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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Rocks and Hard Places (8/10)

December 21st, 2018 (10:51 pm)

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



-o-

Walking back to his curtain area, Mitch’s confidence had been badly shaken. He hated the fact that no one seemed to notice.

The nurse didn’t need his smile. The little boy didn’t need his thumbs up. The old lady didn’t even wake up for a wave.

In fact, the only person who seemed disconcerted to see him up and about was Ronnie, who was standing, somewhat dumbfounded in his curtain area. “Oh, good!” Ronnie exclaimed. “I thought we’d lost you, which would be bad since we just got you back, and then I wasn’t sure I had the right curtain area, but then I thought, there were no other closed off curtain areas and--”

“Ronnie,” Mitch said tiredly as a greeting, moving past him to sit back gingerly on the bed.

“Mitch!” Ronnie said, his previous rambling forgotten. He looked vaguely like he wanted to hug Mitch. It was hard to tell if it was the sight of the IVs and monitor that put him off or if he simply remembered that Mitch was his boss and that it might be considered inappropriate or at least weird to initiate a hug. Instead of hugging, he went for a high five.

It was awkward as hell, but Mitch returned it.

Ronnie nodded vigorously. “Yeah!” he said. “Look at you!”

This was clearly intended to be a resounding exclamation. One of relief no doubt.

Which was ironic since it made Mitch feel diminutive. Not because he was in a hospital gown or hooked up to IVs. But because he was here, safe and comfortable. And Brody was fighting for his life.

Mitch couldn’t quite smile. “Yeah,” he said. “Where’s Steph?”

“Oh, she’s got, like, paperwork. Mostly for Brody and stuff,” Ronnie explained. “She asked me to come in here and, you know. Hang.”

Clearly, Stephanie had asked Ronnie to sit with him so he wouldn’t have to be alone. Whether she was worried about his physical or mental well being, it wasn’t clear. Knowing Stephanie, it was probably both.

Ronnie seemed flustered by the situation, not sure if he should continue being overly casual or shit to a more serious tone. “Everyone else is here, too, but you know, not here here,” he continued, apparently forgoing all options for complete awkwardness instead. “Well, not everyone. I mean, we still have people on the beach because we wouldn’t leave the beach unattended.”

The way he said this was obviously intended for Mitch’s benefit. Because Mitch was a stickler for shit like that, always had been. He’d lectured them all about manning their posts, their duty to the beach. Shit, he’d busted Brody more times than he could remember for showing up a matter of minutes late because their job was about saving lives.

All that, and Mitch hadn’t thought about the beach once this whole time.

Even now, he didn’t care about the beach.

Quietly, he nodded at Ronnie. “Everyone okay?”

Maybe it was a silly question, given the fact that Mitch had been the one go to missing and that Brody was the one fighting for his life. But he didn’t give a shit about the beach right now; he still cared about Baywatch.

“Yeah,” Ronnie said, sobering somewhat. “I mean, there’s just worried about you. And Brody.”

He added Brody’s name on there, not quite an afterthought. Mitch wasn’t sure if that was because Mitch was the primary concern -- being the central, most visible member of Baywatch -- or if it was because he was worried about Mitch’s reaction to Brody’s name.

Both were probably valid. For some reason, hearing Brody’s name made him flinch. Four days together, Mitch felt weird as shit to be apart from him.

There was nothing Ronnie could possibly do about that, however.

Mitch swallowed back those thoughts, focusing himself instead. “Summer?”

The team mattered, all of them, but none of them could deny that this didn’t affect Summer more than the rest. Mitch was close to all of them, but Brody was dating Summer. Mitch couldn’t say for sure how serious it was except for what he saw in each of them. He saw the way Summer helped Brody stay accountable. More than that, he saw the way he made her like she was the most important thing on the beach. Mitch had never necessarily encouraged relationships on the job, but those two were good for each other. No matter how much Mitch tried to keep out of it, there was probably more there than he’d let himself think about.

Then again, that was the way everything seemed to be when it came to Brody.

Summer, at least, had been willing to see it long before Mitch had.

“Well, you know,” Ronnie started, shuffling his feet uncomfortably. “She’s less okay. I don’t think she’s slept all four days, and Stephanie’s had to keep her from swimming through the whole ocean by herself. But she never doubted that you and Brody would be alive. She, like, never doubted.”

This didn’t surprise him, either. Summer’s dedication had gotten her a place on the team. When Brody had first showed up, she’d been adamant about keeping him at bay until she was ready. When he’d finally proven himself to her, her commitment to him had been equally adamant.

These were reasons why Summer was so good for Brody.

But the relationship had been a two-way street. There would come a point when Mitch would have to see that Brody had earned his place in the eyes of everyone on the team.

Even if Mitch himself might be the last to see it.

“They’re not letting her back with him,” Ronnie said with a small shrug. “The doctors, I mean. She wants to be with him -- four days she’s been looking for him -- and she just has to sit and wait like everyone else.”

Like Mitch, it seemed.

Who was here, sitting and waiting.

Ronnie visibly brightened himself. “But you guys got off the island; you’re back,” he said with all due emphasis. “That’s good, right? That’s a good thing.”

This was the place where Mitch was supposed to say something encouraging. He was supposed to take up his leadership mantle and show everyone that things were going to be okay.

The doctor’s lackluster prognosis had made that almost impossible, though.

As if the last four days had already taken most of the wind out of his sails, metaphorically and literally.

“Yeah,” Mitch said, not able to be much more convincing than that. “That’s a good thing.”

Ronnie was easily impressed by Mitch most of the time, but even Ronnie could tell that Mitch didn’t quite believe his own words. He knew what Mitch was saying; more importantly, he knew what Mitch wasn’t saying.

Somehow, the fact that he knew was bad enough.

The fact that he made a point to not talk about it made it worse.

Ronnie made a highly obvious effort to eschew those thoughts, attempting to look nonchalant instead. Not only was this ineffective; it was also oddly uncomfortable for both of them. “So, um. Do you need anything?”

Mitch needed a lot of shit.

He couldn’t get any of it, though.

But he could give Ronnie something. “You can ask the question, Ronnie,” Mitch said, sitting erectly on the bed, even as he felt the weariness taking hold of his body. His energy was flagging, but until Brody was cleared, Mitch wouldn’t let himself relax. “Honestly, I could use a little conversation.”

Ronnie laughed, a forced, weird sound. “Question?” he asked. “What question?”

Mitch was too tired to even bother rolling his eyes. “The question I know you want to ask,” he said. “The question the press is asking, the question that everyone in the waiting room or on the beach is thinking.”

Ronnie shook his head determinedly. “I’m here to be supportive. That’s all.”

That was true, in a sense. That was the reason Stephanie had asked him to come here, and that was the answer she’d coached him on before allowing him to go. Stephanie’s intent was respectable. Even Ronnie’s efforts, with mixed results, were admirable. Still, Mitch had had too much stripped away over the last few days to worry about it. “Ronnie, it’s okay,” he said, managing to soften his voice somewhat. “Ask.”

Ronnie was smart, kind-hearted and hard working. He was not, however, the most indomitable force on Baywatch. In fact, he had developed a reputation for being talked into anything. He could resist demands, but if you were nice to him? Ronnie did whatever you wanted.

Shoulders slumping, Ronnie gave in. “Just -- I mean -- what happened? Was it bad?”

The question was even more simplistic than Mitch had actually imagined.

Shit, what happened?

Was it bad?

Simple questions with answers that didn’t make much sense. “Well,” Mitch said. “We were stranded on a deserted island for four days. No food; no water; no medical supplies. So, yeah, it had its moments.”

Ronnie’s cheeks burned. “I know, I just, I mean,” he rambled. “They kept talking about it. The news, and even the coast guard. All the speculation, but none of it really made sense. You? And Brody? You’re lifeguards. You’re more than lifeguards. You practically are the bay. So what happened?”

Simple question. Mitch felt like question was just so hard. But he’d made Ronnie ask, and he’d put himself in this position. He’d put himself in this position when he dragged Brody out on the boat four days ago. He had to be accountable. He had to let himself be accountable.

Besides, he needed to comes to terms with it himself. “We hit a storm, couldn’t out run it,” he said, trying to remember how the choices had seemed so easy then. “We made a hell of an effort, but when we went off course, I lost track of the ocean, ran aground on the rocks. With the waves still high, we went over before we had a chance to do anything.”

Ronnie listened intently. “And Brody got hurt?”

“When we went over, it was pretty chaotic,” he said. “I got thrown clear, but Brody was tossed around the cabin. He was impaled.”

Ronnie paled. “Impaled? No shitting?”

“The real problem was the cauterization we used to stop the bleeding,” Mitch said, and he said we, like he hadn’t been the one holding hot metal to Brody’s torn flesh. “After that, we were just fighting the infection.”

“I thought that had to be fake!” he exclaimed. “I mean, I heard them say stuff but I didn’t think…”

He stopped himself, looking at Mitch.

Flushing again, Ronnie found himself flustered. More flustered than usual, anyway. This was Ronnie, after all. “Shit, I’m sorry, this is super inconsiderate. You just got back and Brody nearly died and you kept him alive and I should shut up,” Ronnie rambled. “We really don’t have to talk about it.”

Ronnie was trying to offer him the easy out, an out that was tempting. Honestly, it was tempting to call back the nurse and ask her for a sedative that would surely be provided. It was tempting to forget, to overlook, to put off, anything except face the harshest truths from the last few days.

Just one problem with that. Brody didn’t get to forget or overlook or put off. He didn’t get a choice. This was still a fight for him, and if he was still fighting, then Mitch owed it to him not to stop either.

After all, what was embarrassment or humiliation when Brody was struggling for each breath. Mitch had the easy job here.

Even if easy was relative. A week ago, Mitch would have smiled disarmingly for Ronnie’s sake. Today, however, he felt like he was doing pretty good to stay upright, maintain eye contact and remain calm. “It’s fine,” he said, “None of this is some secret. I’ve already had to explain most of this to the Coast Guard and paramedics; it’s only a matter of time before I make a statement to the press.”

He hadn’t thought about that explicitly, but he new it was true. The fact that he said it so calmly was something Ronnie surely attributed to the fact that he was Mitch Buchannon, oceanic son of a bitch. MItch thought it might actually be shock.

Ronnie still looked guilty. “But you went through a lot,” he said. “You deserve a reprieve. We’re keeping the press away; we promise. You don’t have to talk about it until you’re ready.”

That was an interesting idea, but that implied that Mitch would be ready, that somehow he would put this jaunt behind him like it was just another screwed up save. It was the same kind of shit he said to a guard when they lost someone on the beach. It was the same stuff he explained to people who asked him how he managed to do what he did for a living.

And it wasn’t that he didn’t believe it, because he did.

It was just that he couldn’t bring himself to make this about him. Mitch didn’t think of himself as a selfish guy. He literally put his life on the line to save other people, and he invested himself in the bay and everyone in it. But this place of prominence gave him a skewed viewpoint sometimes. Sometimes, he thought it was all about him.

Like when Brody didn’t love the ocean.

That was about him, right?

Or maybe it was just Brody that was his blindspot.

Just Brody.

And this story wasn’t Mitch’s, even though everyone seemed keen to make him the protagonist.

It was Brody’s story.

If Mitch had started it, Brody got to end it one way or another.

And if Mitch didn’t tell this story, he sort of feared no one ever would.

He drew a grim breath, wondering if he needed more time for the IV fluids to make him feel more like himself again or if this was just the way it went now. “We were lucky that the island had its own water source, so at least we didn’t have to worry about that,” he said. “But Brody never had much chance after the crash. He lost a lot of blood; by the time the infection set in, he was too weak. That’s what made those days long. Just that.”

Ronnie’s face was creased with worry. “Survival for three days. Infection. That’s not normal lifeguard stuff, is it? I mean, I didn’t miss a training session on that?”

“After this, I might add it in.” Mitch reflected tiredly. He sort of wished he’d taken the nurse up on the offer to lay down and get comfortable, but it seemed like it would worry Ronnie unnecessarily if he tried to do so now.

Ronnie nodded, ever earnest. “That’s good, probably,” he said. “Because if it had been me out there? Me on the boat? Me getting stranded? I think I’d probably be dead by now.”

Ronnie was being complementary as only Ronnie could. His kindness alone made Mitch smile. “Well, to be fair, it’s not like I did so stellar.”

Despite the fact that Mitch meant it, Ronnie seemed to think it was an invitation for praise. “But you made it, and I mean even more than that, you got Brody out,” he said, emphatically now. “Stephanie said they saw your smoke signal. She said you literally carried Brody out even after everything you’d been through. I wouldn’t have just died; I probably would have let Brody die too because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, Mitch. What you did was remarkable.”

No matter how much Ronnie meant it, it still felt like ironic praise. That word, that positive word, had a twisted connotation Mitch still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with. “Yeah,” he said, unable to stop his voice from being flat. “Remarkable.”

Ronnie was awkward, but he didn’t lack self awareness. He knew he was screwing up this conversation even if he wasn’t sure how or why. “I just mean that we’re glad, okay,” he said, looking for some kind of bottom line. “For all that you did to make it through, to get Brody through. We’re glad, because those four days? While you were missing? It was hell.”

That was irony Mitch couldn’t overlook. He let his mouth twist up into a rueful expression that may have looked like a smile. “I think I might know what you mean.”

Ronnie looked horrified now, fully aware of his gaffe. “I’m sorry; I’m an idiot,” he said, closing his eyes and looking like he wanted to physically hit himself. “Of course you do. I mean, hell -- that’s what you went through. You and Brody and I really need to shut up now.”

“It’s okay,” Mitch said, sighing wearily as he pined for the pillow again. “You mean well; I know that, and that counts for more than you think it does right now.”

Despite the fact that Ronnie is the one being tasked to take care of Mitch right now, it is clear that Ronnie is obviously comforted by this. “We were just so worried,” he said again, as though he wants to do the emotion justice. “And I mean, it’s a wake up call I think for the rest of us. I know what we do is dangerous; I know the ocean can kill people, but I didn’t think about my own life really being at risk. I mean, I kind of did, but not really. I mean, how many lifeguards have died in the line of duty?”

Mitch did not feel it best to indulge Ronnie with statistics right then. “Well, we were technically off duty,” he said. “What we went through would never be a normal part of the job.”

“Uh, yeah, and that makes it worse,” Ronnie said. “Because the ocean? Is never off duty.”

“Still,” Mitch said. “This sort of thing is rare. Just a lot of bad luck.”

“You mean like when a psycho bitch tries to take of the bay and is willing to murder us all to do it?” Ronnie asked.

Mitch didn’t have much defense to that one. Even if he did, he lacked the energy to mount it. “Point taken. It’s a hell of a job.”

It was Mitch’s dream job. Even with its risks and its responsibilities, it had always been everything Mitch had ever wanted.

He just wondered now, sitting in a hospital bed while Brody fought for his life, if he’d wanted it for the wrong reasons.

“To think,” Ronnie said with sincerity. “I thought this job was mostly swimsuits and sand. And, you know, good exercise regimens and healthy diets. You and CJ have always made it look so easy.”

Ronnie was also perpetually with a hard-on for CJ, and he seemed to think Mitch was a god, so his judgement here was a little suspect.

“No one would blame you for not doing it,” Mitch told him. “You don’t have to.”

“But I do, I think,” Ronnie continued. “Because I was wrong about the job. All those things, I thought it was about the ocean. But it’s not, is it? It’s really about the people.”

All that Mitch defined this team, and even Ronnie had seen it before him: the truth of what was at the heart of this. Contrary to Mitch’s insistence, it wasn’t about the beach or the water. It was about the very thing that Mitch had carelessly put aside to prove a point.

The storm hadn’t been his fault. It could have happened to anyone for any reason. Mitch wasn’t about to take responsibility for the ocean’s might, not when he was the one to lecture everyone else about it.

But he knew that his focus hadn’t been in the right place during that trip. He’d been so focused on making Brody see things from his point of view that he’d failed to realize that Brody’s point of view could be valid, too.

The stupidest part was that Mitch did know it. This never would have happened with any other lifeguard. Just Brody.

Because Mitch had never really let him off probation. He’d never quite let himself believe that Brody was an uncompromising member of the team. The thing about the ocean -- it had been a scapegoat for Mitch’s other doubts, the ones he’d harbored from Brody’s auspicious entrance to the team.

He’d been holding Brody to a different standard.

And it had nearly cost Brody his life all for Mitch to remember that this team was about the ocean, yes. But it was more about family.

That was how they’d stopped Leeds and saved the bay.

That was how they’d become the most trusted presence along the entire California coastline.

Mitch had forgotten, though, and he wasn’t the one who might have to pay the consequence.

It was Brody, impaled, cauterized, burning with fever, by himself in a sterile hospital.

It was Brody.

The silence had lingered, but Mitch no longer had the ability to fill it. He had been drained now, and for all that Ronnie wanted to help, there was nothing Ronnie could actually do for him that would change any of this. Mitch didn’t want comfort. He didn’t want a sedative, even.

He wanted a chance to tell Brody he was sorry.

A chance to make his oversight right.

That didn’t help Ronnie, however, who was starting to rock back and forth on his feet, the awkwardness returning in full force. “So, um,” he said, clearing his throat for effect. “Do you need me to do anything? Because I can, you know, do stuff. Anything.”

Mitch needed a lot of things at this point.

Or, really, just one thing.

But Ronnie couldn’t give that to him. “No, but thanks.”

Vexed by this answer, Ronnie tried not to look dismayed. “Cool, cool,” he said, casting a nervous glance around the curtained area, as if realizing for the first time that he was still standing like some kind of idiot with nothing to do. He pointed to a chair that he appeared to have noticed for the first time. “Do you, like, want me to sit? Or I can leave, too. Or, you know, I can sit out there--”

Ronnie was fumbling for an answer, and Mitch had to smile again. Just enough because this situation was shit, but he couldn’t neglect the reality. He’d let the team slip through the cracks once, and he’d already hurt one of his own. He wouldn’t do it with Ronnie, even if that meant letting the younger man help him to help himself. “You can stay,” Mitch said, nodding to the chair. “I’d be cool with you staying.”

Ronnie was visibly relieved by this.

Because, being a team, that was give and take. Sometimes you gave more than you took; sometimes you took more than you gave.

And sometimes it was the same damn thing.

Mitch finally allowed himself to settle back on the pillows while Ronnie sat himself in the chair, glancing him over a few times while Mitch looked at the ceiling tiles and tried not to smile.

He’d done a lot of shit wrong over the last few days.

This little bit, however, was right.

-o-

One good moment didn’t fix everything, though.

Mitch had never been naive enough to think it was, but it was still sobering when reality came back to be contended with.

He made it through his physical examination without much incident. Ronnie had excused himself while the doctor talked with Mitch, giving him a thorough once over. The doctor was kind, patient and easy to talk to; he explained things in a no-nonsense fashion that suited Mitch just fine. He said that Mitch seemed to be fine, but that given the circumstances, they’d certainly like to keep him over night.

Mitch had quickly interjected that if he was fine, he’d like to leave.

This made the doctor hesitate, as he considered a consultation with a counselor, but Mitch was able to smile broad enough, and he was still Mitch Buchannon, oceanic son of a bitch.

His discharged papers were promptly signed.

Before it made it out of the curtained with a pair of borrowed clothes on and a sore wrist from the IV, Stephanie was there, waiting for him.

“I think you should sit,” she said.

Mitch pointed to the desk, where the nurse was filing his paperwork. “I’ve been cleared.”

Stephanie did not look convinced by this. “I think you should sit.”

This wasn’t about him, Mitch remembered.

Stomach sinking, he sat back down as Stephanie closed the curtain behind her.

-o-

Stephanie seemed to be collecting herself, and Mitch found that he didn’t have the ability to wait. “So?” he prompted, and there was no need for pretense. Not between them. Not about this. “How is he?”

She was not taken aback by his bluntness. Indeed, it was likely that she was surprised that he’d shown this much restraint on the matter. “They’ve run a full battery of tests on him, and they’ve been really nice about sharing information with us,” she started. “Privacy laws and all that, but everyone around here knows that Baywatch is family.”

Everyone, it seemed.

Except possibly Mitch.

“They haven’t taken him up to surgery, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “He’s too weak to survive it at this point, so they were pretty glad that it didn’t look like he’d need it. The impalement didn’t hit anything vital, so things should heal up on their own.”

There was a but coming.

Mitch braced himself for it, like a giant wave buttressing against a tiny boat in a storm.

“Assuming, of course, the infection gets under control,” she said, and this part sounded more rehearsed, each word a little more defined, heavier. “There’s a lot to it, and you can talk to the doctors yourself later to find out all those details, but the bottom line is this: the infection reached the bloodstream. That means it’s circulating throughout his body, which makes it harder to treat and more dangerous.”

Mitch was still bracing; all of this he’d known. All of this had been his reality for the past few days.

She gathered a breath, as if girding herself to continue for both their sakes. “The antibiotics they’re using, they’re the real deal,” she said. “They’re pulling out all the stops at this point because of how advanced it is. They want to do everything they can to help prevent full blown sepsis from shutting down his internal organs.”

Mitch was holding his breath now, like he was being pulled under by a riptide or washed by rough seas. When Stephanie hesitated, Mitch prompted her. “But?”

She didn’t flinch, to her credit. She didn’t even look away. “There’s some evidence that his organs have already been compromised,” she said. “His lungs are a little wet, which makes them worried about respiratory failure. His kidneys are also starting to show signs of shutting down. The fluids are helping, but it’s kind of a waiting game at this point.”

A waiting game.

And what the hell has the last few days been?

Mitch, though, was still waiting for the bottom line.

When Stephanie stopped short of giving it to him, he provided it for them both. “So I killed him.”

This time, she did flinch, and it clearly took most of her resolve not to look away. “You didn’t.”

Mitch had to bite back a hard, bitter laugh. “No one’s going to say it, but I did,” he said. “When I closed the wound, when I burned him -- I effectively signed his death warrant.”

Stephanie was shaking her head before he finished speaking. “Mitch, you didn’t,” she said, a bit more purposefully now. “I mean, I’ve talked to the doctors and the nurses. All of them, not just the nice ones saying nice things. The wound torn open a major vein; if you hadn’t cauterized it, the only other way to stop it would be a clamp, which you had no tools or training for.”

Truth Mitch needed.

Truth Mitch wished made more of difference.

Stephanie did pushed on in his silence. “He’s had, like, two units of blood transfused into him so far, and he’ll probably need another,” she said. “So you had no idea just how close he came to bleeding out.”

He remembered it vaguely, that sense of impending doom that had motivated them to do the impossible.

Still, it was different to hear it as a clinical diagnosis.

Stephanie softened her voice now. “All of the doctors have said it’s a miracle you kept him alive long enough to get here,” she said. “There’s no way he should be alive except for you.”

A lump formed in his chest, hard and fast and heavy. Mitch blinked hard and tried to breathe around it with marginal success. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “I didn’t do the hard work in this. I’m not the hero.”

From the look on Stephanie’s face, she disagreed. But she knew Mitch. She knew him too well. She let out a long, even breath. “Maybe,” she said, relenting that point uncontested. “But if that’s the case, then you need to remember that this wasn’t your fault, either. Brody’s condition is not your fault.”

There was a reason Stephanie was his right-hand. She was smart, damn smart. She’d conceded a hard point to make a more important one. She’d mastered those rocks and hard places and made it look easy.

He didn’t even no what to say.

He didn’t know how to accept the absolution any more than he knew how to reject.

Mitch was usually a natural leader, but he was at a loss now.

Stephanie could see that, too. It was a testament to the depth of their friendship that it didn’t scare her off or cow her spirits. Instead, she tipped her head toward him with compassion. “Do you want to see him?”

Mitch perked up at that. “I can see him?”

She nodded. “They’re getting him settled in the ICU right now,” she said. “Visitor access will be restricted but we all agreed that you should get to see him first.”

Mitch swallowed, feeling hope rise around the hard place in his chest. “But Summer--”

“Summer, too,” Stephanie assured him. “I mean, she gets second dibs, but we agreed. You should be first.”

All things considered, Mitch probably didn’t deserve that.

Then again, all things considered, Mitch was in no position to turn away such kindness.

“Yeah,” he said, getting back to his feet. “I’d like that.”

Stephanie smiled, but it looked a little sad this time. “Then let’s do this.”

-o-

Mitch had been discharged, but his legs felt like lead as he made his way through the hospital. He felt stiff, sore; he felt old. He could feel the pull on his joint, the dryness of his skin. By the time they reached the elevators, he felt somewhat winded and wondered vaguely if he should have agreed to stay for observation.

Observation would give him the rest he probably needed.


But it would also keep him from Brody, who he needed more at this point.

“The hospital’s been great so far,” Stephanie said. “The press has been kept clear.”

Mitch nodded, climbing into the elevator after her.

She pushed a button for the third floor and turned to wait for the doors to close. “But there is a lot of interest,” she said. “We’ve been so preoccupied with the search that we’ve hardly had time for the press, but Casey Jean has had to give interviews every day. Statements. Updates even when we didn’t know anything.”

Mitch lapsed into silence while the doors closed and the elevator lurched upward. They passed the first floor, the second. As they approached the third, he looked at her. “Thank you.”

Her look back was curious. “For what?”

“You organized the search party, I know that,” he said.

“The coast guard--”

“Worked under your orders, unofficial or not,” he said. “You found us.”

She didn’t appear any more comfortable playing the hero here than he did. “Part of the job.”

“No,” he said. “It’s more than that.”

The doors dinged and opened. “Yeah,” she said. “Because that’s the job you taught me.”

He had nothing to say as he followed her out. He wondered how it was that he’d taught her everything she knew.

And her she was, teaching him again, when it mattered most.

-o-

Mitch had spent four days watching Brody go from bad to worse. He’d stood outside the exam room, listening to the doctors honestly assess Brody’s dire condition. He’d listened carefully to Stephanie as she’d delineated the prognosis.

None of it prepared him to see Brody again.

See, in the moment, in the essence of action, Mitch was fueled by adrenaline and instinct. The moment that storm had popped up, the moment they’d gone over -- Mitch had been in an action mindset. It had been the thing to keep him going, even when the choices got harder and the consequences more severe.

Now that he was removed from that, his ability to face things had faded. This wasn’t a question of adrenaline or motivation. It was just the sudden reality of Brody’s condition was thrown in his complete inability to do anything about it

And Brody looked bad.

It was hard to say if he looked worse than before -- on the island, he’d been hinging on Brody’s every heartbeat and the flush on his skin had been nearly unchecked. But somehow, the sterile environment only made things harder in different ways.

Sure, Mitch knew that the medication and machines were all there, doing their jobs; he knew that Brody was getting the help he needed. Brody wasn’t alone anymore; he wasn’t fighting by himself. He was comfortable.

Which only intensified his utter vulnerability. It was a silly perception maybe, but Mitch had no defense against it. Tucked into the private area of the ICU, away from the other patients and the prying eyes of the press, it was clear that Brody was being treated as a high priority patient. All interventions were on the table; everything that could be done was being done. And Mitch was grateful for that; relieved, even.

But the sum effect made Brody looked smaller, lesser, weaker. He looked lost on the bed, cluttered among the machines and equipment and leads and wires. The clean blankets and sterile gauze wraps highlighted how much the fight had been taken out of both their hands. Mitch was helpless now.

Brody was even moreso.

That made it harder than Mitch anticipated, so hard that he felt his knees go weak but he didn’t dare move for fear that any movement would undo him entirely. Instead he stood, anchored at the foot of the bed with his hands stuffed in borrowed pants and his heart thrumming painfully in his throat. He stood, watching as Brody slept. The lines of pain had been erased now, but it didn’t make him look peaceful. He looked smaller and younger than before, and though he was no longer restless, it hardly looked like a restorative repose. There were no bad dreams, no painful interludes; there was just medicated oblivion.

Mitch knew this was what Brody needed to heal.

But he wasn’t sure it was the right thing to keep him fighting.

Right there, barely keeping himself upright, watching Brody breathe, Mitch found what was different. He found what made this hard. On the beach, Mitch had struggled with being idle. He’s fought against the way nature had effectively tied his hands and made him nothing more than a bystander while Brody’s condition had deteriorated. It was why he’d manned the fire so diligently, prepared meals so thoroughly and tidied the camp so completely. Not just to save Brody, but to keep the fight active and relevant and real.

He’d made sure they’d both been having an active role. That they’d been fighting together.

The hospital had thoroughly removed Mitch from the equation. He was a visitor, permitting to do nothing but stand and wish Brody well while the staff did its work and the machines maintained all necessary supports. Even if Mitch had come to terms with that over the last few hours since hitting the mainland, the sight of Brody had made it even harder to make things parse.

Because all those supports, necessary and good, had effectively subdued Brody as well. Mitch knew it was for his own good, that Brody’s reserves had been spent, but Mitch still hated it. To think that Brody’s tenacity meant nothing now, that Brody had to be idle while the medicine do the work that Brody could no longer do for himself. The fight wasn’t Brody’s anymore.

Shit, it looked like Brody had lost the damn fight.

And Mitch wasn’t even a part of it at all.

Standing there, Mitch had no choices left to make. All he had not were consequences. The machines, the medicine -- all of it. Mitch had hoped for them as a last resort. Now that they were in play, Mitch had to face the harsher reality that they may not be enough.

And if those resorts failed, what was left?


Nothing.

There was nothing else.

If the hospital couldn’t save him, then Brody was dead.

Mitch had been fending that off all week, but he was powerless against it now. He could hear it in the doctor’s voices; he could see it in Stephanie’s eyes: they thought Brody was going to die.

That, right there, was the only thing Mitch had left to count on.

The last resort when the others were spent.

The last choice, the only choice.

Because Brody, sick and weak and empty as he was, was still Brody. Somewhere, deep inside, underneath the medication and the pain and the infection, Brody had to still be fighting. He had to fight for each breath and if his breathing failed, he’d fight for each heartbeat, contrary son of a bitch that he was.

He had to wonder, given how well he knew Brody now, if the kid had managed to win two gold medals after growing up in foster care with nothing just because everyone said that he couldn’t.

And more, Mitch had a sneaking suspicion that Brody had botched the third race because everyone had assumed he’d win.

Brody had been fighting the odds for three days.

And a hell of a lot longer than that.

That was what he did. It was who he was.

Maybe that was why the ocean was never so impressive to a guy like Brody. Maybe he didn’t see the need to grapple with the ocean’s power when he knew that the biggest fight was inside him all along.

It explained a lot about Brody.

It also explained why Mitch was able to keep standing there, steadfast and resolute in the daunting face of his own powerlessness.

Because Brody was still fighting the battle that mattered most.

And Mitch didn’t have hope in the ocean or the team or even modern medicine right now.

But he had reason to hope in Brody.

No matter what, he had to put his hope in Brody.

-o-

Mitch wasn’t sure how long he’d stood there -- time had lost some meaning to him, minutes seeming as long as days and as short as seconds in equal turns -- but when Summer showed up next to him, he couldn’t say that he was surprised.

He felt bad about it now, how little he’d thought about Summer while he and Brody had been on the island. Sure, he knew that Summer and Brody were an item, but the truth was that he hadn’t put much thought into whether or not they were serious. On one level, he knew they had to be. Summer wasn’t in things for shits and giggles, and Brody’s ability to maintain an attention span seemed like a new and purposeful thing.

All he’d known for sure was that they liked each other and that they were probably a good match.

Beyond that, it hadn’t seemed like much of his business.

Maybe it still wasn’t.

But Brody was lying in a hospital bed, fighting a deadly infection because of Mitch.

And here was Summer, eyes red and face barely composed at his bedside. Also because of Mitch.

She undoubtedly had questions for Mitch, about what happened and the choices he’d made, but standing there, she was transfixed with Brody. The look on her face, it was the look of someone who was pretty serious. Mitch felt ridiculous for not seeing it before, especially when he knew so much else about Summer. He talked to her about her family and her Jeep and her training regimen and goals.

Brody was his blindspot, however.

He existed on a different level than anything else.

Even in his connection with others.

Mitch had spent the last few months critically assessing Brody’s place on the team.

Brody, on the other hand, had spent the last few months cementing his place on the team.

Mitch hadn’t even seen it until now, until his actions threatened to take all of it away.

Sniffling, Summer looked at him, and Mitch found that he had to look away. For four days, he’d barely thought about her, and for four days, all she’d done he was think about them. With a small shuffle of her feet, Summer seemed to rally her courage. Mitch knew this was entirely for his benefit. Since he needed to feel worse about the situation.

“He’s, um,” she started, then stopped as her voice wavered. She sniffled again, taking a breath to steady herself. “He’s fighting. Hard. The doctors say that it’s a miracle he’s still here.”

Mitch nodded vaguely. It didn’t feel like a miracle. Mitch wasn’t sure it felt like anything.

Summer exhaled sloppily as she tried to push on. This was something she’d thought about, for four days or four hours, Mitch couldn’t be sure. It probably didn’t matter. “I know, um, that everyone’s talking about what happened,” she continued. “And what you did. I know that there were, um. Hard choices. The worst choices. Choices that no one should have to make.”

Mitch felt himself stiffen slightly, unable to raise his gaze to meet hers.

“But I know you, and I know you made the best choices you could for Brody. I know that the things you did were things I don’t know if I could have done,” she said. “And you know, more than that, I know that Brody trusts you with everything, including his life.”

The things people meant as comfort just made it worse. How could he explain it, thAt so many of the choices could have been avoided if he’d just been able to accept Brody as he was. Mitch had created that conflict, he’d been both the rock and the hard place, and Brody had been stuck with that.

She reached over, putting a hand on his arm until he looked up. “If not for you, Mitch, he wouldn’t be here.”

The scoff was caught in his throat along with a sob. A gruff noise escaped, something between the two. “Fighting for his life in a hospital?”

“On Baywatch,” she corrected him softly, letting her hand drop. “And, if not for Baywatch, Brody would be the first one to tell you, he’s not sure where he’d be. But it wouldn’t be someplace very good.”

“It probably wouldn’t be a hospital, though,” Mitch persisted despite himself. He felt contrary, even though Summer didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve any of this, though.

She sighed, as if she was almost too weary for this. Her eyes went back to Brody for a moment. She pressed on, however, for what was clearly Mitch’s sake. “I talked to him before you went, you know,” she said. “He tells me everything. So I know you made a big thing about it, but he didn’t mind. I mean, yeah, he talked shit because that’s the way it is between you two, but he’d do anything for you, Mitch.” She looked back at him. “He would do anything gladly.”

“I threatened his job,” Mitch told her flatly.

She shook her head, as if it didn’t make a difference. “But this was never a job to him,” she said. “The way he talks about Baywatch; the way he talks about you. I keep coming back to it. This is family; this is home. He could never regret that. Not even now.”

She turned back to Brody, almost like she was looking for some kind of confirmation.

“Especially now,” she added.

Mitch was quiet, looking back at Brody as well. He knew she was telling him the truth. He knew that Brody was sick and dying because of Mitch, and he didn’t blame him for shit. On the island, with the last of his consciousness, Brody had only offered Mitch comfort and reassurance. “Honestly,” Mitch said. “I’m not sure that makes any of this better.”

“But it is better,” she told him, and Mitch could feel her eyes on him again. “He’d be the first one to tell you that.”

Somewhat tentative, Mitch looked back to Summer. “And you believe that?”

Brody was one thing. His skewed perspective might be easy to discount in some ways. Mitch had cultivated an unfair balance between the two of them. He wasn’t sure that a foster kid looking for redemption could be trusted to know a healthy relationship from a shitty one. Brody had admitted it himself, that making good choices wasn’t his forte. Maybe he’d been wrong about Mitch, too.

The others, though. They had to know better. They had to see Mitch’s choices for the mistakes they were.

She pressed her lips together, holding back her emotions. “Brody does,” she said. “And that’s why we’re here. For Brody.”

“More reason why I need to take responsibility,” he said. “He trusted me out there, and look what happened.”

“It was a shipwreck, a storm. It was shitty luck,” summer said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’ve all been here, trying to explain it to ourselves. Blaming the weather, the boat. Brody’s inexperience, your overconfidence. But that’s not the way this works. I’m not sure there has to be a reason. Even if you did make a mistake out there, so what? We’ve all made mistakes, especially Brody. And you’re the first one to give us another chance. None of us can change the last decision we made. We can only make a better decision next time.”

Stopping herself, she looked at Brody, inhaling sharply again. This conclusion was not one she had made lightly.

The fact that she was hurting like this and still came to offer him platitudes meant something. Meant more than something. She deserved more than this, just like Brody deserved more. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

“I know,” she said, nodding, still watching Brody breathe.

“If I could change it--”

“I know,” she said again. “But it’s not your fault, Mitch. You could have tied him up and dragged him out there, and this still wouldn’t be your fault.”

He followed her gaze back to Brody. “It feels like it’s my fault.”

“We’re a family, Mitch, a family,” she said, turning back to him. She stood there until Mitch met her gaze again. “Shit happens, a lot of shit happens, but family is family.”

“And you believe that?” he asked. “You don’t know everything that happened out there yet.”

“I know you didn’t crash on purpose. I know you didn’t want to cauterize the wound. I know that you kept him alive for four days when he probably should have died,” she said, and when her voice cracked this time, she couldn’t quite recover. A few tears slipped down her cheek as she failed to control her breathing. These last few days had been hard for Mitch, hard for Brody; hard for all of them. “And most importantly, I know Baywatch is family because that’s what you taught us. That’s how you changed Brody and ended up changing all of us. Whatever happened out there is because it’s a big ocean, so it’s not your fault, Mitch. I know you, so I know you want a reason and you want a simple cause and effect, but the rest of us know life isn’t like that. We know that you’re human, even if you haven’t quite figured it out for yourself yet.”

He wanted to argue, for some reason. He wanted to push the point, break her resolve, force her to blame him. He wanted to take responsibility; he wanted to be culpable.

But this wasn’t about him.

He finally nodded. “Maybe,” he relented. “But I’m still sorry.”

She understood the nuance, if only because she was living it. “Yeah,” she said, brushing away a few more tears as they fell. Her countenance was failing her, as though she’d spent all of her reserves just to make him feel better. He didn’t deserve it; he wished that he could tell her that it had worked. She wet her lips, swallowing tremulously as her eyes rested on Brody again. “Me, too.”

-o-

No one asked him to leave. No one from the Baywatch crew made note of his persistent presence, not as they filed in one after another to wish Brody their best. Not as they filed out again, giving Mitch a variety of reassuring smiles and warm platitudes.

The doctors and nurses didn’t ask him to leave either. A few of the nurses knew him, some because they liked the beach, others from his work with the emergency personnel throughout the bay. One of the doctors seemed to make special exceptions for him, and Mitch seemed to remember the man and his girlfriend in a riptide a few years ago. He couldn’t be sure -- he’d saved a lot of people over the years, it was hard to keep them straight -- but they didn’t forget him.

No one ever forgot him.

Plus, there were practical matters at hand. The press was still outside, waiting for regular updates for a story of national interest. The Baywatch crew seemed flustered when they entered and reluctant to exit, likely because every trip in and out of the hospital was another trip through the throng. Worse, the red and blue swimsuits made them easy to spot, and not all members of the press were satisfied with routine statements from Casey Jean.

No one wanted to make Mitch face that.

Normally, Mitch wouldn’t want anything to do with their pity, but he’d sure as hell take it not if it meant keeping him close to Brody.

Someone added a small rollaway cot in the room, which was too small and sagged too much. Mitch laid on it, wondering how the hell Brody had lived for the past few months on the cot in Mitch’s spare room. It had never occurred to Mitch to get him a better bed.

The hospital bed, Mitch decided assiduously, did not count.

By dinnertime, the doctors made their evening rounds, and Mitch listened while they explained the latest on Brody’s condition. No one questioned Mitch’s position in this regard; as the head of Baywatch, it was assumed that he’d take point on this. Mitch knew of no other responsibility he needed to tend to more. One of the nurses briefly asked if there was anyone else they needed to call, but Mitch didn’t know the names of the foster families Brody had left behind in Iowa.

In fact, it was hard to imagine with anyone who cared about him in Iowa. It was unlikely that any of his Olympic teammates gave a shit, though he didn’t doubt a few of them would cash in with public statements and press releases. He wondered if the press would go that route, if they would focus on Brody’s turnaround at Baywatch. Or if they’d subtly suggest that Brody was destined for disaster, that this somehow must be his own fault.

It almost made Mitch want to march out there to set the hypothetical story straight.

Almost.

He was somewhat grateful when a coast guard officer showed up with official paperwork. She was nice and sympathetic, but she needed to get the full story. She smiled at him apologetically, “You know how this stuff goes.”

Mitch did.

When Mitch told the story about the storm and the ocean and the rocks he didn’t see, she nodded along while she made her notations. “We’ve lost other boats there before,” she told him. “The area is not as well mapped as places farther up the coast.”

“I should have seen it coming,” Mitch said. “It was my oversight.”

She made another note but then looked up with an even kinder smile. “You’re hardly a novice on these waters,” she told him. “That storm system came up suddenly; we had to rescue a few other boats after it. Two even capsized completely, one of whom has fished this coast for 20 years. These questions, this report -- it’s just formalization. No one at the Coast Guard, no one in the press, no one in this bay thinks you’re responsible somehow.”

“That doesn’t mean I did everything right,” Mitch told her stubbornly. “I’d support a full investigation.”

“We see this, after a bad accident,” she said. “People want someone to blame, and sometimes there are people to blame. But sometimes, it’s just luck. And all you can do is make the best choices you can with the luck you’re given.”

“And if I didn’t make the best choices?” Mitch asked. “That boat is at the bottom of the ocean; thousands of dollars were spent finding us. And Matt Brody is still lying right there, trying to stay alive.”

She gave a polite glance to Brody.

“That’s not all luck,” Mitch said. “It can’t be.”

She shuffled her paperwork together, capping her pen. “You survive a storm that left other sailors stranded. You survived on an island that is not well charted for four days. And Matt Brody? He’s still alive. All my years on the service, this is the single most impressive recovery I’ve ever documented. Call it luck; call it choices. Mostly, Mr. Buchannon, just be glad it’s over.”

With that, she got to her feet, tucking her hair behind her ear.

“I’ll be back in a day or two with a final copy of the report for you to review,” she said. “Thank you for your time.”

Mitch said nothing as she left, nothing as the door closed gently behind her and it was just him and Brody again.

She thought that it was over.

It didn’t feel over.

And Mitch, he made Brody a promise. That he’d stay. Until the end. No matter what.

So he’d sleep on the cot. He’d sit through rounds. He’d be the point person for the rest of Baywatch, letting them know the latest on his condition when they came and went. Because he was staying.

Until he promised was fulfilled.

Or until it was rendered moot.

-o-

Nearly 12 hours after rescue, Mitch had stayed true to his promise.

And it had done no good whatsoever.

Because after 12 hours of medical treatment, Brody was no better than he had been on the beach that morning. He was still heavily sedated, the rounds of antibiotics coursing through his system regularly and powerfully. The oxygen mask was still positioned over his mouth and nose, and the puffs of air that filled it were at least consistent if weak. With all the noise from the monitors, it was harder to hear the drag of air in Brody’s lungs, but Mitch could see that the nurses frowned when they listened to his breathing.

The fever was still dangerously high, though the doctors seemed to think that the transfusions and constant drip of saline had helped. Mitch had his doubts, of course, but it wasn’t like it had much fortitude to argue at this point.

Besides, all those delineations. The prognosis. It was valuable, but not as valuable as sitting there, watching Brody. Brody had wanted the presence more than he’d wanted the help, and Mitch had to believe that meant something.

A presence, though, was a strange thing to be. It wasn’t an active role, and Mitch could not figure out a way to make it so. He didn’t sit there and talk to Brody. He didn’t regale the younger man with apologies and regrets that he wouldn’t have wanted to hear, even if he was conscious. He didn’t go into detail about how he screwed up and how he should have known better.

He didn’t talk about Brody, either. He didn’t tell Brody how strong he was, and that Mitch knew that he was fighting. He didn’t tell Brody how everyone was pulling for him, how everyone was hoping for a full and fast recovery. He didn’t tell explain that Brody’s love of the team was returned to him tenfold, that he had to keep fighting for all their sakes.

To be sure, those were all things he could have said. They were all true, each and every one of them. But those words were for him, not Brody.

So he said nothing.

So he sat, steadfast by Brody’s said.

So he watched him breathe.

So he waited for each heartbeat.

He’d be idle for Brody.

That was the choice he was making now, the greatest sacrifice he could possibly give. He knew it probably didn’t seem like much to anyone else, but Brody would understand.

Brody would appreciate it.

As soon as he woke up.

-o-

Brody didn’t wake up.

He did, however, have a spike in his fever that brought the medical team running. His doctor was paged, and despite the late hour, he decided that further intervention couldn’t wait until morning.

“I was hoping we could put it off until he was a little stronger, but at this point, I just don’t think we can,” the doctor explained. “The infected flesh is just making the infection spread; it’s making him worse.”

“So you, what?” Mitch asked, still trying to wrap his mind around the procedure. “You cut it out?”

“More or less, yes,” the doctor said. “We’re careful to watch our margins and we use refined tools to minimize the amount of healthy flesh that’s affected. There’d be some bleeding, but I feel confident we can pack the wound quickly enough.”

“So you make the wound bigger?” Mitch said. “That’s already a hole in his side.”

“I realize it seems somewhat counterintuitive,” the doctor continued to explain. “And there’s a cost benefit analysis to this. We have to weigh both sides of this procedure, because there are good and bad things about doing it and not doing it. It’s not a choice I’ve come to lightly.”

Mitch looked at Brody, the small puffs of his staggered breaths steaming up the mask. “A rock and a hard place?”

“That’s a good way of looking at it,” the doctor agreed.

“And you think this is the right choice?” Mitch pressed, remembering the look on Brody’s face when he explained the choice to take out the metal. Then again, when he’d told him that cauterization might be the only choice. He’d had confidence in those choices when he’d presented them, but being on the receiving end of such a dichotomy was harder. He wondered how the hell Brody had pulled it off with any alacrity.

“I do,” the doctor said, not even missing a damn beat. That kind of confidence was supposed to instill more confidence. But it made Mitch ache. “Though I won’t lie to you; it’s not a pretty process.”

He thought about how much Brody had suffered already. He could still hear the desperate pitch of his scream when Mitch pressed a hot piece of metal to the open flesh. “Will it hurt him?”

“Well, in theory, yes,” the doctor said. “But he’s heavily sedated right now. I promise you, he’s not feeling anything right now.”

Mitch wished he could stop feeling for a little bit, too. He sighed. “And it’ll save him?”

“This isn’t about guarantees,” the doctor said. “But this is the best chance he has.”

Resigned, Mitch nodded. Rocks, hard places: Mitch would have thought he’d be used to them by now. “Okay.”

“Great,” the doctor said. “It’ll take about an hour, probably, depending on how deep the infected tissue goes. If you’d like, I can get the nurses to set you up in another room or take you down to the cafeteria for a late dinner or--”

Mitch was shaking his head, hardly listening to the polite options. “I’m staying.”

The doctor stopped, a little quizzical. “It’s not really standard for loved ones to stay during a procedure--”

“I’m staying,” Mitch said again.

“It really isn’t a pleasant thing to watch--”

Mitch sighed, looking at the doctor with the weariness that came from four days on a deserted island. “Please,” he said, forgoing orders and demands and reason. “Just let me stay for him.”

It might have been that it wasn’t an order or a demand or even reason. It might have been that Mitch saved his girlfriend three years ago or that Mitch had a sterling reputation as the face of the bay. Or maybe it was just that the doctor didn’t think that he could make Mitch move, even in his current weakened condition.

Or maybe he just recognized that it was the thing that Mitch needed.

That it might even be the thing that Brody needed.

“Okay,” the doctor said after a period of hesitation. “But you need to stay out of the way, and there is no commentary. No questions; no answers.”

Mitch nodded along readily. “I just need to be here,” he said. “You won’t even know I’m here.”

Because Mitch had screwed up a lot over the last few days, but he might be starting to get a hold of this doing nothing routine.

-o-

Mitch wasn’t sure he was good for much at this point, but he was at least good to his word. He stayed for Brody, and he shut the hell up for the doctor.

As the procedure progressed, Mitch honestly wasn’t sure which accomplishment was more impressive for him. Because the procedure was just as bad as the doctor had said it would be. If anything, the doctor had downplayed it a little too much. Mitch stomach tightened the second the bandages were removed to expose the reddened and discolored flesh. When he got out a scalpel, Mitch tried not to flinch.

When the first was made, however, Mitch did flinch.

Then, after several more precise movements, a chunk of corroded flesh was removed into a waiting basin next to the nurse. Mitch felt a little like passing out.

It continued like this with excruciating slowness. An hour, the doctor had said. It felt like an eternity. Then, just when Mitch thought he could taken anymore, the doctor packed the wound and had the nurse help him roll Brody onto his back to look at the back side.

Mitch finally had to look away. Brody was so out of it, he had no idea what was happening.

Mitch did, though.

He felt every cut as if it were on his own body.

Except the dead parts of him could never be removed.