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

December 27th, 2018 (01:47 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

Finding the bar was easy.

Waiting no five minutes for Brody to not reply was hard.

Lingering outside the bar, Mitch finally dialed Brody’s number, letting it ring all the way through to voicemail before hanging up.

Compulsively, he sent another text, then another. He called again before finally putting his phone away and going inside.

He could see immediately that the girl had been right. This was a popular bar after the race. He could easily see several racers and their families at tables. A few coaches were treating their stars to a drink and dinner. Lawson was nowhere in sight.

Neither was Brody.

Still, Mitch wanted to do his due diligence. It was how he conducted any rescue. It was imperative to clear the most obvious search areas before moving on to the next. It saved lives on the beach.

Navigating his way through the bar, Mitch wasn’t sure it was as effective in competitive swimming.

He had nearly made a full pass of the bar, checking the nooks and crannies in case Brody was trying to hide from him. On his way out, he went by the bar, noting the occupants of each stool before recognizing three of the young men perched on one end. They were young, muscular and clearly happy. Mitch knew why; they had won a relay in the competition just last week.

The relay Brody had swam anchor for, coming in first to thundering applause.

Brody’s teammates on the road. Mitch knew that these teams varied from meet to meet -- this one hadn’t even featured relays -- but still. Where Mitch came from, teammates mattered. No matter how long or how short you’d been together. That had been the first and more important lesson he’d taught Brody at Baywatch.

“Hey, guys,” Mitch said, smoothly interjecting themselves into their company. He remembered two of them had swam in Brody’s heat; one had placed. The other had done well in one of the backstroke competitions. “Good swimming out there today.”

Some might gauge this tactic as buttering them up. Mitch wouldn’t deny that it worked in that way to some extent, but Mitch was a nice guy. He knew how to relate to people on their levels. And besides, they were good swimmers.

“Thanks, man,” one of them said, grinning. “Got to get ourselves ready for nationals.”

“Nothing to get ready for,” the second said. “We got this thing.”

“You can’t take it for granted,” the third said, the most reasonable of the bunch. He gave Mitch a polite nod. “Thanks for the support out there. You here to support someone else, or do we really just have fans?”

Mitch chuckled. “Well, I’d like to count myself as a fan, for what it’s worth,” he said. “But I came out here for Matt Brody.”

All three looked surprised by this. The third managed to just raise his eyebrows. The second actually laughed into his beer. It was the third who looked outright skeptical. “I didn’t realize Brody had people.”

For some reason, Mitch felt defensive. “Most of us are in California right now, so it’s hard to make the east coast circuit,” he explained.

“Huh,” said the third. He was the shortest, blondest and most muscular of the bunch. “Well, it’s just a surprise is all. Brody’s mostly kept to himself. We’ve seen him at a dozen meets or so in the last six months. Usually just with his coach.”

“So it’s real annoying when he still gets the loudest applause,” mutters the first.

The third rolls his eyes. “Dude can swim.”

“That he can,” Mitch said. “Speaking of Brody, have you seen him? He slipped out after the race, and I was hoping to catch up with him.”

All three shrugged like Mitch was asking some task they could not possibly imagine.

“Like I said,” the third clarified. “Brody keeps to himself. We’ve never seen him out and about on the road.”

This confirmed a few things. First, Brody was probably not lurking in the back of the bar somewhere. Second, Brody really had become a recluse on the road. Third, that meant all of Brody’s drinking was entirely by himself.

None of those conclusions were ideal.

“I think it’s a good choice,” the second said loudly. “It’s good for focus.”

The blonde one furrowed his brow. “Brody’s focus seems pretty on target.”

“No, ours,” said the second. “Seriously, have you not heard the stories about Brody?”

“The Vomit Comet,” the first said, a little too enthusiastically. “Were you there when he was at Rio?”

“Of course,” the second said. “Dude was a party animal.”

The third guy looked anxiously at Mitch, as if he knew they were being rude. “As long as he gets it done in the pool, what he does in his free time is none of our business.”

If the blonde guy thought his indifference was somehow better than the other two’s slights, Mitch wasn’t so sure he agreed. All it meant was that there were lots of reason people had to not give a shit about Brody.

The second had finished his drink and he was shaking his head. “But he doesn’t,” he said. “I mean, sure, now, he is. But that’s exactly what happened at Rio. You think he’s doing the job, getting it done -- so who the hell cares right? You care, though. You care when he pukes in the pool and costs you a medal.”

Mitch was feeling his skin start to crawl. “Somehow if you’re counting on someone else to win your gold medal, then I’m not sure it was yours in the first place,” Mitch pointed out, keeping his voice light but his meaning cutting.

“Hey, we’re all working our asses off out here,” the first objected. He gestured to the three of them. “You have to count on your team, and Brody? I don’t know. But I’m not counting on him.”

“He did just set another world record,” Mitch said sharply.

“And he’ll smoke us all at nationals, and he’ll do great at the world trials, blah, blah, blah,” the second said. He sat forward intently. “You need to tell your boy not to fold when it counts. We played this game before. I ain’t doing it again.”

Mitch stood up tall, staring down his nose purposefully. It wasn’t that he had any intention of beating up these entitled white boys with delusions of grandeur. But it was okay if they thought he was.

The second one was too stupid to get it.

The third one smoothly interjected himself again. “That’s just to say we haven’t seen him, not since the pool,” he said. “What he does in his off hours is a mystery to us.”

That was the nice way of saying he didn’t give a shit, but Mitch had to take it for what it was.

And what it was was this: not a team.

He’d just assumed that teams came together naturally, that people inherently understood how to watch each other’s back. He’d made the assumption that they saw themselves as brothers in the swimming world. Earnest competitors who respect each other and appreciated the work put in.

Maybe it could be argued that Brody had earned some of their disdain after Rio. After all, they seemed to get along quite well with one another. But somehow he began to suspect that teamwork to Mitch didn’t mean the same thing to everyone else in the world.

Especially for competitive swimmers.

These friendships were convenience. These partnerships were tenuous. This wasn’t like Baywatch.

And it was clear that Brody needed Baywatch.

Clearer still was the fact that Brody sure as hell wasn’t going to get it here.

-o-

Outside, Mitch started by to the hotel on foot, texting Brody a few more times and calling him once or twice for good measure. There was no response to any of his overtures, and Mitch had it in his mind to be worried, but he honestly wasn’t sure what he was actually worried about.

Brody was of sound mind and body; he wasn’t exactly in physical danger.

But just because Brody wasn’t lying in a ditch somewhere didn’t mean he was safe -- from himself, more than anything else. It was most likely that Brody had already retreated to his hotel room with a fresh cache of alcohol and was currently trying to drown himself before Mitch could come back and stop him.

Was it a brilliant plan?

Not really.

That was probably why it seemed likely to Mitch.

Brody wasn’t known for thinking things through. At all.

There was no other feasible possibility for why Brody would cut out on him like that. Brody had a drinking problem on the road. He did not want to talk about the drinking problem on the road. So what was he going to do? Indulge in the drinking problem on the road to avoid talking about the drinking problem on the road.

Mitch would like to blame this decision making process on Brody’s exhaustion after a hard fought race a few hours ago, but he knew it was more likely that Brody was still new to this idea of family. He could still remember with painful clarity when Brody had gone on a bender, gotten arrested and ended up in a life threatening plea deal because he didn’t know how to cope with his birth mother’s second rejection. When faced with personal turmoil, Brody didn’t cope.

No, he tended to implode first.

Then Mitch had to help Brody pick up the pieces so they could both move on.

It wasn’t a short walk back to the hotel -- Mitch could have gotten a cab or tried public transit -- but honestly, he needed the time to think. To prepare himself. It was obvious that Brody had a problem, but what was less obvious was how to fix it. Sure, it was easy to tell the kid to stop drinking, but what was the alternative? What other hobby did Mitch think Brody could develop? Brody had no support structure, no one to hold him accountable. For as much as Brody probably liked to think he could do shit on his own, he was inherently needy. He was just better with people, which was ever apparent by the toll of his isolation these past six months.

Was he going to tell Brody to buck up?

Was he going to bribe Lawson into being a more active coach?

Could he find another coach, a better coach?

Could he help Brody make friends with some of the other guys and help establish him with a friends group?

Or was it just time to tell Brody to pack up and come home, back to Baywatch, where he belonged?

Because Brody did belong in Baywatch. They both knew that.

But Brody also belonged in the pool.

Mitch had thought Brody could manage both, but this six month foray was proving otherwise.

When Mitch finally got to the hotel, Brody still wasn’t answering his phone.

And Mitch still had no idea what he was going to do.

There was no way around it, however. With resolve, Mitch went into the lobby.

-o-

His resolve lasted exactly two seconds. Inside the hotel, Mitch chickened out in the lobby, checking his phone instead of taking the first elevator up. After sending a few messages back to people in Baywatch -- general updates, vague, confirming the race results -- he pinged Brody one more time.

To his surprise, he heard a ding echo his own phone across the lobby.

He looked up, thinking surely it was a coincidence. But the lobby wasn’t busy, and the few other patrons weren’t checking their phones. There were more people across the way at the entrance to the bar.

Mitch stopped suddenly, his mind working.

He pinged Brody again and waited.

There was an echoing ping.

Moving toward the bar now, Mitch saw around the people checking over the menu at the front entrance. There were several tables filled and a few people were at the bar.

Including one short, lean man with bleached blonde tips, drinking a beer by himself. His phone was on the table, turned down in front of him.

There was Brody.

And here was Mitch.

It was time to see if Mitch would put his money where his mouth was.

-o-

Politely, he edged his way past the crowd, smiling at the hostess as he nodded toward the bar instead. He approached steadily, easing his way to the far side where Brody had steadfastly refused to look up from the beer he was drinking. When Mitch sat down, Brody had just finish the last sip, and without glancing at Mitch, he ordered a refill.

The bartender looked at Mitch to see if he wanted anything, but Mitch shook his head.

They both waited while the bartender refilled the cup, and Brody took it up when it was full, a long hard sip as if he dared Mitch to say something.

Or, equally likely, that he was begging Mitch to say something.

There was a misconception about drowning people. Everyone thought that drowning was a chaotic event, that the victim was always splashing and yelling and working themselves into a furor.

Drowning didn’t always look like that.

The most dire cases, the victims that were almost beyond saving, were the ones that went quietly. The ones you thought were fine right up until the moment their head went under and never came back up.

Some of them never cried out for help.

Those were the ones that needed you the most.

Mitch sighed. If Brody needed him to take this next step, then why the hell else had Mitch dropped a load of cash on a ticket to New York?

“I waited for you after the race,” Mitch said.

Brody finally glanced at him, taking another drink while he did. “Yeah, sorry,” he said.

It was flippant enough, but Mitch suspected Brody was sorry. Really sorry. Which was probably the only reason Mitch’s anger was subdued in favor of compassion. “We agreed we’d talk tonight,” Mitch ventured, giving Brody as many chances as he could to man up.

Brody sipped some more, mouth twisting in a rueful smile. “About me drinking alone, I know,” he said. He gestured around to the half full bar. “I made sure this time I wasn’t alone.”

The response was pure assholery, the kind of thing Brody would have said a year and a half ago when he first showed up on Mitch’s beach. It was a glimpse into his mindset at the time, and Mitch was struck by the fact that Brody was grappling with which part of him was real. The year at Baywatch, which had been so good, or all the rest of his life, which had clearly been less than perfect.

Mitch could play the game, however. “So this is your solution, then?” he quipped, nodding to the glass in Brody’s hand. “You’ve got it all figured out?”

Brody shrugged. “You didn’t like me drunk in my room alone. So. Not alone.”

“Pretty sure the not alone part was only part of the problem,” Mitch countered, watching while Brody drank some more. “You’re still drunk.”

Brody shook his head, as if adamant on this detail. “This is not drunk yet. This is pleasantly buzzed.”

Mitch raised his eyebrows, letting his skepticism show. “You do realize that you’ve only been out of the pool for about two hours.”

Brody nodded sagely. “I’m totally pacing myself this time.”

The thing was, he was probably telling the truth about that.

He still remembered Brody, drunk and stupid at the Huntley. He remembered Brody picking a fight and Mitch cutting him loose. He’d thought Brody was a washout, then.

It would be easy to think that now, too.

After all, this wasn’t a pretty picture, and Brody showed no indication of actually wanting his help. Brody was a grown man; he needed accountability.

He needed friendship more.

With a sign, Mitch shook his head. “You’re an idiot, you know that?”

Brody finished the last of his drink, putting the empty glass back on the table. “I’ve been waiting a year and a half for you to finally figure that out.”

All the times Mitch thought they were past this, and here they were again. Brody, when left to his own devices, tended to isolate himself for fear of being rejected. After a year together, Mitch had nearly shaken him of that habit with consistency and care.

Six months apart, and Brody had completely reverted. He was just as raw and vulnerable, as scared and uncertain, as ever.

He couldn’t even bring himself to be angry.

Instead, he resigned himself to the task at hand.

He didn’t want to do it again, sure. But this was family. You did it as many times as it took.

Clearly, Brody was going to hold him to that.

With a groan, Mitch got up and pulled out his wallet. Brody tried to ask for another beer, but Mitch asked for the tab instead, laying down some cash for a generous tip as well. Brody protested, but it was all for show as Mitch easily hauled him off the stool and got him to his feet.

“I don’t know why you’re even here, Mitch,” Brody muttered conversely while Mitch settled the rest of the bill.

“Because you need me, dumbass,” he said.

“So?” Brody said. “I’m not really worth your time.”

Mitch could only roll his eyes, taking Brody by the arm. “Because,” he said, leading him toward the exit with no further delay. “That’s what family does.”

Brody may have forgotten.

But Mitch sure as hell didn’t.

-o-

Brody wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t quite sober, either. His gait was moderately coordinated, but he still weaved a bit more than usual as Mitch led him by the arm back up the stairs and into the corridor. At the door to Brody’s room, Mitch extracted the key from Brody without his consent, swiping it across the lock and opening the door.

He waited with the door open, gesturing for Brody to go in. When Brody seemed to hesitate, Mitch took him by the arm again and forced him inside, following behind him by a close step. Once inside, Mitch was pleased to see that the cleaning crew had done good work on the room. Unlike last night, it was decently presentable, which at least gave them the pretense that this situation could be salvaged.

Turning back to Brody, the situation seemed less salvageable.

This was Brody’s hotel room, but he looked horribly out of place. His posture was stiff and uncomfortable, and he looked around like he’d never seen the place before. Standing idle, he clearly wasn’t sure if he was supposed to sit or stand, and his baleful, doe-eyed looked indicated that the ball was most definitely -- and irrevocably -- in Mitch’s court.

Which meant it was time to do this.

Mitch had flown all the way from California. He hadn’t thought that this was the reason, but that nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach he’d had all week sure did make sense now. Even if this hadn’t been the explicit reason, it was the only reason he needed now.

Drawing a breath, Mitch let it out again. With a firm hand, he brought Brody to the bed and sat him down before pulling up the chair across from him. “I told you this morning,” he said simply, because for all that he wanted to yell and scream, he knew that there was nothing they couldn’t do -- together. They’d find a solution -- together. Together. He kept Brody’s gaze steady. “You have a problem.”

Brody’s face remained composed, but he didn’t say anything for a moment. Finally, he blinked a few times and swallowed. “You’re overreacting,” he said.

It was kind of a funny statement to Mitch, considering that part of him had originally wanted to rage and yell. Truthfully, part of him still wanted to shake Brody back into reality.

His calm demeanor was the exact opposite of overreacting.

That said, Brody didn’t respond well when you told him flat out he was wrong.

To be fair, no one did.

And Mitch was good at being diplomatic. “Brody,” he said, unwavering and true. “You drink every night by yourself. You use alcohol as an escape mechanism, and you’ve already indicated that you can’t relax without it. In these past six months, you’ve managed your emotions by medicating with alcohol. Is that a fair assessment?”

Brody squirmed, looking for a way to deny it all without being a liar. His brow creased, and he looked down when he was unable to find an appropriate counterargument. Instead, he said through a tight throat. “I’m not out of control.”

There was something desperate in the denial, which wasn’t quite a lie. Brody hadn’t lost control in the sense that he was partying wildly and barfing in the pool. Brody had learned from his mistakes to some degree. But he’d mostly learned to make his mistakes more secretively. Time would only tell what the fallout would be; at least, it would if Mitch didn’t intervene.

Mitch was going to intervene.

“Brody,” he said again, maintaining eye contact the whole time. “You know I love you, and you know I care about you. So believe me when I tell you that I say all this without judgement, okay? This isn’t about you being good or bad. It’s not about whether or not you’ve screwed up or not. This is simply about the fact that you’re an alcoholic.”

Brody reacted strongly to the word, getting to his feet and turning away as he paced. He shook his head, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at Mitch. “I’m not.”

Mitch wasn’t backing down. “I think you are.”

Brody shook his head, more vehement than before. “I’m not,” he said, and his gaze when it flashed toward Mitch was angry. “I’ve seen alcoholics. I’ve lived with them. I’m not them.”

That fact was one Mitch took in turn. Brody had talked about a shit load of issues, but living in an alcoholic’s home wasn’t one that he’d mentioned before. Somehow, it didn’t surprise Mitch.

It didn’t change the endgame, but Mitch knew that he had to contend with a whole host of emotional baggage to do this thing right. “No one is saying that you are,” he said. “I’m just saying that you have a problem with alcohol, and the fact that you can’t admit it is part of what tells me it’s a bigger problem than either of us want to deal with.”

Brody’s face flushed red and he stopped at the mini-fridge. In frustration, he opened it and took out a beer. Turning back toward Mitch, he cracked the top open, almost daring Mitch to say something.

“You don’t need to do that,” Mitch told him patiently.

“Why not?” Brody taunted. He took a drink in front of Mitch, letting some of it slop down his chin. “According to you, I’m alcoholic. So why not?”

He was about to take another drink when Mitch got to his feet, promptly snatching the bottle from Brody. Brody, for all his bravado, didn’t see it coming. His yelp sounded too young, and Mitch sat back down, eyes still fixed on Brody. “Because you don’t want this,” he said, taking the question far more seriously than Brody had asked it. “Because you have a problem and you’re in over your head.”

Brody started pacing again, and his face crumpled into an ugly scowl. “I have lots of problems, Mitch. You know that.”

Of course Mitch knew that. Shit, that much was impossible to forget. “Fair enough,” he conceded. “And I can’t fix them all, not tonight, anyway. But we can fix this.”

As emphatic as he was, Brody stopped pacing, looking at Mitch warily. “Fix what?”

Mitch held up the beer. “This, the drinking.”

Brody shook his head, but his feet remain planted on the ground. “You said it yourself: it’s just a coping mechanism. Why is that such a bad thing?”

“Dude,” Mitch said. “You shouldn’t need to escape your own life.”

Brody almost flinched. “It’s just lonely out here,” he said. He was blinking a little faster than he was before. “I’ve told you that.”

“That just means you need to learn to enjoy your own company,” he said. “There are other things to do on the road.”

Brody looked away, starting to pace slowly again. “But I’m not exactly good company,” he said. He scoffed. “No one else wants to hang out with me, and I can’t blame them. I don’t even want to hang out with me.”

“Come on,” Mitch cajoled, a little sharply. “That wasn’t true back at Baywatch, so why is it true here?”

Brody expression was pained when he looked back at Mitch. “Things are different at Baywatch,” he said. “I’m different. You all make me better. Here -- it’s just me. And no one likes me, myself included.”

Mitch sighed. “You can’t undersell yourself.”

Brody laughed outright with an incredulous look at Mitch. “You tell me all the time how I need to change!”

That was another fair point, and Mitch would take it -- but only with exceptions. He shook his head. “I tell you that out of love, dipshit,” he said. “You have to have the self confidence to know the difference between playful ribbing between friends and a complete lack of self worth.”

It was too close to the point; too close to everything. Brody’s face screwed up with defiance. “You’re just picking and choosing,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Mitch exhaled, long and slow. “This isn’t about me, though,” he argued. “This is about you, setting yourself up to fail again. The alcohol is numbing you so you won’t even feel it.”

Brody turned abruptly, shrugging his shoulders in an exaggerated fashion. “Yep.”

The utter frankness of Brody’s reply hid the emotion underneath, buried so deep that Brody himself could hardly acknowledge it. Unless Mitch pushed him to it. “Is that what you want? You want to fail? You want to end up as the Vomit Comet again? Alone and rejected?”

Brody made a face, a flicker of fear across his face. “No,” he said. “But I don’t know if I can stop it. It always happens. I always fail.”

“No, you don’t,” Mitch insisted.

“Yeah, I do,” Brody said, just as insistent. He wasn’t just being contrary, either. Brody believed this.

Mitch had to remind himself that Brody had only been at Baywatch for a year and a half. That left 25 other years of recurrent heartbreak and disaster. It was going to take more than a furnished bedroom, steady girlfriend and a meaningful job for a year to make him grasp the permanence of what he had now.

“Not at Baywatch,” he said, level and confident.

Brody’s face crumpled for a moment before he managed to compose it with a shake of his head. “It was only a year ago that I got arrested for public intoxication. A year, Mitch. And then I proceeded to go undercover and piss everyone off and nearly got myself killed -- twice. Some people are just born wrong, Mitch. And nothing in this life is constant.”

Okay, so that was getting pretty deep for a drunken conversation in a hotel room. It was also insightful, however. Mitch had badly underestimated how much Brody needed the stability of Baywatch to anchor everything else in his life. True, Brody needed to face down his demons, so to speak, but without the support structure of Baywatch, he wasn’t likely to beat those demons.

No, Brody was going to succumb to them.

Mitch sat forward a little more. “A year ago, sure, you screwed up,” he said. “But you’re forgetting the part where you fixed it. You fixed it, man. Even when I lost hope, you pulled it through. You.”

“But I’ll do it again,” Brody said, voice dropping a little as his eyes looked wet. “Mitch, I’m already doing it again.”

Mitch shrugged with forced indifference. “So we fix it again,” he said. “We fix it as many times as it takes. That’s family.”

Brody groaned, this time going over to the bed and sinking down in defeat. “There’s no point, man,” he said miserably. “I’m a lost cause.”

“Well, if you keep drinking, maybe,” Mitch said.

“See!” Brody said, eyes lighting in desperate misery. “There’s no point!”

“No, you see,” Mitch countered, keeping himself steady where Brody was wavering badly. “In the pool, your swimming is damn near perfect. No one can touch you, and no one will match you, not from here all the way through the Olympics. The only threat to that is the drinking, because sooner or later that shit will get out of control and affect your performance.”

Brody’s face crumpled again.

Mitch hurried on before Brody could protest. “But the good news is that you have complete control over your drinking,” he said. “You can stop, Brody. You can stop right here, right now. You can never open another bottle, and we’ll be there cheering you on when you win gold.”

“Shit, Mitch,” Brody said, running a hand through his hair. “You make it sound so easy.”

“It is,” Mitch said. “You just have to choose. Just like you chose to be part of the team. Like you chose to go undercover. Like you chose to risk your life for the good of the team. You’ve been making hard choices for the greater good for a year and a half. This isn’t any different.”

He was trying to be empowering, to remind Brody of his own capability and skill. He wanted Brody to understand that he was the one succeeding at Baywatch; it wasn’t as though the team was doing it for him. Brody needed to believe he could do this on his own -- otherwise, he never would be able to.

The effect was not as desired. “Mitch, you don’t get it,” he said. “That shit’s easy for you. But you’re happy and confident and loved and come on, Mitch. Look at me. No one likes me here because I’m not likeable. No one wants anything to do with me because they see the truth: I’m just some idiot who happens to be fast in a pool.”

“You don’t believe that,” Mitch said. He gestured widely. “I’ve seen you back at Baywatch, back at home. You’re happy and confident and loved, too.”

“That’s Baywatch!” Brody said. “Don’t you ever think that maybe it’s not me who’s good? It’s just Baywatch that makes everything around it better? It’s easy to believe anything when you’re there, but when you’re here, alone. Shit, you see who you are. And I’m not enough, Mitch. I’ve never been enough. It’s just going to be Rio all over again. I can’t do it, Mitch. I swear to you, I can’t do it.”

Mitch wanted to argue, and he had every grounds to do so. But the problem was that Brody was wrong but he wasn’t lying. He was flawed in his logic but he wasn’t exaggerating.

For all intents and purposes, Brody was lost. He was primed and perfect in the pool, but life without his team? Wasn’t something Brody was ready for. Brody didn’t just do better with a team. He needed it.

There was no way around it.

There was no neat and easy compromise.

Brody could stay on the road and try to hold out long enough to win a few medals before he imploded.

Or he could come home to Baywatch and spend his life wondering what-if.

Worse, he’d be resigned to the fact that he couldn’t do it. It would be a believe that Mitch would never shake from him if Brody quit now.

Sighing, Mitch couldn’t frame it any way other than with the truth. “On your own, probably not,” he agreed finally.

Despite the fact that Brody had said it first, the affirmation made the color drain from his face. He blinked rapidly a few times before seeming to buck himself up. He sniffed. “See,” he said stiffly. “So give me back the damn beer and leave me alone.”

“But you’re not alone,” Mitch said, following up with more veracity than before.

Brody glanced around the hotel room, which was clean now, but still utterly impersonal. “You sure? Because this looks pretty alone to me. Night after night, it looks just like this.”

“Brody, come on,” Mitch said. “You have a coach, you have teammates.”

Brody was shaking his head already in protest. “Lawson’s good, but he doesn’t give a shit. That’s his thing, Mitch. He doesn’t do the personal stuff. And the other guys? None of them trust me. They put up with me because I can put out in the pool, but they don’t want to know me. None of them. The only reason I’m here is because I can perform.”

“But you won’t be able to if you keep up like you’re doing now,” Mitch reasoned. “You need friends, a support structure on the road--”

Brody was still shaking his head, even more dejected than before. “This is how I got to Rio.”

“As a barely functional alcoholic?” Mitch challenged.

Brody wasn’t trying to deny it any longer. “Yes,” he said. He shrugged. “Yes.”

“And tell me again, how did that end?” Mitch pressed.

Brody’s face hardened. “Screw you.”

“I’m trying to help you, Brody,” he explained. “I want to find a solution, some way for you to find a family out here, some way for you to get used to your own company--”

“But you’re not here!” Brody exploded at him. “I’m on the road, swimming and training and racing, and you’re back at Baywatch. I’m here. You’re not. I still don’t know why you bother because I can guarantee you that no one else is going to make any effort with a guy like me. Because I’m toxic. I’m damaged goods. I’m screwed up and drunk and alone. And you’re just not here.”

It would have sounded self pitying coming from anyone else in any other context.

And true, Mitch did want to throttle Brody until he understood.

But this wasn’t a willful misunderstanding. Brody wasn’t trying to piss him off. Brody wasn’t even trying to play the victim here; he wasn’t looking for Mitch’s sympathy. No, Mitch knew Brody well enough to know that this was the real thing, the truth behind the guise, behind the drinking.

Brody was still that scared little kid who wanted someone to want him.

Brody didn’t just need a team. It wasn’t that simple. Even if the other guys could give Brody a chance, Brody would never buy into it. Because this wasn’t about a team, and it wasn’t like families were easy to find. No, for a guy like Brody, you only got one family.

All the rest, it would make life easier.

But what Brody needed -- more than an intervention, more than a sobriety coach, more than good reparte with the guys and a coach with a heart -- was Mitch.

The good news was that Mitch, as the last few weeks had proven to him, needed Brody, too.

With that realization, the solution was surprisingly obvious.

“Then maybe I should be,” he said, sitting back as he allowed himself to process the revelation.

Brody was even more surprised by the answer than Mitch was. “What?”

Mitch shrugged as the plan came to him almost without effort. “I have a lot of vacation time built up,” he said. “And I know if I talk to Casey Jean about leave--”

“Whoa,” Brody said, eyes widening his horror. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Brody was still struggling, but the idea seemed to make more sense to Mitch with each passing second. “We could do most of the training locally anyway,” he said. “But on the road, I could be with you during competitions.”

The look of incredulity was deepening on Brody’s face. “But you have a job.”

“You know that Baywatch isn’t a job,” Mitch said easily, starting to feel his own spirits buoy.

Brody was almost shaking now, afraid of the prospect, afraid of the prospect not being real. Brody had enough trouble making sense of someone offering such a sacrifice. He had a much harder task in accepting that it was a legitimate offer. “It’s a way of life,” he concluded, voice suddenly sounding hollow as fear took hold of him visibly. “That’s more reason why you can’t leave.”

Scared as Brody was, he was missing the obvious next step. “Baywatch is family,” Mitch reminded him gently. “A family that you’re a part of.”

The words made Brody flinch.

Mitch continued. “I always thought the bay needed me more than anything, which made it easy to give up all my free times, all my hobbies, any thought of a girlfriend or children,” he said. “But the bay’s in good hands without me. You aren’t.”

Brody looked like he might cry, he was so carefully composed, fragile like glass.

“You need me more,” he said. “This is where I belong: right here, by your side. Wherever you go.”

Trembling, Brody had sobered enough to hear the offer.

And he was just drunk enough to allow himself to take it. “You’d really do that for me?”

Mitch felt his own heart starting to swell with the promise of hope, of being together. “On one condition,” he said, and before Brody could tense up again, he finished the thought. “No drinking.”

For a functional alcoholic, it was kind of a tall request.

But for a kid who just wanted a family, it was an easy promise to make.

“Yeah,” Brody said, starting to nod now. “Yeah, I can do that.”

Mitch drew himself up with a resolute nod. “So we have a deal?”

Brody was smiling now, the familiar light in his eyes returning for the first time since Mitch had seen him on the road. “We have a deal.”

Mitch wasn’t so naive to think it would be easy. Nothing with Brody ever was.

The good news was that it would be worth it.

Everything with Brody always was.

-o-

They both went to bed early that night after dumping out all the alcohol in the room. Mitch texted updates to the team, telling them how excited he and Brody were to be coming home for a respite.

Brody slept hard, but it was a peaceful sleep. Mitch called down for a rollaway cot, curling up uncomfortably as he watched Brody sprawl out. This was irony, of course. Probably due revenge for those months Brody had spent sleeping on a shitty cot.

Still, Mitch didn’t need much sleep most of the time.

And knowing that Brody was safe, that Brody was okay. Knowing that whatever came next they would face it together.

Well, that was the only thing Mitch needed to feel refreshed and ready to go the next day.

-o-

Mitch showered early, and he made a point to order up room service. By the time it arrived, Brody was looking awake and sheepish, but when they sat down to eat together, it quickly felt like old times. They laughed; they joked. Mitch told Brody about Baywatch, and Brody told Mitch about what it felt like to be in the pool again. When they were finished, Mitch told Brody to get ready to go while he loaded up the things before their flight.

As he was tidying up, there was a knock. At first, Mitch thought it was the cleaning service, but then he realized it was coming from the adjoining door.

Mitch made his way over, opening it.

But not before lifting his shoulders a little higher just because it didn’t hurt to be intimidating sometimes.

Lawson’s reaction was appropriately demure when he saw Mitch. “Uh, just, um, wanted to make sure Brody was up and ready to catch the flight,” he said. “I have a cab coming. We usually share.”

Mitch nodded. “Might be tight with the three of us,” he said, plastering a grin over his face. “But I’m sure we’ll manage.”

Lawson didn’t seem so convinced by that, but he also didn’t seem inclined to argue.

“It’s cool, man, we’re cool,” Mitch said. “I think we need to try to spend some time getting to know each other a little better.”

“Oh,” Lawson said, clearly at a loss. “Why?”

“Because,” Mitch said. “I’m going with you.”

Lawson was genuinely confused. “Back to California?”

Mitch nodded. “There, and then on the road again,” he said. “You were right when you said taking care of Brody out of the pool wasn’t your job. It’s my job. So I’m going to go along to make sure it gets done.”

Lawson stared at him, increasingly flabbergasted.

“And you know, I’ve asked my boss for reduced shifts back home, which means I can supervise some of his training sessions, too,” Mitch said. “You know, just to ease your load a little bit.”

Only Mitch could say something so friendly with such menace underneath.

This time, Lawson’s face darkened. “You’re not touching my cut of the money,” he warned. “I’m the coach. I have a contract.”

“I know,” Mitch said. “I’m not looking for money.”

Lawson’s nose wrinkled up. “But then why bother?”

“Because Brody’s family,” he said. And then he clapped Lawson on the shoulder, a little harder than necessary. “And I protect my family. No matter what.”

He enunciated the words clearly, leaving their meaning unequivocal. Lawson swallowed and stepped back with a grimace. “Fine, whatever,” he said, trying to sound indifferent and failing utterly. “Cab will be here in 20 minutes.”

“Awesome, thanks, man!” Mitch said, watching as Lawson hastily closed the door between them. “See you then!”

Mitch closed his door with some satisfaction. Brody needed to be protected from himself, that was true.

But anything else that threatened his emotional well being?

Better look out as well.

Because Mitch was on the case now.

Six months off the job had made him more eager than ever to get it right.

-o-

With the bags ready to go, Mitch was laying out a few bills to tip the cleaning staff when Brody came out of the bathroom. He was dressed and shaved, and he looked alert and decidedly anxious.

Brody had been sober enough that Mitch was sure he remembered last night.

It was just apparent that Brody wasn’t sure he believed it.

“Um, what you said, last night,” Brody started. He was shaking his head. “You don’t have to--”

Mitch sighed. “I do,” he said. “And I’m going to. There’s no point in arguing.”

“Mitch, you can’t give up your life--”

“What makes you think I haven’t been giving it up these last six months?” Mitch asked. “Being at home without you sucks. I hate it. Why do you think I bought a plane ticket to come out here?”

“Because you thought I was screwing it all up?” Brody asked.

“Because I missed you, and I couldn’t stand the thought of you going through something without me there,” he said. “You need me here, no doubt about it. But I need to be here because I’m nothing but a basket case at home without you.”

This thought seemed to be revolutionary to Brody. He tipped his head to the side as he thought about it. “Really?”

“Really,” Mitch said. “The team practically forced me to come because I was a mess at home.”

It seemed hard for Brody to believe.

But it was harder still for him not to believe Mitch. “You sure you’re not going to regret it?”

“You never regret family,” he said. “Besides, we just have to get you through the Olympics, right?”

Brody’s eyebrows went up. “You do realize that’s, like, years away?”

“I know,” Mitch said. “And years without you? Sounds like a nightmare.”

Brody let out a huff of laughter. “You really are something else.”

“Don’t let the sentimentality fool you,” Mitch said. “You will be on the straight and narrow with me here.”

Bucking up, Brody nodded resolutely. “I would count on nothing less.”

“Good,” Mitch said. “So we ready to head back?”

At that, Brody hesitated again. “Not totally.”

“Why not?” Mitch said. “You get to sleep in your own bed, eat your own food. See your friends--”

He stopped, as he understood.

“You’re worried about seeing everyone?”

“Well,” Brody hedged. “I mean, do they know? That I’m a mess?”

“They have been your friends from the strat,” Mitch pointed out. “Kind of hard to miss.”

It was said lightly, but Brody just shook his head. “I mean the drinking,” he said, voice lowered somewhat. “They all believe in in me, and I don’t want to let them down.”

“You haven’t,” Mitch said. “You’ve been out there winning races.”

“And falling apart at home,” Brody said.

“We’re addressing that,” Mitch reminded him.

Brody winced somewhat. “So you’re not going to tell them?”

“You keep it together, what’s there to tell?” Mitch asked. “You need me there. It’s as simple as that.”

It wasn’t quite that simple in some ways, and Mitch knew there would be complications. Maybe they would need to tell the others. Maybe they’d need more support, more help.

But it started here, with the two of them.

The last six months had indeed been a mistake. Not for Brody to compete, but for him to do it alone.

That was a mistake Mitch was going to rectify right here, right now.

“You know, I really don’t get it sometimes,” Brody said. “Why you put up with me?”

“I don’t get it either, honestly,” Mitch said. “I’ve had countless lifeguards come and go under my tenure. I like them all. I’ve been great friends with some. Even dated one or two. But none of them have changed me like you have. We’ve both changed, and we’d be stupid to pretend like we haven’t.”

Brody sighed. “I didn’t like me on the road.”

“And I didn’t like me at home alone,” Mitch said. “I mean, I wasn’t drunk all the time, sure. But I wasn’t myself.”

“You really mean that,” Brody said, nodding along as he sighed. “You do.”

“Hell, yeah,” Mitch said. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“You are here,” Brody agreed.

Mitch rested a hand on Brody’s shoulder. “And I can promise you,” he vowed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Brody still looked dubious, but that was okay. It had taken a year for Brody to feel like he belonged at Baywatch. It had taken six months to make him feel lost.

Mitch would spend as long as it took to make sure he knew he was never going to be alone again.

Six months.

A year.

A whole damn lifetime.

Mitch knew it would be worth every second.