AU, a little bit. I do not watch television religiously, but portions of the characters worm their way in.
AN: Everything is from Payson's point of view. This is more the story of how a girl grows up and finds out what she really wants than a love story. There will be no untoward feelings from Sasha's end for a while.
The day Sasha asks Payson to paint a canvas with her movement is the same day she realizes that perhaps the power she strives for is as much about control as it is about a distinct lack of it. Before, she had come to consider grace a form of power, but one beyond her reach. The colors are everywhere, blinding, and it strikes her that maybe she has always been like this, a force to be unleashed in some form or fashion, more than the sum of each deliberate, distinct effort. She feels as if she is capable of anything. She catches his eyes, and she can see a hint of wonderment in them, mixed in with pools and pools of pride. She wonders if he has always seen her like this, if he has always known what she did not.
Her previously moping ego preens, hushed and awed. Look at you, Keeler, it says to her in a voice vaguely resembling Lauren Tanner's. For a moment she imagines the twin incisions on her back winking at her in silent praise. You are more than a gymnast.
All you have to do is learn to feel-
And that is how it begins.
She has known for sometime that Sasha and Summer have been dancing around each other in some capacity, though she's not sure she quite understands how those particular opposites attract- he in his wonderful, sharp cynicism and she a parrot of things Payson's not really sure anyone understands. Perhaps they clash enough that the frustration has converted itself into something else entirely. Energy is conserved, after all. She hasn't particularly cared about her coach's, ahem, extracurricular, activities before.
But now he has begun to give her so much more than gymnastics. When she sees him and Summer together outside his trailer, she freezes momentarily; his shoulders bely none of the businesslike, exasperated tension of the coach she knows and he is laughing privately, freely. She wonders if she, in her too small and yet too large skin, is little more than a project to him. She wonders how she can know him so little if he knows how to blow life into every last limb of her body. She wonders that this man, the one before her, is undocumented yet, and still not hers to document, and something clenches hard and painful in her chest.
Perhaps, she thinks later lying in her bed and staring at an unmoving ceiling, perhaps she knows nothing. Perhaps he is trying to tell her a lie until it becomes the truth. Perhaps she is the unsure person she knows herself to be, scrabbling at the last vestiges of her girlhood like a brick wall she will never scale, perhaps she just wants so badly to be the focused, unstoppable girl she had thought herself to be that she has managed to convince herself she is not foolish. Worship is dangerous, she thinks in an ignored corner of her mind. She fingers his medal over her chest.
All those hours with Sasha, alone, have begun to spin in her head. Payson-the-gymnast has thinned her waist to allow for Payson-the-girl, and yet she thinks that he cannot see her as more than one or the other. Sasha must know, she allows, what it is to be ambition, to want every motion to be a threat to doubt, even when every motion is indeed doubt itself.
Is that determination but a familiar costume, for him? Has he known it so long that he knows to wield and wear it? Or could he call it to him at will, as he clutched at the rings and bars, and then recede to that lazy normalcy that she fears will emerge as a byproduct of her own adolescence, that she detests so well? Maybe Payson is just a better dreamer than most, singular in her destination, overwrought in its pursuit. The medal is cold and gleaming against her chest, and she feels briefly psychotic, wondering if her lack of purchase makes her distinctly less deserving. Payson had always thought everyone else the fool for not wanting anything as she did, but now she thinks that she is the fool, never having possessed the seeming effortlessness she sees all about her. Nothing, she thinks in vaguely misguided hindsight, has seemed natural to her for a very long time now. To be champion has always meant to her to have the weight of all her being concentrated, day and night; she cannot imagine herself without the impulse she has embroidered into her limbs, she cannot imagine herself with loose shoulders. The part of herself that had assumed her eventual championship had identified with him a little too obsequiously, but now she thinks that perhaps that they are not cut from the same cloth. Perhaps she was not meant for this, perhaps Sasha sees her as something she's not, perhaps she is not worthy of all his time. And yet. And yet.
Who is Sasha Belov?
Her heart clenches again.
Payson falls asleep clutching his Olympic gold, too tired to think straight.
She jogs it into a dark, giggling corner of her mind the next morning, because Payson Keeler is nothing if not unshakeable. Still, the tension in her is shamefully unmistakeable.
"Draw your arms in further on the turn." Sasha tells her. "It will give you better momentum."
She does as he says, switching to the ball of her foot and swinging herself with less finesse than she would like, and then his hands are in hers and he is before her. She is certain for a moment that her breath catches audibly at his touch, but perhaps he simply doesn't notice because he continues on, unperturbed. "Relax." he says. "Loosen your shoulders."
Payson nods, and flinches as his hands move to her wrists. Their eyes meet for an instant, and she immediately averts her gaze. Her heart is pounding in her chest now. She wonders when Payson Keeler became lost to her. For at least a week, she cannot bring herself to meet his eyes.
On Saturday, two weeks later, there is a training camera waiting for her at the Rock.
"You are expert at each separate component, but your flow must be indomitable." Sasha says. It is just the two of them, and outside, the sun is slowly drowning. "I think you can achieve that by watching yourself perform the routine. Alright? "
She must look uncertain, because he gives her a smile and softens minutely, momentarily. Two weeks ago she would not have noticed the softening of the muscles his face, but now she has begun to observe him keenly.
"Payson." he offers. "You can do this."
Only three attempts later, she feels exhausted.
"Can I- can I have a minute?"
His brows come together, and the word adorable comes to mind briefly, but she shakes it away.
"Are you okay, Payson?" The concern in his words is enough to let her believe that he actually cares as much as she does- of course he does, he's your coach, why don't you trust him, you're a fool, Keeler, a bloody fool- and this is why she needs a minute. She is sure she is going mad.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll be fine."
Payson jogs to the far end of the gym, sinks against the wall, out of his sight, and buries her face in her hands.
Who is Sasha Belov?
She can hear her breaths coming out in shallow puffs. It is not quite a panic attack, but her heart pounds relentlessly in her chest, and she wonders if she'll ever be able to do what he says she can. For the very first time, she wants to go home.
"Payson? Payson, where are you- oh."
Sasha crouches before her. "Payson."
She looks down at her knees resolutely.
"I know how difficult this is. I'm sorry. I don't mean to push you."
You're not pushing me, she thinks, it just turns out I'm really fucking weak. Instead, what comes out is a snort of unbridled derision. "Do you really?"
He takes her hands in his, and they are, she observes, not nearly as rough as she might have expected. Rather, they are coated with a sheen of sweat, bear the sign of long-gone calluses, and are inexplicably gentle on hers. "Do you trust me?"
Well. That's quite a question. "Sasha," she utters softly, "you're telling me all of this to make me feel better, aren't you. I know I can't really do all of this. I don't have nearly half the capacity-"
She looks up then, and his eyes are so blue that she can feel the color stain her. In that instant she is not sure she can think of anything else.
"Payson, if I didn't think you could do every inch of this, I wouldn't be wasting my time on it."
Her brows furrow incredulously. "Wasting your time?"
"No! No, that's not what I meant. I-" He runs a hand through his hair. "What I mean to say is, I trust you."
And then before she has the time to process his words, he is pulling her to her feet, and despite herself, she is smiling wider than she has in weeks. He takes her not to the floor, but to the office, her hand still tight in his, she breathless, he grinning. In response to her quizzical glance, he says simply, "You'll see."
In the office, he opens the freezer, and pulls out two bowls and a vat of ice cream. All Payson can think is, they have ice cream in the gym?
Sasha plops the vat on the desk, and presents her a bowl with a sound clink of glass-on-wood. He is still grinning.
"Payson," he says, "I hope you like chocolate."
Half an hour later, they are still at his desk, and there is nothing left in the vat but chocolate residue.
"Just this once." Sasha says. "We're not going to make a habit out of this."
She shakes her head rigorously, taste of chocolate still in her mouth. "I aim to be an Olympic gymnast, not an Olympic ice-cream eater."
He snorts softly. "Glad to hear it."
There is a long silence. Payson thinks that she doesn't particularly care who Sasha is if he can make her Payson Keeler again.
"You know, you're almost there. You shouldn't get disheartened now."
Payson exhales. "Sasha, I think I'm losing myself. I don't know what to do anymore."
In response, he smiles at her. "It's not called losing yourself. It's called changing."
She looks up from her lap, and there they are again- his excruciatingly blue eyes, piercing hers. She swallows hard, and is hit by a strong urge to lean forward and do-something, though she doesn't know exactly what.
The phone rings. Both she and Sasha start, and he fumbles with the receiver for a minute.
She can hear the distinct tone of her mother's voice on the line. "Yeah," Sasha says, "she's with me. I'll have her home in twenty. What's that? No, she stopped training a little while ago, we're simply talking. Alright. Okay. See you, Kim."
"Better get you home, then?"
She nods curtly.
"Come on. I'll give you a ride."
She stares. "You don't have a car."
"I'll drive yours. Come on."
They spend the walk to her car in silence. The engine starts with a low growl, and she finds herself questioning whether Sasha can actually drive. He exceeds her expectations when he stops at a stop sign.
"Wow," she says before she can help herself- god, Keeler, you fool, what are you doing-"you actually stopped."
Sasha looks at her blankly, and she is sure she flushes with embarrassment. "It's a stop sign. Did you think I'd go faster?"
"Sort of, yeah."
He snorts. "I'm not that bad, Payson."
They stop at a light a minute later, and Payson think she must be really tired because the lights emanating from the CVS opposite them seem blinding.
"Is that what that book that you keep reading said about me?" She snaps her head toward him, but he is looking straight ahead. "That I'm reckless."
Payson clears her throat. She can still taste the chocolate. "Kind of."
"You don't need a book to know me, Payson."
The light turns green. She swallows for what feels like the hundredth time.
"I- I don't know that much about you. I mean, the book talked about you growing up in Romania and stuff. That's not stuff you talk about to m-to us."
Who is Sasha Belov?
A smile is creeping slowly across his face. "I grew up on a farm in Romania."
She frowns. "Really? The book-"
"There were sheep," he interrupts, "and cattle. When I was seven, an ewe gave birth. I named the lamb Millie. My mother was a bit flummoxed."
"You were a farm boy?"
Sasha is glowing with mirth now. "No."
And then he is guffawing, and she is laughing so hard her stomach hurts, though she is not entirely sure why, and the world spins about her momentarily, and nothing has felt this natural in years. It is glorious.
At home that night, she dawdles with a scarp of math homework, a small smile plastered onto her mouth. The integral of the exponential function is the exponential function, as is the derivative. It is beneath itself, above itself, soaring at each infinitesimal vertex of itself. For the first time, Payson thinks that the world, in its own strange way, is an exceedingly pretty place.
Kaylie has had an expression of permanent exasperation on her since Nationals. Payson has begun to avoid her so as to avoid the temptation of physically wiping it off. At the same time, though, she wonders what exactly Kaylie is trying to compensate for.
On Monday morning, she enters the gym to see Sasha and Kaylie in a corner. Sasha appears to be yelling at her, and Kaylie looks incredulous, indignant, a retort poised on her pretty mouth. She drops her bag by the wall and begins to warm up, sparing them a glance every few seconds. Soon enough, Kaylie storms away. She looks gaunt, Payson thinks suddenly. Too gaunt. There are shadows outlining each contour of her body.
Sasha is striding toward her, though, and Kaylie is forgotten. "Payson." he greets.
"I want you to try the beam today. Try the motions of your tumbling passes, slowly. I think that as you stumble less, you will gain the flow of motion you need."
Payson does as he says, picking herself up toward the beam. She is beginning to learn the adjectives of his smell now; musk and smoke, washed away cologne, and something still unnamed. She thinks that she trusts her coach, but not Sasha, yet. Perhaps Sasha is irrelevant- but she does not want him to be and so her heart clenches, tellingly.
In the evening, it is just the two of them and a training camera.
"Feel, Payson!" Sasha cries. "Feel! I know you have it in you-"
She feels, suddenly, as if she is flying, though her feet are on the ground, and she knows this because Sasha has grown silent, a distant, pale blur in the corner of her eye, but all she can think of are his, blue and endless. She is the swan, and he- what is he? The lake? Momentarily she thinks that maybe all of this is because she feels too much-
And then she finishes, and Sasha is running toward her, and she is in his arms, and he spins her once, twice. That was magnificent, he is saying, I always knew you could-
"Did you, really?" she asks.
He nods, and it is a split moment before she realizes she is looking up into his eyes; one portion of her freezes resolutely, the other continues to surge forth, that inexplicable urge returning to every limb- feel, Payson, feel- and she does not completely realize what she is doing until her lips are pressed to his. Briefly, she registers his warmth. Is this who he is, she wonders, outside obligation?
Who is Sasha Belov?
Sasha's eyes go wide, and she jumps back in shock, one hand coming to her mouth.
"Oh god." Her voice does not feel like her own. "Oh god, oh god, oh god-"