Author's Note: Written for summerstorm for Yuletide 2012.
Fearlessness: the quality of being without fear.
Payson knew definitions more from experience than she could have ever done from studying them. She was trained from an early age to take fear out of her vocabulary of emotion, to float as gracefully through the air as a butterfly, yet to jump as sleek as a gazelle. She knew that fear existed; she knew that fear coursed through her blood, was the fire that fueled every handspring. Before her injury, she had laughed in the face of fear, but now, she welcomed the fear, considered it a companion. Used it as a part of what made her great. Embraced it as an innate part of what set her apart from the rest of her friends - from Emily and her awkward grace, from Kaylie's pure charm and energy, from Lauren and her practiced precision.
She had been trained to take the fear and apply it to seeking what she wanted, whether it was to master a new tumbling pass, or to win gold at a meet. After all, for her, nothing ever had a silver lining; all of her clouds were lined with gold instead.
She was a girl on the cusp of being a woman. And she was beginning to learn that there were more things to fear in life than could be worked through with extra training and more time on the bars.
Such as her heart. Her heart wanted what her heart could not - could never - have.
Her heart wanted Sasha. Her coach. Of all people.
And her heart wouldn't take no for an answer.
The first time Payson kissed Sasha - it was on impulse. It was the victory cry of a girl on the verge of having it all.
It was over before she knew it, even though it was all she'd wanted for some time now. She ran away to the locker room, where he dared to not follow the path her footsteps have tread; tears pricked at the backs of her eyes, because she'd screwed everything up - he was her coach, she knew that there should be a line there. You don't ever cross the line. When it came to him, she had stars in her eyes from the first time she saw him; he was a god among mortals. She was a girl who could soar through the air, and yet had her feet planted firmly on the ground at the same time. All that, and she couldn't get him out of her head. Now, more than ever before.
It was just a quick kiss on the lips that they shared, but with the tantalizing promise that maybe, just maybe, there could be something more there, something bubbling just below the surface and threatening to boil over.
It's a fluke. She whispered those three words over and over again to herself, later that night as she laid in her bed. His gold medal was pressed to her chest, the ribbon woven slip-shod between her fingers. It's a fluke - he's never going to want you, not like that, you're his gymnast, he's your coach.
And yet, she pressed the tips of her fingers to her mouth, and felt the beginnings of a smile spread across her face. She did it. She kissed Sasha Belov.
The stars in her eyes shot across her face that night as she dreamt - of Sasha, of making Sasha proud of her with a brilliant new routine - with an innovative twist on a move, to be called the Keeler for future generations of gymnasts, of Sasha kissing her the way she saw people kiss in the movies.
She made the same, silent wish on every star.
The second time she kissed Sasha - it was to comfort him.
He had been looking distracted during the entire practice session; his eyes appeared to be far-off, thinking about something far beyond The Rock. "We could all be doing our routines naked, and Sasha wouldn't even notice," Lauren said, hopping off the beam and grimacing. "What's up with him today? He looks like someone ran over his dog."
"I'll talk to him." Payson brushed a liberal amount of the chalk onto her hands, and she gritted her teeth together. The new bars routine she was working on needed a little fine-tuning on the transitions, and she couldn't concentrate on what Lauren was saying, no matter how much she wanted to. Not right now. "After practice."
"Okay, okay. Sheesh."
After practice, Payson crossed the mats and crossed her arms over her chest, staring Sasha down in the process. Her gaze could be considered intimidating, to some. "What's going on? You're off on some other planet." She was still inwardly happy that he hadn't fled the country in some sort of Payson-induced panic after their first kiss; instead, things had been ever the same, ever as they had been before, with an additional tension that emanated from him.
"It is none of your business, Payson." He scratched idle marks on his paperwork and turned to walk away, his hand flipping up in the air to dismiss her concern. "Go worry about someone else."
"Sasha." She moved in closer to him; she was so close to him that he was all she could see. "If our coach is distracted, then we aren't going to be at our peak performance for competition." She could cloak her words in the purely practical concerns of how it affected her - and Kaylie, and Lauren and Emily, and the other girls. Even if her concerns were more personal than practical. she'd admit. She knew that logic was the way to get through to him, when emotional appeals wouldn't work.
"She left." The she was Summer, of course - the only she that Sasha would be that upset about, she thought with a flash of bitter jealousy - "She doesn't think that she can have a future with someone who has completely different beliefs than she does. She needs to find a monk." The venom he poisoned his words with was nearly visible - the dissociation that he had experienced during the practice had dissipated into a pure, unbridled form of anger.
"Oh." Her heart sank, just as it wanted to soar. The pain his heart was in was painted across his face in furrowed lines. She wanted to blur those lines into nothingness with the tips of her fingers, with the edge of her lips. And yet, she felt powerless to do anything but stand there, a young girl faced with something beyond her years, beyond her experience, and say simplistic things like, "oh." She continued, "I'm - I'm so sorry."
"There is nothing you can do."
He was right, of course, because she couldn't change Summer - or Sasha, for that matter, not that she would even want to change him - and she couldn't be the one to shoulder the burden of his heartache for him. It was not her responsibility to do so. But she could do something, no matter how small and insignificant it may be.
She leaned forward, tilted her head up, and grazed her lips along the edge of his jaw. She was not aiming for anything in particular, but the beard stubble beneath her chapped lips felt rough - and she had never felt more alive, not even when she landed her dismounts with characteristic ease.
"Payson." It was a harsh, ragged whisper, serving as a warning: do not engage, do not continue down this path that you have started down, or else face the wrath of an unknown entity.
She pulled back at the sound of her name, and looked at him; his eyes were downcast and tired, and he looked like he had lived a thousand lives in the past few days. She could only imagine how little sleep he had gotten in those days, to get the sort of fatigue he had coursing over his face. "Yeah?" She turned the corners of her lips into a concerned smile.
"Don't do what Summer did."
And with that, the meaning of his hushed warning became all too clear in her mind: it wasn't so much that he didn't want her, necessarily, but that he was scared of what would happen when it's all said and done. He was scared of having her hurt him - or maybe of him hurting her, wherein the roles were reversed. "I wouldn't." She could never imagine doing something to fracture the trust and cohesion they had built up over their time together, not now. Not after they had come so far.
"I know." He walked away, his shoulders stooped forward, and Payson could only look on from a distance as his figure became smaller and more distant against the doorway. She could run after him, or she could stay put; she could let him work through things on his own, or she could force the situation into something that it was not her right to do.
It was safer to stay away. For now, anyway. She had to be fearless, or else she would be doomed to a life of pleasing everyone but herself, but she also had to be practical, all at the same time.
Let Sasha come to her on his own terms, if he would ever come.
The atmosphere at The Rock had shifted, for Payson, since the confrontation she had with him regarding Summer; the air crackled and sparked whenever her and Sasha were in the same room together. She turned her focus inward. Once was a mistake. A lot of things only happened once: the Olympics, for example. Once could be brushed aside and quickly forgotten by most anyone who knew about it.
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.
The difference was that she felt no shame, at least not whatever the appropriate shame was, for she didn't feel as though she had done anything particularly wrong to have merited such a feeling. She could analyze the series of actions over and over again, memorize the order as if she was to perform it, and not find the crucial fault that was there in evidence.
She couldn't take two steps in the gym without feeling his eyes piercing her, pricking her skin with invisible cuts. It was almost as if he was trying to stare through her, instead of at her; she felt as if she was on display, just for him. The thought colored her cheeks a shade of deep, rosy pink.
"Payson," Sasha said one day - it had been about a week or so since the second kiss, since he had admitted the truth about his situation with Summer - "can you stay after practice?"
Kaylie's eyebrow arched into an unspoken question, and Lauren let out a hushed, mocking "ooo," and Payson nodded brusquely, her ponytail flipping up as she did so.
The other girls had left, and it was just her and Sasha standing there - her and Sasha, just as it had been the other two times - and she looked at him, unsure of what to say. There was a lot that she wanted to say, but this wasn't the time for them. She hadn't been the one to ask Sasha to stay, after all.
"You know that we can't do this." His words came out in a scratchy roughness, as he placed his hand on the back of his neck and began massaging the muscles there. "You're still but a girl, Payson. And you're one of my gymnasts."
She nodded, and bit the inside corner of her lip. To cry, to show emotion, would be to prove the point that she was a girl and not yet a woman. She had everything hammered into her to be poised in the face of great defeat. That was what her entire life up to this point had been about. That was how she came back from her injury. She had poise, she had determination - and she was fearless. "Sasha -"
"You know why we disapprove of you girls dating."
"Because it distracts us from gymnastics. We can't be focused on our careers if our hearts are in the way." She faced him, staring at him, trying to steel her focus onto him. "Sasha," she said, hesitating slightly as she found her courage, "And if I - we- were dating - then there would be no way I could be distracted from my career, because you would make sure that I kept going. No matter what. Until the day I retired, you would make sure that I didn't give up on gymnastics and didn't let myself get distracted, and you would be able to ensure that." She felt a weight lifted off her shoulders as she spoke.
She could see a thousand expressions flicker across his face in the span of thirty seconds, as he processed what she said, what made her different from everyone else - and then, he whispered, "so, then, they can never know about us," as he reached his arm around her waist and pulled her in for a frantic kiss, their lips meeting over and over again as she pressed her lithe frame into his embrace.
"I think they'll know when they see your face when I win individual all-around gold in London," she whispered back, between kisses, a smile covering her face from ear to ear. "It won't be the face of someone who is only my coach, after all."
The first time he kissed Payson, it was because he wanted to, more than anything.
And it wasn't the last time. Far from it.