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Baywatch fic: The Last Leg (9/9)

December 28th, 2018 (02:04 pm)

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



-o-

That meant that Mitch needed to take action.

Fortunately, Mitch was an action oriented sort of guy. In fact, the idea of having something to do was actually a bit of a relief. Clarity of purpose was more important to him than he’d previously realized.

That was a side point, however.

The main point was finding Brody.

Preferably now.

Because Brody had changed a lot, but Mitch had just sent him reeling. Mitch had been willing to be Brody’s foundation, but he’d crumbled under the weight. If Brody came tumbling after, then Mitch would have some part of that on his conscience.

Therefore, Mitch started with the most logical and most convenient destination: Brody’s room.

By purpose, they were staying close to each other, and it was a short walk Mitch had quickly mastered. Set on making amends, he knocked on Brody’s door and waited.

And waited some more.

When no answer came from inside, Mitch knocked again, leaning a little closer. “Brody?”

Now Mitch was leaning so close that his ear was nearly pressed to the compressed wood divider. He strained, listening for any sound of movement.

It was still; silent.

Stepping back, Mitch briefly considered the notion that Brody might be hiding in there. It wasn’t necessarily Brody’s style, but Mitch had pushed Brody to a rather hard breaking point. At this point, Mitch had to concede that all assumptions had to be discarded.

Pulling out his phone, there was an easy way to find out.

He pulled up Brody’s number and dialed.

Over the line, it started to ring.

Then, abruptly, it cut off.

Brody had dropped his call.

And, given the silence from within, it didn’t appear that he was home.

That meant that Brody was not in his room. Instead, he was out and about, somewhere in the city. Moreover, he was actively not speaking to Mitch. All of these indications were bad.

All of them were also Mitch’s fault.

Mitch wasn’t a quitter, though.

The last four years had proven many bad things about Mitch, but that much had been solidified. When shit got hard, Mitch never quit. Not even when he wanted to.

There was no way in hell he was about to start now.

-o-

The next logical place to look was the pool.

Brody was a swimmer. He had spent most of the last four years in a pool. Mitch knew this because he had also spent most of his time in a pool. With the relay coming up so soon, Mitch knew that there would be plenty of other people from Team USA in the area to practice with. In fact, Mitch knew several tam meetings were on the books, and Brody had been nearly religious about his attendance.

Today, however, he was a no-show.

When asked, the relay coach shrugged and said Brody had texted him, asking to delay the time. When the other swimmers were confronted about Brody’s presence, they laughed. “Why the hell would he need to practice? He’s the only one of us who has any confidence going into this thing.”

Mitch considered waiting, hoping that Brody would show up, but if Brody was texting the coach directly and circumventing Mitch entirely, then it was likely that he wasn’t going to make this easy. Besides, no one seemed remotely concerned about Brody.

If only they knew.

-o-

After clearing the pool and the physical therapy area, Mitch checked his watch. He and Brody had tickets for the hurdles this afternoon.

Rather, they had tickets for the hurdles in about twenty minutes.

Now, Mitch knew Brody was hurt and pissed off, but he liked athletic competition. They’d been talking about these hurdles all week. It was possible Brody would still try to go.

With that in mind, Mitch went as well. He waited all through the race, glancing all around him and missing the photo finish.

After an hour, Mitch conceded yet another defeat.

Brody wasn’t there.

Moreover, Brody wasn’t coming.

Mitch was back to square one.

Where the hell was Brody?

-o-

After another sweep of the training facilities, Mitch got no clear answer as to Brody’s whereabouts. Back at Olympic Village, Brody was equally elusive.

By dinnertime, Mitch was inclined to be worried.

Not panicked.

Worried.

The difference was key.

And Mitch’s response was measured in kind.

Now that he had checked all the spots where an Olympic swimmer would feasibly be for training, rehabilitation, on-site relaxation and more, Mitch decided it was time to think outside the Olympic box. In truth, he should have looked there sooner. He just hadn’t wanted to think about Brody dealing with this stress outside of this context. Those options were less structured and inherently more dangerous for Brody.

That seemed to be an awful irony in all of this. Mitch could finally trust Brody, but his lack of trust was why he couldn’t trust Brody. His doubt could very well be Brody’s undoing.

But Mitch wasn’t going to panic.

Instead, he was going to do the next practical thing and start looking in less likely, non-swimming related places. Given that they were in a large foreign city, that left a lot of options. Fortunately, unlike previous trips with Brody, he wasn’t flying completely solo this time.

His phone call to Summer was picked up after three rings.

“Mitch! Hey!” she said, clearly distracted by some other activity around her. “What’s up?”

There were lots of sounds -- voices -- in the background. Maybe that meant Brody was with her. He dared to hope. “Hey, Summer, I was looking for Brody,” he said. He considered a deflecting version of the truth to make that question seem less weird, but if Brody was with her, he’d probably already told his own version. Instead, he tried to sound nonchalant. “You seen him?”

“No, I thought he was with you,” she said, just as nonplussed as before.

Mitch felt his heart sink. “We, uh, got separated after a few things this morning,” he said, deciding not to talk overtly about how he’d displayed a level of mistrust that nearly amounted to betrayal before Brody had recklessly walked away from him. “This place is huge, all these people. He hasn’t picked up his phone.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s hard to hear in a lot of places,” Summer said. “But no, haven’t talked to him today. Got a few texts this morning before the appointment. Hey, how did that go?”

A causal question.

A very serious answer.

It wasn’t that Mitch was going for straight up denial at this point, but he didn’t have the time and energy to do this with Summer. Not when Brody was still decidedly AWOL.

And not when it was still decidedly Mitch’s fault.

“We’re still sort of talking about it,” Mitch deferred. “More reason for me to synch up with him again.”

“Well, we’re out, found ourselves by the beach,” she said. Someone cheered nearby, presumably CJ. “Looks like it’ll be a pretty good scene tonight.”

A pretty good scene sounded like the worst possible place for Brody. “You sure you haven’t seen Brody, then?”

“Nah, but I mean, there’s tons of people,” she said. “But hey, doesn’t he have a thing tonight?”

Mitch racked his brain. He was in charge of Brody’s schedule; hell, he made most of Brody’s schedule. “There aren’t any events--”

“No, like, with his relay,” Summer clarified. “That’s what he told me this morning when I asked him about tonight. That he was doing the thing with his relay team. You know, with the race coming up and all. Team building.”

Mitch frowned, wondering why the hell he had been so dismissive of all that. He’d been so convinced that it was a bad influence on Brody that he’d ignored it all together. That alienated him from an important part of Brody -- all because he’d refused to acknowledge its importance. “Team building?” Mitch asked, hoping that it wouldn’t sound like he had no clue what she was talking about.

Summer, thankfully, had other things on her mind. “Uh huh, some party thing,” she said. “The others have been after him all week to attend. One last hurrah before the big race.”

Mitch felt his stomach go cold as his fingers went numb.

A party.

Before Brody’s last race.

One last hurrah.

Yeah, that wasn’t a reason to get a little worried.

It was a reason to get a lot worried.

“Thanks, Summer,” he said in a rush now, turning tail back toward Olympic Village. “Call me if you see him, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Summer said. “But you’ll probably find him first!”

Mitch hung up the phone.

Shit, he hoped she was right.

He really, really hoped she was right.

-o-

Feeling slightly desperate, Mitch tried calling Brody again.

And then again.

And again.

Then three more times right after each other.

After several attempts, the phone stopped ringing, indicating that Brody had turned off his phone in response.

By this time, Mitch had made his way back to the Olympic Village. He considered going back to Brody’s room, but his balls told him that wasn’t going to work. Of course, his balls nearly shriveled up at the thought of Brody going to a party behind his back, but that wasn’t the point. The point was Mitch had to follow the trail.

At least, after trailing after Brody reluctantly all week, he knew where the swimmers liked to congregate. The bar of choice was close by, and Mitch had long legs so he made really good time. This late in the Olympics, there were plenty of people on hand. The party was also more raucous than previous nights; it seemed like with more people done with their events, the atmosphere was reaching something of a fevered pitch.

Even the more reliable athletes were cutting lose -- some a little too much so.

Apparently, partying at the Olympics was not such an outlandish notion. Mitch felt a strong urge to take some of them back to their rooms, but he reminded himself that they weren’t his responsibility.

No, Mitch had just one athlete he needed to see through this.

And that was the one athlete he somehow couldn’t find.

Still, the whole ambiance gave Mitch some perspective about how athletes acted at the Olympics.

It did not, however, instill much confidence in him that Brody might have avoided the trap this time around.

As seemed to be the norm, the American swimmers were congregated near the back of the bar, playing pool and throwing darts. Most nights, this group was well behaved and reasonable.

Tonight, however, was another story.

Tonight there was plenty of drinking -- too much drinking. One of the swimmers had passed out in the corner, and a few others were well beyond sober. One of the girls made a bad pass at Mitch, and one of the guys hugged Mitch like they were best friends.

They were a mess.

And it wasn’t hard to see why.

Because the one swimmer who wasn’t present was the only one with self control and common sense.

Brody.

Brody wasn’t there, and his absence was plainly obvious.

Mitch had known Brody was a good influence, but he hadn’t quite grasped the extent. He hadn’t quite understood, when Brody talked about team and family -- he meant it. He meant it on a Baywatch level. That was Brody’s commitment to this team. That was why he couldn’t blow them off. That was why he had to see this through.

That was why he was supposed to be here.

That was why Mitch was starting to get downright terrified that he wasn’t.

Therefore, he wasn’t no time asking each and every swimmer, regardless of their level of inebriation, if they had seen Mitch.

To Mitch’s relief, all of them had.

Just not recently.

“He’s got a big race tomorrow,” they all explained. “I figured he was resting.”

Brody wasn’t resting, though, so they were wrong.

But he also wasn’t partying. Which meant Mitch was wrong.

All of which led Mitch to the horrible conclusion that things were very, very wrong.

-o-

It wasn’t a totally fruitless trip. With help from Brody’s teammates, he was able to reconstruct a rough outline of Brody’s day. He had gone to the main cafeteria after leaving Mitch, where he had eaten with some of the others. Then, he’d gone to a workout center to get a little movement in. At some point, he used a bathroom near the track and field complex, and he’d been back by the rooms around dinner.

He had apologized about missing the party tonight, but he’d made it clear that he wasn’t coming. There had been no indication in any of those encounters where else he might have wanted to go.

Mitch considered his options.

There was always the possibility of another party. Brody cherished his reputation now, so maybe he didn’t want to tarnish it by partying in his old way. Maybe he had found another bar, another party.

Yesterday, that would have been Mitch’s only conclusion.

But that wasn’t Brody anymore.

Brody had changed.

Mitch needed to see it.

He needed to believe it.

It was time to accept, accept, accept.

Then, Mitch had the necessary revelation.

He knew exactly where Brody was.

Setting off at a run, Mitch just hoped he wasn’t too late.

-o-

He made it just in time.

Closing time, that is.

The local art museum.

Not the place where Swimmer Brody would go. Not the place where Old Brody would be caught dead. Not the place where Leader Brody or Baywatch Brody would hang out.

But the place that Brody had defined for himself.

Was it a long shot?

Maybe.

But Mitch bought his ticket, grabbed a museum map and went inside.

-o-

It wasn’t easy to find the abstract art.

But once he did, it was easy to find Brody.

He was right there, standing in front of a large canvas, splashed with blue and white. Staring at it intently, Mitch had to stop short, wondering if he belonged her.

Wondering if he ever did.

It had been his idea to go to the first art museum, but it was Brody who had owned the experience. Mitch had kept going back, time and again, for Brody’s sake.

That, and no other reason, was why he still belonged there now.

Because some things were a choice.

And Mitch chose Brody.

He had chosen Brody to be a part of Baywatch. He had chosen Brody when he found him drunk in a hotel room on the road. He had chosen Brody in Chicago.

He chose him now.

Quietly, Mitch approached, coming alongside Brody.

For his part, Brody didn’t flinch. He didn’t look at Mitch; he didn’t need to. It seemed like he knew that Mitch was there, the sheer presence alone.

For several long moments, they stood like that together.

Side by side.

Finally, Mitch knew that if he’d come this far, he had to see it through. He drew a breath and started to speak. “I can’t believe this place is open this late,” he said, glancing around at the other patrons milling through. “Most museums close early.”

Brody nodded. “Extended hours,” he said, eyes fixed on the painting. “For the Olympics.”

Brody’s voice was clear; his face was collected. It was obvious that Brody wasn’t drunk; in fact, he hadn’t had anything to drink. Mitch had thought he’d find that knowledge reassuring, but he simply felt ridiculous for doubting it. “I guess,” he said. “But you’re missing the party.”

It was another tidbit of news that was hardly newsworthy to Brody. He hadn’t forgotten; he hadn’t ignored it. He knew exactly what he was doing it. Moreover, he knew exactly why. “I know,” he said. “I told the guys I wasn’t going to make it. I told them to be smart, but that probably won’t work. It’s their first Olympics, all of them. That can get to you.”

Mitch studied Brody for a moment, acknowledging for the first time that Rio wasn’t just some albatross around Brody’s neck. Instead, it was a life lesson he had embraced, overcome and become better as a result. “Your boys are a little drunk, but the others are smashed,” he reported. “They need you.”

This time, Brody did glance at him, as if confirming that he hadn’t misheard. “I told them what it was like to be the Vomit Comet,” he said. “They know they don’t want that. At some point, I have to trust them.”

At some point.

It was Mitch who had to look away next. That feeling of being wrong was new to Mitch.

It was also consequently one of the worst feelings ever.

Mitch had to rectify that. As shitty as it felt admitting he was wrong, the idea that he might never make it right was even worse. With a solidifying breath, Mitch looked up again. “I’m sorry.”

Brody smiled faintly, looking back at the painting. “Nah, you had a point.”

Mitch shook his head, ever resolute. “No, I was wrong,” he said. “I mean, I still think I’m right that one race isn’t worth your health, but you’re not selfish for wanting to do it. I was an asshole.”

Brody lifted his shoulders in concession to that point. “You were,” he agreed. “But it’s just because you care about me. I know you don’t want to see me get hurt. I mean, you’ve taken care of me all this time, when I couldn’t take care of myself. It only makes sense that you want to put me first. That’s what you’ve done this whole time, and I’m not stupid. I know I never would have made it here without that.”

It was entirely the right thing to say, the kind of thing Mitch had never thought he’d hear Brody say and exactly the thing he’d always wanted to hear. More evidence of how much of an asshol Mitch had been. “It has its limits, though,” Mitch said. “I need to have my limits. I need to remember why you started this -- why I made you start this. You needed to do this, and here you are, doing it. You want to be there for your team; you want to finish this. Those things are one hundred percent legitimate, and I was wrong to dismiss them.”

“But you wanting me to be safe,” Brody said. “That’s legit, too.”

“Maybe,” Mitch said, and his throat felt tight as he spoke. “But this isn’t about me.”

Brody looked at him. “Mitch, come on. All you’ve sacrificed for this, of course it’s about you.”

Mitch looked back and shook his head. “It’s not.”

“But you’ve come all this way--”

“For you,” Mitch said. “I did this for you. For whatever you needed. I came to help you do it. That’s the role I play, the only role when you get right down to it.”

It was Brody’s turn to shake his head, adamant. “Your part is more than that,” he said. He gave a short laugh. “Dude, I couldn’t have done any of this without you. Like, not one single race. You’re everything, man. And if you think I should stop, I will. Right here, right now. If you tell me to, I will walk away.”

Mitch’s gut twisted.

The loyalty was resounding.

And its implications were weighty.

Brody trusted him emphatically to do the right thing.

Which mean, unfortunately, that Mitch had to do the right thing.

“You need to finish,” Mitch told him.

Brody stared at him. Then blinked. “What?”

“You started this,” Mitch told him, matter of fact. “You need to finish.”

Brody’s confusion only deepened, attention fully torn from the painting. “But my shoulder--”

“Isn’t going to stop you,” Mitch said with an air of conclusion. It was the obvious conclusion; he didn’t know why it had been so hard to get to it. “Just like nothing has stopped you. Not alcohol, not headaches, not bad coaches, not bad press, not good press. Not even car accidents. None of it is going to stop you when you’ve put your mind to it, and when I’m behind you every step of the way.”

Brody’s face filled with expression, deep and meaningful. This wasn’t just about a shoulder injury. It wasn’t even about the Olympics. It was about a friendship, a partnership, a family. Two people, coming into their own, together. “Thanks, Mitch,” Brody said, and those two words said everything.

Without warning, Brody reached up, embracing Mitch. Mitch returned the hug, right there in some damn art museum in front of a horrible abstract painting.

When they parted, Mitch nodded his head, collecting his dignity. “It’s been a hell of a ride,” he said. Then, he grinned. “Let’s see how it ends.”

-o-

They started back to the Olympic Village.

Together.

That was what mattered.

More than the rest.

Paces together, eyes ahead, moving in the same direction.

That was what mattered.

-o-

Before they got there, Brody had one last stop to make.

“But your race is tomorrow,” Mitch said. “You should be in bed.”

“I know, I know,” Brody said. “But one more stop. Remember, we’re doing this on our terms?”

Mitch glared but couldn’t argue. “This better be good.”

“Trust me,” Brody said. “It’s absolutely necessary.”

-o-

It was an ice cream parlor.

Brody ordered peanut butter and chocolate, and Mitch got a double scoop of strawberry.

Funny, Brody was right.

Those two bowls of ice cream absolutely, in no uncertain terms, necessary.

-o-

By the time they got back to the Olympic Village, most of the parties were still going -- but it was late for them. Mitch walked Brody back to his room, ready to bid him goodnight when the younger man hesitated.

“What?” Mitch asked. “Your shoulder?”

“It’s the same,” Brody said.

“You worried about the relay?” Mitch asked. “Your times have been great, and the other guys are stepping up.”

“No, we’ll do fine,” Brody said. “Or we’ll do as well as we can. I know that. I’m fine with that.”

“Then what is it?” Mitch pressed finally, not sure what the last hangup could be.

Brody, for all the confidence and maturity he had gained in the last year, hedged so much that he looked like he was 12 again. Needy and uncertain. As unfamiliar as it looked, part of Mitch realized how much he’d missed it.

“I just, I’m nervous,” Brody said finally, face flushing red. “I don’t think I want to be alone tonight.”

The request was implicit, and Mitch had been reading Brody’s unspoken cues long enough that he didn’t need it spelled out. “You want me to stay?”

“I mean, there’s no extra bed or anything--” Brody started, clearly embarrassed.

Mitch stepped across the threshold without further invitation. “If you need me, buddy, I’m here,” he said, closing the door behind him. “No matter what, I’m always here.”

-o-

Brody offered the bed, but Mitch declined. He liked Brody and they were way past any sense of real privacy, but he still didn’t have a need to sleep in Brody’s dirty bed sheets. The floor was uncomfortable, sure, but honestly, Mitch didn’t feel it.

All he felt was that sense of belonging.

Brody didn’t always show it the same way, but he still needed Mitch.

On some level, he would always need Mitch.

Just as much as Mitch needed Brody.

Needless to say, it was the best night of sleep Mitch had gotten in nearly a year.

-o-

The morning still arrived.

Prompt and early.

This time, Mitch was okay that Brody beat him out of bed. Even if he wasn’t, the anxious movements Brody made across the small room made it impossible to feel annoyed. The point was that the dynamic had shifted. This morning was the aberration and not the norm. Most of the time, Brody wasn’t going to need Mitch to spoon-feed him.

This wasn’t most of the time, however.

This was the Olympics.

More specifically, it was Brody’s last race of the Olympics.

Four years ago, Brody had ruined his career and tore his life apart on this day. He’d come a long ways since then, but there was no way that this wasn’t going to be a terrifying sort of day.

And Brody was terrified.

Straight up, uncontrollably terrified.

He fussed around the room, being almost compulsive as he got ready. He was on edge, and he seemed to flinch every time Mitch spoke to him. When Brody’s phone rang, he looked like he was about to have a heart attack before he collected himself enough to answer.

When he talked to Summer, he managed to smile. It almost looked calm and collected.

Over the line, Summer didn’t seem to notice. She was too busy telling him how proud she wa, how excited she was, how she was sure he was going to do great, how she was going to be right there when this was over.

Then, the others chimed in, offering effusing praise as a morning pep talk.

“Swim hard!”

“We love you!”

“You’ve totally got this!”

“Do it for Baywatch!”

“Just remember how much I love you has nothing to do with your gold medals.”

Brody thanked them, and when he disconnected the call, he sat there with the phone in his hand with his eyes closed. Like he was trying to remember.

Trying to forget.

After several long moments of silence, Mitch sat down on the bed next to him.

Brody opened his eyes. “Do you really think I can do this?”

Mitch smiled, and he found himself nodding. “Yeah,” he said. “I really think you can.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Then at least we know you did it right this time,” he said. “You did everything right.”

Brody nodded a few times, studying his hands. “I’m scared, Mitch.”

“I know,” Mitch said. “But that’s not why you’re not doing it alone.”

Looking up, Brody’s lips tugged up into a smile. “You’re a shitty coach, you know.”

“Yeah,” Mitch said. “I was wondering why you let me go on this long.”

“Eh, it gave you something to do,” Brody said with a shrug. “Besides, you’re a pretty good friend.”

Mitch clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s a two-way street, buddy,” he said. “Now come on. We don’t want to be late.”

-o-

Breakfast was a tense affair. Brody didn’t eat much, and he was quiet through most of it. Sure, he mustered up a smile when someone passed him by and wished him luck, but when it was just the two of them, Brody made no effort with pretense.

After fours years, it had come down to this. Whether this race went well or went bad, this was it.

This was absolutely it.

The journey ended today.

As it turned out, Mitch wasn’t very hungry either.

-o-

When they got to the pool, Brody’s complexion got worse. He had been pale all morning, but now he looked somewhat green. It wasn’t a good look, but it was somewhat familiar. Mitch had last seen it in Chicago.

Fortunately, he still knew what to do.

A barf bucket and a quick run to the bathroom.

Brody came back out, face dripping and smile tight and sheepish. “It’s like you knew that was coming,” he quipped.

“Nah,” Mitch said. “Just being prepared.”

Brody grunted. “That makes one of us.”

“No,” Mitch countered. “It makes both of us.”

Brody nodded, trying to buck himself up. “One more race, right?”

It was a question Kadence with need. Weighted down by exhaustion. All the races in the last four years, all the times Mitch thought it would never end.

And here they were.

Staring the end in the face.

Mitch had waited for this, pined for this. Now that it was here, he wasn’t so sure.

In fact, it made him feel a little queasy too.

But that was the thing about journeys.

They always ended.

It was up to you to do it right.

“Yeah,” Mitch agreed, looking Brody square in the eye. “One more race.”

-o-

Brody was ready, in the end.

This time, So was Mitch.

They would end this the same way they started it.

Together.

Always together.

-o-

Mitch was in his seat near the pool deck when Brody entered. The cheers rose precipitously for him, and while he had played to the crowd with every other race, this time, he didn’t seem to notice. His focus was singular, even as his teammates followed, glowing in the raucous applause. This was by far the best attended race of the Olympics; the news crews were crowded into the press areas, and the tension was thick in the air.

Everyone wanted to know.

Would Brody succeed?

Or would the Vomit Comet make another appearance?

How exactly did this story end.

Brody took his place as the anchor leg, standing in a row behind the other, less experienced swimmers. He adjusted his swim cap and put his goggles in place.

It was time to find out.

Mitch held his breath.

The starting alarm sounded.

This was it.

-o-

The first swimmer was also a repeat Olympians, though with a much less impressive record. He’d had a good run at the Olympics this year, which Mitch could at least contribute in part to Brody’s influence. He’d been inconsistent in the qualifying race back in Chicago, but he’d flourished with consistent teamwork.

With a solid performance, he definitely raced hard. The problem was, of course, that the field was tight. When his laps were finished, he was placed second behind the Australian team.

The second racer fared somewhat worse. He got a bad start off the block, and his first turn was cumbersome. By the time he finished, the American team had dropped back to fifth.

The third swimmer was one of their weakest, but he had come a long way in the last year. In fact, he’d earned a surprise medal earlier in the Olympics, and he hadn’t minced his words. He said that Brody had showed him a few things; that Brody’s leadership made him confident, helped him do things he didn’t think he could do.

It was his strongest race yet. His split time was a personal best, and despite good performances from the rest of the field, he got the American relay team back into third.

Poised at the edge of the pool, Brody was almost trembling with anticipation. Mitch scooted to the edge of his seat, fingers gripping the seat beneath him.

“Come on, come on,” he muttered.

The third swimmer touched the wall.

And Brody dove in.

-o-

It had always been a little hard for Mitch, living these moments on the sidelines. As a man of action, it wasn’t his inclination to sit idly by while someone else did the hard work. It still wasn’t, but it was different this time. This time, Mitch might have been high and dry on the pool deck, but he was every bit in the water with Brody.

He felt every stroke; he knew every kick. He breathed with Brody, and he could practically feel the water as it cut across his body.

At the first turn, Brody had come up into second.

The bad news was that the lead swimmer had pulled away. It would be a hell of a comeback.

A nearly impossible comeback.

Brody was steady. Then, on the third turn, Mitch saw something give.

A pull, which vibrated up and down the length of Brody’s body. He missed a stroke and faltered. The crowd gasped, starting to murmur. Was this it? Was he going to puke?

It wasn’t hurling, though.

Mitch knew that.

He knew that it was Brody’s shoulder. He could see the unconstrained agony on his face, flashing for a split second. The lead swimmer pulled away; the third place swimmer gained. For a moment, Brody dropped back to fourth, and Mitch’s chest clenched.

This could be it.

This could be the end of the story.

It would be a defeat without shame, but a defeat all the same.

But Brody didn’t stop.

Brody didn’t quit.

It took him about half the length of the pool to get himself back together. He closed back into third. By the final turn, he was into second once more.

A silver medal, given the field and the performance of his teammates, would have been redemption enough.

It wasn’t the ending Brody wanted.

This was Brody’s terms, after all.

And he was going to make it happen.

No matter what.

Going into the final lap, Brody duck his head with a deep breath and started in. His strokes intensified, his kicks were exact and powerful. He swam as hard as Mitch had ever seen him swim before.

Then, he swam harder.

As they closed in, Brody had closed the gap until they were neck in neck. The other swimmer was just as focused, but the simple fact was, he didn’t want it as badly as Brody did.

No one did.

No one could.

Brody drew from the reserves inside of him, pushing, pushing, pushing, reaching with his bad shoulder as far as he could reach to make that final touch.

It was close, but it wasn’t that close.

Mitch knew it before the scoreboard revealed it.

The whole world knew it.

The last person to find out was Brody, as he looked up, panting for air in the water at the edge of the pool. Looking up as the scoreboard finally flashed the results.

Brody had done it.

He’d won the race.

Four gold medals.

That was how this story ended.

-o-

The crowd went wild. Across the arena, Mitch could see the other members of Baywatch, hugging each other while jumping up and down. It was entirely possible that Summer was crying. On the pool deck, Brody’s teammates were whooping wildly. Brody tried to lever himself out of the pool, but his arm gave way. The small cut of pain was barely audible over the noise, but Mitch heard it.

He felt it, too.

On his feet, he minded the security lines but made his way rapidly toward the pool deck. Brody’s teammates, as excited as they were, had internalized Brody’s idea of team. When they realized Brody’s predicament, they helped him out of the water.

It took some effort, and Brody had no way to disguise how much it hurt. He visibly struggled to get the pain in check, and he guarded the injured limb carefully as he celebrated with the others.

Anxiously, Mitch stood on the balls of his feet, wishing he could charge past security without risking an international incident. As it was, it was painful to watch Brody, who seemed to be in more pain with each passing moment. His adrenaline was flagging now, leaving him spent. The physical exertion was enough; the fact that his shoulder injury had been aggravated made it difficult for Brody to even stand.

He was grateful, then, when his teammates got their acts together. As young and excited as they were, they knew that Brody wasn’t okay. On their own, they probably would have lacked the maturity to give a shit. But that wasn’t the kind of team Brody had run. With all due concern, the other three politely deflected the press, reaching out to the nearest official before one of them called to Mitch.

“His shoulder’s all messed up!” he yelled. “We need to get him to a doctor!”

Before Mitch could even attempt a reply, the medics on call came rushing forward. Brody was quickly assessed as ambulatory before he was escorted quickly off the pool deck with the rest of the team huddled around him. The crowd grew hushed; the other swimmers watched in amazed detachment.

In the rush, Mitch still couldn’t get past security. Seeing that Brody was being led to the locker rooms, Mitch abandoned his plan -- if you could call it that, it had been more of a desperate impulse -- to get on the pool deck, and wound his way toward the back area instead. Here, at least, Mitch had clearance, and he flashed his badge before all but charging through the doors.

It wasn’t hard to find Brody. Though they were off the pool deck, there was still plenty of traffic as swimmer prepared for other races. The atmosphere was hushed with anxious whispers abounding, and Mitch followed the stares of curious shock all the way to one of the physical therapy areas.

Brody’s teammates were gathered by the door, looking somber as the medic continued her assessment of Brody’s condition. Mitch caught a glimpse of Brody around the small crowd, seeing his face pale and pinched with pain.

Mitch didn’t wait for an invitation. He charged passed the teammates, coming alongside Brody’s other side while the medic continued to work.

“How bad is it?” Mitch asked.

The medic glanced at him. “We’ll need to get him to a doctor--”

“No,” Mitch said, eyes on Brody. “How is it?”

“Well, the part where I had the potential to cause irreparable damage needing surgery?” Brody quipped. “Pretty sure that happened.”

Mitch winced apologetically. “So, things are okay, then?” he joked.

Brody laughed. “Yeah,” he said while the medic immobilized his arm and called ahead to the hospital. “Things are pretty much perfect.”

-o-

All jokes aside, Mitch was all business at the hospital. He stayed with Brody for as much of the assessment as possible, though he couldn’t go with him for the MRI. When it was over, he passed time in a private room with Brody, hoping that some light banter would distract Brody from the pain.

They talked about the race a little. They talked about the guys, who were likely in the waiting room, fretting. They talked about Summer and the others, who had been texting nonstop for the past hour. Then they talked about Baywatch, the things they missed, the things they were looking forward to.

They talked about beginnings, not endings.

But when the doctor came in, Mitch knew that there was no way denial, denial, denial was going to hold up now.

It was the same doctor, at least. He was professional and perfunctory, and he didn’t bother to bring up the images. Instead, he sat down in front of them and sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ve suffered a complete tear. Worse than I expected. Surgery is the only option, and even then, you’re going to see a reduction in your range of motion. I have the names of a few good orthopedic surgeons in the United States that can help you -- they’ve got the best recovery rates -- but I want to be honest with you. Your career is over. You just swam your last race.”

The finality of it hit Mitch like a ton of bricks. He felt the weight of it, bearing down on him until he almost couldn’t breathe.

Four years of work, sacrifice, conflict, triumph and hope.

Four years.

Over.

Just like that.

Feeling himself start to panic, Mitch looked at Brody, fearing the worst. Brody had spiraled out of control over smaller things. There was no telling how he would handle this.

But Brody was calm.

Brody wasn’t surprised, shocked or stupefied. He wasn’t even upset.

Instead, he smiled. “I knew that before I ever got in the water,” he said. “I do have one question, though. About the surgery.”

The doctor seemed somewhat taken aback by the ease with which Brody took the news. He sat back with a curious pause, and nodded his head. “Sure, anything.”

“I know competitive racing is out,” Brody said. “But do you think I’ll still be able to lifeguard?”

“Lifeguard?” the doctor asked, clearly not expecting the question.

“In the ocean,” Brody said. “That’s the only thing that matters. As long as I can go back to Baywatch, back to my family.”

“Oh, well, you’ll have to see what your stamina is after the surgery, and you’re going to need plenty of time to heal--”

“I’ve been waiting four years, doc,” Brody said. “I just need to know that I can get my happy ending.”

An ending.

On Brody’s terms.

That had nothing to do with four gold medals.

Mitch’s chest was tight.

“Your one of the strongest swimmers in the world,” the doctor said. “The surgery should give you 80 percent functionality. Even at those levels, I imagine you’ll be the best swimmer on the coast.”

“Is that a yes?” Brody pressed.

“Assuming everything goes according to plan, I have every reason to be optimistic,” the doctor offered.

Brody turned, smiling at Mitch. “See?” he said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Brody wasn’t a competitive swimmer anymore.

He was a lifeguard, instead.

Mitch blinked a few times, trying to wrap his head around that.

Maybe Mitch was still a lifeguard, too.

“Yeah,” he said, as if the realizing was just coming to him now. “I think maybe it is.”

-o-

The other guys took it hard. Brody spent a good thirty minutes comforting them and assuring them it wasn’t their fault. The Baywatch crew took it hard, too, and Summer could be heard crying over the line while Brody assured her that it was fine, that he wasn’t upset, that things were completely and totally going to be fine.

By the time he was done, Mitch felt like he should be reassured.

He felt oddly disconcerted.

The feeling didn’t get better as they rolled out of the hospital, heading for the medal ceremony a short while later. True, this was the fourth time they’d done this, and Mitch knew it mostly by rote now. All the same, sitting in his seat, waiting for Brody’s team to take the podium, it felt different this time.

Like this was the first time that he’d gotten what it meant.

Not that Brody was the fastest swimmer in the world.

But that Brody had gone head to head with his demons.

And won.

On the podium that day, Brody’s arm was in a sling. The three other swimmers on his team were crying and hugging, but Brody stood stoically, with his eyes pointed up toward the flag. He didn’t cry; he didn’t wave. He didn’t smile.

This time, he just stood there, showing the world who he was and nothing more.

In the crowd, Mitch could only watch with his heart in his throat as he made the realization.

Who Brody was?

It was more than enough.

He wished he’d seen it sooner; he didn’t know how he’d missed it.

The fact was that Brody had come a long ways in this journey; that had always been the point. You could argue that it had been the main point.

It wasn’t, however, the only point.

Because standing in the crowd, Mitch was aware of something else. He had come a long way as well. This wasn’t just Brody’s journey; it was Mitch’s journey. Brody had to put his demons behind him and embrace his life.

Mitch, on the other hand, had to let go of his pride and accept that this thing with Brody wasn’t just a mentorship. It was a friendship, a brotherhood based on equal footing.

That wasn’t an easy thing for Mitch, not when he’d always been the natural leader. Mitch was used to being the heart and soul of Baywatch.

Maybe now, he could finally admit that it was time to share the mantle.

It was true, standing up on that podium, Brody still had a lot to learn.

The thing was, so did Mitch.

From now on, moving past these Olympics, they could learn together. As partners. As friends. As brothers.

All those years ago, they had left Baywatch unequal.

Now, finally going back, they would be on even footing.

Brody had to win four gold medals, maybe.

Mitch just had to let him.

It was hard to say who had the harder task.

Chest swelling with pride as the anthem ended and Brody looked out across the crowd, eyes locking with Mitch, this much was abundantly clear.

They had both completely and irrevocably succeeded.

-o-

When it was over.

Well, it was over.

The finality of that was strange and sudden somehow, as if Mitch hadn’t wanted it for years. But it was like all moments that passed, and as sure as Brody got up on that podium, he eventually had to climb back down.

In truth, he looked relieved when he did.

As Mitch made his way to find Brody after the ceremony, he was a few paces too slow. As he approached, he saw that the others had already found Brody. Stephanie shook Brody’s hand, but she was beaming. CJ hugged him with a squeal, and Ronnie squealed, too, offering a hand to shake before awkwardly going for a hug instead. Brody laughed at the gesture, even though it jarred his sling, before Summer pulled him to the side and kissed him long and good.

That was team.

That was family.

Mitch wasn’t sure why he’d felt so alone the last six months.

When he’d had more people around him than ever.

It had been a weird mistake to make, to assume that if Brody fit in then Mitch must not. Because across the way, Brody saw him and beckoned him across.

Mitch had no reason to hesitate now.

Shit, he’d never actually had a reason.

This was the team he’d made, the family he’d chosen.

It was time to take his place with them again.

-o-

There was no time for an in-depth celebration. Summer insisted they would do something big back home in California, and CJ and Ronnie already had the music list and catering planned. Stephanie busily texted everyone back home to let them know.

Brody laughed along good naturedly, saying it wasn’t necessary.

“Of course it’s necessary,” Summer said, lacing her arm around Brody’s back, mindful of the sling. “Four Olympic gold medals. Four of them.”

“Yeah, we’re totally throwing you a party,” CJ said, matter of fact.

“A good party,” Ronnie enthused.

“We want to,” Stephanie added, a little more controlled than the others. But she smiled. “Everyone does.”

“Yeah,” Mitch said, giving Brody’s good shoulder a shake. “I think you’ve earned it.”

“We’ve earned it,” Brody clarified, and he glanced at the whole team. “It’s for all of us.”

Summer kissed him again. “Whatever you say,” she said. “Mr. Gold Medal.”

Brody blushed a little. “It’s really not about the medals.”

Stephanie snorted. “Says the guy with six.”

“Yeah, you just sound like an asshole when you say it now,” Ronnie said.

Brody chuckled. “Okay, so it’s a little about the gold medals,” he conceded. “Am I supposed to bring them?”

“Bring them? Wear them!” CJ said. “You’re the entertainment!”

It wasn’t a role Brody was necessarily comfortable with, that much was clear.

Mitch nudged him. “And if they get too heavy, I’ll help you carry them,” he joked. “That’s what I’m here for.”

The good and the bad.

They shared the burdens.

They shared the joys.

“Well, okay,” Brody said. “I think I like the sound of that.”

-o-

The others had a flight that night, which cut their plans short. They left in a reluctant rush, taking turns telling Brody how proud they were, how they couldn’t wait, and did they mention how proud they were.

Brody endured the long goodbye with grace.

As exhausting as it was, Mitch could tell Brody enjoyed it.

This time, Mitch enjoyed it, too.

When they were finally alone, Mitch turned to Brody and looked at him for a long moment.

“So,” he said. “One more night. You’re not in training; you’re not on the clock. You can do anything you want.”

Brody made a small chortle in the back of his throat. “The guys are doing a party, a big one,” he said. “I don’t have the heart to rein them in this time.”

Mitch shrugged. “Then don’t,” he said. “There’s a time to be responsible. There’s a time to celebrate. Even for you.”

Brody arched his eyebrows. “Are you telling me to go party?”

“I’m telling you you have the right to do whatever you want,” he said. “And if you want to party, I honestly cannot think of one reason why you shouldn’t.”

Brody seemed to take that in for a few moments. “I have to stop by and talk to the team,” he said, sounding marginally resigned. “That would only be right.”

“No arguments here,” Mitch said.

“It’s not what you think,” Brody told him.

“Buddy, for tonight, I’m done thinking,” he said. “This time, I’m more than happy to let you lead.”

-o-

Mitch wasn’t sure what he thought.

Somehow, Brody managed to surprise him and not surprise him at all.

Because they certainly did go to the bar, and it certainly was quite the party. Brody bought the guys a few drinks and offered a few toasts with his own cola. As a few games of pool started up, Brody went around to each of the swimmers, telling them how proud he was, how well they’d done, how he would be watching their careers with interest.

He ended with his relay team.

His Olympic family.

With them, he spent more time, talking through the race and offering specific praise. Before he was done, he looked at them seriously.

“You have my number,” he said. “I want you to keep it. And I want you to use it.”

The guys were a little drunk, but not so smashed that they couldn’t make sense of what Brody was saying.

Brody continued, just as earnest. “If you need anything -- personal or professional -- you call,” he said. “If you need help with your stroke, you call. Your girlfriend dumps you, you call. You blow out your arm, you call. You need a place to crash, you call.”

They blinked at him, as if they’d never heard an offer like that before.

Come to think of it, they probably hadn’t.

Most people didn’t.

Because most people didn’t know Baywatch.

And most people weren’t Matt Brody.

“You call,” Brody ordered them, so solemn that the others nodded obediently. “Because we’re family now. We’re family.”

All that Brody had accomplished in the last two weeks, this was the moment that probably made Mitch the proudest.

-o-

After talking to his teammates, Brody stood up and looked around. He seemed to think for a second, but then he turned to Mitch. “I think we should go.”

“Are you sure?” Mitch said. “It’s still early.”

“Yeah, I think so,” Brody said.

“We still have time if you want to do an interview,” Mitch offered. “I’ve got two dozen outlets with messages on my phone--”

But Brody was shaking his head. “No, it’s time to go.”

“Your arm?” Mitch asked. “Do you want to go get it looked at again? Maybe a second opinion?”

“Mitch,” Brody interjected, quiet and resolved now. “I mean it’s time to go.”

Mitch looked at him.

Then looked at him more.

Brody smiled, and he nodded. “I think it’s time to go home,” he said. “What do you think?”

Mitch felt his chest expand; he felt warmth spread throughout his limbs. The smile on his face was as wide as it had been in three years. “Whatever you say, buddy,” he said. “You lead the way.”

-o-

When Mitch had pushed Brody into a pool two years ago, he’d done so under several assumptions. First, that Brody wanted to be in the pool competing again. Second, that Brody was still physical able to compete at the highest levels. Third, that it would be a journey of personal discovery and satisfaction that would culminate with Brody feeling like a fully self actualized adult.

Mitch had been right about the first two.

That last point, though?

Was also proven unequivocally true.

They didn’t do it the easy way, not in the least. Two steps forward, one step back -- that would have been an improvement from the roller coaster Brody took them on. But for all those ups and down, there was solid ground on the other side.

This was Brody, after all.

Nothing was ever easy, predictable or straightforward where Brody was concerned.

But it was always worth it.