Author's notes: I'm sorry I haven't updated in so long! I wonder if anyone is still reading this? Anyhow, holidays begin soon so hopefully I'll be updating again much more regularly.
"Good morning, America. Here we are in St. Paul, Minnesota, awaiting the first day of the 2011 National Gymnastics Championship. I'm Tim Daggett, joined by Elfi Schlegel and Al Trautwig."
"And may I say, it is a beautiful morning to kick off the first day of competition. Over the next three days, we will see America's finest men and women compete for the honour of joining the national champion."
"That's right, Elfi. Only members of the national team may compete in the World Championships later in the year. Heading into an Olympic year next year, you can only imagine the pressure these athletes must be feeling."
"Absolutely, Al. We're in for a more interesting year than most for the women, with current champ Kaylie Cruz still on her come-back, and Payson Keeler ready to show the world what she's got."
"These two girls train along with Lauren Tanner at the famous 'Rock' club in Boulder, Colorado, so it will be interesting to see how they handle working both as individuals and as a team."
"And let's not forget Kelly Parker, who trained with them for several months before last year's World Championships."
"But, as with any competition, we shouldn't count out any of the competitors here today. After all, Kaylie Cruz wasn't even on the radar for the National win before Payson Keeler's injury."
"Tim, we're just about to see the first rotation of men enter the arena. And here comes current champion Austin Tucker, led by coach Sasha Belov."
Sasha strolled across the lobby of the hotel, happy with the first rotation of the men's competition. So far, Austin was dominating and Max was in sixth overall. His other Rock men were all in the top twenty and they had a smattering of finalists for the individual events. All of his gymnasts had the rest of the day off, while the rest of the men's qualifying rounds took place. The women's competition would commence on the second day, and finals for both genders would be on the third day.
Payson's old gym had allowed the Rock girls to train with them for the day, so he only had the men to chaperone, all of whom were eighteen or older, and were happy to stay in the hotel anyway. He was waiting at the elevator when the sound of a woman's voice reverberated through the lobby.
"Surprise!" Sasha whipped around to find the source of the sound, when his eyes landed on Sarah… who was meant to be in Boulder, attending one of the weddings she had planned.
"Sarah, what are you doing here?"
"Aren't you pleased to see me?" She pouted playfully as she kissed his cheek.
"Of course. I'm just a little surprised." Sasha replied. He and Sarah had been going out casually for a month, although their dates, at least on his part, were lacking a certain something.
"I know I should have called first, but I wanted to see your face. You aren't busy, are you?" She seemed to pick up on his lack of enthusiasm, and her smile faded a little.
"Oh, not busy, no. Come on, I'll show you around."
Payson stood in the middle of her old gym, about to start her floor routine. It was odd, being in a place that used to feel like home. The Rock used to feel like home, too, but lately… lately had been different. She'd suddenly understood how Lauren must have felt watching Carter and Kaylie. All of the movies and songs about heartbreak or jealousy she'd always thought of as stupid suddenly weren't so stupid anymore. She curled down into her starting position and the music began. But the music didn't lift her up like it used to. It didn't flow through her and make her limbs move of their own accord. She went through the motions as technique, breaking down each step into tiny movements to execute. The music swelled, and she prepared to take her first tumbling pass. She inhaled and focused on the end of the mat. She rocked back and forward and went to take a step, when she just didn't. There was a disconnect between her brain and her muscles. The music continued, but Payson didn't. She just stood there, staring at the end of the mat. In her mind, this was the part of the story where Romeo and Juliet were getting together. She was meant to be a bird, soaring through the sky. To say that she hadn't been feeling it was an understatement. She didn't even feel pain anymore. It was just numbness.
Her head jerked up as the doors opened. It was just Kim, come to round up the girls and take them back to the Hotel. Payson had hoped… well, she had hoped it would be someone else. But these days, it seemed, it was foolish to hope.
All of the gymnasts were dining together at the hotel's restaurant when their coach walked in, with a pretty blonde on his arm. As some of the male gymnasts cat-called them good-naturedly, Payson's eyes locked onto the woman with Sasha. Before now, she had only heard very briefly about the woman. This was her first glance. She was fairly attractive, slightly mid-western looking, with blonde hair and light eyes. She was too far away to see the exact colour. She wasn't overly tall, but compared to an elite female gymnast she was. Kaylie nudged Payson.
"Hey, doesn't she remind you of someone?" Kaylie asked.
"No." Payson hissed back.
"Oh, come on." Lauren interjected. "She totally looks like you. But, you know, older."
"Actually, I was thinking of Summer." Kaylie corrected.
"I guess he just likes blondes." Lauren shrugged as she took a bite of cheesecake.
"I can't believe you're eating that, Lo." Kaylie said. Lauren rolled her eyes.
"Whatever. It's just one piece."
"Yeah, and yesterday it was just one milkshake, and the day before it was just one candy bar."
Lauren just rolled her eyes again and kept eating.
"Pay, are you okay?" Kaylie asked. Payson's eyes hadn't left the couple as Sasha pulled the chair out for his date.
"Yeah. I'm going to bed. Gotta rest up for tomorrow." She stood up abruptly, and her chair made a loud scraping sound. Sasha's head twisted over to see what it was. He saw Payson stalk across the room with a hardened expression on her face. Sarah noticed his gaze as it lingered on the younger girl.
"Oh, is that one of your gymnasts?" Sarah asked.
"Yes. I need to check on her." With that, he left Sarah alone, and his gymnasts looked on, stunned.
Sasha caught up to Payson as she was waiting for the elevator. She stared at the door and jabbed the up button, pointedly ignoring him.
"Payson." He said, trying to get her attention.
"No. Don't you dare. You can't treat me the way you do and then bring your girlfriend and shove her in my face!"
"I know," He began, "I've treated you unfairly. I'm your coach, I never should have –"
"What?" She cut him off. "You never should have what? Touched me the way you do? Told me I was beautiful? You haven't done anything, Sasha."
"Payson, I – "
"No." She cut him off again. "Don't. Just don't."
The elevator doors opened, and Payson went back to pointedly ignoring him as she walked in. He followed her in, determined not to let her just walk away. Payson jabbed the button for their floor and the doors closed.
"Payson, can't you see why I'm dating Sarah? I have to."
"You have to?" She repeated derisively.
"Yes," He hissed, "because otherwise-" He cut himself off, unable to vocalise the thought.
"Otherwise what?" Payson turned to look him in the eye. "What, Sasha?"
"Otherwise I might," He sighed, "I might…" He slumped back against the wall, defeated. The doors opened, but neither of them moved. He needed her to understand, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. He took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. He pulled on her arms a little until she shuffled forward.
"Sasha…" Payson whispered.
"I'm sorry." He said, "I have to try with someone else, or I might give myself over to you."
Payson's breath caught in her throat. She felt so relieved, vindicated even, that she wasn't in it alone. The elevator doors closed, but it didn't start moving again. Sasha lowered his forehead to rest it against hers. He slid his hands up to caress her cheeks.
"You are so beautiful, Payson Keeler," He whispered, "so beautiful. I can't stand having you angry with me. I need you to trust me again. I just… need you."
Payson tilted her face upward, until their lips were almost touching.
"You're seventeen," He whispered, "I'm your coach."
"Don't pull away now, Sasha. Don't you dare." She demanded.
"Don't you see? You're right there, all the time, and it's so hard not to be around you sometimes." He grabbed her chin with one hand and pressed his lips briefly against hers. It wasn't really a kiss so much as him proving his point.
"I'm so close sometimes. I'm on the brink. I have to pull away so I don't ruin your career."
"Sasha." All she had to say was his name, and he could hear everything she really wanted to tell him.
"I don't know what this is, Payson. I don't know if we're meant to be together, one day, when I'm not your coach. I don't know if I'm in love with you or I'm just a perverted old man lusting after his gymnast. It doesn't really matter because right now you have a dream, and I'm doing my best to get you there. And that's why we have to push this aside, for now. When you go back to your room, you have to forget this. Focus on tomorrow. Focus until London in 2012. I'm going to go back downstairs and have dinner with my date. I'm going to keep seeing her so I don't ruin you."
"Sasha, it hurts." She whispered. "I thought for so long I was in this alone. It's not fair."
"I know," He tried to soothe her, "but we have to have an understanding between us, right now, of what we're going to do. I'm going to be your coach, and I have to try to be like any other adult. I'm going to go on dates with women my own age. You're a great gymnast, Payson. You're going to make it, and I'm going to help you. And, if it makes you feel better, you should know that you're the only one in my heart."
Her breath caught a little in her throat. She pushed herself up on her toes and pushed her lips against his. The kiss was less about physical feelings as it was about emotional expression. Sasha's lips moved slowly against hers, and his tongue swept leisurely across her own. It made her feel like she was glowing. His hands caressed her cheeks and neck. They broke apart when the elevator lurched downwards as someone called it from the lobby. With a last squeeze of her hand, Sasha relinquished all physical contact with her. An understanding had come to pass between them, and there was nothing more to be said.
When they reached the lobby, only Sasha stepped out. Payson went back up to her room, and he went to have dinner with Sarah. Payson realised that perhaps she should feel crushed that he hadn't swept her up and outright confessed his love for her, but she was too realistic to believe it would actually happen. After so many months of her feelings being unreciprocated, she finally had closure. It wouldn't stop her having feelings for Sasha, far from it. But it would let her focus again and ignore whatever blonde bimbo he was dating. After all, she remembered with a grin, she was the only one in his heart.