An AU following France. Lauren's relationship with Carter and their friendship with Austin Tucker make life a little bit more bearable in the wake of tragedy and family developments. More determined than ever to succeed, how far can one person go to secure gold?

P.S. In this, Emily made it back, late, from France, but she was caught sneaking off to see a boy (Damon) not sneaking in with one. Austin was a bit busy at the time.

A.N. So I'm back (in my native country as well) and thought it was about time to start posting again as well. There are updates for most of my stories, provided I can find them all amid my laptop, USBs and various notebooks and journals.

This story is largely written, at least the first arc and was inspired because I seem to be the only person who likes Lauren.

What can I say? At least she's honest, if only to herself.

CHAPTER 1 – Rocky Return

When Lauren arrived at the gym she pretended it was any other day. Some of the younger gymnasts whispered to each other but it was Kaylie who was the first to speak. After Lauren approached the floor and started stretching she hurried over. Payson was nowhere to be found, presumably at ballet, but Emily followed along obediently behind.

"Where have you been?" Kaylie demanded as Lauren began to stretch out the muscles from her 18 hour car trip. What had she been thinking she wondered, napping in her car. "People have been losing it."

Lauren shrugged "I needed some personal time."

"Well your Dad has been freaking out." Emily informed her.

"And you'd know this how? Your Mum tell you?"

Emily blushed. "Mum didn't want him staying alone so we've been staying over."

But it was fine when he left her with nothing but the maids for company to go on his romantic get away, that was fine? Lauren just sighed. "whatever." She swapped positions and hissed a little at the pull of her muscles. Damn car trips.

"You know they were going to call the police if you didn't turn up today" Emily informed her, disapproving of her attitude. "Your Dad even tried to see if they could track your cell phone."

Lauren didn't have a response, but even if she had it would've been cut off by her father storming across the gym.

"Lauren." He hauled her into his arms and hugged her fiercely. "where have you been?"

For a moment her throat closed over and was faced with the duel challenge of attempting to force words out and stopping the tears welling up as well.

"I, uh." She rubbed her eye, briefly, to stop any tears, and caught sight of Sasha and Chloe who'd clearly emerged from the admin area of the gym along with her father. She hadn't noticed them before but certainly didn't want to break down in front of them now. She wasn't going to break down, she insisted to herself and certainly not in front of them.

Her father noticed her attention. "Is this about Chloe and me?" he asked "Lauren, we've been over this, you don't get to decide who I date."

"Sure Dad, date whoever you want. I should get on the floor."

"We're not done" he insisted.

"I've missed enough training."

"Lauren" Sasha stepped forward but she skirted out of his grip. "sorry for being late today" she told him before immediately following up with "Is Summer back yet?"

Sasha watched her for a moment while her father declared "Summer?"

"Yeah. I need to talk to her. I thought she was back today."

"Tomorrow." Sasha told her quietly.

"okay then." Once more she turned towards her sanctuary - the beam.

"we'll discuss this later" Sasha informed her and she nodded, but all her attention was focused entirely on a thin bit of wood.

The younger girls scattered immediately, apparently the only thing scarier than a bitchy Lauren was a teary one. She gave her eyes one final wipe, chalked her hands and performed a simple mount.

From there, nothing else mattered. She didn't notice that her father, Sasha and the rest of the gym were still watching her, she didn't even care.

"Is she even paying attention?" Emily vocalised what everyone was thinking as Lauren, in her own world, transitioned from a splits to one end of the bar and then a rapid succession of flawless flips from one position to another. She moved into a layout, back and forth up and down the beam without pause. She veered away from the elite skills and then finally bounced off the beam before sighing, turning and mounting again. Everyone had seen these moves before, or at least some variation of them, but it was the detached way she was performing them that caught everyone's attention.

"Alright, Kaylie, Emily, get moving." Sasha sent them on their way and retreated towards office, but even then he watched. It wasn't recognition of her skill, but rather concern. He couldn't believe that she was paying full attention and that was a way to get yourself seriously injured. Nodding at one of his assistant coaches he told her to keep an eye on the gymnast.

Kaylie and Emily, as well as a few of the braver juniors hung around in the locker room looking for a reason for Lauren's absence.

Fresh from her hot shower, Lauren wondered Seriously did they not realise that talking particularly quietly was as much of a giveaway as gossiping loudly. She made a point to check her phone. There was a message from Carter. About to start. Tucker's being a dick. Not really, but I think I might throw up.

She immediately texted back You'll do great. Punch him for me (not too hard). Good Luck. I love you.

She wasn't sure about her relationship with Austin Tucker, he wasn't friendly with her, like he was Kaylie or Emily, but then again, neither of them had seen him in a service elevator with his tongue in another guy's mouth. A guy Lauren had recognised.

"I needed some personal time" she answered Kaylie's demands.

"Personal time?" Kaylie was disbelieving. "I know it's only regional championships this month but it's still important, especially for the Rock, you know, your club."

"I'll be there" Lauren insisted.

"I just thought you wouldn't want to miss another chance to try and beat me." Kaylie shrugged "and you know, third place in France is nothing to be ashamed of."

Lauren stared, but she couldn't tell if Kaylie was being condescendingly supportive or bitchy.

"I'll keep that in mind" she mustered up, but then swung on her gym bag and headed for the door.

Her father was waiting for her. He immediately placed her hand on her shoulder and walked her out of the gym. He directed her towards his car and then he noticed Emily's mother waiting for them. She twisted around and yes, Emily was there as well.

"Great." She sighed.

"Chloe, Emily and her brother have been staying with us." Her Dad informed her.

"I heard" She moved away to head to her own car but her father's grip on her shoulder tightened.

"not a chance. I'm not letting you out of my sight." Her father informed her "Emily can drive your car home."

"Like hell." Her father blinked at the extremity but Lauren didn't even notice "she's not touching my car."

"Fine. Chloe, would you mind taking my car, I'll be driving home with Lauren."

"Of course sweetheart" Chloe bustled around in her figure hugging, boob enhancing, dress.

Lauren's father took stock of the car. Numerous coffee cups and empty soda bottles littered the car, all diet. There was a bag of breakfast bars sitting to one side, barely touched, and an empty tupperware container.

"Nice to see you at least took care of your car." Her father commented sarcastically.

"Can we do this later." Lauren requested, pulling out of the car park, but her father's eye was caught by a photo strip on the dashboard. It was Carter, the four photos from a booth showed them side by side, smiling, snuggling, him kissing her cheek. It was very sweet.

For Steve it brought back memories of searching her room and finding more photos, some boys' clothing and condoms.

"Is this where you were? With a boy? With Anderson?"

"Carter's in Buenos Ares for the men's invitational, remember? He won't be back until the day after tomorrow either."

"Is he your boyfriend?"

"We're not allowed boyfriends" She reminded him.

He sighed. "Lauren, just tell me what's going on. Is this about France? Losing to Kaylie again? Third place in an international competition is nothing to be ashamed of, especially considering you went as an alternate."

"Don't remind me." She sighed "look Dad, it's done, okay. I'm back, I'm fine, can we just not talk about this right now. The Kmetko clan is waiting, remember?"

"Are you sure you're alright?" Steve asked. He'd been haunted by images of his daughter in a ditch for the last week, only Chloe's presence and Sasha informing him that Lauren had informed him she "needed some personal time" had kept him from panicking entirely.

She nodded.

"I should never have left you alone" He insisted.

It was her turn to sigh "you should have. You have Chloe now." She reminded him "Don't blame me for you not seeing her more. Yeah, I want you to stop, but because you realise she's totally Wallmart, not because of me."

"When you went missing she came straight over, her and Emily both. I don't know what I would've done without her." Turning into their driveway, Lauren took note of the fact that the Kmetkos had let themselves inside.

"Well any opportunity to move themselves in, right?"

Reaching his limit her father just informed her "Brian, Emily's brother, is in the downstairs guestroom and we thought it was best Emily have the room at the opposite end of the second floor."

"better if she was in a whole different state." Lauren mumbled under her breath.

Her father fixed her with a glare. "I don't know where you've been or what you've been doing but at the very least you will accept that while you were gone, things have changed, and you will be polite and hospitable to the people living in our home."

"Whatever" Lauren slammed her car door.

"And Lauren" she turned "until I can trust you again, you can't have a car, though I'm sure Emily would be happy to give you rides if you asked nicely."

Lauren just stormed inside and blew past the Kmetko family in the dining room where Emily was helping Chloe set the table while Brian read.

"Dinner's almost ready Chloe informed her cheerfully.

Lauren just screamed in frustration and headed upstairs. At the door to her room she froze. It was turned upside down.

"What did you do to my room?" She screamed down, but then just settled for slamming the door and earning herself some satisfaction. Despite having showered at the gym she turned on the shower in her bathroom and plugged in her ipod. Turning it on scoldingly hot she stripped off.

Away from her father and the Kmetkos, away from the knowledge that Carter was half a world away, away from her complete loss of privacy, Lauren curled up on the floor of her shower, wrapped her arms around herself and dug her nails into her sides. The first sob was expected but still broke forth with a startled strength and then Lauren angrily sobbed until she had no tears left.

She cried for her newly dead mother.

There were no tears left by the time Emily Kmetko came up to inform Lauren dinner was ready. When Lauren hadn't answered her bedroom door she'd proceeded to the bathroom and knocked again. Switching off the water which was now slightly cold, Lauren didn't feel the slightest bit remorseful for using up an entire household's worth of hot water.

"What are you doing in my room?" Lauren immediately demanded.

"Dinner's ready" Emily informed her.

"I'm not hungry. Get out."

Emily hesitated until Lauren gestured around her overturned room "don't you think you've done enough damage? Get out!"

"Fine" Emily left and Lauren tightened the towel and then marched over to her bedroom door and slammed it.

Taking the overturning as an opportunity, Lauren collected old items, gymnastics programs and bits and pieces she rarely used anymore and boxed them up, shoving them to the back of the wardrobe.

She drifted around, touching objects that lined her walls. She lingered on a collection of photographs, her mother tucked away at the back where it wouldn't raise questions or bring back memories.

From inside her bag she pulled out a slightly bent photo of her and Carter and propped it at the front. It made her smile slightly, but then she sighed, looked around for something else to do. Finally she grabbed some sweats, her ipod, and headed for the gym. Someone had changed the settings on her favourite machine. It almost brought her to tears.

Lauren counted down the minutes, down the seconds, with every step she took.

When her Dad stuck his head in, asking if she was going to eat she bit his head off.

It was only when the clock finally struck 7.30 that she jumped off the treadmill and bounded up to her room.

She logged onto the internet faster than she thought.

The Brazilian Men's Gymnastics Organisation was nowhere near as savvy as the French were, there was no live ESPN coverage, only a slowly updated feed.

She checked the scores so far.

Austin Tucker had a solid lead but Nicky Russo, older Canadian Kyle Shewfort, a Brazilian Lauren didn't know much about and Jorge Hugo Lopez were all within striking distance. Carter was in sixth with rotation on the pommel horse left. It wasn't his strongest skill.

Unlike the girls event, this wasn't contested by national teams which was how Carter had been able to attend. She tapped the keyboard and hit refresh.

She would try calling but if for some reason he hadn't gone, she wouldn't be able to forgive herself for distracting him

"Come on, come on."

Finally, the results came up.

FINAL STANDINGS the screen displayed.

Austin Tucker was in first with 90.010 after a huge 15.8 on his final bars routine. Kyle Shewfelt was in second. He was one of Carter's heroes, she knew. Rumour had it, or so Carter had told her, that he would retire soon. The Brazilian, Sergio Sasaki Jr had placed third and she knew it must rankle Nicky Russo to miss out on medals. He was in forth, then the Colombian, Jorge Hugo Lopez, and finally Carter Anderson with a very solid 85.2. Even though Lauren knew that the US's other top men, namely Timothy McNeil and Jonathan Horton weren't competing, along with quite a few others and anyone outside of the Americas, it was a great result. He'd placed third among the attending Americans. She knew this was the year he'd make the U.S. National Team right alongside her.

Immediately she called, but it went straight to voicemail.

"Hi. I just saw the results and this is so amazing Carter. I'm so proud. I know I've been… distant, for the last week but trust me. Everything's going to be great now. This is just the beginning for us. Call me, no matter how late you get this. I love you."

The next day, Lauren almost shook when she sat across from Summer. She didn't know where to begin.

Summer suggested "why don't you start with where you were, alright?" She glanced outside to see Sasha and Steve. Neither looked happy to be on the outside.

"I went to California… I had to…"

She bit down on her lip. She couldn't even say the words.

Summer moved from across from her to sit down right on the couch.

"Its okay" She took Lauren's hand and then amended her sentence "it will be okay."

"Family is supposed to mean something. Mothers are not just supposed to abandon their children, but that's what happened, you know. Again! Everything is so messed up and I can't fix it."

Summer pulled her close as Lauren sobbed.

"It will be alright!" Summer emphasised "you have all these people that love you, all around you, and God loves you Lauren, you're his daughter as well. Don't forget that. No matter how many mistakes you make, he can forgive you."

Lauren sniffled. "I had it all planned." She told Summer. "I was supposed to beat Kaylie at nationals this year, and you and Dad were supposed to get together, and Mum would get sober, and Carter was supposed to tell me he loved me, like I loved him. But I lost! In France I couldn't do it, and then I found out…" She burst into tears all over again.

"I know" Summer stroked her hair. "but it will be alright. God has a plan. We just have to get you back on the right track, alright? Now, we can start by asking forgiveness and go from there."

"That's the worst part. I'm not sorry. I'm not sorry at all!"

Summer sat back abruptly. She didn't know how to council this.

"Lauren, I know you had ambitions, but what you did was not right."

"What should I have done, then? Told Dad? Broken up his happy little family and their happy family holiday?"

"You could've come to me" Summer suggested

"You were on vacation." Lauren reminded her "at your Christian retreat."

"Did you only find out…"

"I left the day I found out." Lauren told her. She was still a little hysterical but she wiped at her red eyes as best she could "I went straight to California."

"I did, and I understand this was a hard choice, but what you did has consequences."

"There wasn't a choice." Lauren snapped. "what choice was there?"

"To choose life" Summer insisted "always life, Lauren, it's what God wants for us."

"well this wasn't my choice"

Summer had been afraid of that. "Did Carter..."

Lauren cut her off "He's in Brazil. He doesn't even know yet. I didn't want him to worry and blow his meet."

"I think the life of your unborn child is more …"

Lauren gaped for only a second

"You think I went to California to get an abortion?"

"Well" Summer blushed "didn't you?'

"Why would you think that?" Lauren demanded

"Lauren your father checked your credit card we know you went to a private hospital."

"Who's we?"

"excuse me?"

"Who's been digging around in my private life behind my back?"

"Your father was concerned…"

"and he told you and who else? His new slut of a girlfriend?" Lauren shocked Summer then grabbed her bag.

"Lauren wait" She caught the teenager before she could leave the office.

"Don't you dare touch me." Lauren raised her hand and for a moment Summer thought she was going to hit her.

"You are not my mother." She insisted viciously. "I don't know why I thought I could trust you but I was wrong." She shook her head and muttered to herself "I was so fucking wrong."

"Please" Summer grabbed her arm firmly this time and Lauren had to yank it free.

"No" Lauren spat "as my gym manager you should know I've done nothing that would break any rule here at the gym, or impinge my ability to perform elite level gymnastics. As my ex-almost-stepmother, go to hell."

She slammed the door behind her and almost bowled over her waiting father and Sasha on the stairs.

"Sweetheart, what's wrong? Were you yelling at Summer? She's trying to help you."

"Do you think I had an abortion as well?" She demanded of both of them, but most of her attention was on her father.

"Lauren…" he daughter tried to appease her but she shrugged out of his hands.

"You think, that after a decade, most of my life, doing gymnastics, I would risk it all by getting myself knocked up? Well trust me on this, you might have your new gymnastics project but I'm going to win, and I'll do it without you if I have to." She scowled at all of them "I'll do it without any of you."

Now it was Sasha's turn.


"Don't speak to me unless you have a comment about my gymnastics, alright?" She glanced around. "that's a blanket rule."

Lauren had again refused to eat anywhere near the Kmetkos that night. She'd something out of the fridge and stormed upstairs instead.

When she and Carter talked this time she was unable to hold in the pain she was feeling even as she again told him how amazing his result was.

"Babe, what's wrong?" He can tell immediately.

"I haven't told you everything, about what's happened since you've been away."

"Yeah I figured."

"Are you crying?"

Lauren sniffled again. It felt like she'd been crying for weeks.

"No" she insisted firmly. "I just… I haven't told anyone this yet."

"Told anyone what?"

Lauren was silent, gathering her courage and trying to push air into her lungs.

"Lo, just tell me, are you okay? I'll see if I can get an earlier flight and come straight over."

"That's probably not the best idea. Dad knows about us, or he thinks he knows, and he's pretty angry."

"Shit" Lauren found Carter's inability to hide what his thinking adorable.

"Yeah. He trashed my room and found some pictures, and some condoms. Not your stuff in the attic but I don't think we can risk you staying here when you get back."

"Yeah, of course." Lauren could picture him running his hands through his hair as his brow furrowed.

"We'll figure something out." She promised. "but that's not all."

"Why'd he turn your room upside down?"

"I had to go to California for a few days." She informed him.


"uh… I'm getting to that, but first you should know that Dad and Summer and Sasha think I went to have an abortion."

"What?" She can't help but find it adorable how high pitched his voice got. "Lauren, you aren't, weren't…"

"No" She snapped again. "One, we always use a condom. Two, I've never gotten my period. Three, I'm on the pill anyway so I don't get osteoporosis and four, why would I go all the way to California anyway? That's just asking for attention."

"Okay, but you know, if you were, you know, I'd support you, whatever you chose."

"I'm really, really, not nor have I ever been pregnant."

"Oh thank god."

Lauren couldn't help but laugh at his sheer relief.

Then her got serious. "This means they'll kick me out of the rock doesn't it. Shit, Sasha's going to destroy me."

"They can't kick you out." Lauren insisted. "I'll make sure of it."

"How? I've already been suspended."

"On an accusation. They can't prove anything."

"Sasha won't care."

"Then I'll make him care. You know how persuasive I can be."

"Yeah." Carter chuckled

"and you know, if you did get kicked out and I didn't, for some reason, I'd leave anyway."

"No, Lo." Carter immediately protested "besides, you're sixteen, you can't just pick-up and move."

"Dad would probably let me, these days." She insisted. "and he can't make me train at The Rock."

"So what are we going to do then?" Carter demanded "if they went through your room, they found proof."

"I know the photos he found. It's not a sex tape, they can't prove we're together. I've got more explicit photos with Kaylie and Payson when we were thirteen."

"and the condoms."

" There's no rule against having condoms. I bet half the guys at the rock carry them. You do. Its sexist to say I can't."

"That's it? That's the plan? They know we're together, Lo. Maybe if we came clean…"

"We can't come clean. We're friends."

"What?" She could hear his confused frown over the phone. "We're friends. Best friends actually. Since Payson pulled away because of her accident and Kaylie and I stopped talking and I've never gotten along with Emily anyway I needed friends, and you're perfect because you're an elite athlete so you understand how I feel, but you're not competition either."

"They won't buy that." Carter insisted "Sasha isn't stupid."

"He will, he has to."

Carter didn't say anything for a long time and then he asked "Why'd you go to California?" Lauren froze, for a full second she didn't say anything until Carter asked in a low, concerned voice "Lo?"

"For a second there I completely forgot" She admitted "I was so caught up in planning this I didn't even think about her… it."

"Her..." Carter thought hard for a minute "Is this about your mother? Did you go see her?"

"Sought of" Lauren admitted. No one except Carter knew that she'd gone hunting for her location to confront her for not showing up.

"What happened?"

"I got a phonecall" she admitted "I didn't want you to worry before the invitational, but I got a phonecall the day you left. You were gone, and Dad…"

"Is she alright?"

"No." Lauren paused one final time and then admitted to Carter "she's dead. My mother's dead."

Then she wished she'd waited to tell him because she wanted to be in his arms as the sobs wracked her body but instead she could barely hear his voice as he insisted from another hemisphere.

"I'm so sorry. It's going to be okay. I'm so sorry."

Over and over again

The Kmetko's presence at breakfast again the next day almost caused Lauren to reject the idea of food altogether. Instead of the scrambled eggs her stomach was grumbling for, she wrenched open the fridge and pulled out milk and strawberries for a smoothie. From the cubboard she piled in the protein powder.

No one spoke until Emily finally asked while the shake was blending.

"Did you hear about how the boys went yesterday."

"Austin won. Carter got sixth. Nicky Russo was in fourth, if you care."

"That's good for Austin." Emily said and then ducked her head "Carter and Nicky too."

"Yeah." She slapped a lid on her drink. "and now we've established I didn't go to California for an abortion can I have my car back, I want to go to the gym."

"We can discuss your car when you tell me exactly where you were and what you were doing, and after I decide an appropriate punishment."

"Fine. Am I getting a lift then?"

Five minutes later, as she sat in the passenger seat of Emily's mother's Kia with the newly licenced Emily at the wheel, Lauren realised that she hadn't even thought about responding to her father with the truth.

Sasha didn't know what to do in the situation. It was clear it couldn't continue, and he'd already suspended Carter once. To be honest he couldn't care less if the boy trained at the Rock. He hardly noticed the male gymnasts, which was ironic. He'd even seen Austin Tucker's arrival as an opportunity to motivate the girls. Nicky Russo had been a possible contender for his attention but then he'd left for Denver. It wasn't that Carter had less talent, but he was young and there were lots of young talented male gymnasts and unlike female gymnasts, with the continuing stream of young up-and-coming talent, male gymnastics was determined by long-term commitment. Men stayed at the top for half a decade, even more possibly, and you didn't achieve that by flirting with girls at the chalk box. It wasn't that he dated. Sasha had dated his fair share. It was the drama that followed. That was not the making of a top gymnast.

But clearly something was going on with Lauren. He'd never really given much thought to the blonde either. His gymnasts fit into boxes. Payson was his favourite. With a work ethic even he admired he would coach her with everything he had and revel in her successes. Emily was the underdog with whom it was not hard to take a personal interest in helping achieve her dream, and Kaylie was the national champion. She had earned his attention with her success. But Lauren? She was Steve Tanner's daughter. That was the first thing that came to mind when he thought of her. She was consistently on the national team, consistently placed, but he couldn't think of the last time he had a conversation with her or coached her one on one.

He dropped his pen. He hated this "no dating rule." It was at times like this he considered letting Summer just browbeat and guilt them all into abstinence.

The boys arrived at twelve-thirty. Lauren had put off breaking for lunch to wait for them. She'd spent the morning on the beam and glared at a few of the lower level elites whenever they'd looked like they wanted on. Even when one of the assistant coaches had come near she'd snapped.

"I'm not finished yet" and they'd retreated. She knew she should be working on something else, but she couldn't bear the thought of losing on beam, again. It was also by a huge margin, her favourite.

Word of their successes had spread so when Austin and Carter walked in, cheering broke out.

Lauren immediately hopped off the beam and went over. Carter gave her a concerned look that grew into full blown surprise when she wrapped her arms around Austin first.

"Play along." She insisted, making the hug extra long. "You, Carter and I are all great, platonic, friends and I forget what I saw in Calais."

Austin gave her a confused look but smiled as well, his public, fake, smile, and then handed her off to Carter, who she wrapped her arms around just as eagerly.

"Congratulations." She told him loudly before whispering "There's going to be a prize later."

"I'm so proud of my boys."

"Your boys?" Austin echoed with a smirk. Lauren threw a scowl right back but then smiled at Carter again. He stepped closer.

"Are you alright?" He asked as subtly as her was capable of. A glance around the gym revealed everyone was staring regardless.

"I'm fine, really." She fit him with her biggest smile but it didn't affect the worry evident on his face. "later, okay?" She insisted.

Turning around she saw Sasha staring.

"I guess he wants to see us." Carter muttered

"So we're all great platonic friends, okay?" Lauren informed them both

"What?" Carter frowned.

"He owes me." Was Lauren's response.

Once again Carter was concerned.

"He's just playing up your friendship, I'm not blackmailing him out of a kidney."

Austin nudged her right before they walked up the stairs. "So basically I'm your beard."

Lauren couldn't help the choked laughter, which made the already nervous Carter turn. She gave him the bravest smile she could muster.

The three sat on the couch across from Sasha's desk, Lauren in the middle.

"Austin, why are you…" Lauren cut Summer off before she could finish her question.

"Austin's about as likely to be the father of my imaginary, aborted, unborn child as Carter is, and I know how much this gym hates favouritism."

Sasha's jaw clenched.

"Enough" He insisted, silencing both blondes.

"Obviously we have a problem, and I'm not going to treat you like children…" Sasha began but once again, Lauren hadn't gotten to where she was by being put on the defensive. Playing defensive maybe, but never, ever, backing off.

"you are treating us like children." Lauren snapped right back. "We're expected to train like adults but you won't treat us like grown-ups."

"Lo." Carter warned her with his deep, concerned voice.

"If you're going to kick us out kick us out, but we haven't broken the stupid rule anyway."

"If you want to be treated like an adult, you can start by at the very least being truthful."

"The rule is, no dating. Do you really think we'd risk going on a date in Boulder. Every second café here has some weekend gym mother looking to attract your attention to their toddler wanna-be-star. The only justification is that Dad found condoms in my room, and yeah, they're there, but condoms just mean that if I were having sex, I wouldn't be getting pregnant and I wouldn't be getting an abortion in California. So why are we here?"

Both Carter and Austin looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"Sex is not something to be casual about." Summer started in again. "It is the most intimate expression of…"

Lauren cut her off "so why am I discussing it with my gym manager and coach?"

Before Summer can start Sasha cut in "because it's become an issue at this gym and anything that effects this gym is my business."

"Well I'm not the reason it affects this gym. With the exception of the one week I needed for personal time which had absolutely nothing to do with either Austin or Carter, I have shown up and performed around the clock. The guys are my friends, my only friends considering Payson lives at the ballet studio, Emily and I hate each other and Kaylie wants nothing to do with me. So fine, kick Carter out, Austin and I leave as well. You can make all the insinuations you want, but can you really afford to lose the three of us with Emily missing France and Kaylie perpetually a broken nail away from a meltdown."

"Are you threatening me?" Sasha almost laughed.

"Of course not. I don't need to, the National Committee hates you enough. You think the three of us defecting because you wont let us socialise with anyone outside our immediate team wont do enough damage on its own? The comparisons that will circulate… I wont have to say a word, it will probably be better if I don't. Austin will release a press statement, something along the lines of "I learnt a lot during my time at the Rock. Sasha Belov was an amazing athlete and is a motivational coach. I'm focusing on 2012 right now and the rumours will circulate… they'll ferment, that maybe you're a little too controlling, a chip off the old block."

She didn't have to look at Carter to know he'd be outraged at her plan. She deliberately did not look at Carter.

"You can't do that." Summer declared, outraged.

"Why are you involved in this?" Sasha demanded of Austin.

Austin took a long look at Lauren before answering. Her gaze had been unrelenting.

"Because Lo's right." He copied Carter's nickname "We're friends, there shouldn't be some stupid club rule against that. We're all just friends and you can't prove otherwise, and hey, I even promise to stop breaking the dating rule. Not that you've ever punished me for breaking it." He held up his hands. "no more girls for me." He winked at Lauren actually winked "strictly platonic, I swear."

She rewarded him with a small smile.

"And you" Sasha rounded on Carter "haven't we had this conversation before."

Lauren held her breath. Carter, she knew, would be the weak point. Lauren could lie to god himself with a straight face and Austin Tucker had more to lose than she did, but nice guy Carter might not hold out.

"Everyone knows I care about Lauren, that's not a secret, but I've been on as many dates with her as I have been Austin."

Lauren blinked. That was cutting it a little too close to the truth, even if Carter didn't realise it.

Thankfully Austin covered. "hey man, we're not talking about all those times we grabbed dinner are we, cause they were strictly platonic for me dude."

Then it was Carter's turn to flush red.

"I don't want to find another gym to train at." He said finally. "I like Boulder, I've been here most of my life. But I like Lo, and Austin, more."

He looked over. They all shrugged.

"You three are sticking by this story, then, that you're all, 'just friends'."

"all for one and one for all, isn't that what you said about Rock gymnasts?" Lauren met his gaze defiantly.

Finally he tossed his head. "Get out of my office" he declared and then added "and have no doubt. I'll be watching, you especially Anderson."

Lauren closed her eyes briefly the moment they stepped out. They'd done it. They were staying.

"Thank god that's over." She muttered to Carter. He was more concerned with Austin.

"You want to tell me what that was?"

She sized up Austin. "Come on, let's all go get lunch as the great platonic friends we are now and I'll explain everything."

"Maybe not everything" Austin warned her.

They left amid the stares of half of the Rock, and Lauren had hurried them into Austin's second car, a big, black 4WD of course, in case her father was there.

"Can someone tell me what's going on?" Carter requested from the backseat.

"I wouldn't mind a heads up also." Austin added.

Lauren waited until they were all seated and had ordered before nervously requesting "I know you think I need to be more moral, and everything, but considering the week I've had, and that I did it for us, go easy, okay. I don't know if I could handle you being made at me right now as well."

That made Carter recoil, just a little. "What did you do?" He asked.

She looked over to Austin. "I had some… information, about Austin, and exchange for not telling anyone about it, if I ever needed a favour, he would help."

"You blackmailed him."

"That's a bit harsh."

"Is it?"

"Blackmailing would be demanding a hundred thousand dollars not to release the evidence to the press."

Carter looked to Austin. "What did you do?"

"Nothing." Austin insisted. He glared at Lauren.

"Look, I'm sorry, okay, and I mean what I said. I'm not going to tell anyone, I wouldn't have even if we did get kicked out." She nodded to Austin before turning to Carter "and I'm sorry, but I didn't want to get kicked out either, okay, and I'm not giving you up."

"Its all good" Austin declared suddenly "I'm not saying I'm a huge fan of being dragged into platonic threesomes the hour I get off the plane, but I've been in worse situations." He nodded his head towards Lauren "and you could've done far worse."

"So we're even?"

"Well I think Sasha'll probably keep a close eye on this new friendship of ours, but yeah" he held out his hand "we're even."

"I'm so confused." Carter admitted honestly, but then turned his attention to Lauren. "are you sure you're alright?"

"Yeah" Austin added, less than tactfully "did you really go to California for an abortion, because you know its not 1965, and its not gay marriage. Availible all across the country."

"yeah. Not pregnant, never was."

"So why does your boy not look like he just placed in an international competition?"

"Some other stuff happened, okay." Carter insisted.

"but its all good now."

"Right." Austin nodded sceptically.

"This falls under the whole, friend-blackmail secret thing then."

"Fine by me."

"My mother died and I had to go to California to go to collect her body and go to her funeral."

Austin's eyes widened. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be" Lauren insisted. "its fine. I needed to say goodbye, now I have."

"I wish you'd told me." Carter insisted "I would've gone with you."

"and then you wouldn't have gone to Brazil" Lauren reminded him, and in Austin's mind his estimation of the blonde blackmailer went up a little bit more.

"Besides, then they'd all think we went for some dirty weekend away and we'd definitely be kicked out."

"You don't think if you told them your mother died you might get some sympathy?" Austin suggested

The waitress arrived with food while Lauren considered her answer.

"Yeah, I'm sure they'd be sympathetic. My teammates, my Dad, the almost stepmothers" at Austin's look she elaborated "Summer and Emily's mother Chloe, she's moved in with us. Anyway, yeah, they'd be all sympathetic. Poor Lauren with her dead, drug-addict mother. Screw them, either you like me or you don't, but I don't want your pity."

"Fair enough."

Lauren eyed off the boys' meat before turning back to her chicken salad.

Carter cut off a piece of his steak, sauce free, and nudged it towards her. She grinned and took half of the piece and then moaned at the taste.

Austin choked back a laugh.

"What?" Carter demanded.

"You guys are fucking adorable."

Lauren kicked him, just a little, under the table.

Conversation stilted after that, though Carter and Lauren enjoyed making eyes at each other. Something Austin found hilarious.

She still cast a wary look in Austin's direction, though, before bringing up the next topic.

"So, we need to find you somewhere to live."

"What happened to your old place?"

"I was crashing in Lauren's attic, probably not a good idea now."

"Yeah." Austin smirked. "You can't live at home?"

"My Dad's not too thrilled his son's a gymnast."

Austin winced at that. "Right."

"But I've got some cash, and I can sleep in my car for a night or so."

Before Lauren could protest he insisted "its just one night."

"You can't sleep in your car." Austin insisted.

"I've done it before, I'll pick up some extra shifts."

"Could you get sponsorship." Lauren asked, even she had received offers. All the women's nation team and quite a few juniors did.

Carter shook his head, "not unless I make the national team, and even then, I'd have to do really well." He nodded his head towards Austin "exhibit A. America likes its male gymnasts pre-validated."

"You can't sleep in your car." Austin insisted "you can stay at my place. I've got a huge lake house, plenty of room."

"Just for a few days." Carter insisted

"the offers open, if you want. I mean, I've got a huge house and it'd be cool if there was someone else there, it'd look better, for publicity as well."

"okay." Carter was a little confused.

Lauren looked delighted.

"There's just one condition, which would be your other housemate."

Carter nodded.

"this falls under the, you tell and I'll ruin your life part of our new found friendship."

That just made Carter look more concerned.

"It's a four bed room house but the other guy living there, Ollie, he'd be sharing with me."

There was moments pause before Lauren couldn't hold it in any longer. "he's gay!" she surmised.

"Oh! Right! Cool!" Carter shrugged.

"So you're okay with it?" Austin confirmed. "he's my boyfriend, just to be clear."

"Yeah, means I don't have to worry about Lo, either, right?'

Now Lauren kicked him under the table.

"I meant he wouldn't check you out like every other guy at the Rock."

"its cause she's got boobs." Austin informed him. "90% of gymnasts, no boobs." For Lauren's benefit he added "and I may still check you out in public, for appearances' sake."

"Glad to oblige."

It was the start of a brilliant friendship.

When she got back to the Rock, her smile couldn't be brighter than with Austin's arm tossed over her shoulder. She grinned at both of them and left them at the men's apparatus.' She wasn't sure if she enjoyed the sceptical look on Sasha's face, or the one on her teammates more.

The junior elites, including Becca Keeler, were on the beam, and the bars were occupied as well. Instead of lining up for vault or joining Emily on floor, Lauren headed for the annex, shrugging off an assistant coach as she went.

She performed her stretches on the beam and the moved into some easy transitions. Her concentration was only broken for a minute when Austin joined her with a "looking good Tanner." She froze on the beam to make sure she didn't fall.

Not an hour later Carter came in.

"Sasha' looking for you, I think. He's running through everyone's vaults."

She left them in there together. She'd be right back after the team practice was done, but before that, before she entered the main gym, she fixed them both with a bright smile.