Here's Chapter 1. It's not really long but what can I do? I hope the others chapters will be longer. Anyway, I hope you'll like it. Thanks so much to the people who reviewed this story and who put it in the favorites and alerts.

Whoever is interested to see my livejournal where I post all my fanfictions, the link is: : esm3rald. livejournal. com (without the spaces)

Chapter 1

STRONGER

"What I thought would destroy me leaves me stronger in its wake."

(Crushed and Created by Caitlyn Smith)

It had been two days since her call to Sasha Belov. And of course she hadn't received any answer yet. It seemed she hadn't be able to change his mind after all.

Alex Cruz had decided that, seeing as there was no coach available, he was going to fill the position himself. And it was a complete disaster. The only one he really paid attention to was Kaylie, but even she, couldn't stand his coaching and having her father always breathing down her neck.

"Kaylie, you need to get more height on that Shushunova, and remember to keep those legs straight!" Here he was at it again. Kaylie had just executed one of her new tumbling passes, her face showing the world what she thought of the situation she was finding herself in.

"I swear if my father doesn't find a real coach soon, I'm going to join the carnival!" She said getting close to where Payson and Emily were watching.

"Well, then we're going to need tattoos and find gypsy names!" interjected Emily with dry humor.

Payson shook her head. Their situation really seemed hopeless. Maybe joining the Carnival wasn't such a terrible idea after all: with the chance they had right now of going to Nationals, maybe they would have more luck there. Still, she had to be the voice of reason and at least try to encourage her teammates.

"No one is going to join the Carnival. There must be a coach interested in us. We're one of the best gymnastics club in the Country, someone's going to show up, you'll see. Maybe even today!"

At this point, even she was starting to doubt the likelihood of some brilliant coach magically appearing, but what could they do? At the very least they had to keep hoping that something would improve.

"So what will happen if we don't have a coach? Does it mean we won't go to Nationals?" Emily asked worriedly.

"Without a star coach, you just won't be seen the same way!" Payson said in response.

"Kaylie, it's not called practice for nothing!" Alex Cruz's booming voice rang throughout the gym.

"I swear I'm gonna lose it!" Kaylie whispered before joining her father at the beam.

"Kaylie, don't forget to smile, I've got to see teeth!" Alex kept criticizing Kaylie during her entire beam routine and at the end Kaylie just snapped.

"I can't focus with you yelling at me and this is not a toothpaste commercial!"

It was in that moment that the doors of the gym opened and a British voice said "I hope I haven't come at a bad time, but I heard that you need a coach!"

All the heads on the floor turned as one. Not everyone knew who he was at first sight, but those who recognized him showed various states of shock.

Payson's reaction didn't differ too much from theirs, but for an entirely different reason. She didn't think he was going to come, that what she had said to him hadn't been enough to change his mind. But here he was.

"Oh my god…" Kaylie's voice distracted her from those musings.

"Is that…?" Emily asked this time. Both of them had their mouths wide opened.

"Sasha Belov!" Payson answered with a smile. Like anyone needed that confirmation from her.

"Mr. Belov? What are you doing here? and how did you know that we needed a coach?" Alex Cruz asked more than a little surprised.

"I received a call two days ago. Someone…" and with that he looked at Payson "Told me that Marty Walsh has decided to go train the Denver Elite and that you are left without a coach so, here I am."

"You called him?" Mr. Cruz asked Payson, astonished.

The attention of all the gym was suddenly on her, causing her to blush a little.

"Yeah, I searched the internet and found his number. I just didn't think he was going to come here. He told me he didn't want to go back to coaching." Payson said a little questioningly, addressing the last part to Sasha directly.

"I didn't want to come at first but… I changed my mind in the end" Sasha looked intently into her eyes, making her blush even more. Wow, he was really handsome up-close.

It looked like he wanted to add something but Mr. Cruz broke the moment.

"So, when can you begin?" He wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. The best coach in the business had just walked through their gym's door, he wasn't going to just waste that opportunity when they were so desperately in need of his services.

"Right now is fine. You've wasted enough time as it is without a coach. Better not lose even more.

"Oh, and one more thing before I get started. I don't want any parents on the floor. Maybe Marty has let you stay in the past, but I work with gymnasts only. Not with them and their parents."

With some rumblings all the parents retreated to the viewing area. The gym appeared suddenly much less claustrophobic and chaotic.

Payson was impressed, not even five minutes here and he had already solved one of the major problems during practice.

Sasha ordered all the gymnasts to sit on the mats: it was speech time.

When Payson was about to sit next to Kaylie and Emily, he came close to her, whispering in her ear, "You didn't tell me the situation was so desperate!"

Payson gulped visibly at having him so close to her, but then she was able to regain control of herself and she said "I tried to, but you didn't want to listen. I hope you won't change your mind now that you've seen the situation for yourself!"

"Oh don't worry! I like a challenge!" He answered winking at her. It was almost like he was flirting with her. Maybe he realized it too because he abruptly moved away from her, before telling her to sit down with the others.

Payson was more than a little bewildered, what was that? It had been so natural talking with him, almost like she knew him from who knows how many years, instead of having met him just now.

She tried to avoid thinking about it too much, ready to listen to what he had to say.

"You are all very special. You've chosen to do something very few people are capable of. Look at each other!" When none of them move, he encouraged "Come on look!"

Payson looked first at Emily and then at Kaylie, one sitting on her left while the other was on her right, but her gaze returned immediately to Sasha.

"No one but your peers can understand what it takes to be the best gymnasts in the World! No one!" He continued to say while pointing towards the viewing room where all their parents were sitting. "Which is why you need each other, but mostly you need me!

"I have a few simple rules: work as hard as I do, care as much as I do, sacrifice as much as I do! You will live, breathe, eat, sleep, bleed gymnastics and nothing else!"

Payson was captivated, no one had ever talked about gymnastics and training with as much passion and intensity, his love for their sport showed in every word out of his mouth. She thought she was the only one who put gymnastics before everything else, but Sasha Belov was like her. The others couldn't understand her zealous need to train, her will to concentrate in nothing but gymnastics. Not even Kaylie, the number two in the Country since she broke her back, was always much more focused on boys and other silly stuff and could never take her training seriously. She couldn't understand Payson's strive towards perfection, her sharp focus. Kaylie didn't see gymnastics like Payson did. Gymnastics was her life. It was for this very reason that last year had been so difficult for her. After all the work she had done, all that she had sacrificed, what had she gained in return? A broken back and the word from every surgeon she had contacted that she couldn't do gymnastics ever again. And then, even after the surgery she wasn't the same gymnast she was before her injury. Still, she hadn't given up, she had kept working, every day since into the late hours of the night to regain all the moves she had lost and she had done it at the end, after 10 long months.

Still, Kaylie was always one step ahead of her and it just wasn't fair. She knew it wasn't her fault but she couldn't help but resent her a little. Kaylie had never really worked hard for anything. Everything had always been handed over to her on a silver platter: she was rich and beautiful, the boys were always giving her attention. All she had was her gymnastics and then, even without truly wanting it, Kaylie had taken that away too.

Maybe now though, with a coach like Sasha Belov, she could go back to being the number one again.

"We have only 49 days until Nationals and you will spend every waking moment of it in this gym, together!" Sasha kept talking. "Go home and say goodbye to your lives as you know them. Anyone of you not willing to sacrifice your blood, sweat and tears to achieve excellence shouldn't bother to come back! We begin Monday morning at 5 a.m.! That's all!" She couldn't help but smile at this; finally at coach that was perfect for her.

"Five a.m.?" Of course Kaylie didn't agree.

"He's right. Nationals are almost here. "

"Yeah and he expect us to spend every waking moment between now and Nationals in here!" Kaylie kept complaining.

"Where else? He's the coach that can make us great!"

"Yeah Payson! If he doesn't kill us first!"

"Don't be so melodramatic! A little bit of hard work won't kill you!"

"What do you mean by that?" Kaylie ask her a little harshly.

"I mean, when was the last time you stayed late to train?"

"So? My routines are perfect."

Payson just shook her head, she didn't want to argue with her.

"I really need a spruce juice fix. You in?" Kaylie asked her soon after, their brief argument and the things they were talking about already forgotten.

"Sure. I have to talk to Coach Belov first though, okay? It will only take a minute. Can you wait outside for me?"

"No problem."

"I think we should invite Emily too. She's our teammate now, we need to stick together." Payson added.

"You're right, it wasn't fair, the way we treated her when she first came here…"

"Yeah.." Payson nodded then looked around for her new coach.

He was already inside his new office, Alex Cruz on his way out.

She went up the stairs before knocking on the door. As soon as she heard his voice telling her to come in she entered the office. Sasha was sitting behind the desk, going through some papers.

"Nice speech!" She commented lightly "Very inspired!"

Sasha looked up at that, smiling softly. "Glad you liked it."

Here it was again, this strange camaraderie. How come it was so easy talking to him?

"Listen, I just wanted to say thank you! For deciding to come in the end! You won't regret it, I promise!"

"I'm certain of that. And if you want to know, it was your words that made me change my mind about coming here. You were right. I couldn't keep hiding from the world! Not when someone needed me!"

"Yeah well, I'm glad!" She smiled, sure for the first time since Marty left that everything was going to be ok. Now that he was here. "See you on Monday, Coach Belov!"

"Sasha's fine."

"Okay, then… Sasha!" She waved her hand before walking out the office and then to the parking lot where both Kaylie and Emily were waiting for her.


Payson was sitting with Emily and Kaylie around one of the tables outside spruce juice, sipping her milkshake. Sudden chatter from one of the tables nearby made them turn their heads and there she was, Lauren Tanner together with two Denver elite gymnasts. The last time they had seen her, three days ago, it was in Denver. They had argued with her, of course, as they were feeling betrayed and angry. Was it possible that their friendship meant so little to her?

Payson still couldn't believe she had done something so mean just to be "the number three" again. First saying that Kaylie had a boyfriend just so that Marty would be forced to kick her out of the gym, and then she fled the Rock, taking their coach with her. It was unbelievable.

Still, they had a new coach now: Sasha Belov. She still couldn't believe he had agreed to coach them. It was like a dream come true.

"I still can't get over how amazing this is…" She said aloud.

"I know. She's got a lot of nerve, showing up here. This is our place…" Kaylie answered, looking at Lauren.

"No, actually I was talking about Sasha Belov. And anyway she used to be a part of 'our'….you know…before she betrayed us…".

"Yeah, well. She has no right to be here, pretending to be friendly with her new teammates. She should stay in Denver, seeing as she's one of them now…"

"Who cares about Lauren? Don't think about her. Think instead that we went from having no coach at all to having the best coach in the World…" Payson tried to cheer her up but without results.

"Who hasn't coached in five years.." Kaylie interjected.

"And who wants us to eat, sleep and bleed gymnastics…" Emily continued for her.

"Oh come on…why are two you complaining now? He's the best thing that could have happened to us. With him as a coach we're going to rock at Nationals…you'll see…it's gonna be awesome!" Payson was smiling at the end. It didn't matter to her how much more strenuous the next two months were going to be, because in the end it would be worth it.

"Happy birthday Lauren…" they heard suddenly from one of the Denver gymnasts next to Lauren.

"Oh right…today's Lauren's birthday…" Payson commented, watching the scene.

"Me and my dad are going to the Privilege tonight… we always do something special for my birthday…just the two of us…" Lauren's voice reached them.

"I feel sort of bad. I mean, I know it's not our fault but… we've always celebrated her birthdays together…." Payson said a little sadly.

"Whatever… don't feel bad. It's not our fault that she's not our friend or teammate anymore." Kaylie responded glaring at the back of Lauren's head.

"Like an ubercoach wasn't enough for today, Lauren's appearance here has made my day…" She continued sarcastically. "I need a vacation."

"Check it out!" A guy was saying while passing flyers to the people sitting at the tables.

"Hey there lovelies!" he said once he was standing in front of their table. He passed Kaylie one of his flyers. Payson was already saying they were not interested but like always Kaylie didn't agree with her.

"BLAST OFF? What's that?" Kaylie asked with her flirty smile.

"Oh, just the keg of the year!" the unnamed guy answered her. "Music, dance and all the beer you can drink…"

"Sounds awesome. Thanks!" Kaylie said, her tone flirty like her smile. "Let's go!" she turned to Payson and Emily once the guy was gone.

"Go where?" Payson asked, already knowing the answer.

"To the kegger!" Kaylie responded like it was obvious.

"No, no. We cannot go to a kegger!" Payson protested but like always with Kaylie, it was absolutely useless.

"Why not? It's Saturday night and our lives aren't over until Monday. Come on, let's do something fun for once."

"What's fun about a party?"

Kaylie looked at her like she was crazy before adding for good measure "Oh my god! I cannot believe you just said that! Have you ever been to an high school party?" Payson was going to answer her when she continued "No, I know you haven't. You went to school for how much time? Three weeks?" Payson widened her eyes at that. She couldn't believe Kaylie had just mentioned the worst period of her life like it was nothing. She could be really callous sometimes.

"And you Emily? Have you ever been to a party before?" Kaylie asked Emily like she hadn't just hurt her best friend with her careless words.

"Ehm, yeah, a few." Emily answered. Kaylie began asking her questions about it, what was it like and so on. Emily described a normal party the best she could. "It can be fun" She added then.

"We could definitely use some fun." Kaylie turned to Payson, begging her with her eyes.

"It's exactly what we don't need. What if we got caught?" Payson tried to change her mind and make her see reason. A party was the sort of distraction that they didn't need right now, especially this close to Nationals. They had to stay focused, especially because they had already lost so many days of training without a proper coach.

"By whom?" Kaylie asked her like getting caught was a possibility she hadn't even consider.

"By our new coach."

"And how he would find out?" Emily asked her this time.

"Thank you! I'm just so sick of jumping through hoops. Come on, don't' you ever wonder what it would be like to be like other girls for once?"

Payson glared in her direction before saying harshly. "Like you said, I already experienced what it's like to go to school and being like a normal teenager and I hated it. I cannot believe you just asked me that!"

"I know, Payson, but when you went to school last year, you couldn't do gymnastics. Of course you hated it. You could have fun this time. Come on, for once in your life, don't think about responsibilities. Think about what it means being free for once, of doing what you want. This is our last chance to do something like this."

Kaylie just didn't get it. She couldn't understand what Payson had gone through when she thought she couldn't do gymnastics anymore or she wouldn't be talking like that.

"Forget it!" Payson's answer was firm. "Maybe that's what you want. But I'm happy to be a gymnast, thank you very much."

"Fine. Then only me and Emily are going. I mean, you want to go right?"

Once Emily agreed, Kaylie continued excited. "Come on. Let's blow it up before our lives are over."

"Fine then. But don't say I didn't warn you!" With that said she left Emily her phone number. "In case something happen, call me ok? I'll just go home now. See you on Monday!"

She had just opened the door and was just about to enter inside her house when she heard her parents talking about Sasha.

"Sasha Belov is an egomaniac." Her father was saying while going through her copy of Sasha Belov's biography. She couldn't remember how many times she had read it.

"Aren't they all?" her mother answered.

"It says as a gymnast he won four gold medals in the Sydney Olympics and guess who beat that year?"

"The Great Marty Walsh?"

"Bingo. And apparently he was an even better coach until he drop out for reasons unknown. It says here that he's the James Bond version of Bela Karolyi."

"I'll never forget Karolyi yelling at Kerri Strug 'You can do it!' when she had a broken ankle.

I don't want that to be our little girl." Payson cringed at that. She didn't think Sasha was like that. He was strict of course but he would never ask something like this to any of his gymnasts, she was sure of that.

"She's not that little." Her father tried to lighten the mood.

"Sometimes I wish Payson never had that surgery." Kim revealed.

Payson's heart was beating furiously in her chest. She couldn't believe her mother had just said that.

Before her father had the chance to say anything, Kim continued speaking. "I know it was what Payson wanted and I'm happy that she's back to the gymnast she was before her accident. I just… It was just easier to talk and be the mother of a normal teenager instead of that of a future Olympian. Sometimes I just can't understand her at all. She's my sixteen year old daughter but she's also a gymnast who has faced more difficulties that any other girl her age. I know that I'm being selfish saying this but… it was just easier. I didn't have to worry about her being hurt during a competition anymore, I didn't have to worry about the cortisone's effects in the long run…

"And maybe I'm fooling myself into thinking that Payson could have been happy again without gymnastics but she seemed fine before the possibility of a surgery came up. She had made friends and she was smiling again… and then, after the surgery, she just wasn't like before anymore and you know how many months she has spent trying to regain her strength and power back. And for a long time I really thought she just couldn't do it and that the surgery was for nothing. But then of course Payson's stubbornness won in the end.

"How many sixteen years old can say that they faced something like this? I remember that when I was her age the only things I had to worry about were grades and finding a date to Prom. How can I be a good mother for her when I have no idea what she had experienced this last year? How can I really help her in this?" Both Payson and Kim were crying at this point.

Payson knew that being a gymnast meant to give up a normal life and Payson had always been prepared for that because being normal had never been a thing she was interested in. But she hadn't realized until now what that meant to her parents. She suddenly realized that she had been selfish and self-centered. The only thing she had always cared about since she was four was going to the Olympics, she hadn't thought about her parents' feelings in all of this. She hadn't thought about what they had given up for her.

She knew that her mother didn't really want for her to be a normal teenager, not when she was unhappy about it, but maybe she could do something to be more like Kaylie and act like a girl her age, maybe starting by going at that party. She sent a quick text to Kaylie saying that she had changed her mind and that she had decided to go with her and Emily to the party. Kaylie answered in less than a minute, saying that she was going to pick her up at seven.

She took a deep breath before drying her tears with one hand. She then entered inside, slamming the door behind her so that her parents would think she had just arrived.

"Hi Payson, did you have fun with Kaylie and Emily?" Her mother asked like she hadn't spent the last half hour talking about her.

"Yeah. Listen mom, dad… there's a party tonight…an high school party. Can I go? Kaylie and Emily are coming too and Kaylie is the one driving. I'm not going to drink but if Kaylie does I'll make sure we'll find someone sober to bring us home…"

"Of course you can go!" Her mother answered smiling widely. Payson's smile looked more like a grimace instead. "But be home by…"

"Eleven.." Her father continued the sentence for her.

"Thirty." Her mother finished.

Payson nodded and turned to go to her room to get ready for the kegger. Not that she had any intention to wear anything more than a pair of jeans and t-shirt. Her father's voice stopped her in her tracks.

"if something happens or if you need anything at all, just call okay?"

"Yeah, dad!" She responded shaking her head.

"And have fun!" her mother interjected.

"I'll try to!" Payson answered dryly.

She finally retreated to her room, closing the door behind her and taking deep breaths, in and out, trying to calm herself. She knew she wasn't going to have fun to that party but her mother was happy that she was going at all so it was okay. She could make a little sacrifice just for the sake of that. She just hoped Sasha wouldn't find out about it or there was going to be trouble for all three of them.