Disclaimer: I don't own MIOBI or these characters, and I'm not making any money off of this story.
A/N: Lots of stuff on pinterest for this chapter, which is huge. If I had realized how big this was I would have split into two chapters, but since I already promised you the last chapter, here it is :)
There are two big changes in style at the end of this, but being allowed to do that is one of the great things about writing fanfic :) One of the other great things about writing fanfic is that you're allowed to put in lots of irrelevant details, which I am very fond of doing. Everything is so detailed in my head that I want it to be that way on the paper, too! Sadly I'll have to take those out, but read more about that at the end…
For some reason Lauren was thinking about the day that Emily first came to the Rock. It was the day that changed everything, and even though a big part of that change involved Lauren being a brat, she didn't regret her actions. She was ashamed of her actions, yes, but she didn't regret them. If Emily hadn't come then Lauren would never have thrown a tantrum and left the gym, her dad would never have sought out Sasha to coach the Rock, they never would have become a family, she wouldn't be an Olympic Champion, and, most importantly, they wouldn't be sitting here on a plane about to fly to Romania. Lauren liked to think that she played some small role in making Payson so happy today, even if it was the role of a villain.
If Lauren remembered correctly, Payson ignored a little kid asking for an autograph the day Emily came. Well, 'ignored' wasn't the right word. It was more 'didn't notice what was in front of her face.' She was so focused on visualizing that she didn't realize the girl was there until they pointed it out to her. Now when she signed autographs she always made time to talk to the little girls and make them feel special.
When they day-dreamed about what they would do after the Olympics, Payson's no-nonsense response was "I'm going to concentrate on winning in Boston." Back then Lauren could never have imagined that the girl who couldn't be bothered to fantasize about a celebrity lifestyle would one day hire a private jet to fly thirty-something people to Romania to elope with her coach.
There was one thing that hadn't changed, though. That day Payson was the first one to talk to Emily and complement her for a well-done tumbling pass, and the first one to cheer for her at the in-house competition for Nationals ranking. Payson never could stand by and watch someone not get the recognition they deserved. It was what made her a good leader, and the reason that there were so many people devoted to her enough to drop everything on a week's notice and fly halfway around the world for her wedding.
Payson's wedding. That still blew her mind. They were the same age, had known each other since they were twelve and gone through hell and back together, but somehow Payson became an adult and left the rest of them stranded in teenage-land. It would be easy to say that being a mom made her grow up early, but she was an adult long before she got pregnant. The turning point, as far as Lauren could tell, had been when Sasha left the Rock. Her heart was broken more than even she knew, but she found her strength to push through and hold the gym together.
Lauren heaved a sigh as she pushed her thoughts out of her head and herself out of her chair. The two Jakes were bonding, so she was temporarily lacking a boyfriend to sit with. She was on a plane full of people that she loved like family, so she had a lot of options for who to hang out with, but she chose to sit down by Becca and Jess, who were huddled together giggling over an issue of Cosmo. There was a three year age gap between the two girls, but they were the only elites at the Rock with international expectations, so they spent a lot of time together.
Lauren spoke to Jess first. "So how weird is it for you, being in the inner circle like this?"
"Very," Jess said. "Sometimes I think that I must be locked up in an asylum somewhere and this is all one massive hallucination."
That was stolen and Lauren called her out on it. "You totally got that from Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"You watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer?" she asked, her voice rising to an incredulous note. "Could you be any cooler?"
Lauren was gloating about the obvious hero-worship when Becca pulled her back down to earth. "Yeah, she could be a lot cooler, actually. Don't buy into the hype. She's a great gymnast, but so are you. The only difference between you is that she's seven years older and bitchier."
"I am not bitchy!" Lauren cried. Then she considered it and amended, "Anymore."
"Okay, I'll give you less bitchy," Becca said. Going elite was turning her into Payson.
Lauren changed tracks. "So how is Payson as a coach, really? Does she torture you with conditioning like Sasha always did with us?"
Becca said "yes" at the same time that Jess said "no," which was easy to interpret. "Oh, you're like her and get off on the pain. Pay always loved conditioning, too. So you're the only person from the Rock that got invited to this shindig. Is it weird for you that she would invite you to her wedding?"
The younger girl wasn't thrown by Lauren's schizophrenic line of questioning. She answered with a question of her own. "Was it weird for you to throw a birthday party for Coach Belov last year?"
"Huh. Good point." Being on the Olympic track did tend to form strong bonds between coaches and athletes, as evidenced by the Rock Rebels' family. It included parents, too, because Kim and Carmen became good friends when Payson started coaching Jess. There were maybe ten girls in the entire country with a prayer of making it to the Olympics each cycle, so parent support was necessary.
Lauren asked Jess if this was her first time out of the country, and then continued to ask bizarre, out of the blue questions for another hour before Payson came over and asked a question of her own. "Lo, why are you badgering my gymnasts with twenty million questions?"
"Boredom," she answered. "Talking to you guys just isn't enough entertainment for an eleven hour flight. I had to find something to do."
"Well leave them and alone and come play with my hair, then. I don't know what I'm going to do with it tomorrow."
Lauren had been appointed stylist for the wedding, a position she was more than happy with. Of course bridesmaid would have been better, but she understood why Payson was only having Becca in the wedding. The entire guest list consisted of fourty people, so having five bridesmaids would look ridiculous. Lauren was content to do hair and make up, especially since it meant that she would be the first person to see Payson in her dress.
Nobody had seen it except her mother, and all the women were trying to catch a peek. So far Payson wasn't biting, but Lauren tried her luck again as they walked to the back of the plane where Sasha, Austin, and Alex were. "You know, I really need to see the dress to know what to do with your hair. The styles for both need to fit together."
"Nice shot, Lauren, but no. You can wait until tomorrow to see it. But until then…" she dug out a small, flat box and handed it over, "you can see this."
It was a headband. A beautiful, delicate headband made with gold and a few tasteful diamonds and pearls. The golden bowtie twisted into the medal was a perfect hint of Payson's personality for those who knew her well. "Pay, this is gorgeous. How did you get this in just one week?"
"The same way I got my wedding dress: lots and lots of money. People are very helpful when you pay them extra. My rep at Tiffany's found this for me, although he doesn't know what it's for."
Lauren was notorious for throwing around money to get her way, but she was nothing compared to Payson. Payson used hundred dollar bills as casually as most people would use singles. Not in a bad way, though. She never used money to manipulate people like Lauren had in the past, but she was willing to pay what was fair (or more) to get things done, like dropping a cool fifty grand to have Monique Lhuillier hand alter a dress from a line that hadn't even been debuted yet. This train of thought led Lauren to realize two more things that were different about Payson since Emily joined the team: one, Payson was willingly wearing a dress and paying out the ass for it, and two, she had the connections to get things like that done. It was a far cry from having to borrow a dress from Kaylie for the Nationals send-off party.
"Okay, Coach Belov," Lauren said to Sasha, mocking the name that most of the Rock gymnasts still called him, "You need to go away. This is wedding stuff and you can't see it."
She could tell that he was humoring her, but he picked up Alex and said, "Come on puiule, let's go visit grandpa. You don't want to stick around for all this girly stuff anyway, do you?"
She watched after him as he walked back up the plane to sit with his future father-in-law, a little bit in awe. "Honestly, I never figured Sasha would be good with kids. It's so weird seeing him with Alex like that."
"He is pretty great at it," Payson agreed.
"Which is the only reason I'm letting him marry Payson," Austin said, joining the conversation. "If he wasn't a great stepdad then I wouldn't let him anywhere near Payson or Alex."
"Don't you think it's a bit chauvinistic to say that you're letting her get married, Austin?" Lauren asked. "It's not like you control her decisions."
Payson dropped into the chair beside him and said, "It's not chauvinistic, it's true. Austin has a say in all my big decisions. Sasha even asked him for permission before he proposed to me."
"Seriously, your fiancé asked your ex-boyfriend for permission to marry you? Kelly is right, you life is well and truly fucked up."
Payson had the slightest hint of a raised eyebrow when she said, "Do you want to sit alone in a room in Romania while you watch me get married through a window?"
"Okay, fine, your life is all sunshine and puppies and not remotely weird. Happy?" She ended the discussion by pushing Payson sideways in her chair and saying, "Now shut up and let me work here. We have to figure out what to do with your hair."
Payson greeted Dmitri Belov like a long-missed friend or relative. Sasha greeted him like the awkward re-acquaintance of two people who didn't get along very well in secondary school. Sasha was making an effort to mend his relationship with his father, just as Payson asked, but bitterness had fourteen years to sink its claws into Sasha, and it wasn't letting go easily.
There were a few phone calls now and then, but nothing resembling closeness between the two men. The first time Sasha called, he let his dad know that it wasn't by choice. "I'm calling because Payson asked me to. She wants us to get along."
When Dmitri asked why Payson's opinion was so important, Sasha was frank about their relationship. He didn't sugar coat it or try to explain anything, and Dmitri was smart enough not to comment. Any trip down that avenue would likely have ended with Sasha hanging up and not speaking to him for another fourteen years. They talked about fishing and gymnastics and the renovations taking place in the centuries-old conac that Sasha spent his summers in as a child, but they avoided more personal subjects. Now, months later, they still hadn't breeched those subjects.
Payson talked to the older Belov much more frequently, and much more openly, than Sasha did. Sasha asked her once what she told his dad about him, and she said nothing other than normal anecdotes of their life. It was their job to work through their feelings, she said, and she wasn't going to act as a mediator. She wasn't going to do that here in Romania, either. She spoke with Dmitri for a few minutes and then left with some of the others to explore the house, leaving Sasha and Dmitri alone for the first time since World trials.
"You and I are more alike than I knew," Dmitri said as they watched Payson walk away. "Your mother was a little older than Payson when we married, but people still wondered how such a young, beautiful woman could marry a worn out, beat up old gymnast like me. I never thought that you would follow in those footsteps."
"I'm not following in your footsteps, dad." If his tone wasn't enough to convey his contempt, the word 'dad' certainly was. Sasha stopped calling Dmitri tata the day his mom died, and calling him dad was a slap in the face every time. "I put Payson first, not my job."
The older man sighed as if resigning himself to his fate and then said, "It is different for you, son. You and Payson share the same passion. Katherine and I did not. We tried. I tried to bring her to Romania with me but she was unhappy here, away from her dance and her friends, and we tried living together in London but I was unhappy being away from my home. We lived separate lives, but that did not stop us from loving one another."
"Look," Sasha said, "I know that Payson would tell us to sit down and hash this all out, but I'm getting married tomorrow and I don't really want to start that by fighting with you. So can we not talk about this?"
His dad looked hurt, but Sasha wasn't to the point that he could talk about his mom and not get angry. It was better for them both if they put the subject aside for now. According to Payson, there would be a day when they could have this conversation and not fight about it, but that wasn't going to be today. Instead Sasha gestured to the door that Payson left through and said, "Let's go find the others. You haven't met Alex yet, and Payson gets a kick out of introducing him to people."
They found Payson, Emily, Lauren, and Austin together in the gym, one of the renovations that took place in the sixties and had been kept up to date ever since. Austin was holding the baby while the girls took turns trying to out-do each other with tumbling passes. Lauren was rusty because she mainly trained beam now, but Emily and Payson were keeping pace with each other. Emily's skills were harder, but Payson's specialty now was bizarre combinations. She did a round off, full twist, into another full twist, followed by two more just like it. She called things like that her 'WTF combinations,' because nobody would ever think to do that. It wasn't particularly hard and it wouldn't bring any points at all in competition, but it looked impressive and she had fun doing it.
Dmitri whispered, so as not to interrupt the girls, "She is something, is she not? More personality in one tumbling pass than you see in some girls' entire routines."
This was something that Sasha could have in common with his dad. They could both talk about Payson without any chance of getting angry. "She walks into a room with more personality than some girls ever have. It's different now, too. She's happier."
"That is clear to see. Motherhood has done her good. And so have you."
On the floor, Payson launched into the dance pass she'd been working on for the past couple of weeks—a chaine turn, a split leap with a full turn, a split ring leap with a full turn, and finally a double turning cat leap. It could have been straight off the stage of the Royal Ballet.
"Doamne," said Dmitri, "She looks just like Katherine."
She did, and Sasha couldn't figure out how he'd missed that for all this time. There was the obvious similarity in coloring, just as Payson and Sasha had the same blonde hair and green eyes, but otherwise there was no great resemblance. Payson was on a larger scale than his mom was, and she didn't have Katherine's fairy-like features. But when she danced… despite the differences in appearance, Sasha could almost imagine that his mother was alive and dancing again.
Viola always said that there was something special about Katherine that made her a principal dancer while Viola and Charlotte were just soloists, and whatever it was, Payson had it. It was the same unidentifiable quality that captivated audiences whenever Margot Fonteyn danced. Just like Margot, when Payson danced, you couldn't take your eyes off of her.
What Sasha heard in his dad's voice was more than just admiration for Payson, though. It was adoration and longing for Katherine, which was something that Sasha remembered only from his childhood. He lived in England with his mom during the performance season and traveled with her while she was on tour, but whenever they came home to Romania, Dmitri greeted her with that same adoration. For a few weeks his parents would be the perfect couple, but then a gymnastics competition would come up or she would have to go back to England and they would be separated again. As a teenager, Sasha stopped seeing those reunions, but it only now occurred to him that they probably still took place. He was at training camps more often than not during those years, but his mom still came to Romania on her down time.
"She asked me not to come," Dmitri said. For a minute Sasha thought his dad was talking about Payson and the wedding, but he clarified. "Your mother, she asked me not to come. She didn't want me to see her wasted away. My favorite ballet for her to dance was The Dying Swan, and she had danced it for me just weeks before we found out. She wanted that to be the death I remembered."
Sasha never knew that, and he wasn't sure he was ready to hear it yet. He swallowed down his emotion and said, "You should have come anyway."
"Would you deny Payson her final wish?"
"You should have come for me." There was so much good to be taken from the admission—that Dmitri had cared, that he had not abandoned his wife at the end of her life, that his parents weren't estranged as Sasha had believed for so long—but Sasha's judgment was clouded by one truth that he couldn't look past. His dad lied to him. His mother was dying and his dad lied about why he wasn't there.
Dmitri didn't make the excuses that Sasha expected. "You are right. I was foolish not to realize that you needed me and selfish not to tell you the truth. I didn't want to face it myself."
Sasha didn't know how to handle this new information, so he cleared his throat, which was feeling suspiciously tight, and moved on like they had never mentioned his mom in the first place. "Come on, you should see Alex. After all, he will be your step-grandson tomorrow.
Payson noticed them as soon as they stepped closer to Austin and Alex. Sasha suspected that she had baby-radar and could tell when someone was near her son even if she wasn't in the same room. Then again, Payson said that she has Sasha-radar and always knew when he was nearby, so it was possible that she was aware they were in the gym and didn't pay them any mind until they moved to Alex.
Payson gave a simple introduction of "This is your bunic, Alex," and then let Dmitri hold the baby while she had a silent conversation with Sasha by which he conveyed the gist of what just happened with his dad. They would actually talk about it later, but for now she slid her arms around his waist and rested her head against his heart, using her body to tell him that everything was okay and her eyes to say how much she loved him.
Mark slipped into the room where Payson was supposed to be getting poked and prodded by Lauren, but he should have known better than to expect Payson to act like a typical bride. While Lauren did Becca's hair, Payson was sitting on the floor trying to coax Alex to crawl. Even as Mark watched, Alex lunged forward for his favorite elephant. He didn't make it, but Payson reacted like he had.
"You know, when you were doing that you looked just like you do when you're about to mount the bars," Mark said. "You were a baby on a mission."
Payson smiled up at him. "Apparently so is he. He's moved nearly a foot since we started this. He's bound and determined to reach Ellie."
"Yeah, and tell him when you started," Becca called over her shoulder.
"Half an hour ago," Payson said. "Becca thinks I've been doing this for way too long, but I think he's done pretty well for not quite six months, don't you?"
"Definitely," he agreed. "He's a prodigy, just like you."
"I wouldn't go quite that far," Payson said. She picked up Alex and the elephant and clambered off the floor. Mark would swear that Alex looked disappointed not to finish the game himself.
There was a photographer taking pictures, someone who owed Sasha a favor or two, and he had probably never seen a bride like Payson. She was barefoot, wearing leggings and a man's button up shirt, and holding a baby. Still, she had the glow of a woman in love. She looked beautiful.
He moved forward to give her a hug while he said, "Just because you don't believe you're a prodigy doesn't mean that you aren't. I knew you were from the first time you did a back handspring when you were three years old. It seems like yesterday, and now you're grown up and getting married."
"I'm still you're little girl, daddy. I know I've grown up, but I'm never going to outgrow you."
"I know sweetie, but I've been thinking really hard about this and… I don't think I should walk you down the aisle today," he said.
"What?" Payson cried.
She looked hurt, and that's not what he wanted to happen. He just didn't know how to say it any better. It took him a few days to become accustomed to the idea that Payson and Sasha were going to get married, much less so soon, but as soon as he got used to the idea something started to weigh on his conscious. He tried to ignore it, but the thought ate at him until he had no choice but to accept it. "Once when you were a little girl you had a pretend wedding with the boy next door, do you remember that? You made me walk you down the aisle and give you away, and I remember thinking how hard it was going to be to do that for real. But Payson—" his voice broke and he swallowed hard "—I don't think you're mine to give away anymore. This is really hard for me, but we both know that I am not the one giving you to Sasha today."
"Austin is," she whispered, finishing his thought. The fact that she understood only reaffirmed what he knew. As much as Mark wanted to walk his daughter down the aisle, it wasn't his job anymore. It was Austin's.
Payson hugged him tight again and said, "I love you daddy." Alex grabbed onto Mark's shirt like he wanted to join the hug, too, and Mark knew that Payson was right—she would always be his little girl, just like Alex would always be her little boy. He would always look at her and see that five year old little girl wearing a white tutu and a big lace doily for a veil.
Lauren knew exactly what she thought Payson's wedding dress would look like: lacy and a little bit slinky. A mixture of old fashioned and sexy. Payson didn't really do frou-frou. She usually went for her own version of subtle sexuality, even when she was pregnant. Big skirts and tulle and satin flowers just weren't her style. Or so Lauren thought.
When they took the dress out of the bag Lauren wondered what the hell they did with her Payson and who the stranger standing next to her was, but once the dress was on, Lauren could see it. It was Payson, as simple as that. Any other dress would have looked ridiculous on her in comparison.
It was hard not to cry when she saw her best friend in her wedding dress for the first time. It was even harder when she watched Kim and Payson have a quiet moment together before they went downstairs. It was impossible when Payson walked down the aisle on Austin's arm. Thankfully she wore waterproof make up.
They stopped in front of the make-shift alter, an elaborate fountain in the Belovs' garden, and had a short whispered conversation before he handed her over to Sasha. Lauren was close enough to hear them say 'I love you' before they kissed and Austin left Payson alone on the alter with her groom. It was so bizarre to see Sasha and Payson standing together in a suit and wedding dress, but it somehow seemed right. Not in a 'they're so perfect for each other' kind of way (even though they were) but like this was meant to happen from the beginning. They all thought that everything that happened in the year leading up to London was about their Olympic journey, but maybe they were wrong. Maybe the Olympics were just a step along the way on this journey, leading to this moment.
When the minister started talking Jake leaned over and whispered, "That'll be us one day, Barbie."
She was already crying and that just made her cry harder, so she laid her head on his shoulder and let him hold her. For most of her life Lauren thought of marriage as a trap, and the key was either to avoid it altogether or make sure you were the one doing the trapping. Now the thought of marrying Jake made her feel all tingly and shiny, even if he did call her Barbie and annoy the hell out of her more often than not.
Her dad's voice drifted from behind her in a whisper only loud enough to carry a few feet. He was sitting in the chair behind Lauren, and his words to Chloe were almost identical to the ones Jake just said. "That will be us up there soon."
He proposed the first night they had as a family when Emily and Lauren got home from college. Brian was the only one who knew—he helped Steve pick out the ring—so the girls were just as surprised and excited as Chloe. That had been a night to remember at the Tanner-Kmetko home, and those were the kind of memories that were slowly replacing the ones Lauren wanted to forget, like the way that she tricked them into breaking up when they were first together. She loved Chloe so much for forgiving her for that, like she loved Payson for forgiving her for the kissing picture. She was ashamed of her actions now, and glad to be moving on and growing up.
Payson and Sasha were being cute up on the alter. They weren't acting at all like a bride and groom were supposed to act during a wedding. Instead of solemnly staring at each other over held hands and three feet of empty space, his hands were on her hips and hers were resting on his arms, and they were laughing together with only inches between them. More than once the minister stopped and waited for them to act more appropriate, but they never did. They were too in love to worry about being appropriate.
When they started the vows the laughing stopped, but they didn't move farther apart. Payson cried when Sasha promised to love and cherish her, and both laughed and cried when she vowed to love and cherish him in return. Not a laugh of amusement, but one of complete and utter happiness.
When the minister pronounced them man and wife and said, "Sasha, you may kiss your bride," the two held onto each other for so long that Lauren felt herself blush. She'd seen them kiss before, but this was so much more intimate because it was their first kiss as a married couple.
They didn't break apart until they heard a pointed throat clear from the minister. He indicated for them to turn around and face their family and friends and called out, "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you for the first time, Sasha and Payson Belov."
Austin stood to the side and waited while the photographer took a picture of Payson, Lauren, Ivanka, and Elisabeta. It matched the ones taken at the Closing Ceremony in London and Payson's Pierre de Coubertine ceremony in Switzerland. They were forming a collection of pictures like that which would eventually chronicle their lives together. He could imagine a picture of them as four old ladies at Payson's seventieth birthday or something.
Once the photographer walked away, Austin interrupted their reunion by asking, "Can I steal the bride for a dance?"
"Of course you can," Payson said, wearing the smile that she only used for him. Marriage wouldn't change a thing. She was still his Payson.
He led her to the dance floor and twirled her into his arms. He dipped her, which made her laugh, and then pulled her back up to say, "Congratulations, Mrs. Belov."
"I like the sound of that," she said, grinning. "Payson Belov. But is it bad that there's still a part of me that wishes it was Payson Tucker?"
"Well that depends. What does Sasha think about it?"
"He says that it's normal and that it's okay to regret what you and I couldn't have." He thought Payson would have told Sasha what she was feeling, but he was glad to know for sure. He didn't want to come between them, and as long as Payson was open with Sasha that would never happen.
"He's a smart man," Austin said. "There's a part of me that wishes it was Payson Tucker, too. A big part of me, but as cheesy as this sounds, we weren't meant to be. I'd rather you be happy with Sasha forever than happy with me for just a little while."
"I'll be happy with you forever, too," she said. She laid her head on his shoulder and looked up at him through her lashes. "In case you haven't figured this out yet, I'm never letting you move out of the house. You're stuck with us forever."
He'd wondered about that. He moved in because of Alex, but it had been six months and they still hadn't discussed how long he might stay there. The longer he was there the more permanent it felt, and he hated the idea of moving away from his son, even if it was only a few miles away. He had definitely considered staying, but he didn't want to force himself into Payson and Sasha's home. If Payson was talking about it now then she had already discussed it with Sasha and they had agreed that they both wanted him there.
"There is nobody in the world I'd rather be stuck with. Besides, Nicky and Ava have taken over my house. I'm not sure if I even have a bedroom anymore. Nicky might have turned it into a weight room."
"More likely Ava has turned it into a closet," Payson teased. "I think she has more jeans than I have shoes."
"We might need to have a shopping intervention with both of you. Especially with A, since she's shopping with my money." Ava was studying geological sciences at CU Boulder, where she put all those jeans to good use by wading into lakes and digging in the mud, but Austin was supporting her financially. He was actually very proud because she found something that she loved, but he almost never let her onto that fact. He'd rather grumble that she was blowing through his money and that she better go to work for an oil company and pay him back for every cent, etc, etc, etc. She didn't take him too seriously, as evidenced by the three thousand dollars she just spent for a new core drill, even though the university loaned out drills to the geology students for free.
Payson ignored his less-than-serious complaint and said, "Our family is pretty fantastic, isn't it? It's weird as all get out, but still fantastic. All that's missing is someone for you."
"I don't need anyone. I have you." He couldn't imagine ever loving anyone other than Payson, and even if he could learn to accept a relationship without love, it wasn't fair to ask that of anyone else. Women deserved to be loved, and he couldn't offer that.
Payson raised a doubtful eyebrow. "So you're going to be celibate for the rest of your life?"
He'd thought about that problem and still didn't have a solution, and there was only one way to get out of the question with dignity. He turned the tables with a subject change radical enough to distract her. "Are you going to do competitive gymnastics again?"
The trick worked. "What, are you conspiring with Sasha now? Why won't anybody believe me when I say I'm retired?"
The 'conspiring with Sasha' part was pretty close to the truth. They'd talked about it several times because they both saw the competitive fire still burning in her eyes. Sasha thought that having Austin's permission, so to say, might go a long way toward breaking through her doubts. "I believe that you believe you're retired. I just worried that you're doing this because you're scared or because you feel like you're supposed to. I see the way you are out on the floor, Pay. You're not training like a girl who's doing gymnastics for fun. You're training like a woman who wants to be the best. Like someone who wants to win Olympic gold."
"Can we please not talk about this anymore?" she begged. He dropped the subject, but he could tell that he planted a seed. For the first time since the Olympics ended, Payson was letting herself think about the possibility of competing again.
June 19th, 2011
"A switch ring leap with a half turn would be a D level skill and it would be named after you. You could upgrade it to a full turn in a few months for an even bigger increase in score. There is no downside to this move, Payson."
"There's a huge downside to it! My ring position sucks. A well executed acro skill would be better for my score than a poorly executed dance skill. We should upgrade the forward double to a two and a half instead. It would give me the same tenth point increase."
This woman—girl, he corrected himself—drove him mad. He'd never coached a gymnast who fought him like she did. A lot of them would complain or whine, and Emily still occasionally disagreed with him, but they always obeyed him in the end. Payson, though… god help him if she didn't win most of the time. "I've already said no to the two and a half. I'll consider it after you've increased you dance skills. No matter how hard your tumbles are, it can't make up for having B's and C's for your required dance elements."
"If I wanted to dance I would have been a dancer, but I'm not. I'm a gymnast, so I'm not going to prance around the floor like the sugarplum fairy." She stamped her foot as an exclamation point and that broke him. He fought hard not to smile, because if she noticed that he was amused he would have to explain it, and Payson would not take kindly to being laughed at. Also, it would be very bad for his authority as a coach if she were to realize that all she had to do to win a battle was act petulant.
"Fine," he said, pouring as much displeasure into his voice as he could manage. "We'll nix the ring leap and change it to a full turning switch leap instead, and you're upgrading that Johnson to a three-quarter. Once you've mastered those skills we'll start talking about the forward two and a half, but if I hear one word about it before then, you'll be cleaning every inch of this gym."
"Yes, sir," she mumbled, and then she walked to the edge of the mat to work on her new skills. How was it possible for someone to fight tooth and nail like that and then be demure and respectful two seconds later? She had so many layers that he couldn't count them all, and he still found new side of her every day. He'd never been so intrigued by a woman in his life.
It wasn't until he turned around that he realized the other gymnasts had been watching them. This wasn't the first time that they'd had an audience while working together and it certainly wouldn't be the last. A gymnast arguing with her coach was unexpected, some might say shocking, and when added to the fact that they were, at times, quite loud, it was natural that they would draw attention. Luckily most of the others in the gym were in such awe of Payson that they didn't attempt to follow her example in arguing with him.
He yelled, "Get back to work," and headed to his office where he could smile without damaging his reputation a hard-ass. Kim and Summer were in there discussing wedding details, though, so he reigned in his amusement and pointed to Kim. "If I have an aneurysm before Nationals, it will be your daughter's fault."
"Oh? What did she do now?" Kim had the same twinkle in her eye that Payson sometimes had, but the difference was that Kim shared that emotion with everybody, whereas there was a very small pool of people who were privileged to see Payson's mischievous side. As far as he could tell she only shared that look with her family and, very occasionally, Sasha.
"She staunchly refuses to do the ring leap I tried to put in her floor and is still pushing to add a move that I already shot down. I don't know how Marty managed her for so many years without going mad."
Kim frowned as she thought about it. "She didn't really do this with Marty. She always followed his directions to a T."
"So you're saying she doesn't respect me as a coach?" he asked. He didn't believe what he was asking or that Kim intended it that way, but it was fun to make her squirm.
She didn't squirm. She took him exactly as serious as he was—that is to say, not at all. "No, you have just had the misfortune to inherit a more grown up Payson who has opinions of her own. She also doesn't take well to being pushed outside of her comfort zone, which you seem to have made it your goal to do."
"I have been trying," he admitted, "but so far it's been a bit of a tug-of-war, except instead of pulling a teenage girl, I'm pulling an elephant."
"Don't worry, I'm sure she'll come around," said Summer, which made Kim laugh.
Kim explained, "Payson hardly ever 'comes around' to something. There are times that she can be forced into something, but usually she either gets her way or has to be subverted, which Sasha seems to be good at. If she thinks she's won then she'll make small changes; if not, she'll refuse to make any changes at all."
"I think you're giving me too much credit," he said. "It's not so much that I let her think she's winning as it is that she's actually winning and I'm desperately trying to hold onto any semblance of authority. But speaking of authority… I'm sorry, Summer, but you're not supposed to be up here."
Kim sent him a disapproving look so he scrambled to explain. "We have confidential information up here—health records, addresses, credit card numbers. Nobody is supposed to be in the office without a legitimate reason."
"Wedding planning is a reason, Sasha, which you would know if you were a woman. You should get used to this now, because whenever you decide to get married you'll have to put up with it for a lot longer than us sitting up here for a few hours."
Sasha ignored Kim's teasing and was doubtful of its truth. He rather thought that he would marry someone like Payson, if she were older, and he could not imagine Payson talking about place settings and planning something as cheesy as 'Steve and Summer's Sweetshop.' She'd be more the type to throw a wedding together in a month that was classier and more beautiful than anything she could plan in a year.
He listened to them prattle for half an hour while he worked, during which time he became absolutely certain that Payson's wedding would be completely different than Summer's, until he finally escaped back to the floor to see Payson's progress on her new leaps.
She was working on the three-quarter Johnson, and it was not going well. She was too stiff and her legs weren't in the proper position. "You're not turned out enough," he called to her as he neared the floor.
She glared at him. "Really, more dance? Shawn Johnson was not a dancer."
"No, but she borrowed this skill from one. Go to any jazz class of Broadway and they'll be doing this leap. Nearly all of the dance skills in the code of points have been around for decades, sometimes centuries, before they made it onto the gymnastics floor." He circled around behind her and laid his hands on her waist. "Now do a piked straddle jump."
His hands moved with her as she bent slightly and then sprang into the air, helping to lift her so that she could do the skill slower and more precisely. When she landed he tapped on her right thigh and said, "Lift your leg."
She raised her leg to the side, and her form was horrible. It astounded him that that she could do a perfect backward triple twist, but when she tried to do a straddle her toes weren't pointed, she wasn't turned out, and she could barely lift her leg above horizontal. He held one hand at her waist and moved the other down her leg toward her ankle.
"Point your toes." He waited until she had done so before he said, "See, it looks better already." He trailed his hand back across her calf and to her knee. "Straight, not bent. You're losing the line here." He slid his hand to the inside of her thigh and applied the slightest amount of torque with his wrist. "Now roll your hip back. Your knee should be facing the top of the wall behind you, but it's not from twisting your leg. It all comes from the hip."
He could feel the change in her whole body as she settled into the much more natural turned out position. Her balance settled back to center, her quads relaxed and her hamstring released into a gentler stretch, and there was greater flexibility in her hip. He moved his hand a little lower inside her thigh and lifted up so that her leg rose to a greater angle. Payson gasped.
"I didn't hurt you did I?" he asked, concerned that he pushed her too far when he pulled her up at the hip.
She was biting her lip and had her eyes closed, but she shook her head and said, "No, you didn't hurt me. That was just… surprising."
"Sorry. I probably should have warned you that I was going to do that."
He slipped his hand back from her thigh to her waist, leaving her to support her own leg, and blushed when he realized where exactly his hands had been. He'd been thinking about form and technique and not realized that he was touching places that probably shouldn't be touched. He briefly wondered if that was the reason for Payson's gasp, but he dismissed the idea quickly. She would have been just as focused on perfecting the skill as he had been.
He shook his head and moved away from those thoughts. "Lower your leg now, nice and slow, but don't lose the turn out… Good. Now stand in first position; feet together, shoulders over your hips, turned out, knees pointed the same direction as your toes. You know, there are professional dancers who would kill to have your natural turnout. Now, lift your left leg."
She did as he said, and he worked to perfect her form just as he had on her right leg. While he was adjusting her rotation she asked, "So how do you know all this stuff anyway, about turnout and first position and dance studios on Broadway?"
"My mum was the principal dancer for the Royal Ballet."
"I don't know what that means, Sasha."
He chuckled into her ear. "It means that she was the star. I spent half my childhood backstage while she danced, so I learned a thing or two about ballet."
"Well, no offense to your mom, but I still have no desire to dance. I'll give you that it's helping with this skill, but I'm never going to be good at this stuff."
"You will be when I'm done with you. And I'm not letting you get out of that ring leap. We're working on your ring position later today. Now jump." He lifted her waist again as she did another piked straddle, exponentially better than the first was. "See what a difference that made? Now do the Johnson and remember to keep your turnout."
They worked until it was perfect, and then he reluctantly left to work with the other girls. This was a problem, and he would have to be more careful about it. Kaylie and Lauren, and now Emily, were certainly a draw when Steve Tanner begged him to come coach at the Rock, but he didn't tell anyone that Payson was the reason he agreed to come. He'd wanted to work with her for years, and Steve gave him an unexpected opportunity, but it was unfair for him to spend all of his time with her. He would have to limit how much they worked together. Unfortunately it wasn't really appropriate for them to spend time together outside of work. If she were older he would get her outside of the gym and show her how to put life into her gymnastics.
He didn't let himself work with her directly again that day, but he didn't bother to stop what was quickly becoming a game between them, where he sent disapproving looks at her every time she did something less than graceful and she glared back at him. It was a strange version of a staring contest which, unlike most of their arguments, Sasha was winning. He had a world class poker face, but Payson had already cracked up twice.
It wasn't until the end of the day, after everybody else left, that he allowed himself to go back to her. She was working on her Amanar, something that she did with an enormous amount of grace, but she couldn't carry that grace over to her leaps. "I told you we were not done discussing that ring leap, Payson. It's time to face the music."
"You're fighting a losing battle here, Sasha. I'm never going to be good at that move."
"I told you, you will be when I'm done with you. Now get over here." He got her into a split and then bent her back leg up at the knee. "Payson, I have never seen you do an acrobatic skill without your toes pointed, so why is it that every time you do a dance move your foot is suddenly flexed?"
She grinned at him over her shoulder. "Maybe it's a mental block. Maybe I just hate all this dance stuff so much that it makes me suck."
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't stop his smile. "I feel like there's an inappropriate joke to made there."
Her mouth dropped and her cheeks turned red, unable to decide between embarrassment and amusement, and it occurred to Sasha that he should not have said that. It was a little too easy to forget the boundaries with Payson.
She finally decided on amusement and let a small giggle slip out of her mouth. That was new to him. He'd heard her laugh before, but never giggle. "I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to say things like that in front of me."
"You're right. I'm sorry. Although technically I'm behind you right now." He should have let it drop rather than making another joke, but the words slipped out. Payson giggled again.
"You two sound like you're having fun," came Kim's voice from the office. "I almost hate to break it up."
Payson ignored the way that Sasha was adjusting every aspect of her leg placement and whined, "Do we have to leave? We just got started."
Kim waffled. "I don't want to pull you away when Sasha has finally got you to work on some dance skills, but I have to get home. Becca's already home from school and I don't want to leave her there alone any longer than I have to."
"I could give you a ride home, Kim," Summer offered. "I don't mind at all, and Payson could drive your car home when she's done."
"Oh, thank you, Summer, that would be so great. Pay, I'll just leave the keys in the office for you."
When the women left, Payson and Sasha had moved on to using the wedge mats to work in oversplit, where Payson's form was already improving. If he could ever get her to agree, they could put such an artistic element in her routines.
Payson followed them with her eyes as they left. "What was Summer doing here anyway? Is she here solely to piss off Lauren?"
"In a way, I suppose. Your mum is helping her plan her wedding."
Payson made a rather outrageous sound of distaste. "I hope I can get out of going to that wedding; it's going to be horrible. I don't have anything against weddings, but does it really have to be such an ordeal?"
Sasha was pleased to find that Payson's thoughts on weddings were exactly as he imagined them to be. She was exactly the kind of woman that he wanted to marry, and he hoped that he would be able to find an older version of Payson one day, although he wasn't sure that any woman would ever live up to the one he was working with now.
Sasha drifted awake with the memory still in his mind. If he'd know then how things would turn out… he probably would have ran away terrified. If he'd known then that he was in love with Payson, he never would have allowed himself to stay.
He reached out and pulled her closer to him, and she rolled into her favorite place on top of his chest. Even if he had imagined back then what being with Payson would be like—or any of the times after that when he did imagine—it could never touch the reality. Everything about his life with Payson was better than he expected. Or nearly everything. The wedding was exactly as he thought Payson's wedding would be, except that it took her even less time to plan it than he thought back then. That day in the gym he thought that Payson would throw together a spectacular wedding in the span of a month, but it turned out that she only needed a week. Everything that day had been perfect.
Rather than falling back asleep, he stayed awake to watch Payson. She didn't wake up when she moved closer to him, but he wasn't surprised; he'd exhausted her enough that she wouldn't wake 'til the next day. Sex between them had always been amazing, but the fact that it was their wedding night, that they had just vowed to spend their lives together, intensified everything. It was difficult to imagine that their love making could get any better, but he'd believed that a hundred times before and it always did.
He was happier than he ever thought possible. He was married to the most amazing woman he'd ever met, and he would get to wake up next to her every day for the rest of his life. He could see them now, raising Alex together with Austin, one day having children of their own, coaching Olympic Champions, spending their lives together. For years he looked ahead and saw lonliness and bitterness, but now… when he looked ahead in his life, all he could see was happiness.
Sometimes Payson still couldn't believe how much her life had changed, or how much she loved those changes. When she saw that positive pregnancy test, she thought her life was over. Her shot at the Olympics was gone, her life was no longer hers alone, and she would be forced to spend the rest of her life dealing with the man who got her pregnant, who she couldn't even bear to look at. She blamed Austin for what happened in St. Louis for a long time. She may have started it, but what he did… no woman's first time should ever be like that.
She could almost forget that night now. The memory would never go away completely, but it was like a scar that faded with time. There were so many good memories to replace the bad ones, and she loved Austin so much. Love can cover a multitude of sins, as the phrase went. They both had plenty of sins to cover, but a love strong enough to do it.
Sasha… if there was anything in the world that surprised her as much as getting pregnant did, it was Sasha. She had fantasized about him, but she never thought anything would actually happen. She certainly didn't think she would end up his wife. How long had she loved him? She still wasn't sure, but she remembered hugging him at the Nationals send off party in 2011 and feeling something that she didn't understand. Now she knew it was love, but sixteen was too young to understand that. She wouldn't understand it now, either, if it hadn't been for Austin. Being with him taught her how to love like a woman rather than a girl, and it put Payson and Sasha on the equal footing needed to love each other.
No life was perfect, but Payson thought that hers must be pretty close. She has Sasha, she had Austin, and she had Alex. Alex—her tiny, amazing little angel. Having a baby wasn't part of the plan for years to come, but he barged into her life and took her as a willing captive. He was the reason that she fought so hard when she was sick.
Getting sick, that was another unexpected turn of events. She still couldn't wrap her head around the fact that she had this condition her entire life and never knew about it. They said that the pregnancy didn't necessarily cause the problem to flare up, but she didn't see how it could be otherwise. The timing was too close to be a coincidence. She didn't care, though. She would live through the illness a million times if it meant having Alex, and it sure as hell wasn't going to stop her from having more children. She loved being a mother, and she wanted a chance to experience that with Sasha. She would wait until she was older, of course, but she didn't want to wait too long. Maybe after the 2016 Olympics, when Jess had a gold medal around her neck and life at the Rock settled down for another couple of years.
She knew that Sasha and Austin wanted her to compete at those Olympics, and she would be lying if she said she didn't want it, too. Every time she got on the equipment she fell in love with gymnastics more, and it was a purer love than before because there was no obsession. Now it was a choice; before it had been a need. Choosing to do gymnastics was a lot different than choosing to go to the Olympics, though, and as much as she wanted to make that choice, there were just too many reasons that it wouldn't work. She could enjoy doing gymnastics alone in the gym instead of in front of a crowd, just like she was doing now.
It was ridiculous for her to be in the gym during her honeymoon. It wasn't planned. Alex woke up early because his little body still had no idea what time it was in Romania, and Payson got up to nurse him. When he was through she decided that she didn't want to go back to bed, so she brought Alex and his bouncer seat with her to the in-house gym. Sasha didn't even know she was here, but he would find her soon.
Her movements on the beam were causing loud reverberations, but Alex wasn't bothered by the sound. He seemed to find it comforting, which either meant that he spent way too much time at the Rock or that he took after Payson. Beam reverb was one of her favorite sounds, and it made her feel like she was home.
She was working a front double twist off the beam, and she tried to ignore the reason she chose that skill. A dismount of D-level or above was required for competitive beam routines, and the double twist happened to be the only D-level front skill—but that didn't matter, because she wasn't going to compete again.
Front skills were signature for her. They reinforced the image of a swan because they looked like she was diving forward. She wasn't sure if she would ever be able to do her double front stretched again, but she wondered about a front two and a half twist. Nobody had ever done it before, so it would be named after her if she managed it—but it wouldn't be named after her, because she wasn't going to compete again.
She was landing the skill by the time that Sasha found her. It was very sloppy, mind you, but she was at least standing it up. Sasha picked up Alex as he said, "I'm glad you're keeping a front salto, and that round off, half twisting flic flac prep is very creative. It looks great and gives you a two tenth connection bonus. I never would have come up with that."
She thought about that connection bonus when she put together the combination, but still she insisted, "The points don't matter, Sasha. I'm not competing."
"So you keep telling me. You're not getting enough height on the salto. Go back and do it again." Sasha slipped into coaching mode as easily as he slipped into her… both of which he did frequently.
It was like a step backward in time, with him coaching her through some new move until it was errorless and her following his every command. The only difference was that he was wearing a wedding band and holding a baby while he barked orders at her. Her own rings were tucked safely away in her shoes, where it was virtually impossible to lose them.
The move was solid by the time she landed it for the last time, and she felt the familiar thrill of a task accomplished. Sasha sat Alex back into his bouncer and came to join Payson beside the beam.
"Payson, do you realize you've done in two hours what it would take most gymnasts days to do?" he asked.
"Four hours," she corrected him. "I was working for two hours before you came." She understood his point, though. Jess was one of the best out there, but she would not have been able to learn a new skill that quickly. Even Lauren couldn't have done it, and beam came naturally to her.
"I promised myself that I wouldn't ask you any more than ten times, and this is the ninth—are you sure you don't want to keep competing?"
Eight times he asked her that question and she had a no held ready at her lips. This time she hesitated. "You can't compete after you have a baby, Sasha. My body is completely different now."
He answered so fast that he must have had it prepared. "Larisa Latynina won six Olympic medals after she had a baby."
"That's different, Sasha. Gymnastics is different. Women competed when they were older back then, and the skills weren't as hard. I was pushing it with my age and body type already."
"And you won five gold medals and a silver despite those obstacles," he argued. "You changed the sport to fit your body, and you can do it again. You had a baby six months ago and already you're performing at the level of most of the girls at Nationals, so imagine what you'll be capable of in a year."
He had a point, but there were other things to consider. "I have responsibilities, Sasha. I can't train all day like I used to. I have girls to coach and a baby to raise, and that doesn't leave me time to train competitively."
"You can train with your girls while you continue to coach them. You've already been doing it with Jess, and you can see how much it has helped her to learn from you that way."
He had an answer to everything. Maybe he and Austin really did plot together. "What about Alex? Competitive gymnastics is a rough life. It's not fair to put him through that."
"Payson, loads of professional athletes are mums as well. I travelled all over the world with my mum and most of my early memories are backstage at the Royal Opera House. I loved that life. I loved watching my mum do something that made her so happy, and Alex would love watching you do this."
Finally Payson admitted the doubt that she was ashamed of. "I'll never be as good as I was."
Sasha's reaction was unexpected: he laughed. "You really have no idea how talented you are, do you? You're a prodigy, love. You changed the entire sport to fit your abilities. If you can't do some of your old moves then we'll change it again."
His faith in her gave her confidence, but she still wasn't ready to make the commitment. Sasha could tell, as he always could, what she was thinking and feeling, so he gave her an out. "You don't have to make a decision right now, love. Try getting back on the beam. It will clear your head."
She was more than willing to put competition out of her mind for a little while, so she let herself get sucked back into the coach and athlete dynamic that worked so well for her and Sasha. He wanted to see her mount with a cartwheel through a neckstand down to a v-sit, which was something she had never tried before. They worked on it until she had a good grasp on the move and then started adding to it. A Valdez, which Payson had already; a hop in sur le cou-de-pied with one and a half turns; a jump backward with a full twist to a front walkover, connected to her full twisting flic flac to a handstand and back walkover; a split ring leap into a sissone; a forward walkover; a single turn in arabesque connected with a single turn with her back leg dropped below horizontal; her newly created dismount series. They both kept throwing ideas out until she had a fully formed routine that was more creative than anything she had ever seen. Sasha did a great job choreographing her routines for London, but if this was the kind of material they could come up with together… Sasha might be right. She might be able to recreate herself again.
She landed her dismount after having performed the entire routine for the fifth time, and Sasha walked to her and kissed her soundly. When he let her go he said, "That was brilliant, Payson. You're brilliant, and I never get tired of watching you perform."
She couldn't hold back her smile. "That routine—Sasha, I've never seen anything like it. I can't believe we created that together."
"I can. We're the perfect team, love. I promise this is the last time I'll ask this question, and if you don't have an answer yet then I'll stop asking and let you make a decision in your own time. Do you want to go to Rio?"
She needed that last bit of reassurance. "Do you really think I can do it?"
"You can get there," he promised, "and you can win."
She slid her arms around her husband's shoulders and smiled, finally giving into a desire that took hold of her the first time she stepped back on the floor four months ago. "Then I guess we're going to the Olympics again."
From behind them came a squeal, and Payson turned to see her son waving his arms and smiling. The happy sounds that he was making felt like a sign. Even though he could have no idea what was happening in front of him, Payson was sure of his meaning—Alex was happy that his mommy was going to the Olympics.
A/N: THE END! At least in this story, but the 'verse lives on in my head. I know what happens for years down the line, even in the children's lives, especially Lilah's! So as for a sequel… Will there be one? Probably. Will it be posted? Who knows. Probably not, but we'll see. There will probably be some oneshots from the 'verse, though, like Those Left Behind. I've got one for Lilah partially written already.
Before I can even think about a sequel, though, there are two big things to be done. The first is finishing Mother Knows Best, and the second is the enormous undertaking of turning this story into an original work. I have to change a million things, cut out all the hugely improbable plot lines (like Payson getting sick), and get rid of all those irrelevant details I love so much. It should be a fun ride!
It's been a blast writing this story, so I hope ya'll enjoyed it!
p.s. If anyone wants a hint about the hidden references in this story, here's a huge one: my favorite TV show is Firefly, which is the best show ever made.