Just a Number

A/N: Apparently I get really ambitious at this time of year. I just wake up one day and I think I can totally re-write a show with one of the main protagonists as an angel. Or that I can take away the coach-gymnast factor and still maintain the things we love best about Sasha/Payson shipping.

Disclaimer: I don't own MIOBI.

Summary: What if Sasha never came to The Rock? He was never her coach, and she was never his gymnast. Now all that stands between them is the age gap . . . and the Atlantic Ocean. Not to mention his reputation, the competition, and the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion on how she should feel about him and nobody thinks he's right for her. Nothing between them but age, and well . . . it's just a number anyway, right?


Just a Number – Have We Met?

World Gymnastics Championship, 2011 – Tokyo, Japan.
October 2011.

The four eighteen-year-old girls had hidden themselves in a corner of the stadium as they spied on the competition. Well, sort of. Technically it wasn't their competition they were spying on, even though the British Women's Gymnastics Team was practicing in the same area. None of them really cared that much about the British gymnastics team, except for one particular member who was currently accelerating towards the vault to a Yurchenko with two and a half twists: his easier vault.

"He's incredible," Payson Keeler awed, releasing the breath she had been holding until he landed. "I can't even think of the words to describe him," she sighed, causing her three friends to giggle at her uncharacteristic behaviour.

"Do you think he's going to do his signature vault?" Emily Kmetko asked eagerly, leaning forward in her seat. "He hasn't performed it since Athens."

"I heard they finally named it after him in the latest code of points," Lauren Tanner imparted in a covert way. "They gave it an 11.5 start value."

They all knew that she was exaggerating, but none of them corrected her. It was impossible to have a start value higher than ten, even if the five-time Wold Champion's vault deserved such a ranking. His vault was at least as difficult as Xio Jun Feng's, if not harder because of the transition between skills. The vault could barely even be classified into a particular form, falling within at least two of the vault groups.

The four of them watched in anticipation as once more he raced towards the vault at great speed. With a fluidity that even the most artistic gymnast would envy, he transitioned into a handspring, his hands hitting the floor and then the vault a few moments later. From the vault he pushed off into a double-salto in piked position, his aerodynamic form cutting through the air, and landed surely on his feet without even a hop in any direction.

Payson jumped to her feet as he raised his arms in a salute and clapped her hands wildly. "Go, Sasha!" she cheered loudly, lost in the moment. She gasped as she remembered their position, clamping her hands to her mouth in embarrassment.

The male gymnast looked their way, the sudden cheer certainly getting the twenty-six year old's attention. His grey-blue eyes flicked over the four of them, his frown slowly turning to recognition as he took in the four girls clad in their red, white, and blue Team USA tracksuits.

"You've done it now, Payson," Kaylie Cruz admonished. "He's going to have us removed."

But he didn't, instead sending the four of them an amused smile and a cheeky wink at the loudest of his four American fans. Payson grinned stupidly at the semi-flirtatious action and ducked her head to try and hide her cheesy smile from her friends.

Kaylie rolled her eyes. "Geez, Pay, what's the big deal?" she asked tiredly, seeming to lack some of the enthusiasm of her three fellow gymnasts. "It's only Sasha Belov."

Lauren, Payson, and Emily all gasped together in exaggerated shock, although genuinely appalled by Kaylie's blasé attitude to the Sasha Belov, one of the most decorated athletes in their sport since Nikolai Andrianov.

"Only Sasha Belov," Payson began on his behalf, keeping her voice to a low hiss so as not to engender their idol's attention once again. "He's only one of the youngest male gymnast ever to win all-around at the Olympics. He only held the world title for five years. He's only the only male gymnast to have won an Olympic gold medal in all six events. And he's only the favourite for this Worlds despite having been out of competition for nearly two years."

"And what am I, chopped liver?" interrupted a cordial voice touched by a southern twang. They all turned in his direction, Kaylie suddenly beaming with happiness at the appearance of her favourite Olympian.

"Austin, what are you doing here?" she asked warmly, gesturing for him come sit beside her. "I thought you were staying outside."

"I was," Austin Tucker responded, "but you guys were taking forever in here. What's taking you so long?"

"Payson's got a gymnastics crush on Sasha Belov," Kaylie responded snidely. "She won't let us leave," she added, even though she was the only one even willing to consider leaving before Sasha did.

Austin shrugged at her response. "Who doesn't?" he asked her idly as Lauren and Emily hummed in agreement. "I'm a guy and even I think he's a gymnastics god."

"That's not the point," Kaylie huffed, crossing her arms.

"He's looking our way again," Lauren said suddenly, ignoring Kaylie's sulky looks. She let out an excited 'eep' and quickly turned her head away, playing it cool as the renowned gymnast glanced in their direction. "Quick, Austin, go away before he thinks we're with you."

For a moment he almost thought that Lauren was trying to protect him (because while it was improper for the girls to be watching the practice of a low-ranking competitor, it was considered cheating for Austin to be watching the practice of the only thing standing between him and gold). Instead she was protecting herself. Her tone (and the lack of protest by her fellow gymnasts) suggested they were embarrassed of him and wanted him gone before Sasha got the wrong idea and thought they were friends or something.

But it was already too late, and Sasha was already jogging towards him, with no visible trace of the knee injury that had kept him out of competition after his fall at Beijing. The operation, as far as they could surmise, had been a complete success and he looked as good as ever (at least by the girls' appraisal) and only a little bit older.

"So these are your spies, Puiule," Sasha surmised by way of greeting, smiling at Austin's suddenly antagonized look. It had been a running joke in Beijing among the male gymnasts to give Austin childish pet names due to his diminutive age at the time. Three years on, Sasha (and pretty much every other gymnast he had competed against in Beijing) still hadn't let it go.

"Spies," Austin scoffed. "I like to think of them as my own foxy, super-talented, covert angels, only with better hair and no actual combat skills.

"Theyz ma gurls," he added with a flick of his wrist, earning himself four out of five eye rolls.

"We weren't spying for him, Mr. Belov," Emily assured him quickly with an imploring look. "We just wanted to see if you were still as good as everyone says."

"Sasha or Alexandru," he replied, a grimace flicking briefly across his face. "Never Mr. Belov.

"So what verdict did you reach?" he added, the question almost unnecessary.

"Better than before?" she gave as her questioning reply, shrugging her shoulders and giving an easy smile that made her look endearing enough to get away with almost any crime. Sasha gave a light laugh, shaking his head but not admonishing her blatantly toadying response.

"Have we met before?" he asked, frowning a little in concentration. "You all seem vaguely familiar, or perhaps it's simply your esteemed company," he suggested with a sarcastic wave in Austin's direction.

"I'm Kaylie Cruz," Kaylie answered quickly, stepping to her feet and offering her hand.

Sasha nodded as he took it in his own. "Two-time national champion," he deduced appraisingly before moving to Lauren.

"Lauren Tanner," she said haughtily, announcing her own title, "bitch of the beam."

Sasha nodded but smiled tightly before offering his hand to the more shy burnet beside her. "Emily Kmetko," she told him, "the one from the Y."

"That's nothing to be ashamed of," he shrugged. "You should see where my father grew up in Romania. It doesn't mean you have any less right to be here, Emily."

Emily just nodded shyly, blushing at his easy dismissal of one of her deepest fears as Payson stood up beside her.

Payson offered her hand, and he took it gently, his calloused fingers brushing up against her own. "You're Payson Keeler," he said softly before she could offer it herself, her name sounding like honey from his lips. "The li'l engine that could," he endowed affectionately, smiling all the while.

It was almost like an electric current passing between them, and Payson understood that this was kindred spirit – someone who shared her very soul in a most profound way. Had they been coach and athlete, they would have been so in synch with one another that words would be unnecessary and she would sense his gaze upon her even if she couldn't see it. Instead they were fellow competitors, and so the sense was that of meeting an equal, or one's perfect match – the person who most complimented you in every feasible way.

"You . . . you know who I am?" she asked shyly, the smile on her own face irrepressible.

He laughed lightly, shaking his head in amusement. "Miss. Keeler, I consider myself a fan of yours," he told her charmingly, making her smile even brighter. "I didn't know how I was going to get back into gymnastics after my injury, but seeing you do the same was an inspiration. I figured if you could come back like you did at Worlds after a major back injury, then who was I to complain about my knee."

"Thank you," Payson responded, unable to find better words. She usually felt so uncomfortable talking about her injury, but Sasha made it seem like a badge of honour. She had recovered from the worst possible injury for any athlete, and come back to her sport as good as ever, even if it had been a difficult journey. Some skills had been lost due to lack of practice, but recoverable, but others were lost completely due to changes in her body. But she was determined to be the same gymnast she was before her injury at Nationals – thus Sasha's endearment. The Little Engine That Could was the perfect metaphor to describe Payson Keeler, even if the allusion was older than she was.

"I suppose you ladies should go before the women's coach catches sight of you," he cautioned, glancing in the direction of his female counterparts. "She'll think the defending champions are trying to steal some great training secret from her and let it go to her head.

"Don't inflict that on me," he begged jokingly. "Coach Frost," he addressed sarcastically, "is already near impossible to deal with. I'd hate her to think she had a reason to be so uppity."

The girls nodded in agreement, having seen enough of the British women's coach to share his sentiment. Elsabeth Frost was a pedantic woman with no sense of her own mediocrity. He was right to think she would take their presence as a compliment to herself.

"It was nice meeting you, Sasha," Kaylie spoke on their behalf, taking responsibility as team captain. The three other girls nodded in agreement.

"You too, ladies," he agreed. "I'll be rooting for you," he assured them with another friendly wink, waving them off as they went on their way. His eyes lingered upon one particular gymnast's receding figure as she left, watching the unconscious sway of her hips until he caught himself doing so.

The girls chatted eagerly as they left, commenting on how nice Sasha Belov was in person and how he was nothing like what the media made him out to be. He always seemed so standoffish when the cameras were on him, but he'd been nothing but a gentleman to the four of them and positively charming. They discussed how handsome he was, the light stubble making him look rugged and dangerous compared to the clean-shaven chiseled look he usually wore for competition. Even Kaylie agreed that he was remarkably handsome, while adding the caveat that she personally preferred burnets without specifically mentioning Austin.

"Who'd have thunk it," their male companion commented, shaking his head at the feminine display.

"What?" Payson asked, wondering why Austin had decided to interrupt their discussion.

"You, Keeler," Austin answered vaguely. She gave him a curious look and so he explained, "you've gone all girly over Sasha Belov."

"I have not," Payson protested, flushing red at the insinuation.

"You have," Austin disagreed, "but at least now I understand why none of the other guys ever appealed to you.

"You little Lolita, you," he teased, catching her head in brotherly headlock. "I'm assuming it's the older guy thing and not the accent."

"Oh my gosh, we like haven't said anything about his accent," Lauren said suddenly, forcing the conversation back to the vital topic and so leaving Austin's teasing forgotten. "How dreamy is that accent?"

With renewed vigour, all four girls engrossed themselves in conversation about Sasha's accent with particular attention paid to the words that gave away his true origins. Austin's comments (and his presence for the most part) were completely forgotten and rightly so. Because there was nothing to them – not yet anyway – and they were hardly worth attending to. Not when they had more important matters to discuss . . . like the exactly colour of Sasha Belov's eyes.

~ to be continued ~

Hmmm . . . interesting start, right? I'm hoping I'm not the only person who thinks so. I had the vague notion that things would be so much easier if they weren't coach and athlete, but would it really? It's still an age-inappropriate relationship, and now we have a bad boy reputation to contend with. And the fact that they're on opposing teams. And Marty and MJ. And probably Ellen Beals at some point (probably Elsabeth Frost too as the English equivalent of Beals), although she's always going to be a problem irrespective of age gaps and the like.

Let me know what you think.

Notes: I would have preferred to maintain the typical age gap between Sasha and Payson, but it just didn't seem all that feasible. For one thing, it would have meant Sasha going into his fourth Olympics, and I couldn't find a single gymnast who had medalled in more than three. Secondly, I thought the 11 year age gap might have been pushing things without The Rock to bring them together. Anyway, because of that, Sydney 2000 becomes Athens 2004, except for the knee injury, which moves to Beijing 2008 followed by a miraculous recovery. This Sasha is a bit more light-hearted I suppose than the series Sasha (at least when he first arrived at The Rock), largely because he hasn't had to face a lot of the experiences that the series Sasha did and he still has his gymnastics to get him through.

I'm going to be posting this on my livejournal account as well (same name - virgowriter - cos I'm unoriginal) mostly because I can insert pictures and stuff if I need to with livejournal entries. I'm gonna try and make the fanfiction version of the story the 'clean' version - no authors notes before or after, and the only additional info you get are notes and translations. We'll see how that works. I might throw in the occasional additional material in there too, depending on my mood.

Romanian Translations:

puiule: cub/baby.