A/N 1: My one-shot "Sit With Me Tonight" is meant to be a prologue of sorts to this.
The hour or so just before dawn was Payson's favorite time of day; the air was cool and crisp, the birds were just starting to chirp, and there was a hum in the air, a certain kind of energy that promised all sorts of potential in the new day ahead. There was a magic to it, the same kind of magic she found when she was soaring through the air on the bars.
The Rock loomed ahead of her and she lengthened her stride. It was her first day back at the Rock since she won Worlds four weeks ago. First, she'd taken two weeks of absolute rest so that her ankle would heal quickly. Then, the Healthy Bar people had asked her to shoot several print ads and commercials. Finally, MJ had taken her on a bit of a whirl-wind tour of companies that wanted her face associated with their products. She now had an endorsement package that made her one of the top ten wealthiest teens in the United States. The good thing was that it meant her family's financial troubles were over. The bad thing was that she would have to take at least one four day weekend every month to spend pacifying her employers. Missing three days of training each month in the year leading up to the Olympics had her less than thrilled.
She stopped just outside the main door and braced her hands on her knees, leaning over just a little bit to catch her breath. She'd clearly beaten Sasha, his motorcycle was nowhere in sight, but she knew he wouldn't be long so she took the opportunity to sit down and rest. Her ankle throbbed a little bit, the way a not-100% healed injury sometimes did and she crossed her other leg beneath her to elevate it. Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back against the glass doors and started to visualize changes she wanted to make to her routines.
"I want ice on that ankle for ten minutes before you start," Sasha said from somewhere very close to her. Payson jumped, her eyes snapping open to look straight into his icy blue ones. A glance behind him showed that his motorcycle was still nowhere to be found, but there was a huge silver truck in the parking lot, just like his old one.
"Where's your motorcycle?" Payson asked. Sasha held his hands out to her and she took them, letting him lift her to her feet and ignoring the way his hands lingered just a little longer than they probably should have. He waved her out of the way and unlocked the door, holding it open for her.
"I got my truck back," he said. Payson frowned.
"From where? Didn't you sell it?"
"I left it with Marty. I hadn't had time to drive down to Denver before this weekend." Payson wondered if that was him admitting he'd never meant to stay away forever.
"What about the Airstream?"
"I rented an apartment," he muttered, sounding unenthused. Payson clapped a hand to her mouth, stifling a giggle. "What?"
"I just can't imagine you not living in the Airstream." Sasha grumbled something she couldn't make out.
As per his instructions, Payson went straight for the couch in the office and sat down, propping her foot up on the table before her. Sasha grabbed a bag of ice from the freezer he kept by his desk and gingerly situated it over her ankle.
"Welcome home, by the way," Sasha said softly, sitting down to work while they waited. Payson smiled and sank back into the soft leather cushions.
"It's good to be back."
Sasha reached forward and pressed the play button on the office answering machine. It gave a long beep before playing through several messages, all of which Sasha seemed to ignore. Then Payson heard Summer's voice.
"Sasha, I just wanted to thank you for the way you handled the situation with Lauren…"
His hand shot forward so quickly, Payson almost missed it. He pressed the stop button and silence filled the room again. Payson waited, watching his face for any sign of what had just happened.
"What was that about?"
"Nothing," Sasha said quickly, without looking up. Payson narrowed her eyes, not believing him.
"Okay," she snorted, shifting her ice. "Can I go?"
Sasha looked up at her, his forehead knit into a frown.
"Yes, of course," he said distractedly. Payson eyed him on her way out to the floor. There was something he was deliberately hiding from her, and she didn't like it. She thought they'd had a breakthrough in Rio, when they had acknowledged their feelings without actually acknowledging them. This, though, felt like a step back, like he was back to shutting her out and ignoring her.
Payson couldn't stop thinking about the incident in the office, even as she started working through circuits. An extra hour of strength and conditioning every morning, and an extra hour of skills every evening was going to ensure her at least one gold medal in London. Since she obviously wasn't going to be able to put Sasha out of her mind, she channeled her frustration into her workout.
Slowly, other gymnasts started trickling in and Payson was forced to abandon her early workout. When Kaylie walked in, she shrieked, running to Payson and throwing her arms around her.
"I'm so happy you're back!" Kaylie smiled broadly. "For weeks it's just been me and Lauren and she's driving me crazy."
Payson laughed. Only Kaylie and Lauren could be best friends, that week anyway, and still drive each other so crazy. Shortly after that, Lauren bounced in. Her eyes landed on Payson and Kaylie and she hurried over.
"Pay!" Lauren swept her into a hug that she only half-heartedly returned. Then Austin sailed in and Payson glanced behind him, waiting for Max to appear. They'd only spoken a handful of times since Worlds, mostly the week following, because their schedules had become so hectic.
"Where's Max?" Payson asked Austin, catching his eye as he made his way over to the group. Payson didn't miss the way his fingers brushed against Kaylie, their hands entwining for just the briefest moment.
"Let's go for a walk, Keeler," Austin suggested gently. Payson's frown deepened as she glanced up at the office. Sasha was standing in the window, watching them, and he gave her a small nod. She followed Austin outside, leaving Kaylie and Lauren to stare after her pityingly. She hated being pitied.
"Austin, you're scaring me," Payson said as he led her across the parking lot to the small park on the other side. It wasn't very big, more like a median between the parking lot and the road, but it was large enough that they often ate lunch there. Sometimes the boys played Ultimate Frisbee.
"Payson," Austin started. He hesitated and Payson huffed in frustration.
"Out with it, Tucker." Austin stalled a little longer by running his hand through his hair and then reaching into his back pocket for an envelope.
"Max defected to Denver. He asked me to give you this, I guess it's supposed to explain everything." Austin handed her the envelope. Payson stared at it, wondering how she was supposed to feel. She'd sort of assumed that they were dating, together, whatever, after Worlds. But they had hardly spoken, and she didn't really care. It didn't hurt the way it had when she'd gone so long without really speaking to Sasha.
"Thanks, Austin," Payson muttered. He left, presumably to give her space to read the letter. She turned it over in her hand a few times, wondering whether she wanted to read it or not, before tearing it open and pulling out the notebook paper.
As she read, she decided she was glad that he'd left. His life was obviously very complicated, and she didn't need the distraction that was sure to bring less than a year out from the Olympics. Crumpling the letter, she threw it away and marched back into the Rock.
"Sasha, please," Summer begged. There was a time when Sasha would have loved hearing those words come out of her mouth, although admittedly his fantasies did not have her sitting across from him in the office when they did. Those desires, however, were long gone. Even if he and Summer had been able to overcome their differences, he'd seen too much of her hypocrisy now to ever want her again.
"Payson needs to know, Summer, and she needs to know now," Sasha insisted. "I was willing to let it go while she was away, but now that she's back…"
"Think about what this could do to the team," Summer urged.
"You mean think about what it could do to Lauren?" Sasha snapped. Summer blinked at him, frowning in that condescending, holier-than-thou way that she always did and it made his heart hammer against his chest. His fingers gripped the arms of his chair until his knuckles were white as he tried not to scream at the woman sitting across from him.
"She's sorry, Sasha," Summer promised. Sasha snorted, shaking his head.
"I don't believe that she is. Lauren's biggest problem is that no one, not you, not Steve, and not me, has ever held her accountable for her decisions. Well, that changes today. It's time for her to realize that there are serious consequences for serious actions. She's going to tell Payson today, or I will," Sasha said, his tone leaving no room for argument. Summer collapsed against the back of her chair, shaking her head in disbelief.
"Will you please let Lauren know that I'll expect her decision by this afternoon?" Sasha said shortly. He was done with the conversation and done with Summer. She, apparently, wasn't. She leaned forward, her eyes narrowing and opened her mouth.
"You could have warned me." It wasn't Summer growling at him, it was Payson. She stood in the doorway, her face flushed and angry, until she saw Summer sitting before her. He watched her forehead crinkle in a frown. "Summer."
"Payson, good morning. Do you need to speak to Sasha? I'll just leave you to it." Sasha stifled a laugh as Summer jumped to her feet and hurried from the office. While Payson watched Summer cross the floor to talk to Lauren, Sasha watched Payson. She looked fantastic, not that he could tell her that, and he always loved her a little more when she was angry. He sighed.
"He asked me not to," Sasha said. Payson jumped and turned back to him.
"What?" she asked.
"You said that I could have warned you. Max asked me not to, although I assumed he was going to tell you himself," Sasha said with disdain. That punk had run off like a coward from someone he was lucky to even have shared a room with. Payson's features softened immediately and she gave a dismissive little wave.
"It's fine." She looked down at the floor, hovering like she didn't want to leave but felt she should. With a sigh, Sasha stood and crossed the room, stopping just in front of her, probably closer than he should have allowed himself.
He knew that he was crossing a dangerous line, but she looked so vulnerable in that moment he couldn't help himself. He reached out and brushed the backs of his fingers over the smooth silkiness of her cheeks until she looked up at him from beneath her long lashes. He was dying to kiss her, to see if her lips were as soft and warm as he remembered. As soon as their eyes locked, Sasha turned his hand over to cup her cheek.
"You deserve so much more than Max Spencer," he whispered, leaning in close. He allowed himself only a moment before he stepped back and returned firmly to the role of coach. "Now back to work."
By the end of the day, Sasha wanted nothing more than a stiff drink. Lauren had flatly refused to tell Payson anything, so the job fell to him and though he wouldn't admit it to anyone, he hated Lauren a little bit for being such a coward. But he was a good coach, at least he hoped he was, and he could put that aside to help her get to the Olympics.
He still wasn't sure how exactly he was going to go about telling Payson that one of her best friends had betrayed her. What he needed was to talk to Kim, let her guide him in the right direction, because as well as he knew Payson, Kim was her mother. Kim always knew what to do.
"Goodnight, Sasha!" Payson voice floated up from the floor. As quickly as he could manage, he moved to the platform outside the office.
"Payson," he said. She stopped in her tracks and turned to him, smiling that soft, calm smile that always set his stomach in knots. "I'm actually going to drop by your house in a bit, will you let your mother know?"
Her eyes flashed with something; disapproval, suspicion, and a little bit of anger. He knew that she understood he was hiding something from her, how could she not after the way he'd covered up Summer's voicemail? His heart stalled in his chest, he hated to lie to her.
"She's here to pick me up, why don't you just talk to her now?" Payson asked, watching him. Sasha could practically feel her trying to figure him out, trying to read in his eyes exactly what he was keeping from her.
Sasha nodded. He'd wanted a little more time to prepare what he was going to say to Kim, but she was here now. The sooner, the better he supposed.
"Yes. Send her in?" Payson nodded and disappeared through the doors.
Sasha went back into the office, pulling a bottle of Scotch from the bottom drawer of his desk. He hadn't touched that particular bottle since before he left for Romania, but this occasion certainly called for it. Grabbing a tumbler, he poured two fingers worth of Scotch into the glass and then took a healthy sip just as Kim appeared in the doorway.
"Uh oh," she said, sinking into the seat that Summer had occupied earlier.
"What?" Sasha asked, grimacing as he always did after his first swallow of the bitter, burning liquid.
"You're drinking Scotch in the office, Sasha, that can't mean good things," Kim said with an uneasy smile. Sasha stared into his glass, letting the silence hang between them. There was no easy way for him to tell her. He ran through different wording in his mind, different ways to ease her into the confession, but nothing felt right.
He took another sip of Scotch, closing his eyes against the burn.
"The video of Payson…and I," he started, swirling the Scotch around the bottom of his glass and doing anything to avoid looking Kim in the eye. "Lauren sent it."
Finally he risked a glance at Kim's face, just as all the color drained away. She looked white, like she might be sick, and her eyes were wide and unfocused.
"What?" she muttered. Sasha nodded.
"She refuses to tell Payson. Kim," he said, emotion choking him as he thought about how Payson would be affected. "I don't know what to do."
"She needs to know, Sasha, and it needs to come from you," Kim said. Sasha sighed. He had known that would be her response, though some part of him was hoping she would at least offer to do it.
"When?" he asked.
"Now. It will only be worse if you wait," Kim promised. "Just…get it over with. I'll leave you two alone, bring her home when you're done."
Kim stood to leave, but faltered when something on the wall behind him caught her eye. He watched as her lips pressed into a thin line and her eyes narrowed. Turning to see which one it was, he found three girls staring back at him; Lauren, Payson, and Kaylie with their arms around each other, all looking very young. They looked happy.
"That was taken right after we moved here. Lauren and Kaylie welcomed Payson with open arms and she was so happy. She's always been shy, but those two seemed to bring her out of it. They were best friends," Kim said, a note of sadness in her voice.
"I know," Sasha muttered.
"This could ruin the team," Kim pointed out. Sasha snorted. As if he didn't know.
"I'll send Payson in." She left without another word and silence fell over the gym once more. Sasha could hardly believe that just an hour ago the air had been filled with the sounds of Payson working through her routines, building a base to work with for the Olympics. The rhythmic slap of her feet against the mats was a sound he hadn't realized he missed until today.
She appeared in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest and her eyes hard. One look into those stormy pools of blue and he knew that she understood something bad was coming, had felt it building all day.
"Should I be scared?" Payson asked, not at all playfully. Sasha gestured to her mother's chair and she sank into it, her eyes never leaving his as he came around the desk, leaning against it so that there was no furniture between them. It had nothing to do with the fact that he seemed to draw strength from her mere presence, the conversation they were about to have required close quarters. They were in it together.
"Payson, I found out who sent the video of us to Ellen Beals," he said slowly. Her eyes flashed as she leaned forward.
"Who," she demanded. All the fear had left her face as anger colored her cheeks. He knew the signs of Payson on a war path, and for a moment he almost pitied Lauren.
"Payson," he started. He knew he was going to have to ease her into the information, so he spoke slowly and clearly. There would be no mistaking his words. "It was Lauren."
Confusion knit her brows together.
"Lauren who?" Payson asked, like she didn't know anyone by that name. Sasha reached for her hand, twining their fingers together. The lines he was crossing didn't matter in this moment, not when he was about to shatter one of the most important relationships in her life. She deserved any strength he could offer her. For an instant, her fingers tightened around his.
"You know who, Payson," Sasha said carefully, watching for her reaction. She stood up quickly, nearly knocking the chair backwards, and wrenched her fingers from his grasp. She shook her head violently, like she could force herself to un-hear the words.
"No. Lauren has done a lot of really crappy things but she wouldn't…she wouldn't do that," Payson insisted. Sasha looked at the floor.
"She wanted Summer and I to break up," he said. That alone made him feel like it was partly his fault, he knew better than to get involved with the gym moms, or step moms, or whatever Summer was. It always ended badly, and if he had remembered himself, if he'd had more self control, they wouldn't be in the mess to begin with. Payson laughed; high pitched and hysterical.
"This is a joke," she said, shifting from foot to foot like an animal ready to bolt. Sasha stood up and moved in front of her, taking her by the shoulders and stopping to look her in the eye. He'd never seen her so agitated, her eyes so wild.
"It's not, Payson."
He watched as the hysteria in her eyes died, replaced with nothing, leaving them dull and flat. It was disconcerting to see the girl who had always been so passionate become so lifeless. Even at her most focused, her most still and stoic, Sasha had always been able to find that sparkle in her eyes.
Payson's entire body went still. At a loss for what to do, Sasha pulled her into a tight hug, crushing her against his chest. She didn't return the embrace. The only sign of life was the hard beat of her heart against his chest.
"I have to go," Payson muttered after a long moment. She pried herself out of his arms and walked slowly out the door, not waiting for him to follow. He wasn't sure she was even aware of him at that point.
As quickly as he could Sasha grabbed his keys and raced after her, afraid that she would walk right into traffic if he didn't keep an eye on her. He hadn't expected her reaction; screaming, violence, cursing, all of that had run through his mind when he imagined telling her about Lauren's betrayal, but not this. Not a complete shutdown.
"Payson!" he called. "I'll drive you home." He opened the passenger door of the truck, waiting for her. Payson stopped at his words and turned her head to look at him. The dullness in her eyes scared him more than anything else, except maybe the vision of her crashing to the floor.
"No, I…I don't want to go home." Sasha sighed heavily as she lifted herself into the seat. He had only one thought, but he'd already crossed so many lines and Payson didn't deserve to have him cross another one. Her image, her career, was already tainted because he'd crossed a line but he'd never seen Payson so outside of herself, so lifeless, and if she didn't want to go home, he wouldn't make her. Lines be damned.
"Why don't I show you my new place?" He asked. Her only acknowledgement was a nod as she stared at the floorboards.
They drove in silence, nearly all the way there. It was the only time Sasha had ever felt truly uncomfortable around Payson. Just before they turned into his complex, he heard her sniff and his heart broke for her. He knew what it was like to be betrayed by a best friend, but at least he had halfway deserved it. Payson had done nothing to deserve Lauren's actions, she was collateral damage.
He eased his truck into park just outside his door and then scrambled around to the passenger side, barely catching Payson as she nearly fell out of the truck, her face red and blotchy with tears. His heart pounded and he had half a mind to take her home, but the way she clutched at his waist put that though out of his head as he led her inside.
"Payson," he whispered into her hair as he shut the front door behind them. Payson shook in his arms as she sucked in a breath.
"She was my friend!" Payson sobbed, the words tearing themselves out of her throat.
"I know," he whispered. Payson's sobs were wracking her entire body and she sagged against him, like the weight of Lauren's betrayal was too much. Sasha slipped an arm beneath her knees and lifted her into his arms, carrying her to the couch and sitting down with her in his lap, rocking her gently as she cried into his chest.
They didn't speak. Sasha knew that she didn't need words, she needed the strength he could provide by just being there. So instead of trying to figure out what to say, he concentrated on the feel of her; the heat of her tears seeping through his shirt, she tickle of her hair against his cheek, the weight of her leaning into his chest. He allowed himself to relish in it, in a way that he normally wouldn't. He closed his eyes, imagining for just a moment that she wasn't his gymnast, that she wasn't seventeen, and that they were just two people in love. Almost immediately he felt guilty, not because it was wrong though that was also a leading thought, but because he was being selfish. Payson's heart was breaking as he rocked her and all he could think about was the future.
"Sasha," Payson whispered, shifting so that she could look at him. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, the skin around them puffy.
"Hmm?" Sasha asked, reaching up to smooth a hand over her hair.
"I don't want to go home."
The implication in her voice was clear and it made Sasha's breath catch in his throat. His arms tightened around her. This was a very dangerous situation for him to be in, but the pleading in her eyes arrested him, stopped him from denying her. He would give her the world if he could.
Shifting her so that she was seated beside him, he stood up and reached for the phone.
"I'll call your mother."
A/N 2: Yay for more P/S fics! I promise I'm not abandonning WYHWT, but this had been itching to get out for a while now and who am I to deny my muse? And be warned, Payson and Sasha will get together, but it won't be for a little while yet and it certainly won't be easy. Compared to For You, the World, this fic will be a little...darker if you will. Or maybe more realistic is the term, I don't know.
Anyway, leave me some love, let me know what you thought! What do you all think is coming for our characters?