A/N: This is both a departure from my usual writing style (though it popped into my brain unprompted and wrote itself so who am I complain) and my first attempt at a new pairing so feedback would be appreciated more than anything, especially constructive criticism.
Of course you're light-headed. It's a new place, alive with possibilities, and the air is heavy with anticipation. Who wouldn't be flustered? It's normal to be torn between the desire for fresh starts and reinvention and clinging to the pieces of home that are still within touching distance. Kaylie, Payson and Austin are little islands of calm, you don't have to worry around them, they're seen the blackness inside and haven't run. You cannot safely say that about all these new faces, what if you are doomed make the same mistakes and alienate yourself. They'll think you're a bitch and seek to avoid you. Could you stand any more rejection at this point or have you had your fill? Maybe it's better to find your friends, that'll steady your nerves. You'll be able to breathe. Everything will be fine.
Your heart's allowed to race when you get accused of being a thief, right? The security guard was so heavy handed that you were powerless to stop the adrenaline from kicking in. You're just overwhelmed by the residual effects and that's all. It's a white lie and the comfort of it is very necessary so you don't regret it. You convince yourself that your instincts are truthful by degrees anyway. You were scared, terrified in fact. Fight or flight response. It's normal. It's biology.
You overplay your retelling of the scenario because your audience, when you stumble across them, expects it. Austin has never liked you, you mutually tolerate each other for Kaylie's sake first and a begrudging admiration for each other's gymnastics second, but to him you'll always be a diva. You never thought that you'd be glad of that tag, but today it works in your favour. You paint a ridiculously OTT picture of what happened (and almost cringe in the process), making the TC resemble the Bronx and crafting the boy who stopped you as an adept con man. Finally you exaggerate the depths of injustice at your heavy handed shake down. Lauren Tanner stealing a cell phone, oh please! He laughs as predicted, and in turn, the sweat begins to dry. You stop shaking by the time Kaylie hands you a mug of tea, which provokes a meagre pride as you start to feel almost yourself. You're surer now, everything can be okay.
You didn't sleep well, you're tired and hungry and you probably worked yourself too hard (the supposed 'merits' of that stupid ranking board making you feel like you have something more to prove.) Your body is betraying you in kind for your recent neglect. It's ridiculous, you're the Queen of the Beam but you still haven't settled here and the resurfacing insecurities are a burden you could do without. Coach McIntire doesn't help. Doesn't he know that you need applause to live? A single word of praise makes you come alive. As a direct consequence, although you aren't a homesick type of girl, you miss The Rock, and Sasha, even your father's nagging since he at least never failed to tell you how talented you were. These coiled thoughts are what make you trip, sending you sprawling out of the lunch line, nothing more. It's just a concentration lapse aided by your unreliable blood sugar levels like the nutritionist said. So what if they've been happening more and more? You have your reasons. You just need to get your focus back, stay in control. It's simple. Everything is fixable.
Waking up in Austin's arms isn't part of the plan. Neither is blacking out something you can easily talk your way out of, although you try as soon as your eyes are open. The sentences come out jumbled and your throat is so dry that it sounds like a distressed croak. Instantly, you're aware that you're probably done yourself more harm than good. Nobody is buying the excuses, least of all the boy staring down at you. His pupils radiate concern and an awareness of sifting through the gibberish and outlandish lies. He knows. You try and twist away, but you can't because his arms have you wrapped up tight. Suddenly, realisation floods every limb; the intimacy of the embrace cannot escape anyone's notice any more than you can stop yourself lingering over the sight of his lips. It is instinctual, you tell yourself as these unwanted desires assail you from nowhere. The gym tramp strikes again! It isn't the first time you've considered what it would be like to kiss him, boredom encouraged you to rate every guy at the gym, yet it's definitely the most intense. Your imagination decides to be breathtakingly vivid, causing all the blood to rush to your face. It won't help your desire to appear composed, you're aware of that much from within the hazy depths where you're a slave to your erratic heartbeat. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to clear your throat awkwardly in a signal that you need to be released. If he heard though, your captor ignoring you, still holding on, and clearly not trusting you to bear your own weight.
That's when every sense fully betrays you. The smell of sweat and chalk should evoke images of Carter, you still dream of him sometimes after all, but doesn't. Austin is different. He's wired differently, firmer, solid. You can't explain. Safe. On the curve of his bicep your attention switches to his tattoo. Suddenly you are desperate to know what the ink means; you need him to share so that you can too. Sharing secrets keeps us close. You said that to the other girls once although you're not sure you believe it these days. Some things are impossible to say aloud even if you wish you could, so that someone else could share the weight and stop you being consumed.
"Are you okay?" It's an innocent enough question, but your brain makes it multi-layered. You want so much to tell him, but it isn't possible, even if you could cast aside where you both currently were and forget everybody watching. It's not your place to speak or his to listen. Austin's shoulders are Kaylie's. Your problems are your own.
"Sure, I'm fine." The lie must be seamless because he finally lets go. Not that it matters now, because you aren't sure you want him to, finding that you pine for the warm of his skin immediately. To hide the devastation, you act fast and sweep errant blonde strands off your forehead, quickly brushing invisible creases from your clothes. You can't help registering that your hands feel ice cold.
There are times over the coming days when you wonder if you'll ever feel warm again, and as they turn into weeks nothing changes. The frozen sensation occurs whenever you turn off the lights and fall asleep remembering the faint imprint of him on your skin. You have to shut the thoughts and feelings out because this cannot be happening, not again. Kaylie is your best friend and this isn't like with Carter, you didn't see Austin first and you don't have dibs. You aren't 13 anymore and the crush is getting beyond a joke, intensifying rather than waning. Luckily, denial is your speciality it comes easily, like all the other lies you've swallowed over the years, until you almost believe the deception too. Every spare inch of you that doesn't breathe gymnastics is preoccupied by dodging Austin, both in the flesh and inside your mind. He visits you in dreams and suddenly sleep deprivation is a reality rather than an excuse. It doesn't help that by avoiding the boy, you miss Kaylie by proxy. It's all so wrong, you pledged that you'd never cut her out a second time and the fact that it's unintentional doesn't alter anything in the long run. You begin to wish that you'd approached the first day differently, made some new friends, but it's too late for a do-over.
"I'm going on a date." You announce as Payson catches your eye, expression unreadable. You're obviously feeling lonely again and you figure that unwanted emotion is curable without much extra conscious effort on your part. Some wrestler gave you his number over a week ago and you haven't acted, but you dial now, thinking of the agony that you'll face if you don't. Even Payson has a romantic prospect on the horizon, and somehow knowing that, despite also being aware that it's only Rigo that hopeless BMX rider, makes you feel more pathetic than ever. It's settled. Ultimately it can't hurt to dip your toe in the dating pool, you think, as distractions have never felt more necessary and you were right when you said there were lots of good looking guys around. That is still true despite everything else that's upside down.
You won't tell anyone that you have to push yourself out the door. It doesn't have to mean what you fear it does, that you've fallen too hard, that you're a lost cause now. Nonetheless, it feels like an alien is occupying your body, you've never been timid, but you hardly dare to make eye contact. Flirting was always effortless, but suddenly it feels like you're cheating by just standing there. It's stupid and yet you can't shake the feeling, the world closes in, suffocating and rendering you absolutely horrified that said alien might burst through your chest. Your ribcage strains against the hammering and the universe turns black. This time nobody is there to catch you.
There is an expression, from song lyrics, (or maybe it's a poem) which says that everything is made to be broken. It certainly seems so once Payson discovers that you sent the video to the NGO since just like that, you've lost the only ally you had left (steering clear of Kaylie has become habit now and isn't difficult when she spends all her free time with Austin, something that you'd rather not dwell on) and more than that, likely the best friend you'll ever have is crying her eyes out in front of you, devastated by a selfish act that you thought long vanished. There had been vindication from Sasha's forgiveness and you were foolish enough to think that was the end of the story. How wrong you were. All the same, this nightmare facing you is another bolt out of the blue; and you aren't ready to deal with the fallout. You could never have predicted, blinkered as you were by a crime that you haven't yet committed, that one of your other skeletons would escape the closet.
You miss the other girl immediately, although she hasn't yet gone, not technically and ponder if you are doomed to a life filled with moments like this. It's too much to bear, considering the Austin shaped hole that already exists at your core, and you pray that someday soon you'll stop being your own worst enemy. You pick up the phone to fill the void. It doesn't help; Summer's voice isn't as comforting as it used to be. Everything has changed. That's why you finally break your vow of silence, temporarily bridging the gap that exists between you and Payson. It isn't about forcing her hand, only that the darkness gives you courage. (There is something freeing about not having to look her in the eye) You hope that one thing remains the same, as undeserving as you are, that she still cares. Fingers crossed and twisted in your blanket, the words burst out.
Above all, Payson is still the girl with suspicions and her questions are more than anyone else has offered you so you cling to that because even Austin hasn't opened his mouth (irrespective of the troubled stares he shoots you which you may or may not have spent hours deciphering). The lamp turns on, flooding the room in a harsh glow, burying your head is off the table now. The other girl mentions the D word and you wince, a large part of you regretting opening up, but independent of that, another small piece is flooded with relief. It's probably nothing; all this stuff with Austin and Kaylie, all that guilt has probably amplified a minor aliment. It's a copout and you know it, especially when you take a moment to consider the frequency of the dizzy spells and the number of times you've passed out, but old habits die hard. Denial is easy and acceptance is hard, that's what it comes down to, the truth is potentially too damaging because if you don't have gymnastics on top of what you've already lost so far, everything really is broken.
Hearing the truth spelled out in black and white means that you can't fool yourself any longer, but that doesn't automatically mean you're willing to tell your best friend. Pity isn't what you need and it won't make anything better. Of course dismissing your heart problem as a potassium deficiency is akin to blaming your attraction to Austin on displaced and unresolved feelings for Carter or jealousy of Kaylie. You wouldn't be stupid enough to do that, not so late in the day, but the stakes are higher than they've ever been and secrets and lies are what it takes to safeguard your dream then so be it. One rule for one.
Unfortunately, the universe has other ideas. Not content with your current misery levels, it decides to destroy your coping mechanisms too. It's bad enough when Payson catches you praying, but to collide with Austin when you're a sobbing mess is actually the icing on the cake. The curse words are out of your mouth before recognition kicks in, you've never seen him in a suit before and your blurry vision is hardly reliable.
He abandons his half spoken words of comfort in the wake of your unsolicited anger. "Whoa, I can't do anything right tonight, can I?" You sniff hard, wiping your eyes on your sleeve as you mumble an apology. "What's going on with you?" He demands.
"Given what you're wearing I could ask you the same question."
"I had dinner with Kaylie's folks, so your turn, what's got you into this state." Maybe because it's him, or perhaps due to how bad you feel for lying to Payson, but you can't be anything other than honest in the moment. The whole sorry mess that your life has become tumbles out in a garbled rush as your red rimmed eyes collide with his.
"It all makes sense now, that day in the cafeteria…" There's no direct question, but you nod as if one had been asked. "I had some abstract fears but I never thought it would be that serious. Wait so is that why you've been avoiding me, because you thought I might guess." You bite your lip and nod again; it's the only untruth that you'll allow because it's for him as much as you.
Unexpectedly though, he wraps his arms around you and there are no more words, you don't trust yourself to make a single sound in fact, it's too risky. Surely though he must feel the warmth he has stirred in you? Your whole body is on fire and you break away. "I'll be fine." You whisper finally to fill the silence.
He smiles. "You're strong." It's the first compliment that he has ever paid you as far as you can recall, and you blush fiercely.
"Thanks." You reply lamely.
"And you know your limits, probably better than any gymnast I've met, so I trust you, I mean, if you say you can do this, I have your back." You're speechless, and it takes a minute for you to manage to parrot back another thank you like a tongue-tied 12 year old. It will be inevitable that you'll agonise over how inept you were later, but for now, you are only grateful. His attitude matches yours (you never expected that the thing you'd finally have in common would be this) and is a joyous reprieve from Payson's over protectiveness. "Oh and by the way, if you ever need somebody to talk to, I'm always here, no judgements." You smile, his words echo that of the nurse when she thought you and Payson were a couple, but the difference is, he actually means them.
Because you share the sentiment too, you ask the dreaded question. "What did Kaylie do now?"
"I told her I loved her and she didn't say it back." What can you say? That sentence has doomed you.
"Maybe she just needs some time." You know that it heals most things, or so you've been told, although your heart, both literally and figuratively is proof that it might not be the most accurate of statements. On the other hand, it does cheer him a little, so you swallow hard and press on. "Kaylie's been hurt before, I should know, a lot of the blame lands squarely on me. It's understandable that her belief in good guys and happy endings is a little shaky, but she'll come around." How could she not, you're perfect. You'll die before you speak that aloud.
"I'm not so sure…"
"Trust me, Kaylie is my best friend, I know how she thinks." It doesn't hurt to remind yourself of the closeness you used to share with the other girl whilst Austin is staring at you with wounded eyes that you long to heal. You beam, grinning with a happiness you don't feel. "You'll see."
He leaves immediately, to find her, or wait for her most likely, but that doesn't register. The only thing that matters is that before he goes, the boy presses his lips to your forehead in appreciation. The touch is burned into your skin. In that moment, everything feels impossibly hopeful.
It must have taken a lot for him to sneak into your room. Your eyes open to the sight of him and you are torn between whether or not you're still dreaming or the possibility that somebody has tampered with the saline in your IV bag. Though, once he greets you, the doubt over the authenticity of this encounter vanishes.
You're surprised that he has arrived unseen; somebody is always around, not Payson or Kaylie of course, but your dad or Summer or failing that Jake, the boy who was subjected to your failed dating attempt. (Against all the odds, he has become a good friend.) Not that you'll ever complain about the lack of vigilance, being alone with him is the greatest wish fulfilment you could ask for at the moment besides a gold medal.
"What are you doing here?" It isn't bitter as much as overwrought.
"I meant what I said; we're friends now, aren't we?" It kills you to agree but you do because the alternative would cut even deeper. You couldn't handle the idea of him dismissing you even if you possessed all your strength, so you can't let it happen today. As usual, he doesn't waste syllables. "So what's the prognosis?" You barely manage to shake your head before dissolving into fresh weeping (the only effect of the saline, so far as you can tell, is that you never run out of tears). His face sets into a grim line. "What can I do, there must be something." He isn't used to feeling hopeless, with Kaylie there was always affirmative action he could take to save her. More than anything you wish his saviour complex was enough to rescue you too.
"Just stay for a while." You respond, trying not to beg.
"Do you want to know something, that day when I caught you; I thought your heart was beating so fast because of me, I actually believed I'd made you swoon, can you believe that?"
His words touch a raw nerve, so close to the truth that you can't help but laugh. "It's about as credible as somebody using the word swoon this century, nice vocabulary grandpa!"
He sniggered back. "Oh damn, I guess the longer I stay, the more cool points I'm destined to lose, your impression of me must be totally blown, huh?"
Since deception and sarcasm are second nature, you say, "Don't worry, you never featured that highly in my estimations anyway." It may have been true once, but not for a long time. Awkwardly, your brain fumbles with suitable topics to force the conversation onto safer ground. It's too exhausting to continue down this road.
"That's a shame." three words, spoken softly, almost under his breath, and your ears have to strain to catch them. It's too much though. Your heart plainly skips a beat, caught by the monitor. His gaze flickers towards the screen. Busted. You don't breathe.
In the blink of an eye you run through all the ways that the rest of this conversation could play out, tormented by what ifs. It's a split second delay on your part, but apparently that's all it takes. The door opens; Kaylie is standing there oblivious, cheerfully clutching a stuffed bear. There is nothing left to say.