The thing about Brody was this: he was really good with structure. When someone told him what to do, when they gave him a specific agenda, he could do it. He could keep himself on task and just do the shit that needed to be done. It was best when it didn’t require thought, but just effort, and that was basically how some dumbass foster kid from nowhere Iowa ended up at the Olympics.
The other thing about Brody was this: he was shitty without structure. If you gave him any leeway, he did absolutely nothing. With a night off, he’d do the stupidest shit you could possibly imagine. If you didn’t give him an agenda, he literally crashed and burned. He had no internal self motivation to tell him what was right or wrong, good or bad. This was how he managed to get drunk before the last race of the Olympics, effectively sinking his team’s medal hopes and torpedoing his entire career.
It wasn’t clear to Brody whether Mitch had figured this out yet, or if it his instinct was just to boss people around. Either way, his pragmatic, orderly personality was a good fit for Brody, who needed structure imposed upon him. As much as Brody hated their talk in the morning, it had been critical to his success. Now that Brody knew the shit he had to do, he would do it no matter how shitty it was.
And it was shitty.
It was about the shittiest stuff he’d ever had to do.
But he did it. He goofed off. He played with his phone. He made fun of Ronnie in a not-quite-affectionate way. He vaguely used sexually inappropriate comments toward CJ. He completely blew Stephanie off. All while actually still trying to do his job because he needed his teammates to hate him and think he was incompetent, but he could actually let someone die for this. That would defeat the whole purpose.
The fact that this was part of some grand master plan didn’t actually make it easier. Brody liked Ronnie and thought he was a fun guy. Brody respected CJ and often went to her for advice about their craft. And he was scared shitless of Stephanie, who could probably kick his ass if she put her mind to it.
Yet, none of it compared to how much Brody was dreading the next tasks.
Summer was Summer. He’d been attracted to her from the start, when he saw her carrying a surfboard on the beach and she blew him off with absolute conviction. He’d probably loved her from that time, and even though he’d lobbied for dinner, he’d never told her just how much the idea of putting a baby in her had appealed to him. And not just for the sex, to be clear. Though he did like the sex.
Summer was Summer. His girlfriend. Like, an actual girlfriend. He was in a relationship with her. An adult relationship.
Brody hardly knew what that was, but she was patient and kind and funny and totally awesome. He valued everything about Baywatch, but Summer was in a class by himself. So the fact that he knew that he had to push her away was not an easy one for him to grasp.
He would do it, however.
And in two weeks, she would understand why.
In two weeks, they could talk about everything. He’d tell her about the case, he’d tell her about his mother, he’d tell her that he loved her and wanted to be with her always and shit, he loved her.
He loved her?
He absolutely loved her.
The realization made him feel a little giddy inside.
A giddiness he had to shove back down when he saw her after work because he knew, he knew, he knew what he had to do.
“Summer, hey!” he said, pulling her aside.
Her smile was bright, her eyes warm. “Hey!” she said. “Just let me get changed. Did you have somewhere in mind for dinner? Because I really sort of feel like Mexican and--”
Brody shook his head, swallowing back the tightness in his throat. “Yeah, about tonight.”
She looked at him, earnest. She didn’t have any clue.
How could she? She believed that Brody had changed. That he was a good guy who’d had a rough few weeks. She thought they were going to make things better tonight.
Brody remembered Mitch’s instructions. He recited them to himself in his head for fortitude. “Yeah, um,” he said. “I forgot that I, uh, have a few things I need to get done tonight.”
Her smile faltered. For a second, she looked at him like he might be joking.
He wanted to be joking.
“Oh,” she said, because he couldn’t be joking. “Um. Well, can I help you with it?”
His stomach flipped miserably. Of course she would offer to help him. He really did love this woman. It was harder than before to shake his head and forge diffidence. “No, it’s something I have to do by myself,” he said. “So, um. Raincheck?”
The fact that she hesitated nearly destroyed Brody on every possible level. Hesitation meant that she was considering walking away, which made Brody want to panic completely and lose his shit in a way that made public intoxication look like nothing. Hesitation also meant that she was considering staying, which made Brody want to get down on one knee and propose to her right then and there. No one had ever stayed before. No one except Mitch, and he liked Mitch but Mitch didn’t have boobs and he didn’t kiss like Summer.
She hesitated when he deserved not even a second a thought.
Then, she tucked her hair behind her ear, lowering her voice. “Brody, it’s been, like, three weeks,” she said. “You promised.”
How many promises had Brody made in his life? Most of them had amounted to nothing.
He wanted this one to amount to something.
He wanted it to amount to everything.
“I know,” he said, reaching out and touching her. His fingers brushed against her cheek, but he forced himself to pull away. If he lingered, he’d never pull this off. Instead, he offered her a feeble smile. “I just need a little more time, okay? It’ll all make sense, though. I swear.”
Somehow, inexplicably, she actually believed him. With a reluctant nod, she found a smile. “Okay,” she said. But then she narrowed her eyes with a half-hearted warning. “But you better not take too much time, okay?”
“I won’t,” he pledged, thinking about two weeks in his head. Two weeks, two weeks, two weeks. Two weeks was nothing. “I promise. It will all make sense.”
It wasn’t an easy conversation, and as Brody watched her go, he had to remind himself that this shit was just starting.
Two weeks, he reminded himself, the mantra in his head.
It suddenly seemed a lot longer than it had before.
All things considered, after disappointing Summer, he really could use a drink. In theory, that might make his assignment to the Huntley seem like a good thing. But the second he got there, he realized another salient point that he’d neglected to consider.
Sure, he liked hanging out at bars and partying when he was able to get completely drunk.
Doing it while being sober?
That was shit.
Because he was at a bar. The only thing he’d ever done at bars was get drunk, hit on women and make life altering mistakes that he couldn’t take back. Sitting at the bar, his only impetus was to continue with that pattern, but he knew he had to be sober this time around. Some people, people like Mitch who had self control and who were awesome, could probably drink just enough, know their limits, control their alcohol. Brody didn’t have such limits. He didn’t have the ability to shut shit down.
And if he did that on an investigation? While he was supposed to be undercover? He’d blow the plea deal for sure, and he’d probably botch the whole thing, putting Baywatch at risk.
All or nothing.
Drunk or sober.
Brody knew which one he had to pick.
It was just a lot harder picking it when he was literally sitting at a bar, ordering a drink. It was another nuanced he’d failed to appreciate: being completely sober while pretending to be drunk.
Accordingly, he ordered a single beer, plopped himself down and stared at it for the better part an hour, kind of wanting to cry. Two weeks? Two weeks?!
Plus, not just two weeks being sober in any bar. But this bar.
This bar where he acted like such a dick? This bar where he hurled in the pool? This bar where he nearly threw away all his chances?
What the hell had he been thinking? Then, now, ever?
Within that first hour, all Brody managed to do was conclude that being sober was basically torture, and that he had no idea how he was going to get anything done while being tortured.
But then, this wasn’t about him.
He looked around the bar, taking it all in. He saw people mingling, people laughing, people making out in random dark corners. There were a few people dancing; a lot of people flirting. With a little social lubricant, Brody could have easily assimilated into any of those groups.
But maybe it didn’t have to be easy.
He just had to try harder.
He had to think about it.
That was ironic, of course. Usually, in a bar, his goal was not to think at all. That allowed him to act like an asshole and an idiot without any second thoughts. Now, he had to take those second thoughts and shoved them aside and act like an asshole and an idiot anyway. That was the way he was going to make friends here and start attracting attention.
Getting drunk made this all easier, sure.
Knowing he was doing for this team, however, would make it possible.
He took the smallest sip of his beer and got to his feet, zeroing in on the first group of people. If he only had two weeks, then he could sit around wasting time anymore. He generally regretted the first 25 years of his life, but they had prepared him well for the next two weeks. All he had to do was the exact stuff he’d spent the last two months trying not to do.
That was all.
He started by making chit chat with one of the larger groups of people. He laughed louder at their jokes and made eyes at all the women who looked twice at him and the men too because what the hell. He told stories, bragged about his gold medal using dirty euphemisms and then proceeded to start dancing with the next group of people.
After several songs, he was all over the DJ to make requests, and then he started playing a few games of pool with absolutely no tact and plenty of false bravado. After several hours, he was leading the bar in loud renditions of popular songs, and he was performing with enough gusto that he noticed a few security men checking him out. They were well dressed men, larger than average, and donning suits and ties that didn’t quite look out of place, but they weren’t drinking so Brody was pretty sure they weren’t there casually.
Since Brody wasn’t doing anything wrong for once, he decided to count this as a positive sign. He had someone’s attention at least.
He should probably make the most of it.
Damn, he wished he could drink a little more.
He wished he could drink a lot.
Instead, he waited for a song with the right beat, threw caution, self respect and self awareness into the wind, and took the stage right in the middle of the pool.
As he moved to the beat, he thought of Ellerbee and the DA. As he started gyrating, the thought of Ronnie and CJ. As he grabbed his crotch suggestively, he remembered Stephanie.
When he removed his shirt, throwing it to a cheering crowd, he kept his mind on Summer.
And he finished the dance, dirty and evocative, thinking of Mitch the whole damn time.
When the song was done, the place went wild. Someone handed Brody a drink, a few girls gave him his number. But then the two security men approached him, and Brody thought shit, maybe he’d played this wrong.
But then they parted, and there she was.
True, they hadn’t been introduced, but Brody hardly needed an introduction. It wasn’t even just the way she looked, because while she bore some similarities to her sister, Anikka Leeds was more youthful and less sophisticated, her makeup less polished and a streak of purple in her curly dark hair. Her dress was smaller in all regards, and her features were more angular, making her somewhat less seductive but far more keen. She was smiling.
“That was quite a performance,” she observed. Her accent was also less pronounced than her sister, but her smile was just as captivating. Whereas Leeds had been cultured and charming and calculating, Anikka looked him over like she was a predator stalking her prey. She stared for a long hard moment at his dick before grinning at him. “I think we both need a drink.”
Brody reached into his pocket, turning on the recording device.
Here went nothing.
He expected her to take him to the bar, to break out some of the good stuff, but Anikka was clearly not one to waste time with formalities. She took him to a back office instead, checking the two security guards by the door before mostly pushing him into the comfortable leather couch across from the desk that she clearly never used. It was vast and expensive looking, but aside from a few gaudy knicknacks, it was almost entirely empty.
She waltzed around to the far wall, where there was a small, built-in wet bar. Unlike the desk, it looked very used. Without asking, she opened a bottle of something that looked like it cost more than both of Brody’s gold medals combined and poured him a drink.
After giving it to him, she poured herself a bigger one. Without waiting for him, she took a long, hard drink. Then, she looked at him curiously, studying him over the top of her glass while she leaned back against the bar in contemplation.
Feeling suddenly very self conscious -- which was ironic since he’d just literally done a strip tease in front of a few dozen people -- he took the smallest drink possible, making it take as long as he possibly could before he forced himself to swallow.
She seemed to consider that. It actually looked like it intrigued her. “I’m Anikka. This is my bar now.”
The way she said it wasn’t like a business owner. She wasn’t some trained real estate mogul like her sister. She sounded like some teenage kid, bragging about the new car her parents bought her.
Brody knew this only because he had hated those kids growing up. All these kids who had all this shit that they never had to do anything for. It was just theirs.
And Brody had had nothing.
Still, he didn’t let that train of thought go any further. He attempted to act cool instead. Like he was some super suave gold medalist or something. “I’m Matt Brody,” he said, and instead of sounding cool, he just sounded like a dick.
Which, eh. Maybe that was more effective for the part.
It came way more naturally to him at any rate.
This didn’t quite surprise her, but she gave a little frown. Not a bad frown. A curious frown. “The Vomit Comet?” she asked.
Brody did his best not to blush.
His best wasn’t very good.
Leeds had at least gone for his vanity when hitting him up. Anikka either didn’t see the point or just didn’t care.
“Yeah,” he said. “Also a two-time gold medalist.”
He added that because he was playing the part of an egotistical asshole.
And also because he hated being known as the Vomit Comet.
She shrugged, as if this didn’t matter to her in the slightest. “My sister talked about you,” she said, tapping her finger on her glass. “They say you were there when she died.”
Well, that was awfully blunt. Brody shifted awkwardly in his seat, wishing he could take another sip of the really nice alcohol in his glass. “I was there, but I didn’t do it,” he said. He made a lackluster attempt to soften this conversation. “I wanted to like her.”
Anikka actually laughed at that. “So you thought you’d kill her instead?”
“Actually, she tried to kill me,” Brody said, equally blunt. Leeds had been soft and coercive. Anikka clearly preferred getting to the point. “Twice.”
To his surprise, Anikka grinned at that. “Yeah, she was a bitch sometimes, wasn’t she?” she laughed, pausing to take another sip while regarding Brody critically. “Still, she was my sister. And you are part of the reason we had nothing left to bury at the funeral. Just a foot, can you imagine? We buried a foot.”
Brody winced at that. He remembered that foot. He had nightmares about that foot.
Anikka seemed to shake away the emotion. “It does make us something of an awkward pairing, though,” she reflected, almost sounding sad about that. “Honestly, I’m surprised to see you here, of all places. Most people don’t go back to bars owned by people who tried very hard to kill them.”
Brody shrugged numbly. “Most people don’t buy drinks for people who tried to kill their sister,” he returned.
It was an answer she liked.
Her smile widened; her eyes danced. “Are you sure you don’t have an ulterior motive?” she asked.
“Do I need one?” Brody asked her. “This is still the nicest club on the beach, and the management still has amazing taste.”
“Oh,” she said, feigning a scandalized look. “Flattery?”
“Hell, yeah,” Brody said, feeling increasingly more confident in his approach now. Ironically, honesty had a lot of benefits where Anikka was concerned, as long as he simply focused on the right truths. She wasn’t one to give a shit about nuance, which at least made this a little more straightforward than he’d thought. “I’m a lifeguard; I don’t make shit. So I’m broke, and I could use a few favors. I’ve learned to be a pragmatist when I need to be.”
She swirled her drink thoughtfully. “But what about your work friends?” she asked shrewdly. “I heard Baywatch was like family.”
There it was, a question he could use. A question he needed to use.
He contorted his face, scoffing. “Family? Only if I’m the black sheep no one wants to talk about.”
“My, my,” she said. “Trouble in paradise? I read the headlines just three week ago; you were their golden boy.”
“I was,” Brody agreed. “But one mistake, and that’s it. They’re judgmental bastards who have never screwed up once in their lives.”
“I did see the more recent news,” she said, not sounding particularly apologetic. “Not your best turn, but to be fair, I think Rio was more humiliating.”
“You’d think, right?” Brody said, ignoring the fact that he had to own up to being a moron. He had a feeling she didn’t care if he was a moron; as long as he was a useful moron. An attractive moron. “But one little slip up, and none of the rest matters. I had to come here tonight, because this is the only place they’d leave me alone and stop making feel like I can’t be trusted.”
That wasn’t true.
Like, none of it was true.
Except, it was, kind of?
He’d seen their pitying looks. He’d heard their whispers.
Brody could have made it go away by addressing it honestly with them, but that didn’t change the fact that they had all looked down on him. He’d spent most of his life having people look at him like that.
He hated that he couldn’t address it; that he couldn’t fix it. That he had to wallow in it like he was still the same self sabotaging idiot he’d always been. He had to remember: that wasn’t what it was like at Baywatch. When you gave all you had, they gave it back to you.
Brody was making the choice this time to shut them out.
He was making it to save them.
He had to remember: they weren’t the enemy.
Even if the wounds were raw enough to feel like they were.
Even if he had to convince Anikka that they were.
“Oh,” she said, sounding only marginally sympathetic. “It’s a pity they’re not more forgiving.”
He sat back, acting mollified. “Their loss, I think” he said. “Life’s just too damn short to hold grudges.”
She liked that answer, tipping her head in approval. She lifted her glass at him. “Here, here,” she said with some conviction, waiting for him to lift his, too. They drank in unison, her sip far more significant than his. “Well, I do hope you’ll feel welcome here, at the Huntley.”
Brody tipped his own head to the side. “So there are no hard feelings, then?”
Her smile was smooth, but not like her sister’s had been. Leeds worked hard to put you at ease, to get you to trust her. Anikka didn’t care if she looked like a shark, flashing all her teeth. In fact, that seemed to be a turn on for her, if Brody had to judge.
It was still a little hard for him to tell if she liked guppies or other sharks in her vicinity.
Actually, scratch that, Brody reflected. She would probably devour both.
“Like you said, we have to be pragmatists first, watching out for ourselves,” she said. “Besides, business is business.” She rolled her eyes as if this was truly an inconvenience for her. “That much, at least, I know Victoria would have agreed with.”
For as much as Anikka felt resentment over her sister’s death, it was also becoming clear to Brody that there wasn’t exactly a lot of affection between them. Sibling rivalry? How was Brody supposed to know? He’d never had a sibling to have a rivalry with.
He shrugged. “If you say so.”
“I do,” she said, and she crossed over closer to him, reaching down to squeeze his forearm, her hair brushing against his face as she whispered in his ear. “I do hope you’ll be back. For a refuge. For a reprieve.”
She leaned even closer, lips brushing against the skin of his ear.
“For anything you want,” she concluded, a breathy chuckle hot against his hair before she pulled away.
“Yeah,” he said, putting the glass down and leaning into her just slightly. He let himself look at her breasts, mostly because he knew she’d like that. Then, he lifted his gaze to her bemused eyes once more. “Maybe I will.”
Usually, Mitch liked an active investigation. He didn’t say this flippantly; he understood, inherently, that an active investigation was a sign that something was amiss on his beach, in his bay. That he didn’t like. Ever.
However, Mitch wasn’t naive. He knew that bad shit was always going down, and so he liked that an active investigation meant that he was doing something about it.
He also just liked the work, honestly. Being a lifeguard was great and all, but the investigative part gave it a whole new meaning. He would never confess to being an adrenaline junkie or anything so cliche, but he couldn’t deny that he liked it.
There was nothing usual about this investigation, however.
Starting with the fact that it involved Mitch mostly doing nothing.
A typical investigation was his brainchild. He was the one calling the shots, moving into action. He orchestrated the next move; he was the one who took point. This investigation?
Required him to play backup.
And not just like wingman type backup.
He wasn’t even on site.
He didn’t even have a direct feed.
He just had to sit at home, twiddle his thumbs and wait for Brody to come home, hoping for the best.
To be absolutely candid, that sucked.
It sucked a lot more than he had anticipated, a lot more than he would confess to anyone.
Right now, there was no one to confess it to. No one else at Baywatch knew about it, and Ellerbee would give him a smug I-told-you-so kind of look. Normally, he could tell Brody, but Brody wasn’t here because Brody was the point man on this particular investigation.
Mitch tried his best not to make it look like he was waiting. Instead, he went about his business. He fed the fish. He did his laundry. He made himself an amazing dinner. He drank a beer. He watched some baseball.
Then, he looked at the clock.
Only an hour had passed.
How had only an hour passed?
How was he going to make it through two weeks of playing backup?
When there was a sound at the door, he jumped up. Then he sat down. Shit, he couldn’t look too eager. He couldn’t look too bored or too anxious or too anything.
He was still scrambling to figure out what this meant when he realized that the sound was knocking. It wasn’t Brody.
Flushing with embarrassment, Mitch got to his feet. “Coming!” he called as the knocking sounded again. “Coming!”
He opened the door, surprised to see Summer standing there.
“Summer,” he said. “Hi.”
She didn’t reply in kind. Her lips were pressed together; her complexion was pale. “You’re hiding something from me.”
“What?” Mitch asked.
“Two nights ago,” she said, a note of accusation in her mouth. “Two nights ago, you told me that everything was fine. You told me that things were going to be okay. You told me that Brody would explain it to me later.”
Mitch opened his mouth, not sure what to say.
Summer didn’t seem to notice; at the very least, she didn’t seem to care. “And I waited, patiently, for two days. I waited even when the news hit that he’d been arrested and charged with public intoxication. I waited because you told me that things were fine. I waited, and now things aren’t fine, and I can’t keep waiting anymore!”
He closed his mouth, remembering what he’d told Brody this morning. That advice to keep Summer out of it, it had seemed pretty straightforward -- when Brody was the one doing the hiding. Now, it occurred to him, this was part of what playing backup meant. He had to protect Brody not just from Leeds.
He had to protect him from losing his friends and family at Baywatch.
“Summer,” he said, sighing a little. “Why don’t you come inside.”
She accepted the invitation, but without much grace. She mostly charged past him, still talking anxiously. “I know something has to be up, because he’s acting all weird,” she said. “I mean, did you see him today? Acting like an asshole? That’s not him.” She turned to face him, standing in his living room but making no move to sit. “That’s the jerk who showed up on the beach three months ago. That’s not the Brody who stayed, though.”
“I know it seems weird,” Mitch said.
“Seems weird?” she asked. “He blew me off for weeks, and then he went and got arrested. That’s not just weird! That’s stuff I shouldn’t tolerate. I should break up with him.”
Mitch shook his head, trying to think of some way to calm her down. She would be sympathetic to the situation if she knew the truth. If she knew about the plea deal. If she knew about Brody’s desire to protect the team. If she knew about Brody’s mother.
The problem was, Mitch wasn’t legally able to tell her the first two points.
He suspected that he was morally obligated not to disclose the third.
Which left not much.
“I didn’t lie to you,” he said. “Things are fine. Or, they will be fine.”
She made a face, one that suggested how little she believed him. “Will they?”
“You have to give him time,” he said.
“What have the past three weeks been?” she asked angrily.
“I know, I know,” Mitch said. “I just...it’s not really my place to tell you his secrets.”
“I don’t know how I feel about my boyfriend keeping secrets from me,” she admitted. “This whole thing just feels off, Mitch. It feels like something that it’s not, but I can’t figure out what it is.”
Of course Summer would think that. She was smart, and her investigative instincts were even more natural than Brody’s.
But this deal didn’t involve her.
He sighed again. “If I could tell you, I would.”
Her face fell, lips sitting in a grim line. “You’re covering for him?”
“It’s nothing like what you’re thinking,” he assured her.
“But I don’t even know what to think!” she exploded. “Is he cheating on me?
“Not even close,” Mitch said steadfastly.
“Is he drinking too much?” she asked. “I mean, is this a substance abuse thing? Does he need an intervention? Is he going to rehab?”
It probably could be a drinking problem thing, but Mitch would deal with that issue later. In two weeks. When he wasn’t undercover. “No, it’s not that either.”
“Then, what?” she demanded. “Is he dying? Does he have some incurable disease?”
“Uh, no,” Mitch said. “I’m pretty sure he’s healthy.”
“Then what!” she said, all but yelling now. “I can’t think of a single other reason that justifies why he’s pushing me away!”
“Summer,” he said, crossing over to her and putting a comforting hand on her arm. “I know you care about him. I care about him. And he cares about you. I don’t want to lie to you. The next couple of weeks are probably going to be tough. But just know, no matter what happens, that there is a reason. And that reason will make sense to you.”
“And the reason isn’t that I fell in love with an asshole?” she asked, skeptically.
He chuckled. “You might have,” he said. “But he is the same asshole you fell in love with. Not a different one, no matter what happens over the next few weeks.”
She did not look particularly heartened by this. But she trusted Mitch with almost the same blind trust with which Brody trusted Mitch. She blew out a breath, and nodded her head. “Okay,” she said. “So I guess I wait.”
Mitch nodded, feeling marginally relieved. “We’re all waiting.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Are you sure there’s something you don’t want to tell me?”
“Trust me,” he said, ushering her back to the door. “We’re all looking for answers in this. You just have to let Brody figure out what those answers are.”
At the door, she turned and looked at him, one last time. “If he’s in trouble, Mitch--”
“Then you’ll be the first person I call,” he said, mustering up a small smile. “I promise.”
With that promise, she left, though she hardly looked reassured. Mitch couldn’t blame her. He hardly felt reassured either, mostly because he wasn’t confident that he wasn’t spouting lies to her.
That was a rare thing for him, lacking confidence. It seemed that the moment Brody found his fortitude, Mitch’s own was forfeit. This type of mutuality was new to Mitch. He’d had many friends and teammates, but he had to wonder if this was how it was with partners. With brothers.
And to think, that partner, that brother was out there right now, facing the impossible, and Mitch was sitting at home,spinning well intentioned lies. It wasn’t that he wanted to go back to the previous evening, when he’d posted Brody’s bail and hauled his drunk, broken ass home. But at least he’d had something to do then. Something more than wait.
No matter how he tried, there was no way to wait gracefully. He could not do it subtly, and he finally gave up the pretense and stared at the door, checking his watch every other minute, out of desperation to do anything.
Between his glances at the time. Mitch was cursed to think. Thinking about what Brody was doing was too hard, so he contemplated Summer instead. He wondered how much she believed him. How long her trust would last. He wondered If giving her hope at all had been the wrong thing to do.
His point to Brody earlier in the day still stood. She was a distraction, and she was also a liability. Brody couldn’t be prime bait if he still at a loving and loyal girlfriend.
But it would be unfair to Summer to hurt her like this. Worse, what would it do to Brody? He knew now, better than ever, how much Brody needed stable, loving relationships. Asking him to sacrifice one, even in the short term, could have devastating consequences for his emotional stability.
And as hard as it was sending Brody out there in the first place, the thought of sending him out emotionally compromised was that much harder.
He checked the time again, allowing himself a curse. What was Brody doing? Why the hell wasn’t he back yet?
No sooner had he had the thought when the front door jostled. This time, when Mitch scrambled to his feet, the door opened and Brody had let himself in. He looked tired, weary and surprisingly sober as he dropped his keys on the table. Mitch was so anxious that he made no pretense about the fact that he was waiting. Instead, he stood, like an expectant parent waiting up on their wayward teenager.
Brody made a beeline past him, immediately opening the fridge. Also like a teenager, he managed to find the leftovers from dinner immediately, pulling them out and starting to eat them cold.
Mitch was still standing there. Waiting.
“So?” he finally asked as Brody continued stuffing his face.
Between bites, Brody looked up. “So?”
Mitch was so tense that he did not bother to be exasperated. “How did it go? Is everything okay?”
Brody grabbed himself a bottle of water, taking a long drink. “Anikka is crazy,” he said, putting the bottle down to reach for more food. “But she seems cool with the fact that I helped kill her sister.”
Mitch stared at him, not sure what to make of this information. “So, you met her? You made contact?”
Brody paused long enough to pull Ellerbee’s recording device from his pocket. He tossed it on the counter. “It took some work,” he said, with a meaningful grunt that Mitch had no context for. “But yeah. I met her.”
“How did you manage that?” Mitch asked, despite himself.
Brody gave Mitch a long suffering look. “I know how to make an entrance when I want to.”
“You didn’t do anything stupid?” Mitch pressed him, assessing again whether or not Brody was drunk -- or worse. His eyes were clear, however. He reeked of alcohol, but his speech wasn’t slurred.
Brody didn’t seem to take offense at the question. He shrugged. “I talk shit well, when I want to,” he said. “Also, you remember Ronnie’s dance at the Huntley?”
Ronnie’s dance had been epic. It had also been mortifying. Mitch frowned. “Yeah.”
“I can do that, too,” he said. “Only when I do it, no one’s laughing. And everyone’s looking.”
This seemed like an oversimplification to Mitch somehow. He shook his head. “All you had to do was dance?”
Brody gave him a look of incredulity. “All I had to do? I had to do a strip tease in the middle of the pool in front of everyone there,” he protested. “And I had to do it while completely sober. I’ve made an idiot of myself and grabbed my crotch for effect before, but I’ve never done while thinking straight. It wasn’t fun.”
When he put it like that, it didn’t sound fun. But then, no part of that to Mitch ever sounded fun. “But you did meet her, then,” he said. “An actual introduction.”
“In her office, no less,” Brody said. “We talked, flirted, that sort of shit. She said there was no hard feelings from the fact that I was there when her sister died.”
Mitch wrinkled his nose. “No hard feelings?”
“Yeah, I don’t think they were very close,” Brody said.
“Then why is she so set on revenge?” Mitch asked.
Brody shrugged. “I think there’s a principle or something involved,” he said. “Either that, or Anikka’s just crazy. She might just want to do it because her sister failed, just to show that she can. Sibling rivalry, maybe.”
Mitch cocked his head. “Even when her sibling is dead?”
“Hey, I never had a sibling,” Brody said. “And I told you, she’s not exactly your most stable individual. “She was all, business is business.”
Mitch was nodding along now. “Did she say what kind of business?”
Brody tossed an empty container on the counter, licking his fingers. “No, we didn’t get that far,” he said. “But she did invite me back.”
That was good news. Mitch knew it was good news. He tried to keep reminding himself that this was good news.
Still, when he spoke, his throat felt unusually tight. Words were evading him, and all he could think to say was: “That’s good news.”
His voice was lackluster, however. It did not have the encouraging effect he’d hoped. Instead, Brody reached for the water, drinking some more. Standing across from him, Mitch wasn’t sure what to do.
Or what he could do, even.
He was backup. He hadn’t been on the scene. He wasn’t in charge of this investigation.
Besides, it was strange to admit, but Brody seemed well within himself. He’d stayed sober; he’d kept himself within the mission parameters. And he’d effectively made contact and done the job he’d been asked to do. It was a great first night of work.
And Mitch had nothing to offer.
He sighed. “Oh,” he added, as an afterthought. “I got a text tonight from the furniture store.”
Brody put down the water again, clearly contemplating whether or not he needed to get more food. “Yeah?”
“Your bed is backordered, apparently,” he said.
This actually appeared to distress Brody. “I told you we could have gone with the other one,” he said. “It was cheaper, too.”
“You liked this one,” Mitch reminded him. “And it’s not a big deal. It’s only going to be a little late. The original estimate was a week, now they’re saying two. That’s not bad.”
“I told you the furniture was too much,” Brody said.
“And I told you, it’s your room,” Mitch said. “It’s not a big deal. You’re the one going around telling me how two weeks isn’t that long.”
Brody chewed the inside of his lip. “Two weeks.”
“Should be,” Mitch told him.
“Well,” Brody said, smiling a little. “Looks like we have a lot to look forward to in two weeks.”
Mitch chuckled, taking pity on Brody and breaking out the ice cream in the freezer while Brody eagerly grabbed two bowls from the cabinet. “Yeah,” he agreed, rummaging around for the ice cream scoop. “I guess we do.”
Brody devoured the ice cream, and he went to bed almost immediately after. His recitation of the night’s events did not make them seem overly dramatic, but Mitch could tell that they had taken their toll on the younger man. It wasn’t just that he was tired; he seemed exhausted in a way that he normally didn’t, not even after a long day at work or an especially grueling workout. It was an emotional exhaustion; the kind that Mitch was pretty sure wasn’t going to go away overnight.
It might not go away for two weeks.
It was an exhaustion that Mitch shared, but while Brody found immediate relief in sleep, Mitch found no such comfort. Though he was indeed tired, he found himself to restless to pretend to sleep yet, and he tottered around the house, looking for chores to do. Anything that allowed him to walk past the door to Brody’s room, which was slightly cracked. If he stood there, quiet in the stillness, he could hear the sound of Brody’s breathing.
He found that more reassuring than he’d care to admit.
When he finally did try to go to bed, it was a mostly futile measure, as he tossed and turned, thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong.
The list, when he was honest with himself, was too long to numerate.
What if Leeds knew he was a plant?
What if Brody couldn’t resist the drugs and alcohol?
What if Brody’s cover was compromised?
What if Ellerbee didn’t provide enough backup?
What if Brody’s relationships at Baywatch were broken beyond repair?
What if Mitch could do nothing but sit and worry about the things he couldn’t do?
He sighed in the darkness.
No matter what he told Brody, two weeks felt like forever.
With all his tossing and turning, Mitch was actually grateful for the sunrise. Despite how little sleep he’d gotten, he was more than happy to be up and out of bed. That way, at least he could do something, even if it wasn’t anything that would actually help them get through the next two weeks.
Feeling restless at least made for good motivation to work out. Mitch worked out regardless of his emotional state, but he could use the nervous energy to his advantage. He checked on Brody once before he left, finding the younger man still passed out on the tiny cot. Mitch started a pot of coffee, did some stretches and part of his core routine before hitting the beach for his morning run.
He made good time, using the wellspring of his anxiety to supplement his actual lack of rest. The physical activity was exhilarating, and he liked the pounding of his heart as it pumped the blood through his body. The influx of oxygen didn’t make the situation any clearer to Mitch, but the surge of adrenaline at least made him feel like he’d be able to handle whatever shit the day threw at him.
He was so set on this general principle that he almost ran right by Ellerbee, who was stretching casually at the boardwalk. The cop hurried to catch up with him, falling into pace next to him “What’s up, my man?” he asked, trying hard not to show how heavily he was breathing.
For some reason, Mitch took some pleasure in that. He wasn’t mad at Ellerbee, but he couldn’t deny that it felt good to not be the only person struggling this morning. With a little bit of vindictiveness, Mitch picked up his pace slightly.
Ellerbee, panting, widened his stride to keep up. “How’d it go last night?”
Mitch grunted. He was here to talk about the case, but he hated that he was here to talk about the case. “He made contact,” he said. “Got it on tape for you.”
“Like, contact contact?” Ellerbee asked, but he sounded energized by the insinuation.
“Personal meeting in her office,” Mitch confirmed with a certain grimness. “He thinks she likes him.”
Ellerbee’s pace had eased, growing more steady next to Mitch. “That’s good news,” he said. “Like, really good news.”
Mitch couldn’t bring himself to share the enthusiasm. They ran on for a bit in silence.
“Why don’t you think this is good news?” Ellerbee finally asked him.
Mitch glanced at him, noting that Ellerbee was watching him with discernment. Mitch couldn’t hide this; honestly, Ellerbee was the only one he could confess his doubts to. He couldn’t tell Brody, not without risking Brody’s confidence in himself. And no one at Baywatch could know the truth. And it sure as hell wasn’t likely that he was going to get comfort for Larsen or anyone at the DA’s office.
But Ellerbee was his friend.
He trusted Ellerbee.
He just wasn’t totally sure he trusted Ellerbee with Brody’s future.
“This just seems like a bad idea,” Mitch said, feet still moving across the sand.
“Do you know how many times I wanted you to come to that conclusion?” Ellerbee quipped. “How many investigation I would have given anything to hear you say that?”
Mitch didn’t laugh. “I’m serious,” he said. “We’re leaving Brody completely vulnerable in the field.”
Ellerbee drew himself up seriously. “We’re taking safeguards--”
“He’s a lifeguard,” Mitch said, a little flatly. “And you’ve got him taking point on an undercover operation. We can observe and poke around and take action when needed, sure, but this? Brody’s not trained for anything like this. Two days ago, he was losing control of his shit and getting arrested. Now we want him to work undercover in a bar of all places?”
That much, at least, Ellerbee seemed to take seriously. “It’s a fine line, I know,” he said. “All the things that make him the best candidate for this job also make him the worst.”
Mitch couldn’t keep doing this. He couldn’t. He drew up short, stopping and facing Ellerbee as he came to a stop next to him. “And yet he’s still in there without backup,” he said. “If something goes wrong…”
“He’s not alone,” Ellerbee said. “I’ve got a rotation of plainclothes officers in there every single night. During the day, I’ve got someone posted on the beach outside of Brody’s tower and I’ve got another tracking Leeds Jr. from a distance. And most importantly, I’ve got you.”
He reached out, batting Mitch on the arm.
“You know your boy,” he said. “You know when he’s in over his head. If something’s going down, you’re going to know it. And you say the word, you ring that shell phone -- I’ll bring the whole damn calvary for you.”
With some people, it might just be words.
He and Ellerbee, though, they were beyond words.
Ellerbee meant it.
No matter how much it felt like not enough, it was still as much as Mitch had any right to ask for. Because he had to remember the fundamental problem: this wasn’t his operation. He wasn’t in charge. He wasn’t taking point. He wasn’t the one in the proverbial line of fire. All he could do was exactly what he was doing.
Resigned, Mitch reached into his pocket, pulling out the device. He kept it in his hand as he reached out to shake Ellerbee’s hand. During the handshake, the device switched hands, and Mitch watched as Ellerbee transferred it seamlessly to his own pocket.
He pulled his hand back out, reaching out again, this time pulling the handshake into a hug. Mitch felt a new device pressed into his hand as Ellerbee clapped him on the back.
“We’ve got this, okay?” he said, and he pulled away with a reassuring smile. “You and me? We totally got this.”
Mitch couldn’t quite find a smile to return. “We better,” he said, prepping himself to jog again. “Because it’s not our asses on the line.”
He started off back down the beach. He had a long ways left to go that morning.
He quickened his pace, lengthening his own stride.
He just had a hell of a long way to go.
Waking up sucked.
In general, Brody wasn’t a morning person. He didn’t generally enjoy getting out of bed, no matter what hour it was. That had been one of the biggest adjustments when moving in with Mitch: mornings had become a requirement. In fact, Brody was fairly certain that Mitch took a certain perverse pleasure in assigning Brody to the early shift as often as possible. Mitch claimed it was because they worked well together. But Brody still had his suspicions.
Brody had actually kind of gotten used to that. When pushed came to shove, he sort of liked being scheduled with Mitch, and he’d come to appreciate, to varying degrees, how much he could get done in the morning when he was up before noon.
Not this morning, though.
Most mornings, after spending all night at the club, he would have been too hungover to function. He had no hangover when he woke up this morning.
Somehow, he still felt terrible.
He felt tired and slow, he felt sluggish and uncomfortable. He ached somehow, and the deep weariness in his bones could not be explained. Worse, he knew it would never go away. Well. Not for two weeks, anyway. Most of the time, he could count on the job as at pickmeup. He could look forward to Ronnie and his goofy camaraderie. He could take comfort in CJ and he open heart. He could find solace in Stephanie and her by the hook mentality. He could look forward to kicking back with Summer.
Today, he had to piss all his friends off, do his job poorly, and flirt with women who probably wanted to kill him.
Brody lay on his cot, letting his arm flop over his eyes. This was why he was never getting drunk again. Consequently, it was also why he wanted to get drunk right now, the early morning be damned.
This wasn’t about what he wanted though. This was about the needs of the team.
So Brody got up. He exercised. He ate his breakfast.
And then he went to work.
On time, just like he was supposed to.
But then he milled around the beach for three minutes, because he was supposed to do that too. Everyone raised their eyebrows when Mitch barked at him, “You’re late.”
Brody, with great affectation, rolled his eyes. A few people whistled under their breath, and Stephanie glared at him. Brody refused to look like it bothered him. It was the perfect way to set a dissident tone.
Plus, it allowed him to avoid Summer, who tried to pull him aside after shift assignments. “Hey,” she said. “Everything okay?”
“ Yeah,” he lied to her flippantly. “I got to go, though. Mitch is being a bastard already.”
“Well, he hates it when you’re late,” she said.
“Stupid, right?” he said, pulling away from her and heading to the beach. He knew she was watching him. He knew that she knew he was lying. Mostly, he knew that she had no idea why.
It was exactly the way he needed it to be.
Even if he hated everything about it.
The day did not get better. Which meant it went really well for the case.
Really poorly for Brody’s place at Baywatch.
To make matters worse, everyone was being, like, really stupid that day. The tide was high, and the waves were strong, which meant that people always got too close and always underestimated their ability to withstand. Brody had to make three interventions and one actual save, and he was dangerously close to doing his job far too well for the day.
Anikka didn’t like subtlety. She wasn’t particularly a fan of doing things quietly. She wanted bigger and better. She didn’t give a shit if Brody did his job well.
She wanted him to do it bigger.
That was what would turn her on.
That would get him the in he needed.
But what was he supposed to do?
He couldn’t shove a bunch of people into the riptide just to drag them out.
But, he thought, scanning the beach down to tower three with his binoculars. Ronnie was on duty, grabbing his life preserver as he ran into action. Brody could outrun Ronnie. He could outswim, too.
He didn’t have to create a rescue.
No, Brody told himself as he grabbed his own life flotation device. He just had to steal one.
Moving his legs with ease, he slid his way down the beach, quickly crossing the distance to to tower three. Ahead of him, he could see Ronnie sprinting into action -- a growing commotion just beyond the shallows.
Brody’s gut churned.
Someone was screaming, “My baby! My baby!”
A kid was the shittiest rescue there was. Because if you failed, you really failed.
If you got it right, though?
That was what made headlines.
Brody needed headlines.
And this kid needed to be saved.
This could work.
This would work.
Brody decided this as he plunged into the water, a few steps behind Ronnie. With his exquisite swimming strength, it was easy enough to overtake Ronnie, and when he cleared the first line of waves, he was the first within distance of the kid.
“Brody, what the--” Ronnie asked, but Brody didn’t let him finish. Instead, he dragged the kid close, propping her up on the flotation device before swimming with her back to shore.
He was still a stroke ahead of Ronnie, and he scooped the little girl up when he hit the sand, using fast, easy strides to cross over to the mother, who was waiting, crying and expectant, as Brody deposited the child, sniffling and reaching, into her arms.
It was luck that the press happened to be on hand.
It wasn’t luck that Brody stayed longer than necessary at the mom’s side, comforting her and visibly checking the child. He stayed long enough to do his due diligence.
And then longer still for the photo op everyone so clearly wanted.
As he gave his name to the reporter, he saw Ronnie watching him from a short distance away. He looked a little wary, a little disappointed. But when Brody finally crossed his way back across the beach, he fell into step next to Brody.
“That was pretty impressive,” he said, and his voice sounded awkward, like he was forcing it to be light. “But, um, you know I had that, right? I had that.”
Brody shrugged, wishing he could offer some encouragement. Ronnie would be one of the hardest to turn against him; he was just too good of a guy to assume the worst in someone he’d decided to call a friend.
That was why he had to work harder with Ronnie.
To be an absolute jackass. “I know you were trying, man,” he said, patting Ronnie on the shoulder with mock reassurance. “But it was a kid this time. I really didn’t want to take any chances, you know?”
He jogged off ahead, ignoring the shocked look on Ronnie’s face.
He turned back around, clicking his tongue in that way that no one had liked ever. “Keep working on that diet!” he said. “Maybe someday you won’t need the head start!”
Ronnie looked hurt; surprised. Too taken aback to be mad. Too wounded to actually be pissed off.
That was okay, Brody told himself bitterly, as he turned front again and jogged his way back toward his tower. He flashed a smile at a crowd of gawking women, stopping for a selfie when he hit the ramp.
Because Brody was pretty sure he hated himself enough for the both of them right now.