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Baywatch fic: Learning to Breathe (1/4)

December 27th, 2018 (01:53 pm)

Title: Learning to Breathe

Disclaimer: Not mine.

Rating: M

A/N: Fills my headaches/migraines square for hc_bingo. Unbeta’ed. Part of my Gold Medal Verse.

Summary: Brody’s aggressive competition schedule starts to take its toll.

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR



-o-

Mitch had spent his entire life on the beach. It was where he belonged, no questions asked. No one doubted, him most of all. It was his home, his purpose. It was everything to him.

There was something special about that kind of certainty, about knowing beyond all doubt, what you were put on this earth to do. Mitch didn’t take that for granted, not once, not ever.

Because of that, some people found it strange that Mitch had taken a leave of absence from Baywatch. He had packed up his belongings and walked away from the beach for the better part of six months. It was his choice, yes, but it wasn’t a choice he’d made for himself. No, this choice was about Brody. It was for Brody.

Brody still needed to find his purpose in this world, and he wasn’t going to do that by hiding on the beach at Baywatch. No, Brody needed to challenge himself and finish the journey he’d started in Rio. Brody needed to see if he could finish the Olympics without scandal and without self sabotage.

That was why Mitch was here.

Because he knew his purpose.

And he wanted to help Brody find his as well.

-o-

Still, six months.

Mitch didn’t have regrets, not really.

But six months away from Baywatch, away from the bay, was still six months.

All things considered, Mitch thought he was acclimating fairly well. He had found new routines, and he had become comfortable in those routines. He had created ways for himself to flourish and be happy on the road. He missed Baywatch, this was undeniable, but he understood the value of a short-term sacrifice for a long-term good. Adjusting his life to that reality had been trying, but Mitch thought he had done it admirably in the last six months.

The weird thing was, he wasn’t so sure about Brody.

Mitch often worried about Brody, so that wasn’t unusual. In fact, ever since meeting Brody, worrying about him seemed to be the default. Brody had a tendency to veer into disaster, sometimes because of bad luck and sometimes because he lacked the ability to make good decisions quite often.

This was different, however. Brody’s first six months on the road by himself had been marked by substance abuse. As a functional alcoholic, Brody had been placidly passing his free time while killing it in the pool. Mitch had made him quit the drinking before it got the better of him, and he had agreed to stay on the road with Brody in return. He had thought this would make things better.

Indeed, at the start, things had seemed better.

Of course, the first month hadn’t been on the road. Brody had trained in Southern California, and although Mitch reduced his hours, they had been able to live at home and spend time with the rest of Baywatch. That month had been amazing.

The next month had been on the road. It had proved more difficult for both of them. Mitch had pined for home more than he expected, and Brody had showed signs of fatigue that had not been present back at Baywatch. As a result, his training suffered, and although he was still able to pull it out in the water, it was clear that the toll was significant. He was sore more often, and he nursed headaches at least once a week.

By the end of the month, Mitch had been more than ready to return home again. They spent several weeks in Southern California again, and Brody’s mood rebounded quickly. It was a short-lived respite, however, and the following few months were travels from one location to the next as they chased the latest and best races on the North American circuit. Mitch settled in, found his rhythm as Brody’s trainer and best friend.

Brody found a rhythm, too.

Just not the one Mitch thought was best.

The training was so intense that they had time for little else, and while Brody wasn’t drinking, he certainly wasn’t the same as he was back home. For the record, Mitch knew that this wasn’t when the headaches truly started.

No, he knew that.

But he also knew that this was when they finally became a problem.

A problem that had the potential to derail everything.

-o-

Also for the record, because some people think Mitch exaggerated about this fact, he was talking about literal headaches. Yes, Brody was a headache quite often, but that wasn’t what Mitch was referring to. He was talking about actual headaches, the kind that throbbed behind your eyes, pulsated around the back of your skull and were triggered by movement, sound and light. Migraines, you might call them.

Brody, as it turned out, was prone to headaches.

Mitch reasoned that it was probably due to the stress of training, considering their onset.

Brody said it was because he wasn’t drinking anymore.

The coach, Lawson, grunted and asked who the hell cared as long as Brody got in the pool and swam faster than everyone else.

To Brody’s credit, most days he did just that, and he did it well.

Today, however, wasn’t most days.

-o-

Mitch had been concerned since breakfast, when Brody hadn’t finished his eggs and toast. A high protein diet was imperative during these training sessions, and Mitch had taken it upon himself to monitor Brody’s diet to minimize the risk of injury and maximize his performance. So he had definitely noticed Brody’s reduced intake.

Lawson, on the other hand, only noticed Brody’s reduced performance.

“Come on, Brody,” Lawson snapped from poolside. “Watch your form -- your form!”

He was yelling, which was an ineffective process since Brody was still mid-lap. Lawson was too frustrated to care.

Mitch watched, ignoring Lawson’s invectives, while Brody made the last turn in his current lap set. He heard Lawson groan, cursing under his breath. It was a bit over the top maybe, but it wasn’t without cause. Brody’s stroke was sloppy today; his technique was all over the map.

Things only got worse as Brody finished the final lap. His kick was so off that he veered nearly all the way out of his lane, and his time was so bad when he finally touched the wall that Lawson almost threw the stopwatch into the pool.

Breathless, Brody buoyed himself up at the edge of the pool, looking up to take stock. Based on Lawson’s look, Brody turned to Mitch, who only winced.

Brody closed his eyes as he took off his goggles. He knew it was bad. Mitch could see him mentally cataloging all the things he’d done wrong during the race, thinking through all the talking points he knew that Lawson would hold him accountable for.

When he opened his eyes, he sighed. “It was a little off today,” he said, starting to pull himself out of the pool.

While Lawson rounded on Brody, full of ire, Mitch saw the way Brody moved tenderly; he was hurting today.

Lawson didn’t see it, maybe.

Just as likely: Lawson didn’t care. “A little off?” he asked, utterly incredulous. “Matt, that was disastrous form. I haven’t seen you swim that bad ever. I have seen kids on their high school swim team achieve better form than you.”

Brody was out of the water by this point, taking off his swim cap. “I know,” he said, discarding the cap and reaching for a towel instead. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Lawson asked. “What the hell am I supposed to do with sorry? Did you forget all the things we talked about? What about those refinements on the stroke? The precision of the kick? Damn it, Matt. Did you forget everything?”

“No,” Brody said, using the towel to start drying his hair. “I remember. I just...wasn’t there today. I don’t know.”

“You have to know!” Lawson said. “This is the home stretch! If you screw it up now, you won’t make it through the qualifying rounds. If you’re going to make it to the Olympics, you have to be on your best form now. More than ever before.”

Brody was looking smaller by the moment, shoulders slumping with more than a hint of dejection. “I know, I know.”

“Do you?” Lawson asked, voice dripping with accusation. “Because you’re swimming like some kid’s wind up toy. It’s pathetic, Matt. Pathetic.”

Brody deflated even more than before.

“I mean, what the hell are we even doing out here?” Lawson continued, his tone rising as he started to rant. “All that shit I’ve given up to get you to this point, and this is what you’re giving me? Has your talent petered out? Have we peaked already? Because I’m going to be pissed as hell if you tell me that this is all you have.”

Brody looked up, a little imploring now. “It’s not, okay,” he said. “This was a bad day. Nothing more.”

“I ought to kick your ass right back in this pool and show you what a bad day really looks like,” Lawson seethed.

When Brody flinched, Mitch stepped up to intervene. He tried his best not to interfere with Lawson’s coaching -- that was the tentative truce they’d struck when Mitch joined on the training team six months ago -- and that was the only way they got along. Mitch kept their contact to the absolute bare minimum.

That said, he was there to protect Brody. And he wasn’t naive. He knew Brody had to be challenged. He knew Brody had to have his feelings hurt, and he knew Brody’s body was going to ache. Olympic training was about sacrifice -- more so than Mitch had imagined six months ago. Mitch would give Lawson that.

But he would let Lawson beat Brody into the ground.

Especially when Brody was awfully prone to letting him.

“We’ll work on it again tomorrow, then,” Mitch said.

Lawson looked at him furiously, but Mitch offered his most disarming smile.

“It is dinner time,” he said. “Didn’t you have an important call to take tonight?”

As much as Lawson wanted to argue, he knew Mitch was right. As a trainer, Mitch was intimately aware of all the happenings for Brody and Lawson. If Lawson gave a shit, he could know everything about Brody and Mitch’s schedules. He didn’t, but Mitch made it a point to care. He found it very useful in getting Lawson to do what Mitch wanted without making it seem like he was manipulating the situation.

That was a skill Lawson had not bothered to master in his life. He had not quite grasped that being selfless occasionally yielded selfish benefits.

“Fine,” Lawson growled. He turned his gaze back to Brody, almost vengefully. “Go over the training videos we made tonight. You memorize them. I want to see your stroke back to its normal form tomorrow, do you understand?”


Brody smiled back, sheepish. “I understand.”

Lawson glared at Mitch again. “Make sure he’s fit for the pool,” he muttered to Mitch, brushing past him as he stalked off the pool deck. “That’s your job, trainer.”

Mitch would take it. Not because he liked Lawson or gave a shit what Lawson thought, but because he knew that Lawson wasn’t worth the fight.

Not when Brody so clearly was.

He waited until Lawson was clear, and then looked back to Brody. He had draped the towel over his shoulders now and was reaching for his bag to retrieve a pair of flip flops and put his swim cap and goggles away. Mitch waited, to see if Brody was going to talk about it.

Brody had matured a lot over the two years he’d spent with Mitch.

But he hadn’t matured quite that much.

“You want to talk about it?” Mitch finally ventured.

Brody was zipping his bag, and he scoffed. “No.”

Mitch probably should have seen that coming. “I think we should talk about it.”

Brody groaned, slinging the bag up and over his shoulder. “I sucked today,” he said tiredly. “Not much to talk about it. Lawson’s right; I’ll go over the video.”

“You know the video; you know the strokes,” Mitch said. “That’s not the problem. So what is?”

The question made Brody even wearier, which was a task that Mitch might not have deemed possible given how exhausted he looked at the moment. Training always took a lot out of him, but he wasn’t typically so wiped. Right now, Brody looked like he wanted to sleep and nothing more.

Shaking his head, Brody saw no way around this conversation except to go through it as expediently as possible. “Just, I don’t know,” he said. “Headache.”

The answer wasn’t unexpected. Obviously, Brody had had his share of headaches over the last six months. But they weren’t usually this pronounced. Or this frequent.

With a frown, Mitch went into best friend/trainer mode. Honestly, they were the same thing, but he played his cards carefully as needed to maximize his effect both with Brody and Lawson. And whoever the hell else was asking. “Looks pretty bad for a headache,” he observed. “Usually you can hold them off until after practice.”

To that, Brody had no argument. “Well, guess not today,” he said shortly.

“Did you take something?” Mitch asked.

“Like, eight hours ago, before practice started,” Brody said. He feebly lifted one shoulder. “Didn’t help much.”

Mitch made a face. “Well, neither did a relentless training session,” he said. “You have to take care of yourself better than that.”

Brody rolled his eyes, but he almost seemed exhausted by the movement. “The pain meds haven’t been working as well recently,” he said. “And, I don’t know. I don’t think Lawson’s going to be super thrilled about the idea of lightening the load.”

“But if that’s what you need--”

“I need to get to the Olympics,” Brody reminded him. “I mean, that’s what all this is for, right?”

Mitch found himself momentarily at a loss. That was what this was for, wasn’t it? That was why Mitch had pushed Brody into the pool almost a year ago? That was why he’d taken a leave of absence to help Brody quit drinking on the road? So Brody could train his ass off and get into the Olympics.

Wasn’t it?

Suddenly, Mitch wasn’t sure, but he had no other answer.

Eventually, he nodded his agreement. “Well, then I guess we take it easy tonight,” he said. “I can watch the video so when Lawson eavesdrops on us, he’ll hear it playing. Maybe you can sneak in some extra sleep.”

When Brody grinned, Mitch was struck by the sight. He hadn’t seen that smile all day -- maybe longer. “Sounds good to me.”

Mitch just wished he knew why it didn’t sound better to him.

-o-

To keep hints easy, Mitch ordered food to go while Brody was showering, and he stopped by the restaurant on their way back to their latest hotel. They were training in Texas this week, working on and off with a few other swimmers in preparation for a team event in the upcoming world championships in Spain in the coming days. They had been there a matter of weeks, but it never took Mitch long to make friends. The workers at the Mexican place already knew him by name.

Often, they ate inside the restaurant, but Brody was too tired for that. Leave no a generous tip, Mitch took the food to go and had Brody back at the hotel in no time. This hotel was sufficiently comfortable, and Mitch liked the quality of its workout facilities. Brody seemed to like their comfortable mattresses and diverse room service menu the best. Mitch couldn’t much blame him. He saw how hard Brody worked every day.

All the same, his recent lack of energy was noteworthy, and Mitch wasn’t sure how concerned he should be. He was an able trainer in the sense that he knew how to support muscle growth and minimize injury, but he had no formal medical training to help him distinguish a real problem.

For all he knew, exhaustion at this point in the training was normal. Brody made no indication that anything was amiss, and Lawson certainly didn’t appear worried. Of course, Lawson wasn’t worried about anything but an Olympic gold medal, so Mitch took his indifference with a grain of salt.

As for Brody, the best Mitch could do was watch and support. And, more importantly, just be there for him.

With that in mind, Mitch allowed Brody to settle in the bed to eat dinner, which Mitch had structured to be high in protein and vegetables. The advantage of making nice with local restaurant owners was that they went above and beyond. Brody’s food was fully organic with added protein elements and gluten free tortillas. Mitch didn’t make a big deal out of it, but he liked doing what he could for Brody.

Brody was grateful, Mitch knew that.

Tonight, however, he was just too tired to show much gratitude. In fact, Brody had barely taken any bites of his dinner at all when he showed signs of flagging.

“You want me to turn something on? Sports? A movie?” Mitch asked. His own meal was nearly gone. Brody had taken four bites.

“Well, we’re supposed to watch the training videos,” Brody proposed without any conviction.

“Later, maybe,” Mitch said. “You need a little break from swimming.”

Brody did not look convinced. But then, Brody didn’t look anything but tired. “I think I liked our sleep plan,” Brody confessed.

Mitch nodded toward his dinner. “But you’ve barely eaten,” he objected.

Brody took a tepid bite. “I’m just not very hungry.”

That had to be bullshit. Mitch could approximate how many calories Brody had burned today. He had calculated the size of his meals accordingly. “You can’t race faster without fuel, man. You know that.”

Brody did know that, and he looked duly apologetic. “My stomach is just not right.”

Mitch scowled at him. “More like your head,” he said. “Nausea?”

Brody put his meal aside. “I just don’t want to hurl.”

Mitch couldn’t exactly argue that. “We’re going to have to do something about your headaches if they don’t improve,” he warned. “Your times will slip.”

Brody nodded a weary acknowledgment. “Big breakfast,” he conceded, making his way under the sheets. “I promise.”

Mitch was dubious, but he wasn’t going to argue. Not when Brody was already closing his eyes.

This was why best friends weren’t always the best trainers. They could be real pushovers.

Sighing, Mitch finished his food and tossed the wrapper on the trash. Giving Brody one more look, he grabbed his iPad, settled in the other bed and turned out the light.

-o-

And for awhile, it was okay. He reviewed the training videos as promised, more for Brody’s sake than Lawson’s. He always found minute analysis of Brody’s form fascinating. Mitch was strong and experienced, but he had never looked so intently at the minutia involved with perfecting the stroke. Brody’s ability to master this was impressive, and no matter how many times Mitch watched the training analysis, he was always blown away.

A little proud, too. It wasn’t like he could take credit for any of it, but he sort of took credit for Brody. Brody was his, after all. His project, his protege, his roommate, his best friend. It was a level of ownership he hadn’t set out to claim, but here he was. After taking a leave of absence, it wasn’t like he could pretend there wasn’t an attachment. No, at this point, he was pretty much going with it.

This was all well and good.

On the next bed, Brody was not so well and good. For as exhausted as Brody had been, he showed no signs of rest and recovery. In fact, as the minutes wore on, he seemed less restful. Within an hour, he was tossing and turning so frequently that Mitch dared break the silence.

“You okay?” he asked, trying to sound casual enough. He wasn’t casual, though. Mitch was rarely casual, especially where Brody was concerned these days.

Brody stilled, so suddenly and so unnaturally that Mitch knew that the other man was awake. There was a taut pause between them, where Brody was silently debating whether or not to admit that he was awake or not.

That was Mitch’s guess, anyway.

He had no idea just how right he was.

After another heartbeat, Brody inhaled sharply and raggedly. When he spoke, his words were no more than a whisper, strained and wispy in the stale air between them. “My headache’s really bad.”

It was almost a confession, soft, desperate and raw. The whisper was not merely embarrassment. No, Mitch realized in a split second that it was cloying pain.

Frowning, he leaned forward, trying to get a better look. From his position, all he could see was Brody’s back. But now that he was looking, he was able to see the rigidity in his shoulders that he’d missed before. “How bad?”

Brody almost shuddered. “Bad.”

It was almost an understated response, so simple that it was tempting not to take it seriously. But everything in Brody’s disposition spoke of just how serious it was.

This time, Mitch got up, moving around to the far side of the bed so he could face Brody. When he got there, he could see that Brody’s eyes were screwed shut, but his face was hardly restful. He looked more than miserable; he was practically distraught with tears barely being held at bay.

“Shit,” he said, sitting gingery on the edge of the bed to avoid disrupting Brody’s tenuous state. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Brody shuddered again, this time barely holding back a sob. “Thought I could sleep,” he gritted out, lips barely moving as he visibly trembled in the dimness. “Didn’t want to bother you.”

Hesitating for a moment, Mitch eventually reached out, brushing his fingers against Brody’s shoulder. Brody flinched. “You should have said something,” he said, trying not to sound like he was chastising him even if he kind of was.

Brody still didn’t open his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Mitch felt his heart break a little. He wanted Brody not to be an idiot, but he didn’t want to make the kid feel guilty for anything right now. Especially not right now. Easing his fingers along Brody’s shoulders, he started a tentative massage. “You need to relax, okay? Just relax.”

Minutely, Brody shook his head. “I can’t.”

Carefully, Mitch applied a little more pressure. “You have to,” he said. “You’re wound up too tight.”

This time, Brody did let out a sob, even if he reigned it back in quickly. Mitch positioned himself a little more firmly toward Brody, using both hands to rubs his shoulders. When Mitch reached the muscles on his neck, Brody flinched and let out an audible gasp.

Keeping his movements gentle, Mitch continued to rub, easing his way along the tense muscles in Brody’s neck and shoulders, pausing on the pressure points to alleviate at least some of the pain. Brody whimpered slightly, holding himself very still.

“Do you want me to stop?” Mitch asked.

Brody shook his head, a small, barely perceptible movement.

Mitch continued to rub, watching Brody’s agonized expression carefully. “Is it helping?”

Brody’s brow creased deeply, eyes still closed. “Don’t go.”

It was a plea, so earnest and raw that Mitch’s throat constricted. He didn’t dare speak for fear of disturbing Brody more. The fact that he didn’t trust his own voice wasn’t exactly a non issue either.

Despite Brody’s plea, it was clear that the massage was having a minimal effect on Brody’s pain levels. He was still trembling, and after several minutes Mitch knew it was time to escalate care.

Sitting back, he pulled back Brody’s sheets. Eyes fluttering, Brody looked up, utterly bewildered. But Mitch was in lifeguard mode, which ensured his confidence under any circumstances. As a lifeguard, he did what was right for the victim, even if the victim couldn’t see that at first. He would do no less for Brody.

In truth, he would do more.

“Okay, let’s get you up,” he announced, abrupt and firm but gentle all at once.

Brody was too weak to fight him, but he made a mewl of surprise as Mitch carefully levered him up, supporting his head until he was sure Brody was stable. “But what are we…”

He didn’t finish the question, voice trailing off weakly as he closed his eyes again.

“A shower,” he announced. “Something to help you calm down.”

Brody’s face screwed up as Mitch helped him to his feet. He was relieved that Brody was able to stand on his own, but given the look of abject misery on his face, Mitch didn’t dare stray far. “I don’t want to,” Brody murmured, even as Mitch led him forward a few steps away from the bed.

“I know,” Mitch said. “But you’re not going to feel better laying there. Some hot water, the steam, all of it could help.”

The room was thankfully small, which meant they were already to the bathroom threshold before Brody could think of another protest.

Once inside, Mitch flipped on the light, aware of Brody’s pronounced flinch. Unapologetically, Mitch started the shower, turning the water on high for the maximum effect. “Can you get undressed?” he asked, turning back to Brody.

Brody was standing independently, though listing heavily against the doorframe. Squinting, he barely made eye contact. “I don’t know.”

Mitch didn’t bother to let him explain. Instead, he crossed back over to Brody, promptly taking his shirt and guiding it over Brody’s head. Obediently, Brody lifted his arms, allowing Mitch to take the shirt all the way off. When Mitch reached for Brody’s pants, the younger man finally preempted him. He batted Mitch’s hand away, reaching for his own waist band with the smallest flicker of determination.

“I can do it,” he said. He was probably only asserting himself to avoid the humiliation of being undressed, but Mitch would work with that. At this point, it seemed like definitive progress.

Still. Brody was shaky and showers were slippery. “You sure? You need help getting in?”

Brody’s eyes were marginally more alert as he shook his head. “I can do it myself.”

He might doubt Brody’s physical well being but Mitch knew better than to question the strength of Brody’s emotional fortitude. This was the guy who had taken down Anikka Leeds almost single handedly, even when she tried to kill him twice. Not to mention the fact that he had resurrected his racing career from nothing. Brody, when he set his mind to something, was not to be trifled with.

Was it weird that it made Mitch proud?

Maybe. But Mitch was going to go with it. It was too late to turn back anyway.

“Okay,” he said, backing up a step toward the door to give Brody some space. “Just relax in there. Let yourself relax.”

Brody gave him the weariness of nods.

Mitch smiled faintly in return. “I’m going to be right outside,” he said. “If you need anything.”

“I’ll know who to call.”

Mitch lingered but just a moment more. This was how they were best, after all. As a team. Two parts of the same whole. Not always equal. But always united.

With a nod, Mitch turned away, leaving Brody to his business.

-o-

Not that Mitch went far.

It was a gesture of faith to leave the bathroom. But it was a sign of commitment that kept Mitch right outside the door, which he left noticeably ajar. Sure, he knew Brody needed privacy. It wasn’t like Mitch wanted to watch or something. That said, there was something noticeably fragile about Brody these days, and Mitch’s protective instincts were in full gear right now. Outside the door was about as much privacy as either of them were going to get at this point.

He listened astutely as Brody took off his pants successfully, and he heard the shower curtain move as Brody stepped inside. He stayed put, listening to the disrupted flow of water as Brody started his therapeutic shower.

From the lack of movement after that, Mitch could only assume that Brody was mostly stationary once he got inside the shower. He imagined this was partially due to his lack of energy and how much pain he’d been in. However, he could hope -- he had to hope -- that it was also because the flow of warm water felt good.

Really good, Mitch presumed. He was satisfied when several minutes passed. When five minutes ticked by, Mitch told himself it was probably for the best. He wanted Brody to relax; surely that was what he was doing. What else would one be doing in the shower for five minutes?

Mitch probably didn’t want to know.

But then, maybe Mitch needed to know. Given Brody’s mental state, he couldn’t think that anything particularly recreational was occurring. And even then, five minutes?

Without moving, no less.

Which brought Mitch to the least desirable conclusion.

What if Brody had passed out?

True, he hadn’t heard Brody fall, but what if he’d missed it? What if Brody had sat down and was currently curled up in the fetal position on the floor of the shower?

Mitch knew, on some level, that he was being ridiculous. His personal investment in Brody had turned to attachment over the months, and he liked to pretend like it was normal, but who was he kidding? He had took a leave of absence from his job to make sure Brody could achieve his dreams without self destructing. Brody had somehow gotten Mitch to leave Baywatch, if only temporarily. Mitch loved Baywatch. Shit, Mitch was Baywatch for all intents and purposes.

But here he was.

Standing outside the bathroom listening to Brody take a shower. And the part that bothered him was that he could peek in to make sure Brody was okay.

That was ridiculous.

This whole thing was ridiculous.

Mitch wasn’t going to peek in on Brody while he was taking a shower. He’d taken a leave of absence, left his friends, joined him on the road, living with him day in and day out -- that was the limit. There was no way, no how that Mitch was going to look at Brody while he was taking a shower.

Except if Brody was in trouble.

That was the thing, wasn’t it? Mitch had already watched Brody almost die more than once. Back at Baywatch, he’d been the one to find Brody after Leeds had overdosed him. He’d been the one to watch him have a seizure. He’d been the one to perform rescue breathing while the ambulance came. And it had been Mitch -- even more than Summer or the rest of Brody’s friends -- who had stayed by his side while he recovered in the hospital.

Brody was Mitch’s job, even more than Baywatch was.

Brody was -- shit, Brody had become his family. His life.

And if he was passed out, unconscious in the shower, then screw this -- Mitch was going to take action.

When the shower was approaching the ten minute mark, Mitch had exerted about as much self control as he could manage. Just as he was about to knock on the door to check on Brody, he heard the water turn off. It was an abrupt change, and Mitch had been so invested in making sure Brody was okay that he hadn’t totally been prepared for the idea that he was, in fact, okay.

He waited, listening while the shower curtain moved and he heard a towel being picked up. After several more seconds, Mitch finally rapped his knuckles lightly on the door. “Everything okay in there?”

There was a brief pause while Brody stilled on the other side of the door. But then his voice came through. “Yeah,” Brody said back. “Yeah, everything’s okay.”

Brody was prone to not assessing his own status the best, so Mitch didn’t put a ton of stock in the words themselves. But Brody’s voice sounded stronger, clearer -- more sure and collected, even if only marginally so. Considering where they had been ten minutes ago, it sounded like a vast improvement.

Even so, Mitch was standing guard like an anxious mother hen. “You need anything in there?”

“No, no,” Brody said somewhat quickly. There was a rustling as he presumably started to get dressed again. “Just give me a minute.”

All the things Mitch had given, somehow a minute seemed like the hardest yet. All the same, Mitch waited just beyond the threshold, bracing himself all the while. When Brody finally opened the door, Mitch was far too close to make it seem casual, so he didn’t even try. Instead, he fixed his gaze on Brody expectantly. “Did that help?”

He asked the question, but one look revealed the answer. Brody still looked exhausted, but his eyes were open and clear. The tension had drained from his neck and shoulders, but it would be hard to call his disposition relaxed. Deflated was probably a far more apt description.

“Yeah,” Brody said, almost lifting the corners of his mouth in the approximation of a smile. “Cleared my head a bit.”

Mitch smiled reassuringly in return. “Good,” he said. “That’s good.”

Brody eased passed him, shifting into the small room with a due amount of uncertainty. Mitch followed, just as awkward. Brody hesitated, not sure what to do with himself. Stepping forward, Mitch filled the gap.

“You want to watch something?” he asked.

The obvious answer was no, but Brody was enough recovered that he was inclined to please. “Yeah, maybe,” he said, shuffling slowly back to his bed. “I’m supposed to watch that training video.”

Following closer behind than was strictly necessary, Mitch scoffed. “Too much swimming.”

Sitting down gingerly, Brody barely contained a wince as he looked up at Mitch. “That’s kind of why I’m here.”

Mitch made a show of sitting on the opposite bed and reaching for the remote. “You’re here to face your fears and find yourself,” he corrected. “
The swimming is incidental.”

Brody gave him a funny look. “You do know that’s, like, completely the wrong thing for a trainer to say.”

Mitch flipped on the television with some aplomb. “But it’s totally the right thing for a best friend to say.”

Sitting back, Brody adjusted himself against the pillows. This time, he smile was a little more full. He wasn’t quite himself but he was better. It was a noted improvement. An improvement Mitch would gladly take as he started to flip the channels.

“Any preferences?” Mitch asked.

Blinking sleepily, Brody bit back a yawn. “You pick.”

“You sure?” Mitch asked, even though it was an unnecessary question. Brody wasn’t always sure of much on the road. But Mitch’s judgment was something he never questioned. It was a responsibility, to be sure. One that Brody seemed keen that he never forget.

Smiling lazily now, Brody couldn’t control the next yawn. “Positive.”

That was enough to quell Mitch’s doubts, at least for now. Because Brody needed him, and that usurped everything.

Mitch set to flipping through more channels.

Everything, indeed.

-o-

It probably wasn’t a surprise that Brody barely made it ten more minutes before falling asleep. Mitch had finally settled on a dated Adam Sandler movie because he’d hoped that it would make Brody smile when he looked over and saw that the other man was already asleep. Propped up on pillows, Brody didn’t look like he was in the most comfortable position, but given how long it had taken him to get to this point, Mitch had no intention of waking him now.

Instead, he turned the volume down to mute, settling himself in. Tired as he himself was, he didn’t feel like sleep.

He glanced over at Brody again, despite himself.

Coming on the road with Brody had been to watch him, to support him, to take care of him.

He just wasn’t sure what that looked like now.

-o-

Brody slept soundly through the night, so much so that even Mitch allowed himself to doze off after midnight and until the alarm went off in the morning. By the time it was necessary to get up for breakfast, Brody wasn’t exactly bright eyed and bushy tailed, but he didn’t look exhausted and miserable. So, that was an improvement at least.

True to his word, Brody did eat a rounded breakfast, though Mitch noted that he left a little more on his plate than he might have a month ago. How did Mitch know that? Shit, he knew everything about Brody.

Well, almost everything.

He still wasn’t sure why the kid was getting crippling migraines so often, but maybe that wouldn’t be an issue today.

That was Mitch’s hope, anyway.

It was also apparently Lawson’s steadfast determination.


At the pool, Lawson was all business. He was energized and ready, laying out a complicated workout routine for Brody in and out of the pool. Mitch was hesitant about it at first, but Brody responded with due diligence. As the day wore on, he showed no signs of fatigue or pain. In fact, he was back in prime form.

Mitch noticed.

Even Lawson couldn’t miss it.

And he was ready to milk it.

At the end of the day while Brody was toweling off, Lawson was going over his notes with increasing enthusiasm. “That’s the sort of work we need,” he was saying. “That’s the sort of workout we need to push us over the top, get us through the Olympic trials.”

Mitch bristled at the generous use of the word we, but he restrained himself for now. Especially since Brody didn’t seem to mind.

“I think I’ve got the turn down,” Brody said instead.

“It took long enough, but I think you finally got it, just in time,” Lawson enthused. “I mean, with performance like this, you’re going to dominate at the world championships, which is exactly the momentum we need.”

Brody threw the damp towel down, reaching for a fresh one. “Well, I’ll do what I can.”

Lawson snorted a bit, as if the insinuation was ridiculous. “You better,” he said. “If you’ve peaked now, we’re screwed. You need a big win here at the worlds’ in order to get your footing going into the home stretch. You botch this, you botch everything.”

This time, Brody mustered up an increasingly weak smile. “No pressure or anything,” he quipped.

Lawson didn’t appreciate the self deprecation. Or he didn’t notice. Or, most likely, he just didn’t care, bastard that he was. “Uh, tons of pressure,” he said plaintively, staring at Brody like he wanted him not to even joke about it. “Nothing can hold you back right now. Nothing, not even your own weaknesses and hangups. Especially not that.”

Brody kept himself steady, but Mitch could see him blanch ever so slightly. “Right,” he said, picking up his bag as if this was to be expected. “Especially not that.”

Lawson looked visibly relieved. “As long as we got that straight.”

Heading past Lawson, Brody started his way toward the locker room. Mitch followed him, brushing by Lawson closer than was strictly necessary just because.

“Oh, and hey,” Lawson called after them.

Brody turned; Mitch next to him. Maybe Lawson had gotten the implicit threat. Mitch wasn’t sure what he was threatening, exactly. But he did know why.

“Our flight is early,” Lawson said, nodding resolutely and proving that he had missed the threat. And the point. “Don’t miss it.”

Mitch felt himself start to fume, but Brody didn’t even look surprised as he offered a weary smile in return. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

-o-

Mitch held his tongue.

He held it while Brody got washed up after practice. He held it in the car on the way back to the hotel. He even held it all the way through dinner. He held it when Brody only ate half his meal. He held it when Brody didn’t have the energy for much conversation. He held it.

Because Brody had enough shit to worry about. Because the stakes were already high enough. The last thing Brody needed was another expectation to fulfill even if Mitch was motivated by concern and love. If Brody had this under control, then Mitch was going to hold his tongue all the way until the Olympics.

But if Brody gave any indication that this wasn’t under control, that things weren’t okay.

Well, that was why Mitch was hovering like a damn mother hen, even as he viciously bit his own tongue.

After dinner, they went back to the room. Mitch was more than willing to hold his tongue, do whatever it was Brody wanted to do before their travel day tomorrow until Brody yawned, sitting listlessly on the bed. “I don’t know,” he replied to Mitch’s inquiry. “Kind of just want to rest.”

There was an aspect of that Mitch thought was legit. Brody trained his ass off, and rest was about as important as any other aspect of his training.

That said, it wasn’t even 8 PM yet.

Also, they hadn’t done anything in the off hours in days.

Shit, Mitch’s mind scrambled back. Probably weeks.

Lawson’s schedule had been aggressive with minimal recovery time after the last round of races. This had worn them all a bit thin, but Mitch hadn’t realized just how much time had passed since they’d gone out. Or, hell, even stayed in and played cards. Watching a movie was about the extent of things now, and even then, Brody usually fell asleep within ten minutes.

Was this normal for Olympic training?

It wasn’t like Mitch had any frame of reference except that he knew Brody. He knew what living with Brody was like, and their first few months on the road had been similar. Usually they joked and made light. They did things, fun things, friend things.

Achieving his goals couldn’t cost Brody all the progress he’d made as a person. They had to find a balance of both. That was a line Mitch was willing to hold.

Which meant it was time to stop holding his tongue.

“Again?” Mitch asked, letting his voice and the power of his arched eyebrow convey his skepticism for him.

Brody could read the skepticism, Mitch was sure of that. It was also obvious, however, that he didn’t have the energy to care that much. “I’m wiped, man,” he confessed instead. “I could crash right now.”

That was probably true, and yet, Mitch knew Brody wasn’t telling him something. Something about the way he had carried himself, something about how little he’d eaten at dinner, something about that tepid look in his eye. “Does your head hurt again?”

Brody blinked, almost betraying nothing.

Almost wasn’t good enough, however.

Not with Mitch around.

He saw the split second hesitation, the minute flicker. He saw the raw truth written on Brody’s face even as he scrambled to hide it.

“It’s nothing,” Brody said diffidently.

Mitch’s eyes were narrowed, his attentions focused. He studied the tension in Brody’s shoulders, the dullness in his eyes. The careful set to his face and the ginger way he held himself just on the edge of the bed.

It wasn’t as bad as last night, sure.

But then, Brody had nearly had a panic attack from the unrelenting pain, so that wasn’t exactly a good measuring stick.

“If it hurts, it’s not nothing,” Mitch persisted, allowing himself to be openly and unabashedly skeptical now.

The weariness of Brody’s sigh was enough to keep Mitch in check. “Nothing that won’t be better in the morning,” he amended, before reinforcing his point with a smile. “I mean it.”

It was a close call, to push the issue or to let it go. He wanted to make sure Brody was taking care of himself, but he also didn’t want to be an actual impediment toward Brody’s well being. That was an increasingly fine line in their life on the road, and Mitch was worried that he wouldn’t be able to tell when it was time to cross it once and for all.

Not tonight, however.

Mitch nodded, a little reluctantly. “The flight’s early.”

Brody grinned somewhat as he started to take off his shoes. “You want to lecture me about not being late?”

Mitch huffed a small laugh in return. “Just shut up and sleep,” he said, kicking off his own shoes to settle back on the bed and get comfortable. He nodded stiffly as Brody reached for his sleep clothes. “And leave the rest for me.”

Weary as he was, Brody still mustered up a mock salute on his way to the bathroom. He trusted Mitch, that much was sure.

Mitch just wasn’t sure how to trust himself enough to get the job done sometimes.

-o-

The thing with Brody was that he wasn’t a liar. At least, not most of the time. Honestly, he lacked the wherewithal and the intentionality to pull off an effective lie most of the time. He’d proved himself capable during his plea deal with Leeds, but in the day to day stuff, with Mitch and the others -- Brody tended to be a bit of an open book.

So Mitch didn’t think that Brody actually lied.

Even if it was pretty obvious that he hadn’t ultimately told the truth.

See, Brody wasn’t a lot better in the morning. He tried to act like this wasn’t the case, but he couldn’t quite finish his breakfast, and he grimaced more than he should while they were packing up. At the airport, he sleep walked his way through security, and stared blankly at his phone while they waited to board. He endured Lawson’s tiresome questions, making sure that things were in order, before all but collapsing in a seat next to Mitch in the crowded coach section of the plane.

In fact, as the plane started to taxi, Brody got visibly worse.

Pale, stiff and agitated, Brody had definitive anxiety.

And it was probably giving both of them a headache.

Still, Mitch reminded himself as they took to the air, the anxiety was not without reason. They’d been to a lot of races over the past six months, but this was the world championships. This was a major event with press coverage galore. It was Brody’s first step back onto the international stage. He was proving himself for the first time on that level.

Lawson talked big about how their hopes hinged on victory, but Mitch knew it was simpler than this. Brody needed to get through these races without making an idiot of himself.

Watching Brody shift restlessly in his seat, fingers gripping the arm rest, Mitch was starting to wonder if that task was easier said than done.

This fact was then, in turn, making Mitch anxious.

Needless to say, there was a lot of anxiety on that flight that had nothing to do with the long ocean crossing ahead. Mitch diffused the tension as best he could with various small quips, but it was having minimal effect. By the time the seatbelt sign was off and they were settled in at cruising altitude for the long haul, Brody was looking positively peaky.

A lifeguard through and through, Mitch tried to buoy his spirits with more chitchat, but when the flight attendant brought the cart by, asking if they wanted anything to drink, Brody made a scoff that almost sounded like a sob.

“I wish,” he said, finishing with a half-hysterical laugh. They were on the aisle seats, but the person on the far end at the window raised his eyebrows in curiosity.

Mitch cleared his throat, and Brody brought his attention back around, hemming himself in.

With a polite smile, he wet his lips and nodded at the flight attendant, who was waiting expectantly for an order she could fill. “Just a water, please.”

She happily obliged, and Mitch got one for himself while the man at the window ordered a soft drink. Mitch waited until the flight attendant was serving the next voice before lowering his voice to talk to Brody.

“You know you don’t need alcohol, right?” he asked. Because Brody was his own person and he was an independent grown man -- and yet, this was Brody. The whole reason Mitch had come on the road -- the very reason he was on this plane and not at Baywatch -- was because Brody had a propensity to drink too much when he was stressed out and alone.

Mitch would ask the question as many times as he needed, no apologies.

Brody sighed with a note of exasperation as he took a sip of water. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” he muttered. He took another sip and added under his breath contrarily. “It’d probably help, though.”

Brody tried to make it sound offhanded, but Mitch refused to accept it. “It wouldn’t,” he said, a little louder in tone but much stronger in solidarity.

With most people, that was more than enough to shut them up.

Brody knew him too well, however. He sat back, taking a stubborn drink. “I never had headaches when I drank.”

“Because you had them the next morning, dumbass,” Mitch chided him. “So that means you do have another headache?”

Brody winced, slumping down a little. “Pretty sure it’s the same one.”

Even though Mitch had suspected as much, he still felt his gut twist at the admission. Flippant and nonchalant as it was, Mitch knew it was still unsettling significant. The drinking was a problem Mitch could fix by being here. But headaches? Mitch was a lifeguard; not a doctor. What the hell was he supposed to do about headaches.

Brody seemed to realize Mitch’s train of thought. He looked mulish, giving an indifferent shrug. “It’s not that bad.”

If it wasn’t bad, Brody wouldn’t want to have a drink. That was probably beside the point, however.

Pursing his lips, Mitch narrowed his eyes at Brody, who tried unsuccessfully t9 hide behind his water. “Did you feel like this all day yesterday?”

Brody shrugged, as if to make it seem like no big deal. “A little, maybe, whatever,” he said. “It didn’t stop my performance, so that’s what matters.”

Mitch hissed under his breath. “That’s not what matters. I’m not Lawson.”

With an exaggerated eye roll, Brody attempted to make this Mitch’s problem and not his own. “I’m managing okay.”

“No, you’re not,” Mitch said, feeling somewhat incredulous now. He worked hard to moderate his voice as the guy next to them noisily ate his in flight snack. “You know that.”

“Like, one or two days,” Brody said. “If you look at how often it hurts, you’d be impressed.”

Maybe Brody thought that was true. And hell, it could be a little true. But pride was not Mitch’s primary concern. No, Brody had just made an implicit confession here, and Mitch wasn’t going to let it slide. “How often does it hurt?”

Brody immediately realized his mistake. Cheeks reddening, Brody looked hastily at his drink. “I don’t know.”

Mitch was unrelenting. “Brody.”

Brody folded just that fast. “I mean, I don’t know,” Brody repeated uselessly. “It kind of never goes away anymore. Most of the times it’s not so bad, but sometimes, I don’t know.”

Sometimes it made him a whimpering mess. That was all. No big deal.

Except it was a very big deal. For his racing. For his sanity.

And he’d been hiding it for who knew how long.

And Mitch had let him.

Perturbed with both of them now, it took a great deal of restraint to continue moderating his voice. “Are you taking shit?”

“Well, a little, when I can’t handle it.”

“But if you’re in pain most days,” Mitch started.

Brody shook his head. “There are drug tests.”

“They don’t test for over the counter pain meds,” Mitch reasoned.

But Brody shook his head again, somehow more adamant than before. “That shit still gets out. I have to be clean. Like, clean clean. I have to prove I’m legit.”

“Yeah, and you also want to finish races,” Mitch reminded him. “You can’t do that with a constant headache.”

Brody shifted in his seat. “That’s not what I proved yesterday.”

“But what about the day before that?” Mitch reminded him. “Those were your lowest times in months.”

That fact deflated Brody.

Mitch kept the pressure up for Brody’s own good. “You have no way of knowing which way it will go,” he said. “We have to deal with the headaches.”

Slumping miserably once more, the fight had clearly left Brody. He took a sip of his waster. “Now I really wish I would have ordered that drink.”

Mitch had made his point, but he wasn’t sure what good it did either of them. He wanted Brody to be honest, but the hard truth was that honesty was kind of depressing sometimes. It was no wonder Brody liked to ignore reality. Reality could kind of suck.

Feeling bad now, Mitch softened his demeanor quite purposefully. “Look, we’ll deal with it. We’ll talk to someone when we land, see what options we have.”

Brody glanced at him, just barely hopeful.

For that reason alone, Mitch conjured up a smile. “You might as well sleep now,” he said.

“It’s not that bad, Mitch,” Brody said, almost as if he were trying to convince himself. “I’m dealing with it. I am.”

“I know, buddy,” Mitch said, patting him on the arm. “We can talk about it when we land.”

Brody seemed comforted by this, and he downed the rest of his water before tipping his head back against the seat. He closed his eyes, clearly ready to sleep.

Mitch watched him for several minutes, noting how Brody relaxed. That was just as well, even if Mitch’s own anxiety was starting to take hold. Suddenly, he was immensely glad that this was a long, transAtlantic flight.

Because Mitch had no idea what he was going to do about this issue when they finally landed.