Chapter One- Just the Beginning
This is my shot
Payson stretched out her arms and looked around the immense stadium where she'd prove to the world that she was back, and more importantly, that she was the best. She saw Genghi Cho eyeing her from the Chinese section of chairs; the little girl was looking intimidated at the gymnast who had come back from a knock-out of an injury at full strength.
Payson felt like smiling but she quelled the thought, trying to focus. She stretched her shoulders, letting her eyes wander the sea of nameless faces, searching for anyone familiar, like her mom, Nicky, Austin, anyone would have been comforting. She knew the chances of finding them were near impossible.
She sighed and turned her back on the crowd, glancing up to the Jumbotron, expecting to see highlights from the last bars routine, she thinks it was one of the German gymnasts, and instead saw herself, looking up. She turned and saw a camera placed in front of her. She gave a small smile and a wave of her fingers.
"Payson." Sasha's crisp accent drew snapped her to attention. She smiled at the camera again and walked to where Sasha was waiting. He held out her grips, it was like a dream, he'd done the same thing at the China meet. She took them silently, going over her routine in her mind, the bars still made her the tiniest bit uneasy. He placed his well worn hand on her shoulders.
"This is your moment, time to be the best you've ever been," He whispered into her ear. She waited to see if he'd say anything else, but when he didn't she gave a sharp nod, and stepped forward, chalking up and waiting for the flag to rise.
"Hit it Pay, you got this!" Emily called, clapping her hands in support. There were cheers and various voices called praise. Another smile as she stepped on the mat, giving her salute to the judges and then turned back to the bars.
This is my last shot.
Payson jumped forward, her hands curling around the bar, and suddenly everything went away. Her tunnel vision did more than switch on, it went into complete overdrive.
Skill after skill hit, perfect handstands, every switch move was crisp. The dismount was coming up. If she stuck this cleanly, then she'd medal for sure, even if disaster struck and she managed to fall on her ass during every other apparatus.
Once, twice, three times she swung around the high bar on momentum alone. Only one more rotation, her body whipped around again and just when she was going to let go she felt her hands start slip off the bars.
No! Not again! She willed herself to stay on, but to no avail. No longer was she flying through the air with precision and grace, she was falling backwards onto the mat. Everything slowed down, moments of suffering and hours of training from the ground up flashed before her eyes. I failed. I blew it.
As her back smacked into the mat, Payson's eyes snapped open and she sat up in her chair with a jolt, a sharp intake of breath hissing through her lungs.
Her breathing was ragged and she looked around wildly, She was on an airplane on the way to the 2010 World Championships in Rotterdam. Just a dream. A horrible, terrible, completely possible dream. She leaned back against the first class chair that the NGO paid for, and closed her eyes, running her fingers through her hair anxiously, trying to calm her heart rate.
She felt a warm gentle hand touch her arm, and a deep familiar voice softly sounded in her ear, "You ok Keeler?" She snapped her eyes open and blue met blue as she locked onto the gaze of Austin Tucker.
When they had boarded the plane in Denver it had been realized that according to her ticket, Kaylie was going to be seated next to Austin which apparently was a problem. The reigning National Champ was avoiding Austin like he had the plague and wouldn't tell anyone why. She instead spent 20 minute begging Payson to switch seats with her, which Payson ended up doing just to stop the brunette from giving herself an aneurysm.
It wasn't a big deal really, she didn't have anything against him. Austin was a good guy, and a sort of friend. Sweet, funny and an altogether focused and extraordinary gymnast, despite the image he tries to portray.
"Yeah, I'm fine," She inhaled shakily that gave away just how not fine she was. "Thanks Austin."
He raised an eyebrow in disbelief as she turned her head to look out the window. He sighed inaudibly and didn't question her any further, he may not know her too well but he knew that occasionally she needed her space, but that didn't mean he looked away.
Payson Keeler was an astonishing enigma. He'd had his eye on her gymnastics career since her debut as an elite at the Junior National Championships almost three years ago.
He remembers watching this little blonde girl from the stands; she was blowing away her competition as if the best gymnasts in the country from her age group were nothing more than leaves in the wind. He can remember the feeling of awe she inspired as she through her vault, a Produnova, a freaking Produnova, and nailed it. As a first year junior!
He remembers outrage when she had placed second to Kelly Parker, a girl with little to no natural talent who tended to walk the straight line the National Committee laid down for her and never took any risks. What he remembers best about his first encounter with Payson Keeler is that after the awards ceremony, where the dissatisfying piece of silver was placed around her neck, she hugged her coach and immediately began dissecting her routines, trying to find her flaws. No celebration. No rest. Just improvements.
He watched her perform in countless meets, coming out on top nearly every time, Nationals was always her biggest downfall. Every time she was on that podium it was in second place to Kelly Parker, who was becoming smugger with each passing day. But Payson never let any hostility towards her biggest competitor show. She had control. He respected that.
The Present Day Payson shifted in her chair, her tank top shifted aside to reveal the pale glimmer of one of her surgical scars peeking out from her lower back.
He cringed inwardly, it had been outright heartbreaking to see her fall from the bars at Nationals. How the hell she managed to survive that I'll never know. One minute she's gone from the gymnastics world because of her career ending injury, and then *BAM!* There she is outside the hotel in France, preparing to petition onto the Women's National team.
He had never had the chance to see her as a normal girl. She was always just the powerful little gymnast from Boulder who had the passion of a Shawn Johnson and the potential to become a Nadia Comaneci. But as he saw her standing with Lauren and Emily as Kaylie tried to introduce herself, he couldn't help but focus on her, and not the girl who was talking.
Her long blonde hair was down instead of up in her signature bun, not a stitch of makeup on her face, he was stuck with the thought that this was an entirely different Payson Keeler.
When he'd gone to The Rock to train under The Great Sasha Beloff, he'd kinda expected the cold shoulder from the Rock Rebels, Payson included, but in a surprising turn of events Payson was the one that was warmest to him out of the four girls from the start.
He kinda let her fade into the background, she was so rarely in the gym at the same time as him, always being pulled into the annex or on some bizarre training exercise designed by Sasha. She just became another gymnast he trained with, albeit a very talented one. He still found himself stopping to watch her routines, even giving advice which she took and actually used to his surprise.
Everything changed at the World Trials.
When she'd shown up, and petitioned her way onto the team with that floor routine she had wowed him with the same feeling that he had experienced at that first Nationals. She was an entirely different gymnast, a new unique one. Payson had evolved before his eyes yet again.
After Trials, Kaylie began avoiding him like he was the social pariah. He had no clue what he did, but Austin could take a hint. He stopped trying to talk to her, and granted her wish, no matter how much it hurt him. It had been one long ass time since he'd let himself actually feel something for a girl and what did it get him? A broken heart.
You're over her, He reminded himself. It was partly true. Over the past few months he had thrown himself into his training, staying as late as Payson and getting there only a bit after she did in the morning. He had a lot of critics to answer to and a lot of people to put in their place.
And here we are. He furrowed his brow wondering why he cared so much that Payson wouldn't tell him the reason for her waking up mid panic attack.
Austin brushed it off as his old intrigue playing apart. They weren't friends, not like sit down and have a heart to heart type of friends, but they sure weren't enemies. It's more like they have a mutual respect and understanding of each other's goals. He doesn't go out of his way to tease her, but being Austin Tucker he couldn't resist the occasional jab. She always took in with a smile and a witty response of her own. It was never hurtful and could almost be considered flirty as she walked away with her hips swaying unintentionally.
He always left their little "conversations" with a smile.
The pilot's voice sounds over the speakers, announcing their descent in Rotterdam. Payson shifts back into her seat; she gives him a small half smile, her dark blue eyes sparkling at him. He smiles in return and tugs his ear buds out from his ears, taking a deep breath. He knew what would be waiting for them at the airport. He couldn't suppress a groan.
"Something wrong?" Payson asked, brushing some of her hair out of her face, Austin randomly decided he liked it better down.
"There is going to be a swarm of reporters waiting at the airport. I hate reporters." He ran a hand across his face, and tugged gently at his hair.
"Are you telling me," She was very obviously trying not to laugh, "That Austin Tucker, Olympic Gold Medalist is afraid of a few reporters?" Her eyes sparkled mercilessly and her cheeks were tinted pink as she smiled.
"Not afraid Keeler," He corrected with a small smirk, using an index finger for emphasis, "Annoyed. They are like freaking vultures. It's hard not to get overwhelmed." She rolled her eyes playfully, "I'm serious Keeler!"
"I think I can handle a few reporters Tucker," She responded playfully. She wasn't pretentious or smug when she said it. She was just honest, and he loved that about her.
"There's more than just a few," He paused for a moment trying to figure out how to make her understand the difference between the amounts of reporters she was used to and what would be waiting for them at the airport. International reporters were much different. They didn't give a damn what they asked you, and some of the stuff just plain crossed a line.
He looked down at his hands, scarred with the memories of past blisters and torn skin. Calluses formed tough over his palms and fingertips. He let his eyes flick to Payson's hands, so much smaller than his, but he saw a similar pattern of scarring, and suddenly he had his idea.
"Give me your hand." She raised her eyebrows, "Come on Payson, I'm trying to prove a point here," She conceding, giving him an amused look. Her hands were much smoother than his, and way smaller than he had originally thought. He flipped her palm over and pressed his to hers, raising their hands up to eye level so she could see the contrast. Her fingertips, just barely brushed the bottom section of his fingers.
"Your hand is the amount of reporters that you are probably used to," He curled his fingers over hers to emphasize the difference, "And my hand is the amount we will be seeing in a little under an hour."
She raised an eyebrow again, not really taking him seriously. He dropped her hand, and sighed. Fine. Don't believe me.
Austin walked through the airport, trailing his black suitcase behind him, his duffel bag resting on top of it. He frowned in the direction of Kaylie, Payson, and Nicky Russo. He had nothing against Russo personally, the kid didn't have a personality to offend anyone with, but as a gymnast he was annoying as hell, a constant thorn in Austin's side. Kid thinks he has a chance of beating me. Yeah right. He didn't succeed at Nationals and he definitely won't do it at Worlds.
Kaylie was speaking animatedly on one side of Payson while Russo was nodding absentmindedly; he didn't seem to be paying attention, his eyes were set on Payson. Payson looked outright uncomfortable and was eagerly flowing the conversation along, looking for an out.
Tough luck Russo. Austin grinned and had, in his opinion at least, a stroke of pure genius that would help Payson escape, AND piss off Russo and Kaylie all in one fowl swoop.
He moved over to the little clique, sending a wave at Emily as she talked seriously with Sasha. He reached out and touched Payson's shoulder softly, to get her attention. She turned her head and smiled as she saw him, gratitude washing over her face. His answering smile was more of a smirk, and he half expected her to react violently as he slung one long arm around her shoulders, as Kaylie would have. When she didn't it came as a pleasant surprise to him.
"Hi Austin," She beamed at him, giving a little eye roll at how predictable he was being. Nicky sent a small glare his way, and Kaylie looked outright hurt. What is with her?
"Hey Keeler. Just wanted to show you what I was talking about earlier," He smirked at Nicky, I win again. "Sorry guys, but I'm stealing her. Let's go." He moved his arm to wrap around her waist and picked her up easily, Jesus she's light.
"Hello!" She laughed, in surprise, "Okay, how bout we put me down…No? Okay sure, so I guess we're just gonna go this way then…Bye guys!" He tried not to laugh, but she was shaking with laughter of her own and it was all he could do to not join her. As soon as they were out of sight, he set her down.
"Well," She readjusted her gym bag on her shoulder, "That was fun." He smirked, and laughed along with her.
"Yeah and you're in for a little more fun. I had more than one reason for whisking you away." He motioned to the tinted doors of the airport exit. She rolled her eyes, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
"Really Austin? This again?"
"Yeah," He made a grand gesture, which caused another eyebrow raised, and opened the door, "Really."
As soon as the doors opened they were enveloped, in a wave of deafening sound, and flashing lights. Payson froze in the doorway for a moment, taking it all in. Austin grinned as he placed a hand on her back gently nudging her forward, I tried to warn her.
His touch seemed to bring her back to awareness, and she stepped forward on her own, leaving him stranded by the door. When he didn't move she looked over her shoulder, "You coming or not?"
Austin followed her with his eyes, a wide smile crossing his lips as he saw her get stopped by a reporter from the Netherlands according to the sticker on the side of his camera. He couldn't hear what was being said, but she laughed and answered with a smile. She moved away from the reporter as quickly as she had come. She's something else.
He followed her down the queue that had been roped off for them, He was stopped by a few people and he was able to brush them off politely enough and send a smile their way before he eventually caught up with Payson as she attempted to stick her suitcase under the bus.
He put a hand on her shoulder and she turned and smiled at him. He heard the furious clicking of cameras being used, but he didn't really care. "You are amazing." He said, That was more than a little impressive. She just handled some of the most well known networks in the world for the first time, by herself, and she handled it better than most experienced athletes ever do.
She flipped her hair and batted her eyelashes in a way that reminded him of Lauren Tanner when she was being devious, and scoffed, "I know," barely holding it together for more than two seconds before dissolving in quiet laughter. He joined her, hefting both of their heavy bags into the undercarriage easily. They climbed up the stairs to the bus and she led the way to a seat in the near back, motioning for him to sit next to her.
He slid into the seat and she literally sank into it. All of the composure kinda deflated and he took in how tired she looked. "That," She pointed out the tinted window where the rest of the US team was being held up with the press, "was insane!"
"You seemed to handle it pretty well," He smirked and she laughed again, pulling her left leg up to her chest, her foot hanging off the edge of her seat.
"I'm serious! I can't imagine doing that all the time." He shrugged.
"You get used to it." His gaze wandered to the window and he caught a clear view of Kaylie and Nicky doing an interview with the American reporters. The blonde reporter said something that was particularly funny to Kaylie as she laughed, her hair tossing back as she shot Nicky an almost flirty smile. Russo shot a shy smile back and actually spoke in an interview that probably wasn't about his gymnastics. Well isn't today just full of surprises?
"If this week doesn't go well then I'll never get the chance to get used to it," Payson's gaze fell to her lap, her fingers suddenly became as interesting to her and discussing ways to decimate Genghi Cho in competition. Austin's full attention was back on her the instant that her tone registered with him. It was desolate, and lacking the confidence that he had grown accustomed too. It was as if the Universe was off balance.
He touched her arm softly, like he had on the plane, aiming to comfort, Maybe she'll let me this time. "Look at me." She turned, her dark blue eyes had lost some of their sparkle, it had been replaced with uncertainty and fear. It's just so drastically different from the girl that was storming down reporters not even ten minutes ago that it makes him wonder, How does she hide this side of her from everyone? He's never seen her cry, not even from injury, and he has a feeling that this is as close as he'll ever get to actual tears; and he's just fine with that. "If anyone has the chance to go home with Gold after all this," His hand found one of hers, giving it a gentle squeeze, "It's you Payson."
Her cheeks flushed with color, he squeezed her hand one once and relaxed his grip so she could pull away. She did so slowly after a moment's hesitation. "Thanks Austin. That means a lot to me." He smiled again, Why can't I stop doing that?
"Glad to be of service." He tipped an imaginary cap, earning some of the sparkle to enter her eyes again. They were intriguing, her eyes that is. Kaylie's eyes would shine sometimes, Emily has a mysterious twinkle that lingers in the corners, Lauren's eyes just flash either with pride or jealousy. But Payson's eyes just outright sparkle like the stars in the midnight sky.
"You seem to be saving me from all sorts of things today," She pointed out the window with a smile as Nicky and Kaylie were still entangled in the same interview.
"I felt it was my civic duty to save you. It almost looked like you were in physical pain." He teased lightly.
"So you decided to be my Superman?" She smiled, and glanced his way from , arms crossed comfortably across her chest.
"Keeler," He took her hand again, brushing his lips across the back of her hand in a charming sort of way, "I could be a lot of things to you if you'd let me." She didn't blush, or do anything other than smile coyly at him.
"Oh really?" He nodded. "Like what?"
"Well now Miss Keeler, that is entirely up to you." He held her gaze in silence. He couldn't help himself. His mouth didn't really wait for signals from his brain, he had a terrible case of EWVS (Excessive Word Vomit Syndrome). It was such an easy response, but it could end very badly for him if she took it the wrong way.
"It is?" He nodded again, searching her face for uneasiness that he never found. "Well that's a first. I'll have to get back to you on that one." She smiled again, the sparkles back at full capacity. Okay. It's official. She is one of the most awesome girls I've ever met.
Emily jogged up the stairs and onto the bus half the team following with her, whatever it was the two gymnasts had just shared was gone now. "There you two are! How did you manage to get through all that craziness so quickly?" She sank into the row across from them
"Payson, over here has the press like melted putty in her hands." The two girls shared an eye-roll while Austin merely smirked. "Em, what took you so long?" He frowned, "Did they give you any trouble?" While the definition of his "friendship" with Payson wasn't exactly concrete, Austin did have the pleasure of calling Miss Emily Kmetko a close friend.
"No," Her eyes glazed over with a shocked sort of happiness, "They actually knew who I was." She smiled blissfully to herself. Austin exchanged a look with Payson. It's about freaking time that the gymnastics world woke up and took notice of Emily, she was rising through the ranks of the National Team even despite the efforts of Ellen Beals, who thankfully wouldn't be arriving for another two days.
Emily was off in her own little world. Austin turned to Payson, shooting her a small half smile. Payson responded with the brightest smile he'd seen from her today. He had another random decision that she's really very pretty when she smiles, even without makeup…Strike that. ESPECIALLY without makeup.
The doors to the bus opened one last time and Kaylie and Nicky boarded the bus. Hurt flashed visibly in the brunette's eyes as she saw Payson and Austin together, Payson leaning into his frame just ever so slightly, she was smiling and so was he. Why does she even care?
"What's up with her?" Payson asked quietly, her eyes following Kaylie and Nicky as they say down together a few seats ahead of them. Emily had averted her attention to a book, her ear buds in her ears, so Austin didn't worry about being overheard, although Emily wouldn't eavesdrop on them anyway.
"You don't know?" Thought girls told each other everything. He let his eyes travel to the dark spiky hair belonging to Nicky Russo as he leaned down to talk to Kaylie.
"I know the gist of things." He felt his face grow warm and he averted his eyes. So that means she knows about the whole "I think I could love you," thing. Great.
"But?" He felt as if she had more to say, but didn't really know how to go about saying it. He liked talking to Payson. It was easy to hold an actual conversation with her. He liked Emily and all but that girl has too much on her plate without him adding his thoughts and problems to it. Lauren Tanner was scary as hell, and Carter told her EVERYTHING so those two were out almost immediately. Kaylie had decided to blot him out of her life completely.
But Payson, Payson was focused and she didn't let her problems affect her work in the gym. She was stable and he kinda needed that.
"Kaylie won't tell me why she decided to avoid you, I thought things were going well…"Her slightly wavy hair fell over her shoulder, forming two golden curtains on either side of her pretty face.
"That makes two of us." He couldn't keep the hurt out of his voice. She touched his arm gently. Her fingertips were rough, but soft at the same time. It was an odd experience on his skin and a tingling sensation ran down his arm.
She didn't say anything and neither did he. All he did was allow himself a small smile as he entertained the thought that maybe he and Payson Keeler could be real friends
A/N: Hi! This is my first story that I've published under my own account. I hope that it's not too terrible and I look forward to hearing everyone's feedback.
I was inspired by the potential Paystin possibilities in JenniferCarolyn's story 'Not Just Yet, but Almost" (If you haven't read it you should totally check it out," and wanted to give it a shot. I'm not expecting any real recognition here, but I'll keep this going even if only one person is reading.