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Baywatch fic: The Last Leg (3/9)

December 28th, 2018 (01:51 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT
PART NINE



-o-

Back at Baywatch, Mitch had come to the conclusion that working with the cops wasn’t all bad. And, really, Brody had made a big deal out of it when he first arrived, but it wasn’t like Mitch had always been some rogue doing his own thing. It was just that he had seen problems and got them done. When other parties showed indifference in getting said job done, he did it for them.

It had always worked for him.

Except that time it got him fired.

And nearly got Brody killed.

Still, he’d been right, and Ellerbee had come to see that, and now things were cool. Now Mitch was more inclined to call the cops a lot sooner and at least informed them of what he was doing. Now it was more of a partnership between them.

So, it wasn’t the principle of calling the cops that Mitch disliked.

It was just the practical reality of this given situation.

Here, in Chicago, there was no Ellerbee to run interference. Here, in Chicago, they were stuck in a parking lot with photographers milling around, just waiting for another snapshot, another quote, another story. Brody was right; this was the better way.

It sure as hell wasn’t a very good way, though.

It was shitty when all your choices were bad.

These past two years were starting to feel like all the choices were whittling away until all that was left was this.

Sitting in a damn parking lot while Brody held his shoulder and photographers took pictures. Not to mention the other driver kept pounding on the window and gesticulating wildly like he was outraged or something. Brody was supposed to be an Olympic swimmer.

So how they hell did they get here?

“It’s going to be okay, right?” Brody asked, chewing his lip nervously as he watched the scene continuing to unfold outside. “I mean, we’re going to be okay, right?”

Mitch sighed, lifting one shoulder in a defeated shrug. “I don’t think we’re at fault for the accident,” he said. “At best, I’ll be held jointly liable. We’ll lose our shirt on the rental car, but I mean it’s fine.”

It was all very practical, but his voice lacked its usual resounding clarity.

Brody swallowed, and he was trembling slightly. “And the headlines?” he asked.

Mitch didn’t dare scoff. He didn’t dare deny. He wasn’t sure he could pull of ignore, either. “You think it makes a difference now?”

Brody looked at him with another convulsive swallow. “This next race makes me,” he said. “I have to make this next race.”

Brody had to make it.

Probably because, Mitch suspect, if he didn’t make it, it would break him.

Make it or break it; that was a saying.

It was pretty damn literal right now.

Mitch mustered up the faintest approximation of a smile. “Either way, we see this through,” he said. “That’s the goal. You see this through to the end. No matter what.”

“Even after car accidents?” Brody asked, voice quavering.

“Especially after car accidents,” Mitch said. “Remember what I’m telling you now. Remember it. This doesn’t end in a car. It doesn’t end in an art museum or a police station or even a doctor’s office. You end it in the water, okay? That’s where it started, that’s where you end it, no question about it.”

Brody nodded, drawing himself up just a little.

Just enough.

Outside, the crowd started to clear slightly as the cops pulled up. Mitch drew a breath of his own, nodding resolutely. “Okay,” he said, opening the door as he primed himself to get out. “Time to do this shit.”

-o-

For Mitch, at least, he had trained himself not to worry about himself in a given situation. It wasn’t about his feelings or his worries. It was all simple, to the point; getting the job done. That was what made him a successful lifeguard at Baywatch.

Would it help him now?

The only way to find out was to try.

Getting out of the car, Mitch kept his hands clearly visible, smiling at the cops as he purposefully ignored the other driver and the suddenly subdued crowd of reporters. “Hey, officers,” Mitch said, hands still out in front of him. “Thank you for responding to the call.”

There were a pair of officers, both still eyeing the scene with some skepticism. One of them looked like he wanted to hop back in his cruiser and call for backup. The other walked toward Mitch, all business. “You placed a call about a car accident?”

“Yes, yes, that was me,” Mitch said. He gestured back to the two parked vehicles. From here, he could see that the damage was minimal. Their rental had a broken light and a mark on the fender. There was no clear sign of damage on the other vehicle at all. “Just wanted to make sure we do this right.”

The other driver had approached now, interjecting with some passion. “This man recklessly smashed into my car!”

“I’m not sure smashed is the right word,” Mitch said diplomatically. “Clearly, there’s hardly any damage.”

“I could have whiplash!” the man said.

“Which would be unfortunate, I know,” Mitch said. “But I think we need to tell the whole story that happened here. Such as why everyone was in this parking lot to begin with.”

The other driver took the insinuation as an accusation and puffed out his chest. “I was just doing my job.”

Mitch smiled. “Right, which is to harass people going to a museum in their free time.”

The two officers did not seem to care about these details, not when they still lacked fundamental answers. “So you’re admitting, sir, that you hit this vehicle?”

“I do,” Mitch said. “Because our entire car was surrounded by the media, and we were actively being pursued by multiple cars. As I tried to look for an opening, the other driver was still looking for a good shot. A collision was inevitable.”

“You hit me!” the driver said. “Don’t spin this!”

The officer shook his head, holding his hand up. “And who are you again?” he asked Mitch.

“Me? Mitch Buchannon,” he said. He gestured back to the car. “I’m the coach of Matt Brody. He’s a swimmer--”

The second officer perked up. “Oh, right, he’s in town for the Olympic trials,” he said. He spoke to his partner. “Remember the Vomit Comet?”

Whether the other officer remembered or not, he simply looked annoyed. “All of this is because of some dude who barfs in pools?”

“Well, he also swims really fast,” Mitch said, glad that he had instructed Brody to stay in the car. “Which isn’t even the point. The point is that we’ve just been trying to get around all week, and everyone here just wants to make a headline.”

“It’s the freedom of the press, man!” the driver shouted.

“Sure, but you have to be safe,” the cop said, shaking his head wearily as he got out his notebook. “Look, I need to start taking names and statements.”

“I have a deadline,” the reporter said. There were titters of approval around him.

“That’s fine,” the cop said. “So give your statement quickly.”

“This is crap,” the reporter protested. “He hit me!”

“I’d be happy to help,” Mitch said, finding it perversely easy to be calm and cooperative when everyone else was hellbent on being aggravated. “Tell me what you want me to do.”

The cop scoffed. “Stay in the pool next time, maybe,” he muttered, readying his pen as he jotted down a note. “Now tell me your name again?”

Mitch readily complied with the last part, wishing like hell he could comply with the first part, too.

-o-

Mitch’s statement was quick and to the point. It took longer to interview the other driver, not to mention the myriad of other witnesses. When the first officer finally asked about Brody’s statement, Mitch hesitated. The cops, though not thrilled about the situation, had quickly figured out that whether or not Mitch had legal liability, they clearly didn’t think he was the aggressor here. There would be no charges filed, and if someone here wanted to pursue a civil case, then Mitch would have to deal with that.

Later.

Right now there was still the question of Brody.

Hedging, Mitch offered his most disarming smile. “I was sort of hoping you got enough statements.”

“I like to do my due diligence,” the cop said.

“I know, I know, and I respect that,” Mitch said. He gave a look around where the crowd was still milling around, some with cameras at the ready. “But you can imagine, this is already a mess of a PR situation for us.”


The cop followed his gaze, considering that. “These dudes really been after you all week?”


“Getting worse each day,” Mitch confirmed.

The cop looked at Brody, still massaging his shoulder intermittently in the car. “You think your boy’s going to make it?”

“I think he can,” Mitch said. “If he can keep himself clear of all these distractions.”

The cop finally signed and closed his notebook. “This is a non-issue more or less,” he said. “I’ve got to document it, but there’s no files to be charged. If we need more, we have your information, and it’s not like Matt Brody’s going to hide.”

“You have my word,” Mitch said. “You need anything, we’ll help you out.”


The cop nodded along, watching as his partner rounded up the rest of the reporters. “You guys need anything else from us?”

Mitch found the question surprising. “Like what?”

“Well, an ambulance to start,” he said. “It’s pretty standard after an accident. And with your boy in the trials, you may want him looked at.”

Mitch looked to Brody again, who was watching the reporters anxiously. He didn’t disagree with the sentiment; in fact, he liked it.

But the idea of an ambulance coming? Amid a throng of reporters?

Shit, those would be front page photos. And the headlines would be horrible. It would destroy Brody.

That was no way to save the kid. Mitch couldn’t ruin his confidence in order to preserve his physical well being.

With a smile, Mitch shook his head. “No, we’re fine,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Okay, dude,” the cop said. “Best of luck with things. You two have a long road ahead it looks like.”

Mitch was still smiling when the cop walked away. He was still smiling when he got back in the car. He was still smiling.

Because damn.

That cop had no idea how right he was.

-o-

“Is everything okay?” Brody asked, nearly jumping up anxiously in his seat before Mitch even had his door closed.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Mitch said. “They took a report, no charges. No big deal.”

“So we’re not going to be arrested?” Brody asked.

“Why would we be?” Mitch said. “The other driver barely has enough evidence to file an insurance claim. The cops can’t arrest us for being a good photo op.”

Brody didn’t look so sure. Then again, Brody never looked sure anymore. “So that’s it? IT’s over? We get to go?”

“That’s it; it’s over,” Mitch confirmed, putting on his seatbelt and starting the car. “We get to go.”

Brody nodded a few times, chewing his lip. “And tomorrow it’s all back to racing.”

“Well,” Mitch said, putting the car into gear. “I actually do want to stop someplace first.”

Brody’s eyes widened with something like hope. “The ice cream shop?”

“Not exactly,” Mitch said, starting to pull away. The crowd stayed at bay now, thanks to the cops’ interference.

“Then what?” Brody prompted.

“Well, let’s call it a surprise,” Mitch told him, pulling out of the parking lot and into the city.

Deny, deny deny or ignore, ignore, ignore.

Mitch was going with delay, delay, delay now.

-o-

Driving away, Mitch found it easy to second guess himself. After all, away from the conflict, his adrenaline was abating, quickly deflating all his fight or flight instincts. What he wanted more than anything was to go back to the hotel and he knee down.

Looking at Brody, still pale with his own adrenaline, it was clear that was what he wanted, too.

However, Brody was still holding his shoulder stiff and immobile. He was holding it at bay, but Mitch knew him well enough to see that he was in pain.

To be fair, he’d seen Brody in pain a lot over the last two years. The headaches, though the most frustrating, we’re really just the start. Training at this level involved frequent pain, and Brody often had sore muscles, irritated tendons, the whole works. It was inevitable with his workout routines, and Mitch had gotten very good at targeted stretching, temperature therapy and even massage.

Was that weird? Maybe. But Brody trusted him. That was really all that mattered. Brody trusted him, and Mitch had no intention of letting him down.

Which was why he couldn’t afford to second guess himself. He had to make the right choice for Brody.

Even if Brody hated it.

Brody accepted Mitch’s ambiguous answer for about another block. It didn’t help that Mitch was trying to look for signs of medical care without a clear sense of where he was in the city. He had scouted out hospitals prior to their arrival -- given Brody’s history, it seemed prudent -- but he was not nearly as good behind the wheel as he was in the water.

“Um,” Brody said. “What kind of surprise?”

Mitch gave him a weary look. “You know,” he said vaguely, trying to make a turn without hitting anyone. The motion was a bit more jarring than he intended. Brody visibly winced. “A surprise surprise.”

Brody was still massaging the shoulder as his look grew increasingly dubious. “Like, a good surprise?”

Of course Brody suspected something. Brody knew him well enough by now; he knew when something was up and he knew when that something wasn’t going to be good.

Mitch’s fingers tightened around the wheel reflexively as he navigated another street. On a major street, he finally saw a sign for a hospital. With as much discretion as he could muster, he quickly changed lanes.

“I mean, we’re not going to the hotel,” Brody concluded with an anxious laugh. “I mean, right? We’re not going to the hotel?”

Mitch blew out a hot breath. “Nope, not going to the hotel.”

It had taken Brody a week of sheer misery before he’d finally gone to the doctor back in Germany for debilitating migraines. There was a reason Mitch wasn’t asking for permission: he knew he wasn’t likely to get it.

And Mitch, for all the things he had learned he wasn’t over the last two years, was still first and foremost a pragmatist.

Brody still hadn’t put the pieces together, though Mitch suspected some of that was willful. Brody didn’t know what he didn’t want to know. That was how well he’d internalized Mitch’s ignore, ignore, ignore philosophy. “Are we going to practice?”

This question was even more ridiculous than the first. Practice was in the opposite direction in familiar neighborhoods. They obviously were not going to practice. Mitch kept his grip tight on the wheel, girding himself. “Nope.”

Mitch’s steadiness only seemed to unnerve Brody more. With a tremulous inhalation, Brody rubbed his shoulder again, massaging it up and down the bicep. He shook his head, forehead knitted together in earnest confusion. “I don’t get it.”

Damn it, that was Brody’s kicked puppy look. Mitch liked to pretend he was tough and shit, but he hated Brody’s kicked puppy look.

And he hated how well it worked.

Mitch caved. Every damn time. “Look,” he said, trying to sound diplomatic now. Reasonable. He gave Brody a lingering look. “We have to finish off this whole incident the right way, like you said.”

This news was deeply vexing to Brody. “The police station?” he asked.

He sounded hopeful. Because part of him knew. Part of him had to know.

Mitch sighed. “Brody,” he said. “We can’t leave any loose ends. Not this close to the competition. Not when we’ve come this far.”

Brody’s hope was visibly starting to crumble. “What do you mean?”

Mitch didn’t answer as he weaved his way through traffic and around a corner. The large, looming building in front of him answered on his behalf.

It was dramatic timing, to be sure. It still took Brody a good few seconds to catch up, and he gaped as he looked out the window, and he shook his head in total denial. “Wait,” he said. “But why would we--”

Brody couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought, as his mental process failed.

Mitch was too weary to keep up with any of the plans. There had to be a time and place for confront, confront, confront. Especially when it was too difficult to do anything else. “Because you’re hurt,” he said plainly. “You’ve been holding that shoulder ever since the accident.”

The admission was plain enough, but Brody still seemed intent on denying it. “My shoulder is fine,” he said, face going pale. “I just wanted ice cream. Dinner, maybe. A warm bed in a quiet room.”

Mitch nodded in agreement. “And we’ll do all of that, I promise,” he said, putting the car in park now, situated in the parking lot out front. He looked at Brody. “But we look at that shoulder first.”

Somehow, the logic left Brody bereft. “But I know you turned down the ambulance back there,” he pleaded. “Like, I know it, okay? You had me stay in the car but you were right outside. I heard shot, all of it. I know you told them we didn’t need an ambulance.”

When Brody got emotional, he tended to ramble. It was either saying too much shit or doing too much shit, so Mitch knew it wasn’t all bad. Even if it wasn’t all good either. “I know,” Mitch said plainly. “I’m not going to deny it.”

The honesty only made Brody more desperate in his failure to understand. He pointed out the window with his good arm, apoplectic. “Then What the hell is this?”

“Come on, man,” Mitch said. “An ambulance would be a horrible photo op, and you’re clearly not in a life threatening state. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need a doctor. Less than a week before the races, and you can’t move your shoulder. We have to get it looked at. Preferably without making the front page.”

Calm and reasonable, Brody had no real defense. Mitch, however, had trained him far, far too well. Stubbornly, Brody shook his head, fully entrenched in denial. “I’m fine,” he insisted, even as his grip on his shoulder tightened.

This was apparently time for confront, confront, confront. “You’re not fine.”

“I am totally fine,” Brody returned, and the more confident he sounded, the more ridiculous it was.

Mitch sighed, levying his patience. “We’re going to do this, man,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re going in there, and you’re going to get looked at by a professional so you can be cleared to race.”

Brody drew his eyebrows together in total dismay. “But what about ice cream?”

Mitch stifled his urge to curse. “Brody, we were in an accident--”

“Where you were going, like, two miles per hour--”

“It still jarred us both pretty good,” Mitch countered.

Brody shook his head, dug in on this point now. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “I’m totally fine.”

“Can you move your shoulder?” Mitch asked, because logic wasn’t going to work. Sometimes -- a lot of times -- Brody had to learn in a very hands-on sort of way.

“Yes,” Brody said, though he didn’t even attempt to move it to prove his point.

Mitch reached over, taking Brody’s arm and moving it slightly so the other man yelpd and hissed, drawing his arm back. “See!” he said doggedly. “It moves!”

This time, Mitch allowed himself an eye-roll. “And it caused you intense pain.”

Blinking a few times, Brody wallowed hard. “It’s just, I don’t know. I wanted peanut butter.”

He was used to Brody’s sometimes circuitous thinking, but that one seemed a little more out of left field than usual. “What?”

“Ice cream,” Brody clarified, fingers almost shaking as he tried to ineffectually brace his shoulder now. “I wanted peanut butter. But not the fake kind, with the peanut butter cups. But, like, actual peanut butter, you know?

Shit, he was talking about ice cream.

Again.

The fixation was a desperate ploy to maintain the illusion Mitch had created. All this time, Mitch was trying to deny, distract and ignore. It was all Brody knew how to do now, so sitting in front of the hospital, arm clutched to his chest, all Brody could talk about was dessert.

Damn it. Mitch had to be the adult now.

Why did he always have to be the adult?

For once, he wanted to be irresponsible. For once, he wanted to say, screw it, and go get ice cream, too.

But he couldn’t.

Because he made Brody a promise.

Shit, shit, shit.

Gathering himself, Mitch held his gaze, steady and fixed on Brody. “You are competing in the US Olympic trials in less than a week,” he said flatly, leaving no room for any ambiguity. “If there’s something wrong with your arm, it’s better to know now. That way, maybe we can fix it. That way, it doesn’t catch us by surprise when you’re in the water.”

That was the gist of it, no way around it. Plain and simple. Not even Brody, set as he was, could find a way around that.

His expression faltered, and Mitch could see his resolve crumble almost entirely at being confronted with the truth. “Can we get room service?” he asked meekly. “Do you think they have ice cream?”

Mitch had to be the adult, sure. But that didn’t mean he was heartless. He couldn’t be with Brody, no matter how hard he tried. The last few years had mellowed him to the point where Brody was his best friend and they both knew it.

It made Mitch somewhat irrationally angry.

Yet, it was still a simple truth he wouldn’t try to obfuscated. “If you sit still, shut your mouth and get looked at, I’ll get you some one way or another,” he said. “You have my word.”

They also both knew that Mitch’s word was golden.

Mitch might deny, he might distract, he might ignore.

He didn’t lie, though.

Brody nodded, blinking rapidly a few times as he tried to gather himself once more. “You promise?”

Brody knew it, but Brody was insecure enough sometimes that he still needed to hear it.

Mitch had given up a lot to be here for Brody.

He wasn’t about to deny the kid that. “I promise,” he said. Because he was probably a questionable coach, a poor publicist and a sketchy driver. But he was a damn good best friend. “Now let’s do this.”

When he got out of the car, Brody followed him.

Because yeah, some things never changed.

-o-

Hospitals sucked.

They did, no way around that. They sucked in California. They sucked in Germany. They sure as hell sucked in Chicago.

Brody was miserable, the front desk was completely unhelpful and the wait time for a patient in stable condition was frustratingly long.

The only positive was that there was no press there. No one gave a shit about them at all. This meant they were able to avoid any unwanted photo ops.

It also meant they had to wait and do this the way normal people did.

Brody tolerated this as well as could be expected.

He slumped melodramatically in his chair and asked where the ice cream was.

Yeah, this was going super well.

To pass the time, Mitch checked his phone, astutely avoiding the news apps while Brody watched without much discretion over his shoulder. Instead, he shot off a few texts to Baywatch personnel, all of whom were expressing dismay over the headlines.

For most of them, he kept it brief. We’re fine, don’t worry.

For Summer, he permitted a little more detail. Just shaken up, mostly. Getting checked at a hospital to be sure. Will update.

Before Brody could make out his message and question it, Mitch tucked his phone away, relieved that he’d made Brody keep his own at home. Maybe talking about ice cream wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“I think peanut butter’s a mistake,” Mitch announced, shaking his head with a wrinkled nose.

Despite the fact that this was Brody’s train of thought, he looked momentarily confused. “Huh?”

“For ice cream,” Mitch said. “I think peanut butter’s a mistake. Totally overrated. Texture’s all wrong for ice cream.”

Brody stared at him, gaping for a moment. There was a momentary flash, that split second in which he understood. And then, a second later, when he was playing along. “But the taste is amazing,” Brody said. “I mean, you got pair it with chocolate, of course. But that rich peanut butter taste -- it’s the best.”

“Nah, you got to do something refreshing like fruit if you do a mix in,” Mitch said. “Try strawberries. Blueberries, maybe.”

“What? No,” Brody said, looking moderately offended.

“You just want candy all the time,” Mitch said.

“Because it’s a dessert!” Brody protested.

“You want the right flavor to offset the richness of the full cream,” Mitch reasoned. “You should know this. You want the Great British Baking Show.”

“Oh, okay,” Brody said with a huff of indignation. “So you think you know the universal truth based on that? They hardly even make ice cream! And if anything, you learn that sometimes the unexpected ingredients are the ones that work best, not some stupid textbook definition of whatever.”

Brody was talking passionately, though only with questionable knowledge of what he was actually saying. That hardly mattered, though. Because Brody had no intention of making this an actual conversation.

“Like, you have to be bold, and you have to think about textures that complement each other,” Brody said. “Fruit can just as easily turn to mush and it’s got to be sweetened and peanut butter is a contrast. It’s perfect, man. It’s absolutely perfect.”

Mitch didn’t agree with the sentiment about the ice cream.

But still, somehow, he had no will to disagree for the time being.

-o-

After an hour’s worth of discussion about baking, British or otherwise, Brody was finally called back to an exam room.

He was in a better mood at least, though Mitch found himself weary with anxiety. The whole time, despite Brody’s animated disposition, his shoulder never loosened. It was still guarded with obvious pain. Whatever had happened in the accident, it wasn’t fleeting. At this point, with so little time before competition, even bruising of any serious nature could impede Brody’s performance significantly.

That wasn’t even considering what would happen if it was something else.

The thing about denial and ignorance was that someone still had to bear that weight, and Mitch was finding it increasingly exhausting.

With that in mind, Mitch wasn’t afraid to play the celebrity card to any degree he could once the nurse had checked them into an exam area. She didn’t seem particularly impressed, but when the resident finally started the initial exam, she immediately recognized Brody -- and the significance of a visit on a day like today.

“Well, this is bad timing for you guys, then,” she said, probing Brody’s shoulder with her fingers. Under her touch, Brody winced. She extended his arm, watching for signs of resistance. “You said you were wearing a seatbelt?”

“Yeah,” Brody said, his expression pained while she continued to check his ability to rotate. “And we were going, like, super slow.”

She let his arm go, looking thoughtful. “I want to see you move it now,” she said. “Do you have any limited mobility?”

Brody started to rotate it on his own as she watched.

“It was low speed but we got jarred pretty good,” Mitch supplied, hoping to be helpful.

She frowned, noting Brody’s slowed movements at certain angles. If Brody was trying to hide it, he was failing. “Yeah, it doesn’t always take much if you hit the right angle at the right force,” she said. She picked up his paperwork, analyzing it. “Do you have a history of injury we should know about?”

Brody looked like he was ready to shake his head no. But Mitch wouldn’t be any kind of coach if he let that slide. “Yeah, it showed up on your x-rays in Germany,” he said. He gave Brody a purposeful sort of look. “You said it was old, back from Rio.”

Looking exasperated, Brody rolled his eyes. “Sure, but that was, like, forever ago,” he said.

By now, the resident had pulled up some of the scans, and she was looking increasingly concerned. “All the same,” she said. “I think we need to update your scans, just see what’s going on.”

That was a relief, on some level.

It was also a little terrifying.

Mitch’s hope that this was purely a precaution was fleeting now. As much as he hated it, Brody hated it more. He made a face. “Is that really necessary?”

She was busy tapping information into her iPad. “Honestly, if you weren’t a competitive swimmer, I’d probably be happy to let it slide and see how things go,” she said. “But at your level of training, I don’t think it’s smart to overlook anything. I’m going to go ahead and page our head of ortho -- she has plenty of experience with athletes of your caliber, and her expertise can make sure we give you the best answers about your shoulder.”

Brody was winding up to complain, shaking his head. “I’m fine--”

The decision was made, however. She had already logged out of the device and gave Brody a perfunctory but still somehow sincere smile. “I promise, this is for the best,” she said. “I really want to see you make the team, so I’d hate to think I could be any part of not letting that happen.”

She was being so damn nice that Brody’s defiance left him. He never did know what to do when someone believed in him. All this time with Mitch and Baywatch, and his self worth was still hit and miss with the rest of the world. He was always expecting the worst. When people thought the best of him, it caught him woefully off guard.

Mitch needed to work on that.

But for now, he’d take it.

If it meant Brody sat down and shut up for tests, Mitch would definitely take it.

“Okay,” she said. “Let me go check on where we’re at with things, and I’ll be back. Just sit tight, okay?”

With that, she left with a bright smile as she exited the room.

On the exam table, Brody looked at Mitch, both pathetic and resentful. “You’re going to owe me two ice creams for this.”

Mitch chuckled. “As long as one has fruit.”

Brody shook his head in disdain. “I hate you.”

-o-

Brody didn’t really hate Mitch.

He did, however, hate medical tests. Obviously, it wasn’t like he hated the tests in and of themselves, but he hated what they represented. As he submitted to one scan after another, Mitch could see him mentally fight with his own denials. Deny, deny, deny had taken him this far.

But not even Mitch’s tenacity and Brody’s stubborn could hold up in the face of thousands of dollars of advanced medical scans.

As Brody realized that something was, in fact, wrong, his entire disposition started to fold in on itself. There was no defiant insistence that he was fine. There was no dogged discussion about ice cream flavors.

There was just bowed resignation. Inevitable acceptance.

By the time Brody was left in the room to wait for the results, the kid was practically bowed under the pressure. He looked miserable and sad. It was a kicked puppy times fifty.

Shit.

Now Mitch couldn’t take it.

Once the door was closed and they were alone, he started to speak. “Things are going to be fine.”

It was a stupid, brazen lie. It was the worst kind of distraction since peanut butter ice cream.

Dejected, Brody shook his head. “It’s not fine,” he said, choosing the worst possible demeanor for his bout with acceptance. Acceptance, in its healthiest form, was about recognizing reality and embracing it for its ups and downs. Brody, on the other hand, had succumbed to reality due to a lack of stamina. It was very much a Brody thing to do, the same way he might get drunk instead of keeping guard. At this point, he was mere steps away from barfing in a pool for a total bout of self destruction.

That was where this was headed, after all. Once Brody played the accept, accept, accept card under duress, he was likely to crumble. This was how he’d earned the nickname Vomit Comet. It was how he’d nearly gotten kicked off Baywatch. And Mitch couldn’t forget the way he’s nearly gotten himself killed from a drug overdose while undercover.

Brody didn’t generally accept things well.

He tended to accept reality and let it destroy him.

See, Mitch knew there was a reason he’d gone for deny, deny, deny. It wasn’t just because he was a coward and completely out of his element. It was because, damn it, he loved this stupid kid, and he would do anything to keep him from ruining himself and his future. That was something he’d learned the hard way when Brody had nearly gotten himself killed by Anikka Leeds. It was a lesson he’d ingrained into his consciousness when he’d found Brody, pale and seizing, in the storage shed.

Most things in life were negotiable.

Not family, though.

Not Brody.

“It is, though,” Mitch insisted, because he played the job of coach and trainer and publicist and driver. But mostly, he played the part of best friend. Boil down all his job titles, and his main duty was this: to keep Brody together. “This whole thing, it was a fender bender. You weren’t even driving.”

“This isn’t just about the press,” Brody said. He shook his head with a forlorn sigh. “I mean, they’ll still spin it fifteen different ways and they’ll say I’m on drugs or I’m drunk or sleeping with hookers or whatever.”

Mitch frowned. “Wait, sleeping with hookers--”

Brody didn’t even have the energy for a sufficient exasperation. “There was this time, okay, but I swear, I didn’t know what she did for a living and I never paid her. There was just a lot of room service, and, like, expensive wine and I don’t know--”

Mitch tilted his head, not sure what to do with that. “How many headlines did you make in Rio?”

“Just, a lot, okay,” Brody said, and he closed his eyes for a moment. “But this is so much worse.”

“Well, your shoulder’s going to be fine, too,” Mitch said, sounding even more ridiculous than before. It was easy to talk the press away as insignificant. But the shoulder? That shit could ruin Brody’s choices.

That was why Mitch had made him come in, and it had taken Brody this long to admit it.

Apparently, Mitch wasn’t done with deny, deny, deny just yet. “It’s feeling better, right?” he prompted.

He had some reason to hope. Over the last few hours, Brody had stopped holding it as much. He was guarding it less, though sitting still in an exam room, it was impossible to judge his overall mobility.

Brody shook his head, slumping a little more. “Do you really want to know?”

Mitch swallowed, starting to hedge. The next denial died on his tongue, however. Even the great Mitch Buchannon had his limits. “It’s going to be fine,” he said, no matter how hollow the words sounded. “Trust me.”

Mitch wasn’t sure what would be worse: if Brody stopped trusting him.

Or if he didn’t.

-o-

It was another hour before the doctor came in, this time with an older, much more imposing figure in tow. She introduced herself as Dr. Rosario, head of orthopedics, and she carried herself like a woman who knew her shit.

Mitch immediately respected and trusted her.

He was also a little terrified of her.

Not of her as a person. No, if anything he was a little turned on by her total confidence. But he knew that the things she was about to tell them would be valid. That shit would be real.

And that was terrifying.

Because, sure, she might say that Brody was fine.

Or she could say that the whole dream, the last two years, was over.

One car accident.

And that could be that.

Brody was bracing for the worst, but Mitch felt his anxiety at the unknown threaten to make him sick.

Sitting at the computer, Dr. Rosario made quick work of the interface, turning the monitor to give them a better look.

“So,” Dr. Rosario said, pulling up some scans of what was clearly Brody’s shoulder. “This isn’t that dramatic, if I’m being honest. But it’s still worth looking at, just so you can see for yourselves. Look closely, and you can see the damage, here and here.”

She pointed to a fine line on the scan.

“These are tears,” she explained, pulling up another scan. “When you were checked out in Germany, they showed signs of healing but with visible scar tissue. That scar tissue can leave such wounds vulnerable. Now, your average person, it’s not a big risk. A guy like you, the stress you put on your body -- it’s a bigger risk.”

Brody had paled noticeably, and Mitch felt his own throat tightened. When Brody didn’t seem quite able to find words, Mitch forced himself to intercede. “And you’re saying that’s what happened? The wound was affected?”

She brought back the other scan, nodding her head. “There’s evidence right here that the tear is starting again,” she said. “Now, this is minor tearing at this point. It’d be crazy to do anything invasive given how small it is.”

She was saying that, but Mitch could tell that there was something she wasn’t saying. This wasn’t good news. He wet his lips, forcing his voice to work again. “What does that mean?”

At that question, she looked vaguely apologetic. As much as any doctor who regularly delivered bad new could be sorry. “It means that he’s vulnerable,” she said. “With rest and immobilization, it’d heal just fine. Like I said, a normal person, this isn’t a big deal.”

“But I can’t rest,” Brody said, and his voice sounded funny and strained. “I mean. The trials are this week.”

Dr. Rosario nodded along, affirming the sentiment. “For you, at this point, it’s a controlled risk,” she said. “I know you’ll want to prep some, but you’re going to want to rest it. Do your best to let it heal. The more time you give your shoulder, the better off you’re going to be. These kinds of injuries are made worse with excessive movement and over-rotation.”

“But what about after that?” Brody asked, as if he couldn’t quite believe the sound of his own voice. His words trembled as he swallowed, not quite able to bring himself to laugh. “I mean, if I make the team. I have to train.”

With that, Dr. Rosario sighed. “For an athlete competing seasonally, I’d probably recommend taking a season off, getting surgery, letting it heal,” she said. “They’d miss a season, but be back and ready to go.”


“But this is the Olympics,” Mitch said, as if he needed to state the obvious. “There’s no guarantee he’ll get another shot.”

She looked like she commisserated. “I’m a doctor. I can tell you medical information about your injury and the best way to treat it,” she said. “It’s up for you to calculate those risks and decide the best course of action.”

Shit.

She was telling him he had to decide.

Not just about Brody’s racing.

About his future.

To compete and reach for the dream.

To give up and protect himself.

Mitch couldn’t do that. Mitch didn’t even know how to do that.

On the table, Brody was the one who spoke. “If I race, if I train, if this thing tears,” he said, nodding toward his own shoulder. “What does that mean?”

“Well, it’s a simple surgical fix,” she said. “Most people go on to live normal lives with no impairments.”

“But swimmers,” Brody clarified when Mitch was still unable. “What about athletes?”

Dr. Roasio sighed, but she knew the question. She’d known it was the question that mattered the moment she came in the room. “If it tears, you’re probably done swimming competitively. It’s not an injury that would allow you to ever win another gold medal.”

There it was, the heart of the issue. Brody opened his mouth for a follow up question, and Mitch found himself hoping irrationally that he was going to talk about peanut butter ice cream.

Instead, his voice had grown surprisingly steady. “You’re saying that taking my one shot at the Olympics, my last shot,” he said, strangely intent now, “could cost me that shot?”

Brody could be dense, obtuse and downright stupid.

But damn it all if he didn’t appreciate the irony right now.

“It’s your choice to make, and as your doctor, I can only tell you the risks involved,” she said. “I can give you treatments and therapies to improve your odds.”

“But we’re still taking a risk,” Brody concluded. He looked at Mitch somberly. “A big one.”

Mitch’s stomach churned. His throat tightened so much that he was quite confident that no sound would come out now, even if he could think of coherent words.

“Let me get some discharge papers drawn up,” she said, getting to her feet. “I’ll include some exercises, and put in the name of our best physical therapist with priority openings. They’ll talk you through the details.”

The doctor was prattling on, politely and thoroughly, but Mitch hardly heard her. All he could do was look at Brody.

Who could only look back.

Deny, deny, deny.

Ignore, ignore, ignore.

And now, there was nothing left, but: shit, shit, shit.

-o-

Mitch wasn’t panicking.


That was ridiculous. Mitch never panicked. He often worked in stressful situations with life or death consequences. He held people’s lives in his hands. He faced peril on a regular basis, all with flair, confidence and total assurance. He never, not once in his long and storied career, panicked.

So there was no way he was panicking now.

No way.

Was he a little concerned? Yes. Was he reasonably uncertain? Obviously. Did he have questions and doubts and general malaise? Well, sure.

But that gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach, the wringing of his hands, the incessant and repetitive questions to the medical staff as they equipped Brody with a brace and the name of a physical therapist for an appointment tomorrow. None of that was panic.

Deny, deny, deny wasn’t just a tactic for Brody anymore.

-o-

When they were finally released, Brody was quiet. Mitch attempted to make small talk, but nothing much worked. Finally, out of some desperation, he stopped at the ice cream shop on the way home.

Hours after their altercation with the press, they no longer had a tail. With sunglasses and baseball hats, it was easy enough to get inside. He ordered strawberry for himself, relieved when they had a peanut butter and chocolate for Brody. They hadn’t eaten in hours, so Mitch went ahead and ordered double scoops for both of them, before settling them down at a table at the back of the small and crowded shop.

“It’s fine,” Mitch said before even taking a bite. “This is just a small, minor setback.”

Brody took a small bite, not quite bringing his eyes to meet Mitch’s.

“We’ll go to the PT tomorrow, get the exercises,” he said. “You don’t need a lot of practice; I wasn’t going to push you hard this week anyway.”

Mitch was rambling, looking for any and all salient details to spin this the best way possible. The press could do the opposite, and it worked. Surely, he could pull off some version to Brody’s benefit.

“Your shoulder’s going to be fine for the race,” Mitch told him. “You’ll see.”

Brody had eaten another few bites, looking somewhat thoughtful.

“I promise, Brody,” Mitch vowed. “This is fine.”

Brody swallowed, quiet for another moment. Then, he took a breath, tipping his head to the side. “You were right.”

“What?” Mitch said.

Brody looked from the ice cream in his bowl to Mitch. “About the ice cream.”

That made even less sense than the previous statement. “What are you talking about?”

Putting the bowl down, Brody shook his head. “The texture is all wrong,” he said. “I didn’t realize it before.”

Mitch’s mouth fell open in shock.

Ice cream.

Brody was talking about ice cream.

Now, of times.

Ice cream, of all topics.

“Brody what the hell does this have to do with ice cream?” he asked in utter incredulity.

Brody’s lips twisted up, sadly and sardonically. “Nothing,” he said, pushing the bowl a little farther away. “Absolutely nothing at all.”

-o-

Neither of them finished their ice cream, and Mitch took it to go just because he couldn’t bring himself to throw it all in the trash.

That said, Brody wasn’t hungry, and neither was Mitch. The best they had at this point was going through the motions.

Of course, they had sort of been doing this on and off for months now. It was possible that it was starting to wear thin.

Too thin.

But admitting that was like admitting defeat. It wasn’t that Mitch didn’t know how to do that, but it was just that he didn’t know how to do that. In an act of desperate defiance toward the reality of the situation, Mitch picked up a pizza and some pop, ordering a side salad, before sneaking Brody back into the hotel via the service entrance.

In the room, Brody didn’t talk much, using monosyllabic replies to all of Mitch’s questions that could not be satisfied with a shrug or a blank stare. Mitch wanted to push it on some level, but he wasn’t sure how. Worse, he wasn’t sure where that would take either of them.

Instead, he cajoled Brody into eating a few pieces, stared at him until he ate most of the salad, and then could think of nothing to say when Brody announced that he was going to bed.

To be fair, it had been a long day. Brody did look exhausted after brushing his teeth and changing into his pajamas. He was immobilizing his arm into the sling given to them by the hospital, when Mitch loitered uncomfortably. “You want to talk?” he asked with a shrug. “You know, about anything?”

Peanut butter ice cream, pizza, salad.

Training, the Olympic trials, physical therapy.

The idea of quitting his Olympic pursuit and giving up on the dream entirely.

Anything at all.

Brody laughed humorlessly. “Doesn’t really fit our MO, does it?”

It hurt, somehow. Mitch wasn’t sure how, even if he knew exactly why. “We can talk, buddy. I’m right here.”

Brody looked at him. Really, well and truly looked at him. “I know,” he said, almost fond. Almost smiling. “I know.”

It was just that neither of them were sure that was enough anymore.

-o-

After going to bed, Brody was asleep almost instantly. He laid down, closed his eyes, and Mitch had just notice his still neglected phone on the desk when he realized that Brody’s breathing had already evened out. On the one hand, Mitch had wanted Brody to avoid the headlines. On the other, Brody hadn’t even texted Summer today. It was important to keep Brody from dwelling on shit, but having th3 kid disconnect from Baywatch was just as dangerous.

More dangerous, really. Baywatch had saved Brody’s life, and he’d be the first one to say it. If he gave up on Baywatch, then this was more dire than Mitch had previously thought.

That was saying something. Because today had been a shitty day. The idea of this being worse.

Well, Mitch didn’t even know what to make of that.

Maybe the doctor had a point. Maybe they needed to look at this as a choice now. A choice to risk everything and come away with nothing.

Or a choice to walk away now and salvage what was left.

True, keeping on meant that Brody might go back to the Olympics.

But if Brody’s shoulder went out? If his precarious control shattered? If his sense of self imploded? If Brody had to become less of himself to get there?

And really, was this even what Brody wanted? Brody was miserable. Back at Baywatch, he’d been so happy. Mitch knew all about the importance of sacrifice, but sometimes, enough had to be enough. Sometimes, a risk wasn’t worth it.

This was supposed to be about Brody. What he needed. What he wanted.

Mitch had only intervened to help Brody get there.

But was he pushing too hard now? Was Brody doing this for Mitch and not himself? Two years ago, Mitch had been so sure about what Brody had wanted.

Tonight, in that hotel room, Mitch couldn’t muster up anything resembling certainty.

Maybe it was time to walk away.

Maybe it was time to just be done.

Maybe it was time to go home.

In the stillness, Mitch watched Brody sleep. Going home would be easy. It might be better in the short term.

But was it what Brody wanted?

Would it be what he needed in the long run?

Was it time to tell Brody they’d come far enough?

Or was this the point to tell Brody to just keep his eye on the prize?

The thing was, though, that Mitch never pretended to have all the answers.

This was the first time, however, that Mitch wasn’t sure if he had any of them.

Maybe Brody had the right idea. Maybe it was time to stop thinking, stop feeling, stop worrying. Maybe it was just time to sleep.

And who could say?

Maybe things would look better in the morning.

-o-

Yeah, that was going to be a no.

Because, see, once upon a time back on a beach in California, Mitch used to be a lucky sort o dude.

And then Matt Brody came into his life.

It had been rollercoaster ever since.

-o-

It started when Mitch didn’t wake up on time.

Mitch always woke up on time.

Always.

He was the guy who never needed an alarm clock because he was that innately aware of himself and his surroundings, even in sleep. He was the guy who rolled his eyes when people said they overslept. He was the guy who had bought Brody three alarm clocks, just so the damn idiot would wake up to one of them eventually.

But there it was. 7:44 and Mitch was just waking up despite the fact that he knew they were supposed to be dressed and down at breakfast in exactly one minute. Their morning appointment with the physical therapist was at 9, and Mitch still had to arrange private access for the therapist at the front desk. The lady had been nice enough to agree to a house call for security reasons, but Mitch had to get her credentials cleared and call up the office to confirm the details and how the hell was it 7:44 when Mitch always woke up at 6 AM?

Muttering a curse, he sat up, scrambling to blink away the sleep from his eyes as he grappled with his phone on the bedside table. Unlocking it, his panic-fueled forward momentum was stymied abruptly by the sheer number of alerts he had.

Shit.

Everyone had texted him from Baywatch.

He kept scrolling.

At least twice.

Shit. Shit.

Summer had texted him nearly a dozen times.

The early ones were moderately calm and rational. The one he received ten minutes ago read, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON MITCH???? IS HE DEAD????

That seemed overly dramatic, but then he clicked on his news notifications and read the first headline.

Top US Swimmer Disappears After Causing Car Accident

Shit, shit, shit.

Apparently, the press could make this worse. And he hadn’t even checked to see how Brody’s arm felt this morning. He wasn’t even out of bed and already the day was falling apart and Mitch was playing catch up.

Quickly, he fired off a text to Summer, assuring her that Brody was fine, that he had physical therapy today but that he would still be able to race in the trials. That was, by all accounts, true. Brody was cleared to race. It just might cost him his ability to be the fastest swimmer on the planet if it all went wrong.

Oh, and Brody might have a complete emotional meltdown about it, all while talking about the virtues of peanut butter ice cream.

He sent off several more reassuring if only vaguely realistic texts to the rest of the team before going back and forth with Summer a little more. She wanted to know why Brody wasn’t answering his phone, why he wasn’t responding to texts. She wanted to know what the hell was happening to her boyfriend.

Not an unreasonable thing, and Mitch knew that.

It was just that there was no answer.

Or, you know, there was an answer.

And Mitch didn’t know what the hell it was.

Shit’s just crazy right now, that’s all. I’ll have him call you later.

After breakfast.

After therapy.

After Mitch knew anything.

With Summer, there was no denial or ignorance. But delay, delay, delay?

Seemed to work just fine for now.

-o-

Of course, delaying Summer would only work so long. If he put her off long enough, she was the kind of girl who would get on a plane, all consequences be damned, and find out what the hell was going on for herself. There was something vaguely appealing to that notion -- that Mitch might not have to do this alone -- but Summer would only confuse things more. Brody needed to know what he wanted. If Summer were here, he’d try to hard to please her.

No, he had to talk to Brody first.

That was his intention, anyway.

But when he went into the next room to rouse Brody, his courage faltered. Deny, deny, deny was shit now. Even ignore, ignore, ignore wasn’t going to do it. Mitch couldn’t delay, delay, delay.

So, that left this: distract, distract, distract.

They would talk about everything and anything.

Except the fact that Brody had to make the choice of risking his health to achieve his dreams or trading it off to preserve his health and forfeit everything.

Small shit like that.

“Come on,” Mitch said, prodding Brody into the bathroom before the kid had a chance to say or do anything else. “We’re already late for breakfast.”

“But, like, my phone,” Brody mumbled, still sleepy. “And Summer -- and the headlines--”

“Later, dude,” Mitch said. “No time for that now!”

Mitch closed the bathroom door behind Brody decisively. No time for that shit now.

Or ever if Mitch had anything to say about it.