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Baywatch fic: The Last Leg (5/9)

December 28th, 2018 (01:55 pm)

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


-o-

By the time they got back to the hotel, it was late. After talking to the press, there had been plenty of discussion with the US Olympic team about what happened next. Mitch had been given a full packet of information, and there were disclosures to sign and calendars to validate. Mitch had to learn about Olympic protocol. He had to learn about testing dates, team meetings, insurance waivers, flight schedules and more. There was information about the formation of team events, and designated practice facilities.

Mitch was used to paperwork through his position at Baywatch, but seriously. Going to the Olympics was a detailed-oriented headache when you weren’t in the damn pool.

That didn’t even get Mitch started on sponsors.

They were calling now. Like, actually calling. Mitch promised that he’d follow up after he received official offers -- and after he hired a damn lawyer to help him make sense of the legal obligations involved in the excess of fine print.

By the time Mitch got off the phone with a few of the other coaches located in California -- to discuss possible meets for team building experiences -- it was well past midnight. Back in the room, Brody was passed out next to his phone, a message from Summer still awaiting reply. Mitch replied back on Brody’s behalf, explaining that they were both exhausted and were looking forward to seeing everyone tomorrow.

Summer said that was fine, they were all still awake in California. Celebrating, she said. Everyone was so excited for them to come home.

Mitch thought about that: coming home.

It was time to come home.

Mitch went to bed tired that night.

He went to bed happy.

Mostly, he went to bed ready for what was going to come next.

-o-

It had been a long day

Shit, it’d been a long week.

A long month?

Try a long couple of years.

Needless to say, Mitch slept very well that night.

-o-

In the morning, Mitch felt awesome.

It was funny. Back at Baywatch, he always woke up feeling awesome. And sure, there were plenty of times during the last two years when he’d woken up ready to face the world. It was just that the last week had been nothing but nonstop anxiety. In fact, he hadn’t realized how long it’d been building.

Not until he was here, feeling good again.

For what felt like the first time in ages.

It was the way a man felt refreshed when he accomplished his goal. When he had done what he set out to do. When he had done his best and it had been more than enough in the end.

Plus, he was going home.

Back to Baywatch.

Mitch missed Baywatch so damn much. He was more than ready to pack up, head out and get back to California.

As ready as he was, he was surprised to find Brody less ready.

In fact, he was surprised to find Brody huddled anxiously at the end of his bed, browsing through his phone. It was a familiar sight -- one Mitch had sought to stop a little over a week ago. It wasn’t one he’d been worried about remotely, not after Brody’s performance this week -- in the pool and otherwise.

Mitch felt his trepidation twinge. “Hey, bud,” he said, trying to sound casual as he gathered up a few wayward items. “You ready to go?”

It was a silly question, answered by the unkempt state of Brody’s things. His suitcase was still unzipped and open, and Brody was still in his shorts and t-shirt.

“I thought we’d get to the airport early,” Mitch suggested, as easily as he could. “I’m really looking forward to getting back.”

Because Mitch had spent a lot of time with deny, deny, deny. It was a relief that honesty was a policy he could embrace again.

He regarded Brody skeptically.

Or could he?

“What are you looking at?” Mitch asked, peering over Brody’s shoulder nonchalantly.

Brody didn’t try to stop him, and Mitch’s heart sank. It was the day’s news. Brody’s picture was beneath a headline.

“Dude,” Mitch said. He reached down to take the phone, but Brody pulled it from his reach. “What did I tell you about that?”

“It’s not like that anymore,” Brody said, doggedly keeping the phone from Mitch’s grasp. “I mean, these headlines aren’t bad.”

Mitch skimmed them again, and he had to admit Brody was right. The headlines were over the top in the other direction, painting Brody as the comeback kid. That was good.

So why did Brody not look like it was good?

“Okay,” he said, leaving Brody reluctantly. He continued gathering a few items to try to tidy things up in preparation for checking out. “Then what’s up?”

Brody made a short, breathless sound. One of disbelief. “Just these stories,” he said. “I mean, they’re really good.”

Mitch wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. His instincts told him that Brody was saying that it was good, but there was something decidedly not good going on. “What do you mean?”

“Like, before. When I hadn’t qualified. All they could write about was how I was going to screw things up,” Brody said, shaking his head as he skimmed another story. “The wrote about this guy who was a total disaster, destined to fail.”

“Those stories were fake,” Mitch said. “Speculation.”

Brody shook his head again, looking up at Mitch. “But that was a story I knew,” he said. “That guy they wrote about? That walking disaster? The Vomit Comet? I knew that guy. I recognized him.”

The clarity in Brody’s earnestness made it impossible to respond.

Looking back at the screen, Brody exhaled heavily. “This guy they’re writing about now,” he said. “He’s not anybody I know.”

There it was. The vulnerability in it all. In the moment, Brody could ride the adrenaline and claim the journey as his own. Alone, in the quiet, Brody was faced with the disparity that he didn’t know how to reconcile. He wasn’t able to see that this wasn’t some change out of nowhere. He wasn’t able to see the slow but steady growth. He hadn’t been able to watch the transformation as cleanly as Mitch had.

The press were sold on the story. Everyone at Baywatch had been more than ready. Mitch had known it was possible.

The last person to believe was Brody.

The last person and the only one that mattered.

“Maybe you haven’t seen him before, but I have,” Mitch said.

Brody looked up again, surprised.

Mitch shrugged, continuing. “The first time I saw him was on the beach. He’d just gotten smashed the night before, acted like a dick and blew off all his responsibilities. But he came back the next morning. He came back and apologized. He came back to make it right when everyone expected him to walk away.”

Brody swallowed, a little tremulous. His expression was wavering.

Mitch pressed on. He had to now. Some journeys, after all, were ones you had to finish. “And I saw him again, when I was fired. When he had every reason to drop the investigation, when no one trusted him or liked him, and he finished the case. He found the flakka. He did that, almost entirely on his own,” Mitch said, holding Brody’s gaze a little more firmly now. “And I knew him, better than anything, when I wanted to bow out of the undercover op and he insisted that he had to finish. Not for his stupid plea deal, but for his team. He risked his life for his team, and he never once complained about it.”

Mitch nodded, pointing at the image of Brody at the press conference.

“That’s the same guy,” he said. “He’s the one I’ve known all this time.”

This time, Brody put down his phone. His expression did more than waver, now; it almost broke. “And you think it’s changed because I won some stupid race?”

“No,” Mitch said, with growing certainty now. “I think it’s changed because you finally see yourself this way for the first time. I think it’s changed because you’re ready.”

Face crumpling, Brody let out a sob he couldn’t quite hold back. “Am I?” he asked, more shakily than ever.

“Shit, Mitch,” Brody said, inhaling sharply as the tears started to fall. “Am I?”

Heart aching, Mitch sat down carefully on the edge of the bed next to Brody. In the proximity, Brody broke a little harder, a series of ugly sobs releasing from his taut body as he lifted his hand to his eyes to cry.

Still trembling, Brody shook his head. “Shit, Mitch,” he said again, voice no more than a whisper now. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

It wasn’t the swimming. It wasn’t the drinking or the headaches or the traveling or the shoulder.

It was the state of being.

The state of being whole.

After all this, Brody wasn’t sure if he knew how to be a person.

A fully, self actualized person.

“You can,” Mitch said, because there was no denial, no ignorance, no distraction. Just the truth, hard fought and well earned. “And now the rest of the world believes it, too.”

Brody swallowed, harder than before, blinking back the tears as best he could as he looked into Mitch’s eyes again. “You’ll stay with me? For the rest of this? You’ll stay with me?”

Another year to go. Another long year before the Olympics.

It was a lot to ask.

But, in the end, it was easy to give.

That was the way it was with family.

“Of course,” Mitch said, patting Brody reassuringly on the back. “All the way until the journey’s over.”

In some ways, Mitch knew it wasn’t much of a promise.

But Brody’s hope solidified a little.

Just enough.

Mitch grinned back because he knew the promise was more than enough.

-o-

Outside, the press were waiting for them.

Mitch wasn’t sure if he was ready for this shit.

But he knew that Brody was.

-o-

Getting to the airport seemed to take forever. Boarding the plane was just as drawn out. As the plane took off, Mitch watched the city getting smaller and smaller behind them.

When he looked at Brody, though, he could see that the Olympian was only looking ahead.

-o-

The press in California weren’t as bad as they had been in Chicago, but there was still a crowd of reporters waiting to meet them as he and Brody disembarked after the journey. Tired as he was from flying, Mitch was ready to tell them to piss off, but Brody entertained their questions with more diplomacy than they probably deserved for ambushing two people after a long flight across the country.

Still, it was clear that Brody was hurrying them along, and he politely thanked the reporters, and promised that he would take more questions soon.

“It just that I have something to do,” Brody said, his voice trailing off as he saw Summer waiting for him at the baggage claim.

And behind her, Stephanie, CJ and Ronnie. Brody swept Summer up into a hug and a kiss, while Mitch sauntered over, offering his hand to Stephanie in greeting.

She took it, smirking at him coyly. “When you said you were bringing Brody home, I didn’t realize you meant you were bringing an entourage, too.”

Mitch laughed, aware that while the press was keeping some distance, the cameras were still going.

“Seems like we should have expected it,” CJ chimed in, edging away from where Summer and Brody were still effectively making out. “Olympian and all.”

“We’re going to the Olympics!” Ronnie cheered, a little more excited than he clearly intended to be. “That’s just so awesome!”

Summer pulled back to take a breath, and Brody took the moment to grin at the rest of them. “The Olympics will come faster than you think,” he said with a light warning. “Right now, I just want to focus on being home.”

Summer kissed him in agreement, and Stephanie rolled her eyes. CJ chuckled, and Ronnie inexplicably blushed like the sight of two people kissing still somehow embarrassed him after all this time.

Mitch nodded his head. “I’ll second that,” he said, watching as the bags started to come around the conveyor. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed this place.”

Stephanie nudged him playfully. “Well, I kind of think I might.”

Mitch could only smile back. “Can we stop at work on the way back?”

She pulled out her keys, nodding to CJ and Ronnie to start collecting the bags around Summer and Brody’s locked forms. “I thought you’d never ask.”

-o-

Jet-lagged, physically exhausted, mentally overstimulated and generally worn out, most people would insist on going home.

But Mitch had been away from Baywatch a long time.

And Baywatch, more than the beach, more than the bungalow on the water that he shared with Brody, was home.

If they happened to pay him for going there, then life was all the better.

Because Mitch had no regrets about his choice to join Brody on the road.

That didn’t mean that he wasn’t the first one out of the car, taking the steps up to HQ two at a time with all the energy of a six year old on Christmas morning.

To his credit, Brody was no more than a step behind him, with the rest of the crew a few paces behind. They all knew that what they had at Baywatch was special. More than special. It was the closest thing to magic that Mitch actually believed in.

Brody could go to the Olympics. He could win three gold medals. But they both knew that the thing that mattered most was right here on the beach.

Once he was through the front doors, Mitch found himself grinning. Long as it had been, everything was still perfectly familiar. The smell of the ocean; the faint trace of sand as it was tracked in from the beach; the lifeguards in their red suits, smiling at Mitch as they passed by while reporting for duty.

Striding up past him as he watched the comfortable routines with awe, Stephanie nudged him. “Come on,” she said. “We’ve got your work waiting for you in your office.”

“Really?” Mitch asked hopefully.

CJ rolled her eyes, and Ronnie chortled. “Most people want to take a little time off after flying. They don’t usually want to go to their job.”

Summer, who was still hanging off of Brody, shook her head knowingly. “Mitch isn’t most people.”

“And Baywatch isn’t most jobs,” Brody added, because it had taken him a while to figure the rest of the shit out, but that was a point he’d mastered two years ago.

“Then what are we waiting for?” Stephanie asked, starting off up the stairs to the offices.

Mitch grinned a little more as he followed her, the rest of the team in tow.

Because honest to God, he wasn’t waiting any more.

-o-

All Mitch had wanted was to be at HQ, to sit in his chair, to do a little paperwork. Straight up, that’d been his only goal. He’d wanted to be here, to remember what it was like, to remind himself that as far as they might go, this was still home.

All the team had wanted, however, was to celebrate.

Upstairs, the rest of the off-duty staff had assembled with balloons and a banner that read Congratulations Brody!, and they all clapped and cheered when Brody came into view. There was cake and drinks, and Mitch and Brody entertained a full line of well wishers while the surprise party officially kicked off.

Mitch had been surprised, if only because he’d been too preoccupied with everything else to see it coming. It had to be coming, however. That was how family worked. You celebrated together. Brody’s success was their success. They knew it.

Judging by the look of pure joy on Brody’s face, he knew it, too.

Sure, Brody had liked winning the gold medals. Yes, he’d enjoyed working a crowd to a positive result.

But this is where he was most at home.

This was where he belonged.

In all of this, Mitch had never seen Brody happier.

So maybe Mitch really just wanted to go lock himself in his office for a while to fill out inventory reports. But staying here to watch his team come together, to watch Brody relish the attention he’d so passionately earned?

Well, that wasn’t so bad either.

-o-

All the same, Mitch had his limits.

After an hour of small talk, Mitch gave a short speech of thanks to the team before toasting Brody’s impressive accomplishments. While everyone drank to Brody’s success, Mitch patted the kid on the back and quietly snuck away to his office, which was just adjacent to the party. From inside, Mitch watched the gathering for a moment, wondering how it was possible that he’d been away this long.

It felt like a lifetime.

And a mere matter of minutes.

So much had changed, and yet so much was still the same. Mitch watched each team member carefully, trying to remember how he’d left each one of them and how warmly they had welcomed him back. He had trained and recruited each and every one of them. He had brought them onto this team, into this life, into this family. There was Jennifer, who was getting married in a few months. There was Keith, who had blown out his knee during a surfing competition before joining the team. Emily, Katie, Nick, Tommy -- all of them.

Ronnie and CJ, too. CJ was as confident as ever, and it was clear that Ronnie had not fully gotten used to the idea that this was his life now. He flitted about with a nervous energy, and he was always so damn thankful to be included. CJ, even after two years, still found this more than endearing. Their passion had peaked a little during Mitch’s absence, but they had settled into their roles a little more comfortably. They were living together now, and Mitch could see that domestic bliss was something they both welcomed.

Summer, for her part, was still the same tenacious and capable woman she’d always been. She was a strong swimmer, but she was, more importantly, a strong heart. She cared about this beach, and she cared about this team. That was the kind of skill you couldn’t teach, and it was always why she would be an important asset to the team.

She had, however, changed in her own way. As a hard worker, she’d never allowed herself to be distracted by anything. Even before Brody had gone on the road to swim competitively, she’d been coy in her relationship, maintaining what could be considered a professional boundary. She’d liked to keep her personal life private, and Brody had always struggled to figure out how to maintain the appropriate distance at work when he was so clearly attracted to her.

That was how it had been.

Now, in their time apart, Summer had embraced the old axiom that absence made the heart grow fonder.

And horny.

Professionalism aside, she was all over Brody. She never left his side, holding his hand, and slipping her arm around his waist. Whenever there was a spare moment in the conversation, she seemed to be stealing kisses, and they tended to disappear for long minutes at a time, wherein Mitch could see them making out in the background. It was only partially because she was proud of him.

It was also because she loved him.

A lot.

As for Brody, he certainly wasn’t complaining, and Mitch found himself, for the first night in almost two years, practically superfluous.

That was the thing about this. They weren’t alone now. It wasn’t the two of them, out on the road. He wasn’t Brody’s only safety net right now. There was Summer, and then CJ and Ronnie and Stephanie. Hell, the whole damn team had showed up to help celebrate. Brody was safe. Brody was secure.

Brody was fine.

After two years of carrying that burden almost exclusively on his own, Mitch didn’t quite know how to make it parse. For all that he was trying to support Brody in his journey, he couldn’t forget that his own journey was unique to him. Baywatch was his endgame. This life, this place, these people: Mitch had to come back to that.

That was the only way to come back to himself.

He didn’t resent Brody for any of this. He didn’t regret his choice; he had no second thoughts.

But coming home was a stark reminder to him why it mattered.

What all of this was for.

Family.

It had always been about family, and Mitch knew that now, better than ever.

Weary, he sat heavily in the desk behind his chair, noting how it hardly looked any different. The desk was organized the same. His pictures were still up. His accolades were still on the wall.

But it was Stephanie’s handwriting on the files.

Her sticky notes were on the desk, and it was her pen with a chewed on cap sitting on top.

“I tried to keep things the way you like them,” Stephanie said, voice coming from the doorway.

Mitch looked up, not surprised to see her there, leaning against the doorframe.

He smiled. “Seems like you shouldn’t have to,” he said. “All the work you’ve been doing.”

“Eh,” she said, waving her hand dismissively through the air as she crossed from the doorway and to a seat across the desk from him. “It’s your job. I’m just filling in.”

“For two years,” he reminded her. “And probably more than that. We still have another year until the Olympics.”

She scoffed. “So, three years,” she said, reclining back in the seat a bit. “And how long have you been on the team?”

The point was taken, but he didn’t quite concede it. He shook his head. “This desk should be yours.”

This time, Stephanie rolled her eyes. “This desk will always be yours,” she said.

“It’s not fair, to ask you to do this job but not to give you any of the perks,” Mitch told her.

“It’s fine,” she said.

“The sacrifice--”

“Is something you know better than I do,” Stephanie pointed out. “Come on, Mitch. I know better than anyone how much this job means to you. I know that it’s not easy for you to be away from it for a day, much less two years. When you talk about sacrifice, you’re the one making it. You’re the one doing it for Brody. So of course I’m going to do it for you.”

And that was why Stephanie was his protege. Not just because she got the paperwork and the nature of the beach and the way the job worked. But because she understood why they were doing it. She understood family.

Mitch felt his chest tighten with emotion. “Well, it looks like things are going well,” he said, trying not to allow that emotion to color his voice.

It did, but Stephanie was kind enough not to call him on it. Instead, she shrugged. “Nothing that you’ll find particularly surprising. You were here a few months ago, so you know about our latest hires from the recruiting season. They’ve really adapted well.”

“Right, Karen and--?”

“Laney,” Stephanie said. “Yeah, Laney’s really showing strong aptitude. We’ve had to work with Karen a bit to get her on track, but I think she’s finally settled in. Greg had a back injury -- not related to the job -- but he’s still out while he recovers.”

“And Emily?”

“Oh, yeah, she found a place to live that she can afford,” Stephanie said. “She’s even got herself a boyfriend, for what that’s worth.”

“She’s a nice girl,” Mitch said. “She deserves it.”

“As for the rest, our numbers are about the same, what you’d expect,” Stephanie said. “Our success rate was a little low over the early part of last summer, like you probably remember, but we’re higher than normal for this time of year.”

“And the budget?” Mitch asked, looking superficially over the top few papers.

“Well, I have been actively lobbying at every city council meeting, but Ellerbee has been a big help,” she said. “Plus, I brought Casey Jean with me to the last meeting.”

“Oh, so that went well, then,” Mitch presumed.

Stephanie grinned. “Extremely,” she said. “We’ve had our normal gambit of low level crime, but with Ellerbee’s help, we did manage to stop a black market opioid ring that was setting up base.”

“I saw that,” Mitch said, looking up with interest. “It was a big bust.”

Stephanie looked a little pleased with herself. “If you hadn’t been so close to the trials, I would have told you more about it,” she said. “But I figured the last thing you needed was to worry about the beach when Brody was so close to his race.”

Mitch chuckled at that. “Distract, distract, distract,” he mused. “It was actually one of my more prevalent coaching techniques leading up to the trials.”

“Well, if it had gotten complicated, you know I would have contacted you,” she said.

“No, no need,” Mitch said. He made a wide gesture with his hands. “You had it under control. You had everything under control.” Something twinged in his chest, and he blinked hard as he forced himself to laugh again. “I don’t think you even missed me.”

He said it lightly, like a quip.

It didn’t feel light, though.

“Hey,” Stephanie said, and this time she didn’t ignore the emotion Mitch was so desperately trying to downplay. “I didn’t say that.”

“Oh, come on,” Mitch said. “You didn’t have to.”

At that, she gave a short, incredulous laugh. “Wow, seriously?”

“Seriously what?” Mitch asked.

“You’re seriously jealous,” Stephanie observed.

Mitch opened his mouth, trying to rouse his own incredulity, but he found himself somewhat lacking. “What?” he finally managed to say with feigned audacity.

She laughed this time, a little stronger. “You’re jealous of the fact that Baywatch is operating as normal without you.”

Mitch closed his mouth, crossing his arms over his chest defensively. “That’s ridiculous.”

Stephanie wasn’t buying it, not in the least. “No, it’s not. It’s true.”

Shrugging, Mitch tried to think of a way to deflect, to make it a joke, to deny it. He came up blank on all fronts. “Well, I mean--”

She shook her head, utterly bemused now. “I never thought you’d be like this.”


“I’m not jealous,” Mitch insisted.

“Okay, then you’re just emotionally needy,” she offered.

Mitch drew his brows together. “What?”

“It’s not bad,” she said. “In fact, I think it’s probably healthy after two years away from the job you were born to do.”

Somehow, her admission was moderately mollifying.

Sitting forward, she looked at him kindly now. “You’re jealous because you love it. You’re struggling because you miss it, a lot more than you’ve allowed yourself to admit,” she said. “If being away from Baywatch for two years didn’t mess with you, I’d be worried.”

The tension started to ebb from his shoulder, and Mitch felt his posture soften. “I don’t think I’m being actually jealous.”

She smiled. “Look, the reason things are running as normal has everything to do with you,” she said. “You’ve trained us so well, you’ve built this team so carefully. It’s your skill and dedication that has allowed this team to operate without you as long as it has. But don’t let the whole thing fool you. We’re getting by fine, but it’s not the same here. Not in the least. That party out there isn’t just for Brody. We’re all glad to have you back.”

That was it, of course. She’d seen it before he’d really come to realize it. Because Mitch had been so preoccupied with Brody’s emotional well being lately that he hadn’t taken two seconds to think about his own. Of course he missed Baywatch. But being back, being here, he realized how much he missed Baywatch. It was a part of him, maybe the most important part of him. To call his choice to leave it behind on Brody’s behalf a sacrifice wasn’t a good way to fully grasp just how much he’d given up.

The fact that it was temporary helped some.

But it didn’t necessarily make it easier.

He drew a breath and let it out. “Well, I don’t know how much I can work now that I’m back, especially since I have to requalify to patrol the beach.”

“Oh, please, Mitch--”

“I’m serious about that. No exceptions,” Mitch said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t come in a few times a week when we have no travel commitments. I can help out here, do some paperwork, manage a few cases.”

Stephanie was giving him a critical look, as if assessing whether or not it was a point she should disagree with. “I didn’t say that we were glad to have you back to guilt you into anything,” she said keenly. “We get it. The Olympics are a year away.”

“And there’s a lot that goes into that,” Mitch said, thinking of the stack of paperwork he still needed to go through in his suitcase. “But this, here. Baywatch is my job. And you know damn well that I still want it.”

“And no one’s taking it,” Stephanie assured him. “Whether you come back today or next year, no one’s taking your job. We’re just doing the best we can to fill in while you’re gone, doing what needs to be done.”

Sitting forward again, Mitch massaged his forehead. “That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? What needs to be done,” he said. He dropped his hand with a tired shrug. “Maybe you shouldn’t hold my place here. I mean, how can I effectively lead anything when I’m hardly even here. Two years -- and counting. I’ve been so fixated on what Brody needs that I’ve let the rest of you go. I haven’t even thought twice about it: what needs to be done at Baywatch?”

Her plaintive look was knowing. “You’re forgetting, though. What you always say. Baywatch isn’t a job.”

Mitch slumped back, defeated by his own saying. “It’s a way of life.”

“And it’s the people,” Stephanie said. “You’re Baywatch. Brody’s Baywatch. So when you’re out there, taking care of Brody, you’re still doing the job, Mitch. You’re just doing it in a way none of the rest of us can.”

“I know, I know,” Mitch conceded.

Stephanie didn’t seem ready to let the point slide. Not when she still had another one to make. “But do you?” she asked. “I mean, it’s one thing to say it. It’s a whole different thing to live it.”

He sighed, feeling more weary than before. “It’s just so hard being back, you know?” he said. “I reminds me how much I miss it. Baywatch is important to me.”

Now Stephanie sat forward, intent. “And what you’re doing is important to Baywatch. That party out there proves it. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you’re doing, you’re still Baywatch. We’re all just trying to fill the gap until you get back. Because we all know, me more than anyone else, that you are coming back. That’s your story, Mitch. That’s how it ends. So of course you’re coming back -- and you sure as hell better bring back some cocky ass Iowa boy with a few new Olympic medals with you. And whatever you need to make that happen, I’m going to do for you. Just like you’d do for me. Like you’re doing for Brody. Like you do for family.”

She had it, of course. She had internalized the lesson he’d taught, the one he’d almost forgotten in the struggle of the last two years. That family persisted. It always persisted.

That was his story.

His.

The past two years, he’d been so preoccupied with Brody’s story that he’d forgotten he had one to tell, too. There was no one around to push him into a pool to face that fear, but here he was, facing it all the same. Of course his story ended with Baywatch, but that wasn’t all there was to it. How silly would that be? To assume his entire life was nothing more than standing on a beach, waiting for disaster to strike?

Maybe there was more for him. Something he had to prove to himself. Something he had to learn. Maybe there was something inside him he hadn’t discovered yet, and maybe the only way to do that was to see this thing through to its end.

Even when things got hard.

Especially when things got hard.

He looked at Stephanie. He had always appreciated her; he wasn’t some kind of idiot. He knew what it meant to have good people around him.

He just knew it a little better now.

“I really don’t deserve you,” he commented finally.

She eased back in her seat, smiling. “As much as I’d like to agree with you -- because I am pretty awesome -- I think that’s not the point,” she said. “We’re a team, Mitch. This is just what we do for each other. I’m not doing anything you’ve haven’t shown me how to do yourself. And trust me, we’re all invested in this journey. I can’t tell you how hard it is to find someone to man the beach when there’s a race on. We’re all thrilled. Because we did it. We’re going to the Olympics.”

The use of we mattered. It wasn’t to strip Brody of his effort, but it was to simply acknowledge that they didn’t do shit alone at Baywatch. Patrolling the beach, maintaining order in the bay -- that was a team effort.

Getting by in life, surviving massive change, facing your fears -- that was a team effort, too.

So going to the Olympics?

Hell, yeah.

“Yeah,” Mitch said, and he was grinning now, too. “We definitely are.”

-o-

The party lasted longer than Mitch might have liked, but he wasn’t actually complaining. It was good to see everyone, better still to see everyone having fun. It was good to remember what team felt like, what family was in the broadest sense.

Also, it was pretty good to get some work done.

Mitch hadn’t been in the office for months, and he hadn’t been on active duty in nearly two years, but he still had it.

Of course he still had it.

That felt pretty good, too.

Remembering that a lot of shit could change.

And some things would always be the same.

-o-

They got back to the house later than intended, but no one was complaining. Stephanie, Ronnie and CJ had stayed late to clean up, and Summer had driven them back to the house in her Jeep. At home, Mitch was pleased to see everything was in good order, and Summer proceeded to give him back his keys.

“Kept the fish alive, just like I promised,” she said while Brody trudged back to his room with his bags. “Kept things clean, made sure the pipes were working. All the normal stuff.”

Mitch looked at the keys that she had handed him. He looked at Summer.

Then, he held them back out.

She frowned. “You think you’ll still be traveling a lot?” she asked. “I thought California was going to be your home base for a while.”

“It is,” Mitch confirmed.

“So, why do you need a house sitter?” Summer asked.

“Come on,” Mitch cajoled, gathering up his bag to take to his own room. “I think you’re more than that.”

She looked at Mitch, a little awed.

She looked at the keys.

“Maybe it should have come from Brody, so let’s be clear on what this is,” Mitch said. “You’re family. When you and Brody are ready for, you know, you and Brody, there’s got to be more than a key involved.”

Summer grinned at him. “I may be more ready than he knows,” she said, her voice low.

“I don’t want to know,” Mitch told her, making his way to his own bedroom. “Just make sure he has a choice in the matter.”

She beamed at him, pocketing the key once more. “He may need some help making that choice.”

Mitch scoffed. “Don’t I know it,” he said. “Try to keep it down tonight, okay?”

“No promises!” she called after him.

Mitch could feign annoyance, but really, what would be the point.

It was really so damn good to be home.

-o-

Mitch went to bed not long after they got back, being pretty tired.

In the room next door, he was pretty sure whatever Brody and Summer was doing, it wasn’t sleeping.

Mitch had absolutely zero interest in Brody’s sex life, but the idea that Mitch didn’t have to look out for him tonight because Summer was on duty?

Well, that made for the best night’s sleep Mitch had had in nearly two years.

-o-

Tired as he was, Mitch was still Mitch.

Now that he was home, he woke up with the sun.

Stretching, he was lazy about it, waking up slowly as he got used to the light as it filtered through his blinds. When he finally made it to his feet, he stretched again, meandering toward the window. With the blinds open, he had a view of the beach.

The sky was clear and blue, the sand almost pristine.

This was his paradise, his slice of heaven. This was the dream.

This was home.

It was hard to imagine, sometimes, how he’d ever manage to leave it.

He grinned to himself, turning to his closet to get his clothes out for the day. You could take the dude out of the beach, but you could never take the beach out of the dude.

For the last few years, he’d dedicated himself to what Brody needed.

This, though. This view, this beach, this home.

This was what Mitch needed.

Thank God he still had it.

-o-

He was in such a good mood that he was practically whistling by the time he got out to the kitchen to make breakfast. Summer had been kind of enough to pick up some items from the store, which meant there was more than enough to snack on. Something simple would definitely be easier, but Mitch’s good mood warranted something more.

They had celebrated last night with the team.

Mitch had every reason to celebrate with his more intimate family this morning.

Him and Brody -- and Summer, for that matter. Summer was an integral part of keeping Brody sane, and he’d come to count on her himself. She wasn’t quite as experienced as Stephanie in the field, but she had the credulity to follow Mitch on any and all of his projects.

Drug deals, kidnapping, gun smuggling.

And wayward Olympians with self worth issues.

Mitch played point when it came to Brody, but he couldn’t deny that he liked having a little backup. He also couldn’t deny that the idea of sharing that responsibility more equally was seeming more and more likely. That was a good thing; it was. Just a little weird.

At any rate, this was Brody’s first day back. Not just as a part of the team, but as an Olympian. They had worked their asses off to get here, and Mitch wasn’t usually one for frivolity, but pancakes and eggs sounded like an apt way to commemorate this next phase of their journey.

Wherever it ended.

On a podium.

Or anywhere just short.

Also, Mitch really liked breakfast foods. Like, he really liked them. So any excuse to make pancakes was good with him.

He already had a tall stack completed when the door to Brody’s room opened. Given how rarely Brody voluntarily woke up early, Mitch expected to see Summer. Instead, he was surprised when Brody came out, blinking at him bleary-eyed.

“Pancakes?” he asked, shuffling over to the fridge. “You actually had the energy to get up and make pancakes?”

Brody asked it like it was a question, but he didn’t sound remotely surprised. Hair mussed and eyes still adjusting to daylight, Brody had clearly just woken up. He poured himself a cup of orange juice and turned back to Mitch wearily.

Mitch couldn’t help but smile back. “We’ve been living on restaurant food for months now,” he said, flipping a pancake as dramatically as possible. “I was more than ready for some at-home cooking.”

“You do realize that pancakes are not part of the approved diet plan you gave me,” Brody commented. “Where’s the protein?”

Mitch used that as a reminder to stir the eggs. “I know we usually stay away from the carbs when you’re in the thick of things, but I think you’ve earned the cheat.”

Brody huffed a little, amused. “We suck at diets.”

“Only because you keep asking me for ice cream,” Mitch pointed out.

“And you keep buying it for me,” Brody countered.

“Well, it makes you happy,” Mitch said.

“It does make me happy,” Brody agreed.

“See, and pancakes make me happy,” Mitch said, pouring fresh batter onto his skillet.

Brody couldn’t hold back his grin now. He reached for a plate, snagging a few pancakes off the stack. “It is good to be back,” he mused, putting the plate down at the breakfast bar and reaching for the syrup.

Mitch stirred the eggs one more time before removing them from the heat. “It is,” he agreed. “Grounding, you know. I hadn’t realized just how long it’d been.”

Or the true extent of the toll it had taken, emotionally speaking.

Brody nodded, swallowing a large bite of pancake. “I know you’ll be glad to get back at it,” he said. “Back on the beach.”

“Well, and you, too, buddy,” Mitch said, going back to flip a pancake. He looked over his shoulder, watching as Brody took another large bite. “Pools may be a thing for you, but I know what this beach means to you.”

“Sure,” Brody said. His smile faltered for a moment. “But, you know, I meant Baywatch. You’ll be glad to get back to Baywatch.”

He said it funny, the words slightly jilted. Mitch tipped his head to the side as he looked at Brody again. “Again, not seeing how it’s any different for you.”

Brody sighed a little, his fork staying down. “Eventually, sure,” he said. He hedged slightly now. “But, you know. It’s just. We’re home, and it’s cool. But I’m still going to the Olympics.”

Mitch raised his eyebrows. “I’m?”

Brody put the forked down, blushing red. “Well, you’re back, Mitch. Back at Baywatch. I just thought…”

He trailed off, shrugging feebly.

Mitch snorted. “You thought what? That I was ready to jump back into work?”

“Well,” Brody said. “Aren’t you?”

“Dude, I’m not an idiot,” Mitch said. “We’re going to the Olympics. Sure, I’ll go into the office for a shift or two each week, but I get the commitment, okay? I’ve been studying the paperwork, and I know how this goes. I’m your coach.”

He said it as clearly, as plainly as he could, because he couldn’t possibly understand what Brody was going on about.

Until Brody said, even more hedging than before: “If you want to, I mean.”

Oh.

Mitch stopped, forgetting about the pancake on the griddle.

Oh.

Brody wasn’t worried that Mitch was going to ditch him.

Brody was offering him an out.

The same out Mitch had offered Brody. Instead of alcohol, though, Brody was doing it with breakfast food. It was a little less dramatic, but the implications were no less far reaching.

For that reason, Mitch found himself recoiling. “Dude, I started this with you.”

Brody’s composure wavered, and Mitch could tell this was something he’d thought about. Not something that he liked, but something he felt like he had to say. “I know,” he said, sounding somewhat apologetic about the whole thing now. “But I mean, it’s okay. At this point, there’s bound to be someone out there willing to take me on. I’m going to get sponsors and shit. I’m going to have money. Someone will take the job now.”

It was clear that Brody wasn’t trying to be mean, but that hardly made it hurt less. “Seriously,” Mitch said. “You’re trying to ditch me now that you’re in the big leagues?”

Brody’s aghast look was almost comical. “What? No!”

Mitch finally took the pancake off the griddle, and he approached the breakfast bar. “Then, what’s this all about?”

With the question being so direct, Brody’s shoulders fell. “I just don’t want you to feel like you have to,” he said. “I mean, I know I’ve been such a mess that leaving me alone seems like a recipe for disaster, but we’re home now. We can hire a coach and let you off the hook. You can get back to your life. I know how much you’ve put into this, and I feel bad asking for any more.”

That was the rub, then. One Mitch hadn’t thought to fully appreciate. His talk of commitment and family did smack of obligation. For Brody, who had been bounced through the foster system with families paid to take care of him, there was something intrinsically complicated. Mitch did all of this out of love, plain and simple, but when he acted like he didn’t have a choice in the matter, it would be harder for Brody to distinguish the difference.

After all, Mitch had made a big deal out of Brody making the choice -- because Brody had needed to take ownership.

Making the choice was just as important as the nature of the choice.

Mitch believed that; he did.

Yet, here he was. Completely neglecting it for himself.

“You don’t have to feel bad,” Mitch said. “I made a choice.”

“But it’s not your obligation anymore--”

“It’s always my obligation because I made the choice to have you in my life. We made the choice to be family, didn’t we?” Mitch asked, looking at Brody intently now. “And I’m choosing it again, right now, in case you have any doubt. I choose family. I choose you. And if that means putting the job aside for another year to get you to the Olympics, then that’s a choice I make freely and without regret.”

The answer, plain and honest as it was, almost seemed to vex Brody. He drew a breath, coming up horribly short. He wet his lips, trying to make sense of what was being said. “I know,” he hesitated. “It’s just. I don’t know.”

Mitch sighed, sympathetic now. “Brody, we’re home now, but nothing’s changed.”

His expression trembled slightly again, as it was wont to do when they talked honestly about emotions that neither of them wanted to discuss on a regular basis. Mitch tended to take it for granted; Brody was still at a loss to know what half of them meant most of the time.

Brody visibly forced himself to keep breathing, as if the choice was one he made for each inhalation and exhalation. “I know,” he said, but he hesitated again. “It’s just that I see you. Like, you’re here. Back at Baywatch. And, like, this is your place. It’s where you belong.”

Mitch actually rolled his eyes at that. “You belong here, too, dumb ass.”

He said it flippantly, but it was something of a relief to see Brody nod in total and unhesitating agreement. “I know that, I do, and honestly, sometimes I wish I could just skip the next year and get there.”

“You can’t, though,” Mitch said. “You made your choice. You know that you’ve got to do this.”

“But you don’t, that’s my point,” Brody interjected, emphatic now. “I belong at Baywatch when this is over, no question. But you -- you might belong here right now.”

There was no way to deny the twinge in his chest, the pull of sentimentality as it surged inside of him. Brody was right in a lot of ways. But maybe he was wrong, too. Maybe Mitch was wrong. Maybe part of his story was the Olympics. Maybe it wasn’t just about Brody competing. Maybe there was a reason Mitch had to stand alongside him the whole time.

He’d never know.

Not until he did it.

He just wished it wasn’t so damn hard. “The team is doing fine,” Mitch said, willing his voice to be as strong as he knew it could be. “Baywatch is functioning perfectly.”

Brody winced with an empathy Mitch probably should have expected. After all, Mitch had gotten to know Brody excessively well in the last two years, his every thought, his every emotion. It would be naive to think that Brody hadn’t learned the same about him. “And doesn’t that just make it worse?”

It had been, of course, Mitch’s knee jerk reaction. Stephanie had pegged it last night. And then she had effectively deconstructed it down to the workable parts Mitch recognized. “No, not really,” he said. “I mean, at first maybe, but when I thought about it -- when I really thought about it -- I realized that it didn’t mean that I was superfluous. It just meant that I wasn’t alone.”

Brody drew a breath and held it.

Mitch inclined his head. “And neither are you.”

Brody exhaled, heavy and taut, and the emotions were just barely in check. “It’s just, you told me to make the choice, and I did,” he said. He drew another breath, almost pausing long enough for it to solidify inside of him. “So, I just want you to know that it goes both ways. You get to make your choice, and I’ll stand by it, either way.”

Damn it if that didn’t make his heart skip a beat. No trepidation this time. No, the twinge of emotion this time was something like pride.

Or it was exactly like pride.

All the more reason that Mitch knew he’d made the right choice. This wasn’t about winning gold medals, after all. This was about helping Brody become the person he was meant to be. And here it was, evidence of success. “Well, then I make the choice right now,” he said, standing a little taller just because. “I’m your coach, and you’re stuck with me all the way through the end of this thing. I’m your coach as long as you need me.”

After months of deny, deny, deny, Mitch had to admit that accept, accept, accept felt pretty damn liberating. And Brody took better to it than Mitch had anticipated. Eagerly, Brody nodded. “Shit, Mitch, I do need you,” he said, the words stumbling out in a fit of relief. “Things are better now, I know that, but that’s only because of you. I never would have gotten here without you.”

Mitch wasn’t a guy who needed to have his ego stroked, but yeah, that one felt pretty good. Resolutely, Mitch nodded back. “Then that’s settled. I’m your coach,” he declared. “I started this with you, and I’m going to finish it with you. You chose to follow this dream. I choose to follow you.”

Sitting at the breakfast bar, Brody beamed at him. “Thanks, Mitch. Like, really. Thank you.”

Mitch shrugged, as though indifferent, and he turned back, grabbing the pan of finished eggs. “Anytime,” he said, scooping some eggs out of the pan onto Brody’s plate. “Now enough whining and more eating. It’s best while it’s hot.”

Brody agreed by picking up his fork and digging in.

-o-

Mitch had been looking forward to things getting back to normal. The problem was that normal wasn’t really a thing anymore. The first day off was clear, if only because Mitch hadn’t had time to sit and make their new schedule yet. He needed to figure out the right pacing structure, and he still needed to secure a gym with private access for training. Then he still had to map out all of Brody’s commitments for Team USA over the coming months.

There were details about diet, physical therapy, video analysis from worldwide competitors. Also, he was pretty sure he was going to need a lawyer to help him understand all contractual agreements, especially if sponsors started calling.

If was when. Mitch got several inquiries that first day, and while Brody tried to help, it was obvious that he had no idea what to do. Whoever had handled him before had done his decision making for him, and it was likely that they had ripped him off in the process. The numbers, as preliminary as they were, indicated that there was no way Brody should be broke right now.

Summer had the day off to spend with them, and though Mitch had hoped to check in at Baywatch, soon Summer was making dinner while Brody ran his hand through his hair, struggling over the paperwork. “Was it really this complicated before?” he asked in genuine distress. “Last time, it seems like all I had to do was swim.”

Mitch took back the papers, pressing a sticky note on the top one. “I think we’ve established that you didn’t do shit right the first time.”

Brody had no defense, but he still looked distress. “Maybe we should think again. Coaching me is one thing, but asking you to do this…”

“Is part of the job,” Mitch concluded, a tone that left no room for debate. “I know a lawyer, have him look it over. But we’ll get there. You and me, right?”

Brody was doubtful.

Mitch put the papers down. “We made the choice, remember? We can’t fold every time it looks hard or scary.”

Brody chewed his lip a moment. Then, he nodded. And nodded again. “We’ve got to see this through.”

Mitch picked up the papers again, finding resolve a little easier to come by now. “All the way to the end.”

-o-

The paperwork was still gibberish, but dinner was good. After they ate, Mitch put the papers aside and got out the PlayStation. It was dusty from disuse, but it started up fine. Brody was rusty, but a Summer had improved, and Mitch didn’t actually give a shit who won or lost.

He just enjoyed the sound of their banter as the night wore on.

This was the finish line, as far as Mitch was concerned. The Olympics, the podium, all that was just a pit stop.

Until they could get back here to stay.

-o-

Grand ambitions, broad anxieties -- that was what it was. Life, on the other hand, still had to go on. Summer, though she started staying with them more often than not, still had a full time job to attend to, and Mitch tried not to be envious when he saw her suit up for the day. He didn’t have time for that shit.

No, his first priority was to secure a training location. The old place was fine in all the basic ways -- it was a pool with water. It wasn’t private, however, and though the press weren’t stalking Brody like they had been prior to the trials, there tended to be a few photographers who had them staked out. The last thing Mitch needed was for speculation to turn negative, which meant that practices had to be closed.

Which meant Mitch needed access to a pool he could close.

Honestly, he wasn’t sure how to go about finding such a facility, but apparently once a dude was on the US Olympic Team, it got a lot easier to make such requests. After a few phone calls, he and Brody were meeting with the manager at a private pool, hashing out the details of payment, security and schedule.

It was all so straightforward and professional that Mitch almost forgot for a few minutes that he had no clue what he was actually doing.

The trials were only several days behind them, but Brody was more than ready to get back in the water. Once he started training, Mitch hurried mapped out a training regimen, focused on maintaining current speed and physicality. He had to sort of hope that Brody would know what areas he needed to focus on, because Mitch was an expert at swimming in the ocean, and he’d learned a lot in the past two years, but Brody was still better at this shit than him.

No matter, though. Brody didn’t honestly need a coach to tell him what to work on. He needed a coach to remind him to keep working. Brody’s biggest obstacles at this point in his career were mental. And Mitch could do that for Brody.

He could.

And he did.

-o-

“Wait, how many offers do we have?” Brody asked over dinner that night.

Summer was working late, and she wasn’t here. Mitch had been too tired to cook, and he had picked up some takeout instead.

“Uh, like, I don’t know,” Mitch said, flipping through the letters. “These are the ones from the mail. But we’ve got some via email, a couple of voicemails.”

“So, ball park,” Brody said.

“We’re probably up to 15,” Mitch said. He shrugged, wishing there was a way to make that seem not like a big deal even though he knew it was a really big deal. “Give or take.”

Brody goggled at him. “And which ones are we going to take?”

Mitch squirmed, a little uncomfortable. “Honestly, I have no idea how this shit works.”

“Well, they agree to give us money, and I have to represent their brand,” Brody explained. “Like, you know. Where their gear. Be in their commercials. That shit.”

“No, I know what a sponsorship is,” Mitch said. “I just don’t know what to do with the contracts. Are we supposed to negotiate?”

That question left Brody vexed. “I don’t know.”

“Well, you’ve done this before,” Mitch pointed out.

“My manager did this before,” Brody countered. “That’s you. Right?”

The way he said it, a question instilled with hope. A sentiment endowed with anticipation.

Brody had said he still needed Mitch.

Damn it if the asshole had been telling the truth.

Drawing a breath, Mitch let it out heavily. “That’s me,” he agreed, nodding to himself as he looked through the papers again. “That’s definitely me.”

-o-

The next day at training, Mitch did what any good coach turned trainer turned manager turned publicist would do.

He called a lawyer.

The lawyer charged an unreasonable amount of money, but after several hours, he had looked through Brody’s official contracts and examined the offers before telling Mitch the way in which all this worked. Through a lot of technical jargon, Mitch was able to conclude that Brody was about to make some money.

A lot of money.

While Brody met with the physical therapist in the afternoon, Mitch made his first phone call to reply to the first offer.

Just like that Brody had his first official Olympic sponsorship.

-o-

At the end of the day, Mitch could tell that Brody was dragging, but when he suggested going into Baywatch for fun, Brody was all over it.

“You sure?” Mitch asked, because he knew Brody was highly open to suggestion when he was tired and when Mitch was involved.

“Dude, yes,” Brody said. “I mean, this is why it’s awesome to be home.”

“I know, but you’ve had a long day,” Mitch said, even as he pulled up into the lot outside of HQ. “You’re tired.”

Brody scoffed. “You do realize that it’s only going to get worse?”

Mitch parked the car. “What?”

“The training. The scheduling. It’s going to get worse,” Brody replied. “I’m just going to get more tired the closer we get to the Olympics.”

“Well, more reason to take it easy,” Mitch rationalized.

Brody rolled his eyes, opening his door to climb out. “More reason to remember what matters,” he said, as Mitch followed suit. “We do this on our terms, remember?”

Mitch did remember.

But he was just learning the implications.

As it turned out, he liked the implications quite a bit.

-o-

Brody was right.

Thing was, so was Mitch.

Brody had a great time seeing everyone again, and he seemed sincerely interested in the paperwork Mitch settled down to look at in his office.

Within twenty minutes, Brody was sound asleep in the chair, mouth hanging open while he snored lightly.

Less than a week back, and Brody was already exhausted. He couldn’t help but think about Brody’s words: it was going to get worse.

Mitch sighed, getting up and abandoning the work until Stephanie checked in on it tomorrow.

He roused Brody with a smile.

Because Mitch had to believe it was also going to get better.

Maybe not in the ways he expected, that much was true.

He was pretty sure it would be in the ways that mattered.

-o-

That was how the routine developed. Mitch created a moderated training schedule, making sure that Brody was in the pool often with plenty of recuperation time. Physical therapy bills weren’t going to be a problem once the sponsorship money started rolling in, and Brody definitely seemed to relax better with a little help. Not to mention, the therapist had a good understanding of Brody’s shoulder injury, and they were able to target its rehabilitation for the coming year.

During the PT sessions, Mitch was able to spend an hour or two at the office to get shit done. In the past, while on the road, he’d never left Brody alone, but this therapist was well trained, highly recommended and utterly professional. Plus, she was very well paid. Mitch trusted her discretion and he trusted her judgment.

Plus, now that they were home, Summer often took to picking Brody up and bringing him back home. When she had to work, Stephanie, CJ or Ronnie volunteered, and Brody seemed to benefit from the variety as much as Mitch benefitted from the break.

All the same, Mitch never could bring himself to work late. He found that he was anxious to get home, and after several hours on the job, he was thinking about what Brody was up to more than the paperwork in front of him. That was usually a sure sign that it was time to clock out.

Besides, as a coach and manager, Mitch was never technically off duty. The evenings were relaxed, but they weren’t straight up time off. Mitch started gathering up key points they needed to talk about. They would discuss scheduling and sponsor information, and Mitch started to collect as much information about the international field for them to start reviewing.

And when they weren’t doing any of that, Mitch made a point to schedule social nights.

Now, Mitch was aware that it was a little weird to schedule social nights. But it was just like going to museums and ice cream parlors -- you had to make time for your priorities. And Brody needed to be with his friends, his family -- just as much as he needed to train and make money.

There was no way around it, either. Mitch needed it, too. Sometimes it was a quiet night with just Summer. Other times, the whole crew came over for a grill out. They would play games, watch sports and generally mess around and talk.

It all balanced out, in the end. The routine was more than manageable.

The routine was good.

Suddenly, the next year didn’t seem so bad.