Mitch couldn’t get it out of his head
He had been the one to say the words. They’d come out of his mouth, his.
A lot can change in a week.
What the hell did that even mean? What did he want it to mean? What didn’t he want it to mean?
And what the hell had Brody meant when he told Mitch not to worry about it?
The very disclaimer that Mitch shouldn’t worry required Mitch to worry.
Mitch couldn’t get any of it out of his head.
Not for a lack of effort, either. At home that night, Mitch had been relentless. Now that he’d cleared his stuff from the spare room, he took to cleaning it robustly. In general, Mitch was a pretty clean guy. He knew his way around a duster, and he kept his vacuum cleaner in good repair. He had a foolproof method for buffing windows without smudges, and his laundry was always folded.
That said, Brody’s room had essentially been his closet. Even a clear and orderly dude like himself didn’t take time to scour his closet.
He’d offered it to Brody, however. If it was going to be Brody’s home, Mitch wanted it to be worthwhile. He didn’t want Brody to be stuck with Mitch’s leftovers or hand-me-downs. This was a family of choice; not one of convenient. Brody was his first thought, so he couldn’t treat him like an afterthought.
Besides, scouring the room was apt distraction. If he maintained a vigorous cleaning effort, he didn’t have to think about the things he’d said to Brody that afternoon.
More than that, he didn’t have to wonder about the implications of the things Brody had said to him.
Mostly, he didn’t have to think.
He just had to clean.
At this point, if he could scour his own brain with bleach, he might do it.
The efforts were going well. Mitch had cleaned the floors, the shelves and washed the walls for good measure. He had also managed not to obsess over Brody’s undercover work and how it was tearing apart the team until he sat down to rest on the bed.
As he sat down, he had to move Brody’s bag.
It was funny to think about it that way. That he had to move Brody’s bag. For all the weeks Brody had lived here, everything he owned was still in that stupid bag. His entire life was packed and ready to go. Mitch could literally pick it up and put it aside, just like that. Like it was nothing.
Except it wasn’t nothing, was it?
It was everything.
What did Brody have anyway? A few pairs of clothes? Two gold medals? He didn’t carry anything else, no momentos, no keepsakes. Nothing that tied him to anyone or any place.
Mitch had wanted to change that. He still did. He just needed one more week.
One more week and Brody could unpack the bag.
One more week and Brody would have more than a bag to call his own.
One more week and Brody would belong here, with him, forever.
Shit, a lot could change in a week.
Mitch just had no way of controlling if things changed for the better or for the worse.
In short, Mitch really just didn’t have any control.
That was the hard part, when Mitch got right down to it. That was the part he had trouble admitting. It wasn’t hard for him to admit that he liked Brody. It wasn’t even hard for him to come clean with the fact that he wanted to keep Brody in his life. What he hated -- what he struggled with more than anything -- was that he couldn’t determine the outcome of this.
He had to trust the DA to hold up his end of the bargain. He had to trust Ellerbee to provide the necessary backup. He had to trust his Baywatch team to still stand with Brody after all the shit he’d put them through.
And mostly, he had to trust Brody. Brody, whom he’d chosen. Brody, who had accepted a place in Mitch’s home and Mitch’s life. Brody who screwed up worse than anyone else. Brody who came through when it counted.
Whose entire existence was tied to a single shoulder bag.
That night, when Brody came home, Mitch was still sitting in the room. It took Brody a few minutes to find him, and when he did, he looked a little uncertain.
“Um, okay,” Brody said, shuffling his feet in the doorway. “You, um. Looking to crash here tonight?”
It wasn’t an actual question, but it also wasn’t a joke. It was just words. Awkward, uncertain words between two people who didn’t know what to say anymore.
“I just was cleaning,” Mitch explained. He looked at the cleaning supplies he hadn’t had the energy to put away just yet.
Brody looked too. He seemed more vexed by them than Mitch was. It was possible, of course, that Brody didn’t know what cleaning supplies were. It was also possible that he was just tired after a long night of...whatever.
Mitch looked at Brody again. He looked better, to some degree. Not quite as shell shocked as the night before, but there was still a general hollowness in his expression. Almost something haunted.
Tonight, in contrast to the previous night, he had a grip on it at least.
Mitch tried to feel like that was a good thing, even if he wasn’t sure it was. “So, how’d it go?” he asked. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but he knew that he needed to.
Brody came a little farther in the room, placing his cell phone on one of the shelves. “Okay,” he said, and he hesitated. Pulling the recorder out of his pocket, he held it out to Mitch. “She’s offered me 30 percent of the drug trade.”
Tired as Mitch was, that number hit him hard. “30 percent?” he asked, taking the recording and looking at it with awe.
“That’s high, right?” Brody said. “Is it too high?”
“It’s high,” Mitch confirmed, not sure what else to make of it. He’d met Leeds; with her, he’d say it was a trap. He’d never met Anikka, however. From Brody’s description, it could just be an impulsive trade -- if Brody was offering her something she wanted bad enough. “What did you promise her?”
“Same stuff,” he said, shrugging slightly. “But I told her we needed to focus less on the team.”
“Less on the team?” Mitch asked. “How?”
“Because taking down the team is too hard,” Brody said.
Mitch resisted his urge to snort. It was easier than Brody thought it was.
“All we have to do is target you,” Brody said. He paused, almost flinching slightly at his own words. “I figured that at least if we targeted you, it wouldn’t be so bad. I mean, you know why I’m doing it at least.”
That was actually pretty smart.
Mitch wondered why he hadn’t thought of it earlier. He’d been the one to kill Leeds; that was common knowledge. He could play scapegoat well enough, which would take the burden off of the others -- and especially off of Brody.
Except the burden wasn’t off Brody.
It couldn’t be.
Anxiously, Brody fiddled with his hands in his pockets. “If you think it’s a bad idea, I can change it,” he said, the words coming out in a rush. “I mean, Anikka seems to be letting me take the lead on this one, she’s trusting me to figure it out, and I can--”
But Mitch shook his head to cut Brody off. “No, it’s a good plan,” he said. “It’s smart.”
Brody looked wholly unconvinced. “Then, um. What’s wrong?”
What was wrong?
What the hell kind of question was that?
Mitch wanted to shake the kid. He also wanted to laugh in his face. Part of him even just wanted to body slam him.
He couldn’t do any of those things.
Not to Brody.
Mitch sighed. “This whole operation, I mean, I get it. I get why you have to do it. I get that it’s a plea deal and I get that it’s more than that for you. I get that the team is at risk and that Ellerbee needs you and you specifically. I get it.”
Brody was pale, and he blinked. “But?”
“But,” Mitch said, lifting one shoulder into a shrug. “I’m worried about you. I’m worried about you all the time. I worry that you’re safe, that you’re not drinking too much, that Leeds hasn’t gotten you on drugs. I worry that she’s using you, I worry that she’s going to find out you’re using her. And I’m worried that when all this is done, that we still won’t have the family we set out to make. All of that, and I know there’s not a damn thing I can do about any of it. That worries me more than the rest. That you’ll need me and that I won’t be able to help.”
It was a lot to say. Honestly, it was more than Mitch probably had intended to say. More than he’d realized that he wanted to say. Needed to say.
And still, somehow, it wasn’t enough. It would never do justice to the things he was thinking.
Brody stood his ground better than Mitch might have expected after that kind of confession. Brody had never struck him as one who was particularly sensitive. He didn’t like to talk about feelings. He rarely made mention of his past or even his insecurities. The only reason Mitch anything about the recent weeks was because he’d been the one to bail Brody out. Even though, the confession about his birth mother had been only made when Brody was drunk.
But Brody had made a choice.
As it turned out, he was standing by that choice, even when it got hard.
“I’m worried about me, too,” Brody finally said, and he almost laughed at that. A laugh that barely masked a cry. “I mean, shit, man. I’m in so deep. Like, the alcohol is bad enough. I have to be in a club every night and I don’t know how to do that without getting drunk. And now there are drugs involved? Do you know how much easier drugs make this shit? Like, all I have to do is ask, and I’d have whatever I wanted, but I know if I do that, if I give in, then this whole thing is gone, man. I can screw this all up in a second, and I know that. Literally, every second that I’m there, it’s all I can think about. Because if I screw this up, I screw it up for everyone, and I don’t -- I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know what to do because I made a promise to Ellerbee and my friends hate me and I think Anikka wants to screw me, like literally screw me, and I’m putting all of this on you--”
His voice broke off, the emotion choking him. Mitch’s own throat was too tight to speak, to even pretend like he could speak.
Brody blinked rapidly, inhaling sharply to find enough gusto to continue. “I’m worried because everyone is counting on me to do the right thing, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” he admitted, even more shakily than before. “I don’t have a clue, Mitch.”
If Mitch’s confession had been surprising, Brody’s is nearly dumbfounding. Neither of them had expected it, and for a horrible moment, Mitch didn’t know what to do with it.
Then he realized, of course he knew what to do with it.
He’d known the minute he’d offered to be Brody’s family.
The only thing he could offer just happened to be the thing that mattered most. “You do have a clue, and you know exactly what you’re doing,” Mitch said. “You’re just scared to do it alone.”
Brody watched him, a little wary. He didn’t disagree.
“But you’re not alone,” he said, and he found himself on his feet now. “This is hard for both of us, I can’t pretend that it’s not, but you’re not alone, Brody. You’re not.”
Brody’s expression was hesitant. It was plain that he wanted to believe Mitch -- he just wasn’t sure how. “I promised her you,” he said, a little quiet, a little halting. “And what I have to do to give her to you -- it may be bad.”
It was vague, but ominous. Mitch frowned slightly. “Bad how? For Baywatch?”
Brody shook his head. “We’ll stop it before the fallout kills the program, I know that,” he said. “But it’s going to put you in Anikka’s sights. It’s bad for you.”
Brody still sounded grave, but Mitch couldn’t find it in him to be worried about that. “Hey, you have enough on your plate right now,” he said. “The last thing you need to worry about is me.”
“But if the backup isn’t in place,” Brody ventured. “I mean, she really wants to kill you, Mitch. Disgrace you, sure. But 30 percent? I’m pretty sure she’s going to be looking for actual carnage.”
At least this much Mitch could reassure Brody on. “Doesn’t mean she’ll going to find it,” he said. “I mean, okay, you have to drag my name through the mud. You have to butt heads with me at work. You have to say shit in the news about how I’m no good for the bay. That’s fine.”
“But the bay is your life,” Brody said. “I mean, you’ve earned your reputation because you’re good.”
“And you think one week will change that? Forever?”
Brody paled a little bit; they could both remember Mitch’s dire warning from earlier in the day.
“Look,” Mitch said, because Brody needed him. Now more than ever. For the next week, especially. “You worry about keeping yourself safe. You keep yourself sober, and you don’t let Leeds get in your head. Remember to keep your eye on the prize, man. A week. We just have to get all of us through a week.”
Brody looked moderately reassured. He nodded slightly. “And then this case is over,” he said, biting back the tremble in his voice. “Right?”
“I guess,” Mitch said. He shrugged, more flippantly than he actually felt. “But it’s also a week until your furniture gets here. I got an update text earlier today. They’ve moved it from the warehouse. One week and you have a room of your own.”
It was an unexpected turn, one that Brody hadn’t been thinking about at all.
It was one he needed.
Or at least one they both wanted.
Brody grinned. “A week,” he said, nodding to himself. “I can’t wait.”
Mitch finally made his way to the door. “Me, too, man,” he said. “You hungry?”
“I could eat,” Brody said.
“Get changed, then,” Mitch said. “I’ll whip us something up.”
Because this whole shit-fest was a week from being over.
But that didn’t mean that they had to wait until then to enjoy the moment.
It was actually a pretty good night.
This was comparative, more or less. The last week had been so incredibly awful that anything moderately okay would have seemed like a massive improvement. But when it was just the two of them, when there were no guises, no posturing, no debates -- when they could just be them, then it felt like it was supposed to.
It felt like a choice.
It felt like a promise.
Mitch had gone to be thinking that anything was possible.
He woke up a little less confident.
Despite the fact that he’d slept better than he had in a week, Mitch was still up with the sun. He kept his weight work lighter today, and instead focused on a longer run before meeting up with Ellerbee at their designated drop point.
Ellerbee, at least, looked keen to see him. They did the swap early on in the run before they fell into an easy rhythm down the boardwalk, the sound of their feet on the ground loud enough to drown out any possible listening ears.
“I ran the latest by the DA,” Ellerbee said, maintaining his poise like a pro. There would be no indication to anyone watching that they were talking about something important, dangerous and very secret. “It’s good shit, man. Really.”
Mitch didn’t have enough breath to sigh. “But?” he said.
“Well, I told you, it’s not quite enough,” he said. “I mean, it’s effective in building the case, but if we want enough to indict her, we’ve got to have something concrete.”
“Last night she offered him 30 percent of the drug trade,” Mitch supplied.
At that, Ellerbee almost missed a step. “30?”
“I know,” Mitch said. “You sure there’s no sign that she’s onto him?”
“No,” Ellerbee said, and he sounded sincere. He was just as shocked by the percentage as Mitch had been. “Her surveillance on him is surprisingly light. She’s got a guy on him, and there’s evidence that she’s pinged him name with a background check or two, but honestly, I just think she’s new to this.”
“To revenge? Or to crime?” Mitch asked.
“To business,” Ellerbee said. “Hell, life.”
Mitch gave him a critical look. “Then why is she such a threat?”
“Because she’s young and unpredictable,” Ellerbee said. “I mean, Leeds was calculated, right? But this girl? She is just a girl. She’s reckless and impulsive--”
Mitch tried not to snort. It sounded far too much like someone else he knew. But Brody was at least trying to grow up.
“And I think her offering him so much is just because he’s got something she really wants,” Ellerbee concluded.
Mitch considered that; it had been a possibility he’d deemed possible last night.
That still didn’t mean he was ready to accept it point blank. “But what if we’re wrong?” he asked. “What if she’s setting Brody up?”
“Well, you’re going to take this the wrong way, but I don’t think it changes much,” Ellerbee said. “I mean, if she was going to do something, I think she would have done it by now.”
It was all Mitch could do not to stop and stare at him right then and there. “You’re consolation for me is that he’s not dead yet so let’s keep trying our luck?”
Ellerbee sighed, somehow still keeping pace. “All I’m saying is that we continue to keep a close eye on things,” he said. “As long as he’s at the Huntley, I’m guessing he’s not in much danger. Once they give him the address for the deal, then we’ll break out the big guns.”
“I still don’t like it,” Mitch huffed. “Brody basically has to be there for a drug deal, and people don’t play nice at those.”
“I know,” Ellerbee said, just a little defensive. “That’s why we’ll have him on a live wire with full backup ust outside.”
Mitch jogged on a little farther, Ellerbee keeping step. “And you’ll do the bust, right then and there?”
“Nah, we’ll wait till they clear out,” Ellerbee said. “Don’t want our boy caught in the crossfire.”
Mitch nodded his approval at that caveat. “The whole point of this is to get him out safe, right?”
Ellerbee drew to a stop. “I’m always going to put him first, okay?” he said. “We know that the DA won’t. We know that Leeds Jr. won’t. At this point, I’d be surprised if your Baywatch buddies give a shit. That’s why we have to be there for him. You’re the first line of defense. And I’m the last.”
Mitch was trying to catch his breath, squinting out over the water in the morning sun. “We’re trusting him with a lot.”
Ellerbee shoved him, light and friendly. “I think I’m trusting you with more.”
Mitch almost smiled at that.
Ellerbee wasn’t wrong about that much.
He just had to believe that Ellerbee wasn’t wrong about the rest. That Brody could get Leeds to implicate herself, that Ellerbee’s team could provide proper backup when the deal went down and that Mitch could make sure nothing unexpected messed the whole thing up.
“All right,” Mitch said, offering Ellerbee a hand to shake. Ellerbee took it, and Mitch nodded. “See you tomorrow?”
“You know it,” Ellerbee agreed. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
Mitch chuckled humorlessly as he started off at a jog. “Pretty sure that’s not what Brody’s got planned for me today!”
It had sucked the past few days. Brody had hated making fun of Ronnie. He’s loathed making condescending remarks to CJ. He couldn’t stand being separated from Summer. He didn’t like making fun of Stephanie’s rules.
Okay, he enjoyed that a little bit. Stephanie did take the rules awfully seriously, even the really dumb rules. Once she’d lectured him about the state of his tower, telling him that he “had no sense of organization.” Then she’d cited, like, three different statues from the lifeguard handbook to back her up, but they’d been so vague and stupid that he’d stopped listening and he didn’t know if they were actually legit or not.
Either way, he’d cleaned up his tower.
Even if he thought Stephanie was a little bonkers.
But hey, to each their own. It worked for her. Since Brody wasn’t sure what worked for him most of the time, who was he to judge?
That said, he didn’t mind making fun of Stephanie’s rules. But he usually did it behind his back because Stephanie was scary.
That was what he didn’t like.
He didn’t like, in any form, being yelled at by a woman who could probably kick his ass. Sure, he had more muscle mass than she did, but Brody was so scared of her that he’d never be able to mount a defense against her much less an offense so he was pretty sure how any fight would end.
He was letting himself get distracted. Because, frankly, Stephanie was no longer his concern. She was, as it turned out, no longer his target.
His target was just Mitch.
The oceanic bastard himself.
Now, this was good in some ways. Mitch, at least, knew what shit Brody was up to. He would know that when Brody was an absolute asshole that it wasn’t actually personal and that Brody hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to be an actual human being. He would know that Brody was playing a part.
And Brody would know that his anger, in turn, would also be an act.
That didn’t actually matter, though.
Mitch was terrifying. He’d made Brody squeak like a little girl by just yelling at him. The good thing about falling into the pool and vomiting was that no one was aware that he’d also pissed his pants in fear.
That wasn’t a joke.
None of this entire mess was a joke.
If Brody wanted Anikka to trust him, like trust him trust him, then he had to deliver. He had to give her something gaudy and ostentatious. He had to go over the top. He had to humiliate Mitch, overtly call his leadership into question. He had to take on a force of nature and win.
It had sounded like a super good plan last night in Anikka’s office.
Standing watch timidly in tower two, he really wasn’t sure anymore.
In fact, Brody spent most of the morning questioning every life decision he’d ever made. And not just the ones you might expect. Sure, he thought about what would have happened if he didn’t go drinking the night before his last race at Rio. But he also thought about if he’d not agreed to train for the Olympics at all. He wondered what would have happened if he’d stayed with his high school coach, the one who had actually seemed to care about him and hadn’t pushed him to destroy his body. He thought about the last foster family, the one that had paid for all the swim lessons, and he thought about how things might have been different if he hadn’t made a habit of drinking their alcohol while they weren’t home and cursing them out because they told him he had to go to school. They hadn’t been bad to Brody, but he’d been bad to them because the whole world pissed him off and he didn’t see any reason why these people would be any different from any of the rest who had gotten tired of him one way or another.
He wondered what might have happened if he hadn’t gone for a record of the most foster families in a year during his stint in junior high. It had seemed like a good idea at the time -- his last family had virtually ignored him, bunking him with 5 other boys in a single room, before feeding them all a helping of food to share amongst themselves. Brody had been the runt of the litter, so you could imagine how much he got to eat.
He even thought about that first foster family, that one he barely remembered, except the way the mom used to hug him and kiss him and tell him they were going to be a family. He wondered what might have happened if they didn’t get pregnant, if it hadn’t been twins, if the dad hadn’t told Brody that there was someone out there for him and Brody would find them someday.
It got so bad that Brody thought about what it must have been like when he was a baby, all little and ugly and crying. He wondered what might have been different if his mother had loved him, if she’d wanted him. Would his life have been better? Or would have it have sucked just as much -- if not more?
Choices. Families were choices. And Brody made lots of shitty choices. Worse, he made shitty choices for shitty reasons most of the time.
This time, however, the shitty choice had a good reason.
He kept telling himself that.
The reason had to matter, didn’t it?
It had to make a difference why he was doing something? It wasn’t the same thing, Brody wasn’t making the same mistakes. He wasn’t.
As he calculated his next move, zeroing in on Mitch in tower one, it sort of felt like he was.
It really felt like he was.
But he was all in. No turning back. He had to finish this.
All he needed was an opening.
Fortunately, it was a gorgeous day in Southern California. The beach was packed.
More importantly, the tide was strong.
It was only a matter of time before Brody got his break. He needed more than a dramatic save. He needed something that let him be the hero at Mitch’s expense. Most of the time, they didn’t think like that. Saving people wasn’t a contest.
Brody knew that. He believed it.
But today was about saving a lot more lives than the people on the beach. This was about saving Baywatch.
At any cost.
Well, almost any cost.
The key was still to save people, but to do it in a way to show Mitch up. This was a tall order. Mitch had the experience, strength and skill.
Today, Brody had the motivation.
So when he saw someone struggling on the surf, half way between towers one and two, he knew he had a chance. The location was middle ground, technically covered by both of them. In fact, if Brody had to guess, the victim was actually closer to him, but Brody knew Mitch would still make a move.
Brody just had to make it faster.
In this, Brody did have some advantage. Mitch was stronger, but Brody had been truthful his first day on the beach. He was faster. In the ocean. It was probably a wash, but on the beach? Brody could outsprint Mitch any day.
Therefore, without waiting, Brody took off, faster than he normally ran. His flotation device knocked over his water, scattering his other supplies on the deck of tower two, but Brody didn’t stop to look. He balanced himself as he hit the sand, refusing to slow down for the crowds. Every second counted, and his popularity worked against him now. His crowded tower slowed him down. Eschewing normal safety concerns, Brody shoved one beach goer out of the way, jumping over a few more. He very nearly sideswiped a teenager, and two girls yelped when he inadvertently upended their beach umbrella.
It was reckless and stupid but Brody had to get there first. Everyone had to see him in the water first. The more Mitch lagged behind the better.
Just this once, he had to best Mitch. Just this one, Matt Brody had to come out on top.
The thing was, when it counted, Brody could come through.
He had won two gold medals, after all. It wasn’t like that was an accident or some kind of fluke. When Brody was focused and on his game, he was kind of unstoppable.
Shit, a force of nature in his own right.
That was what he needed today.
Diving into the water, he could see Mitch still running his way through the sunbathers. Brody had an ample lead going into the water, and he’d paid enough attention to Mitch to know how to navigate the currents, cutting his way fast and safe across the water.
By the time he nabbed the victim (still flailing and conscious), he was able to kick his way back to shore with him in tow. When he hit the beach, Mitch was standing there, waiting for him.
He was waiting to render aid and assistance like a true professional, Brody knew that.
But it would make a hell of a picture.
Mitch standing idle.
While Brody made the save.
No doubt, Brody milked it. He took longer than strictly necessary on the beach, being far more attentive than he might normally be for a victim who was clearly more embarrassed than actually hurt. It was the same shit he’d pulled with Ronnie, but Mitch had made him work that much harder for it.
Therefore, Brody was going to make it last that much longer.
After making sure, in excessive fashion, that the victim was well, he helped the man up and led him down the beach a few yards, just to make sure any lingering filming or photo ops were not missed. Some people did have their phones out, which was fortuitous, and one of the local beat reporters was scribbling something hastily in her notebook.
Mitch was taking this like any other day at the office. He was starting back to his tower, like it was no big deal. And it wasn’t.
Unless Brody made it one.
With less than a week to go of this stupid plea deal, of course Brody was going to make it one.
Turning to the crowd, he gave a wave that, on its surface, looked polite and demure, but it was also plainly a grab for attention.
His loyal followers ate it up. The phones were still filming -- live feed, please -- and the reporter closed in on him slightly. “Anything to say about the beach conditions today?”
Brody turned toward them and postured. This was about the only skill he’d mastered on his Olympics publicity tour. He’d always known how to work a camera even if nonsense came out of his mouth.
“The water is pretty strong today, so people do need to be careful,” he advised sagely. As if this was some great insight this wasn’t forecast every morning in the local news. “It’s easy to overlook just how strong the current is until you’re in it. So we always encourage people to be cautious, especially if they aren’t experienced in the ocean.”
This was a good sound byte, but it wasn’t the one the reporter wanted.
It also wasn’t the one Brody needed to give. He wondered distantly if he really did still have a chance to walk away. If he decided to say nothing more and go back to the DA and say it wasn’t worth it. Skewering his best friend, embarrassing his mentor, stabbing the only person left who gave a damn about him in the back.
That wasn’t a choice, however.
That was giving up.
Brody was all in.
He strutted slightly, making sure that his body was more taut that it had to be. “This caution is particularly important here, on Emerald Bay,” Brody continues, letting his voice rise over the still tittering crowd. He glanced purposefully down the beach at Mitch’s retreating figure. “Baywatch lifeguards may look the part, but I can tell you personally, from my experience on this team, that the procedures in place here limit the effectiveness of the staff.”
There was a surprise gasp, collectively issued from the crowd. The reporter look thrilled. “Baywatch is widely regarded as the best of the best.”
“Regarded, sure,” Brody said. “That’s what Mitch Buchannon would have you believe.”
The reporter all but pounced. “Are you blaming Mitch for holding Baywatch back?”
Brody shrugged, as if he were showing some kind of restraint. “There’s s lit you don’t see, a lot you don’t know,” he said. “The leadership team here shows no desire to innovate. The procedures protect lifeguarding staff, not the public. All because we are expected to worship Mitch.”
The reporter was scribbling notes furiously. Other people looked aghast. Some didn’t believe him, just based on the faces. But they were all listening.
Brody didn’t let the opportunity go. “I mean, you saw it in action just now,” he continued. “This is Mitch’s beach, his coveted beach, but he wasn’t the first one in the water. If we had waited for him, this story might not have had a happy ending. Now, I’m saying Mitch is a bad guy, but maybe he’s been doing it too long. Maybe he’s lost his edge. Or maybe there’s just more going on behind the scenes for Mitch than even I know about.”
“But don’t you live with Mitch?” the reporter asked, clearly having done her homework.
Brody maintained his flippant posture. “I do,” he said. “Which is why I am more qualified than anyone to tell you this. Something is going on with Mitch. Something that deserves attention. Otherwise, incidents like today will continue to happen. And someday, I won’t be here to pull it out.”
Dire, ominous, newsworthy.
And utter shit.
Brody had been an asshole all week, but not like this. These were lies, overt false insinuations. All targeted at the one ally he had left.
“Baywatch can be salvaged -- the people are good, they are -- but I’m not sure it can happened under this current leadership,” Brody added, because he had to use this. To convince the public, a little. To convince DA, sure. Mostly, to convince Anikka. “Maybe it needs to be taken apart, rebuilt. I mean, all this talk about an elite group -- that’s just a way to insulate the group. It makes sure that no one else can see inside to see what’s going on. That could just be an unintended thing, but I don’t know. I never thought I’d have to question a guy like Mitch Buchannon, but things just aren’t what they should be.”
“Then what are they?” the reporter asked. The phones were still out; Brody still had their complete and undivided attention.
Brody didn’t have a good answer.
Fortunately, this wasn’t about answers. And it sure as hell wasn’t about truth.
Brody just had to create doubt -- and let people use their imaginations to fill in the rest.
Brody shrugged, trying to look sincere. “You’d have to ask Mitch,” he said. “Because I really don’t know anymore. I thought I knew the guy, but these last few weeks -- I don’t know. These last few weeks have made me question everything.”
“Why don’t you try to talk to your supervisors?” the reporter asked next.
“I have, but I’m told that this is how things are always done. No one will question Mitch, not one single person,” Brody said with emphasis. “But I don’t know. If I don’t do it, who will? How are we going to make sure the bay is safe if there isn’t any accountability? I can’t have that on my conscience. I won’t.
The reporter was still jotting things down, and Brody forced himself to breathe. He smiled politely and waved at the crowd.
“That’s all for now,” he said, as if he were dismissing a press conference and not just standing on a beach. “I have to get back to work. I am on duty, after all.”
It was a nice touch, reminding them that he was responsible, that he was doing his job. His team might have hated him, but he was still the press’s golden boy right now.
That didn’t mean that he was perfect. He had been arrested for public intoxication just over a week ago. But he created drama; he created a story.
He headed back to his tower, forcing his numb legs to move. The weight of what he’d said was coming to him now. The reality of his vocal betrayal was something he couldn’t take back. Anxiously he looked down the beach, where Mitch was on duty, manning his post dutifully. He was the only friend Brody had left, and he’d just skewered him Mitch would understand, Brody had to believe, even if no one else would.
He had to create a story.
That was the only way he’d force it to resolve.
Back in tower two, he swallowed in a vain attempt to still his roiling stomach.
He wasn’t sure if this story had a happy ending anymore or not.
Mitch tried to keep up with what was going on in the bay. He was not prone to gossip, but he did generally know the latest to do. It was inevitable, given where he was all day and how many people he talked to. Plus, people liked to tell him things. They liked talking to him. He was easy to trust, apparently.
That was why it was particularly strange when people started to not talk to him.
It was a subtle thing at first. Fewer people saying hi. Familiar faces that usually smiled turned away instead.
Then, after several hours of progressively weirder behavior, one of his favorite locals stopped by, nervous and anxious.
“Seriously, man, what is it?” Mitch cajoled.
The man, whom Mitch had saved a few years ago, had never been much of a liar. He also adored Mitch. Like, adored him. He brought Mitch birthday presents.
“I know it’s not true,” he vowed.
Mitch made a face. “What’s not true?”
“I know none of it is true, and most people agree with me,” the man continued, even more vehement than before.
Mitch respected his passion, but he still had no idea what it was for. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
This seemed to make the man tear up. “You don’t, do you?” he said, and he looked almost devastated as he pulled out his phone. He tapped it a few times and then held it out to Mitch in apology. “I think it’s blasphemy, I do. Just wrong.”
Mitch took the phone, watching as the video started to play. The quality of the video was questionable, and the picture shook and the wind made certain parts hard to hear. But it was impossible to miss what was going on.
Because in the center of the screen stood Brody, still on the beach after the morning’s rescue. Mitch listened, perplexed, as Brody started to blame Mitch for missing the save. This quickly turned to consternation as Brody started to comment on Baywatch’s flabbiness as a program.
Then, Mitch’s gut turned tight and his ears started to ring when Brody blamed Mitch for everything.
The man took the phone back, looking like he was about ready to cry. “You’re still the heart and soul of this beach, Mitch,” he said. “I know it; we all know it. None of it is true. It can’t be.”
Mitch almost couldn’t feel his hands as he patted the man on the shoulder with empty reassurance. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation for everything.”
It was relatively easy to placate a fan on the beach.
It was hard to satisfy his own doubts.
Standing in tower one, he could see Brody clearly across the way. Brody was, at least, all business for the time being. He was maintaining a dutiful watch, just like Mitch had told him. No doubt, the performance earlier had been just that -- a performance.
After all, Mitch knew what Brody was trying to do. He knew what Brody had to do. Mitch knew, almost better than Brody himself, just what the stakes were. They had less than a week left to nail Leeds, and Brody was serious about this. Mitch knew that.
And still, it hurt.
Mitch couldn’t quite explain why it hurt, but it still hurt. He’d spent so much time with Brody, he’d invested so much into him. He’d taken Brody so far, and to hear him talk like that. To hear him question Mitch, to question Baywatch, to question all the lessons and kindness and wisdom. To watch him take the family Mitch had offered him and throw it away.
Well, it didn’t matter if it was an act.
It was a hard thing to see.
Mitch knew that everyone thought he was some oceanic demigod, but he was still just a dude doing a job. And his best friend had just talked shit about him for the whole world. No matter what the reasons, that was never going to be easy.
If Mitch struggled with it, he probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the response from the rest of the team.
In fact, to his dismay, the core team was waiting for him at his office when he got back. Ronnie and CJ were huddled together side by side. Summer was sitting stony-faced in one of the chairs. It was Stephanie who faced him and told him in no uncertain terms that they had to talk.
It was all Mitch could do to close the door to keep this relatively private. He had barely sat down when Stephanie launched into her case. “I’m going to assume you’ve seen what happened on the beach today,” she said flatly.
Mitch drew a weary breath. “Well, I was there.”
“So you know that Brody issued a scathing and entirely unwarranted attack that went at the heart of what Baywatch is all about,” she continued. She’d been rehearsing this in her head, but her attempts to keep her voice measured were failing already.
“I saw that save,” Ronnie said. “You didn’t miss it.”
“And even if he did get there first, he has no right,” CJ added.
“He’s an asshole, Mitch,” Summer said conclusively. She shook her head. “He’s not the same guy he was three weeks ago.”
Mitch sighed; he couldn’t deny it, not without making all of Brody’s work and sacrifice count for nothing.
“This isn’t even about whether or not he’s an asshole,” Stephanie interjected forcefully. “He’s not even a loose cannon or something like that. He’s a liability for the team in every possible way.”
“I know there are valid concerns right now--”
Stephanie was incredulous. “These aren’t just valid concerns! These are fireable offenses!”
“We can’t work with him, Mitch,” CJ said. “I don’t trust him.”
“And I don’t even think we like him anymore,” Ronnie confessed.
Summer was staring at her hands, angrier than she’d ever been.
“Why don’t we calm down,” Mitch encouraged.
Summer huffed and rolled her eyes. “I’m done calming down,” she said. “I’ve put up with this shit for too long!”
“No,” she said, and she shook her head, getting to her feet abruptly. “I don’t want to hear your stupid excuses. Brody’s not worth it. I just -- I can’t do this anymore.”
“And you shouldn’t have to,” Stephanie said.
Mitch frowned, feeling this spiral quickly beyond his control. “Brody deserves to have his side of the story told--”
“No,” Summer said flatly. “You know what, no.” She turned, flustered to Stephanie. “I can’t do this. I know I said I’d be here, but I can’t.” She looked back at Mitch. “I’m taking the rest of the day; I won’t be in tomorrow. I have to get my head on straight--”
Before anyone could protest, she was out the door.
CJ looked aghast. “You can’t let her walk out--”
Mitch strove for patience. “I’ll talk to Summer.”
“And tell her what?” CJ asked. “I mean, do you know something we don’t? You live with the guy--”
“All I can say is that there are issue right now, issues that Brody is working on,” Mitch said, hoping to keep it vague but convincing.
He got the vague part right.
The convincing bit, not so much.
“Maybe a week ago that would fly,” CJ said. “But did you see what he said today? About you?”
“I’m a big guy; my ego’s not fragile,” Mitch said. “I’m not worried about me.”
“Or Summer, apparently,” CJ said, and her own temper was starting to flare now.
Ronnie squeezed her arm. “That’s not exactly fair.”
CJ made a face. “None of this is fair.”
“I know,” Ronnie said. “But we should listen to what Mitch has to say.”
“I’ve tried!” CJ exclaimed, drawing away from his touch.
Ronnie looked a little disconcerted. “I’m just saying, we trust Mitch,” he said. “I’ve trusted him on crazier stuff than this.”
“I know that,” she said. “I’ve been here a lot longer.”
“So hasn’t Mitch earned a little leeway?”
CJ rolled her eyes. “I trust Mitch, sure. But I don’t trust Brody.”
“And Brody is his blind spot now,” Stephanie added in from across the room. Her arms were crossed over her chest.
CJ nodded in vigorous agreement.
“Or maybe he really does know things we don’t know,” Ronnie said. “If Brody has something going on, something Mitch can’t talk about--”
“But we’re a team,” CJ said forcefully. “Whatever is going on in Brody’s private life is one thing, but it’s affecting the team.”
“So, what, we just cut him loose?” Ronnie asked.
“Like he hasn’t cut us loose,” Stephanie said coldly. “Come on, it’s time to grow a backbone on this one.”
CJ flashed Stephanie an angry look. “Hey, Ronnie’s not the bad guy here.”
“And I thought there weren’t any bad guys!” Ronnie said. “I mean, you’re talking about cutting people out. I thought this was an intervention. I thought we wanted to help.”
“We do,” CJ said, but she sounded exasperated. “But there’s a limit, you know.”
“A limit to team? To family?” Ronnie asked.
“If necessary, yes,” CJ said.
Ronnie looked genuinely upset. “But that’s not who we are,” he said. He cast a pleading look toward Mitch. “I mean, this isn’t who we are.”
Mitch’s tongue was heavy in his mouth; his throat was tight.
“At this point, maybe it should be,” CJ said defiantly.
This time, it was Ronnie who took a step back. “I think we really need to calm down here.”
“Sure, we do,” Stephanie muttered.
Ronnie glared at her. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that if it were up to you, we’d never take any action,” Stephanie said, shaking her head in frustration.
Mitch couldn’t take this much longer, though it wasn’t like he wanted to redirect their conflict back toward him. “Look,” he said. “If we just calm down--”
Ronnie agreed with him, but CJ was positively indignant. “I’m done calming down!” she said. “This is more than my job -- this is my family.” She turned to Ronnie. “You’ve let him walk all over you, and it’s ruining things. He’s ruining things.”
Ronnie’s mouth opened, shocked. “I haven’t let him walk all over me,” he said.
“Then what do you call it?” Stephanie said.
“Giving him the benefit of the doubt,” Ronnie told her. He looked hard at CJ. “Like you said, this isn’t just a job. He’s family, even if we don’t like him right now.”
CJ shook her head. “No, that’s not what this is,” she said. “You’re being a pushover, Ronnie. You do that. It’s not your most attractive quality, if I’m honest.”
Ronnie’s expression quickly darkened with hurt. “Really?” he asked. He gave a snort of disbelief. “So now you’re going to go after me, too?”
“Ugh, whatever,” CJ said. “I don’t want to do this now.”
Ronnie scoffed and stepped toward the door. “You know, you’re right,” he said. “I don’t want to do this right now either.” He looked at Mitch. “I’m done for the night, too.” Before leaving, he looked at CJ. “I’m staying at my place; don’t bother to call.”
With that, he was gone.
Before Mitch could speak in some desperate attempt to salvage this situation, CJ was moving toward the door, too. “This is stupid,” she muttered. “It’s not worth it.”
And just like that, she was gone as well.
Mitch was normally good under pressure, but he had to admit, this one was leaving him rattled. Summer, Ronnie and CJ had all walked out on bad terms. And Mitch hadn’t been able to stop it.
Mitch’s team, Mitch’s family was falling apart.
Stephanie stalked forward, face set and hard. “This can’t go on,” she said. “You’re going to have to make a choice?”
“What kind of choice?” Mitch asked.
“The team,” she said flatly. “Or Brody. You’re not going to get to keep both.”
Mitch closed his eyes, exhaling heavily. “Stephanie, that’s not a choice I can make.”
He opened his eyes again, and she was entirely unmoved.
“Then consider this my two-weeks notice,” she said.
“Stephanie,” he said, the color draining out of his face. His stomach flipped. “Come on--”
“I am,” she said. “I’ve come too far in this to turn back now. You have trained me from day one, Mitch. There is no one who I have respected more, professionally and personally. But all that training you gave has taught me what shit I should take and what shit I shouldn’t take. And I’m sorry, but right now, what you’re doing, what Brody’s doing -- that is shit that nobody should ever have to take. And if you can’t see that--”
He was reeling now. Almost physically reeling. “Stephanie, please--”
“Please what?” she demanded. “If you know something, tell me.”
“You’ll know soon enough,” he said, as emphatically as he could. “But I can’t tell you now.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Just wait,” he said, and he was close to begging now. “Just wait until the end of the week.”
She rolled her eyes; it wasn’t an answer she wanted.
“I get it, Brody hasn’t built up enough credibility for this shit,” he said. “But I have.”
Her jaw twitched, and though she kept her stance firm, he could see her resolve waver in her eyes.
“If I can’t answer your questions by the end of the week, then I’ll be the one that quits, okay?” he said. “And you can take my place, run this team the way it needs to be run.”
That was an offer she hadn’t expected, and it left her visibly hesitant. “You’re really willing to lay it down for him like this?” she asked. “For Brody? Even after what he said today?”
“Especially after today,” Mitch said.
At this, her gaze dropped. She took a few breaths before looking up again. “End of the week?”
“Yes,” he said, seizing upon the concession desperately. “End of the week. You have my word.”
She nodded before heading to the door.
His word was enough today.
He just wondered how much longer it would be.