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Baywatch fic: Arrested Development (1/2)

December 26th, 2018 (08:16 pm)

Title: Arrested Development

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: Fill for arrest in hc_bingo. Unbeta’ed. Part of my Gold Medal Verse.

Summary: Brody lacks all coping mechanisms.



-o-

In retrospect, Mitch suspected that the whole thing started three weeks ago. For as much of a mess as it ended up, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, the incident started with a story of success. Mitch was used to those, feel good stories that made everyone feel better. That had been the story of his life.

Until Matt Brody had managed to write his way into Mitch’s story.

The whole damn story changed after that, and Mitch was still trying to figure out what the ending would be. Three weeks ago, he’d been optimistic.

What happened next, however, gave him reason to doubt.

-o-

Lifeguards saved lives every day. Most of these saves were not dramatic. Some were entirely preemptive, and they didn’t involve getting into the water at all. But even the water rescues, the ones where people swim too far, too deep, those could be seen from Mitch’s perspective as moderately formulaic.

That wasn’t to say he didn’t take them seriously. He did; every time. It was just that they were no longer particularly noteworthy to him. After the rush of adrenaline in the moment, he was able to get back to business as usual.

This was only a context by which Mitch could appreciate the rescue three weeks ago.

Because Mitch had seen everything, done everything, and so on.

And this one still surprised him.

It was a water tour, a chartered boat for an excursion out on the bay. That was normal fare, except this one was rented out by a preschool. Not just any preschool, an elite one. Some Montessori school where the tuition was more than Mitch made in a year. And somehow, despite perfect weather, the captain of the boat still managed to run into rocks far from shore and set the boat on fire.

How and why -- that was for the police or Coast Guard to figure out.

All Mitch was responsible for was dragging each and every one of those kids to safety.

14 kids.

2 teachers.

One stupid ass captain.

With a burning boat and deep waters.

Even for Mitch, this was a feat.

On his own, it would have been impossible.

Mitch wasn’t on his own, however.

Even before the call for backup went out, Brody was on the scene. Not just that, but he was on his game. There was no showboating, no impulsive or reckless decisions. Everything was by the book, just like Mitch would have done himself.

Working together, they contained the scene quickly, and by the time Stephanie showed up with backup, Mitch had worked with Brody to rescue the majority of the children.

For all that, not a single kid died. That was largely due to Mitch. That wasn’t bragging, just fact; Mitch took his job, his training and his dedication seriously. And it was also largely due to the fact that in four short months, Matt Brody had transformed into one of Mitch’s most reliable lifeguards, his right-hand man.

Mitch’s perfect partner; not the one he would have picked, but the one who had been molded into the ideal complement to all of Mitch’s needs.

In all, it started out as the perfect rescue on a perfect day to consummate what had become the perfect working partnership.

-o-

Then, the press got involved.

For Mitch, this wasn’t so much a surprise. It also wasn’t particularly a problem. He’d worked the bay for years, and his more daring saves had made the local news more than once. Over that time, he’d became a favorite among journalists, who found that he made a very effective talking head.

Mitch wasn’t much for fame, but he understood the importance of publicity from time to time. He knew that Baywatch was publically funded, and he was practical enough to see that a little good coverage did them some good.

More than that, he found the notion of making difficult saves public a good thing for the awareness of beach-goers. Not everyone liked to listen to kill-joy lifeguards, but when they saw that those same lifeguards knew what they were talking about, it made them more likely to listen. Mitch saw the press as an educational outlet, teaching people about how riptides and drinking behind the wheel of a boat were actually more dangerous than sharks any day of the week.

So Mitch never invited the press in, and he didn’t wallow in interviews. But he also rarely turned a journalist away.

Naturally, a case like this with a fire that made for great photos and preschoolers who made for sympathetic protagonists, the press were more than involved. They were chomping at the bit. In fact, it got so much positive coverage that the story was picked up by a few national morning news programs.

Which, okay. Mitch could do that.

This story was about boat safety. About teaching children how to act around the water.

And it was about Brody.

Mitch didn’t make a point of naming names, but when everyone wanted to paint him as a hero, he wanted to make sure that the credit was passed around. He talked about Stephanie and CJ and Ronnie and Summer, but Brody deserved to be mentioned as his equal.

“The rescue was successful only because I had Matt Brody, another well trained and attentive Baywatch lifeguard, there with me from the beginning. This was never possible to be a one-man job,” he explained.

The local news had let these comments slip by. Someone on Good Morning America, however, had done their homework. “Now, when you say Matt Brody, are you talking about the swimmer who won two gold medals in the last Olympics?”

Mitch hadn’t been prepared for that question, but it wasn’t like he was about to lie. “Yes, he’s been on our team for four months now, and as this rescue shows, he’s become a valuable member of the team.”

“Has his past controversies been a problem at all?” the reporter asked.

Mitch didn’t flinch; there was no gotcha here. Mitch knew the reason Brody was on Baywatch. He also knew it didn’t mean shit. “His work in the field proves that he’s earned a place with us here at Baywatch.”

For Mitch, that was that.

-o-

For the press, that was not that.

For another full day, the stories continued to run on national news, talking about a disgraced Olympian finding his redemption outside the pool. It was about a fallen hero finding status in something beyond gold medals.

Mitch had to admit, it made for a good story.

But Brody didn’t respond to it the way Mitch thought he would.

There was no posturing; there was no cocky grandeur. The whole thing seemed to make him uncomfortable and shy, and he asked Mitch to deny all requests for interviews, instead offering a statement with Mitch’s help through Baywatch’s media personnel.

I have learned a lot since my time in Rio, and I have had to face some difficult truths about myself. However, this story should not be about me. It should be about Baywatch, and the lives the team continues to save on a daily basis. It is a team I am honored to be a part of.

Mitch was glad to help him with it; he was glad about a lot of things.

For one, they had saved a lot of lives.

For another, their team was stronger than ever with Brody as a mainstay.

And mostly, Brody was showing signs of real and enduring change. Change that mattered; change that had a positive effect, sweeping over them all. A change four months ago, Mitch never would have expected. A change today, Mitch wasn’t sure he could live without.

-o-

Then, after the news cycle calmed down, things really changed.

But this time, not for the better.

At first, Mitch thought it was just the press getting to Brody. He started spending more time on his phone, being a little distracted while on the job. More than once, Mitch had to remind him to put the phone away, and he even had to confiscate it once when it proved too much of a temptation for Brody on tower two.

Within a week, Brody’s behavior was not exactly improving. If anything, Mitch would have to say it was getting worse. It started when he was late for work -- “Two minutes, Mitch, come on” -- and then he started to skip briefings. When Mitch tracked him down to find out why, it was because Brody was always on his phone.

When Mitch took the phone and locked it in his office, he found Brody on one of the work computers, taking long lunches, extra breaks and sneaking out early. This subterfuge was poorly and stupidly done, especially since Brody still lived with him.

But that was another thing. At home, Brody’s behavior had also changed. He was quieter, more withdrawn. He didn’t want to sit down and watch baseball anymore. He didn’t play PlayStation or grill out with Mitch as often.

Maybe, Mitch reasoned, the publicity had been too much too fast. Brody had had a lot of issues with the press after Rio, and there was no doubt in Mitch’s mind that it probably triggered a lot of old feelings and possibly some old habits. Baywatch’s rigor had helped retrain Brody, but this kind of setback was probably to be expected with a turnaround as dramatic as Brody’s.

This was why Mitch was willing to give Brody the benefit of the doubt. He knew what Brody was capable of achieving, and he knew that sometimes he just needed a little extra support to get there. Mitch could do that for him; Brody had earned a little favor with him. All Mitch had to do was be patient and firm and consistent.

Brody’s response to his advice and reminders was a bit frustrating, however. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Mitch would ask, “Brody, maybe put away the phone now?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

“Brody, maybe we can work out a little tonight.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Finally, when Mitch was starting to feel his patience wear thin, Mitch resorted to the pecking order of the job. “Look, your skills are a little sloppy right now.”

This elicited an “Uh huh.”

Mitch persisted. “I was thinking we could do a little review training,” he said, trying to sound non-threatening but determined. “Just you and me.”

Brody didn’t even glance up from his phone. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Mitch’s professional facade slipped. “I’m serious, man,” he said. “You need to get your head back on straight. You’ve been off your game.”

“I’m doing the job fine,” Brody snapped. “I haven’t missed a rescue.”

This was true, but Brody had also failed to be his usual proactive self. He wasn’t being vigilant; he wasn’t going the extra mile. He was, in short, not living up to Baywatch standards. “You know that’s not how we operated,” Mitch said, trying not to sound terse. “This isn’t like you, man.”

Brody sighed, putting his phone down for the first time in what seemed like ages. He rolled his eyes. “Fine, okay,” he said. “I’ll pay more attention and we’ll do your stupid training and all that shit, okay?”

“Okay,” Mitch said, hands in the air.

Brody grumbled, grabbing his phone and starting to the beach.

Mitch cleared his throat.

Brody stopped and rolled his eyes again. He tossed the phone a little harder than necessary at Mitch. “Fine, take it,” he snapped. “I don’t need the stupid thing anyway.”

On his way out, Mitch called after him. “I’ll see you tonight?”

Brody grunted, not turning back. “Yeah, sure, whatever!”

-o-

Brody was mostly flippant about their training, but Mitch intended to change that. He thought carefully about their meeting, and he prepared materials to make sure it was beneficial, to the point and supportive. He wanted to reiterate that he thought Brody was a valuable part of the team. He wanted to remind Brody of how much he’d grown. And he wanted to refocus Brody on the core tenants of what this team was all about. It would be an interactive experience that involved conversation and movement, practicing basic skills on the beach in a celebratory fashion.

That was Mitch’s plan anyway.

But as he sat in his office that night, waiting for Brody to show up, he was starting to wonder if Brody had somehow failed to recognize how important this was -- to both of them.

After 10 minutes of waiting, Mitch checked to see that Brody had left his tower.

Then, after 15 minutes, he made a pass through the locker room.

After 20 minutes, he went back to his office. Brody’s phone was still there.

But there was no sign of Brody.

-o-

Truthfully, Mitch wasn’t sure if he was pissed off or worried.

He was probably both.

Brody had been off his game but to straight up ignore Mitch’s request? When it was made in a professional context with professional implications?

It would have been impossible three weeks ago.

Now, however, Mitch was starting to have his doubt.

All that notwithstanding, however, Brody did leave his phone behind.

Brody never left his phone behind, especially not now.

All things considered, something was wrong.

Mitch just wasn’t sure how wrong it was.

-o-

First things first, Mitch called his house. Just to be sure. Brody had lived there for four months; he had made himself at home. Answering the home phone wasn’t unheard of for him.

It went to the answering machine.

Sighing, Mitch called Summer next. If Brody wasn’t at home or at work, he tended to be with Summer instead. In fact, if Brody thought he was going to get some action tonight, that could explain his absence. Between Summer and Baywatch, it was impossible to say which one Brody was more passionate about

Summer hadn’t seen him, though. “Not since our last break at work,” she said over the line. “He said he had to do some weird training thing with you tonight.”

“It wasn’t weird,” Mitch said, trying not to be annoyed by extraneous details. “And at any rate, he didn’t show up.”


“Huh,” Summer said. “That’s not like him.”

“I know,” Mitch agreed. “But he’s been off for the last three weeks.”

“Ever since the story hit the news,” Summer agreed.

Mitch felt marginally better that he wasn’t the only one who’d noticed. “Has he talked about it with you?”

“Not really,” she said. “At first, he did, I guess. He said it was weird and that he was trying to ignore it.”

“I’m not sure that worked out for him,” Mitch said.

“But I don’t think he’s been on the news sites or even social media,” Summer said. “Every time I catch him on his phone, he’s checking email.”

“Email?” Mitch said.

“I asked him about it, but he said it was personal,” Summer continued.

This didn’t make much sense to Mitch. He lived with Brody. He knew the extent and the limits of Brody’s current personal life. Outside of Summer and Baywatch, Brody liked to train, play games and drink. That was it. Seriously, it.

“He got quiet about, though,” she said. “I didn’t want to push, you know? I wanted him to have some space.”

That was probably the right call for a girlfriend.

But Mitch was his boss. His roommates.

His best friend?

Who the hell knew at this point. “So you have no idea where he is?” Mitch asked, hoping to just get back to the point. There was only one way to answer these questions: to find Brody and ask them.

“No,” she said. “Like I said, I thought he was with you.”

Mitch sighed. “Thanks anyway.”

“I wish I could help,” she said. Her voice hesitated. “You don’t think something’s wrong, do you?”

“No,” Mitch assured her quickly. “I’ll have him text you when I find him, just so you know. But I’m sure everything is fine.”

-o-

There was no way everything was fine.

In fact, Mitch was growing concerned that nothing was fine.

He was growing more and more convinced of that as he approached home. Inside, there was no evidence that Brody had been there. His key wasn’t on the counter; there were no dirty dishes in the sink. None of the food in the fridge had been touched, and all of Mitch’s beers and other alcoholic beverages were still present and accounted for.

Mitch tried his best not to pry, but seeing as it was still technically his spare room, he didn’t feel too bad about poking through it. Brody’s things were still in order; his bag, as it always was, was still packed with his spare clothes, gold medals and the few other personal items he seemed to own. His wallet was still missing -- he surely had it on him, along with the key -- but there was nothing else gone.

Was it possible that Brody just took off? But why would he leave his things -- and his two gold medals? Leaving behind the phone did suggest that maybe he wanted a bit of a clean break for a bit, but it didn’t fit. Brody had been a hero three weeks ago; things at Baywatch had been great.

Something had changed since then, something that didn’t have anything to do with Baywatch. Something, like Summer had said, that was personal.

But what personal matters did Brody have? He didn’t have any family; he didn’t talk fondly about Iowa and there was nothing in his past that he seemed to actually miss. That was the hardest part to understand: Brody had been as happy as Mitch had ever seen him until the press broke his feel good story of redemption three weeks ago.

Did Brody not want the attention? Did it make him more uncomfortable than Mitch had understood? Was he worried that he didn’t deserve it? Did he think he was going to screw it up, which was causing him to push the people who cared about him away?

Why the hell was Brody shutting himself down when there were finally people around him that wanted to help?

Sighing, Mitch made his way back to the kitchen, but he found he could bring himself to make anything for dinner. Instead, he snagged a bottle of water and sat down at the table, putting Brody’s phone down in front of him.

Why did he leave behind the phone? Two weeks he was acting like the phone was an extension of his hand, and now he’d just left it?

Absently, Mitch tapped the screen.

Less absently, he tried out Brody’s birthday for the security code. When that didn’t work, he tried Summer’s birthday. He tried Brody’s locker number at Baywatch; he tried his own birthday. He tried several other random combinations of numbers before resigning himself to one, inevitable conclusion.

Mitch didn’t know Brody as well as he thought he did.

Indeed, it was possible that Mitch didn’t know Brody at all.

-o-

Mitch spent the next two hours worrying.

Yes, he also ate and did laundry. He fed the fish and tidied up his already tidy house. He organized his books, went through his mail and checked the news on his phone.

But mostly, he did those things so it didn’t look like he was worrying.

Even if that was all he was actually doing.

He was so anxious that when his phone rang, he rushed to answer. Stupidly, he was disappointed when it wasn’t Brody’s number. It couldn’t be Brody’s number; Brody’s phone was sitting untouched a few feet away.

Embarrassed, Mitch barely recognized that it was Ellerbee’s number instead.

“Hello?” he said, more intent on trying not to sound like a worried father than he was figuring out why Ellerbee would be calling him at this hour.

“Mitch,” Ellerbee said before abruptly stopping.

Mitch’s embarrassment died down. Maybe he needed to be worried about more than Brody. He and Ellerbee were friendly, but they didn’t make social calls. This thing with Brody had him all twisted out of whack; now it was affecting his own performance. “You hitting up the shell phone?”

Ellerbee laughed, but Mitch could hear how hollow it sounded. “Man, I hate to call you about this, but I swear, I didn’t know who else to cal.”

At least Mitch was already well versed in worry tonight. He stood up straighter, getting his own head back in the game. “Is it that smuggling case I talked to you about?”

“What? No,” Ellerbee said quickly. “Still nothing there.”

“The kidnapping?” Mitch prompted.

“Mitch, no,” Ellerbee said, sounding distracted. He sighed. Inhaled. “Look, it’s one of your lifeguards.”

That was not the answer he’d been expecting.

It was also not an answer he wanted. “What? Who?” he said, all but demanding.

Ellerbee’s tone in reply was conciliatory. “Look, just keep it chill, okay,” he said. “It’s Brody--”

Mitch shouldn’t have needed him to say it. He shouldn’t have needed him to posture.

Of course it was Brody.

Who the hell else would it be?

Mitch’s stomach roiled; his heart was starting to hammer in his chest, echoing in his ears. He had to start with the basics: “Is he okay?”

Because as a lifeguard, Mitch hadn’t declared anyone dead. He’d never had to follow up with a family member to tell them that their mother, husband, sister, son was dead. That was a job for doctors, nurses and police officers.

Police officers who made personal, after hour calls, sounding nervous.

“Oh, yeah,” Ellerbee said, and he sounded sincere but somehow wholly unconvincing. “I mean, more or less.”

The ambiguity was probably meant as a way to soften the news.

It only pissed Mitch off. “Tell me what happened,” he said, voice taut and low. His fingers were threatening to crush his phone now.

Ellerbee took another unnecessary breath to hedge. “It’s probably just best for you to come down to the station,” he said. “We can talk about it here.”

Talk about what? Was Brody hurt? Had he been attacked? Was he a witness to a crime? There was something Ellerbee wasn’t telling him, and Mitch needed to know it. Now. “Tell me he’s okay,” he said again.

“He’s fine, Mitch,” Ellerbee said, a bit more convincing this time. “Nothing he won’t sleep off anyway.”

Mitch frowned, not sure what to make of that. “What?”

“Just come down here,” Ellerbee said, less diplomatically than before. “This will be much easier to explain face to face.”

That wasn’t the answer Mitch wanted. But, he had to concede, he probably wasn’t going to get the answer he wanted over the phone. Whatever mess Brody had gotten into, Ellerbee clearly wanted to talk about it in person.

And hey, at least Mitch knew where Brody was now.

And, at the very, very least, Brody wasn’t in the hospital, at the bottom of the ocean or on a train going anywhere away from Emerald Bay.

That had to be something.

Didn’t it?

Mitch didn’t say goodbye before he hung up. He didn’t turn off the lights when he grabbed his keys to leave.

He had to go get Brody.

And figure out what the hell was going on.

-o-

Mitch was worried, whether he wanted to admit it or not. He was worried out of his mind, if truth be told, and he chewed his lip anxiously the whole way there. That anxiety only ratcheted up when he went inside the station, and he thought he might burst out of sheer terror from the look of reluctance on Ellerbee’s face when he called Mitch into the office and shut the door behind him.

Bracing himself for the worst, Mitch found that he couldn’t even bring himself to speak.

“So,” Ellerbee said, swallowing awkwardly as he moved around to take a seat behind his desk. “Brody.”

“You said he’s okay,” Mitch said. “I want to see him.”

“You will, you can,” Ellerbee said. “It’s just.”

He hesitated again, biting his lip thoughtfully.

Mitch waited. Impatiently. “It’s just what?”

“Well,” Ellerbee said, clearly looking for a different way to say something. He didn’t seem satisfied with his solution, but he shrugged. “See, Brody’s here.”

“You said that,” Mitch said.

Ellerbee flinched in advanced. “In custody.”

Mitch blinked.

Shit, another answer he hadn’t been expecting.

An answer he didn’t know what to do with.

An answer that didn’t even make sense. “In custody?” he asked, incredulous. “On what charge?”

Ellerbee looked apologetic. “Public intoxication.”

“Public intoxication?” Mitch repeated. The words rolled around in his head. Public intoxication.

Brody had been arrested for public intoxication.

Mitch had spent the whole night worrying.

And Brody had gotten arrested for public intoxication.

The worry evaporated. Instantly.

In its place was anger.

At this point, it was clear that Ellerbee has been dreading this conversation immensely. Shifting uncomfortably, it was only years of on the job training in the face of conflict that allowed him to persevere. “We picked him up wandering through the boardwalk, in and out of the alleyways.”

Mitch was trying to envision this. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any evidence to suggest that Brody was capable of this. This was the guy who’d drunk himself into a losing position at the Olympics. But still. But still. “Drunk?”

“And still drinking,” Ellerbee confirmed. “He had an open bottle, and he failed the field test.”

Mitch made a face, his confusion starting to mount, fighting for prominence alongside his anger. Brody drank often, and he wasn’t a lightweight. For him to be literally stumbling around drunk, he would have had to do some serious drinking. Like, nonstop, serious drinking. “How bad?”

“Clocked in at twice the legal limit,” Ellerbee said with a wince. “He wasn’t driving or anything, but we had several calls about a drunk guy causing problems. He more than fit the description.”

Brody could be stupid and belligerent when drunk, but outside of the incident at the Huntley, Mitch had never seen that side of him. It was hard to imagine what set him off. He’d liked thinking that that had been an isolated incident, so what the hell was this.

He shook his head, feeling suddenly vicious. “You had to bring him in?” he asked, and he wasn’t mad at Ellerbee, not necessarily. But he was pissed. And Ellerbee was the only person sitting nearby, and Mitch desperately needed any kind of clarity, something to make this situation parse.

Before he exploded with abject frustration.

“I didn’t want to, and I wouldn’t have if he’d just let me take him home,” Ellerbee said. “But your boy was spoiling for a fight. If I’d been inclined, we could have put resisting arrest on the charges.”

Mitch shook his head, still at a loss. Part of him hoped, in vain, that he’d misheard, misunderstood. That this situation wasn’t the nightmare that it certainly seemed to be. “Public intoxication, though? Really?”

Ellerbee didn’t look any more pleased about the situation than Mitch did. But for all the things you might critique about Ellerbee, he wasn’t unfair and he wasn’t bad at his job. He wouldn’t drag Brody’s ass in unless he deserved it.

Mitch knew that.

But damn it. He was going to have to hear it.

“I didn’t have a choice, man,” Ellerbee said, clearly in his own defense. “He peed in a couple of alleyways; he was harassing people on the street. Behind the Huntley, he’d busted a window and started cursing a few employees out. I had to talk the new owners -- who are not your mellow, feel-good types, by the way -- out of pressing charges, honestly. We’re lucky that public intox is all we’re looking at.”

Mitch stared, increasingly dumbstruck by these revelations. This wasn’t Brody. This wasn’t anything like Brody. Brody, who had become his best employee. Brody, who had become a reliable roommate. Brody, who ate with him, trained with him, worked with him, shopped with him. Brody, who had become his protege for all intents and purposes.

Brody, who he thought had become his best friend.

This was the Brody who had showed up on the beach with an attitude all those months ago. The one who had gotten drunk at the Huntley, picked a fight with Mitch, blown off his duties and thrown up in a damn pool. This was the Brody who had promised never to surface again.

He’d so come to trust this new version of Brody that he’d started to forget just how much he disliked the old version. It was unsettling to think that maybe that old version wasn’t so old or that the new version wasn’t so permanent.

He hated the old Brody.

What the hell was he going to do with old Brody?

Mitch shook his head, trying to drop that line of thought as his fingers started to clench subconsciously into fists. “What?”

Ellerbee, at least, seemed sympathetic to Mitch’s difficulty in keeping up with this development. He sighed, nodding in commiseration. “I hear you,” he said. “By the time we intervened, taking him into custody was the best way to end the situation. If I’m honest, it was probably best for Brody too. Our boy was not in any state to be making decisions.”

At this point, Mitch felt physically ill. It was dread. It was anger. It was straight up confusion. Part of him wanted to throttle Brody right about now; a large part of him.

But first things first, Mitch had to remind himself.

“Can I see him?” he asked.

Ellerbee seemed to be relieved to be moving on to that part of the conversation. “Sure,” he said. “If you’d like to post bail.”

Mitch sighed. Posting bail was about the last thing he wanted to do, but what option did he have? If he left Brody here, he’d never get any sleep tonight. He’d be too busy dwelling on what the hell had gone wrong tonight.

If he was going to get answers, he had to do this now.

Resolved, Mitch nodded. “Fine,” he said. “Just tell me what to do.”

First, he’d get answers.

Then Mitch would see what he could do about the anger and frustration that brimmed inside of him.

-o-

His utter distaste for the situation deepened as he went through the legal process of posting bail. Mitch’s fingers grew increasingly tight as he signed the paperwork, and when he handed over his credit card to be process, he was practically fuming.

Here he was.

Paying bail for his supposedly reformed coworker, roommate and friend.

For public intoxication.

By the time the clerk asked Mitch to wait there, he wasn’t sure what kind of explanation Brody could have to possibly make this situation acceptable.

There wasn’t any.

Brody had screwed up, plain and simple. He’d gone back on his word; he’d violated Mitch’s trust. He’d taken all the good will extended to him, all the respect and camaraderie, all of it -- and thrown it away.

Mitch wasn’t just pissed because it was a stupid thing to do.

Mitch was pissed because it was a betrayal, plain and simple.

Brody had betrayed him. Worse, he’d betrayed Baywatch.

That, more than anything else, was close to unforgivable.

Stewing in the waiting area, Mitch had half a mind to leave. Screw Brody and his stupid ass stunts. Screw Brody and his inability to stay true to his word. Screw Brody.

Then, the door opened. Mitch looked up and his heart nearly stopped in his chest.

There was Brody.

He was slouched, hair a mess. His eyes were bloodshot; his face was pale. Briefly, he met Mitch’s eyes, but he quickly looked at his feet. Somehow, in that split second, Brody didn’t look like some stupid ass moron.

He looked like a kicked puppy.

Inexplicably, and against Mitch’s better sense, the anger dissolved back to worry.

Because this was Brody. His coworker, his roommate, his protege, his best friend. This was Brody who he trusted, who he liked, who he genuinely cared about. This was Brody, who had changed so much so fast. This was Brody.

He wasn’t just some drunk idiot -- though, from the smell of him he was that, too. He was some broken kid.

But how? But why?

What the hell had happened? What had made Brody turn his back on everything?

For this?


Getting to his feet, he crossed over to Brody, taking the bag of his things without a muted word of thanks to the officer who reminded him of Brody’s follow up instructions for the case. Mitch listened without much effort, knowing he’d be in contact with Ellerbee about whatever the next steps to this situation might be. Those would be important details.

Later.

He looked at Brody again, taking him by the arm when the younger man made no effort to move. His own fingers were shaking as he nudged Brody into movement, leading him toward the door and pushing hi through to the outside.

Brody didn’t try to speak.

Mitch couldn’t find the words.

Later would be a mess, Mitch had no doubt.

Mitch just wasn’t sure if tonight was going to be any better.

-o-

In Ellerbee’s office, Mitch had planned to rant and rave. He’d planned to dress Brody down the instant they hit the night air. He’d planned to remind Brody of his commitments and his responsibilities. He’d planned to excoriate him concerning the trust he’d been given and how Baywatch held its lifeguards to a higher standards.

The anger was in limbo now, still there and boiling beneath the surface, but the reality was somewhat less easy to deal with.

As it was, Mitch led Brody down the stairs toward the walkway in the direction of home. They’d made it nearly half a block before Mitch could think of anything to say.

“Didn’t bring the car,” he said stiffly. The night air was cool, but not cold. Clouds had rolled in, leaving the sky dark except for a muted glow of the moon that came and went in the lightly shifting wing. “You going to make it back?”

Brody hadn’t looked up yet, eyes still fixed on his feet. He made no sound of acknowledgement.

“Hey,” Mitch said, nudging him again. “You going to make the walk back?”

Brody continued on, one foot in front of the other.

Mitch couldn’t take it any longer. He drew Brody to a stop, dragging the other man until they were face to face.

In theory, anyway.

Brody still wouldn’t look up.

“Brody,” he said, using the name with some force. “Are you going to be okay?”

This time, Brody made some sort of grunt, but if it was supposed to be an affirmation, it was more than a little lacking.

Bending down, Mitch tried to get a better look at Brody. Brody seemed to sense this, ducking his head farther.

“Man, come on,” Mitch said. “Are you even okay?”

Because maybe Brody was sick. Maybe he’d hit his head and had a concussion. Maybe he was delusion with fever. Maybe he’d had a psychotic break.

“Brody,” Mitch said again, almost insistently now. “Look at me.”

Messed up as Brody was, he still responded to Mitch’s orders the way he always did. He flinched, and against his own will, he complied to Mitch’s and looked up.

It was a brief look, almost tortured, before his cheeks reddened and he looked away. Standing there, Mitch could hear the rapid thickness of his breathing. It was easy to see the haphazardness in his gait as he listed to the side even while standing. Brody had had an hour or so to sleep it off, but he wasn’t exactly sober.

“Damn it,” Mitch said, fingers gripping Brody tighter now. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

Brody flinched again, but he looked up again, eyes struggling to focus in the dimness. He reeked of alcohol. Then, to make matters worse, when he did speak, he had the audacity to say, “Nothing.”

The word wasn’t quite flippant; it wasn’t exactly belligerent. Willfully obtuse, maybe. Slurred and broken and utterly insufficient, however: Definitely.

Brody was having his own internal battle tonight, but that didn’t diminish Mitch’s own. His rapid alternation between worry and anger had shifted again.

His fingers clenched tighter and he forced himself to swallow. “I just bailed your ass out for public intoxication,” he said. “That’s not nothing.”

The muscles in Brody’s jaw went hard, but he studiously did not look up. “Didn’t ask you to,” he said, the words slurring a little less than before but it was still pronounced.

“Oh, and you wanted me to leave you there?” Mitch asked, arching his eyebrows.

Brody shrugged one shoulder.

Mitch breathed out. Hard.

Anger.

Worry.

All of it was shitty. All of it was starting to be overwhelming. Three weeks in the making, and Mitch was here.

And Brody was playing some damn game.

Mitch had to let go, because if he tightened his grip again, he was going to hurt Brody, whether he wanted to or not. Whether he deserved it or not.

“I still can, you know,” Mitch said. “I can leave you to sleep this off under some damn pier, and you can collect your shit in the morning and ride the hell out of town because you haven’t got a team left to come back to, if that’s what you want.”

It was a harsh conclusion, and Mitch knew he didn’t mean it. Pissed or not, he wouldn’t cut Brody off just yet. Not without an explanation.

And that was what Mitch still wanted.

He wanted to know why.

And the only thing that he knew mattered to Brody was Baywatch.

At least, he’d thought it’d mattered to him.

Brody looked up at him this time, understanding flashing across his expression with an air of uncertainty.

That much had made an impression.

The ambiguous look on Brody’s face didn’t suggest what kind of impression exactly. “You promised me,” Mitch told him flatly. “You promised me that you’d never let me down again.”

He waited until Brody looked up at him to continue.

“You stood here on this very beach and said you’d never screw up again, but here we are,” he said, the words dripping with emotion. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kick your ass to the curb and fire you from Baywatch. Give me one good reason.”

Mitch had been going for a reaction.

Brody’s expression quivered.

Then Mitch got a reaction.

Just not exactly the one he’d hoped for. The brokenness hardened in his eyes. The withdrawal turned outward. Brody’s face contorted into an ugly expression Mitch had only seen once before from Brody.

That night at the Huntley.

“Why bother?” Brody hissed at him. This time, he didn’t turn his eyes down. This time, he puffed his chest up, drawing himself up to full height and staring at Mitch hard. “You’ve been waiting for this. Haven’t you?”

His words were slightly clearer now, motivated by a surge of adrenaline, no doubt. Their clarity did not make them any less obvious a sign of the that Brody was still in fact drunk and not in any state to be making actual decisions.

Mitch sighed; he’d wanted answers. Maybe he’d wanted a fight, but not this kind of fight.

Not in this context, anyway. “Brody--”

But Brody was not going to be placated now.

He took a step toward Mitch, clearly in an attempt to be menacing. “You love this, don’t you?” he asked in accusation. “A chance to be on your high little pedestal. Mitch is always the right one; Brody’s the screw up.”

Mitch did not yield ground, but he did not engage. “Brody, come on,” he said, hoping to diffuse this confrontation.

Brody did not take the olive branch, and there was no indication that he even recognized it. Instead, Brody snarled. “I’m so tired of it!” he said, and he was yelling now. Loudly. Without restraint.

Mitch glanced around anxiously, hoping that they didn’t get hauled in for creating a public disturbance or a domestic dispute. He’d wanted answer; this was just going to cause more questions that Mitch would be responsible for answering. “Brody, you need to calm down--”

That was the last thing Brody wanted to hear, assuming he even could hear Mitch right now. It was like a switch had been flipped, like whatever vestiges of Brody’s self control had been willfully thrown to the side.

And all that was left was seething anger.

Just a few minutes ago, Mitch had almost wanted a fight.

Now, in the face of Brody’s anger, his own anger had grown limpid. It was clear from Brody’s baiting that a physical fight was in no way a fair one right now. But, in this context, Mitch was also aware that a verbal one hadn’t been fair either. The emotional burden between them was something Mitch had failed to understand himself. How could he expect Brody to grasp it when he couldn’t even string his words together coherently?

Brody swore, his emotion breaking violently, and Mitch could see the punch coming a mile away and he dodged it easily.

Somehow, it still hurt.

Like a punch to the gut, it left him breathless.

Reeling.

So badly that he couldn’t dodge the next punch that Brody threw, sloppy as it was. Instead, he caught it, absorbing Brody’s force. His instinct kicked in, and he twisted Brody’s arm around his back, instantly subduing him. Brody yelped, being force to a knee as Mitch drove him to the ground.


He only held the position for a moment before he was flooded with regret. For this, for everything. For things Mitch couldn’t even quite quantify. Just regret.

As he released Brody, Brody tumbled back, struggling to get his balance. It was made harder by his compromised equilibrium, and Mitch reached out to steady him.

That was the opposite of what Brody wanted.

Red in the face, he pushed Mitch away, knocking himself over in the process. He hit his ass hard, and scrambled to his feet, eyes burning bright as his cheeks went scarlet. Embarrassment, yes. And fuming as well.

Mitch braced himself, worried about another attack. Not because he was in danger, but because he didn’t know if Brody would recover emotionally from another failed attempt. “I didn’t bail you out to fight you,” he said, not trying to sound harsh, but trying to make his point clear.

Brody stumbled back another few steps, sniffling precariously. He wiped his hand viciously across his face, shaking his head. “Of course not,” he said maliciously, but Mitch could hear the vulnerability beneath the words. “You just came to tell me how much of a screw up I am.”

Mitch gathered himself, resolved for calm now. He needed to defuse this situation. “Brody, please--”

“Please?” Brody snapped back, still seething. “You came to drag my ass out here but it only goes so far, doesn’t it, Mitch? There are always lines in the sand, and you’ll cut me loose, leave me behind. And you won’t look back for me. You won’t. No one ever does!”

By now, Brody was crying, voice breaking on sobs that echoed across the beach, even as he tried to harness his anger more precociously. Mitch had been off his game all night thanks to Brody’s antics. This latest twist, however, made Mitch wonder if he was well and truly in over his head.

He shook his head, not sure what else to do. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Because this was still about answers.

About how in three short weeks, Brody had become his most trusted ally to this drunken mess in front of him.

Brody looked at him now, and his own anger wavered. The facade was crumbling faster than Brody could keep it up, and when he sobbed again, he shook his head, tearing his gaze away.

“Brody,” Mitch said, reaching out for him now.

Brody recoiled, even more violently than before.

“Brody--”

But Mitch didn’t get to finish.

Because Brody turned toward the beach and started to run.

-o-

Mitch had good instincts, his balls were never wrong, but standing there, that night on the beach, he didn’t have a clue what to do. This whole day had been a shit fest, and the strong wash of emotions was like a riptide he could not break free from. He was drowning in it, and he was tempted to stop fighting and let it take him out to sea.

That’d be easier, of course. Brody had been difficult before, but not like he was today. At least, in the past, he’d been wary of Brody to start with. Now that the other man had gained his trust, however, the lack of reliability left his instincts paralyzed.

What were his balls telling him?

Watching Brody run off, his balls were silent, just as dumbstruck as the rest of him. No one had stupefied his balls before.

Damn it, was Brody worth any of this?

The moment he asked himself the question, he saw Brody stumble. He recovered quickly enough, but with compromised senses, the other man wasn’t exactly getting very far, very fast. In fact, his gait was less coordinated with every step, and when he stumbled again, Mitch’s stomach clenched.

The question wasn’t about Brody’s worth.

The question was about whether or not Mitch could live with cutting him loose. Even after all the shit tonight, Mitch knew he couldn’t.

He started to jog, following Brody from a short distance behind. He didn’t get too close for fear of spooking Brody, but he wasn’t about to let him get out of range. These were the protective instincts, kicking back in.

And it was increasingly clear to Mitch that Brody needed protection. If only from himself at this point. He was running haphazardly, falling at regular intervals as he snaked an uneven path along the water line. Brody could hurt himself accidentally at this point. Worse, he was no longer confident that Brody wouldn’t do something even more reckless and stupid than public intoxication.

Mitch’s pace was constant, vigilant but cautious, even as Brody lost his hastily drawn composure. He veered drunkenly from one side to another, and Mitch trusted his instincts when they told him not to surge forward, to not be there when Brody fell.

When Brody broke.

It happened fast, no more than a minute after Brody started to run. This time, when Brody stumbled, both his legs went out and his lack of coordination sent him sprawling face first to the sand. He flailed, making it to all fours with a ragged cry, but his adrenaline failed him, and he made it no further.

Mitch drew up short, watching as Brody panted for air on the sand, exhausted by the physical exertion but even more crippled by the sobs that openly racked him now.

This had gone from worrisome to infuriating to confusing to straight up unnerving in the span of a few short hours.

Carefully, Mitch approached. He was not trying to be stealthy -- to the contrary, he wanted Brody to know he was there. At the same time, he also tried to quiet -- for as volatile as Brody had been tonight, Mitch didn’t want to risk setting him off again. At this point, Mitch wasn’t actually sure what Brody was capable of. He was decently confident that he didn’t want to find out.

No, he had to be calm, collected and cool. That was the only way to help Brody. And it started with figuring what the hell was going on. Mitch wanted answer, but it was obvious to him now that they would have to be presented on Brody’s terms.

After several long seconds, Brody heaved a sigh, flopping back onto his ass with his knees up and his arms rested upon them. His face was streaked with tears; some were still leaking and his skin was mottled in the muted moonlight. The fight was gone now; as he sat there, his body was almost deflated.

Cautiously, Mitch edged closer. He was worried that Brody might bolt again, but he didn’t even flinched, not bothering to wipe his face, even though snot was started to collect on the tip of his nose. Mitch wasn’t sure what to say; what to do.

Brody took another breath, letting it out miserably. He shook his head. “I screwed it all up,” he confessed flatly. “I screwed everything up.”

Mitch took this as an invitation to come closer. He stood, a few feet shy of Brody, in a position that allowed them to look at each other in the face, if Brody wanted from his position on the sand.

Brody looked disgusted. “I took everything good and I threw it in the trash,” he said. “Because that’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. I’m a natural screw up, all my life. That’s why nothing ever works out for me. Because I’m a shitty person, and everyone around me knows it before I do.”

“That’s not true,” Mitch told him, gentle and careful.

At this, Brody looked up. His expression was one of genuine incredulity. “I got arrested for public intoxication,” he said, the words clearer than they had been before. Brody anger and his grief had sobered him somewhat. “And that’s after blowing off training and doing a shitty job for the past two weeks on duty. Honest to God, Mitch, I have no idea why you’re here.”

“Because I care about you,” Mitch’s answer came, almost without thought.

“But why?” Brody asked, and it was the most sincere, rawest question Mitch had ever heard someone ask. “When are you going to figure out that I’m not worth it just like everyone else?”

It was Mitch’s turn to shake his head. “We’ve been teammates, roommates -- partners -- for the last several months,” he said. “They’ve been some of the best months of my life. Do I really need to explain that to you?”

“But I always screw it up,” Brody insisted. He made a wide, futile gesture. “I mean, look at me.”

It was true: the sight wasn’t pretty. A drunk Brody, mostly sprawled on the beach with a pending criminal charge.

Mitch sighed. “You’re asking me why,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the real question.”

Brody’s face contorted again. “What other question is there?”

“What changed?” he asked. “Three weeks ago, you have the best rescue of your career. You get positive press, you’re doing everything right. Life’s perfect. Then, something changed. What?”

The question seemed to strike Brody, a little slower than it might have if he hadn’t been drunk. The slow dawning of the realization would have been comical in another context, but Mitch waited patiently while Brody figured it out. “What happened?” he repeated, almost as if asking himself that question.

“What changed?” Mitch asked. He produced Brody’s phone from his pocket, showing it to him. “Was it this?”

Brody stared at the phone, almost mesmerized. The confusion faded softly, and he tipped his head as if recalling something in detail. “After the story broke, the one about the kids and the boat and all that,” he started, almost as if in a dream. “I got this, like, email.”

“Email?” Mitch prompted, heart started to pound in his chest. He’d come for answers; he might finally get them.

Brody nodded, a little distantly. “I didn’t recognize the name, but she knew all this shit about me. Not the shit in the papers, but the stuff about me as a baby. Where I was born, when I was born. She told me--” He broke off, smiling as fresh tears ran down his face. “She told me that she was my mom.”

Mitch blinked, dumbstruck for the second time that night. “Your mom?” he repeated, for the lack of something more intelligent to say.

Brody bobbed his head again. “My birth mom, I mean,” he clarified. He was looking past Mitch now, at some indefinable point in the night. “The one who gave me up, you know. When I was a baby.”

Mitch had known bits and pieces of Brody’s history. He’d known, if only in passing, that he’d grown up in the foster care system. He had mentioned foster parents from time to time, but he’d never dwelled on it, just like he never dwelled on anything from his past. Mitch had assumed that was because there had been nothing to dwell on in his history. He had to wonder now if it was because there was simply nothing there he wanted to remember.

Brody’s brow creased, even as he tried to bite back the emotion he clearly felt. “Some kids in the system, they know their whole story. They can tell you about their mom being on drugs or their dad being in jail. They can tell you about the car accident or the domestic incident or some other shitty thing that happened to them to put them in the system,” he continued. “I didn’t have a story, though. My mom, she didn’t even keep me for a day before putting me in the system. She barely took the time to fill out my birth certificate so I had a name. When I turned 18, I tried to find her, but there was no paper trail for her. She hadn’t left any way for me to contact her because she’d never given a shit about me, not once.”

That was before.

Mitch braced himself for what was after.

“But then there it was, 25 years later,” Brody said, rueful now. “25 years with nothing, and she emailed me because she wanted to get to know me. She wanted to meet me, to be with me. She wanted a whatever, a relationship.”

On the surface, that might have seemed like a good thing. But it wasn’t that simple. And Mitch could tell that the story wasn’t done yet. “It seems random,” he observed quietly when Brody’s silence lapsed.

Belatedly, Brody seemed to remember that he had been talking. “Not really,” he said. “The headlines, you know? Where I’m a gold medalist and a hero? Made me sound like I was living a good life.”

“Well, you are,” Mitch said quickly.

But Brody was already shaking his head. “She doesn’t care about a job I love or a team who cares about me,” he said. “She thought I’d hit it big. That I had sponsors and endorsements. That I was loaded.”

Mitch frowned at the assumption. “You can’t know that for sure--”

Brody’s eyes focused on him again, too tired to be anything else. “When I told her I couldn’t afford a plane ticket out to Iowa to meet her, she told me to stop kidding around,” he said flatly. “I mean, sure she talked about wanting to be a family, but when I really explained to her that my performance in Rio had left me without sponsors, without trainings, without prospects -- not to mention a criminal record -- I even told her about how I had to live with my boss because I didn’t have any cash to rent a place -- and you know what she did? You know what all that talk of family and connected amounted to? Nothing, Mitch. She stopped responding to me. It’s been a whole week, and she hasn’t replied to anything.”

It was a horrible story; the kind of story that you read about and wondered how it might be true. It was the kind of story that shaped murderers and social outcasts. The kind that people struggled to overcome their whole lives. Struggled, and failed.

Brody’s gaze slipped away again, and he shrugged. “I’d wondered, you know? About who she was, what she was doing,” he said. “I spent my whole life, bouncing from foster home to foster home, looking for someone who wanted me. And it was stupid, but I did think about it when I went to the Olympics. I thought about how if I won the gold, I’d be on the news and she’d see me. She’d see that I became something worthwhile and maybe she’d call me up. Maybe then, when she saw that I was worth something, she’d want me.”

That was hard to imagine, for a grown man, much less a cocky asshole like Brody. Of course, that was too easy of an image to lambast. He’d known that there was more to Brody; he just hadn’t realized how much more.

“When I got that email, I was so happy,” Brody said, and he closed his eyes, almost holding his breath. “I’d been waiting 25 years.”

25 years was a long time for anything.

Especially waiting for your mom to acknowledge your existence.

Mitch was starting to feel physically ill again; it hurt to realize this about someone he’d claimed to call a friend. The last 25 years, he’d spent building his career, sharpening his skills, and maintaining positive relationships. Brody had spent his past 25 years trying to believe that someone wanted him. “Maybe something happened, kept her from replying,” he offered weakly.

Brody looked at him, almost like he’d forgotten Mitch was there. “When she first contacted me, she replied within minutes,” he said. “She sent long, excited emails. She told me how I have a sister and cousins and grandparents. She promised that I’d come home -- to a real home -- and we’d be a family, Mitch. That was what she told me. That we could finally be a family. And it’s been a week since she emailed me. When I tried the number she sent, it was disconnected. I tracked down her address online, but what am I supposed to do with that? Go see her with the money I don’t have to try to start the family she doesn’t actually want?”

Shit, Mitch thought. That was all he could think. It was the only coherent thought that properly encapsulated just how bad this story was. Public intoxication, compared to this? Looked like a walk in the park.

In a lot of ways, it was impressive that Brody had held his shit together as long and as well as he had. Mitch saved people in distress all the time, but this was the hardest save he’d ever been forced to reckon with.

He scrambled, almost desperate to make this better. “Maybe it wasn’t her,” he suggested.

Brody’s face contorted again as he looked at Mitch. “And that makes this situation better?”

Mitch sighed, silently conceding that it didn’t. Nothing made it better. Not getting drunk. Not platitudes. Those things were bandaids on bullet holes.

It was a shitty thing, not having any way to help Brody.

It had to be shittier still to be Brody.

Feeling more than a little weary himself, he crossed closer to Brody and sat down heavily on the sand next to him. “Not really.”

Brody looked out across the sand again. “This time, I thought, you know, maybe this was it, maybe it was my chance,” he said. “I’d seen kids in the system, other kids who got adopted, who found parents who wanted them. And I thought, I don’t know, maybe it was my turned. Maybe I’d get home this time. Maybe I’d finally earned a family.”

Mitch leaned closer in commiseration now. “Family’s not something you earn,” he said.

Brody turned his head, looking at him with mild dismay. But when he snorted, he sounded like he was not entirely surprised by the answer. “So I’m just screwed then?”

Mitch realized the disconnect right away. Brody assumed that if he couldn’t earn a place in a family, then he would just never have a family. That made sense, given that he grew up never having one of his own. It was an easy thing to take for granted when you grew up with people who loved you and cared for you.

To think about not having that.

It was hard to imagine.

Well, Mitch reflected, it wasn’t so hard to imagine.

A person who didn’t have that stability, that security -- they looked a lot like Brody.

A guy with endless potential, loads of desire and extreme capability.

Who had no idea what to do with it or how to fit in with other people.

Hell, in Brody’s mind, it was probably easier to get drunk and vomit in a pool than do his best and face the uncertain reality that it may not be enough. Because, had it ever been enough for him?

Sitting there, drunk and dejected on a beach, Brody had started off doing everything right three weeks ago, and it had blown up in his face.

That wasn’t fair.

None of this was fair.

“Nah, man,” Mitch said, keeping the correction in his voice as easy as possible. “Family is something you choose. It’s something that chooses you.”

Brody wrinkled his nose, shaking his head. “It’s not that easy,” he said. “I mean, 25 years. No one’s chosen me yet.”

Mitch felt his heart break, more than he expected. “You sure about that?”

Brody was still drunk, and Mitch could see him process that. He could see him, almost thought for thought, going through every foster parent, every case worker, every teacher. He could see him charting interactions with every coach, every sponsors, every teammate. He could see him cataloging every email he exchanged with his birth mother.

For a few long seconds, he came up short.

But the, almost like a lightbulb was going over, Mitch saw him as he thought about the last few months. He saw Brody think about Ronnie and CJ and Stephanie. He saw him think about Summer.

Then, finally, Brody’s eyes locked on Mitch’s again.

This time, among the brokenness, there was the faintest spark of hope.

“Honestly?” Brody asked, his voice thick and breathless. “I don’t have a clue anymore.”

Mitch nodded at him, starting to smile. “That’s probably fair,” he said, all things considered. “We’ll work on it together. Tomorrow, though. When you’re sober.”

Brody, at least, seemed to understand that much. At any rate, he didn’t fight Mitch went he got to his feet, reaching down to grab Brody by the arm and lever him back into an upright position.

This seemed to be a step in the right direction; Mitch allowed himself the briefest and most foolish moment of optimism. Because the second Brody got upright, his loose-limbed stance faltered. He stumbled, and Mitch scrambled to compensate, catching him as best he could and hauling him back up, drawing closer to steady him as much as possible.

Still shaky, Brody was breathing tremulous when he craned his neck to look up at Mitch. With a hard swallow, Brody winced. “Mitch?” he asked, his voice younger than it had any right to be.

Mitch found himself grabbing tighter, almost out of reflex. “Yeah?”

The ghost of a smile passed over Brody’s pale features. “Thanks, man.”

Mitch returned the smile with more vigor and more warmth. “Any time.”

Then, Brody’s already pale features were drained of even more color. He went suddenly rigid, and Mitch barely had time to react as Brody tipped forward and started to hurl.

Startled, Mitch shuffled his feet out of the way, and moved to brace Brody as he continued to retch. Apparently Brody’s weak stomach exist outside the water as much as it did inside. The last time Mitch had seen Brody vomit while drunk, he’d walked away in disgust.

He was still disgusted, no doubt.

But he didn’t walk away this time.

Instead, he held him fast, murmuring in consolidation right at his side, “Any time.”

Because Mitch knew there was no way in hell he could fix the last three weeks, much less the last 25 years. But he could start making the future better, right here, right now, tonight.

Brody hurled some more.

Mitch sighed. Even if the future started with vomit.

NEXT