ear, still squeezing him. “The coast guard said it was probably a lost cause, but I said they didn’t know you.”

She let go, standing back and beaming.

“You’re Mitch Buchannon,” she announced for him. “You’re oceanic.”

The compliment almost hurt to hear, and he felt his smile fall.

“Mitch?” she asked, and then, for the first time, she looked around. “Is something--”

She stopped short when she saw Brody’s body, lying prone in the sand. “He’s still alive,” Mitch said. “But we need to get him out of here.”

Stephanie nodded, all business again. “Lucky for you, we’ve all been well trained for emergency rescues,” she said, a tight smile on her lips as she turned back to the water. “We’ll get it from here.”

Mitch found the ability to hope again -- for Brody’s sake -- that she was right.

-o-

Stephanie was telling the truth; they were well prepared. They had taken all the measures Mitch would have, with a coordinated effort that spans several sections of the ocean. It was luck, Stephanie had said, that her boat had gotten to Mitch first. If they’d crashed further west, it might have been Ronnie’s team. To the north, Summer.

Mitch didn’t have the heart to tell her that it didn’t matter who had come for them as long as Brody got the hell out.

She was prepared for that contingency as well. The smaller vessel was manned by a member of the coast guard and a trained field medic. There were supplies on it, and the instant the medic hit the sand, she was already moving to assess.

Usually, during a rescue, Mitch was up in the middle of the action.

Today, he felt oddly detached. Like he’d forgotten how to move as he watched Stephanie and the medic converge on Brody.

Within seconds, the wound was exposed and the medic was starting to set up an IV. Stephanie was calling out his vitals while the coast guard driver was bringing up the backboard. The medic was mentally going over the vitals, handing the IV bag to Stephanie to hold upright while she turned her attention to the wound and the driver laid the backboard nearby, ready for use.

“What happened?” the medic asked, sparing Mitch the briefest of glances.

“Um, impalement,” Mitch said, remembering it like it happened a lifetime ago. “We were trying to skirt around a storm, and we didn’t see the rocks until we were already up on them. The waves tipped us hard, and he was caught on something when we went over.”

She considered that, lifting Brody slightly to see the wound in his back. “And you took it out?”

“No choice,” Mitch said. “If I left it in, he would have gone down with the boat.”

She nodded like that made sense, but she was still having trouble with something. “These wounds, though,” she said.

“They’re infected,” Stephanie supplemented.

The medic looked at Mitch. “How exactly did you treat these?”

“He was bleeding badly,” Mitch said, surprised by how much his own voice wavered. It had seemed like such a logical choice when he’d made it four days ago. Giving it voice now, he wondered how stupid he was. “I didn’t have anything else to stop the bleeding, so we cauterized it.”

To the medic’s credit, she only blinked once in surprised. Then she looked back down to Brody, as if that explained everything. “Okay,” she said. “We need to load him up and radio to mainland that we need immediate support when we hit the beach. He’s going to need to be redlined to a hospital ASAP.”

While the medic worked, it was Stephanie who looked up at Mitch in shock. She seemed ready to ask the question, but the medic was moving the backboard into position, demanding Stephanie’s help while Brody was gently rolled into place and strapped down.

“We’ll do a full workup on the boat,” the medic said, getting to her feet to man one end of the backboard. The coast guard driver took up the other while Stephanie held the IV bag aloft. “We have some antibiotics on board and oxygen support. I’d like to get him hooked up to a monitor to see if we need to intubate.”

All business, there was no time to debate the choices that had been made. Instead, Mitch found himself struggling to keep up while they carefully loaded Brody onto the small craft, powering up its engine to start them back to where the larger motorboat was still moored.

On the craft, the driver to into position while the medic continued to attend to Brody. Mitch could only watch while Brody lay lifelessly through the examination. With a lurch, they started moving, and Stephanie held onto his arm as the boat started its trip back across the ocean.

“Cauterization?” she asked, her voice low as she looked at Brody. The medic was applying a fresh dressing, searching through her pack for more supplies.

“He was bleeding,” Mitch said again, though it sounded like an excuse now. Feeble, weak and ultimately not good enough.

She sighed, biting her lip as she watched the medic slip an oxygen mask over Brody’s face, placing two leads to his chest as the boat skipped over the top of the choppy waves. “Wound in the side, no access to bandages,” Stephanie mused. “And a through-and-through wound. It’s like everything is stacked against you. There really aren’t other ways to stop bleeding in that context.”

She seemed to be coming to that conclusion slowly, as if she thought there surely should be a better choice.

Four days later, Mitch wished he’d come up with one.

A few readings played out on the medic’s small monitor and she adjusted the flow of oxygen and looked for a fresh syringe.

“Cauterization sounds crazy,” Stephanie said, and she looked at Mitch now, even when he couldn’t bring himself to look back. “But it makes sense.”

Nothing made sense, though. Mitch’s entire world had been turned on his head and he had no idea what the hell to make of it anymore.

He was supposed to be the leader here. He was supposed to be strong, confident and sure. He was supposed to take action and not second guess himself.

He was supposed to be oceanic.

But the ocean had taken something from him this time, something more than he thought he could give.

And so help him God, if the ocean took Brody.

Mitch couldn’t finish the thought, and he was grateful when he didn’t have to. They were already approaching the main vessel, coming to a stop as the medic got to her feet and starting issuing orders.

Watching, Mitch stood back while the backboard was lifted, carefully carted over the side of the boat and laid out on the deck. The medic climbed after it, taking up a spot by Brody’s side and reaching for the radio.

Stephanie prodded him to move, walking him to the edge of the bobbing craft while the driver steadied it. She got off first, climbing on board with steady legs before she reached back and helped Mitch over the edge.

He was more tired than he’d realized, more exhausted than he’d taken time to consider. His legs felt shaky as he accepted the help.

He felt shakier still when he heard the medic, relaying a litany of medical information over the radio and the driver started readying the boat.

Stephanie guided him to a pair of seats on the deck, where they could still see Brody, looking small and lifeless under the medical intervention.

“He’s alive because of you. Placement of that wound, he’d have bled out, Mitch,” Stephanie said, and she sounded like she meant it. “You did the best you could. You had no choice.”

But Mitch knew that he did. Right or wrong, good or bad, rock or hard place. He’d had choices all along, and he wasn’t sure he had made any of the right ones.

The smaller vessel was stowed, and the driver climbed aboard, joining the other crew member in the cabin. It was time to go.

Mitch looked back at the island, watching as they pulled away. He looked back to Brody, still hovering somewhere between life and death on the deck below him. It was out of his hands now.

It might have been out of his hands all along, but at least he recognized it now.

When he turned back, the island was just a speck, a small spot in a vast ocean.

Eyes on Brody again, he was ready to go home.

They were ready to go home.

Because that was the choice Brody had made.

That no matter what happened, they’d go together.

Mitch had made a shit storm of most of this trip but he had to take some comfort in knowing he at least got that much right.

-o-

Four days Mitch had worked and hoped for this.

Now that they were heading back to shore, he felt more lost than ever.

Sitting safe and secure on the deck, he didn’t know how to dredge up anything resembling relief. Instead, all he could do was sit and watch while the medic did her work.

Stephanie sat next to him, but she seemed to sense that things were worse than she’d anticipated. Her initial joy on the beach had been dialed back appropriately, but her deference now was not just for Brody’s sake. She’d been Mitch’s right-hand lifeguard for too many years now. She knew how to read his moods, even when it was a mood neither of them had experienced before. Therefore, she sat silent but steady, leaning close to Mitch but keeping her eyes on Brody.

That was what it was about, after all. Stephanie had known Mitch longer, but the day Brody put on the trunks, he’d become part of the team. Stephanie hadn’t liked it at first, but Brody had proven himself to her, to Mitch, to all of them. He wasn’t expendable.

And he was not doing well.

The medic never said that, but it wasn’t hard to figure out from her actions. She’d promptly set up another line in the IV, stringing up a bag of antibiotics alongside the saline. Brody’s vitals were weak, but the medic had deemed intubation on the water an unnecessary step since Brody was still breathing.

His breathing wasn’t the biggest issue, and they all knew it. The medic had packed in more cool compresses, raiding the boat’s freezer for ice packs -- as many as she could find. She packed them in under Brody’s armpits and between his legs, explaining that bringing his temperature down was a primary concern.

“All sorts of stuff happens to the body when it gets too hot,” she said. “The antibiotics fight the infection, but you have to keep the fever down or things start shutting down.”

Her explanation had been honest and frank, but when she glanced from Stephanie to Mitch, she seemed to realize that maybe it’d been too blunt. Her smile was gentle to him. “He’s actually doing really well, considering he state of the wound,” she said. “It’s remarkable that you kept him alive this long against odds like this.”

It was meant to be rousing; encouraging.

Mitch looked at Brody, who had yet to stir under the invasive measures.

“And we’re doing what we can,” the medic continued while Stephanie patted his arm in encouragement. “Getting him off the island, that was a critical step.”

Mitch nodded, but he heard what she wasn’t saying. He heard what Stephanie was holding back.

This fight -- the one for Brody’s life -- wasn’t over yet.

The boat skipped over the waves, speeding toward the shore.

It wasn’t over by a long shot.

-o-

Stranded on a deserted island, Mitch had waited four days for help. Four horrible, long, difficult days.

The final hour to shore was still probably the worst.

Because this was what he’d pegged all his hopes on: rescue.

But Brody was still lying lifeless on the deck of the boat, oblivious to the ocean as it slipped past him and the shoreline grew bigger in the distance.

Because in that hour, Mitch remembered the power of hope.

And the cold, unmovable reality of truth.

-o-

Things only got worse when the boat hit the shallows and the crew started piling out. No one asked Mitch for help -- no one assumed he’d take point. Usually, on a Baywatch rescue, Mitch was the natural leader.

He was sidelined now, only watching while the medic and coast guard crew member piled out of the boat, carrying Brody’s stretcher between them. They were already splashing toward the sand as Stephanie nudged him, offering him a hand as she piled off several paces behind them.

The scene was already developing regardless of Mitch’s presence. The other rescue boats had returned -- Mitch could account for at least three, with members he recognized from his own team. CJ and Ronnie were clutching hands, and Summer was running toward the stretcher, a look of incomprehension on her face.

It had spiraled well beyond that, as well. Rescues always attracted a crowd, but this was more than the typical beach crowd gawking at an unexpected event. The press had started to gather, too. Clearly, in the hour since their discovery, news had broke and people were crowded for a piece of the story.

Mitch winced at the flash of photography. He had the urge to shoo them off, or at least to cover Brody from their prying telephoto lenses. Brody had enough to fight off; he didn’t need to make headlines for this, be they good or bad.

But mitch had enough to fight off, as well. The press -- that was a battle he’d never win.

Shit, it was one he’d already lost as cameras turned toward him and clicked away, even as Ellerbee and his fellow beat cops tried to keep them at bay.

There was nothing to be done for it, though. Chaos had erupted on the beach, and Mitch would have been okay if he were at the center of it.

All eyes were on Brody this time.

Mitch was a side story.

He seemed to forget how to walk, but Stephanie led him by the arm out of the surf, catching up with the ambulance where the stretcher was being strapped down to a gurney. The medic from the boat was listing of a litany of medical facts while another medic nodded to keep up. Mitch might have understood some of it, but he was having trouble making sense of it all right now.

Nothing about this made sense.

On the island, him and Brody and the ocean. That had been hard enough to make parse.

Here?

With the ocean behind them?

Mitch didn’t know what was before them.

Worse, no one seemed concerned about asking him.

“Just tell me if he’s okay,” Summer was saying, maintaining a stubborn position at Brody’s side. She was touching his arm, fingers brushed against it, but Brody was too out of it to realize. “Please!”

CJ and Ronnie were already intervening, trying to pull Summer gently away while the medics continued their conversation to one another.

“He’s been missing four days!” Summer said, to CJ, to Ronnie, to the medics, to anyone who might be listening. “Just tell me how he is!”

Her eyes locked with Mitch, and her face brightened, like he might have the answer. But Mitch didn’t have answers. He didn’t even have words. Shit, he didn’t even have the guts to hold her eyes. He looked down, closing his eyes in shame.

“Look, we need to get him to the hospital,” the medic was explaining, looking at Summer before glancing at the rest of them, too. “We need to move him now.”

The chatter broke out again, and even as Summer protested, the medics were already loading Brody up. Mitch caught sight of him, flushed and still, and he felt his stomach lurch like he was still back on the ocean.

Four days, Brody had been the center of his existence.

Four days, he’d promised that he wouldn’t leave, no matter what.

Four days, and it was over.

He stepped forward, almost out of instinct, but Stephanie’s hand was firmly on his arm. He was bigger than she was, but she had the force of will behind her now. Mitch’s, on the other hand, was spent, and he found himself frozen to the spot, watching as Brody disappeared inside and Summer climbed in after him while the medics finished loading up.

“Come on,” Stephanie said to him, her voice steady but quiet in the chaos.

Mitch found himself resisting. “I need to be with him,” he said, the words thick in his throat as he watched the driver climb into the ambulance cab and start up the sirens. “You don’t understand.”

“Hey,” Stephanie said, and this time, when she spoke, her voice willed him to look at her. He complied. “I do understand. You and Brody were alone on that island. You were the one taking care of him, only you. You had to make the hard calls, and you made them. It’s not easy letting go of that.”

The fact that she did understand made him lose whatever will to fight he had left.

The fact that she could understand it completely and still not get it at all only discouraged him further.

“Come on,” she said, while the ambulance started to pull away. “You’ve earned a trip to the hospital anyway.”

“What? I’m fine,” Mitch said, because he was still on his feet. Brody had been the one half dead when rescue came. Mitch barely had a scratch on him.

Stephanie gave him a strong once-over. “Brody wasn’t the only one stranded for four days on a deserted island,” she said. “You haven’t looked in the mirror lately, or you’d know what I’m talking about.”

Mitch was distracted by the ambulance as it dredged up onto the pavement, most of the photographers chasing after it. A few stayed beyond, snapping photos of him. “What?”

“You need medical attention, too, Mitch,” Stephanie said, sounding just like he used to when he ran point on a rescue. Just like he used to before all this went to hell. “Brody’s already headed there, and you want to catch up with him anyway.”

That was a point, and it was the precise point she needed to leverage him into compliance.

“Besides,” she said, taking him by the arm and leading him up the beach without looking like she was forcing him. “I’m not giving you a choice.’

He followed her lead, step by step toward the next ambulance, waiting with an open back just a few yards down the way. She was probably smart in that one. Mitch’s judgement had proven questionable over the last few days.

Stephanie introduced him to the waiting medic, who welcomed him warmly, as if he didn’t realize that Mitch’s choices were shit.

Mitch said down, acquiescing to Stephanie’s prompting. He allowed the medic to start examining, resigning himself to whatever came next.

It was out of his hands now.

He complied as he was asked to breath and answer questions before climbing into the back of the ambulance and sitting on the waiting gurney while Stephanie took a seat across from him. The doors closed and the engine rumbled to life. Soon, they were pulling away.

Out the back, Mitch saw the ocean retreating, growing smaller and smaller and smaller.

Then, they turned a corner, and Mitch couldn’t see it at all.

-o-

It was another short trip to the ER.

But damn, Mitch had lost all his sense of time. It felt like hours; it felt like seconds. It felt like nothing at all.

How could he tell?

Without the waves to keep time, without Brody’s heartbeat to measure it, how was Mitch supposed to know anything at all?

-o-

It felt ridiculous to come in on a gurney, but it seemed to make everyone else feel better, and Mitch didn’t have strong feelings about anything anymore. The medic transferred him off to a friendly nurse, who greeted him like he might have been an old friend and not an ER patient.

Stephanie excused herself for Mitch’s sake allowing him to get dressed in a gown and set up on monitors in privacy.

The nurse bustled in the drawn curtain of Mitch’s exam area, moving about smiling the whole time, and as she took Mitch’s blood pressure, she gave him a familiar look.

“You probably don’t remember me,” she began.

Mitch looked at her, totally blank, even if he knew what she was going to say. People stopped by tower one all the time with that look. People stopped him in the street or at his table in restaurants.

“Two years ago, I was on the bay with my kids. Three of them,” she said, noting some numbers on the chart. “One of them, my middle boy, he wandered off ended up in the surf. I didn’t even see it, but you were there.”

She adjusted his IV line properly, and Mitch knew how the story ended. He’d heard it so many times. He used to live it. It used to be him.

“You saved him, just like that,” she continued, smiling. She reached for a thermometer, putting it in Mitch’s ear. “When I saw the news, when I saw it was you, well, I thought, this one will have a good ending at least.”

He barely remembered it anymore. It felt like a different person. A different life.

And yet, it had been less than a week ago.

The nurse chattered on, flipping this his chart and amending a few notes from the history she’d taken several minutes ago. “It was all over the news, of course, and people speculated,” she said, her voice carrying over the sounds of the hospital just beyond his curtained area. “After the first day, they said the odds went against you, but I never doubted, if it helps. You were the one, after all. You were the one who saved my boy’s life before I even realized he was gone.”

She fluffed the pillow on his examination bed with something of a flourish, even though Mitch showed no intention of lying back. The monitor that read out his vitals was beeping softly in the background. It was slow, consistent; stable. Mitch remembered to smile at her, almost out of reflex.

Standing back, she almost winked at him. “My money was always on you. Our Baywatch team is the best of the best.”

Mitch couldn’t maintain the smile, not even for the sake of being polite. “There was a lot of luck involved,” he said, not bothering to clarify that as much of it was as good as it was bad.

That wasn’t what people thought of when they thought of Mitch, though. Mitch was oceanic; he was larger than life. He met every obstacle with a smile and a resounding word of assurance. He never had to apologize, because he never did something that he didn’t believe in one hundred percent.

She beamed at him, confirming every thought he’d just realized. “You? Mitch Buchannon? I doubt that very much.”

Mitch didn’t know what to say to that.

Mitch didn’t know what to say to anything.

Finally, he shrugged. “After the last few days, I have a whole new appreciation for what the ocean’s capable of, let me tell you that.”

“Oh, I can only imagine. What a horrible ordeal!” she said, returning his chart to the end of his bed. “But you’ll be back out there. I know you won’t be able to stay away.”

She didn’t wait for him to reply, making her way to the curtain, pulling it back for an exit.

“The doctor will be in soon,” she told him. “If you need anything, just press the button and I’ll be right back in, okay?”

“Thank you,” Mitch said.

She smiled at him from the curtain one last time. “No, thank you.”

With that, she left, pulling the curtain closed behind her. The last thing Mitch wanted was to be thanked right now.

No, that wasn’t the last thing.

He didn’t want to think about the last thing.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Mitch looked at his vitals signs, which were still entirely stable. This felt pointless to him, but then again, what else would he be doing?

He knew the answer to that, though.

Getting to his feet, he felt steady enough. Barefoot now, Mitch padded to the edge of his curtain, pulling open a small section to peek out. The hospital wasn’t very busy today; a few beds away, there was an old woman sleeping. A little boy with a cast was tucked in his mother’s arms beyond her. Just beyond them, Mitch could see the main emergency bay, where the most emergent cases were taken.

Mitch knew he shouldn’t, but he was drawn like the tide to the shore. He would be drawn back to Brody, again and again.

The gown closed in the back, and the IV was mobile. The monitor was small, and also made to be portable. This was likely to make it convenient to move patients for testing and to different wards. But for Mitch, it presented a choice.

Only this one wasn’t a rock and a hard place.

That was why he was already moving out of his curtain before he’d even realized he’d made the choice.

The little old lady roused when he walked, but Mitch smiled at her and she went back to bed. The little boy sniffled, but Mitch gave him a thumbs up and he smiled. A nurse eyed Mitch warily, as if she suspected he wasn’t supposed to be mobile, but Mitch looked her in the eye and nodded resolutely, and she let him go on his way.

It was remarkable how no one questioned him.

How everyone agreed with him.

He hated to think that Brody’s ability to disagree with him had been part of the problem. That Mitch was so used to having everyone think he was the center of the bay that he’d actually come to believe it to the point where outside opinions seemed impossible to him.

That thought probably should have occurred to him a week ago without a shipwreck to convince him of it.

Still, that was too simple of a lesson. The moral was too reductive. The thing between him and Brody, the innate conflict, the tension that made them fast and perfect partners. There was a necessary give and take to it.

Mitch had once believed he did most of the giving, having provided Brody with a job, a second chance, a family, a home and a shred of dignity.

He had never stopped to consider what he’d taken in return. Brody’s friendship, loyalty, admiration, trust and devotion.

Mitch had asked for the ocean, too.

Brody had given it to him, throwing in his life as a result.

It was too much.

This was all too much.

Outside the exam room, Mitch hesitated, not sure what his best approach was. He could muffled voices, but as a doctor swung through the doors purposefully, Mitch caught snippets of the actual conversation. Moving closer, he was able to see the doctors working through the glass on the swinging door, and when he stationed himself outside door, the muffled voices formed words.

This was helped by the fact that doctor who just entered the room got a look at the patient for the first time. “What the hell?!”

The doctor was still putting on his gloves, and from this position, with all the people and equipment in the room, Mitch couldn’t even confirm that this was Brody’s exam room.

“Did they cauterize that thing?” the doctor asked, now gloved up as he reached over to inspect the wound, which was being illuminated by a bright light.

Mitch mentally braced himself; he couldn’t blame them for being surprised.

The doctor let out a low whistle as he inspected the wound more closely. “Is this the middle ages or something?”

Mitch had no right to blame them.

He couldn’t help but blame himself, however.

There was another doctor, busying herself at the head of the gurney, presumably checking other vital signs. “But look at the placement,” she said, and her voice was harder to hear so Mitch had to almost press his ear against the door. “It’s through and through, probably tore a couple of veins. Reported blood loss from the scene suggests that he nearly bled out before the procedure. His vitals are recovering to some degree with a transfusion, and I think we’re going to need more units.”

“I guess,” the doctor said, probing the wound again. “Can we roll him?”

The team worked together, and Mitch watched as they rolled Brody to the familiar position on his side. From this position, Brody’s face was briefly visible to Mitch. With his eyes closed, Brody showed no indication of awareness. The oxygen mask was over his mouth and nose. That was probably for the best, Mitch reminded himself.

The doctor scowled, using his fingers to assess the back wound. “Infection looks advanced,” he said. “I’m surprised he’s still alive. Do we have blood work back yet?”

“It’s in the lab,” a nurse reported from her place manning Brody’s vital signs. “Results are being rushed.”

“We’re about to move him for x-rays, if you think he’s good to be moved,” the other doctor said.

The first doctor rolled Brody back down. “We need to see if there’s internal damage,” he agreed. “He’s been through a lot; I doubt he can take much more, so we need to rule out everything we can.”

“We’ve got him on a high dose of antibiotics,” the other doctor said. “I was thinking after we ruled out internal complications, we’d start debriding the area.”

Mitch tried not to think about that. He tried not to think about how hard it’d been to sear Brody’s flesh closed, and how unfair it was to him that he would have to live through it being cut open again. Brody deserved a reprieve.

One that didn’t involve profound unconsciousness.

Shit, Mitch wanted to think he deserved the reprieve, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to think it.

“Clear out as much infected tissue as possible,” the first said. “Might help control it at the source, but we have to hope the blood responds to the antibiotic treatment.”

“Oxygenation levels are borderline for now; we’re still waiting on information about urine output,” the other doctor said.

“Stay on those outputs constantly,” the doctor said. “Only time will tell whether they made the right choice out there.”

The other doctor looked at him. “It’s a terrible thing, though,” she observed. “To survive in this condition for four days? Just to die a slow and painful death back on the mainland?”

Mitch had liked her bedside manner; it had been comforting and gentle.

That made her sudden bluntness harder to hear.

“Well, he’s not dead yet, and when the press ask for a statement, we have to be guarded,” the doctor said. “Although, we have to get cleared first. Do we have a next of kin?”

“Working on it,” the nurse supplied. “There’s quite a bit of confusion in the waiting room.”

“I saw the lifeguards,” the doctor said. “I need someone to update them and get confirmation on next of kin. We’ve got press everywhere.”

“Yes, doctor,” the nurse said, moving to the door and pushing past it, not even seeing Mitch as she walked away.

“We set up for x-ray?” the doctor asked.

“I was just waiting for you to clear him to move,” the other said.

“Pack him up, and stay with him at all times,” the doctor ordered. “If he starts crashing, we need to be there to catch it.”

“He’s being redlined anyway,” the other said, locking the rails of the gurney and releasing the locks on the wheels. “But he doesn’t deserve to be alone, not after all he’s been through.”

The first doctor nodded, maneuvering the gurney toward the door. Mitch stepped back as the door swung open, moving out of the way as the doctors worked their way past, Brody between them.

For four days, Mitch had been the only thing keeping Brody alive.

Pushed to the side, Mitch could only watch while Brody was wheeled past him. His clothes had been removed; he was covered with a sheet up to his waist. The IVs were hanging now, and more monitors were attached to his chest and hands. The wound had been dressed in a temporary fashion, draped with clean, sterile bandages.

In ten minutes, the hospital had been able to provide more to Brody than Mitch had in four days.

He was still watching as the gurney was maneuvered away, off down the hall before it disappeared around a corner.

It seemed silly now, to be standing there. In his hospital gown, sneaking past nurses, for what? To listen in on Brody’s exam? To fulfill his promise not to leave him behind?

When Mitch had made the choice to leave his curtain area, it had seemed like the right choice at the time. The only choice, even.

Standing there, Mitch realized how pointless it was. All these choices Mitch made, and what did they mean? Who was he even making them for? When he’d insisted that Brody learn to love the ocean, that had never been about Brody. That’d always been about Mitch. And work as he did to save Brody’s life, had he prolonged the inevitable? Had he merely set Brody up to fight a fight that would steal all his dignity and sense of self? A fight he’d fail anyway?


Was this really all about rocks and hard places?

Or was this just about the inevitable fate that Mitch wasn’t ready to accept?

Sometimes, choice changed everything.

Other times, choices were just illusions of control.

Brody’s fate was no longer his to control.

Standing there in his hospital gown, carting his monitor and IV, Mitch had to wonder if it ever had been.

It was past time to face the reality that these choices weren’t just for Brody.

Too many of these choices were just for himself.

If he’d recognized that earlier, this might have turned out differently.