PRICELESS adj.

of inestimable worth
so precious its value cannot be determined

Disclaimer: I do not own Make It or Break It.


Summary: No matter what it always came back to him – to the one person who had seen her at her best and her worst and found beauty in both. Who could put a value on that? Payson/Sasha


XIII. She Will Be Loved

The Rock – Late November

The period of time between World and Christmas was typically thought of as a bit of downtime in most gyms, and so the two and a half weeks of Lauren's penance passed quickly and without incident. There were no great leaps or bounds achieved as a result – even down one elite, Sasha's time was spread thinly across a large number of gymnasts – and Lauren certainly hadn't suffered by his absence as both Tara and Jake were great coaches in their own right.

The only tangible benefit as far as Lauren could tell was the sense of accomplishment she felt in knowing she'd done something for someone else with no reciprocal benefit to herself.

She'd fixed what she had taken from the other gymnasts as best she could. It was her fault that Sasha left – she'd pretty much done everything short of kissing him herself in order to drive him away from Summer – and so she gave up the coaching time that was rightfully hers in order to make up for what she'd done. It was like retribution – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But that was only step one.

There were so many people she'd hurt in her actions, a long list of them in fact. At the start of the list were the other gymnasts, all of them coach-less for the two and a half weeks between Sasha's leaving and her dad bringing in Darby as his replacement (which she could see now wasn't really her dad's best decision making). Next up of those caught in the fallout of her worst mistake was Mrs Keeler.

Hurting Payson's mom was completely unintentional. The video was only really meant to hurt Sasha (and admittedly Payson to a lesser degree). Mostly it was just supposed to break up Summer and Sasha, so in that respect it had been a total success (not that she'd ever say that aloud). It hadn't really occurred to her at the time that Ellen Beals would show up at the parents meeting like she did, completely undermining Mrs Keeler and her campaign for head of the parents board, which had only ever been about securing Sasha's position at The Rock.

Lauren understood enough about gym politics to realize the harm she'd done there. Before Sasha left Mrs Keeler was pretty well-respected amongst the other gym parents. And this was still mostly true, especially after the truth had come out about the video and what had really happened, but there were those nasty parents lingering around questioning whether Mrs Keeler could be trusted to run the gym when she couldn't control her own daughter. In other words, Chelsea Warner's parents, who most people ignored anyway.

But there were still the occasional whispers and Lauren knew something had to be done about that. In fact, she had a pretty good idea of how she could right the universe in that respect.

Step two began at noon. She waited until their lunch break, making sure that Mrs Keeler was completely alone in the office before she made her move. Summer would only interfere if she was around and try to take over. This was her project – her apology – and the less that Summer was involved, the better.

She knocked on doorframe, waiting politely just outside on the platform as she waited for an invitation. Mrs Keeler looked up and smiled kindly upon seeing her.

"What can I help you, Lauren?" she asked warmly.

It gave Lauren a moment's pause. For some reason she'd been expected to be treated with cool politeness, which seemed kind of a silly thought in hindsight. Mrs Keeler was the kind of person who had a warm smile for everyone, even the girl who basically humiliated her daughter and ran one of her closest friends out of the country. It was one thing she'd always kind of admired about Payson's mom.

At Mrs Keeler's warm greeting she mentally trashed her former plan of action – it seemed kind of unnecessary now that she was. It wasn't like she needed to put on a big show about how it was for the greater good, practically bully Mrs Keeler into submission, and make it impossible to refuse. Those were the trademarks of the old Lauren – the Lauren who had ruined everything because she wanted to matter – and new Lauren was going to find her own way.

She bit her lip, feeling slightly uncertain as she responded. "Um . . . I just wanted to talk to you about the Christmas party."

"You and everyone else," Mrs Keeler responded with a tired groan, hand going to her temple to massage an oncoming tension headache. "I'll let you know as soon as soon as I know myself," she promised almost half-heartedly.

Lauren couldn't help but be hopeful at Mrs Keeler's answer, old Lauren recognizing that she couldn't have come at a better time. Taking a quick breath to settle any lingering nerves Lauren took one step, and then another into the office until she found herself standing in front of Mrs Keeler's desk. "Actually," she began, "I just wanted to ask . . . well, if you needed any help?"

She smiled in what she hoped was an endearing way as she watched Mrs Keeler's eyes widen with surprise. Understanding followed and Mrs Keeler sent her another warm smile.

"Thank you, Lauren," she said. "I'd really appreciate that."

Lauren breathed a sigh of relief. Eagerly, she took the seat opposite Mrs Keeler and pulled a notebook out of her handbag. Her dad always said there was no time at the present (usually in reference to her homework). She wanted to get started before Mrs Keeler had the chance to change her mind and she'd come more than prepared just in case Mrs Keeler needed some convincing.

"Have you got a venue?" she asked in an abrupt tone, flipping to the first page. "I've got some options – depending on the budget. These are the dates they're available."

She flipped the notebook around so Mrs Keeler could see for herself.

Mrs Keeler's flicked briefly down to the page before looking back at Lauren. "I'm very impressed, Lauren," she said genuinely.

"It's nothing," Lauren said, waving her hand dismissively.

Mrs Keeler shook her head, reaching her hand out to lay it over Lauren's. "It's a good start."

Lauren smiled shyly, a part of her hoping that Mrs Keeler wasn't just talking about the Christmas Party. She knew there were a lot of people that she'd hurt over the last few months, and whatever small steps she'd achieved so far were only the beginning of righting her wrongs.

After talking through possible plans for the Christmas Party over lunch and putting Mrs Keeler in touch with all the right people, Lauren left the office with a spring in her step. The Christmas Party was going to be completely awesome, and Lauren was feeling proud of the role she had to play in it.

She met Summer at the bottom of the steps on her way back to practice, her almost-step-mother giving her a dubious look as she approached.

"What were you doing in the gym office?" Summer asked, her tone holding far more suspicion than Lauren would have liked. "Were you looking for me?" she added, clearly a last-dash attempt to soften her words.

Lauren brushed off the hurt with a shrug of her shoulders, not letting in fuel her into lashing out. Her relationship with Summer had been strained for a while now, since before the video, but it hadn't definitely gotten worse lately. Ever since the pre-Worlds party, there'd been a measure of distrust to everything Summer said, as though she were waiting for her to make another mistake.

Another broken relationship she needed to fix among the many other things she'd ruined in her quest to be the best in everything.

But nothing was unfixable. Or at least she hoped not. And if Kaylie could forgive her after the whole Carter debacle and outing her to her dad, and if Sasha could forgive her for getting him fired and nearly destroying his career, then surely Summer would be able to forgive her for this omission of truth. I mean, didn't they teach that sort of thing in Bible study?

Lauren put on a smile and readied herself for step three: repairing her relationship with Summer. "I was just giving Mrs Keeler some suggestions for the Christmas Party," she said brightly, eager to spread the news of how she was saving Christmas.

Summer frowned at her. "Lauren," she said, her voice plaintive, "you shouldn't interfe-"

"Mrs Keeler was totally cool with it," Lauren cut in, stopping Summer before she went and put a downer on her good mood. "She said I was really helpful and stuff."

"Alright," Summer replied, looking kind of unconvinced about how cool Mrs K had been about her help. "Just don't push too much," she cautioned. "Kim has shown a lot of understanding these past few weeks."

Lauren understood the implication, her stomach twisting a little at the reminder. "I know," she said casually, keeping her tone bright to mask the pain. She forced a smile and a change of subject. "Anyway, do you want to come Christmas shopping with me?" she suggested in an overly-bright tone. "I need help choosing a gift for Nan."

Another frown and Lauren stopped being surprised at Summer's attempts to keep her distance. "Never mind," she said, dismissing the suggestion before Summer could reject it. "I mean, Kaylie's better at these things anyway.

"I'll see you later," she said, raising her hand in an awkward wave and turning to face the gym. Only then did she let her expression drop, false smile fading to a pained grimace.

'Nothing is unfixable,' she reminded herself, eyes unfocused as they drifted across the gym. Unconsciously, her gaze zoned in on Payson and she really hoped it was true.


Keeler Residence – Later

Kim Keeler was the last to arrive home that Friday evening, a somewhat unusual occurrence for the Keeler household. A typical Friday usually saw Mark staying late at work (an old colleague from IBM had started a HR consultancy firm and with just the two of them to start with, the workload was a lot to get used to) and Payson doing the same at The Rock, while Becca started her weekend as soon as possible with a trip to the mall with Lily and Sara.

Tonight, Kim found her whole family in attendance when she arrived. Payson was on the phone with Emily, something that Kim was pleased to see become part of Payson's weekly routine. Becca was in the lounge using the coffee table as a bench as she multi-tasked between watching MTV (Kim quietly lamented her youngest child's Jersey Shore addiction) and typing up her school assignment on Mark's old laptop. Mark was busy in the kitchen and wearing a ridiculous apron with a Charlie Sheen reference she pretended to be oblivious to.

"Why don't I smell burning?" she teased as she came into the kitchen, stopping to kiss her husband's cheek before putting her bags out of the way.

"I had some help," Mark replied with a grin.

"And by some he means a lot," she heard Becca call from the living room.

"And by a lot I mean that Payson did all the work and just asked me to watch to make sure nothing boiled over while she talked to Emily," Mark concluded, not the least ashamed. "I made a salad," he added, gesturing to a messy bowl of lettuce, tomatoes, and bean sprouts seasoned with salt and pepper.

Kim smiled gently. "Thank you for helping Payson with dinner," she said sincerely, pressing another kiss to his cheek. Mark returned her smile and leaned towards her for a proper greeting.

"Ew," Becca pronounced from the doorway, cutting in before Mark could make any progress. "Payson said it should be ready in about five minutes."

"You gonna help me set the table, kiddo?" Mark asked, waving her into the kitchen. Becca sighed in a put upon way but followed Mark to the kitchen cabinets to get what was needed.

Kim laughed to herself, enjoying the combination of Mark's teasing and Becca's flair for the dramatic. She moved towards the oven while the other two were occupied, curious to see what was generating such a lovely aroma in her kitchen. "I'll just check – "

"No you won't," Payson said, her tone firm as she appeared in the doorway as suddenly as Becca had moments before. "Sit, Mom. Dinner's all sorted," she assured.

Kim pouted but did as she was told, settling at the table as Mark brought over a glass of red wine and Becca put out the good place settings. "What's the occasion?" she asked curiously.

Becca grinned as she replied, "Dad not cooking.

"Plus, Payson made peppers," she continued, eyes bright with anticipation.

"Ardei Umpluţ," Payson corrected as she brought the ceramic pot to the table. The words sounded practiced and precise, Payson clearly having spent as much time learning them as she had preparing the dish.

Kim tried to repeat the words, her pronunciation not nearly as polished as Payson.

"I asked Sasha," Payson explained, answering her implied question.

For a moment Kim chastised herself for being so oblivious. Payson's behaviour - dancing around the living room, smiling dreamily to herself when no one was looking, preparing special dinners for her coach – had given every indication that she was harbouring a crush, but Kim had been so busy trying to keep her head above the drama to realize what and, more importantly, who that meant. She should have realized long before the incident itself that Payson had feelings for Sasha, but instead she'd been caught up with Summer's pining and Steve Tanner and Ellen Beal's scheming and just generally trying to keep ahead of the bill collectors.

'Maybe it's a good thing I didn't get made Head of the Parents Board,' she thought to herself, wondering what else she might have missed if she'd found herself a central figure amongst The Rock's near constant drama.

"You know, Lauren came to talk to me today," she said, her train of thought triggering the sudden topic of conversation.

Payson, who was busy serving two large peppers to each plate, turned her head to give a befuddled look. "What about?"

Kim understood the confusion, Lauren's appearance that afternoon having had the same effect on her at the time. "She asked to help out with the Christmas party," she explained. "She even came prepared with a list of venues that are still available and willing to extend the Tanner-family discount to The Rock."

"That's great," Mark interjected.

Kim nodded her agreement. "Honestly, organizing everything like this was driving me crazy and just the extra pair of hands is a godsend," she commented. She turned her attention back to Payson. "She's really trying this time, Pay," she said gently, reaching a hand over to squeeze Payson's.

"I know," Payson said with a stoic nod, although clearly looking unsettled by something.

Kim shifted towards her as Payson suddenly stood up straight and seemed to shake herself out of whatever had come over her. "I just remembered," she said quickly, her eyes flicking to the wall clock above the bench. "I promised Sasha I'd help him with some evals."

Mark nodded and Kim followed suit, despite the odd feeling telling her she was missing something.

"Geez, Pay. It's Friday," Becca complained with a roll of her eyes. "Don't you ever take time off?"

"This is time off," Payson told her. "It's paperwork, not training."

"It's still going back to the place you just left after twelve hours of pain and suffering to go hang out with the person who put you through it all," Becca countered. Her tone was rife with what was thought of amongst the Keelers as Becca's 'my-sister-is-an-insane-gymnastics-robot' voice, which Payson was more or less immune to these days.

"Take some dinner with you," Kim insisted, getting in before Becca could continue her dramatic tirade. Payson nodded, going to the kitchen to find some Tupperware containers and then setting aside enough peppers and rice for two people.

"I'll be an hour, two hours tops," Payson promised as she headed to the door, grabbing her car keys on the way. Kim nodded and tried not to be too concerned about where Payson was going – her daughter was eighteen, after all, and Sasha could be trusted to keep her safe.

"This is good," Mark said a moment after she left. As Kim gave him a confused frown, he added, "Payson working at The Rock.

"I was worried about what Payson would do after all this was over," he continued, waving his hand in vague gesture that indicated gymnastics, the Olympics, and all that was entailed in Payson's not-too-distant future. "But she'll still have The Rock," he said warmly. "Looks like Sasha's already grooming her to take over when he goes."

It didn't quite settle her worries the way that it did Mark's. Her own concerns still pricked away at her, although they were too intangible for her to address. There was something . . . no, not wrong just . . . something not quite . . . just not quite, although she couldn't begin to say what it was and how it ought to be fixed.

But she kept those concerns, as vague and uncertain as they were, to herself and responded with a non-committal, "It looks that way," to Mark's conclusion.

Then again, looks can be deceiving.


The Rock

There was not one, but two motorcycles parked outside of The Rock when Payson pulled her Lexus RX into The Rock parking lot. Austin was still in, obviously, but she hoped the fact that Friday night was "Date Night" meant that he wouldn't be staying too long.

The thought occurred to her that maybe it wasn't such a good idea showing up like this. It was clear from her choice of attire and lack of gym bag that she wasn't here to train, and her excuse about helping Sasha do the evaluations probably wouldn't fly with Austin who was way too intuitive for his own good sometimes. He'd want to know why she was here, and that was question she couldn't answer satisfactorily to herself.

'So much for keeping this under the radar,' she thought, noting the risk but going ahead anyway. She pushed through the doors doing her best to give the impression that there was nothing out of the ordinary about her showing up after practice with no intention of training. She looked for Austin, but the gym seemed to be completely empty, just the dim overhead lights and those from Sasha's office giving any indication that this wasn't the case.

She made her way up the stairs, her footsteps light and going unnoticed by Sasha who was bent over one of the desks with his back to her. His shoulders were hunched, tense, and his hair stuck up at odd angles from his hands running through it one too many times.

Calling his name softly she made her way to his side, brushing her hand across his shoulder to try and ease some of the tension that was clearly residing there. He turned his head to see her, his expression both pleased and surprised. At least until he saw her worried appearance.

"What's wrong?" he asked as one of his hands moved to encircle her waist.

Payson shook her head, reaching to fix the mess he'd made of his hair. "You first," she said as her fingers brushed against his temple.

He sighed heavily and wiped a hand across his face. "Just scheduling issues," he said, pointing the pages spread across the desk. All were marked with different colours indicating who was free when and where. "A couple of the lower classes just seemed to double in numbers overnight," he said, explaining why it was causing him trouble. "I'm trying to tell myself that it's a good thing, but I don't know how I'm going to be able fit everyone in without asking Tara or Jake to work Sundays."

Payson nodded, continuing to run her hand through his hair. It seemed to be helping, his shoulders lifting a little with each passing moment. "Seems you could do with another coach," she noted, keeping her voice soft and unassuming.

"I could," he agreed, "but the numbers aren't enough to justify bringing another person in. Especially when we could easily manage it between the three of us."

He gave another heavy sigh, his shoulders heaving and the tension returning. All her hard work out the window.

"I could help," she suggested. "You could combine two of the classes and we could do them together."

"Payson," he began, ready with a long list of reasons why that wasn't a good idea.

"One hour on Sunday morning isn't going to disrupt my training," she told him with a dry look. "And we usually finish all classes before June anyway.

"It'll be great experience for me and it'll keep parents from complaining about you not giving their children your personal attention."

"They do seem to love you," he commented, aware of how enamoured the non-elite parents were with Payson. Knowing their little darlings would be spending time with Payson Keeler would more than make up for the fact that he'd be sharing the class.

She could see him wavering and went in for the kill. "Please, Sasha?" she asked with wide eyes and pouting lips, lowering her head towards him.

He smiled softly, his free hand moving to capture her chin. "Orice, dragă," he told her, kissing her chastely a moment later and bestowing her with what had quickly become her favourite smile – the one she thought of as being for her alone.

"Is that a yes?" she asked eagerly.

"Yes," he agreed, getting his own favourite smile in return. It was a bright, wide smile that seemed almost the antithesis of his normally stoic and serious gymnast, but one he loved to see on her face.

"Now, what about you?" he asked, a part of him loathe to bring up her reasons for coming here after seeing her so happy.

"Let's eat dinner first," she said waving off her concern as she gestured to the forgotten Tupperware containers she'd placed on the edge of the desk when she came in. "And don't say you've already eaten. Cereal does not count as dinner," she added firmly, giving him a knowing look.

"Yes, dear," he responded dutifully before getting up to find some utensils and pull over another chair. "This smells amazing, Payson," he complimented as he snapped open the containers. She beamed back at him.

They ate in a comfortable silence, enjoying the quiet and easiness that they rarely got to share with one another. Once they were done Payson gathered up the containers, trying to buy herself a few more pleasant moments before she talked about what had brought her to the gym.

"Where's Austin, by the way?" she said, glancing around a second time for the current Men's World and Olympic Champion.

Sasha frowned, his head tilting to the side. "Austin?"

"I saw Lolita outside," Payson answered.

Sasha shrugged to himself, not too concerned about Austin's whereabouts or what his bike was doing at the gym. "He left with Kaylie around five," he noted. "They probably just took her car."

He didn't say anything more, leaving the lull in conversation for her to fill. Sighing to herself, Payson began. "Mom was telling me about Lauren helping her find a venue for the Christmas party," she said, grimacing as she tried to catalogue the feelings that had instilled in her.

"I don't know why that . . . it just seems like this huge thing," she continued, knowing she wasn't explaining it properly. "Her taking a break like she did, that was a start. But it was obvious, right?"

Sasha nodded thoughtfully, encouraging her to keep going.

"Not that it wasn't a good idea and I don't want to belittle what she was trying to do there . . ." she added weakly, backtracking a little. Lauren had done a good thing when she asked Sasha to work with the other gymnasts, but they'd been an obvious victim of her manipulations. "Her helping my Mom . . . it's like she's really thinking about it and not just . . . I don't know.

"It's like she's trying to be different," she finished weakly, glancing down towards her hands.

"Isn't that good thing?" Sasha asked gently. He pulled his chair closer, his hands reaching to hers and squeezing reassuringly.

She nodded, only to frown and shake her head a moment later. "I guess," she said, sounding uncertain. "I mean . . . it's what I wanted."

His next words made her wonder if Sasha had been a psychotherapist in a past life.

"To fix Lauren?" he asked her.

"No," she said quickly, knowing that wasn't what she'd intended. "I just wanted her to stop making the same mistakes.

"But now I'm wondering if I've let it go on to long," she said, finally lifting her gaze to his. "She shouldn't have to go this far to make amends. I feel like . . . like maybe I've been too harsh on Lauren. Like I've done something wrong."

She paused, giving Sasha the chance to comment. When he didn't immediately offer his thoughts she prompted him with a, "Well?"

"I think you need to talk to Lauren," he said after a moment longer.

She narrowed her eyes playfully. "Well that's not very helpful at the moment. You were supposed to give one of you inspirational speeches and make me feel better," she half-teased, half-groused.

Sasha laughed, shaking his head. "I don't think you're going to feel better until you talk to Lauren, dragă," he told her seriously. "She's the only one who can set your mind at ease and tell you if you've acted badly towards her."

"You're right," Payson agreed, nodding to herself. She glanced towards him, suddenly uncertain and vulnerable. "Do you think I've acted badly?" she asked him, her voice small.

Sasha took the time to consider the question, shaking his head when he came to a decision.

"Thank you," she said with a sigh of relief. "That makes me feel a little bit better." She sent him a brief, almost coquettish smile, which he returned with a grin.

"I should go," she announced a few moments later. Her expression was apologetic, but they both knew she couldn't (or rather, shouldn't) stay.

Wordlessly, Sasha stood and walked her out of the gym, his hand resting in the small of her back.

"You'll be going soon?" Payson asked once they reached the lobby, turning slightly to face him.

Sasha nodded. "Just need to tidy the mess I've made," he said with a small smile.

"I'll see you tomorrow, dragă," he said, dipping his head to press a quick kiss to her cheek. "Vise plăcute."

"Good night, Sasha," she returned, a small, soft smile evident on her lips.

~ to be continued ~


Notes:

Orice, dragă: Anything, darling

Vise plăcute: sweet dreams