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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: Time to Panic (2/2)

December 23rd, 2018 (01:06 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO



-o-

Mitch can be right, but that doesn’t make things much better. After the conversation got a bit on the revealing side, Mitch steers clear of phobias for a bit. He’s pretty sure Brody doesn’t have the energy to talk about anything serious, so Mitch figures the usual dumb shit topics will do. For awhile, Brody rambles about Summer, and his confusion about whether or not she wants him to act like a gentleman or if she prefers him to treat her like one of the guys. Mitch doesn’t dare have an opinion about this, but he lets Brody ramble about it for a good twenty minutes before he starts to nod off.

When he is roused, Brody seems to have trouble thinking of something to say, so Mitch takes a turn to talk about the schedule rotation at Baywatch. He opens up a revised plan to suggestions, and Mitch wants to say that Brody’s ideas are ridiculous because he’s probably slipping into shock, but he’s honestly not sure. Brody doesn’t always have the most practical notions about running an organization, even if he is well intentioned.

That conversation only lasts about 15 minutes before Brody’s eyes go vacant and Mitch has to prop him up to keep him from slipping underneath the surface. Upon awakening, Brody voices his unusually strident opinions about how to clean the bathroom back at the house, and they spend the better part of a half hour debating the appropriate measures for a clean and orderly house.

This is the most interesting conversation for Mitch because in all the time Brody has lived with him, he’s showed no indication of even knowing that things are supposed to be clean. He wonders if sudden cleanliness is a side effect of shock, and he wonders if it’s possible to recreate such an effect with nearly killing Brody.

Each time Brody dozes off, it takes a little longer to rouse him.

Brody’s slipping, Mitch knows.

Evening is approaching, the temperature is dropping, and all Mitch can do is ask Brody another stupid question and hope for the best.

-o-

Then, to make matters worse, it starts to rain.

Mitch takes this in stride. It’s November; they’re on the ocean. Rain is not uncommon.

And really, they’re already soaking wet. It’s not like rain is going to make things dramatically worse than they already are.

That’s Mitch’s reasonable conclusion while he continues to tread water at a slow and steady rate of speed.

Brody’s response is somewhat less reasonable.

It takes him several minutes to notice, of course. He’s treading much less consistently than Mitch, and he alternates between floating and treading almost without meaning to. Face up to the sky, rain splatters in his face longer than Mitch expects before he finally notices.

The fact that it’s a slow relationship just makes the look on his face all the harder to stomach.

“Shit,” he says, sounding particularly gutted now as he starts to tread with an uneven kick. His arms are barely moving, and he bobs a bit more precariously close to the water’s surface. “Like, that’s it, then.”

Mitch waits for him to continue because he really doesn’t know what Brody’s talking about or whether or not he’s coherent at the moment. It’s not quite gibberish, but Brody sometimes speaks his own unique version of reality without trying, so Mitch knows to give it time.

Brody looks like he’s ready to cry when he meets Mitch’s gaze again. Although he’s only been treading water again for several seconds, the effort looks to be exhaustion. His blue eyes look unusually blue like this, contrasted with the pallid hue of his skin and the dark circles under his eyes. “We’re going to die.”

This seems like not necessarily a weird conclusion, given their circumstances, but Mitch doesn’t question the timing. He looks up at the rain, which is now falling with a pitter patter all around them. Mitch has generally always liked rain on the ocean; he likes the way it sounds and he likes the way it looks. Admittedly, it’s less pleasant this time. “It’s just rain,” he observes.

Brody is only unnerved by his calm and his ability to hold himself afloat is suddenly in question as he bobs up and down with more uncertainty. “And we’re in the ocean.”

He says it with such emphasis that it sounds like he’s made some brilliant point, but Mitch finds that he can’t quite humor it. “So, what? You’re scared of flooding? We’re in the safest place possible for flooding. A little more water just makes us float higher.”

That’s logic, though. Brody’s never been keen on logic. Hypothermic and concussed, he’s even less so.

That’s what happens when you’re hurt and sick and stranded.

That’s what happens when you’re scared.

“What if it becomes a storm?” Brody asks. He bobs so low that he takes water into his mouth before spitting it out. “Like, what if it’s a hurricane?”

“We’re not going to get a hurricane,” Mitch tells him as simply as he can.

“But it could still storm, right?” Brody asks, clearly agitated now. “Like, storms tip over boats and shit.”

“We’re not in a boat,” Mitch reminds him. He treads a little closer to Brody out of instinct, worried that the other man may go under all together soon without independent recovery.

“Which makes it easier for waves to drown us,” Brody says between gasping breaths as he struggles to keep himself afloat.

Mitch reaches out, buoying him up just a little to make a difference. “The water’s a little choppy, but it’s not too bad.”

“Not yet,” Brody says, making no note of Mitch’s support. Either he doesn’t notice or he doesn’t care. “Just wait.”

Mitch sighs a little. He’s been the voice of reason this whole time, and he’s indulged all of Brody’s whims as best he can for the sake of their long term survival, but he’s feeling the strain now, too. More than he wants Brody to see, but a little more than he can fully hide at this point. “And you’re scared of storms now, too?”

He’s joking, but of course he’s not.

And of course, Brody is.

Shit, Brody is like a little kid, scared of everything. Scratch the surface hard enough and it’s entirely possible that Matt Brody is scared of his own damn shadow.

Brody flinches, as if he thinks to deny it at first. But, really, there’s no point. Not here. Not with Mitch. “Maybe,” he says, and his chin juts out a little like a mulish child.

Mitch can’t even think of a good response to that. “Seriously?”

Brody is out of it, but he’s not that out of it. He goes on the defensive, his defenses flaring enough to spark a small burst of adrenaline. “I grew up in Iowa, okay? We had lots of storms,” he explains, but he says it like he’s pouting a little. Plus, he’s starting to slur a few of his syllables together, which does nothing to make him sound like a rational adult. “Have you ever seen a funnel cloud?”

Mitch shakes his head. “No.”

“Well, me neither,” Brody admits, and Mitch suspects he would be blushing if he could. “But they made us do all these drills and there were sirens that went off and it was terrifying, okay? It was terrifying.”

Nothing Brody has said sounds remotely terrifying to Mitch. “You do know that you’re really not normal, don’t you?”

Brody huffs somewhat, starting to give up on treading to float a bit more. “Says the guy who’s not scared of dying when he’s been dumped in the middle of the damn ocean.”

“Point taken,” Mitch says. He loosens his grip on Brody as his float takes hold, but he doesn’t back away just yet. “Still, the rain doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean we’re going to die.”

“Maybe,” Brody says, closing his eyes as the water splashes on his face and the waves buffet them both. “But it sure as hell isn’t going to help us live, either.”

Mitch will blame his exhaustion later, if anyone body asks, but there’s no argument to that point.

No argument at all.

-o-

The rain stops, but that’s when it starts to get dark. They watch together as the sun starts its descent, and it seems so close that the last rays nearly touch them. When it slips away, Mitch can almost feel its loss as a cold settles over them with a cloying intensity that the rain and waves has not provided yet.

His stomach clenches. His throat constricts. His chest feels like the breath is frozen in his lungs.

It’s the cold, he tells himself.

It’s nothing but the cold.

-o-

The cold, as it turns out, is more than enough.

As the darkness takes hold, Mitch can feel the cold as it settles into his bones. It’s starting to affect him now, slowing down his movements and making him sleepy. He’s shivering as well now, and either he’s too tired to stop himself or he’s simply lost the ability to fine tune his movements. He’s not sure which. This is an example where ignorance is probably the better option.

Knowing will only give him more reason to panic.

And Mitch is not going to panic.

Cold, tired and lost at sea in the dark, Mitch is most decidedly not going to panic. If he panics now, then Brody’s going to die, and there’s no part of Mitch that thinks that’s an acceptable resolution to this unfortunate situation.

As it is, Brody’s not doing well at all. If the cold is starting to affect Mitch, it’s already taken full hold on Brody. He doesn’t tread water much at all anymore, though he mostly manages to stay afloat on his back. The whole time, he shivers violently, and when Mitch does manage to get him to engage in conversation, his words are hard to make out from the stuttering between his chattering jaw. His eyes are deeply hooded now, as if his lids no longer know how to open all the way. Worst of all, his breathing is starting to sound irregular, and Mitch can hear the faintest wheeze over the sound of the water.

The only positive aspect Mitch can find from all this is that the nonstop shivering makes it easier to see when Brody’s falling asleep. When he starts to go still, Mitch knows he’s dozing off. That’s Mitch’s cue to nudge Brody and ply him with a new question in an attempt to stave off the inevitable grip of hypothermia as the night progresses.

Mitch has lost count of how many times he’s gone through the process. He’s lost track of what time it is, too. He rights Brody, holding him up as he treads face to face with him. “We’re going to have to stay in contact at night, always touching.”

Brody has to blink a few times, each one slower than the last, though at the end his eyes are open. It’s not clear to Mitch if he’s actually able to see Mitch anymore. “For warmth?”

“No,” Mitch says, rubbing his hands up and down Brody’s exposed arms. “We don’t want to drift apart from each other in the dark.”

“We--” Brody starts and he seems to forget that he’s speaking. Mitch shakes him a little, and he remembers to finish. “--don’t?”

“On our own? Out here? We’ll drown,” he says, because he doesn’t want to scare Brody but it’s important for him to know the stakes. They both have to remember the stakes. “On our own, we’re dead.”

Brody doesn’t flinch at the declaration like he might have hours ago. Instead, he blinks once more and exhales rather heavily. “Oh,” he says, like the revelation is something that he’s going to have to think about for awhile before he has a strong opinion on it. “Super.”

For some reason, Brody’s blase attitude is more unsettling. He finds himself wishing for just a little bit of fear.

At this point, however, Mitch should probably get used to not getting what he wants.

-o-

It’s stupid, really. How beautiful the night is.

Because he wants to hate it. He really does. If anything is going to kill them, it’s the velvet black, deep and cold and endless. He can feel it almost crystallizing in his lungs as it ebbs at his consciousness and saps the energy from his feet as he tries to tread. After awhile, he can’t feel his fingers around Brody’s wrist as he clutches it.

But none of this changes the obvious fact that it’s the most gorgeous night he’s ever seen. After the rain, the sky has cleared, leaving a decadent backdrop for the full array of the heavens. The stars seem to know it, too. The all but glisten, sparkling vibrantly like jewels in the expanse. Mitch can almost count each one as the view stretches for miles in all directions.

It’s the stuff of poetry. Reflected on the Now still seas, it’s the reason Mitch fell in love with the ocean. He’s humbled, really. Part of him wants to be inspired.

That’d be easier if he weren’t so damn cold.

Because he’s not on the beach. He’s not sitting on his back porch. He’s not going for a night run, or making a trip around the bay by boat.

And maybe, if it were just him. If it was just his own numb fingers. If it was simply his own stiff legs. If it was just his own life on the line, then maybe he could still appreciate the beauty.

The emotion twists in his gut. It catches in his throat and prickles in his mind.

Protective instincts is all.

That’s what Mitch has instead of fear.

Either way, it still seems pretty stupid for Brody to die for something so beautiful. Call it that, call it stupid. Call it irony or self reflection. Call it protective, brand it an instinct.

Mitch doesn’t actually care.

He just cares that Brody’s still alive.

And it’s up to Mitch to make sure he’s breathing when the stars dissipate, night abates and the sun rises like hope in the morning.

-o-

Mitch has made do with worse plans before. He’s just good at that, rolling with the punches. It’s all a part of being Mitch.

But Mitch is just one guy.

And this is the whole ocean.

If this is a tug of war for Brody’s life, Mitch isn’t sure he’s got the upper hand.

In fact, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t.

That’s fact, not fear.

And that fact is the reason he had to work harder.

In the water, Mitch keeps Brody close to him. Their hands are gripping each other’s wrist, though Brody is shaking so badly now that he can barely keep him grip. It’s so pronounced that the water ripples between them and speaking has become almost too much of an effort for the younger man.

Obviously, by this point, Mitch is shivering as well, and he is aware of the advance of hypothermia in his own body. He’s long since lost feeling in his toes and feet, and his legs feel like wooden planks as he treads slowly through the night. Though his own fingers are deadened, he keeps his grip firm. In any other context, holding hands with Brody would probably seem weird, but for tonight, it’s an entirely pragmatic choice.

Periodically, when Brody’s expression gets too pained or his his dim too much, Mitch takes it a step further, gathering Brody up in his arms, rubbing the other man’s exposed skin in a desperate bid to provide warmth and comfort.

The effect, admittedly, is marginal. But it’s not entirely negligible. Mitch know right now, their survival is a matter of degrees, and the movement reminds Brody that Mitch is still there, that mi5ch is still fighting, even if Brody himself no longer can.

And if Brody, in return, clenches his fingers a little tighter around Mitch as the hours wear on, then Mitch certainly isn’t going to say shit.

Not when it hides the fact that Mitch is holding on just as tight.

In the fight for your life, pride really is the first thing to go.

Mitch just wishes it could be the last.

-o-

Mitch has to think it’s past midnight when Brody starts nodding off consistently. His shivering has started to taper, which means hypothermia is advancing steadily to the point of no return. Mitch has to rouse Brody in the hope of keeping it at bay a little longer still.

Mitch tries to tell himself that Brody’s agitation is a good thing, no matter how hard it is to watch.

After the sixth time Mitch rouses him, Brody looks ready to cry.

“Shit,” he chatters, the word so disjointed that the single syllable sounds like five. “I fell asleep? Again?”

“Just for a second,” Mitch says by way of assurance. He has to work to control the chattering of his own teeth. The last thing he wants is for Brody to know just how cold Mitch is, when they both know he’s the one keeping them afloat. “No big deal.”

Brody is not remotely assured, however. He shakes his head in short, convulsive bursts. “It is a big deal,” he insists.

“Dude, I’m right here,” Mitch says. His fingers are still locked around Brody’s wrist, and he adjusts his grip a little tighter to prove his point. It’s hard to muster much feeling, but Mitch is a stubborn bastard. The tingling sensation in his fingertips is a stark reminder that he’s still alive, that the night may not be over, but neither is he.

Brody, however, shakes his head insistently, even though the effort seems to tax him terribly. “You’ve got to keep me awake,” he stutters.

“I am,” Mitch replies, his breath puffing out like steam in front of him. The slow, mechanical movement of his legs is just enough to keep their heads above water.

“No,” Brody says, like Mitch hasn’t just agreed wholeheartedly. “You really have to.”

Mitch is dedicated and completely in this to win. He’s also cold and tired, however. Speaking through his own chattering teeth, Mitch doesn’t have the energy for sympathy. “I am,” he says, clearly and decisively. He sounds angrier than he intends, and his own force surprises him.

It makes Brody flinch. “Okay, okay,” he slurs, words fumbling into each other. “I just. I just. Okay.”

It’s not clear if Brody can’t finish the thought or if his mouth has just refused to keep working. Either option makes Mitch feel like shit. He boosts Brody up, helping him hoist a little more comfortably on his back. “Come on, man. Keep it together. You doing okay?”

In Brody’s defense, it is a pretty ridiculous question. Stranded at sea, los in the dark, hypothermia setting in with hours until morning, there’s no way Brody’s okay.

All the same, Brody burst of hysterical laughter makes Mitch shudder. “No,” Brody stutters. He blinks rapidly, eyes fixed on the night stretched above them. “I’m cold. I’m scared.”

He closes his eyes with a sob.

“I’m so scared, Mitch.”

Mitch hates himself for asking. It feels like torture, asking Brody to feel anything when his body is in the process of shutting down. It’s the only way to keep Brody alive, Mitch knows that.

But just because the ends justify the means doesn’t make it easier to witness.

“I know,” Mitch says, rubbing his free hand up and down Brody’s arm. “I know.”

This time, Brody tips his head just slightly toward Mitch. His expression is nothing short of tormented. “No, you don’t.”

Mitch pats him in reassurance. “You’re scared to fall asleep because you know each time you close your eyes, they might not open again.”

He’s not sure why he says it. He’s not sure why he thinks that honesty is always best. It’s not in his nature to lie, not even when things get shitty, but Brody is a,ready so spent that somehow it just seems cruel.

To his surprise, however, Brody shakes his head. His eyes are still fixed on Mitch, glassy in the moonlight, the blue offset against the milky cast of his complexion. “Not entirely,” he says, the words fragmented as he struggles to get them out. “I mean. A little, but I’m scared. I’m scared that if I fall asleep, you’ll leave. You’ll leave and I’ll be alone. I don’t want to be alone.”

The cadence of his speech is stilted and uneven, but the sentiment is clear enough, crystallizing between them like ice. Still, for the first time since they were left here to die, Mitch doesn’t know what to say. “What?”

When Brody trembles again, Mitch knows it’s not because he’s cold. It’s because the emotions are too raw, too strong, too everything. “You’ll cut weight, right? Make the hard choice? Check your baggage, swim to shore. Save yourself.”

The words are halting, each one punctuated by the lilt in Brody’s voice. The energy it takes him to speak is hard to imagine. Harder still is grasping the emotional weight of what he’s actually saying.

“But why would I do that?” Mitch asks, because for the life of him, he can’t think that one through. It doesn’t make sense; none of this makes sense.

Brody has been in and out of consciousness for hours now, and his coherency has been questionable. But right now, his eyes are clear. His message is fully realized. “Because you can, Mitch,” he says in slow deliberate breaths. “Staying out here, you’re putting yourself at risk. That’s not what we do. We have to save ourselves first. That’s the only way we’re able to save anyone.”

Mitch shakes his head, but he can’t quite form the denial that he knows would hold no weight. Brody’s right.

How the hell is Brody right?

Brody tries to inhale and has to make the attempt several times before it seems to take. “You’re going to die if you stay here,” he says. “You can’t save me, and you’re going to die trying.”

He wonders now just how badly the cold has been affecting him. He’s slower than he wants to be, and his words don’t seem to be as strong as he intends. “I’m not leaving you.”

Brody almost laughs, but he’s lacking the strength. The puffs of air are small, the sound is hoarse. “That’s why I’m an asshole,” he says. “If I fell asleep, it’d be an easier decision.”

Mitch is resolute now, and it’s his turn to shake his head while the water laps at his chin. “I’m not leaving you, no matter what happens.”

Brody’s body is buffeted up by the waves, and Mitch bobs along with him as the sea shifts uneasily around them. “You should,” he says quietly. The trembling is dying down again, and the urgency is fading from his body. “You could make it. Better one of us make it than both of us dying.”

Mitch hasn’t panicked yet, and this is no reason to start now. He’s not going to panic. He’s not.

Shaking his head again, he’s barely aware of the fact that Brody’s not looking at him anymore. “That’s not how this works, man,” he says, unable to quite keep the stutter out of his own voice as the chattering intensifies. “Believe me.”

Brody is floating almost lazily now, like he’s drifting on a summer’s day and not on a cold November night miles from shore. “I’m a coward, man,” he muses softly, the words almost no more substantial than air. “It’d be better for both of us if I just fall asleep now.”

This time, Mitch can’t hide the fact that something clenches in Mitch’s gut. Hard. It sends a shiver up his spine, and he feels it settle over his chest and cloy his throat. “No way,” he says, and he shakes Brody. “You stay awake. You just stay awake, you asshole.”

It’s as vitriolic as Mitch can be right now; it’s as strong as he’s been in hours.

Brody doesn’t disagree as he keeps his eyes open with his face up to the sky.

There’s no way to tell if that’s acquiescence or if Brody’s just too tired to fight him.

Worse, there’s not a damn thing Mitch can do about it either way.

-o-

It’s no more than an hour when Brody can’t even pretend to tread anymore. Even when he’s floating on the surface, he seems to start sinking, rolling over without warning as he slips into oblivion without so much as a cry of concern. This has been a long time coming, Mitch knows, but it’s still something of an unsettling ordeal.

Only because now Mitch must be more proactive. Holding onto Brody’s wrist and trying to make small talk is no longer sufficient. This concern is entirely practical. It’s a matter of action.

Because if Brody can’t keep himself afloat, then Mitch is going to have to carry him. The only other option is to let him drown, and Mitch isn’t a liar. He meant what he told Brody. Leaving him behind isn’t an option. Brody’s fears, like all his varied phobias, are entirely unwarranted, and Mitch has every intention of proving him wrong.

Besides, as he maneuvers Brody against his chest, buttressing them both up against the sloshing waves, this is also an effective way to conserve body heat. There are plenty of documented cases, showing how effective shared body heat is in the fact of hypothermia.

It’s not ideal, Mitch knows that, but he’s still in control of this situation. He’s still got this well in hand.

Cool, calm and collected.

Well, cold, calm and collected at any rate.

Mitch will concede little, but he’ll concede that much.

As if he has any choice.

-o-

The minutes stretch on. Mitch loses track of them more than once, and soon he has to admit he’s got no idea what time it is. Sometimes, he’s not even sure if he’s awake, much less Brody. All he knows is that he’s alive. There’s no time to be scared, even if Mitch were inclined. Not when the cold is leeching the life out of his body with each wave that washes over him.

This is what dying looks like, and Mitch isn’t naive enough to believe otherwise. But Brody’s still pressed against him, so he knows there’s reason to hope.

Or, at the very least, reason to keep fighting.

-o-

Sometimes, as he looks up at the stars, Mitch talks. His own voice sounds funny and disjointed, and the stutter is pronounced when he talks about his earliest memories of the ocean, about how he first joined Baywatch, about how it’s everything he’s ever wanted. It’s harder and harder to form the words as his thoughts trail together. One second, he’s talking about getting the promotion to lieutenant; the next he’s telling Brody all about his mother’s love of sea turtles when he was a kid.

Most of the time, Brody doesn’t answer. Sometimes, Brody’s eyes are open, but he blinks at the sky like he’s not sure if he’s seeing it for the first time or the last. There are scattered moments when Brody seems to hear him, when he turns his ear closer to Mitch’s mouth.

Then, after several hours of Mitch’s rambling, Brody speaks.

“You know one more thing?” he asks, like this is a conversation they’ve been having and not Mitch’s half delirious ramblings in the cold night.

“What?” Mitch asks, because at this point he’s too weary to even bother being surprised, much less encouraged.

“That I’m scared of,” Brody says. His words are less stuttered now, but they’re hard to distinguish from one another at this point.

“Another phobia?” Mitch asks, his reply slower than he intends.

Brody’s response is slower still. Mitch can’t hardly feel the waves at they wash over them now, and he’s not sure if his feet are still moving while he keeps them afloat on his back. “One more,” Brody confirms.

“You’ve got enough, man,” Mitch tells him.

Brody exhales carefully before breathing in again. It’s another breath before he speaks. “I was scared, you know, as a kid,” he starts, with a long pause between the words. “I was afraid that I’d never find a place, you know? A foster kid always looking for a home.”

Brody doesn’t talk about that, but the cold has made the barriers fall away. The only part of Brody that’s left is the most raw, the most earnest, the most true. It’s like the rest has been let go of, but Brody’s still holding onto this until the last of his energy is finally sapped away.

“And?” Mitch asks.

Brody doesn’t look at him, eyes still fixed upward. “And I’m not afraid anymore.”

It’s so resolute, so simple. Mitch cranes his neck to look at Brody. “What do you mean?”

This time, despite Brody’s delayed response, it sounds like he’s smiling when he speaks. “Well, I got what I wanted,” he says. “So there’s nothing to be scared of. I can die knowing that everything’s okay.”

Sluggish as he is, alarm bells sound wildly in Mitch’s head. He jars himself, jarring Brody in the process. “Hey,” he says. “You’re not dying.”

He shakes Brody again, more purposefully this time.

“You’re not dying,” he insists now.

This time, Brody does smile, as if mustering the very last of his reserves. “It’s okay, Mitch. I’m not scared anymore,” he muses. “I’m not scared at all.”

Mitch’s strength is failing. If this is a battle, it’s one he’s probably losing now.

And somehow, this revelation is more numbing than everything else.

Because maybe fear has a purpose. Maybe fear makes you fight.

In the absence of fear, sometimes all you have is acceptance.

Brody closes his eyes, Mitch hitches him closer.

The words just won’t come.

-o-

But morning does.

Mitch is almost surprised by this fact, and it takes him several long moments to recognize the sunlight as it starts to lighten the sky across the horizon. He knows he’s been sleeping on and off, but his arms are still locked tight around brody, almost frozen stiffly in place, as he has kept them both afloat throughout the darkest and coldest moment.

The warmth of the sun is almost laughable, and Mitch can feel it just barely prickle against his exposed and raw flesh. The water is still far too cold; hypothermia is too far advanced. The dawn might delay things, but it’s certainly not going to reverse them.

Mitch is still dying.

In his arms, Brody seems to be nearly there. No matter what Mitch does, Brody cannot be roused. The sunlight reveals the ghostly hue in his coloring, and he’s almost as gray as the corpses they inspected at the morgue back on the Leeds case. He’s just as cold, too. Mitch can feel much through his numb extremities, but Brody’s body is a cold weight on his chest, impeding every breath he takes.

The only thing he can feel -- the only thing that matters -- is the slow thump of Brody’s heart, pressed against his own.

Exhausted and fading, this is what Mitch needs to ground him.

This is what Mitch needs to remind him that he’s still fighting.

This is what Mitch needs.

-o-

The fight isn’t always enough. Mitch knows this from experience. He knows this. He lives by it, trains by it, exists with it. Fear is merely the impetus to fight, but when the fight is gone, the fear is all that remains.

Honestly, it’s the fear that’s been there all along. Mitch is just good at denying it. He’s good at using it. He’s good at not having anything he cares about that much that he can’t keep it in check. There’s not very much to fear when your entire life is professional. There’s not very much to fear when the only person you come home to is a little plastic figurine in a fish tank.

Mitch has always been so proud of how he stares in the face of danger and doesn’t flinch.

But when Brody’s heart starts to stutter. When his gray features start to turn blue. When it’s no longer clear if Brody is breathing, Mitch does more than flinch.

This time, he feels himself start to break.

Stiffly, he tries to rouse Brody. It’s a stupid thing to do -- Brody hasn’t been conscious in hours, and he’s far past the point where he’s going to wake up without medical intervention -- but Mitch doesn’t care. It’s not reasonable, not when he can’t hardly make his arms move. It’s blindly desperate, but he manages to shift enough to make Brody’s head dip to the side. “Brody,” he says, the word almost cracking as it breaks with the cold. His own strength has been depleted; Brody’s fight has been over for far longer, but Mitch can’t force his frozen senses to make sense of that conclusion. “Wake up.”

Because he’s not scared of sharks. He’s not scared of confined spaces or abandonment. He’s not even scared of a life unfulfilled.

Shit, not even dying scares him.

He’s still terrified, though.

“Brody, you got to wake up,” he implores with an urgency he feels but can’t quite project. Brody dips stilly against him again. It’s not clear if he’s breathing now. It’s not clear if he’s already dead. “Brody.”

Drifting in the ocean, Mitch finally can’t deny the fact that he’s terrified. He feels it wash over him like a rush of emotion, panic tingling through his numb body from the top of his head to the bottom of his toes. It’s not practical, it’s not pragmatic. It’s not about making plans or coming up with solutions.

No, it’s just fear.

The fear of losing someone you care about.

The fear of losing something you need.

The fear of losing Brody.

He closes his eyes, pressing his forehead against Brody’s head. “You got to wake up.”

It’s ugly, it’s impractical, it’s overwhelming, it’s pointless.

It’s also the last real thing he knows.

The last thing that matters.

Maybe it’s the only thing that’s ever mattered and he’s just never realized it until now.

“Brody, you can’t leave me,” he says haltingly, eyes squeezed shut. “You can’t leave me.”

But Brody is dying in his arms.

And Mitch is scared absolutely shitless.

-o-

Fear can break you.

Fear can save your life.

Sometimes, Mitch hopes when there’s nothing left to hold onto, it can do both.

You don’t get to pick which way it goes.

Brody accepted that hours ago.

The bleak morning as the sun rises and the ocean makes them drift farther and farther, Mitch knows he has no choice but to accept it now.

His own death, he probably could have accepted.

But Brody’s will break him.

The cold body in his arm, the still form on top of his.

Mitch knows it already has.

-o-

Mitch floats after that. Literally, of course. But mentally, too. Emotionally. Mitch is buoyed up by the waves much more than by his own volition. His own strength has left him, but his arms are clasped so tightly around Brody that he’s confident that, when the time comes, they’ll sink together.

Fear is the last overriding part of his reality. When everything else is stripped away, that’s all that’s left. It’s always been there, of course. Maybe Mitch is too naive. Maybe he is too proud. Maybe he should have known.

When a dark shadow falls over him, Mitch assumes the worst. Blinking a few times, he realizes he’s not dead. In fact, he’s staring up at a helicopter, poised and ready to rescue him.

He glances toward Brody, who is like ice in his arms. “We made it,” he lies, because Mitch is a coward just like everyone else in the end. “We made it, buddy.”

And sometimes, hope is the greatest lie of all.

-o-

It’s dramatic, quite honestly. The roar of the helicopter, the way the waves are kicked up around them as it hovers overhead. Stephanie is leading the rescue, but Mitch can’t find much comfort in her presence. She has to pry Brody from his arms, and Mitch feels like he’s sinking as Brody is bundled up and pulled upright out of the water. The basket stretcher bounces in the wind until Brody is pulled on board and out of sight.

He knows, in some frozen corner of his brain, that this is a good thing. This is the best thing. That this is the only thing that matters.

It’s fear, though, that flutters in his stomach. It’s fear that makes him panic when Stephanie loads him up as well. Because Mitch knows that what should feel like hope.

Could also be the confirmation of Mitch’s worst fears.

He’s never been one to hide from the truth, but if he’d had the energy, he think he might have jumped out of his basket and straight back into the sea. He doesn’t have the energy, though, and no one pays his feeds any head as he is secured in the helicopter, wrapped with blankets and a warm mask of oxygen pressed over his mouth and nose.

Nearby, Mitch can see Brody on a stretcher. Then, something whines over the roar of the engine and Stephanie turns around while a medic leans over Brody and starts CPR.

Frozen, exhausted and close to death, Mitch finally panics.

Well and truly panics.

Trying to sit up, he bucks against Stephanie, nearly flinging her aside. He’s not sure where the strength is coming from, not when he can barely feel his own fingers as they curl into fists and rip the blankets clear. He’s not held onto Brody this long just to lose him now.

He’s not held fast all night just to let go when rescue is at hand.

He’s afraid this is all for nothing.

He’s afraid that he’s failed.

He’s afraid that Brody will never come home again.

Mitch is afraid.

He can’t find the energy for shame or regret. He can’t think to second guess or wonder what if. All he can do is think about how stupid it is to be brave when fear is the thing that makes you human.

“Mitch!” Stephanie yells.

The medic places paddles on Brody’s chest, and Brody’s blue body is jolted off the stretcher.

“Mitch!”

Someone grabs him hard, something stings his arm. Mitch’s head goes light and he falls back, ass hard on the stretcher as the world spins. Stephanie lays him down, squeezing his shoulder as the world starts to dim.

The last thing he sees is Brody’s exposed chest while the medic starts chest compressions.

The last thing he feels is fear.

That if he goes to sleep, Brody will leave him.

Irony, as it turns out, is a real son of a bitch.

-o-

What happens next, Mitch can assume but never knows for sure. For as warm and safe as he is, he still feels cold. He feels frozen; numb.

Because when he opens his eyes, Brody’s not there.

He finds that he wishes like hell he were still back in the ocean, Brody tight in his grip.

-o-

Stephanie is there when he wakes up, and the first thing she says is, “You’re okay.”

She explains without prompting.

“You were hypothermic, but you responded to treatment immediately,” she says. “Your core temperature is just a few points off from normal with all vital signs stable. You’re going to be fine.”

She clearly thinks this is reassuring because it is clear, definitive and logical. It’s the the point, just like Mitch likes.

It’s just not to the right point.

Mitch’s fingers are trembling as he reaches up to lift the oxygen mask off his face. She tries to shush him, to still him, but he won’t be deterred. “Brody,” he croaks, ignoring how weak his voice sound, how desperate it hinges with emotion. “What about Brody?”

She sees him getting agitated, and she wants to help. “Just take it easy--”

She doesn’t get it, though. She still thinks Mitch is cool, calm and collected.

But that part of Mitch froze to death in the ocean.

What’s left is raw and honest and utterly desperate. “What about Brody?”

Her eyes widen, and for a moment, Mitch envisions the worst. He hears her telling him that she’s sorry, but that it was too late. He feels his heart break as she confirms that Mitch was too little, too late. His eyes are already burning from the news she hasn’t broken.

But she collects herself, wets her lips. “He’s weak, intubated down in the ICU,” she explains, her own voice shaking. “He, uh. Was a lot colder than you, probably because of the blood loss and the head injury. It took them awhile to get him back, but hypothermia preserves brain function so--”

She trails off, shrugging like she doesn’t know how to continue.

Like she hasn’t realized that she’s still missed the point.

“He’s alive?” he asks, afraid to hope, afraid to let hope go.

“Yeah,” she says, a little surprised. “Brody’s alive.”

Mitch holds his breath, not sure how to believe her.

“Mitch, they think he’s going to be okay,” she says. “It’s going to take a little bit, but he’s doing really well. You saved him, Mitch. You kept him alive. He’s okay.”

Shit, Mitch thinks as he starts to laugh so hard that he cries. Shit.

It’s not cool.

It’s not calm.

It’s really not collected.

But there it is.

There it is..

-o-

The funny thing is that Mitch can’t be stopped now. He pesters Stephanie until she gets a nurse and he pesters a nurse until he gets a doctor. He pesters the doctor until he’s granted approval to go via wheelchair down to the ICU ward to see Brody. This seems like an inevitability to him, even if everyone else seems to be somewhat unnerved by the idea of a half frozen man being up and about mere hours after being dragged out of the ocean where he was left for dead.

Stephanie says the others want to see him; she says that Ellerbee’s going to want a statement.

Mitch basically ignores all of those practicalities.

They matter, and he knows that.

Brody matters more.

-o-

It’s natural, of course, that his confidence wavers when the nurse rolls him into the room. After all, Brody still looks dead on the bed, no matter what they’ve told him about his optimistic prognosis. His skin isn’t quite blue anymore, but it has a translucent quality that makes him look somewhat more than sickly. He’s still swaddled in blankets, and the tube down his throat has been hastily taped down around his chapped lips. If not for the sound from his heart monitor, Mitch might have had to check his pulse just to be sure.

The nurse explains that Brody’s doing much better with his body temperature rising steadily. The scans indicated that he has a moderate concussion, but there’s no sign of complication. He crashed in the helicopter, and he was technically without a heartbeat for nearly 10 minutes. However, the advanced stage of his hypothermia appears to have protected him well. There’s no signs of brain damage, and he’s already responding to stimuli.

They hope to extubate him by the end of the day. By this time tomorrow, they expect him to be awake.

In truth, Mitch wants to be reassured.

Her words don’t mean as much as he wishes they would, though.

No, the only thing that helps, that only thing that quells the worry that still festers in the pit of his stomach, is sitting next to Brody’s bed, fingers still clasped around Brody’s wrist, refusing to let go.

He did promise, after all.

And Mitch is, if nothing else, still a man of his word.

-o-

When it’s clear that Mitch isn’t going anywhere, the nursing staff seems to make an exception for him. That’s the benefit of being a hero more often than not; he’s earned a lot of favors, and he’s wrapped in blankets and made as comfortable as possible by Brody’s bed.

The others come and go. Mitch visits with Stephanie and CJ and Ronnie in turn. Ellerbee does stop by, taking a quick statement while he apologizes that this has happened. The case had seemed important to Mitch two days ago, but it doesn’t mean all that much when Ellerbee promises that they’ll catch the assholes who did this.

Summer stays the longest, and she is taking this the hardest. As much as she tries to be upbeat and optimistic, Mitch can see her struggling to hold herself together. What she and Brody have is still new, but it means more than Summer probably thought it did.

There was a time Mitch probably would have offered her collected words of wisdom.

This time, he says, “We almost lost him this time.”

A sob escapes from her lips, and Mitch knows how she feels.

“I’ve never been so afraid of anything in my life,” he admits, because he trusts that she’ll understand.

She does, better than he expects. That’s all it takes before she breaks down, and Mitch takes her in his arms. He holds her while she cries, holds her while his own tears fall.

Fear is weakness sometimes.

Funny, how it can also be the one way to find strength.

-o-

In the end, however, it’s really just him and Brody. The nursing staff makes exceptions for him, but the others have to go when it gets late. As promised, Brody is extubated that night, a process that looks painful to watch, but when it’s done, Mitch finds that watching Brody breathe is oddly girding.

The nurses turn the monitors on silent for Mitch to sleep, and he thanks them for the thought but doesn’t bother to explain that he won’t be sleeping.

He stayed awake all night in a freezing ocean.

You better believe he’ll hold a vigil in a warm, safe hospital bed.

It doesn’t matter if there are doctors and nurses nearby.

Mitch is the one Brody needs.

And Brody is the one Mitch needs.

Some things are strength and fear, truth and consequence. Some things just are.

-o-

Even so, the night is long, if Mitch is honest. Determined as he is, the weight of the ordeal is heavy upon him. Sleep tugs at him persistently, and he catches himself dozing off. Each time he startles awake, Brody’s still there. He’s still alive. He’s still okay.

It’s not pragmatic, what he’s doing.

It’s just that knows everything that can go wrong, and he doesn’t accept a single one of them.

He’s never had a reason to doubt that before, not in all his years as a Baywatch lifeguard, not once.

But today, he knows he has something to lose.

And that changes everything.

-o-

In the end, Brody really is okay. By morning, his core temperature is nearly back to normal. By midday, he’s starting to come around, slow and groggy. Mitch is doting and utterly patient, doggedly maintaining his post like he’s frozen in the spot.

Because, the thing is, Brody confessed all his fears to Mitch. They were mostly silly and pointless, but Mitch can’t get that last one out of his head. That last fear, the one Brody told him while semiconscious in the night. The part where Brody said he was afraid that Mitch would leave.

And Mitch knows that, in truth, he’s not going to make every save. He’s not going to rescue every victim. He’s not going to stop every bad guy. He won’t always save a life, and he won’t always have the ability to protect the beach he loves.

But what he can do, right here and right now, is allay this fear. He can make sure that Brody knows, beyond all doubt, that he’s not alone. He can make sure that Brody knows Mitch has no intention of ever leaving.

Because it’s not just Brody’s fear, not anymore.

This is for both of them.

So, when Brody finally does rouse, disoriented and weak, Mitch is the first thing he sees. When Brody finally focuses his eyes on Mitch, Mitch smiles the widest smile he’s ever smiled in his life.

“Hey, buddy,” he says.

Brody recognizes him, that’s for sure, he he can’t seem to make heads or tails of what’s actually going on. “Mitch?” he croaks. His eyes dart around the room as he tries to put the pieces together. He looks back at Mitch, more disconcerted than before. “Did we make it?”

“We made it,” Mitch confirms. “No sharks, no confined spaces, no clowns. Just you and me back on solid ground.”

Brody doesn’t seem as comforted by this as Mitch might have hoped. Sensing Brody’s self control slipping, Mitch reaches out. This time, he forgoes Brody’s wrist and takes up Brody’s hand in his own with a squeeze.

“I’m here,” he promises. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore, okay? I’m here. You’re not ever going to be alone again.”

The words are one thing; the touch is another. People say a lot of shit, and the proof, when you get right down to it, is in the pudding. Mitch promised Brody all along that he’d be there, but that’s not what makes a difference.

What makes a difference is that Mitch was there, all throughout the night. He was there when the dawn broke and Brody went still. He was there when Brody’s fears were realized and he was there when his own were finally impossible to ignore.

Mitch was there.

Mitch is still here.

This time, when Brody visibly relaxes, it’s not in the face of death.

No, it’s with the promise of life.

All of Brody’s fears pale in comparison, somehow, and Mitch can feel them peeling off of him, one phobia at a time.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Mitch’s fears ease at the exact same time.

With a watery smile, Brody struggles to control his breathing. “We made it?” he asks. “We really made it?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mitch says. “We totally made it.”

Because most fears are probably pointless.

But some of them make all the difference in the world.