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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Baywatch fic: No Comment (4/5)

December 27th, 2018 (01:30 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE



-o-

Brody said he was ready, and Brody tried hard to be ready, but Mitch could tell from the first question that Brody wasn’t ready. All his confidence seemed to melt away; his cool composure almost instantly evaporated as soon as she asked him about himself. He grew restless, fidgeting in his seat, and playing with his hair in the most self deprecating fashion imaginable.

And those were the easy questions, establishing his background and his history. Brody mumbled his way through answers about his foster families, and he flippantly tried to gloss over the years of training he’d spent prior to Rio.

Then, Amelia expertly transitioned to talk about the future.

Brody wasn’t just fidgety anymore. He was practically squirming in his chair, laughing too much and talking too fast. Mitch realized with a sudden and unexpected clarity that Brody wasn’t nervous.

No, Brody was flat out scared.

Shit, he was terrified.

More terrified than Mitch had seen him on that fireworks rig with a gun to his head.

Mitch felt his stomach churn anxiously, as the weight of Brody’s fear fell on him. He had coerced Brody into this. And now Brody was sitting there, no place to hide.

He had to answer the questions, which was what Mitch had wanted.

But damn it, he hadn’t wanted it like this.

Next to him, the others hadn’t quite put it together yet. They were still nodding along, murmuring curiously at Brody’s answers and cracking familiar in-jokes amongst themselves in total good humor. They didn’t realize that Mitch had thrown Brody into a virtual lion’s den, and they were making light while the lion beared down on Brody’s defenseless head.

For as much as Mitch wanted to look away, he knew he couldn’t. He could only sit there and watch as Brody faced this down, for better.

And probably for worse.

“So, uh, you have two gold medals,” Amelia said, almost in an unnecessary confirmation. Her pen stilled, and she looked up. “What do those victories represent for you?”

Brody tensed up, his mouth opening and closing a few times before he swallowed in an effort to get his voice to work. He had to lick his lips, rubbing his hands together anxiously. “Well, you know. I worked hard to get them, that’s for sure,” he said. “But, you know. They are kind of hard to look at sometimes.”

“And why is that?” Amelia asked, not because she couldn’t figure it out but because she was a journalist. She knew, better than even Mitch, that Brody had to verbalize this in his own words in order to make her story valid.

“Um,” Brody said, voice wavering dangerously. He cleared his throat, shifting in his seat again. “You know, everyone knows it was supposed to be three, not two. I let everyone down.”

“Everyone?” she prompted, barely glancing up as she continued to write, flipping the page without missing a beat in her scribbling.

“The team, my coaches, my sponsors. Team USA Swimming. The whole country, probably,” he said, and he bounced his knee a few times. “And myself mostly. I mean, I took the whole experience for granted in the end. I know how hard I worked, but looking back, it hardly seems like I deserve them.”

“So you regret not winning the third one for the relay?” she asked.

“Of course,” Brody said, and that much was unflinching. But then his jaw worked, and he visibly kept his breathing in check. “But you know, for a lot of reasons.”

She paused, looking up to make eye contact. “Such as?”

Brody shifted again, uncrossing and re-crossing his legs. He drummed his fingers restlessly on his knee. “Well, it’s not how anyone wants to end things, you know,” he said, and he was starting to ramble a little now. “Like, careers. They, you know. End. Sometimes it’s an injury, something you just can’t recover from. Sometimes you just get too old, you lose your speed, your agility, your strength. And those things, like, there’s no shame in it. They happen, and I’m not stupid. Every career ends. It just sucks when you screw it up because you’re an idiot who didn’t try hard enough. No one wants to go out like that.”

There was something compellingly concise about that explanation, and Brody had talked in various situations about what happened at the Olympics, but he’d never talked about how it made him feel. The regret he expressed was usually general, not specific like this. Mitch felt something in his chest clench, and the others around him drew unexpectedly quiet.

Amelia looked up, and she knew she had the line of questioning she wanted. She pressed it, gently but persistently. “So that’s it then?” she asked. “You consider your career to be over?”

The last honest had been raw and honest, if difficult and embarrassing. One might think that was the hardest admission, but Mitch knew better. He saw the change in Brody immediately. Instead of fidgeting, this time he went very, very still, eyes almost unblinking. “Well, I’m not training now,” he said. “I can definitely tell you that.”

It was a truth as much as it was an obfuscation. If Brody was hoping to get away with it, he had been just a little too naive. Maybe unlucky.

But the truth had to be the truth, or it didn’t work. Brody had learned a lot over the last year, but it appeared that was a lesson he needed a reminder on.

Mitch would worry about that, except he was pretty sure it was a lesson Brody was going to learn right now.

“Sure,” Amelia said, and she’d stopped writing again. “But you’re in the water every day. According to everyone I talk to, you’re the best swimmer on Baywatch.”

Brody was thrown by this, the unexpected compliment doing more to damage his composure than anything else. “The ocean’s, you know, not the same thing as a pool.”

“Of course not, but all sources I’ve talked to say that the ocean is far more difficult than the pool,” she said. “Ocean swimmers transitions back to pools with much more ease than the other way around.”

Growing more vexed, Brody fumbled for an answer. “Well, you know. I don’t even have a coach,” he said. He shrugged. “I haven’t even been in the pool on the clock since last year.”

She still wasn’t writing, her eyes intent on Brody. This was an interview for a piece, yes, but she wanted to know. She needed to know. “But if someone approached you? Would you consider it?”

Next to Mitch, Summer had started to hold her breath a little. CJ and Ronnie drew inexplicably closer, and Stephanie narrowed her eyes.

Brody, though looking at Amelia, seemed to sense this. His breathing quickened, and his cheeks started to suffused with red. “Well. I -- you know,” he started, biting his lip as he tried to rally himself in some manner. He scratched at his neck and shook his head. “It’s just, you know, if you had told me a year ago that I would be here, doing what I do at Baywatch, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. So I know, better than just about anyone else, how much things can change. Because they can change, in hard and unexpected and sometimes really awesome ways.”

With those words, Amelia started writing again, but she made a point to underline the last few words before looking up at Brody again. There were more questions in her eyes, but Mitch watched as she mentally answered them. The words on her page weren’t definitive in some ways, but she recognized what the others standing next to Mitch had not. That Brody hadn’t said yes.

But he also hadn’t said no.

In friendship, that kind of ambiguity was hard to work with.

In journalism? It sold papers.

Finally, Amelia changed her posture and flipped over another page of her reporter’s notebook. “Where are your gold medals anyway?” she asked. “I was sort of hoping for a photo op.”

The question caught Brody off guard, but in a better way than Brody had clearly expected. The tension eased out of his body somewhat and he gave a short, incredulous laugh. “The gold medals? They’re, like, at home.”

“You didn’t bring them?” she asked.

“No,” Brody said. He made a face. “Why would I?”

Her chuckle was equally incredulous. “Well, they are two gold medals,” she reminded him.

He looked mildly distressed. For as much as he dreaded this interview, he clearly didn’t want to disappoint Amelia -- or anyone for that matter. Brody, now that he’d convinced himself to give a shit, really cared about meeting people’s expectations. It was probably to be expected for a foster kid who probably grew up believing that he had to earn his worth. It was just now Brody was able to meet those expectations consistently. It made for a powerful motivations. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just didn’t realize you’d want to see them.”

Amelia smiled kindly. “And I didn’t realize I’d have to ask,” she said. “You sort of figure that your Olympian will come prepared.”

“They’re just gold medals,” Brody said, trying to make it sound like nothing. He failed. Badly.

This time, Amelia did roll her eyes as she turned off the recorder. “Off the record, I don’t think you believe that,” she told him. Then she got to her feet, collecting her things. “However, I do think I have what I need.”

Brody scrambled to get to his feet as well. “Okay,” he said. “I just hope -- you know, I wasn’t trying to be difficult.”

“You were lovely,” she assured, reaching out her hand to shake his. “You can look for the article early next week.”

He reached his own out, shaking hers a little reluctantly. “Okay.”

“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “I’m only going to use what you’ve given me. And as long as you’ve told me the truth, then we’re good to go, right?”

Brody blanched so hard that Mitch felt the color in his own face draining. “Right,” he said.

Amelia smiled warmly from him to Mitch and the others. “Thank you all for your cooperation,” she said. “I’ve really had the best time.”

She made her way down the ramp, nodding at them each in turn before stopping in front of Mitch. “You have a lot to be proud of,” she said, and she looked down the length of the beach before looking up at Brody again. “A lot.”

With that, she was off while the others murmured their goodbyes. Mitch found himself quiet, looking up at Brody at the top of the ramp. Their eyes met, and they both knew.

That Amelia was right, for the most part. No lies had been told.

Brody tore his gaze away, unable to keep Mitch’s eyes.

Because that didn’t mean that one critical truth hadn’t been withheld.

Mitch just wasn’t sure what truth that was.

-o-

With Amelia gone -- really gone, this time -- the team seemed to come to life. Summer didn’t wait for Brody to come down the ramp, but instead she jogged up to him, giving him a hug and a kiss. “See? That wasn’t so bad,” she said consolingly. “You did awesome.

Ronnie and CJ sauntered up after her. “You are proving to be much more than a pretty face,” Ronnie joked at him, offering him a handshake, which Brody accepted.

CJ beamed, like he was very well her most successful pet project to date. “That is going to play beautifully in the press,” she said. She tossed her head a little, looking smug. “For all of us, I think.”

“Which is good,” Stephanie said. “We can always use the positive coverage, and I admit, at first, I was skeptical, but I really think you nailed this one, Brody.”

Brody blushed appropriately; he knew that was high praise from Stephanie. “It just seems silly to say it’s about me,” he said. “Baywatch is a team effort, through and through.”

“Sure, but having our own local celebrity can’t hurt,” CJ cajoled.

Summer pecked him with a kiss again. “And it’s not like you haven’t worked for it.”

“But we all have,” Brody insisted, as Mitch made his way slowly up the ramp behind the others. “It seems like a lot of attention over nothing.”

“Well, to be fair, none of us have gold medals,” Stephanie conceded, and she sounded like it took some effort to make that concession. “I think the press cycle is overrated most of the time, I do. But I can see why people think you’re interesting.”

“Yeah,” Ronnie joked. “They just haven’t gotten to know you yet.”

Brody laughed along readily. “Well, it’s over at least,” he said. “I’m sorry you guys were all put out by this over the week.”

“No big deal,” Summer said.

“But I can’t believe you didn’t bring your gold medals!” CJ said.

“Oh, yeah,” Ronnie added in. “Didn’t you, like, used to carry those around with you?”

This time, Brody blushed again, a little deeper. That comment was a bit more embarrassing than Ronnie had probably intended it to be, but Brody covered it well. He was in his element again, back among friends. That should have made everything better, and it was better. Just not quite perfect.

And Mitch knew why.

“Well, I didn’t have a place to live then,” Brody said, in his own defense. “Literally, everything I owned was in a duffle bag. So where else were they going to be?”

“No way,” Stephanie said. “You’re the one who introduced yourself as Matt Brody, world record holder. You were damn proud of those medals.”

“He did throw one into the ocean,” Summer offered, trying in her own way to be helpful.

“Sure, but did you see his face when Mitch gave it back to him?” CJ asked, nudging Brody playfully. “I’m surprised you didn’t bring them with you.”

“I’m surprised you’re not still carrying them around,” Ronnie said. “No, wearing them. I would wear them. Just for fun. Everywhere.”

They were joking, and Brody was laughing, but Mitch could see the embarrassment still rising in his cheeks. That was one way he knew it wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t the jokes that were the problem.

No, it was the truth behind the jokes.

It was the fact that Brody knew exactly where his gold medals were and he looked at them every night. No one would fault him for that if they knew it, but Brody didn’t want them to know it.

That, right there, was the tension point.

Those gold medals were a problem.

Along with everything they represented.

“I think we should celebrate,” Summer announced, arm laced around Brody’s waist.

“Oh, yes!” CJ agreed.

“I’m game,” Ronnie said.

“You’re all off duty tomorrow,” Stephanie said. “So I have no complaints.”

“Oh, I don’t know--” Brody started.

“It’d be fun,” Summer said.

“It’s just been a long week, right?” Brody said.

“And it’s over!” CJ cheered.

“It sounds amazing, it does,” Brody said. “But I think I’m going to crash early tonight. Maybe tomorrow?”

Summer whined a little. “Really?”

“It was tiring,” Brody protested.

“Being pretty does look exhausting,” Ronnie said solemnly.

“And all that press coverage,” CJ said with a girlish flip of her hair. She grinned at Brody. “Celebrities do need their privacy.”

“It’s just for tonight!” Brody insisted, laughing. “I swear!”

“Uh huh,” Stephanie said. “Too good for us already.”

Brody groaned. “I’m just, like, going to go sleep. A lot!”

“Well, tomorrow then,” CJ said. “Drinks are on you.”

Ronnie took CJ’s hand as they started back down the ramp. “But not too many drinks,” he said. “We don’t want people talking.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “You did good, Brody,” she said, and she turned to follow them down the ramp. “I’d buy you a drink for that, for what that counts.”

Brody sobered, looking wholly uncomfortable. “Thanks, Stephanie.”

As the rest passed by Mitch, Summer drew closer to Brody. “You want me to come over?” she asked. “I mean, we could sleep. And, you know. Other things.”

Mitch didn’t mind the insinuation -- they were all adults here -- but Brody seemed embarrassed by it. “I just -- I mean -- I’m just tired,” he said, fumbling for the words.

She pulled back a little, giving him a more critical once over. “Are you okay? I thought you’d be relieved this is over.”

“I am relieved, trust me,” Brody told her.

“So you don’t want to celebrate?” she asked.

“Honestly, I’m just so ready for life to go back to normal,” Brody said. “This whole week has been just too much.”

“It was great,” she said, and she drew closer to him again. “It’s okay to have people like you.”

“I know,” Brody said. “I just don’t think it’s necessary.”

She pressed her lips to his again. “I kind of do,” she admitted. “And I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow night we blow of the others. Just you and me. Something more private.”

Brody smiled. “I’d like that.”

She kissed him again before detaching herself. “Okay, then,” she said, heading down the ramp with a nod toward Mitch. “Make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy, okay?”

“I’ll do my best,” Mitch promised. “But I don’t know. He seems pretty wild.”

Brody rolled his eyes. “You guys are ridiculous.”

She turned as she walked down, grinning as she waved at him. “Text me!”

“I will!” Brody called back, watching her as she walked away on the sand, back toward the parking lot.

For a second, he merely watched her and the others retreating. Finally, almost reluctantly, he looked at Mitch.

Mitch looked back.

When Mitch didn’t say anything after several seconds, Brody winced a little. “So?”

“So?” Mitch countered.

Brody sighed, his shoulders slumping somewhat. “So, do you think it went okay?”

Mitch shrugged. “I’m not really the one to answer that.”

“Sure you are,” Brody said, his facades slipping dramatically around Mitch. “I mean, I didn’t make an ass of myself, did I?”

“No, you didn’t make an ass of yourself,” Mitch assured him.

Brody did not appear appeased by this. He hesitated, chewing his lip. “Then why does it feel like it didn’t go well?”

It was possible Brody didn’t know. That he hadn’t allowed himself to realize it.

There was also a chance he did know and just wasn’t quite ready to face it.

“Well, did you answer the questions honestly?” Mitch asked.

“Yes,” Brody said, somewhat emphatically. “I didn’t lie.”

“But did you answer them thoroughly,” Mitch asked.

This time, Brody’s brow furrowed. “I think so,” he said. “I tried.”

Mitch let out a breath, shaking his head. “Do you regret any of the answers?”

The look on Brody’s face suggested that he wanted to say yes.

The look on Brody’s face also suggested that he had to say no.

Mostly, the look on Brody’s face suggested that he had no idea what to think or say or even do at this point. Mitch had wanted them to do this for clarity’s sake, but the waters were muddier than ever.

“I don’t know,” Brody finally said. “I just. I tried. There are just some things I don’t know how to answer.”

And that was the problem.

“We all have questions we don’t know how to answer,” Mitch said. “But that doesn’t mean we can avoid them.”

“But I answered them,” Brody said, insisting a little too much.

Mitch could make a stink about that. He could throw down, right here, right now.

But Brody did looked tired. He looked exhausted and spent, and truth be told, Mitch was just as tired. This week had taken a lot out of them. Maybe the answers could wait. Maybe they’d answer themselves in due time.

Maybe, for tonight, they’d both earned the reprieve.

“I know, buddy,” Mitch said, and he nodded his head toward the beach. “Why don’t we head on back? A quiet night in sounds pretty good to me.”

Brody was visibly relieved as he followed Mitch down the ramp. “I’m just so ready for things to go back to normal,” he said. “Back to the way they’re meant to be.”

Mitch nodded in agreement.

He just hoped that normal could be everything Brody wanted it to be.

-o-

True to his word, Brody did want a quiet night in. At home, Brody prepped an easy meal without much fuss, and he even did the dishes with acceptable results. After that, he tidied his things without being asked and finally announced that he was probably just going to turn in early while Mitch was settling down to read for the night.

Mitch couldn’t help but glance at the clock. It was only nine. But when he looked at Brody, he couldn’t deny how tired the guy looked. He imagined this was how Brody must have looked after a day of extensive racing.

Of course Brody hadn’t been racing today. But Mitch had to yield to the idea that the kid had probably still laid himself all out on the line to finish the home stretch.

Well, almost all out. The bit that he’d held back probably just made him more exhausted.

He smiled faintly. “Long day, huh?”

“Long week, more like,” Brody said. “I have to say, I’m really glad it’s done.”

“It did go well, you know,” Mitch said.

Brody had a funny look on his face. “I guess. It didn’t go badly, at least.”

“You make a good story,” Mitch said. “I think you’ll be surprised.”

Brody shrugged, noncommittal. “I still don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Two gold medals, remember?” Mitch said.

At this, Brody rolled his eyes. “You know they don’t mean shit.”

“When did I ever say that?”

“Uh, my first day at Baywatch,” Brody said. “You literally told me they meant nothing.”

A year had passed since that first day, and Mitch had forgotten some of those details. Intentionally and otherwise. “Your gold medals didn’t get you on the team, that’s all I meant,” Mitch clarified. “But they’re gold medals. Of course they mean something.”

This answer seemed vaguely distressing to Brody for some reason, like it muddied Brody’s safe and easy narrative.

“You should have brought them tonight,” Mitch said when Brody had no reply. “Those gold medals are a part of your story. A big part.”

Brody shook his head, face darkening. “They’re just medals. Like, that’s all.”

It wasn’t quite true, and they both knew it. They both knew that Brody looked as those medals every night. They both knew that they represented a lot more than a race. They represented success and failure, Brody’s best and worst. They represented a significant part of who Brody was.

They might even represent who Brody could still be.

But that was it. That was the truth Brody hadn’t allowed himself to face. After this week, Brody just wanted to get back to normal. Safe, familiar and easy.

When you got right down to it, that was what Mitch wanted too. He didn’t want journalists or stories or Olympic dreams.

No, Mitch wanted Baywatch.

And maybe that was enough.

Maybe an almost truth was all they needed. Maybe some realities didn’t need to be spoken or even realized. Maybe this was all they needed to be happy.

“Okay,” Mitch said finally. He forced himself to act normal and not ask questions. “So you want to work out tomorrow morning? We’re not on duty tomorrow, so we can really get in a good one, if you want.”

The avoidance tactic was what Brody wanted. That much was evidenced by the smile on his face. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I’d like that. Get some good training in. For, you know, Baywatch.”

Mitch nodded, choosing to ignore what Brody was clearly not saying. “You want me to get you up?”

“Nah,” Brody said. “I won’t need it.”

With a small huff of laughter, Mitch went back to his reading. “Sure thing.”

“Seriously,” Brody said, and there was a hint of the old Brody in there. Not the old old Brody, the jackass Mitch had hated. But the old Brody from a week ago, the one that was funny and comfortable and familiar. “I won’t need it. I’ll get up, I swear.”

Mitch didn’t bother to look up. “Uh huh,” he said.

“I’m serious!”

“Whatever, dude,” Mitch said, purposefully turning a page with a glance back at Brody. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

-o-

Funny enough, Mitch had to believe it in the morning.

Because he did, indeed, see it.

By the time Mitch rolled out of bed, it was still pretty early. He wasn’t really capable of sleeping late at this point in his life, and he hated wasting daylight hours. Therefore, on his day off, he was still up and ready to go long before most people were ready. Since it was a day off, however, he was inclined to give Brody a few extra minutes. He knew Brody tried, but the guy wasn’t a morning person by nature.

To his great surprise, then, Brody was already out in the kitchen with a pot of coffee going. He was already stuffing his face with an energy bar, dressed in his workout clothes.

“Your alarm worked for once?” Mitch asked in surprise as he helped himself to a drink.

“Didn’t need it,” Brody said, stuffing the last of the bar in his mouth. “I just wanted to get going this morning.”

Mitch took a drink, eyeing him skeptically. “Get going? With what?”

“Our workout!” Brody said, putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Correctly. Without being asked. “You said we could get a good one in.”

This was true, but this was also weird. “Yeah,” Mitch said. “You’re just not usually so. I don’t know. Excited about it.”

“I like working out,” Brody protested.

“Not at 0600 hours you don’t,” Mitch countered.

“I’m going to assume that means 6 AM,” Brody said. After a year, Brody had learned many things. Military time, unfortunately, was still not one of them. There was no discernible reason why it should be so hard, but Brody did have a tendency to excel at things that are inherently difficult and struggle at the basics. “And I do like it now.”

“You’ve literally never been this energetic at this hour,” Mitch said. “Ever.”

“Well, it’s about time I figured it out, right?” he asked, not trying to deny it and still sounding strangely upbeat. “Besides, I thought we’d swim today.”

“Swim?” Mitch asked. “On our day off?”

“Yeah, that’s the best day to do it,” Brody said. “I mean, during work days, I know we want to save something for work, but we don’t have to do that today. We can just go for it, you know? Like, push it. Hard.”

Mitch considered the possibility that Brody had drank way too much coffee this morning. He also considered the notion that maybe he was hyped up on drugs. Steroids or something.

Because the idea that Brody was just excited about being up early to work out?

Was a little weird.

Or was it? Was it so strange? When Brody was motivated to do something, he was motivated. And he’d always gotten a thrill out of working out and pushing his body. If you paired the two things, maybe this was what you got. A highly motivated, happy Brody.

The question still remained: why was he motivated?

What had changed since last night to make Brody want this more than usual?

Mitch didn’t have an answer for that.

What he did have was a workout partner with energy.

Mitch would take it.

Grinning, he downed the rest of his drink. “You sure you want swim?”

“Sure,” Brody said. “Maybe you know an endurance route we can take. Something farther than we normally do.”

“You want the hard stuff?”

“Hell, yeah,” Brody said. “You been holding out on me?”

“Well, you are a farm boy from Iowa,” Mitch said.

“Show me what you got, Ocean Man,” Brody said.

Mitch frowned a little. “Ocean Man?”

“So I suck at smack talk, whatever,” Brody said. “I bet I can still give you a run for your money.”

“We’ll see, Farm Boy,” Mitch said, moving to get himself ready. “We will see.”

-o-

Yeah, so Mitch definitely saw.

And it was all he could do to keep Brody from seeing.

Because after a year of ocean swimming, Brody knew his shit. Sure, Mitch had been saying that all along. He’d said it to Amelia and put it down on the record for anyone who wanted to know. He couldn’t deny, however, that it was still a little humbling when Brody smoked him in the last leg of the route.

To make matters worse, it was a route Mitch had been swimming for years. He’d practically invented the damn thing. Swimming it was easy, no problem. But swimming it fast? At world record speeds?

Shit, there was a reason Brody had won two gold medals.

He was really good.

Somehow, today, he was even better than Mitch had realized. His stroke was strong and precise, his kicks were utterly controlled. He knew how to regulate his breathing, how to focus his attention and move through the water with straight speed.

The thing was, Brody was a good lifeguard.

But Brody was an amazing swimmer.

Those two things had some overlap, to be sure. But struggling to keep up that morning, Mitch knew there were some important differences, too.

He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t seen it before.

Worse, he wasn’t sure Brody had allowed himself to admit it yet.

One thing was certain, however: there would be absolutely no denying it.

-o-

Brody said nothing about it. He didn’t gloat about winning, he didn’t wallow in being better. No, instead he focused on the rest of his workout, earnestly asking Mitch for help when it came to their weights. Brody wanted to learn, and he didn’t care about any of the rest.

What else was Mitch to do but help him.

Because Brody could learn. He could be taught. He could be trained.

More than anything, that was what Brody wanted.

Mitch just wasn’t sure he was actually the right guy to do the job.

-o-

“So I was thinking,” Brody said at lunch, devouring his chicken and kale salad. “We could set up a regimen. Something more aggressive than what we’ve been doing.”

Mitch swallowed his own bite. They had been home for an hour or so now, and Mitch had helped Brody prepare a massive post-workout meal to up their energy levels. Mitch, in truth, was feeling drained. Brody had never been more energized.

“I think we can really push it, man,” Brody said.

With a swig of water, Mitch shook his head. “But why?”

Brody looked like this was obvious. “To get better.”

“But better at what?” Mitch said.

This time, Brody hesitated. He closed his mouth, momentarily vexed. “Just. You know. Like better. For Baywatch.”

It would have been a good answer if Brody meant it. Mitch arched an eyebrow critically. “You do realize that you’re already the best swimmer at Baywatch, right?”

Brody looked studiously at his kale, as if he wasn’t sure what it was anymore. “I can still be better,” he said, a bit more intently now. He gave a little nod, as if to rally himself. “For Baywatch.”

Mitch took another bite and chewed it long, slow and hard. He let his eyes rest on Brody another moment longer. “For Baywatch.”

Brody grasped onto this like a dying man finding a life preserver. The metaphor was apt. Mitch would know. “For Baywatch.”

Mitch could argue with that, if he wanted to.

Problem was, today, he really didn’t want to.

-o-

For about three days, Brody was energized in a way Mitch hadn’t seen in him before. They had a great time for those three days, working out and learning to cook and generally being together. Then, when the paper came out, Brody’s story made the front page.

Gold Medalist Hangs Up His Speedos for Life at Baywatch

It was a good article, a comprehensive article. Brody came across as resilient; it was a redemption story that completely reversed his established persona as the Vomit Comet. It was everything Brody could have hoped for and more.

But when Mitch read the ending, his own heart twinged for some reason.

According to Brody, two gold medals seem to be more than enough. Despite the fact that he is still in excellent condition and that his swimming skills have never been so refined, he confirmed that he currently has no plans to return to competitive swimming. Some might think such a use of talent to be a waste, but for Brody and everyone in the bay, Baywatch is clearly where Brody belongs.

It was accurate, Mitch knew that. He’d sat through all the interviews, he’d been the one orchestrating this whole damn thing. And it was an ending that favored him. An ending that favored Baywatch. No one, especially Mitch, wanted Brody to leave.

Seeing it spelled out in black and white should have made him feel better.

It didn’t.

Plain, simple, true: it really didn’t.

-o-

If Mitch found the ending jarring, Brody took it worse. Of course, Mitch couldn’t be sure that was what was bothering Brody, but it was. He knew Brody too well not to know it. All of a sudden, his desire to train was muted. His boisterous ideas were faded. Something was missing for Brody now, like some door had been closed and Brody no longer saw the point.

He tried, of course. He still kept up appearances. He still did all the things that were expected of him. He went to work; he picked up around the house. He went out with Summer and hung out with his friends. He made saves on the beach, and it was all life as normal.

Life as it always had been for Mitch.

Life as he thought he had always wanted it to be.

Everyone is wrong, sometimes, though.

Even Mitch Buchannon.

-o-

As for everyone else, the article was a big hit. At work, someone made photocopies, hanging them up on all visible surfaces. People went around reading it outloud, and soon people could quote portions just for the fun of it.

On the beach, people came up and asked Brody to sign their copy.

Even Summer seemed to think it was the best thing ever. When she came over to dinner that night, she laid the paper out and looked at it wistfully. “It’s perfect, though,” she said, after Brody said he didn’t see what the big deal was. “You were so worried about it, and it’s absolutely perfect.”

Brody shrugged. They were still all at the table together, finishing up the remnants of dinner. “I don’t need the attention, is all,” he said.

“Well, sure, you don’t need it,” Summer said. “But you’ve earned it. I mean, a year ago, you know what they were saying about you. And I know it bothered you.”

Brody turned a little red.

Summer moved closer to him, a hand on his arm. “But this shows everyone, the whole world, that that’s not who you are. Or, you know, not anymore.”

He looked at her, and Mitch could see that he was grateful for her support. Grateful, and somehow still holding something back. “That’s not why I did any of it.”

“That’s more reason why you deserve it,” she said. “Enjoy it.” She sighed, and looked at Mitch. “Mitch, tell him to enjoy it.”

Mitch nodded, putting his fork down. “It is a good article,” he said. “And it’s not full of bullshit. You might as well enjoy it.”

Brody made a little huff, as if to protest but not sure how. “You guys didn’t need to say all that shit, by the way.”

“I told the truth,” Summer said, reaching for her drink. “We all did.”

Brody let his eyes linger on Mitch. “All of you?”

Mitch had to look away; his quote about Brody being the best swimmer had made the cut. There was no way to be sure that was what Brody was talking about.

Except Mitch didn’t need to be sure.

He just knew.

“All of us,” Summer said, putting her glass back down and beaming at Brody. “Just accept it: your story has the perfect ending.”

She said it so brightly, so confidently, so purely that none of them had the heart to argue.

That didn’t change the way the light dimmed in Brody’s eyes.

Or how plainly Mitch could see it happen.

-o-

Summer spent the night, and Brody was up before her, ready to work out.

“You sure, man?” Mitch asked, finding the younger man in the kitchen again when he woke up. “We can take an off day. I know you had a late night last night.”

But Brody was unmoved, unworried. Determined. “I want to train,” he said. Then, he seemed to correct himself. “Work out.”

“Work out,” Mitch clarified, leaving the phrase almost like a question.

Brody had the choice to answer it any way he wanted.

With the truth

Or with some near version of it.

“Work out,” Brody concluded with a decisive nod.

Another day, the same choice was made.

-o-

At work, the banter was starting to die down, but people still kidded Brody about being a celebrity for a few days. It took a few days after that for the extra attention on the beach to die down. It was a full week later when Brody no longer had to sign autographs every time he went on duty.

Life started to get back to normal.

Brody, at the very least, seemed relieved.

Not happier, though, Mitch couldn’t help but note.

-o-

Then, one morning no more than a week later, there was someone standing outside the HQ. It wasn’t Amelia, with her wide eager eyes. It wasn’t another journalist either, with a notebook and a question to ask. Mitch knew in a second it wasn’t a fan or a Baywatch hopeful, either.

Honestly, Mitch didn’t have a clue who the man was.

Next to him, Brody went stiff.

Brody knew exactly who the man was.

This time, at least, Brody didn’t even try to hide. No, this time Brody tried to turn and go in the opposite direction.

Perplexed, Mitch turned, trying to figure it out, but before he could call Brody back, the man at the door came after them both. “Matt Brody?” he called. “Matt Brody!”

Brody made it down the steps before he stopped. From the behind view, Mitch could see Brody take a very purposeful breath. He turned back around, the fakest smile Mitch had ever seen plastered on his face. “Yeah,” he said, starting back up. “I’m, uh, Matt Brody.”

Mitch looked from Brody and back to the man, who looked positively pleased. “I’m not sure if you know who I am,” the man said, digging into his pocket and pulling out a card. “But I’m Andrew Lawson--”

“Yeah, I know -- I know who you are,” Brody said. He swallowed awkwardly, pressing his lips together. Mitch still had no idea who that was. Brody sighed, and he took the card reluctantly. “Trainer. You worked with, uh, that kid out of Stanford a few years ago. He made the trials, I thought.”

“And blew out his shoulder,” Andrew said. “Been working with a few other people, but I have to say, I’ve been disappointed. Haven’t found anyone with any real talent in a few years.”

Brody’s smile looked even more strained. “Trainer without a swimmer,” he said, matter of fact. “I’m sure that’s, uh, hard for you.”

Andrew scoffed. “No harder than a swimmer without a coach.”

Brody was already shaking his head. “I’m not--”

“I think you are,” Andrew said, not letting Brody finish. “There’s plenty of video out there, you doing your thing. I’d like to get you in a pool to see what your times are, but the way your stroke looks -- I can’t imagine you wouldn’t smoke the competition right now.”

“I have a job,” Brody tried to explain. He gestured to Mitch, as if that might help somehow. “An important job.”

“That a lot of people can do,” Andrew said. He held up a hand to Mitch. “I mean, no offense. I know you Baywatch people are the best of the best, but I mean, come on. This is Matt Brody. He’s an Olympic gold medalist. His record in the 200 hasn’t even been in threat since he set it at Rio. No one else can do that. No one.”

Mitch, somehow, wasn’t offended. He didn’t tolerate slights to Baywatch, but he was also a man who embraced the truth. And what Andrew Lawson was saying, blunt and a little rudely, was the honest to God truth.

Brody, however, took another step up toward Andrew. He was shaking his head. “What I do at Baywatch is so much more important. So much more.”

Andrew gave a small shrug of indifference. “Maybe, sure,” he said. “And it’ll still be here if you want to come back to it after the next Olympics.”

Brody huffed and rolled his eyes. “I haven’t even been in a pool in a year!”

“All the more reason to start now,” Andrew said.

“I have responsibilities,” Brody said, but his defenses were becoming less animated. He looked at Mitch, a little desperately now. “I have a life.”

“Look, it’s your call,” Andrew said. “I’ve been doing my homework on you ever since that article was published. I think you’ve still got it; I think you can make the Olympics and then some. But if that’s not what you want, then I have a queue of five other swimmers who have been begging me to take them on. Good swimmers, all of them. But I want the best I want someone on that podium.”

He stepped down a step until he was even with Brody. He shrugged. “And I think that someone is you.”

Brody held his gaze for a long, tremulous second. But then he shoved the card viciously into his pocket and charged up the steps toward HQ.

“Just think about it,” Andrew called after him, but Brody was already inside. Andrew turned to Mitch. “Just tell him to think about it. I’m staying nearby for the week. He can call me any time, day or night.”

“Yeah,” Mitch said, slowly following Brody inside. Unlike Brody, he spared a glance back at Andrew, who was starting on his way back down the steps. He turned back toward the door, wondering how the hell they were expected to think about anything else.

-o-

As Mitch expected, he found Brody in the locker room.

Also as expected, he wasn’t getting dressed. He had opened his locker and put his sandals inside, but had then apparently proceeded to sit down and stare bleakly at the business card like it was the worst news he had ever gotten.

Honestly, sometimes being friends with Brody felt like Mitch had taken in a teenage girl with all his unresolved drama and angst. In fact, he preened about as much as a teenage girl now that he thought about it.

But then, teenage girls didn’t swear as much as Brody -- at least, Mitch hoped not.

They also didn’t swim as fast.

Or work for him.

So Brody wasn’t a teenage girl. That didn’t make him any less exhausting sometimes. “So, that’s pretty unexpected,” Mitch said, making a small attempt to sound casual as he opened his own locker.

Brody, for once, did not seem to fully appreciate the attempt. Instead, he continued to sulk, sounding like Andrew Lawson had just done him a great personal injustice. “I can’t believe that guy,” he said. “Ambushing me outside of work like that.”

“Yeah,” Mitch said, putting his own sandals away. “The nerve of some people. Trying to help you train for the Olympics. It’s appalling.”

At least Brody caught the sarcasm. He looked up at Mitch, totally unamused. “If I wanted a trainer, I’d get one,” he said dully.

“He’s clearly a guy who knows an opportunity,” Mitch said. “I don’t know that it makes him a great coach or a good person, but honestly, I can’t blame the guy.”

This time, Brody somehow managed to look even more offended. “You can’t blame him? I never told anybody I want to compete, much less train for the Olympics. I mean, do you know how much work that takes? How many hours? How much sacrifice?”

Mitch shrugged, sitting down on the bench next to Brody. “Not really,” he said. “But you do.”

“Exactly,” Brody said. “Which is why this is so stupid.” He flicked the card for good measure. “I mean, it’s really stupid, right?”

Brody was clearly looking for affirmation, and generally Mitch liked to provide such affirmation. Brody usually needed it.

But not about this.

Mitch couldn’t abide by a lie, not even for Brody’s sake. “Is it?”

“What?” Brody asked, looking more offended than before. He shook his head in disbelief. “Of course it is.”

The more riled Brody got, the more Mitch knew he had to stay calm. He had to be the cool head in this situation. And, basically, every situation. “Why?” he asked as nonchalantly as possible while still being completely to the point.

Brody’s expression turned nearly aghast. “Because if I train, then I can’t do Baywatch,” Brody said. “Calling this dude back basically means quitting my job here. I can’t quit Baywatch.”

“You may find this surprising, Brody,” Mitch said. “But people do quit.”

“Baywatch?” he asked, utterly indignant now. “But this is a family! It’s a way of life!”

“And it’s made up of people,” Mitch said. “People who have dreams and relationships. Some people go back school. Others have to move to be with their family. Sometimes, they just realize they want something else. Just because they leave the job doesn’t mean they leave the family.”

That was a nuance that Brody had clearly never considered before. For Brody, joining Baywatch had been completely transformative. It had been radically stabilizing. It had changed everything about him and it had offered him much more than a paycheck or a purpose. It had defined his sense of belonging, of family.

Mitch couldn’t and wouldn’t overlook that.

But he also couldn’t pretend that everyone was meant to stay here forever just because he was.

Even Brody.

Brody was grappling with this, and coming to far fewer conclusions than Mitch. He shook his head. “There’s no way I can leave.”

“So, you go and come back,” Mitch said. “You don’t spend the rest of your life training.”

“Uh, it’s long enough,” Brody said. He gave a snort. “Trust me.”

“Sure, but do you want it?” Mitch pressed on, a little more gently than before.

Brody’s forehead creased, and his resolve was faltering. “Why would you think that? I mean, I’m, like, committed here. You know. I made my life here. This is my home. There’s nothing else that I could possibly want.”

He said it with conviction, but not enough. Not nearly enough. “Are you sure? It’s the only thing you want?”

Brody looked gutted by the question. “Why would you doubt it?”

Mitch shrugged, going for indifference again. “Well, it’s just you did take the guy’s card.”

“I was being polite,” Brody said, but the card was still in his hands. “So what?”

“So,” Mitch said. “You didn’t take Amelia’s card.”

Brody opened his mouth, ready to argue.

But he had to close it just as fast.

He had to close it because he had no rebuttal for that.

Looking down, Brody stared at the card for several long, hard seconds. Then he shook his head, his jaw visibly tightening. “This is bullshit,” he said, getting to his feet. He slammed his locker shut. “This is really stupid.”

He charged off, presumably for duty.

Mitch had to notice, of course.

The card was still in his hand.

-o-

Mitch said nothing more about it, and he knew Brody wasn’t about to talk about it.

That didn’t prevent the rumor mill from picking up on the news. Mitch wasn’t sure how, but sometimes he suspected that the waves were passing along tidbits of information. It was the only explanation for how everyone on staff knew that Brody had been approached by a trainer by lunch.

Most people just whispered about it behind his back, but when Brody sat down to lunch, he was quickly crowded by Summer, Ronnie and CJ. Even Stephanie looked keenly interested in what was about to be said.

“So, is it true?” CJ asked, apparently the one among them without any restraint.

Brody looked blank for a moment, but there was a flash of horror in his eyes as his eyes scanned over the team before settling on Mitch. “What?”

“Did you really get approached by a trainer?” Ronnie asked, because if CJ had no restraint, then Ronnie wasn’t going to have any either. “An Olympic trainer?”

Brody tried to make like that was ridiculous, but his breathless chuckled sounded more hollow than he’d probably hoped. “What?”

“Oh, come on,” Summer said. “You’ve been ignoring my texts all morning.”

“You just asked me how I was,” Brody told her.

“Which was clearly your chance to tell me the news!” Summer said.

Brody scoffed again, a bit more effectively this time. “There’s no news.”

Stephanie was the most mature one. Which was only to said she was the one getting giddy about it. “So there is no trainer?”

Brody wanted to say that was it, yes, entirely, but Brody had spent a lot of time around Mitch over the last year. His instincts to lie were still there, but now they conflicted with his desire to be a better person, the person Mitch believed he could be.

He gave Mitch a pained looked, as if somehow this was all his fault.

When Mitch offered him no help, Brody sighed. “There was a trainer,” he said, but he quickly followed it up. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to work with him.”

His addendum was supposed to make it sound like it was a done deal.

The others clearly didn’t think so. “No shit!” CJ said. “They think you can still do it?”

“Of course he can,” Ronnie said. “Have you seen the guy swim?”

“I know, I just always thought, pool and ocean, they’re so different,” CJ continued.

“They are,” Brody assured them. “I have a job.”

Summer was a little less enthusiastic; she was more thoughtful. “But you are in great shape,” she said. “And you swim all the time. I mean, don’t you think you could do it?”

“It’s not about being able to do it,” Brody said. “It’s that it’s just not doable. Not while I’m at Baywatch.”

Stephanie nodded in agreement. “Olympic training schedules are expansive, from what I understand,” she said, more to the others than to Brody. “You’d be traveling for meets a lot over the next few years.”

“Constantly,” Brody confirmed. “Everything else goes by the wayside.”

This had its desired effective. Ronnie and CJ looked duly disappointed, but then, true to CJ form, she smiled. “Well, we definitely don’t want that,” she said. “But still, it’s got to be a nice feeling, knowing that people still think you’ve got it.”

“No reason for you to start slacking now or anything,” Ronnie said with a grin. “I need you around so I can at least get, like, a two-pack by the end of the summer.”

Summer leaned closer to Brody, slipping her arm around his waist. “We do love having you here,” she said, pecking his cheek with a kiss.

“That’s good to know,” Stephanie said, most conclusively of them all. “The last thing I was looking to do was hire a new lifeguard this late in the season.”

Brody chuckled in apparent relief. “Now that we’ve got that settled,” he said, shifting forward in his seat under the pretense of eating lunch. “We can get back to business as usual.”

Mitch had no objections to that.

He would be more than glad to finally leave well enough alone and put this whole debacle behind him.

-o-

He could.

If Brody could.

But that damn business card kept showing up.

It fell out of Brody’s wallet when he paid for grocery at the store that night. The next day, he was looking at it when Mitch got up out of bed. Brody folded it promptly, stuffing it back in his pocket.

“You ready?” Brody asked, as if hoping that Mitch hadn’t seen. Or, at the very least, wouldn’t say that he’d seen.

“To train?” Mitch asked.

Brody flinched, but regained his composure quickly. “Just a workout,” he said. “You want to run today?”

“Try to catch me,” Mitch teased.

-o-

Brody did catch him. Mitch trounced him at weights for good measure, but Brody didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he just worked harder. When he pulled out his ID badge at HQ later, the card was stuck to the back.

Worse, when Mitch scanned the beach and settled his binoculars on tower two for a second, Brody was standing there, card in hand. His eyes were on the beach, sure. He was always looking toward the water, but the small paper rectangle was never far from his reach.

Amelia’s question was more relevant now than ever.

And Brody’s silence was growing harder and harder to discern.

-o-

Then, sometimes, it wasn’t.

Damn it, sometimes Brody made it really hard to act like it was a mystery.

Just that very night, after the ambiguity and the hemming, Mitch passed by Brody’s room on the way to bed to find the door ajar. They weren’t checking up on each other or anything -- they were two grown men, they kept some distance -- but it wasn’t uncommon to say goodnight to one another. Maybe it was weird, but Mitch had lived alone so long that he found it kind of nice to have someone to talk to.

And Brody liked it.

There were probably psychological reasons for that, but whatever, it was a nice routine and it wasn’t weird. Well, it wasn’t weird most of the time.

Tonight, however.

Yeah, it was a little weird.

Because as Mitch peeked his head in to bid Brody goodnight, there the kid was, sitting on his bed, looking at his shelf. To be more specific, his medals.

For a guy who said they didn’t mean anything, he sure did look at them a lot.

Weirder still?

Brody had laid the card right between them, like it was an established part of tableau.

As if Brody needed to make it any more obvious.

“Are your medals still gold there?” Mitch quipped from the doorway.

Brody startled a little, shifting away from the shelf. “Yeah, oh, yeah,” he said, trying to sound dismissive. He shrugged, as if he hadn’t been staring wistfully at hunks of gold. “You know. Super gold.”

Mitch opened the door a little bit, leaning against the frame. “You know, you can give the guy a call.”

“What? No,” Brody said. “I’m just, you know. Cleaning.”

There were many things wrong with that excuse. Mitch didn’t have the energy to go into most of them. “You don’t have to lie to me, you know.”

Brody’s pretenses fell somewhat. “I’m not,” he said, and he sounded like he meant it. “I’m not lying to you.”

Mitch sighed. Brody was probably telling the truth to the extent that he could. At this point, Brody probably wasn’t lying to Mitch. He was lying to himself.

That made it pretty hard to be mad at him.

But it didn’t make dealing with any easier.

Mitch had tried to force Brody to face it. That was what the interview and story had been all about. To make Brody answer the question. Somehow, though, it had only cemented Brody’s denial more deeply.

Now, here he was. Pining over a stupid calling card while telling Mitch that everything was totally and completely normal.

But what was Mitch supposed to do? He was calling him on his shit, but Brody just retreated further. He didn’t want to strain their relationship, and really, did he really want Brody to call up the coach? Did he want Brody to train for the next Olympics?

If it were up to him, hell no.

The problem was, it wasn’t supposed to be up to him.

Sighing, Mitch said, “I know. I just want you to know, too.”

“Know what?” Brody asked, and damn it all if he didn’t look like some damn 12 year old sitting on that bed. Some stupid kid, looking for someone to tell him what to do, what to be, how to live.

“That it’s okay to answer the question,” Mitch said. “Any way you want.”

Brody blew out a breath, shaking his head. “There’s no question, though,” he said. “Baywatch saved my life, Mitch. It saved my life. There’s no question.”

It was hard to argue with that. In general, it was just hard to argue. It was likely, at this point, that Brody wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to face this fear.

“Okay,” Mitch said, tapping his hand on the door frame. “See you in the morning, then.”

“Yeah, night,” Brody said with a small smile.

As Mitch turned to head toward his own room, he couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of Brody, who turned back toward the shelf.

Eyes still locked on the business card.

-o-

For a few days, this was how it went. Brody acted weird, Mitch commented and then neither of them talked about it again. Until Brody acted weird again.

Mitch knew he was better than that, but this was new territory for him. He imagined this was a little bit like parenthood. At least, a little like parenthood if you gave birth to a full grown Olympian with trust issues.

So it was nothing like parenthood.

Mitch had nothing to compare it to, and he had no recourse for how to solve it. This wasn’t a case he could unravel. This wasn’t someone drowning in the surf that he could pluck from the waves. This was just a dude who finally had his life together, living in serious denial about what to do with it now.

If he pushed Brody, could all his progress come undone? Would Brody fall apart? Would they go back to square one? What was square one? Mitch had never known Brody when he was training to be an Olympian; he had no idea what that looked like. He only knew Brody in the failed aftermath, which wasn’t much of a point of reference for where they were now except that they didn’t want to end up there again.

But did that mean that training was out?

Did Brody want his career to be over?

If not, why did he keep looking at that damn card?

And if he wanted to train, then why not just do it? What was scaring him so badly?

Probably the same shit that was scaring Mitch: the unknown.

Mitch had never been scared of it before, but then again, when had he actually faced it? When had he been this uncertain?

The simple answer was almost never. The most comparable time was that brief period he’d been fired from Baywatch. Not that that was a great reference. Mitch had nearly folded in on himself then, donning loafers and working for a damn cell phone company. So who was he to talk? If Summer hadn’t called him on the CB tonight, this whole thing could have ended up a lot differently.

Brody could be dead.

So, maybe Mitch should leave well enough alone.

If he could only convince himself that things were, in fact, well enough.