A/N: *waves* Hello! I'm new to the MIOBI fanfic community, but I adore the show, and especially the dynamic and chemistry between Payson and Sasha. That said, I'm massively disappointed by the writing in general this season, and I wrote this after The New Normal because I felt like they took the easy way out simply so the Payson/Sasha drama would die a quicker, cleaner death. Long-term story arcs and character development don't seem to be the show's forte, but hey... that's why we've got fic, right? But enough griping about lost potential. In my fic world, this is how that episode ends.

Hope you all enjoy!

Payson sat in the darkened car, hands spasmodically clutching the wheel without much notice from her. It felt like she'd been sitting there for hours, but she knew it was just the adrenaline of feeling like she was doing something wrong. She hadn't stolen the car- Max had insisted, and Austin had agreed with a sweet -if too knowing- smile. "Go ahead, Payson. I don't mind if you borrow it for a little while. I'm sure we can find something to distract us anyway." Austin handed her the keys and made a little shooing motion. "We'll call you if we're ready before you are."

So Payson had shoved down her conscience and her nerves and jumped in the car, tailing her mother to a slightly gritty section of Denver. Parking in the back of a weed-choked lot, her mom had consulted a piece of paper before heading through a gleaming set of glass doors, a smart sign saying 'Stu's Corner Boxing Gym' emblazoned on it. What on earth was her mother doing here?

But she knew deep down exactly what Kim Keeler was here for. Her. She'd lost her cool and snapped at her mom when it really hadn't been her fault at all. She wasn't mad at her- she was mad at Sasha and, more than anything, herself. She'd trusted him completely, believing without question that he'd always put her needs first. Well, the team's needs. And so Payson sat in her darkened borrowed car on a side street with a good view of the entrance to Stu's Gym and waited.

It wasn't more than an interminable-feeling ten minutes before her mom walked back out, shoulders slumped and face disappointed. Payson felt her heart plummet. If anyone could have talked Sasha into coming back, it was her mom. She sat and watched her mother reach her car, turn and pause a moment, eyes locked on the glass doors of the gym, before heaving a sigh and getting in. Within a minute, she was gone.

Closing her eyes and resting her forehead on the steering wheel, Payson counted slowly to one hundred, and then counted all the way back down to one. It was an exercise she'd performed hundreds, maybe thousands, of times before, a calming technique that let her grab hold of her nerves and turn them into steely determination. Cutting the engine and pocketing the keys, Payson made her way doggedly towards the little gym.

She had just swung through the entrance and processed that it wasn't nearly as dingy as she'd anticipated when Sasha was suddenly in front of her, bag in hand, towel around his neck, and looking as shocked as she felt. "Payson?" he asked in disbelief. "What are you-" He cut himself off with a brusque slashing motion of his hand. "I told your mother the truth, and I won't change my mind, Payson." His eyes gentled. "I'm sorry. Now please go back outside, get in the car with her, and go home."

Blinking slowly, feeling like maybe she'd missed something important, Payson frowned at him and blurted out, "I've heard of beating yourself up, Sasha, but this is something else." She squinted in the gloomy half light of a flickering halogen bulb. "Is that a black eye?"

He rubbed his face sheepishly, and she noticed the swollen, bruised knuckles. Apparently this wasn't his first boxing workout since World Team Trials. She took a tentative step closer. And the nose was definitely more crooked than she remembered, and that split lip must have been throbbing. "Why not just go get mugged?"

Sasha grimaced. "It looks rather worse than it is, Payson. I took a decent cross to the face earlier when I was... distracted." The hand came up again to rub unconsciously at his stubbled jaw. His eyes hardened. "Go home, Payson. I mean it."

"No." The simple response was out of her mouth even before she was aware of it, and their eyes widened at the same time. "No, Sasha. If you're not my coach anymore, and you're sure as hell not my friend, then you don't get to give me orders anymore."

Eyes grim, mouth flattened in displeasure, he made to step around her. "Very well. Then perhaps you'll listen to reason from your mother."

She choked back a laugh. "Gone back to the festivities. Twenty minutes to the other side of Denver, five to park and get inside, and at least five more minutes to ask around and find out that Austin loaned me his car. Thirty minutes, Sasha." She laughed again, bitter and sharp and sounding so much more jaded than any sixteen year old had any right to be. "I've given you every last drop of trust and faith and hope I had in me for the last year. I wrung myself out for you time and again, getting up and trying again when I wanted nothing more than to give up. I gave you everything I had, and you can damn well give me thirty minutes."

He goggled at her. "Is that what you-" Sasha swallowed jerkily and turned to wave her to the warm up area where he'd spoken to Kim, but there was a roomful of curious boxers now eyeing them. Two female visitors in one night got these guys' attention no matter what, and he definitely did not like the looks the two at the speedbags were giving Payson in her pretty little party frock. She was much too young to be receiving those looks from anyone, he thought, pausing to give both men the blackest glare he possessed. Dropping a throbbing hand on her shoulder, he ushered her outside.

She stopped at the sidewalk and looked at him questioningly.

"Where are you parked?" His eyes scanned the neighborhood, and it suddenly seemed darker, more dangerous to him now that he had a young, pretty girl in a dress standing next to him. "What were you thinking, coming to a rundown area like this on your own?" he demanded suddenly, hand clamping back on her shoulder as he steered her towards the side lot holding his truck. "Come on. I'll drive you to your car."

Now that he seemed to be resigned to at least talking to her, Payson decided that just going along with him seemed like the best course of action. After all, she knew he wouldn't leave until she was in Austin's car and on her way, which meant he was at her mercy for this conversation. "Alright," she agreed with a docile shrug. "Lead the way."

Scowling, Sasha unlocked the truck cab and slung his bag in before climbing in and stabbing the key into the ignition. "Where are you parked?" Suddenly feeling furious, with her, with himself, with Kim for not realizing that Payson was the most stubborn, bullheaded person on the planet when it came to getting something she wanted, Sasha slammed a protesting hand on the steering wheel. "Dammit, Payson, why must you keep at this? This isn't something you can guilt me into doing! My reasons are sound, and you're only hurting yourself and everyone else by refusing to see logic." He huffed in frustration, and his aching, bruised face gave a pulse of sharp, stabbing pain in response.

She smiled at him, wry and slightly lopsided. "Hurting myself? I'm not the one getting my face smashed in to punish myself for something I didn't do wrong."

She had a point, and his mouth quirked into a small, puffy, answering smile. "I wasn't getting my face smashed in, as you put it. I prefer to see it as breaking his hand."

"With your face," she added dryly.

"With my face," he agreed, fighting the urge to sling an arm around her shoulders to hug her. Just like her mother, Payson had a way of making him feel as if his reasoning had been silly and trite. "All right, perhaps I was punishing myself just a bit." Leaving the keys dangling, he slumped back and scrubbed at his face, wondering just how to make her understand how he felt. Knowing Payson, nothing but the unvarnished truth would be enough. "I not only don't deserve to coach you girls, Payson, but I've left you worse than I found you. In shambles," he began. She sat quietly, looking at him, waiting, giving him the time to tell the story in his own manner. Sasha wondered how on earth her parents dealt with this woman-child so beautifully. She turned him about, sometimes more mature than he thought possible, and other times so heartbreakingly naive and trusting that he worried about the world outside of gymnastics eating her alive someday.

"I let you all down in ways a coach can never afford to do. Emily's legal troubles could have been averted entirely if she'd just trusted me enough to call me. I could have gone to the chemist's and paid while her mother took care of the insurance mix up. I could have driven her brother to hospital. I could have prevented her trouble in any number of ways. I knew Kaylie was struggling with an eating disorder. I confronted her. I confronted her parents, and right when she needed me to be most forceful, to insist that they get her help, I crumbled. I let another girl down." His fists clenched. "And Lauren. Poor Lauren is so wrapped about the pole with her family issues and self-worth and her mother's death and trying to fill the void with boys, and I let a bit of teenage attitude muscle me out. Instead of being an outlet for her, I was just another person she felt she had to lie to." His eyes flashed as he turned to face her fully. "I have destroyed your career twice, Payson," he said bluntly. "I let you compete with your back when I should have known better, and I let you think that we..." He stumbled, searching for the right words. "... that your feelings for me were more than they were, and now this cloud will hang over you for the rest of your career. Ellen Beals will despise you forever now, just because of me. Every step of the way to the Olympics you'll have to fight that woman's influence because I simply couldn't keep my arrogance in check. I could have destroyed everything you've worked so fervently for, and that is not a coach. That is a failure. Your best chances, all four of you, lie with me leaving and starting fresh."

Payson turned to look out the windshield and was quiet for a long moment, digesting everything he'd said. "That is total and utter bullshit, Sasha," she said finally, forcefully.

"Sorry?" He goggled at her before a cynical grin crept across his mouth. "I've heard you curse more tonight than I have in the entire time I've known you, Payson."

"That's because the stakes are higher right now than they've ever been before. I'm not giving up without the fight of your life, Sasha. You're my coach. Our coach," she corrected quickly. "And I'm not letting some noble, self-sacrificing English Lit hero crap you've got stuck in your head ruin the one thing in my life that feels right." Her voice echoed with conviction, with passion, and 'right' rang with the clarity of a bell.

"It certainly felt right for me sometimes, too," he offered, turning to stare into the night. "But dealing with teenage girls can be exhausting, Payson. There are so many pitfalls, so many distractions, and you girls have entirely unique situations to deal with. Some nights I was up all night, trying to figure out how to help one of you, channel your emotions and problems into something positive, something that would make not only a better gymnast, but a better person. Other nights I fell into bed fully clothed, so bloody tired mentally that I couldn't even be bothered to take off my shoes. But sometimes it was fun, and frustrating, and rewarding and perfect." He sighed. "Please don't think I'm leaving because of you. I loved every moment of working with you, of helping you find how much artistry and beauty you had locked away inside. I'm not leaving because of you. I'm leaving for you."

"It's still leaving. Quitting. Giving up." Her features were set, stony. To Payson, particularly after he'd refused to allow her to give up, quitting was the ultimate act of betrayal.

The look of understanding he gave her only seemed to make her frown harder, so he tried to find the words to help her understand that if he didn't leave, he'd be doing her -all of them- the greatest disservice of all. "No, it's stepping back and allowing you to shine. It's letting you and the world realize precisely how much work you did to transform yourself into one of the most exquisite artistic gymnasts I've ever seen. And there's more yet inside you, Payson, if you have the time and freedom to explore yourself without constantly rehashing the drama of having me around."

"We," she replied quietly, hands folded in her lap. "How much work we did, Sasha. I didn't do a single step of it alone. I had you there always, even when I wished you'd just give up and go away and see the writing on the wall."

He shook his head sadly. "The writing on the wall, Payson... it says that you have extraordinary things ahead of you. And you certainly don't need vicious gossip over an innocent reaction detracting from those extraordinary moments. I don't think I've ever lied to you, and I won't start now. I'd love nothing more than to say yes, to come home and coach you to five or six Olympic gold medals." He grinned when she let out a surprised laugh. "What? I don't expect perfection. I'll allow a silver or bronze, but only one." His smile slid off his face like hands slipping off the high bar on a missed release. "But I can't hurt you like that. I can't set you up for failure. I barely respect myself now. I think that would cap it for me."

"I get what you're saying, Sasha. At least in an intellectual sense," she allowed on a tired sigh. She slammed a fist on the dash, startling them both. "God! Is this what having a kid feels like? A stubborn, go around in circles, never-ending argument that leaves everybody feeling like a loser?" She sighed again, even more heavily, scrubbing at her face. "I am never having kids."

"No, I imagine this is what a marriage feels like," he quipped back before sobering quickly, the words echoing between them. "Payson, I'm sorry. That was utterly inappropriate." And true, he added on a silent groan as realization dropped his stomach to his aching feet. The irony was that he felt most natural, most comfortable and happy, with this frustrating, talented, sixteen year old. Old soul or not, she was ten years, five at the absolute minimum, too young for him. And that, he thought grimly, was the nail in the coffin. He could not be anywhere near Payson Keeler again. Or at least for the next four years or so. He shook his head sharply. No. Ever. A coach does not think of his student like that, and a coach certainly does not look across the seat of his truck and think that she looks lovely tonight. It struck him suddenly that it was far from the first time he'd appreciated her beauty in the way a man appreciates a woman. He reached across her, arm hairs rising as they felt the phantom touch of her dress slide over his forearm, and opened the cab door. The sudden flood of the overhead light left shadows everywhere, making her look older and sadder and wiser than she could possibly be. "I'll follow you to your car. Goodbye, Payson."

She shifted her legs to jump out before changing her mind, pivoting on the seat to stare him in the eyes, her forehead folded in concentration and her eyes shadowed into inscrutability by the blasted cab light. "Sasha, I have one more thing to ask you." She swallowed hard. "Answer me honestly, and I'll leave. This one complete truth, and I'll respect your decision and never bother you again. Fair?"

He knew, deep in his twisting gut, what she was going to ask, but he nodded anyway. "Fair," he croaked with a halfhearted attempt at a smile. A week ago, even a day ago, he could have given her the answer she needed to hear. An hour ago, ten minutes ago, he could tell her that his affection for her was purely that of a coach for his gymnast. He watched her lips forming the words with a bizarre combination of dread and relief.

"If I wasn't your gymnast, if I was two years older, would you have kissed me back?"

After a long moment of silence in which neither moved or barely breathed, her brows rose. "Sasha, you promised. Besides, I'm so, so much more embarrassed than you right now, I swear. Just tell me already, so I can go."

"I-" His voice cracked. "At that particular moment, no, probably not. You're very young, Payson, and sheltered in a lot of ways that I don't think two years will do much to erase. I've led a very different life from you."

She nodded, that typical Payson Keeler focus and single-minded drive turning to her future as she buried the last of her hopes in a shallow grave. A Sasha-free future loomed, and though it felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach now, she knew she would have to get through it, over it, to focus on her Olympic dreams. "All right then." A moment to clear her throat sharply, and then, "Thanks, Sasha. Bye. Good luck to you, whatever you end up doing."

He watched the expressions flitting across her features until there was nothing left but weary determination and a blankness where there had always been a spark of something in her eyes. "Payson, wait!" he blurted, hand shooting out and wrapping around her wrist, the swollen, abused knuckles letting out a strange creaking sound as he forced them to work. "Probably not then," he repeated, the words tearing themselves from his mouth, throat tightening and stomach dropping like a boy on his first date. Or a man in front of a firing line. He felt a bit like both at the moment. He cleared his throat determinedly. "Not then, but if it had been now that you'd kissed me, tonight that you'd made your feelings known..." he trailed off, feeling like the moment that bloke's fist had connected solidly with his face all over again. "Yes. Maybe just for a moment, but if I'm to be completely honest with you, then yes. But the fact of the matter is that it's completely inappropriate, and you're much too bloody young and naive, and I simply can't jeopardize your entire life's work just for what in all likelihood is a momentary infatuation on your part. I won't do you that disservice on top of all the others."

She stared at him for a long moment, and then down at the loose bracelet his bruised, bloody fingers made around her wrist, and then back up at him before leaning in slowly, watching him closely, giving him time to wake up, or back away, or make a goddamn honorable, responsible choice for once in his bloody life. Instead, he met her halfway, lips soft and undemanding, in a kiss that was far gentler and far more filled with meaning than the one she had sprung upon him in the gym not all that long ago, and all of his noble intentions sank back into his mind, content to be reexamined at a later date.

His father had, after the trials, turned and said to Sasha in his deep baritone growl, that Payson had the heart of a Romanian. He knew his father had been talking about her focus and dedication and refusal to bow before unthinkable mental pressure and physical demands, but the irony was almost overwhelming. She truly did have the heart of a Romanian. Sasha shivered as her fingers laced through the hair at the back of his head and changed the angle of the kiss just enough that they suddenly just fit together naturally, a roundoff into a back handspring, the movement and momentum a force unto itself. The urge to laugh was almost overwhelming. He wondered briefly if even then, his father had known the Romanian heart he'd referred to had been Sasha's.

So there we are, my personal canon. Hopefully, you enjoyed it as well. :) Any reviews are much appreciated, and thanks for reading! -Podkopayeva