A/N: Thank you all for the lovely reviews and the well wishes; they're truly appreciated. :)
"Again, Kaylie," Sasha sighed for what seemed like the thousandth time. She'd over-rotated her vault and ended up stumbling to her knees and he wanted to yell at her, but he knew she was still too emotionally fragile for his naturally gruff critiquing instincts. It didn't make swallowing down his frustration any easier, however, and Sasha's mood had hardly been buoyant to begin with.
Summer floated up next to him, increasing his ire. Though she had announced to all and sundry her re-engagement to Steve Tanner, she'd still found any number of little excuses to insinuate herself in his general area. "It's almost lunch time, Sasha. I'm ordering in a sandwich from Sandy's." She laid a gentle hand on his elbow. "What can I get you?"
He tried not to frown at her and, judging by her crestfallen expression, failed. "Nothing, thanks. I have fish and a salad in my refrigerator." Watching Kaylie trudge tiredly back down the runway made him amend thoughtfully, "Actually, I'll take a grilled chicken breast and a side of steamed vegetables for Kaylie."
"That's so sweet of you," Summer practically simpered, edging half a step closer so that the fluttery edge of her blouse tickled his biceps. "How is she doing?"
He knew she was well meaning and that she truly cared about the girls, but lately everything she said or did grated like a rotten tooth. If she wanted to marry a deceptive little weasel like Tanner, that was fine, but she needed to stop playing both sides of the fence. She'd made her choice and he'd made his- he had no intention of taking back up with Summer van Horne even if she stripped naked and climbed into his lap. "She's progressing," he sighed heavily, taking a small step back. "Determined to make the Worlds team."
From what Steve had told her that was a very slim possibility. Summer frowned lightly, noticing how Sasha sidled away from her whenever she came near him. "Are you going to add her?" she asked, her eyes tracking Kaylie's movements.
One shoulder came up in a shrug. "I'm still deciding. It depends on how quickly her stamina and consistency come back."
They watched Kaylie sprint down the runway and sail through the air, nailing her vault with only the tiniest of hops on the landing. "And have you heard from Emily?"
"No." He'd spoken a handful of times with Chloe Kmetko, but it seemed Emily was resolute about staying in Vegas and keeping the baby. Sasha though it was maybe for the best; it had seemed that Emily couldn't deal with the day to day mental strain of the highest level of gymnastics. If she was flubbing routines at international meets, she would collapse entirely at the pressure cookers that were Worlds and the Olympics. Competitive gymnastics was a vicious world, and the mental aspect was just as important as the physical talent. Not everyone was equipped to survive in it.
Despite what Summer seemed to infer, he didn't begrudge Emily her choice. No teenager deserved to go through life as a young, unwed and unemployed mother, but she had friends and family who loved her. Regardless of whether she and Damon worked out, Sasha knew the younger man would support Emily and their child, and that would have to be enough. He'd assured Chloe that he would always be available for their family and let it go. There was nothing more he could do for Emily now. "Good, Kaylie," he called, making a notation on his clipboard and turning away from Summer. "Go collect Lauren and Payson- your lunch will be here in twenty minutes."
"But I didn't order lunch," Kaylie replied, slinging a towel around her neck as she approached. "I brought one."
Sasha shrugged and lied through his teeth. "That's my fault. I ordered lunch and forgot I had a plate made up in my refrigerator. I was hoping you could take it off my hands for me."
Kaylie gave him a disbelieving smile that said she knew exactly what he was up to. "Smooth, Sasha. Real smooth."
He patted her shoulder and let out a sigh of relief as Summer walked away. "I thought so."
She snorted. "Whatever. I'll eat it, but you're explaining it when my mother calls you in a panic because my lunch bag is still full."
Payson had spent the past few weeks attacking her routines like they'd personally offended her. During the day, she trained with a single-minded ferociousness that Lauren mocked incessantly and at night she sat on her bed with her training tapes in the DVD player and a dog-eared copy of the Code of Points on her lap until her mother barged in and demanded she turn out the light and go to sleep.
In theory it was simple to upgrade a routine; in practice, not so much. So many of her points came from combo skills or elements that led naturally from one into another that it was practically impossible to upgrade one thing without starting a whole horrible chain reaction. She had newfound respect for Sasha and the choreographers, because this was frying her brain big time.
Two weeks of deconstructing and studying three routines and a vault and all she had to show for it was a notebook with half its pages torn out, a calculator with a shattered corner from where she'd chucked it across the room and an absurdly short list.
FX: 3rd pass close with connecting 3/2 to 3/2? Bonus?
BB: Roundoff lay step on?, switch ring leap connection?
UB: Triple twist dismount, Shaposh back in, release upgrade (keep grip same!)
VT: Ditch bullshit baby vaults. Double Yurchenko again and another bigger?
Looking at her list, Payson carefully folded it in quarters and slipped it in her bag. Sasha had been preaching at them all about consistency, but she'd been hitting her routines pretty much since they'd gotten back. Maybe if she waited to catch him in a good mood he'd be amenable to some of her suggestions.
He was not.
Payson had waited until the end of the day, a time when he was usually in a good mood after giving the girls his critiques and lists of things to work on the next day. She'd even waited until after he'd eaten the Snickers bar he'd had sticking out of the pocket of his jacket. But he'd taken one look at her list and crumpled it in his hand.
"I'm not trying to be cruel, Payson, but until that nice little team jacket you're wearing says Coach Keeler, you'll do your routines as they were taught to you. Okay?"
"Okay, fine," she'd huffed, trailing after him as he made his way towards the front doors, where Becca and their mother were waiting for her. "But you've got to admit I need a major vault upgrade." His silence was damning, and Payson could practically see Worlds and Olympic gold flying away from her.
Figuring she'd go for broke, Payson asked, "How about an Amanar?" She scrambled over a stack of mats to catch back up to him. Damn, Sasha could move fast when he wanted to.
"No," was the succinct response. "You're too tall." He waved his ever present notebook over his head. "But it's a good thought for Kaylie- she's ideally sized for it and with her focusing on just the two events, she'll have plenty of time to train up."
The hell with Kaylie, Payson fumed to herself. "What about me?" was what came out of her mouth in a tone so wheedling it even grated on her own nerves.
Nodding goodnight to Becca and Kim, he banged through the front doors with his shoulder and headed for his trailer. "You'll continue doing the Yurchenko, of course."
"Sasha!" she cried in frustration, pulling up short at the edge of the sidewalk.
"Goodnight, Payson," he called, yanking open his front door and hopping inside without so much as a backward look.
"Kelly Parker?" the three screeched as one.
"Kelly Parker," Sasha confirmed calmly. "With Emily gone, it makes perfect sense to bring her in to fill the empty rotation. We have the slot, and she has the talent."
The girls shared a wide-eyed look. "Yeah, but she's a hell-spawned bitch," Kaylie said bluntly.
Sasha slanted a dark frown at her. "She is your national teammate. You should be eager to have her here full-time." Shifting to include the other girls, he challenged, "Or are you not interested in achieving team gold?"
"Of course we are," Lauren snorted with a scowl. "But look at it this way, Sasha- we can't kill her when she's in Denver. Here, sooner or later one of us will snap and run her over with her own gaudy-ass tour bus. We're really just looking out for the team by keeping KP out of the Rock."
Sasha took a steadying breath. "This is not open for discussion, ladies. I've issued the invitation to her mother, and she's accepted. Kelly begins training with you tomorrow morning." He added warningly, "And if I catch any of you acting like catty brats, you'll be doing extra conditioning until I'm tired just watching you." Sasha pointed at the front doors. "Now go home and get a good night's rest. I want you all here bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at seven to welcome Miss Parker."
"Yes, Sasha," they chorused with matching dejected faces.
Kaylie, Lauren and Payson were clustered on the sidewalk in front of the gym bemoaning the arrival of their new teammate when a giant tour bus with Kelly Parker's face plastered on the side rumbled into the parking lot and blasted its horn. The hydraulic door whooshed open and Kelly bounced out whistling a Disney song. "Morning, teammies," she chirped.
"Speak of the devil," Kaylie grumbled.
"It's going to be a great day, don't you think?" Kelly cooed, the obnoxious little hair pompoms on her head bobbling.
Kelly's mother climbed out of the bus' driver seat and began to pull what looked suspiciously like a national title banner from the luggage compartment. "Nice trailer, KP," Lauren sneered back, bolstered by Kaylie's snotty titter behind her. "Mommy gearing up to wallpaper the Rock with your out-of-date accolades?"
"This," Kelly retorted, sweeping a hand behind her, "is a deluxe touring vehicle."
"Looks like a trailer to me." Lauren looked back at Payson for support before clearly deciding the stronger ally lay in Kaylie. "And you know what they say about girls that live in trailers, right, Kay?"
Kelly cocked her head like she was considering it. "Well now I think you've got it backwards, Lo. I mean, with you tossing Carter to grind on the cute new guy in your skivvies and Kaylie making out with her buddy's babby daddy…" Her smile sharpened evilly. "Oh, and we can't forget our little Payson banging the National team coach, can we?" She shrugged casually. "Well, I guess we all know who the whores are here." She began to whistle again, finally breaking out in a chorus of 'Hi hos, hi hos, who they fuck next who knows…'
"You little-" Lauren lunged forward only to be brought up short by the grip Payson had on the back of her jacket.
"Let it go," Payson grumbled, determined to rise above Kelly's digs. Giving her a reaction only made her worse.
Summer stuck her head out the door. "Girls, Sasha's waiting for you."
The four of them faced off for a long moment before Kaylie picked up her bag and scowled at Kelly. "Look, we all still think you're the biggest bitch on the face of the planet, but we're going to have to work together. Can we just, I don't know, stop with the Evil Queen bit during gym hours? Sasha's already given us the be nice spiel, and he'll filet us all if you blow it." She met each pair of eyes. "Deal?"
Payson looked at Kelly who looked back at Kaylie who pointedly elbowed Lauren. "Oh fine," she sighed bitterly. "But only if she shuts up, too."
When they trooped into the gym like a good little team, there was a sanded, cut-off 4x4 planted into a homemade base, looking like a giant cat scratching post.
"What… is that?" Kelly Parker asked with barely veiled skepticism after Sasha had given her a brief 'Welcome to the Rock, you're now under my slave driving thumb full time' speech.
"Payson!" Sasha barked. He stepped back and showed a second Frankenstein cat post. "You and Kelly will be working on these this morning in lieu of conditioning. I've added a triple turn to each of your beam routines. Practice until you can turn on a penny. Kelly, your turn will be at speed, because you'll be transitioning into your aerial sequence. The triple will replace your current double. Payson, I'd like your turn to ultimately be in piqué position, and as slow as possible at the end. I want that final rotation to stop perfectly on the beam without your raised foot touching down. Controlled and precise is what each of you needs." He gave them both a challenging look. "And ladies? I want them ready for Worlds."
Turning to Kaylie, he looked at her hard for a moment before breaking into a proud smile. "You're really coming back up to speed nicely. Today, I want you to work on the tramp and in the pit with Frank- he's already set aside the morning for you."
One elegant dark brow rose in intrigue. "On what?" Kaylie asked slowly.
The smile grew fatter. "Your new vault. Congratulations, Kaylie. I'm provisionally giving you a shot at an Amanar. You've earned it."
All four girls gasped; Lauren, Kelly and Kaylie in shock, Payson in outrage. That was the vault she'd campaigned for!
He clapped his hands sharply. "Let's get to it girls. We don't have all day!"
"What about me?" Lauren asked, mistrust starting to peek through her expression. Was Sasha back to ignoring her already?
He gave her a look that said he knew exactly what she was thinking. "You, Lauren, are on the high beam with me until your standing tuck is a standing Arabian. I've already set up the harness."
Lauren felt her heart kick. A standing Arabian? Event finals gold was hers. She paused on her way to the beam to sing-song at her new teammate, who was diligently beginning her turn drills, "KP is a pole dancer!"
Just because they were now teammates didn't mean Kelly had any intention of letting Lauren think she could railroad her like some green Level 8. She smiled brilliantly as she stepped back up onto her post. "You know, Lauren, I guess I am. Maybe I should ask Max to come over and watch my performance. We all know how much he likes girls dancing for him." The expression on the other girl's face was well worth the effort.
It seemed that he spent every waking moment with his notebook and Code of Points in hand- eating, watching over practice, in front of the television at night, all the damn time. Though he'd given Payson the impression that he had no interest in her proposed upgrades, Sasha had pulled the crumpled ball of paper from his pocket and considered her suggestions. Some weren't bad; some would happen when hell froze over. And he damned sure wasn't upgrading Payson when she kept making small mistakes. He knew she was frustrated by the continuing improvements he made for Lauren, Kaylie and Kelly, but the facts were that they needed it more. Payson's routines had polish from all the time they'd spent training one on one, and he owed the other girls their due as well.
So he just kept scribbling away in his notebook as inspiration struck him. There were so many options, so many small changes he could make to the girls' routines to bump them up just that little bit more they needed going into the run to Worlds and the Olympics. But the more the other three improved, the bigger Payson's snit got.
Blame it on being a perfectionist, or a Belov, or a product of the Romanian gymnastics machine, but he refused to reward her and upgrade a routine that wasn't stone cold perfect one hundred percent of the time.
"For the last time, Payson, take that Shaposh out!" Sasha snapped, stalking away from where he was watching Kaylie throw a decent-looking Amanar in the pit to glare at Payson.
"I need the points," she shot back, pushing her hair out of her face impatiently. "You take that out and I'm screwed in Rio."
"You'll do as your coach tells you," Sasha growled, ducking in close so the gaggle of avidly eavesdropping Level Nines couldn't hear him, "or there won't be a Rio, Payson. And I say it comes out until everything else in your routine is so goddamn perfect you could do it in your sleep."
Unwrapping and retightening her guards for something to do other than look at the permanently scowling face in front of her, Payson nodded. "Fine. But I get it back in time for Rio, right?"
"If you prove that you're up to the task." Sasha folded his arms. "And frankly, Payson, you haven't shown me that lately. Your straddled Jaeger is so half-assed it's pathetic and your handstands are not holding at vertical long enough for my taste. I want every last detail of that routine textbook perfect- grip, line, elbows, toe point, everything."
"Fine," she snapped back. "Just let me train!"
Despite himself, Sasha felt his lips quirk. "Is that a marginally polite way of telling me to get the hell out of your face, Payson?"
"Yes." Sucking in a deep breath, she noticed the girls waiting a few feet away and glared pointedly at them until they scattered. "Look, just leave me alone for an hour. Let me skip the floor rotation and stay here, and then come watch me. If I'm still screwing up, then you can ream me a new one." Her chin came up. "And if I'm not…"
"Consistency," he responded firmly. "If you're perfect today and tomorrow and the rest of the week, I'll consider reincorporating the Shaposh."
She nodded. "Fine. And when I have that cold, I want to talk to you about a Khorkina."
"Payson." Sasha waved his notebook under her nose. "I keep telling you: I am the coach. I have a whole bloody section dedicated to your routines and possible upgrades. Leave the planning to me, all right?" When she opened her mouth to object, he rapped her gently on the forehead with the notebook. "I've already marked it as a possibility, Payson. Adding the ½ to the Shaposhnikova won't be a big stretch for you, and the upgrade to an E element is a decent place to get a point bump. But leave the coaching to me. You just focus on consistency." He raised his eyebrows. "All right?"
Lips pursed at being so thoroughly defeated, Payson jerked a short nod. "Okay. Now go away, Sasha."
Heading back to the vaulting area, Sasha grinned briefly to himself. Now if he could only transplant some of Payson's determination to Lauren, and Lauren's flamboyance to Payson and some stamina from each of them to Kaylie, his gymnasts would really be on their way.
Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. "Lauren," he snapped, "drinking a cup of water requires actually putting it near your mouth. Save the gossip sessions for after practice and get back to the floor. Now!"
Christ- and to think he had missed this.
A/N2: A willing suspension of belief should start being asked for on your part soon, as we're hitting the point I start really playing fast and loose with the show. Some things from the second half of the season will make it in, others won't, and a few unlucky facts will be bastardized beyond all recognition.
I'd apologize for that, but to my mind it's less loathsome than the writing (which was soapy and inconsistent to begin with) after Hungary Heart. If those plots were able to stand and function like humans, they'd be lining up ten hungry great white sharks and ski jumping them bitches like Fonzi in Happy Days. And behold- the origins of the term 'jumping the shark.'