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Baywatch fic: No Comment (3/5)

December 27th, 2018 (01:28 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE



-o-

The good news was that Brody always had his shit together on the job. And, since Amelia was shadowing Brody at work, his time on duty might have been a little awkward but it was always on point. Brody clearly didn’t like talking to Amelia in the down times, but he was more prompt to respond to problems than he normally was.

In fact, Mitch had to admit, it was impressive to watch Brody -- and he’d seen him at it before. However, watching Amelia, watching Brody was sort of a revelation to him. She scribbled away eagerly as he talked with people. She was making copious notes every time he went out to pull someone back from the waves. And when he actually completed a rescue, her nonstop scrawl suggested to Mitch what he had already known but not quite fully realized: Brody was good at his job.

Not just good. He was more than good. He wasn’t performing at an acceptable level.

No, Brody was vastly exceeding all expectations. No doubt, Brody had been Amelia’s target because he was a disgraced Olympian who had turned into a local celebrity thanks to his involvement in the Leeds case. But none of that would have meant shit if Brody hadn’t been good at what he did.

In short, Amelia knew she had a brilliant story to tell.

Mitch could practically see it unfolding before his eyes. It had action, drama, character development, redemption. Everything you needed to tell a story.

The one thing it didn’t have, however, was an ending.

Because Mitch knew better than anyone how this story started. He knew all about Brody’s path to the Olympics, and he knew all about Brody’s complicated history in the foster system and the emotionally jarring realities of his birth family. And he knew all about Brody’s fall from grace, the way he’d squandered his potential and then rebuilt himself from nothing. He knew that Brody had brought that full circle by giving himself up to undercover work, risking the entirety of everything he’d built for the sake of the people who had helped him build it.

He just didn’t know what came next. After a year on the team, where did Brody’s story go next? Was he going to stay at Baywatch, become Mitch’s protege? Would he rise through the ranks and become Lieutenant Brody someday?

Or was there something else for Brody?

Would he work his way back to the pool? Would he find himself at the next Olympics? Would he go back to Iowa and make amends?

Those were questions Mitch couldn’t answer.

Sometimes, he had to admit, he wasn’t sure he wanted to answer them, either.

Still, as he watched Amelia shadow Brody, he knew they were questions she was going to ask. Mitch watched Brody, still hard at work. Only time would tell how Brody answered.

-o-

That night, Amelia eagerly thanked everyone for her first day. She promised Brody that she’d be back, bright and early the next day. Brody was polite, but look genuinely relieved when she finally left.

Then, he looked at Mitch. “I don’t suppose you could possibly give me the day off tomorrow,” he said, dead serious. “And, you know. The rest of the week. Possibly the month.”

Mitch rolled his eyes, patting Brody on the back. “You did great out there today.”

“I sounded like an idiot,” Brody said. “She kept asking me questions about myself.”

“Well, it is an article about you,” Mitch pointed out.

This always seemed to mildly surprise Brody, even though it was a point that had been made. Excessively. “I know, it’s just--” he started, but he didn’t seem to know how to finish. “It’s weird.”

“It’s not weird, it’s fine,” Mitch assured him. “You’re fine. You didn’t say anything stupid today, did you?”

Brody looked a little uncertain. “I don’t think so.”

“You didn’t go around saying there was a me in team, right?” Mitch asked.

Brody turned red; he did not look amused.

Mitch shrugged, nonchalant. “So, you’re fine.”

“Really?” Brody asked. “You’re comparing it to that interview? Because that sets such a high bar?”

“It’s a reference point,” Mitch said.

“They still call me the Vomit Comet,” Brody pointed out, a little defensive.

“Who?” Mitch asked.

“People,” Brody told him. “Like, on the Internet. The comments and stuff. It’s, like, click-bait. Vomit Comet Works a New Job. Vomit Comet Tries to Put His Party Days Behind Him. Vomit Comet Manages Not to Spew a Year Later.

Mitch frowned. “Do you actually spend time googling yourself?”

“It’s not, like, hard to find,” Brody said, more mopey than before.

Mitch shook his head, refusing to dwell and refusing to let Brody dwell either. “She’s not going to use Vomit Comet in the headline.”

“Are you sure?” Brody asked.

To be honest, Mitch wasn’t. The Vomit Comet was pretty damn good click-bait. “Just ask her.”

“No! That makes it seem weird!”

“No, it makes you sound normal,” Mitch said.

“I’m not going to ask her,” Brody said, exasperated now. “I should have said no to this.”

“Oh, come on,” Mitch said. “I’ll ask her, okay? Is that less weird?”

Brody shook his head, utterly contrary now. “This whole thing is weird.”

“You do realize that you’re the only one who thinks that,” Mitch said.

Brody was actually flouncing a bit now. “So that’s a no to tomorrow off?”

“Go out, spend some time with Summer tonight,” Mitch advised, deciding to ignore Brody’s irrational request. “Things will look better in the morning.”

Clearly skeptical, Brody didn’t argue. “Fine,” he said instead, taking a deep breath and letting it out. “But if she uses the Vomit Comet--”

“She won’t,” Mitch promised.

Thus mollified, Brody went to head out. “Good,” he said. He hesitated at the door. “See you at home later?”

Mitch smiled. “You bet, man.”

With that, he watched Brody leave. Tomorrow would be better, he rationalized. Brody would settle into this. It would get less weird for him, one way or another. Brody was adaptable; he was teachable. He wanted to do good things.

Also, Mitch was going to call Amelia tonight.

Just to be sure.

-o-

Most people probably wouldn’t have guessed, but Mitch really was a homebody. Sure, he liked being out on the beach, and he liked talking to people, but he had always enjoyed some time to himself. While he did spend a lot of his off hours on the beach, running, swimming or surfing, he also liked a quiet evening at home.

He had had far fewer quiet evenings in the last year, and that was mostly for the better. He definitely liked having Brody around, and it provided a different kind of satisfaction.

Still, it made him appreciate those quiet nights to himself even more than he used to.

Yet, somehow, when Brody was gone, he was still somehow always thinking about Brody. Especially tonight. In fact, Mitch found that he couldn’t focus on anything, he was so preoccupied with Brody.

He did text Amelia, who assured him that the article was intended as a positive portrait, and that any reference to the Vomit Comet stage would be only to serve as a juxtaposition of how much Brody had changed.

It was a good answer; the best answer.

So what was it that was still bothering? He tried to play video games, but he thought of Brody being anxious at lunch. He tried to read a book, but he kept thinking about Brody asking for the day off tomorrow. He tried to clean up, but when he picked up Brody’s shit, he kept thinking about how much Brody hadn’t wanted to do this.

And how Mitch had emotionally coerced him into doing it anyway.

Sure, it was for the best. Of course Mitch had done it with the best intentions.

But did that make it okay? Did that make everything better?

Sighing, Mitch took a few of Brody’s things back to his room. They generally respected each other’s privacy -- to be sure, Brody had never set foot in Mitch’s room without Mitch’s explicit consent. Mitch hadn’t maintained quite so strict of boundaries where Brody was concerned, for a variety of reasons. The first of which was that it had been, up until a year ago, his spare room. He had been the one to clean it out and set up all of Brody’s things as a big surprise when he got home from the hospital after Leeds tried to kill him.

More than that, Brody was a slob despite all efforts to the contrary. Mitch was always putting his shit away, just like he was tonight.

He folded a few of Brody’s clean clothes, which had never made it out of the laundry area, and he put them into the drawers on his dresser. He found a few of Brody’s books -- reading was a hobby they had been working on, though Brody was slow and Mitch suspected that dyslexia was more than a punchline for a joke where he was concerned -- and he stacked them on Brody’s shelf neatly.

He was on his way out again, when he hesitated. The books were not far from the display shelf for the medals.

Those stupid medals.

Brody had dragged them to the beach with him when he first arrived. He flaunted them like they were going to be his ticket in. And then, he’d thrown them away to prove that the team mattered more.

And what were they, really?

Well, they were gold medals.

The gold alone was probably worth something. The significance, though. There was a reason Brody had looked so pleased when Mitch dragged his back to him from out of the surf. And there was a reason that Brody had been so humbled to see them proudly on display in his new room. Because those medals represented years of hard work, paying off. They represented the highest level of achievement, and there was no way around it: that was impressive.

But there was something bittersweet about them. Because they also represented someone Brody had fallen short of. Brody achieved more than most people ever would -- and then he’d fallen further than anyone could imagine.

That was what those medals were.

A reminder of all the good and all the bad.

They kept Brody on the steady path now.

But where could they take him in the future?

It wasn’t hard to see that the medals had been inspected frequently by Brody. Brody’s poor housekeeping skills meant that dust collected on most of the shelves, but not the medal display. The dust had been kept free, and the medals themselves were covered with fingerprints. Because Brody looked at them. To remember the good? Or the bad?

Both?

Mitch sighed, turning away from the medals.

It was complicated, that much was certain.

He had a feeling that this week would show just how complicated it was.

-o-

Complicated, in some ways.

In other ways, things were exceptionally easy.

That was entirely due to the fact that Mitch had fostered the team at Baywatch into a cohesive unit that responded flawlessly to change and rose to every challenge. Usually, this was imperative during a rescue or while trying to get a case under control.

As it turned out, it was also helpful when eager reporters were writing in-depth profiles of key Baywatch team members.

Amelia’s presence was persistent and noticeable. She was not, as she had perhaps suggested, a fly on the wall. She was in the way, and she did attract attention. She was something of a distraction, but this bothered exactly one person -- and that person was not Mitch.

The fact was that the distraction was not perilous. It did not affect the quality of the work completed on the beach, and people were still routinely saved through the vigilance of Mitch’s lifeguards. No, the distraction was mostly during breaks, wherein Amelia had taken to interviewing as many people who would sit down with her.

That was pretty much everybody.

You didn’t become a lifeguard at Baywatch because you were shy and self conscious.

Besides, everyone liked Brody. Literally, everyone. He didn’t fully realize it himself yet, but he was a group favorite, and he was consistently sought out as one of the most helpful, reliable and resourceful staff members. People would ask him to trade shifts. Sometimes they asked him to cover while they had to run an errand. He was consulted on rescue techniques. A few people had even requested Brody’s help training in the water.

It was more than professional, too. People liked eating lunch with Brody; he was invited to hang out, play games, hit the bar. He was a notoriously good dancer, and his karaoke blew everyone else out of the water. In short, Brody was popular.

So there was no shortage of people who wanted to tell Amelia how great Brody was.

Brody, naturally, found this dumbfounding. In fact, he was so embarrassed that he absolutely refused to stay and listen to any of the interviews. When people tried to tell him about them later, he quickly changed the subject. When someone once tried to tell him anyway, he’d actually run away.

Like, he’d pretended he was needed on a rescue, but he’d literally run away.

Most people thought it was because Brody was scared people were talking shit, but Mitch knew better. Mitch knew Brody was straight up terrified they were saying wonderful things.

In that, he had reason to be suspicious. The interviews were nothing if not glowing.

CJ gave the first one, practically cornering Amelia and offering answers to questions the reporter hadn’t thought to ask. She talked a lot about how Brody had been almost like a stray puppy, but now he was part of the team -- and better still, he was returning the favor.

“He has just this amazing sense of community,” CJ explained. “It practically defines him. You can tell that he knows what Baywatch means, and he wants to make sure that everyone else gets to experience it, too. With Brody, no one is left behind. I mean, no one. It’s just amazing to see him like that. Amazing.”

After CJ, Ronnie was next. Mostly because he still followed CJ everywhere, even after a year, and she practically pushed him in front of Amelia and told her that Ronnie had some unique perspective, too.

Ronnie blushed and hemmed a lot more than CJ; undoubtedly, there would be far less usable footage from his lackluster talking points. That did not mean that he was less effusive in Brody’s praise.

“I mean, you look at the guy, and you think you have him figure out, right?” Ronnie explained. “I mean, no one looks like that. No one nice. No one normal and kind and hard working.”

Amelia paused, then scribbled furiously.

Ronnie seemed to realize that what he said might be misconstrued. “And that’s the thing, you think you know him, but you don’t,” he said, all in a rush. “Like, when you get to know him, he’s not at all like you’d expect. I mean, he’s nice. He’s, like, kind. He’s taken time to help me be a better lifeguard, and it’s only because of him that I manage not to fill out my trunks as much as I used to, if you know what I mean.”

Amelia gave him a scrutinizing look.

Ronnie flushed, shaking his head rapidly. “Don’t say that, the part about me and the trunks,” he said. “I mean, say what you want about Brody being awesome, because he is, but can we just leave my weight out of it?”

Stephanie’s interview was much less of a debacle. In fact, she practically had notes prepared, which was probably the only reason she consented. Stephanie did not like to be caught off guard, so when Amelia asked her questions, Stephanie answered however she damn well pleased. “He came in here with an attitude, and if you had asked me, a year ago, if he’d still be on the team, I would have told you, unequivocally, no.”

Amelia tipped her head thoughtfully. “What changed?”

“Nothing,” Stephanie said shortly. “Just Brody.”

Amelia started writing again, and Stephanie gave a little sigh. If she was going to do this, it was clear she had resolved to do it fully.

“I watched him completely transform himself into a meaningful member of this team. No one works harder than Brody does out here, and when I say that, I want you to understand that I don’t say that flippantly. We all work hard out here, but Brody puts in more training than all of us combined. And it’s not just the physical. It’s the emotional, the intellectual. He has studied hard to understand what we do, and he has completely internalized our practices for the better. He’s a remarkably fast learner, and you can tell that when he goes out on the beach, he leaves everything out there. That, more than anything, has earned my respect.”

Amelia saved Summer for last, probably because she knew that Summer was the girlfriend. He wasn’t sure if someone had told her, but it wasn’t hard to see. Summer and Brody were crazy about each other; you just had to spend a few minutes with them to see it, and Amelia was not a dumb girl.

Accordingly, she brought her recorder fully charged for her interview with Summer, and Mitch noticed that she had a fresh pen in hand.

“You’re his girlfriend, is that correct?” Amelia started out.

Summer blushed and giggled. Summer was a tomboy at heart, but when asked that question, she turned into a school girl. “Yeah,” she said, smiling a little. “You could say that.”

With a note, it was clear that Amelia did. “And how did you two get together?”

“Through Baywatch, of course,” she said. “I mean, he hit on me the second we met, and I told him to take a flying leap, because I wasn’t interested in some stupid pretty boy who thought he was all that.”

“And then he changed your mind?” Amelia prompted.

“I guess, in a way,” she said. “It was just that, you know, I spent time with him. I got to see him in his element. I saw him rise to challenges. And that was what it was, in the end. It wasn’t that he was good looking or ripped or a gold medalist or whatever; it was that he was willing to go the extra mile, not just for his job or the bay, but for the team. For us.”

Amelia scrawled for a few seconds, then looked up thoughtfully. “And things are good between you two?”

Summer laughed again, a little more embarrassed this time. “I’m not sure what that has to do with this article.”

“I’m just trying to get a full picture of who Matt Brody is,” Amelia explained. “Not just as a gold medalist or tabloid fodder. Not even as a lifeguard or a hero of the bay. But as a coworker. A friend. A lover.”

Summer blushed again, more earnestly this time. “That seems kind of private--”

Amelia waved her hand, as if to brush away the previous question. “What’s your favorite thing about Matt?”

That question, while still revealing, was somehow more accessible. Mitch watched, not even trying to be subtle, while Summer contemplated her options. “You know, it’s just, he’s a good person,” she said. “And maybe that sounds trite or something, but he works at it in a way most people wouldn’t. Because his life hasn’t been easy or perfect, and you can say what you want about how he’s responded to fame or success, but when you strip all that away, he wants to be good. He works to be better than he has been, every day. Literally, every day. And if that doesn’t make you want to fall in love, then I honestly don’t know what will.”

The perfect quote.

The perfect reality.

This article was important not just so Brody would have to answer a few salient questions, but also so he would hear a few salient answers. Maybe if he saw the answers in black and white, he’d finally believe them.

After a year, it was about damn time.


-o-

On the beach, things were still going well.

From Mitch’s perspective, anyway. Brody was diligent in his duties, and he was nothing but cordial to Amelia. He maintained his post with dignity, and he completed saves promptly and thoroughly. He had plenty of interventions, and he was appropriately charming in a self-deprecating sort of way. It was a far cry from the media sensation that had capture the bay’s attention six months ago after the Leeds’ case, and it was an even further cry from the Vomit Comet who had made a fool of himself on national news a year ago. No, by all accounts, Brody was the consummate professional, and he was well liked with good reason. If Amelia wanted to spin this negatively, Mitch honestly had no idea how she’d pull it off. The coverage was holistically that good.

From Brody’s perspective, it was trying. He found it exhausting to be shadowed, and he often came home from work with no energy left to cook or clean. His workouts were, almost contrarily, especially dynamic, as if he were trying very hard to expel the nervous energy he harbored all day long. In fact, for the first time since living together, Mitch couldn’t keep up during their jogs. The good news was the Brody was so anxious about the interviews that he hardly noticed that he’d easily outclassed Mitch in terms of stamina.

In many ways, Brody took the excess coverage as a sign to recede further into himself. He became far more reclusive than he usually was, and Mitch caught him sitting on his bed most nights, looking forlornly at the medals. Possibly blaming them for his current situation. Possibly wondering if they were worth it.

Possibly something more.

Mitch thought about asking him, but Brody had been asked enough questions this week. And Mitch knew that he was going to be asked more. He would give Brody this small reprieve.

No doubt, to survive this week of intense scrutiny, Brody would need the leeway.

-o-

On the second to last day of Amelia’s work, she found Mitch at tower one right before the lunch break. “Hey,” he said. “Surprised to see you here.”

“Yeah,” she said, utterly bright. She gestured back toward tower two. “Well, I’ve honestly gotten a lot of great coverage so far this week. Shadowing Matt has been a virtual gold mine.”

“So the story’s coming together?” he asked.

“It is,” she said. “Just a few more things I need to flesh out.”

“Well, if there’s anything I can do to help,” Mitch offered.

She bite her lip, hedging just a little. “Actually, um, there is,” she said.

“Oh?” Mitch asked.

“I’ve had interviews with most of the Baywatch staff. I’ve talked to his friends, his girlfriend, and more,” she said. “But, um, I still don’t have anything on record from his boss, roommate, mentor and probably best friend?”

She ventured the last bit, as if trying to test the water to see how Mitch would respond. She had not overtly defined their relationship just yet, not in a way she could count as verified. This was her first attempt to do so.

Mitch wasn’t surprised, necessarily. He was a natural interview subject. It was just that in all his plotting and observation, he had been so concerned with how Brody would come across that he hadn’t thought at all about what he might say about him.

Shit, he had no idea what he was going to tell her.

All good things, he was sure. But what things? What realities were fair game to share? Which uncertainties might he be faced with?

He’d known that the interview process would be good for Brody, that it would force him to define parts of himself he’d conveniently overlooked.

But it was equally possible that it would be good for Mitch, too. That he might also be forced to define his relationship with Brody, which he had also conveniently taken for granted.

“You want to sit down with me?” Mitch asked, mostly so he could say something.

She nodded readily. “I’m free for lunch,” she said.

“Okay,” Mitch said, because if Brody was going to do this, then so was Mitch. “Lunch it is.”

-o-

The rest of the crew did their interviews relatively in public, usually at the boardwalk during lunch or at HQ at the end of a shift. Mitch, however, suggested the relative seclusion of tower one during his lunch break when an alternate guard was on duty outside. He wasn’t sure why he made that suggestion, but he wanted to answer the questions properly, and somehow that seemed like a harder prospect if people were listening.

Especially if Brody was listening.

That was not what Mitch would have expected from himself. He told the truth, always, without fail. He never said shit he didn’t meant; ever.

Well, that was probably the reason why, if he thought about it. He wanted to be honest, and he was a little concerned that seeing Brody while talking about him would make that harder. Why? That wasn’t so easy to determine.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to dwell on it. Not when Amelia was ready to go.

“I have to say,” she said. “I almost think we should do a story about you. I mean, Mitch Buchannon. You are, by all accounts, iconic. Matt does nothing but talk about you.”

Mitch gave a good natured guffaw, brushing away her comment. “I’m just here to do my job.”

“Which is exactly the point,” she said. “You are the job. You are Baywatch. You should know that Matt credits you with a lot.”

Mitch wasn’t the type to blush, but he still found the attention uncomfortable. “Well, good thing this interview isn’t about me, then,” he said. “We’re here to talk about Brody.”

She readied herself, priming her notebook as she turned on her recorder. “We are here to talk about Matt,” she agreed. “Um, how would describe your relationship to Matt?”

“Uh, well,” Mitch started, spreading his hands on his thighs. “First and foremost, he is my employee. I was the one who trained him, and I was the one who approved his acceptance to Baywatch on a permanent full time basis. Since that time, I have served as his supervisor.”

She nodded, jotting a few things down. “But it is more than that, yes?”

“Yes, I suppose,” he continued. “Brody showed up to Baywatch with nothing but what he could carry with him. He didn’t have a place to stay, and since we are more than a team at Baywatch -- we’re family -- I offered to let him crash with me until he was able to get his feet beneath him.”

That was the whitewashed version. It was entirely accurate, but it did little to capture the animosity and friction between them. It also did little to articulate how much of an asshole Mitch was to Brody that first night. Making him sleep with the radio on? Wasn’t anything he’d ever done to anyone else who’d crashed at his place.

“And now it’s been a year?” she asked.

“It has,” Mitch said. “And I imagine if Brody wanted, he would probably be able to afford a place of his own, but about six months ago, I offered to let him stay indefinitely. So, that’s his house as much as it is mine now.”

She smiled a little, scribbling a few more notes. “Six months ago,” she said. “Was that before or after the case with Anikka Leeds?”

“Uh, before, technically,” Mitch said, mind racing back to the chaotic turn of events. It had started with Brody’s birth mother contacting him and culminated in his arrest. It had been that revelation that prompted Mitch’s offer. What had happened with Leeds had been incidental in many ways. “It was a crazy time.”

Amelia looked up, nodding. “Did the incident with Leeds change your relationship with Matt at all?”

Mitch had been bracing himself for a wide berth of questions, but he hadn’t expected to think much about the Leeds case. He had figured that the heroics Brody offered were documented well enough. He hadn’t thought additional perspective was needed. “Maybe a little,” he said. “Brody’s work undercover was difficult for all of us. He had to play the foil at Baywatch, and he played that part as well as anyone possibly could. For about a week, he managed to nearly destroy us.”

This had Amelia writing even faster now. “About week? Then what happened?”

Then Leeds had tried to kill him, and Brody ended up in the hospital on Mitch’s watch. The guilt had nearly finished what Brody’s undercover work had started. But Brody had rallied, and he had, in turn, rallied the team. “A lot, honestly,” Mitch said. “And I can say that it made clear to us what we probably already knew. That we were better together, as a team.”

“Baywatch?” she clarified. “Or you and Matt?”

“Both,” Mitch said. “When that case was over, there was no longer any doubt about Brody’s commitment to the team, and there was no question about his place in the family.”

Amelia was nodding along intently. She paused in her writing long enough to make eye contact again. “So, you two enjoy living together?”

Mitch found himself laughing, wondering how easily this could be misconstrued. “You know Brody’s background; you’ve done your homework. You know where he comes from. The idea of family is something very new to him, and it’s been rewarding to work it out with him.”

“So you would consider him family now?” she presumed.

“Through and through,” Mitch said without hesitation. “Whether he lives in the house or moves away, whether he works at Baywatch or someplace else.”

He had said it as a way to prove his point, but something dawned on her features. Amelia thought for a moment, and then very carefully asked, “Does Matt talk about that? The possibility of moving on?”

Mitch backtracked quickly. “I was just giving you context to the nature of our relationship.”

“So he hasn’t talked about moving on,” Amelia said.

“You don’t move on from Baywatch,” Mitch said. “It’s a part of you.”

“But surely people leave to pursue other careers,” she said.

“Sure,” Mitch said. “But you never leave Baywatch behind. That’s my point. You can go wherever, do whatever, and it’s still part of you. Brody will always have a place here. Always. Any other questions about his intentions are completely up to him to answer.”

There were more questions in her mind, but Amelia gauged him carefully. Young and energetic as she was, she was also astute. She knew when to push a line of questions and when to back off. She pulled back, consulting her notes.

“So, um, let’s talk a little about a typical day,” she said.

“Well, you’ve seen it,” Mitch said, gesturing out at the beach. “This week has been pretty much business as normal. What you’ve seen is what we do.”

“I know,” she said. “But what about after hours. You live with Matt. What is your life like at home?”

This time, Mitch laughed a bit more outright. “Not all that exciting, I promise you,” he said. “Um, Brody’s been learning to cook, and I’ve tried to teach him how to clean up after himself, but it’s a bit of a process. Other than that, we hang out some, do our own things. It’s pretty quiet, aside from our workouts.”

She tilted her head, as if she liked that last comment. “So you work out together?”

“Some, sure,” Mitch said. “I mean, we’re both into fitness, so it’s a bit of a natural fit, even if we do have different strengths and preferences.”

“I would assume you prefer weight and lifting?” she asked, a little coy.

Mitch grinned at her. “Safe assumption.”

“And Matt?”

“He spends his time lifting, too, but we’re in different classes,” Mitch said. “He spends a lot more time doing cardio and endurance training. But we do jog together, swim.”

“Oh,” she said, flipping to a new page. Amelia looked up like this was a revelation. “So Matt does practice swimming?”

In Amelia’s flair as a journalist, she was able to ask the question totally innocuously and with obvious intent all at once.

Mitch slowed his responses down a bit to compensate. “We’re lifeguards. It’s what we do.”

“Has he been in a pool recently?” she asked. “Time trials? That sort of thing?”

Mitch shook his head, a little surprised by the question. More surprised by the fact that he hadn’t considered it before. “No, we stick to the ocean,” he said.

“Huh,” she said, jotting a few more things down. “Does that translate at all to the pool?”

“It’s harder than in a pool,” Mitch said. “There’s probably less technique involved -- racing involves fine tuning your stroke -- but what Brody does in the ocean is sheer power. To swim fast in the ocean requires a skill and precision that most people never get to in the pool, not even at the Olympic level.”

Amelia was visibly thoughtful again. “Would you say that his training with Baywatch would make him a viable candidate in the pool?”

“Hey, I don’t swim in pools; that’s not my area of expertise,” Mitch said. “But I see good swimmers come to the bay all the time, and every one of them struggles. It took Brody a few weeks to master it, but he’s been an animal ever since. You won’t find a lifeguard with a faster response time anywhere. I guarantee it.”

“Would you be curious to see him in a pool?” she asked. She gave a shrug. “Just to see if his time at Baywatch has changed his stroke for better or worse?”

“Wherever Brody swims, of course I’m there,” Mitch said. “And I have no doubt that Baywatch has changed Brody for the better. As a person and as a swimmer.”

“Better?” she clarified. Amelia stopped writing to look at Mitch fully. “You do know he won two gold medals at Rio and currently holds the world records in the 200.”

Mitch squared his shoulders, bring himself up to his full girth. This answer mattered, somehow. This answer really mattered, but only time would tell why. “He’d be a better swimmer if he got in that pool today,” he said steadily, no hesitation, no doubt. “Because he’s the best swimmer on my team.”

Amelia smiled sweetly. “After you, of course,” she said. “Mitch Buchannon is a legend.”

It was a humbling sort of moment; it was a defining sort of moment. Because Mitch knew the answer, and he wasn’t ashamed of it. He was just a little surprised that it’d taken him so long to say it. “Better than me,” he said. “Put both of us in the water, and nine times out of ten, he’d beat me.”

Amelia was impressed by the answer; it was one she clearly had not counted on in her narrative. “And the tenth time?”

Mitch huffed with a laugh. “The tenth time is when he’s stressed out from being undercover or being harassed by a well intentioned local reporter. That sort of thing throws him off his game, so you have to cut him some slack.”

Amelia gave a nod of acknowledgement. “Duly noted,” she said. “I really have just one more question for you.”

“Shoot,” Mitch said, gesturing with his arms.

She collected a breath, turning to a new page in her notebook. “If you could add anything to Matt’s story, the one I’m trying to tell, what would it be? What point do you think I might miss that you think I need to get right?”

Shit, that was less of a question and more of an invitation. It was an open call for perspective, which was being generously offered, and Mitch was woefully unprepared.

What did he want people to know?


What did he want himself to claim?

“Wow,” he said, hedging a little for time. “That’s, um, quite a question.”

Amelia made a magnanimous shrug. “I want this story to be genuine,” she said. “I don’t want to say things that aren’t true.”

“I appreciate that,” Mitch said, mind still reeling. He thought about how much he’d hated Brody at the start. He thought about how terrified he’d been when he found Brody at the bottom of the ocean in a cage, a fear only eclipsed when he found him drugged in a maintenance shed. He thought about buying him a few grand in bedroom furniture, and the way he had insisted on finishing the undercover job. He thought of the man he’d grown to trust, to like, to love. He thought of the year they’d spent together.

Mitch thought of the future he hoped that they could continue to share.

He thought of Brody.

How much the man had changed.

And how much he had changed Mitch.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “It’s, uh, weird,” he said. “Because people will tell you about how much Brody has changed in the past year. And don’t get me wrong, he has changed, and he deserves all the credit in the world for that. Most people couldn’t do what he’s done. They couldn’t begin to redefine themselves like that. It takes real vulnerability and real strength of character to open yourself up like that.”

She was writing, somehow managing to take notes while watching him speak.

Mitch sighed, finding the words to continue. “But what they’re not going to say is how much he’s changed us. How much he’s changed me,” he said. “It’s not just that Brody’s learned to fit in; it’s that Brody has helped us define a new normal. His change has inspired change in me. Brody’s a better person than he was a year ago, and I think I am, too. Maybe in more subtle ways, but not in less important ways.”

She stopped writing with that, her earnestness making it easier for Mitch to conclude.

“Maybe I didn’t need Brody the way he needed me and the rest of Baywatch,” Mitch said. He shrugged. “But I can’t imagine how much less my life would be without him.”

With that, she closed her notebook and turned off her recorder. “Thank you,” she said. “Your openness is a real asset.”

“Well,” Mitch admitted. “It wasn’t solely for your benefit.”

She got to her feet, collecting her things. “I know,” she said, tipping her head diffidently. “That’s what makes it even more powerful.”

As she made to leave, Mitch called after her. “You are going to tell a good story, aren’t you?”

“I’m going to tell the truth,” she said. “I think the rest of you have already determined what kind of story it will be.”

“He’s a good guy,” Mitch said.

“I know,” she said. “Like I said, you’ve all written the story for me. It’s just the end that’s up in the air.”

“And what determines that?” Mitch asked.

“Matt,” she said. “The ending is all Matt.”

-o-

Brody had an early dinner with Summer, and Mitch honestly didn’t expect him home until late, but by 8 PM, he had come home and crashed himself onto the couch. Mitch came out of the kitchen, where he was still cleaning up, and he eyed the younger man curiously.

“Everything okay with Summer?” he asked, trying not to be concerned when he was, in fact, quite concerned. If they weren’t at her place, they would surely be at Brody’s, because Brody was not one to pass up the chance for sex.

“Yeah, I just, I don’t know,” Brody said, making a slight shrug. “I was kind of tired.”

This made Mitch skeptical, probably unduly so. “You’re that tired?”

Brody nodded, emphatic. “Yeah,” he said. “This week’s been hell, man.”

This week had been utterly normal, save for a girl who followed Brody around with a notebook and a tape recorder. The fact that Brody found it exhausting was entirely an emotional thing. Mitch had recognized that from the start, but the fact that Brody was here instead of with Summer? Ratcheted up the weight of it.

“Well, it’s almost done,” Mitch said, trying to sound bracing without being too obvious. He sat down on the chair adjacent to the couch. “Just one more day.”

Brody sighed a little, but he did not look very reassured. “Yeah,” he said, voice a little vacant. “Just one more day.”

It would be easier to let it slide; Brody’s behavior was not outright problematic or worrisome. But it was distant; it was quiet. It was strangely subdued, which wasn’t the Brody he’d come to know over the last year. They’d come far enough that it wasn’t too weird for Mitch to notice.

It wasn’t even too weird for Mitch to ask him about it. “So why do you sound so miserable?” he asked. “I mean, I know you don’t want it to keep going.”

“No, hell no,” Brody said, sounding somewhat more animated with that. But then he sank back again, looking out at the window. “It’s just, I don’t know. Weird.”

“Weird how?” Mitch asked.

Brody shrugged, but he didn’t turn his gaze to look at Mitch. “Incomplete, maybe.”

“Well, there is one more day,” Mitch reminded him. “She’s going to want an interview tomorrow, like an actual interview. Where you sit down and answer questions.”

At this, Brody winced. “Yeah,” he said, even dimmer than before.

For as little as Brody was giving him, Mitch wasn’t going to let it drop. “So it’s good,” Mitch said. “A few questions, and she publishes next week. You’re finished.”

Somehow, Brody looked even more disconcerted at the prospect. “I know.”

Mitch sighed, sitting up and propping his elbows on his knees to look at Brody more intently. “Dude, it’s one more day,” he said. “You’ll be finished. I don’t get what the problem is.”

He did, actually. Or, he had his suspicions. But there was value in the conversation. There was value in making Brody say it.

With a hard swallowed, Brody’s expression twisted with something akin to pain. He sighed in a huff, and lifted his shoulders again. “It’s just, I don’t know,” he said again, and he turned his gaze in mild desperation to Mitch. Not that he would have answers, but only that he would understand. “What if I do it wrong?”

“Do what wrong?” Mitch said. “It’s an interview.”

“But I’m a moron,” Brody said, and his voice coalesced somewhat with the declaration. There was a hard set in his jaw, a sort of grim determination that Brody must have deemed inevitable for him. “She’s going to see that. Everyone sees it eventually.”

Mitch did not attempt to hide his skepticism. “Seriously? You’re still on that?”

“A little,” Brody said.

“Brody, come on,” Mitch said, shaking his head. “You’ve been here a year. If you’re a moron, then you’re the best damn moron any of us have met.”

Brody slumped back, effectually defeated.

“Dude, that’s not why you’re scared of this, not really,” Mitch said.

Brody shot him a new look, one that was freshly defensive. “It is,” he said. Then, he amended. “A little.”

“But it’s not the main thing,” Mitch said. “You’re scared that she’s going to ask you a question you don’t know how to answer.”

“Hence: moron!” Brody rejoined.

“No, hence: your future,” Mitch said. “You don’t want to talk about it.”

Brody’s mouth fell open, like he wanted to protest. But it was actually surprise. Maybe he hadn’t expected to be called on it. Maybe he hadn’t fully allowed himself to realize it as a fundamental truth. In either case, Brody was at a loss.

“You know that’s what coming, right?” Mitch asked. “You know she’s going to ask you about what you’re going to do next.”

The color was rapidly draining from Brody’s face, and he crossed his arms over his chest as if to protect himself.

“Why does that freak you out so much?” Mitch pressed on. “I mean, it’s not so scary.”

Brody scoffed. “You say that because for you it is easy,” he said. “You’re Baywatch, man. Always have been, always will be. There’s no question.”

Mitch kept himself impassive to the best of his ability. “And what’s the question for you?”

And there it was, laid out. The thing Brody feared. Mitch wasn’t even asking him to decide as much acknowledge the choices. That much was something Brody had not even managed yet. He had not allowed himself to entertain the possibility.

Or had he? Was that why his medals were covered with fingerprints and dust free? Was that why he trained so hard every day, pushing Mitch to his limits at the same time? Was Brody trying to tell him something that he wasn’t even ready to admit to himself yet?

To anyone else, it probably wasn’t that hard of a question.

For a guy like Brody, however, who had fought so long and hard to find a place to call home, Mitch had to appreciate the difference.

Softening, he tried to smile. “Look, she’s going to ask the question,” he said. “All you have to do is answer, as honestly as you can. That’s all.”

Brody pressed his lips together, breathing harshly through his nose for a moment. He looked at Mitch, plainly unconvinced. “That’s all?”

Mitch smiled, trying to be confident now. “That’s all.”

“And if I don’t know the answer?” Brody asked.

Mitch gave a little grunt as he got to his feet. “Then I guess you can spend tonight figuring out the question.”

He knew in reality it really was that easy.

And he knew that for Brody, it would truly be that hard.

-o-

Brody was the one being interviewed, but that didn’t mean that Mitch wasn’t nervous. And he was nervous. Really nervous. So nervous that he couldn’t even sleep. When he went to Brody’s door to see if he was awake in the morning, he was surprised to find the younger man, staring at the ceiling in the dark.

“You’re up early,” Mitch observed.

Brody sighed. “Yeah, not really,” he said. “I didn’t sleep.”

“One more,” Mitch said for both their sakes.

Brody glanced at Mitch, then at the medals on the shelf. “One more day.”

-o-

It was a hell of a day.

Brody was manic in their workout that morning, pushing the pace faster than he’d ever pushed it before. When Mitch went to do weights, Brody didn’t shy away, pushing his normal limits substantially. By the time they got to breakfast, Brody consumed twice his norma portion, and was positively tense with energy as they made their way into work.

As expected, Amelia was waiting for them at HQ. “Hey, guys!” she said, just as enthusiastic as the first day she came. “Ready for a good day?”

Brody was strangely focused, determined in a way Mitch hadn’t seen him before. He looked Amelia in the eye and gave a definitive, unequivocal nod. “Just one more day, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m hoping to publish Monday, so you know.”

“So one more day,” Brody said, almost clinging to it now.”

Amelia nodded with a smile. “Yep.”

Brody clapped his hands together, eyes out at the beach. “Then let’s do this thing.”

Mitch could only watch as Brody led Amelia out to the beach, head high and confident. He had to think this was what Brody was like before a race, this was the focus and concentration he needed to win. To be fair, it had earned him two gold medals and a world record.

Mitch wondered what it might earn Brody today.

-o-

On the job, Mitch had to admit, it was impressive. Even for Brody. The riptide was strong that day, which kept all the lifeguards busy. But no stretch of beach saw more saves than Brody’s. Everytime Mitch turned around, Brody was dragging someone out of the surf and patting them on the back. When he wasn’t doing an active save, he was coaching people away from dangerous parts of the water with a smile.

Then, after lunch, every lifeguard’s worst nightmare came true.

A kid pulled out into the waves.

There was a screaming father on the shore and a flailing small body being dragged out in the surf. Even though it wasn’t his beach, Mitch was still moving into action out of reflex. It would prove unnecessary.

Before Mitch hit the sand, Brody was already at the water. By the time Mitch crossed toward the water, Brody already had the kid plucked from under the waves. He swam faster than Mitch could have imagined, scooping the kid up into his arms as they hit solid ground. A safe distance from the water, Brody dropped to his knees, supporting the girl’s head as he lowered her to the sand, helping her roll onto her side as she coughed up water and started to cry.

Mitch drew up short, giving Brody and the victim the space they needed. Amelia fell into line beside him, snapping a few critical photos, continuing to document the scene as the father came over, crying in relief and Brody helped the little girl sit up into her father’s arms.

The worried crowd cheered at the reunion, but Brody hardly noticed. Instead, he talked quietly to the father, and when the little girl looked back at him, he was actively assessing her condition and recommending that the father wait for an ambulance.

The father was too shellshocked to disagree, and Brody waited patiently with the family as the ambulance came. Then, he was on his feet, directing the paramedics to the scene, orchestrating the transition seamlessly, easing the little girl’s fears and the father’s anxieties.

He walked with them back up to the ambulance, ignoring the crowd as they murmured in excitement. Amelia snapped a few more pictures, before jotting down a few more notes.

At her side, Mitch drew a breath.

“That’s what Baywatch is all about,” Mitch concluded for her as they both watched the father hug Brody, still crying in relief. Brody, somehow, wasn’t at all jarred He hugged the man back resolutely. “What you’re watching, what you’re seeing: Brody exemplifies everything good about what we do.”

At this, Amelia actually stopped writing. She stood there and watched as Brody talked to the paramedics before comforting the little girl herself. “You’re really not exaggerating,” she said. “You haven’t exaggerated about any of it.”

“Any of what?” Mitch asked.

She looked at him. “About Matt, being the best,” she said. “I mean, most people, when they know they’re being interviewed, they go one extreme or the other. Profile pieces -- you always seem friends and coworkers talk the subject up, you know. But Matt Brody really is remarkable out here.”

“Of course he is,” Mitch said, a little defensive. He glanced to where Brody was shaking the father’s hand again, cool and confident and totally in control. “I never say things I don’t mean.”

Amelia put her notebook away, shaking her head a little. “That is going to make it hard.”

With a frown, Mitch assessed her again. “Hard how?”

“Because everything I have to say about him now is so overwhelmingly positive that no one is going to believe that I’m reporting the truth,” she said. “People like a feel good piece, sure, but they’re going to call BS on this one because it feels too good.”

For some reason, that made Mitch smile.

A lot.

He watched as Brody saw the ambulance off, turning back to the beach where there was still a crowd gathered. They issued another round of applause, and Brody waved politely at them before his eyes skimmed the crowd and landed on Mitch.

In that eye contact, Brody smiled boyishly, proving that the same insecure kid who came to Baywatch not knowing what the hell it meant to be part of a family was still there. He’d just grown the hell up in ways Mitch never could have predicted.

Mitch turned his gaze back to Amelia, who was still watching, somewhat in awe. “I’m sure you’ll do your best,” he told her.

Because with a subject like Brody, the only thing that could go wrong was Brody himself.

-o-

Mitch watched, not so surreptitiously anymore, as Brody finished out the day with smooth precision. His afternoon was as on point as his morning, and he seemed to settle into the idea of Amelia’s presence just in time to see her off.

In fact, at the end of shift, Mitch found his way over to tower two where Brody was bidding Amelia a good night with the finesse Mitch would not have expected a week ago, much less a year ago. But Brody could see that the end was in sight, and he was blossoming with the possibility that he might come out of this experience no worse for wear.

“I have to admit, I’m impressed with what you do,” Brody was saying as Mitch lingered at the bottom of the ramp. “Your commitment to your craft is, like, really impressive.”

She smiled at the compliment. “Well, I can say the same about you,” she said. “I know it wasn’t always convenient having me around, but I appreciate the access you provided.”

Brody held up his hands deferentially. “You were true to your word, never got in the way,” he said. “And I was surprised how well you kept up!”

More like, Brody was surprised that he hadn’t been able to ditch her. For as polite and polished as Brody might have been, Mitch knew the truth. He knew that Brody would do anything to be rid of her, even if it meant being utterly cordial and polite.

Not that it was personal. It absolutely was not personal. Brody held no ill will toward Amelia, but he probably still harbored some anxieties about himself.

Not one of those anxieties were visible now. “You could totally consider trying out for the team next year,” Brody told her brightly. “Now that you’ve seen what we do.”

She chuckled. “Somehow, I doubt I could keep up for long,” she said. “I never had to actually get in the water, and I’ve seen the kind of swimming you do.”

“Ah, well,” Brody said. “All the same, thanks for being here and I hope you have a lot of luck writing your article.”

To Brody that was that. He was drawing this to a perfunctory close.

At least, he was trying to.

Brody’s good spirits weren’t all magnanimous. They were hopeful, too. Brody was hopeful that if he could control this conversation that he could make it their last.

With most other people, it probably would have worked.

But Amelia wasn’t most other people. She pulled out her notebook again, and Mitch watched as Brody tensed. “Well, before I go,” she said, flipping open to a blank page. “I was hoping for one last interview.”

Brody kept himself together pretty well for Amelia’s sake, but Mitch could see him flinch. He saw the color leech out of his cheeks, just a little, just enough. “One last interview?” he asked, and he sounded a little weary, like he was talking to a coach who was telling him that he just had to swim one more lap to finish things out when his energy reserves were already spent.

“Yeah,” she said with an eager little bob of her head. “Just to sort, you know, cap things off.”

“But, uh, you’ve been with me all week,” Brody said with a forced chuckle. “I mean, haven’t you gotten tired of me yet?”

She laughed, though she didn’t get that it clearly wasn’t a joke. “And seeing you in action has been so informatie,” she agreed. “But I do have a few questions that never came up.”

Brody gave her an inscrutable look. “Like what?”

“Oh you know, a little about your history,” she said.

“Well, I mean, that’s all been reported lots of times--”

“And your future,” she cut him off with a conclusive sort of smile. “I mean, you’ve come so far, but what readers really want to know is where you’re going.”

“My future,” Brody repeated, and he was visibly trying to steady himself.

Amelia seemed to notice for the first time that Brody was uncomfortable, and Mitch bit his tongue to keep himself from intervening. Not now. Brody needed to do this now, sink or swim.

Shit, Mitch just hoped he didn’t sink.

Brody was the best damn swimmer in the world, Mitch really didn’t want him to sink.

“I mean, if that’s okay,” Amelia said, a little slower than before.

Okay was going to be a relative term. In cases like this, it had to be. Because Brody wasn’t necessarily okay with any of this, but he’d committed. It was a race he’d already started.

And even if he hurled in the pool, Brody was going to finish.

Brody’s eyes flickered to Mitch, and Mitch nodded his head. It was the only encouragement Mitch would give right now. It was the only encouragement he needed. With a smile, he looked at Amelia again with a resolved nod. “Yeah, of course,” he said. “Let’s go ahead and finish this thing.”

-o-

You could call it the home stretch, and Brody was braced and ready to finish. Amelia offered to do the interview anywhere Brody felt comfortable, and he said there was no place like tower two. When she asked if he wanted a little privacy, he just shrugged, glancing toward Mitch, who was no longer alone at the foot of the tower. Summer had joined him, then CJ and Ronnie. Now that Stephanie was here, Brody seemed to know there was nothing left to wait for.

“They’re my family,” he said. “And besides, anything I say is going to end up in print anyway.”

Amelia smiled, priming her pen and starting her recorder. “Okay, then,” she said.

Brody sat back in his chair, rolling his neck. He blew out a breath, shifted in his seat and bounced his knee anxiously. “Okay, then.”