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Baywatch fic: Learning to Breathe (4/4)

December 27th, 2018 (01:58 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR



-o-

Dr. Stangl’s office was austere. That was to say, it was decorated to an absolute bare minimum, and Mitch suspected that the generic wall art had been there when she moved in. There was a long row of filing cabinets on one wall, and while her desk was full of papers, it was studiously organized for maximum efficiency.

Mitch couldn’t help but like her a little more.

Even if a few personal effects might make her more personable, he had confidence that she was thorough enough to make sure that Brody’s case was handled effectively.

She sat down on the far side of the desk, nodding at Mitch to take a seat. She opened the file was holding, and she wasted no time to start her analysis.

“These headaches have presented quite dramatically, and many patients expect a dramatic diagnosis,” she started.

Mitch nodded, trying not to convey just how right she was.

She shrugged somewhat. “Most headaches, even those that are severe or otherwise debilitating, have relatively benign causes. This is the case for Mr. Brody,” she explained. “All the tests we ran, there is no evidence of injury or growth or illness. There is no deficit, no pathology. The tests confirm that there are areas of inflammation that are consistent with rigorous training but cannot be conclusively linked to the symptoms reported.”

Mitch found that he was holding his breath, not sure if he was supposed to take this as good or bad news.

“In fact, due to Mr. Brody’s status as a race competitor, I expanded the standard battery of tests to include comprehensive exams,” she said. “The only evidence of any injury was shoulder damage that was consistent with his documented medical history. While the scans do indicated that his recent training has aggravated the injury to the point of some concern, this is also unrelated to his migraines.”

Drawing his brows together, Mitch tried not to shift anxiously in his seat despite his growing concern.

She seemed to realize her tone’s effect. She smiled with visible effort, though it was an effective measure at diffusing the growing tension. “I am telling you good news,” she said earnestly. “Mr. Brody is healthy and strong. There is no physical or pathological impairment that should limit his ability to race competitively.”

Good news was good news.

But Mitch couldn’t shake his doubts. “But he still has headaches,” he ventured. “And no matter what you’re telling me, I’ve seen him in action. I know how those headaches limit his ability. If we can’t get them under control, then I don’t know if he can race.”

“What you are saying is probably accurate,” she said. “But I am telling you that the underlying cause is not strictly medical.”

Sitting forward now, Mitch found his focus, and he found himself intent on the reason he’d dragged Brody here in the first place. “What what is causing them?”

At this, she shrugged. It was a contemplative shrug, one that was not purely professional but one that denoted an intellectual curiosity. “Headaches and other chronic pain are often caused by any number of environmental and emotional factors.”

The way she said it made it sound like it was something new.

But Mitch was a smart guy. She was telling him, essentially, that there was no way to know what was causing the headaches.

If there was no way to know what caused them, there was no definitive treatment.

Mitch shook his head at the thought. There was no way, not after he’d dragged Brody this far. He’d staked all his last hopes on a professional medical opinion. He needed more than this. “But we have to make them stop,” he said, fully emphatic now. “I mean, we have to find a cause so we can develop a treatment.”

“A cause would be pure speculation,” she said. “I am a doctor. I give diagnoses.”

“And treatments,” Mitch told her. “I thought you gave treatments.”

It was apparently the segue she wanted. “Yes, treatment, yes,” she said. “That is my point.”

Nose wrinkled, Mitch had to admit he found himself vexed.

“Now, certainly, there are medications which have had some success in controlling migraines. I can prescribe several that can be used as needed, and all are approved for usage by major racing bodies,” she said. “For many patients, the medication can help curb the worst of the pain, but you must understand that they are not, as you say, a cure-all.”

It was hard to understand why she kept looking so optimistic when the things she said weren’t all that helpful. He didn’t want to be rude, but he also was starting to feel frustrated. “But they’ll help? The medications?” he pressed, because he needed that much. He needed hope. For Brody -- and for himself.

“Yes, but I do want you to understand the limits,” she continued.

Mitch let out a terse breath. “You keep talking about limits. It makes it hard for me to understand what you’re saying about his prognosis. Are we going to get these headaches under control?”

“I want to be realistic. Hope cannot be false or it is detrimental. I want you to be realistic.”

“I’m trying to be,” Mitch said. “That’s why I brought him here. To realistically help him deal with the headaches.”

“So take the drugs, yes?” she said.

“The way you’re talking, though; it sounds like it’s not enough,” Mitch said.

“It is one facet of what you need to consider.”

“And the rest? Is there a procedure? Another test?”

She was already shaking her head. “Without a presenting pathology, you need to look more closely at triggers.”

“Triggers,” Mitch repeated, considering its context. “You mean, like foods or something?”

“Foods, in some cases, can trigger such responses,” she agreed.

“So, what, then?” Mitch asked. “We chart his diet? Excludes things and reintroduce them?”

“It is one approach, but I do not think it should be your first step,” she said.

“Well, then, what?”

“When looking at a patient without a definitive diagnosis, we have to consider the odds, the probabilities. Food sensitivities account for some percentage of migraines, but they are not the most common causes.”

“So what is?”

“I told you; it is often lifestyle. Environmental emotional factors.”

“You’re saying he’s stressed out. That’s your diagnosis?”

“I understand that it sounds simplistic, but consider the rigors of his lifestyle. You are there when he trains; you know what he does. It is likely that you have merely become desensitized to the sheer amount of exertion he puts forth every day. It is not typical, nor is it within the recommended medical guidelines for good health.”

“It’s extreme, I know that,” Mitch said. “But he’s trying to get to the Olympics. To compete at this level, it’s necessary.”

Her frankness was not unkind, but it conveyed little sympathy. “I am not here to tell you what is necessary,” she said. “You came for treatment, and I am merely pointing out the obvious correlation between his rigors and his pain. The cost of training at this level is both physical and emotional.”

It wasn’t that she was wrong, but Mitch couldn’t imagine that they’d come so far just for an answer like this. “So we’re back to stress headaches? I mean, what? We have him pop a few ibuprofen and tell him to grit his teeth for the next year?”

This reply seemed wearying to her. “You are thinking too simplistically again,” she said, and she sounded disappointed. Like she had expected better from Mitch.

And maybe Mitch could do better. Maybe he would have, in another context. But this had been a long year for him. He wasn’t experience physical headaches but the emotional toll was accumulating for him as well. “No, I’m just trying to figure out what you think he needs to get these headaches under control,” he said, ever the problem solver. “If you’re saying that the problem is his training, then what options do we have realistically? Is it a question between enduring the pain or quitting?”

She sighed. “This is not my place to tell you either. You asked for a cause. You asked for a treatment. I’m pointing out the obvious correlation for you to do with as you will,” she said. “Mr. Brody is pushing his body very hard, yes? There are going to be consequences, and you are lucky that they have not manifested in other ways. Other swimmers here, other competitors at this level. They experience damage to the joints and ligaments. They suffer from chronic inflammation in the working parts. Some of them damage their bodies beyond recovery. This not only cuts their career short, but it leaves them in pain for the rest of their lives. In this context, you must understand. Migraines are not the worst problem you could be facing.”

It sounded like she was saying that Brody was lucky, but Mitch wasn’t sure how. He didn’t want a relativistic answer right now. Not when Brody passed out in the pool just a matter of hours ago. “I still don’t get it,” he said. “What do you recommend that we do?”

She folded her hands, staring him down patiently as one might an obtuse child. Mitch knew that look; it was one he used to give to Brody when he was having trouble putting two and two together to make four. Shit, it was as demeaning as Brody said it was.

“Mr. Buchannon, again, these are answers I cannot give,” she said. “I am suggesting that you review his training regimen. Create a more balanced approach, incorporating sufficient rest and recovery. Many swimmers make the mistake of over training this close to competition, and it can backfire if not managed.”

Well, that was a point he couldn’t argue. A point he didn’t want to argue. It was the argument he’d been making to Lawson all week. “I don’t get to design the training schedule,” Mitch said. “That’s up to his coach.”

“I can make a medical recommendation, if you think it will help,” she said, clearly having worked with plenty of overzealous coaches before. “But I also want you to look at the migraine holistically.”

Mitch was open to that.

He just had no idea what she meant.

She continued unprompted. “Chronic pain often has an emotional or psychological component.”

Mitch was on edge just like that. He sat back, shaking his head. “Wait, you’re saying it’s in his head?”

Her little sigh told him that she’d had this conversation before. Probably lots of times. Mitch wasn’t sure if that was comforting or discouraging. “Calling the pain psychological does not mean that it is not real in every sense of the word,” she said. “Psychological factors are just as real as physical ones, but they can be much more difficult to treat effectively.”

Mitch relaxed a little; that made sense.

She wet her lips, tapping her finger on the file. “I can give you medication to combat the physical symptoms, but if you can address the psychological factors, then you can lessen the need for such control,” she explained. “In addition to reducing his time training, consider bolstering his emotional support structure. He needs to be well rounded and balanced. His whole life cannot be swimming. The amount of psychological focus that requires is just as devastating as the physical training. Maybe more so.”

Now Mitch wasn’t on edge or relaxed. Now he was thinking. “So, like, going places, doing things?”

She gave a shrug, scribbling a note on a piece of paper. “Sure, yes. Hobbies, other friendships. Going to movies, reading books, playing video games. Cooking, making art. These sorts of things. There are rare people who benefit for exclusive focus, but most people cannot tolerate the strain. It becomes an obsessions of sorts, and the effects can be destructive to the point where the body does break down.”

“I’m not sure how to fix that,” Mitch admitted, especially not with Lawson involved.

Or Brody, for that matter.

She handed him the written note, which detailed her findings and recommendations. “You are under no obligation to do anything I recommend,” she said. “I am a doctor, not a coach or a trainer.”

Mitch looked at the scrawl, piecing together enough of the words to try to understand them again. “And you think this will work?” she asked. “You think we can keep the headaches at bay?”

She handed him another slip of paper, this one a prescription for medication. “I think it’s very possible, yes,” she said. “And watch for patterns in the migraines. Look for commonalities between the incidents. What elements are there every time. Once you identify those triggers, you will have a better time eliminating them.”

Mitch folded the notes, putting them in his pocket. “Anything else?”

With a little frown, Dr. Stangl shrugged. “These are my findings in their totality,” she said. “Do you wish me to come back at some point? Explain them to Mr. Brody in more detail?”

“No, no,” Mitch said quickly, a little dismissively. He had thought Brody might take it better from a doctor, but after hearing what she had to say, he knew that this one had to come from him. “I think I’ve got this one.”

“Very good,” she said, getting to her feet and leading him to the door. “If you have further questions during your stay in Germany, you are welcome to call my office.”

“Thank you,” he said, shaking her hand.

She smiled politely. “Best of luck to you.”

“The field looks pretty strong,” Mitch told her.

“Ah, well,” she said. She tipped her head to the side. “I was not talking about swimming.”

Shit, Mitch thought guiltily as he saw himself out. He probably should have known that.

-o-

By the time he made it back to the room Brody was in, Mitch was feeling a little uncertain. It wasn’t that the doctor hadn’t provided him a clear diagnosis or treatment plan. In some ways, maybe she hadn’t, but Mitch still knew exactly what he had to do.

He just had no idea how to do it.

How did he create balance for Brody? How did he tell Brody to go all in one day and then tell him to pull back the next?

Especially with Brody’s doubts? Especially with Lawson’s constant pushing?

This was all easier said than done. And to think, Mitch wasn’t even the one training for the Olympics.

He was just the guy trying to make sure that the training didn’t break Brody.

Part of him wanted to avoid opening the door, but he knew that he couldn’t put it off. He’d put this off long enough, and they were running out of time. Lawson would expect Brody in the pool tomorrow; the race started within days.

Opening the door, Mitch tried to be quiet. He wasn’t quiet enough. From the chair, Brody roused. He said up, blinking away the sleep. He looked a bit refreshed, at least. That just made him all the more keen to hear whatever it was Mitch had to tell him.

“Hey,” Brody said. “Is the doctor coming? Did they find something?”

Mitch wet his lips, walking slowly and purposefully over to the chair next to Brody. “I, uh, just talked to Dr. Stangl.”

Brody sat up, even more alert. “And?”

“And, uh,” Mitch started, aware that he was hedging. He hated hedging. He had never believed in it before. But here he was: hedging like no one’s business. “Um, it’s good news. The tests, the scans -- they didn’t show anything serious.”

Leading with the good news had seemed like a good idea.

But the hope in Brody’s eyes was almost too much. Especially when his next question was, “So what is it?”

He still thought there was a definitive cause. Of course he did, because Mitch had told him to believe that. Mitch had brought him here with the promise of easy answers.

And all Mitch had to offer now was complicated fixes.

This was the kind of thing that made people liars with the best of intentions. Before Brody, Mitch had never understood it. He understood it now.

“Well, it’s hard to say exactly,” Mitch said, and damn it all if he wasn’t hedging again. “But, um, the doctor said we needed to look for, uh, environmental triggers.”

Mitch knew that using big words might make it sound nicer, but they’d only freak Brody out. Brody’s eyes widened, and Mitch hastily continued.

“You’re working really hard, you know. You’re training a lot. You’re not taking enough breaks,” Mitch added on, trying to keep the words from stumbling over one another. “It’s wearing on you, man. You’ve got to dial it back.”

Brody stared at him for a moment, as if he wasn’t sure what Mitch had said.

Then, he looked like he knew what Mitch had said but he just wished that he hadn’t heard it at all. “So, you’re saying that the headaches are just in my head?” he asked. “Just like I told you?”

Mitch sighed because what else was he going to do. That had been Brody’s fear, and Mitch had dismissed it. Now he had to confirm it without crushing Brody with it. “No, that’s not -- no,” he said. “They’re, like, tension headaches. Caused by stress, physical exertion. That sort of thing.”

Mitch intended it to be comforting.

Brody looked anything but comforted. “Stress? Exertion? Shit, Mitch. I’m training for the Olympics. That’s all about stress and exertion. I mean, why the hell do you think I used to drink so much before?”

Truthfully, that did make a little more sense in context now. Not that it was something Mitch was about to validate. Not when Brody was as precarious as he was. “There are other, healthier ways to handle it,” Mitch said, his tone suggesting that he was confident in this answer. “Ways that don’t involve crippling migraines or alcoholism.”


The thought seemed to make Brody morose. He slumped again, as if he were resigned to one or the other -- or possibly something worse. “You’ve seen Lawson’s training regimen,” he said. “I don’t see any way around that. It’s not like he’s going to suddenly give a shit about anything outside the pool.”

“I can handle Lawson,” Mitch said.

“Can you?” Brody asked.

Mitch was taken aback. He’d taken it for granted, the way Brody trusted him. The last year had cemented a lot of things between them, but the last few weeks had eroded something away inside of Brody. Mitch did his best not to take that personally. It was Brody’s doubt in himself, not his doubt in Mitch. Brody was grasping for anything to make his world make sense again, and that meant he had to question everything -- right down to the bedrock.

Right down to Mitch.

“I’ve already talked to him about tweaking your schedule,” Mitch argued.

But Brody was not about to be convinced. “He’s going to be pissed about today, though,” Brody pointed out. “And with the race starting, and the international competition in an upswing -- I don’t know, man. With Lawson, it only gets worse from here. He’s not about to scale back.”

“We don’t need to scale back,” Mitch said. “It’s balance.”

“But Lawson--”

“Shut the hell up about Lawson,” Mitch snapped, a little harsher than he intended.

Harsh enough, too.

Brody visibly slumped further, and he made no attempt to counter Mitch.

“Look,” Mitch said, trying his best to salvage this. The doctor had left him with something like hope; Mitch wasn’t sure why he couldn’t find it now. “We’ll make it work with Lawson. We’ll spend more days going to museum, going to parks, buying ice cream.”

Brody’s mouth was ruefully taut. “You think museum, parks and ice cream can fix me?”

Funny question, that one. Brody was talking about his migraines.

Mitch was wondering if there was something more to it.

As far as Brody had come from the dumbass pretty boy who thought he was too good for Mitch’s beach, Mitch was confronted with the reality of how much further Brody had to go. He’d learned to trust people. He’d learned to be part of a team. He’d learned about how to give up himself for family. And he’d learned how to believe in himself to pursue a dream.

Now, on the cusp of that dream, he was struggling with what parts of himself to compromise.

He was struggling with what parts of himself to save.

“I think it can’t hurt,” Mitch said, unwilling to make a promise he couldn’t keep.

Brody, sitting there, wanted to believe Mitch. That much was evident.

He just didn’t have enough to pull it off.

“Come on,” Mitch said, nodding toward the door. “Let’s get back, have an early night.”

Sluggishly, as if suddenly stiff now, Brody got up, moving himself gingerly toward the door. “The doctors can’t fix me; Lawson can’t train me. What makes you think you’ve still got a shot?”

“Because I don’t quit, remember?” Mitch said, opening the door to let Brody out. “I never quit.”

-o-

They filled the prescription at the local pharmacy before stopping at a restaurant for something to eat. Mitch tried to keep the conversation light, and though he was sure that Brody’s headache was actually under control for the time being, his spirits were still pretty low. By the time they got back to the hotel, Brody had no desire to do much, so Mitch didn’t argue when he turned in early.

Instead, he waited until Brody fell asleep and then found himself restless. He’d gotten good at sitting quietly, catching up with chat, email or texting on his phone. He read the news, checked the weather reports for California or played games. He’d gotten super into binge-watching, too.

None of that was going to work tonight.

He chewed the inside of his lips, anxiously watching Brody sleep.

Mitch just wasn’t sure what was going to work in its stead.

Getting up, he grabbed his things and quietly snuck out the door, closing it gently behind him.

He was going to have to find out.

-o-

Mitch wasn’t the kind of guy who had to drink his troubles away.

Of course, back at Baywatch, he hadn’t had real troubles. He’d had stress, sure. Everyone had stress. But it had been the kind of stress he liked, the challenges that he could rise to and overcome. Scheduling conflicts, strong riptides, crowded beaches, funding issues.

Mitch almost wanted to laugh.

Those things seemed so easy now.

At the hotel bar, the only easy thing was ordering his first drink and appreciating the utter irony of him drinking, here and now, when he came on this journey to keep Brody sober. Not that one drink or even one night at the local bar was going to turn Mitch into an alcoholic, but he’d always told Brody there were better ways to cope with his problems.

Mitch took the drink, letting it burn down his throat.

He just couldn’t figure out what that better measure was anymore.

Because, when you got right down to it, the doctor was obviously right. The common denominator for Brody’s migraines was training. When Lawson was pushing Brody too hard, Brody’s head started to hurt. Lawson, no doubt, would say it was a psychological reaction that needed to be broken. And maybe it was, to some extent. But the physical and mental toll the training took on Brody was starting to manifest itself more regularly.

The problem was that Brody was right as well. Lawson wasn’t going to scale back his training regimen, at least not in any significant way. Mitch could threaten and cajole all day long, but it was going to have less and less effect the bigger the stakes got. There wasn’t going to be an effective compromise pretty soon, and Mitch knew it.

He just didn’t know where that left them.

How was Brody going to train for the Olympics without killing himself?

Was Brody supposed to quit?

Either Brody endured the grueling toll or he walked away preemptively. Neither answer seemed satisfactory. Neither answer was satisfactory.

Mitch finished his first drink and ordered another.

Something was going to give, but Mitch didn’t know what. Would it be Brody’s health? Would it be his mental well being? Would it be his training goals? If Mitch kept pushing, would all of it be forfeit?

This wasn’t really his decision to make, but he knew his role in it. He knew Brody relied on him for support and guidance. He knew that his approval had pushed Brody back into the competitive track. He knew that his presence had kept Brody sober and still in the game. If Mitch told him to stay true, Brody would stay true. If Mitch told him to walk away, Brody would probably do that, too.

But which option was right? Which one did Brody really want?

Mitch still knew that racing was important to Brody. He didn’t want to quit in a lot of ways. He wanted to get out there and prove to the world that he could still do it, that he could do it right this time. It was important for him to face that demon, and while every race had been a step in that direction, if he didn’t make it to the Olympics, he’d never really conquer it.

But he also knew that Brody missed Baywatch. He knew that racing was important but that Baywatch was home. That was where his heart was. He missed lifeguarding, and he missed the team. He all but pined after Summer when they were gone. Back at Baywatch, Brody was in his element, and there was no way to minimize the impact that had on both of them.

Mitch ordered a third drink and came to the tentative conclusion.

The race was in a few days. In a week, they would be back in California. Maybe they could eek it out. Maybe they could put the decision off just a little bit longer. Maybe the problem would resolve on its own when their training was back where Brody had plenty of natural distractions anyway.

They had the prescription; they had Lawson’s tentative agreement to scale things back. They had Mitch’s strength and Brody’s commitment.

If that couldn’t get them through the next few days until they got back to California, then Mitch wasn’t sure what would.

-o-

Mitch had always told Brody that drinking wouldn’t fix his problems.

Good advice.

Brody had listened.

Mitch wished he’d taken his own word for it.

-o-

Brody was still a little shaky the next morning, but he ate a good breakfast and seemed in decent spirits as he and Mitch went to the pool. They were both under the working impression that if they could just get through the next few days, the problem could be addressed more thoroughly back at home.

Home was a lovely thought. It was highly motivating for both of them. As far as Mitch was concerned, this was an acceptable interpretation of Dr. Stangl’s advice. Back home, Brody would have distractions. He could rebuild a workout routine. He’d have balance. With these factors, the headaches would diminish, his training could go smoothly and he would be able to qualify for the Olympics in one year’s time.

That was Mitch’s plan, one that Brody inherently was trusting.

Lawson, unfortunately, had his own plan.

That plan was to win today.

At any possible cost.

Brody didn’t start out bad, but Lawson’s nagging and increasingly aggressive training routines that morning quickly began to cause problems. Lawson barely wanted to break at midday, and Brody had to shovel down a lunch between cool down periods just to get enough energy to keep going.

In the afternoon, Mitch could see that Lawson’s rigors were taking a toll. The more Lawson pushed, the less Brody was able to perform. It wasn’t just the reps and the speed drills, either. As Lawson’s tone grew in intensity, Brody began to visibly shrink.

Mitch did his best to offset this with constant encouragement in calm and reassuring tones. However, any effect it might have had on Brody was lost by Lawson’s apparent frustration with it. After an hour or so into the afternoon, Lawson turned on Mitch with a scathing look.

“Look, I thought we agreed,” he said. “I’m the coach. You’re just there for emotional support and back rubs or whatever.”

Mitch had no desire to have this argument. “Positive feedback can be quite helpful--”

“For school children,” Lawson said. “Which, I guess with the way he’s swimming right now, that’s probably what he is.”

Mitch started to glower. “Come on, man--”

“No, you come on,” Lawson said. “Six months ago, he was doing great. You come along and now he’s a mess.”

Brody, still swimming laps, had come to a stop at the edge of the pool to listen.

“He was a mess before,” Mitch said, keeping his voice low despite his agitation. “He was bordering on alcoholism.”

“And he was racing brilliantly,” Lawson said. He jabbed an angry hand toward Brody. “Now look at him!”

“All I see is a swimmer being badgered into submission by his own coach,” Mitch said.

“Oh, whatever,” Lawson said. He turned to Brody. “That was pathetic, by the way. You won’t even make it past the first heat with those times.”

“That’s just ridiculous,” Mitch said, because he was tired of sitting back, letting this happen. The doctor had told him to look for triggers and address them. Well here was the biggest trigger of all. And it wasn’t weight training, diet or swimming laps. It was an asshole swim coach, and Mitch was done pretending like that was okay. “You didn’t even time him.”

“Why bother? His form is off and his technique is sloppy--”

Still in the pool, Mitch watched the back and forth, wide eyed, as one might view a tennis match.

“Because he has a headache,” Mitch said. “You can see that, right? You’re not a moron, so I know you have to see it.”

“I see a swimmer letting some stupid head pain get in the way of our success,” Lawson said. “That’s all.”

“Our success?” Mitch scoffed. “He’s doing the work anymore. The only thing you’ve done in the last few weeks is yell.”

“You have no idea,” Lawson said. “I scour the footage, looking at his technique, assessing the field.”

“And your brilliant conclusion is to yell at him in public? When he’s in pain?”

Lawson shook his head, dismissive as he turned back to Brody. “Do I have to remind you that I took a chance on you?”

Brody’s face paled, and Mitch felt his ire rise higher. Because he knew what it meant to take a chance on someone, especially someone like Brody. He’d given Brody more than his share of chances, and Brody didn’t always do it perfectly, but Mitch could see when he was trying.

And that was the thing.

Brody was always trying.

Sometimes backwards or upside down. Sometimes in all the wrong ways. Sometimes it defied logic and common sense, but Brody wanted to succeed. He wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself. He wanted to show the world that he was worth something.

That he was worth the chance.

It had nothing to do with winning races.

That was Lawson’s limited vision.

It had become Brody’s, too, after all these months.

And somewhere along the line, Mitch had forgot to remind them all otherwise.

No wonder Brody had headaches.

It wasn’t going to wait until California. I twasn’t going to wait until the Olympics or even the next race.

No, Mitch was doing this now.

He took Lawson by the arm, turning him back toward himself. “And he took a chance on you,” Mitch said. “And he’s here, day after day, swimming. What the hell are you doing? Like, actually doing? This has to be a relationship.”

Lawson shook his head. “ You’re too soft, Buchannon.”

“It’s called being human,” Mitch said, utterly undeterred. If anything, the insult was grounding.

Lawson pointed viciously back to Brody. “He’s not in any state to win anything right now!”

“And yelling at him won’t help!” Mitch said, finally letting his voice grow loud.

From below, Brody shook his head. “Guys--”

Lawson’s face was twisted with rage. “And coddling will? You think?”

“There are options between coddling and berating, last I checked,” Mitch said.

“Guys--” Brody tried to interject again.

“And none of them would work, not on Brody,” Lawson said. He actually laughed at that. “Do you know what people still say about him? What they still say about me for even trying to get him ready for world competition?”

Brody went silent again, still holding onto the edge of the pool while Lawson looked down at him with a sneer.

“You’re a joke,” Lawson said. “Everyone watches you because they’re all waiting for you to screw it up. Because that’s what you do. You get everyone’s expectations up high and then you crash and burn. I thought, what the hell. Maybe I could keep you together just long enough. Maybe I could get you through until you had your stupid gold medals and then I could take that success and find another swimmer with better prospects while you go drown your victories in stupidity. I thought you might still have what it takes, but you’re not just reckless and stupid now. You’re soft. You ‘re weak and distracted. Whatever it is, it means you’re not going to win races anymore, no matter what I try to do with you.”

Mitch grabbed Lawson again, pulling him back. His fingers were clenched, and this time Mitch suspected he might not have restraint. Lawson didn’t deserve restraint.

“I think that’s enough-”

Lawson rose up, nose wrinkled incredulously. “We’ve already established that you don’t know anything--”

“Guys--”

Brody made a move to pull himself out of the pool, but he stopped short. His hesitation was convulsive somehow, and Mitch worried for a second that Brody was about to pass out again. But this time, he realized, it wasn’t quite that bad.

No, it was probably worse.

Instead of passing out, Brody did convulse. This time, he gagged, bringing up the remnants of his lunch as he vomited in the pool.

Other swimmers took notice, scrambling out while Brody threw up again. Mitch crouched down, but there was nothing he could do while fresh vomit was ejected from Brody’s mouth one more time.

When Brody stopped, he struggled to catch his breath. When he looked up to finally meet Mitch’s eyes, he was terrified.

They had started this journey to put the past away.

And here rody was, reliving it all over again.

It wasn’t the same, and Mitch would tell him that again and again.

But Mitch knew that it was going to feel the same.

To Brody.

And maybe to the whole damn world.

On the pool deck, Lawson was seething once more. “Seriously? We’re at this now? Seriously?”

Mitch reached down, giving Brody a hand as he got out of the pool.

Lawson was growing apoplectic. “The Vomit Comet,” he said, a touch hysterical now. “You’re actually still going with the Vomit Comet. Since it wasn’t humiliating enough the first time around.”

Brody was shaking, from shock, from embarrassment, from illness, from terror. Mitch put an arm around his shoulder. “Let’s take this away from the water,” Mitch said, giving a purposeful glance to the collected witnesses now.

Lawson was not going to be reasoned with. He would not be placated. He would not even be threatened. “Let’s not, okay,” he all but exploded. “Because I may have wasted a year of my life here, but I refuse to be humiliated in competition by you. I refuse to stand by the Vomit Comet. So, you win, Buchannon. Do what you want with him, he’s yours.” He threw up his hands. “I quit.”

With that, Lawson turned and stalked off, away from the pool and he slammed his way through the door without looking back.

It was a dramatic exit, to say the least. But Brody was still shivering on the pool deck, visibly exposed while the others looked back at him.

Mitch reached for a towel, draping it over Brody protectively. “Come on,” he whispered. “Let’s get you out of here. It’s going to be okay.”

Brody didn’t fight him.

But Mitch knew that he probably didn’t believe Mitch either at this point.

-o-

They didn’t speak in the locker room. B rody was silent as he cleaned himself up, and he got dressed without commentary. When Mitch asked perfunctory questions, Brody nodded or shook his head, not uttering a word the whole way back to the hotel.

Back at the room, it wasn’t even dinner time, but Mitch still had Brody lay down for the lack o something better to do. They would talk about this; they had to talk about this.

Mitch just didn’t know what the hell he was going to say.

He had been the one to talk Brody into this. It had been Mitch who helped Brody believe that the Vomit Comet was a thing of the past.

And this wasn’t the same thing. Throwing up in a practice pool during an intense training session while suffering a headache was not the same thing.

It would feel the same to Brody.

It would make the same headlines.

Mitch had wanted to wait to salvage things.

Sitting there, waiting for Brody to wake up, Mitch wondered if he’d waited too long.

-o-

He ordered in dinner, and Brody woke when it arrived. He made no comment on the choice, and he numbly prodded at his portion in some attempt to do what he clearly thought was expected of him.

Mitch tried a few bites of his own, but the food was another distraction to put him off.

Putting his plastic fork down, he looked Brody squarely in the eyes. “This isn’t about your headaches,” he announced with some certainty.

Brody’s head was down, and he nodded his assent. “It’s about the fact that I’m a screw up.”

“No,” Mitch said, steadfast as ever. “You’re not a screw up.”

Brody’s eyes flashed with hurt as he glanced at Mitch before diverting his gaze again. “Not sure what else you’d call it.”

“Overworked. Over tired. Over exerted,” Mitch said. “Over focused.”

“Over focused?” Brody asked. “That’s not even a thing.”

“It is,” Mitch said. “ And it’s what the doctor was talking about yesterday but I wasn’t quite ready to listen.”

“But I have to be focused on swimming--” Brody started to protest.

“But that’s not your focus; that’s not even what Lawson is after you about anymore,” Mitch said. “Lawson’s got you focused on no screwing up. And that’s your focus, too. It’s all you can think about, all you can probably even dream about. It’s not even winning for you. It’s just not sucking.”

Brody looked taken aback by the delinatation. “Seems normal, given my history,” he said. He shrugged, miserable. “Given today.”

Mitch was already shaking his head. “It’s destroying you. You can’t swim your best when you’re thinking about your worst. It’s Lawson’s mistake as much as anything, but it’s mine, too. I let this go on far too long.”

Because he’d come to build Brody up. This wasn’t just about keeping Brody sober; it was about keeping Brody true. Brody was driving himself just as hard as Lawson, maybe harder. Brody didn’t understand his own limits anymore, probably because he had trained himself to believe that he shouldn’t have them. It wasn’t macho nonsense or competitive mumbo jumbo. Brody just hadn’t realized that he had inherent value, even if no one saw it. He hadn’t come to accept that he wasn’t the Vomit Comet even if everyone thought he was.

Brody was still operating under the impression that this venture was about creating his worth. He’s missed the nuance that this was about showing the world what Mitch already saw: the Brody had value, and that that value wasn’t two gold medals.

“You can’t succeed if your only goal is to avoid failure,” Mitch said. “If you stay focused on your past mistakes, you’re never going to beat them.”

“But you saw me today--” Brody started.

“I saw a guy pushed too far while he was hurting,” Mitch said. “ You got sick in a pool. I see people hurl in the ocean all the time. Some people are idiots, sure. Some of them are just unlucky.”

Brody shuddered somewhat. “It’s not the same.”

“Brody,” Mitch said, sitting forward intently across the table in their shared hotel room. “I wanted you to face your demons. THat’s why I wanted you to start this.”

“Sure, but they won,” Brody said, voice cracking a little. “I literally vomited in the pool today. I literally did that.”

“They haven’t won,” Mitch said. “ You haven’t evened raced yet.”

“You think I have to? Everyone else already knows it--”

“And everyone else is wrong, Lawson more than the rest,” Mitch said. “This was never about proving it to the world. This has to be about proving it to yourself.”

Brody looked crestfallen. He shook his head. “And if I can’t?”

“Then I’m with you, all the way,” Mitch said. “But if you want to go, I’m there, too. This isn’t about what anyone else tells you you can do. This is about what you know you can do. What you know you want to do.”

The question was simple; that was what made it so hard. Two stark choices; there was no halfway involved.

Worse, Brody knew the answer he wanted to give.

He just had no idea how to make it come to fruition anymore. “I want do, man,” he admitted, voice trembling even worse than before. “I want to race. I want to go back to the Olympics. I just -- I don’t know if i can.”

“I know that you can,” Mitch told him plaintively.

Brody’s expression nearly broke. “Mitch, I’m falling apart.”

“Because of headaches? Vomiting?” Mitch asked.

“Yes, and everything else,” Brody said. “I’m hit and miss with my form, my times are all over the place. My coach just quit. And I never know when I’m going to wake up with a headache before I even get out of bed.”

“And if you believe that it’s all too much, it’s going to be too much,” Mitch told him. “The more you obsess about your form, the worse it’ll be. The more you think about whether or not your head is going to hurt, the more it’s going to hurt.”

Brody was visibly hurt by the insinuation. “You think it’s all in my head, too?”

“No,” Mitch said, and he sat forward more emphatically than before. “I think you can get in your own head. Look, I know what you can do, but you’re way out there, away from your family, you’re not drinking, you’ve got a stupid ass coach who makes you feel like shit all the time. You don’t need to swim better. You need a better support structure and a comprehensive training schedule that works in your mental health along with everything else.”

Brody’s jaw tightened. “Lawson will never go for that.”

Mitch shrugged. “Good thing he quit today, huh?”

Brody blinked, clearly shocked. But then, eyes locked on Mitch, he almost smiled. “You’re still willing to stick this out with me?”

“If that’s what you want, hell yeah,” Mitch said.

Brody wet his lips, swallowing anxiously. “Even if I come in last?”

“Even if you throw up in the pool,” Mitch assured him.

“I may be a losing prospect,” Brody said, as if to warn him.

Mitch shook his head to allay that fear once and for all. “You’re not a prospect at all to me, Brody,” he said. “You’re family.”

Because Brody could be a better swimmer than before, but that wasn’t the change that mattered. The thing that would make the difference, the thing that would make the next Olympics better than the last was the fact that Brody wasn’t doing it alone anymore. Brody knew what it was to be part of a team. He knew what it was to be part of a family.

That wasn’t a surefire way to win races.

But Mitch didn’t give a shit about that right now.

It was, without a doubt, the only way to win life.

Mitch knew that.

And he was pretty sure Brody was starting to get it, too.

-o-

Brody got plenty of food and rest, and Mitch did his best to keep the tension at a minimum. However, the next day was Brody’s first race, and there was really no way around the fact that it was terrifying for both of them.

Brody because he had to get back in the water after hurling the day before.

Mitch because he had to play the coach now, a role which he was wholly unqualified to play.

But they’d gotten this far together.

Mitch figured they might as well see where it ended up.

-o-

As it turned out, it ended up with two first place finishes over the following three days.

One was a meet best. Not quite a world record, but no one even came close to touching him.

The press would call it something like redemption.

Mitch called it what he’d known all along.

-o-

They celebrated that night, eating out before Facetiming with the whole Baywatch crew. They stayed up late since Brody had an off day tomorrow before his final round of races on the follow day.

With the action of the meet, Brody hadn’t had time to think about his head. But after being dogged by the press on his day off, Brody started to show signs of wearing thin. They watched a few of the other races, but by dinner, Brody was clearly hurting. Mitch was ready to ply him with medication and turn in early, but on the way back to their room, a familiar but unwelcome figure intercepted them.

It was Lawson.

Looking as apologetic as Mitch had ever seen him.

He was waiting outside of Brody’s room, looking almost as earnest as he had that first day he’d found Brody outside of HQ a year ago.

The timing then was perfect.

The timing now, with Brody’s mounting migraine, could not have been worse.

Mitch was ready to circumvent Lawson, but Lawson was determined. He stepped forward preemptively, ready with the apologies. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was hasty, and I was rude, and I was stupid, and I’m sorry.”

Brody, weary as he was, seemed ready to accept that.

But Mitch shook his head. “Apology is noted,” he said, hoping to edge past him and get Brody into the room. “But so is your resignation.”

Lawson laughed, like Mitch had to be telling a joke. “It was spoken in anger,” he said. “I mean, the contract--”

“Is shit,” Mitch told him. “You quit.”

“But legally speaking--”

“You wanted out, so you got it,” Mitch said. “What makes you think you can get back in now?”

Lawson laughed again, almost more incredulous than before. He looked from Mitch to Brody. “Your form was good in the first rounds,” he said. “But I can help you tweak it so you nail things in the next set. We can be looking at world record times here if we work together.”

“Look, you’re good at swimming technique,” Brody said, holding his hand to Mitch to quiet him. “And I owe you for a lot of that.”

“Yeah,” Lawson said. “I know your stroke better than anyone.”

“But this has to be more than stroke technique,” Brody said.

“Okay,” Lawson agreed. “We can work on that. I can see now that we need to work on that.”

“I hope you do,” Brody said. “With your next swimmer.”

Lawson stopped, mouth hanging open. He shook his head, chuckling as if in disbelief. “But you’re not -- you’re saying--” he started and stopped himself before his smile started to fall. “You’re really saying you don’t want me back?”

“It’s just a cost benefit analysis, right?” Brody asked. “That’s what you do, isn’t it? Look at what you gain and compare it to what you’re losing. The gains just aren’t enough when you’re on my team.”

He said it without venom, which was better than Mitch could have pulled off. He said it plainly, straightforward and utterly honest.

It cut straight to the heart.

A good man would show remorse.

Lawson, on the other hand, responded with vitriol.

Because of course he did.

“You can’t win without me,” he said, looming at Brody. “Without me, you’re going to wash out before the Olympics.”

“Maybe,” Brody said, shrugging. “But I’m okay with that.”

Lawson looked positively aghast. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, I mean, seriously,” Brody said. “This thing, this pursuit -- it’s going to take everything I have, and if I don’t have a coach who is invested in me, then there’s no way it’s worth it.”

“I’ve given up a lot for you,” Lawson protested.

Brody gave him a look. “You mean you’ve given up a lot for a gold medal.”

Lawson scoffed. “So? What’s so wrong with wanting to win?”

“Because I know better than anyone,” Brody said. “There’s a big difference between winning gold medals and being your best.”

It was wise; it was profound.

Shit, Brody had listened.

Brody had learned.

Sure, Mitch had been proud watching him come in first.

Watching this? Watching him stand up for himself and the things that mattered?

This was the reason Mitch was here.

Right here.

Lawson’s lip curled. “You’ll beg to have me back before this is over.”

Brody nodded, easing his way past him. “Thanks for everything,” he said, putting his card up to the lock mechanism on the door. He flashed a smile at Lawson, true, strong and real. “But I really doubt it.”

Mitch followed, beaming back at Lawson without saying a word.

There was nothing to add to that.

Not when Brody had just said everything.

-o-

When they were inside with the door firmly closed behind them, Mitch was grinning broadly from ear to ear. “I have wanted to tell Lawson off since I found you drunk in New York,” he said proudly.

Brody gave a little snort, sitting heavily on his bed. “And you waited six months?”

“I was trying to be diplomatic for your sake,” Mitch explained. “I thought you needed him.”

Flopping back, Brody closed his eyes and put his arm over his eyes. “I still might.”

Mitch nudged Brody’s leg. “There are other coaches out there.”

Brody peeked out from under his arm. “I don’t think I want another coach.”

“So we do it together, then,” Mitch said, shrugging. “You and me.”

Brody sat up somewhat, propping himself up on his elbows. “You don’t know anything about training for the Olympics.”

“I have been here for six months,” Mitch said. “I know a little by now.”

Brody seemed to consider this. “You really think we can do it by ourselves?”

“Why not?” Mitch said. “We did save the bay together. Twice.”

Brody was increasingly sold on the idea. “We could set our own pace.”

“Define our own rules,” Mitch said.

Brody sat up in earnest now. “It could work.”

“I can’t promise you that you’ll win,” Mitch warned him.

“I know,” Brody said.

“And I can’t even promise that doing it our way will keep the headaches away.”

Brody gave a little grimace. “I know that, too.”

“But I’ll be there for you,” Mitch promised. “To help you deal with the headaches -- and everything else that’s going to come up.”

At that, Brody smiled. “I think I like the sound of that.”

So did Mitch, for that matter.

Because after six months on the road, six months away from his home and his family, Mitch finally knew why he’d come.

And he knew why, beyond all doubt, why it was worth his while to stay.

-o-

Brody took the pills that night; he went to bed early.

The next day, they had a good breakfast and prepped for the races. Brody outpaced the competition in the preliminary rounds. The following day, he was unstoppable under pressure. This time, he beat a new world record.

The press all agreed: Brody was the one to watch. Puff pieces, exposes, front page news: everyone wanted a piece of the story about Brody’s return to glory. There was speculation about his form, his personal battles, all of it.

That was fine; it was stuff Mitch couldn’t control. Brody would need support as they navigated the increased attention, and he knew that the hard work wasn’t over yet.

In fact, Mitch knew that it was really just getting started.

The good news was that Brody had done more than win a series of races in Germany. It was even more than winning back the good graces of the press and the respect of his contemporaries.

Brody had beat one more demon. He’d beat back one more crippling self doubt.

Sure, Brody was one step closer to the Olympics, but he was also one step closer to figuring out who he was and what he was meant to do.

All the victories mattered, no doubt.

Mitch was confident that this time Brody knew which one he valued most.