Chapter 15

Payson stood at the chalk bowl in the middle of the Rock, mindlessly tracing patterns into the white dust. She didn't really need more chalk on her hands, but she wanted to talk to Kaylie and the best place to engineer a chat was the chalk bowl.

They'd all been back from Chicago for three days, Nationals was in a week, and everyone could feel the pressure of the Olympics bearing down on them. The Games were less than three months away and the last thing they needed was for their team to fall apart. As team captain, and friend to both Kelly and Kaylie, Payson felt like it was her job to fix what was broken between them. As much as it could be fixed, anyway.

"Hey," Kaylie said, finally making her way to the chalk bowl.

"Hey. How're you feeling?" Payson asked. Kaylie shrugged, staring into the white powder.

"Fine. Pressure's on, you know."

"Yeah." Suddenly, Payson didn't have the words she wanted. For so many years she, Kaylie, and Lauren had been a tight trio, the three best friends there ever were. Now, she could barely even talk to Kaylie. What happened to them? How did everything change so quickly?

"Kaylie, I really wish you would talk to Kelly…" Kaylie held up a hand to stop Payson.

"Leave it alone, Payson. Look, I know now that they didn't start hooking up until after Austin and I broke up, I'm not stupid. But I just can't…I can't be her friend. Please don't ask me to," Kaylie said, staring at the chalk like it had all of life's answers. Payson sighed.

"Do you remember the conversation we had after I found out Lauren sent in the video? When you told me you weren't going to choose and I said I wasn't going to be talking to Lauren if I didn't absolutely have to?" Payson asked. Kaylie frowned, but nodded.

"Yeah?"

"Do you remember how awful you felt when I said that? You felt like I was making you choose anyway. That's how I feel right now. This isn't the end of the world, Kaylie. Austin is just a guy and you and Kelly and me, we all have a dream that's so much bigger than any guy. This whole situation with Kelly and Austin…it could affect your chances of making it to the Olympics if you let it. I don't want that to happen," Payson said. Her words felt jumbled in her mouth, she didn't think she was expressing herself very well, but it was the best she could do.

Kaylie's eye narrowed.

"You think I'm going to let Kelly and Austin get in the way of my performance? Do you not remember the Classic? I held on fine, it was Kelly who fell apart," Kaylie snapped. Payson winced. The conversation wasn't going at all the way she wanted it too.

"No that's not what I'm saying, I just…"

"You know what Payson? Just drop it. We don't all have to be best friends to be good teammates, so you and Kelly can keep whatever secrets you want. Don't worry about me." With that, Kaylie turned on her heel and stomped back to the bars.

Something about Kaylie's words struck her as odd, the way she stressed you when she mentioned keeping secrets. Payson didn't have any secrets, except Sasha, but how could Kaylie possibly know about that? She couldn't. Payson shook her head to clear her mind, she was probably just reading too much into it.

"What was that?" Kelly asked as Payson stood at the end of the beam, getting ready to run through her routine.

"I was just trying to fix things between you and Kaylie. She's not having it," Payson muttered. Kelly snorted.

"I'm not surprised. She was pissed."

"Shouldn't you be more worried about this? We're coming up on Nationals really quickly and if we all make it to the Olympics we're going to need to be…"

"What, best friends? Payson come on. Before we were friends we managed to be on the junior national team together and dominate. If Kaylie wants to hate me, let her hate me," Kelly said dismissively.

Payson just sighed.

#

That night Payson made her excuses to her parents, using Kelly as her cover, and met Sasha at his apartment. It was the first time she'd been able to sneak over there since almost blurting out that she loved him, and she was a little worried she would say it again. Not that she didn't feel it, she did, but she wasn't sure Sasha was ready to hear it.

"Hey," he said when he opened the door. Payson slipped past him into the living room, trailing her fingers along his stomach as she went. She felt him shiver.

"Hey."

"How long do we have?" Sasha asked. Payson sighed. She hated feeling like they were living on borrowed time, but if she wasn't spending the night, she could only get away with staying out so late. And since they weren't sleeping together, she never stayed the night.

"A few hours," she said.

"Want anything?" Sasha asked, moving into the kitchen. He put the kettle on, knowing Payson wanted tea, and she wondered why he even bothered asking anymore.

While he prepared the tea, they made small talk, chatting about their evenings since training wrapped up. Payson told him about Becca's newest public school exploits and about how much she hated that Kelly and Kaylie couldn't work it out.

"I feel like it's the situation with Lauren all over again," Payson groaned, letting her head slump forward onto the counter. Sasha set a mug of tea in front of her and then came around and settled his hands on her shoulders, rubbing his thumbs in circles.

"Except it's not," he reminded her. "They aren't trying to ruin each other's careers or getting into fist fights in the gym. You have to let them be, Payson."

Payson groaned happily under the pressure of his hands, and then blew out a sigh.

"I just want them to be happy," she muttered. There was a beat of silence, but Payson thought nothing of it. Silence between them wasn't unusual, especially when Sasha was trying to formulate a response to something she'd said.

He pressed a kiss to the back of her neck, his stubble scratching at her skin.

"That's why I love you, Payson."

Payson was pretty sure her heart stopped beating. She was definitely sure she heard him wrong. He loved her? Surely he didn't mean it that way. It was one of those things that people threw around when someone did something particularly endearing. Except he hadn't sounded amused when he said it. It didn't sound like he was teasing her. He sounded more serious than she'd ever heard him.

"What did you just say?" She asked, sitting up and turning around to face him. Sasha's hands dropped from her shoulders to settle on her knees. Payson looked straight into his eyes, looking for something that said he didn't mean it, or was sorry he said it. But there was no hesitation in those blue eyes, no fear or regret. Only love.

Sasha reached up and took her face in his hands, bending down so that they were eye to eye.

"I love you, Payson," he said slowly. Payson's breath hitched in her throat.

"I love you too," she whispered.

Then he was kissing her. It was not a sweet kiss, it was a thorough branding. As Sasha swept his tongue inside her mouth, stepping up between her knees and pressing her body close to his, he claimed her as his own. There would be no visible mark, but Payson knew that the brand on her heart was as real as the tattoo on Sasha's hip.

Payson's hands fisted into the material of his shirt, just above his hips, as the force of his kiss rocked her backwards. She felt herself spiraling out of control, something she normally hated, but it was different with Sasha. She knew he would be there to catch her, to keep her safe. So she happily surrendered.

There was something different about their kisses now, as though saying the words they'd both been feeling lent a charge to their bodies that electrified them. Payson felt a shock run through her as his hands drifted down from her face, tracing the lines of her neck, brushing across her collarbone, skating over the tops of her breasts. She gasped as the electricity traveled straight to her heart.

Payson pulled his shirt free from his jeans and slipped her hands beneath it to trace the lines of his stomach. She felt the muscles clench under her touch and smiled against his lips.

Feeling a momentary rush of boldness, Payson let one hand drift lower, first stopping to play with the button on his jeans, and then lower still. Sasha froze when she cupped him, his lips still against hers.

"Payson," he said, half groan and half whimper. Payson removed her hand and stood to whisper in his ear, raking her teeth against his earlobe as she did.

"Sasha, take me to bed."

"Payson, we can't…" Sasha said, though Payson didn't think he was very convincing. She pulled back and looked into his eyes so that he would know she was serious.

"Sasha, I love you and I want to be with you. I'm an adult, you're an adult. We can."

She watched as Sasha wrestled with himself. The coach in him was fighting it, because he knew that once they crossed this line there really was no going back. But the man in him, the man who was desperately in love with her, wanted t give in. Payson waited to see which would win.

A kiss was her answer.

"I love you. God, I can't stop saying it," he muttered. He wrapped one arm around her back and slipped one beneath her knees, hoisting her into his arms and walking towards the bedroom. She smiled.

"Then don't. Because I love hearing it."

#

They were wrapped around each other, basking in the glow of so many firsts. Payson couldn't stop grinning as her hands continued to explore his body. She couldn't get enough of him, of the feel of his skin against hers, of the look in his eyes as he moved above her, and the way he whispered her name when he came undone. She wanted to do it again, and again, and again, just so she could keep experiencing those moments.

"I keep meaning to ask you, what does this mean?" Payson asked, tracing her fingers over the two small Chinese characters tattooed on his pelvis. He looked down at her, very much like the cat that ate the canary with his arms folded behind his head.

"It means Renegade," he explained. That explanation, coupled with the slight fading that indicated it was years old, was enough. She remembered the press tossing around the words rebel and renegade when Sasha was competing in his prime; a hot headed young man with talent that couldn't be matched.

"I like it," she said. She leaned down and pressed a kiss over the ink filled scar. Sasha laughed softly, his fingers trailing up her back so that she shivered.

Payson looked at the clock, even though she didn't want to. It was past time for her to leave, but not so much that she couldn't explain it away to her parents.

"You have to go?" Sasha asked, following her gaze to the clock on his nightstand.

"Yeah." She slid from the bed, and pulled on her clothes as Sasha watched her. She could feel his eyes on her back and though she thought it should make her uncomfortable, it didn't. In fact, she kind of loved it.

"I love you," Sasha said, for the millionth time that night. Payson smiled and crawled across the bed to give him a kiss.

"I love you too. See you in the morning."

And then Payson set off for home, praying that her parents wouldn't notice a difference in her.

#

Payson's parents didn't notice a thing, but the next morning, Kelly sure did. As soon as she looked at Payson, her eyes went wide and she hurried over, grabbing Payson's arm and pulling her off to the side of the gym.

"You had sex!"

"What?" Payson asked, trying to feign shock. But it didn't work. Kelly just gave her an unimpressed stare.

"Don't lie to me," Kelly said. Payson sighed.

"Okay. Yes."

"Yes what?"

"Yes, we had sex," Payson whispered, trying to make sure no one else heard them.

"Oh my God!" Kelly screamed. Payson clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Shh! Kelly! Are you trying to out us?" Payson snapped. Kelly blinked an apology and Payson lowered her hand. Immediately, Kelly pulled her into a hug.

"Are you okay? How was it? What happened? You have to tell me everything, Keeler," Kelly demanded. Payson looked around the gym, which was quickly filling up with athletes, and then pulled her towards the office. Sasha was outside talking to a few parents, so Payson knew they would have it to themselves for a few minutes at least.

"I'm fine. Better than fine," Payson promised, feeling heat rise in her cheeks as she blushed. "He told me he loved me."

"Before or after?" Kelly asked, her eyes narrowed.

"Before! God, Kelly. Do you want to hear this or not? So he told me he loved me because I was trying to get you and Kaylie to be friends again. And then I asked him to…and we did. And it was so amazing, Kelly," Payson said wistfully.

"Amazing, really?" Kelly asked, raising an eyebrow in doubt.

"Yes, amazing. I've been so worried for so long that it wouldn't be worth it, or that I…wouldn't be any good at it. I mean, I can't even do a sexy beam routine without wanting to die. But it really was amazing."

Kelly hugged her tightly, why Payson wasn't quite sure. It seemed like she was about to say something, but then there was a commotion in the gym and they were distracted. For a moment, Payson worried that Lauren had come back to train at the Rock, but that couldn't be it. There were no shrieks of Lauren's name, no happy squeals. Instead the gym was filled with an odd tension; part quiet awe and part shock. A current passed through the air.

"What the hell?" Kelly asked. Together they moved to the office window.

A new gymnast stood at the edge of the floor, talking to Sasha. Her back was to them, so they couldn't see her face, but they could see her dark hair pulled tightly into a ballerina bun. That, plus the Olympic rings tattooed on the back of her neck made them both gasp.

"What is she doing here?" Payson breathed.

Former Olympic All-Around Champion Lydia Jacobs was at the Rock.

"She's in a leo so she clearly plans on training," Kelly muttered.

"Yeah but, she retired after Beijing," Payson countered. Kelly just shrugged.

Sasha chose that moment to look up at the office. He caught her gaze through the glass and held it for a moment before turning his attention back to Lydia. Payson saw him hold up a finger, asking her to give him a minute. Then he climbed the stairs to the office and shut the door behind him.

"Sasha…" Payson started. He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the desk.

"Lydia Jacobs is planning to compete at Nationals. She's been quietly training at her home gym in Omaha for six weeks, but in this last week she wants some training around the gymnasts she'll be competing with," Sasha explained.

Payson frowned. There was a lot about this situation she didn't understand. First, why was Lydia trying to make a comeback so late in the game? As a former All-Around gold medalist, Lydia could waltz into Nationals without much comment from Marta Karoyli, but it wasn't wise. And with only six weeks of training under her belt, after three years out of the game?

"I don't get it," Kelly said, her voice flat.

"What's to get?" Sasha asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. "For the next week, Lydia will be training here. And if she goes to the Olympic Trials, she will continue to train here."

"There's no training to be done in just a week!" Payson exploded. "She's…she's making a joke out of this! We've been working on these routines for months! A year, even! We're all spending this week perfecting our routines, what's she going to do? Has she even choreographed them yet? She's been training for six weeks, Sasha!"

Payson rarely lost her cool. It was even rarer for her to lose it when Lauren was not somehow involved. But she couldn't stand this. Lydia wasn't taking this new Olympic bid seriously, and she was making gymnastics look like a joke, something someone could pick up in just a few weeks instead of years and year in the gym.

"This is bullshit," Kelly snapped. Sasha didn't even bother to chastise her, and Payson knew it meant he was at just as much of a loss as they were.

"There's nothing to be done about it," he finally said. "We can't turn away a former All-Around champion, the Rock can't handle that kind of negative publicity. She'll be training here for as long as she's in the running for the Olympic team. So let's go greet your new teammate."

Payson and Kelly followed him out to the floor like an executioner to the gallows. Neither of them had particularly looked up to Lydia, she always seemed not to take the sport as seriously as everyone else, and any respect they might have had for her vanished the second she walked through the Rock's doors.

"Hey girls!" Lydia cried. She bounced up to them, throwing her arms around them both. "I'm so excited to train with you!"

"Hey Lydia," Payson said. She tried to give the older girl a smile, one that would be warm and welcoming, but she had a feeling all she managed was a grimace.

At least she tried. Kelly didn't even bother. She just crossed her arms and gave Lydia her best evil-Kelly stare.

"Lydia," she practically growled.

"I'm so excited to work with you guys this week. It's going to be awesome, don't you think?" Lydia asked, her eyes already wandering the gym.

Yeah, Payson thought. Awesome.

A/N: You guys, I am a terrible author. I've left this story alone for MONTHS, and I'm sorry about that. I just honestly was not in the mood to write it. I was uninspired, totally and completely. That, plus working on revisions of my original stuff plus a new original WIP just made it impossible to update. However, the events of the last two days (I won't give specifics in case some readers have yet to see/hear the news and I ask that no one leave spoilers in reviews either, just in case) inspired me BIG TIME. So hopefully that inspiration will keep coming.

Anyway, thank you so much to everyone who reviewed chapter 14 and who has favorite this story or put it on alert since my little hiatus. I really appreciate it.

Now that all that is out of the way, some actual stuff about the story. The tattoo Sasha is sporting, as well as its location, comes from the brilliant mind of JCI and is used with her blessing. Lydia Jacobs is a blending of a few real life gymnasts, it's probably pretty obvious who, and was inspired mostly by Nastia's eleventh hour bid for a spot on the Olympic team. Of course, Lydia is coming back later than Nastia did and in reality it would never happen that way, but I'm going with it for the drama. So don't focus on the real life logistics of it, and just enjoy the ride.

And with that, I end this super long author's note. I seriously can't thank you guys enough for reading. As always, leave me some reviews!