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Baywatch fic: Rocks and Hard Places (9/10)

December 21st, 2018 (10:53 pm)

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



-o-

When it was finally over, Mitch was spent. The doctor left with a smile and a handful of platitudes, saying they’d check the wounds again in the morning to see how things were looking. Brody looked no worse for wear for the procedure; however, he’d looked terrible before the debriding had been complete, so Mitch was sort of losing track of things in the regard.

It was dark outside, which Mitch finally understood to be night. The nights on the island had been the worst, full of futility and uncertainty, no matter what routines Mitch had attempted to establish. He was sitting, staring at Brody’s fever flushed features and contemplating if he would even be capable of sleep when there was a knock at the door.

Mitch almost didn’t look up, figuring it would be the nurse to check on Brody or Mitch himself. He was readying himself to say that things were fine when he saw CJ instead.

CJ had been here earlier, and he’d seen her loitering outside the door, waiting for Ronnie or Summer as needed. This time, however, she was alone.

“Hey,” she said, keeping her voice soft, like it might somehow make a difference to Brody. She gave Brody a cursory look in the bed. “How’s he doing?”

“The doctors just cleaned up the wound,” Mitch said, the words sounding mechanical as he spoke them. He didn’t bother to describe the chunks of rotten flesh that had been carted out for medical waste. “He just needs to rest.”

None of it was a lie, but it was a plaintive version of the truth. CJ smiled politely and didn’t call him on it even though she could have. CJ knew him well, better than most. He’d trained her personally, and mostly, he liked her. She’d always responded to his version of tough love on the job.

Time would tell if he could return the favor.

“Well, he’s not the only one, I think,” she commented shrewdly. “You going to take advantage of that nice cot they rolled in her for you?”

Mitch looked at the cot, only vaguely recalling that it had been there at all. Looking at it, he still wasn’t quite sure what CJ meant. “Why?”

To her credit, she didn’t look at him like he was crazy. That was probably ridiculous because Mitch felt a little crazy at this point. “Well, you know,” she said. “It’s late. And you were stranded on an island for, like, four days. So, I thought maybe the bed would look nice.”

Mitch gave the bed another look, wondering if it would somehow transform before his eyes. It still looked like a pathetic cot. “How late is it?”

“10,” CJ said, nodding as a matter of fact. “I shouldn’t even be here. Visiting hours ended like awhile ago.”

“Huh,” Mitch said, even though that made some sense. None of this made sense. It hadn’t made sense since the ocean tipped his boat into the water and the whole thing went tits up. He wrinkled his nose curiously at CJ. “Then how did you get in here?”

CJ sauntered a few steps closer, until she was right at the end of Brody’s bed. “Well, you’re not the only one here who the nurses love,” she said. “A few of them are locals; apparently I make an impression.”

“Oh,” Mitch said, not sure what else he was supposed to say.

“Also, you look exhausted,” she said. “And if you don’t lay down, I think you may fall down.”

“It’s not that bad,” Mitch said without thinking.

“Yeah, actually, it is,” she told him. “I mean, I’m not surprised that you haven’t noticed since I don’t think you’ve actually sat down since we rescued you.”

“Well, I’ve been busy,” Mitch said, looking back toward Brody. Who was sleeping. In a noticeably not busy sort of way. Dying -- not dying, recovering, healing, whatever -- apparently, could be very long winded.

CJ nodded. “Indeed you are,” she said. “But, um, I just wanted to remind you, in case you missed it, you’re not actually on duty right now.”

That one, more than anything else, made sense.

Duty.

He’d been on duty.

All week.

“I think I am,” Mitch said, looking at Brody again. “Now more than ever.”

CJ took that in stride. She probably already knew it. “That’s because you’re a good leader, you’re our leader,” she said. “And we all know you’re the best because you’re never off duty.”

He let out a weary laugh, shaking his head to look at her. “I don’t feel like the best.”

“I know,” she said. “And I know you’ve been hearing it all day long. And I know that it hasn’t helped. Because we’re still here. And Brody’s still in that bed. And nothing really helps, does it?”

Mitch clenched his teeth hard, because he wasn’t sure what else to do, what else to say. What else to feel or think.

“But that’s why you need to hear it. Like, a lot,” she said. “And I only know that because that’s what you’ve always done for us.”

Mitch almost wanted to look away, but there was nowhere else to look except Brody. That wasn’t going to help him at all.

“Do you remember when I had that day last year? It was, like, this beautiful day. The beach was packed, and it was perfect for beach weather,” she recalled, letting her own gaze drift to Brody. “And I saw those twins go in the water. I mean, I saw them every step of the way. Twin girls. Identical. Blond and blue eyed and five years old. I was moving before they hit the surf, and I was still too late. By the time I got there, they were already under. I got them out, but that wasn’t enough. That perfect day was ruined. And that family never came back to the beach again.”

Mitch remembered that one. He’d like to say he remembered them all, but that would be impossible. All his years on the job, he couldn’t remember names. He didn’t always remember faces. But that one, he remembered.

CJ’s expression darkened somewhat as she visibly tried to keep her emotions in check. “I almost never went back, too,” she said. “But you know that. Because you were the one who told me I had to.”

Mitch sighed. “CJ--”

But CJ shook her head, and did not let him interject. “You sat me down and you looked me in the eyes. And you told me that I had to go back. Because I belonged on the beach. And when I said, I didn’t know how, you told me that I did. Because shit happens. Really bad shit happens. But you can’t let it change you. You have to make the choice to overcome it. That’s what you told me about this job. That’s why I’m still here.”

“But this wasn’t even the job, CJ,” Mitch said. He gestured to Brody. “This isn’t the job.”

“I know that,” she said, looking back to him. “But do you? You had a bad day, Mitch. You had a bad week, even. But you’ve always made that choice, that choice that keeps us all here, no matter what.”

Mitch’s eyes were burning, and he found that he had to look at Brody again, in some desperate bid to avoid it. “And if my choices are the problem?”

“Nah,” she said. “You can tell me it’s hard or it’s scary or that you don’t want to right now. But I know you, Mitch. You got him back alive. You gave him, just like you gave all of us, another chance.”

He didn’t have a response to that. Or he had too many responses and not enough voice to give to them. He didn’t want her to be wrong; he didn’t want her to be right. Maybe he just wanted it to be over.

He watched as Brody’s chest rose and fell, rose and fell.

Maybe he didn’t want it to be over.

Next to him, CJ sighed. “Did I ever tell you that the only reason I joined Baywatch was because I thought the ocean was, like, the sexiest thing ever,” she said.

Mitch turned to her, eyebrow askance.

“It’s true,” she said. “And I thought, wow, a perfect job for me. I just get to sit and watch the ocean. All day, every day. And my parents thought I was going to throw my life away to be some lifeguard, but I didn’t even care. I didn’t care because what else was I going to do? What else even made sense? It was always the ocean with me.”

That was another reason he and CJ got along; they were cut from the same cloth, the two of them. Born of the sea.

She nodded, almost to herself as she studied Brody’s fevered form. “But that was another thing you taught me, like from day one,” she said. Her eyes went to him again. “That this job is more than the ocean.”

How many times was he going to be forced to relearn this lesson? He drew a haggard breath. “It’s family.”

“Exactly,” she said. “And that’s why my parents, they’re proud of me now. They realized pretty quick that I had found something much bigger and better and more powerful than the ocean.”

Brody had tried to tell him that.

Ronnie had told him that. So had Summer and Stephanie and now CJ.

All because they learned it from Mitch.

When did he forget it?

Why did it take this to remember?

His eyes locked on Brody’s, unable to look away. He couldn’t face CJ; he couldn’t take his eyes away from the next draw of Brody’s breath.

“Loving the ocean; that’s easy,” she said. “But being on a team like this; that’s harder.”

Brody took another breath. He let it out with a hesitation, his eyes still closed and his cheeks still flushed. “Not for everyone,” Mitch said quietly.

“More than you think,” CJ said, a little forcefully now. “None of us are perfect at this, especially not Brody. But he’s worked at it; I’ve worked at it. So why shouldn’t you have to work at it?”

He looked at her, tiredly now. “It’s not the same.”

“So you’re not a part of this team?” CJ asked, her own eyebrows raised now.

“I didn’t say that--”

“Then don’t think,” she said, softening again. “Mitch, we all work at it because we know it’s better when we do. No regrets.”

A week ago, he would have said yes.

This past week had given him a lot to regret, however. His eyes drifted to Brody again.

She reached out this time, taking him by the arm. “No regrets,” she almost insisted now. “I mean, I don’t regret it, not even the day I lost those two twins. And I can promise you, without a doubt, that Brody doesn’t regret it. Not even now.” She let him go, poking at his chest. “And I’m pretty sure you know that better than I do.”

Everything inside of Mitch wanted to say no. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to protest, but he did. He wanted to fight all the power of fate that had gotten them here. He wanted someone to blame, even if that someone was himself. But Brody hadn’t blamed him. Even on that last night, the last thing Brody had said, was how he got it. “I do,” he said, because to deny that truth would be to deny Brody. “I do.”

“Good,” CJ said. Then, she shrugged. “But that’s not really my point.”

He looked at her, surprised now. “It’s not?


She shook her head, only somewhat apologetic. “No, I just wanted you to remember that you’re not marooned anymore,” she said. “All of us, you and Brody included, we got you off that island. You’re not alone anymore, because we’re here for you. You and Brody. We’re here for you.”

“I’m fine,” Mitch said, dismissive. He nodded to Brody. “It’s just Brody--”

She shook her head again, even more adamant. “Both of you,” she said again, emphatic in her meaning. “Brody. And you. Because you’re both part of this team.”

She made it sound super so simple. Really, Mitch didn’t know why it felt so hard. This team, by all accounts was his creation. He had been its brainchild, it’s heart, it’s soul. But Brody had challenged it by not fitting the mold, by stripping the team of its assumptions and revealing it for what it was. Mitch had resisted that, which was why they’d been on that boat. Brody had showed him its truth, which was why, more than anything else, they had made it off that island.

Those thoughts consumed him, and CJ let him stew on that for several long moments while they stood side by side, watching Brody fight for each breath.

Finally, she spoke again. “It is late,”she said. She turned toward Mitch. “Do you want me to stay?”

All that, and she was giving him the choice. The kicker wasn’t that he didn’t feel that he deserved the choice. It was that Mitch really didn’t want it.

Throat tight, Mitch worked to keep his voice steady. “You don’t need to.”

“I didn’t ask if I needed to,” CJ corrected him.

Mitch found her easy confidence somewhat reassuring after all. When he couldn’t make the choice, at least he knew someone else could. “I’ve got this here,” he said. “The rest of the team still needs a leader. I know Stephanie’s been busy trying to tie up the loose ends with paperwork and the press, so I think managing the rest of the team is really up your alley.”

It was a good answer, really. A smart answer. The kind of answer CJ might have expected Mitch to give, which was probably why she eyed Mitch with some skepticism. “The team has each’s others back,” she said. “We’re all taking shifts, round the clock, with Summer. I’m not saying I don’t have things I could do, but you’re kind of the one who needs our attention most right now. Well, Brody, too, but seeing as he’s still unconscious….”

Mitch found himself smiling, somehow. Just from the stability of it all. When tossed about by the ocean, sometimes you forgot what it was like to truly stand on solid ground. “I need to be here,” he said again, more definitely now as his choice solidified. “But you should rest.”

It wasn’t so much the nature of his choice but the certainty of it. She studied him a moment longer before nodding. “Okay,” she agreed. “But if you need anything, I want you to call me immediately. Or Stephanie or Ronnie or whoever you prefer. But you don’t sit here feeling alone, okay?”

“Okay,” Mitch said with a bow of his head. “I promise.”

This satisfied her completely, and she turned back to Brody with a sigh. Gently, she crossed closer to him, taking up his lax fingers into her own. With a squeeze, she leaned down, brushing her lips to his cheek before putting his fingers back down carefully on the bed and straightening back up.

As she moved back toward the door, she grasped Mitch’s arm, giving it another squeeze. “By the way,” she said, lingering for just another moment. “If that bed doesn’t look so good to you, there is a chair.”

Mitch looked from her to the bed, from the bed to the chair, and back to her.

She shrugged. “Just saying. You do look like you’re about to fall over.”

“Noted,” Mitch said, watching as she retreated even more. “And CJ.”

Door open, she turned back with a pause. “Hm?”

“Thank you,” he said. “For the reminder.”

Her smile in return was gentle. “That’s what teams are for,” she said. “Right?”

He stood there while she left, observing while the door shut quietly behind her before finally turning his attention back to Brody.

That was what teams were for, he thought to himself.

He reached for the chair, pulling it close to Brody’s bedside as he settled into. “Right.”

-o-

As CJ had predicted, the bed was superfluous. After a period of sitting anxiously, the chair seemed unnecessary as well. Mitch tried as best he could to rest, but there was no position of repose that seemed remotely comfortable to him. It seemed like hours had passed, but when Mitch checked the time, no more than 30 minutes had lapsed.

Restlessly, Mitch got to his feet again and too to pacing. Exhausted as he was, sleep should have been easy. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do. Even on the island, he’d managed to sleep, but here, in this hospital room…

It was nearly impossible.

Mitch followed a path from the door to Brody’s bed and back again, chewing his lip. Maybe it was the machines; they were too loud. Maybe he was just too worried; he couldn’t sleep while Brody hovered so close to death.

He paced a few more times, and shook his head to himself.

It was too calm, really. Too quiet. Cooped up in this room, the sterile air. Mitch was used to sleeping with a cool breeze and the sound of the ocean against the beach.

The imagery had always been a comfort to him, but he recoiled from it now.

He didn’t miss the ocean; could he miss the ocean?

What the hell did it matter if he had the ocean. What he needed, more than anything, was for Brody to wake up and bitch about life. That was what he needed. That was the reason rest was elusive now.

He hesitated, though, stopping his pacing halfway back to Brody’s bed. It wasn’t as simple as he wanted it to be, and he knew that he couldn’t deny that the ocean was still, well, the ocean. Even the island, for all that he hated it, was something he found himself pining for now, even if he couldn’t admit it.

Not that he liked anything that happened on the island, but the contrast to the hospital was striking. On the island, Mitch had had a routine. He’d had purpose. He’d been grounded by the knowledge that the outcome rested on his shoulders. For all that the weight of that knowledge had been terrifying, it had also been galvanizing. It had allowed him to focus on things that he could do, not to dwell on the things that he clearly had no control over.

The routine here, in the safe and secure hospital walls, was much less so. It was vague and meandering. More importantly, it was entirely out of his hands. Mitch had no purpose here; he had no grounding. Mitch might have been safe on shore now, but he’d never felt more like he was lost at sea.

He resumed his pacing, making his way back to the bed. Standing there, over Brody’s failing body, Mitch had to sit down again. This part was the same, however. The futility of it all; the uselessness. Brody was still dying, whether Mitch was being active or staying idle. Brody was the constant, at land or at sea, lost or found. Brody, who pulled every breath with effort. Brody, whose fever rose to dangerous levels and stripped him of his awareness. Brody, who followed him anywhere. Brody, who denied him nothing.

Brody, whose life hung in the balance, each second more precarious than the last.

It didn’t matter who was in charge.

It just mattered that Brody lived.

That was the constant.

Brody.

Night or day, sickness or health, ocean or solid land: just Brody.

If Mitch had that, then he still had something.

He bowed his head and closed his eyes and tried to remember how to breathe for himself.

Then, he still had enough.

-o-

Mitch felt like shit in the morning, but he was pretty sure that it had little to do with sleep.

He stifled a yawn and rubbed a crick in his next.

He was mostly sure that it had only a little to do with sleep.

What was uncontested was that it had a lot more to do with Brody. Rounds weren’t schedule for another hour yet, but Mitch could read a monitor. More importantly, he could feel someone’s forehead and he could take their pulse. The tactile method was probably a bit silly, but Mitch preferred it that way. The heat on his fingers was more real than a number on a screen. The thrumming of a pulse was more tangible than a blip on a line.

Beside, he told himself as he ran a steady hand over Brody’s forehead, back through his hair, he wanted Brody to know that he wasn’t alone.

Mitch was still there, true to his word.

No matter how Mitch assessed it, though, there was no question that Brody’s condition was continuing to deteriorate.

The fever was higher; the pulse was weaker. When Mitch sat close, he could hear that Brody’s lung were wetter and his complexion had sunken in even deeper.

During rounds, the doctor confirmed what he knew.

And he explained what Mitch had not yet fully grasped.


Brody’s kidney function was low, close to bottoming out. His O2 levels were even worse. If he didn’t start moving oxygen better by the end of the day, they would have to intubate.

Mitch nodded and took the information in as best he could.

There was still time for this to get worse.

Even if Mitch wanted to hope that it might get better.

Time and hope; two things that had proven very fickle for Mitch this week.

And two things that had proven even more deadly for Brody.

-o-

Summer was there first thing, and even though she asked Mitch how he was feeling this morning, it was clear that she wasn’t here for Mitch. Yesterday, she’d made the effort on his behalf, but today she was here for Brody.

Mitch would not begrudge her that.

When she visited, he pulled back to the cot, sitting down not to sleep but to at least look busy. He busied himself, staring at his hands, his feet, the walls, the ceiling; anything to afford her some semblance of privacy while she held her boyfriend’s hand and whispered to him.

He tried not to listen, but her voice carried in the stillness, and Mitch heard her tell Brody about dates she had planned and about her parents’ next visit. She told him about how her brothers were assholes, which was why Brody would probably like them. She rambled on about how she’d found a pool nearby, Olympic size, and they could go to mess around with time trials, just to see, just for fun.

She had a lot of plans, and Brody remained impassive through them all. It was funny to think about, Brody going on romantic dinner dates, Brody meeting Summer’s parents and getting along with her brothers. Brody and Summer, swimming time trials for kicks, being young, in love and happy. Mostly, being alive.

All those plans were part of a future Summer and Brody had started to build together.

A future they might not have anymore.

Funny, Mitch’s actions might have begrudged them that after all.

-o-

While Summer finished up her time with Brody, Mitch allowed himself to be led into the hall by the officer from the Coast Guard. She was just as polite today, and she handed Mitch a folder with a small stack of papers, asking him to sign. Mitch looked at the papers but couldn’t read any of the words. He looked at her smiling face and decided what the hell. He didn’t care what the paperwork said. The only thing that mattered about the incident was right on the other side of the door.

Now that he was in the hall, Mitch finally asked a nurse if he could use a phone. He dialed the number of his friend, the one who had lent him the boat. He probably owed him an apology, but when the man heard Mitch’s voice, he didn’t want to hear that apology at all. Instead, the friend told him how grateful he was that Mitch was okay, that a boat was a small price to pay for friendship. Mitch was offering to pay something to make up the difference from the insurance claim when he heard a commotion down the hall.

This was an ICU ward, so it probably wasn’t unexpected. But when the nurses started flocking to Brody’s room, Mitch’s whole body went numb.

He’d only stepped out for a moment.

He’d only went into the hall, and Brody hadn’t even been alone.

But Mitch had promised.

And here he was, phone in hand while Brody crashed a few rooms away.

Mitch’s word was shit.

Mitch had dropped the phone and was running down the hall before he’d realized he was moving at all. He skidded outside of Brody’s door, overwhelmed by the sounds of alarms blaring and monitors bleating. From the doorway, he could see the small crowd of doctors and nurses around Brody’s bed, moving the crash cart into position. Along the wall, Summer was crying.

There was nothing Mitch could do while the doctor barked our orders, tipping Brody’s head back -- opening the airway, Mitch knew -- and started to slide in a tube. After a meticulous placement, a nurse promptly attached a bag to the tube and started squeezing it, steady and fluid motions.

After several moments, the alarms started to fade. The last one bleated out, and the medical team seemed to step back, relieved.

With a ragged breath, Summer excused herself from the room.

The doctor turned to face Mitch, his expression grim.

Mitch wanted to leave, too, but his feet were planted on the spot.

This was the choice he’d made.

To the end, no matter what.

-o-

The doctor was at least to the point about it all. “It’s what we were watching for this morning,” he explained. “His oxygenation levels were just too low. We had to intubate in order to make sure that he didn’t start to suffer from damage to his other organs, even his brain.”

“So it’ll help him,” Mitch said, even though he knew that was an obtuse simplification.

“Of course,” the doctor said. He didn’t even hesitated to add, “But you do need to be aware that this is probably the first problem in a cascading failure.”

Mitch was too tired to ask for clarification.

The doctor provided it anyway. “The infection is impacting his other organs,” he said. “Respiratory failure is often the first step, but his kidney function is dangerously low at this point. Dialysis would be an option, except we’re starting to see similar signs in his liver as well. This is the downward spiral that often results from cases of extreme sepsis.”

The way he said it, Mitch almost wanted to laugh. Not because it was funny but because it was something he himself had made inevitable the moment he decided to keep Brody from bleeding out. This was the outcome to that choice. When he’d talked about rocks and hard places, this had been the consequence. This.

“And there’s nothing you can do?” Mitch asked.

“There’s still plenty we can do,” the doctor said. “But you need to understand that the interventions from here on out get a lot more complicated. We’re talking about life support, extreme measures. Things that have to make you question what you think is best for Matt.”

That was laughable, too. What did Mitch think was best? Not this, not any of it. Not boat rides and impalement and cauterization. All Brody had wanted was to do his job, show up for work and be happy. But Mitch had chosen this instead.

“You should take some solace in the fact that Matt can’t feel any of this,” the doctor said gently. “And we’re trying the last resort antibiotic that was have. There’s a chance that it could work, and if it does, we should be able to treat the signs of early organ failure and turn things around. He can still come back from this, but I won’t lie to you at this point. The odds aren’t good.”

The odds? The odds had never been good.

Mitch looked at Brody. He looked much the same as before, but now a tube snaked out from his mouth, taped down hastily around his lips. It had been hooked up to a machine, which pumped air in and out of his lungs for him.

“So?” Mitch asked.

“So, we’d like to know what you want us to do,” the doctor said.

Mitch tore his gaze from Brody, brow furrowed as he looked back at the doctor. “Me?”

“It’s your choice to make,” the doctor confirmed.

Mitch shook his head. “But Summer’s his girlfriend.”

“And you are explicitly listed as his next of kin,” the doctor said. “The choice is yours.”

Shit, Mitch thought, looking at Brody again. Brody had never asked him; Brody probably thought he didn’t need to. Brody had simply trusted Mitch with everything.

Every. Damn. Thing.

It wasn’t a trust Mitch was sure he’d earned at this point, if ever.

It was a trust, however, that he could not shirk now.

He looked back at the doctor. “Do whatever you can, whatever you need to do,” he said. “Give him everything he needs to keep fighting for as long as he can.”

That was Mitch’s choice.

Now, he just had to wait to see what choice Brody made next.

-o-

Part of him wanted to find Summer, but Summer would come back when she was ready. Mitch wasn’t wanting to be cruel, but he was here for Brody.

And Brody, as it seemed, needed him more than ever.

Sitting there, watching the machine breathe for him, Mitch knew that it was slipping away from both of them. Brody had surrendered the push and pull of his own lungs, but his heart was still beating. That was all they had left. One last line to cross.

Even Brody, son of a bitch that he was, might cow to the inevitable at some point.

That was the scariest thought. Brody did have a history of making stupid decisions, after all. It wasn’t like he was revered for his sound judgement.

Mitch just wished Brody understood that this wasn’t a rock and a hard place anymore. Not this time. Brody needed to know that he wasn’t picking between two terrible outcomes.

But maybe that was the problem.

Brody made the best of bad decisions.

He screwed up good ones almost every single time.

That was why Mitch was here, though.

That was why Mitch couldn’t leave.

Because Brody had to make the choice to keep fighting.

And Mitch had to pretend like there was still a choice left to make at all.

-o-

Summer came back eventually with CJ by her side. The nurse explained the situation to them, and Summer spent the rest of her visit crying until CJ quietly ushered her back out. When the rest of the team filed in and out today, there were no upbeat platitudes. Not optimistic outlooks.

Everyone just looked sad when they looked at Brody.

They couldn’t look at Mitch at all.

-o-

The doctor made more frequent visits that day, stopping by between rounds while trying to act nonchalant about it. Like Brody wasn’t circling the drain. Mitch supposed that doctors really did care about their patients the way he cared about people on the beach; plus, having a rescue victim die several days after hitting solid ground again was just bad PR.

Mitch knew the doctor was just making the best choice he could, given the circumstances. The doctor fiddled with the monitors, mades notes on Brody’s vitals and rechecked the packed wounds every time.

For the lack of something better to do, Mitch watched.

Every time.

Brody’s vitals were still shit. And the wounds were still red and inflamed when the doctor repacked them and wrapped everything in clean gauze.

“Well, he’s fighting,” the doctor said, taking off his gloves and throwing them in the trash. “He just keeps fighting.”

That was true, but only in the barest sense. Besides, Mitch recognized the doctor’s tone. That forced, upbeat tone he used when he promised Brody that it wouldn’t hurt that much to rip the metal out of his side, the voice he used when he promised that the cauterization wouldn’t be that bad.

The voice you used when you told a lie, but not just any lie. A well intentioned lie, a lie with zero substance dressed up so nice that it felt like hope.

Back on the island, lost at sea, Brody had tolerated it from him, but Mitch wasn’t sure he had it in him. Hearing that tone felt like shit.

Then again, Mitch reflected as he gave the doctor a polite nod on the way out, Brody tolerate about as much from Mitch as Mitch tolerated from him. Brody was a borderline alcoholic with terrible saving habits and a tendency to revert to bad habits when he felt lost or out of control. That made it hard to keep him on the team, sometimes; it made him hard to live with.

Mitch, on the other hand, was a straight-laced asshole who liked to prove his points with humiliation when necessary. He was an absolutist who believed he was always right and who’s insane expectations extended from everything to beach protocol to personal opinions about the ocean, apparently.

Everyone who knew them thought that it was Mitch doing Brody a favor.

Mitch knew it was a two-way street, though.

He watched Brody, still lying where the doctor had left him. Mitch absently pulled the sheet back up to cover the freshly wrapped gauze, smoothing it down around Brody’s sides.

Shit.

Mitch stood back and let out a long, hard breath.

He hoped this remained a two-way street.

-o-

Stephanie brought him food, which Mitch ate only for her sake in a rushed bid for late mid afternoon lunch in the hallway. She used that opportunity, while he had a burger stuffed in his mouth, to ask if he wanted to release a statement.

Mitch chewed hard, and swallowed even harder. He cocked his head at her. “A statement.”

She was utterly nonplussed. “The press is going crazy,” she said. “Casey Jean is doing what she can, and so is the hospital upper brass, but they want to hear from the source. Full profiles of you and Brody have been circulating the national news for almost a week. The story’s mostly positive for now in the mainstream outlets, but it’s only a matter of time before someone lets a conspiracy theory take hold.”

“What kind of conspiracy theory?” Mitch asked.

“Just questions, then,” Stephanie clarified. “About how the most lauded lifeguard in Southern California could get lost during a leisure cruise. About whether or not Matt Brody has fallen off the wagon and the leisure cruise was more of a party cruise or worse, a drug run.”

Mitch made a face. “None of that is remotely true.”

“I know that,” she said. “But if you don’t give them a story, they’re going to keep making one up.”

Mitch scowled, shoveling part of a banana into his mouth thoughtfully.

“I know this is hard for you, I do,” she said. “So I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think that it was worth it. I mean, this is what we do. We look at the pros and the cons, and we make the best decision that we can. That’s the nature of our job.”

Mitch finagled the rest of the banana into his mouth and swallowed it readily. “But this isn’t the job. This whole thing -- it was never the job.”

Stephanie had mastered the art of looking skeptical without saying anything.

Shit, she’d gotten that from him.

“It wasn’t,” Mitch said. “Brody and I -- it was just supposed to be a day trip. Something to do on our day off.”

“Sure, but the team is the job, as much as anything else,” Stephanie pointed out. “We’re not always patrolling the beach, that’s true, but we’re always there for one another.”

Mitch let out a bitter snort that he couldn’t hold back any longer. “And I nearly killed him.”

She sighed; clearly, this was not the conclusion she’d wanted the conversation to come to. “No, you took him out for a day on the ocean, and sure, that was your choice more than his maybe, but it wasn’t a bad choice,” she said. “We all make choices and none of us can control the consequences, even when we think we’ve accounted for everything. Sometimes, we do everything right -- you know this, Mitch -- and even then, we get it all wrong.”

He did know that. He’d lectured the team every day about that. It was his fallback whenever a rescue went wrong. It was the bottom line for every new recruit he accepted onto the team. This job was about saving lives, and that was why you had to take it seriously. But no matter what you did, even if you were Mitch Buchannon, sometimes you still lost. People still died.

Good people.

People you knew.

People you cared about.

Your best freakin’ friend.

Mitch knew that rationally.

But he wasn’t in the mood to be rational.

All his rationality had gotten him nowhere. “If he dies, then it’s on me,” he said. “My team. My choice.”

“It’s on us,” Stephanie said, equally forceful. “Our team. Our choice.”

Mitch shook his head, adamant. “It doesn’t work like that.”

This time, it was Stephanie who scoffed. “Of course it does,” she said. “You don’t get to pick and choose. You defined this team; you set the rules. You can’t blame us for following them now.”

All her points were foolproof, damn it. Mitch felt his anger deflate, leaving helplessness in its wake again. “I just -- I don’t know. All the stuff I’ve believed in, I know what it is,” he said. “But out there -- those choices, I made them. And now Brody’s here, and those choices--”

He was rambling, losing his train of thought. His mind was caught up on the ocean, the smell of Brody’s flesh when it burned and the image of the doctors shoving a tube down his throat.

“Those choices?” Stephanie asked, keeping her gaze ever steady. “Are exactly what I would have expected from you.”

Mitch returned her stare with deadened intent. “You expected me to use cauterization while stranded on a deserted island?”

She was unfazed by his attempt to rile her. “I expected you to do whatever it took,” she said. “That was why I pushed so hard to keep the rescue going, all day, all night. Because I knew that you were somewhere out there doing whatever you could to survive.”

Mitch clamped down his teeth, trying to keep his raging emotions in check. He stared at the mostly eaten burger in his hand, not sure what to do with it anymore. He seemed to have forgotten how to eat.

“Look, even if Brody dies -- and I don’t think he’s going to die, not even now, because he’s too much like you -- but if he did, then no one blames you,” she said, letting the words fall hard and heavy onto Mitch’s ears. “If he dies, then he was going to die all along and no choice you made was going to make any difference in that. Worst case scenario, you brought him home so everyone who cares about him can say goodbye. Best case scenario? You made the hard choices so he had a chance to live.”

She was trying so damn hard to make this right, to make this better. Mitch found his voice, coming thinly from his constricted throat. “He made the choice,” he admitted. “I gave him the options, but he made the choice.”

“And you’re still blaming yourself?” she asked. “What about Brody?”

“This isn’t Brody’s fault--”

“That’s my point, Mitch,” she said. “You’re not blaming Brody, and no one’s blaming you. You trusted him enough to make the choice. You have to trust him enough to accept the consequences of that choice.”

“But he was only there because of me,” Mitch said, because he could circle around the rest, but he didn’t know how to circumvent that. “I forced him to come.”

“No, you didn’t,” she said. “Maybe you manipulated things, but he wanted to be there. He’d be the first to tell you how being with you is the only thing he wants.”

When Mitch exhaled again, he seemed to deflate even further. “I don’t know.”

“And that’s fine, too,” she said. “These last few days have been hell.” She held up her hand at the protest from Mitch that she knew was coming. “I know, I know, especially for Brody. But even if he made the choices, you had to live them out. You had to do the hard work, Mitch. I’m not saying that Brody doesn’t deserve all our respect for surviving, but he never could have done it without you. Any of the rest of us out there? I’m not sure we could have gotten him off that island alive. If not for you, we would be planning a funeral right now, not a press statement and recovery.”

He was always carefully composed these days, just barely holding himself together with the exhaustion and worry. With everyone else, it wasn’t exactly easy, but it was a role he knew how to play. Stephanie knew how to challenge that role; and she knew how to push him precariously close to the edge of himself.

That made her an excellent coworker and friend.

And it made her nearly impossible to contradict.

“Hey,” she said. “You can’t see anything clearly right now. Not here, in the hospital. Not when Brody’s on life support and you haven’t slept. So I know you’re going to beat yourself up about this. I know you’re going to second guess everything. But you’ll see that I’m telling you the truth. When this is finally over.”

He looked at her, because that was a point he could agree with readily. That was the point that a lot of people didn’t seem to get. When the nurses talked about the miracle, when the press told the story of what happened, even when the Baywatch crew came in and out for a daily visit: they all acted like it was over.

Like the ordeal was behind them now. Now it was time to move on.

Even Summer, who was terrified for Brody, thought that Mitch’s trials were done.

Stephanie understood, though.

She knew that this wasn’t over for Brody.

Which meant that it wasn’t over for Mitch.

Finding encouragement in this much, Mitch met her eyes.

“Let us take up the slack,” she said, somewhat imploring now. “Let us make some of the hard choices, and let us shoulder the consequences with you.”

Mitch looked toward the door, where Brody was still laid up on the other side. “I don’t know,” he hedged.

“But I am,” she replied. “You need to rest, eat, recover. Just for a little bit.”

“But I promised him that he wouldn’t be alone,” Mitch continued uncertainly.

“And he won’t, I swear,” she vowed. “I’ll stay, Ronnie, CJ, Summer. You trust us on the beach. You can trust us with Brody. He’s one of us, all of us.”

Her point was hard to dispute, but she hadn’t been there. She could try to understand, but there was no way for her to truly know. “But I told him I’d stay, no matter what.”

“And you did stay,”she reminded him. “You got him off the island.”

“But that’s not the end,” he said. “You said it yourself, this isn’t over.”

She rolled her eyes, just a little. It was an obvious act of restraint when she plainly wanted to thwap him upside the head. “Which is more reason to take care of yourself,” she said. “If you had died on the island, Brody never would have made it. And if you don’t look out for yourself now, then what good are you?”

The rhetorical question that Mitch had no defense against. He was too tired, too worn. Too broken. The ocean had cowed him, and he didn’t know what he had left except his image, and that carried no weight with Stephanie.

She softened, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. The one not still holding a mostly consumed burger. “He’s not alone, and you’re not the only one here who cares about him,” she said. “It’s not all on you, not when we want to help. The only reason we’ve kept our distance is for you, not him.”

He was tempted now. Well and truly tempted. He’d given everything he had since that storm blew up, and strong as he was, Mitch was running out of resources. He was at the end of himself. He wasn’t sure anymore where he ended.

And where the team began.

It was overpowering, overwhelming, powerful.

It was terrifying and unyielding.

It was beautiful.

The choice was made.

Mitch’s resistance was just for show.

And a little peace of mind.

“But if something happens…”

“ That’s one advantage of being on land,”she said, producing a phone from her pocket and offering it to him. “Phone coverage. I picked this up for you since yours is at the bottom of the ocean. Your Sprint buddies cut a good deal. I may have upgraded you to unlimited minutes, too.”

Mitch took the phone, still hesitating. “If he dies…”

She dropped her touch, because she knew the choice had been cemented. “He’s not alone,” she assured him one last time. “Neither at you. It’s about time you accepted that.”

-o-

Mitch had made the choice. He accepted that.

Not easily, however.

After promising Stephanie he’d head back home to rest, recharge and gather a few things for Brody when he got better, he insisted on going back in the room. Stephanie nodded her head at him, telling Mitch she’d be right outside.

Presumably to be take over for Mitch when he left.

But also probably to make sure that Mitch actually followed through and lived up to his word.

This had been a shaky decision for Mitch in the first place; when he made his way back to Brody’s bedside, the whole thing nearly crumbled.

Instead, Mitch let his knees give way, collapsing to the chair still pulled close to Brody’s bedside.

For a moment, he just sat there. He watched the mechanical rise and fall of Brody’s chest. He watched the monitor as it showed the beat of Brody’s heart. These were the details, the small things. These were indications of the fight that was still ongoing, but Mitch didn’t have any part of that fight anymore. All he had to invest it was the cause itself.

Settling his roaming eyes, Mitch looked at Brody.

Really looked at him.

For all that Mitch had held vigil over the last few days, he’d taken the time to look at Brody very little. Not just the sunkenness of his cheeks, or the lines of pain around his eyes. But Brody.

The smart-ass Olympic swimmer.

The stupid recruit who Mitch had bested on the obstacle course for the sheer sake of putting him in his place.

The screw up who hurled in pools instead of playing look out.

The guy who ended up with Mitch’s job.

And ended up doing everything Mitch would have done.

The victim Mitch pulled from the bottom of the ocean in a cage.

The hero who’d been there, every step of the way, when he took down leads.

The team member he’d welcomed gladly.

The roommate he’d come to accept as permanent.

The guy who’d learned how to reinvent himself.

The lifeguard who earned his place as Mitch’s protege.

The best friend Mitch hadn’t realized he’d been looking for.

Brody.

Who didn’t love the ocean, but loved the team.

Brody.

Who was willing to go the distance with Mitch, not because of threats but because Mitch wanted him to.

Brody.

Face flushed, features slack, tube taped over his mouth and hair mussed. Mitch finally surrendered to the inevitable and took up Brody’s hand, folding the warm, clammy fingers into his own.

“You’re doing a great job,” he said, because he didn’t say it enough, not when it counted. “You never stop trying, even when you screw up, you just keep trying.”

Brody’s chest was covered with a hospital gown, the IVs continuing to drip in their life-saving fluids.

“Because I’m proud of how far you’ve come,” he said. “And I know you. I know you can make it all the way, but either way, I’m here.”

He cleared his throat, fighting off the rising emotions as tears stung at his eyes.

“We’re all here,” he said. “I know you’ve probably spent most of your life thinking that you’re alone, but you’re not anymore. Whatever island you felt deserted on in foster care or at the Olympics, you’re not there anymore. You’re here. With us.”

He tightened his grip on the fingers, willing Brody to understand, to believe. Even deeply locked in unconsciousness, he wanted Brody to know.

“You’ll never be alone again,” he promised, and he could see now that it was a better promise, the right promise. It was a promise that Mitch could never fulfill by himself.

But then, that really was the point.

Brody didn’t just deserve a best friend.

He deserved a team.

A place to belong.

A family.

Mitch would give him that.

“I promise,” he said, and that was the choice that mattered, more than all the rest. That was the choice that Mitch would always stand behind, that he would never doubt, no matter how far lost at sea they became. He squeezed Brody’s fingers once more, studying his lax features for another second longer. “No matter how this ends, I promise you that.”

That, in the end, was all Mitch had to give.

The only thing of any value, at any rate.

Mitch put Brody’s hand down, and he trusted his promise.

Just like he trusted Brody.

He exited the room, nodding wearily to Stephanie, who had been joined by CJ, Ronnie and Summer.

Just like he trusted the whole Baywatch team.

-o-

Going home.

It was a strangely novel concept.

In reality, it had only been a week since he’d been home, but it felt like so much longer than that. He felt like an entirely different person, and not altogether for the better.

Still, he took the long way back, slipping out an employee service entrance at the hospital, winding down by the ocean, across the boardwalks and the sand the overlooked the bay. He’d made a few pit stops over the last week, through ocean storms and deserted islands, but he still ended up back where he began.

Standing on the beach in his own backyard.

The place where he’d started.

The place where he’d end.

He’d just never expected any of the shit that came in between.

-o-

Honestly, though, the ocean was too vast. After his long walk home, he was nearly too exhausted to move his feet anymore, but the thought of staying out and looking at the ocean was more than he could actually bear at the moment. The vastness of it unnerved him, and he was relieved to be inside, the door shut securely behind him.

That relief, however, was short-lived.

Inside, all he could see were bits and pieces of the life he’d begun to share with Brody. They’d both talked about Brody’s living there as a temporary situation. Mitch hadn’t even done much to improve upon Brody’s living conditions. He was still sleeping on a too-small cot with scratchy sheets and a CB radio for a nighttime lullaby.

Brody’s bags were still packed, even. He didn’t even leave his damn toothbrush out on the bathroom sink.

And yet, for all that, his influence was everywhere. His favorite beers were in the fridge, and Mitch started stocking grapes because they were Brody’s favorite fruit. There was a spot for two sets of keys on the table, and Mitch had moved a lamp to make space for Brody’s phone to charge near the front door, right next to his own. The coffee table had been moved in several inches to accommodate Brody’s ridiculously short legs, and the PS4 was hooked up with two controllers instead of one.

It wasn’t clear to Mitch who was in deeper denial about it, him or Brody. Neither of them had openly admitted that they liked this arrangement. Mitch still bitched about not having as much access to his spare room, and Brody still complained about housing prices in the area, as if he were seriously looking for another place to stay.

This was all stupid now, as Mitch could see. This was where Brody belonged.

They just had to make the choice.

It didn’t seem like a hard choice now, after the week they’d had.

But it was one they had consistently and indominantly avoided for no other reason than their own stupid pride. Brody had come to admit it first, just how much Mitch had changed him. But even after all they’d shared on the island, Mitch had not made the same confession: that he was a different person with Brody in his life.

And that that change, as strange and hard and messy as it seemed sometimes, was for the better.

In fact, Mitch hadn’t just ignored it. He’d actively resisted it. That was why he’d balked at Brody’s tepid reaction to the beach. Because he wanted Brody to change, and he’d never wanted to yield in return. He’d wanted to be in control; he’d wanted the ability to dictate how this whole thing played out.

That was laughable now. Mitch’s plans had been upset by stormy weather. His resolve had been burnt out by the sun on a deserted island. When the team had rescued him, Brody had been fighting for his life, but Mitch was fighting for something far more precarious: his very soul.

With leaden feet, Mitch got himself a bottle of water and ate whatever he could find in the cabinets without tasting any of it. He methodically grabbed Brody’s bag, noting again with a pang of guilt that it was already conveniently packed. He finished his water on the couch, staring blankly at the wall for an indeterminate amount of time.

He’d gathered Brody’s things. He’d eaten something that resembled a meal. He’d rested.

All the things he’d come here to do, he’d done.

Yet, Mitch had never felt more incomplete.

Frustrated, Mitch got to his feet again, intending to pace, to clean, to eat, to pack, to something. When he ended up outside, standing his own backyard, looking at the beach, he nearly started to cry.

What the hell was he supposed to do?

What did any of this even mean?

All his life, he’d been drawn to the sea. The ocean defined him. Mitch was oceanic.

Standing there on the beach, Brody’s bag of things in his hand, he could barely recognize it today. Today, standing on the steady short, the ocean just looked like a lot of water. He couldn’t hate it -- no more than he could hate himself -- but maybe it didn’t define him. At least, maybe it didn’t define him anymore. The ocean was part of him, sure, but it was just one part.

And maybe it wasn’t even the most important part.

So why was he still here? Why did he keep coming back to it? Why couldn’t he let it go or put it in perspective? Because he knew what mattered most; he understood that now.

But here he was.

At the ocean, just like he always was.

And two days, he’d been cooped up in that hospital. Two days he hadn’t slept without the sound of the waves. Two days without the feel of the breeze, the smell of the salt, the grittiness of the sand between his toes. Two days without the sun on his skin, the water as it rushed by him seamlessly.

Two days.

Standing there now, it was hard to make sense of. It was just unnatural. Weird.

But that wasn’t the weirdest part, he realized. That wasn’t what made this uncomfortable.

No, the part that bothered him wasn’t that he was called back to the ocean.

It was that he was standing on this beach alone.

Without Brody.

Had things truly changed so much in two days? In a week? Mitch had stood solid in the shifting tides of life, and two months after Brody joins the team, Mitch felt unmoored.

Adrift, even.

Lost at sea.

That was ironic because he had the ocean right there in front of him.

But what he didn’t have -- the only thing that was still missing -- was Brody.

He’d never wanted Brody on his team, on his beach or in his house. But in two months, Brody had become a critical constant in hs life. Mitch couldn’t blame this on the shipwreck, although that had probably brought it to the surface in a way that Mitch could no longer ignore.

The ocean had defined him.

But Brody? Had redefined everything. How? Mitch didn’t have a clue. But what Mitch knew for certain was that he wasn’t the same guy who went out on a boat a week ago. He wasn’t even the same guy who reluctantly accepted Brody’s shitty reference letter as a PR stunt. He had changed as much as Brody, who had somehow transformed himself from a smart ass with two gold medals and a criminal records into a meaningful part of a team that saved lives.

He could see it now, the way it was so beautiful that he couldn’t even handle. The way it was so powerful he couldn’t even fight it. The constancy of change.

The ocean had shaped Mitch, formed him together bit by bit beneath is vastness. It had brought him up from the dredges and put him on the land to give him a purpose there.

Brody, however, had been dragged into the sea like a riptide under a rough surf. Once there, the ocean had formed him, too, but only by bashing him against the coarse grains of the beach until the rough parts fell away.

Mitch had been spit up onto land like a perfect conch cell, but Brody had been thrown out like trash, washed again and again like a piece of broken glass left behind before he ended up back on the beach, the true beauty within finally revealed.

That was what the ocean did. It washed away everything that didn’t matter until you were left with the rawest, deepest truth. The truth you liked to buried, to hide, to throw far away. The truth you couldn’t see until it was laid bare on the sand.

The sand Mitch was standing on now.

He could see it.

He could see everything.

Love was variable; an emotion was like the waves.

Acceptance, however, was like the ocean’s breadth and width; it was a constant choice.

Mitch, he loved the ocean. The strongest, most powerful love possible.

But Brody.

Brody accepted the ocean. A daily choice defined by its constancy to the commitment.

The distinction mattered, but not for the reasons that Mitch had thought it did. Because Brody could learn to love, over time. He would.

The real question, then, was whether or not Mitch would learn to accept.

The ocean.

The team.

Brody.

Some choices, they were hard.

Other choices were so, so easy.

-o-

The walk back home had seemed to take forever.

Mitch made the walk back to Brody in no time flat.

It wasn’t a question of knowing where he was going.

It was a question of knowing why.

-o-

He got back to the hospital, feeling refreshed despite not actually having rested. He was able to get back in the back door, thanks to his contacts at the hospital, allowing him to continue to avoid the prying eyes of the press. This time, he skipped the elevator, bypassing the rest of the team that was still gathering in shifts in the waiting room. Instead, he smiled at the nurses at the desk and made his way back through the other private ICU rooms to Brody’s.

He’d found peace at home in front of the ocean.

He returned to chaos.

For a split second, Mitch had no idea what was happening. He saw Stephanie standing at the side of the room, a phone in one hand, the other over her mouth. Ronnie had his mouth hanging open, while CJ clutched a crying Summer to her shoulder protectively.

On the bed, he could only catch glimpses of Brody, his limp fingers, his exposed chest, the tube in his throat. The view was obscured by the medical team, who were speaking rushed and fast, the words lost under the beeping of the monitors.

It was the same as this morning, only Mitch knew that Brody didn’t have anything left to surrender. When they’d intubated him, that had been the last resort. The only thing left was the beating of Brody’s heart, and if they lost that…

Well, then, they’d lost everything.

Mitch was frozen, for a moment.

But only for a moment.

He’d been idle through the rest.

He would not be idle for this.

Mitch could be a nice, gentle, patient guy, just like the ocean on a quiet afternoon.

But he could also be a force of nature, raging with all the power of a storm on the open water.

“What the hell?” he demanded of no one in particular as he charged forward. “What are you doing to him? What’s happening?”

One of the nurses turned and yelped, and another protectively curved over Brody’s prone form, further obscuring him from view. The doctor curse.

Mitch balled his fists, advancing still. “What the hell is happening!”

Stephanie sprang into action first, rushing from her place on the wall to intervene. “Mitch, hey--”

He barely heard her, brushing past her to get a better view of Brody while the monitors continued to wail.

“Mitch, you need to step back,” Stephanie said again, a hand on his arm now. “Let them work--”

He turned, all but snarling at her. “What is going on? You said you’d call!”

“And I was going to,” she said, holding her ground despite the fact that Mitch towered over her. “But I need you to step back--”

Mitch shook his head. “Brody--”

“Let them work,” CJ said, inserting herself next to Stephanie.

“Do we need security?” one of the doctors asked.

“Just focus on your job,” Stephanie said shortly. She held her hands up to Mitch. “And calm down.

“I’m not going to calm down until somebody tells me what the hell is happening,” Mitch said, trying to move past them again. This time, Ronnie joined in, looking more terrified to act than either of the girls. “Brody!”

“Just step back,” CJ said. “So we can talk--”

“I don’t want to talk!” Mitch yelled. “Someone tell me what’s going on with Brody!”

It was Summer who intervened this time, her quiet, steady voice cutting through all the rest. “He’s okay,” she said.

Mitch stopped, cold in his tracks, turning to face her.

She stood opposite him. There were tears staining her cheeks, her hair was a mess. She was smiling. “He’s okay.”

All the rage, all the desperation, all the uncertainty: Mitch didn’t know what to do with any of it, what to make of it. He didn’t even know what the hell he was doing.

Feeling lost again, he looked back to Brody, who was still and silent as ever under the doctor’s touch.

“The fever broke,” Stephanie told him.

“The antibiotics worked,” CJ added.

Mitch felt like he was drowning now, like the water was closing over his head as his chest screamed for air. “But,” he started, feebly now. “Brody.”

“They’re taking the tube out,” Ronnie said. “That’s the -- the monitors, man. He’s been, I don’t know, triggering the vent.”

Mitch looked at the plastic tube, which was now discarded on an instrument tray. The monitor wasn’t wailing anymore; the rhythm was strangely steady. One of the nurses shifted just slightly, giving Mitch enough of a view to see the rise and fall of Brody’s chest.

He was breathing.

His heart was beating.

He was alive.

Summer stepped forward, smiling wider. “He’s okay.”

Mitch remembered to breathe, too.

That his own heart was still beating.

He was still alive as well.

“His lungs are working, the kidney failure is reversing,” Stephanie said. “It’s over now. It’s really over.”

Mitch looked at them, not able to comprehend it.

There was nothing to comprehend.

Just Brody.

Still alive.

Still here.

Back with Mitch on solid land where they both belonged.