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Baywatch fic: The Last Leg (6/9)

December 28th, 2018 (01:58 pm)

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


-o-

Mitch had been looking forward to his first shift, shadowing Stephanie on the beach. He was qualified to guard just yet, but observational stints were permitted. He had been anxious to schedule his first shift, but when Brody’s first sponsor wanted to move up their photoshoot, he hadn’t had much choice.

Okay, he did have a choice. But they offered Brody a substantial bonus for the inconvenience, and then suddenly nothing seemed all that inconvenient anymore. Not when the bonus was nearly a year’s worth of wages for him.

Mitch’s confidence wavered, however, when they pulled up outside the studio. Brody looked through the windshield skeptically. “You sure this is a good idea?”

“Yeah, the offer was good, it was legit,” Mitch said.

“No, I know that,” Brody said. He stopped short and made a face. “But they want me to do what?”

“Oh, it’s a photo shoot today,” Mitch said. “They want you in a print campaign. Some magazines, maybe a billboard.”

Brody’s frown deepened. “A billboard?”

Mitch shrugged, considering that for the first time. “You’re photogenic. You’ll be great.”

Brody pursed his lips, shaking his head. “But, like. What if I’m not?”

Mitch had to think about that one, because it was only fair to think about that one. Brody had been awesome lately, and his performance in Chicago outside the pool had been almost as impressive as his one inside the pool.

Still, the press had nearly broken Brody in Chicago. Literally.

Then there was the matter of Brody’s previous forays into the world of publicity. Mitch hadn’t made a point to follow Brody’s career in any particular fashion prior to meeting his cocky ass on the beach, but it had been impossible to miss the lowlights of his press circuit after the Olympics. He had been stupid, arrogant and utterly unlikeable.

In short, there was no possible way that he could have behaved worse.

So there was reason for trepidation.

Except for this: “You’re not the same dude who made an idiot of himself before,” Mitch reminded him. “You’ve changed.”

Brody snorted in disbelief. “Do you really think I’ve changed that much?”

“I do,” Mitch said, and he didn’t have to think about anything with that answer. That one, he knew. That one was true beyond all shadow of doubt. That one Mitch would bank on. “I really do.”

It was obvious that Brody doubted that -- because Brody still doubted himself.

But he trusted Mitch even more.

He drew another breath, this time with resolve. “Okay,” he said. “I guess we’ll see what happens.”

“That’s my boy,” Mitch said as they climbed out of the car together.

-o-

Brody had always been at his best in the pool.

Watching him during the photoshoot, Mitch was starting to wonder if that was starting to change.

Because Brody was, in short, awesome.

He was professional during the introductory phase of the meeting. He talked respectfully to the high level executives in the business, and he was able to add intelligent comments to the conversation. He had clearly read up a bit on the company, and he was able to talk to them about their products and services in a way that gave everyone in the room confidence that this was the right match -- including Mitch.

Mitch had been confident, of course. In Brody’s potential.

Now he was confident in Brody’s actual success.

After the papers were signed, Brody was escorted into the press room. Here, he was even more effective. He was polite and well mannered with the staff, and he was utterly charming with the photographer. He made all the hair and makeup people laugh, and he was completely cooperative, no matter what the photographer asked him to do. True, Brody had a hard time distinguishing his right from his left, but if that was the only thing he did wrong throughout the day, then damn.

Mitch’s boy was growing up.

And if Mitch beamed like a proud father, then who the hell was going to call him on it.

-o-

It was late afternoon when the shoot was over, but Brody said it was still cool to go into the office. Mitch was resolved to do many things, but if someone offered him Baywatch, he was hard pressed to say no.

Even as they sat in the office together, however, it was pretty clear that Mitch wasn’t going to get much done. Brody was still staring at the check they’d cut for Brody. Checks, actually.

“So this one is the negotiated fee?” Brody asked, pointing to one of them.

“Right, the one in their offer,” Mitch confirmed.

“And this one?” Brody asked, even though he’d already asked and confirmed and more. “This is the…?”

“Bonus,” Mitch said.

Brody shook his head, dumbfounded. “This is ridiculous.”

“Well, it’s the first of many, if the campaign goes well,” Mitch said. “You have a standard monthly fee, and they’ll pay you a small percentage of any direct proceeds.”

“So, like, there will be more checks?” Brody asked, raising his eyebrows.

Mitch nodded, not sure how that was a question Brody had. “Yeah,” he said. “I thought you’d done this before?”

“They never showed me the money, dude,” Brody said with a scoff. “Like, no one would ever show me the money. I mean, I think they took a lot of it, and then I tended to, you know, drink the rest of it.”

Mitch narrowed his eyes, deciding that no commentary was needed on that point. “You’re sober now, right?” he prompted instead. “I think you can be trusted.”

Brody scoffed again, leaning over and putting the checks on the table. “Yeah, don’t think so.”

By now, Mitch was giving up all pretense of doing paperwork. “What do you mean?”

“I can barely handle being a normal person, making normal person decisions,” Brody said. “Do you honestly think I’m ready to suddenly be a person with a lot of cash to blow?”

That was a fair point.

Mitch hadn’t thought that far ahead when he’d given Brody the check.

Still, it wasn’t the way they did shit around here. “It’s your money.”

“Our money,” Brody said.

“No, yours,” Mitch clarified. He pointed to the name on the check. “Made out to you. Matt Brody.”

Brody didn’t appear comforted by this answer. “Well, you’re due to get paid. Like, a lot. Back pay or something. That’s a thing, right? Back pay?”

They had learned a lot over the last two years about life. Apparently, there was still a lot for Brody to learn. “I can take double my cut, pay the physical therapist, cover our pool expenses for the month and still have cash left over,” Mitch said. “They paid you a good chunk of change. And they’re just the first. We’ve got another sponsorship meeting lined up for next week.”

For all that this was indeed good news, Brody looked increasingly dismayed. “Okay,” he said, even if he sounded like it really wasn’t okay. “So, I don’t know. What do we do with it? I mean, I can pay more rent now.”

It was a hopeful offer; so hopeful that Mitch chuckled. “And the rest?”

Brody now appeared marginally desperate. “Do we have to pay the lawyer?”

“Dude,” Mitch said, putting his pen down to sit forward on his elbows so Brody understood. “You’re earning serious cash now.”

Mitch could imagine that someone had told Brody this once before. He could also imagine that Brody had been as dumbfounded then as he was now. What was different, of course, was how he handled that shock. At the last Olympics, it was pretty clear that Brody had taken it as a sign to cut loose.

Now, it wasn’t clear that Brody had any notion of what to do with it. “Right,” he said, sounding less and less certain by the moment. “Should we put it in savings?”

That was the sensible approach. Mitch nodded. “That would certainly be a conservative measure,” he said. He had a feeling that Brody wasn’t so much making a choice as he was trying to see which choice Mitch valued most. “But what do you want?”

At that, Brody actually laughed. “Shit,” he said. “I don’t have any idea. I mean, what else could I possibly need right now?”

And that question was the one Mitch hadn’t thought of.

What could Brody need?

What could Brody even want?

Suddenly, Mitch wanted to know. “Could be anything,” he said. “It is your money. You get to spend it as you see fit.”

Again, Brody shook his head. “I’m bad with money. Just like I’m bad with alcohol. And, you know, relationships.”

“You’re not bad at relationships,” Mitch corrected him.

“Not anymore,” Brody agreed. “Because I gave up on alcohol and money.”

“You didn’t give up on money,” Mitch chided him.

“Yeah, I just happened to blow it all, get dumped by all my sponsors and end up with a plea deal that left me crashing in your spare room,” Brody said. “So, yeah. I’m pretty sure I’m bad with money.”

Mitch sighed, picking up the checks, trying not to be surprised by the amounts he’d already double checked half a dozen times. “It’s called self control,” he said.

“Uh, no, it’s called a savings account,” Brody told him. “Right? That’s what it’s called, isn’t it? Don’t I have one?”

Brody did have one, one that Mitch had helped him set up after several months of living together. It had never had much cash in it, because lifeguards did good work but they sure as hell didn’t earn top dollar.

Mitch was tempted to talk about investment and stocks and bonds and shit, but Mitch couldn’t be a financial advisor on top of everything. Besides, Brody wanted to save the money was smart and sensible.

It wasn’t going to accrue the most interest, but this wasn’t about the money.

Not really.

This was about Brody making the best choices -- and Mitch being there to make sure he knew it. “Yeah, you’ve got one,” Mitch confirmed, putting the two checks into his wallet. “You want to swing by the bank on our way home?”

Brody was on his feet, apparently unaware that they had only arrived at the office a half hour ago. “Can we?”

Chuckling, Mitch got to his feet as well. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

The question was intended to be rhetorical, and Brody took it as such. Mitch knew, however, there were a lot of reasons why not -- most of which were for his own personal gain.

The reason why, on the other hand, was for Brody’s well being.

That was the only one that mattered.

-o-

Brody’s savings account wasn’t the only thing doing much better in the first month back home. Brody’s training was perfectly on schedule, and his shoulder had been rehabbed nicely to the point where he no longer experienced pain while swimming. His migraines were completely under control, and he had successfully secure two additional sponsors with various publicity events.

At home, he had retaken to being a home-body, and his alacrity with cleaning supplies had actually grown substantially. This was likely because Summer was over most nights by now, and he was always a better student when she was teaching. Mitch had never seen someone so invested in learning how to vacuum as when Summer gave him a point by point demonstration.

Mitch didn’t have a whole lot of time for lifeguarding, but it felt good to get back at the office when he could. It was nice to be a part of things, to remember who he was in all of this. He’d been playing the role of coach et al for so long, that Mitch had almost forgotten what it was like to be oceanic.

A month ago, at the trials, the whole thing had nearly fallen apart.

Funny how Mitch couldn’t imagine it any other way now.

-o-

The best thing about it, though, hands down, was the team.

Even if Mitch wasn’t in tower one, he was still part of the team. He knew it; they knew.

It was a fact they all embraced.

Zealously.

And to the great dismay of Mitch’s neighbors. Because when they whole group of them got together, they were loud. They spent the night grilling on the porch, Ronnie wearing a ridiculous apron while CJ played with the lighter. Stephanie was no-nonsense when she manned the grill, and Summer spent most of the night in Brody’s lap, talking about British baking.

Mitch handled the finer points of the evening, making sides and appetizers, and taking a few cases of beer over to the neighbors to apologize for the ruckus. They never minded, though. Mitch was generally a good neighbor; people rarely minded doing him favors.

Plus, Mitch suspected it was hard to resent anyone who was having as good a time as his team. That kind of happiness, even when loud, it was addictive. It was contagious.

The good times spread.

This was what made going away so hard. Not being a part of this, being so far removed.

Damn, Mitch wasn’t even sure how he’d pulled it off.

-o-

When the food was gone, Mitch broke out the board games. Scattergories was the first choice. Partially because it was the first one Mitch saw, and partially because Brody was horrifically bad at it.

It wasn’t that it was fun to see Brody fail.

It was just that it was sort of fun to see Brody remember that he wasn’t just an Olympian. He was a person, too. He could win in the pool, but that was only one kind of victory.

Okay, and also, it was fun to see Brody suck at something.

Fortunately, he agreed and laughed harder than anyone else.

CJ and Ronnie, by contrast, were uncommonly good. So good that they had to be separated because they won every round, hands down, and it got so annoying to see them excel that the entire group revolted.

Stephanie, although smart and quick witted, had a decided lack of creative thinking, especially under pressure. Her answers were a bit too reductive, and her lackluster use of figurative language meant that she and Brody were competing at the lowest tiers.

Summer wasn’t as good as CJ or Ronnie, but she was more competitive than the whole group combined. Her energy levels kept the whole thing going well into the night, well past any bedtime Mitch had ever set in the schedule.

That was the cool thing about setting the schedule, though.

Mitch got to break it whenever he damn well pleased.

And for this? For the team?

Well, that was definitely worth it.

-o-

The private moments were the best.

Mitch knew, however, that the public moments were just as important to finishing what they started. As the one who managed Brody’s schedule and appearances, he tried to keep things moderate, but it seemed like bad publicity to avoid all interview requests. Instead, Mitch tried to weed them out, sprinkling out one or two a month in order to maintain Brody’s public image and keep him as a viable figure for sponsors while also keeping his stress levels to a minimum.

All the same, Mitch had to admit, he wasn’t sure Brody was the one he was protecting anymore.

Not when Brody took to interviews so damn well anymore.

His confidence had only grown since leaving Chicago, and now that he was surrounded by his friends, there was nothing holding him back. Mitch had worried that Brody being too loose would make him say things that were stupid, but something had definitely changed in the younger man. Instead of saying the stupidest shit, he said the most sincere things possible.

He was still a little dumb sometimes, but it came across as endearing when the reporter had to clarify the concept for Brody.

The latest was an interview with the local news station. Mitch knew the reporter -- he had saved her from a riptide two years ago -- and he had felt confident that it would be a softball interview.

Brody’s performance, however, showed him that he had little reason to be concerned.

“Well, honestly, I know I’m from Iowa, but the bay feels like home to me,” Brody explained toward the end of the interview. “This is where I belong, it’s where I’ve built a life for myself.”

Mitch was standing just beyond the film crew, Summer standing on her toes next to him, trying to keep a clear line of sight on Brody. She couldn’t join in most of the days, but this was her day off. She’d wanted to see Brody in action. Also, ever since they’d come back, she and Brody had been nearly inseparable.

“For someone pursuing the world stage, that seems a little surprising,” the reporter commented. “What has drawn you to the bay?”

“The people, of course,” Brody said. He laughed, awkward and self deprecating. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s, like, beautiful. The beaches, the ocean -- like, I get it. I get why people come here for vacation. It’s basically paradise. But the people are what make the bay special.”

The reporter was smiling as she nodded along. “And I assume that your team at Baywatch is a large part of that,” she said.

“Oh, yeah,” Brody agreed.

“Do you still have plans to go back?” she asked. “I assume with training, there’s not much time to lifeguard.”

“Yeah, no,” Brody said. “I’m not an active team member right now, but it’s definitely something I’m coming back to. Like, the Olympics are this crazy, impossible dream. But Baywatch? That’s the happy ending, you know? I never would have gotten this far without Baywatch, and so I hope they still want me when this is done.”

Mitch’s chest tightened inexplicably. Summer was still bobbing for a better view next to him, but Mitch couldn’t deny that that was a question he’d had himself -- for himself and for Brody.

The reporter laughed fondly. “Well, I’m sure they’ll still make a place for you,” she said before turning to the camera. “That’s all we have time for. Thanks to Matt Brody for taking the time to talk to us today.”

Brody waved at the camera. “Thanks, any time.”

As the cameras cut, Summer leaned closed to Mitch. “Did you coach him on this?”

Mitch huffed, whispering back under his breath. “No.”

Summer, utterly infatuated, couldn’t take her eyes off Brody. “He’s changed,” she breathed. “In all the best ways.”

Mitch followed her gaze with wonder. “Yeah,” he said, with less certainty that Summer had mustered. “I guess he probably has.”

-o-

There were distractions aplenty now that they were home, which might make one think that Brody’s performance in the pool would suffer.

The opposite was true.

Brody flourished in the pool.

His times were stronger than ever, and his performance was exceedingly consistent.

By all accounts, Brody looked like he was ready to win the Olympics in less than a year.

Now it was up to Mitch to make sure he was ready, too.

-o-

Summer had settled into the routine just as well as the rest of them. At first, Mitch had been worried that her increased presence would be a problem, but she showed herself very eager to be part of the team. While Mitch had the role of coach, trainer, publicist and manager well in hand, he didn’t mind letting Summer in on other parts of the job.

Namely, the cool down at the end of the day.

To be fair, the physical therapist helped Brody a lot, but at his level of physical fitness, there was no denying that he was prone to aches, pains and worse. Athletes of his caliber had to subject their body to undue amounts of stress, and no matter how well Brody performed in the pool, his body showed the signs of wear and tear by the end of the night.

Brody took a lot of hot showers, and Mitch had invested in heating pads and ice packs. Summer, for her part, had learned how to target muscles with massage techniques.

Mitch had been skeptical at first when she said she’d been studying, but after several months of her help in this area, he couldn’t deny that she had a pretty good touch.

It probably helped that Brody found everything relaxing when she was near, but Mitch still noted a marked improvement in Brody’s mobility and pain levels after Summer took a turn with him at night. While the two of them did a great many private things in Brody’s room, the massages were somehow not one of them. This would have seemed weird to Mitch, but a few months ago, he’d been the one administering the massages. Needless to say, it didn’t seem that weird to him anymore.

Still, weird or not, Mitch wasn’t exactly going to be hovering over every massage session. Mitch, as a natural leader, liked to know the ins and outs of situations, but Baywatch had taught him to delegate. And it was cool by him to let Summer handle this part of things.

Sometimes, though, he still heard bits and pieces. It was inevitable, sharing a house all the time. Most of the time he didn’t care; most of the time it wasn’t relevant. Just the normal shit.

“No, my shoulder,” Brody was clarifying from his spot on the floor. “Like, the shoulder.”

Summer, on her knees at his side, tried moving her hands. “This is your shoulder.”

“But you’re -- you’re missing the spot,” Brody said.

“Is it a knot? Because I don’t feel anything,” Summer continued.

“Higher -- to the left -- you’re almost--” Brody guided her. “Shit!”

“What?” Summer asked. The abruptness of their exchange made Mitch look up from where he was reading a book in the kitchness. Summer had her hands up, and Brody’s face was scrunched up.

“Nothing,” Brody said through gritted teeth. “You just found it, is all.”

Summer looked skeptical. “And maybe I shouldn’t find it,” she suggested.

“No, I need it worked out,” Brody insisted.

“But if it causes pain--”

Craning his neck, Brody smiled up at her. “It just means you’re doing it right,” he said. “Trust me.”

Reaching down to the trigger point, Summer started to rub again. As Brody settled back onto the floor, relaxing against her touch, it was obvious that she believed him.

Mitch looked back down at his book. He had no reason not to believe Brody either.

That was what he told himself as he proceeded to reread the same page five times before turning in for an early night.

-o-

Training was routine. Sponsors they were getting pretty good at. But Mitch was pretty damn nervous at their first Team USA outing. It was organized with the spirit of team building, and executed with a keen eye toward publicity. Public image and team spirit: two of Brody’s less accomplished skills.

Mitch was so anxious the whole trip that he could hardly eat. Brody tolerated this fairly well, until Mitch’s weird behavior finally weirded him out, too.

“Dude, are you okay?”

“What?” Mitch asked, trying to make it seem like the question didn’t catch him off guard. He looked at Brody, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat of the car, staring at him uncertainly. “Yes.”

Brody’s eyes were narrowed in on him. “No, really.”

Mitch puffed out his lips, eyes back on the road. “I’m fine.”

As convincing as he was trying to be, Brody saw through him a lot faster than Mitch had hoped. He looked a little shocked. “You’re nervous.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Mitch said, probably too quickly.

Brody was realizing that his instincts were right in this regard. He shook his head again, his disbelief giving way to vague bemusement. “You are.”

“I’m not,” Mitch insisted, far too aware of how their roles had shifted. It should have been Brody making this plaintive and ridiculous denials. But here he was, and the words were coming right out of his own stupid mouth.

“Seriously, though,” Brody said, politely declining to mock Mitch mercilessly for it. “It really is going to be fine.”

Mitch couldn’t help it; he scowled contrarily. “That’s easy for you to say,” he muttered.

Brody raised his eyebrows. “You do know that I’m the one who’s in the spotlight here, right? So, like, this one is entirely on me.”

“Oh, whatever,” Mitch said with a huff.

“Yeah, the vote of confidence is, like, super inspiring,” Brody quipped, but he was still grinning.

“You need me to pull off so you can hurl?” Mitch shot back.

“Wow, you are grumpy when you’re nervous,” Brody said.

“Just don’t screw up,” Mitch sait tautly.

“And that, right there,” Brody said, pointing at Mitch. “Is why you’re the only coach for me.”

Mitch gave Brody the finger while the younger man cackled in the passenger seat.

-o-

Damn it.

Brody was right.

Not that Mitch wanted Brody to be wrong, especially about something like this.

But Brody was really, really right.

In fact, he was more than fine. He was brilliant. Watching him, you never would have guessed that he’d been dubbed the Vomit Comet. There was no hint of arrogance. There was no semblance of out of control stupidity. He was polite, deferential and funny.

Even more, he was thoughtful. He took time to talk to everyone on the team, spending extra time with the youngest members of the team, offering advice and answering questions. When Rio came up, Brody blushed but didn’t shy away from it. He used it instead, talking about the mistakes he’d made with distance, maturity and growth.

It wasn’t that Mitch hadn’t seen this side of Brody before.

It was just that the rest of the world hadn’t seen it. Sure, the press coverage of Brody’s actions after the second Leeds’ investigation had been good. His interview had been a big leap forward for him, cementing his place a local celebrity and Baywatch hero.

But this was the Olympics. The whole damn world.

That was why it was important, of course. It was just strange to watch. Seeing Brody qualify at the trials -- that hadn’t surprised Mitch.

This, for some reason, did.

It really, really did.

Mitch wasn’t sure what that said about Brody.

Or, more importantly, what it said about Mitch himself.

-o-

He hoped, after such events proved unsettling to him, that some time on the beach might help him get his head back on straight. He had no time to update his credentials for active duty, but there were no rules against shadowing. In fact, it was a recommended process for new recruits. And even if it wasn’t, it wasn’t like Stephanie was about to turn him down.

He only had a couple hours with Brody in an extended therapy session after morning practice. Instead of pretending to do paperwork, he suited up and joined Stephanie at her current post at tower one.

Shit, he missed tower one. He missed the view up and down the beach. He missed the familiar sights and sounds. The way the waves broke over the rocks. The smell of the salt in the air. He had been away a long time.

Too long, some might say.

And did.

Up and down the beach, people greeted Mitch with pleasure and surprise. While Stephanie handled the actual lifeguarding duties, Mitch had time to chitchat with the old regulars. He learned about life updates, family changes, local news. Heidi Pierce had won a surfing competition last month. Khalil Dawes has gotten married last year, and he showed Mitch pictures of his new baby girl. Everett Leeson had retired, Johnny Mitchell got a new job, Stacie Jones broke up with her boyfriend.

But they all were following Brody’s career, and they all told Mitch what a good job he was doing.

Back at tower one, Stephanie was waiting for him, an expectant smirk on her face. “You’ve been away a long time.”

“No kidding,” Mitch said, waving to an enthusiastic Kylie Bennet as she ran by. “I knew that, but I don’t think I really knew it.”

“Ah,” Stephanie said dismissively. “Just the small stuff has changed. You’ve only been here for two hours, and I think you know more about this beach than I do.”

Mitch shook his head. “It’s different. Maybe I’m different.”

Stephanie still wasn’t buying it. “It’s like riding a bike. You never forget.”

“Eh, that analogy could use some work,” Mitch commented, looking out over the beach to purposefully ignore Stephanie’s ensuing glare.

Her huff of indignation was easy enough to hear, however. “Really? I try to be nice to you and you insult my board game ability?”

“Sometimes, knowing our weaknesses is the only way to overcome them,” Mitch offered sagely, just to piss her off.

“Should I remind you that you’ve barely worked for two years?” she countered.

“No,” Mitch said. “At least not until after I remind you to check your six o’clock. Swimmer in trouble down the way.”

Stephanie responded immediately, following Mitch’s line of sight and muttering a curse. “Damn it,” she said, reaching for her flotation device as she started down the ramp. “Good call.”

Uncertified for any kind of rescue, Mitch could only watch her go. He wasn’t jealous, of course.

Not really.

Not exactly.

Mitch knew that his story would end here eventually, but not yet.

Just not yet.

-o-

The beach wasn’t all about work, just to be clear. Yes, Mitch loved Baywatch. Baywatch was a part of who he was, but he was oceanic first. The sand, the surf -- that was a part of him, on duty or off.

That was another reason being home was so good. Their down time was no longer spent in cramped hotel rooms with room service and iPads. Instead, they got to spend their down time on the beach. And Mitch couldn’t quite be a lifeguard again, but he was able to be on the sand, in the water, right where he belonged.

Volleyball, running, boating, surfing -- all of it was good by Mitch. Brody didn’t join him in any of the high contact sports; even jogging seemed to attract the press. But Brody still found his place, sitting on a towel next to Summer outside Mitch’s back door.

They were pressed close to each other. Brody touched her arm; Summer threw back her head and laughed. When they kissed, Brody closed his eyes and leaned into it, and Summer ran her hands through his hair. Something had changed between, something subtle and profound. They had found their balance; they had found equilibrium.

The reminder that change wasn’t always easy.

Other times, it was the best outcome possible.

Mitch wasn’t sure if he could take some credit for this particular change or not, so he picked up his surfboard and went back out into the water again. The next wave wiped him out, sending him tumbling back to shore.

-o-

Not that it was all fun and games.

Or, like, most of it.

Damn it, Brody was intensely training for the Olympics.

That was a lot of work.

Despite the distractions, most of Mitch’s time and energy was still necessarily focused on that. He was pleased to report that it wasn’t in vain, either. Not even a little.

Brody’s training was dead on. After an impressive showing at the qualifying events, Brody had been slated to participate in four events. This was one more than the previous Olympics, and it required Brody to work on a few strokes that weren’t his strongest, but Mitch had to be honest, it was impossible to tell which stroke was his weakest anymore. Brody’s form had improved so dramatically that Mitch was pretty sure he could have qualified for a lot more events if they’d had the time, energy and wherewithal.

As it was, every goal Mitch set, Brody met -- and then promptly surpassed. Eventually, as the weeks passed, Mitch ran out of constructive criticism and instead focused on being an asshole to make Brody pissed enough in the pool that he wanted to swim faster to prove Mitch wrong. Brody was on to him pretty quickly, but it didn’t matter much. No matter what Mitch did, Brody’s times stayed consistent.

Even Brody’s shoulder showed no sign of further complication. Mitch had the physical therapist check it routinely, and Mitch arranged for several follow up visits with orthopedic surgeons in the area just to be sure. The injury was still there, but it had showed no signs of advancement. In fact, if anything, the area seemed to have healed up somewhat from the car accident in Chicago.

Mitch tried to mitigate every possible complication.

Except there were no more complications.

Brody hadn’t had a single headache since they’d been back. His shoulder was doing great, and his performance in the pool suggested unparalleled predictability. Brody’s relationships were strong, and they were both reconnected with Baywatch and enjoying being amongst friends again. In short, things were perfect.

That was why it was so vexing that Mitch started to have trouble sleeping at night, waking up each morning with a twinge of trepidation that was harder and harder for him to shake.

-o-

The thing was, Mitch was a logical kind of guy. He had rationalized many things as Brody’s coach, and he’d used his strong sense of reason to help Brody grapple with some of the more difficult aspects of their life in training before.

Then, when all that had failed, Mitch had adapted a new plan.

That was the plan Mitch was relying on for his own edification now.

Because he didn’t know how to reason or rationalize his sense of growing dread. He didn’t know how to make sense of his latent anxiety that made it hard to relax. He didn’t even want to try to accept the vague notion of impending disaster that he seemed to carry with him all day, every day now.

That meant deny, deny, deny was back.

It hadn’t turned out so terribly last time. Despite the stress, the car accident, Brody’s injury and near meltdown, Brody had qualified for the Olympics. Mitch kept telling himself that had to count for something.

While he desperately hoped it counted for everything.

-o-

The worst part was that it wasn’t just the training. It wasn’t just time with Brody.

Mitch started having problems at Baywatch, too.

At first, he thought it was just because he was rusty. He had to look up a few references numbers when doing paperwork. He had to make a few phone calls to re-establish ties within the system.

Six months out from the Olympics, and Mitch’s performance on the job was as lackluster as the day he came back. No one said anything; no one had to. Mitch knew it. He knew that Stephanie was double checking his paperwork for him. He knew the new recruits didn’t come to him first when they had questions. Casey Jean made a point to tell him how glad she was that he was back, and when exactly did he think he was going to be full time again?

Everyone was nice about it, complimentary even, but Mitch knew better. Mitch knew that he wasn’t on his game, and it was starting to piss him off.

That just made his performance worse.

And the endless cycle made him wonder if he could start using Brody’s migraine medication now that he wasn’t.

On one particularly bad afternoon, wherein Mitch forgot how to fill out a requisition form, Stephanie knocked at the door. Upon seeing his distress, she sat down across from him.

“Yeah, it’s just a requisition form,” she said. “I can finish it for you.”

The fact that she was offering to help just made it worse. “I shouldn’t need you to finish it,” Mitch muttered. “I am the lieutenant here.”

Stephanie wasn’t an idiot; she sensed Mitch’s mood and proceeded with all due caution. “You’re just a little--”

Mitch looked up, glaring at her as he dared her to say the word rusty.

She hemmed herself back in accordingly. “--distracted,” she said instead. “I know it doesn’t seem like you’re doing much, but you are. Hell, even your presence alone is a huge boost to the team morale.”

That was the kind of thing you said to someone to make them feel better for being absolutely useless. Mitch knew because he’d used that line before.

Shit.

He glared at her. “I miss doing my job,” he said, pushing the paper out of the way. “My actual job.”

“And we miss you,” Stephanie said, matter of fact.

“You don’t even need me,” Mitch retorted.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not better with you,” Stephanie countered.

Mitch sighed, crossing his arms over his chest.

Crossing her arms as well, Stephanie sighed in response. “Everything okay?”

Mitch made a sound that was supposed to be indifference. It didn’t sound like it, but Mitch pressed on with his act anyway. “What? Yeah, of course. The training’s great, Brody’s got loads of sponsors, Baywatch is running perfect. What could be wrong?”

Stephanie raised her eyebrows. “I’m just going out on a limb here, but maybe the fact that it’s all going so well that you’ve made yourself superfluous is part of it.”

Mitch glared at her because what the hell. “Going out on a limb?” he asked caustically. “Really?”

Stephanie shook her head. “You’re a great leader. The best. You can and do change lives, Mitch. That’s why Baywatch is running so well without you. That’s why Brody’s doing so great. Because you’ve done your job better than anyone could expect.”

“So, what, then?” Mitch asked. “You’re saying that I need a pet project in order to find meaning in my existence?”


The fact that Stephanie didn’t outright contradict him carried more weight than he cared to acknowledge. Instead, she nodded along. “I think you’re so used to being the leader, that now that you’re a team player, it’s a little hard.”

Mitch couldn’t help but scoff. “That’s bullshit.”

“No, that’s irony,” Stephanie said.

“What irony?”

“You saying that being part of a team is about sharing burdens, but then the instant we all take you up on it, you’re out of sorts,” Stephanie said. “I’m shitty with figurative language, Mitch, but I was a psychology major at school. I know how this works.”

Mitch wanted to be angry, but he knew that wasn’t the right response. None of this was right. Sighing again, he blew out a breath. “What am I supposed to do, then?”

Stephanie uncrossed her arms and sat forward. “Don’t be pissed off that we’re here for you, just like you’ve been there for Brody,” she said. “Don’t resent the fact that all of us -- including Brody -- have listened to the things you’ve taught us. Just let us help.”

The plea was earnest, and it was hard to refute. Sheepishly, Mitch pursed his lips. “I guess that’s easier said than done.”

At that, Stephanie smiled. “I know,” she said. “But fortunately, you’re a fast learner.”

-o-

Stephanie was talking about accept, accept, accept. This was a good plan; Mitch knew that because it had once been his plan. Deny, deny, deny probably wasn’t feasible at this point.

Distract, distract, distract, however?

Was really starting to look good.

-o-

Then, Brody signed with Under Armour.

All the zeros on the first check were one hell of a distraction.

That only made Mitch feel so much worse.

Brody, on the other hand, was positively giddy. With the papers signed and the first commercial shot, Brody was so wound up that he didn’t even remember to ask for ice cream on the way home.

He was too busy.

Making plans.

Yeah, three months ago, Brody had barely known how to access his bank account.

Today, he was talking investments and spending habits.

“The first thing, is you get a pay raise,” Mitch said, pointing his finger at Mitch with a grin. “I mean, like, you can take it all if you want, honestly.”

“The pay is fine,” Mitch said, pretending to be fully engrossed in the road he was driving on.

Brody was too invigorated to notice. “Well, then I’m paying, like, double my rent,” he said. “Triple? Shit, can I just pay off your house? You have a mortgage, right? Mortgages are a thing?”

“Uh, yeah,” Mitch said, wishing that traffic was heavier so he had something to yell at. “You’re not paying off my mortgage.”

“We could buy new surfboards,” Brody offered, eyes bright with genuine excitement.

“I have a surfboard,” Mitch replied.

“I don’t,” Brody said. “Can you teach me to surf?”


Mitch pursed his lips, fingers adjusting a little on the wheel. “Yeah, probably not while we’re training for the Olympics.”

Brody’s enthusiasm was not diminished. “Summer likes surfboards,” he said. “Maybe I can get her one.”

Mitch narrowed his gaze. “She has one, too.”

“Then, something else,” Brody said. He gnawed on the inside of his lip. “What about jewelry? Girls like jewelry, right?”

Mitch tipped his head uncertainly. “She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry.”

“Not on the job, sure,” Brody said. “But there’s more to life than the job. I mean, there is, right?”

Mitch had to grit his teeth. Brody’s constant need for affirmation could sometimes be exhausting.

Especially when it was obvious that he didn’t actually need it.

He just really, really wanted it.

“I don’t know,” Mitch finally said, and that was somewhat true. He had sincerely never contemplated Summer’s jewelry preferences. Ever.

“But it’s, like, commitment,” Brody continued, still undaunted by Mitch’s overall tone. “I think we’re reading for commitment.”

Mitch turned to give him a sideways glance. “Are we still talking about jewelry?”

Brody blinked back at him, more earnest than ever. “I think we are. Like, one specific piece of jewelry.”

Mitch stared at him, a moment longer than he should. Brody stared back. He seemed as surprised as Mitch felt, but whereas Mitch’s feeling of confusion deepened, Brody only seemed to grow more and more confident.

Shit.

Mitch startled himself, blinking rapidly to get his bearings as he looked back at the road.

“You want to buy her a ring?” Mitch finally asked, forcing the words out woodenly through his suddenly tight throat.

“I don’t know,” Brody said, but he did. He did know. He was nearly breathless at the notion. Anticipation. “Maybe.”

Maybe.

Mitch blinked again, still trying and failing to get a handle on this situation. Brody had come a long way in the last few years, transforming from a smart-ass loner into a meaningful team player. He’d turned failure into success. He’d overcome his demons. He was going back to the Olympics.

And now he wanted to propose to his girlfriend?

Mitch had taken a lot of the rest in stride, but shit. He looked at Brody. “Are you sure?”

Six months ago, Brody probably would have caved at the question.

This time, it only seemed to solidify what Brody already knew.

Brody laughed, as if the realization only made him happier. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I mean, think about it. We work great together. The last six months, they’ve been, like, the best. I don’t want to imagine a future without her in it. So why shouldn’t we make that official?”


Mitch was trying not to gape. Because, in his mind, Brody was still laying down shitty pickup lines while Summer rebuffed him. Brody was still getting drunk at the Huntley and yakking in the pool. He was still almost drowning in the bay while Mitch saved his ass.

Who was this guy sitting beside him now?

What the hell had happened to Brody?

“You think it’s too fast?” Brody asked, finally showing a sign of hesitation. “I mean, maybe I’m just, like, too hyped up right now. Maybe I need to calm down.”

That was also a very reasonable approach to things.

Damn it. Mitch was supposed to make the reasonable remarks. Shaking his head, he forced himself to get back into the game. “It is a serious commitment,” he said. “Have you talked to her about it?”

“Well, kind of,” Brody said. “We talk about the future and whatever. It’s always stuff we want to do. You know. Move in together. Buy, like, a car together. Go on a vacation, a legit one, when this is done. I don’t know. Get a dog.”

Every time Brody said I don’t know Mitch was more and more confident that he knew exactly. He was trying to protect Mitch for some reason.

The ridiculousness of such sentiment made Mitch shake his head with a scowl. “It’s still a big step,” he cautioned. “Especially now. You think you have time to take things to that level right now?”

This was the first question Mitch asked that truly made Brody think twice. “You think it’s bad?”

“I think you’re just distracted now, is all,” Mitch said, eyes on the road again.

“I feel more focused than ever,” Brody said emphatically. “I’m serious, Mitch. I’ve never felt this clear.”

“Well, and you don’t think that the Olympics has something to do with that?” Mitch pressed in return. “How do you know how things will be when this is done?”

Brody sat back, not sure how to respond to that one.

“This whole situation is temporary,” Mitch reminded him with a sideways glance of warning. “We can’t base our whole life and who we are right now.”

When Mitch said it, he was thinking about himself, looking up requisition numbers back at Baywatch and not knowing how to file a disciplinary report.

Next to him, Brody was thinking about how he’d qualified for the Olympics, scored big sponsors, and stayed sober long enough to do it right.

Mitch felt his shoulders slump. “I just think you should think about it.”

In the passenger’s seat, Brody’s shoulders had slumped even more. “Yeah, sure,” he said, suddenly noncommittal. “I mean, you’re right. The whole thing, it’d be pretty rushed. Like, I should slow down. See how things turn out.”

It sounded like good advice, at least.

Mitch told himself that was some consolation as they finished the rest of the drive home in silence.

-o-

Brody rebounded quickly after their awkward conversation in the car, as it seemed to be his habit nowadays. Mitch, despite steadfastly acting like nothing was wrong, struggled to find his groove. After another week of things, Mitch took a shift shadowing Ronnie on the beach.

True, Stephanie was usually the one he worked with. With Stephanie, he could work out of tower one, and they could discuss higher level things at Baywatch.

But Ronnie was so damn friendly and upbeat.

Plus, even after two and a half years, away, Ronnie was still enamored by Mitch. Starstruck as he was, he didn’t ask Mitch the difficult questions.

“I still can’t get over it,” Ronnie enthused from the deck of tower 3. “You’re shadowing me! How weird is that?”

Mitch chuckled. The irony wasn’t quite as amusing to him, but Ronnie’s excitement was impossible not to find contagious. “Pretty weird,” he said. “Just give it six months.”

Ronnie brightened. Which seemed almost impossible, since he’d been nearly giddy before. “Right! And then Brody will probably have more gold medals and you’ll be, I don’t know, back here!”

The starkness of the juxtaposition probably wasn’t intended. Mitch made a valiant effort to kep smiling. “So, tell me about the job these days,” he transitioned instead. He gestured to Ronnie’s stretch of busy beach. “How are things going?”

“Oh, things?” Ronnie said. “You know, sometimes I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing to be honest.”

“You’re great,” Mitch encouraged. “Always have been.”

Ronnie beamed at him. “It’s just hard to believe, still,” he said. “I know it’s been more than three years and all, but sometime I still feel some wannabe who’s going to tryouts.”

“You earned your place on the team,” Mitch told him sagely. “Never forget that.”

Ronnie nodded along with enthusiasm. “I remind myself of that every day,” he said, maintaining his post while talking to Mitch. “It was what helped me just last week.”

“Last week?” Mitch asked, keeping watch as well, just for good measure.

“Yeah, didn’t you hear?” Ronnie replied.

Mitch looked at him, trying not to appear as oblivious as he felt. “Hear what?”

“We closed that drug trafficking case,” Ronnie said.

“What?” Mitch asked, not sure if he was more ashamed that he didn’t know that the case was closed or that he didn’t know what the hell the case was about. “Really?”

“Yeah!” Ronnie said. “I helped make the arrest myself. I think you and Brody were gone at, like, some sponsor thing, but it was awesome. I made the front page! Ellerbee said the cops may give me a commendation for good citizenship!”

Mitch found himself struck dumb.

Of course, he’d always seen the potential in Ronnie. Even when everyone else thought he was crazy, he’d believed in Ronnie. It had been his choice to put Ronnie on the team. Him, Mitch Buchannon. So of course there was no reason to be surprised that he’d been right.

But he’d been right.

Ronnie was awesome.

So awesome that he was closing cases all by himself.

Cases that Mitch knew nothing about.

Ronnie looked absolutely thrilled by Mitch’s rapt attention. He didn’t seem to grasp that it was shock, or what that meant about Mitch’s opinion of him -- or Mitch himself for that matter.

That was the one relief that grounded him into closing his mouth. “That’s amazing, really,” Mitch said. “I’m really proud of you, man.”

He clapped Ronnie clumsily on his shoulder, and Ronnie’s chest puffed out in pride even more than it already was. He was still chubby and didn’t look particularly well cut in a swimsuit, but he fit the role now.

He really did.

Ronnie was as much a quintessential part of Baywatch as Mitch now.

Shit, probably more so. He had been here for the last two years, after all.

Ronnie took Mitch’s silence as an invitation to keep talking. “I also played a pretty big part in that kidnapping case last year,” he said, leaning forward as if to keep it a secret. “Ellerbee says we still can’t talk about all the details while the trial is pending, but I was the one who found the major clue that led us to the dude. Me!”

“You,” Mitch parrotted, looking desperately at the sand for some kind of reprieve. Something so he didn’t have to hear about how great life at Baywatch was without him. Something so he didn’t have to think about all the things he should have been a part of instead of making sure Brody didn’t go off the rails. Something to distract him from the fact that he wasn’t sure he knew what to do with the emotion of regret, which he seemed to be experiencing for what might have been the first time in his life.

No one was drowning, however, so Ronnie rambled on. “And did you know that CJ and I are living together?” he asked eagerly. “I mean, maybe you did, but we are! We decided to just start fresh, the two of us. Pool our resources, put our name on a loan. We took out a loan! We’re homeowners!”

Mitch nodded along, forcing himself to focus on the positives. Ronnie was his friend, after all. He wished Ronnie the best. Ronnie’s success was his success.

Still, as the shift lingered on and Ronnie’s list of accomplishments grew longer, Mitch couldn’t help but wonder when he might have accomplishments of his own.

Instead of sharing the rest of the world’s.