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Baywatch fic: On the Road Again (2/3)

December 27th, 2018 (01:46 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

Once the suggestion had been made, there was really no doubt that Mitch was going to do it. After all, contrary to his behavior recently, Mitch tended to be definitive in his actions. All he had needed was an outlet for said definition.

Now that he had it, there was nothing more to think about. Before leaving work, he cleared his vacation time directly with Casey Jean. He confirmed it with Stephanie, who promised to amend the schedule accordingly.

The timing was actually perfect, when he did the quick calculations in his head. Brody’s next competition was due to start tomorrow, which meant with a direct flight Mitch still had time to watch him compete live. More than that, there was a two month gap before nationals started, and there were no other competitions scheduled before that time in order to allow swimmers proper prep time.

Brody had been slated to train during his furlough back home. This meant that after the race, Mitch and Brody could enjoy New York together before coming home st the same time.

Pleased with his plan, last minute though it was, Mitch could not envision a single way it could go wrong. All he could think was how damn good it was going to be to see Brody again.

At home, Mitch packed quickly, sticking to the basics until everything fit easily in a carry on bag. He fed the fish, bidding Little Mitch goodbye. When Little Mitch looked distressed, Mitch promised that Summer would be by to check on them, and that when he got back, Brody would be with him.

With Little Mitch appeased, Mitch checked his things one last time. Then he took his credit card and drove directly to the airport.

It felt pretty damn good, actually. Marching up to the counter, asking for the next available flight to New York. That was the kind of shit Mitch was made to do. He was a man of action, and the last six months had been long because of a lack of action.

That was changing right now.

Boarding the next plane, Mitch squeezed himself into coach, smiled at his neighbor and checked his phone. It was a matter of hours until he saw Brody again.

-o-

Optimistic as Mitch was, the flight was awful. It was packed, and Mitch’s size made getting comfortable impossible. Since he bought his ticket at the last minute, he was wedged into an interior seat. The people next to him were polite, it one was terrified of flying and randomly cried out, muttering under his breath regularly about plane crashes. This was not helped by the fact that the flight was actually quite turbulent, and the seat belt sign never went off.

The woman on his other side chewed gum the whole time, snapping it unconsciously with no regard to Mitch’s nerves. The guy in front of him declined substantially, leaving Mitch feeling a little claustrophobic.

When it felt like a lot, Mitch reminded himself why he was doing this. How the look on Brody’s face when he saw Mitch would make it all worthwhile.

-o-

For all the bad parts to the flight, it was at least on time. By the time Mitch had cleared out of the airport, it was around dinner time. Mitch checked the address of Brody’s hotel and waved down a taxi. He relayed the address, asking to stop at a pizza joint along the way.

With the toll running, Mitch ordered a meat lovers pizza and a six pack of beer to go, tipping generously before climbing back in the cab. They made good time to the hotel, and Mitch was all smiles as he paid the exorbitant fare. It was a small price in the end, Mitch knew that. Any price for Brody.

At the hotel, he saluted the workers at the desk before making his way back. Brody always texted Mitch his room information when he checked in, claiming that he had bad memories of forgetting his number and sleeping in the hall from time to to time. This story sounded just ridiculous enough to be true, so Mitch had no qualms about keeping track of the information. At home, it had made him feel useful and connecte.

As it turned out, it also made surprising Brody on the road very easy.

Pizza in one hand with beers stacked on top, Mitch easily navigated the hallways, tracing his way back to Brody’s room. He was on the second floor, off to the left, not far from the elevators. Mitch consulted his phone to double check the number, then knocked on the door unable to hold back his smile.

Sure, it had only been two weeks since he’d last seen Brody but it felt like a lifetime.

An actual lifetime.

All he wanted was to kick back and chill, spend some time with his best friend.

His smile faded a little when no one answered. Mitch waited as long as he could bring himself to wait before rapping on the door again. When that failed to elicit a response, Mitch knocked a little louder, leaning close and calling through the panel. “Brody! Hey, Brody!”

It was a little past the dinner hour by now, so the hotel was filling up but at least no one would be sleeping just yet. He knew Brody’s training schedule my heart; they capped out before dinner every night, no exceptions, as per his coach’s instructions. According to Brody’s account, he spent most of his off hours in his room.

Or, honestly, all of his hours.

Mitch frowned when no one answered.

At least that was Brody’s account and Mitch had never had cause to think he was lying about that bit.

Until he was standing outside Brody’s room with a pizza and beer, knocking -- with no one to answer.

Mitch wasn’t sure if he was concerned or annoyed, so he took out his phone and pulled up Brody’s texts. He fired a quick one Brody’s way, leaning close enough to the door to literally hear it in ping inside.

So Mitch had the right room, at least.

It also suggested that Brody was, in fact, inside. He wouldn’t go somewhere without his phone.

But that didn’t answer the most fundamental question: why the hell wasn’t Brody answering the door?

Frustrated, he all but pounded on the door now, calling firmly. “Brody! Open up! It’s Mitch!”

Mitch was aware of the fact that he was getting loud enough to start disturbing other patrons in the hotel. However, he was also getting worried enough that he actually didn’t give a shit. What if something was wrong? What if Brody was hurt?

“Brody! Open the door!” he was yelling now, pounding with a full fist solidly against the surface.

Looking a the door, Mitch was judging his ability to kick it open when there was a rustling from the room right next door.

It opened, and Mitch was prepared to apologize for his intrusion and explain his concern, perhaps requesting help in contacting the first desk to do a wellness check. However, the disheveled form looked particularly annoyed and particularly familiar.

He had only known Andrew Lawson six months, since he first showed up outside of HQ with a business card, asking if Brody had thought about training again. Lawson’s business card was still on Brody’s shelf, propped up near his two gold medals, and Lawson himself had been a staple in Brody’s life once Mitch finally pushed him back into the deep end of the pool.

By all accounts -- and Mitch had done his research -- Lawson was a good coach. He had worked with some of the best on the West Coast, and all indications were that he was looking for a hot ticket to take him to the international scene. In that regard, he and Brody had been a good fit, and Mitch had been impressed with the discipline he offered Brody in the pool.

He found himself less impressed, however, by his disposition tonight.

Lawson looked surly, annoyed and utterly put out.

To be fair, Mitch was creating a ruckus in a hotel hallway. But Lawson had to hear what Mitch was yelling about, and his lack of concern indicated that he knew what Brody was up to.

Or that he didn’t give a shit.

Mitch’s first impression wasn’t positive, so he pulled it back in, determined to give Lawson the benefit of the doubt.

“Buchannon?” Lawson asked, putting a name to the face. It took him a second longer than Mitch thought it should; he and Lawson had talked frequently when Brody trained back in LA. Hell, he’d even let Lawson crash on his cot a few times while he was looking for a temporary housing solution in the area. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I came to surprise Brody,” Mitch said, gesturing to Brody’s still closed door. “Do you know if he’s in for the night?”

“Brody? Yeah,” Lawson said. “I told him that if he started up on the party scene, I would cut his ass from my service.”

That was a tough love approach, and it wasn’t without reason. Mitch actually didn’t disapprove of the notion, but there was something callous in the execution. “So, he’s in tonight?”

Lawson sighed, making a weary gesture. “I don’t know,” he said. “Brody’s off hours are his. I don’t police them.”

“You just said that you restricted partying,” Mitch pointed out.

Lawson appeared annoyed at the contradiction. “I mean if his partying hits the press,” he clarified. “I mean, I don’t really want to babysit him.”

Mitch’s eyes were starting to narrow. “So you don’t think it’s weird,” he said. “Brody not answering.”

“I think it’s annoying,” Lawson said.

“And you’re sure he’s in?” Mitch asked, looking back anxiously at Brody’s door.

“He seems to be,” he said, more indifferent than before -- a feat Mitch hadn’t thought possible.

“And this is what it’s like every night?” Mitch clarified, and he was getting off point here, but not really. Not at all. “And it doesn’t seem odd to you?”

Lawson looked at him like he was speaking a different language. “He’s winning races,” he said plaintively. “Who the hell cares if it’s odd?”

It probably shouldn’t have been surprising. Competition at this level would be intense, but Mitch had to admit, when he envisioned the swimming network, he’d seen it as a community. He’d always thought they’d come together as a team, watch each other’s backs -- like at Baywatch.

It occurred to him now, very belatedly, that maybe things in the rest of the world weren’t like they were at Baywatch.

Especially in competitive swimming.

“But he’s your responsibility,” Mitch said.

“In the pool, sure,” Lawson said. “But Brody’s a grown man. What he does is none of my business.”

It was delivered so plainly that there was no way to misinterpret the meaning, but at the same time, it was so ridiculous that Mitch had to think he was joking. “Seriously?”

Lawson sighed in what appeared to be genuine exasperation now, as if he thought Mitch was the one being unreasonable at the moment. “Look, you want it? I can let you in,” he said. “Our rooms are adjoining, and he leaves his side unlocked because he doesn’t know how to use an alarm clock. I wake up him every morning, so I don’t know what else you expect.”

He stepped into the room, gesturing for Mitch to follow him inside. The fact that waking Brody up seemed to be an untenable chore for this guy was disconcerting. The fact that Brody was not enlivened enough on the road to wake himself up was downright upsetting. Mitch had been confident of Brody’s decision to go back to training because it had served as his motivation to get up in the morning. With Mitch, he’d been up at the crack of dawn, ready and raring to go.

All of the signs indicated that things were seriously amiss on the road.

The coach, however, seemed oblivious to Mitch’s growing concern. Instead, he rambled on. “I mean, I’m a swimming coach, straight up. This is my professional, and I’m not here for shit,” he went on. “If he wants to get to the Olympics, I can give him the skills. But it’s not my job to babysit him.”

Mitch followed, throat too tight to even bother with a caustic reply.

At the adjoining door, Lawson fiddled with the lock. “Given his history, I was really clear about that upfront,” he said, looking at Mitch like he was the on being put out in this situation. “All that off duty shit -- I don’t have the time or patience.”

The lock slid out of place, and Lawson opened the door, looking at Mitch earnestly, as if for support.

Mitch stared him down. Hard. “Your coaching style sounds very inspiring,” he intoned.

Lawson looked moderately offended. “You do realize that a lot of coaches wouldn’t touch this kid, don’t you?” he asked. “Brody’s damaged goods. He’s a risky investment.”

This dude clearly didn’t realize just how lucky he was that Mitch was far more concerned with Brody’s well being than kicking his ass at the moment. Not that Mitch probably would resort to physical violence, but he wasn’t opposed to scaring the shit out of the asshole to make his point.

All the same, Mitch grit out through his teeth. “How generous of you.”

For the first time, Lawson seemed to recognize that his actions were not being deemed reasonable by Mitch. “I’m just saying,” he said with deflection. “I hate having my time wasted.”

“Then, by all means,” Mitch said, starting past Lawson into the room. “I won’t waste any more of it.”

With that, he brushed past the man, closing the door on Brody’s side soundly and firmly.

It was a hell of a flourish, but crossing the threshold made Mitch’s fortitude saver.

Getting a good look at Brody’s room nearly made it shatter altogether.

Notably, it was a disaster area. True, Brody had struggled with self care back in California, but he had made substantial progress. Six months ago, Brody had been picking up after himself consistently. It was a habit he had not maintained on the road.

The small hotel room was cluttered with junk. Brody’s clothes had been left over all the surfaces, and there were small still damp suits and swim caps crumpled up everywhere, leaving wet spots in random locations. There were more towels than seemed possible, and Mitch had to remind himself that Brody had only been in town several days.

This kind of mess would take weeks for most people. Brody had to be trying hard to leave this much shit around.

Or he wasn’t trying at all.

The room was small, which didn’t help, and Mitch stopped worrying about the mess long enough to turn his attention to the sleeping figure on the bed.

Sprawled on his stomach, Brody looked dead to the world. Mitch might have worried about that if not for the fact that the younger man was clearly snoring.

So he was alive at least.

Mitch looked around the room again. That didn’t mean Brody was okay.

Without any pretense, Mitch crossed closer to the bed. “Yo, Brody,” he called.

When Brody didn’t stir, Mitch reached put the food and drink down, moving closer to give Brody’s arm a little shake.

“Brody!”

This time, Brody did more than stir. The contact startled him. With a grunt and gasp, Brody sprang into the air, as if he had human contact in weeks.

The effect was jarring for both of them.

“What?” Brody asked in a string of otherwise unintelligible comments.

“Brody, hey,” Mitch said, keeping his voice even. He was aware of the fact that Lawson could be listening through the wall. Concerned for his investment, no doubt. “You up?.

Brody blinked with an effort that was almost comical as his mussed head swiveled almost blindly on his neck. “Be ready in five minutes, wet and in the pool,” he slurred, not quite looking at Mitch and not fully awake just yet. The words were almost by rote, and they were badly slurred to the point of almost being impossible to discern.

His worry not abating, Mitch cocked his head critically at the younger man. “Brody, it’s me,” he said. “It’s Mitch.”

Brody at least seemed to hear him this time, though it also seemed to take an extraordinary effort for Brody to find him in the mess of a room. He squinted at Mitch for several seconds, a look of confusion on his face. “Mitch?”

The single syllable was somewhat garbled, and Mitch realized with clarifying certainty the reason why Brody hadn’t answered the door. The reason Brody was asleep at 8 PM in a pigsty.

Brody was drunk.

The lopsided look on Brody’s perplexed face suggested more than that. That was when Mitch took in another salient detail about the mess around them. It was littered with open containers of alcohol. Cans and bottles were scattered on nearly every surface.

Brody was very drunk.

“Brody,” he said, looking in disbelief back at Brody, who was fully clothed on the bed. “What the hell?”

Brody didn’t seem to understand the question. In fact, he still seemed to be struggling with making sense of who Mitch was. “This is, like, I don’t know,” he said. “This is a dream, right?”

Mitch wasn’t sure what kind of dream this would have to be. More like a nightmare. “What the hell happened?” Mitch asked instead as he struggled to make sense of the scene.

“Like, one of those super real dreams,” Brody continued, staring at Mitch with something akin to wide eyed wonder. “They feel real and shit, but they’re not, you know. They’re just weird and confusing and you wake up feeling worse than when you went to bed.”

Mitch stared at him with incredulity. “That could also be because you’re hung over when you wake up.”

This made Brody laugh. A lot. “I like when you’re in my dreams, Mitch,” he said between tapering giggles. “I miss you, man.”

Mitch sighed, rolling his eyes. There was a lot he didn’t understand, but he wouldn’t understand any of it until Brody actually realized that he was, in fact, there. “I’m here, Brody,” he said flatly. “I flew in from California to surprise you. I’m here.”

Brody’s eyes widened further. “Whoa,” he said. “You can fly?”

Drawing a breath, Mitch wasn’t sure if he was striving for calm or just preparing for a massive meltdown. “Brody, I’m here, and you’re drunk,” he said. He looked around the room again, trying to count the open bottles of alcohol and giving up after 10. “Seriously, did you drink all this tonight?”

That question at least seemed prescient enough to Brody, even in his drunken stupor. He looked around the room, a little dumbfounded. “Huh,” he said, as if he hadn’t notice the mess or the bottles before. “I think I drank some of them last night, too. Or, like, before.”

That answer offered exactly zero insight into the situation. Mitch pressed his lips together. “You’ve been here less than a week,” he said. He nodded to the mess again. “There’s no way you should be drinking this much in a week, much less two nights.”

Brody considered this, though it took him far too much energy to seemingly string together coherent thoughts in his mind. After several long moments, his only reply was: “Well, the cleaning service has cleaned things up a few times.”

It was unclear to Mitch if Brody actually thought this bit of information was helpful to him in any way, shape or form. Mitch probably should have been grateful that Brody was at least an honestly vulnerable drunk who said the shit that was on his mind no matter what the consequences might be. When he first came to Baywatch, that had nearly gotten his ass fired.

Mitch wasn’t quite sure what it was going to lead to tonight.

It had to lead to something, Mitch knew that much. This current situation made Mitch sick to his stomach. He was pissed at hell at Brody for being drunk, and he was pissed at hell at himself for not realizing what was happening. Brody wasn’t going out, he wasn’t partying, but what would he be doing in a hotel room? Night after night, alone?

Brody had been afraid of crashing and burning without the team.

As it turned out, he’d been right to be afraid. All the progress Brody had made over the last year, it had crumbled without accountability.

It was a sign of character weakness, sure.

But it was also just a sign that Brody was still the dumb ass kid with abandonment issues who’d been set out on his own far, far too early.

Mitch just didn’t know what the hell he was going to do about it. “Brody,” he said, shaking his head in frustration. “That fact doesn’t exactly help.”

Brody looked frustratingly earnest. “It does, though,” he said, nodding vigorously. “I mean, like, it does.”

Mitch’s frustration had built up too much. “You have a race tomorrow!”

This didn’t seem like news to Brody. “Yep.”

As obvious as Brody made it sound, Mitch wasn’t sure why he wasn’t understanding the implications of his choices tonight for that race tomorrow. Mitch didn’t want to have to spell it out for him, but damn it, he was going to have to spell it out for him. “Do you want to be hungover?”

Brody made a face, like he was seriously considering this question. “Not really,” he confessed. But then he added, “But honestly, being sober really sucks, too.”

Brody had loved life back in LA. He’d drank some, but casually and recreationally. He’d had too many plans, too many people, too much everything -- he hadn’t had the time or inclination to blow shit off and get smashed.

On the road, Brody trained hard all day.

What did that leave for nights?


When Brody was alone with a coach who didn’t like him and teammates he didn’t know how to trust?

Alcohol, apparently.

It left lots and lots of alcohol.

Feeling a bit lost, Mitch implored Brody. “Is this what you do every night? Sit in your room and drink?”

Drunk as he was, Brody had some self awareness, and it seemed to be growing with each question Mitch asked. His eyes narrowed with apparent thought. “I feel like the answer you’re looking for is probably no.”

“Brody!” Mitch exclaimed, jaw dropping. This was what it was like to be the parent of a teenager.

Shit, Mitch had somehow become the parent of a teenager.

A 25 year old, gold medalist, foster kid teenager.

Shit, shit, shit.

Brody was somewhat taken aback by the conviction in Mitch’s tone. “Whoa, dude,” he said, as if Mitch was the one who had somehow become unreasonable. “This is a hotel. It’s late. Right? Super late?”

Mitch stared down his nose at Brody. “It’s 8 PM.”

“See,” Brody said, emphatically. “Super late.”

Either Brody was so drunk that he had no idea what time it was.

Or Brody was in the habit of sleeping at very early hours. Possibly due to alcohol. Possibly due to loneliness, depression and anxiety.

With a sigh, Mitch did not admit defeat. He did, however, admit to himself that he could not solve this problem while Brody was in his current state. At this point, he deemed it likely that Brody would not remember this conversation in the morning. Mitch had to wait until Brody was sober.

That would give him time to think, take stock.

And not freak out.

Mitch wasn’t going to freak out.

He totally wasn’t going to freak out that in six months time he’d let his best friend become a functional alcoholic.

Nope.

“Whatever,” Mitch said, stepping toward the bed. “You’re going to sleep now, and we’re going to talk about this in the morning.”

“Talk about what?” Brody asked.

Mitch would have glared if Brody hadn’t been so damn sincere.

“Your drinking problem,” Mitch told him, words gritted out through his clenched jaw.

Brody didn’t argue. Somehow that made things worse. Instead, he smiled good naturedly and saluted Mitch.

“I’m serious,” Mitch said.

The gravity in his voice only made Brody giggle.

A lot.

Dissolved into giggles, Mitch gave up and prompted took Brody by the shoulder and shoved back onto the pillows. Drunk and uncoordinated, Brody flopped down, still giggling as Mitch drew up one of the blankets over him.

Fortunately, Brody was so drunk that he didn’t need more than that plaintive suggestion. His giggles were soon silence, but he did tilt his head to look up at Mitch, bleary and confused. “Are you really here, Mitch? Really?”

“Really,” Mitch confirmed. “I guess I should have been here sooner.”

Brody smiled vaguely at the thought. “I’ve missed you, man,” he said, the words becoming softer as he closed his eyes. “A lot.”

Just like that, Mitch’s anger drained out of him. His throat was too tight to produce words as Brody’s breathing evened out almost immediately. Heart thudding in his chest, Mitch adjusted the blankets a little and sighed again. “Me, too,” he said, patting Brody on the shoulder. “More than you know.”

-o-

With conflicted emotions raging inside him, Mitch wanted to be annoyed. He wanted to be angry. That was easier; it made more sense.

To encourage that emotion, Mitch set himself to cleaning up the room. On some level, it was a practical consideration, but Mitch knew that the cleaning team would be through in the morning. This sort of shit was their job, and all Mitch had to do was leave a really nice tip.

That would be easy, though.

And it wouldn’t keep him pissed off long enough.

No, if he wanted to nurture anger, he needed to actually feed it. He fed it with every piece of clothing he picked up. He nurtured it with every swimsuit he threw into the bathtub. And he positively stoked it when he picked up every half drunk bottle of alcohol.

Within minutes, he’d filled every trashcan in the room.

Within a half hour, the room was moderately organized with swim gear drying in the bathroom and clothing tossed into Brody’s still open and mostly ignored suitcase. Unable to find room in the trash for all the bottles, he’d taken to lining them up on the dresser, taking account of each and every single one.

It was some consolation, perhaps, that most of them were only half drunk, as if Brody had forgotten he started one or merely wanted to try something new. That seemed likely to Mitch, somehow. As if Brody were looking for something at the bottom of each bottle and when he failed to find it, he turned to the next.

Brody had too much time, too much spending cash and not enough people around him to remind him that this wasn’t who he was anymore. That he was better than this. That he had more to live for.

Sighing, Mitch gave up on cleaning and he gave up on anger, too. Getting angry at Brody didn’t help anything, and it certainly didn’t address the actual issues here. Brody was spiraling, but quietly and discreetly. In Rio -- indeed, even in his early days at Baywatch -- Brody had been an open book of recklessness, sabotaging his own future in the most public and humiliating ways possible.

This was different. This was Brody trying to compensate for himself without having the tools or the support to actually know how. No doubt, Brody’s choice not to go out and party was an attempt to do the right thing. He just hadn’t been equipped to handle the right thing -- and the loneliness it entailed.

Mitch hadn’t even really thought about it that way. He’d just assumed that Lawson would be a father figure. He’d just thought that Brody would naturally fall in with the other swimmers and make friends. That was how it was at Baywatch. That was how it was for Mitch.

Except Mitch was effortlessly personable. And Brody was a foster kid who still struggled to see why people liked him. Mitch remembered how hard Brody had taken it when his mother had tried to milk him for cash; that was an emotional burden that guys like Mitch could try to understand but never truly grasp.

It had taken a full year to help Brody get comfortable enough with himself to even attempt racing again.

It had taken a lot less than that for both of them to realize he while he was ready for the pool, he wasn’t quite ready for everything that went along with it.

Some of this was on Brody, sure. Brody had choices, and he’d made shitty ones, no doubt.

But some of this had to be on Mitch. He had wanted the kid to face his fears, and he’d never prepared Brody for the full thing. He knew Brody better than anyone, better than Brody knew himself. He should have seen this coming.

Sitting down on the chair, he watched Brody sleeping. He was snoring again, sleeping curled up on his side, mouth hanging slack.

Mitch should have seen this coming.

It had been a long six months.

Mitch had a feeling it was going to be an even longer night.

-o-

It was a long night.

Mitch didn’t sleep much, anxious as he was. Also, he was trying to sleep in a chair. And Brody snored a lot when he was drunk.

All things considered, he was sore and grumpy when the dawn broke. He was actually somewhat relieved when Brody’s alarm went off. Thinking of what Lawson had said last night about his begrudging morning wake up calls, Mitch got up and turned off the alarm, moving toward Brody’s bedside to take on the task himself.

He’d deal with Lawson and his questionable coaching techniques later.

For now, he still had Brody with a drinking problem to deal with.

“Brody, hey,” he said. When Brody didn’t respond, he reached down and jostled his shoulder. “Hey.”

Brody startled awake with as much surprise as he had the night before. He looked at Mitch, seemingly vexed. “Mitch?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Mitch said. “I think you have to get to the pool or something--”

He was going to explain that he didn’t know the morning routine but that the alarm had gone off, when Brody looked deeply upset.

Then, before Mitch could ask him what was wrong, the color drained from his face.

Hastily, Brody pushed the blankets off, trying to scramble from the bed. He tripped in the process, sending himself sprawling as Mitch barely had time to step out of the way. Mitch moved back in again to offer his help, but Brody found his feet and ignored the overture, dashing straight for the bathroom instead.

Before Mitch could even think to follow, he heard Brody hit the ground.

And then he started retching.

A lot.

Mitch winced hanging back.

Somehow, he had to suspect, he was getting a first-hand view of the typical morning routine.

-o-

When Brody finally came out, he was flushed and embarrassed.

Mitch knew the feeling.

“Feeling better?” Mitch asked. It might have been sarcastic, or it might have been genuine concern. It was probably both, but Mitch didn’t know what to do with that.

Neither did Brody. “I thought you being here was a dream,” he said.

Mitch cleared his throat, shrugging. “Not a dream. Came to surprise you.”

Brody nodded a few times. “I am. Surprised.”

“I figured,” Mitch said. The conversation lapsed awkwardly as Mitch made no accusation and Brody made no apologies. Finally, when he could find no way to broach the hungover elephant in the room, Mitch frowned. “You sure you’re good to go get in the pool?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Brody said. He swatted a hand through the air like the insinuation was insignificant. “I mean. I got it all out of my system, right? Not exactly anything left to hurl. Can’t be the Vomit Comet without vomit.”

There was logic to that, but the logic was even more disconcerting than the facts. Brody had clearly attempted to think through his behavior in the past six months if only to justify his choices. It was recklessly self sabotaging, and he had the sense that Brody knew it.

He just didn’t know what the hell to do about it.

“I’m really not sure that this approach is best if you want to avoid your status as the Vomit Comet,” Mitch suggested with a margin of diplomacy.

Brody didn’t argue because they both knew he had no argument. Instead, Brody shrugged feebly. “Whatever works.”

It was a comment of defeat, like Brody didn’t even care if he repeated his performance in Rio.

Or, more likely, if he merely thought his downfall was inevitable, so why the hell not lean into it a bit?

Drawing a serious breath, Mitch shook his head. “How often are you doing this?”

This didn’t need to be elaborated or clarified. Mitch was referring to the hurling, the drunken benders, the problematic solo drinking as a way to distract himself. And then some.

Brody shrugged again, even more feeble than before, a feat Mitch wouldn’t have imagined possible. “Not every night.”

That meant Brody had been too tired one night and fallen asleep before getting drunk, no doubt.

He wasn’t about to say that.

Then again, he wasn’t sure what he was about to say.

After several long moments, Brody seemed to be even more embarrassed. He rubbed at the back of his neck sheepishly. “At least it didn’t used to be.”

Brody had managed to find an admission to make this worse.

Mitch closed his eyes for a moment, rubbing his head and the throbbing headache that was building there. Mitch wasn’t hungover, but he might as well have been. “Shit, Brody.”

Flustered now, Brody gestured aimlessly. “It’s hard out here,” he said. “All the training and the hotel rooms--”

Mitch opened his eyes abruptly. “So get a hobby!”

“Well, I did, kind of,” Brody said, all but shuffling his feet. “It just involved a lot of alcohol.”

“That’s not a hobby, Brody,” Mitch said curtly. “That’s called alcoholism.”

Brody squirmed, looking more miserable by the second and Mitch knew it had little to do with the fact that he was still badly hungover. “The first few months, I had a lot of trouble sleeping,” he said. “The insomnia was killing me, man. My times were suffering, and I couldn’t get out of my head. A little nightcap helped get me to rest.”

Mitch had sympathy for this, he really did, but he couldn’t show it now. Not yet. “This is more than a little nightcap.”


Brody sighed. “I know, I know,” he said. “It just, it got so hard. I was lonely and it hard to focus and I missed Baywatch and I was sore and tired and, I don’t know, man. Screwing up is what I do. It always has been.”

There was something deflective about these comments, Mitch knew that. But there was also something truthful to them. Brody, after all, had always been the best at apologies. Mitch knew it was because he had a shit load of practice.

None of that changed the fact that this was a problem.

And Mitch had flown to New York with all the wrong solutions.

But he was here, that was something.

Looking at Brody, standing across from him, he knew it was a lot of something. Over the past year and a half, he’d seen Brody do remarkable things. He’d seen him rally the team to take down Leeds. He’d seen him recover his image after humiliating himself on the international stage. He’d seen him go undercover to save the bay almost by himself. And he’d seen him develop into the best roommate, teammate and friend Mitch could have possibly wanted.

This shit was hard, no doubt.

But Mitch knew that Brody could do it.

The key, Mitch knew from experience, was convincing Brody that he could do it, too.

With a sober nod, Mitch didn’t look away. “We’re going to have to talk about this,” he said. “A lot.”

There was a flicker of relief across Brody’s features, and some of the tension unfurled from his shoulders. “I know,” he said, but then he drew a breath, looking pained. “But not now. I have to race today, man.”

Part of Mitch wanted to say screw the race. This was more important, after all. But Mitch couldn’t be hasty, not when Brody had spent so much energy and effort in the last six months. “Is that what you want? To race?”

Brody laughed a little, a sharp, brittle sort of noise. “This has to be for something,” he said. “I need to race.”

That was the declaration Mitch had forced out of him six months ago. He’d helped Brody stand by it then.

He would help Brody stand by it now.

“Okay,” Mitch agreed. “But we’re going to talk about this tonight. You and me. All the cards on the table.”

“Tonight,” Brody agreed, weary and resigned.

Then, Brody smiled weakly, from exhaustion, from the hangover, from something else -- Mitch didn’t know.

He suspected he’d find out soon enough.

-o-

The rest of the morning was actually what he’d flown from California for. It was a special thing, Mitch decided, watching Brody warm up in the pool. He wasn’t exactly keen to admit it, but he also wasn’t able to feasibly deny it, he loved watching Brody swim. And despite his antics the night before -- and every night before that, apparently -- his form was impeccable. Scoping out the competition, Mitch didn’t have any doubts that Brody could smoke them all.

Brody had other formalities to take care of before the race, so Mitch relegated himself to the bleachers along with the rest of the friends and family who had made the trip. He overhead excited chit chat amongst eager parents. Girlfriends and husbands made loud phone calls about the conditions prior to the race.

Mitch took some of this time to check in back at Baywatch. He’d expected to be a little anxious about taking the time off, but he found that he didn’t really have any real worries about how things were back home. He knew the team would handle things, and Mitch felt strangely confident about his absence. It wasn’t that he’d earned it necessarily, but he’d started to trust that the team was what he thought it was, even when he wasn’t there.

More than that, he’d learned that there was more to his life than Baywatch.

And he had the overpriced ticket to New York to prove it.

All the same, he made sure to text everyone that he had arrived safely and that things were all going fine. It felt a little wrong to act like there was nothing wrong, but being truthful didn’t mean telling all the truth. Some truths weren’t his to tell, and if and when Brody needed the full team’s support, he would enlist it.

For now, this issue was between him and Brody.

Once Mitch figured out how serious this was, he’d decide if they needed to talk to the others about it.

The racing docket started around noon, and Mitch took in a few of the other races with mild interest. He liked swimming, so this wasn’t a hardship. Even so, he snuck out for a quick lunch during some of the backstroke races. On his way back in, he slipped around the pool deck toward the competitor entrance and sidled in next to Lawson.

“Hey,” he said, choosing to be polite for the time being. Lawson didn’t necessarily have to be his enemy. As it was, Lawson was still the first line of defense when it came to Brody. “You seen him?”

“Brody? Sure,” Lawson said distractedly, barely sparing Mitch a glance.

“He good?” Mitch asked.

“You saw him,” Lawson said. “What do you think?”

That was utterly uninformative. Mitch’s desire to make nice with Lawson was already starting to wear thin. “I know we didn’t get off to a great start last night.”

Lawson shrugged, watching the race instead of looking at Mitch. It was the women’s butterfly; a sprint. “None of my business--”

Mitch rolled his eyes despite himself. “I just feel like Brody might perform better if he had more support outside the pool,” he said. “I know you’re doing good work inside the pool, but athletes are people.”

This time Lawson looked at him like he was crazy. “So?”

Mitch was a little taken aback that he was going to have to actually spell it out. This shot was second nature to him at Baywatch. Apparently, the world of competitive swimming didn’t always function the same way.

He could still remember his easy condemnation of Brody’s performance in Rio as outright selfish. It wasn’t that Mitch hadn’t been right, but it may have been more complicated than that. It seemed probable that Brody wasn’t the only selfish one on the racing circuit.

Mitch had to hope Lawson was an exception, that he could be cajoled into a more active role. People were generally reasonable, they could be kind. “So,” Mitch said, making a last ditch effort to be patient for Brody’s sake. “If you support the whole person, you may be surprised what you get out of him athletically.”

Lawson did perk up at that. “You think he can go faster? Maybe get him in another event? Because I have thought about widening his range. If he can master two strokes, even the medley is an opportunity.”

That hadn’t exactly been Mitch’s point, and the thought of Brody working even harder was vaguely disconcerting. Still, this was as interested in the point as Lawson had been yet. Mitch had to work with it. “Maybe,” he conceded. “And he’s more likely to keep himself together.”

Lawson’s interest was short lived. His hope faded just as fast as it had come. “Together?”

Mitch knew immediately that he’d said the wrong thing. Lawson was losing interest again -- and fast. Mitch quickly tried to compensate. “Look, I’m just saying, maybe you can hang out with him, get to know him,” he suggested. “I thought he was an asshole, too, but he surprises you.”

Lawson was growing increasingly skeptical again. He shook his head. “I don’t need a friend.”

Mitch couldn’t imagine that was entirely. Lawson’s behavior suggested that he didn’t know what friendship actually was, but there was no need to argue that particular point. Lawson needed the more practical approach. “But you want a successful swimmer,” Mitch pointed out, finding Lawson’s bottom line. “He’d be much better if he had a friend on the road. Just think of how he’d perform if he didn’t drink so much?”

Lawson appeared surprise at this thought, but not in the way Mitch had actually intended. “Whoa, how much is he drinking?”

Mitch found himself hedging. He’d thought that Lawson had to know that Brody was basically an alcoholic at the moment. He hadn’t fully considered the possibility that Lawson had truly turned the most willfully blind eye toward Brody.

Before Mitch could come up with an explanation, Lawson was actively shaking his head, arms crossed over his chest defensively. “If you’re telling me I’ve got a repeat of the Vomit Comet, come out and say it, Buchannon,” he said coldly. “I have no intention being dragged down by Brody, no matter how fast his 200 fly is.”

This was another time when Mitch sort of wished he were inclined toward violence. Pummelling that smug look of disdain of Lawson’s face would be intensely gratifying at the moment. All the same, Mitch breathed deeply. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” he said flatly, though he knew he had no business denying that it was a possibility at this point. “It’s just about making sure he’s okay.”

Lawson’s stance eased slightly, but he seemed to regard Mitch with skepticism still. “Well, as far as I’m concerned, as long as he wins gold, he’s just fine in the way that matter.”

Mitch couldn’t keep the exasperation from coloring his voice now. “But he’s not okay. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

With a tepid shrug, Lawson returned to his air of indifference. “And I told you: I’m not his babysitter.”

“But you’re his coach,” Mitch reasoned, letting his voice fill with emotion. “Out here, on the road, you’re all he has.”

Lawson was utterly unmoved. “That’s not my fault. Or really my business.”

It didn’t compute. He knew Brody could be off putting at first -- at least, he had been when they first met a year and a half ago. But he’d changed since then, and honestly, all you had to do was be a decent human being.

Good swim coaches, apparently, didn’t always know how to do that, however. Maybe Lawson was defective and opportunistic. Or maybe this level of competition usually weeded out the compassionate types. Mitch didn’t know. But while he did spend a lot of time and energy making sure his team was at its physical best, he also knew that investing in them emotionally paid real dividends. Brody was a prime example, but he’d help them all in different ways.

Professionalism didn’t have to divorce itself from personal relations.

In Brody’s case, it straight up couldn’t.

And, more plainly, life was better when you were nicer to people.

It just was.

“You really don’t care?” Mitch asked, and it wasn’t clear to him if the question was for actual clarification or a simple way to verbalize his own disbelief.

In either case, Lawson’s answer was hardly satisfactory. “Look, I’m working with Brody strictly on commission. Most of these swimmers, they’ve got deep pockets or they’ve won enough races to finance their elite training. The ones that aren’t willing to take out a second mortgage don’t make it past these regional qualifiers,” Lawson explained. “Brody? You and I both know he’s not got the capital to pay me, which means I’m working exclusively for a cut of every race he wins. I’m not doing this because I’m a bleeding heart who loves a comeback story. I did it because I thought he was going to pay off. If he wins, I win. If he sucks, I’m not wasting my time any longer than I already have.”

It was blunt and to the point. Mitch had to give him kudos for not beating around the bush.

That was about the only thing Mitch was about to give him credit for at the moment.

Knowing now that he had no ally in Lawson -- more to the point, that Brody had no ally in Lawson -- he emotionally withdrew. Bobbing his head professionally, he knew it was time to let this argument settle. Mitch hadn’t wanted to do this alone, but he would.

For Brody, of course he would. “Well, I guess that’s good to know,” he said, turning back toward the stands. “Good luck out there, coach.”

Lawson got the hint. It figured that this was the thing that made him think twice. “I’m not a monster, Buchannon,” he said. “Most of the coaches out here are doing the same thing, but they just wouldn’t tell you to your face.”

“So you’re the good guy here?” Mitch asked, and it was his turn to be skeptical.

“I’m just the swim coach,” he said. “If Brody needs a daddy or a best friend of whatever, then he needs to figure that one out on his own.”

“To each their own, I guess,” Mitch said. “Some people are meant to be good friends.” He shrugged. “Others are just born to be assholes.”

Without letting Lawson respond, he turned toward the stands and made his way back to his seat, head high, shoulders squared and temper clamped down firmly in his chest.

Brody was worth a fight, no doubt.

Lawson, on the other hand, was decidedly not.

-o-

Mitch found himself anxious at the start of Brody’s race. Over the past six months, he’d seen Brody race countless times, and he’d pored over every article and video clip he could unearth online. He knew the precise form of Brody’s stroke and the exact velocity of his kick. He knew the shape of his turns in the water, and he knew the keen look of concentration on his face as he stood on the starting block and stared at the pool.

Seeing it in person, however, after all he’d learned on this trip, was a surprisingly daunting experience. Brody showed no signs of being sick, but Mitch felt ill himself. He was half tempted to excuse himself for the bathroom and conveniently come back when it was over.

That wasn’t who Mitch was, though. He didn’t run from challenges.

Besides, he wasn’t even the one swimming.

He’d come here for Brody.

To support Brody, no matter what.

When Brody’s name and lane were announced, Mitch cheered louder than anyone else, clapping until his hands hurt.

Because sure, Mitch was pissed and scared and angry as hell.

But he was also prouder than anyone else in the stands that day.

He knew how far Brody had come to get her.

Win or lose, it was further than anyone else would have to come out there on the pool deck.

Of that, Mitch had absolutely no doubts.

-o-

Six months training.

Mere minutes of competition.

That was how it was in Brody’s world. As a sprinter, he put in long hours to have a payoff within minutes. It was hard to imagine how months and years of work could be played out in such a short amount of time. It was how two minutes had made Brody a hero in Rio.

And then two more minutes had ruined him.

Mitch watched, edge of his seat while Brody took to the pool. He was bouncing his knees at the first turn. At the final lap, he was on his feet. When Brody hit the wall, full seconds before his closest competitor, he was whooping so loud that his throat felt raw.

It was a moment of triumph he knew Brody had earned.

Besides, Mitch knew that tonight would be hard for both of them.

He had to take this moment while he had it.

-o-

Mitch had watched a lot of competitions.

Being there, though.

That was a whole new thing.

In the aftermath, Mitch had expected to find Brody on the pool deck. That was quickly proven impossible as the throng of people descended. It turned out, Brody’s time had been a new record, besting his own world record speed. Reporters seemed to emerge from nowhere, and Mitch couldn’t get close as Brody smiled politely and answered questions.

Before Mitch could break through the crowd, Lawson interjected for the crowd, taking Brody by the arm and leading him away off the deck and into the locker rooms.

Mitch was a little disappointed but it was no matter. He would find Brody soon enough. They would celebrate responsibly. They would talk at length. Things would be fine.

And really, maybe there wasn’t that much to talk about. Brody’s performance in the pool had been nothing short of extraordinary. It wasn’t ideal, having Brody alone and drunk, but if Brody could perform like this, then maybe he had it more under control than Mitch thought. Sure, they needed to talk, but it was possible that things weren’t as bleak as Mitch had feared the night before.

Feeling optimistic now, Mitch took up a position with the other family members, waiting for swimmers to exit the locker rooms. He waited patiently while some started to trickle out, and he smiled at the warm reunions and genuine congratulations being shared.

But soon the crowd thinned. Mitch watched as a few more swimmers came out in groups, joking and socializing, on their way to some sort of after party venue.

Soon, no one came out at all.

Anxious again, Mitch made his way toward the back rooms, stopping to explain his plight to an event crew member. She was polite and professional as she explained. “No, sir, I think the last competitors just left for the day,” she said. “Janitorial crews have started to get to work.”

“They’re all gone?” Mitch asked, trying not to show his dismay.

She nodded. “There’s a back entrance some competitors use,” she explained. “If they aren’t meeting anyone.”

That made sense.

Except that it didn’t.

Brody knew he was here. Brody knew they were supposed to talk.

Suddenly, Mitch felt a little more than dismay.

He was starting to feel like maybe this was a big deal after all.

“And you didn’t see Matt Brody?” he asked.

She looked apologetic. “He’s had media tailing him all week,” she said. “He tends to skip away, I think. Too many questions.”

That didn’t make any of this better. “And you didn’t see him leave?”

Now she looked a little uncomfortable. “I don’t know. My job is just to manage the facilities.”

Mitch nodded, and it was his turn to be apologetic. His trepidation had nothing to do with her, and Brody going AWOL certainly wasn’t her responsibility. “Of course, thank you for your help.”

Turning away, Mitch pulled out his phone. As he brought up Brody’s number, the girl added one more thought. “There is a bar,” she said.

Mitch stopped, turning to face her.

She shrugged. “I have no idea if he’s there or has ever been,” she said quickly. “But it’s popular with swimmers after races. Sometimes families stop there. Racing teams. All of it.”

Truthfully, it didn’t sound like Brody’s scene.

But then again, Mitch was discovering a lot of new things about Brody. His capacity for subterfuge among them. “And where’s this bar?”

She looked a little relieved to have been helpful. “Groski Family Pub. Just down the street.”

Mitch thanked her, making his way out. As he exited the facility, he sent Brody a text. Where did you go? Good racing today, btw.

He waited for a reply, checking his phone anxiously as he made his way out into the street.

There was no reply.