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Baywatch fic: The Last Leg (7/9)

December 28th, 2018 (02:00 pm)

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



-o-

Going home that night, Mitch was tired and grumpy. He was glad that Summer was out doing other things, because he didn’t have much energy to play nice with others. With Brody, he could afford to be a little gruff sometimes. Brody didn’t need to be coddled anymore.

Not when he was already going to the Olympics, thinking of marrying his girlfriend and making more money in two months than Mitch made in a year.

With that in mind, Mitch had no problem going over tape from the international field, reminding Brody sternly that competition would be fierce. He wanted Brody to understand what he was up against, that this wasn’t some obvious slam dunk. He wanted Brody to remember he had to work for what he wanted, that success was still something he had to claim and not assume came without effort.

That was the lesson for Brody.

Only for Brody.

-o-

Brody learned the stupid lesson a lot faster than Mitch thought.

In fact, for as critical as Mitch was of Brody’s technique, Brody was even more critical. When Mitch praised one of his top competitors, Brody was able to offer a more profound insight into why that particular person was a threat to him.

Brody assumed nothing about this.

“Look, I get it,” he said finally, after several hours of intense scrutiny. “I know these guys are tough. I know I have to work my ass off.”

“Then I want to see,” Mitch said. “You want to win those medals, don’t you?”

“Sure, I do--”

“Then, you can’t sit here and think that life is just going to do it for you,” Mitch said. “You let your guard down, even for a moment--”

“Mitch, I get it--”

“Do you?” Mitch asked, and he hadn’t realized how loud his voice was. How he’d straightened in his seat, almost looming over Brody next to him. “Do you really? Because sometimes you think you know, but then you wake up one day and realize that you’ve been coasting.”

Brody’s expression turned mildly distressed. “Do you think that’s happening to me?”


The question was one without pretense.

All this time, and Brody still could believe him so emphatically.

Mitch felt his anger deflate. He wasn’t angry at Brody; he had no reason to be angry at Brody. “No, that’s not -- it’s not what I meant,” he corrected himself feebly.

“Because I’m trying, Mitch,” Brody vowed. “I really am.”

“I know,” Mitch said. He sighed, throwing his pad of paper and pen on the coffee table. “Look, it’s getting late. I have the notes from our discussion -- things we want to work on. Why don’t we call it a night?”

Brody looked too concerned to throw in the towel. “But we only have six months left.”

Mitch found himself laughing wryly, getting to his feet. “Seems like a hell of a long time left to me.”

He stretched with a yawn, and started heading toward his bed. “Get some rest for tomorrow, okay?”

Brody nodded weakly after him. “Okay.”

It probably wasn’t the first lie Brody had ever told him, if that was a consolation.

-o-

Mitch made a show out of going to bed, but his body didn’t pick up on the hint. Instead, after changing, brushing his teeth and laying in bed, he was as wide awake as ever. He tried reading for a little bit, but nothing worked. He had never needed a lot if sleep, but he had never struggled before.

That was one of many things that had changed for him by becoming Brody’s coach.

Mitch still had no regrets, but shit. He wanted to sleep.

Grumpy, Mitch trudged out of bed to get a drink from the kitchen. That wouldn’t hel him fall asleep, but it was something to do, and Mitch was fresh out of ideas at this point. Since the hour was late, he didn’t worry about too much. Brody had Brody gone to bed hours ago, especially since Summer had had other plans.

Out in the living room, Mitch realized that Brody was indeed asleep.

He just wasn’t in bed.

There he was, still on the couch. The papers Mitch had given him were still on his lap, some spread out on the table in front of him. Brody’s position hardly looked comfortable, and it was obvious that he’d merely fallen asleep while going over the notes on his own.

Inching closer, Mitch felt inexplicably guilty. Brody hadn’t just been reviewing the notes. He had been actively assessing them. There was a pen in his lax fingers, and there were fresh notes scribbled all over the sheets. Comments about stroke analysis, performance assessment, training suggestions.

The stuff a coach was supposed to think about.

Now, it was true. They had always maintained a non traditional coaching relationship. But Mitch had taken pride in knowing that he worked his ass off for Brody’s sake. For what he lacked in experience, he had been able to offer in work ethic.

Yet, here Brody was.

Doing Mitch’s job.

He had done it without spite or complaint. Because he had seen that Mitch had needed the reprieve.

Brody was the one pushing his body to the breaking point, putting his whole life out there for public approval. And he was the ob3 holding his shot together this tin3 while Mitch flailed and pouted.

That assessment wasn’t particularly fair. Mitch was no glutton for punishment. Sure, he had high expectations for himself, but he wasn’t unrealistic. The sacrifices he was making were substantial. Brody’s return on this investment were tangible.

Mitch’s, on the other hand, were less so.

He was entitled his doubts. His weaknesses were understandable.

And yet, standing there, watching Brody sleep, Mitch wasn’t sure why it was really that hard.

All he had to do was be there for Brody.

That was it.

Two and a half years in, and Mitch couldn’t go on for six more months? Did family really have it’s breaking point? Had Mitch found his limit?

Or maybe the question was why. Why, after all Mitch had helped Brody endure, was Mitch at his breaking point now?

Why, when Mitch had been the collected one for so long, was he falling apart now?

Why was he finally giving in to doubt when he had stubbornly kept it at bay for nearly three years?

What had changed?

Standing there, watching Brody sleep soundly, Mitch knew exactly what had changed. Not the commitment, not the sacrifice, not the risk.

Brody.

Brody had changed.

He wasn’t waffling anymore. The insecurity had vanished. His inconsistency and uncertainty had been left behind in Chicago. He wasn’t weak or needy, but strong and confident.

Why would mitch be anxious now? Of all times?

Precisely because Brody wasn’t anxious.

Mitch knew how to prop Brody up. He knew how to gird him. He knew how to deny, distract and cajole.

But this?

What was this?

What was his role now?

Was he supposed to stand by so Brody could finish successfully?

Or was he standing watch for Brody’s fall?

Was that it? That Mitch didn’t think Brody could do it? That he thought the other shoe still had to fall?

What kind of coach did that make him? What kind of friend?

Mitch didn’t know.

Standing there, Mitch was struck by how little he knew.

At a loss, Mitch did the only thing he could. Snagging a blanket from a chair nearby, he threw it over Brody. He organized the papers in a stack, putting the pen and sticky notes back on the table.

Then, he turned out the lights, and he went back to bed.

Truth be told, Mitch didn’t know how he’d face this in the morning.

But he had made a promise to finish this.

And Mitch was a man who always kept his promises.

It was time to see this through.

No matter what.

-o-

That was the motivation for the final push. It was less motivational than it was purely determined, but what the hell. Mitch had endured this mess for nearly three years; he was going to make it through, even if he had to grit his teeth and swim against the current to get there.

All the training, all the planning, all the photo ops, and the day they boarded a plane for a trip overseas, Mitch had never felt less prepared for anything in his life.

He had his bag; he had a training plan; he had the travel itinerary; he had all of Brody information, including his invitation to walk in the opening ceremony. Mitch had his tickets for a spot in the arena along with the rest of the coaching staff for Team USA.

Brody was more than ready to board the plane, to finish this thing.

Mitch found himself stiff and awkward. Buckled into his seat, Mitch gripped the seat as the engine revved for takeoff. He spared a glance at Brody, who was calm and settled in the seat beside him. He grinned at Mitch.

Mitch smiled weakly back, grateful when Brody turned his head forward again and Mitch was able to close his eyes to try remembering how to breathe.

Shit, he thought as the plane started down the runway, how the hell did they get here?

Opening his eyes, Mitch looked at Brody again.

Hard work and family. That was how they got here.

The plane left the tarmac and Mitch’s stomach lurched.

That was how.

-o-

Things didn’t get easier when they landed, but there was so much to do that Mitch didn’t have time to feel completely out of his element. Instead, he helped Brody get checked in, and he contacted the rest of the team back in the United States to assure them that all was well and going according to plan. Summer, Stephanie, Ronnie and CJ had tickets for a few days later, just in time to watch Brody’s main events. Mitch had thought it would be a relief to have them here, but he wasn’t so sure now.

He wasn’t sure of anything.

He wasn’t sure he had the right paperwork. He wasn’t sure he had packed the right things. He wasn’t sure that he had all the proper forms of identification, and he wasn’t sure where the hell Brody was supposed to go for the Opening Ceremony. He was about to lose his shit back in the Olympic Village but Brody told him to relax.

“It’s all planned for us now,” Brody assured him. “We just have to follow along.”

Mitch pursed his lips conversely. “And that worked for you last time?”

“Well,” Brody conceded, taking the reference to his Rio debacle far better than Mitch could have expected. “I didn’t exactly follow the plan last time.”

Snorting, Mitch blew out a tense breath. “And this time is different?”

Brody grinned, wider than usual. “Hell yeah,” he said. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

Brody took that as an encouraging sign.

Somehow, unease roiling in his gut, Mitch could find no such encouragement for himself.

-o-

Of course, it didn’t help matters that everyone else was obsessed with Brody. He was one of the media darlings this time around, his fame only heightened by his disgrace before. The press was eagerly building him up as a story of redemption.

Which would work out well for them either way.

If Brody did redeem himself, it would be a feel good sensation.

If Brody crashed and burned like before, then the interest value would be all the more heightened.

Mitch knew every reporter who snapped a picture and asked a question was thinking that. All the other swimmers, the other coaches, the judges -- they were all thinking it. Shit, Mitch, with all the time and energy he had invested into Brody’s rehabilitated image, was thinking it, too.

It was all he could think about. He was bracing himself every time they left the Olympic Village, wondering if this would be the moment when Brody took a misstep and took the progress of the last three years crumbling down around both of them.

The only one who didn’t think it was Brody.

Brody was poised, to say the very least. He had all the right lines to say, and he was easily photogenic and quotable. He was happy to hand out autographs to well wishers, and he seemed wholly focused on success.

That just worried Mitch even more.

Brody had succeeded at every other venture in the last three years because he had expected disaster. Now that he was embracing the idea of success? Would that lead to inevitable failure? Was Mitch a terrible person for thinking it? Or was he a realist?

It was impossible to know for sure.

What Mitch was certain of, however, was that he couldn’t let Brody out of his sight. Not until they were safely back at Baywatch, where they both belonged.

-o-

That was a good plan, in theory.

In practical application, it was utterly impossible, and Mitch knew that within a day of their arrival. After all, one of the first events scheduled was the Opening Ceremony. Brody had an invitation to walk with the team. Mitch had to sit in the stands.

That meant they would be apart for hours.

Hours.

Mitch was absolutely beside himself, and barely resisted the urge to text Brody constantly. It helped somewhat that Brody was Tweeting about the experience live, but he wasn’t comfortable until he saw Brody marching with the team.

And what a sight that was.

Brody, donning red, white and blue, waved to the cheering crowd, beaming so brightly that Mitch could feel his joy radiating from his seat in the crowd. As he walked, the rest of Team USA Swimming crowded close, taking selfies with Brody and broadcasting to the world. Mitch watched his every step around the arena, watching for any sign of trouble of distress.

All Mitch saw, however, was that each step was more confident than the last.

-o-

While the rest of the world was celebrating, Mitch cut through the crowds and made a beeline for Brody. He had to wait for everyone to filter out, and he bounced anxiously on the balls of his feet, worried that Brody had somehow snuck past him. He was just about to lose his shit and text Brody, when a familiar voice sounded from behind.

“Hey, Mitch!”

Mitch turned, feeling relief unfurl in his gut like he hadn’t expected.

Brody was coming toward him, all smiles. “I was looking for you over there with the other coaches,” he explained, gesturing over to another area, where Mitch recognized many of the other coaches from Team USA.

Over the last year, there had been plenty of group events, and Mitch had gotten to know most of the coaches. That said, he hadn’t thought to make friends with any of them. Looking at them chatting casually with each other, it was clear that he was the only one who thought that way. “Yeah, right,” Mitch said, trying not to sound stupid and awkward and obsessive. “Just wanted to see you. Tell you that you looked great up there.”

It was the right thing to say, obviously. Brody’s face lit up. For all that he seemed to embrace the praise of others now, he still relished it from Mitch the most. “Thanks,” he said. “It was a rush, man. I’m not going to lie. That was, like, the best.”

Mitch patted his arm awkwardly. “Well, hopefully not the best,” he quipped. “I mean, we’re still not done yet.”

Brody looked even more reassured than ever. “Damn straight,” he said.

Mitch hesitated, watching as other people passed by them, heading out to celebrate. “You, uh,” he started and hedged. His eyes went back to Brody. “You sure you’re okay so far?”

“Yeah,” Brody said, no hesitation at all. “I really am, Mitch. I’m so ready to do this thing.”

Mitch nodded, not sure what to say. “Okay, then,” he said. “Let’s head back.”

It was a suggestion Brody easily followed, and Mitch was glad. He was still thinking about what Brody said about being ready.

And how the only answer, the one Mitch had swallowed back was:

At least that makes one of us.

-o-

Mitch went to bed that night feeling uneasy. Brody’s first events were early in the competition; he was slated to be in the pool bright and early. Tossing and turning, Mitch wasn’t sure what the day would hold. He wasn’t sure he wanted to find out.

He was, as it turned out, the only one who felt that way. The mood in the Olympic Village was buoyant, and the press were everywhere on site. Brody had insisted last night that he was okay. According to popular opinion, it was obvious that Brody was more than okay.

He was an international celebrity.

Mitch only scanned a few of the headlines, but he got the idea.

Disgraced Swimmer Poised to Make Dramatic Return

Second Chance for Redemption: Matt Brody Set for Olympic Return

Brody Set to Conquer His Demons in Olympic Waters

Vomit Comet to American Hero: Matt Brody’s Story of Redemption

And those were the most negative of the lot. Most were nothing but effusive excitement, counting Brody’s events as probable golds for Team USA’s projected medal count.

At breakfast, Brody seemed indifferent. He hadn’t even bothered to check his phone, and Mitch hadn’t even confiscated it.

“It’s just a lot,” Mitch said, pushing his food around his plate. He gave Brody an anxious look. “I mean, I know how the press has messed with your head.”

“Yeah, and my shoulder,” Brody joked lightly. “But seriously, that was a long time ago.”

“It’s still a lot of expectations, not to mention you’ve got four events this time, not three,” Mitch warned him. “I don’t want you to feel pressure.”

“Well, I am at the Olympics,” Brody reminded him, taking a large bite of food and chewing enthusiastically. He swallowed with a swig of juice. “I think I better feel a little pressure. Four events or one.”

That was true. And it was very reasonable and signs of a well adjusted person.

Also, possibly, denial.

Mitch narrowed his eyes. “I just want to make sure it’s not getting to you.”

Brody rolled his eyes. “I didn’t eve read it,” he said. “And besides, it’s like you said in Chicago, the press are going to write what the want to write. It’s background noise. I know why I’m here.”


To that, Mitch had no response.

Brody knew why he was here.

Mitch just wasn’t sure why he was here himself.

Except to catch Brody when he fell.

-o-

Despite Mitch’s concerns, Brody’s qualifying races went well. He won and qualified with ease but he didn’t wear himself out. He executed their plan perfectly. Mitch didn’t have a single complaint or criticism.

That just made him feel ten times worse.

What was he going to do to help Brody?

What advice could he possibly offer?

Would deny, deny, deny do any good now?

After the qualifying rounds, Brody took his turn with the reporters.

“Of course, it feels great to be back,” Brody explained. “I feel good, I mean. I feel loose, ready. The field is amazing out there, but all I can do is go out there and leave my best in the pool.”

Yeah, deny, deny, deny wasn’t going to work with that.

Mitch was going for plan b.

It was time to bring back distract, distract, distract.

-o-

Fortunately, distract, distract, distract had a built-in failsafe. Early the next morning, a flight landed from LAX and four Baywatch lifeguards disembarked. Mitch would have gone to greet them himself, but there was no way in hell he was going to leave Brody’s side.

That said, after a late breakfast, Brody spent most of the day at the sauna, relaxing and getting a massage. Was it a little weird for Mitch to hover? Yes. But it alleviate some of MItch’s anxiety seeing Brody in his sight the whole time.

Some.

Not all.

He wasn’t sure why he thought it was possible for Brody to sneak away while Mitch stared him down all day, but it lurked in the back of his mind. Nevermind the fact that Brody showed no interest in partying or alcohol, but still.

Mitch watched as Brody asked the massage therapist to target his shoulder, focusing on a few of his trigger points.

Still.

This wasn’t over yet.

-o-

The team met the in time for a late lunch.

Brody, needless to say, was thrilled. The team was thrilled, too. It was thrilling all around. The Baywatch team, at the Olympics. The whole crew ready to bring home a few golds.

Thrilling.

That was what Mitch said.

Everyone believed it, too.

Everyone except him.

-o-

That night, Mitch made reservations at a very safe, very public restaurant without a bar. He knew they served drinks, but it was mostly shitty wines that Brody wouldn’t know anything about, so he wasn’t too worried about it.

When he told Brody the plan, the kid looked at him blankly. “Tonight?” he clarified.

“Uh, yeah,” Mitch said. “The crew’s pretty excited to see more of the city.”

“Oh,” Brody said. He frowned a little. “Like, you know there’s stuff going on around here, right?”

Mitch shrugged, trying not to act oblivious. Of course, he knew on some level that this was the Olympics. There were thousands of other people around, all of them coming and going. There were events nonstop.

In all of the distract, distract, distract plan, Mitch had overlooked the most obvious distractions.

“Sure,” Mitch said. “But you don’t have any events tonight?”

“Oh, I know,” Brody said. “It’s just. You know. Team stuff.”

“Yeah, the Baywatch team,” Mitch reminded.

“Well, yeah,” Brody said, clearly flustered. “But, you know. Team USA, right? Like, my Olympic family.”

Mitch vaguely remembered those words. He vaguely remembered chewing Brody out on the beach for ditching his teammates in Rio and sticking them with nothing while he acted like a self-interested asshole. It had been one of the things that Mitch hated most about him.

And it was the very thing that Baywatch had changed so dramatically about him.

Baywatch was family.

Except Brody had another family now, too.

“The swimming guys, is all,” Brody continued with a self deprecating smile. “They wanted to do some stuff, and I don’t know. Since I’m doing the relay with a few of these guys. And, like, a few of the kids, they’re, like, super freaked. I thought, I don’t know. Being there might help.”

Or it might destroy everything.

Mitch wasn’t sure if he was gawking at Brody.

He wasn’t sure if he cared.

“You do remember what happened the last time you went out partying at the Olympics,” Mitch reminded him, none too gently.

Brody sighed, but didn’t deny it. “It’s different,” he said. “I’m going out with the team. I swear, I’m not going to take a drink of alcohol. I’m not. There are a few of the swimmers that are under 21 anyway. I promised their moms I’d be, like, a good example or something.”

That would have been a joke three years ago.

But Brody was sincere.

Really sincere.

Mitch had no reason not to believe him, not based on anything in his performance in the last three years. Ever since going sober, Brody had wavered a few times, but he’d stuck to it. He’d seen it through.

So why didn’t Mitch believe him?

“I’ll text you,” Brody promised, sensing Mitch’s obvious hesitation. “Like, a lot. I promise. And I’ll be in early.”

Mitch swallowed hard, trying to take the concession for what it was. “11,” he said.

Brody nodded resolutely. “10:30,” he said.

Shit, that was exactly the right thing for him to say.

Sighing, Mitch knew he had no reason to say no, no matter how much he wanted to. “Okay,” he said. “Just. Be good out there.”

Brody flashed him a winning smile, the one that won over all the reporters and made the girls swoon. This was the smile that made him a pet favorite at the Today show. “I will.”

And Mitch had no choice but to let him go.

-o-

Needless to say, Mitch’s mood wasn’t great at dinner. He expected the others to be disappointed by Brody’s absence, but none of them seemed surprised.

“It makes total sense,” Stephanie assured him.

“Yeah, I honestly didn’t think we’d get to talk to him at all, not while he’s competing,” CJ added.

Ronnie was still perusing the menu in the restaurant Mitch had picked, seemingly perplexed by its Spanish descriptions. “I mean, it’d be great to talk to him, but you know, it’s cool,” he said. He grinned, looking up from the entree section. “And, it’s like, two weeks, right? Then this is over and we’re all back home.”

Even Summer, who had been most visibly disappointed, tipped her head toward Mitch. “I don’t want to distract him now,” she said. “Not when he’s come so far.”

They were responding to this in a completely mature and reasonable way.

That only made Mitch feel all the more unreasonable and a whole lot less mature.

He sighed, looking over the menu. He’d picked this place with Brody in mind. No, that wasn’t even true. He’d picked this place to minimize any risk to Brody. And yet, Brody wasn’t here. Brody was off at a party with a bunch of other overly excited Olympians on their own in a foreign city.

Shit.

Mitch closed the menu. It didn’t matter what he got. Nothing would taste good right now. Not when all he could think about was the mistake Brody could be making and how no one would be there to stop him.

“It’s fine, Mitch,” Summer said, and she was watching him now. “Really. He’s being part of his team. His Olympic family”

Mitch tried to smile for her. She’d been there, on the beach that morning. She’d heard Mitch’s exhortations. She’d seen that look on Brody’s face, the one that had made Mitch give him a second chance. She knew how far he’d come.

As he failed to muster that smile, Stephanie joined in again. “Besides,” she said. “Brody or no Brody, this is my first time overseas. You better believe I plan on having some fun tonight.”

“Hell yeah!” CJ agreed, reaching for her drink. “I propose a toast.”

The others followed suit, and Mitch barely found the drink he didn’t remembering ordering in time to join them.

“To Baywatch,” she said. “As far as we can go and all the way back home again.”

“To being here for each other,” Stephanie added.

“To a few gold medals,” Ronnie crowed.

Summer grinned. “A journey three years in the making.”

They all looked at Mitch, expecting something inspirational from him. That would be the kind of thing he could do. He could whip up an ocean metaphor, wax poetic about teamwork and sacrifice and the meaning of family.

His throat was tight, though. His stomach twisted.

This time, he managed that smile.

“To Baywatch,” he concluded.

They all cheered, tipping their glasses together before drinking.

To Baywatch.

He wondered if it was still enough.

-o-

The others wanted to stay out late, wander the city and generally enjoy the sites. Mitch could think of no reason to stop them, but no matter how hard he tried, he also could not find it in his heart to stick the night out with them. Instead, he picked up the bill at the restaurant, thanked them all profusely for making the trip out and excused himself back.

When they protested, Mitch pretended like they were the ones being ridiculous.

“Come one,” he cajoled. “Not all of us are here for recreational purposes.”

“That’s an excuse!” CJ insisted.

“Come on,” Ronnie pleaded. “Please?”


Mitch acted like he was thinking about it, like it was some really hard decision to make. “Brody’s first medal shot is tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got to be there for him.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “And they think I’m a stickler for responsibility.”

“You are,” CJ told her.

“You really are,” Ronnie agreed.

Stephanie glared at them playfully, but Summer interjected on all their behalfs. “Come on, guys,” she said. “Mitch has a point. He’s come this far with Brody. I mean, three years is a long time. Who knows what weird pre-race rituals they have?”

Mitch knew. Usually, pre-race rituals involved angst, depression, crippling migraines, a crisis of conscience and barfing. Usually, Mitch was barely keeping Brody afloat outside the water until he could dive in and find himself again.

That wasn’t exactly a good pre-race ritual.

So why did Mitch miss it?

He found himself with a diffident smile on his face. “Besides, I gave Brody a 10:30 curfew tonight,” he said. “I wouldn’t be much of a coach if I didn’t make it back first.”

The other three booed him jokingly, but Summer hung back and gave him a look. “You think he’s doing okay?” she asked, her voice low as the others joked about their next destination in the city. “Like, really? Because you seem, like, really worried about it.”

“What?” Mitch deflected. “Sure, he’s fine.”

She drew her lips into a serious line. “I thought so. I mean, he’s been so good the last year,” she said. “But seeing you here tonight. You’re worried. So, I don’t know. Maybe you know something I don’t.”

Maybe Mitch had been the one to first find him drunk in a motel room. Maybe Mitch was the one who helped him get his headaches diagnosed. Maybe Mitch was the one who had barely kept Brody together long enough to even qualify for these damn Olympics. Maybe Mitch had been there for every low while everyone else just celebrated the highs.

Maybe while they were all primed for victory, Mitch had to be the adult and prepare for the possibility of defeat.

It would disappoint the team, no doubt.

It would devastate Summer.

And it would probably destroy Brody.

Mitch’s chest clutched with fear, and for the first time since he started this, he regretted his choice. Because he had to acknowledge the horrible truth: that he might have brought Brody all this way just to have him fall short.

“Because if he’s in trouble,” Summer started. “I want to help. I do.”

Mitch found his voice, forcing the words out through his taut throat. “I just need to be there,” he said. “Just in case. For whatever he needs.”

She nodded along, trying to make sense of that. She looked ready to speak, then thought about it again. Finally, as the others were reviewing locations on Yelp, she said, “He has changed, you know. I’m sure you see it better than I do, but he’s changed.”

The way she said that, like some kind of revelation. Like some kind of secret.

Like she was worried that Mitch hadn’t seen it.

If only she knew.

Gently, he squeezed her shoulder. “I know.”

He waved the rest goodbye, wishing that he believed it was enough.

-o-

Brody had given him the name of the bar, and Mitch knew he was supposed to trust Brody to do the right thing, but whatever. Mitch skipped going back to his room, making a beeline there instead.

Inside, it was loud, noisy and dark. He recognized some of the other Olympians, a few of whom had had too much to drink, and he looked for Brody up and down the bar. Then, he checked the tables, before checking the pool tables, dart boards and finally the bathrooms. When he was starting to worry, one of the other swimmers came up to him.

“Yo! Good seeing you!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mitch said, shaking the swimmer’s hand distractedly. “Hey, have you seen Brody?”

“Matt? Yeah!” he said. “He was here.”

Mitch’s stomach churned. “Was?”

“He left. Like, twenty minutes ago,” the swimmer explained.

Mitch looked around, feeling his chest constrict. “Did he say where he was going?”

“Sure,” the swimmer said. “Back to the room. He’s got an early race tomorrow. Said he wanted to be well rested.”

Mitch was ready to be appalled. He was ready to be worried, scared, freaked out, angry.

But that explanation was completely valid.

“He went back to the room?” Mitch clarified, thinking it was possible he could have misheard in the din.

“Yeah,” the swimmer said. “He walked back a few of the girls. One of them had a drink too many and he was worried about her being safe. I guess someone has to be the responsible one.”

Funny how everyone thought that might be Brody.

-o-

Funny.

But Mitch wasn’t laughing.

Instead, he left the bar, walking home at a good clip. He had a notion that he might save some time, start searching the other bars now, just in case. But this was a foreign city. Mitch wouldn’t have a clue where to start. They hadn’t even visited a damn art museum here, so Mitch had no frame of reference -- and neither did Brody.

Besides, when he did find Brody, he could chew him out effectively, saying that he checked the bar, he checked the room, and where the hell had he been?

Angrily, Mitch didn’t even knock, didn’t check to see if it was locked, but he charged right in. Expecting it to be empty, Mitch turned the lights on abruptly and slammed the door.

And scared the shit out of Brody, who was coming out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel.

“Shit!” Brody yelled.

“Shit!” Mitch yelled back.

Both startled, for a second they stared at each other.

Brody was the one to recover first, adjusting his grip on the towel. “Dude, you know how to knock?”

“You’re back,” Mitch fumbled to reply.

“Yeah,” Brody said.

Mitch glanced at his watch feebly. “It’s not even curfew.”

“Okay,” Brody said. “I thought curfew was, like, a maximum. I didn’t realize I couldn’t come back early.”

“You can,” Mitch said. He drew his brows together, not sure what to say. Brody was coherent and sober. He was calm and collected. “You, uh, had a good time?”


Brody shrugged, reaching over to grab some of his clothes off the bed. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “Not really my scene anymore, but they’re not bad guys when you get to know them.”

Mitch swallowed awkwardly. “And, uh. No drinking?”

“Well, soda,” Brody admitted with something of a sheepish grin. “I know it’s not great for me the night before a race, but I had to have something. I looked like an asshole when I ordered a water. I know I need to be responsible, but I don’t want to be an asshole.”

That was also reasonable.

Why was everything everyone else said reasonable now?

When did Mitch become the unreasonable one?

When Mich failed to reply, Brody motioned to the bathroom. “Can I, uh -- you know,” he said. “Get dressed?”

“Oh, what?” Mitch said. “Sure.”

Brody stopped short. “You okay, dude?”

That was Mitch’s line, though.

This whole thing was backward. “I was going to ask you the same thing,” he finally said.

Brody smiled. “Yeah, man,” he said. “Never better.”

“You ready for tomorrow?” Mitch asked.

“Three years in the making,” Brody told him. “I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

That was it, then. No theatrics. No withdrawal. No headaches. “Do you need me for anything?”

Brody shrugged, as if he couldn’t think of anything. “Just make sure I don’t oversleep,” he said. “And you always know how to pick the right breakfast.”

That wasn’t what Mitch was talking about.

Of course, he wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about.

“Okay,” he said, when he could think of nothing else to say. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

“Yeah,” Brody said, still holding up the towel with one hand. “See you tomorrow.”

Mitch saw himself out, but he stood behind the closed door for a long, long moment, trying to remember how to breathe.

It only sort of worked.

That seemed to be the story of Mitch’s life these days.

-o-

Mitch didn’t sleep that night.

Well, he told himself. At least that made getting Brody up a little easier.

-o-

Except Brody was already up. He was dressed, ready and eager. Mitch took him to breakfast, but Brody knew all the right things to order. When they got to the pool, Mitch asked if Brody had to use the bathroom one last time.

“You know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Just in case.”

Brody grinned. “In case I hurl?”

“It’s what works for you,” Mitch said. “No judgments here.”

“I know,” Brody said. “But you know, I really think I’m fine this time.”

Mitch could only stare at him, not sure what else there was to say. “This is it, then.”

Brody’s smile widened. “Yeah,” he said. “This is it.”

-o-

Brody was ready to go. He walked out confidently, waving to the crowd.

Mitch was not ready to go. He slunk to his seat, feeling sick to his stomach. He gritted his teeth together so hard that his head started to hurt. He watched, anxious as Brody took his spot. He held his breath as he got in position on the starting block. He closed his eyes until the starting tone sounded.

And Mitch heard the splash.

Three years in the making.

And now it was time to see how the story ended.

-o-

A gold medal and a world record.

That was how it ended.

Mitch would think of it more dramatically if he could, but honestly, the race wasn’t dramatic. It was hardly a race. Brody looked like he was out there swimming all by himself. He left the rest of the field behind so quickly, so completely, that it wasn’t in doubt. It seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Of course Brody was going to win gold at the Olympics.

Everyone had known it.

Everyone had been sure.

Everyone except Mitch.

-o-

The good news was that everyone was so thrilled that they hardly noticed how dumbfounded Mitch was by the shut out victory.

Also, it was good news that Brody had won.

Naturally, that was the real good news.

Not that Mitch had the easy way out.

Because this really wasn’t about Mitch at all.

-o-

By the time Brody got away from the press, Mitch had already given the other congratulatory hugs before they went off to view another event. Mitch had never planned on joining them; he had counted on being there for Brody.

Assuming, of course, that Brody still needed him.

To say that he was in good spirits would be an understatement.

Brody was positively stoked.

“Did you see that?” Brody asked, packing up his things into his bag. “Like did you actually see that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Mitch said. “I was there.”

“A gold medal!” Brody said, eyes bright as he smiled. “I actually won the gold.”

“You did,” Mitch said, and he didn’t sound surprised. Because he wasn’t surprised.

Brody was too happy to notice nuance anyway. “Like, I knew I felt good going into it, but when I jumped in the water, I just felt so good,” Brody continued with enthusiasm. “Like, good good. Just perfect. Like nothing was going to stop me.”

“Well, we did train awfully hard to get you here,” Mitch reminded him.

Brody turned to him, beaming. “We did,” he said, reaching up and wrapping Mitch in a hug. “We really did.”

Mitch was so shocked that he barely remembered to hug back.

Pulling away, Brody clapped him on the shoulder. “Shit, man!” he all but squealed. “A gold medal!”

“Well,” Mitch cautioned. “We’re not done yet.”

Brody shouldered the rest of his things, nodding decisively. “No,” he said with resounding positivity. “We absolutely are not done yet.”

-o-

There was no time to recover.

Brody said that was fine; he felt better than ever.

That was bullshit, though. Mitch didn’t even get wet, and he was exhausted after the day’s events. But Brody promised him that the medal ceremony would be worth it.

“Trust me,” Brody told him, looking far too earnest. “It’s called payoff. All you’ve done this year, you deserve to be there.”

“You’re the one on the podium, jackass,” Mitch told him. “Now, shut up and let me see you.”

Brody turned obediently. He was wearing the Team USA warm up clothes, which had been assigned to Brody when he arrived. They were white with blue and white accents. They suited him.

With a huff, Mitch adjusted the jacket, smoothing out the wrinkles to little effect. “Okay, so let me see you,” he ordered.

Brody squared himself toward Mitch.

“Chin up,” Mitch coached.

Brody complied.

Scowling, Mitch shook his head. “Stand up straighter; no slouching.”

This time, when Brody obeyed, he winced. It would be easy to overlook but Mitch was looking for anything to point out. “What’s wrong?”

“What?” Brody asked.

“You winced,” Mitch said.

“What?” Brody said again, laughing. It was an ineffectual laugh, though. The kind Brody used when he was trying to lie.

Mitch narrowed his eyes. “Your shoulder?”

Brody immediately slouched again, rolling his eyes. “It just got a little tweaked is all,” he said. “I was going to get it massaged tonight, use some heat therapy. The normal stuff.”

“But it’s your shoulder,” Mitch clarified purposefully. “The one that we’re supposed to watch for sign of a recurrence that could end your career?”

Brody rolled his eyes again. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” he said in exasperation. “My whole body’s sore after that swim. It’s going to take me a day to recover is all.”

Mitch drew a breath, letting it out while he shook his head in disapproval. “Brody.”

“Oh, come on,” Brody said. “You’re really looking for anything to ruin this moment.”

“I’m not--”

“You are!” Brody protested. “You’re all weird and sullen.”

“I’m being vigilant and aware,” Mitch corrected him.

“You’re being a buzzkill, that’s what you’re being,” Brody told him reproachfully. “I mean, dude. We won the gold medal! What more do you want from me right now?”

That was a question, wasn’t it?

What did Mitch want?

What did he really want?

It would help if he had any idea.

Face reddening, Mitch hemmed himself in and withdrew himself slightly. “Nothing, okay?” he said, conceding the point. “I’m just trying to do my job. I’m here to look out for you.”

Brody sighed, this time appearing somewhat guilty. “I know,” he said. “And I’m grateful for that. I am. But we need to enjoy this one, okay? I need to enjoy it. And you should enjoy it, too.”

Mitch finally conjured up his smile. “I’ll do what I can.”

-o-

Mitch was a man of his word.

He did what he could to enjoy the ceremony. He got a good seat; he filmed it on his phone. He watched as Brody waved to the crowd before they put the medal around his neck. Brody was crying when he looked up at the flag and the Star Spangled Banner echoed throughout the hall.

Mitch put his hand on his heart and got to his feet, but his eyes were on Brody the whole time. Not that Brody noticed. He was transfixed, entranced, wholly and completely focused.

That was the thing about trying, in the end.

It was not synonymous with success.

-o-

Mitch was, as it turned out, the only one with failure on the mind. For dinner, Brody met the others for dinner, and despite the fact that Mitch had picked another terrible restaurant, they still had a good time.

In fact, everyone was in such a good mood that they hardly noticed.

“I literally spent half of that race thinking that you were swimming a practice lap,” CJ said. “That’s how casual it looked.”

“And how far ahead you were!” Ronnie added in. “Like, that doesn’t happen. Like, ever.”

“I may have to have you teach stroke technique to new recruits when we get back,” Stephanie said, sounding duly impressed.

Summer leaned closed to Brody, linking her arm around him in a half hug. “Or all of us,” she said. “I’m just so impressed.”

From the other side, CJ nudged her. “And enjoying it for yourself, I think,” she joked. “She’s gotten a few requests for comment.”

“And I just say how proud I am to be here for you,” Summer said. “And all Team USA of course.”

Brody grinned, obviously enjoying being the center of attention. He’d been lauded by news outlets, other swimmers, sports experts -- but there was something different when it came from friends. When it came from family.

Because that was what they were: family.

That had always been Mitch’s point, and they’d all bought into that. Brody more than the rest.

And that was how they acted. Close, connected, familiar and comfortable.

“I never mentioned you by name; I wasn’t sure you’d want the publicity,” Brody said. “I guess we should have talked about it before I said anything, but I wasn’t going to pretend like you weren’t my girlfriend.”

Summer didn’t appear fazed. If anything, she looked more pleased than ever. “Nothing to talk about,” she said, still hugging him close. “I love being here for you.”

Brody kissed her. “And I love you being here.”

The others made a dramatic fuss, objecting to the overt display of affection with a complete lack of seriousness.

“Get a room!”

“And what does that make us?”

In response, Summer took Brody by the chin and kissed him again, more fully and completely this time. Brody, for his part, certainly didn’t object.

Family.

They all knew it; they all felt it.

Mitch had started that.

But where was he now?

Seated at the table, he still looked like one of them, and he could still play the part well enough. But the sense of disconnection was growing. He wanted to think that it was them who had changed -- but maybe that was the problem.

They had changed. To more complete, more robust versions of themselves.

And Mitch hadn’t kept up.

Brody and Summer finally part to much cajoling. “Okay, okay,” Summer said, blushing vigorously as she tucked her hair behind her ear. “Who’s ready for dessert?”

“Yes! Dessert!” Brody said, reaching for the menu. “I’m buying!”

“And how are you paying?” Ronnie joked. “In gold?”

The table dissolved into laughter again. Mitch heard his own laugh, contributing to the din.

He didn’t feel it, though, not resounding in his chest like it was supposed to be.

No one noticed.

Mitch tried to act like that was a good thing as he forced himself to laugh again.

-o-

After dessert was finally over, Mitch was actually relieved. The days had always seemed long on the road, and the fact that they were at the Olympics only made things harder. Every moment felt like it was full of taut energy, and the very act of existing seemed to require more effort than Mitch quite knew how to muster up.

“Well, it’s been good,” Mitch said as Brody handled the check. Mitch would have worried about that, but he also served as Brody’s financial planner. The dude had the cash and after two gold medals so far, his sponsors were going to love him. Assuming, of course, he didn’t screw it up. “Maybe we call it a night.”

The protests were immediate.

And quite robust.

“But it’s early!” CJ said.

“Super early!” Ronnie added.

Stephanie gave him a sage, patient sort of look. “We only have a few days here. We kind of wanted to maximize our time.”

“And we checked, all the best tourist spots are still open,” Summer said, sounding pleased. “Extended hours or something. Trying to capitalize on the tourism rush.”

“So, what do you say?” CJ asked. “Should we hit the town? Should them all how we do things Baywatch style?”

Mitch was ready to turn her down, flat. Brody, however, did it for him.

“You know, maybe not tonight,” Brody said, sounding like he regretted it.

Mitch felt relieved.

Until Brody continued. “I sort of already have plans.”

The color abruptly drained out of Mitch’s face.

How the hell did Brody have plans?

And how the hell did Mitch not know about these plans?

Summer made a light whine, tugging on Brody’s arm. “Aw, but I feel like I’ve hardly seen you.”

“I know,” Brody said. He shrugged, glancing around at the group apologetically. “It’s just Team USA Swimming stuff, you know? I’ve still got the two races left, and the guys from the relay are pretty nervous, and there are some events tomorrow and I wanted to make sure that they all knew I was cheering them on. People like seeing the medals and shit. It makes them feel like it’s possible.”

“It’s motivational, I’m sure,” Stephanie said.

“Yeah, I mean, seeing lifeguards on duty, doing what they do, that was what made me want to be a lifeguard,” Ronnie said.

CJ wrinkled her nose, tweaking his side affectionately. “I think you may have had other motivations, too.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “We get it.”

Mitch was dismayed when Summer nodded in agreement. “Look at you,” she said. “All grown up.”

“Well, I have learned from the best,” Brody told them, and he looked at Mitch. “Haven’t I?”

Mitch nodded stiffly. “It is impressive.”

If anyone noticed his reservations, no one gave any indication. Instead, Stephanie appeared ready to move the group to the door. “It’s probably for the best anyway,” she said. “We may be up late.”

CJ and Ronnie edged out of the table after her. “And we may make a few stops not in the guidebook,” she joked.

Summer gave Brody a kiss. “You did awesome today,” she said.

He kissed her back. “I’m glad you were here,” he said. He looked at the others. “All of you.”

“It’s family,” Summer said, getting to her feet. “Besides, once we get back to the States, we fully expect you to make it up to us.”

Brody chuckled as they left. “I will,” he called after them, saying with a confidence Mitch wouldn’t have expected from Brody a year ago.

A confidence Mitch had once taken for granted.

A confidence, he found himself admitting, that he envied.