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Baywatch fic: The Last Leg (4/8)

December 28th, 2018 (01:53 pm)

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT
PART NINE



-o-

At breakfast, Mitch talked nonstop. He talked about the food they were eating. He talked about reports from the rest of the field. He talked about Summer and how she was thinking of him. He talked about a modified schedule for the next few days.

Brody nodded along, half heartedly eating his food while he tried to keep his eyes from glazing over. When he was losing that fight, Mitch changed the topic. This happened so frequently that soon he was spouting random facts about how the Chicago River had had its direction reversed to help with the flow of pollution downstream.

By the time the physical therapist arrived at the hotel’s private gym, it was hard to say who was more relieved: Brody, who was tired of hearing Mitch prattle. Or Mitch, who felt like his voice was going hoarse as fast as his integrity was sinking like a rock into abject dishonesty.

Even so, the change of pace wasn’t enough to brighten Brody’s mood. If anything, the frank analysis by the woman only made Brody more morose and withdrawn.

Because she was talking reality. She was talking upbeat and optimistic.

And utterly realistic.

She was talking about work and pain and risk and mitigation.

In short, Mitch’s plan to deny, ignore and distract?

Wasn’t compatible with her plainspoken truth.

The effect was palpable on Brody.

By the end of the session, he was almost unresponsive, and Mitch found himself intervening while the therapist helped Brody back into his sling.

“So, you still think training in the pool is okay,” he ventured, even though the point had been clarified already.

If she found the question redundant, she did a great job of not showing it. “Yes, obviously,” she said. “At this point, I’d focus more on listening to his body. This kind of injury plays out different for a lot of people. For some people, it’s never a problem. Other people can tear in a day. If he starts experiencing a lot of pain or a loss of mobility, take a break. But if he seems to be tolerating things, then there’s no reason to stop.”

Brody didn’t look up as she spoke; his eyes were fixed on his lax fingers in his lap, the sling fully in place.

“And the sling?” Mitch ventured.

“Mostly a precaution, just to help healing when he’s not moving or doing his exercises,” she said. “The stretches we talked about will promote overall flexibility, which can prevent rigidity. When things are too tight, tears are more likely to happen.”

She smiled at Brody, leaning down a bit to try to meet his eye.

“You really should just relax,” she said. “All you can do is listen to yourself and do your best. But I think this is something you can still do, if you want.”

There was the rub of course.

Mitch saw Brody tense, ever so slightly.

The therapist smiled, almost apologetically. To Mitch, she nodded. “Well, if you guys need anything, I’ll be available,” she said. Then, she added to Brody, “Good luck. No matter what you decide.”

-o-

That was it, though.

Brody didn’t decide.

Mitch didn’t make him decide.

They just, sort of, kept going.

They had lunch, and after that, they were at the pool for training. Brody did a few laps, got himself wet, and his times weren’t as bad as they had been in the past, but he definitely wasn’t quite on pace. When they left, Brody was stone-faced through the horde of reporters, almost like he didn’t hear them now.

Or, more likely, that their questions simply didn’t matter.

Not when the questions Brody was asking himself were even more terrifying than the ones they were asking him.

-o-

Mitch tried to talk about it over dinner, but the conversation was one-sided and awkward. He listened through the door while Summer talked to Brody that night over the phone, and he was disappointed when they talked exclusively about how things were going at Baywatch. There were a few times when Brody said that yeah, things were fine, but he changed the topic so quickly that it was clear he’d been leaning explicitly from Mitch’s example.

Of course, Mitch could come out and ask: do you want to quit?

But then, Brody might say yes.

Brody might say no.

Worst, Brody might say, What do you think?

And how the hell was Mitch supposed to know?

For now, Brody wasn’t saying no.

Mitch would have to pretend that it was okay, then, that he wasn’t saying yes, either.

-o-

To compensate, Mitch altered their training schedule. When he presented the modified options to Brody in the morning, the response was about what Mitch had expected.

As in, Brody agreed by not saying much of anything at all.

They spent more time in the hotel gym, doing the PT exercises and using heat and cold therapy to get Brody’s pain levels down and promote mobility. Every afternoon, they made their way out to hit the pool.

And every day, Brody performed a little worse than before.

Not quite bad enough to make Mitch call it off, right then and there.

But enough to make him know that he needed a new plan.

-o-

So, finally, Mitch just said it: “Do you want to stop?”


Brody had to know this was the question that was coming. In the days since the car accident, it was the only question that had to be coming.

Brody, somehow, still had the audacity to act surprised. “What?”

“Do you want to quit training?” Mitch asked, because all his other plans were failing. Confront, confront, confront had to be on the table. “We can let your shoulder heal, go back to Baywatch.”

Brody let out a short, incredulous breath. “But I’ll never get back to this point,” he said. “Another four years? There’s no guarantee my shoulder will ever be the same, and you know that I won’t be able to maintain this level of conditioning that long. You know it. If we walk away, that’s it, Mitch. That’s it.”

Mitch didn’t deny it.

Shit, he didn’t ignore it either.

Instead, he let it stand.

Brody wavered. “Do you think I should quit?”

“I think it’s a decision that only you can make,” Mitch replied.

Brody, however, was already shaking his head. “No,” he said. “No way. I started this with your help. You think you can leave me to make the hard choices? Now?”

Mitch had tried to prepare himself for this, but he found that all his preparation was pretty useless. Because he knew Brody had a point. “This has to be about you, what you want.”

Brody exhaled again, almost catching on something like a sob. “I want the press to leave me alone,” he said. “I want everyone to shut up about my shoulder and my history with substance abuse. I want to stop answering questions about whether or not I’ve got my life together.”

Mitch felt his stomach clench.

Brody’s eyes were burning, and he shook his head. “I just want to swim, Mitch. I want that to be enough. For someone, I just want that to be enough.”

That was a simple enough request.

For anyone else in the world.

The press, they’d never agree. His friends back at Baywatch, they’d never quite understand. The competition, the sports commentators, the US Olympic committee -- they would never get it.

But there was a reason Mitch had pushed Brody into a pool two years ago.

Because that was what this was about.

That was Brody’s fear.

The water.

He needed to swim.

It was Mitch’s job to make sure he didn’t drown in the process.

“It’s your choice to make, dude,” he said. “But getting in the water, means accepting all the shit that goes with it. That means your shoulder. That means the press. That means the headlines, the time on the road, all of it, man.”

Brody closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know how to make that choice,” he admitted, opening his eyes wearily again.

“The race is in two days,” Mitch told him. “We’re kind of running out of time, buddy.”

To that, Brody had no reply.

-o-

Mitch had to do what he had to do, then. He had to leave Brody’s options open, which meant actively planning the final two days prior to competition without breaking Brody’s will in the meantime. Also, not giving Brody a permanent injury would also be pretty nice, either way things went.

This wasn’t deny, deny, deny anymore. Hell, it wasn’t even distract, distract, distract.

It was just: what the hell?

That worked about as well as you might expect.

Which was to say it wasn’t actually working at all.

Brody was training -- in pain. He was swimming -- badly. And Mitch was assuring everyone around them that things were totally under control. He told it to other coaches, who were asking under a really poor veil of concern. He told it to trainers, swimmers and anyone else who happened to be standing pool side when Brody finished another subpar lap.

He made sure to tell it to Summer basically all the time. He texted her twenty times a day, telling her in different ways that everything was absolutely one hundred percent under control. He told Stephanie and CJ and Ronnie. Hell, he even told Casey Jean, his mother and Ellerbee. He told the staff at the front desk of the hotel, even though they didn’t even ask him.

It was impossible to say whether or not they believed his lie, any of them.

Hell, it was impossible to say whether or not it was a lie.

Brody hadn’t decided yet.

And Mitch was only going to ask the question once, damn it.

Even if everyone else was going to ask and ask and ask and ask.

Mitch did a pretty good job of helping Brody avoid it most of the time.

But the second they hit the street the day before the trials started, the press converged and there was no way around it.

Brody was asked the question.

In every iteration possible.

“Matt, do you feel confident about your ability to race tomorrow?”


“Matt, are you having second thoughts about competing?”

“Matt, is it true that you’re not sure if you want to race?”

There was only so much Mitch could do. The crowd had been getting thicker, more aggressive. He could no longer manhandle his way through anymore. It was a hell of a thing, getting to the car, and Mitch was more than careful to pull away from the curb without incident.

Safely on the road, Mitch blew out the breath he’d been holding. “What do you say?” he quipped. “Should we stop for ice cream?”

Brody barely smiled. He barely looked at Mitch at all.

Not even ice cream could save them now.

-o-

All the signs had indicated that Brody was coping poorly with this situation. As in, he wasn’t coping. He was barely surviving in a way that suggested impending implosion. Mitch should have known that; he did know it.

He had just chosen to deny, ignore and ultimately distract. Himself, for the record. This wasn’t just about Brody anymore.

He’d believed, with good reason, that he was capable of maintaining this facade long enough to get through the trials. All he had to do was keep Brody in his sight until the kid hit the water, and that would be that. Brody would sink or swim, so to speak. And the choice would be made for them.

All he had to do was keep his eye on Brody.

But when they parked in the garage at the hotel, Mitch killed the engine and started to climb out. Brody was a few steps ahead of him, and Mitch was still unbuckling his seatbelt when the first flash cut across his peripheral vision.

Then he heard the footsteps.

He opened his door as more light flickered across his vision. Getting to his feet, he heard the first question as the press started to descend.

“What do you say to reports that predict failure tomorrow?”

“Is your shoulder healthy enough to compete?”

“Is it true that you’re thinking about going back to California without even getting in the pool?”

Mitch’s heart thudded. He was used to the press by now, but only in controlled contexts. Outside the pool, he knew they were inevitable. Ever since the hotel had agreed to a few security tweaks, they hadn’t been a problem.

But a day before competition?

Apparently, the urge to find a new headline outweighed the risk of breaking a few security barriers. And who the hell cared about the right to privacy anyway?

On the other side of the car, Brody was being inundated.

And Mitch, still on the driver’s side, was too far away to do anything. “Hey,” he said, trying to push his way around. “Hey, we’re walking here--”

His forward momentum had some effect, moving the crowd forward -- and taking Brody with it. It did not, however, get Mitch any closer to Brody to fend off the most invasive reporters of the bunch.

“How do you feel about your times?”

“Do you think this performance could be a bigger embarrassment than Rio?”

Mitch grunted, trying to force them away as the throng moved forward toward the entrance. He was making progress toward Brody when a flash lit up right in front of his eyes, blinding him.

He swore, the voices forming a cacophony as he tried to push forward. He groped blindly, moving on instinct now.

“No comment!” he yelled at no one in particular. The crowd gave way and Mitch felt the handle of the staff entrance. “We have no comment!”

Pushing it open, he entered with a rush, all but slamming it shut behind him as he voices continued to sound on the other side of the door. With an exhalation of relief, Mitch blinked the stars from his eyes, looking around for Brody.

“Guess they found a way past the security,” he said wryly. “We’ll have to tell the front desk. See if they can fix it.”

There was no reply, however.

Blinking a few times, Mitch realized that Brody was nowhere to be found.

-o-

For a few seconds, Mitch didn’t quite know what to think.

As in, did he just lose Brody?

How was that even possible?

He’d been on that kid like glue for the last three years. They’d been inseparable; they’d been two peas in a damn pod. Mitch had first welcomed Brody onto his team, then into his home. Then he’d up and mostly quit his job to help the moron figure out his true potential and they’d become more than family.

And now, after all that, Mitch had lost him?

He could have checked the pure melodrama -- Brody was a grown man, after all -- but Mitch went for the practical route instead. If he lost Brody, then there was one obvious solution. Now he had to find Brody.

He could find drowning people in deep, murky water.

How hard could it be to find one smart-ass Olympic-caliber swimmer in Chicago?

With that thought, he immediately opened the door again, hoping that in the melee, they’d just been separated and that Brody was still caught up in the crowd. But the instant he opened the door, that hope abated. The crowd was dispersing. In fact, his sudden reappearance hardly warranted a second glance from the retreating forms of the journalists.

“Brody?” he called, as loud as he dared for fear of attracting attention. For some reason, he looked behind a nearby trash can, peering over the top of a few cars. As if Brody might have hidden himself behind them. “Brody!”

Without an answer, Mitch considered the next logical conclusion.

Maybe Brody was hiding. Maybe the crowd had separated them and followed Brody out to the street. Given how quickly the crowd had dissipated, this seemed likely. There was no way to be sure except to check, and Mitch was keen to trust his instincts during a standard search and rescue.

Besides, he didn’t really want to start looking behind every car in the parking garage.

“Brody!” he called, letting his voice carry a little bit now. He broke into a jog, crossing the distance to the parking garage entrance with some speed. “Brody!”

He looked down the street, toward the hotel. There was still a crowd of reporters by the front door, but a few of them were starting to wean away. With no sign of Brody, he checked in the opposite direction, scanning both sides of the busy street as best he could.

“Brody!”

Eyes skimming up and down the street again, he looked for any hint of Brody’s tell-tale bleach blonde tips or his short and lean gait. He let his gaze linger in the shadows, just in case Brody was still seeking out some less expected refuge.

To be fair, nothing was expected about this. Brody’s coping skills for the press were about a zero, which was why Mitch had always tried to intervene quickly and forcefully. Because Brody could crack, he could fold. Shit, he could just fall apart completely. He might say stupid shit. He might just cry. Mitch didn’t want to know.

So where the hell was Brody now?

Trusting his instincts a little more, Mitch jogged down to the front of the hotel. A few of the reporters recognized him, beginning to approach him for questions. It occurred to Mitch to ask them where Brody was; but then, if they knew that, they probably wouldn’t be stalking the front of his hotel. More than that, they wouldn’t be wasting their time with Mitch when Brody was the real story.

Instead, Mitch blew them off, ducking in the front door in the hope that Brody had snuck inside during the bustle. The lobby had been kept mercifully clear of journalists, and at this time of day, there wasn’t much activity. He had to ring the bell at the front desk, waiting a few moments before an employee appeared from the back room.

“Yes, can I help you, Mr. Buchannon?” she asked.

“Yeah, Ruby,” Mitch said, because it had been prudent to get to know the staff in order to request accommodations. Also, it was just easy for Mitch to make fast friends no matter where he was. He honestly didn’t know why Brody made it seem so weird or hard. “I, uh, was wondering if Brody had been this way.”

“Oh,” she said, looking vaguely concerned out of obvious respect for Mitch’s question. “Did you lose your room key?”

“No, no,” Mitch said quickly. “Nothing like that. We, uh, just got separated.”

She looked somewhat relieved, even as she tried not to show it. This wasn’t a problem to pin on her; this was just a problem. Her smile was sympathetic now. “I can’t say I’ve seen him, though the front has been strangely quiet today.”

“I think they figured out our parking garage solution,” Mitch said. “You may want to think about upping the security there.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Yes, I’ll certainly have them look into it.”

“But you haven’t seen him?” Mitch pressed.

“No, not recently,” she said. “And never without you, come to think of it.”

Mitch’s smile twisted wryly. “If you see him, tell him to call me,” he said.

“Will do, Mr. Buchannon,” she said warmly. “Have a lovely day!”

-o-

The day was far from lovely, but Mitch’s suggestion didn’t just apply to Brody. Muttering a curse that it took him this long to think of it, he took out his phone. Brody’s name was the first contact. He dialed it, letting it ring as he traced a path between the front desk and the windows and back again.

It went straight to voicemail.

Shit.

Mitch had worked so hard to train Brody to stop checking his phone that now Brody had officially stopped checking his phone. This had been intended to keep Brody from obsessing over the press coverage. They had barely used their phones between the two of them in the last two years. There wasn’t any need. If Brody went somewhere, Mitch was always a step behind.

Always.

Without fail.

Until today.

Mitch put his phone away and cursed again. This day was so far from lovely that it wasn’t even funny.

The front desk was a bust; he could check the room. Brody would do that, right? He’d go up to the room? That would be the smart, rational, simple thing to do.

That was probably why Brody didn’t do it.

Mitch took the stairs two at a time to get up to their floor, and he half kicked the door down in anticipation. He was almost yelling Brody’s name as he entered, calling again as he search the front room, the bathroom, and even his own back bedroom.

He looked from top to bottom a second time, for good measure. In case, you know, Brody felt like hiding.

Which would totally happen.

Never.

It would totally happen never.

But then, where was Brody?

-o-

Mitch wasn’t panicking.

That wasn’t the kind of guy he was. He was Mitch Buchannon. He was the heart, soul and head of Baywatch. He was the guy who handled peril on a daily basis. He handled it -- shit, he conquered it. He could dive into a riptide. He could swim through fire. He had the tenacity of a shark and the longevity of a whale and damn it, he was oceanic.

The ocean didn’t panic.

So, obviously, Mitch wasn’t panicking either.

He was just looking for Brody in a highly motivated fashion.

Quickly.

And with force.

Because that was the rational thing to do when you lost your best friend turned Olympic hopeful after a series of unfortunate events has led to serious mood disturbances, a lack of confidence and a possible career-ending injury.

Mitch charged back down to the lobby, pushing through the doors to check the street again. The press recognized him even faster this time, and it took Mitch’s self control not to snap them in two for being such opportunistic bastards with a penchant for miscommunication.

“Is Matt ready for competition this week?”

“Do you think that there’s a danger he’s going to crash and burn?”

“How confident do you feel in Matt’s ability to compete his week?”

These bastards did little to instill much faith in journalistic integrity, but Mitch didn’t have any energy to spare on their persistent inanity. He had to find Brody; he had to find Brody now. He had to focus on that, because that was what Mitch did in crisis. He focused on the problem; he found a solution. He didn’t panic.

Mitch wasn’t panicking now.

He totally wasn’t panicking.

Mitch was not panicking.

“Does Matt’s history of disaster concern you at all?”

“Can you tell us about the measure you’re taking to keep Matt from sabotaging his own success?”

“At this point, do you sincerely believe that Matt Brody has a career that can be salvaged?”

He was starting to hate them. Hate them, hate them, in a way Mitch wasn’t usually capable of. He liked to think most people in life were just trying to do their best, and sometimes they were assholes for reasons that didn’t need to be explained mostly because it was no skin off Mitch’s back. He wasn’t about to let idiots get him down. But these people, these journalists, they were relentless, and Mitch knew it was their job, but damn it, what did it say about people that they picked this as their profession?

“Do you regret your decision to coach Matt?”

“Do you think that there’s a reason no other coach bothered to take him on?”

“Is it possible that your decision to join Matt on the road is the worst one you’ve ever made?”

Mitch gritted his teeth together, hissing out the only two words he could speak without unleashing something far, far worse. “No comment.”

Even as he said it, he pushed past them, moving back toward the door. If he had been Brody, they probably would have followed. As it was, he was the lesser story, so they let him pass for what that was worth. Mitch couldn’t exactly call it a blessing, though. Not when all he really wanted was for Brody to be next to him and not…

Wherever he was.

Moving past the front desk, Mitch wasn’t sure what to do. He could check the room again, as if Brody might have been lurking in the hotel and made his way back up there while Mitch was preoccupied. He could try calling, but he knew that was an even more pointless task.

No, Brody was gone.

He was beyond Mitch’s reach right now.

And standing there, adrift in the lobby of a hotel in Chicago, Mitch was struck with the notion that he might have been out of Mitch’s grasp for longer than he’d realized. A lot longer than he’d allowed himself to consider.

After all, how did they get here?

Not just Chicago; not just the Olympic trials. No, those things had been part of the plan.

But that was about it. The rest of this? The whole damn mess? This was nothing Mitch had planned -- and he knew for sure that Brody had never planned any of it.

Though, he had to wonder, if maybe Brody had seen it coming. Maybe this, right here, was why Brody had been so damn scared of the pool back in California. Maybe this was why two years ago Brody hadn’t wanted to jump in, because he knew, he knew what was coming.

Mitch had given him that first push.

And here they were, spiraling out of control so wide, so fast, so wild, that Mitch didn’t even know which way was up. It was worse than a riptide, which could push and pull you in all directions. That was easy compared to this shit.

This shit didn’t just try to drown you.

It gave you the illusion of control before you finally came up breathless. At least a riptide didn’t screw around with you. It kept you under until you died. This whole shit-fest let it go on and on and on.

It wasn’t just the press, either. Sure, they were having a field day with this shit. They were making up stories, creating headlines, selling papers, garnering clicks. Brody going off the rails was what people wanted to read. The fact that it was a story that everyone loved, that no one questioned, only made it worse for Brody.

Mitch had tried to deny it.


He’d tried to ignore it.

He’d tried to distract him.

He’d tried everything.

Trying and succeeding weren’t the same thing, though. That was a fine point that Mitch had never had to learn like this before. It wasn’t that he’d thought any of this would be easy, but maybe he just hadn’t thought it would be so hard.

Or just how much was at stake.

His job, his career, his reputation. Those were probably expendable.

But Brody’s sanity? His sense of self? His ability to cope?

Mitch had pretended like none of that shit was real. He’d denied, ignored, distracted, and here he was. Wondering like hell if he was too late to salvage anything.

Then, as chance would have it, Mitch looked up.

There was no clarity, no answer, no certainty.

There was, however, Brody.

Across the lobby, obscured from the front door and offset from the desk area. There he was.

Just sitting there.

Not running.

Not hiding.

Just sitting as easy as you please.

Right at the hotel bar.

With a drink in front of him.

Mitch’s stomach sank, and he felt a chill rush down his spine and settle throughout his limbs with a sudden and ferocious cold that threatened to weigh him down entirely. His tongue felt heavy; his throat was tight. His ears started to ring, and he tried to swallow but failed.

It wasn’t the place Mitch had even though to look. It hadn’t even crossed his mind, not once. He thought about checking hospitals, police stations, the pool. He’d considered going back to the museum, going to the car, going to the ice cream shop.

Yet, seeing Brody there, poised on the stool at the bar, drink on the counter in front of him, it wasn’t a surprise.

It couldn’t be a surprise.

Not when Mitch knew Brody. Not when he knew how alcohol was Brody’s most convenient, most reliable vice. It was stupid and effective, especially good for making him effectively stupid. Brody never admitted it, but Mitch still knew. Brody used alcohol as an escape mechanism, to forget his problems, but he also used it as his means of self destruction. If he could get hammered enough, then all the stupid choices he made had a reason. Alcohol was his scapegoat. It was what he could blame his poor performance in Rio on. It was what he’d blamed his implosion during his early days with Baywatch. Haven’t you ever gotten drunk and said something you didn’t mean?

Mitch hadn’t, but Brody had. Brody always did. He didn’t know any other way to cope when you got right down to it.

That was why he’d come this far. This was why Mitch had left everything behind for Brody’s sake. Seeing him drunk and alone in a motel room had shown Mitch that Brody wasn’t ready to be left to his own devices just not. Because, if given the chance, he’d run straight back to the bottle.

Every single time.

This was why Mitch had come.

And, seeing Brody there, swirling the amber liquid around in his glass, Mitch was struck by the reality that it could also be the reason that they called this whole fiasco off, once and for all.

Because Mitch had made a lot of sacrifices. More than he’d even stopped to take account of. He’d compromised more than he’d intended, and he’d played fast and loose with things he might have once thought too important to fuss with. Brody’s physical well being? He’d let it slide. Brody’s stress? He’d let it ebb and flow, rise and fall. Some of that was a necessary part of getting this far; there was no way to do it without crossing a few lines.

But if Brody took that drink.

If Brody broke that promise.

The promise he’d made to Mitch.

The promise Mitch had made to Brody.

The promise Brody had made to himself.

Then it was time to go home.

All the headaches, all the wins, all the sensational headlines, all the art museums. None of that shit mattered if Brody was willing to take the drink and defeat himself.

The things Mitch was willing to compromise, and he’d found his bottom line. He’d found his final line in the sand. He’d found the hill he was willing to die on.

It was time to make the stand.

It was time to take action.

Mustering up his courage, Mitch found the strength to move. Still, his feet felt wooden and strange as he crossed the lobby, and his entire body felt like it was weighted down as he entered the restaurant. Each footfall was deliberate and heavy, getting worse the closer he got, until he was standing right next to Brody.

Brody, still staring at his drink, didn’t look up. He didn’t flinch, not even as Mitch drew out the stool next to him and sat down. He still didn’t cast his eyes toward when Mitch nodded at the bartender, asking for one of whatever Brody was drinking and put his elbows up on the counter to wait.

They were silent as the bartender poured the drink, leaving them both sitting there, drinks in front of them, eyes cast forward.

“You’re not going to yell?” Brody finally asked.

Mitch shrugged. “Tell me why I should.”

At that, Brody laughed, short, hard and cynical. He bowed his head, picking up the glass off the table to slosh the liquid again. “I haven’t had a sip yet, if it matters,” he admitted. Something pained crossed his expression. “It was the first place I came, though. First thought I had. The only thought I had. You were gone, and I was by myself, and all I wanted was a drink. This drink, right here. I still want it.”

Honesty was about as much as Mitch could hope for right now. It was a place to start at least. At the very least, Brody had never hesitated before.

A thousand thoughts crossed Mitch’s mind. Condemnation, relief, consternation.

Uncertainty.

Hope.

This wasn’t over yet, though.

Worse, this wasn’t Mitch’s choice to make. He knew his line in the sand, sure, but it was Brody who had to pick whether or not he wanted to cross it. Mitch had pushed Brody in the pool because he knew what Brody wanted. This time, he didn’t know. This time, he could push.

This time Brody had to jump.

Mitch would be there whether he sank or swam.

He picked up his own drink, swirling it experimentally. “Well, we’re here now, I guess,” he mused.

Brody’s face contorted, bitter and bittersweet.

Mitch shrugged, lifting his eyes to make contact with Brody. “If you want to drink, we drink together,” he said, matter of fact, simple as that. “Or we put these down, walk out of this bar, sober together. I’m here, right by your side, either way.”

The color had drained from Brody’s face; his taut expression was almost agonized.

Mitch felt his heart twist, but he couldn’t offer more than he was already giving. If he took this choice from Brody, if he made it for him, then they would never move beyond this. Brody would always be stuck here, in a bar with a drink in his hand, not sure if he had the fortitude to abstain or the sheer abandoned to take the drink. It was wrong to think of this as a moral quandary with a truth and a lie. It was more like a personal decision, the chance to define oneself.

Mitch meant what he said, he’d be with Brody either way. If he was ready to leave it behind, then Mitch would stay by his side. But if Brody wasn’t ready, if he wasn’t strong enough, Mitch would stay and help him grapple with that. Neither choice would be easy; neither would be without consequence.

In some ways, Mitch was glad it wasn’t his choice to make.

He swallowed, nodding a few more times to collect his own strength once more. “But just know this,” he said, not to scare Brody but just so he knew the full range of implications. Someone needed to say it; that was a job Mitch wouldn’t shirk. “If you take the drink, right here, right now, if you take this drink, we’re done with racing. We’re walking away from this whole thing once and for all, going back to Baywatch and putting the Olympics behind us. And that’s not wrong, okay? But we can’t move ahead on this particular journey if you take that drink. I’ll help you build another one, any one you want, but this journey is over if you take the drink.”

Brody’s eyes were bright as he stared at the drink, harder than ever. After several long, spent moments, Brody finally spoke. “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted, and this time, his voice was small and strained, so heavy with emotion that there was barely any depth to it at all. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Then we’ll sit here, you and me,” Mitch vowed. “Until you figure it out.”

-o-

It sounded easy when Mitch said it. The words, they weren’t complicated. The idea, in abstract, wasn’t even complicated. It was a simple choice; a straightforward choice. Take the drink; leave it on the bar. There was no in-between, no halfway, no compromise. There was nothing ambiguous in the terms, and Mitch knew Brody had no confusion as to its significance.

That was, naturally, the problem. Brody had no ambiguity. Brody knew exactly and inexorably at stake. Both options had difficult long term implications. The emotional toll for either would be substantial.

The fact that Brody had to think about it was, in and of itself, a sign of growth. Two years ago, he might have hesitated. Three years ago, when he first joined Baywatch, he probably would have hated himself when he took the drink. Back in Rio, before he ever came to Baywatch, he wouldn’t have known anything resembling regret until after the consequences were burying him.

But tonight, two days before the Olympic trials, Brody sat sober and anxious, not sure what he wanted to do. Did he want the fast and easy out? Or did he want the long term struggle with no promise of any return on the investment?

Mitch didn’t say anything else. He didn’t pick up his drink, and he didn’t leave Brody’s side. When the bartender looked them over uncertainly, Mitch smiled politely to wave him off. This was a decision that needed time and space. Brody was fast in the pool, outside the pool, he needed to be deliberate and careful.

The minutes became hours. The bar got busy, then cleared out. By the end of the night, when the wait staff was cleaning up, Brody was still hunched over the bar, staring at the drink in his hand. Mitch tipped the bartender to give them a little extra time, a little extra space.

On the stool next to him, Brody showed no signs of noticing.

The background music was shut off, and most of the wait staff had left while the manager counted what was in the drawer. Looking at Brody, Mitch waited a second longer.

Just long enough for Brody to tremble.

He inhaled, shaking. He blinked a few times before his face crumpled and he shook his head. When he exhaled, it was a sob, and he squeezed his eyes shut as he ducked his head down.

The manager and bartender glanced at them, but Mitch edged closer to Brody protectively. Part of him wanted to speak, to intervene, but he’d waited this long.

All it took was another moment more.

“I want this drink so, so bad,” he admitted, barely controlling his sobs as the tears started to fall. “I’ve never wanted a drink more.”

“I told you, no judgment here,” Mitch said. “I’m not here to tell you what to do. I mean what I say. I’ll go home with you first thing tomorrow, if that’s what you want. We can drink; we can pack our shit; and never look back.”

With the next inhale, Brody sobbed again. “But the team,” he said, wiping his nose hastily. “Summer and the others. They’re all counting on me. They’ve all supported me all this time. You’ve given up so much -- they’ve given up so much. If I quit now, if I walk away -- I’d disappoint them. I can’t do that to them, not after all they’ve done for me.”

Brody had come to Baywatch without any idea how to be part of a team.

Now, here he was, desperately trying to do his best by them.

It was a sign of how far he’d come. Mitch wanted to celebrate that, but he also didn’t want to stop Brody now -- not when it wasn’t clear how far he might make it yet.

“This isn’t about them,” Mitch reminded him. “And besides, that’s not how family works. They love you, Brody, just like I do. They’re going to be here for you, no matter what you pick now.”

Brody shook his head, utterly unconvinced. “If I wash out now, then all the tabloids are right,” he said. “I’ll be proving to everyone that I haven’t got it. That this whole thing was a shitty experiment that I failed. You all defended me. I put you all through that. And if I walk away now, then it’s for nothing. Nothing, Mitch. It can’t be for nothing.”

Mitch drew a measured breath. “None of us are in this for gold medals, jackass,” he quipped gently. “We’re here because of you, not because you win or lose or whatever.”

Brody sniffled sloppily. “But the press--”

“They’re going to sell their shit either way,” Mitch said. “That’s background noise, man.”

With another sob, Brody shuddered. “They’re right, though. They’re all right about me. I’m a washout. I’m a failure.”

“Hey,” Mitch said, nudging him. “You can’t let them tell your story. You’re not doing this for headlines. You’re doing it for yourself, and that’s why I’m here -- why the team is behind you. Because we want to see you finish your story, tell it on your terms. Don’t listen to those assholes.”

Shaky, Brody seemed unable to speak for a moment, his emotions barely in check. He was visibly trembling now, his entire body so taut that it looked like he might physical fall apart. He was at the breaking point, and Mitch knew it. They were standing at the edge of the pool again, and this time, Mitch had to make sure Brody made the jump.

One way or another.

“You get to pick the ending of your story, man,” Mitch told him, because that was the only truth that he could offer now. He couldn’t promise anything about the consequences or the ramifications or how hard or easy something might be. He could only promise that the choice was his. That was the part that made it powerful. It was also the part that made it terrifying. “You decide how far you take this crazy-ass dream. It could end in the pool, tomorrow or a year from now at the Olympics. Or it could end right here, tonight, in this bar at the bottom of a glass.”

This time, when Brody took a breath, he managed to lift his head to look at Mitch for the first time since he’d sat down. His eyes were bright; his composure was at its thinnest edge. “I’m scared, Mitch,” he confessed, voice no more than a whisper.

Mitch’s chest clenched. It would be melodramatic to say his heart felt like it was breaking, but damn it, it felt like his heart was shattering right there and then. “I know,” Mitch said. “I’m a little scared, too.”

It wasn’t an admission Mitch particularly wanted to make, not even to himself. But it wasn’t one he could deny Brody, not now. He couldn’t deny it, ignore it or distract away from it. For once, the plan was embrace, embrace, embrace.

For a moment, Brody’s expression broke and he was engulfed by a sob. The keening noise lasted for a long moment, while Brody gave in to the swell of emotions he’d been keeping at bay all night. All week. All year, for that matter. When he drew his next breath, however, he swallowed it back. His eyes were red and wet when he looked at Mitch again, but there was something different in them.

Something resolved.

Where there had been uncertainty, there was fortitude.

Brody had made his choice.

With a nod, Brody swallowed. He pushed the drink forward and got off the stool. “Come on,” he said, voice still hoarse with emotions. “Let’s go up to the room.”

Mitch followed, a few motions behind him.

Brody drew another breath, this one more solidifying than the last. “I’ve got to race tomorrow.”

Step by step out of the bar, Brody led the way.

And Mitch smiled the whole way behind.

-o-

The choice was made, that much was true.

That didn’t mean it was easy.

That was the thing about choices, after all. They had consequences. Some for the better.

And some for the worse.

Mitch had to think Brody had made the right choice last night, the one that would serve him best in the long run. However, in the short term?

Yeah, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be easy.

That night, Brody didn’t sleep. Mitch could hear him in the next room, snuffling and shuffling, turning over and over and over in bed. He went to the bathroom several times, probably for no reason other than restlessness, and when Mitch finally got up in the morning, Brody was already awake on his bed, wide-eyed and weary as he played a mindless game on his phone.

After Brody removed his sling, he did his stretches. Mitch ordered breakfast in, but Brody could hardly touch it. When he finished, he looked more unsettled than before, and as Mitch packed up their things to head off to the pool, Brody went very, very pale and rushed himself into the bathroom. The walls were thin enough, and Brody was moving so fast that he didn’t quite get the door closed. Mitch could hear him hurling.

Standing frozen in his spot, Mitch wasn’t sure what to do. Slowly, he put the bag he was packing down, listening as Brody continued to throw up, thoroughly emptying the contents of his stomach, ensuring that there was nothing left of the sparse breakfast left. When Brody finally flushed, Mitch waited several more minutes before tentatively making his way back to the bathroom.

It wasn’t like it wasn’t something Mitch hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t like there was anything resembling pride between them. Mitch had seen Brody at his worse -- shit, he’d seen Brody at his absolutely most helpless. He’d performed CPR on the guy, for goodness sakes. A little vomit didn’t exactly bother him.

The implications, however, were reason to give him pause.

Especially since he didn’t know how Brody would respond to the implications.

Vomiting was a thing for Brody, after all.

Vomiting on a race day was a huge thing.

Like, it was the only thing.

Brody had made his choice, but sticking to that choice was clearly going to be easier said than done. Mitch had a sudden pang of fear that this incident would be the catalyst to make Brody crumple again.

Or worse, it was a sign that he was rejecting his choice from last night.

Mitch wasn’t sure which option was worse.

In the doorway, he lingered for a moment, watching as Brody spat a few times into the toilet before slumping miserably to the floor.

“You okay?” Mitch asked, bracing himself for an answer he wasn’t sure he wanted. He’d promised to stay, no matter what, and Mitch was a man of his word, but damn. Brody did like to make this shit hard.

Brody’s face was sweaty and pale. Exhausted, he didn’t look up when he spoke. “No.”

There was no doubt that the single syllable was the truth. Doubt did exist, however, as to what it meant. There were a lot of ways not to be okay. Some involved surrender. Others were all about the fight. Mitch couldn’t quite tell where they were at this morning.

He waited a moment, licking his lips. “You want to do this today?”

It was more than racing. It was the physical toll, the public scrutiny, the emotional drain. It was all of that and so much more.

Brody made a face, tipping his head back with his eyes squeezed shut. “No.”

Mitch’s heart skipped a beat, but he forced himself to remain calm. “Are we quitting then?”

The only way to ask the question was to ask it, and they were so far past the point of pretense that it just wasn’t funny.

Brody opened his eyes, looking at Mitch. Tired and miserable as Brody was, there was something solidified in his gaze. Something decided. Brody had proven himself capable of following through when shit got hard. During the case with Anikka Leeds, he’d forged on even when Mitch had been ready to walk away.

It took a lot for Brody to find that resolve.

He’d found it once in a warehouse filled with drugs.

Now, sick and scared in a motel room in Chicago, he had found it again.

Shaky, maybe.

But still wholly resolved.

“Hell, no,” was his stolid reply.

Mitch allowed himself to be skeptical even as his chest swelled. “You sure?” he asked, reaching down to help Brody up. The kid winced at the pressure to his still tender shoulder. The sling was still off. At this point, there was little to be gained by using it before the race.

On his feet, Brody took a minute to get his bearings. He inhaled through his nose several times, exhaling in steady bursts. “Well, hurling now is really the best timing. Iv3 got nothing left in my stomach to hurl during the race.”

Mitch made a face. “I meant your shoulder.”

“Oh,” Brody said, as though he’d genuinely forgot. “That.”

Mitch rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that.”

Experimentally, Brody rolled his shoulder, not bothering to hide his grimace. “It still feels like shit.”

Worried, Mitch found himself frowning. “Do you need to rest it?”

Brody’s look was both quizzical and incredulous. “I need to finish this thing,”he said plainly. “Once and for all.”

The frown turned to a grin, and Mitch didn’t have it in him to keep it in check. Obviously, pain was bad, and Mitch had good reason to worry about Brody’s shoulder. But he’d made his choice.

Brody has made his choice.

And Mitch could not ask for more.

“Okay, then,” he said, patting Brody on the back. “Then we have a race to get to.”

-o-

The thing about Brody was this: he was a mess outside the water. Sure, sometimes he had it together. Other times, he was a walking disaster. It was impossible to tell which way it would go with Brody, especially when he was away from Baywatch this long. Outside the water, he was inconsistent and sloppy and pretty much unpredictable. He had no instinct for it, Mitch supposed. Dry land left him second guessing every decision, and his impulses were wrong as often as they were right.

But the other thing about Brody was this: when he was in the water, when the race started, when he submerged himself -- that was when he came alive. Brody’s instincts all made sense in the water; his decision making was confident, fluid and almost unimpeachable. There was probably a reason for that, some deep psychological grounding, but Mitch didn’t care about that.

He only cared about the fact that Brody took to the block, stood at ready, and dove in with the rest of the swimmers at the starting tone.

And that was the only choice Brody had to make.

All the rest was instinct.

In the water, Brody was perfect. His form was flawless, and his speed was blistering. Within one length of the pool, he was clearly in first place. By the second lap, he was nearly a full body length ahead. When he came in first, the whole crowd exploded with cheers, and Mitch was almost blinded by the ferocity of the cameras as they captured a glimpse of Brody, looking up in wonder at the edge of the pool.

Mitch could see him, breathing heavily, getting his bearings, trying to figure out if he’d won. He didn’t realize it yet, even though everyone else knew beyond all doubt.

Matt Brody was returning to the Olympics.

-o-

Brody dominated his first race, but it was only first. This took the better part of the first day of trials, and then Brody’s events were spread out over the remaining days. The press speculated that a downfall was coming in later events, but Mitch knew better. Brody’s entire demeanor had changed. His confidence had been revitalized. He approached each day with purpose and vigor, and despite the soreness in his shoulder, there was no sign of anything holding him back.

He qualified in his second event.

Then he secured his place in the third.

The press had had their doubts, but they were more than happy to cash in on Brody’s success. Mitch resented that just a little, but he was too busy trying to keep Brody’s high in check to worry about that. It had changed faster than Mitch had anticipated, honestly. For all that he’d believed in Brody, he still found the sudden change a shock.

All the trials of the last week. All the stress of the last two years. All of it changed, just like that.

Brody had gone into the water doubting everything.

When he came out, he believed, maybe for the first time since they’d started this journey together, that he could do it.

That he would do it.

That he was going back to the Olympics.

That he could win another gold medal.

That he could put his past behind him, that he would never again be remembered as the Vomit Comet.

Two years, Mitch had supported Brody to get to this point.

Two years, and this was the first time that Brody seemed to actualize the possibility for himself.

The change, needless to say, was dramatic.

Brody had spent the last two years dreading the press coverage. He’d literally been running from them all last week. After the close of the trials, when the press were waiting outside the venue, Brody didn’t shy away.

Instead, he smiled broadly for the cameras and answered the first question.

“How does it feel to be going back?”

“Great, honestly,” Brody said. Mitch stood by his side, protective by instinct, but Brody showed no signs of needing interference. “It’s really an honor, and I hope to do my country proud.”

“What would say is responsible for such a dominating performance?”

“You know, just hard work, really,” Brody said. He flashed a grin at Mitch. “The support of the people I care about. I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. This victory is as much theirs as it is mine.”

It was surprisingly humble, for some reason. It was rational, respectful and really good. Brody could be an idiot in front of a camera when he was scared or stressed. But when he was feeling secure in himself? Damn, the kid didn’t need a press agent at all right now.

“Are you at all worried about how you’ll handle the pressure of the world stage? Your performance at Rio started out just as dominating, and it ended much worse.”

Mitch tensed, but Brody smiled defectively. “You know, of course it’s on my mind. It’s been on everyone’s mind -- mine more than the rest, let me promise you,” he said with due self deprecation. But he showed no sign of instability. No sign of uncertainty. “But I’m not the same guy that I was back in Rio. I’ve got good people around me now.”

“And you think that will be enough to secure your place on the medal stand?”

Brody looked to Mitch, beaming. For all the doubt, there was hope now. For all the misery, there was finally relief. “I can’t say for sure,” he said. “But I think I’m ready to find out.”

-o-

Brody worked the press for the better part of a half hour. Mitch had a hard time relaxing; each question made him flinch. But Brody handled it with aplomb.

Seriously, the dude was perfect.

He was funny and modest; he was confident and clear. He talked reasonably about his performance, and he had clear ideas about the field and his training regimen going forward. He spoke highly of the US swimming team, praising his competitors, and voicing opinions about the strongest players on the field. He even knew enough about the international scene to have realistic speculation about the probable leaders, and Mitch couldn’t help but be proud.

Not just because he’d been the one to teach Brody all that shit.

But that Brody was being the guy Mitch knew he could be.

Like, he was being the best possible version of him.

This was the guy who had finished the initial Leeds investigation almost by himself. This was the guy who had stayed undercover despite obvious personal risks and Mitch’s own flailing. This was the guy who had proven himself to the Baywatch team and earned his place among the best lifeguards of the world.

This was the guy who Mitch had taken into his home.

Into his heart.

Shit, this was the guy.

Mitch had known he was there all along.

This was the first time that he thought Brody believed it, too.

Sure, Mitch felt good that Brody had kept the headaches at bay. He felt great that Brody’s shoulder was doing as well as could be expected. And it had felt downright amazing to watch Brody qualify for his events with such complete ease.

None of those feelings compared to this, though.

Watching Brody realize who he was meant to be.

Suddenly, all the hardship, all the sacrifice, all the lackluster and makeshift plans were all worth it.

Not because Brody was going to the Olympics.

But because Brody finally saw that the journey was his to own.