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Baywatch fic: The Last Leg (8/9)

December 28th, 2018 (02:03 pm)

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



-o-

Mitch and Brody cleared out of the restaurant a short bit later, only after Brody personally thanked the waiter, hostess and the kitchen staff for a great evening. It was an unexpectedly personable touch; it was thoughtful and genuine. It was the kind of thing Mitch would have done.

If Mitch still remembered how to be himself.

They made it a ways down the street, Brody chatting about different, unimportant topics, when Brody sighed.

Mitch braced himself, ready for some confession. Had he been drinking in his room? Was he gambling on the side? Were there drugs involved? Did he want to skip the team event and just focus on the solo race?

Brody’s question, however, took Mitch completely by surprise.

“Did you want to go with them?”

Mitch stared at him, genuinely confused. “What?”

“With the others,” Brody clarified. “Did you want to go and do the tourist stuff?”

It was a question that Mitch could understand on the one level. He knew who Brody was talking about and he knew what tourist stuff meant. Nonetheless, it didn’t parse. “Why would I want to do that?”


“I don’t know,” Brody said. “It’s a unique opportunity.”

“We’ve been all over the world in the last year,” Mitch said. “Kind of loses its appeal.”

Brody appeared somewhat flustered. “Okay,” he said. “You just acted kind of weird about it.”

No one had said anything at the time, but apparently Brody had noticed. Mitch wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It was, however, pretty clearly a thing.

And despite all the shit Mitch had been going through in the last week -- not to mention the last year and the last three years -- he was still an honest man. Ask him a direct question, and he’ll give you a direct answer. “Well, it’s a little weird, you running off,” Mitch said. “They’re our family. And they came a long way to be here for you.”

Brody looked somewhat disconcerted. “I know that,” he said. “And I’m, like, really grateful. Having them here is the best, and I’ve done everything I can to show them that.”

“By blowing them off?” Mitch countered. “They’ve supported you for years, and you can’t even spend an evening with them.”

Brody scoffed, taking that insinuation more than a little personally.

Probably because it was more than an insinuation.

And Mitch had made it exceptionally personal.


“Dude, I’m not blowing them off,” Brody said. “If you didn’t notice, they were totally cool. And I had plans with Team USA way before they even talked about going sightseeing.”

“You knew they were coming,” Mitch said, shaking his head dismissively.

“Yeah, and you all knew that I was a part of the Olympics,” Brody argued. “I have to be a part of this team.”

Mitch felt himself bristle unexpectedly. Team was something he used for Baywatch. He’d never realized how much he hated hearing Brody use it in another context -- for other people. People that weren’t Baywatch. People that weren’t Mitch.

Sometimes, honesty was about doing the right thing and integrity.

Sometimes, it was about being an asshole.

Mitch was apparently having trouble with that distinction tonight. “And you’re sure that it has nothing to do with the fact that you’re going to a party?”

At this, Brody finally pulled up short. He’d taken this shit a lot longer than he would have in the past, and Mitch almost felt bad when he saw the hurt burn with indignation in Brody’s gaze as they came to a stop on the sidewalk. “You think that this is about a party?”

“You said it was,” Mitch said, refusing to concede anything now.

“Mitch, I have done everything you wanted me to do, every step of the way,” he said. “I have given you zero reason to doubt me.”

Mitch leveled him with a look. He was too invested in this now. He’d come too far not to see it through. “So your near meltdown in Chicago -- that was nothing? The fact that you always gravitate toward the same mistakes -- means nothing?”

Brody looked gutted for a moment.

Then, he just looked mad. “I know that I don’t have the best track record, okay. That’s why I’m trying to do it right this time.”

“By blowing off your team and going to a party?” Mitch asked, doubt dripping in his tone.

Brody threw his arms wide with a mewl of frustration. “It’s about the team!” he exploded. He drew himself back, almost desperate. “Didn’t you see the races today? We’ve had three surprise medalist today alone -- and not one of our swimmers if off their mark. We’re blowing expectations out of the water, because we’re a team, Mitch. We’re a family. My Olympic family, remember?”

Mitch was pretty tired of having his own words thrown back at him. That was four years ago.

Four long years ago.

“So this is just about some medal count?” Mitch asked.

Brody let out a scoff of disbelief. “And would it be so wrong if it was?” he asked. “I lost out on one gold medal because I was an asshole. I don’t want to do that to myself. To anyone.”

Mitch shook his head, and he sighed. “Brody--”

“I mean this, Mitch,” Brody said, emphatic now. “I get it now. What being a part of the team means. Being part of a team means you do the work together. You make the sacrifices together. And you celebrate together.”

Mitch jabbed a finger at Brody. “But you can’t celebrate, not like the others,” he said. “You have to have limits.”


Brody flattened his lips with a touch of chagrin. “I know, okay? I know I have triggers. I know that alcohol is a no-go. And trust me, I’m not even tempted with the drugs. Not even a little.”

That probably made sense, given that Brody had nearly been killed by an undercover drug op gone bad. Even still, when Brody got stupid, he got really stupid. Mitch knew how it worked -- all too well. “I hear you say that, but I watched you blow off your friends -- your girlfriend even -- to go to a party.”

At this, Brody simply looked weary. “Baywatch is forever, man, you know that,” he said, quieter now. “This is just this week. I need to give my Olympic team this week.”

He said it so carefully, so sincerely that Mitch couldn’t muster up an argument. Not when the plea made sense; not when it was made so plainly. Mitch was an asshole right now, but he wasn’t completely unreasonable. Drawing a breath, he let it out long and slow. “Fine,” he said finally. “You can go to your damn party. But I’m going, too.”

Brody’s mood lightened immediately. “Yeah, sure, of course,” he said with renewed enthusiasm. Even his grin returned as he nudged Mitch and started back on course down the sidewalk. “After all, you’re part of the team, too.”

Mitch tried to follow him, his feet missing a few steps as he tried to catch up.

-o-

Mitch came to the party ready to be the grown up.

To be sure, there were a lot of dumbass kids there.

Brody, however, was not one of them.

In fact, with Brody’s steady guidance, Team USA Swimming seemed to be the most reasonable segment of the bar. The sprinters were getting into some shit, and the javelin guys seemed ready for the long haul, but the swimmers seemed to be drinking at a moderate, social pace, and their conversation was clean and upbeat.

Honestly, they were being good kids.

Brody made the rounds, talking to each and every person, lingering longer when someone seemed to need a friendly face. He comforted a swimmer who failed to place. He offered advice to a few swimmers competing tomorrow. He talked shit with his relay team. All while drinking soda.

Brody, it was clear, was settling in.

Mitch, by contrast, found himself totally on edge.

He knew that no matter how well things went tonight, there was still tomorrow and the day after that. This wasn’t done. Not yet. Brody had had two successful races in Rio before he went off the rails. There was no way to sit back and pretend like there wasn’t a risk.

Brody seemed determined not to see it. The team seemed to forget that anything bad had ever happened.

This was why Mitch was here.

Because someone had to stand ready while the whole damn thing teetered on the brink.

-o-

Well, with Mitch’s vigilance, nothing crashed to oblivion that night.

Naturally, it helped that Brody had stayed sober, coaxed everyone back in for an early night, and had been totally responsible, but Mitch knew he was a part of that with his mere presence alone. There was no telling what Brody would do in his absence.

So when Brody abruptly told him the next morning that he had plans with Summer, he was taken aback.

“Like, just you and Summer?” Mitch asked at breakfast.

Brody looked like didn’t quite understand the question. “Yeah, you know. My girlfriend. Who flew all the way here to be with me. I thought it’d be nice.”

He hadn’t thought it’d be nice last night. Mitch didn’t say that and scowled instead. “When are we going to hit the art museum?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Brody said. “We’ll make time for it. We’re still here for a week.”

That wasn’t the answer Mitch wanted.

To be fair, Mitch didn’t know what answer he wanted.

But whatever. “What am I supposed to do today?”

Brody frowned, like this was a question he hadn’t considered. “Oh, well. I mean,” he started and seemed to think. “The rest of the team is here.”

“You think I should hang out with them?”

Brody brightened considerably. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “It’ll be nice, right? Get away from me. It’s like we’ve been glued at the hip or something. I’m sure you’ll like the break.”

-o-

Mitch tried to like the break.

It would have helped if he didn’t think about Brody the whole damn time.

It would have been nice if that were hyperbole, but no. Mitch had always been an all or nothing kind of guy, which usually serve him well as a lifeguard. This turn as Brody’s coach was proving a lot more complicated.

Needless to say, the others noticed.

At first, they ignored it.

Then, they tried to distract him.

Funny how that seemed to be an approach with more universal appeal than Mitch had given it credit.

Ultimately, however, as Mitch moped through all the best sites, they confronted him.

“I really thought you’d be better, now that you were here,” Stephanie said while they sat in what Mitch was sure was a famous park. There were plenty of other tourists in the area, taking selfies, playing in the fountain, eating food from street vendors.

“What?” Mitch asked. “ I’m fine.”

He wondered if he sounded as unconvincing as Brody often did when uttering those two pointless words.

On his other side, CJ made no effort to hide the roll of her eyes. “It’s like you’re in Brody withdrawal,” she said. “Every time he’s off with someone else, you start, like, twitching.”

Mitch gave her a look. “I do not.”

“It’s not twitching,” Ronnie offered helpfully from next to CJ. “It’s just that you get anxious. Like your on edge.”

“Yeah, but being around Brody doesn’t even help much anymore,” Stephanie pointed out. “You’re just not yourself.”

Mitch’s face darkened with frustration. “Because I’m a lifeguard but I haven’t saved a life in, what, two years? I’ve spent more time in pools than the ocean. That’s not easy.”

“No, it’s been a crazy sacrifice,” Stephanie agreed. “Not one that I think I would have made.”

“But you’re that kind of guy,” CJ said. “You put your money where your mouth is.”

“And really, the Olympics is cool and shit, but that’s not what this is, not really,” a Ronnie said. “Family, right?”

“And as amazing as Brody is in the pool,” Stephanie said. “What you’ve done for him outside the pool is even more miraculous.”

Those were all the right things to say. Feel good sentiments that Mitch wanted to believe.

And yet.

He couldn’t shake the doubt.

That gnawing sense of foreboding.

“Well, we’re not done yet,” Mitch pointed out.

“It really does kill you, being away from him,” CJ observed.

“He handled being away from Baywatch better,” Ronnie added.

“Hey,” Mitch protested. “You do remember that I am still technically your boss.”

“And we are all technically on vacation,” Stephanie said. “And I haven’t taken a vacation in five years. We are going to enjoy this.”

“Especially since Brody’s fine,” CJ said.

“Summer is with him,” Ronnie reminded him.

“And he’s not the same guy,” Stephanie reiterated, even more intentionally this time. “He’s changed, more than any of us thought possible.”

Mitch didn’t have the heart to argued, to say that he worried that the change might not be enough, not for Brody.

“Now come on,” CJ said, springing to her feet and dragging Ronnie with her. “The place I want to see is three blocks to the west, and I am tired of waiting.”

Stephanie patted Mitch on the shoulder as she got to her feet. “ Relax, enjoy yourself,” she advised. “Things are fine.”

Mitch got up to follow, wondering if they appreciated that those words were still not convincing, not even when they said it.

-o-

Mitch spent the whole damn day sightseeing. They took pictures, bought souvenirs, all that shit.

And Mitch’s favorite part was going back to his room and texting Brody.

He expected Brody to say he was still out, that he and Summer had found a bar, that he was going to be late.

Brody’s reply was nearly immediate.

Got back an hour ago. Just getting ready for bed. Big race tomorrow!

Mitch stared at the text, not sure what to say. He had no advice. Not when Brody had done all the right things.

In his own.

Without Mitch at all.

Finally Mitch typed out a reply. Need a wake up call?

You bet.

Then he added a smile emoji with a damn thumbs up.

Mitch went to bed more disconcerted than ever.

-o-

Brody was awake when Mitch got to his room, and he had plenty of ideas about the day. He was jabbering about the race all through breakfast, and he ate all of his food without issue or complaint. Mitch made it all the way to the pool before his stomach failed him, and he excused himself to the bathroom.

When he returned, Brody looked sympathetic. “I always thinks it’s best to get that out of the way,” he said. “It’s just nerves.”

Mitch snorted. “And what happened to yours?

Brody grinned. “ Good coaching, I think.”

Shit, that answer was sweet, kind and self deprecating. When did Mitch teach him that?

“Seriously,” Brody said. “I feel good about this. Really good.”

Mitch didn’t know how to tell him.

He was scared to death that was the problem.

-o-

The thing was, Brody was right.

The race was good.

Really good.

Brody finished first, dominating in this event even more than in the last. No one could touch him.

Mitch wondered if that included him.

-o-

Then, Mitch saw it.

The twinge when Brody got out of the pool. The way he used his other hand to wave at the crowd. The slight since on his face when he shook hands.

His shoulder.

The shoulder.

It didn’t get better. Through interviews., Brody guarded it carefully even while smiling and saying how well things were going, how good the future looked.

No one else saw it. No one else gave it a second thought.

But this was why Mitch was here.

For the first time since arriving at the Olympics, Mitch felt like he had a purpose after all.

-o-

The first step was getting Brody alone.

At the Olympics, that was no small task.

However, with a goal in mind, Mitch knew how to be patient. He would persevere.

The instant they were alone, Mitch wasted no time. Brody was trying to take off his shirt, guarding the shoulder, and Mitch stalked over, reached out and said, “Here, let me help.”

Only he didn’t take the shirt.

Instead, he found the pressure point on Brody’s shoulder -- he knew where it was, he had to know where it was -- and pressed.

The response was immediate.

And quite dramatic.

Brody all but crumpled, knees going weak as his face drained of color. He would have hit the ground, but Mitch caught him, keeping him upright as he glared down his nose at the younger man’s discomfort.

“Shit, what the hell?” Brody asked, struggling to regain his footing while he attempted to control his breathing once more. He pulled away, looking up at Mitch with something like betrayal.

Mitch, however, was an immovable object. He was a rock. “Were you going to mention it?”

Brody stepped back, nursing his shoulder. “Mention what? That you’re an asshole?”

Mitch refused to be swayed. “That you hurt your shoulder.”

A flicker of panic crossed Brody’s face; a look Mitch hadn’t seen in a year. It was short-lived. But it was there. “No shit, man,” Brody said. “It was that stupid car accident in Chicago.”

Mitch was already shaking his head. “You hurt it again,” he said. “The race. Today.”

“It’s just sore,” Brody said, gingerly taking his shirt off now and getting a dry out one. “It always is after a hard day in the pool.”

That wasn’t what this was, and they both knew it. Mitch felt his confidence returning for the first time in weeks. Months, maybe. For the first time since Chicago, he knew what he had to do. “It’s more than that. You’re guarding it.”

“Yeah, because you’re trying to make it hurt,” Brody protested with a glare of his own.

“You know it’s not a normal reaction,” Mitch said, unwavering.

Brody scoffed. “No kidding,” he said. “Pressing on someone’s shoulder until they collapse isn’t normal at all.”

Mitch crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re deflecting now.”

Huffing, Brody rolled his eyes, hastily repacking his things now. “Because I won the damn race, and I’m tired,” he muttered. “Three gold medals; one more to go.”

Steadfast now, Mitch shook his head. “But if you tore your shoulder--”

Brody didn’t let him finish. He looked up, eyes bright with emotion. “Then what does it matter?” he asked, voice sharp now. “My next race is in two days. What does it matter?”

The words were hissed at the end, laced with something like desperation. It confirmed that Mitch was right about the shoulder, and if Brody couldn’t face that, Mitch would have to do it for him. “We have to get it looked at.”

“No, we don’t,” Brody returned.

“Of course we do,” Mitch said.

“Why?” Brody asked with a one-shouldered shrug.

Mitch felt his own emotions start to rise. “Because we have to know!”

Brody’s eyebrows shot up. “We do? Since when? I thought your coaching strategy was to deny it? Or, I don’t know, at least distract?”

Mitch’s mouth fell open. “That’s not--”

Brody shook his head, vehement. “Of course it is,” he snapped. “I know I’m not the smartest guy around, okay? I know that. But I’m not a complete moron. I know how it worked over the last few years. I know that by the time we got to Chicago, I was such a mess that you didn’t know what the hell to do. Your entire coaching plan was to embrace the good, encourage the better and totally deny the bad. When that failed, you distracted me with ice cream and art museums.”

Mitch stared at him, not sure what to say.

Brody continued, the words still tumbling out. “And I’m not complaining, okay? It was probably what I needed. And I like art museums and ice cream, okay?” he said. “If it’s worked so far, then why the hell would we change it now?”

“Because everything has changed,” Mitch said, finding his voice again. “What we’re doing here, it’s not the same thing we were doing in Chicago.”

“It’s worse!” Brody said. “You can’t treat me like I’m some child you have to take care of!”

“Really? Because I did a lot of that over the last three years, and let’s not even talk about how the last Olympics went,” Mitch shot back.

Brody’s face registered the cascade of insults. “Whoa, wait,” he said. “You think I’m making the same mistakes I made in Rio?”

Mitch had crossed a line, some unseen, unspoken line. He closed his mouth, but he didn’t take it back.

He couldn’t take it back.

Truthfully, he didn’t want to.

“Shit,” Brody said, looking gutted for a moment as the shock settled in. “You do think that. You really think that after all this time, all this work, all this shit, I haven’t changed.”

There was something vulnerable in Brody’s voice, almost a plea that Mitch couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge but wasn’t heartless enough to ignore. “You asked me to be here with you to hold you accountable,” he reasoned. “That’s my job.”

Eyes glistening, Brody blinked rapidly with a sharp bark of laughter. “I asked you to come with me because you’re my friend.”

Mitch squared his shoulders and did not relent. “And as your friend, I want you to be safe.”

This time, Brody didn’t quite believe him. “You sure about that, Mitch?” he asked, voice cutting caustically. He looked like he wanted to fight, but he looked away, deflating just as fast. He shook his head, zipping his bag up. “Never mind.”

“We have to talk about this,” Mitch said.

Brody brushed past him, refusing to look up. “No,” he said. “What we have to do is go to a medal ceremony. We’ll talk about this shit later.”

-o-

Brody was still the golden boy on top of the podium. He still hit all the right marks and followed all the right cues. He smiled at the crowd and waved. When the anthem played, he was solemn and dutiful, misty eyed at all the right moments.

The crowd loved it; the press ate it up.

If Brody’s smile was dimmed slightly, the rest of the world wouldn’t notice.

But Mitch did.

He could see the pain beneath it. The doubt.

And maybe something more.

No one else would see that, not until it was too late.

The song ended, and Brody smiled for the crowd again amid the cheer and flashing cameras. When his eyes landed on Mitch, the smile faded entirely.

Mitch could only hope that it wasn’t too late already.

-o-

Afterward, Mitch’s certainty wavered. This had been easier when Brody complied with his suggestions, when he had been malleable. Now that Brody was putting up resistance, Mitch wasn’t totally sure what to do.

When Brody had responded, tough love had seemed appropriate.

Now it just seemed tough.

But Mitch wasn’t a quitter.

Even when he wished he was.

Meeting up with Brody, he did all the things a coach should do, but Brody barely looked at him. Hell, the kid barely looked at his medal. Instead, he packed it up with the other and drew a long, weary breath.

“I’m going out,” he announced, having clearly decided he wasn’t taking any cues from Mitch after their conversation earlier.

All the more reason Mitch needed to stay close, keep doing what he was doing. If Brody was going to start getting obstinate, then Mitch had to be just as stubborn. “With the team?” Mitch asked. “I think CJ and Ronnie found a few restaurants they wanted to check out.”

Still not looking up, Brody shook his head. “No, the swim team,” he clarified.

“Oh,” Mitch said. He felt a twinge of something in his gut. Jealousy? No, not that. Concern. It was concern. Baywatch’s fold had defined Brody. If he was leaving it behind, then Mitch had reason for concern. Especially with his shoulder in question. “I see.”

Brody let out an agitated breath. This time, he straightened and looked at Mitch. “Don’t even with that.”

“With what?” Mitch said, feigning innocent.

“Like I’m doing the wrong thing,” Brody said. “Like I’m screwing up now, just like I did then.”

Mitch held up his hands. “I didn’t say it; you did.”

Brody rolled his eyes. “Right, Mitch. That’s why you’ve been all weird and hovering.”

“I have not been weird or hovering,” Mitch said.

“Yes, you have,” Brody said. “I thought you were, I don’t know, struggling to find your role in all of this, that you were having some identity crisis being away from Baywatch so long, but I guess not. I guess it’s just because you still think I’m the screw up.”

Mitch made a face at the initial insinuation. This wasn’t about him.

This was absolutely not about him.

“It’s just the irony,” he said. “You, going out to party. At the Olympics.”

It wasn’t a point he needed to make explicit. Brody understood. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I got smashed at a party in Rio and blew chunks in the pool. Believe it or not, I think I remember that more clearly than you do.”

“So we have to avoid the same traps,” Mitch said. “That’s why having Baywatch here is important.”

“I get that, I do,” Brody said. “But I have obligations to the swimmers, too. You told me that. You know you did, way back when this shit began. Before it began.”

“But you need to be aware of your triggers, man,” Mitch said. “Going to parties, that’s dangerous territory here.”

“And I’ve handled it really well,” Brody argued. “I haven’t had a single drink. I’ve been the responsible one. Mature and shit.”

“And yet, you’re still really keen to go to these parties,” Mitch said. “Almost every night?”

Brody threw up his hands. “That’s what people do! Like, haven’t you gotten that yet? Aren’t you even seeing what’s going on here?”

“I don’t care what anyone else does,” Mitch said. “They’re not my responsibility. You are.”

Brody laughed at that, a little bitterness in his tone. “Shit, you really do think I’m going to implode.”

“You’ve come too far to risk it all now,” Mitch reasoned.

“No, I’ve come too far to half-ass it now,” Brody said. “This is it, my shot. My chance. What have the last four years been for if not for this?”

Mitch was frustrated and worried, but he wasn’t made of stone. Brody’s plea was impassioned, and Mitch was too close to him not to be moved by it. “Brody--”

“Mitch, please,” Brody said, seeing his opening and taking it with as much earnestness as he could. “Just. You got to let me have this. You got to let all this work be worth something.”

That was a plea Mitch could get behind. All the mess the last week had present -- a mess four years in the making. Mitch wanted it to mean something, too. He probably needed that as much as Brody did, even if he wasn’t sure they were trying to create the same meaning anymore. “Fine,” he relented. And then, he offered the necessary caveat. “We’ll go together.”

Brody didn’t flinch at the requirement. “That’s great,” he said. “I’ve told you all along, you’re just as much a part of that team as I am.”

Mitch had his doubts about that, but of all the things to pick a fight about, that sure as hell wasn’t it. “And then tomorrow, we’re going to the doctor,” he continued, using no uncertain terms. “You’re going to have that shoulder looked at.”

To this, Brody did offer some protest. His face scrunched up. “My shoulder?”

He was trying to deflect.

Deny, deny, deny.

Distract, distract, distract.

The kid wasn’t half bad.

But Mitch had invented that shit. He stared Brody down -- and hard. “It still hurts, right?”

That deduction was as easy as they came. Brody hadn’t moved his shoulder the whole damn conversation. For all of the maturity he’d shown early, Brody offered up the most pathetic lie possible. “It’s fine.”

Mitch crossed over to Brody in two long strides. He took Brody’s hand, moving his shoulder in a full rotation. He only got a few inches before Brody pulled away in pain as he muttered a curse.

When Brody finally looked up at him, Mitch had his eyebrows raised expectantly. “Deal?”

Scowling, Brody nodded. “Deal.”

-o-

They went back to Olympic Village to pick up a few things, and Mitch texted the others to let them know what was up. He was hoping for some kind of protest, especially from Summer, but they all seemed to think it was perfectly reasonable for Brody to spend time with the other athletes.

“It’s the Olympics,” Summer said. “He’s an Olympian! This is why he’s here.”

“And we’re here to support him,” Stephanie added in over the phone.

“And have some fun!” CJ crowed from some distance behind them.

“Have fun tonight!” Ronnie yelled through the line.

Right, Mitch thought as he hung up the phone. If only he could be so naive as to think that way. The others weren’t responsible for Brody’s physical and emotional well being. They didn’t have to look for the small signs of breakdown like he did. They could afford that luxury. That have fun.

Like Mitch was going to have fun.

At a party.

With Brody.

Well, given how the last four years had gone for Mitch, stranger things were possible.

-o-

All of Mitch’s anxieties aside, the party really did seem about as innocuous as Brody had framed it. Sure, there was plenty of drinking going around, and looking around at the other Olympians living it up while on the road, it was easy to see how quickly things could get out of hand. But Brody had set the tone for Team USA Swimming, and they had fallen into line remarkably well.

In fact, Mitch had to admit, it was a little weird. He had known all along that Brody was likeable and easy to follow. He had the makings of a natural leader. Mitch had been the one to see that; he’d been the one to hone it. He’d been Brody’s mentor in every way possible, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to see him acting like…

Well, like Mitch.

He knew everyone; they all knew him. He had a working knowledge of their likes, interests, skills, fears. He had tuned into their personalities, catering his conversational tactics for each and every one of them.

And they responded in absolute kind. They flocked to Brody; they cheered him on, praised him, joked with him and sought his approval. Some of them did so quietly, trying not to show it. Others embarked in open hero worship that made Mitch stare in wonder. When Brody talked about his team, he didn’t say that they needed him.

But that was what he meant.

Because they did need him.

They were counting on him.

For leadership, for support, for advice. It wasn’t just a medal count, though Mitch knew that was part of it. They could see that Brody had become a better man, and as they faced their greatest challenges on the world stage, they saw Brody’s humble confidence as a comfort and an aspiration.

Brody, for all that weight, didn’t crumble.

Mitch kept waiting for it.

The whole damn night, he waited on edge, taking sips of water, poised to act.

He was still waiting when Brody cleared the team out at a responsible hour, making sure that they all had someone to walk back with and that they were all of sound mind. He chided anyone who wanted to stay, reminding them to be safe and careful and responsible. By the time he was done, everyone had paid their tab and checked out for the evening.

Brody didn’t make a fuss about it, either. Instead, he paid his own tab -- for ginger ale, no less -- and gathered up his things without any hint of I-told-you-so.

On the way home, in the silence that loomed between them, Brody massaged his shoulder and asked, “Did you make an appointment?”

Mitch frowned. “What?”

Brody looked at him. “An appointment,” he said again. “You said you were going to make one for my shoulder.”

Mitch had said that. It had been part of their deal.

Brody had kept deals a lot of times.

Most of those times, he’d been cajoled, reminded, guilted and prodded into compliance.

Yet, here he was, offering it up freely.

And Mitch had almost forgotten.

All his fuss and he hadn’t actually made the stupid call yet.

Mitch gritted his teeth together, digging his hands into his pockets. “I will,” he said.

“Good,” Brody said. He mustered up something of a smile. “I still think it’s fine, but if we’re going to finish this, then we may as well do it right.”

“Right,” Mitch parroted back at him, more hollow than ever. “Might as well.”

-o-

He made sure Brody was safely back in his room, waiting outside the door until he heard it lock and heard him start getting ready for bed. That wasn’t weird or creepy. That was responsible. It was hard to say, but Mitch was fairly confident that Brody was doing things one-handed on the other side of the door.

Back in his own room, Mitch shuffled through his reference materials to find the information about medical care. It took him longer than he had hoped to find the right numbers and place the calls. At least, given that this was the Olympics and Brody was a headline competitor, it was easy to secure an appointment.

With the information about the appointment jotted down, Mitch tried to settle himself down for sleep. As he tried to rest, he couldn’t help but play over the day’s events in his head again.

Brody’s big win.

The medal ceremony.

Brody’s decision to go party instead of hanging out with Baywatch.

The shoulder.

It was possible, Mitch reasoned, to see these as small, unimportant details. Some might even depict them as normal things. After a big win, of course people wanted to celebrate. And who wasn’t sore after intense sporting events? Brody couldn’t be expected to swim at that kind of level without feeling it in his body.

That was all normal.

Except Brody wasn’t normal.

Nothing about his story was normal.

Given where he’d come from, given what he’d experienced four years ago, given what had happened last year at the qualification round -- this wasn’t normal. Brody had spent a lifetime screwing up, and he would be the first one to admit it. And he was the one who knew about his shoulder, better than anyone. He knew what it was like to get hurt, and he knew what it was to humiliate himself. Ignoring that kind of history would be the most irresponsible thing Mitch could do as a coach.

The fact that Brody was completely nonplussed about all of it just made it worse.

He tossed in the bed, thinking on this point in more detail.

It was overconfidence, plain and simple. It was Brody thinking that everything was under control when all signs pointed to impending disaster. Brody had succeeded during the last four years by guarding himself and being aware of his weaknesses. Now, he seemed content to pretend like they were all behind him.

Like this was all about moving forward.

Brody was the Vomit Comet.

That still mattered.

Brody couldn’t forget that -- or else he risked repeating it.

And none of that even got Mitch started on the shoulder injury. He could still remember the way the doctor talked about it in Chicago. If this was another aggravation of it, then this could be bad.

In short, the happy ending wasn’t written yet.

No one else wanted to talk about that, but Mitch was in no position to deny it.

-o-

He was also in no position to sleep.

Mitch tossed and turned most of the day, before finally giving in and getting up. He took a quick shower and had their appointment information in hand when he went to pick up Brody, who was dressed and waiting.

“We still have time for breakfast or do we have to book it?” Brody asked.

“We’ll pick something up to go,” Mitch said. “I got us the first appointment of the day.”

Brody smiled like he’d been expecting this. Then he produced a breakfast bar and a banana. “Figured,” he said. “I have a few extras back there, in case you want something.”

Mitch made a face. “When did you have time to do that?”

Brody rolled his eyes. “You’re not the only one who knows how to come prepared for this shit,” he said, starting in on the banana. “Now, come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Mitch narrowed his eyes, and left the extra food where it was. It did sound pretty good, but Mitch wasn’t about to start accepting favors.

Some things were worth going hungry over.

-o-

At the check in for the appointment, Brody was polite and he smiled a lot. He gave a few autographs in the waiting room because of course even trained staff that worked with the best athletes in the world were still won over by Brody’s stupid smile.

Mitch sat in a chair and waited patiently.

Sitting next to him, Brody gave him a look. “Didn’t sleep well?”

“What?” Mitch asked. “Why?”

“You looked pissed, man,” Brody said.

“I’m waiting,” Mitch argued. “Patiently.”

Brody raised his eyebrows in skepticism. “That’s no kind of patience that I’ve ever seen before.”

“It’s the new kind,” Mitch snapped. “The kind I need with you when you’re in denial.”

Brody chuckled. “You shouldn’t be so freaked out by the shoulder.”

“That car accident in Chicago--”

“Was bad and blah, blah, blah,” Brody said. “Athletes get injured all the time. It’s just part of what we do.”

“But this could be bad,” Mitch said, trying to get Brody to take this seriously.

“Yeah,” Brody said. He shrugged his good shoulder. “But a lot of shit has been bad and we’ve still made it this far. Haven’t we?”

That word we was a funny one.

The plurality of it.

That was how this had been, after all. A journey they were taking together. Mitch was the one who shoved Brody into the pool. He was the one who saved Brody’s drunk ass from himself. He was the one who put his life on hold to be Brody’s rock and sole support.

And what had Brody done?

He’d worked his ass off in the pool. He’d come to the edge of himself and discovered that there was something more there. He’d raced and won.

They made a good team.

Why did that seem like such a revelation right now?

“Anyway,” Brody continued with Mitch’s silence. “This isn’t going to change anything. But if it makes you feel better to know, then I’m game. You are the coach after all.”

That was actually reassuring.

Maybe Brody was right for once.

Maybe things would be okay.

-o-

After the tests and the examination, the doctor sat them down and Mitch knew by the look on his face that things were most definitely not okay.

Bringing up the scans on the computer, the doctor gave a little sigh that made Mitch actually flinch. Next to him, Brody was serious but no worried. Mitch tensed enough for both of them when the doctor began to talk.


“I’m not sure how well you’ll see it, but the scans are pretty clear,” the doctor explained, pointing to the first image that popped up after the log in screen. “When you compare these latests cans to the older ones in your file, it is pretty easy to see how the damage has progressed.”

Mitch couldn’t see much but white splotches on a dark scan, but he nodded his head anyway. He didn’t have to see the shit to know it wasn’t good.

The doctor’s damn face told him that.

The doctor pointed at a few spots. “The tear has extended significantly, and the damage is all fresh. Clearly, the car accident last year aggravated the injury, leaving it vulnerable. Your intense performance in the pool over the last week has almost completed the tear.”

He said it like that was it.

Like that was the end.

Mitch shook his head, trying to make that parse. He’d been expecting the worst, but he didn’t understand what the worst even meant.

Next to him, Brody’s face had turned stony, and his fingers were gripping the chair beneath him until his knuckles were white. This wasn’t news he wanted, though Mitch couldn’t say he looked particularly surprised.

Finding his own voice, Mitch asked, “So can you fix it?”

The doctor seemed surprised by the question, as if it were too simplistic to take seriously. “Well, yes,” he said, but he cocked his head. “But that’s major surgery.”

That sounded like it should be significant, but Mitch wasn’t picking up the cues right now. Or maybe he didn’t want to. That was what deny, deny, deny was all about. Mitch had gotten good at it; too good.

Brody, however, was done with it. He sighed. “Major surgery that would take me out of competition,” he said. His eyes were steady on the doctor as he let out another weary breath. “And even then, the fix -- it’s for normal motion, right? Not racing.”

Mitch looked from the doctor to Brody, mouth hanging open. “But,” he started, failing to find his words. “That means….”

He couldn’t say it.

He couldn’t think it.

After four years, he couldn’t.

Brody didn’t flinch. “That means that this surgery will end my professional swimming career. There will be no more shots.”

The doctor nodded in agreement. “You’ll be able to swim, of course,” he said. “You’re a lifeguard, yes? It would not limit you there, and some swimmers have rebounded from worse injuries, but such cases are quite rare, and I have never known of any competitor who has regained the same level of skill as before.”

“Like I said, the surgery ends my career, right here and now,” Brody concluded for him.

Mitch looked back at the doctor, shocked. “But if he doesn’t have the surgery and he competes anyway, the thing could tear.”

The doctor nodded along. “A tear would be quite likely, yes,” he said. “And the recovery from a tear is significantly more prolonged, and there is far less predictability surrounding the final range of motion for the shoulder.”

Mitch latched onto that. “So not racing is safer, then,” he said. “We do conservative treatments, go back to the States, get another opinion.”

The doctor was considering it. “That would optimize the chance of recovery--”

“Whoa,” Brody interjected quite suddenly. He shook his head vigorously. “Not competing?”

“It’s the best way to preserve your shoulder,” Mitch reasoned.

“Uh, and it means there’s no chance I finish these Olympics,” Brody told him flatly. “That’s bullshit.”

Sensing the growing tension, the doctor took his chance to intervene again. “None of this has any guarantees,” he said. “Maybe, if you skip this race, it heals in time and you’ll be able to compete again. But maybe not. Maybe you finish your last race and nothing happens. But maybe it tears, and that’s that. There are no right answers here.”

Lips twisted ruefully, Brody scoffed. “That sounds about right.”

“The choice is yours, ultimately,” the doctor said. “And I’m more than happy to answer any more questions you may have.”

Brody was already on his feet, though. He extended his hand. “No, thanks,” he said with a polite smile as Mitch got to his feet belatedly after him. “I know everything I need to know.”

For once, Mitch was in total agreement.

-o-

They made it to the parking lot before Mitch couldn’t take it anymore.

This was as bad as he’d thought.

It was worse.

He’d been right to be worried.

He’d been right.

“I’ll contact the Team USA coaches,” he said. “Make sure the paperwork is in order.”

Brody stopped, turning to look at him quizzically. “What paperwork?”

“The paperwork to withdraw you from competition,” Mitch said. “Obviously, they’ll have to call up the alternate, but there’s enough time--”

Brody blinked rapidly, color draining out of his face. “Wait. What?”

Mitch stopped, staring back at him, utterly vexed. “What?”

“You just said I have to withdraw,” Brody clarified, lifting his eyebrows in disbelief. “You’re talking about the alternate.

This was a shitty joke, even for Brody. “Uh, yeah,” Mitch said. “You heard the doc. There’s no way you can race.”

Brody looked like he thought Mitch had to be joking. In disbelief, he tilted his eyes. “Like. You’re kidding, right? You have to be kidding me.”

“No!” Mitch said. “Why would I be kidding?”

“Because I have to race, Mitch,” Brody said, like it was a foregone conclusion. “There’s nothing stopping me from getting in that pool one more time.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Mitch said. “This is a career ending injury.”

“This is the end of my career anyway,” Brody objected. “Like, this is it.”

“But you could ruin your shoulder,” Mitch said.

“I will lifeguard just fine, torn shoulder or not,” Brody reasoned.

“You don’t know that,” Mitch said. “This is your health we’re talking about. The rest of your life.”

“And what does any of that shit mean if I don’t finish this?” Brody shot back. “I came all this way. I sacrificed so much. We all put so much on the line here. I can’t turn back now.”

“But that’s the point,” Mitch returned, not missing a beat. He was finding his voice now. He was finding his purpose. He knew the thing that had to be done, and he knew that it was up to him to bring it to fruition. Because Brody was too blinded by gold to see the truth of the matter. Mitch had to protect his own; he had to protect Baywatch. “You’ve proven what you can do. You’ve shown the whole world what you’re capable of, and that you can do this the right way. Bowing out now is not the same thing that happened in Rio. In Rio, that was on you. This? This is shitty luck. No one’s going to blame you for that.”

Brody incredulity was almost palpable. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks,” he said. “You told me that all along. That I have to do this for myself. I have to finish.”

“I told you to go as as far as you could, on your terms,” Mitch said.

Brody raised himself up, lifting his chin a little higher. “And I’m telling you, right here, right now. Quitting isn’t going to be my terms.”

Mitch pursed his lips, not pleased. “It’s your body’s terms,” he said flatly. “And that is one power you can’t fight.”

Shaking his head, Brody was not swayed by this. “The team is counting on me for this relay, Mitch. I owe them this.”

“Your loyalty is admirable, but this is about you,” Mitch said. He poked a finger at Brody, jabbing his good shoulder. “You need to look out for you.”

Face contorted, Brody shook his head some more. “That’s not what you told me when I first came to Baywatch,” he said. “That night, after the Huntley, you chewed me out. You told me I was selfish, and it hurt, okay. But you were right. About everything. I didn’t know how to be part of a team. I didn’t understand anything about family.”

Mitch was really starting to hate that conversation.

Like, a lot.

The problem was, of course, that he remembered it, too.

The anger abated, and he shifted back on his heels. “And I know how much you’ve changed,” he admitted, and the words were harder to say than he expected. But he remembered the other stuff, too. He remembered Brody taking the plea deal to save the bay; he remembered Brody pushing on when Mitch had wanted to quit. He remembered Brody almost dying and Mitch thinking how he’d do anything to make sure that he would always be okay. “Sometimes I hardly recognize you.”

Brody’s jaw worked, and he almost smiled. “So what would it say about me if I walked away?” he said. “What would it mean about how far I’ve come if I don’t do this for them?”

Mitch let out a long breath, feeling something burning in his eyes. “It’s not the same thing, though. No one would blame you for this.”

Brody was adamant. “But if I don’t race, our alternate can’t hold his ground. If he’s on his game, we can get bronze -- maybe. For these guys, this medal is their chance to secure themselves. It’s huge for them. If I put myself first, like I did in Rio, they lose out on a lot. This is exactly like Rio, Mitch. I have to get that gold medal.”

“Family isn’t about always winning, though,” Mitch said. “The way you talk, it’s like that this won’t mean anything if you don’t win that gold.”

“Because I know can,” Brody said. “If I know I can, then don’t I owe it to them?”

“To them?” Mitch asked. “Are you sure you’re not talking about yourself?”

At that, Brody recoiled. As heated as their exchange had been, it had not been overtly confrontational. Brody’s reaction indicated that that was about to change. “What does that mean?”

Mitch had a choice right then. A choice to play nice, to capitulate.

A choice to stand his ground.

Like Brody said, this was a joint journey. Mitch had also come too far to back down now.

He squared his shoulders, finding his resolve. “You talk big like this is all for the team, but I can see it. You want this, too,” Mitch said. “You think you need four gold medals to prove yourself. You think you haven’t conquered your demons if you don’t come out on top. And that, right there, is pride and ego talking, not a sense of family. Maybe you haven’t changed. Maybe you’re still the same selfish bastard who turned up on my beach four years ago.”

The words hit harder than Mitch had maybe intended. More than he had anticipated.

Even the mere act of saying them left Mitch breathless, an exertion he couldn’t quite calculate.

For his part, Brody looked as if Mitch had hit him.

The hurt was sharp, but Brody hardened himself defensively. “Screw you, Mitch. I don’t need this shit, not from you.”

“Yes, from me, and only me,” Mitch said. “No one else will call you on it, but I will because you wouldn’t be here without me. I’ve saved your ass more times than you know, and this is as much my decision as it should be yours.”

“You’re seriously doing this now?” Brody asked. “This is how you’re going to be? After all the shit we’ve been through together? You’re doing this?”

“Someone has to talk sense into you before you ruin your life again,” Mitch said. “That’s my job, as your coach, your publicist and your whole damn support section.”

“Too bad you’re not my friend, then,” Brody said, and the words were tautly strung together, barely composed. “Because I sure as hell need one of those more than all the rest.”

“I’m your best friend, jackass,” Mitch said. “So you should believe me when I tell you that you need to walk away right now.”

“You know, I have changed a lot in the last four years,” Brody said. “But so have you. At least most people would say I’ve changed for the better.”

With that, he turned, stalking away from Mitch.

Mitch rolled his eyes. “Brody, get back here!”

“Screw you, Mitch!” Brody yelled back over his shoulder.

“Brody!” Mitch called after him. When the younger man still didn’t stop, Mitch called again. “Brody!”

Brody didn’t look back, however.

Not once while he stalked off down the street.

Not once when he turned the corner.

Not once while Mitch was still standing there, left behind and alone.

That was it, then.

Brody had made his choice.

And Mitch knew, for the first time, what being superfluous was really all about.

-o-

Numbly, Mitch made his way back to the room. Sitting there, he wasn’t sure what to do. Today was a free day, though he had snagged a few tickets to some track and field events. He’d planned to go with Brody and the others.

But none of those plans seemed to matter now.

He thought about calling the others, telling them the whole damn thing was off, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. If he did, then that made Brody’s choice to walk away real.

Mitch didn’t even know what that meant.

What was Brody walking away from?

Was he walking away from the Olympics? Was he walking away from practicing good self care habits? Was he going to walk away from sobriety?

Or more, was he walking away from Baywatch?

Was he simply walking away from Mitch?

Mitch had always said that this was Brody’s choice, that Mitch was only here to support him.

So what was the problem now?

Why, when Brody made his choice, did Mitch struggle so much?

He told himself, sitting alone in his room at Brody’s Olympics, that it was because he was looking out for Brody. Because Brody had needed him there to keep him from making bad decisions. Because Brody couldn’t see that this choice could be the one that ruined everything.

But was that really it?

Was that really everything?

Because Mitch knew Brody. He knew what walking away now would do to Brody. That much hadn’t changed -- it had only become more important. Mitch had known that if Brody didn’t pursue competitive swimming again, he’d never overcome the darkest parts of his past. And now that they were so close to seeing how it ended, Mitch was asking him to cut it short.

The effect would be devastating.

Brody would fall apart.

The impact would be far harder to recover from than any shoulder injury.

And he’d been the one all along, telling Brody to listen to himself. He’d forced Brody to find that confidence inside himself when Brody himself doubted that it existed.

Now that Brody found it, now that he embraced it, Mitch was trying to take it away again. Mitch was undermining Brody’s growth, and he had been in small ways this whole year since Chicago. All this waiting for the other shoe to fall, it wasn’t just vigilance. It was a type of forced paralysis, wherein Mitch was the last person to understand the nature of Brody’s change.

He’d missed it.

As close to Brody as he was, as much time as he spent with Brody’s life, Mitch had missed the part where the kid had grown up right in front of him.

These last six months weren’t some high before the fall.

Not unless Mitch had just Brody off the cliff.

Because Brody had been the best version of himself, and Mitch had made him doubt it. Of course, Mitch would always look out for Brody. Of course, he would always be aware of Brody’s triggers. But the simple fact was one that Mitch had a hard time digesting.

Brody didn’t need to be saved anymore.

Not that it was always going to be ruled out, because everyone needed saving every now and then, but after four years, that was the exception and not the rule. With help, Brody had gotten ahold of his demons and he had them in line. Brody had learned his triggers and he didn’t just avoid them, he coped with them.

When Mitch had first met Brody, the idiot had been drowning even if he didn’t know it.

Now, he had both feet on solid ground and he was breathing on his own.

That was amazing.

It was.

It was also strange.

Because Mitch, he was a lifeguard. He played the role of hero. That was who he was; it was as much a part of him as the ocean. His entire relationship with Brody had been defined by that, an intrinsic imbalance that Mitch had taken for granted.

Where did that leave Mitch now? If Brody was self sufficient, then what part did Mitch play? If he was playing the role of savior, then who the hell was he?

Mentor, sure he’d taken that one on. Coach, it had been a hard fit, but Mitch had done it. He’d been bodyguard, financial advisor, publicist, driver, trainer, all of it.

And not one of those roles prepared him for this: an equal.

That was what had made the last year so hard.

Not that Brody was struggling to find his place.

But that Mitch had no idea what to do with his own.

This whole thing had started by holding Brody together, saving his ass in every imaginable way.

Now, after a lot of time and work, Brody could do it himself.

Sitting alone in his room, Mitch was faced with the difficult reality that it was time for his coaching strategy to change to something more appropriate for his athlete. Deny, deny, deny and distract, distract, distract -- those were cool for the mess Brody used to be.

The guy who had shown up at the Olympics -- the one that had grown out of the qualifiers last year -- he didn’t need that shit anymore. It was only holding him back.

There was just one strategy left to try.

Accept, accept, accept.

Four years in the making.

It was probably about time.