Chapter 1: The Aftermath of a Kiss

The gym door was locked and Payson sighed in frustration. The sun had barely risen, but usually the doors were open by now. She eyed Sasha's trailer. Door shut firmly, no lights on, there was no indication that he was awake, but she knew she had to talk to him before it got even more awkward than it was last night.

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She'd go over, knock on the door and apologize for being such a complete and total idiot. She marched over with purposeful strides, all the while wanting to run away as fast as she possibly could. Reaching the door, she hesitated, looking down at the moss green Astroturf he'd put down over the black top. Suddenly something slammed into the top of her head, full force, sending her flying back onto the aforementioned Astroturf. Payson lay on the ground for a few seconds, her eyes squeezed shut.

"Payson!" Sasha's concerned voice called to her. She knew he was next to her, kneeling there, concern etched all over his face. She didn't remember her accident at Nationals, but she imagined that's how he sounded and as she opened her eyes, the panic written in his expression was clear. "Payson, Christ, can you hear me? Are you alright?"

She groaned. "I'm fine." He twisted his mouth into a grimace that said he didn't believe her. "No really, I'm fine. You didn't even knock me down," she said. "I tripped over a bunch in your er- lawn, when I stumbled back." She sat up; putting a hand to her head, but motioning to the crumpled bit of Astroturf she'd caught her toe on. He stood and offered her a hand, which she ignored and stood with him. The world didn't spin, but she thought that maybe it would be a good idea to sit down. She sat in one of his lawn chairs and then looked up at him and grinned sheepishly. "Good morning."

He chuckled a little, sitting down in the chair across from her, his blue eyes twinkling with good humor. It was too much and she just stared at him for a moment. She knew why she had kissed him and it had only a little to do with the excitement of landing her routine. She was intensely attracted to him. Who wouldn't be? Her coach was an extremely good looking man, combined with his accent and his shared love of gymnastics, he was exactly the kind of man she'd always imagined herself with – in the future, after she'd won gold. It would be her luck that he would turn up now, long before her moment in London and he would of course be her coach, as if the ten-year age difference wasn't enough to keep them apart.

"Good morning, Payson." It wasn't a question, but she knew it was as good as him asking, what the bloody hell are you doing here?

"I came over to apologize, for last night," she said, before she could lose her nerve. "I don't know what happened. I was just so excited to land those moves the way we talked about and it all just came bubbling to the surface and you were standing right there. I didn't mean to kiss you." She shook her head and he was looking at her with an unreadable expression. "Well, obviously, I meant to, but I, look I know how incredibly stupid it was and completely inappropriate. You're my coach and well, you're so old –" And now he wasn't unreadable, he almost looked offended, "older than me, I mean and well, you know what I mean. I'm just sorry and I'm hoping that we can pretend like it never happened." She finally stopped speaking and looked up at him, having to squint now that the sun was rising just behind him.

Sasha leaned closer to her and for a moment she wasn't sure if he was going to laugh at her, or yell or –her breath caught in her throat – kiss her. Despite herself and all the words she'd just spoken, the mere idea thrilled her, but he stopped well before he invaded her personal space and said, "I think that's a good idea."

She blew out a breath in relief and he smiled. "Great, because I was thinking about working on a somersault mount for my new beam routine. I know it doesn't fit in with the whole idea of being a more artistic gymnast, but I don't see a reason why I can't. I know I can land it consistently."

Relieved wouldn't even begin to describe how Sasha felt. Perhaps he'd been dense, but he hadn't seen that kiss coming. Maybe from one of the other gymnasts: Kaylie, Lauren, even Emily, all three had daddy issues and their major distraction from gymnastics had always been boys, but Payson shocked the hell out of him. One moment they'd been celebrating the enormous accomplishment of perfecting her new floor routine and the next he'd felt her lips pressing against his, first tentatively and then more confidently. It wasn't unpleasant, far from it, but it was completely inappropriate, in every way. He'd been going over it in his mind all night. Had he led her on? Had he somehow pushed her down this road? He'd decided around one in the morning that he had, in fact, been to blame. Linking the events of the last few weeks together in his head, he could see how a 16-year-old girl with limited experience could start to view their relationship as something more than it was. But then she showed up, not four hours later to apologize and blame it on the excitement of the moment and he allowed himself to agree with her. If she felt like he hadn't done anything wrong, well then, perhaps he hadn't.

"Sasha, are you listening to me?" she asked, tilting her head expectantly.

He shook himself from his thoughts, "Sorry, no on the somersault, but what would you say to a strength element? Something to remind the judges of your power, but keeping with the idea of lines and grace, I'm sure we can come up with something with a higher value than a somersault."

She rolled her eyes, but nodded to him, biting at her bottom lip as she tried to visualize it. He unlocked the door to the gym and held it open for her. She ducked under his arm and brushed past him. He caught the scent of her shampoo as she stepped through the door and he felt his stomach flip, doing the somersault he'd just nixed from her beam routine. She was already past him, walking into the gym to stretch, but he just watched her go. Bloody hell, this is not happening. But he knew it was. The major problem was that Payson Keeler was exactly his type, petite, blonde, smart, athletic just like Summer.

Yes, that's it old boy, think of Summer. The beautiful woman who wouldn't let him lay a hand on her, whose values and opinions so obviously clashed with his own and in ways he could barely fathom most of the time. Just when he'd think he'd found a neutral topic, he'd realize that they had completely opposite views on the issue. She usually sounded like a Fox News or a 700 Club broadcast and he was much more a MSNBC kind of guy. He spent most their conversations trying not to roll his eyes. He told her he'd respect her values, he was above all other things, a gentleman, but he didn't understand her. They were both set in their ways and he knew deep down, eventually that's what would drive them apart. He imagined he and Payson had much more in common, despite the difference in age.

Damn it, Beloff. Get yourself under control. Payson is sixteen years old and you are her coach. You can admire and appreciate, but you cannot touch. That was just it though; impulse control had never been his strong suit. He could talk all he wanted about discipline, but his entire life, gymnastics had been the only thing he could control. The first kiss he'd shared with Summer proved it and while that relationship was between two adults, it was complicated and ultimately frustrating. He was terrified that his lack of control when it came to women he was physically attracted to could spill over towards Payson.

That's just completely unacceptable, Beloff. You cannot let this girl down. You swore to her you'd get her to the Olympics and that's what you're going to do. He set his jaw and felt his teeth clench; it was a familiar feeling. When he was going to be stubborn about something he knew it was written across his face and now was one of those times. He wasn't going to let his baser instincts ruin the most normal relationship in his life: his coaching relationship with perhaps the most talented and focused gymnast he had ever and would ever come across in his life. He was going to coach Payson Keeler to the Olympics and help her win gold if it killed him. And Lord knew, it might, but then whatever this was, if it was something, it would still be there or it wouldn't and that would be that.

Nodding to himself, he walked into the gym to find his gymnast stretching up against the beam, one leg hitched over it, her head thrown back and her eyes closed. He felt his stomach flip again and he groaned appreciatively at the unknowingly seductive imagine she presented.

Payson opened her eyes at the sound and smiled when she saw him approaching, but quickly turned back to finish stretching. Shit, even worse when she smiles at you, lights up her whole damn pretty face. Enough! He walked towards her, stopping just behind her, only inches separating them, "Ready?" he asked, his voice sounding strangled to his own ears.

"Not just yet, but almost," she said, as she continued to stretch.

Not yet, Beloff. Did you hear that? Not yet, but almost. He leaned down close, his lips almost brushing her ear as he spoke,"Well, you just let me know," he said and her eyes flashed to his for a moment, as if trying to decipher what he meant. She smiled, not the bright smile she had just bestowed upon him, but a different smile, one he hadn't seen before, but hoped to see again. He stepped away, not breaking eye contact and nodded. There, it's done.

Chapter 2: To Respect is not to Understand

"How was that?" Payson asked, after she dismounted the uneven bars, steadily on her feet, taking just a small hop to keep her balance. Sasha opened his mouth to speak, but she turned towards him and immediately cut him off. "I know my extensions aren't what they should be. I thought they were pretty good for the first half, but I never realized how exhausting it would be to extend like that through a whole routine." Sasha opened his mouth again, but Payson shook her head. "I know, I know, the extension on the Stalder backwards to the high bar still wasn't there either."

"Payson," he said, and she stopped her ramble to look at him. "It was excellent; you've made major progress these last couple of weeks. You're hitting this routine with consistency and its DOD is just as high as Genghi Cho's. Truly, it's remarkable."

She shook her head, "But there were so many flaws, so many things I can improve."

Sasha laughed, "Payson, that routine, exactly the way you just executed it, flaws and all, would be good enough for a 16.9, a 17, if you didn't shuffle your feet on the dismount." It was rare a gymnast didn't immediately know the degree of difficulty in their routine, but there were so many artistic elements Payson wasn't used to performing that she had no idea of her routine's start value.

Payson looked at him, "You're serious? That's – that's higher than anything I've ever heard of, that's incredible, Sasha."

She took a step towards him, obviously about to give him a hug, but then she pulled back, biting her lip, unsure of what to do with herself. Sasha sighed, hating this awkwardness, this invisible wall they'd built between them over the last few weeks. "Excellent work, Payson, take a few minutes and we'll work on the floor." She nodded and headed towards the water cooler where Emily was standing.

He looked down at the mat. "Damn it," he murmured under his breath. He looked up and saw Summer standing on the platform just outside the gym office looking at him expectantly. And the day just keeps getting better and better, Beloff. She's going to want to know why you didn't answer the phone last night or the night before that or the night before that. He grimaced. He'd been avoiding Summer like the plague. He knew he was acting like a complete ass and that she deserved better, but it was difficult. It had little to do with what happened with Payson. He'd jumped head long into something that was not going to work out and he had no right to lead her on like this.

Suddenly, he felt his feet begin to move towards the gym office, as if he'd decided something, when really he had no idea what he was going to say. He entered the office and thankfully Kim wasn't there. The last thing he needed was an audience right now, besides he was having problems even looking Kim Keeler in the eye these days. Smooth, Beloff, very smooth.

"Hey," he said. "Can I speak to you about something?"

"Oh, so now you want to talk to me?" she asked, giving him a pointed look that clearly said she knew he'd been avoiding her.

He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck nervously, "Yes, look, I know I just sort of dropped out on you and I know it wasn't right."

Summer slammed the binder she was sorting through on the desk, "What am I supposed to think Sasha? Somehow, you've avoided me completely for almost two weeks and you wouldn't return my phone calls…"

"I'm sorry," he cut her off; "I did a lot of thinking, about the two of us and I just don't think it's a good idea." That's it, Beloff; just rip that bandage right off.

She shook her head and smiled in disbelief. "You don't think this," she motioned between them, "is a good idea after you talked me into it in the first place?" He opened his mouth again, to explain more clearly. "Save it," she said.

He shook his head, "No, I owe you an explanation, you were right, at the beginning. We're just too different. I told you I was willing to respect your values, but the more I go over it in my head, the more I just don't understand you and I doubt you understand me, either. This relationship is a recipe for disaster."

She snorted, in what would have been an adorable way, had her wrath not been focused on him, "Oh, I understand you perfectly. You respect my values, but you're not willing to live by them." Summer wasn't shocked. It wasn't the first time a guy had entered into a relationship with her knowing that she didn't believe in pre-marital sex, but then reneged when he thought about it a little more or his buddies gave him a hard time, or when he realized that she had no intentions of giving it up after playing a little hard to get.

He looked at her and smiled; almost amused that she'd nailed it right on the head. "That's exactly it." She probably thought that he was reconsidering because he couldn't handle not having sex with her, when really, beyond their physical attraction, they didn't have anything else in common and relationships like that don't last even when you throw sex into the mix. However, he wasn't about to prolong the conversation to simply correct her. Let her believe what she'd like, you know different, Beloff. "I'm sorry."

Summer shook her head, "No, I'm sorry. I should have just stuck to my guns in the first place, no matter how attracted to you I was." A smirk appeared on his face, but her glare made it disappear almost immediately. "Mixing business and personal relationships is never a good idea and we're just not…" she trailed off.

"We're not meant to be," he said, his thoughts no longer focused on the blonde in front of him, but on the small sliver of hope that burned within him for someone else entirely, but he quashed those thoughts quickly. "Look, you're not going to resign or anything are you? We need you here. The girls love you and the office has never run more efficiently. You and Kim make a great team."

She smiled and he remembered for a moment what drew him to her in the first place, she was beautiful, especially when she smiled, "Don't flatter yourself, Sasha. I like what I do and I want to be here for the girls. They need positive female role models who aren't their mothers."

He nodded. "Good then. I should get back out there," he said and stopped at the door, "Summer, I am sorry."

He turned and left, without a backwards glance. He saw Kim Keeler approaching the stairs and smiled widely at her, "Good morning, Kim," he said and strode past her towards the training floor. Well, that may have been laying it on a little thick, Beloff. You haven't actually violated her trust in any way. Except for the unbridled lust that surges through you every time you look at her sixteen year old daughter, whom she trusts you with implicitly. Stop it! Focus, Beloff, time to train.

"I'm sorry, too," Summer said quietly, watching him go and not two seconds later, Kim Keeler stepped into the office.

"Sasha looks awfully cheerful this morning. You two have another date planned?" she asked, with a glint in her eye.

Summer shook her head, a little hurt that he'd looked so happy about their – well you couldn't really call it a break-up after such a short time, could you? "Actually, we decided that we shouldn't see each other anymore, outside of the gym I mean, in a non-professional capacity," she told Kim, unable to keep the hurt out of her voice.

"Oh, Summer. I'm so sorry. I thought you two were…" Kim trailed off, unsure what to say.

Summer shrugged, "Me too, but I think that maybe we're just too different. Kissing a few times and going out to dinner, it didn't change that." She stood and walked over to the platform that overlooked the training floor. She saw Sasha walking purposefully to the floor, where Payson was stretching out. She quickly grasped the easy change in subject, not really wanting to talk about Sasha. "Payson looks incredible out there. I mean, I'm no gymnastics expert, but I was watching her on bars before, she made it look easy."

Kim nodded, "Yeah, she's been kind of closed lipped about it though. She used to talk through her routines to anyone who would stand still long enough to listen, but now, well, not so much." Kim watched as Payson began to fly across the floor as powerful as ever, but with a grace that she'd rarely seen outside of the ballet.

Summer nodded, "Maybe she's just afraid of getting her expectations for herself up again. Teenage girls tend to go silent when they're afraid of something."

Kim shook her head, "No, I don't think that's it. A year ago, I had a chance to talk to Shawn Johnson's mother at a meet. She actually sought me out. She told me that the closer a gymnast gets to the Olympics, the more focused they get. She saw a lot of Shawn in Payson I suppose. I told her that I wasn't sure Payson could get any more focused, but she shook her head, she said that I had no idea. That suddenly they go quiet, like the only one who can understand them is their coach. She also said it wasn't a bad thing, that it's what they need to get to the next level."

"I suppose so. Sasha once told me that I didn't understand the discipline and control it took to live the life of an elite gymnast. Don't tell him I said this, but I think he's right, at least when it comes to their training," Summer said, watching Sasha who was standing behind Payson, positioning her finger tips just so as she raised her arms out to her sides. "To have to be perfect in every way, to not stumble even a fraction of an inch, I don't think that's something we could ever understand."

Seconds later, Payson was flying across the floor again, this time in the opposite direction in what looked like a perfect tumbling pass. Everyone in the gym, usually so focused on themselves, stopped for a moment to watch. Payson landed on two feet facing the entire gym, arms raised, finishing the tumbling pass with a smile. Sasha walked over to her, but she seemed to read his mind and met him halfway.

"I didn't know you'd been working on a Double Straight," Sasha said, in a disapproving tone as he followed her to the other side of the floor.

Payson turned around, hands on her hips like she was ready to do battle. "My lines were perfect in the round-off back handspring that led into it. The extension was there, but I was working on it before my injury and I've spent some time in the annex working on it again. It was perfect. I know I grew an inch, but I'm still powerful and the focus on artistry has actually helped. The fuller extension allows me to channel more power into the move."

Sasha put his hands up in mock surrender, "I'm actually inclined to agree with you. It was perfect. You don't have to hide things like this from me, Payson. We're a team, remember?"

She smiled at him, "You've put the kibosh on every power move I've suggested in the last month. I needed to show you I could do it and do it perfectly."

They reached the end of the mat. "Ah, well, you did it perfectly, but can you do it perfectly twice?" he challenged her, standing directly in her path.

Her eyes flashed at his, "Move out of my way and I'll show you," she said and he stepped out of the way, flourishing his arm as if to say, be my guest. He saw her eyes glaze over as she focused on the spring loaded mat ahead of her and took off across the floor, throwing herself into the round off back handspring, double straight, and once again, sticking her landing, without even a bend in her knees, full extension and beautiful lines throughout the tumbling pass. She turned back towards him, her body language screaming, "I told you so."

He strode back across the mat towards her again, "Beautiful," he said quietly so only she could hear him.

"I thought you'd like that," she responded in the same tone, neither lifting their heads to make eye contact.

He shook his head, mostly to himself. She was right, he had liked it. It was exactly the kind of thing he'd have done when he was competing. In fact, he could remember several instances when he had done it. His coach had been equal parts infuriated and impressed. What goes around comes around, Beloff. "I'm still angry with you, you know, for attempting a skill that difficult without me."

Payson guffawed lightly and chanced a look up at him before focusing the mat again, "But now that you know I can still do it and moves like that, you'll work with me on them, instead of just saying no. It was so easy for you to say no to me, like second nature, 'Sasha, can I…', 'No!'" she imitated.

He laughed for a moment, but then grew serious. "Believe me, Payson Keeler, it's not easy at all for me to say no to you," he whispered to her. It was a tone of voice she'd only heard him use one before and it made her heart race. Payson looked up at him, her face a combination of shock and amusement, but he'd set his jaw and she knew he meant business. "Now, do it again. Five more with a stuck landing and then break for lunch." Less amused now, she nodded her head and focused again on the floor and started the tumbling pass again.

"I don't suppose we'll ever really understand it," Kim said to Summer as they turned back to the office after watching Payson complete three flawless tumbling passes in a row.

Summer sighed, knowing that she and Sasha keeping things professional was probably for the best in the long run, "No we won't and I'm not sure that I'd want to."

Chapter 3: Decisions Part 1: At 35,000 Feet

"This is so frustrating," Payson said, as she attempted to store her carry-on in the overhead compartment after fishing around in it for ten minutes trying to find her iPod. Finally, she remembered it was in the suitcase she'd checked at the gate. She pushed at it, but the bag wouldn't budge.

She felt someone move up behind her, "Here, let me," he said, in her ear. A month ago, it would have made her leap out of her skin, but now, she leaned back into him, to allow him room to push the bag into the space above their seats. She felt one of his hands steady her at the waist, while he shoved at the bag with the other. She could feel the heat of his skin through the thin layer of t-shirt that separated his hand from her hip. He's like a walking furnace. She shivered in response, despite the warmth.

"Thanks," she said, and moved into the row, trying to ignore the heat she could feel practically drawing her body into his. She sat down in her seat and turned to see Sasha remove his jacket and sit down beside her. Seems he was feeling a little warm too. Good, maybe he's just as effected as I am. She doubted it.

"So, what's frustrating? Your inability to put your luggage into the overhead or going to Worlds and not being able to compete?" he asked, with a smirk. Stupid, attractive half smile with his ridiculously clear blue eyes that twinkled at her.

She looked at him; her eyes narrowed, but she didn't respond. He chuckled and turned to give the flight attendant his drink order. You, Sasha, you are what's frustrating. It was by unspoken agreement since the morning after she kissed him that they kept certain boundaries. The lines tended to blur every once in a while, but for the most part, they'd both behaved themselves. But there were moments, little things that no one else would think anything of, that sent shivers down her spine. Sometimes he'd just be near and that was enough to make every cell in her body hum in response.

They'd flown coach from Denver to New York and spent the six-hour flight in the smallest airline seats she'd ever seen, practically pressed together from shoulder to ankle, their hands brushing every few minutes, unable or unwilling to get out of each other's way. Now, their flight to Amsterdam was first class, paid for by the National Gymnastics Committee, but still, almost eight hours in a small enclosed space might drive her insane, nine if you counted the car ride from Amsterdam to the site of the World Championships in Rotterdam. The mere thought of it was making her entire body tense.

"Get me a glass of wine," she practically ordered him. The words were out of her mouth before she'd even thought about it.

He looked at her incredulously, "What?"

"The drinking age in the Netherlands is sixteen and I'm seventeen, get me a glass of wine. We're in international waters I'm allowed. I need to relax and that last flight, Sasha, that was not relaxing."

"Well, I don't know, I rather enjoyed it," he said in that low, gravelly tone he used when he was flirting, but before she could respond, he motioned for the flight attendant and ordered her something she'd never heard of before.

"Happy?" he asked.

"Thrilled," she said and ran a hand through her hair which she had taken to wearing down lately, but had quickly developed a nervous habit of running her hands through it.

Sasha sighed, "Look, Payson, I know this isn't how you wanted to go to your first World Championships, but you need to be there. You need to stay on the international gymnastics radar. The media is going to love the idea that you're here to support your teammates, it's a big story, a headline really: 'Payson Keeler takes weekend off from her comeback to coach her teammates at World Championships'."

Payson looked at him, "I know, we've been over it. I just wish I had listened to you in the first place. If I hadn't tried to petition onto the National Team in France, I probably could have done it for Worlds this year, especially with the way I've been landing my routines and now I have to wait until next August for Nationals." She tightened her hand into a fist and pounded lightly on the armrest that separated her from Sasha.

He gently laid his hand over hers and squeezed reassuringly. She relaxed and he slowly intertwined their fingers. Payson felt her breath catch. The sight of her much smaller hand almost entirely enveloped by Sasha's made her stomach flutter pleasantly. His thumb softly brushed continually against the inside of her wrist, a light touch she supposed was meant to calm her, but all it accomplished was heightening her awareness of him.

"Sir, Ma'am, your drinks," the flight attendant said from the aisle and Sasha turned to face her, but didn't take his hand away.

Payson took her glass of wine from the flight attendant and took a large sip. Sasha did the same with his gin and tonic. The touch could not, would not be misinterpreted. It was a caress, something shared between lovers. The flight attendant even smiled indulgently as if she understood something about them. With each brush of his thumb against the sensitive skin of her pulse point, she relaxed further, until she was sure her bones had melted and every bit of tension in her body was gone. There was no one on this flight that would recognize them, no reason to hide anything. No, we don't have to hide this completely inappropriate and amazingly wonderful feeling at all.

She took another sip of wine and sighed.

"Feeling better?" he asked, softly. Most of the people around them were asleep, trying to avoid jet lag on the other end of their eight hour journey. She nodded and smiled lazily. "Get some sleep," he said, putting his own seatback down. She followed suit and thanks to the wonder that is first class, they could fully recline. After the flight attendant brought pillows and blankets and they situated themselves, Sasha took the hand he'd temporarily relinquished and took up the slow rhythm again, and instead of setting all of her nerves on end like his touch had so many times before, it lulled her to sleep.

She woke up somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean and looked to her right to see Sasha awake and clicking away at his laptop. Most of the plane was still asleep. "Working?" she asked, sitting up and leaning over his shoulder to see the screen, her hand resting comfortably on his back, between his shoulder blades.

"Looking up the confirmation numbers for our hotel reservations, unless you'd like to sleep in the lobby?" he responded, not looking up from the screen.

Payson tilted her head in confusion, "I thought I'd be rooming with Kaylie, like in France."

Sasha shook his head, still not looking up at her, "Nope, you've got no official link to the National team besides your temporary coaching status for the Rock, Coach Keeler, so we've got our own rooms."

"Erg – Coach Keeler, promise me that those two words will never be put together again for at least two more years," she said, sitting back in her seat, as he closed his laptop and smiled at her.

"You'd be interested in coaching after the Olympics? After your injury you were adamant that you didn't want to coach." To say he was intrigued was an understatement.

"I didn't want to coach and watch other people achieve something I could only dream about," she said, knowing it sounded extremely selfish. "Does that make me a terrible person?"

Sasha laughed, "No, besides, I firmly believe that to truly understand what makes an Olympic champion, you have to be one or at least have come close. I told you before Payson, like it or not, you're a leader, people listen to you and after all this is over, coaching might be your calling."

Payson smiled. "Maybe I'll coach with you. Now wouldn't that be interesting? I mean who'd be able to resist sending their gymnasts to train under two Olympic gold medalists."

Sasha smiled in return. She's right, now that would be interesting, wouldn't it, Beloff? Coaching side by side with an extremely available, extremely LEGAL Payson Keeler, day in day out, long nights in the gym office – He stopped that train of thought before it spun completely out of control. "You don't want to go to university?"

Payson shrugged, "Not to do gymnastics, could you imagine going from the Olympics to the NCAA? I think I'd kill myself, but do I think a degree would be a good idea, UC Boulder has a phenomenal Integrative Physiology program."

"Integrative Physiology?" Sasha chuckled, he periodically checked up on the girls' grades, but he tended to check for problems and nothing more, but the casual way she mentioned that mouthful of a major made him think that perhaps he should take a look at Payson's again. Was the girl a genius too? "Sounds – difficult."

She laughed, "It's the study of the human body, how it moves, its capabilities, its limitations and how you can use it for a variety of activities, including elite level gymnastics and they actually just changed the name of the department from Kinesiology to Integrated Physiology, if that helps."

Ah, well that word is much more familiar; you're not a complete knuckle dragger, Beloff. Sasha cleared his throat, relieved that she wasn't speaking out some obscure field of study that would make his head spin, "Sounding less and less difficult by the second."

"Yep, not so bad and I imagine it would come in handy as an elite level gymnastics coach, to know exactly how the body can move and bend."

He shifted closer to her, "Now, that's something I could definitely help you with," he murmured, as they both leaned closer together, unlike that moment in the gym months earlier, the buildup was slow, they had time to think about this.

A bad idea, Beloff, very bad. His hand came up to caress her cheek lightly and she leaned into the touch, wanting to be closer to him.

She's seventeen years old. He leaned in and brushed his nose against her cheek, following the path his fingertips had taken. Their noses bumped affectionately and their eyes slipped closed.

You are her coach. "Sasha," she murmured as he brushed her lips lightly, just a simple caress of her bottom lip, their breaths mingling for a moment.

This is the worst boundary you could break, the ultimate betrayal of a coach to his athlete. Her hand came up and caressed the back of his neck lightly, making his entire body shudder in response. He pressed closer, shifting focus from her bottom lip to her top, feeling her respond in kind, her tongue tentatively searching for his.

She is a child!

"Payson," he said, breathlessly moving away and opening his eyes. They both exhaled and leaned their foreheads against each other for support. "I'm sorry, I don't know what I – I'm sorry."

She pulled back from him fractionally, as if she didn't want to lose contact entirely. "No, no it was me too. We said, I said, it would never happen again," she whispered. "This is my fault." She was barely holding it together. He had never seen her look so fragile, not when her back injury initially flared up, not when she thought her Olympic dreams were dead and not when she briefly lost her path after her surgery. He'd done this to her.

Sasha sighed and put a hand on her shoulder, massaging lightly, "No, Payson, this is my fault. I never should have continued with this – whatever this is that we've been doing. It has to stop now. I'm your coach and you are my gymnast." He sat back and ran a hand over his face in frustration.

It was then and there he made a decision. He took a deep breath. "Okay, here's what we do. This," he motioned between them, "this is as inappropriate as it gets. We cannot continue like this."

Payson nodded her head, obviously waiting for him to continue. He liked the expression on her face; it was Payson's focused face, the one she wore while competing. "I agree, we have a mission and it's not just any goal, it's the Olympics."

He turned towards her and took her hand in his, marveling at how much smaller hers was than his, "Right, so this –" he motioned between them again, "it cannot happen," he said and he felt her hand tense under his, "it cannot happen now," he clarified.

Payson looked at him. Is he saying what I think he's saying? She thought of Emily and the bargain she'd made with Damon and how insane and utterly romantic the idea had sounded to her. "A little less than two years." Did I say that out loud?

Sasha sucked in a sharp breath. Two years, old man, two years is a bloody long time. "Two years," he said and looked at her. Is she worth it? Two years of nothing, no one else, celibacy, spending every waking moment with her, not being able to have her. Are you strong enough? Do you want to be? Will she want you in two years? She'll be nineteen and Lord, you'll be almost thirty, old man is right. Even then, two years from now, people will talk. But when did you ever care what people thought about you, Beloff?

She looked their hands, still joined on the seat between them, then back up at him, her dark blue gaze meeting his sky blue. "Sasha?" she asked.

Chapter 4: Decisions Part 2: 6695 on the 6th Floor

"How'd that feel?" Payson asked after Emily warmed up on the uneven bars.

Her friend nodded confidently, "Good, I'm ready to go," she said, more to herself than to her teammate and temporary coach. Payson nodded and stepped away, recognizing Emily entering a competitive zone where conversation would just distract her.

Sasha walked over to her, "What do you think?" he asked, eyeing Emily critically, unobserved by the gymnast herself.

Payson looked up at him; he was standing very close to mask their conversation. Gymnasts didn't need to hear their coaches talking about them during competition, especially one as big as the World Championships. "She's going to nail it," Payson said, under her breath.

He raised his eyebrows, "Yeah?" he asked, looking over at Emily, who was chalking her hands.

"Definitely," Payson said and moved to get the spring board in the right place for Emily to start off the US National team's rotation on the bars. Ellen Beals stood a few feet away glaring in their general direction, as she had since they arrived in Rotterdam.

The flag went up and Emily raised her arms in salute to the judges and proceeded to rock the bars, a small step in her landing notwithstanding, it was a solid routine. Sasha beamed at the gymnast the gymnastics world had called unpolished only a few months ago. "Excellent job, Emily," he said and embraced her.

"Trust," Payson said to the girl who'd grown to be her closest friend at the Rock.

Emily's smile lit up, "Trust," she said and gave Payson a hug. They waited for her score together. The tension was unbearable. Thanks to Beals ridiculous vendetta, Emily led the US team off on bars, a disadvantage since scores tended to build higher and higher on an apparatus, but that routine was excellent. Then Payson heard a shriek from next to her, Emily's eyes had been glued to the board. A 16.4, Emily's new personal best in any competition and a score that would easily qualify her for the uneven bars individual competition at the end of the weekend. Emily then walked away to prepare for the next rotation: beam.

She watched as Sasha followed Andrea Conway onto the platform to help her prepare. Payson looked around for Kaylie who'd be anchoring the team on the event. She should be on the floor somewhere, but Payson didn't see her. Kaylie had been acting strangely since they arrived. She'd said something about a stomach bug at dinner the night before, but she'd seemed fine that morning on the way to the arena. Payson wandered down the tunnel back towards the US locker room. That's when she saw her friend passed out on the floor of the hallway.

"Kaylie!" she screamed, altering a security guard standing down the hallway. He came racing towards her, "Call the trainers, a doctor, someone!" she yelled to him. He understood her well enough and quickly called for help over the radio attached to his shoulder. "Call Sasha, her coach, Sasha Beloff, down from the arena too," she insisted. The guard nodded and called security on the floor to bring the coach as well. Seconds later, a crowd of medical personnel surrounded Kaylie. They were speaking Dutch and Payson couldn't understand a word of it, but Sasha spoke enough German as did one of the EMTs for a loose translation, "He said, she's got a strong pulse, she passed out and hit her head."

Payson shook her head in disbelief and felt Sasha's arm go around her shoulders, practically holding her up. "It's going to be okay, Payson, she's going to be okay."

Ellen Beals stood off to the side of the scene frowning in concern, not just for Kaylie, but for the team as well. They carried a maximum of six athletes and six athletes had to compete on each apparatus for the US team to have a chance at the Gold.

"I'm going with her to the hospital," Sasha said to Payson quietly. She nodded staring at Kaylie, still unconscious, laid out on the stretcher. He kissed the top of her head softly. "I need you to get Emily through this competition, Payson."

Beals had a plan forming in her mind already and it certainly didn't involve Payson Keeler coaching Emily Kmetko through the competition, "You're not going anywhere, Beloff. Someone from the National Committee can accompany Kaylie to the hospital. We need at least two coaches on the floor."

"Payson is here as a coach, it'll be fine," he said, furrowing his eyebrows at Beals.

Beals clenched her teeth as if what she was about to say caused her tremendous pain. "Payson can't be a coach because we need her to compete."

Sasha looked at Beals like she had ten heads, "She can't, thanks to your misguided advice, she isn't on the National team."

Beals held up a hand to silence him. "We listed her as an alternate. The same day I got your ridiculous message that Payson would be coming to World's as a coach, I also got a phone call from the USA Gymnastics accountants. Times are tough and we couldn't afford to send a second alternate, so we listed Payson figuring at best we wouldn't need her and at worst it would be a great PR story."

Payson looked between Sasha and Beals, "But Lauren is the alternate. She's in the stands right now."

Beals shook her head, "She is one of two alternates and we are free to choose which athlete can compete. Lauren is an excellent beamer and a nice gymnast, but Kaylie was our hope for an All Around championship and rumor has it, your All-Around DOD is higher than Genghi Cho's."

Payson sighed, "Someone has a big mouth," she said, looking sideways at Sasha, who'd probably blasted Beals with that information during one of their many battles. He shrugged unapologetically and she rolled her eyes at him.

"Can you do it, Payson?" Beals asked, looking between her and Sasha.

Payson looked at Sasha her meaning clear to him immediately. He nodded, understanding what she'd decided. She turned, taking a deep breath and walked away from them, steeling her mind from thoughts of her friend traveling to the hospital and her other friend sitting in the stands having no idea that she'd just lost the opportunity of a lifetime.

Beals stared at Payson's retreating back and then looked at Sasha. "Well?"

"She'll do it, give me a minute to get her routines down on paper for the judges." Sasha said jogging back towards the floor. It all comes down to this, Beloff. Does she really have it in her? Sod off, of course she does. In just a few minutes the world of gymnastics would be turned upside down.

It was the most incredible thing Sasha had ever seen. A 66.95 on day one and that's with deductions for a hop on her vault landing and connectivity on beam. Nastia Liukin had won gold in Beijing with a 63.325 and Genghi Cho had never scored higher than a 64.00. He sat at the front of the bus, only a seat away from Ellen Beals. It had been an insane night, though it seemed every major competition brought its fair share of heartache and glory. Kaylie had checked out fine at the hospital. She was back at the hotel resting. The Doctors said she was suffering from extreme fatigue, though Sasha thought there was more to it than that. He was going to take a trip there tomorrow morning to consult with them.

Emily had done well enough on both bars and floor to qualify for the individual event finals and the US team was in first place going into the team finals the next day. He turned around and saw the girls sitting together. Lauren was obviously pouting over not being called upon as an alternate. Sasha hoped this might end that scary alliance between Beals and Steve Tanner, what he liked to call his own personal Axis of Evil. Just in front of Lauren, Emily and Payson were sitting silently, both girls practically glowing after the performances they'd given. Payson seemed to feel his gaze upon her and she locked eyes with him. She didn't smile, her expression barely shifted at all, but it was in that moment Sasha knew. She was it for him. Two years from now, five years, whether she wanted him or not, Payson Keeler had captured him body and soul.

He'd been silent for too long on the plane, so she'd given him an out, "Think about it, Sasha, think about it and let me know," she'd said. In that moment he'd felt like they'd reversed roles completely, as if she were the mature, sensible adult giving the young, naïve teenager time to think things through. They'd tabled the issue and it hadn't interfered with their preparation for the event, helping Emily and Kaylie get ready for the biggest competition of their lives, but now he knew and the decision had never really been a choice after all. It just was.

They had all crowded into the elevator together, Emily, Lauren, Beals and the other National team members exiting on the 4th floor, while Payson and Sasha remained in the elevator to the 6th where most of the club coaches had been placed.

Lauren pushed out of the elevator with a huff, obviously in a race to get back to her room, call her father and complain. The rest of the girls hugged Payson and said good night.

"Beloff, see you in the morning," Beals said, her mouth twisting into a sort of smile. "Good night, Payson," Beals said. "I'll be up in a little while for bed check."

The elevator door closed behind her and both coach and gymnast let out a sigh of relief and then looking at each other burst into hysterical, joyous laughter. They laughed during the two floor journey and practically fell off the elevator together, reaching out to support each other.

"A 66.95, almost a 67," Payson did a pirouette in the center of the elevator alcove. "That was the most amazing night of my life."

Sasha leaned against the wall with his arms folded across his chest and just watched her. She flitted and flew back and forth across the floor, just as she had during her floor exercise routine that night, her hands gracefully extended and flowing around her. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

She stopped spinning for a moment and smiled at him, completely unselfconscious under his gaze. She stepped towards him and he uncrossed his arms, letting her in and pulling her close into a tight embrace. She buried her face in his neck and he felt her lips lightly brush his pulse point. They just stood there for a moment relishing the closeness. It was the private celebration of two people who had been through hell together and come out the stronger for it. He sighed, "Two years," he said, and she pulled back to look him in the eye.

She titled her head at him, "Are you sure?"

He nodded, "Yes. Two years, Payson Keeler. We have a mission, together: Olympic gold and once we've succeeded, well then, if you'll have me…" he trailed off as she moved closer to him again.

Her hand crept up to brush against the roughness of his cheek. His eyes drifted closed as he leaned into the sensation, but then suddenly, she was gone. He looked up in confusion and saw that the light indicating an elevator had arrived was lit brightly. "It's probably Beals. Bed check," she said mockingly as she pulled away from him entirely.

It was in fact Ellen Beals and Sasha thanked his lucky stars that Payson was so observant, "What are you two still doing out here?" she asked, more confused than suspicious.

Sasha couldn't help himself. "Sneaking out after curfew." Payson snorted and unsuccessfully tried to mask it with a cough, "Don't tell my mum," he said, rolling his eyes at her. Beals just glared at him.

Payson smiled blindingly at her, using her 'Payson Keeler: Media Darling' smile, "We were talking through each routine from tonight. I still can't believe how high my score was," she said, smiling again at Beals and then turning to Sasha, who could barely contain his laughter.

Beals frowned, "Well, that's very nice, but you should be in bed. We can't have the USA's best hope for All-Around gold sleep deprived the night before team finals."

"You're right," Payson said. Beals smiled and nodded, but seemed unsure of herself. "G'night, Sasha. Miss Beals."

"Coach Beals," she corrected, but Payson had already turned to walk down the hallway and ignored her completely. Beals turned on Sasha.

"Talking through her routines?" Beals asked. "Really, Beloff, that couldn't have waited until morning? She needs her rest."

"Payson is the most focused gymnast on the planet, Ellen, but even she deserves to relive the masterful job she did tonight, completely saving your ass, I might add."

Beals pursed her lips and made to reply with a biting comment of her own, but Sasha was already past her and halfway down the hallway to his room. "I'll see you in the morning, Beloff," she said. He raised his index finger in the air and twirled it around in acknowledgement, but didn't turn around.

Ellen Beals got on the elevator feeling that she'd somehow missed something, like Payson Keeler and Sasha Beloff were in on their own private joke and she was the punch line. She shook her head, "I'm the head coach of this team and we're going to win the Gold medal tomorrow. Keeler and Beloff can laugh their asses off at that if they want."

Chapter 5: A TV Timeout: 2010 World Championships

"Welcome to the Women's Gymnastics World Championships brought to you by Visa. I'm Al Trautwig, alongside Olympic gold medalist, Tim Daggett and Elfie Schlegel. What a night, last night. Can either of you remember a more exciting or controversial start to a World Championships?"

"I can't, Al," Tim Daggett responded, "We started off yesterday wondering whether anyone from the United States would able to challenge Genghi Cho in the All-Around and if anyone would even come close to the Chinese as a team. And last night, what can you say about last night? Payson Keeler, not even scheduled to compete, accompanying her teammates to these World Championships as an assistant to her Coach, a four time Olympic gold medalist himself, Sasha Beloff, gets the call to the bullpen so to speak and quite simply stunned the world of elite gymnastics. A 66.95 yesterday, the highest score ever recorded in an international meet under the new scoring system."

Elfie cut in, "I've watched Payson for a long time. Before her injury she was so powerful, but now she's the most complete gymnast I've ever seen, combining her natural power and her athleticism with a level of artistry that rivals Nastia Luikin. And like you said, Tim, the judges awarded her accordingly with a 66.95."

Al nodded, "Now for those of you new to gymnastics or especially new to this scoring system, a 66.95 is like pitching a perfect game in baseball and striking out each of the twenty-seven batters you face on three pitches. It is as close to perfection this sport has seen in a long time."

Tim took it from there, "You know, Al, when they implemented this new scoring system, everyone said that we'd never see another perfect 10 and that it was a shame, well they're right. Last night Payson Keeler was not deducted even a hundredth of a point on her floor exercise. She completed a flawless routine, which if you know anything about floor exercise, that's almost impossible; there are too many opportunities in a 90 second routine for things to go just a little bit wrong. Now, the routine's start value was a 6.9 and she was given a 10 for execution, so that added up to a 16.9, but a little bit of juice was taken out of the crowd reaction to the score."

"Exactly, when Payson did her floor routine, the other rotations had actually already finished, so she was the only one performing and she had the entire crowd watching her perform to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Waltz and they were silent, she had stunned them into a state of absolute awe and when she finished they were on their feet screaming and yelling. This crowd knows their gymnastics, but there wasn't the eruption that she deserved on her score because they posted a 16.9, not a 10," said Elfie.

Al jumped in, "It is a shame, but it's the way gymnastics works nowadays. Now, Payson Keeler's performance also had a huge impact on the USA's chances to unseat the Chinese team as the gymnastics World Champions in the team competition finals tonight."

Tim took his cue perfectly, adding a laugh of disbelief for effect, "That's right, Al. Payson's scores, a full five points higher than the total you get from the best scores on each apparatus from any of the Chinese gymnasts, have given the US a substantial lead. Usually teams lead other teams by tenths and hundredths of a point, but this lead is nearly insurmountable, despite the fact that China's second through sixths gymnasts have all been outscoring the American team. An absolute disaster would have to occur for the United States and China would have to hit every routine perfectly in order for the USA to lose this Gold medal. Coaches Ellen Beals and Sasha Beloff have to be extremely confident going into today's competition."

"You can add Coach Payson Keeler to that too, because if you noticed yesterday, it was Payson talking to and encouraging the other girls before and after their routines," Elfie finished for them.

"Now, many of you are probably wondering about the condition of US National Champion, Kaylie Cruz. She was taken to the hospital yesterday just prior to the competition and she's going to be just fine."

"Nadia, Marylou, Payson," Al Trautwig started off his broadcast of the Individual All-Around finals. "Two gymnasts who need no introduction beyond their first names and now, a third, who from what we saw during the team competition, Payson Keeler has joined their ranks. Tim Daggett, Elfie Schlegel, we witnessed the United States win their first team world championship since their gold led by Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson two years ago, but the story of these championships has been Payson Keeler."

"She led her team to that gold medal last night with another huge performance, a 65.75 combined score on the four events and another perfect 10 for execution, this time on the uneven bars. I can't imagine what is going through the mind of this young lady right now, but look at her; she looks cool, calm and collected. Just talking to her coach, Sasha Beloff, smile on her face, no tension to be seen, like she's getting ready to go get dinner or watch a movie and not someone about to compete for the individual All-Around World Championship against the best gymnasts in the world," Elfie put in.

"Though if I'd been putting up the scores she's been putting up, if she just hits her routines like she did the last two nights, she knows she'll win this going away. She is simply outclassing the rest of the field," Tim added.

"And she's made it look so easy," Al transitioned, "What's the secret, Elfie?"

"Al, her routines are packed with difficulty from start to finish, but I spoke with Coach Sasha Beloff about Payson's return to gymnastics and he said that when Payson was given the green light to start training again, they realized that in her time out she'd grown an inch and maybe wouldn't be able to get all of her power gymnastics skills back to the level they'd been at. They started from scratch so to speak. In fact, he said Payson spent weeks working on simple skills, level one skills, cartwheels, round-offs and then they focused on the little things, the artistry of her routines, her extensions, her lines and then it was like something just clicked. She was still able to do those power moves, despite the small growth spurt, but the work on her artistry eliminated the small errors she used to make due to her sole focus on the power elements. I said this the night after her record breaking performance during the team compulsory competition, Payson is now the most complete gymnast I have ever seen and she's put the rest of the world on notice, get better, step up your game or get out of my way to the top of the podium."

"Now the United States has three gymnasts who qualified for the individual All-Around competition, obviously, Payson Keeler, but also Andrea Conway and the other surprise of these World Championships, Emily Kmetko, who trains with Payson at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club in Boulder, Colorado under Coach Sasha Beloff. Emily's rise in the ranks would definitely be the story of the competition if not for Payson's complete domination of the field. Two years ago, Emily was training at the local Y and had never competed in an elite level event….."

"Here we are, the final night of the 2010 Women's Artistic Gymnastics World Championships, the individual event finals, where the best of the best on each apparatus will compete to see who claims domination of that event and speaking of domination, Tim Daggett, Elfie Schlegel, two words for you guys: Payson Keeler."

Tim started, "Domination indeed, Al. I feel like I'm just constantly repeating myself, but last night in the individual All-Around, we saw something special. Halfway through this Olympic cycle, it is only two years until the 2012 Olympics and Payson Keeler has thrown down a challenge to every other gymnast in the world. She won the individual All-Around gold medal last night, coming full circle from what she thought was a career ending injury suffered during this year's National Championships. Last night in the All-Around, she and Genghi Cho went head to head, Payson attempting to duplicate her performances and Genghi Cho trying to claw her way back to a title she'd held for the last year, as World Champion. The problem for Cho was that Payson Keeler came here with routines she and Coach Sasha Beloff designed that were just flat out more difficult than anyone else's and really only Payson Keeler is capable of performing. She tied the record she set during team compulsories, a 66.95 and won the All-Around by 4.95 points, which is just simply astounding. I can't think of a gymnast in the world that marries power and artistry the way we've seen her do this competition."

"And another perfect ten in execution, on the uneven bars, the same event she fell on at Nationals and sustained that injury," Al transitioned and looked at Elfie.

"Another perfect ten, Al and it was her last event of the night. Not a leg separation, wobble, under or over extension, perfect distance from the bars, handstands dead on twelve o'clock, knees pressed together, a stuck landing, but most important what was the routine lacked, it lacked any fear of another fall. She attacked the routine from start to finish. She didn't even look up to get her score, she just ran straight into the arms of her coach, Sasha Beloff and they hugged until the crowd started to roar. Then when she saw the 17.0 go up, she just leapt into his arms again. Both athlete and coach were a little misty eyed when they broke the embrace. But who can blame them for shedding a few happy tears, Payson Keeler's performance at these World Championships might be the best performance in any competition by any gymnast in the history of the sport and the event isn't even over yet."

"Two gold medals already and she qualified for all four event finals, so the possibility for more," Al added, "Now, the other surprise from last night, although maybe we shouldn't be surprised since this young lady trains in the same gym as Payson and while she didn't medal last night, Emily Kmetko finished fifth in the All Around competition."

"Sasha Beloff and his girls from the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club, they're just taking the world by storm. Emily Kmetko, a great story, like we said last night, two years ago she was training in a community center, last night she placed fifth and if she gets the degree of difficulty up on her balance beam routine, she is going to be a force to reckoned with during the second half of the 2012 Olympic cycle."

"And there you have it, folks, the 2010 World Championships in Women's Artistic Gymnastics come to an end and what an end. Payson Keeler finishing the meet the way she started it, with gold. And it was a very successful World Championships for the United States on both the men's and women's side. The women's team won gold, the men's team silver, Payson Keeler and Austin Tucker from the United States both took the gold in the All-Around, Nicky Russo with the silver in the All-Around as well. And then, well the event finals read like a laundry list of accomplishments for Team USA. Austin Tucker, gold on the rings, gold on the parallel bars, bronze on the floor. Nicky Russo, bronze on rings, gold on high bar, and gold on pommel horse. For the women, Andrea Conway, a bronze on balance beam and a surprise, Emily Kmetko, a silver medal on the uneven bars and then the great, Payson Keeler, silver on the balance beam, gold on the floor exercise, silver on the vault and finally, gold on the uneven bars with her fourth perfect ten of the weekend and third on that specific event. An amazing meet for the United States, there just aren't words to describe this." Al Trautwig said, "But Tim, Elfie, try for us."

Tim shook his head, "No one saw this coming. This is the finest team of athletes the United States has ever put together, especially when you look at the men and women together. Seventeen medals at these World Championships, well above any expectations that were set. If I'm the head of the US National Committee, the only thing that would make this better would be if the Olympics were tomorrow and not two years from now. Although, barring injury, there isn't any reason any of these athletes won't be in London in 2012. They are just too good."

"Incredible, just incredible," Elfie added, "Payson Keeler, just months ago thought she'd never be able to do gymnastics again and today she's taking home six medals, four of them gold and is the World Champion of her sport. It's the most amazing sports story I've ever heard."

"Thanks everyone for joining us for these World Championships. A statement was made this weekend, USA gymnastics is back and better than ever. This is Al Trautwig with Tim Daggett and Elfie Schlegel saying good night everyone from Rotterdam."

Chapter 6: The Calm Before the Storm

Life was never going to be the same again. Not for the Keeler family, anyway. Only days after her World Championship win, MJ Martin had called, insisting that the Payson and her parents meet with her, "I'll make it worth your while," MJ said and she had.

The package that she had put together was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements and sponsorships. Huge companies like Rolex, Audi, Nike and the one which had made Payson's Dad blush furiously, Victoria's Secret, had come knocking, all wanting Payson to endorse their products.

"Mom, if we sign these contracts, this is guaranteed money, no catches, no withdrawals," Payson said, imploringly. Both her parents were unreadable, their stoic expressions causing Payson to panic a little. How can they not see that this is a no brainer? This kind of money is something no one can turn down.

MJ nodded in agreement, "Mrs. Keeler, Mr. Keeler, I'll tell you what I tell many parents of elite young athletes, if you're concern is NCAA eligibility and paying for university, take the first $100,000 and put it in a extremely low risk investment, even a savings account, where it'll gain minimal interest, but won't be at any risk at all. I will tell you though, this package I've put together for you, it's worth at least half a million dollars and that's just the companies who expressed interest before she got hurt and renewed that interest after she won her World Championship. There are at least a dozen more requests waiting for me back at my office and while I was on my way over here, I got a call from Gatorade."

"Mom, Dad, she's talking about Nike and Gatorade, not some leotard company or a car dealership, this is too big. You can't say no."

MJ could see they were still wavering, "Look, I know what you all went through when Payson got hurt. It was absolutely devastating. Now, it's my job to look at things in dollars and cents. Think about the sacrifices your family has made, financially and in other ways for Payson's gymnastics and it could all be gone, in a blink. Your family deserves this. You've all given too much to Payson's cause to not cash in while you can. Now, not to be blunt, but these are one year sponsorships to be renewed by mutual agreement after next year's World Championships. Now is the time to take this money. No one knows what will happen in the future."

So a week later, when Payson pulled into the Rock parking lot, at her usual 5 a.m., in a brand new Audi Q7, no one was surprised, least of all Sasha.

"Nice wheels," he said, as she pulled up next to his trailer. "No convertible? I thought that was the car of choice for Rock gymnasts," he mocked gently. She rolled her eyes at him and parked the car before walking back towards his trailer.

"Shredded Wheat?" she asked, with her eyebrows raised. "At least it's for breakfast."

"Yep, the breakfast of a man who no longer has sponsorships or endorsements. What's with the SUV though? Audi makes sports cars, don't they?"

She looked at him closely, "We live in Colorado, Sasha. Lauren and Kaylie love their convertibles in the summer, but their parents have to drive them around in the winter because their cars can't handle the snow. My car will take me where I want to go, whenever I want to go there, no matter the weather, not depending on Mommy to chauffeur me around."

Sasha smiled at her practicality. "Smart move," he said through another spoonful of Shredded Wheat.

"Yes, I thought so. Listen, I spoke with MJ this morning," she said and Sasha groaned. He absolutely hated the idea of MJ getting her claws into Payson. "Hear me out, I know you don't like her, but she is the best agent for Olympic athletes in the world."

He grunted in response, but she glared at him. Rolling his eyes, he waved his hand, asking her to continue.

"I told her I'm going to take one week off of training, next week. She can schedule whatever she wants to schedule as far as endorsements, commercials, print ads, whatever and then I'm done. One week is all they get. Anything that doesn't fit into the week is not going to happen. We'll schedule another week 'off' in a couple of months and then I'm done completely with sponsors until Nationals next August."

Sasha nearly choked on his cereal. He coughed a few times to clear his airways and shook his head at Payson. "And she agreed to this?" he asked once he regained the ability to breathe.

"Of course she did," Payson said, as if it were completely obvious. She told MJ, the bossiest, most controlling woman you've ever met exactly how it was going to be, Beloff. He would have liked to see that.

"You're telling me you told MJ Martin to do something that probably made her want to cry and she's going to do it."

Payson shrugged, "She works for me, not the other way around. It was the commission she gets off of the two weeks' worth of work or nothing. She chose Plan A."

Sasha sat back in his chair and admired her, "Payson Keeler, you are a force to be reckoned with."

She curtseyed dramatically, "Thank you, thank you," she said and then looked up from her exaggerated bow, "Can we go train now?"

"Absolutely," he said. "Go unlock the place while I clean up," he said, tossing her his keys. She caught them deftly and jogged towards the front doors. He just stood there for a moment, shaking his head, and then set about cleaning up his mess from breakfast. They were just two weeks out since her historic win in Rotterdam, but so much had changed. They now operated under a comfortable understanding that their time together was inevitable, which made it so much easier to work, there was no underlying tension. Their dynamic was different too, it was as if the lines of coach and student had blurred and they were simply a team, equals working together towards one goal.

The same could not be said for Lauren Tanner, who had taken her anger at being passed over as alternate and tried to channel it into her gymnastics, but it wasn't the controlled fire she had in the past. It was an all encompassing inferno that would burn anything and anyone in its path. She was getting reckless and if she didn't rein it in, she was going to injure herself. You need to figure something out for her and soon, Beloff.

Someone he wasn't all that concerned about was Emily. Her gymnastics was getting much more consistent and she was working on a new beam routine, the weakness at Worlds that had kept her off the podium that night. She'd gained a tremendous about of confidence on one of the biggest stages their sport had to offer and nothing could take that away.

And then there was Kaylie, who Sasha suspected had a major eating disorder, but could not get the doctors in Rotterdam to confirm it for him. She's too thin, old man. You've got to talk to Alex or Ronnie or both, that is if they're speaking to each other this week. Not only was Kaylie too thin, but since Worlds her dedication to gymnastics seemed to be slipping. She'd called in sick a few times; she wasn't committed to improving her current routines or increasing their degree of difficulty. She was allowing herself to become irrelevant and that was unacceptable. She was an extremely talented gymnast who still had a great chance at going to the Olympics, if only she'd rededicate herself and do it in a healthy way.

Sasha's train of thought broke as soon as he entered the gym. Payson had obviously gotten started without him. She was seated on the mats stretching out her limbs, humming a song to herself.

He helped her through his stretching routine, something that tortured him at first, but soon he realized that conversation eased the tension, "So which sponsors have you next week?"

She groaned as he rotated her feet in every direction, stretching her Achilles tendon, "Nike, Cover Girl and Victoria's Secret. And it's not a sponsor, but I have a photo shoot with Sports Illustrated too."

Sasha stopped rotating her feet, "Victoria's Secret, the er – lingerie company?"

She tapped his chest with her feet impatiently and he turned them again for her, "Yes, the lingerie company. Apparently, they find me, what was the word their rep used? Oh, 'marketable,' he said"

Sasha snorted. Of course they found her marketable, she's the first champion gymnast they've ever seen with a set of – whoa there, Beloff, calm down. "And your Dad is letting you do this?"

She smiled up at him, kicking her feet out of his grasp and standing. "Yes, Sasha, he is. It's not Playboy, it's underwear. I prance around on National television in a leo, this isn't much different."

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, the possibilities flying through his head, "Yes, Payson, it's very different," he said, looking at her square in the eye.

She stopped for a moment and looked at him strangely, "Sasha, are you trying to say that you don't want me to do it?" There was a dangerous lilt to her voice that warned him to tread carefully.

He shook his head, "No, I wouldn't, uh – presume to tell you what to do, Payson." Of course you would, you sod. You're her coach, you can tell her exactly what to do. "I just don't think…" he trailed off, knowing he didn't have a leg to stand on and the only argument he wanted to use was sure to piss her off royally.

"You don't think, what exactly?" she asked, her arms crossed over the part of her anatomy that obviously drew the interest of the Victoria's Secret reps. It was a battle stance if he ever saw one.

"Nothing, I think you'll be beautiful in whatever it is they're having you do."

She snorted in amusement, "Good answer," she said and then laughed a little. "It's nothing crazy, no baby dolls or pushup bras," she assured him. "They're creating a line of sports bras and while I'll admit they're nicer looking then the current stuff out there now, it's not exactly lace and silk."

Sasha let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Payson, why didn't you just say so?"

She smiled and stepped closer to him, "Because it was fun to see you squirm. Besides, the thing you really should be worried about is the SI shoot."

He raised his eyebrows, "Oh and why is that?"

"It's for the swimsuit issue," she said and turned away from him to start her conditioning circuits.

He wasn't to be deterred, however. He followed her onto the floor. Who the hell is this girl and what happened to the shy gymnast who didn't want to wear a dress to the gym's fashion show fundraiser? "The swimsuit issue? You really think that's wise?"

She was walking back towards him in a handstand, so responding wasn't an option until she stood up again, "Lots of future and former Olympians have done it. It publicizes the sport and frankly it's an honor to be asked. It's not an entire spread or anything, just one picture. I'm also doing a feature article with them for the regular magazine about Rotterdam, if that makes you feel any better," she said and patted him on the arm.

He twisted his mouth into a slight pout, "It doesn't."

Payson took some pity on him, "Sasha, you realize this is a good thing, right? Girls who look like me, they don't get asked to do the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. The average height of one of those models is probably 5'9". This is presenting beauty in a different way, from a different perspective, not letting people define what's beautiful as just a 5'9", size zero with breasts bigger than her own head."

He frowned again, "MJ tell you that one?"

She raised her eyebrows at him, "No, Sasha, that one was all me. You can stop worrying about your ex-girlfriend being a bad influence on me."

"Wait, what, how did you, did MJ?" he stuttered incoherently.

She threw up her hands in frustration, "Haven't you ever Googled yourself? Even if you haven't, everyone in the gymnastics world knows about you two. It's legendary: the young, European All Around champion and his agent, who then dumped him for his American competition, which spurred him on to win four Gold medals in Sydney. Did you forget I live in the same world you do? Elite gymnastics is a small world, too small for something like that not to get around." She walked away from him, starting her circuit from scratch since he completed disrupted it.

He just stood there, his arms still crossed. "Do two sets, if you're going to be in a bikini in front of the entire world…" he trailed off and she stuck her tongue out at him as she took off across the mat again.

Suddenly the gym filled with the chorus from Kid Rock's American Badass. He looked around and realized it was coming from Payson's gym bag. Huh, didn't figure her for a Kid Rock fan. "Payson, no cell phones on the floor, do three circuits," he called to her, but ate his words when the phone in his pocket started to ring as well. Then suddenly he heard the office phone start to ring. Payson stopped her circuit again and looked at him expectantly.

"Are you going to answer one of the three phones ringing right now?" she asked. "That's Austin's ringtone on mine, no idea why he's calling me when he knows I'm training already." Huh, clever girl, Austin Tucker, the American Badass. Wonder what my ringtone is? Wait, why was Austin Tucker calling her at 5:30 in the morning?

He looked at his own phone and saw it was Kim Keeler, "Hi Kim, why are you calling me and not your daughter?" he said, drawing a laugh from Payson.

"Kim, slow down, the Romanian coach did what? I am going to kill that son of a bitch. It's on ESPN?" He looked at Payson and her eyes were wide with fear. She thinks someone caught us, Beloff. Reassure her. He quickly shook his head, hoping that would belay her fears until he could hang up with Kim. "Kim, Payson is right here, we're going to check out the news in the office." He hung up and pocketed his phone.

"Austin texted me, he said to turn on ESPN. What happened? It's not about you and me is it?" she mumbled as they raced up the stairs to the gym office.

He grabbed the remote control and tuned to ESPN, "No, it's not about you and me, but well, watch."

The anchor was seated at a desk; next to his head was a gymnastics graphic, "The International Gymnastics World was stunned by the virtual American sweep at the World Championships two weeks ago. Now, through no fault of their own, the American team is coming under scrutiny as information has come to light that the Romanian head coach, Andrei Petrescu, along with other Romanian gymnastics officials bribed several judges to underscore the Chinese gymnasts in both the men's and women's competition. Now, the investigation is still preliminary and the implications for the American gymnasts are still unclear. The one thing we do know is the 2010 World Championships are now tainted."

Chapter 7: Deductive Deductions

It wasn't long before the gym was packed and buzzing over ESPN's report that morning. No one knew any more specifics, but rumors were flying, some ridiculous like the World Championships would be held again, like a 'do over,' others more realistic, that there would be an investigation and possibly a reordering of medals based upon what the FIG found. Even the realistic rumors were scaring the crap out of everyone.

"What if they take away our medals?" Emily asked Payson as they loitered around the balance beam.

Payson patted her on the shoulder, "That is not going to happen. The Romanians bribed the officials, not us. We had nothing to do with it. We didn't break the rules; they can't punish us for something someone else did."

Emily nodded, but Lauren couldn't help but put her two cents in, "You never know. They stripped the Chinese of their bronze medal from 2000." She knew it was pointless to point out to Lauren that it was the IOC, not the Federation of International Gymnastics who stripped the Chinese team of their bronze from the Sydney games, but the smug look on her face made Payson want to leap over the beam and smack her.

Payson watched as Emily's eyes grew wide with worry at the thought of losing her hard earned silver medal. Payson wasn't all that concerned about her own performances compared to the Chinese team, but Emily had edged out Genghi Cho for silver on the uneven bars by five hundredths of a point and the fourth place finisher, another Chinese gymnast had been behind Genghi Cho by a mere hundredth of a point. It was so close that if they reevaluated the routines, Emily could be knocked off the podium entirely.

"Sasha isn't going to let that happen," Kaylie said dully, as if she knew she had to say the words, but didn't believe them.

Suddenly, a loud crash was heard from the gym office and they heard Sasha's voice yelling in a language foreign to them all, but sounded a lot like Romanian.

"I didn't know Sasha spoke another language," Lauren said.

"Four actually," Payson told her, as she walked towards the gym office.

Lauren nodded, distracted by the new knowledge, "Huh, that's a lot."

Emily's eyes grew even wider as she watched Payson climb the steps off the gym floor towards the office, "Where is she going?" she hissed at Emily and Lauren. "Is she crazy? He'll kill her."

Payson approached the door slowly, but confidently. She heard Sasha still speaking, obviously on the phone. It was definitely Romanian. She'd been in rotation with a few of the Romanian gymnasts during the All-Around competition and that's exactly what they sounded like, a mix of French and Russian. It was more than a little sexy.

He was sitting at his desk, saw her in the doorway and waved her in, indicating for her to close the door behind her. "Inacceptabil. Voi suna mâine. Da, la revedere.*"( Unacceptable. I'll call tomorrow. Yes, goodbye.)

He hung up and she tilted her head at him, "Well?" she asked, concern etched across her pretty face. Sasha ran a hand over his face in frustration and then picked up a pencil on his desk and began twirling it between his fingers.

"I called a friend of mine, a club coach in Romania with no official ties to their National team. It looks like they definitely bribed the judges, but miscalculated. They didn't view us a threat, so they only included the scores for the Chinese team in the terms of their agreement. A few of the judges that weren't in on the collusion realized what was going on during the competition and reported the discrepancies to FIG. They're going to take it from there."

"This is really getting to Emily. You should talk to her," Payson said.

Sasha grimaced, "Damn it, this is the last thing she needed." He slammed the pencil back down on his desk." I want to look over the tapes of the event, score the routines myself. Hopefully get a handle on what exactly FIG is looking at."

"Any word from Beals or the National Committee?" Payson asked. Maybe they'll have some information we don't.

Sasha nodded, "They're still in the dark and I'm not about to share what I know. Like I said, I want to check the footage first." Suddenly a brilliant idea popped into his head, "Stay late? There's some popcorn and a judging sheet with your name on it." Subtle, very subtle, Beloff, you aren't supposed to be having romantic evenings, not yet. You could use her eye though. She's an excellent evaluator and it would be good for both of you to be able to drop the pretense for a couple of hours, wouldn't it?

Payson smiled and nodded, "Absolutely, I want to know exactly how this happened. You didn't happen to get a -"

"An official copy of the statement of results?" he said, sitting back in his chair with a self-satisfied grin. He picked up a binder and spun it on his hand. "Made sure to grab one on my way out of the arena on that last night."

It was then she gave him this look, one he hadn't seen her wear before, at least not with this level of intensity. He knew that if they were alone, really alone, she'd have crossed the room, pinned him to his chair and snogged the living hell out of him. He raised his eyebrows and smiled at her knowingly.

She blushed prettily and turned to look out the glass door at her friends still standing by the beam staring at her in disbelief and a little bit of awe. She sighed lightly. "I better get back. We could use your presence on the floor. It's freaking everyone out that you're in here screaming your head off in Romanian. No one is getting any training done at all."

He nodded, "I'll be out in a minute. Listen; spread the word that I'm working on it okay? I don't want everyone speculating without knowing that I'm on top of this." His brow was furrowed, a sure sign that he was concerned and much more than he was letting on. She resisted the urge to walk towards him and brush the worry lines away with a touch or a kiss. Control, I've got to stay in control of myself.

"Sure," she said, looking back out on the floor. Nearly everyone was looking at her, but when they realized she'd seen them, they quickly averted their eyes.

Payson made her way back towards the beam where her friends were still waiting. She was silent for just a moment, but Lauren couldn't contain herself longer than that, "Well? What did he say?"

Payson grimaced, wishing she had more information, "He said he's working on it and that he's depending upon us to set an example and focus on training. Hopefully everyone else will follow our lead."

The other girls nodded and began to circulate, and slowly the other gymnasts went about their daily routines. Ten minutes later when Sasha emerged from the office and surveyed the floor, everyone practically stopped and stared. "Is everyone done chit chatting or should I go back in my office and give you another ten minutes or so?" he demanded harshly with the perfect combination of sarcasm and gravitas. His voice echoing through the Rock sent every scurrying to their tasks.

"Kmetko, on the beam," Sasha called out sending the other girls training near the beam racing out of his path. It's better to be respected than to be feared, Beloff. But fear works too.

Emily came jogging over from the water cooler, "Yes, Sasha."

He looked at her, trying to find a trace of the anxiety Payson had mentioned and there it was, written across her face, clear as day. The old insecurity he thought she'd conquered was back. He took a deep breath. "We're going to start working on a new acrobatic skill for your beam routine today. A front tuck salto from both feet." He regretted the choice of skill already, but it was something she needed to do.

"Sasha, another blind landing, I…" she trailed off at the look he was giving her. He raised his eyebrows. "Okay, where do we start?" she asked.

"On the tape," he said, pointing to the line of white tape on the floor next to the balance beam. "Show me one." She did the skill, slowly, but perfectly. "Good, ten more, increasing the speed each time. I'll send Tara over here in a little while; make sure your hitting it consistently on the line before lunch break today."

Sasha began to walk away from Emily, but stopped himself, "Emily," he said and she turned to look at him. "The Chinese think they've got you figured out. They're already planning next year's World Championships, breaking down the American athletes, looking for weakness. You're going to go to World's next year and absolutely nail the beam. It starts today with the front tuck salto, but this is a long term plan. We're going to make you an All-Around gymnast, Emily and the world isn't going to know what hit them."

She smiled and then her eyes focused behind him on whoever was running down to the vault full speed. He turned and watched Payson land her Straight Yurchenko with a double twist. "How does she do it?" he heard Emily mumble. Payson landed easily and frowned, looking at the horse unhappily.

Sasha saw his opening, "She does it because she's fearless. I believe that's something you helped her with, Kmetko." They watched Payson run down the line again, this time for her Produnova, the ridiculously difficult vault that helped her win at Worlds. Emily turned back to tape on the floor, "If she can fly through the air full speed on a Produnova, I can do this fucking front tuck salto," he heard her mutter.

He decided to pretend he hadn't heard the profanity and walked away. He saw Payson coming towards him and he nearly groaned. He knew that look. "No," he said and walked away, "At least not today."

Payson gaped at him incredulously, "You don't even know what I was going to say."

He pursed his lips and quirked an eyebrow at her, "You want to add a half twist to your Yurchenko landing."

Her jaw dropped. He just walked away chuckling to himself. He knew she was staring at his back as he made his way towards the floor where Kaylie was once again going through the motions. His smile faded. She really was too thin and she was losing muscle tone. He didn't even bother to address the major problems in her routine. He knew something drastic needed to happen soon. He made a mental note to call Alex as soon as he went back into the gym office.

He turned away from Kaylie just in time to see Lauren flying down towards the vault, springing off the board and chucking herself into the same vault Payson had done, the straight Yurchenko double twist, except instead of measuring the power she generated off the springboard, she simply struck it as hard as she could, sending herself reeling onto the mats in a heap, missing the apparatus entirely. Sasha had enough. He marched over to her and led her away from the group of girls waiting to work in.

He wasn't going to yell. She expected him to yell. He was going to whisper. "Do you think that was impressive? Do you think that I'm somehow in awe of your powerful springboard jump over the horse?" She opened her mouth to respond, but he kept going, "You were an alternate at the Worlds because your head is always on anything and everything other than your gymnastics and you weren't asked to compete because you let your emotions get the better of you when it counts. Either get it together, Lauren or you can kiss 2012 goodbye."

"Sasha." He looked up to see Kim Keeler beckoning him from the platform outside the office. He left Lauren standing there absolutely speechless.

"What's up?" he asked, walking into the office and seeing Summer hard at work at something that resembled the scrapbooks his mum used to make.

"We've been fielding phone calls all morning, people looking for interviews with you and, well anyone who was in Rotterdam really, even Lauren."

"I hope you've been refusing them?" he asked, looking through the stack of messages.

"Of course we have, but we also got a call from MJ." Sasha made a face and Kim laughed, knowing and understanding his dislike for the agent. "I know, but she called to say that Sports Illustrated wants to expand the article they were going to do on Payson to an article about the Rock gymnasts and their coach."

Summer finally looked up from her glue gun, "I think it's a good idea. It'll save Payson the difficulty of having to answer all the questions the reporter will have about the controversy on her own and it'll be easier to present a human side to the story, when the reporter sees how close you all are and how the Rock is more like a family than anything else," she said, quickly going back to strategically placing drops of hot glue on the the large red star she was using as the mounting for a picture of Emily at the World Championships.

Sasha snorted, "A large, loud, slightly incestuous, completely dysfunctional family," he muttered just low enough so Summer couldn't hear him, but Kim did and she barked out a laugh. And you're the biggest culprit, Beloff, the rest of them just don't know it. Oh, shut up. "Tell MJ we'll do it."

"Ladies, I have a phone call to make and it concerns a private medical issue with one of the girls. It shouldn't take too long, but would you mind stepping out?"

They both looked confused at his odd request, but quickly left the room. Now, this phone call is going to be the most difficult thing you do all day, Beloff. Don't muck it up. He dialed the number and waited, "Alex, Sasha Beloff calling. Listen, do you have a minute to talk about Kaylie?"

"And what did he say?" Payson asked as she lounged on the futon they'd moved from against the office wall to in front of the television.

"Confidential, sorry," he said and she shrugged. "I can tell you that he took me seriously though. You'll probably get a text or a call from Kaylie tonight."

"Probably not, knowing Kaylie she'll be too angry at everyone to call. She'll just lock herself up inside her room." Payson shook her head and sighed, leaning back up against the armrest and resting her head against the high back, watching him pour the popcorn into a bowl. "I'm sorry; can we just not talk about Kaylie right now? She's one of my best friends, but sometimes…" she trailed off, her meaning clear. She moved her feet up so he could sit.

"Okay, time to work then. You've got the official scores, let's go," he said, taking a seat next to her and then depositing her feet in his lap. They watched the first rotation of the Chinese gymnasts carefully.

"Stop, stop it back a couple of seconds," Payson said, grabbing the scoring sheet. She quickly deciphered the score Genghi Cho got from one of the judges. "Look right there, on that split jump, one judge deducted, I guess for lack of flexibility, it's a ticky-tacky call, borderline at best, but only one judge did it. I think they judged that legitimately and it's just a hundredth of a point. Then look at her landing on the dismount." He tracked through the footage and found her dismount. "Look, she took a small hop on the landing. Three of the six judges took one tenth; the other three took three tenths off. I know judging is subjective, but she only hopped an inch or two. They're trying to mask what they're doing."

"It's brilliant, really," Sasha said, looking over her shoulder at the binder, "they didn't deduct for nothing, no imagined errors, they simply piled harsher deductions onto errors that were already there."

Payson sighed, "If all of them are like this, Sasha, it's going to be really hard for FIG to prove, other than someone confessing." Payson bit her lip, trying to hold down the question she'd wanted to ask him all day, but she wasn't able to. "I'm going to ask you something, as my coach, not as well – anything else, so be brutally honest."

Sasha looked at her curiously and nodded his agreement, "Go on then," he said, intrigued.

"Do you think they posted higher scores for me to try to distract from the fact that they were underscoring the Chinese?"

It was a serious question, one that Sasha didn't have the answer to. He took a deep breath and sighed, "It's possible and I'd be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind." She nodded, biting her lip. "But, Payson, purely on the gymnastics side of this, throw the scores out the window. You were absolutely incredible. We could watch the routines, but they'd tell me what I already know, your technique was stunning and your execution was flawless."

Payson pursed her lips in disbelief, "Execution is never flawless. Sasha, they gave me a ten for execution on the floor exercise. That's like I don't know, there's nothing even to compare it to, but I know I had some errors in that routine, not enough to change the way things turned out, but there were errors."

He shook his head, "It doesn't matter. I absolutely forbid you to feel badly about this. You are the best gymnast in the world and you performed up to and beyond that standard."

She looked at him for a long moment. Suddenly, the energy seemed to shift in the room. Swirling emotions were one thing, those were easily calmed, but this was different, this was a white hot cord of energy linking one body to another. Payson felt her breath catch from it. She leaned in and brushed a soft kiss on his cheek, trying to ease the electric currents running through her body. "Thank you," she said. She barely got the words out before his mouth was upon hers. This kiss was different from their others. She hadn't taken him by surprise and he hadn't begun slowly, as if asking for permission. This was a complete and utter possession of her by him. He pulled her closer and she readily complied, as she shifted over him.

Her long blonde hair created a curtain around them as she moved astride his legs, his arms coming around her, pulling their bodies flush together. He buried a hand in her hair, practically anchoring her to him, while his other hand ran down her back coming to rest at the small of her back. Her breasts pushed up enticingly against his chest. Their tongues battled for dominance over the other, their teeth sometimes clashing in their furious need to get closer.

As they came up for air, he latched on to her neck, "Don't leave a mark," she managed to breathe, shifting her hips forward, creating a devastating friction between their bodies. "Sasha," she murmured in his ear, fueling his need to be even closer to her. He shifted slightly and groaned in pleasure when he felt his thigh push between her legs. She threw her head back in pleasure, never having felt anything quite so intense before.

Then, much like at the hotel in Rotterdam, she was suddenly gone, on the other side of the futon, reaching for the remote and pressing play. A half second later, when he regained his senses more fully, he saw that someone had turned on the gym's fluorescent lights and he heard the telltale click-clack of high heeled shoes on the metal stairwell. He looked at her wide eyed, even more thankful than before that she was so observant.

"Sasha, oh, hi Payson, what are you still doing here?" Summer asked as she entered the office, completely oblivious to the tension in the room that could be cut with a knife.

"We're looking at the footage from Rotterdam and comparing it to the official record submitted by the judges after the meet trying to locate the discrepancies," Payson calmly explained, though her face was still flushed and her lips were swollen in a way that screamed she'd just been thoroughly kissed.

"Sounds interesting," Summer said, obviously not nearly as enthusiastic about the idea of assessing minuscule details of elite gymnastics routines. "Any luck?"

Sasha finally spoke up, "Yes, we think we understand their strategy, but we've only been through one rotation so far."

She smiled encouragingly, "Well, don't let me interrupt you. I just came back for the scrapbook I've been working on. Good night, you two. Don't work too hard."

They didn't sigh in relief until they heard the door to the gym close.

"Well, that was close," he muttered and Payson couldn't help it, she began to laugh. After looking at her for a moment, he joined her. Yes, you're laughing now, but one of these days you're going to get caught, Beloff. And then what? Think about that tomorrow. Right now, you've got a conspiracy to figure out.

"Come on, let's finish this. I want to be able to tell Emily that she earned her silver medal tomorrow," Payson said, picking up the binder again and fast forwarding to the event finals on uneven bars. Sasha nodded and picked up his pen, ready to score the routine and compare it to the official book.

Tomorrow, after he and Payson documented their proof, he'd call his old friend, Andrei and blast the bastard into the next century.

Chapter 8: Oh my God

Payson groaned when she heard her cell phone alarm go off. Why is it so easy for me to get out of bed for training, but for the three days I've been in LA,I can barely get out of bed hours after I normally get up. Oh, wait, I know why, because this sucks.

She looked around the room, her suit case was packed and she was mostly ready to go after her final commitment of the three day torture trip. Photo shoots, interviews, two commercials, and constant phoniness from the people she was working with, it was all enough to make her long for home and even the petty drama that came with training at the Rock.

"Tomorrow, I'll be home tomorrow. Tomorrow morning I'll wake up and go straight to the Rock. Sasha'll be there eating his Shredded Wheat and everything will go back to normal," she said out loud. The thought of going home was enough motivation to force her out of the king sized hotel bed.

On her way to the shower, she noticed she had a text from Emily. It said: Come home soon, save me from the crankiest coach in the world!

Payson snorted and texted her back quickly: B home tmrw. Can't wait. Txt u b4 I leave.

She smiled at the thought of a cranky Sasha marching around the Rock barking out orders at the gymnasts. Maybe he misses me. Ha. More likely he's been in a state of near constant frustration and he's taking it out on the people around him. Payson sighed. She was frustrated too.

Their latest kiss, you couldn't even call it a kiss, but Payson cringed at the idea of calling it a make-out session, so she'd settled on the word, encounter. Just thinking about their last encounter made her heart race. Their attraction was like a force of nature and it seemed that there were moments when they both were incapable of controlling it. She sighed, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror and then yanking her hair out of the ratty ponytail. She looked down at her new pajamas, courtesy of her endorsement deal with Victoria's Secret. He'd probably like this little number better than the flannel set with the sheep on them. Not that Sasha would be seeing her in her pajamas any time soon. It was something they'd talked about, before she left.

They were in the trainer's room long after everyone had left for the night, using the convenient excuse of staying late to work on a new, more creative uneven bars mount. After examining the footage of the World Championships, they'd realized that Payson's margin of victory should have been much smaller and she wasn't going to let Genghi Cho gain any ground in the year before the next World Championships. No one would question Payson's work ethic. They had worked on her mount for the bars, for about an hour, but when they found themselves in the trainer's room looking for a wrap for Payson's hand to cover a blister, things had quickly spiraled out of control.

"Hop up there, I'll wrap your hand for you," he said, fighting with the plastic container that held the bandage wrapping. It finally came free and he grinned at her in triumph.

Laughingly, she held out her hand for him. He expertly wrapped her hand, tightly enough where it wouldn't come loose, but remaining flexible so she could train with it.

"Thank you," she said, flexing her hand to make sure she had the range of motion she needed.

"No problem." He reached around her, to grab the empty container, but he never quite got there. They immediately realized just how close their bodies were, the proximity practically raising the temperature of the room. Someone leaned forward, or perhaps they both did.

Each time their attraction boiled over, they seemed to find a new way to kiss each other. That night in the trainer's room, their mouths met in wet, hot, slow kisses, their tongues sensually dancing together. The only sounds were that of their lips parting and coming together again repeatedly. For the first time, Payson felt like they were building towards something. His hands ran down her, grazing the sides of her breasts lightly and finally grasping at her thighs. She took the cue and wrapped her legs around him, pulling him in closer. "Payson," he groaned and renewed his deliberate assault of her mouth. She didn't know how it happened, but she found herself lying back on the table. Her hands were roaming freely now, creeping under the back of his shirt, raking her nails lightly along his back, his held firmly at her hips, slowly rotating their lower bodies together. Payson could feel the evidence of his arousal pressing against her. They both pulled back for a moment and simply stared at each other, breathing heavily.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. "We have to stop," Sasha murmured. She felt herself deflate a bit and closed her eyes. He brushed his lips against her forehead and helped her off the table.

She put a hand to her chest, willing her heart rate to slow. "We can't keep doing this," she said, still breathless. "We said we'd wait. That we'd put this aside until the Olympics."

He stood in front of her, hands on his hips, rolling his tongue between his teeth in thought. "You're right. We're breaking all the rules here, even the ones we made. This, it would be a major distraction for you, worrying about getting caught or if we argued. No, there's a reason there is a no dating rule in this gym and I suppose it applies to me as well."

She laughed, but grew serious as she spoke, "Only if you're dating one of your gymnasts, which breaks a lot of other rules too. You don't have to…"

He cut her off. "But I do have to," he said, obviously holding something back, not willing to say whatever he was thinking. She let it go.

"Okay, so then, these – whatever they are, when we kiss. Tonight's the end of it."

"For now," he said. "Until you have that Gold medal around your neck."

Payson looked at herself in the mirror and sighed. And that's where they had left it, again. They both knew it wasn't a realistic solution. They always managed to find their way back to each other. She heard a knock at her door. Assuming it was MJ, she threw her door open to let her agent in.

"Whoa, hey there, Keeler," Austin Tucker said, as he stared openly at her. "Love the pjs."

She massaged her temples rapidly hoping for some relief from a quickly developing headache, "This morning just keeps getting better and better." She didn't even bother scrambling around for a bathrobe; she just walked away from him "What's up?" Austin was in Los Angeles for virtually the same reason Payson was, though they were endorsing different companies and products.

He stepped into her hotel room, shutting the door behind him. "MJ was down in the lobby. She said your car for the Sports Illustrated shoot leaves in ten minutes and to meet her down there ASAP."

"Crap," Payson said, grabbing her clothes from the chair she'd laid them on the night before and ran into the bathroom to change.

"She invited me to tag along," Austin called to her.

"MJ?" Payson asked, yanking her shirt over her head.

"Yeah," he said, flopping down onto her bed. "It's at the beach, so I'd like to go, if it's cool with you?"

Payson came flying out of the bathroom, zipping up her jeans and then throwing her hair up into a messy bun. She grabbed her purse and placed her sunglasses on to the top of her head. "Sure, why not. Let's go," she said, waving him out the door in front of her.

"You know, you've got the disheveled celebrity look down to a science and you've only been in LA three days. Good work, Keeler," he said as they got into the elevator.

"Shut up, Austin," she said, flipping her sunglasses down to cover her sleep deprived eyes.

Sasha knew he was being completely unreasonable. He knew his gymnasts thought he'd completely lost it and he knew he had to get himself back under control. Someone would put two and two together and realize that his bad mood had coincided with Payson's departure and had increased steadily since then.

"You know, you're scaring them," Summer said, walking out to where he was on the floor, observing Lauren's bars routine.

"Hmm," he acknowledged.

"I need you to sign this," she said, handing him a clip board with a few papers attached. "It's your expense report from Rotterdam." He flipped through the pages quickly and then signed and initialed where she had placed pastel colored sticky-notes. "Thanks," she said. "Look, Sasha, I know we decided to stop seeing one another, but that doesn't mean we can't be friends."

He looked at her, "Isn't that what we are?" he asked, confused. After their "break-up," if you could call it that, they'd been pleasant to one another, but not in a phony way.

Summer nodded quickly, "I just wanted to be sure that you didn't think I was – that I was pining or anything," she said.

"You're not pining, got it," he said, watching Lauren dismount the bars and salute. "Excellent job, Lauren." It seemed as if the chat he had with her last week had sunk in.

"I'm actually seeing someone," she said as she followed him to the low beam to watch Emily working on her tuck salto.

He looked at her, eyebrows raised, "That's great, Summer." He wanted to make sure she knew he meant it, "Really, I'm happy for you."

She nodded, "Good because he's picking me up for lunch in ten minutes and I didn't want it to be awkward."

Ah, so that's it, you didn't want a scene in front of your new boyfriend. "No awkwardness. Now, if you'll excuse me," he said, walking past her to correct the position of Emily's hands.

He watched as she took three steps and popped up into the tuck, landing with her hands in the correct position this time, "Excellent," he said. "Now, do it until you can't fall off." After watching the video over and over again, he and Payson had discovered that Emily had in fact earned her silver medal at the World Championships. It looked as if by that point the other judges had figured out that the cheating was going on and had starting compensating for the compromised judges decisions in their scoring. Despite the fact that Sasha had hoped Emily would be able to maintain her confidence level based upon a successful routine and not how the judges scored it, he was glad she had her swagger back and was working extremely hard.

He was about to walk away when he heard a buzzing noise. He looked down at Emily's gym bag, next to the mat. "Emily, a cell phone on the floor, really?" he asked in complete and total frustration.

"Payson said she'd text me before she took off from LAX," Emily said. "It was on vibrate and in my bag. I wasn't going to check it," she protested lightly before walking over to her bag to shut the phone off. "Oh my God," she said quietly as she checked the message quickly.

"What? Is she okay?" Sasha asked, trying to keep his voice under control. Her prolonged silence wasn't helping to calm his anxiety. "Emily?"

"She's fine," Emily said, "She's boarding the plane and will be home in a few hours."

"And your reaction? What was that about?" he asked, sure there was more to that story.

"Nothing," Emily said, shutting her phone down and putting it back in her bag. Sasha pursed his lips and let it go.

A few minutes later, he was up in the gym office, trying to ignore Summer preparing for her lunch date and his phone started to vibrate. He saw it was a message from MJ with a picture attached to it. "Not just the world's greatest gymnast," read the message. He clicked a button to reveal the picture attached to it. "Oh my God," he said. It was Payson, but she was completely, different. For one she was wearing nothing but a white bikini and she was soaking wet, sitting on the beach at the edge of the surf. That wasn't all though. It was the expression on her face as she looked at the camera; she exuded innocence and sex all at the same time. It was a deadly combination, one he had already fallen victim too. "Bloody hell," he said, rubbing his hand over his face and attempting to stifle the surge of lust that shot through him as he looked at the photo.

"What's up?" Summer asked, concern on her face at his reaction.

"Uh," he hesitated. You may as well tell her, Beloff. The picture is going to be out soon enough. "MJ sent me the final proof from Payson's photo shoot today."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, "Let me see," she said. He handed her the phone and waited for it. "Oh my God."

Chapter 9: LAX to BDU

Payson knew she was in trouble almost the moment she stepped through the door, "Mom? Becca? I'm home," she called, dragging her suitcase down the hallway. She left it near her bedroom door and made her way towards the kitchen.

"Mom?" she said, seeing her mother searching through the refrigerator. Her mother didn't turn around and didn't respond.

Payson bit her lip. She saw the picture. She leaned on the kitchen counter and waited. Finally, her mother turned around, three potatoes in her hand and glared at her. Setting the potatoes on the counter, she handed Payson the peeler and proceeded to stir something on the stove. Payson picked up the peeler and started the task when her mother slammed the spoon down on the counter and reeled on her. "What exactly were you thinking when you took that photograph, Payson?"

Can't tell her I was thinking about Sasha and that night in the trainer's room. Wait, she means what was I thinking generally, that I allowed it to happen. Payson shrugged, "I don't know. You knew I was doing this. We talked about it. You said as long as I felt comfortable doing it, that you supported me. I'm not topless, it's not offensive in anyway. MJ was thrilled. Austin thought it looked amazing."

"Austin?" Kim narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Austin was at the photo shoot?"

"He tagged along. He didn't have anything to do before we came home other than sit around at the hotel. I don't understand why you're reacting this way. Don't I look good?"

Kim shook her head, "It's not about whether you look good or not, Payson. You look amazing in this photograph," she said, pulling out the copy she'd printed out at the office today. "It's about the image you're presenting. What do you see when you look at this?"

Payson shrugged, "I see me."

"Is that you, though Payson? Really?"

"This is ridiculous. I'm not twelve, Mom. The photographer told me to think sexy, to think about someone I wanted and to pull him in with my eyes and that's what I did. This is the result. Is that so hard to believe?" Damn it, too much information.

Kim looked at her daughter, speechless for a moment, "And was that someone Austin?"

Payson slammed her hand down on the counter, "I have no interest in Austin Tucker. It was fantasy, Mom, an ideal, nothing else. The Olympics are two years away and I'm the best gymnast in the World. You understand that right?"

"Of course I do," she said and sighed. "You know it would be okay if you did like Austin, right? Despite the 'no dating rule.' It's normal to have feelings for boys, even if you don't want to feel that way."

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, "I do like him, just not in that way. He's a friend," Payson said. "Actually, he's more like the annoying older brother I never had," she said, recalling the noogie he'd given on a Los Angeles street after they'd had dinner with MJ.

There'd been paparazzi everywhere and they'd definitely gotten a picture of it: him grinning like an idiot, arm around her neck, her arms flailing uselessly as he messed up her hair. She was sure the picture was going to show up in a tabloid with some fun caption like, "The Aerodynamic Duo" or Lord help her, "Paystin."

Gotta make sure I talk to Kaylie before that comes out.

Then, while they were at the photo shoot, he'd physically tossed her into the water after the photographer had wrapped and he and MJ sat under a cabana deciding which photo to use. He called it their celebratory swim, a victory lap. There had been no spark, no tension, just some splashing, a couple dunkings and laughter. He was definitely like a brother.

Kim sighed, "Still, Pay, this expression, really? You're only seventeen years old. You couldn't have gone with that bright smile of yours?"

Payson shrugged, "I did. They must have taken hundreds of shots, Mom. The photographer thought this one was the most honest."

Kim snorted, "That's LA for you. Of course he'd think the only photo where you were pretending was the most honest of the bunch."

Payson grimaced and began peeling the potatoes, "Did, uh, did Sasha see it?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the potatoes.

Her mom laughed, "Yeah, he did. Honestly, I thought he'd be horrified, the last thing he wants is for you girls to be exploited in any way, but I was more upset about it than he was. I think he might have expected it."

Payson nodded, "And Dad?" she asked.

"Just be glad he's in Minnesota and not here. He wanted to sue the photographer." Payson cringed.

"You guys do realize that this one photograph will pay for my entire first year at UC Boulder, right?"

Kim frowned at her daughter, "We do in fact realize that. That's not the point. Are you sure you're comfortable with this photograph, Payson? Earlier this year you were so uncomfortable; you're not just doing this to prove something to everyone, are you?"

Payson sighed and held up the photograph, "Look at this picture, Mom. Really look at it. Do I look at all uncomfortable with myself? I thought you wanted me to be proud of my femininity. Well, there is it. I'm proud of how I look. I'm proud that girls are going to look at this and want to look like me, I'm proud that guys are going to look at this and be attracted. I don't see how it's a bad thing."

Kim shook her head, "That's great, honey. I'm not sure your father will see it that way, but…" she trailed off.

"I'm going to go see Kaylie to see how she's doing with the whole pseudo-house arrest, treatment stuff. I promised I'd stop in a visit her before I left, but I never got the chance." After Sasha's phone call to Alex, the Cruz parents, who fought over practically everything, finally agreed on something. Kaylie needed help. She hadn't been back to the Rock since, spending every day with a specialist on anorexia, working her way back to a normal weight and a healthier outlook.

Kim nodded, "Okay, oh and do me a favor? Stop by the Rock on your way back? Becca and the other level 8 girls stayed late tonight. It'll save me a trip."

"Sure, I wasn't going to stay long at Kaylie's anyway."

The ride to the Cruz's was a quick one, but it was like entering another world. Their house still awed Payson.

"Hey Leo," she said, as Kaylie's older brother exited the front door just as she was making her way up the front walkway.

"Oh, hey Payson, how'd Cali treat you?" he asked, with a smile.

"Not bad, glad to be back. Is Kaylie home?" she asked.

His smile drifted away, "Yeah, she's up stairs. Go on in."

Payson took the path she'd taken so many times before up the stairs and to the left to Kaylie's room. She knocked.

"Come in," she heard Kaylie's voice call.

"Hey," she said, popping her head in, seeing Kaylie on her bed flipping through a magazine with a thick black marker in her hand.

Her friend looked up and smiled, "Hey, Pay," Kaylie said, her enthusiasm level much higher than Payson expected. The last time they'd seen each other, Kaylie had been listless and very quiet.

"Uh, Kaylie, what are you doing?" Payson asked, seeing the magazine had a bunch of big black X's on the page.

"Therapy," she said with a mocking tone. "My shrink said to go through this magazine and X-out all the photographs that represent an unrealistic body image."

Payson cringed, "Wow, that sounds, awful," she said and Kaylie laughed.

"You have no idea, but I really don't want to talk about therapy. It's going okay and I'm doing okay, but I want to hear all about California and your photo shoot and that's a great outfit, did you get that in LA?"

Payson looked down; it was one of the outfits she'd received from Lucky Brand Jeans, one of her endorsements that had come in the same day as Gatorade. "Thanks, yeah, it's amazing. Now I have money to pay for things like this and no one will let me, they just give it all away for free."

Kaylie laughed, "Yeah, its crazy. So tell me about the photo shoot. Do you know what picture they're going to use, how long did it take? What kind of bathing suit did you wear?"

Payson smiled, pulling the photo proof from her bag, "Here it is, but just so you know, it was airbrushed and don't brandish that marker, it's the only copy I have," she said and handed it over to her friend.

"Oh my God, Pay, you look amazing. God, you look so sexy. Your parents must be freaking out," Kaylie predicted.

"Give the girl a prize!" Payson shook her head and sat down on the bed. "My mom and I talked about it, but I think she thinks I should be more uncomfortable with it. I kind of like it though," she said with a sigh. "Austin was there." She broached the subject carefully. She knew that despite her friend's protests that she had feelings for Austin and they were very different that the sisterly affection she carried for him herself.

"Uh, yeah, I know. Lauren told me," Kaylie said, suddenly finding a loose thread in her duvet cover very interesting.

Payson pursed her lips, "I bet she did. Look Kaylie, you've got nothing to worry about. I am not interested in Austin and he's definitely not interested in me, at all. I just wanted to let you know, there's probably going to be a picture. MJ took us out to dinner one night and Austin decided to give me a noogie outside the restaurant in front of about thirty paparazzi."

Kaylie nodded, "Why would it bother me? I'm not interested in Austin Tucker."

Payson sighed, "I just thought I'd let you know." She's so delusional. "So when do you think they'll give you the go ahead to come back?"

'As soon as I'm 'ready to deal with the emotional and physical pressures of training as an elite athlete in a healthy and responsible way'." She shrugged helplessly.

"Wow, is that an exact quote?" Payson asked, "Because I think I might have smacked someone if they said that to me."

Kaylie nodded, "Yep, problem is that he's right, the doctor who said that, I mean. I was being so stupid and I can't go back to train until I can deal with it."

"Well, we all really miss you. I can't wait til you come back."

Kaylie laughed, "Yeah, you just want me back so Sasha can divide his attention between four elite girls again, instead of three. Emily said he's becoming unbearable."

Payson shrugged, "I don't mind, but it would be great to have you back."

Kaylie picked up the picture again. "So exactly how much airbrushing was involved?"

"Oh, tons," Payson said with a smile. "Actually, not as much as I thought, but they can do it right there at the shoot now. It was so cool watching them do it."

"And that lovely tan you have?" she said, indicating that they now almost shared a skin tone, by putting their arms side by side.

"Spray on," she shared, "it'll be gone in a week or so." Payson suddenly had the burning desire to spill everything to Kaylie, from the spontaneous kiss well before the World Championships to the intense encounter just before she left for Los Angeles. Not being able to talk about this completely sucked.

"It's really good to have you back, Pay."

"It's good to be back."

Sasha planted himself in front of the vault, watching the Level 8 gymnasts do Tsukahara tucks repeatedly. "Good Becca," he said, watching Becca Keeler land the vault flawlessly. Doesn't have the natural talent of her sister or the drive, but she's definitely NCAA material at least, if she wants it. "Alright, ladies, excellent job tonight. You'll pick up tomorrow. Becca, Ashley, you two will be adding a half twist, remind Tara when she starts vault with you tomorrow."

"Yes, Sasha," they chorused together and scurried off to the locker room. Their parents had begun to wander in, having been told to pick the girls up at 8:00pm sharp.

He nodded to the group hovering around the door and sprinted to the office before anyone could corner him about when their little darling would be ready to move on to Level 9. He stepped into his office and couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. Payson was sitting on his desk, flipping through a magazine.

"Uh, hi," he said, though it was more of a question.

He hadn't expected to see her until the next day and now he felt like he'd somehow been caught with his pants down. She looks amazing, old boy. In her picture she'd been dripping with pure sensuality, pulling him in with her eyes and the soft curves of her body. She looked softer now than she had in the photo. Her hair was dry and cascading down her back in soft blonde waves. She was wearing a long sleeved denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up, on top of a pretty cream colored cotton blouse and a white skirt with blue stitching. Her legs were crossed, her top foot jiggling to a silent rhythm. That's one thing the picture hadn't captured. She had great legs, muscular and toned, as all gymnasts' were, but with a leanness to them that she'd developed with hard hours in the gym to compliment her new artistic style.

She's absolutely beautiful and she's yours, if you're willing to wait. If you can be a gentlemen about this and stop bloody attacking her every time she get close.

He cleared his throat to alert her to his presence.

"Hey, sorry," she said hopping off the desk. "I saw that horde of parents coming and I really didn't feel like…"

"Being flattered by people twice your age hoping you'll somehow rub your talent off on their daughter and magically transform her into an Olympic champion?" he guessed, having had that feeling a time or two in his life.

She laughed, "Exactly, I'll just go grab Becca," she said.

"She's changing," he said, stepping just close enough that he could smell her shampoo and something different, a new perfume maybe. "How was LA?"

She groaned, "Busy, really busy. I'm so glad to be back. MJ was a slave driver and Austin was such a pain in the ass. I can't believe how much we got done in three days."

Sasha smiled, "I heard about your photo shoot today," he said, smirking at her.

"I know, my mother told me. You know, you probably should have been a bit more outraged. She thought you'd be more upset about the magazine exploiting me," Payson said, deliberately mocking him a bit.

He laughed and took a step closer, "More like you exploiting them. That picture is going to put you on the bloody map: world class athlete by day and the object of every male age twelve to ninety-two's fantasies by night. I just wish I'd been there to see it myself. You looked absolutely spectacular, love." Bloody hell, there you go again. Take a step back, Beloff. There are twenty parents standing not ten feet away from this very spot and her little sister is going to come looking for her any minute.

Payson smiled at him and titled her head sideways a little. She took a step closer so they were nearly pressed together, but not quite. "Well, it's a good thing they let me keep the bathing suit then, now isn't it?" she said, brushing past him and out of the office, ostensibly to go find her sister and go home.

Sasha let out a shuddering breath. He walked to the window of his office and watched her retrieve Becca from where she was talking to a few of her friends. They left the gym quickly, Payson glancing up at his office one last time before they exited. Even from this distance he could see her eyes sparkling in amusement. She was going to be the death of him. But what a way to go, Beloff. You'd die a very happy man.

Chapter 10: No More Pretending

Kim Keeler was thrilled that Payson was going to Kaylie's and then back to the Rock to pick up Becca. It would give her a chance to call Mark again and discuss the situation one more time. It was so difficult to do this over the phone, to present a united front to their children when there was only one voice speaking. These were issues she hadn't expected to come up when raising her kids in Minnesota. She certainly never thought she'd have to worry about her seventeen year old's photograph in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Even as Payson gained more notoriety as a gymnast, she hadn't even considered the idea of international fame, until it had been forced upon her this morning.

"Mark Keeler," he said, and she felt better almost immediately, just hearing his voice on the other end of the line.

"Hey," she said, stirring the rice, still cooking on the stove.

"Hey there," he responded. "What's up?"

"Payson just got home and I spoke to her," Kim said, hoping for a calmer response from him this time around.

"And what did our eldest have to say for herself?"

Kim sighed, "Mark, I swear to you, she was so reasonable, I could hardly argue with her about it."

She could practically hear Mark's frustration over the phone, "Kim, she's a seventeen year old girl and that picture is…completely…it's completely…"

"Listen to me for a second, Mark. I asked her about it. I asked her what she saw when she looked at the picture and do you know what she said? She said that she saw herself."

"That girl in the picture, Kim, that wasn't my little girl," he protested.

"Exactly," she agreed. "It wasn't our little girl. She's someone else entirely and it happened without us even realizing it. Think about what our daughter has been through. We always said that she was an amazingly mature kid, but really think for a minute. Payson's experienced more in her seventeen years than most people have in their lifetimes. She's had the world at her feet and seen it all come crashing down, only to pick herself back up and do it all over again. She isn't just an unusually mature kid anymore, Mark. She's a grownup with real adult responsibilities and successes."

She heard Mark huff, obviously not pleased with what she was telling him. "It doesn't change the fact that she's a seventeen year old girl, Kim. She's just seventeen and that's the image that's going to be projected of her around the world. Not a strong, world-class athlete, just another girl in a bathing suit."

"I asked her about that too," Kim said, putting the lid on the rice and lowering the burner to keep it warm until the girls got home.

"And?" he asked, impatiently.

"And she said she was proud of how she looks," she said, leaving out the part where Payson said she liked that boys would be attracted to her. There were some things a father just didn't need to hear. "Six months ago I was begging her to embrace her femininity, Mark. Six months ago, she felt like, oh what did she call herself? 'The Incredible Hulk.' Do you see what a turn around this is? She's confident and comfortable with herself and doesn't see anything wrong with it. I don't know what's responsible for that change, but how am I supposed to argue with it? Isn't that the kind of person we wanted to raise?"

"Yes, but," Mark said.

"I know, but she's seventeen, but Mark, I think we've done it. I don't think our job as parents is over, not by any stretch, but I think that goal, to raise an intelligent, well-adjusted young woman, I think we did it. Now all we can do is let her make her own choices, good or bad."

"And this was a bad one," he said, grumbling, but she could hear him coming around.

"Maybe, maybe not, as her parents, we think it wasn't the right choice, but I don't think she sees it that way and I think that's okay. She didn't hurt herself or anyone else. Look at that photograph objectively, Mark. She is absolutely gorgeous in it and she knows it."

"Yeah and soon so will every male on planet Earth," he mumbled.

"Is that's what's bothering you, that you won't be the only man in the world who knows how beautiful she is?" Kim laughed, "You're probably right, in fact I know you're right, but it doesn't mean Payson is going to give them the time of day. She's focused on getting herself to the Olympics. As she pointed out so clearly to me today, she's the best gymnast in the World and that's not hyperbole. I doubt she's going to let some boy get in the way of that." She heard the front door open and the voices of her daughter spill into the house. "Listen, Mark, the girls are home. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Okay, but don't think we're done with this conversation," he said. And then softening his tone he added, "Love you."

"I wouldn't dream it of it. Love you too, good night."

"Good night."

"Mom, turn on the TV!" she heard Becca call from the hallway. The girls were rushing to the living room instead of the kitchen. Kim grabbed the remote control and flipped on the television. Becca grabbed it from her and quickly changed it to the channel she wanted. "We just got a call from Cousin Elizabeth in Minnesota. She said they talked about Payson on TMZ tonight and it's on right now."

"TMZ?" Kim asked and looked at Payson whose complexion had taken on a green tinge. "Pay, are you okay?"

Payson nodded and sighed as the station switched from commercial back to the programming. She hadn't realized just how much she didn't want a photo of Austin Tucker giving her a noogie to be out there for National consumption until this very moment. "Yeah, I just want to get this over with," she said.

There was Harvey Levin with his stupid water bottle and one of his cronies was talking about Austin Tucker and how he was God's gift to women. Payson cringed, knowing what was coming next.

"Well apparently, he's not God's gift to women, he's God's gift to a particular World Champion gymnast, who was in town to shoot her first ever Sports Illustrated Swimsuit photo."

Levin raised his eyebrows, "Payson Keeler? The girl who broke her back right?"

"Yep," the crony agreed, "and I'd say she's definitely full recovered. I mean she and Austin were practically frolicking together at the beach. She looked smokin' hot and he just seemed to be thrilled to have his hands on her."

Suddenly, Payson felt the bile start to rise in her throat. They weren't talking about that stupid noogie. They were talking about her photo shoot.

"Well let's see it." Then they rolled their footage and it was the beach she'd been on earlier that day. She was standing there, walking towards the tents, when Austin came flying into the picture, lifting her up onto his shoulder easily and carrying her to the water and throwing her in. She came up laughing hysterically and took him by surprise by immediately tackling him, sending him flying backwards underwater. The footage stopped suddenly at a moment when he was about to dunk her in retaliation, but because they stopped the video, it looked as if he were embracing her intimately.

"Looks like they're getting pretty cozy in that water, probably a lot going on under there we can't see," one of the male cronies suggested.

One of the female cronies snorted, "I think it's sweet, I mean they're perfect for each other. The two best gymnasts in the world. Their names even fit into a great celeb pairing name, Paystin!"

Becca wrinkled her nose, "Sasha is going to kill you when he finds out you're breaking the no dating rule."

"We were not breaking any rule. We were swimming." Payson groaned and threw herself onto the coach face down. "This is not happening." She looked up to see her mother glaring at her.

"So when you got back this afternoon, when you said that Austin tagged along, what you really meant was that you spent the morning having him grope you in the Pacific Ocean?"Kim asked, obviously utterly convinced her daughter had lied to her.

Payson sat up and sigh, "I swear, Mom, it was not like that. We were – we were playing around. He dunked me. I dunked him. We'd been working for three days straight, it was absolute torture and we just let off some steam. I was being honest when I said that I think of him as a brother." Kim's expression hadn't wavered. "Oh this is ridiculous, you're going to believe whatever you want to believe anyway, just like the rest of the world. I'm going to bed. I have to be at the Rock tomorrow by five to train."

She retreated into her room quickly, sending off a quick text to Kaylie: "Not what it looks like. Explain tmrw, promise." Then one to Austin, "Going to kill you, slow painful death." Then finally one to Sasha, who probably hadn't seen the footage, "So glad to be home. C U tmrw 5." And she left it at that, shutting her phone off and going straight to sleep.

Sasha woke up at 4:30a.m., his internal alarm clock as consistent as ever. He went immediately for his Shredded Wheat and set himself up outside the trailer for breakfast before Payson arrived. He grabbed his cellphone from the charger on the way out and as soon as he turned it on, the messages starting appearing every half second or so. Ten text messages over night, that could only mean one thing, something had happened with one of his gymnasts. He saw Payson's name on the screen, but that message was generic enough. The rest were a lot more specific, friends asking if he'd lost control of his gymnasts, if Payson was serious about training for 2012, a panicked message from Austin Tucker insisting that it wasn't what it looked like. What the bloody hell happened? He was all set to head to the gym office and use his computer to find out, when Payson's Audi pulled into the parking lot. She got out of her car and marched purposefully to him. She looked around quickly. Seeing that they were completely alone at the ungodly hour of 4:45, she grabbed his hand and dragged him forcibly back into his trailer.

"Payson, what is going on?" he asked, once they were inside.

She looked up at him, looking more vulnerable than he'd seen her in a while. Yesterday, she'd been the exact opposite, the confidence practically pouring off of her. "I'll tell you everything, but first, I have to…" she trailed off, stepping closer and pressing her lips to his. He caught on quickly and wound his arms around her waist, pulling her against him and lifting her off the trailer floor, compensating for the vast difference in height. There was a desperation in her kiss that he didn't quite understand, but if she needed him, he was there for her, putting as much into it as she was, letting her know he wanted her, very much.

She pulled away and sighed, looking like she'd gained confidence simply by kissing him. "Payson, not that I'm complaining, but," he waved his hand around vaguely and she understood.

"TMZ, ever heard of it?" she asked and he shook his head. "It's a television show, dedicated to celebrity gossip." Sasha did not like where this was going. Easy there, Beloff. Let her talk. "Yesterday, at the photo shoot, after they'd wrapped, Austin decided it would be a good idea to throw me into the ocean. I was done, they were just choosing which photo to use, so we swam around for a while killing time, we dunked each other a couple of times, just playing around. Except someone had a video camera and they leaked the footage to TMZ. It aired last night. I swear to you, Sasha, nothing happened and nothing would ever happen. He's like, I don't know, a horribly annoying brother, nothing else." She finished and closed her eyes, waiting for his reaction.

"Did they give you a name?" he asked, his mouth set in a hard line. "Like they did with Kaylie and Nicky?" Control yourself, Beloff. She's upset and rightfully so. You believe her, don't you?

She groaned, "Paystin," she said, opening her eyes and catching his gaze immediately. "I'm sorry, I just I don't even know what to say."

He shrugged, "There's nothing to say," he sighed heavily. "I'm still your coach and I'm annoyed as hell that this happened, but beyond that, Payson, I don't know." He rubbed at his temples. "This is why the gym has a no dating rule, to completely eradicate the possibility of something like this happening and now here we are." He leaned against the small table in the trailer's tiny kitchen.

She took a step back from him, leaning against the counter top, "I know. This is getting out of control, but there isn't any way to go back, is there? We're here now and we have to deal with it." He looked up at her, stunned. She was exactly right. This game they'd been playing, trying to fight their attraction, pretending it didn't exist or that they would be able to stay away from each other for two years had been just that, a game. A delusion they had convinced themselves was possible, but it wasn't. Sasha was done pretending and he was done playing.

He pushed off the table and took a step closer to her, "You're right. We're here now and there is no turning back. You say nothing happened and I believe you, but it doesn't change the fact that every cell in my body is fighting the urge to punch his bloody lights out the moment I see him," he said, his words flowing freely now. He closed the remaining distance between them and whispered, "I'm not going to lie to you; the thought of another man's hands on you makes me physically ill."

She leaned forward only a fraction of an inch, loving the fire she saw in his eyes and that she was the cause of it. She was aching for him, her entire body practically tingling in anticipation of his touch, "Then make me forget," she whispered back.

Her words snapped him into action. Their lips met in a bruising kiss, more a battle of wills than a lover's caress. He immediately buried a hand in her hair, weaving his fingers through the thick blonde strands giving it a not so gentle tug. His other hand slid down towards her waist, but quickly abandoned it, searching lower, squeezing her ass then grasping at her thigh, lifting it to hook over his hip. He spun them around, releasing her hair to swipe an arm at junk piled on the kitchen table, sending some books, a few utensils and a small pile of laundry crashing to the floor. He lifted her up onto the table, not breaking their kiss and quickly moved atop her. Her legs wrapped around his waist bringing their lower bodies into sharp contact.

"Oh, God," she murmured, as his lips trailed a burning path from their kiss, down to her neck, biting down at her pulse point gently and then soothing it with a small kiss. His lips traveled lower, towards uncharted territory. He nuzzled gently at the soft curve of her breast and brought a hand up to cup her gently. Her body responded instantly, pushing up into his hand, as she threw her head back. She surged forward, putting a hand around the back of his neck, forcing his lips back to hers. Her hands traveled south, bunching his shirt into her fists and then began pulling it up. He was about to raise his arms over his head and let her undress him when someone started pounding on the door of his trailer. They stared at each other in shock for a moment, not really sure if the sound had been real.

"Sasha? It's Austin, look I'm not letting Payson take the fall for this. Let me in so we can explain together," the Olympic Gold medalist called from just outside the door.

They both sighed and looked around. Other then the mess on the floor, there was nothing to indicate anything untoward had been going on. Sasha shrugged at her and moved to the door, "Yeah, Austin," he said, as Payson frantically tried to smooth her hair down and hope Austin didn't notice that she looked like she'd just been thoroughly ravished. Sasha looked at her and she shot him a helpless look. He nodded and opened the door just a bit and stepped outside. "Hey," she heard him say. "Payson just explained to me what happened, she was pretty upset. Let's head into the Rock and give her a minute, alright?" he said.

She sighed in relief and set about making herself look presentable again, fixing the tangled mass that was her hair and regaining enough of her equilibrium to stand without shaking, after he'd turned her into a quaking mass of lust and desire. She wasn't sure what happened, all she knew is that he'd believed her and that the fragile state of their relationship had become more solid and tangible. They were in this now for real and they were in it together.

Chapter 11: Rocky Mountain Flying High

Rocky Mountain Flying High

By Meredith Hanover, Sports Illustrated

I arrived at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club at ten o'clock in the morning on a Saturday I thought I'd gone to the wrong place. You see, I was supposed to be interviewing four members of the US Women's National team, a member of the Men's National team and their coach, a four time Olympic Gold Medalist. When I got there, all I saw were little girls, really little girls, six or seven years old tumbling slowly on padded mats and girls slightly older, maybe eight or nine, doing small hops on a balance beam much closer to the ground than the one you see on television during the Olympics. Where were my elite gymnasts, the ones I'd flown almost 3,000 miles to come see?

I was quickly approached by one of the gym's managers, an attractive woman in her late twenties. She asked if I was the Sports Illustrated reporter. I imagine I came off as extremely rude when I said, "Yes, obviously," from between gritted teeth. I was annoyed because it looked like I had wasted my time and I hate when people waste my time. She managed to remain pleasant, however. She escorted me up some stairs and said, "They'll be right with you. They've been in the gym since six this morning, a couple of them since five and they wanted to shower and change."

I did a double take, "Since what time?" I asked for clarification and she repeated herself. It was Saturday, I reminded myself. Saturday at ten o'clock in the morning. I had expected to arrive and the group I was interviewing would be waiting for me, dressed in their best, with arrangements made for us to sit down and talk, followed by a session afterwards for some photographs. The interview hadn't even begun yet and it already wasn't going as expected.

Just moments later, a fair haired man in his late twenties emerged through the front doors of the gym, hair still wet from his shower. Almost instantly, his gymnasts began to appear from a door in the back corner of the gym, where I assumed there were showers and a locker room. They were dressed, casually, one in a track suit, another in jeans and a pretty top, the lone male in ripped jeans and a shirt with cut off sleeves. One of the young ladies had taken the time to dress up in a short skirt and blouse, while the last one out of the locker room wearing a yellow sundress, was throwing her brown hair up into a quick ponytail. Suddenly, I felt like I was intruding, like I had absolutely no business interrupting their day.

"Miss Hanover?" a voice asked me in a clipped British accent. It was the fair-haired man who'd entered the gym moments before. I recognized him now that he was up close: Sasha Beloff, four time Olympic gold medalist, the coach that led the Romanian Women's Team to Gold in 2004 and current coach at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club. I quickly shook his hand and he introduced himself, although I'm sure he knew he needed no introduction. He quickly escorted me to a room at the back of the gym I assumed was used for birthday parties by its décor and I remembered the children outside practicing their tumbling. There they all sat, Sasha Beloff, Austin Tucker, Payson Keeler, Kaylie Cruz, Emily Kmetko and Lauren Tanner. A rare assemblage of talent that all happened to train at the same gym. Think of it as if Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh had all played on the same AAU team as little kids. It was silent for a little while, when suddenly I realized I was supposed to be interviewing them, not staring like an overwhelmed fan, which in the span of three minutes, before even speaking to them, I had rapidly become.

I asked them if they were ready to get started and they were, so I turned on my tape recorder and began.

MH: Coach Beloff, this is an extremely talented group you've assembled here at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics club. How do you account for your team's success at the National and International level?

SB: It's not something I can take credit for, in general. These four ladies were here when I was brought in to coach and Austin joined us soon after. As far as our success at the big meets, I think it has a lot to do with the attitude of this club. We're fighters. We never back down from a challenge.

I wasn't entirely pleased with his answer. It felt like he'd rehearsed it, which he probably had, but I pushed on.

MH: Speaking of challenges. Payson, your history is well known. You're come back is an incredible story. How did you do it?

PK: Just a lot of hard work and a coach that believed in me when no one else did.

That was it. That's all she was giving me. This was the girl who had returned to the sport of gymnastics after breaking her back during the 2009 Nationals to become the World Champion only months later. And all she had to say for herself was that she worked hard? That her coach believed in her?

But again, I persevered. Maybe the guy she was supposedly dating would shed some more light.

MH: And, you Austin. You came to this gym just after the French Invitational event earlier this year. What's it been like to train alongside your girlfriend, especially now that you've both won this year's World Championships?

AT: Uh, well, Payson's not my girlfriend. We're just friends. But it's been nice training with her. She's very focused and driven and she inspires all of us with her dedication.

Austin Tucker supposedly didn't care what anyone thought about him. Why would he stay so tight lipped? I was starting to think that this was going to be impossible. These people just weren't going to open up, no matter what I asked them.

MH: Kaylie, the entire sports world was extremely concerned when you weren't able to compete at this year's World Championships. What happened and are you on your way back?

KC: I am on my way back, now. In my effort to not only become the best gymnast in the US, but also the best gymnast in the World, I went a little crazy with my training. I was completely exhausted by the time I got to Worlds. I just wasn't fit to compete, but I'll be back.

She said all of it with a smile plastered across her face, as if she'd been instructed by someone to just keep smiling throughout the interview, which she probably had.

I looked at Lauren Tanner and the icy glare I received in response was enough to completely stifle any urge I had to ask her a question. That left Emily Kmetko, the World silver medalist on the Uneven Bars. And I'll admit, my frustration completely got the better of me when I asked my question.

MH: Emily, I'm sure you've heard about the controversy surrounding the judging at the World Championships. Do you think your silver medal on the uneven bars is legitimate?

I could feel the room freeze up entirely. Every single pair of eyes in the room was fixed on me and if looks could kill, I'd have been dead six times over again.

EK: I won that medal on my own merit and I believe the investigation conducted by the F.I.G. will prove it.

I opened my mouth, this time to ask their Coach what he thought of the scandal at the World Championships, but he was standing up and each of his gymnasts followed suit. "I think this interview is over," he said, reaching over and stopping my tape recorder. They filed out of the room together and I sat there for a while completely stunned. Time passed, but I didn't notice at all. I just sat there and fumed at how incredibly rude they had all been. It was an honor to be featured in Sports Illustrated. Finally, I gathered my things and prepared to make a hasty exit, but as I entered the gym again, I stopped in my tracks. The little kids who'd ruled the space when I arrived were gone. The only gymnasts around were the ones I'd been interviewing.

They'd all changed from the clothes they'd worn to speak to me back into the leotards and workout gear. Austin Tucker was on the parallel bars, working on a skill I couldn't identify if I tried, all I know is that the human body isn't supposed to be able to hold itself that way and he was doing so for at least five seconds. He dismounted and looked towards Sasha Beloff, who'd been standing not far off. Sasha nodded approvingly and moved on towards the vault, which was situated just behind the parallel bars. Payson Keeler ran down a path straight towards the frightening looking brown mass, sprung on a springboard and flipped and twisted her body in the air before landing perfectly upright, arms in the air. It was amazing, but oddly enough she frowned and turned towards her coach who shook his head.

"No," I heard him say, all the way across the gym.

"You always say no," Payson, the All-Around World Champion was arguing with her coach. Great, I thought, maybe here's a story. I moved closer, listening to their conversation all the while.

"No, I don't," he said and smiled at her.

"You always say no to the extra half twist to my Yurchenko vault. Do you remember the double straight? One day you're just going to walk in here and I'm going to have that extra half twist and then you'll be," I strained to hear what she was saying, but she had stopped talking and they both had begun to laugh.

I couldn't imagine what was funny, but oddly enough their laughter had me smiling as well. I looked over towards the balance beam where Lauren Tanner and Emily Kmetko were both training. Lauren saw my gaze drift over to them and she renewed the glare she'd given me earlier. She turned towards Emily and told her something I couldn't hear.

"Oh, just trust me," Lauren said, as Emily gave her a look of disbelief. The gymnast whose weakness was definitely the balance beam climbed atop it and landed a perfect front tuck salto. She hopped off and she and Lauren high fived.

I looked to my left and saw Kaylie Cruz begin her routine on the uneven bars. She was working with one of the assistant coaches who was explaining something to her. It sounded extremely technical to my non-expert ears, but Kaylie seemed to understand perfectly. She chalked her hands, pulled herself up on the lower bar, transitioned up, completed several rotations on the higher of the two bars and then released, doing a complicated set of twists and turns before landing on two feet, taking just the smallest of hops.

"Excellent job, Kaylie," Sasha Beloff called from across the gym where he was now working with Austin on the still rings. She beamed at him from across the room and proceeded to repeat her effort.

"What about me? Aren't I doing an excellent job, Sasha?" Austin asked from between gritted teeth as he did something on the rings that looked extremely painful and could possibly dislocate both his arms.

Sasha looked up, "No, your form is terrible and your toes aren't pointed. I would have wiped the floor with you," he said, but there was a smile on his face. Austin released himself from the skill and did a quick spin on the rings before somersaulting off onto the mat.

"Keep telling yourself that, old man," he said and they both laughed. Austin went to the water cooler and Sasha approached Payson who was now working on her floor routine.

Again, just as I had when I walked into the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club and watched as these elite athletes and their coach stopped training simply to talk to me, I felt like an intruder. This was sacred ground, like the field at Yankee Stadium or the 12th hole at Augusta or center court at Wimbledon. This gym floor was their sanctuary, a place where they came to focus their entire selves, body and soul towards one goal: Olympic Gold. I was an intruder. They weren't rude or uncooperative, not really. This, their training, their work, it was just more important than sitting down and talking about medals and winning and controversy and their personal relationships. The only thing that matters at the Rock, as they call it, is the hard work, the discipline and the overriding feeling of family you sense from the moment you arrive. Those five athletes and their coach, they are a family. And if right now, they're a little closed lipped and standoffish, if they find it hard to express what's been going on outside of their gym walls, if they have no interest in talking about their personal relationships? That's okay, because two years from now, in London, I plan to see these five again, with gold hanging around their necks and my awkward couple of hours at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club will be a distant memory to the new Olympic Champions.

Chapter 12: A Very Rocky Christmas

There were times when Sasha thought he'd been working at the Rock for years. The huge gymnasium in the middle of Boulder, Colorado felt more like home than most places he'd lived over the years. In reality, he'd only been there for seven months. In that time however, some incredible things had happened. One of his gymnasts had become the Women's National Champion, another had become World Champion after rebounding from what they thought was a career ending injury, the reigning Olympic Gold Medalists decided to train at the Rock and they were easily considered to be the best gymnastics club in the Nation.

And then there was his personal life, which to an objective eye would seem like a complete mess, but he was happy, for the first time in a very long time. He thought of Payson and their covert relationship and despite everything, the only thing he could do was smile. When they were together everything else, all the pressure and drama which seemed to come hand and hand with the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club faded away to the background and they were just two people who'd found each other and were happier for it. It was more than a lot of other people could say. It was the best gift he could have received and being that it was Christmas, it was oddly appropriate.

Ronnie Cruz was hosting her annual Christmas celebration, practically a mandatory event if you trained at the Rock. Kim Keeler had insisted that he come, after all he was part of the Rock family as well. Wonder if she'd be nearly as welcoming if she knew what you and Payson got up to in this trailer yesterday morning? Sasha smiled at the memory, there were boundaries in their physical relationship, but he was okay with that. He meant what he said, even if she didn't believe him. "We're breaking enough rules," he told as they lay intertwined on his small trailer bed, "I'll wait." He knew he must have said something right, because the way she kissed him after that made him want to take it all back, but they both knew it was for the best. The last thing either of them needed right now was for sex to complicate things even further. He looked in the mirror, adjusted his tie and took a deep breath. You'll do, Beloff. Now, just get through this night and its back to training tomorrow morning.

The Cruz mansion was lit up, white icicle lights reflecting prettily against the snow covered ground. Several cars were already parked in the driveway. He saw Payson's car, as well as her mother's; in fact all of his gymnasts' cars were there. They were probably staying the night. He entered the Cruz home and there was a man to take his coat. Never let it be said that Ronnie Cruz did anything halfway.

"Sasha," a voice called out to him. Speak of the devil.

"Ronnie, Happy Christmas. Thank you for the invitation," he said, graciously.

"Merry Christmas, Sasha! My pleasure, when Kim said you'd be spending the holiday alone, well that was just unacceptable. Here's a drink," she said, grabbing him a flute of champagne from a passing tray, "Go, mingle, enjoy," she said, moving past him to greet more arriving guests.

He wandered into the living room where there were dozens of people he had absolutely no intention of speaking to. Before he was noticed he retreated down a hallway and saw a sanctuary, the library. He was absolutely sure no one would be in there. He set his champagne flute down on one of the tables and proceeded to scan the shelves. The Cruz family had surprisingly good taste in literature, or maybe the books had come with the house, but he wasn't about to question his good luck, plucking one of his favorite novels by Patrick O'Brien off the shelf and settling into one of the extremely comfortable leather chairs. He knew that the chair's high back would shield him almost completely.

He was halfway through the first chapter when he heard the door click open and people shuffle inside. "I'm so happy you came, but what are you doing here? I thought you had to stay in L.A.?" It was Emily's voice.

"I told you I'd get here and I am," a male voice responded. He thought he recognized the voice of the kid who'd shown up periodically at Rock events. They stopped speaking and Sasha knew they were kissing.

"I missed you," Emily said in a quiet voice. "When do you go back?" she asked.

"Tomorrow morning, I've got a recording session," he said. Sasha could hear the regret in his voice.

"Okay, well, let's go find Brian, he's going to be thrilled to see you and then I'm keeping you all to myself for the rest of the night."

"What about your coach? Aren't you worried that…" the young man's voice was cut off. Sasha assumed Emily had kissed him again.

A few moments later, Sasha heard the door click closed again and he sighed in relief. Enjoy your Christmas present, Kmetko. You've earned it.

A chapter and a half later, he heard two hushed voices just outside the door. He couldn't make out who was speaking. He slouched down further in the chair, not wanting to be seen in case they decided to enter the room, which they did seconds later. "Steve, this is insane," he heard Summer's voice say in an urgent whisper.

"What's insane about kissing you?" Steve Tanner responded and Sasha nearly leapt out of the chair anxious to alert them to his presence and get the hell out of the room.

"Steve, Summer," he said, nodding to them quickly, adding, "Happy Christmas," as he marched straight to the door. He got into the hallway, breathed a sigh of relief and then chuckled to himself as he walked away from the library as quickly as he could. He looked down at his champagne glass. Empty, damn it. Time for a refill, Beloff. He vaguely remembered where the kitchen was from his last time here and he headed in that direction, wondering if the kitchen staff knew where he could procure something a bit stronger than the champagne. He knew Alex Cruz and he knew there would be some good stuff hidden away somewhere. Probably in the bloody library, Beloff.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity around him as Kaylie and Lauren ran past, both wearing dresses he was sure were stifling their breathing, but they were both laughing, "Merry Christmas, Sasha!" they chorused as they ran past. A few steps behind, Payson was walking towards him, laughing too.

"Happy Christmas, Payson," he said as she approached him. She looked amazing in a red dress that shimmered with every step she took.

"Merry Christmas," she said with a smile. She took a sip of her drink, which he looked at curiously. It looked like champagne. "Sparking cider," she said, "like we had at the ballet."

"Ah," he said, remembering that night clearly. "We've come a long way since then," he said.

"I have a present for you," she said quickly. "It's in my car," she said, a small grin appearing, but she quickly quashed it as Chloe Kmetko sauntered past, obviously a little tipsy.

"Let's go get it then," he muttered under his breath, taking her drink away and placing both their glasses on a passing waiter's tray. They exited the house unimpeded and jogged quickly to her car. She opened the backseat door and pulled out a small box, wrapped in silver paper.

"It isn't much, but," she trailed off as he opened what looked like a picture frame, but it had a screen in the center. "You press this button here and, voila!" He pushed the button and up popped a picture of them in Rotterdam after she'd finished her uneven bars routine on the last day of the All Around competition. "Now, that's what everyone sees. If you push this little button twice," she said, showing him that a touch-screen keypad appeared. "Enter in a code you'll remember," she warned. He rolled his eyes and he punched in a six digit code. Suddenly, before him was a slide show of pictures she had obviously taken with that ridiculous camera she carried around with her sometimes, some were of him, some were of her, and others of the both of them that he remembered taking, but thought she had deleted for fear someone would see them.

"Payson, this is incredible. Thank you," he said and gave her a hug.

"You're welcome, just don't forget to push that button and reset it to the first picture," she said, pushing the button for him.

He laughed, "I won't. Oh, wait, I actually have something for you. I was going to give it to you tomorrow morning, but, well." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small, blue Tiffany's box. "It's nothing too overt, but I thought it suited you and us as well."

She opened the box carefully and inside was a small gold pendant, engraved with a small scene, "The scene is of Aphrodite and Ares. Two Olympians, beauty and brawn, but forbidden to be together."

Payson ran a finger over the pendant, "This is beautiful," she said. "Will you put it on me?" she asked, unclasping the catch and handing it to him. He fastened the clasp and looking around quickly to make sure they were alone, placed a small kiss on the back of her neck. She shivered, but he guessed it was more from the cold than anything else. "Thank you," she said, putting her hand over it lovingly. The charm rested perfectly in the hollow of her throat, exactly where he'd pictured it. He placed his hand atop hers and squeezed gently.

He inhaled sharply when she looked back up at him, the urge to kiss her was overwhelming, but it was best not to tempt fate, besides she was probably freezing, "We better get inside before you freeze to death out here," he said, putting the picture frame in his car quickly before they strode back across the Cruz's huge driveway into the house. Just as they entered, Lauren Tanner came flying past again.

"Payson, there you are, where did you go?" she asked. Payson opened her mouth, not having any excuse prepared at all. "Nevermind, come with me," Lauren demanded impatiently, grabbing Payson's arm and dragging her away.

Payson smiled helplessly at Sasha and let herself be dragged away by Lauren who was obviously on a mission of some sort. She pulled her arm free as they climbed the stairs, but dutifully followed her friend towards Kaylie's room. "What's up?" Payson asked, plopping down on the bed beside Kaylie, who rolled her eyes at Lauren.

"My Dad is trying to get back with Summer," Lauren announced.

Payson nodded, "That's a good thing, right? Isn't that what you wanted?"

Lauren let out an exasperated sigh and threw her hands up in frustration. "That was when he was dating Chloe Kmetko, but really I'd rather him be single. He doesn't need a serious relationship."

"Okay, what exactly do you want us to do about it?" Kaylie asked, obviously completely confused.

"We need to get Summer and Sasha together. I mean look at them, my dad can't hold a candle to Sasha. It's no secret they went out a couple of times and I think they'd be perfect for one another, they have so much in common," Lauren insisted.

Payson frowned, "Like what? They work together? That's not having something in common, Lauren. That's coincidence." I need to nip this in the bud right now, before she gets out of control. "Personally, I think your Dad and Summer would make a nice couple, but it has absolutely nothing to do with us, Lauren. You really should stay out of it."

Kaylie nodded in full agreement, "Besides, Lo, there's probably a reason they went out a few times and then didn't anymore. Why don't you just focus on your gymnastics and worry less about your Dad's social life." Payson was shocked at Kaylie's words.

Lauren rolled her eyes. "This from the girl who begged her parents to stay married for her sake. You didn't have a problem getting involved in your parent's social lives," she spit back at Kaylie. "And you, what would you know about this? Your parents have the perfect marriage and you're not even interested in relationships, so I don't even know why I was asking you."

Payson scoffed, "Wow, insults, that's a great way to get us to help you. Lauren, why don't you wait it out? From what you told us, last time Summer wanted absolutely nothing to do with your Dad. I don't think anything's changed, do you?"

Lauren considered it for a moment, but Payson didn't let her think too long, "Besides, wouldn't he be more likely to stay single if Summer rejected him, which she's pretty likely to do." Payson could practically see the wheels spinning in Lauren's head.

"I think Payson's right," Kaylie said, and Payson smiled at her.

"Hmm, maybe," Lauren said, "Okay, that's what I'll do then, I'll wait it out, see what Summer's reaction is and then come up with a plan if I have to."

"Good," Payson said, much more relieved than she was letting on. "I'm going back down for more sparkling cider," she announced and her two friends followed her quickly, knowing that if Payson went near the sparkling cider there likely wouldn't be any left by the time she was finished.

A few minutes later, glass in hand, she began weaving through the throng of people trying to find Sasha. Lauren had said one thing and done another too many times during their friendship for Payson to take her at her word. She quickly spotted him at the entrance to the living room, a glass of a dark liquid, in his hand. Brandy, probably, he's always talking about brandy like its liquid gold. She made her way towards him and stood next to him casually. "You know that dress looks really lovely on you," he murmured as he masked his words with the glass, taking a small sip.

She smiled up at him, "How many of those have you had?"

"Just the one," he said, grinning down at her.

She rolled her eyes, "Sure, look, just letting you know, Lauren is on the warpath. She thinks that her Dad is looking to get back together with Summer, so…"

He cut her off, finishing the sentence for her, "She thinks she's going to be able to set up Summer and I, thus freeing her father from any unacceptable entanglements. I swear, if that girl put as much effort into her gymnastics as she did her scheming."

Payson sighed, "I know."

Suddenly there was a voice behind them, "Aww, look you're under the mistletoe." Austin Tucker. Payson shook her head and turned around to glare at him.

"So?" she said.

Ronnie Cruz was standing next to him, "Oh, go on then, its tradition, just a peck on the cheek will do," she insisted, looking just as tipsy as Chloe Kmetko had earlier.

Sasha leaned down and brushed his lips against her cheek, a familiar caress that caused her to shiver, almost imperceptibly. Ronnie started to applaud loudly and a few others joined her, but it was over very quickly. Both Sasha and Payson smiled and he took a step back from her. Payson looked around and saw Austin still standing there; he was looking between her and Sasha as if he were trying to figure something out. Her eyes met his penetrating gaze and she shrugged and laughed playing it cool. It must have worked because he walked over and slug an arm around her neck.

"Excuse me, Sasha. I'm going to steal my fellow World Champion for a Christmas dance," he said, leading her out to the middle of the Cruz's living room that had been cleared of furniture to create a dance floor. He pulled her close, but not too close and placed her hand on his shoulder, while he took the other one in his, settling his free hand on her waist. They swayed to an instrumental version of Silent Night.

"Payson Keeler," he said, and clucked his tongue at her disapprovingly, "I never pegged you for one," he said.

She laughed, hoping she didn't sound as nervous as she suddenly felt, "One what?" she asked.

"A Sasha Beloff groupie," he said. She snorted at his words and laughed.

"You're insane," she said.

He looked at her seriously, "Am I?" he asked and for once his eyes weren't mocking, but completely serious. He's taking this annoying big brother thing a little too far. Who knew he was this perceptive though?

"Definitely. That was just completely embarrassing and completely your fault by the way. Mrs. Cruz would have been too drunk to notice if you hadn't said anything."

"What were you talking about then?" he challenged.

"Actually I was warning him of Lauren's plans to reunite him with Summer. I don't care one way or another, but only think it's fair that they have forewarning. He said he'd let Summer know that Lauren's been scheming again."

Austin wrinkled his nose, obviously distracted by the information, "Sasha and Summer? That's like, oil and water, don't you think?"

Payson shrugged, "I guess."

Austin was silent for a moment, "So you're not a Lolita, you're a nark, ratting out your friend." At this Payson threw her head back and laughed loudly.

"You really are insane."

Austin spun her around, so they both could see Sasha, who was nursing his drink, now leaning up against the doorframe, watching them intently. "Or maybe not."

Chapter 13: My Heart is Yours

Payson's morning routine had been the same for months now. Her eyes would snap open in response to her cell phone alarm at half past four in the morning. Fifteen minutes later she was showered, dressed and on her way to the Rock to begin training by five. Although for the last two weeks, since Christmas, the first half hour of training had consisted solely of the one physical activity that could get her heart rate up in mere seconds: kissing Sasha Beloff.

This morning was no different as she found herself straddling his waist, placing soft open mouthed kisses across his chest, while he lounged shirtless on the small bed in his trailer. His hands rested on her hips, squeezing whenever she would find a particularly sensitive spot. Finally, it seemed he had enough of her slow torture and without breaking contact, he skillfully flipped them over, so she lay on her back, completely at his mercy. He grinned wickedly, leaning down to place a small kiss on her lips, before trailing his mouth down over her chin, pausing at her neck, which he'd discovered was extremely sensitive and then lower, nudging the pendant he bought her for Christmas out of the way with his nose. Her hand came up from where it had been tracing senseless patterns across the smooth skin of his back to touch the pendant briefly and then brush against his whisker roughened cheek.

"Say it," she murmured as he continued his torturously slow exploration. "Please," she begged through a moan, as his mouth lingered against the top of her breast that spilled out of her tank top.

He retraced his path back towards her lips and hovered there for a moment, their lips barely brushing, "Inima mea este a ta*," he said huskily, before his mouth crashed down upon hers, forgetting their leisurely pace and creating a blazing inferno that completely consumed them each and every morning. It was all they could do to get through the day; the memories of their moments together had to sustain them, as they did their best to completely shut down the instinctive need to just be together at all times.

This morning though, Payson need more than the physical act, she needed the words, "Say it again, Sasha," she asked him, as they came up for air.

He obliged her as he always did, "Inima mea esta a ta," he said, enunciating every syllable so she wouldn't be able to mistake his meaning.

It was something she had discovered the night she returned home from the Christmas party. She'd taken off the beautiful charm he'd bought for her of Aphrodite and Ares, the two Olympians with a forbidden love, though if anyone had ever asked, the charm represented the marrying of her gymnastics styles, beauty and brawn; artistry and power. She'd been about to put the charm away in her jewelry box when she realized the back wasn't completely smooth. She'd turned it over and saw that there was an inscription on the back. Holding it up to the light, she recognized quickly that it was in a language she didn't understand. She'd quickly opened up her laptop and found an online translator. It had to be Romanian, so she typed it in and asked for an English translation. What she saw made her breath catch: my heart is yours.

It was a simple declaration, but one she hadn't expected. She typed rapidly into the translator then, eternally grateful that it had a pronunciation button that helped her learn how to say what she wanted to say. The next day, she showed up at his trailer door at half past four in the morning. He'd blearily answered in only his pajama pants and the most attractive case of bed head she'd ever seen and said, "Şi a mea este a ta.* (And mine is yours)"

That morning was the closest they had ever come to giving into their most basic of instincts, to be together in every way. They stopped just before they had gone too far and they'd been very careful ever since, but the words had been spoken and what had begun as a simple kiss months before was now set in stone.

Pulling herself out of her memories, she saw the clock on his wall read 5:25 a.m. "We have to get up," she said, weaving her fingers through his blond hair, as he focused his attention to the sensitive patch of skin just behind her ear. "Oh, God," she moaned, but then continued, "we really do have to get up."

He groaned, burying his face in her neck, planting a small kiss there and then one on her shoulder, before lifting himself off of her and helping her up. He grabbed his shirt from where it was hanging precariously off one of his open kitchen cabinets. I tossed that pretty far this time, she mused as she watched him pull it over his head. She pulled on her boots as he rummaged through the cabinets finding his Shredded Wheat and her Honey Nut Cheerios. She grabbed two bowls, two spoons and the half gallon of milk from his fridge.

They stepped outside, a space heater pumping hot air in their direction to keep them warm in the crisp January morning air. He bent over and retrieved his daily copy of the New York Times, one of the many quirks that she loved about him. Who gets the New York Times delivered to them every morning in Boulder, Colorado? Only Sasha Beloff. He passed her the Science Times, while he poured over the Arts section. She filled both their bowls and he added the milk.

After a bite of her Cheerios she sat back and sighed, "You do realize something don't you?" she asked.

"What's that?" he asked, through a mouthful of cereal, flipping his paper down to look at her.

"We've turned into an old married couple," she said, barely able to keep the grin off her face.

He studied her, trying to measure her seriousness, "How do you figure?"

"Well, we don't have sex, we bicker about everything, we make each other breakfast out of sheer instinct, you have no problem talking with your mouth full in front of me…" she trailed off, unable to stop the laughter from bubbling up from her throat.

He chuckled and muttered, "Cheeky brat, eat your bloody Cheerios."

She waggled her eyebrows at him, "I love it when you get all cranky and British in the morning."

Sasha laughed and took another bite of his Shredded Wheat. He loved this side of her, the funny, playful, flirty side that he was sure no one else even knew existed. It was an interesting dichotomy, watching her transform every morning from this carefree young woman to the intense, driven World Champion she became in the gym. Be honest, Beloff, it turns you on that she's a soft as butter in your hands, but turns hard as stone as soon as she steps in the gym.

He shook his head, marveling at how amazing she was when he saw a car he thought he recognized pulling into the parking lot. He squinted, not having put his contacts in yet, but then realized the person approaching was unmistakable: Nicky Russo, from Denver Elite, the Men's silver medalist in the All Around at Nationals and the World Championships. What the hell is he doing here?

Sasha looked at Payson and saw she'd stopped mid-chew. "Don't choke on your cereal, love," he muttered and stood to greet Nicky.

"Sasha," he said, extending his hand and shaking his firmly. "Hey Payson," he added, looking shocked to see her.

"Hi Nicky," she said, going back to her paper quickly.

Sasha furrowed his brow at her quick dismissal, but looked at Nicky, "What can I do for you?" he asked, thinking he already knew the answer. Kid was stupid to leave in the first place, now he comes crawling back when he realizes that he left the better club.

"I think you know why I'm here, Sasha," Nicky said, shifting his feet uncomfortably. "I never should have gone to Denver. It was a stupid decision and one I made without really thinking things through. I'd like to come back, if you'll allow it."

Sasha smirked, "We're not exactly in the habit of turning away the best gymnasts in the world from training with us. Come on inside the gym; I'll get you some paperwork to fill out and we'll get the ball rolling," he said, patting Nicky on the back and moving towards the Rock.

"Don't worry, I'll clean up, you just go ahead," Payson called from the table, but he could hear the laughter in her voice.

Nicky hesitated, "Should we?" he asked.

Sasha bit his lip and shook his head, "No, just no," he said, steering the younger man across the parking lot.

Nicky looked very confused as they walked into the Rock together, "Does Payson eat breakfast here a lot?" he asked.

"Yeah, she gets up early and no one in her house is awake yet, so we have breakfast together," Sasha shrugged, reciting the well-rehearsed answer they'd developed in case anyone stumbled upon them. "Beats eating alone."

Nicky nodded in agreement, "It's amazing how far she's come in so short a time. I couldn't believe what I was seeing in Rotterdam."

"Everyone was pretty amazed," Sasha agreed as they stepped into his office and he motioned for Nicky to sit down.

Nicky smirked, "Except you," he said. "Really, Sasha, that's why I want to come back and I'm not just blowing smoke to inflate your ego. If I want to be the best, I need to train everyday with the best. Payson, Austin, you, you're the best. Simple as that."

Sasha nodded, "Good. Did you let Marty know?"

"Yesterday," Nicky confirmed.

"Okay, well I'll have him send all your paperwork over here, but you can start training today if you like. Our insurance covers immediate transfers." Ha, Marty gloated for two weeks in text messages that Nicky Russo had defected to Denver, time for a little payback, Beloff.

Nicky rubbed his hands together in anticipation, "Excellent," he said. "I can't wait to get started."

"I can't believe Nicky Russo showed his face here again," Lauren said, frowning as the Rock's four elite women stretched at the beam. "After what he did to you, Payson, I think we should shun him."

Payson stared at Lauren in disbelief, "He didn't do anything to me, Lauren and this is a gym, not an Amish church, we don't shun people."

"Except Kelly Parker," Emily piped up from the corner of the beam where she was stretching her calves.

"Except Kelly Parker," Kaylie agreed and wrinkled her nose at the thought of their rival, who from all reports had recovered from the ankle injury that kept her out of the World Championships and was back training again.

Payson looked up and for the second time in just a few hours couldn't believe what she was seeing. Ellen Beals, sporting yet another attractive Adidas track suit had entered the gym and was walking up the steps towards the gym office. She frowned and without hesitating, she started towards the office as well. "Are you coming?" she called over her shoulder to her friends, who quickly followed. "Austin? Nicky?" she said as she passed the parallel bars, where they were both working in. Both young men shrugged and followed the girls up the stairs and into the office.

"Excuse me," Beals said, when they all barged in, "Coach Beloff and I were having a private conversation. Nicky? What are you doing here?"

"I'm back training at the Rock," he answered shortly.

Looking at Payson before he began, Austin took it from there, "You're a National Committee member, Sasha coaches six members of the US National Gymnastics team. If you need to talk to him, then you need to talk to us as well," he said, smirking at Beals.

Beals seemed inclined to indulge them, "Fine, as I was just saying to Coach Beloff, the Olympic test event a week from now has been expanded. The Federation of International Gymnastics was quite frankly embarrassed by what happened in Rotterdam and even more annoyed that they've been unable to prove any wrong doing thus far, so they've teamed with the IOC to expand the event and they want us to send our best gymnasts. We at the National Committee have no problem doing so and therefore it's been decided that all national team members and their coaches will be going to London one week from today to compete." The words seemed to give Beals physical pain, but there was obviously nothing she could do to stop it. Sasha Beloff and his gymnasts were the biggest thing in American gymnastics right now, coming off their amazing performance at Worlds, Payson Keeler's newfound mainstream popularity and their incredibly successful Sports Illustrated article, despite Beals having made sure that the magazine's most irritable reporter had been sent to do the job.

Payson frowned at her, "That's awfully short notice. What do you think, Sasha?" she asked her coach, who'd been smiling at the ballsy gymnasts he trained.

He cleared his throat, "We'll do it," he said and nodded to Beals, "Is that all?" he asked. She nodded, "Well then I'll ask you to show yourself out, my gym is for coaches and athletes only during these hours." You'll probably regret that eventually, Beloff, but it's nice getting one up on her every once in a while.

Beals made a noise of protest in her throat, but realized quickly that she really didn't have a choice. "I'll see you in London then," she said and quickly excused herself.

The air seemed to return to the office and they all let out a sigh of relief. Sasha cleared his throat, "While I appreciate this fine show of solidarity, apparently we have an international meet to train for, so," he trailed off, but when no one moved, he glared at them, "get going." They all nearly jumped out of their skin and raced out the door, "Payson," he called before she could leave.

She turned to him, "Yes, Sasha?" she asked, in a perfectly obedient tone, but a slightly ironic expression on her face.

"Thanks," he said with a wink.

She smiled at him, "Anytime."


Inima mea este a ta: My heart is yours.

Şi a mea este a ta: And mine is yours.

Chapter 14: Interrupted Again

Heathrow Airport, it was always the same and whenever Sasha entered it his stomach churned in a way that most men with his level of accomplishment and confidence never had to deal with. He was home, he supposed, but not really. England hadn't been home for a long time, not since that debacle of a relationship with M.J. that had caused his eighteen-year-old self so much heartache he actually fled the country to live and train with a father he could barely tolerate in order to get away from it all. London 2012 would have another meaning for him, beyond helping his gymnasts achieve their dreams or even the all-important moment when the last obstacle between he and Payson was stripped away, it would be coming full circle, redemption in the same place where his world had come crashing down around his ears.

"Pick up the pace, Beloff," Ellen Beals's annoying voice broke through his reverie as the US gymnastics contingent made their way from the gate to baggage claim. He rolled his eyes, not even bothering to hide it from the rest of their group.

He no longer felt the need to hide the open animosity he felt for Ellen Beals. He was currently the personal coach of six gymnasts on the US National Team. Beals needed him and that wasn't about to change in the foreseeable future.

"Pick up the pace, Beloff," he heard another voice mutter from just behind him, sarcasm dripping from her voice.

Apparently, he wasn't the only one who no longer had any time for Ellen Beals, "I didn't check any luggage," he said to Payson as she caught up and walked by his side, both pulling small suitcases behind them that they'd carried onto the plane.

She glanced up at him, "Neither did I and I think we're the only ones," she said looking at their empty-handed traveling companions.

"I don't really feel like waiting around at baggage claim, do you?" he said, raising his voice just slightly so the rest of the party could hear them.

"No," she said, trying to sound as exhausted as possible. "Do you want to go straight to the hotel?" she asked, "I'm exhausted."

"Yeah," he said, "Beals, Payson's tired and neither of us have luggage to claim. We're going to head straight to the hotel so she can rest up," he said.

Beals pursed her lips, caught between wanting to disagree with him just to be contrary and wanting Payson to get the rest she needed to beat the rest of the world at the test event the next day. "Fine, we'll see you at the hotel," she said, but they were already walking away towards the street entrance and the line for taxis.

"Smooth, very smooth," Payson said, with a laugh as they stood in line.

He grinned down at her and was about to put his arm around her shoulders when a little girl approached Payson with a pen and paper. She couldn't have been more than ten, "Excuse me? Aren't you Payson Keeler?" she asked.

Payson nodded and smiled, "Yes, I am."

"Could I have your autograph? I'm going to the test event tomorrow. I can't wait to see you compete."

At this point Payson was practically glowing, "Thank you," she said, signing the scrap of paper. The girl scampered back towards what looked like her parents, waving back at them.

"So how does it feel," he asked leaning down to whisper in her ear.

"How does what feel?" she asked, turning around to face him, their faces now inches apart.

"To be back on top?" he said, his eyes flicking down towards her lips.

She smirked at him and took a step back, "That was just too easy," she said, "My mind went straight to the gutter."

He threw his head back and laughed, taking her bag from her as a taxi pulled up for them. "Well, we wouldn't want that, would we?" he asked, putting her bag in the boot of the taxi and then opening the door for her.

The ride to the hotel was a short one and it helped that Sasha's accent kept the cabbie from taking the conveniently long way to The Dorchester hotel.

"Looks like the National Committee spared no expense," she said as they approached the front desk.

"Checking in, Beloff," he said to the pretty young woman working behind the desk. The woman's eyes sparkled at him for a moment before looking down at her computer to find his reservation. Payson stifled the laugh bubbling up inside of her.

"Here you go, Mr. Beloff. A kind sized bed, mini bar and a lovely view," she said, handing him an envelope with his room key in it. "Room 525."

Payson rolled her eyes and impatiently cleared her throat, "Hi, checking in. Keeler, Payson," she said with a sickeningly sweet smile.

The young woman was back in professional mode, "Ah, yes, Miss Keeler, room 527, two keys, one of for you and the other for Miss Kmetko when she arrives."

Payson took one of the keys out, "I'll leave this key for Emily Kmetko at the desk. I may not be in my room and I wouldn't want her locked out," she said, pushing one of the keys back across the desk. "Thanks," she said with the smile she usually reserved for Ellen Beals.

They went quickly towards the elevators. As soon as the doors closed, Sasha started to chuckle. "And what's so funny?" Payson asked him, hands on her hips.

"You were jealous," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. Easy there, Beloff, don't get too puffed up about it. She looks pretty put out.

Payson pursed her lips and glared at him, "Oh was I?" she said, holding out her hand.

"What?" he asked, "What do you want?"

"The envelope with your room key," she said, wiggling her fingers.

He gave it to her, "I don't know what you…"

"Elspeth, 020-5464-6942. Call me, xoxo," she read off the envelope and handed it back to him. "I was not jealous. I'm just observant," she said rolling her eyes. The elevator reached the fifth floor and they got off. "I'm going to take a shower and change my clothes. I smell like airplane." Wow, you're so far gone on this girl that you don't even notice when another woman is flirting with you.

"Yeah, I'll see you in a little bit then, okay?" he said as she stopped at her door.

"Sure," she said, trying her room key. It didn't work. "Damn it," she said, trying again. She sighed, "I really don't feel like going all the way down there for another key."

Sasha sighed, "Payson, just use my room. You can go down for another key later."

"Are you sure? I wouldn't want to intrude on any plans you might make with Elspeth," she said, looking up at him with a cheeky grin.

"Who?" he asked, smiling back at her. Now, that, that was smooth, Beloff.

"Good answer," she said, as he opened the door to his hotel room and held it for her.

Payson sighed as the hot jets of water pounded her body. She'd never been in a hotel with such amazing water pressure before. "Oh God, that feels good," she moaned, as the water hit one of the knots that had formed in her back during the plane trip.

"How're you doing in there?" Sasha called from the door.

"Good," she responded, deciding to torture him a bit. "Hmm, really good."

"You sound good," he said, his voice suddenly much closer. He was on the other side of the shower curtain.

Payson shook her head in disbelief and laughed. She stuck her head out from behind the curtain, covering the rest of her body with it. "Get out. I'll be done in a minute," she said.

Truth was it took her all willpower to send him away. They'd decided not to consummate their relationship, but Sasha was an extremely attractive man and most of the time his mere presence made her want to throw caution to the wind and simply do whatever came naturally.

She finished her shower and wrapped a towel around her body before walking into the hotel room to see him lounging on the bed, shirtless, flipping through the channels.

"Jesus, you send me out of there and then come out in that," Sasha said, swinging his legs off the bed and standing in one motion. She wound her arms around his neck as his snaked around her waist to pull her closer. "You smell good," he murmured against her neck, placing a hot open-mouthed kiss on the spot he'd found that made her legs to go jelly almost instantly. She loved it when he did that, not only because how it made her feel, but because she knew he did it purposefully, with the intent to give her as much pleasure at possible.

She ran a hand through his hair, loving the feeling of its feathery softness. So much about him was hard and rough, from his personality down to the calluses on his hands from the training she knew he still did, but his hair was so soft, she loved the contrast. He brought his lips to hers and they kissed softly at first and then with growing urgency, when she heard the click of the hotel room door and a feminine gasp.

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry," Payson heard Emily Kmetko's voice say. She ducked her head down towards Sasha's chest, knowing his height was completely shielding her from Emily's view. "Sorry," she heard Emily say again and the door clicked closed.

"She didn't see me," Payson said, letting out a sigh of relief.

Sasha looked at her in disbelief, "What do you mean?"

"You were blocking me, she didn't see me," she said, and rested her head against his chest. She felt his lips press against the top of her head.

"I have a plan," he said, looking at her bag in the corner, which thankfully had also been out of Emily's view. "You brought pins, for your hair, right?"

Payson looked at him like he had ten heads, "Yeah, for the competition."

"Give me three," he said, pointing to her bag. "Quickly, she probably went down to the front desk to get a key card and I haven't done this in a while."

Payson handed him three pins, "Done what?"

"You didn't notice that our rooms are adjoining? I'm going to pick the lock between the rooms."

"Sasha, that's impossible, adjoining doors don't have locks on the inside."

He was already opening the door that connected their rooms. "Not at the Dorchester," he mumbled as he had one of the pins in his mouth. He stuck the pin in the lock and bent the other one into the shape he needed. "This hotel is ridiculous expensive, but they haven't renovated the lower floors in decades."

"How do you know all this stuff?" Payson asked him. He's having a James Bond moment, let him have it.

"Some of us weren't nearly as well behaved as you are when we were seventeen," he said and smiled back at her over his shoulder.

She shrugged, "From where I'm standing right now, I'm about the least well behaved seventeen year old I've seen around lately. Carrying on with a man much older than me and my coach no less," she added with an ironic tone to her voice.

She heard a click and the door swung open, "That was amazing," she said, as he stood up. She grabbed her bag. "I'll see you later," she said, kissing him quickly.

"Dinner, remember, at seven with the team, at Alain Ducasse downstairs."

"Dinner at seven," she confirmed and shut the door behind her, dressing in shorts and a tank quickly and running the water in the shower until it looked like she had used it.

She lay down on the bed and turned on the television, when Emily burst into the room.

"You won't believe what just happened," Emily said, dropping her bag at her feet and staring at Payson.

"What?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the television.

Emily let out a heavy breath, "The hotel sent me to the wrong room. The room next door, actually. I take my key, open it up and there's Sasha with some woman who's only wrapped in a towel and he was kissing her. Ugh! That image is burned into my mind forever," she whined and threw herself down on the bed.

Payson let out the breath she didn't know she was holding. "Oh my God, did you see who it was?" she asked, hoping her interest didn't come off as too fake.

Emily shook her head, "Probably someone he knows in London. I mean how else would he have hooked up that fast?" Emily guessed. "She was blonde though and short."

Payson shrugged, "You're probably right. It was some old girlfriend or something. Come on, it wasn't that bad. At least Sasha's good looking, you could have walked in on Ellen Beals," Payson offered and Emily's face scrunched up into a look of absolute revulsion.

They looked at each other and quickly burst into hysterical laughter. "He does have a nice back, very muscular," Emily said, smiling. They started laughing again. Payson, more from relief than anything else.

They were sitting at dinner, at the "kid's table" as Austin had dubbed it while the coaches and trainers sat across the restaurant. The Rock gymnasts took up an entire table just by themselves, while the rest of the mens and womens national team members filled another.

"So I walk in and there's Sasha, shirtless, just standing in the middle of his hotel room and he's kissing some blonde girl wrapped in a towel. I got out of there as fast as possible," Emily said, taking a sip of her water quickly.

"Did you get a good look at her?" Emily shook her head, no. "You might have some competition, Keeler," Austin said, drawing a glare from Payson, who was sitting to his right. "At least she was blonde, so maybe you're his type after all."

"Austin thinks I'm a Sasha Beloff groupie," she said, rolling her eyes at him. "You're hilarious."

Lauren piped up, "Pay, I always thought you were into dark haired guys," she said, shooting a meaningful look at Nicky, who promptly choked on the bite of steak he'd taken.

Austin smirked, "Oh, so that's how it is," he said, looking between Payson and Nicky.

"You don't know what you're talking about, man," Nicky said.

Payson smiled at him, "No clue at all," she said and shot Austin a smug smile.

"Oh yeah," he said leaning down to whisper in her ear as the conversation went on around them, "then why does he keep looking over here?"

"Who?" she asked, annoyed, but knowing exactly who he was talking about.

"Sasha," he said, "He keeps looking over here."

"Maybe he's embarrassed. He knows Emily is going to tell the story. His ears are probably ringing, knowing we're talking about him."

"Or maybe he's looking at you," Austin said.

Payson looked up at him sharply, "You don't know what you're talking about, Austin. Sasha is my coach. We've been through a lot together, but it's nothing more than that and implying it could get him in a lot of trouble. So just stop," she said. She was deadly serious and he knew it.

He raised his hands in supplication, "Alright, alright, no need to get so defensive. I was just playing around, Keeler."

"You weren't," she accused, her blue eyes flashing at him.

"No, I wasn't" he conceded, "but I'll stop. I promise, but only if you talk to me."

She looked him in the eye and he nodded, silently agreeing in a way that frightened her. In that moment, she knew that he knew something. He wasn't sure and he didn't have proof, but he knew something and that was enough to send her into an internal panic.

"Fine. The lobby for five minutes or not at all," she said.

"Perfect," he said. He stood, throwing his napkin on the table and buttoning his suit jacket. "Ladies and er – Nicky, please excuse us. We're going for a walk," he said, standing behind her chair and pulling it back for her to stand.

The entire table went silent and stared at them and Payson just huffed and walked away, not worried about if Austin was with her or not.

"So are you nuts or just plain stupid?" he asked her as they entered the lobby and found two chairs in a corner where no one was sitting.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about. You and Coach Dreamy making the beast with two backs, you must be insane. I thought you wanted to be an Olympic champion? If so, the last thing you should be doing is sleeping with your coach."

Payson shook her head, "I am not sleeping with Sasha," she said, keeping her voice down.

Austin pursed his lips, "So this afternoon, when Emily walked into his hotel room and he was kissing some girl in a bath towel, that wasn't you?"

She flashed her eyes up to his and held his gaze, "Enough, I've had enough. I am not sleeping with him. I am a virgin and I plan on remaining that way until after the Olympic games. I have no intention of taking a risk like that. Is that enough for you? Now will you stop playing big brother and leave me alone?" she asked, standing and taking a step away.

"Just one last thing," he said, grabbing her hand as she tried to step past him, "when a man looks at a woman, the way he's been looking at you, its real Payson. Don't ever doubt that."

She stopped and looked down at him. His eyes were softer now, almost apologetic. "Thank you," she said, squeezing his hand and then releasing it.

"No problem," he said, standing up and putting his hands in his pockets, "Oh and Keeler?" he called, "I can't stop with the big brother thing. I've taken it on as a side job. So if he hurts you, or you know whatever…" he trailed off.

"Good night, Austin," she said, shaking her head.

"Good night, Keeler."

Chapter 15: Complications

The O2 Arena was going to be a great venue for the London 2012 games. It was the first thought Payson had when she arrived. It was on the banks of the Thames, originally part of London's millennium celebration. And it will be the place where I win Olympic Gold. She felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Austin and Nicky standing behind her.

"We just wanted to say good luck," Austin said and he looked at Nicky pointedly.

"Good luck, Payson," he said and smiled at her the way he used to, the awkwardness she thought they'd gotten past last year was back in full force. Nicky turned and went towards the crowd entrance.

"What was that about?" she asked, as they watched Nicky's retreating back.

"That was me being an awesome big brother," he said, smirking at her proudly.

She laughed, "What?"

The smile was gone, replaced by a look of exasperation. "Yep, that's me, big brother of the year. I had to spend all night last night listen to that kid extol on every single one of your virtues until I told him if he didn't shut up I'd chuck him out the window and if he ever did it again, they wouldn't find the body. No jury would convict me either, justifiable homicide."

Payson shook her head, "I didn't realize that he still…"

Austin patted her on the shoulder, "Yeah, he does, but don't worry, I'm pretty sure he thinks we're dating, so it's all good." He bent down and kissed her on the cheek and without another word, Austin turned and walked away.

Payson stared at him wide eyed. "What? How could that possibly be all good?" she yelled to his back, but he just turned around, gave her a thumbs-up and kept walking. She turned and saw that the gaggle of reporters and photographers who hadn't been let inside the arena yet had of course captured the moment with their cameras. Great, just bloody freaking fabulous.

"What was that about?" Emily asked as she approached.

"If my life is this complicated before the Olympics next year…" Payson trailed off, her meaning absolutely clear.

"Tell me about it," Emily agreed.

Payson shook her head, "Come on, we've got the world to destroy, again."

Emily laughed as she linked their arms together and they entered the arena.

"Ladies, nice of you to join us," Ellen Beals commented as they entered the locker room and began to change into their leos. "Our first rotation of the day is beam. Some may view this as a disadvantage, but I think it's an advantage. We'll get it out of the way and then focus on our strengths."

"Wow, that was inspirational," Kaylie muttered as Beals left the room.

"Well, beam is my strength, so I'm not worried," Lauren said, braiding her bangs firmly against the side of her head to keep them out of her way during the meet. The other five girls in the room managed to simultaneously roll their eyes. "What?" Lauren asked, not understanding at all.

Payson just shook her head and began to prepare mentally. She closed her eyes and visualized each of her routines in the order of their rotation. It would be an interesting competition. Some of her routines were exactly the same as they'd been at Worlds and other's she had tweaked to increase the DOD after she and Sasha watched the video of the tainted competition in Rotterdam. She was out to prove something today, that the results were no lightning in a bottle, unable to be duplicated. She frowned for a moment. She had an idea. It was gutsy and definitely going out on a limb, but it was something she wanted to do. I need to talk to Sasha. She quickly finished dressing, pulling her hair into her signature bun.

She heard Lauren mutter something like, "Payson-bot is back," as she walked past, but she was focused on her goal, find Sasha and run this insane idea past him.

Sasha zipped up his coach's jacket and leaned against the cold concrete wall in the tunnel that led out to the arena. Ellen Beals was just ahead of him schmoozing a few members of the media. "Sasha," she called and he looked up at her with a smile.

"What's up?" he asked, noting the odd expression on her face. That's not the expression she usually wears before a competition. Something is wrong. "Did something happen?"

"No, but I have an idea," she said. "It's a little risky."

He eyed her warily, "Payson…" he cautioned.

"I want to do all my old routines. Everything exactly the same from Worlds," she said.

Sasha shook his head. What happened? She's been nailing those new routines consistently for months, even that bloody extra half twist on her Yurchenko vault. "Payson, I don't understand, that new degree of difficulty will blow Genghi Cho's improved routines out of the water."

"Exactly," she said, grabbing his hand and pulling him further down the hallway to be sure they were out of earshot. "You saw Genghi Cho at the Pan-Asian competition. She increased her degree of difficulty, but not enough and she's probably reached her ceiling as far as power moves on vault and floor. Even with my old routines, she'd be depending upon me to make a ton of mistakes. Even then she'd still have to nail her routines."

Sasha nodded, still not really understanding, "Payson, I…"

"It's a long term strategy, for the World Championships in October," she said with a glint in her eye he hadn't seen before. "If I go out there with my old routines the Chinese team will have no idea what I'm bringing to the table until after Nationals in August and by then it will be too late for them to raise Genghi Cho's degree of difficulty to where it needs to be."

He laughed, "Are you sure you want to be a gymnastics coach and not a political operative or something else that would nurture this sudden aptitude you have for tactics and guile."

She put her hands on her hips, "If you're done making fun of me?"

He nodded his head, "I think it's a brilliant idea. Honestly, I'm annoyed that I didn't come up with it myself."

"I'm glad you think so," she said, looking rather proud of herself.

He stared down at her, the space between their bodies suddenly felt charged with energy. "I do think so. I also find it incredibly attractive, I didn't know you had a devious side," he murmured. Whoa, down, boy. You're in the middle of a crowded hallway. Didn't you learn anything from that hotel room incident? Apparently not, since you're completely ignoring me, Beloff. "It makes me want to..." he trailed off.

She smiled wickedly, but stepped away, indicating with her eyes that someone was approaching them. He set his mouth in a firm line, steeling himself for dealing with Ellen Beals while she was still on a power high from talking to the media. "Sasha," a gruff voice he hadn't heard in six years barked out from just a few feet away.

He furrowed his eyebrows, "Dad?" No, no, not today, not ever. Why is he here? He turned to see his father, hair now completely white, about twenty pounds heavier, but still the same. The same rigid posture, the same glare from the blue eyes he'd inherited and the same ability to make Sasha feel about four inches tall.

"Sasha," his father said and nodded.

"What? What are you doing here?" he asked. Please say you're here to do some press or to commentate or…

"I am coaching the Romanian team. After your friend, Petrescu's disgrace, they asked me to come back and regain honor for our country." His old man puffed his chest out proudly at the words, which had probably been quoted exactly from the discussion he'd had with the head of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation.

Sasha smiled weakly. "That's great, Dad," he said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to help Payson prepare for the meet." Shit, that was a mistake.

"Payson Keeler," his father said, sizing her up quickly. "You will do fine things," he nodded to her and winked.

Payson shot Sasha an awkward grin, "Thank you, Coach Beloff," she said respectfully. "Your son is a great coach." Payson, please don't encourage him.

"Ah, Sasha, yes, he's a good boy," said Boris, as Sasha had begun calling him in his mind since the day he went back to England, fully appreciating and resenting his father's unwillingness to forgive him for winning his medals in Sydney for England and not Romania.

Payson smiled at his father and then back at him. "Sasha, should we?" she said indicating towards the prep room. The Chinese aren't going to know what hit them.

"I'll be right there," he told her and looked at his father sharply. Payson nodded and left them.

"She is an excellent gymnast, Sasha. No one here is in her class, not even that little girl from China," Boris said, watching her leave. "Pretty girl, too," he added dismissively. "She is seeing that, what do you call it, punk, Tucker, isn't she? That is what they say on television. Good girls and their bad boys."

Sasha sighed, rubbing a hand across his face, "Dad, what are you doing here? Really?"

Boris shrugged, "They asked, I said yes. It is not difficult to understand."

Sasha shook his head, "I thought you retired?"

"A temporary arrangement, what would I have done? Fish? No. I am a gymnastics coach, as are you. It is what we Beloffs do."

Sasha said, "Yes, well this Beloff has to go do just that. I'll see you out there."

Now that was the most unpleasant moment of my day. Suddenly, Ellen Beals came into his field of vision. She was arguing with Payson about something. Shit, Payson probably told her about using the exact routines she'd used at the World Championships.

"What the hell is this, Beloff? What have you been doing in that sorry excuse you call a training center for all these months? Cartwheels? Not one budge in her DOD, no change at all from her performance at World Championships. What are you trying to pull?" she demanded.

He rolled his eyes, "Miss Beals," he said, the sarcasm obvious in his tone, "Payson is the World Champion. I am her coach. She and I make the decisions about her routines and this is what we've decided. If you prefer, she won't compete." It would be just your luck today, you sodding bastard, that she'd agree to that and pull Payson out of spite.

Beals shook her head, "When Genghi Cho is on the top of that podium during the All Around competition, Beloff, I'm going to put your balls in a vice," she muttered to him so that the girls wouldn't hear, although Lauren, who was the closest to them let out a snort, which she quickly hid behind a faux-cough. She stomped out of the room and everyone in it let out a collective breath, even Kelly Parker who'd been oddly cooperative in the last months, settling comfortably into the role of the US number 2 gymnast, after Kaylie's hiatus and Payson's win at Worlds.

A moment passed and he looked around the room, "Are we ready, ladies?" he asked. They all nodded in the affirmative. He smiled. "Then let's go. They're starting the parade of teams."

They lined up in the tunnel, waiting to be announced. "On vault, the United Kingdom," the announcer said and the crowd went wild. The UK team, easily the weakest in the field, marched out of the tunnel and into the arena. "On uneven bars, World silver medalists, China!" A polite cheer went up for the second best team in the world. "On floor exercise, with their new coach, Boris Beloff, Romania!" a smattering of applause went up, with a few rowdy Romanian fans screaming from a section decked out in red, yellow and blue. "And on balance beam, the reign world champions, the United States of America." The crowd cheered enthusiastically. Various names could be heard intermingled with the cheering. "Payson! We love you!" and "Welcome back, Kaylie!"

He looked up and even saw a sign that said, "Rock Rebels Rock!" Squinting at the pair, he realized it was Nicky Russo and Austin Tucker. They'd painted their chests and faces red, white and blue, were wearing American flag rags on their heads and were screaming their heads off.

Sasha shook his head and smiled. He tapped the closest gymnast to him on the shoulder; it happened to be Emily and pointed up to where they were sitting. She laughed and the team noticed he was pointing out into the crowd and the rest of them joined in. This is a good thing. This is a test event, Beloff. No need for nerves, just a nice solid competition and good practice being up on a podium.

Beam was up first and that was always tricky. Sometimes in team gymnastics, you live and die by the balance beam. The teams warmed up quickly, shorter than at most international events because this wasn't airing live on television, but would be taped and aired later. There was no waiting for commercial breaks. Five team members cleared off the podium and onto the floor, leaving Emily standing there waiting for the judge's flag to indicate they were ready.

The flag went up and the competition began.

Chapter 16: Competitions of All Kinds

They were on vault, directly in front of where the commentators for Universal Sports were sitting and Sasha could hear them as they talked through the American performance. "Excellent day for the United States of America so far. We're finishing up the third of four rotations and no major mistakes all day long," Tim Daggett said.

Sasha looked up at the leader board. Daggett was right, they were putting up solid numbers, but so were China and Romania, who'd seemed to respond to the coaching change well. Boris is a crap father, but he is a great gymnastics coach.

"Here's Payson Keeler on vault, where she just flies," he heard Elfie Schlegel say. "The vault she performs in the early rounds is a Yurchenko with a double twist, which to be honest, is most top gymnasts more difficult vault. Payson has a second vault, the most difficult vault in the competition that she'll use during the team and all-around finals which helped win her the All-Around gold and the gold in the vault itself at the World Championships last year."

Sasha looked to Payson who was standing just off the run waiting for the judges to post the score for Kelly Parker's vault, a very good 15.75 on her Yurchenko two and a half.

The flag went up almost immediately. Payson saluted and took off down the run, landing her Yurchenko beautifully, making it look easy, which for her, it was. Her score came up almost immediately, a 15.7.

She jumped off the podium down to the arena floor and smiled at him. "How are you standing this?" he said through gritted teeth. "I'd have done the Prudonova just to shove it up Kelly Parker's ass."

She smiled up at him, "Patience is a virtue," she said, repeating words he'd once said to her as he'd been playing her body like a well tuned violin, holding back, prolonging her pleasure, without giving her what she truly wanted.

Sasha chuckled. "Yes, it is. A lesson I taught you well, if I recall," he said, reminded of the moment when he'd given in to her and she'd come apart in his arms, truly the most beautiful thing he'd ever witnessed.

Kaylie came over to give Payson a quick congratulatory hug. Then all the girls grabbed their bags and lined up to march to their final event of the day, uneven bars. Ellen Beals led them towards the next apparatus; while Sasha brought up the end of the line.

Lauren, their weakest bars performer was up first. It was then that disaster struck. On her swing forward with a half turn, she overshot the low bar, just grazed it with her fingers and fell flat on her face. The crowed groaned and Sasha raced out to make sure she was okay.

"I'm fine," she growled, mostly to herself. Sasha nodded and backed away. She stood quickly, re-chalked her hands and pulled herself up onto the bars to finish her routine. She dismounted, raised her hands in salute and stomped off the podium. Sasha patted her on the shoulder. He turned to see the Ellen Beals, staring at Lauren with her lips pursed. Sasha sighed and leapt up onto the platform to adjust the bars for Kaylie's routine. The rest of the rotation went smoothly, as they approached Payson's anchor performance.

He could practically hear Tim Daggett's voice in his head, "And now Payson Keeler, the reigning World Champion on the uneven bars, the last time she performed this routine in competition she received a perfect ten for execution. Of course, we know that there were concerns about the judging at the World Championships, but I personally viewed that routine, Al, and it was perfect."

Sasha couldn't help it, every time he saw Payson approach the uneven bars, a knot formed in his stomach. He wasn't sure it something that would ever go away, no matter how healthy and confident she was going into a competition.

She saluted the judges and then ran up to the spring board, pushing off the low bar in a Hecht jump, up to the top, casting herself into a perfect handstand. She performed several of her more artistic elements, until the layout Gienger. Sasha had phoned Valeri Liukin himself, worrying about the release skill, but Valeri had calmed him, with a small laugh. "Just stand there, below the bar. Catch her if she falls, but be ready to let her swing right past you at full speed if she doesn't."

So Sasha waited and then calmly approached the high bar as she swung around, released the bar, performed her layout salto with incredible height, turned half way and caught the bar again. He leaned out of the way as her body flew past him. He stepped away and watched her toe-on one and a half, with a straddled Jaeger and he released the breath he'd been holding slowly, watching her cast into the Ray, and then back down to the low bar with a Pak salto. Just a few more hand-stands, a transition to the low bar, back to the high and then the dismount, the most difficult dismount in the competition, double twisting, double straight back. Sasha clapped his hands together in triumph as her feet landed flat on the mat, no wobble or waver. She smiled and raised her arms over her head, adding a small fist pump, which he was sure the commentators loved. She jogged off, waving to the crowd as it cheered, but no they weren't cheering, they were chanting, over and over again, "Ten! Ten! Ten!" It was echoing through the entire arena. They knew she nailed it. She came over to him and threw her arms around his waist. He allowed himself a quick peck to the side of her forehead, "Excellent, Payson," he said, releasing her and letting her teammates surround her in congratulations.

Then a roar from the crowd went up and they all saw her score: A – 7.0; E – 10.0; Keeler, Payson; UB – 17.0. Overall – 65.5 (1)

The crowd went into an absolute frenzy as did the entire American contingent on the floor; squeals of joy from high pitched voices invaded his ears. Even Ellen Beals cracked a smile, although he was sure that had more to do with the fact that Payson's score edged the USA in front after the first day of competition. She also qualified first in the All-Around competition to be held the day after the team finals.

Payson quickly showered, wiped the competition make up off her face and let her hair down. The last few months had taught her an important lesson; whether she liked it or not, she was a celebrity and looking as different as possible from her competition persona helped to avoid fans and the media making scenes on the streets. She threw on a pair of jeans, a cashmere sweater and tall brown boots. Looking around she realized the other girls weren't even close to finished. She sighed, grabbed her bag and left the locker room, fully intending to wait on the bus for them.

"That was fast," she heard a voice behind her comment. "Where are the rest of the girls?"

She rolled her eyes, "Making themselves pretty," she said. "I just want to get out of here. I have no idea why it takes them so long."

Nicky smiled. He'd washed his face, but his chest was still painted red, white and blue. "Not everyone can be as naturally pretty as you are, Payson," he said and smiled half heartedly. "That's a nice necklace," he said, noticing the gold pendant around her neck.

Unconsciously, she put her hand to it, "Thank you, it was a gift."

He nodded. He seemed to come to a decision, "Look, Payson, I don't know what's going on or if you're interested at all, but would you like to have a drink with me tonight?"

She stared at him, "Nicky, we don't drink. At least I don't drink." Has he lost his mind? This isn't what I need right now.

He shook his head, "That's not what I meant, just coffee or something. I feel like we haven't spoken since I got back."

She looked down at her shoes for a moment, "Nick, I don't know," she said, looking up, seeing Austin quickly approaching and Sasha not far behind him. "I'm not really up for…"

He cut her off, "No pressure. Just coffee."

She sighed and nodded, "Okay, coffee. I know the hotel has a café. We should be back by four, how's 4:30?"

He smiled fully then, his dimples appearing in all their charming force, "Great."

"There she is!" Austin exclaimed as he ran up from behind Nicky swooping in and lifting her into his arms and swinging her around. Before putting her back down on her feet. "Decimating everything in her path, just like at Worlds. Great job, Keeler."

She smiled at him, noticing he'd put on a t-shirt over his painted torso and then looked apologetically at Nicky, "Thanks," she said.

"Are you all ready to go?" Sasha asked. "There's a car that can take us all to the hotel, unless you want to wait for the lip-gloss brigade in the locker room?"

Payson's eyes widened. Had he gone insane? No, you just haven't told him everything and now you're going to spend the next half hour in a car with your first crush, the man you've been linked with in every major magazine and the love of your life. Crap. She shot Sasha a look of desperation, but he looked at her confused, not getting the message. When had this become her life? This was supposed to happen to Kaylie, with her endless trail of boyfriends and admirers. Suddenly, Austin's voice was in her head, be careful what you wish for, Keeler, you just might get it.

They exited the arena, quickly at the side entrance. The photographers and reporters were kept behind barricades, but not nearly far enough away to not identify the foursome walking towards the street. "Well, this should be interesting," Austin said, putting on his sunglasses and snaking an arm around her shoulders. "Can you say, 'awkward?'" he asked her and she glared up at him, though he couldn't see her eyes as her sunglasses were firmly in place as well. "Uh uh, smile for the cameras, Keeler." She plastered a smile across her face. Looking to her left she saw Sasha glaring at them, although the press was used to Sasha's stern façade, she knew that wasn't his usual stoic expression. Nicky just looked like someone had kicked his puppy and although no one had made a connection between them yet, it didn't make it any less uncomfortable. They quickly got in the back of a town car, which spend off towards the Dorchester.

The minutes ticked away silently, Payson feeling the air in the car become more strained and tense by the second. From the moment they got in the car, Austin and Sasha had been engaged in their own personal stare down, which Payson was sure would have resulted in physical violence if they weren't in a moving vehicle. Nicky was seated across from her, shooting her adorably pathetic looks with his brown eyes and she was barely keeping it together. She'd wedged herself against the door, as far away from Austin as humanly possible and proceeded to stare out the window for the remainder of the ride.

They pulled up in front of the hotel and Nicky practically jumped out of the car, "See you later, Payson," he said, racing up the front steps, leaving the other three standing on the side walk.

She reeled on the two idiots who were quickly becoming two of the most important men in her life, "Are you two done? Or would you like to whip them out right here so we can measure?" she demanded quietly through clenched teeth, it seemed to snap them out of it. She turned and walked away, fists clenched at her sides, leaving them to work it out.

Sasha looked at her back as she walked away from them and sighed heavily. He didn't know what had gotten into him. He was confident in Payson's feelings for him, knew she wouldn't put their careers at risk if he wasn't the man she wanted to be with, but the sight of Austin's arm around her and the press snapping photos like they knew something about them, it just got under his skin. Then Austin had the audacity to glare at him, an icy cold expression that he usually saved for opponents.

Suck it up, Beloff. Be a man and do this right. He took a deep breath, "Austin, I…" he began.

The reigning Olympic and World champion shook his head and held up his hand, "No, I get it." He paused, obviously choosing his words carefully. "I'm just trying to protect her." Austin hesitated, thinking his next words through. "The more the press that links us together, the less likely they'll be to link her with someone else." His full meaning was crystal clear and Sasha met his eyes. "She gets under your skin, you know? I've never met anyone like her. She knows I'm here for her, platonically speaking," he cleared his throat, "and for anyone she cares about."

Sasha looked at him. Well, obviously he knows something, Beloff. He knows or he guesses. That's it, it's over. Pack it in now, mate. "Anyone?" he asked, "even if it is the worst possible person for her?" Sasha hoped it wasn't becoming too confusing. He hated speaking hypothetically. He wished they could just sit down with a pint and hash this thing out.

Austin sighed, "Believe me, the worst person she could pick isn't standing on this street," he said. "Could you imagine her and that robot, Russo?" Austin shuddered. "I don't judge, Beloff. I uh- I don't know too many better people than Payson, but you're pretty high on my list too, so yeah…" he trailed off, obviously uncomfortable with what he was trying to get across. Oh, to be twenty one and painfully inarticulate, again.

Sasha snorted. Suppose he's really just looking out for her and him by proxy. Having an ally in this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. You need to talk to, Payson, and apologize for acting like a complete wanker, Beloff. "Good luck tomorrow, Tucker," he said, holding his hand out.

Austin took his hand and shook it firmly. "Thanks, Coach." He looked towards the hotel and they started to walk inside. "You'll be in the stands with our mutual friend?"

Sasha laughed at his choice of words. "Yeah, but I'm not painting myself red, white and blue."

Austin stopped walking and looked at him, "It's a shame. Well, I can always hope that Payson will," he said and they both laughed.

"Now that the press would have a field day with," Sasha said as they got to the elevator bay.

"Yep." An elevator arrived and Austin stepped in and Sasha made to follow him. "I think you'll want to wait for the next one," he said, pointing behind him.

The elevator door closed and reflected in the polished brass, he saw Payson leaning up against the wall behind him, arms folded across her chest.

She looked at him expectantly as he turned around. "Well?"

"Why don't we discuss this privately?" he said, calling for another elevator, the doors opening immediately.

"Fine," she said, pushing off the wall and following him into the lift.

They rode silently up to the fifth floor and remained quiet until they reached his hotel room.

"I'm an ass," he said, as the door shut. "And I'm sorry. I don't know what got into me. I haven't acted that way since – maybe ever."

She shook her head, "No I'm sorry. I should have found a way to tell you about Austin figuring everything out. I still have no idea how he did it. He just knew. Then I didn't get a chance to talk to you before we left and I didn't think the competition was a good place to do it."

Sasha sighed, "How about we both stop beating ourselves up." He sat on his bed, rested his elbows on his knees. He sighed, putting his head in his hands. She took a few steps forward and ran her fingers through his hair.

He heard her take a deep breath, "So what do we do?" her words were rushed as if she didn't want to say them at all.

He looked up at her and could see tears forming at the corners of her eyes. Sitting up, he took her hands in his. "There's nothing to do. Austin knows. He seems to," he hesitated trying to find the right word, "approve," he settled on that one. "You know him better than I do, can we trust him?"

Payson swallowed back the tears, "Yes," she said, nodding her head, "we can trust him. He's known for a while I think. Do you know what he told me?" she asked.

Sasha shook his head, reluctantly curious. "He told me that when a man looks at a woman the way you look at me, then it's real and I shouldn't ever doubt that."

"He's right," he said. "You should never doubt that. This is real," Sasha said, tugging on her hand. She took her cue and moved towards him, placing a knee on either side of his thighs. "You know what else?" he said as she moved in closer.


"I think we've talked enough about Austin Tucker today," he said, reaching up a hand to slide behind the back of her neck and bring her lips to his, when suddenly something vibrated against his leg. "Payson, not that I don't appreciate the creativity, but…" he trailed off, smirking at her.

"Shut up, it's my phone," she said, looking at the screen. "It's Nicky. I promise him I'd meet him for coffee in ten minutes, to catch up." She sighed. "Rain check?" she asked, her lips still hovering above his.

"There are a lot of men in your life, Payson Keeler, for a girl who's supposed to be abiding by a no-dating rule," he said, his hands sneaking up her thighs and then around to her backside to pull her closer to him. Their lower bodies came into sharp contact and he kissed her lips quickly, deepening it almost immediately, but then pulling away. "Rain check."

"I hate you," she said, closing her eyes. "Now all I'm going to be able to think about while having coffee with Nicky is coming back up here."

Sasha smirked at her as he stood up, forcing her up as well. "That was the idea."

A/N: Okay, so I think I'm getting there with the whole writing competitions thing. In case you can't tell, it's REALLY hard for me to do. Hopefully they'll get progressively better as they go on. Also, good news, I figured out how this story is going to end…now it's just a matter of getting the characters there. Haha, it might take 100 chapters or so and that might not be too much of an exaggeration.

Anyone who's interested, who hasn't checked it out, the "M" rated outtake of what happens the day after Sasha gives Payson the necklace is up. It's called, "My Heart is Yours" and you can find the link on my author page.

Next up, more gymnastics! And hopefully a few moments alone for our favorite couple.

Chapter 17: A Small Escape from Reality

Sasha's eyes flew open, his heart pounding in his chest like he'd just run a marathon. His entire body was dripping with sweat. He sucked in a breath and then let it out slowly. Just a dream, Beloff, just a dream. He sighed and ran a hand over his face, before throwing the blankets off his overheated body. But what a dream it was. He shook his head as images of the raw and passionate scene his subconscious had created for him flashed through his mind. Their lovemaking had been slow and fulfilling and perfect, but not a reality, nothing but a distant possibility.

You'll get there, old boy, but there are more important things on the horizon.

He threw his legs over the side of the bed and headed for the shower, hoping to let the hot water and the rapidly fading images give him a desperately needed release from the constant state of arousal he seemed to be in. He felt like a teenager, not totally in control of his body and that was unacceptable. He'd been the master of his own body for more than a decade now, it never letting him down except for the near catastrophic knee injury months before the Olympic Games in Sydney, but even that had been manageable enough to win four gold medals. No, in the end, a woman had been his undoing, just as his father had predicted it would be, but even Boris Beloff had no idea of exactly how that would play out. He'd surrendered willingly to her, something he had never imagined himself doing for anyone.

The shower was scalding hot and served its dual purpose well.

He pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, almost relieved that the women did not have to compete today. He'd be able to sit in the crowd and observe. He sat down on the bed to pull his shoes on and unconsciously, rubbed his knee. He was twenty seven years old, twenty eight soon. If his knee hadn't given out on him, he could easily still be competing. Watching the men's all-around competition in 2004 as the head coach of the Romanian Women's team had been absolute torture for him, so much so that he'd actually considered making a comeback. His knee had quickly informed him that if he wanted to do gymnastics he'd have to do it on one leg and that had been that. He'd gone into a bit of a hole after that, disappearing from the gymnastics radar, until Steve Tanner had interrupted what he thought was going to be a peaceful day of fishing. Until Payson had run out of the Rock, asking him to stay, telling him that she needed him.

He grimaced when he thought of the way he behaved yesterday, like a spoiled kid who'd been asked to share his favorite toy. Payson had been annoyed at him, and rightfully so, but there was still a nagging sense of insecurity there. Not that he felt she didn't feel for him the way he felt for her, but sometimes he thought maybe it would be better for her if she didn't feel this way.

He'd had his heart broken before. He was strong and could handle it, but her, the thought of their relationship being something that ultimately hurt her, it made him sick. Maybe someone like Austin Tucker or Nicky Russo would be better for her. Someone closer to her age, someone she didn't have to hide with. What are you talking about, Beloff, did you forget your ridiculous 'no-dating' rule? She'd have to hide any relationship she had, like they all do. The truth was it wasn't his 'no-dating' rule. It had been instituted before he arrived and he felt that if it was working, there was no reason to change anything. He knew many of them disregarded it, but at the very least it forced his gymnasts to think long and hard about the worth of every relationship they entered into, knowing that it could very well cost them their career.

That was beside the point however, because the moment he saw Austin throw his arm around Payson's shoulders as they walked out of the arena the night before, every insecurity he had churning inside of him teamed up with his alpha-male instincts and had boiled over. His mind screamed at him to rip the young man's arm out of his socket, and then push Payson up against a wall somewhere until she was screaming his name with pleasure, letting the world know that she belonged to him.

He stood and looked quickly in the mirror, making sure he hadn't left any toothpaste on his mouth and turned to leave just as there was a knock on his door. Looking through the peephole he saw the object of his thoughts standing there, running her fingers through her blonde hair. He opened the door and smiled at her, "Hey," she said, "You ready? I think we're the only ones going, at least no one else has emerged from their rooms."

He nodded, "Yeah, let me just grab my jacket." She hovered in the doorway and he returned a second later. "Let's go," he said, making sure he had his hotel key and cell phone in separate pockets. "So, how was coffee last night?" He couldn't help himself, he was a masochist.

She snorted and rolled her eyes, "I think he thought that we could just pick up where we left off…" she trailed off suddenly, biting her lip, realizing that she wasn't just talking to her boyfriend, but her coach. "That is…"

"Relax, Payson. I realize that of every rule the Rock has, the no dating rule is the one most frequently broken."

She breathed a sigh of relief, "Well, Nicky and I never actually dated; it was more like…" she trailed off again and shook her head, "Sorry, you don't want to know. Let's just say last night put to bed any hopes he had in that regard." She says you don't want to know, but you desperately DO want to know, huh, Beloff?

"So what you and Russo had, it was just physical?" he asked, not being help to help himself.

"What?" Payson looked at him, panic evident in her voice. "No, God, no, it was completely innocent. He kissed me once, but that was it." They were in the elevator now and as the doors closed, she grabbed his hand and squeezed it. "Is that what you were worried about yesterday? Nicky and Austin and me?"

Sasha had never been one to talk about his feelings, so he just shrugged, "Forget it," he said, lifting her hand to his lips and placing a small kiss on the back of her hand. "We're both right where we belong." The elevator doors opened and he quickly dropped her hand as they exited. Payson flipped her sunglasses down and pulled a hat on her head, the incognito look that sometimes worked to keep fans at bay. It was rare she had to do it, but when they were traveling for a meet, it was usually necessary. They left through the front entrance, the barricades keeping a few lingering fans away, the rest were probably already at the arena. The doorman had a taxi waiting and they were off. Immediately, he grabbed her hand again and he felt her squeeze it reassuringly.

"Did you eat?" he asked, feeling his stomach rumble. She shook her head, so he asked the cabbie, "Hey, we're going to grab breakfast at the Pilot Inn on River between West and East Parkside."

"Right-o," the cabbie said.

"It's a pub near the arena. Great breakfast," he said to Payson.

He was right; the breakfast looked phenomenal, not that Payson could have any of the ridiculously fatty filled things Sasha was currently stuffing into his mouth. She settled on fruit and some rye toast. "You're evil you know that, torturing me with the smell of bacon?" He smiled cheekily.

"One day, we'll come here again, after you've won gold and you can have whatever you like," he said, through a bite of his potatoes. At the thought of them sitting there, in a year and a half, eating breakfast together, just another couple having a meal sent a warm feeling through her.

"Promises, promises, Beloff," she said, taking another bite of melon. Suddenly from their right a flash went off. They looked and saw a member of the media, credentials for the test event hanging around his neck, smiling at them. He tipped his cap and strolled out of the restaurant.

Sasha sighed and she rolled her eyes. The rest of the restaurant's occupants looked at them curiously, but neither of them was famous enough to be recognized by most people on the street, so for the most part they went back to their breakfast having no idea why the photographer had snapped a picture of the couple.

Payson wanted to reach across the table and take his hand, but she wasn't sure if there were any lingering photographers around, so she satisfied herself, by pressing her leg against his under the table. "One day," she said, picking up her juice and taking a small sip.

He smiled at her, "Ready to go? The competition starts in an hour and I'd like to wish the guys good luck beforehand."

They paid the check and decided to walk to the arena. "Have you ever thought of moving back to England?" she asked him, looking around at the neighborhood around them. She liked London, liked the energy of the city and something about being in a place that had been around since the Roman Empire that appealed to her.

He looked at her and shrugged. "Not recently, but I suppose I always thought I'd come back eventually," he mused.

She sighed, "I like it here," she said, hoping he understood her. I wouldn't mind living here; in fact I think I'd love it.

He smiled at her and nodded, "I thought you would. You know I still have a house here?"

Her face brightened, "Do you? Where?"

"My mum's house actually, when she passed away she left it to me, her flat in New York too. The house is in Wimbledon, near the gym I used to train at, a little less than an hour from here, west of the city."

"So you have an apartment in New York, a house in Wimbledon and you live in the trailer outside the Rock?" she asked with a laugh.

"And don't forget the house in Cambria, but you don't like my trailer? I'm mortally offended," he said, putting a hand over his heart. "We've made some good memories in that trailer," he said, quietly, out of habit.

She smiled at him, "We certainly have," she said. "Let's not get nostalgic for it yet. In a couple of days, one of us will be cursing the damn thing, probably me if I stub my toe on the kitchen table again."

He laughed, "You never miss. That table is bolted to the bloody wall. It hasn't moved. You might try walking around it."

"What can I say? Usually I'm just so distracted by you I don't watch where I'm going. So really, it's entirely your fault," she said.

She looked up to see his eyes not twinkling in amusement like she expected but lit by a fire she recognized. It was the expression his face took on whenever he was about to kiss her. He grabbed her hand and yanked on it, pulling her into a small alcove between two buildings, completely hidden from the street. "Ever snogged in public?" he murmured to her. She shook her head as his lips lowered down to hers in what would have been a chaste kiss had his hands not been cupping her backside firmly. She leaned back against the wall and pulled him closer by his jacket. Each kiss seemed to blend into another until they were both breathing heavily. Their bodies were pressed together trying to satiate a need for each other they'd been denying since they arrived in England. They pulled away, their eyes still closed and their breaths mingling in the frigid winter air. "I've wanted to do that all morning," he said. Their eyes opened almost simultaneously.

Payson loved when he kissed her like that, like he needed her in order to breathe. In the moment when their lips met any lingering doubts from the night before suddenly melted away. "Happy to oblige," she said and reached up to wipe a bit of her lip-gloss from his mouth. Payson felt herself break into a very silly looking grin that he matched. "So maybe we're not an old married couple after all," she said, as they moved out of the alcove and back onto the sidewalk.

"Oh, no, what are we then?" he asked. They were almost to the arena and she could see the media lined up dutifully at their barricades.

"We're one of those couples," she said, nodding to herself. He shot her a confused look, so she explained further, "One of those couples you know that you don't want to be around because they are so sickeningly happy that it makes everyone else look miserable in comparison."

He laughed at her description, "Ah, yes one of those couples. Well, we can take solace in the fact that for at least another year and a half we won't be subjecting anyone to it and by then maybe we won't be quite as – nauseating."

She looked at him, the urge to kiss him again almost overwhelming and when he looked at her, she realized he was feeling it too. "We'll work on it," she said as they showed their passes at edge of the gate and went through towards the arena, passing the media as they shouted to them and snapped their photos.

The men's competition was much less crowded, though the crowd was definitely large, and much longer than the women's the day before. Sasha and Payson got to their seats just in time to see the first rotation begin. A few minutes later, a camera man must have spotted them because suddenly she and Sasha were up on the screen that hung from the ceiling with: 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist Sasha Beloff and 2010 World All-Around Champion, Payson Keeler, in case anyone wasn't sure who they were. Their seats were down low in a cordoned off section reserved for VIPs, which kept the majority of autograph seekers away, though not the media and soon there was a reporter from Universal Sports hovering, hoping for an interview. "Would you mind?" she asked in a way that made it almost impossible for Payson and Sasha to refuse.

Between the first and second rotations, they began, "Thanks, Tim, we're here with current World All-Around Champion, Payson Keeler and her coach, four-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Sasha Beloff, who are here enjoying this event as spectators, at least for today. Tell me, Payson, how are you enjoying your first trip to London?"

Payson smiled, "It's been great. I think this is going to be an amazing place to have the Olympics. The facility is perfect and well, London is London, you don't get much better than that."

"And Sasha, what's it like being back in your old stomping grounds?"

"I hadn't been back in a while, so it's been nice. I think the competition is going well, also," he said, obviously hoping to redirect the conversation.

"Yes, it has, especially for the women who sit atop the leader board going into Day Two tomorrow, and this young lady in particular who qualified for the All Around in the top spot. We've been seeing the same solid performance from you as we did in Rotterdam. Do you think this competition will eliminate any doubts people about the judging at the World Championships?"

Payson nodded, "I understand why people were concerned, but I always let my gymnastics speak for itself. I can't control the judging. All I can do is go out there and do my routines. I'm happy with what I've done so far in competition here and that's all I can worry about."

"Sasha, now a gymnastics question, is there any truth to the rumor that Lauren Tanner won't be competing at all tomorrow after her fall on bars during yesterday's competition?"

Almost immediately Payson could feel the anger coming off Sasha in waves. He clenched his teeth together and his jaw twitched, "Sorry, I'm not going to comment on speculation. As always, tomorrow, Coach Beals and I will put out the team we feel will give us the best chance to win."

The reporter nodded, knowing she wasn't going to get much more than that, "Thank you Payson, Sasha, back to you, Tim, Al and Elfie."

"Thanks you two," she said as the camera man shut down and moved away. They each shook her hand and she left.

The tension was growing with each moment and Payson leaned forward to mask her actions as she grabbed his hand and squeezed it. The look in his eyes was as hard as she'd ever seen him and quite frankly, it scared her. "I am going to kill Ellen Beals."

Chapter 18: Back to Reality

"Ladies and gentleman, your All-Around winners for the London 2011 Olympic Test Event, Payson Keeler and Austin Tucker," the announcer at the O2 arena said, setting off massive cheering and applause from the crowd, many of whom were already departing.

"Nice job, Keeler," Austin said, sliding his arm around her waist, as they took photographs holding their trophies, smiles plastered across their faces.

"You too," she said, nudging him in the side with her hip.

Payson had never felt so relieved for an event to be over. What had started out as a simple competition had turned into a mess, beyond the pleasant end results for her and Austin.

It had all gone to hell when they returned to the hotel from the first day of the men's team competition. Sasha had found Ellen Beals in the lobby and they proceeded to have a flat out screaming match in the middle of the floor. Words like unprofessional and conniving had been the kindest thrown around by Sasha. He'd finished off with, "The reason you do things like this, the reason you make bad decisions is because you don't understand what it takes to become a champion. You didn't understand it fifteen years ago and you don't understand it now. It's why you never made the Olympic team and I'll be damned if you're the reason these girls don't fulfill their dreams."

Sasha had called the US National Committee and lodged a complaint, but at the end of the day, Beals was still the head coach and Lauren had been dropped from the roster for the team final. It turned out to be a big mistake, with China edging out the United States for the team title. The difference in their scores had been two tenths of a point, which Lauren would have easily made up during her beam routine, had she been allowed to compete.

Of course the media wanted to know what Payson thought of the mess, "Obviously we're disappointed in finishing second. I feel like we had the better team. The only thing we can do is keep working hard," she said and gave them a half hearted grin. It was the most diplomatic answer she could think of, but inside she was seething.

The victory in the All-Around felt somewhat muted by the stupidity that lost them the team competition. The bus ride back to the hotel was quiet to say the least.

"Great job, Pay," Nicky said, his silver medal still clutched in his hand tightly.

"Thanks," she said, "you too." Suddenly, Austin was at her side, grabbing his bag from the storage compartment under the bus and handing Payson hers.

"See you guys later," Nicky said and walked away.

Payson turned on him, "You don't have to do that, you know," she said as they walked into the hotel.

"Do what? I got your bag for you." His face was the picture of innocence, and Austin Tucker hadn't been innocent in a long time.

"I already told him that I'm not interested. There's no reason to rub that in his face. He's a good guy and my friend. Besides," she said, nodding towards Kaylie who'd been looking at them from a few steps away, "you should worry more about your own love life. Mine is doing just fine." She slung her bag over her shoulder and made her way into the hotel. She saw Sasha out of the corner of her eye talking to a white haired older man in the far end of the lobby. She looked again and saw that it was his father. She smiled, hoping they were talking things through or at least being civil to one another.

She quickly made her way towards the elevators and saw the doors were closing on one, "Hold the elevator," she called and the door stopped and shot open again.

"Thanks Kaylie," she said, as she entered and saw her friend leaning against the back wall.

"No problem," Kaylie said, not looking up, sarcasm dripping from her tone. Payson wrinkled her nose in confusion and sighed. Austin bloody Tucker.

"Look Kaylie, you know Austin and I are just friends right?" she said, laying it out there immediately. "And not the way you and Carter were just friends. He's a good guy, but he's not my type and I'm definitely not his type."

Kaylie looked up, anger written across his face, "His type is blonde supermodels, he's made that abundantly clear since he started training at the Rock. Well, guess what, Pay, that's you."

The elevator reached the fifth floor and Kaylie stormed off, "Kaylie, wait," she called out, but she was ignored. Her shoulders dropped in defeat and she went to her room quickly to pack.

Emily was already in their room, throwing her clothes in her suitcase. "Kaylie thinks Austin and I are seeing each other," Payson said, falling back onto her bed dramatically.

Emily snorted, "He's not your type," she said, barely looking up.

Payson sat up, "I know! Thank you for saying that," she said. "He's not my type, I'm not his type, and I don't know why she doesn't get that."

Emily stopped packing for a moment, "Whoa, I didn't say you weren't his type. From what I've seen he likes blondes, check, he likes models, check and he likes a challenge, check." She smirked at Payson, who rolled her eyes, "I'd say that makes you exactly his type. Kaylie gets that."

Payson shook her head, "Well, he's not interested in me, he's interested in Kaylie that much I do know."

Emily sighed, giving up on packing all together and sitting down next to Payson, "Are you sure about that? Have you asked him? Because from what I can see, if I were Kaylie, I'd think he was interested in you too."

Payson threw herself back on the bed, "Well, it shouldn't matter, because I'm not interested in him at all in that way."

Emily smiled, "Great, so he realizes that you won't have him so he moves on to Kaylie. Payson, no girl wants to be any guy's second choice." Emily patted her on the shoulder.

Payson scoffed, "He doesn't like me that way. Trust me."

"Whatever you say, now get packing, our bus leaves in a half hour."

Payson began to put her clothes away. She sighed, knowing she had to talk to Austin about this. She honestly believed that he didn't have feelings for her in that way and if he did, he was the best actor she'd ever met, but the last thing she needed was for Kaylie to be angry with her or for things to get awkward with Austin, who was turning into something resembling a best friend.

She and Emily exited their room just as Sasha was coming out of his, "Ladies," he said, nodding in their direction. Emily looked away immediately, still not able to look her coach in the eye since that mixup with their room keys. She practically took off down the hallway to the elevators.

"You should talk to her, you know, clear the air a little bit," Payson said. "She's totally embarrassed and I don't blame her."

He nodded, "I'll sit with her on the bus, hopefully talk it through. I really should have done it while we were here, but she was competing so beautifully I didn't want to change anything."

They all boarded the chartered bus that would take them to the airport and Sasha called Emily over almost immediately, with Payson throwing herself into the seat next to Austin.

"I need to talk to you," she said, frowning at him.

"Uh oh, sounds serious," he mocked lightly, yanking the headphones out of his ears. "What's up?"

"Kaylie is annoyed as hell at me because you like blondes," she said, simplifying the problem to its core.

He laughed at her and she rolled her eyes, "But seriously, could you, I don't know, reassure her in some way or stop with the touchy-feely with me, because I think she's really starting to be hurt by it," she said and frowned at the back of her friend's head, just a few seats up.

Austin sighed dramatically and leaned his head back against his headrest, "I don't know what she wants me to do. She made it clear she wanted me to stay out of her business, even after she came back to train, she wanted nothing to do with me. What am I supposed to do, stick around like a sad little puppy waiting for her to throw me a bone?"

Payson winced, "Bad analogy, but I get it." She sighed. "That's Kaylie's m.o. though. Boys have always just flocked to her since we were twelve. Even when she was with Carter, after the whole disaster with Lauren, he still hung around hoping she'd take him back."

Austin shrugged, "I'm not Carter. When a girl tells me she's not interested repeatedly, eventually I give up and move on." He looked at Payson, "She really thinks you and I are dating?"

Payson shrugged, "So does every major entertainment news source in the world, so I really can't blame her, besides, as she so rightly pointed out, I am your type," she said, playfully nudging his shoulder with hers.

Austin laughed, but then quickly turned serious, "You're not my type," he said with a shake of his head.

"I know! I kept trying to tell them that, but they wouldn't believe me."

He shook his head, "You are way out of my league, Payson Keeler."

Her mouth dropped open and she stared at him in shock, "Austin, I…"

He cut her off with a shake of his head and a roll of his eyes, "Payson, it's something I knew from the moment I met you. Don't feel offended on my behalf. You belong with someone," nodding his head towards the front of the bus, "with the same passions and intensity as you, someone with the same drive and frankly, someone who can keep up with that mind of yours, which frankly scares the hell out of me. I heard you talking the other day and you threw out a word, something about one of the statues outside the hotel."

She scoffed, "Anthropomorphic," she said. "Seriously, Austin, that's way off base."

He shook his head with a grin, "I know when a girl is out of my league. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. You belong with – well we know who you belong with. Don't worry; I'll talk to Kaylie if it makes you feel better. I'll try again, but three strikes and I'm out. I don't take rejection well."

She laughed, "I'm sure it doesn't happen often, but it does happen," she said, throwing his words back at him. "Besides, a little rejection is good for you; it'll keep your ego at manageable levels."

Sasha sighed as Emily slipped out of the seat next to him and back towards the rest of the gymnasts in the rear of the bus. Well, if that wasn't the most awkward conversation of your life, I don't know what was, Beloff. They both apologized, though he didn't know why since it hadn't been anyone's fault. He was relieved when she finally admitted that she'd been, in her words, "freaked out" by it, but that she was over it now and they could get back to normal. She retreated quickly at that point and he'd been thrilled to let her go. He looked to his right and saw Ellen Beals sitting ramrod straight in her seat, eyes forward.

He rolled his eyes, pulled out his iPod and sat back to relax for the rest of the trip toward Heathrow. Unlike arriving, he always felt a sense of relief when he passed through the departures gate. This had been a brief visit, a test event much like the competition itself, before the trip he would make in a year and a half for the Olympics. Overall, it had been a generally successful trip. The girls had competed well, Payson had put to rest any unease about her victory at Worlds and Ellen Beals would be losing some of the clout she held at the National Committee after the stunt she pulled with Lauren Tanner, which had in reality cost them the meet.

Perhaps he'd been a little harsh when he dragged her failure to make an Olympic squad into their confrontation, but he'd had enough. Her interference was unacceptable at this point. She had systematically attacked his gymnasts one by one, trying to sabotage any credibility he had in the sport. He smiled at the thought of his athletes, each of them coming back from whatever Beals had thrown at them, Payson especially. Most girls would have given up, scaled back their training and eventually faded from the sport entirely, but not his girl. No, she worked harder, changed her entire approach to a sport she once dominated and came back stronger than ever.

He didn't know how she would do it, but he knew Ellen Beals wasn't finished. She had her fists around the National Committee's balls and she wasn't going to let go. He would just have to be ready for whatever she threw at him.

They'd chartered a flight back to New York, where all the athletes would then go their separate ways. Sasha sat down in one of the roomy seats, pulling out his iPod and a crossword puzzle, before asking the flight attendant for a Guinness. He felt someone sit down next to him. It was Lauren Tanner.

"I've gotta talk to you about something," she said.

Sasha nodded, "I'm all ears."

"I wanted to thank you," she said, the words obviously slightly bitter on her tongue. "For sticking up for me with Beals, I mean. I thought that she was the one in my corner, but it turns out it was you and so yeah, thanks."

Sasha had no idea how to respond to that, "Your welcome, Lauren. I'm your coach and it's my job to protect your interests. You're extremely talented and you deserved to compete."

Lauren nodded, brushing off the compliment, "Another thing," she said, twisting her mouth into a pout. "Kaylie is thinking about quitting, so you should, you know, do your thing, talk to her because I am not losing my best friend over something as stupid as…never mind, just do what you do with your whole motivational shtick you have," she said, flitting her hands around in the air, as if demonstrating some magical power he possessed.

"She said this to you?" Sasha asked, shocked. Kaylie had done phenomenally well at the test event considering all the time she had missed, placing fourth behind Payson, Genghi Cho and Greta Dalca of Romania.

Lauren shook her head, "She's my best friend," she said as if that explained everything. With that she popped out of the seat and made her way towards the back of the plane.

Sasha put his headphones on and blasted his music, drowning out the rest of the passengers and the sounds of the plane. He had to think and he had to figure something out quickly or the Rock would lose one of the best gymnasts in the world.

Chapter 19: Devious and Desire

Sasha Beloff was feeling devious and for once in the last few months it had nothing to do with his love life. He hung up the phone with the ranking member of the United States National Gymnastics Committee and swiveled around in his desk chair. "Yes," he whispered, allowing himself a celebratory moment. It was rare the powers that be in the gymnastics world lined up with his thinking and Sasha could scarcely believe that the idea that had been a mere passing thought at the hotel after the All-Around competition, had come full circle in only a few days.

"You look pretty happy," Kim Keeler said as she walked into the office, putting her bag down on her desk. "What's up?"

"The National Committee just replaced Ellen Beals as the Women's head coach," he said, a smiling playing across his face.

Kim's eyes lit up, much the way her daughter's did, "That's amazing news, Sasha. Was it because of what happened in London with Lauren?"

He nodded, "They've retained her at their headquarters for some administrative duties, but I'd say most of her power over us and the girls is gone."

"Well, who'd they replace her with?" she asked.

Sasha's smile faded a bit, but it had after all, been his idea, "My father, Boris Beloff."

Kim's brow furrowed, "I thought – Payson said that you didn't get along with your father."

He shook his head, "I don't. That's neither here nor there. He is a great gymnastics coach and in one fell swoop Ellen Beals is out, Romania, one of our biggest competitors is down a head coach for the second time in less than a year and our girls will definitely benefit from his expertise."

"I wonder how they convinced him to leave the Romanian team?" she said.

Sasha smiled, "They didn't…I did."

He saw Payson walking across the hotel lobby and his eyes followed her all the way to the elevator bay before focusing again on what his father was saying.

"Dalca is an excellent gymnast, Sasha, but she is too old. Nineteen with the Olympics still a year and a half away. It is a shame and no promising talent on the horizon, as they say."

Sasha nodded sympathetically or at least hoping it appeared he was sympathetic. In actuality he could not care less that Romanian gymnastics had gone to hell. Any connection he had to the team had been severed and all of his gymnasts had moved on long ago, "I'm sure you'll find someone that will reignite the glory of Romanian gymnastics." He grimaced. Those were the same words his father had used on the day he walked out of the gym and went back to London to train with Nicolai.

"Sasha, my boy, there is no one else. Now, those girls you have, at your Rock, those girls I would train."

Suddenly, Ellen Beals appeared in Sasha's view, marching across the lobby, barking into her cell phone. He was sure she was up to no good, yet again. He looked up at his father and something clicked in his head, "What would you say if I told you that might be possible?" he asked.

Boris's eyes lit up like a child in a candy shop. "What do you mean, Sasha? I know we do not get along so well, but you would not play with my emotions in this way."

Sasha looked his father in the eyes, "If USA Gymnastics offered you the job of coaching the Women's National team, what would you say?"

Boris squinted at him, probably to make sure he wasn't drunk, "Not coach for Romania? I do not know. Besides, the US has coaches, you and that Beals woman."

"I'm just a floor coach, there because I have four athletes on the team. What if they asked, Dad?"

"To coach this team, the team you brought to London, to bring them back to London in 2012?" Boris paused, but Sasha knew it was mostly for effect. He knew he had his father from the moment he mentioned it. Despite the old man's pride and loyalty to his country, both he and his father were fisherman and they both knew that Sasha had the perfect lure. "I would say, yes."

"I'll speak to them and the end of training today. They should hear it from me and know that I support the idea," he said and Kim nodded, agreeing.

"Don't forget, I won't be in for the next two days," she said, "I'll be up in Minnesota. High School reunion," she said, the same sarcastic expression that Payson wore whenever she had to do something she didn't want to crossed over her face.

"Right," he said. "I'll see you Monday morning then."

He stood and made his way down the stairs onto the floor, watching his gymnasts hard at work. He nodded to Tara who was on the vault with the Level 9 gymnasts. She gave him a quick shake of the head to let him know that her group wasn't ready for him yet. He nodded and moved towards the beam, where Payson was working on her new mount, more difficult than the forward walk-over to a handstand she had done at Worlds and the test event. She had talked him into a round-off Arabian to lead into the walkover. She was definitely creating her own hybrid style of gymnastics, as she incorporated more power into her routines now that she was used to her new height and had fully embraced the artistry he had integrated into her routines. She was a new kind of gymnast, not purely artistic or relying solely on her power, but a delicate mix that was currently dominating the sport. The European judges loved her flawless execution; the Western judges loved her power and precision. It was an unbeatable combination and there wasn't a gymnast in the world at the elite level capable of doing it besides Payson Keeler.

"How's it going over here? How many times have you fallen off this morning?" he asked, a mocking edge to his voice. Payson rarely fell off the beam, sometimes looking like an absolutely wild woman fighting her body to stay on, but her feet were like glue on this event.

Payson laughed, jogging to the edge of the mat and performing the mount again.

He observed the move carefully, noting that while it was well done, she would be able to hold the handstand longer, thus receiving a higher execution mark, if she adjusted the angle of her body just slightly.

"Payson," he said, calling her down from the beam.

She leapt down from the apparatus. "It's not right," she said, frowning at the beam itself.

"Your weight, it's pushing forward too soon and you're losing your center of gravity," he said. "It's an easy fix, do a handstand on the line," he said, indicating the white line of tape on the floor. He knelt next to her and pushed his hand against her stomach. "Push back, but don't overcompensate," he said and he felt her abdominal muscles shift slightly under his hand. "Good," he said, moving away. "Finish," he said, and she slowly lowered her legs, her feet landing precisely on the tape. He stepped behind her, "Same thing," he said, his hand snaking around to push against her stomach, "and the extension in your arms." He grasped her wrists, giving a gentle tug and she extended more fully. "Now up on your toes," he instructed and she pushed up, her back arching, her body fitting perfectly within his, her head against his shoulder, her bum nestled firmly against his thighs. He allowed himself a moment to simply enjoy holding her, but just a moment, pulling away quickly.

"Did you feel that?" he asked, his double meaning clear. She nodded, a twinkle in her eyes, and he smirked at her. "Do it again," he said. She did it again, executed flawlessly down to the point of her toes and the placement of her fingers. "Excellent," he said, giving her a quick squeeze on her shoulder. Later, Beloff. She's staying late tonight, plenty of time later. He quickly shifted his focus back on his work, moving towards the floor where Emily was working hard on her tumbling passes.

Kim Keeler had noticed a change in Sasha lately. Nothing overt or obvious, but a gradual shift from someone who rarely smiled, worry lines making a premature appearance across his forehead, to a man who wasn't exactly carefree, but definitely more at peace with whatever demons he'd been fighting. She wondered if maybe he was seeing someone, but there was no way she was going to ask him. She'd crossed that line once, getting involved, if ever so slightly, in his brief relationship with Summer, the indirect result of which had been Summer cutting back her hours at the Rock and actively looking for another full time job.

She watched Sasha make his way through the gym, athletes parting like the Red Sea as he walked by. He stopped by the beam, where her daughter was working on a round-off Arabian walk-over mount. He said something that made Payson laugh and they smiled at each other before her daughter jogged to the edge of the mat, flipped her way onto the beam, stopping her momentum with her legs in midair and then using her flexibility to walk over and plant her feet on the four inches of space that awaited them.

Payson stopped and looked at him and he motioned for her to come down off the beam, towards the white line of tape the girls used to perfect their moves. He said something, likely an instruction since she stepped back and put herself into a handstand. Without hesitation, knelt down, placed a hand on her stomach and another on her calves, indicating something. He stood and Payson completed the walk over and Sasha moved behind her, pushing against her stomach again and then each of his hands reaching for hers, placing them exactly where he wanted. He leaned down and said something in her ear quietly and she saw Payson rise to her tiptoes, and arch her back into him.

For a moment Kim could almost swear they both had their eyes closed, but then she blinked and Sasha was moving away, "Did you feel that?" she heard him ask and Payson nodded. "Do it again," he said, stepping away completely. Payson completed the move, exactly the way he instructed. "Excellent," he said, moving past her, giving her shoulder a squeeze, but his focus had already shifted to the floor where Emily was working.

Kim shrugged and went back to her desk. She wasn't sure what was responsible for the change, but she was happy for him.

Payson turned the corner of the women's locker room out into the new addition to the Rock, the Cruz Fitness Center, donated by Alex Cruz after his daughter's battle with anorexia. Having a fitness center at the Rock helped the coaches keep a close eye on girls while they did their cardio and additional workouts, plus it brought in additional funds from people off the streets who wanted to join just to use the state of the art facility. Everyone had gone home for the night and just as they had planned this morning over breakfast, she and Sasha were alone.

He was on a treadmill, working at a light jog on a small incline. "Hey," he said, catching a glimpse of her in the mirror in front of him as she approached.

"Hi," she said, turning her own machine on and setting the incline slightly higher than his, but at a similar speed. She didn't have a chronic knee issue to worry about.

"Did you mum get on the plane okay?" he asked, not breaking stride.

"Yeah and I dropped Becca off at er – Lily's house, I think. She's a level nine?" Payson said.

"Lily Castleton. Level nine," Sasha confirmed.

Payson shook her head, "I didn't realize it was a Rock friend. I was stupid enough to go up to the door. Her mother practically dragged me into the house to show off her daughter's trophies and then asked what I thought Lily's potential was."

Sasha rolled his eyes. "Ah, yes, Mrs. Castleton," he said with a smirk. Of course, he'd remember the mother, she probably tried to slobber all over him once or twice. Now, Payson, retract claws and behave.

Payson snorted at his reaction. "Yes, she was wearing one of her ridiculous outfits. I'll never understand why women get breast implants. They never look real."

"Don't feel real either," he muttered, but she heard him loud and clear. Her mouth twisted into a smirk as she pressed a few buttons quickly and her machine slowed down before stopping completely. She quietly got off the treadmill and began to walk away.

"Payson? I didn't mean anything by it," he said, turning his head, but not being able to for long as his machine was still going. She stopped and caught his gaze in the mirror. Are you going to follow or not? She did not have to say it aloud; she just raised an eyebrow at him, before turning back towards the locker rooms, pulling off her t-shirt as she went. Suddenly the gym was quiet, the sound of his steadily paced jog and the whirring of the treadmill silenced and she smiled as she continued towards the locker room. There was something she wanted to try and now was as good a time as ever. She pulled the band from her hair letting it fall down around her shoulders and quickly kicked off her sneakers and socks. She left him a trail of clothing as she went, her sports bra followed, then her shorts before he caught up to her just outside the doors to the women's showers.

She felt his hand on her arm. He spun her around and immediately brought his mouth to hers for a kiss, their tongues engaging in a familiar battle. He'd removed his shirt on his journey to her and the feeling of their bodies pressed together, something neither of them had felt in a long time, was enough to make their limbs tremble and their breathing to accelerate. His tongue trailed a path down her neck and over her shoulders, but she pulled back before they could get too caught up, taking him by the hand. She locked their eyes together, before leading him into the women's showers, "So, I have this fantasy…" she said and trailed off as they entered a stall.

He cleared his throat and smiled, "Do you?"

She nodded, "Yep, and I was wondering if you'd like to indulge me?" she asked, reaching behind her for the handle and turning it on. The water cascaded out of the showerhead and she backed into it, soaking her hair first. By the time the droplets reached her shoulders, he was upon her, kissing her fiercely, with an intensity she'd never felt from him before. Has he been holding back this whole time? She gave as good as she got, wrapping her arms around his torso, pulling him closer, allowing the water to soak them both. Their chests pressed together and she threw her head back, exposing her neck to him. He complied immediately, nipping at the damp flesh with his teeth, and then soothing the skin with his lips. Their mouths came together again and this time their lower bodies bumped, causing both to cry out softly. She felt his hands at the small of her back shift slightly, as his fingers dipped gently into the waistband of her panties. He pulled back from the kiss and they both stared at each other for a moment.

Now or never, Keeler, she told herself and taking a shaky breath, she grasped one of his wrists and brought it around towards her front, placing it low on her stomach. Their eyes met and he seemed confused for a moment, before she saw comprehension dawn on his face. She smiled and kissed his lips lightly and his hand slipped lower.

It could have been hours later, but Payson knew in reality it had only been minutes. They were wedged into the titled corner of the shower, the water had turned cool, but it felt wonderful against their overheated bodies. She sat between his legs, her back to his chest while he placed soft kisses to the back of her neck and shoulders.

She sighed, "I know it happened before, that day in the trailer, after Christmas," she said, linking their hands together. She brushed her lips against his knuckles, before pulling his arm around her, their joined hands resting on the soft skin of her stomach. "This was different, though," she said, knowing her voice was giving away the absolute awe she was feeling right now. "I wish that we could…" she trailed off, not willing to say the words out loud.

She could feel his smile against her neck and then he placed another kiss there. "I know," he said. She could hear the gentle understanding in his voice and her heart clenched with love for this man holding her in his arms. "Come on, let's get dressed. We'll order some food. You're staying here tonight?" he asked.

She sighed, "I'd stay forever if I could."

Chapter 20: Passionate Delusions?

Sasha slowly came back to consciousness, the light from the sun shining through the curtained window just above the bed in his trailer. Something soft was tickling his nose and he sniffed. The scent of coconut invaded his senses, Payson, he thought as he shifted closer to the intoxicating smell, the same one that had aroused his interest months before, the morning after she'd awkwardly kissed him. Her body was curved into his, her head tucked just under his chin, and her freezing cold feet against his calves.

"Your feet are bloody freezing," he murmured into her ear, seeing if she was awake.

She chuckled into the pillow, snuggling closer to him, but pulling her feet away. "Better?" she asked.

He dropped a small kiss on the back of her neck and then nuzzled against her shoulder, "Mmm, much."

"What time is it?" she asked a moment later.

"Umm," he hesitated, lifting his head to see the clock, "Quarter to six," he said, not really comprehending what he was saying.

Payson did and sat up immediately, wrapping the sheet around her breasts, "You have level twos in fifteen minutes," she said, dropping the sheet, modesty forgotten and practically leaping over him to search for her clothes.

"Shit," he grumbled, rolling out of bed. He saw himself in the mirror; his hair was sticking straight up. "And I told Kaylie to stop by at six," he said, trying in vain to flatten it with his fingers.

Payson stared at him wide eyed, "Are you serious?" she asked, pulling her tank top over her head. "The level two parents aren't going to recognize my car, but Kaylie will. Look at me Sasha; do I look like someone who slept alone?"

Sasha studied her carefully and smirked. She didn't. Her hair was in disarray, mostly due to his handiwork, her lips were still swollen and if he wasn't mistaken he'd left quite a mark on the top of her breast. Her leotard would cover it, but the tank top she was currently wearing did nothing to hide it.

"What?" she asked, noticing the cocky expression that crossed his face. She looked down, catching the direction of his gaze and she rolled her eyes, "Don't look so smug," she said, running her fingers over the mark. "I wouldn't take your shirt off in front of anyone, unless you want them to think you were attacked by a mountain lion."

He chuckled, pulling on his jeans and a shirt, covering the pink scratches down his back her nails had made last night.

"Crap, Alex Cruz just pulled into the parking lot with Kaylie in tow," Payson said, looking out the window. "Go, I'll meet you inside in a second; just keep her away from the front entrance."

He stepped past her, stealing a kiss on his way by, and then stopping for a moment to deepen it, biting down gently on her lower lip. They smiled against the other's mouth, "Go," she said, pushing him away lightly.

"See you inside," he said and left the trailer, being sure to shut the door firmly behind him. "Alex, Kaylie," he called out to them, jogging across the parking lot to catch up.

"Morning Sasha," Alex said, extending his hand. He and Alex Cruz had come a long way in the respect department after Kaylie's diagnosis and recovery. With Alex still president of the parents' board and Kim Keeler managing the gym, the Rock was chugging along as smoothly as ever.

Kaylie glanced up at him, "Morning," she said shortly, not looking up to meet his eye. She was dressed for training.

"Good morning, Kaylie," he said, "Follow me." He led them into the gym, the front door having been unlocked by Tara who took the early shift on the weekend. Alex moving towards the observation room, his cell phone out and a stack of paperwork under his arm as Sasha escorted Kaylie towards where Tara was warming up the level twos on the floor. Sasha recognized someone in Kaylie. It wasn't himself. No, it was Marty Walsh. They both were blessed with incredible natural talent. Just like Marty, distractions, sometimes got the best of her, but unlike Marty, she had him for a coach and he was not going to let her throw her career down the figurative toilet. Kaylie was a performer that could light up a crowd and put a smile on even the most hardened judge's face. With the improved dedication she had shown after winning Nationals, but before her disorder took hold, Kaylie had been well on her way to challenging Genghi Cho at the World Championships.

"I haven't stretched yet or anything," she mildly protested.

"You won't need to, I didn't bring you in to train this morning," he said, stopping a few yards away from the floor.

Kaylie looked at him, annoyance with him written clear across her face. "Sasha, this is ridiculous. I'm going home."

Sasha stepped in front of her, "Hear me out," he said, "You owe me that much." She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms expectantly. "Look at those little girls out there, level twos, none of them older than 8 years old. Exactly where you were at that age," he said. "Each of these girls, they want to be Kaylie Cruz when they grow up."

Kaylie rolled her eyes, and nodded towards the mats at the other side of the floor where Payson had begun to stretch. "They want to be Payson Keeler, not Kaylie Cruz."

Sasha smiled, "No, they don't," he said. "Payson is a champion and the best gymnast in the world right now. Her story is inspirational," Kaylie snorted, obviously not understanding where he was going, "but, she scares the living daylights out of them with her focus and intensity. These girls, they see you training at the gym you grew up in, working your way from where they are right now to National Champion, you're accessible to them. You're right there with Payson, but I'm not comparing you to her. You placed fourth in London after being out for months, only five weeks of training under your belt. I know you're thinking about quitting." Her mouth flew open in protest, but he raised his hand to cut her off, "I think that's a mistake, because I think deep down, there's still a part of you that loves gymnastics, like these little girls do." Kaylie's eyes focused on the little girls doing round-offs for warm up and she grimaced. "And if you don't do it for them though, do it for yourself, because if you quit now, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Take it from someone whose career was cut short, but who got a chance to compete in the Olympic Games. It's something no one can ever take away from you. When my knee is killing me from doing something simple like jogging across the parking lot in the morning towards one of my gymnasts when it's cold outside, because she's got it in her head that she wants to quit, I'm still an Olympian."

Kaylie sighed, "Sasha, I…"

He shook his head, "Don't make a decision now. Sit here, watch them, and think about it. I can't tell you what to do, Kaylie, but I can tell you that the only person you'll be letting down if you quit is yourself and I don't want you to live with that kind of regret."

Kaylie nodded and sat down against a pile of mats to watch the little girls practice. Sasha walked away, back towards Payson, who was the only Elite at the gym at this hour on a Saturday. He extended a hand to help her up and she slipped his key to the back door into it. "Alex Cruz came back outside to get something from his car. You should have seen me; I looked like a covert operative ducking behind cars to get to the door that leads to the women's locker room."

Sasha laughed, slipping the key in his pocket. "You ready for bars?" he said.

"Yeah, what did you say to Kaylie?" she asked, looking over at her friend with concern.

Payson hadn't really spoken to Kaylie since they arrived home from London. The National Champion had made it clear that she didn't want to talk to her. When she asked Austin about it, he just shrugged and muttered something about not getting in the middle of it.

"Sorry, privileged," he said, adjusting the bars to the height and width she needed.

She sighed, "I guess I'll have to bite the bullet and talk to her," she said.

"Yeah, what's with you two lately?" he asked. Payson shrugged. For someone as observant as he was, he really had no idea how teenage girls operated.

"You know that problem you had with Austin?" she said and he rolled his eyes at her, but nodded, "She had the same problem with me."

He shook his head, "Does anyone in this gym follow the no-dating rule?" he asked, exasperation evident in his tone.

"Nope," she said with a smile. "Besides they're not dating. He pulls her pigtails, she tells him to shove it and then hates the girl whose pigtails he pulls next," Payson shrugged. "It's like Kindergarten."

Sasha had clearly had enough of the conversation. "Chalk up, and get on these bars," he said, hanging from the top bar to ensure that it would take the weight. She smiled at him and pulled on her grips.

"My thoughts exactly," she said, jumping to the high bar and pulling herself up, circling the bar once to clear her head and then proceeded to focus on hand stands.

Later, as she was getting some water from the cooler, Payson saw Kaylie walk past her into the locker room. "Kaylie, wait up," she called. Kaylie's shoulders lifted and fell, as if she'd taken a deep breath, before she turned around.

"Look, Pay, I'm sorry for being a bitch, but I really don't want to talk to you right now," Kaylie said.

Payson looked at her, trying to read her expression, "Kaylie, I just don't get it. What is this about? Is it about Austin Tucker because letting a guy get in the way of our friendship is just…"

Kaylie shook her head, "No, it's not about a guy." Payson rolled her eyes and shot her an incredulous expression. "Okay, it's a little about a guy, but – how did you do it, Pay? After your injury, how did you come here every day and look at my banner on that wall? How did you deal with that SI picture and the cameras following you and Austin Tucker hanging around? MJ was calling you a stone in a river, you just let everything slide over you."

Payson looked at her friend, "Kaylie, I…I don't know, I just focused myself I guess. I knew all that other stuff was just a means to an end, part of the road I was taking. Nothing is a big deal unless you let it be."

It was a lie or at least a lie of omission. Sasha had been there, every step of the way, every moment. He had become the most important person in her life, in and out of the gym. They operated as equals, working towards a goal and while Kaylie trusted Sasha and he spent just as much time with her at the Rock as he did Payson, it was just different. She decided to give Kaylie a little bit more of the truth, "It was Sasha too," Payson admitted. "I decided to put myself in his hands," she said, inwardly flinching at the double entendre, knowing that Kaylie probably wouldn't notice anyway. "He's the best coach in the world, but you have to let him be. You have to trust him all the time, on everything, Kaylie. That is, if you still want this. Do you still want it?"

"He told me, that little girls wanted to be me, not you," Kaylie said. Payson caught her eye and she saw there what she saw in Lauren's many times, intent to hurt.

Payson wasn't going to let her friend lash out, "Of course they do. Kaylie, I told you after I got hurt, you're everything I wanted to be. I'm too focused to be a role model. I ignore them and focus on myself. I'm selfish like that, it's the only way I can be successful. You on the other hand, you made it look so easy even though you worked your ass off. You always had a smile for everyone. Of course they want to be you and not me. I probably scare those girls to death."

Kaylie twisted her lips into a frown, "That's what Sasha said."

"Sasha's usually right, but then so am I," she said. "And just to clarify, I am not in any way seeing or dating or interested in Austin Tucker." Kaylie frowned, and opened her mouth, "I'm not done." Kaylie raised her hands, in mock surrender. "But if I was, why exactly would you be mad at me? Supposedly you had no interest in him. Austin's great and I like him, a lot, but he'll never be anything other than a great guy, a friend, a brother to me and he knows that. But if that wasn't the case you would have no right to be angry, Kaylie. I thought you were going to cut the drama out of your life, well start by cutting the drama you created yourself. Talk to Austin and work something out or just stop with the bitchy-act. It doesn't suit you."

Kaylie just stood there, mouth agape. "Wow, Pay, I don't know what to say," she said.

"Say you're not quitting and that you're going to come in and train with me tomorrow at six in the morning and come to the Olympics with me and Emily and Lauren, just like we planned. Say you're staying." Payson looked at her friend pleadingly.

"I'm staying," Kaylie said quietly, nodding her head as if confirming it. "I'm staying and we are going to the Olympics, together and we're going to bring home the Gold." Payson smiled, "Don't smile just yet, Keeler, you're going to wish you never begged me to come back when I beat you at Nationals this summer." Kaylie finished with a smile.

"Ah, we'll see about that," Payson said, returning the smile. "Now go tell Sasha you're staying before he goes prematurely grey at the thought of the National Champion quitting."

"He told you?" Kaylie said, frowning.

Payson shook her head, "We all knew, Kaylie. You were so pumped to come back and then you just faded. Someone very smart once asked me if the passion came from where you are or where you want to be? Obviously it's where you want to be and you just weren't passionate about getting anywhere new."

"How about being passionate about a round off, half on, front straight salto with one and a half twists?" Kaylie asked with a smirk as they turned back towards the gym and made their way to the vault pit to practice the aerial skills.

"16.5, not bad, but not a 17.1," Payson said, playfully.

They walked past Austin, as he was approaching the parallel bars, "Ladies," he said, nodding in their direction. Payson smiled and Kaylie returned the nod, but kept walking.

"Kaylie," Payson whispered, "what was…"

Kaylie stopped, "Pay, I think it's great that you and Austin have such a strong friendship, but I meant it when I said that I wasn't interested in him." she said. "I uh, actually have plans with Nicky tonight. I was annoyed with you in London because Nicky was following you around and you were just ignoring him completely and before he left we did kind of have something."

Payson rolled her eyes, "Uh and just when I thought that the drama was over," she said, looking over at where Austin stood across the gym.

"You know, you could just put Austin out of his misery. Blonde, challenging supermodels remember?" Kaylie said, laughter in her voice.

Austin dismounted from his bars routine and smiled at them. Payson sighed. Had she been deluding herself about him, not seeing what was right in front of her? Kaylie walked away, headed towards Sasha's office, to tell him what she'd decided, but Payson remained firmly rooted to the spot. You're out of my league, Payson Keeler. That's what he had said to her. I am such an idiot.

Chapter 21: Seeds of Doubt

Payson sighed as she exited the locker room. She saw the back of Sasha's head hunched over his desk and her heart clenched. She wasn't conflicted, she just felt so incredibly stupid that she could barely stand herself. She also apparently wasn't very subtle because she had avoided Austin like the plague all day after Kaylie's words had forced her into the realization that she was either completely blind or willfully ignorant or maybe just conceited beyond belief. She took a sip of water and tried to clear her head, but it wasn't working and she had to go up on beam, where you needed a complete focus or you'd hurt yourself.

"Payson, you ready?" Sasha called her over. And then there's Sasha. She sighed. I have to stop it or I'm going to fall on my head on the mount. "Payson," he said again, his voice a little louder this time.

"Yeah," she answered as casually as she could. She stood at the edge of the mat, and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath; she visualized the mount to her beam routine, opened them, and began. She held onto the beam, her legs straight in the air, her center of gravity pushing back, holding the move, one-one thousand, two-one thousand, and down, she bent her body into the walk-over and landed on her tip-toes, arms extended, fingers pointed out.

"Excellent," she heard Sasha say, mostly to himself. She went through the rest of her beam routine, her mind full of nothing but whatever move was ahead of her, before finally dismounting and sticking the landing. She closed her eyes and sighed in relief. She could felt the beads of sweat on her forehead.

"Payson, are you alright?" Sasha asked, approaching her. Her eyes were still closed, but she could feel him inches from her. Her body instinctively shivered in response, awaiting the pleasure that usually accompanied his approach. She bit her lip and opened her eyes. He was standing right in front of her, worry lines marring his forehead. "Payson?"

She shook her head, "I'm fine, just back off, okay," she muttered, walking away before he could react, but not before she saw the hurt flash in his eyes. "I've got to go. I've got to get Becca home," she called to him, not turning around, just heading straight for the locker room to shower and change.

The shower served its purpose, she was clean, but the hot water had done nothing to relax her, since the only free stall had been the one she and Sasha had occupied one night, where he'd indulged one of the first, but certainly not the last, fantasy she'd had of them together. Becca was waiting for her in the hall the led to the locker room. "Took you long enough," she said, but Payson's glare was enough to shut her little sister's mouth.

They pulled up to their house, but Payson didn't pull into the driveway. "You're not coming in?" Becca said, looking at her strangely.

Payson shook her head, "It's Saturday night. I'm going out."

"Mom and Dad would kill you if they knew you were staying out late while they were away, leaving me home alone."

"Becca, you're thirteen years old. Mom and Dad leave you home alone all the time. It's only seven thirty. I won't be back late. I'm just going out, like any other normal seventeen year old girl would on a Saturday night."

Becca scoffed, "You're like the least normal seventeen year old in the world, Pay," she said, getting out of the car.

Payson rolled her eyes, "I know, make sure you lock the door behind you when you go in," she reminded Becca, watching her sister get into the house before she pulled away and headed back towards the Rock.

She pulled her car back into her parking spot, put the car into park and just sat there for a moment. She'd been incredibly rude to Sasha. No one else had been around, but still, she saw the look in his eyes as she'd walked away. Disappointment was the only word she could think of. It had annoyed her. Who is he to be disappointed in me? He's my coach and my…he's my…I love him and I was so rude and he didn't deserve it. "Damn it!" she said, slamming her hand down on her steering wheel in frustration.

Then she nearly leapt out of her skin when someone knocked on her window. "Austin," she said, recognizing the familiar face of her friend. She put her hand to her chest and sighed. "You scared the hell out of me," she said, as she opened her car door and stepped into the parking lot. Not just into the parking lot, though, because suddenly he was there, right next to her, hovering at her shoulder.

"You okay, Keeler?" he asked. "You looked pretty upset just now." She looked up at him and sighed wearily. How, in a few hours, had she gone from deliriously happy in the arms of a wonderful man she loved to the skin of her arm tingling pleasantly because another man was brushing against it? It wasn't what she felt with Sasha, this was smaller, a simple awareness that an attractive man was near her, but in her present state of mind it was enough to throw her off.

"I'm fine," she said, taking a step back and looking up at him. It was genuine concern for her playing across his face. "Really, I'm fine. I've just had a rough day and I'm looking forward to unwinding."

He squinted at her and smirked, "Only you would have a rough day at the gym and come back to the gym to unwind…" he trailed off, taking in her appearance, casual, but definitely not workout attire and laughed softly to himself, "I get it," he said, an ironic grin appearing.

She exhaled and bit her lip, looking up at him, "Yeah," she said, not sure what else to say. Please let this stop being awkward now.

She heard jingling of keys and saw Sasha standing at the door to the Rock, locking it up.

Austin saw her eyes shift and followed the direction of her gaze, "Ah, well that's my cue, Keeler. Have fun, what did you call it? Unwinding?" he said, patting her arm and walking towards Lolita parked a few spots away. "Night, Beloff," he said, lifting a hand towards their coach in farewell, before climbing on the motorcycle and speeding away.

"Hi," she said as he walked towards her.

"Hi," he said back, not giving an inch, making her sweat.

She sighed, knowing it was time to suck it up. "Could we?" she said, motioning towards the trailer.

He nodded and she turned on her heel, blowing out a breath and raising her eyes to the sky where the sun was almost completely down. The street lamps were already on, giving the street an unearthly glow. Then they were in the trailer and he was looking at her expectantly.

"You're going to make me say it," she said, pouting. "I can't just kiss you and we can pretend that I wasn't behaving like a snippy bitch this afternoon?"

He stepped closer and snaking his arms around her waist, pulling her into him. "I am sorry," she murmured, burying her face against his neck, inhaling the masculine scent that always made her feel like nothing could touch her, like she was protected. She wrapped her arms around him, loving how tightly he held her. "This day sucked."

Sasha looked down at her blonde hair, spilling out of the messy bun she'd had it in. He pulled gently at the band holding the confusing twist together and it came loose. She sighed, "Want to tell me about it?" he asked.

She sighed again, this time not in pleasure. He could tell the difference now. "It's so stupid and childish; I don't want to embarrass myself more than I already have."

He smiled against her forehead and planted a kiss there, "You know we're all stupid and childish sometimes. It can't be that bad."

She pulled back and looked up at him. "You know how I feel about you, right?" she said.

"Of course, I do, we wouldn't be here right now if this wasn't real."

She smiled, putting a hand to his whisker roughened cheek and trailing a finger down to his chin, "It was just something Kaylie said today. It's really not a big deal and nothing's changed at all, except I realized something that probably should have been clear to me long before this and now I feel like such an ass."

Sasha had no idea what she was talking about, but he moved a hand up to cup her neck, rubbing against it gently, trying to soothe her. "That feels nice," she said, her neck arching into his touch.

"Everyone had rough days, Payson. Even the number one gymnast in the world," he said, increasing the pressure of his fingers.

"But I took it out on you and I shouldn't have done that," she said, leaning against his chest, her ear against his heart. She looked up at the clock, "I can't stay," she said, "I've got to pick up dinner for Becca and I can't leave her home alone too long."

She hadn't been exaggerating. Not a half hour later, after a few lingering kisses she'd left, mumbling something about seeing him tomorrow.

He watched her pull out of the parking lot not understanding much about what happened that day. It had started off well enough and ended with him having no idea what was going on behind the blue eyes of the woman who had him completely wrapped around her little finger. He sighed, grabbing the keys to the Rock. If nothing else, at least he could get a good workout in. He stepped out of his trailer to see Austin Tucker pulling in on that ridiculous motorcycle. Who rode an Indian Chief anyway? Sasha was more a Norton man himself, a good English motorcycle.

As Sasha approached, Austin furrowed his eyebrows, "I thought Payson said that…" he trailed off, catching the frustrated expression on Sasha's face. "Right, guess that didn't work out."

"Did you come here to chit-chat, Tucker or to train?"

Sasha saw him raise his hands in mock-surrender in the glass doors. He opened the gym doors and walked in, not looking back to see if Austin was following him. He flicked the lights on and the entire gym was suddenly bright with fluorescent light. He grabbed a pair of grips lying next to the parallel bars and chalked his hands up well.

Suddenly, Sasha Beloff, coach was gone, replaced by Sasha Beloff, gymnast. He swung up onto the apparatus, pushing himself immediately into a handstand then swinging down gaining speed and momentum and performing his signature skill, the one they named after him in the Code of Points, before catching himself with his arms. He closed his eyes, visualizing the next element and then the next. It was his Olympic routine; it won him a gold medal in Sydney on this event, along with contributing to this All-Around title. Just the dismount, he could hear Tim Daggett's voice in his head, as he spun himself up onto one bar and flipping over it, landing solidly on his feet. He felt the pain shoot through his knee, but he didn't let his leg buckle. He saluted, signaling the end of the routine and he opened his eyes. Austin Tucker was standing there in front of him, looking impressed.

"Not bad," he said. "That's your routine from Sydney right?" Sasha nodded, catching his breath. "I remember," Austin said. "I wanted to be you," he admitted, lightly, but they both knew he was serious. "In fact, as soon as I turned Elite that was the first parallel bars routine I tried to learn."

Sasha smirked, "How often did you fall flat on your face trying to replicate the Beloff," he asked.

Austin shook his head, "A lot. In fact my coach at the time made me take it out of the routine because I couldn't land it. How long have you been waiting to ask someone that?"

He laughed, "Since they finally named it last year. Do you want to learn it now?" he asked. "I've never worked with a male gymnast who could do it before."

Austin looked at him, "And you think I can?"

Sasha smirked at the younger man. "Austin, you are practically a blue print of the gymnast I was ten years ago. I know you can do it."

And Sasha shifted gears again from gymnast to coach. Despite a nagging voice inside of him, the same voice that urged him to beat Tucker within an inch of his life in London for nothing more than putting his arm around Payson, Sasha knew this young man was talented in the extreme, and obviously fighting a demon or two of his own if he was at the Rock at ten o'clock on a Saturday night. Sound familiar, Beloff? Sounds like what you used to do when you got back to London after MJ had taken up with Marty, training day and night to squash the agonizing pain in your gut.

He focused on Austin, flinging himself into the air, tucking and twisting, before catching himself on the bars on his arms and then swinging down again. "It's pretty ugly," Sasha said, frowning, trying to diagnose the problem. "Your hips, keep them centered to your shoulders, or you're going to lose control again."

"I had control," Austin insisted, trying to catch his breath.

Sasha shook his head, "Barely."

Austin furrowed his brow in confusion, "Can I see you do it again?" he asked.

"Yeah," Sasha said, pulling his t-shirt off. "You need to watch my hips as they center into my shoulders when I release," he explained, tossing the shirt aside. He swung onto the bars, and proceeded to twist and flip himself through them in rapid succession before catching himself at the edge. He lowered himself carefully, not needing to cripple himself with a dismount. "Did you see that?"

Austin bit his lip, "Yeah," he said, but looked like he had more to say.

Sasha looked at him curiously, "What?"

The smirk appeared clearly across the younger man's face, "Your back," he said. "She did a number on you." Sasha's eyes snapped to Austin's immediately. "I didn't realize it had gotten to that point. She said you weren't sleeping together."

Shit, "We're not," Sasha said shortly.

Austin put his hands up, "Didn't mean anything by it, just saying, looks like things got a little out of control."

"Austin, I am not going to talk about this with you, so we can either work on this move which will likely help you win a gold medal on this event in London or you can continue to insinuate and intimate things about a situation that you really don't understand."

The glare he received from the reigning Olympic Gold medalist would have frightened lesser men, but Sasha met it with a steely gaze of his own.

"Oh, I understand perfectly," Austin muttered. "I understand attraction and I understand an intense relationship like the one you have with Payson becoming something more. What I don't understand, and no offense meant," Sasha raised his eyebrows; this should be good, "what I don't understand is how the two most disciplined people I've ever met managed to break every rule there is like it's nothing."

Sasha sighed. "I don't have a good explanation for you," he said.

Austin smirked, "It's not for the sex, obviously, although if that's what she does to you when you're not screwing, I can only imagine –" he stopped speaking when he caught Sasha's sharp glare.

"You ever been in love, Austin?" Sasha asked him, steering the conversation hopefully towards a swift conclusion.

"No, don't think I have," he said.

Sasha nodded, "I have, once before, at least that's what I thought it was at the time," he said.

"MJ Martin," Austin said, and Sasha rolled his eyes, apparently everyone does know about that one.

"Right, well, regardless of the who, it ended badly, very badly. I was crushed, utterly decimated by that woman."

Austin shook his head, "I don't understand what this has to do with Payson."

"What I felt for MJ, even the pain afterwards, was like pricking my finger with a needle, compared to the way I feel about Payson," he said. "I can't control it, neither can she and we are two extremely disciplined people. We fought it for months. We're used to denying ourselves things we want and it just didn't matter, we kept finding out way back to each other again." Sasha met Austin's eyes to make sure he understood.

"Why are you telling me all this?" Austin asked. "You could have just told me to shut up and get back on the bars."

Sasha nodded, "I could have, but I wanted you to understand fully what you're up against here, Austin. This thing with Payson, it isn't casual and honestly, it isn't normal, not compared to anything I've ever felt before. Throwing your hat in the ring now would be a mistake. She made her choice."

Austin looked away, "So what did you do, after MJ, what did you call it, decimated you?"

"I created this element and won four Olympic gold medals in Sydney," he said.

"Just a question, if she's already made her choice, what are we both doing in here?" Austin asked, a cocky smirk written across his face.

"Shut up and get back on the bars."

Chapter 22: Regrouping

It was half past five in the morning when the shiny white Cadillac pulled into the Rock parking lot. It was obviously brand new and Sasha sighed, shaking his head.

Payson looked up from the science section of the paper, "Who is that?" she asked, squinting in the car's direction, the glare from the sun blocking her view.

"That is my father," he said, picking up his finished bowl. "You done?" he asked her and then picked up her bowl as well.

Sasha went into his trailer, but not before seeing the white hair of his father as he stepped out of the car and looked around. Sasha deposited the bowls in the sink quickly and stepped back outside to see his father greeting Payson, with a kiss on each cheek. "Hey Dad," he said, with his hand extended and they shook hands quickly.

"You are here very early," he said to Payson.

"I want to get here as early as possible to start training, but Sasha won't let me get in the gym until 5:30 when we're not leading up to a meet. So I sit here and bother him 'til he opens the doors," she said, with a smile. Sasha could see his father was practically wetting himself at the idea of a gymnast who would arrive ready to train before the sun rose every morning.

"Here, Pay," he said, handing his keys to her. "Why don't you open the place up?"

She smiled, looking between him and his father, "Sure."

Sasha looked over at his father and sighed. This is what you wanted, Beloff. You wanted Beals out and this was your only option. "New car?" he asked, nodding towards the Caddy. His father had always had a weakness for flashy automobiles, something that would stand out, much like the man himself.

"Yes. New car, new job, new house. I close today on a house near the lake."

Sasha sighed. He should have expected it. He hadn't thought about where his father would live, but Boulder made the most sense. Four of the women's team members trained in Boulder, another in Denver. He'd want to be as close to them as possible.

Boris looked around, "Where are the rest of the girls?"

Sasha laughed, "Practice starts at eight, Dad. They'll be here at eight."

"Keeler is here," Boris said, frowning.

"Payson's special," Sasha said with a smile. "This isn't Romania, Dad. You aren't going to be able to control every minute detail of these girls' lives. They're dedicated athletes, but it's different here."

Boris scoffed, "Gymnastics is gymnastics. I am going inside. You will join us today." It was a command more than a request, but Sasha knew that it was better he was there to run interference, just in case.

Sasha went to his office, intent on finishing up some paperwork Kim had put on his desk the night before, when he saw Payson and his father talking as she stretched, taking extra care with her back as she always did. That was safe enough; there wasn't much for Boris to pick at as far as Payson's gymnastics was concerned. It was Kaylie and Lauren that he was more concerned about.

He heard Payson begin her beam routine, the tell-tale thumps of her feet hitting the four inches during her tumbling and leaps interspersed with a variety of praises from his father, "Good job," and "Excellent Payson. " echoing through the empty gym.

Then the squeak of the bars, as she went through her uneven bars routine, and more praise from his father. He heard the springboard of the vault, and his father's joyous bark as she must have done her Produnova and then minutes later the pounding of the floor under her feet a she ran through her floor routine. Payson liked to start off training every morning with an all-around run through. It was unorthodox, but what was normal about Payson Keeler anyway? Absolutely nothing.

He thought back to a few nights earlier, after the strangest training session he'd ever experienced with Austin Tucker. They'd worked well into the night on his own release move, the one he'd developed that had sewn up the gold medal on the parallel bars. It was an oddly comfortable silence that surrounded them, especially after the conversation they'd had about Payson. Sasha thought Austin viewed himself as some sort of alternative, a more appropriate option for the world class gymnast, still only seventeen, but Payson showed up the next day, at around noon, and eased his mind.

He'd told her everything right down to the verbal pissing contest he and the younger gymnast had engaged in the night before.

"This is my fault," she said, resting her head on his shoulder.

Sasha shook his head, "How could this possibly be your fault?"

"I was such an idiot. Kaylie sort of dropped Austin the other day and I think she might have pushed him in my direction. I know for a fact this wasn't a problem before. He wasn't interested and I don't think he really is right now, but his ego got bruised. I don't want to start going all nature channel on you but you're sort of the alpha male around here, you know, leader of the pack and all that," she said. "Austin's definitely got an alpha streak in him too and when an alpha gets taken down a notch…" she trailed off and Sasha got the picture.

"His ego took a hit, so he tried to give mine one too." He shook his head. "I don't have time for crap like this. The elites in this gym need something to focus on, a goal that's more tangible than Nationals and Worlds later this year."

"Well, there are National Team practices coming up and that always seems to focus everyone. Oh and I'll talk to Austin, straighten this whole thing out."

There hadn't been an issue since. He assumed that Payson spoke to Austin, but he hadn't asked her about it and he had no plans to. Their lives had settled into a peaceful routine again and he wasn't about to fix something that wasn't broken.

He heard more voices echoing down on the floor and he looked up at the clock, ten to eight. He must have been daydreaming longer than he thought. He shuffled down the steps to the gym floor and saw parents milling around. He raised his eyebrows in their general direction. He made eye contact with Alex Cruz, who nodded and led the party into the observation room, away from their daughters.

He saw his father had gathered the girls around him, ostensibly to give them a speech. The National Committee members in attendance stood behind his father, in a show of support that probably went over the girls' heads entirely. He approached the group, taking in the faces of the young women. They were all focused on his father, the man's reputation preceded him as a great coach, but if they were expecting his methods to mirror his son's they were sorely mistaken.

Payson focused on the run, sprinting full speed towards the springboard, a necessity when doing the Produnova, to build up the momentum she needed to complete the rotations. She landed, firmly, a slight bend in her knees, and stood tall to salute.

"And how is your back?" the gruff accented voice asked from next to the mat.

She nodded, "Fine. The surgery took care of the injury as well as the pain."

Boris Beloff made a few notes on his clipboard and then nodded to her. "You used a double twisting Yurchenko at the London test event; you have no plans to upgrade it?"

She smiled, "I already have," she said. "A Yurchenko, two and a half," she said.

"Not a triple?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. It was obviously a trap, but one she wasn't going to fall into.

Payson smirked at him, much like she would his son, "I'm too tall," she said shortly and moved back down the run to show him her easier vault. She saw Sasha wander up to his father. They spoke a few words and Sasha frowned at him before shaking his head. She ran towards them, landing from her round-off onto the springboard and into her two and a half twist, her feet stamping into the ground firmly. She nodded to herself and walked away, not looking at either of the coaches.

She had plans to be with Sasha for a long time, for long after his father was her National Team coach, but she was not going to take sides in whatever was going on right now. She walked over to the parallel bars where Kaylie was stretching.

"What's going on over there?" she asked, nodding towards the father and son, who were still having an intense conversation.

"No plans to get in the middle of that," Payson said. "I'm sure it's about one of us or all of us or them." She shrugged. "How's the round off, half on, front straight salto with one and a half twists?"

Kaylie shrugged, "Really hard, but it's getting there. At this rate, I'll have it for the Olympics," she said with an eye roll.

"You'll get it," Payson said, pulling her leg up against the bar to stretch more fully for the floor routine she'd be doing next.

Lauren bounced over, "What are we talking about?" she asked.

"Vault," Kaylie and Payson said together.

Lauren opened her mouth to respond, but Sasha's voice rang out from their right, "Lauren, you're up next on the vault."

Emily wandered over as well, having finished her bars routine for several National Committee members and watched Lauren jog over to the run. "She's been working on a Tsukahara straight with a double," she muttered. "It was all she talked about the other night at dinner."

Kaylie and Payson looked at Emily in shock, "After Summer left for California, Steve and my mom decided to give it another shot. I really don't want to talk about it," she said with a sigh.

Lauren sprinted down the runway and threw herself into the vault. Payson frowned. Her approach was sloppy, her legs had been uneven and she barely finished the double twist.

Sasha walked away, past the girls shaking his head. Kelly Parker went next, performing her Yurchenko two and a half flawlessly. She nodded towards the three Rock girls watching, as Lauren went again with her easier vault, the Yurchenko double, the vault Payson had upgraded from. Kelly wandered over and rolled her eyes. "Hey Rebels," she said, an ironic lilt to her voice.

"Parker," Payson said, acknowledging her long time rival.

"Keeler," she said, "What's with Lauren?"

They all looked at each other and shrugged. Lauren and her weighty baggage hadn't been on any of their radar lately.

Kelly sniffed, "Wow, some team," she said and rolled her eyes before walking away.

Emily and Kaylie frowned and Payson sighed, "I can't believe I'm about to say this, but she's right."

Kaylie nodded, "I know. We haven't been much of a team lately."

Emily nodded, "It does seem like we've all gone our separate ways."

"Let's make a pact," Kaylie started, but identical groans from Emily and Payson stopped her, "What?"

"You aren't going to pull out promise rings are you?" Payson asked, cringing.

Kaylie rolled her eyes, "No, what I was going to say is that we should try to be there more for each other and not let ourselves get so caught up in our own lives. We're teammates and I thought we decided that's supposed to be an even stronger bond than being friends."

"And it is," Payson said, walking over to where Lauren was standing, just a few feet away. "When did you start trying the Tsukahara Double?" she asked.

"A few weeks ago. I told his dad that I'd only been working on it for a little while. It ups my start value by three tenths a point. I don't know why Sasha is being so pissy."

Payson sighed, "Probably because he told you not to do it. That's not why I came over here though. Do you want to work on it tomorrow morning? That was the vault I used at junior nationals. I'm a pretty good coach with the vault, ask Emily."

Emily nodded, "I nailed my blind landing because of her. She is, actually, a really good coach."

"Who's a good coach?" a familiar British accent asked from behind them.

Payson spun around, "You are," she said sweetly and smiled brightly. The other girls plastered near identical smiles on their faces quickly.

"Do I even want to know?" he asked and they shook their heads collectively. Sasha smiled and shook his head, letting out a small laugh. "To the floor ladies and be quick about it."

"Yes, Sasha," they said in unison as they scampered away. Payson looked back as they moved away from him, and smiled again, their eyes meeting.

Things were so much better than that crazy day when she'd been thrown off her game completely by Kaylie's near early retirement and her own swirling emotions. She and Sasha were back to their routine, one she envisioned them continuing for years. She knew it was crazy, that's exactly what Austin had called her, but she just knew. He was it for her. He was the man she'd be with for the rest of her life. It didn't scare her like it probably should, Austin had said that too. She sighed when she thought of their conversation just days before.

Someone was ringing the doorbell. Payson had just stepped out of the shower. "Becca, can you get that?" she yelled and heard her sister thump down the stairs. Their parents would be returning later that evening from their weekend away in Minnesota and not a moment too soon. Payson had enough of babysitting twenty four hours a day.

"Payson, it's for you!" Becca shouted up the steps. "It's Austin Tucker!" Payson rolled her eyes. Becca was smitten with Austin since the moment he walked in the gym. Apparently Becca Keeler, all of thirteen, had developed a bad boy streak a mile wide.

"Austin, I'll be right down," she called. "I just got out of the shower."

"I can see that," his voice said from the doorway to her bedroom.

She turned around, still in her towel, glaring at him. "Do you get extra points for scaring the shit out of me on a regular basis? You don't have a solid sense of personal boundaries, do you?"

He just raised an eyebrow at her. She huffed and picked up a pair of shorts, slipping them on under the towel. Then turning so her back was to him, she dropped the towel and pulled a tank top over her head. "What are you doing here, Austin?" she asked as she turned to face him.

"I came over to apologize," he said.

"Apologize for what?" she asked.

"For being a pain in the ass and for what I said to Sasha the other day," he said.

Payson's eyes widened. Becca's room was only across the hall. Her little sister was extremely nosy and could be counted on to be listening. "Shh," she said and pulled her fully into her room, before shutting the door behind them.

"Nice digs, Keeler," he said, relaxing across her bed.

"You were about to apologize for being a jerk and messing with my relationship because you're pissed off at Kaylie," she said, a sarcastic smile crossing her face.

"I was, in fact, about to do just that." He sighed. "I really am sorry, Payson. It's just this whole thing with Kaylie has me tied up in knots and when she said she was going out with that robot, Russo, it was like a punch to the gut. She said he's 'better for her.' Whatever the hell that means."

Payson smiled and moved towards the bed, nudging him over before relaxing next to him, "It means that Nicky is her safe. He's guy you date because he doesn't turn your stomach into a mess of butterflies or make your heart race just by being close to you. She's scared," Payson said and put a hand over his. "I'm sorry. She's the one missing out."

He shook his head, "So it turns out you're not the only Rock girl out of my league."

She rolled her eyes, "Austin, I'm not out of your league and Kaylie certainly isn't. I think you guys would be really good together, honestly. Kaylie needs someone to, and I can't believe I'm saying this, get her out of her gymnastics a little. She was so unfocused before she won her national title and then it was all gymnastics all the time and then she got sick and now it's back to where she was before that. If you don't do something, she'll turn into a little gymnastics robot, like Nicky, like me."

Austin laughed, "You, Payson Keeler, are no robot. Robots don't leave six inch scratches down a man's back and they certainly don't get hickies," he said, flicking his fingers just above her chest, where the mark Sasha had left was fading, but still visible.

She swatted his hand away. "He was supposed to keep his shirt on in front of people," she muttered, her cheeks turning pink.

"No sense in blushing now, Keeler. Don't be ashamed of it. You're good in bed."

She frowned, "We aren't having sex," she said.

He chuckled, "Well, whatever you're doing is close enough," he said. "You're crazy you know. You're gorgeous, a world class athlete and not even eighteen years old. You're supposed to hook up and break up and not tie yourself down. Commitment should scare the hell out of you."

She shrugged, "But it doesn't. You'll get it one day, Austin. I promise."

Payson shook herself from her thoughts. Both Beloff men were looking at her expectantly. She smiled and walked to the center of the floor and began her routine.

Chapter 23: Gymnastics and Women

Austin Tucker was an expert on two things, gymnastics and women. From a very young age, he'd been a virtual prodigy in those two areas, everything that was difficult for everyone else, came easily to him, though he put considerable effort into both. So when he'd lost his focus after Beijing and held onto his title by a thread at the 2009 National Championships, Austin had seen a golden opportunity at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Training Center. First, he'd be able to work with Sasha Beloff, a man whose poster had hung on his wall as a boy and secondly, he'd be able to see what it was about those Rock girls that made everyone stand up and take notice.

The Rock was home now. He couldn't imagine training anywhere else. It was easily one of the best facilities he'd ever seen, so good he'd axed construction on his personal gym. Sasha Beloff was an incredible coach and while they'd hit a few speed bumps, including one pintsized one named Payson Keeler, Austin knew he was becoming a better gymnast because of him. Then there was Payson herself. Who would have predicted that of all the people he'd meet in Boulder, she would become his closest friend?

Austin shook his head, as he looked down at the sleeping form of the All-Around World Champion. It was a short flight to Los Angeles, but Payson had insisted on sleeping. He glanced around at the plane's other occupants. MJ had chartered a flight for them, since they were all headed to the same event. Kaylie and Nicky were sitting across the aisle from them, holding hands and speaking in hushed tones. It made Austin sick. It wasn't like he couldn't take a hint. Kaylie had chosen Nicky. Great, the gossip pages would have a field day with all their Kalicky bull shit, but every ten minutes or so, when Nicky's attention was elsewhere, Kaylie would glance over at him. He wasn't sure if she wanted his attention or if she was trying to make him jealous. Either way it was pissing him off. He looked behind them and saw MJ on the phone, probably putting the screws to someone, if he could tell anything from her tone of voice.

"Well, tell him to kiss my ass," he heard her say as he turned around. Austin smiled to himself. He knew women, or at least he knew most women. He'd figured out Emily. She and Damon Young had that whole star-crossed lover, diamond in the rough thing going for them. And Payson, while it was a pretty complicated situation, when you boiled them down to their essentials he'd never met two people more perfect for each other than Payson Keeler and Sasha Beloff.

Austin sighed in frustration and leaned back against his head rest. What was it about Kaylie Cruz that tied him up in knots? She wasn't the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen and she was such a pain most of the time he didn't even like her all that much, but he couldn't shake the feeling that given a little time he'd happily find himself falling in love with her.

He across the aisle at her again and caught her looking. Their eyes met for one second and the another and then, "Ding!" The pilot turned on the seatbelt light on. He looked at his watch, right on time, a little early even.

"Keeler, wake up, we're gonna land soon," he said, nudging Payson.

She sighed and sat up, pushing wayward strands of blonde hair out of her face. "We're there?" she said, sleepily.

"Almost," he said, buckling his seat belt, hoping for a smooth landing.

Payson pulled her sunglasses down and tucked her blonde hair behind her ear. "I hate LA," she mumbled as she and Austin tried to avoid the loitering paparazzi at LAX. "Seriously, hate LA."

"The more you hide, the more pictures they'll take. They've got incognito celebrity radar built into their digital cameras now," he said, laughing at her. She was such an anti-celebrity, yet of all of them she'd easily gotten the most press, especially after the SI Swimsuit Issue had been released in February. Payson Keeler wasn't just a gymnast anymore, she was a sex symbol.

"Shut up, Austin," she said. "You love this crap. You thrive on this. When that stupid magazine released those pictures of us from our last little trip to LA, you thought it was funny."

Austin shrugged, "It was a little funny." After the SI issue had come out, the footage from TMZ had resurfaced, along with several other pictures of them during their weekend in LA. People Magazine bought every picture they could get their hands on and had featured "America's Sweethearts" in their March Issue. It had been the talk of the Rock for weeks.

"Let's just get this torture over with," she said, as they found their limo. They followed him outside and Payson groaned when she saw paparazzi taking pictures, but also taking video.

"How much you want to bet MJ tipped them off that we'd be arriving together?" he said, nodding towards a contingent of cameras that seemed to be waiting for them. Nationals were rapidly approaching, only about two months away now and MJ was in full agent mode, trying to get them as much exposure before the first major event of the year. Including this party for Hollywood A-listers and the athletes they wished they could be.

"I'm not taking that bet. She definitely did," Payson said with a sigh, pulling the baseball cap down lower, not that it would have any effect. "I can't imagine what Sasha ever saw in her," she grumbled.

Austin snorted, "Uh, I do. She's hot as hell. Plus, she was a tennis player; those girls practically have sex on the court with all that screaming and grunting. I love tennis."

Payson rolled her eyes, "You're disgusting. Why do I keep you around?"

Austin threw his arm around her shoulders, thus giving the cameras the money shot they came for, "Because I'm charming and loveable and the only person you can talk about your secret love affair with," he said, lowering his mouth towards her ear. She cut him off with an elbow to his stomach.

She shook her head, "Did MJ give you written instructions on how exactly to act when we got to the airport?"

"Verbal," he said, standing up straight again. "I'm only following about two-thirds of them. She wanted me to hold your hand on the way to the car."

They piled into the limo, MJ bringing up the rear, the cameras still clicking and flashing as the car pulled away from the curb.

Austin sighed as he stepped into his hotel room, throwing himself onto the bed. Payson and Kaylie had run off to their rooms to, as Payson said, "Prepare ourselves for the party." She'd accompanied it with an eye roll. Payson definitely wasn't a girly girl, but when she cleaned up, she was absolutely stunning. It was just unfortunate that neither of them would be on the arm of the person they wanted to go to this party with. If they could, he was sure that Payson and Sasha would have made a quick appearance, before squirreling themselves away in a hidden corner somewhere, that's what he'd do if he was taking Kaylie tonight. Suck it up, Tucker. She chose Russo. Move on. There are going to be some incredibly hot girls at this party tonight. Flash that smile of yours and work the room.

He shook his head and stood up; unzipping the garment bag he'd stored his clothes in for the party tonight, he made a decision. He was going to have fun at this party and not think about Kaylie Cruz for one night.

Mission Not Accomplished, it's like 2003 and your George W. Bush with that stupid banner behind you, Tucker. The war is not over, not by a long shot. He was next to Payson, who was taking pity on him, otherwise she would never give the cameras, professional and amateur alike, such an easy shot of them. They were sitting on one of the many couches dispersed throughout whatever club this was, he thought it was called, Sofa, which would explain all the random seating in the middle of the floor. It didn't matter. He'd spent the entire night sulking, since she'd walked into the room on Nicky Russo's arm in a pink dress, smiling like she was happier than a pig in shit. She was so full of it. They made eye contact across the room and he saw her smile falter for a moment, a look of confusion crossing her face, before she shook her head, broke from his gaze and plastered on a fake grin for Russo who'd stoically turned to her then and said something. She nodded and they moved towards the dance floor.

"Do you want to get out of here?" Payson asked, looking at him pleadingly.

"Dance with me first?" he asked, his eyes never leaving Kaylie and Russo.

Payson followed his gaze. "Are you sure about this, Austin?" she asked, putting a hand on his arm.

"Yeah, I'm sure," he said, offering her his hand. She took it and they pushed through the crowd before finding some room towards the middle of the floor.

It was a fast track, something Austin recognized from the constantly playing Top 40 station the girls, namely Lauren and Kaylie, insisted on pumping into the Rock. It had a good beat, something meant to be danced to and he and Payson were definitely dancing. He smiled down at her, as her hips moved rhythmically under his hands. Sasha is one lucky bastard, he thought as she swayed and rocked to the music. He kept up with her easily, but his focus was on the pair only a few feet away. Kaylie's back was pressed into Nicky's front, her head thrown back on his shoulder, her eyes closed. Their bodies moved together to the beat, but Austin sensed some tension in the way Nicky was holding her, like he wasn't sure what to do with himself. Damn it, Kaylie. I would know exactly what to do.

The song ended and Payson followed his line of sight again. "You need to stop torturing yourself. Either go over there and cut in or suck it up and take me back to the hotel." He looked down at Payson, no idea what to do or say, but she just laughed, "Looks like the universe just did you a favor," she said, indicating back towards where his attention had been focused most of the night, on Kaylie. Kaylie, by herself, with no Nicky Russo in sight. "Go," Payson said, pushing him away.

He hadn't even made the decision to walk over there, his feet just began carrying him in that direction and before he knew it he was standing in front of her, heart practically pounding out of his chest. "Dance with me?" he asked. Kaylie looked up, her brown eyes wide with shock. He was holding out his hand and she looked at it like it was about to bite her. "Relax Kaylie, it's just a dance."

A slow track started and Austin smiled, "I love this song," he said, letting the twang of Van Morrison's guitar wash over him as I'll Be Your Lover, Too, began.

Kaylie shook her head, "I don't know it," she said, not looking at him in the eye.

He pulled her close and for once she didn't fight it, allowing him to tuck her smaller frame against his as one arm wound around her waist, holding her against him. They swayed silently, Kaylie relaxing into his embrace as they swayed together. Her head came to rest on his chest, one arm around his middle, while her hand gripped the front of his shirt like her life depended on it. He put his hand over hers and squeezed gently. Then the song was over and another, much faster track started up. Kaylie quickly pulled away, still not looking him in the eye.

She looked to the floor and then out into the crowd. "I, uh, I should go find Nicky," she said, her voice cracking just a bit.

He sighed, "If that's what you think you should do," he said, his shoulders sagging in defeat. What is wrong with her? I know she felt that too. Why won't she admit it?

"Yeah," she said, "It's what I should do."

Then she was gone, disappearing into the crowd of people, leaving him standing there, in disbelief. He wandered back off the dance floor to find Payson. She looked at him, concern and, he cringed, pity, clear as day on her face. "I'm sorry, Austin," she said.

"Yeah, me too," he said, looking back out into the sea of people, but Kaylie wasn't in sight. "You ready to go?"

She nodded, "Yes."

"Then let's get the hell out of here."

They exited the club out the front entrance, neither one of them having the energy to try and sneak out. The paparazzi got a few nice shots of Payson holding onto his arm as they were hustled to their limo by security.

"I'm sorry, Austin," she said and sighed. "I don't understand her. I mean Nicky's a good guy and all, but he's not…"

Austin shook his head, "No, it's okay. Really. I'll just go back to the hotel, crack open that minibar and drink myself into a mild stupor before we fly back to Boulder tomorrow, all of us, together. Feel like joining me in my pity party?"

"Uh, thanks, but I have to um," she stuttered, "I can't." He had never witnessed a truly flustered Payson Keeler. Their relationship had gone from casual acquaintance to overly comfortable friends too fast for there to be any awkward moments.

He laughed, "What? Do you have plans?" he asked incredulously. "It's one in the morning, what could you possibly," he said, but then trailed off as something clicked in his head, "you're going to call Beloff and do the nasty over the phone!" he screamed in a whisper.

Her eyes grew wide and her mouth set in a firm line, "Shut up, Tucker," she said, but the blush on her cheeks gave her away.

"Sure, leave me to wallow in my self-pity while you get your rocks off." He threw his hand over his forehead dramatically.

She glared at him, "Not going to work," she said as the car pulled up in front of the hotel, where more paparazzi awaited them.

Their rooms were on the same floor, so they walked down the hallway together, him sans jacket, her carrying her high heeled shoes in her hand.

"Good night, Austin," she said, sighing. "Look, if you need me," she began, but he stopped her.

"Go call Sasha. At least one of us should get lucky tonight," he said with a wink and his most charming smile. She gave him a look that told him she didn't believe his act for a second. He hadn't expected her to. "Night Keeler," he said, walking further down the hallway.

His room was dark when he entered it and he switched on the light, the empty space brightening. He began to undress, slipping out of his shirt and then undoing his belt when he heard a knock at his door. He frowned. Beloff was going to kill him if he'd inadvertently messed with any plans he and Payson had tonight by making her feel guilty enough to come check on him.

"Keeler, I told you, I'm fine," he said opening the door. Standing there, looking like a frightened mouse was Kaylie Cruz.

"Hi," she said, looking up at him, finally meeting his eye.

"Hey," he said, "do you want to come in?"

She shook her head, "No, I just wanted to say goodnight," she said, her hands twisting together, playing with a ring on her right hand.

He grinned sardonically. "Okay," he said.

He rolled his eyes up towards the ceiling, so he didn't see her take a quick step forward. He did however, feel her hand wrap around his neck, pulling him down towards her mouth. The kiss wasn't innocent, not by a long stretch. Their mouths were attacking each others, their tongues immediately engaging in a battle for dominance. Her free hand traveled the expanse of his chest before resting on his shoulder, using it as leverage to push closer to him. Then she was gone, pulling away, leaving him absolutely stunned.

"Good night, Austin," she said, before turning and racing away from him down the hallway.

He stood there in complete shock, mouth hanging open, the taste of her strawberry lip gloss on his tongue. "Good night, Kaylie."

Chapter 24: Guilt, Hate and Love

Sasha walked past the trainer's room and shook his head. It had apparently turned into a hot spot over the last few hours. There were five tables in the room and four of them were occupied, each with one of his elite gymnasts. It was crunch time, two weeks before Nationals and they were all training hard, spending most of their time at the gym, conditioning their bodies, getting a required ten hours of sleep, but today was a near disaster. First Emily had rolled her ankle dismounting from the uneven bars, followed by a spectacular fall from Kaylie, who landed chest first on the beam after she slipped mid-pirouette. Lauren had gotten through most of the day until she went into a back hand spring oddly and felt a twinge in her right wrist. Then finally, just as everyone was finishing up for the day Payson had twisted her knee practicing her Yurchenko two and a half off the vault. They were dropping like flies from silly, but not exactly preventable injuries and Sasha was extremely frustrated. They'd all showered and changed, but he'd made sure they visited the trainer one last time before they left for the day.

He nodded towards their trainer, Tricia, and she grimaced. "Don't kill the messenger, but all of them need to shut it down. Payson and Lauren for a day or two, Emily for at least the rest of the week and Kaylie, she should go get an x-ray done to make sure it's just a bruise and not a cracked rib." He sighed and looked at their trainer, who left the room, patting him on the shoulder.

"I'm fine, I can train tomorrow," Kaylie said. "It's just a bruise," she said. "I'm not going to show up unprepared for Nationals because of a bruise."

Sasha frowned at her, "You'll go for an x-ray and we'll see what the doctor says. Go home and don't come back until you've been cleared." Kaylie huffed and got off the table, wincing as her torso shifted a bit. Sasha raised his eyebrows at her and she rolled her eyes, as she left.

He looked at Lauren and then Emily, both of whom were gathering their stuff. Emily sighed, "Fine. Can I get a re-eval after tomorrow though? I just rolled it a little bit."

"Me too," Lauren said, flexing her wrist, wrinkling her nose at it. "It hurts, but doesn't feel like a sprain."

Sasha nodded, "Ice, compression and elevation and then come back tomorrow afternoon so we can look at it." They left quickly, not wanting to argue when they got what they wanted to hear from him.

He looked over at Payson. "Let me see," he said, walking over to her. She was lying back on the trainer's table, her white skirt pushed up her thighs slightly, and her knee propped up on a bunch of towels, a bag of ice over it. He lifted the bag and looked at her knee before replacing it again. No swelling, a good sign, probably just a tweak. "Pain?"

She twisted her mouth into a grimace, "Not bad. I can probably train tomorrow." He opened his mouth to protest, "But I won't. No sense in hurting myself this close to Nationals."

He laughed softly, "Really?"

"No, but I know it's what you wanted to hear. I'm going to sulk all day tomorrow because I can't train and you'll just have to deal with that."

He snorted, "I could kiss it and make it better."

She rolled her eyes, "Your lips have magical healing powers now?" She was obviously in pain, her sarcasm a front to cover it up, but she lifted the ice pack off the afflicted knee and raised a challenging eyebrow at him.

"Haven't heard you complaining lately," he said, leaning down to brush his lips against her knee. Her skin was icy cold, but he knew the goose bumps on her skin had little to do with the cold compress she'd been using. "How's that?" he asked, looking up at her.

"Mmm, it's a miracle, I can train tomorrow," she said, with a laugh.

"You're hilarious," he muttered, placing the ice pack over her knee again. "You need a lift home?"

"No, it's the other leg, besides I'm going to Kaylie's tonight. Sleepover." She sighed, sitting up, "I'd rather just stay here, but that's probably not an option."

He snorted, as she lifted the ice pack off her knee and tossed it into the garbage pail not far from them, "Hi, mom, yeah I'm staying at Sasha's so he can magic the pain in my twisted knee away with his lips," she said, "That would go over well."

Sasha cringed. He hated when she mentioned her mother. It was the one thing about their relationship that gnawed at his conscience like a tiny Jiminy Cricket. He saw Kim Keeler almost more than he saw anyone else during his day and he'd gotten very good at looking her in the eye and pretending that he wasn't secretly cavorting with her seventeen year old daughter while she was none the wiser.

"I hate that you do that," Payson said softly. Their eyes met and he could see the sadness in hers.

"Do what?" he asked, stepping closer, putting a hand on her thigh, rubbing lightly against the smooth skin there.

"I hate that I can't mention my parents without you feeling guilty, like you're betraying them in some way," she said. "I hate that you feel like we're doing something wrong."

He sighed, "We are." He kept it well hidden, but it was an ever-present feeling. For the most part, his feelings for her overwhelmed the deep rooted guilt, but she had never confronted him about it before.

She closed her eyes, as if the words actually caused her physical pain. He looked away, focusing on the wall behind her. "We aren't," she whispered. "Look at me." Her hand rose and pushed his chin down, forcing eye contact, "Look at me, do I look violated? Do I look taken advantage of?" she asked. "I hate that you feel this way, but I love it too."

He looked up at her in confusion. What was she saying? "I don't understand, Payson. What?"

"I love that you feel this way because it means you're a good man, an honorable man. It means that you're not taking advantage. If you weren't a good man, you wouldn't feel guilty, at all." She shook her head at herself, obviously not sure if she was even making sense. He wasn't sure if she was either.

He looked at her, her eyes tearing up as the words spilled from her mouth. A tear fell, trailing down over her cheek to her lips. He brushed it away with his thumb. Her hand covered his and squeezed gently. "I'm not a good man, Payson." His voice sounded odd to his own ears. "I'm not an honorable man."

"You are," she began, but he cut her off.

"I'm not," he said. "I'm not a good man because I'm standing here and you're crying and we've crossed almost every line. We've lied to your parents, you've lied to your friends, we've created an impossible situation for ourselves and all I can think about is kissing you, making you forget that we'd be crossing any lines at all."

She put her hands against his chest. He could feel the heat of her skin through his shirt, and then she placed her hands on either side of his face, the tips of her fingers brushing his temples, soothing the tension there. "Do you think that I don't know that? I hate lying to my parents. I hate that I have to keep this a secret, when I want to shout it from the rooftops. I'm staying over at Kaylie's tonight and don't you think I want to be able to tell my friends about this amazing man in my life, a man they would barely recognize even though they see him every day; a man that would make all the guys they fawn over and complain about look like silly little boys in comparison. How he's sweet and brilliant and how we agree and disagree and argue and work together. And how when he touches me my body responds in ways I didn't know existed. I hate that we can't share this with the people we love. I hate that it's necessary, but all that hate doesn't matter because of how I feel about you. That overpowers every other emotion, every secret, every lie, because what's between us, that's real. It's as real as it gets." She stopped for a moment and brushed a stray tear from her cheek. "Sasha," she said, reaching out, taking his hands in hers.

He sighed at the sound of his name falling from her lips, not in pleasure or anger or frustration or need, but confidently, completely sure of herself, sure of him and what they felt for each other. He brushed a lock of blonde hair away from her forehead, before running his fingers down past her temple to her cheek, and then looking down at their joined hands. "I love you."

She didn't think she'd heard him right. She'd unexpectedly poured her heart out, thoughts she'd been keeping to herself for ten months, almost a year, an absolute flood of emotion and feeling and he had responded with three words that summed it all up. They'd never said that word before. It had been implied many times, it had even become a nickname, one he used during their most intimate moments, but used now, in this context as he stood there in front of her, their gazes locked together, she never thought should could feel this much for one person. She exhaled sharply and smiled. "I love you too."

And then he was kissing her, the same way he'd kissed her here months before. It was soft at first, almost tentative, as if he were testing these new words out, to see if something was different about their kisses. Then the intensity level shifted, and his kisses became possessive and dominant in a way that thrilled her. His fingers circled her wrists, pulling them up and placing them around his neck, before he stepped closer, standing between her legs, his hands trailing up the skin of her thighs, pushing her skirt upwards, as he shifted closer. She wrapped her legs around his waist, pulling him into her, the pain in her knee a vague thought in the back of her mind before he wiped out all coherent thought as his tongue plundered her mouth and his hands created paths of fire over her body.

What seemed like days later, but in reality only a half hour's time had passed, they laid together on the trainer's table, her head resting upon his now bare chest, his arm holding her body to his tightly. The only sound in the room was their breathing as they tried to regain control. "Oh my God," she said, not being able to find words to express what she was feeling.

He nodded and kissed the top of her head. Payson faintly heard a buzzing sound and after a moment was convinced it wasn't a side effect from the pleasurable high her body had just descended from. She pulled her arms through the straps of her tank, covering herself again, and as she stood she smoothed her skirt down. "My phone," she said, opening her gym bag. "It's Kaylie. Wondering where I am."

He sighed and nodded before standing. He pulled his pants back up and zippered the fly before grabbing his shirt from the floor, yanking it back over his head. He saw a small piece of pink lace lying at his feet. He picked it up and held it out for her but she smirked at him. It was useless now. "I'll buy you a new pair," he said, returning the wicked grin.

"I've got to go," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow for breakfast."

He raised his eyebrows, "No training tomorrow."

She shook her head, "Magical healing powers, remember. My knee feels fine." He shook his head, "Fine, I'll come in and do some upper body work in the fitness center and then help out with some of the younger girls, maybe do some paper work in the office."

"Better," he said, stepping closer to her.

She sighed, putting her arms around him, not wanting to let go. It was so unfair that it had to be this way for them. They were good people and they loved each other and they couldn't move forward, not yet. "I love you," she said, testing the words on her tongue again.

He sighed, his breath tousling her hair. "I love you too."

She wasn't sure exactly how she got to the Cruz house. One moment she'd been in Sasha's arms, the next she'd been in her car, sitting in the driveway, not really wanting to go in. She sighed, killing the engine and stepping out of the car. She saw a pair of headlights entering the driveway and smiled at Leo Cruz as he got out of his car.

"Hey Payson," he said, smiling at her.

"Leo," she said returning the smile. They moved together towards the house, but he stopped and grabbed her arm. "What?" she asked.

"Austin Tucker, huh?" he said, with a smirk.

"Ugh, those stupid pictures. No, Austin and I are friends."

Leo shrugged, "That's not the impression I got from my sister, but then she's usually wrong about these things. Not the most perceptive girl in the world."

Payson rolled her eyes, "Kaylie knows that Austin and I aren't together."

He shrugged again, "You sleeping over?" he asked, opening the front door.

"Yep, all of us, me, Lauren, Emily."

"Well, have fun and don't wake me up when you leave this house at four in the morning to be at the Rock at the ungodly hour you train at."

She laughed, "Don't worry. Good night, Leo," she said, racing up the stairs towards Kaylie's room, but only getting a few steps before she felt that twinge in her knee again and went more slowly. "Hey guys, sorry I'm late," she said, stepping into the room. Lauren and Emily were sitting on Kaylie's bed, eyes focused not on her, but at Kaylie who was standing between Austin Tucker and Nicky Russo. It looked like she had missed something, something huge.

"Hey, Payson," Austin said, not looking away from Nicky.

She had no idea what to say, "Hi," she said, looking at Emily and Lauren for help, but they just shrugged.

"I was just leaving," Austin said, looking between Nicky and Kaylie and then shaking his head. "Good night," he said, moving away from them. He stopped just in front of her, "You were right," he said, moving past her and out of the room.

She had no idea what she was right about, but she felt sorry for it, no matter what it was.

"What just happened?" she asked, looking at Kaylie, then Nicky and then at Lauren and Emily.

No one answered.

Chapter 25: Beer, Boys and Boris

Sasha was just locking the door to the Rock when he heard the revving of a motorcycle engine. He turned to see Austin Tucker's Indian Chief pulling into the parking lot. He sighed. He wasn't really in the mood to deal with the young man's emotional turmoil tonight. Austin got off the bike and took his helmet off.

Sasha turned to him and tossed him the keys, "Lock up when you're done," he said, walking towards his trailer.

Austin looked down at the keys then back at him. "I didn't come here to train. I have to talk to you."

Sasha looked at the young man stunned. "Okay," he said, taking his keys back. "Let's talk."

They found themselves at his table, just outside the trailer. "You want something to drink?"

"Got any Guinness?" Austin asked, obviously knowing his coach pretty well.

"You want a beer two weeks before Nationals?" Sasha said, his coaching instincts taking over.

"This conversation requires alcohol," Austin said, pulling off his leather jacket and placing his helmet on the table. "Maybe a lot of alcohol."

Sasha shrugged, stepping quickly into his trailer and grabbing two bottles from his fridge. He came back out handing one to Austin, before popping off the cap on his and taking a sip. It had been an emotional evening; honestly he could use a drink too.

"What's on your mind, Tucker?" he asked, taking another long pull from the bottle.

"You told me once, that MJ, she destroyed you and after that you focused on your gymnastics. I need you to tell me how to do that."

Sasha let out a breath, "This isn't about…" he trailed off. Wouldn't that be the most ridiculous thing you've ever done, give advice to a man who loves the same woman you do? Wait, I've seen this movie before, you've already done that. Déjà vu, huh, Beloff?

Austin shook his head, "I know we never really hashed that out, but this isn't about Payson." He took a sip of his beer. "Payson's great and everything, but you two have that whole mind meld thing going on. No, this is someone else entirely."

"She's that special?" Sasha asked, trying to figure out who Austin was talking about. If It was a gymnast it could only be Kaylie. Apparently the rules of this gym are taken seriously by no one, Beloff. You may as well just toss the no-dating rule.

Austin nodded, "She's that special. I love her. What did you do, to forget?"

Sasha shrugged. "I moved to Romania." He kept a straight face, but soon a smile cracked through and Austin joined him, laughing softly.

"I don't think Romania is an option for me," he said, taking a long sip of his beer and smacking his lips together. "So what do I do? Leave Boulder?"

Sasha shook his head, "No, you can't leave Boulder. The biggest mistake I made was running away. It didn't solve any of my problems and it destroyed, at least at the time, any semblance of a relationship I had with my father."

Austin snorted, "Well I don't have a famous gymnastics coach for a dad, but running to my father wouldn't exactly be conducive to my training. Living in a van and traveling around the country isn't how you win Olympic medals."

Sasha shook his head, "Your dad lives in a van?"

Austin bit his lip and nodded, "They're hippies, the both of them. They like to fly under the radar, way under the radar, so the government doesn't know where to find them."

Sasha couldn't help it, he started to laugh. "Seriously?"

"I wish I were kidding."

Sasha looked down at his finished beer, "You want another?" he asked, getting up to retrieve one for himself.

"Yeah, thanks." Austin said, finishing his off.

Sasha handed him another beer and sat down with a sigh. "Okay, so your problem, there's a girl and she rejected you?" He leaned back in his chair studying Austin's face. He looked completely off his game, confused by the situation he found himself in. It was like looking in to the past, a reflection of how he felt ten years before, though he'd been a little younger than Austin at the time.

"I don't understand it. We had something, you know? A connection and then it was just gone. She decided I wasn't good enough for her or something, but the guy she chose, he's alright and all, but there's no way she feels…there's no way she loves him. And I know she feels something for me, because she kissed me, in L.A. but you know what? I don't care anymore. I'm done being tossed around." He pounded the table with his fist. "So, how do I move on? How do I forget her?"

Sasha stared at him, trying to take in the rambling mess. He leaned back in his chair and pressed his lips together, considering it thoughtfully.

"Sasha, you, uh, dropped something," Austin said, reaching down to pick it up off the ground. Sasha looked at him to see a scrap of pink lace in his hand and Austin smirking at him. "You carry her underwear around in your pocket?"

Sasha grabbed it from him and stuffed the garment into his jeans pocket. "Uh, no, she, um, left them here."

Austin nodded knowingly and took another sip of his beer. "I bet she did. Besides, the damn things are ripped to shreds. How's the whole not sleeping together thing going?"

"I thought we were talking about you?" Sasha said, frowning, take a deep drink from his bottle.

"We are, but really about you, because you've been there, Beloff and look at you now. You're happy, albeit in a completely inappropriate relationship with one of the girls you coach, but still, you're happy, she's happy, most people can't say that."

Sasha rolled his to the sky and shook his head, "Your point?" Is he always this articulate when he's buzzed?

"You recovered. How do I recover?"

"Time helps. It was more than ten years ago."

"Yeah, well this happened to me an hour ago, so that's not going to work. Got anything else?" Austin asked, leaning his elbow upon the table.

Sasha shook his head, "I've got more beer," he said.

"That'll work," Austin agreed, shaking his empty second bottle. "Bring the rest."

"Yeah," Sasha said, swigging the last bit of beer in the bottle, before standing and moving towards the trailer again. "We might be here for a while."

A while was an understatement, a six pack and a half of Guinness later, they were both slumped down in their chairs.

"I swear, Sasha, he's robot. Not in like the Terminator, you know, not trying to eliminate the human race, or maybe he is. I mean who is that focused, besides Payson and obviously Payson knows how to loosen up," he said, waving his hand in Sasha's general direction. He finished off his beer before slamming the bottle down on the table. "All Russo is going to do for her is make her uptight and it just won't be good."

"I thought you wanted to move on? Forget her and concentrate on your gymnastics." Sasha asked, lifting the bottle to his mouth.

"Is that what you did? Forget and focus on your gymnastics?"

Sasha shook his head, through a sit of beer. "Hell no, I took all my anger and channeled it though into my gymnastics. It let it push me through the pain and the suffering and I wanted to shove it in her face that I was better than he was, that I'd come out on top. And I did. I won four gold medals, but I blew out my knee in the process. Ended my career and in the end I didn't really want the girl I lost in the first place, even when she wanted me back."

Austin leaned forward, "She wanted you back after you won in Sydney? This part I didn't know."

Sasha nodded, sucking his cheeks in, pursing his lips. "Yep, she said that she'd made a mistake. I was stupid, took her back for a little while, but it wasn't the same. I didn't love her."

"Why'd you take her back?"

Sasha scoffed, "I was nineteen years old. The sex was incredible. She and I, the sex was never the problem."

Austin nodded, "Did you too ever…you know, after you'd ended things? I mean at Nationals last year, were you two…" he trailed off. "I thought I noticed something."

Sasha took pity on him and laughed. He's an observant little bugger, I'll give him that. "Yeah, we had a physical thing. It worked. We were rarely in the same city. Should I be watching over my shoulder? You seem to know a lot about my personal life, Tucker."

Austin shrugged, leaning back in his chair again. "Don't let this go to your head, Sasha, but I idolized you growing up. I wanted to be you, so if I'm pretty attuned to what you're doing, it's just a carryover from my days as a fan."

"Hmm," Sasha said. "So what are you going to do, Tucker?"

Austin sighed, "Since you were completely unhelpful and frankly derelict in your duties as my coach, I haven't decided yet. I don't think I can do what you did. I think maybe I have to fight for her."

"Isn't that what you've been doing?"

Austin shook his head, "No, I've been letting her take the lead. She's been calling the shots. What I have to do is prove to her that I'm the better man."

Sasha opened his eyes and then wiped a hand across his face, "You know that it might not matter. Women don't always choose the better man."

Austin shrugged. "That's okay; at the very least she'll know what she's giving up." He stood up and scrunched up his face as he stretched his arms over his head. "I think I'll head home."

Sasha looked at him like he was nuts, "No, you're not driving home. You're liable to drive that thing into the lake and then I'll be down an Olympic contender. Plus, Payson likes you and she wouldn't be very happy with me. There's a couch in the Airstream you're more than welcome to."

Payson pulled into the parking lot of the Rock at half past four, her usual arrival time. She'd slipped out of the Cruz house early, leaving Emily, Lauren and Kaylie sound asleep. After all the drama of the night before, she just didn't have the energy to rehash everything again over breakfast. She got out of her car and looked to the left. Austin's Indian Chief, Lolita was in his parking spot. She walked over to the bike and touched the back, just over the engine. Cold, so he's been here for a while. She turned towards Sasha's trailer and took in the scene. There were empty beer bottles at his table, a few standing, two or three on their sides, but it looked like about twelve in all. Did they drink themselves into a stupor?

She shook her head and approached the trailer. Sticking her head in, she saw Austin sprawled out on the couch at the front of the trailer. She looked down towards the other end and saw a lump she assumed was Sasha covered by a sheet. She stepped into the trailer and grabbed a plastic garbage bag from the cabinet and went outside quickly, dumping the glass bottles in the trash.

She shook her head. She didn't blame him and she was glad he'd gone to Sasha. She hadn't been there for it, but from what she'd been told, the minutes before her arrival at the Cruz house had been incredibly tense.

"What just happened?" she asked again.

Nicky sighed, "I should go," he said and kissed Kaylie quickly on the cheek before leaving the room quickly. "Bye Payson," he said, brushing past her.

"I'll show him out," Kaylie said, following close behind him.

Payson looked at Emily and Lauren, "What just happened?" she asked, enunciating each syllable clearly.

Emily shook her head, "Nicky was here when we got here, he was dropping off something from his dad to Kaylie's dad. So he just sort of stuck around for a little while and then Austin just showed up and Kaylie panicked because her dad is due home soon and I don't know, we were all up here…" she trailed off.

Lauren seemed more than willing to pick up the slack, "Austin said something about a robot and Kaylie went off on him. Don't know what a robot had anything to do with anything, but Austin kind of got in Kaylie's face. Did you know she kissed him in LA? Why didn't you tell us, Payson? You can't hold on to information like that."

Emily rolled her eyes, "Anyway, apparently Kaylie hadn't said anything to Nicky about the kiss because he looked like he was going to explode. He was talking with his teeth clenched, something about staying away from Kaylie and that Austin should treat you better. I think he thinks you and Austin are together."

Payson rolled her eyes, "Kaylie, she must have told him that. I hate this, why did she drag me into her drama."

"Because I didn't know what else to do," Kaylie said, in a soft voice behind her.

Payson turned around to see her friend in tears and sighed. "Well then, let's figure it out together."

They'd spent the next few hours, all three of them listening to Kaylie, offering advice and sympathy, but in the end it would be Kaylie who had to make the decision. She was stringing along two wonderful guys and though she made it sound like she'd already chosen, Payson had seen the indecision that would creep into her eyes whenever she mentioned Austin's name.

"I just don't understand why you dropped him in the first place, Kay. He was there for you through everything, when you were sick, when you came back, then it was like you wanted nothing to do with him when Nicky came back."

Kaylie shook her head, "I know. Austin is a great guy and he was there for me, but I realized it was time to stop making decisions in instinct. I really like Nicky and he's a great guy. We have so much in common and we're both dedicated to our gymnastics and winning in 2012."

Payson frowned, "And Austin isn't?"

"It's not that he isn't. It's that if I were with him, I wouldn't be able to."

Suddenly it was all clear to Payson. She'd been right all along, Kaylie was with Nicky because he was the safer option. She probably liked him enough, but what she felt for Austin was too much and it scared her. She shook her head. She'd been right about another thing too. Kaylie Cruz was not too good for Austin Tucker.

Payson had no idea what she was going to do with this information. She felt like Austin deserve to know how Kaylie felt, but she'd been sworn to secrecy. She went back into the trailer and slammed the door behind her. Austin snorted and rolled over in his sleep, but Sasha sat up quickly, his eyes flying open. "Christ, love, why'd you do that?" he asked, putting a hand against his head and flopping back down to his pillow.

She frowned, but looked at the clock. It was quarter to five and Boris would be arriving soon. It wasn't a National Team practice, but he would be observing all the gym's promising juniors today, including Payson's younger sister, Becca, who'd be attending Nationals this year, her first as an Elite. Letting the water boil, she raised the blinds in the trailer, letting the light shine through. Then she went back towards Sasha's bed, to push open the curtains hung on the window over his bed. She leaned over and almost immediately felt him snake his arms around her waist. "Now that's a nice view to wake up to," he mumbled, pulling her down onto him.

"Ugh," she said, getting a whiff of his breath. "How much did you drink last night?" she asked, pulling away, but he held fast keeping her close.

"Too much," he said, rubbing an eye with heel of his hand. "You put the kettle on?" he asked, peering up over her head.

"Yeah," she said, wriggling against him, trying to get free.

Suddenly, a voice from behind them made her freeze, "Uh, guys, don't forget I'm in here okay? I don't need to see this, you know, ever, but especially not this early in the morning when I'm hung-over." Austin was sitting up and looking at the ceiling of the trailer, distinctly not looking at them.

Payson rolled her eyes, "Calm down, drama queen," she said, pushing up off of Sasha. "Get up the both of you. Your Dad will be here any minute," she said, and Sasha wrinkled his nose at her.

"Shit, I forgot," he said, sliding out from under the covers. "Mind opening up the gym?"

She wordlessly grabbed his keys and left the hung-over idiots to their own devices to open the gym doors. She was propping open the front door when she heard the sound of a car pulling into a spot.

"Good morning, Payson," the gruff, eastern-block accent rang out across the parking lot.

"Good morning, Coach," she said, smiling at the older man. Sasha may not have had a great relationship with his dad, but Boris was her coach as well and that meant she should be respectful.

He looked down at her casual clothes, obviously not dressed for practice. "You are not training today?"

She shook her head, "Taking a day off. I twisted my knee a little yesterday and the trainer didn't want me to push it. I'll be back in the gym tomorrow."

He nodded, but his eyes held disapproval in them. "Yes, yes, okay," he said, brushing her off, but she didn't take it personally.

"I'm excited for you to see my little sister perform today. She's been doing really well since Sasha moved her up to Elite."

They walked into the gym together and Payson flicked on the lights, illuminating the large training facility immediately.

"Rebecca is her name?" Boris asked.

"Yep, she's hoping to make the junior national team this year."

"What is her forte?"

"Bars," Payson said immediately, "although her floor routine has been coming along nicely."

"Rebecca was Sasha's mother's name," Boris remarked offhandedly.

She smiled at him, "I know," she said. Sasha and his mother had been very close and he spoke about her often.

He smiled at her, "Yes, I suppose that you would know," he said, patting her on her shoulder, something his son had done countless times. "Ah, no matter. When will the girls arrive?" he asked the sentimental look on his face long gone.

"In about a half hour," she said. "Do you want anything? Sasha was making tea when I went to grab the keys."

"No, no, just ask my son when he will make his presence known. I am more than capable of running the training without him, but I think he would like to be here."

Payson nodded, with a small grin, "Yes, he definitely would."

Chapter 26: Crash Course in Confusion

The six hour flight from Boulder to New York was excruciating. The last time Sasha had been on a plane with his father had been more than fifteen years before, on their way to his mother's funeral. The pain of his mother's untimely death aside, this flight rivaled that in uncomfortable silence and tension. Something was obviously bothering Boris Beloff and Sasha was getting the brunt of his bad mood. He seemed to be fixated on Payson Keeler. As she boarded the plane, he'd already been in his seat. She spared him a smile and a quick brush of her hand against his shoulder as she walked past, Austin hot on her heels as they sat together further back.

Boris waved his hands in dismissal. "I still do not believe you let her date, especially someone like Austin Tucker. He is…he is you, only with the brown hair, not the blond."

"Yeah, Dad, I know," Sasha said with a sigh. He rolled his eyes up to the sky and while he didn't believe in a higher power, he'd reconsider his faith if a lightning bolt would strike and put him out of his misery.

"I cannot believe you let them date," his father muttered under his breath, but knowing Sasha could hear him.

"Payson is not dating Austin Tucker. They are friends. I have spoken to them both about it," Sasha said, obviously omitting several key points of interest on the topic, the major one being that he knew Payson and Austin weren't together, simply because he was the man in Payson's life.

Boris scoffed, "When your World Champion comes back and is pregnant, I will tell you 'so I told you'."

"Dad, it's I told you so."

"That is what I said. I would have never let the men and the women train together. It is distraction they do not need. Not that it ever stopped you. We took away the female gymnasts and you took up with the older woman."

"I told you, things are done differently here. Trust me, it makes the victory that much sweeter because of it."

"What do you mean?" his father asked, and Sasha raised his eyebrows. It was rare his father asked his opinion on anything.

"I mean that those gymnasts from China, even the girls from Romania, their lives are practically stolen from them. Every second of their lives is regimented from the age of 5 or 6 until they win their Olympic medals. And God forbid they don't. These girls, here at the Rock and on the US National team, they're gymnasts, some of the best in the world, but they're other things too and when they win, it means the world to them and their country because it's an endorsement of this system and tangible evidence that the other doesn't work." Sasha looked out towards the river. "It's not even jingoistic; it's just the way it is."

Boris snorted, "I never thought my son would be so political." It's competitive gymnastics, you old buzzard, not nuclear arms or education reform.

"Yeah, I'm a regular Barack Obama," he said, with a snort that sounded eerily similar to the noise his father had just made. Shit, I'm starting to sound like the old bugger.

"Yes, you are much like the President," his father said, sarcasm not suiting the usually blunt man. "I would insist to Payson that she must not see this boy. It will interfere with her training and she cannot afford distractions in the year leading up to the Olympic Games."

Sasha let out a strangled noise from his throat, the idea of Payson allowing anyone to insist she do something striking him funny. "Dad, Payson and I are on the same page. There is nothing to worry about. She is dedicated to her training, more so than any gymnast I have ever coached before."

His father's eyes burned into him, "I do not want you to make the mistake with her that I did with you. You are the perfect team, it is a rare thing and you should appreciate it. It will be over before you know it. It was that way for me."

Sasha looked at his father, suddenly infuriated with the old man, "You and I were not the perfect partnership, Dad. Nicolai and I were. I modeled my coaching style after him and that is the way I coach all my gymnasts." He unbuckled his seatbelt and stood, looking around the plane for an empty seat. Kim Keeler smiled at him and he smiled back, hiding the uncomfortable sinking of his stomach. "Mind if I sit here?" he asked quietly and she put out a hand over the seat in welcome.

"You and your Dad…" she trailed off.

"It's complicated," he said and sighed. "We haven't seen eye to eye on anything in a very long time."

She nodded, biting her lip, a gesture her daughter also made use of whenever she was holding back what she wanted to say. He raised his eyebrows, silently asking her to speak. "I heard him mention Payson's name."

Sasha nodded, "He thinks Payson is seeing Austin Tucker."

Kim raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. "I'm not so sure they aren't." Sasha opened his mouth to protest, "I know, I know, the "no-dating" rule, but really Sasha, did you expect anything else? Payson's almost eighteen years old, it's completely normal for her to have a boyfriend. I've suspected they've been seeing each other for a while, though she continues to deny it and it's not interfering with her training at all. She's gotten more focused if that was possible, but she seems happier. I've never seen her smile so much, completely unprompted." Kim shook her head, "Sometimes I'll see her staring with a dreamy expression on her face and I'll ask her what she's thinking about, but she'll just shake her head and say, 'Nothing.' It's not nothing," she said, shaking her head.

Sasha had no idea how to respond. "I suppose as long as she's happy, that's all that matters." It was the only diplomatic answer he could contrive, but as the words escaped him, he knew that one day they'd be thrown back in his face. Once day he'd be talking to this same woman and she would recall this conversation, knowing he lied straight to her face. He motioned for the flight attendant, who came quickly. "Scotch," he said as she nodded, but as she walked away, he glanced back at Kim, he touched her arm to stop her, "make it a double."

Kim chatted away happily, proudly discussing not only her own daughter's prospects at the National competition they were headed towards, but those of the entire Rock team. Sasha listened quietly, agreeing with her assessment that it wouldn't be out of the question for the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Women's team to sweep the medals in the All-Around, Kelly Parker, Andrew Conway and Kristen Henniford notwithstanding. The men had been playing one and two for the last two years, but Carter Anderson had begun to hit his stride at the age of twenty, and would be a serious contender for the bronze. All in all, they're chances on the podium looked great; it was everywhere else that concerned Sasha.

The scotch had worked to calm his nerves. The pleasant hum in his ears and warmth in his stomach served to block out most of his swirling emotions, something he hadn't had a problem with for years, a problem that hadn't resurfaced until Payson Keeler had completely stolen his heart.

They landed at Teterboro, word having got out they chartered a flight, there were paparazzi, but being New York in the Summer, where they generally concentrated on the Yankees and whoever was playing the Red Sox, the attention wasn't nearly as bad as it had been in other cities.

Sasha retrieved his carryon from the overhead compartment. He caught Payson's eye, a few seats behind him and they shared a quick smile at the last time they had both taken only carryon luggage in London. It had been a great excuse to get away from Ellen Beals and to steal some time alone. No quick getaway today, Beloff. Too many people and plus, this time you've got a roommate. The only positive thing about working with Ellen Beals is that the NGO had to spring for separate accommodations. With a father and son coaching team they had no problem forcing Boris and Sasha to share. Sasha had briefly entertained the idea of simply booking his own room; there was even a reservation in his name, just in case it became unbearable.

They arrived at the hotel, which was mobbed with gymnastics fans and press. They pushed through the crowd with the help of hotel security and Sasha spotted MJ standing in the center of the lobby, a satisfied smile on her face. "I thought I recognized your handiwork," Sasha said as he approached her. "Chaos and a media frenzy."

MJ smirked at him. I know that look. She's going to come on strong. "I'll take that as a compliment, Sasha. How was the flight?" she asked, stepping close to brush her lips against his cheek.

He froze, allowing the contact, but sniffed and smirked to himself. No matter where they had been in their relationship, from the beginning when it had been solely professional, to the height of their love affair and after she'd smashed his heart to pieces, she had always affected him physically. Always. It was a constant in Sasha's adult life. He shook his head, she still smelled lovely, her lips were still as soft, her body was amazing, but his usual visceral reaction did not occur.

"Long flight," he replied. "Think I'll rest up a bit before dinner." Her eyebrows raised and her lips curled up into a soft smile.

"Would you like some company?" she murmured. Sasha looked up from her brown eyes and caught sight of Payson at the reception desk, checking in. She titled her head at him curiously.

"No," he said, pulling his eyes away from Payson and focusing back down upon the woman he once considered the love of his life. "No," he reaffirmed.

She shrugged, "Well, if you change your mind, I'm in 348," she said, slipping something into his front pocket. He assumed it was her hotel room key. He stopped her hand and shook his head before side stepping her and moving away.

He saw his father wandering towards the desk, but that wasn't a good idea. Profanity in both Romanian and English was likely to ensue if he tried to check into their hotel room. "Dad," he called out. "Dad, I'll check us in. Just have a seat."

He stood behind Austin in line. "What was that about?" Tucker asked, not pulling any punches. The kid's protective instinct stretched a mile wide when it came to Payson.

"Nothing," Sasha responded. "Mind your business." Austin rolled his eyes, "Unless you're interested?" he suggested with a wink, followed up with a quick eye roll. "MJ's taste runs young."

Austin turned and looked at MJ appraisingly. "Huh, maybe."

Sasha gaped at the younger man, "Austin, I was kidding."

Austin shrugged. "I wasn't."

Sasha patted him on the shoulder and promptly cut him in line, as Austin still hadn't taken his eyes away from the leggy agent that represented him. Good luck, you're going to need it.

Payson watched the two men in her life from a few feet away and was very confused by what she saw. The rest of the team and those traveling with them had fled the lobby almost immediately upon checking in for their rooms or whatever hotspot they wanted to hit in the city on their "day off" so to speak, so she didn't hesitate to sidle up to Sasha as he checked in.

"What was that about?" she asked, nodding towards Austin, who'd begun walking towards MJ, currently speaking very sharply at someone on her cell phone.

"Austin needs a distraction and…" he trailed off, not having a ready excuse prepared for something he hadn't actually considered a possibility.

Payson laughed lightly, "And you need her off your back so I don't think there's anything going on when there's clearly not," she whispered, as they moved away from the desk towards the elevators.

"I can't imagine where you got that idea from," he said, his blue eyes twinkling at her, as they both got lost for a moment.

"Sasha!" a gruff voice called from behind them. Payson smiled as Sasha's shoulders tensed.

"Did you forget about him?" she asked.

He shook his head, "For about five blissful minutes. Remind me, sometime this weekend, I want to show you my flat. New York is a great city too, a lot like London, only less rain. And I hear that several of the world's best universities reside here, along with being the self-proclaimed center of the universe."

Payson smiled at him, brushing her hand against his briefly before stepping away to call for an elevator. Everyone once in a while they would do this, elude generally to the not so distant future, nothing firm or specific, just the idea that they were making decisions together.

"How do you feel, Payson?" his father's voice was suddenly just over her shoulder. She nearly leapt out of her skin. Her mind had drifted towards the future, but his voice yanked her fully back into the present time.

She turned with a smile. "Fine. I think I'm going to relax before dinner tonight. I want to be rested for tomorrow, hopefully establish a lead in the All-Around competition on Day 1." She couldn't help it. Every once in a while, the gymnastics robot in her would bubble to the surface.

"That's a good girl," he said, patting her gently on the back of the head. Payson smiled up at him. Boris Beloff was a tough as nails coach, but early on he'd seemed to realize that she didn't need him to be that for her. Sasha was her coach and she neither desired nor needed any other influences. Boris seemed to sense that and respected it. He simply encouraged and observed, although sometimes she caught him about to say something, before glancing at his son and stopping. He'd allow Sasha to coach her and pat her hair like a father would his daughter.

They all got into the elevator and as the doors closed, they observed Austin and MJ walking towards the hotel bar, Austin's hand at the small of her back. Payson bit her lip and looked up at Sasha. He frowned in concern and she shrugged. There was nothing either of them could do.

Boris saw the exchange and obviously misinterpreted it. He sighed and patted Payson on the shoulder, "Do not worry, Payson. Boys like Austin Tucker, they are not worthy of you. You are a champion and that is more important than any boy."

She smiled at him, "Austin and I are not dating. He's free to see whoever he wants," she said, stepping off the elevator. They followed her and found their rooms were only a few doors away. "See you at dinner," she said and opened her hotel room door before catching a view that made her shut again, though slowly and quietly.

"Payson?" Sasha asked, his father having already entered the room. "Everything alright?"

And here it was, the moment when their actual relationship would conflict with his position as her coach. The only thing that shocked her was that it had taken almost a year for it to happen. "Everything's fine," she lied through her teeth. She was a terrible liar and he saw right through her. "Really, Sasha, everything's fine." She closed her eyes and there were Emily and Damon again, in the middle of the room kissing like their next breath depended upon it. Damn it, Em, you could have at least warned me. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and sure enough, a text from Emily. Damon in NYC. Give me the room 4 1 hr? Plz! Thnx. Love you! "Shit," she muttered to herself.

"Payson?" Sasha called again and she looked up at him and sighed.

"It's fine. I just can't tell you. As team captain I'm asking my coach to trust me when I say everything is fine."

He nodded, "Okay."

She let out a breath. "Okay."

"Are you going in?"


"Why not?" he asked, crossing his arms over his chest, obviously tiring of the game.

"Just can't," she said. "The hallway is good for now." He rolled his eyes at her and she shrugged, obviously not very good at playing dumb.

Sasha sighed, giving up. She was annoyed at herself as she regretted not telling him, but wished she could. "Hang on a second. Let me run downstairs. I booked an extra room in case I couldn't stand Boris for more than a night. You can relax there and not disturb whatever nothing is going on in your room." He shook his head and moved past her, but she reached out for his hand.

"Do you trust me?" she asked, giving his hand a squeeze of reassurance. He stopped midstride, their bodies nearly brushing and looked down at their joined hands.

"Yes," he said without hesitation, his breath brushing her forehead lightly.

"Then don't worry about what's behind that door, okay?" She leaned into him a little, savoring the closeness she hadn't felt all day.

Sasha swallowed and nodded once, "Okay," he said, before releasing her hand and continuing down the hallway.

Payson sighed and sat down on the carpeted floor, digging through her bag for her iPod, intending to listen to some music while she waited for Sasha. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes and thus didn't see something that would have made her heart stop: Boris Beloff, standing in the doorway of his hotel room, arms crossed over his chest, studying her intently.

Chapter 27: 2011 National Championships, Etc

Payson looked up at Madison Square Garden. The electronic marquee was flashing over and over again: 2011 Visa National Gymnastics Championships. Wordlessly she took the pass her mother was holding out for her and put it around her neck. Looking up at the building again she smiled to herself. Her World Championship was the biggest accomplishment of her career as a gymnast, but winning the All-Around at Nationals, the same competition where her career almost ended just a year before, it would mean a lot.

Despite MJ's near apoplectic reaction, Payson neatly avoided the crush of media and publicity that usually accompanied arriving at Nationals. She knew it made her seem unapproachable, but she didn't care. She needed to focus and playing games of "What's In Your Gym Bag" and trading barbs with Kelly Parker weren't high on her priorities list. She quickly ducked into a hallway following a security guard, closely as he led her to the locker room, earphones snugly tucked into her ears. The soft melody of Mona Lisa from Nat King Cole's smooth voice soothing her nerves as she smiled a thank you to the security guard and entered the still deserted room. She put her gym bag on one of the tables and hopped up on it. Laying back and closing her eyes, allowing her body to slowly relax. It wasn't mediation, she wasn't nearly chic or pretentious enough to call it that, but it was how she prepared herself mentally for an event. The song ended and another began, but not before Payson heard the shuffle of feet approaching her. She cracked one eyelid and saw Austin standing a few feet away. "You know this is the women's locker room right?"

He snickered in response as she paused her music. "Must have missed the sign on the way in." He grew silent for a minute, waiting for her to initiate conversation.

"How's MJ?" she asked, sitting up and spinning around to face him.

His lip quirked up in a half smile, "Good," he said and raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Really good."

Payson shook her head, "You're disgusting."

He shrugged, "Hey, it was your boyfriends idea, I just er – closed the deal so to speak."

Payson opened her mouth to respond, but then shut it again, smirking. No one had ever referred to Sasha as her boyfriend before. It seemed like such an inadequate term for him. Sasha Beloff was no one's boyfriend. It just didn't fit. Her mind reeled at the words that should apply, words that could apply: man, friend, lover, coach, fiancé, husband, and father. Whoa, there Pay, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

"What no witty come back, Keeler? You disappoint me. How's your knee?" he asked, quickly changing the subject.

"Fine. I'll have it wrapped up tight for today and see. I hate competing like a mummy though, all wrapped up."

He stood, conscious that he should probably leave the locker room before the rest of the girls showed up. "You'll live. So just wanted to wish you good luck, not that you need it, you're going to rock."

She smiled at him. "Thanks, Austin," she said, jumping off the table and taking a step closer to him. He leaned down and bussed her cheek, as she stood on her tiptoes to give him a hug. Just as her arms closed around him, the door to the locker room swung open and there stood Kelly Parker and a few of her Denver Elite teammates.

Austin pulled away quickly, giving Payson a quick squeeze on her shoulder, "Good luck today," he said, moving away, nodding to the girls standing in the doorway, "Excuse me, ladies." The moved out of his way quickly, gaping at him.

"Wow, Keeler, Austin Tucker?" Kelly said, with a smirk. "I didn't believe the rumors, but then those pictures of you guys came out and now this? Canoodling in the locker room? It's just too much."

Payson laughed, having learned that Kelly's bark was much worse than her bite. "Jealous Parker?" she said, her eyes giving away her true meaning. "Austin and I are actually just friends, but since you don't actually have any friends, I wouldn't expect you to understand that."

She quickly changed into her leo, then went back into the bathroom to apply some makeup and twist her hair into her signature bun. Half a can of hairspray later, she emerged and put her iPod back in to start her relaxation again, mentally preparing her mind for the stress of competition. Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at the door and Ellen Beals, now working for the NGO as an event coordinator stuck her head in, "Five minutes ladies," she called, loud enough for Payson to hear her. She sat up and opened her gym bag, pulling on her track suit over her leo.

She approached her teammates as they gathered near the door, "How's everyone feeling?" she asked, looking each of them in the eye. No one, not even the two youngest girls on the team, just a year older than Payson's younger sister at fifteen, looked overly nervous. They all grinned or nodded to her and she let out a breath. "Good, now let's go kick some ass."

"Welcome to the 2011, National Gymnastics Championships presented by Visa. I'm Al Trautwig, alongside Olympic Gold Medalist, Tim Dagget and Elfie Schlegel and we'll be bringing you all the twists and turns over the next three days here from the World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden. The last time we saw you all at an international event of this level we were at the amazing and controversial World Championships in Rotterdam, where the United States of American won an astounding seventeen medals, lead by Payson Keeler and Austin Tucker, the All Around World Champions. Since then the gymnastics world dealt with a judging controversy, followed up by the London Olympic Test Event earlier this year, where most of these gymnasts competed again, with a variety of results, some similar, some not so similar to those in Rotterdam. Tim, Elfie, what can we expect from this event?"

Tim Dagget, nodded to Al, "Well, Al, I'd expect the rest of the field to have raised their game since Rotterdam and London. American gymnasts both on the men's and women's side have seen Austin Tucker and Payson Keeler dominating for too long. They're going to want to pull down the King and Queen, so to speak."

Elfie cut in, "I agree, but honestly, I don't see that happening. Austin and Payson, gymnastics' ultimate power couple, have been training extremely hard in Boulder under Coach Sasha Beloff; I'd expect that they've come to win."

Al finished up their intro smoothly, "Well, we start with the women today, the first day of the competition, where the top players will vie for a lead in the All-Around competition and event finals which will conclude the day after tomorrow, when the men begin their competition."

Sasha sighed as he looked up at the score board on Day 1. Damn it, he thought, scowling at the standings, 1. Kelly Parker 2. Payson Keeler 3. Emily Kmetko. He looked at Payson, her expression stoic as usual, but he could see the tension there, just around her eyes. She'd over-rotated on her Produnova and on a vault that difficult, when you overrate, you fall on your ass and she'd done just that, giving Parker a small lead, but a lead nonetheless going into the next day. She'd also failed to qualify for vault finals because of the sit-down, while Parker had landed, though shakily, a Yurchenko with a triple twist. Shifting gears for a moment, he concentrated on the name in third place and he couldn't help the smile that appeared. Emily Kmetko, the USA's new All-Around contender. He saw her packing her bag, for their march off the floor and caught her eye. He smiled at her and she practically beamed back at him. He studied the standings again, seeing Kaylie in fourth place and Lauren tied for fifth with Andrea Conway. Tomorrow would be a nail biter, no doubt about it.

He stood at the front of the line, Payson coming to stand in front of her, her teammates lining up behind her. They marched straight to the locker room, but before they went in he gathered them together in a small huddle, allowing the other teams to march past them. "Excellent job today, ladies. No matter what happens tomorrow, I'm extremely proud of you, now curfew is at ten tonight, lights out by half past. I also expect all of you to be in the arena tomorrow supporting your male teammates, like they were here today for you."

Lauren quirked an eyebrow at him, "Except we don't have to paint our chests, right?"

He chuckled softly and smiled. It had become a tradition for the Rock men to paint their faces and chests in support of their teammates after London. "No, face paint and the like are strictly optional. Okay, give me a 'Rock on.'"

They put their hands out and shouted together, "Rock on!"

"Well done, ladies, bus leaves in a half hour, be ready or we'll be leaving without you."

The girls moved into the locker room quickly, the half hour not sounding nearly long enough, but Payson lingered behind.

"We're only ten blocks from the hotel. It's supposed to be a beautiful night. Do you feel like walking?" she asked, quietly.

He looked around quickly, "Hang around after we're supposed to leave. I'll have your mum go back to the hotel with the rest of the girls."

She nodded and went into the locker room to change. He watched her go and then looked down the hall to see his father approaching him and he sighed. Yesterday had been a long night, which had turned into a long day and by the expression on his father's face it was about to get longer.

"I must speak with you," Boris said, his usual loud voice oddly hushed.

Sasha crossed his arm across his chest, readying for battle, "What about?"

Boris narrowed an eye at him, "Do not take that tone in your voice, Sasha. I must speak with you about something and I believe you'd like to do it somewhere that is not in front of many people."

Sasha returned his dad's expression, not intimidated in the slightest, "What Dad? I haven't got time for your games."

Boris threw his hands up in the air, a familiar gesture that Sasha had been on the receiving end of many times. "Fine, you wish to throw away your career and the hard work of the finest gymnast you will ever coach, that is just okay with me. I always said a woman would be your undoing," he muttered.

Sasha's eyes grew wide. What does the old man know? What had changed from the flight when he'd thought Austin and Payson were seeing each other to this morning? Nothing, except…except that you didn't get back to your hotel room until four hours after you dropped your bags off in the room you're sharing with him. He must have noticed that, even though he didn't say anything yesterday or this morning. What was he playing at? His father frowned at him, but still did not speak.

Sasha had returned minutes later with a room key for Payson, after for reasons unknown, she'd refused to enter her own hotel room. He knew getting this hotel room would be a good idea, although at the time he'd made the reservation it had little to do with Payson and more to do with the ability to avoid his father if necessary.

"Here you go," he said, handing her the key. "It's just down the hall," he said. She picked up her bag and walked down the hallway, just two doors away from the room he'd be sharing with his father. She opened the door and then looked at him, still in front of her door. She raised her eyebrows at him invitingly, but he didn't respond, just stayed rooted in the spot. She smirked and entered the hotel room, the door shutting behind her. Immediately the fog he'd been in cleared and in three strides he was at the door, knocking lightly. The door opened immediately, and she stood there with a smile, before grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling him inside.

Sasha sighed, looking at Boris. "What are you talking about, Dad? Serioulsy?"

Boris shook his head, "I am not talking about anything, because I did not see anything. I did not see her holding your hand in the hallway and I did not see you go into a hotel room with her yesterday and I will not see anything else, but you will see and she will see and you must realize what a dangerous game you are playing. She is very young, Sasha."

Sasha shook his head, a sense of complete defeat overtaking him, "What do you want from me? Do you want me to end it?"

Boris glared at him, the tough old face, marred by lines, not from laughter, but scowls, "You would end it?"

Sasha set his mouth in a firm line, "For her, to protect her, I'd do anything."

Boris shook his head, "No, I do not approve, but you will not do anything to jeopardize her chances tomorrow. I cannot believe that you have put yourself in this situation, Sasha. It will come out and then what? What will happen to you?"

Sasha sighed and rubbed at the back of his neck lightly. His father was right. What then? "I don't know," he answered honestly. There was no answer to that question, not a good one anyway.

Boris scowled, "You had better figure it out."

With that his father turned on his heel and marched back down the hallway, ostensibly to grab a car back to the hotel.

Sasha turned and kicked the wall. "Shit." What are you going to do now, Beloff?

Payson changed slowly, her teammates filing out one by one to grab the bus. Emily was the only one waiting for her, "Go on, Em. I think I'll just grab a cab back to the hotel. Maybe walk. It's a nice night. Have a nice dinner with Damon."

Emily shrugged and smiled. "Good job today. I know you'll pull ahead tomorrow."

She smiled back at her friend, "You too. Would you mind taking my gym bag back with you, I don't feel like carrying if I walk." Emily took it from her and grinned. "See you later."

She waited a few more minutes before grabbing her purse and stepping into the concrete and cinderblock hallway below the Garden, it's walls lined with pictures of basketball and hockey players. Sasha was leaning up against the wall across the hall, seemingly lost in thought.

"Hey," she said, pulling her bag over her shoulder.

He smiled, "Hi, you ready?"

He pushed off the wall and they moved towards the exit slowly, their strides matching. The media had left the building long ago and the fans were only scattered now. Sasha jogged to the curb and waved for a cab, but was pointedly ignored by several taxis before Payson smiled, giving him a small shove back and waving for a taxi herself. Moments letter one of the yellow cars skidded to a stop in front of her and she smiled victoriously. "It's all about the long blonde hair," she said as they climbed in.

"More like the long legs," he murmured to her, trailing a hand over his thigh and she laughed.

"Downtown," he said to the cabby. "Gramercy Park East," he said and smiled at her. "I told you I'd show you my flat this weekend."

It was a residential street in downtown New York, exuding old world charm, it was definitely too nice not to be pricey. Sasha swiped his card and they exited the cab.

"It's a nice street," she said, looking up and down the block. Like in London she could practically feel the energy of the city radiating off the sidewalk.

He nodded, placing his hand at the small of her back, leading her towards a stone stoop. "It's on the second floor, pre-war," he said.

She smiled at him, "So it'll have some nice touches, crown moldings, wood floors, it'll have character," she said with a twinkle in her eye. They stopped at the front door and he looked at her curiously, a strange smile on his face. "What? I've been watching House Hunters," she said as he laughed and unlocked the door. "It's an addiction."

They walked up the two flights of stairs and stopped in front of a door that read, 2A. Sasha unlocked this door as well and with a flick of his wrist let it swing open.

She took a step into the apartment, but she stopped almost immediately. It was lit beautifully by the three windows overlooking the street. The wood floors were shining. "Sasha, what exactly did your mother do that she could afford this place?"

He shrugged, "She inherited it. I've been letting it for the past few years and the tenants recently moved out. I'll be leasing it again in a month or so, but it's an option," he said, but Payson could see something was wrong. The worry lines on his forehead were making an appearance.

She took a step towards him and reached up, brushing her thumb over his forehead, before running her hands lightly through his hair. "What's wrong?" she asked, as his eyes slid shut and he leaned into her touch.

"I have to tell you something," he said, taking her hand in his. "My father knows about us."

Payson wasn't expecting that. "Will he say anything?" she asked, her mouth now completely dry, her stomach turning into knots.

Sasha shook his head, "I don't think so. He was – concerned, I think. More for you than me, I'd imagine and rightly so."

She sighed and leaned her head against his chest, feeling his arms come around her. "So what do we do?"

"I don't know, but first we need to be more careful. We've been getting lazy, comfortable even. What we pulled yesterday in the hotel hallway, it was careless, and especially considering everyone traveling with us was on the same floor. And secondly, we have to figure out what we're going to do when this comes out."

"If it comes out," she murmured, taking a deep cleansing breath, pulling strength from the feeling of his arms around her and the muscles of his back that her hands held onto. "You're right. So let's order some food and figure out a plan, but nothing too heavy, because I'm going to wipe the floor with Kelly Parker tomorrow and all anyone will want to talk about is my gold medal and not who I'm dating." She smiled at Sasha, who ran a finger down from her brow to her chin, lifting it and moving her lips towards his for a kiss.

"I love you," he said, his lips still brushing against hers.

"I love you too."

Three hours and four cartons of Thai food later, they had a plan. Now only if we could be sure this'll work.

They were checking out of the hotel late Sunday evening, the Rock men and women having done extremely well at this Nationals, proving once again that they were the best club in the country. Sasha exited the elevator and saw that he was one of the earlier to arrive. He wandered into the lobby and saw Becca Keeler sitting on one of the couches, laptop open in front of her, clicking furiously. She looked to be hard at work, so Sasha sat on the couch across from her and pulled out a book he was reading. Fifteen minutes later, he felt eyes on him. He looked up from the page to see Becca looking at him.

"I'm finished, do you want to see?" she said, a smile across her face.

"What are you finished with?" he asked the new Junior Elite All Around Bronze medalist, a huge accomplishment for the girl who'd only moved up to elite earlier that year.

"Well, I DVR'd the event at home and my Dad set it up so that the files would be automatically sent to my computer. Then I divided up the footage and used iMovie to put together a video montage of all our accomplishments this weekend. I've been working on it since last night and I think it's finally perfect. I was thinking that maybe we could use it at the Rocky Awards this year?"

Sasha stared at her, having absolutely no idea what the girl was talking about. It had been complete gibberish to him. "Yeah, let me see," he said, holding out his hands for her computer. She handed it to him and then sat down on the couch next to him, clicking a button to start the show.

A punk rock song Sasha didn't know began as video clips of both the men's and women's team from throughout the competition flashed across the screen before it settled upon footage of Kaylie as she rocked the bars, landing her event silver medal performance. "What a performance from reining National Champion, Kaylie Cruz! A silver medal for Kaylie on bars and the comeback story of the year in gymnastics," an announcer's voice cut in. Followed by Lauren on the beam, who had taken home the silver in that event, "She just makes this look easy. That routine will, yes Lauren Tanner is the new silver medalist on beam."

The video shifted, using music Sasha recognized from Emily's floor routine, as Becca had seamlessly thrown together elements from all four of Kmetko's routines in her bronze All-Around performance, combined with silver on floor and a bronze on the bars. "Emily Kmetko, the fastest rising star in this sport…What a bars routine from Emily Kmetko! Kmetko…yes! What an incredible vault, sticking that blind landing and there's the score, and Emily Kmetko will take home the All-Around bronze medal, the surprise of these Championships!"

Then the pace slowed down as Becca had combined Payson's bars and floor routine, the rhythm picking up as she segued into her beam, winning gold on all three events, as she blew away Kelly Parker on the second day of competition. "Payson Keeler is here to win today folks. Look at her, the power and the grace. Flawless, absolutely flawless on bars….Look at that, Payson Keeler nails a great routine on beam, that'll be good enough for gold….She just floats through this routine with a grace you see on stage uptown at Lincoln Center, she brings everything a gymnast can to this routine ...and here it is, the vault she sat down on yesterday, wow, and she pounds her feet into the ground and then pumps her fists into the air, saluting the judges and saluting herself. Payson Keeler, the 2011 National Champion. "

Then the music became rougher, more masculine as a similar montage from the beginning of the video began this time of Carter, Austin and Nicky. Flashes of Austin and Nicky's performances, once again going one and two for the All-Around gold and silver, highlighting the gold medal performances for Austin on the rings, parallel bars and floor, silver on the remaining three. "Austin Tucker is the best male gymnast in the world. If we thought he was good in Beijing, if what we saw here tonight is any indication, he'll be even better in London." Then the music shifted, not quite as harsh as Austin's but still a good beat as it moved towards Nicky's accomplishments: gold on the high bar and pommel horse, silver on the rings and parallel bars and bronze on the vault. "Nicky Russo, what a performance here tonight from him, two golds, two silvers and a bronze, medaling on five of six events." And then Carter coming out of nowhere winning the gold on the vault and finishing a very respectable fourth all around. "What are they feeding these guys in Boulder? Carter Anderson with one of the best vaults you will ever see and that score gives him the gold on the event and moves him just off the podium into fourth place!"

Then there was a small section, the music he recognized as the ringer that sounded when he called Payson's cell phone. He smiled as some footage of him during the competition flashed across the screen. Celebratory moments with the girls, hugs and high fives, a few fist bumps with the men, a shot of him, Payson and Emily embracing as the final scores were posted. Then footage of the medal ceremonies, the girls receiving their National team jackets and then the guys from earlier today. The music faded as the voice of Al Trautwig, "Sasha Beloff and the gymnasts from The Rocky Mountain Gymnastics club are one of the most dominant forces in sports today. The Rock came to these National Championships and simply blew away the competition. They are the Murderer's Row of Gymnastics, the finest assemblage of talent this sport may ever see from one club. "

The video stopped and Sasha smiled. "This was incredible, Becca. You have a real talent."

She shrugged, "It wasn't that hard. Do you think you'll use it?"

He nodded, and patted her on the shoulder, "Absolutely." He looked up and most of their traveling party was standing around them, watching the montage, most of them with silly grins on their faces. They had won and it felt incredible.

Chapter 28: End of the Beginning

Payson pulled into the Rock parking lot and looked up. There it was, her sign, Payson Keeler, 2011 National Champion. After a week that included a parade, less fun than it looked the year before, what felt like several hundred interviews, exactly as horrible as that sounded and almost no time to spend alone with the one person she wanted to be with, she was done. It was Sunday morning and there would be no one around for hours. She made her way immediately across the parking lot and knocked lightly on the trailer door. No answer. She tried the handle and it was unlocked. She supposed Boulder was a safe enough place to not lock one's door, besides who breaks into a trailer in the parking lot of a gym?

She stepped into the trailer and spied him lying on his back, across his bed sound asleep. Payson smiled and kicked off her shoes, slipping out of the light jacket she wore and slid into bed next to him. Almost immediately, he rolled towards her, instinctively pulling her body into his own, their legs intertwining, chests pressing together. She lay there for a moment, reveling in the feeling of being close to him, before placing a light kiss on his chest and then another, and then another, moving up towards his collarbone and then his chin. The hand at her waist twitched before she felt his fingers moving against her skin. She looked up as his eyes fluttered open.

"Good morning," she said, before brushing her lips against his. He deepened the kiss immediately, his free hand cupping the back of her head, his thumb stroking the back of her neck.

"Mmm, good morning," he said, releasing her. She tucked her head into his shoulder. "I feel like I haven't seen you all week."

She sighed, "That's pretty close to the truth. But it's over now. MJ goes home tomorrow and then things can get back to normal."

"You're going to talk to your parents tonight?" he asked, his hand slipping under her shirt at her hip, stroking the skin there softly.

"Yeah, I could barely find the time to breathe this week let alone approach them about it. I did do some research though and I think I found a great option. I can definitely afford it. I'm going to talk to MJ about it before she leaves and that'll get the ball rolling."

They lay there for a few more minutes, relishing the peace and quiet, until a loud groan from Sasha's stomach interrupted them. Payson laughed and he shrugged. "Breakfast?"

Two hours later, they were both in the fitness center, him on a stationary bike, her jogging on the treadmill, getting her heart rate up. She felt a twinge in her knee and frowned, stopping the machine and getting off.

Sasha froze mid-pedal, "Your knee?" he asked, concern flying across his face.

She nodded, "The MRI was clear, Sasha, stop worrying. It just hurts sometimes. This isn't like my back. You know I have to work through this kind of pain."

He nodded, grabbing a towel and wiping off his forehead, before tossing it towards her, as she wiped the sweat off as well. "Come on, we'll stretch it out well before working through a rotation."

They walked into the main gym, discussing work on her tumbling pass when they both paused, seeing MJ standing next to the parallel bars as Austin Tucker worked his way through his routine. Austin dismounted, taking a large step backwards.

Sasha frowned, "Watch your hips," he cautioned and Austin looked up and nodded.

"Morning, Payson, Coach Beloff," MJ said with an ironic smile. "Just the girl I was looking for. Excuse me for a minute, love," she said, touching Austin briefly on the shoulder before walking in their direction.

Payson was already sitting on the mat, stretching and then moved to her back, to let Sasha help her work on her knee, one hand on the inside of her thigh, the other at the back of her calf as he rotated it for her. MJ stood at the edge of the mat. "I wanted to talk to you about your lack of media commitment in the upcoming month."

Payson sighed as she felt the tension leaving her knee under Sasha's hands. "What about it, MJ? You always knew this was the deal. I do these things my way. Will any more interviews hurt my endorsements?"

"No, but it won't help them either," she said. "You could be brining in millions, Payson. You are every sponsor's dream. You look the part, you act the part, you win, and your reputation is squeaky clean. They love you."

Sasha released her leg and held out a hand to help her up. She took it and stood, shaking out her leg and then shifting all her weight onto the knee. It felt good. "How much did I bring in last year?" she asked.

"A million, seven," MJ said without hesitation.

"And how much will I bring in this year?" she asked as Sasha stepped forward allowing her to brace her leg against his shoulder as she extended fully. Their eyes met and his twinkled at her mischievously.

"Three, five," MJ said, a knowing smirk crossing her face. "That's not the point, Payson. Money is money, but image is everything. You're going to start coming off as unapproachable, in fact you already are. Several media outlets were concerned when you turned down their interview requests."

Sasha stepped towards her, pushing her leg higher, their bodies in direct contact, "And being unapproachable is bad?" he asked.

MJ rolled her eyes, "All due respect, Coach Beloff, but this isn't your area of expertise."

Payson snorted, "It's exactly his area of expertise, he was the ultimate unapproachable athlete," she said. "People were terrified of him, still are actually."

MJ narrowed her eyes. "What are you saying, Payson? You're making a conscious decision to alienate the media?"

"I'm saying that I'm not exactly upset that the media thinks I'm unapproachable. I don't need them and I don't want to need them. I'm here for another year to do what I love, not to cow-tow to reporters. Tell them whatever you like, MJ. Tell them I don't give a crap or tell them that I'm focused on my training, but either way I'm done with the media mess. I was done yesterday. Besides, I'm not that perfect girl they think I am and I have no intention of trying to live up to that impossible standard."

MJ raised her hands in defeat, "Fine. I'm just doing my job," she said.

Payson nodded, "I know, and speaking of your job, would you mind meeting with me and my parents tonight at around seven to discuss something?"

Her agent nodded, "What about?"

Payson smiled, "I'm going to buy a house, well a condo really, down by the lake."

MJ squinted, "I thought you got along well with your parents? You're moving out?"

Payson nodded, "I get along great with them, but I'm almost eighteen and if I weren't doing this," she motioned around her, "I'd be heading off to college right about now. It's time to be out on my own a little bit."

"Did you have a place in mind?"

"Yeah, I have all the information. It's a new development by the lake."

"We're going to be neighbors, Keeler?" Austin said as he approached the group.

"Pretty close," she told him.

"Alright, enough, how does your knee feel?" Sasha asked.

She bent and flexed, before nodding, "Great. Let's get going," she said, moving towards the beam. "I'll see you later, MJ."

"I've got an appointment I have to get to," MJ said, looking at her watch. "I'll see you at seven," she said to Payson, before moving towards Austin. She gave him a lingering kiss on the cheek and whispered something. As her lips brushed against his cheek, the gym doors opened and a steady stream of the Rock's elite began to filter in. Kaylie first, closely followed by Nicky who Payson assumed had been in the car allowing enough time to pass before it got suspicious that they'd arrived at the same time, then Carter and Emily, chatting together and then finally Lauren. Sunday's had always been relatively quiet at the Rock, but it had hit most of the gymnasts that there was only a year left until the Olympics. They were in the home stretch so to speak.

All three of them watched her go. Austin patted Sasha on the shoulder, "I never did say thank you, did I?" he asked and Sasha laughed.

"Don't thank me yet," Sasha muttered.

Payson saw Austin's eyes flick to Kaylie, who'd been staring at them her mouth set in a firm line, as Nicky spoke to her. "You're playing a dangerous game," she muttered to Austin as Kaylie finally focused back on Nicky.

"So are you," Austin said, but his eyes never left Kaylie.

"Payson, are we going to start this rotation today?" Sasha called from the edge of the mat.

"Sorry," she called and moved back towards the beam.

It was rare for Kim Keeler to have her entire family at the table for dinner. Though "family day" Sundays had long gone by the wayside with Mark's move to Minnesota and both Payson and Becca training as elite gymnasts, but Sunday dinner was something she insisted on and with Mark home to celebrate the girls' success at Nationals, it was a treat.

They'd been eating for about twenty minutes, she'd made Becca's favorite, roast turkey breast, carrots and scalloped potatoes, when Payson set her fork down. "There's something I want to talk to you guys about."

Mark looked across the table and wiped his mouth with his napkin, "Sounds serious," he said, his expression affectionate.

Payson smiled at him and Kim smiled as well, Payson was always serious. "It is, actually. I've been thinking about doing something and I wanted to talk to you guys about it before I gave MJ the go ahead."

Kim focused her attention on her elder daughter, "The go ahead to do what?"

"I've decided to buy a house, a condo really, down by the lake. I would have gone with a house, there are some beautiful ones near Austin, but I don't know how long I'll be in Boulder after the Olympics," she trailed off, though she seemed to be holding something else back.

Not much surprised Kim Keeler anymore, but this shocked her. "A house? Payson," she trailed off, her meaning clear. There was no way her eighteen year old daughter was going to buy a house. And what was it she said about not staying in Boulder? What was going on?

"Hear me out," she said. "I'll be eighteen in two weeks. If I weren't training to be an Olympic gymnast I'd already be at college, living in a dorm. This isn't that much different, except it'll be a lot nicer."

Mark frowned, "A house, though. Really, Payson, don't you think that's a little much?"

"I want to do this and there's something else I want to do too."

Kim raised her eyebrows. What else could their possibly be? "And that is?"

"I want to pay off the mortgage of this house. And before you say no, I want you guys to know how much I appreciate every sacrifice you made to help me get to this point. I know how much money you probably lost because we moved here and then Dad, you got laid off. It's only right. You both, all three of you really, sacrificed so much for me."

Mark shook his head, "Payson, we wanted to do this. I wouldn't feel right taking your money."

Payson soldiered on, "But it's our money. All of us earned it together. It's stupid to just let the money rot in a bank account." Kim put her hand over Mark's and he looked at her. "Please let me do this."

"Are you really buying a house?" Becca asked suddenly. Payson nodded, "That's so cool. Will I be able to sleep over?"

Suddenly there was a knock at the front door. "Well, who could that be?" Kim said, put down her napkin and getting up to answer it.

"It's probably MJ. I asked her to come over tonight and meet with us to talk about everything and so I could give her the information on the condo I want." Payson cringed as Kim glared at her, annoyed as hell at being ambushed.

Two hours later, MJ left the house, papers signed and as Kim closed the door behind the agent, she twisted her lips in concern. She walked back into the kitchen where Mark and Payson were sitting. Mark was looking at the brochure for the condo Payson was looking to purchase. It was more of a townhouse really, with a stone front and a two car garage. Understated, but definitely pricey, especially since it overlooked the lake. What happened to her daughter? In the past she'd always joked about Payson being a thirty year old in the body of a teenage girl, but this was something else. She studied the young woman carefully. There was something different, but it wasn't necessarily a negative difference, just in the way she carried herself. It was strange.

Kim approached the table and sat down. "I have a concern," she said, taking the brochure into her hands. "Is this about Austin? Are you moving because of him?"

Payson laughed. She actually laughed. Little more than a year ago she would have blushed or stuttered or rolled her eyes, "Mom, I don't know what else I can say to make you believe that I'm not involved with Austin Tucker. In fact, after MJ left here, her first stop was probably Austin's house to uh – say goodbye, properly."

Mark squinted in confusion, "Say goodbye, proper—oh!" He let out a small chuckle. "Coo-coo-ca-choo, Mrs. Robinson," he said.

Payson grinned, "Exactly. Austin and I are just friends, besides if it were about him, I'd move in there instead of spending a quarter million dollars."

Mark looked completely aghast at the idea of his daughter living with someone, but Kim pressed on, "You mean Austin and MJ are..." she trailed off and started to laugh. Apparently being surprised was the theme of the night. "Is this really what you want to do, Pay?"

Her daughter nodded, "I do."

"Well then, tomorrow, after training we'll go take a look at it, together." Kim said as her daughter's face lit up in a smile. "Now what did you mean before, about not being sure how long you'll be staying in Boulder?"

Payson's smile disappeared as she cringed and wrinkled her nose. Aha, there's something to that! "I don't know. I guess I just always assumed you and Dad would want to move back to Minnesota eventually. After the Olympics I want to go to college and I think maybe I want to start coaching."

"And you couldn't do that in Boulder? I'm sure Sasha would have a job for you at the Rock," Mark suggested and Kim nodded in agreement.

"Dad, do you really think Sasha is going to stay at the Rock after the Olympics?" Payson asked.

Kim frowned. She hadn't considered that. "Why wouldn't he?"

"He came to the Rock to train us, me, Emily, Lauren and Kaylie and now Austin, Nicky and Carter. We're his dream team. After 2012, that's all over. He's too good to be a club coach in the middle of Colorado. The only reason he puts up with our National Committee is because he believes in us as a team. There's a reason he lives in a trailer, Mom and it's not because he likes cramp spaces. It's because he's not staying."

"Did he tell you all this?" Kim asked, confused.

Payson shook her head, "He didn't have to." Suddenly, Payson's phone buzzed in her pocket. She looked at the message and frowned. "It's Kaylie, she – I'm going to head over there. Boy issues," she said and grinned at her parents.

Kim watched her daughter stand up and leave the room, concern etched across her face as she grabbed her car keys and left the house.

"Wow," Mark said after a moment. "A house." He picked up the brochure again and flipped through it.

Kim shook her head, "We can't say no, can we?" she asked him reaching across the table to grab his hand. He shook his head, "I know we can't, but moving out. Paying off our mortgage? Doesn't this concern you a little bit?"

"In what way?"

"That she even wants this? It's a huge thing, a house and then she's talking about not staying in Boulder? Mark, she seems like she has this whole life plan that she hasn't shared with us that she really still hasn't shared with us. She practically ambushed us with this tonight, asking MJ to come over, having most of the paperwork done. Doesn't this concern you?" Kim felt a little stupid, maybe she was overreacting, but there was something off about this entire thing, like she was missing something, though she had no idea what it could be.

Mark shook his head, "I just think it's time to face the facts, Kim. Our little girl, she's grown up. I think we've known that for a while now. She'll be eighteen next week. Old enough to vote, old enough to enlist in the army and old enough to buy a house," he said, lifting up the brochure. "She made more money last year than I have in the last ten combined. She's grown up into a beautiful, accomplished, well-adjusted young woman and I couldn't be prouder."

Kim smiled at her husband, "I just feel like it all happened so fast and I feel stupid for not noticing."

He shrugged, "Sometimes we see what we want to see and not what's really there."

She stood up and walked towards him, "Were you always this wise?" she asked, running her fingers through his hair and leaning down to kiss him lightly.

He nodded and brought her lips back to his again.

"Ugh, gross," she heard from the kitchen entryway, "when you're done kissing, can I invite Lilly to sleep over. We'd have to take her to the Rock tomorrow morning," Becca said, sticking out her lower lip.

Kim nodded and Becca took off out of the room, "One down, one to go."

Chapter 29: Double Trouble

Austin Tucker couldn't really say he was happy, but then he couldn't really say he was unhappy either. Right now he'd say he was more happy than unhappy as his entire body ached pleasantly as he lay back against his pillow with a sigh, watching MJ pull on her dress. She was almost as sexy putting her clothes back on as she was when he'd been taking them off. Their relationship, if you could call it that, was purely physical and that was just fine with him. He didn't need any emotional attachments this close to the Olympic games. It would be his second Olympics and he'd be arriving with a huge target on his back. In Beijing he'd been a relative unknown, coming out of nowhere to win the All-Around, capitalizing on several mistakes from the favorites. Then at Worlds, his improved parallel bars routine had catapulted him to victory. The Olympics would be another story entirely and he had to be prepared physically and mentally.

She approached the bed, her back to him, "Zip me up, love?" she asked, the back of her dress still undone.

He reached up and pulled the zipper, covering the smooth mocha colored skin with the black silk. "Thanks," she said, picking up her purse from his dresser. "Gotta go, my flight leaves in an hour."

He nodded, swinging his feet off the side of his bed. His underwear was on the floor at his feet and he pulled it on quickly, walking her to his front door.

"See you in a few weeks," he said, kissing her quickly. "Have a safe flight."

He opened the door and his breath caught in his throat. There stood Kaylie Cruz, hand lifted, about to ring his doorbell. His heart began to race. "Kaylie," he said, feeling the tension swirl around them immediately.

"Hey Austin," she said as she eyes fixed on MJ. "MJ."

"Hi Kaylie," MJ said, nodding to her as she stepped out, walking quickly to her car, completely oblivious of the tension or deliberately ignoring it, Austin was not sure.

They both stood there, neither speaking a word as they watched MJ pull her rental car out of his driveway.

Finally, Kaylie turned back towards him, "Wow, I hadn't realized that things had progressed quite this far," she said, her eyes focused directly on the state of his undress.

"Kaylie, I," he trailed off, wondering why he felt like he owed her an explanation, when he really did not. She was the one who'd cut him out of her life. He shouldn't feel guilty about moving on.

"Are you going to invite me in?" she asked and he stared at her, not really believing what she was asking.

"Umm, yeah, come on in," he said, stepping back and allowing her room to walk into the front hall of his house. He closed the door and frowned, not knowing what to make of this situation. What was she doing here? Had anything changed? Everything about his relationship with Kaylie Cruz confused him. She was the only girl he'd ever met who'd done so, even compared to the other very complicated Rock girls that had drawn him to Boulder to begin with. Lauren was the simplest of them all, practically crying out for attention any way she could get it. Emily wasn't confusing in the slightest, especially after you got to know her a little. She was just a little fragile, though she put up a great front. Payson, what you saw was what you got, driven and passionate, about everything in her life. But Kaylie, she was an enigma, she ran hot and cold, definitely allowed outside influences to effect her, not only in the gym but in every part of her life, it's how the anorexia took hold in the first place.

"Are you going to put some clothes on?" she asked, looking away from him, obviously uncomfortable.

He shook his head. He was in no mood to make her comfortable. In fact he was glad to see her squirm a little. "No. Now what can I do for you?"

"I wanted to apologize," she said, still not looking at him.

He looked at her incredulously, "For what?"

"For how I treated you after I got home. You were there for me when no one else was and I acted like it meant nothing. It did mean something. I'm sorry."

Austin shrugged, "There's no need to apologize, Kaylie," he said.

"Yes there is," she began, but he cut her off.

"No, there isn't because I did what anyone else in my situation would have done, nothing more, nothing less. You didn't owe me anything. You still don't." It wasn't true and they both knew it. He'd told her that he could fall in love with her and she knew he meant it. She at least owed him an explanation.

Kaylie looked up at him and nodded, "Do you think maybe, we could be friends?"

Austin winced at the word. Friends. It was like a fate worse than death. "I don't think that's possible, Kaylie."

"I don't understand," she said, her forehead wrinkled in confusion. "We've both moved on. I'm with Nicky and you're with MJ."

Her confusion would have been adorably naive if it didn't infuriate him so much. "Moving on, from what? We were never together, Kaylie. You drove me absolutely crazy and then one day I was just cast off completely." He tried to keep his tone moderate, clenching his teeth to keep himself from screaming at her. "I still don't understand what happened and frankly, I'm not sure I want to. You've moved on, great. Move on, but leave me the hell out of it." He had to walk away, he turned from her and walked down the hall towards his kitchen, before he completely lost his mind.

It seemed like Kaylie wasn't going to give up so easily. She followed him. "I don't understand at all. I told you what happened. I just - I'm with Nicky. I love him."

He wheeled around, "Then what the hell are you doing here begging for my friendship?"

"You're friends with Payson and Emily," she said, pursing her lips at him, like she'd won a victory.

"It's not the same thing," he said, the frustration apparently across his face.

She rolled her eyes, "Sure it is. You were interested in them both before and now you're friends."

Austin stared at her hard, trying to see if she really believed what she was spewing. "Where do you get this stuff? I was interested in Emily for about five seconds before I realized that it wouldn't work and as for Payson, that would never happen. You were the only one I was interested in. You were it, Kaylie. I'm not going to pretend that I didn't care about you, that I don't still care about you, but I'm finished being treated like shit. I don't want to be your friend." His tone clearly suggesting he wanted to be more than her friend.

"Austin," she said, her voice cautionary.

He groaned in frustration, "See, there you go again, I make a vague reference to the fact that I feel something for you and you pull away, with that stupid tone of voice like you're scolding a child. If you don't want me just say so, put me out of my misery."

Kaylie scoffed, "Yeah, you seem really miserable, Austin. MJ and you were were just and people just don't...and you know what? How dare you say you have feelings for me when you're sleeping with someone else. Our agent to be precise."

"Technically she's not your agent anymore," he shot back just to be a smart-ass. "Your Dad fired her after your hospitalization, for what was it? Exhaustion? Yeah, it was all MJ's fault, wasn't it? Doesn't he represent you now?"

Kaylie narrowed her eyes at him and shook her head, "You know what I meant."

"Fine, whatever, besides why are you so angry about it. You don't have feelings for me, so why should it bother you who I sleep with?"

"It doesn't, I just hope MJ doesn't find out you have feelings for someone else," she said, her voice dripping with superiority.

Austin had enough. He'd reached his limit. "MJ doesn't care if I have feelings for anyone else." He moved closer to her with every word. "All she cares about is how I make her feel when we're together." He hovered over her, their bodies almost touching. "She just cares about how I make her body respond. Does Nicky do that for you, Kaylie? Does he make you scream his name the way she screamed mine no more than fifteen minutes ago?" he asked, in a low voice. He leaned down, his lips just above hers. Kaylie's eyes slipped closed, awaiting the contact, but he pulled back and then stepped away, leaving her standing there, mouth raised in anticipation.

He shook his head to clear it and when she finally opened her eyes again, he couldn't look at her, "Just get out, Kaylie," he said, his voice strangled with the effort.

She opened her mouth again and he shook his head, "I said, get out."

He watched her go, her shoulder stiff and her chin in the air. Then she was out the door and down his front steps racing to her car.

He regretted it immediately, but what was he supposed to do? Kiss her and then what? She'd toss him aside for the safe option again? The one that didn't make her feel too much? No, Austin Tucker was done being used by Kaylie Cruz.

Sasha unlocked the gym as Payson was finishing up their breakfast dishes. He groaned aloud as he saw the reflection of his father's car pulling into a parking space in the glass door. What the hell is the old man doing here? Boris, amazingly spry for his sixty-odd years, leaped out of the car and glared at his son.

"We must talk," he said. There was no option and no room for argument.

Sasha pushed the door open and swept his hand towards the inside of the gym, "Be my guest," he said as his father stormed past him.

"Sasha," he heard Payson call as she approached him. "You're Dad's here?" she asked, though it wasn't a question.

"Yeah, he wants to talk to me," he said. "Go on and start your cardio, use the elliptical machine, don't put any added stress on your knee. I'll join you in a little while and we can start your rotation."

Payson frowned at him, "I thought maybe I'd join you. If you're going to get a lecture, then I may as well too."

"Payson," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think that's a good idea."

She shrugged, "I'm not going to let you take it all on yourself. Besides, he might hold back a little if I'm there."

Sasha smirked, "If you say so, love."

Sasha hadn't been wrong. Boris had been yelling for ten minutes straight. It had mostly been unintelligible, Romanian and broken English merging together to make a language Sasha had been trying to interpret his whole life.

Then suddenly, Boris's voice became clear, "Are you having sex?"

Sasha, who had just been sitting there allowing his father to vent, looked up sharply. "Enough," he said, looking at Payson who'd turned several shades of pink. "Enough. We understand you're concerned. We understand you're angry and I understand you're disappointed in me. I'm disappointed in me, that I couldn't hold back and wait..."

Payson jumped in, "It wasn't just you," she said quietly, putting a hand on his shoulder lightly, trailing her fingers over the nape of his neck into the bottom of his hair. He turned his head towards her and met her eye. She smiled at him, "It was me too. It was the both of us," she said, then turned towards his father. "It wasn't just Sasha."

Boris stared at her hard, but she met his eye firmly. "Maybe so, but it is inexcusable. It must end."

Sasha looked his father dead in the eye, "You don't get to decide this, Dad."

Boris scoffed, "She is too young. The law says this cannot happen. So it must end."

Payson reeled on him, "The legal age of consent in Colorado is seventeen and I'll be eighteen next week," she fired in his direction and then rolled her eyes, throwing her hands up in the air. "I'm going to train, because World's are in two months and the Olympics are less than a year away."

Sasha stifled a chuckle at the expression on his father's face as Payson turned on her heel and marched out of the office.

They both watched her go and were silent for a moment, before Boris said, "You love this girl?"

It wasn't a question, but Sasha answered anyway. "I do. It's insane, but I do."

"And she loves you?" Boris asked, a frown still marring his face.

"I think so," Sasha said. "She says so."

Boris nodded and walked to the windows that overlooked the gym, he watched Payson running through her circuit, warming up for the day's training for a moment and then turned back towards Sasha, "In many ways she reminds me of your mother."

Sasha's mouth turned up just slightly, as his father echoed a thought that entered his mind regularly. "I know."

Boris huffed out a breath. "You are being careful?"

Sasha shook his head and gave in now that Payson wasn't in the room. "We're not - we're not sleeping together. I wouldn't ask that of her. She's not ready and I'm more than willing to wait."

Boris's eyebrows disappeared into his hair, "Patience was never one of your strong traits, son."

Sasha shrugged, "She's worth it."

"She may be," his father conceded, with a shrug.

Sasha shook his head, "She's my match in every sense of the word, Dad. It's crap timing, I know, but I can't change that and neither can she."

Boris's mouth twisted into a grimace and he nodded, "Honestly, son, objectively, there's a freedom in her that I could not understand. She is alive when she competes and I think that perhaps, it is you. You make her great."

Sasha shook his head. That simply wasn't true. Payson was a great gymnast long before he came along. "She was always great, Dad."

Boris held up his hand to silence him, "Not like this. No one has ever been like this. Not Nadia. No one. She has, how do you say," he mumbled something in Romanian, looking to his son for help.

Sasha provided him the word, "Out-classed."

"Yes, she has out-classed the world and it is not simply because of her preparedness physically and technically. She is different and it is because of you. It is the two of you together. It is something very special. Do not spoil it."

Sasha nodded, "I won't." Suddenly, Sasha felt the need for something he hadn't wanted for more than ten years, but had spent his entire youth searching for. He wanted his father's approval. "You like her then?"

Boris looked at him, surprise written across his face. Sasha met his father's eyes seriously. Finally Boris nodded, "Payson is a good girl. I like her very much. Your mother would approve."

The moment was over before it could really settle over them. Sasha stood from his seat at his desk and nodded to his father, "I've got to get her started on her rotation and the others will be arriving soon."

Boris nodded, "I will see you next week at National team practice. We will have World Trials here this year I think, two weeks from Friday. You will let Becca Keeler know she has been selected for the Pan American games? I would like to see how she does at the international level."

Sasha smiled, thinking about how excited the Keeler family would be. "I'll tell her today."

"Also, I must talk to you about Kaylie and Lauren," he said.

Sasha set his jaw. He knew this would be coming. Years ago the Olympic games had changed their format for team finals from a seven athlete team where six athletes competed on each apparatus, to six member teams, where the team's top three performers on each event competed and that was it. This year, the World Championships would be following the same format, to create a more streamlined system. After this year's Natioanls, Payson, Kelly Parker and Emily Kmetko had established themselves as the three top American All-Around gymnasts. That left three more spots on the team headed to the World Championships for specialists. Girls who excelled tremendously on one or two events, but not all four.

"Do you want me to talk to them or will you?" Sasha asked.

Boris nodded, realizing that Sasha understood. "No, I will speak with them. You are their club coach. They should feel you are on their side in all things. I will have Lauren on the beam for Emily. Kaylie on the vault for Kelly Parker. It is their path to the Olympics. They must realize this."

Sasha sighed. It had never happened to him, but he had seen it happen to his friends and teammates. One moment everyone competes, it is a level playing field. The next, they drop like flies as the degree of difficulty rises. Suddenly, they hit their ceiling, unable to add another half twist or hold that final handstand. That was the beauty of the team competition, six athletes could compete. Six athletes could earn a gold medal, as long as everyone performed to their strength. "They'll understand, eventually, it's good you're doing this now, though after Worlds things might change."

Boris shook his head, "I do not think so, though they must understand we will need solid scores from them on the first day, so they must not give up on the other events."

"They'll understand, Dad. It will just be difficult at first. It always is."

Boris scoffed, "What do you know of it? It never happened to you."

"It did happen to you though," Sasha said, not being able to resist the small jab.

"Ancient history," his father said. "You must go coach and I must go fish."

"Have a good day, Dad," Sasha said as he watched his father leave the office and march down the steps without another word.

Sasha followed close behind and watched Payson finishing up her circuits and wander over to the mats to stretch as the rest of the elites began to filter into the gym. He smiled at Payson and she returned it brightly, before he turned to the other gymnasts entering the Rock. He smirked in their general direction. They did not know it yet, but the London 2012 Olympics, for them, started right now.

Chapter 30: Home Sweet Home

Boris Beloff was not his son and the way that was most apparent was in his coaching style. Sasha was harsh and demanding, balls to wall, a risk taker, especially with those who were exceptionally talented. Boris, who had been coaching National programs since his late twenties, had adopted the philosophy that consistency won gold medals, not risk. Both men had won gold medals as coaches, so Payson didn't favor one system over another, but there was one difference that was starting to grate on her, Boris tended to deliver all of his criticism and praise at one volume: loud.

"Andrea, that bars routine is a disgrace. You did not come to twelve o'clock for any of your handstands. You continue at this pace you will not go to Worlds and you will not go to the Olympics." Payson saw Andrea's lip tremble, but Boris's attention had been grabbed by something else. "Excellent, Lauren, that beam was excellent." Lauren's face lit up in a smile. "Andrea, again on the bars. All the way up to twelve, this time." It was all delivered at what conservatively could be called a bellow.

"The Bellowing Beloff," she murmured to herself, just before she ran down the run, launching into the Produnova and landing cleaning. She saluted and waited. "Beautiful, Payson!" he yelled at such a high volume that Andrea nearly fell off the bars, startled out of her zone. "Break for lunch. Coaches, meet with me in the office, now," he added and every gymnast sighed in relief.

"Was he this bad last time? I don't remember him being this loud." Payson whispered to Sasha as they walked away from the vault.

"I think maybe he was behaving for the committee members last time."

She stifled a giggle. "Have a good lunch break," she said, in a sing-song voice, moving away from him towards her friends as he patted her on the shoulder before joining Marty and the other club coaches in the office.

"What do you think that's about?" Kaylie asked, as they all watched them disappear into the office.

"A pow-wow," Kelly added. "It can't be good."

"Who asked you?" Lauren snapped and Kelly rolled her eyes.

"Easy, Lauren. We're all teammates for now at least." Payson said.

Kelly nodded, "You're right. For now. We've got a year until the Olympics. There are thirteen of us on the National team and only six of us go to Worlds and there's no guarantee the same six will go to the Olympics. Junior national champ, Isabella Ruggeri is turning fifteen tomorrow and the silver medalist, Justine Turner turned fifteen last month, just after Nationals."

"So?" Lauren asked.

"So they'll be sixteen in 2012, which makes them eligible for the Olympic games, Tanner. That's going to leave some of us out in the cold." Kelly pursed her lips. "And somehow I don't think it'll be Payson or me or even Kmetko, after her performance at Nationals, that loses our spots. You should watch your back, Tanner or get out of the way for the young blood that's coming up behind you."

Everyone was silent. Kelly Parker was right.

Payson sighed, "Wow, that was really inspiring, Kelly." She turned and looked at the office before turning back to the twelve other girls. "Look, there is absolutely nothing we can do about that. The only thing we can do is concentrate on our gymnastics. Train harder and earn a spot on that Olympic team. Our coaches are all in that room and every single one of them wants us to succeed, including Boris Beloff. We've all got something those juniors don't have."

"Breasts?" Lauren suggested, producing nervous giggles from a few of the girls.

Payson rolled her eyes, "Experience, experience in life and experience at the international level against the best senior elite gymnasts in the World. Do you really think they're going to want to take someone who's never performed at our level before? The only way they'll do it is if we ease off the accelerator. In '96, a fifteen year old practically cost the US the gold medal because she sat down on two vaults in a row. Do you think they don't all know that? We have to prove to Boris that we can be consistent and hit our routines under whatever pressure they throw at us, including two little pipsqueaks breathing down our necks."

She finished speaking and the other girls were nodding their agreement, even Kelly Parker, when she heard Boris's voice from behind her. "Girls, we will call you in one by one. Each of you will sit down with your club coach and myself. We will discuss the National team's plan for you this upcoming year. We will discuss who will be attending the World Championships and your training program for your possible inclusion for the team that will go to London next year. This will be the first of many meetings. Payson Keeler, you are first."

Payson nodded at her teammates and hoped they took what she said to heart. She hoped they believed it, word for word, because honestly, she wasn't sure if she did herself.

"Payson," Boris said as she walked past him. As she entered the room, she saw the other club coaches look up, each had a smile on his or her face. Boris shut the door behind him. "Payson, sit down." She obeyed. "That was an excellent speech you just gave to your teammates," he said.

"Thank you."

"Did you believe what you were saying to them?" Boris asked, his eyes narrowing at her.

She looked him dead in the eye, "I believe that you can't replace experience at major international competition at the senior elite level."

Sasha smiled at her, "Good answer," he said and the other coaches murmured in agreement.

"Yes, very, how you say, diplomatic," Boris said and then shook his head. "No matter. I think you know we do not have much to discuss today, Payson. You are our National Champion and the reigning World Champion. You are captain of this team and you showed why just a few moments ago. Barring a major injury you will lead this team into London next year."

"Thank you," she said, trying not to become overrun with emotion. Intellectually, she had known this was what they would say to her, but deep down she had refused to believe it until it came from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

"No," Boris said, "thank you. Go enjoy your lunch and send Miss Parker up here."

"It has three bedrooms, but I'm turning one of them into an office," Payson said, as she walked around her new house with Emily, Lauren and Kaylie. They'd arrived right after National team practice to take a look around. The closing went through the day before and as soon as she had the keys in hand, she'd moved in, the furniture for her living room, kitchen and bedroom all were delivered earlier that day. MJ had hired a decorator and when Payson walked in the door, it was basically complete.

"This place is nice, Pay," Lauren said, opening the master bedroom's walk in closet, where most of Payson's clothing was already stored. "I wish my Dad would let me move out."

Kaylie laughed, "You don't have the money to move out, Lo."

Lauren shrugged, "My Dad could buy me one of these. They're not that much. Then we'd be neighbors," she said to Payson who smiled in what she hoped was a convincing way. The last thing she needed was Lauren living near her. That would defeat the entire purpose of having her own place.

"Please, your Dad will not buy you a house," Emily said. "He barely trusts you now after what happened with Carter."

"Carter and I are over, everyone knows that," Lauren insisted. "Besides, that was over a year ago. He's so over it by now."

Kaylie laughed, "You so don't think like a parent, Lo. This place really is amazing though, Payson. It must be really cool to know you own it. It's yours. I've never had anything that my parents didn't buy me."

Payson shrugged. She was still uncomfortable talking about the money she earned from her endorsements. She could talk about it with MJ, but even then she had to put on a tough front, to keep her agent from going overboard. It was why she needed MJ around to talk to her parents about it. It was more money in theory than anything else. She didn't mind it with Sasha, since he'd gone through the same thing during his career, though he always insisted he was a lot less responsible with his money than she was with hers. She rarely saw any cash. There was a modest deposit in a bank account made every two weeks for spending money, but nothing crazy like Lauren's allowance from her father. She shrugged, "It's just money. It sort of comes with the territory, I guess."

Kaylie nodded, "It does, but not like this. My Dad was talking about it last night. MJ's doing an incredible job for you."

Emily laughed, "Yep, MJ did it all, it has nothing to do with Payson's performances, right? I mean every time we go to competition, you break another record, Pay."

"Then there was that thing with Austin. You got a lot of publicity from that little fling," Lauren threw in, as usual trying to stir the pot. "You and Nicky should totally go public again, Kaylie. Give the King and Queen of Gymnastics a run for their money."

Payson's eyes shot to Kaylie, who looked away immediately. Just a few days before, Kaylie had cried her eyes out over Austin Tucker for two hours while Payson listened sympathetically. They'd had a major blowout, the details of which Kaylie hadn't divulged to her, but Austin had, in painful detail. Payson wasn't about to take sides, but if anyone asked her opinion, she understood exactly why Austin said what he had, even if Kaylie still didn't. "Austin and I were never together. The media was just making assumptions."

Lauren laughed, "Assumptions that paid for this house." She flopped down on Payson's bed, "and this ridiculously huge bed. Why did you get a king?"

Payson shrugged, "The decorator said something about it fitting the size of the room. I don't know." Or, you asked specifically for a king sized bed and the decorator had smiled at you knowingly. She thought back to how it had come about.

"Ouch," she said, as the back of her head hit the wall of the trailer.

"Sorry," Sasha said, not looking sorry in the slightest as his hips pressed against hers, forcing the rest of her body against the wall.

She pushed back against him, rolling them over until he lay precariously close to the edge of the bed. "We need a bigger bed," she mumbled as he shifted his weight into her again, her back landing the center of the mattress.

"A king sized monstrosity. I have plans for a bed like that," he murmured, his lips traveling over her neck.

"I'll call the decorator tomorrow," she said, burying her hands in his hair as her back arched, trying to bring their bodies into contact again.

Lauren's laugh jerked her back into present time. "It's such a waste though, all this space and you're not sharing it with anyone."

Payson rolled her eyes, "I have better things to focus on, Lauren and so should you."

"Yeah, I can focus on my beam routine, since that's the only thing I'll be doing at Worlds." Lauren sighed dramatically.

Kaylie sighed, "That's not true. We'll both be doing All-Around in the first round."

Lauren shook her head, "Please, this is where it starts, Just wait, suddenly you'll be Chellsie Memmel in Beijing, one routine and your Olympics is over."

Emily rolled her eyes, "Memmel was injured."

"Enough," Payson said, putting a stop to where this conversation was going. "We knew this was going to happen. Boris is preparing himself like any coach would and he's preparing us mentally for it as well. The Olympics are less than a year away, whatever our roles are it's the Olympics, guys. If one solid beam routine wins us a team gold, then isn't it worth it?"

Lauren shrugged. "Besides, Boris might change his mind after the World Championships, if he feels like some people can't be counted on to be consistent," Lauren said, glaring pointedly at Emily.

Payson stepped in front of Emily and looked Lauren dead in the eye. "Enough."

Lauren held her hands up in mock surrender.

Payson checked her watch. Nine o'clock. She looked at her friends and smirked, "Okay, everyone out. I'm going to bed early tonight. I'm not going to show up tired tomorrow and get a big I told you so look from my mom because I wasn't responsible enough to get to bed at a reasonable hour on my first night here."

She received three identical eye rolls in response, but they all dutifully trudged down the stairs and five minutes later, she had the house all to herself. She sighed. No Becca to steal her clothes, no Mom to cook dinner. Her stomach rumbled in response to the thought. Crap, haven't eaten since lunch.

She heard a horn honk on the driveway, startling her out of her thoughts. She made her way to the front of the house, wondering who it was. Maybe one of the girls forgot something. Opening the door, she saw Sasha's silver truck on the driveway. He was unloading brown paper bags from the backseat.

She raced down her front steps to him. "You're a God send, how did you know?" she asked, stepping forward to peck him on the lips quickly, but his arms quickly snaked around her waist, pulling her closer and deepening the kiss, the groceries forgotten for the moment.

"I've moved in before. Everyone always forgets food," he said, finally answering her question, kicking the car door shut.

"What smells so good?" she asked as they climbed her front steps and went into the house.

"Roasted vegetables and rice pilaf," he said, stopping in the entry way, looking around appreciatively. "You going to give me the tour?"

"After we eat, I'm starving," she said walking straight to her kitchen, the smell of the roasted veggies making her mouth water in anticipation.

She set the table quickly, using the new dish set she and her mother had picked out. "I have a present for you, a sort of joint eighteenth birthday, housewarming gift," he said, pulling a wrapped box from one of the bags and holding it out to her. "Just a little something, somethings actually."

She unwrapped the box quickly and took off the lid to see two crystal champagne flutes nestled in tissue paper. "These are gorgeous, Sasha," she said, stepping towards him and kissing him lightly on the lips. "Thank you."

"That's not all," he said, reaching into the bag again with a grin. "Sparkling cider."

Payson smiled at this rare display of sentimentality. "Like at the ballet," she said, running a finger down one of the glasses lightly.

"And at Christmas," he reminded her and her hand instinctively flew to her neck where the charm he'd given her almost a year before still rested. "I love you." His voice was low and firm as he leaned forward to kiss her again. It was a small, sweet kiss, almost a reaffirmation.

"I love you too," she said softly, as she pulled away a little dazed. There were times when her feelings for him overwhelmed her and this was one of those moments.

The pop of the cork shook her from the dreamy state as he poured them both some cider. She took the food from the bags and set it on the table as they sat down across from each other, silly grins still plastered on their faces.

They ate slowly, for once allowing themselves to simply enjoy the other's company, not worried about anyone interrupting or a self-imposed time limit to make sure they began training on time.

"This is delicious," Payson said, taking another bit of the rice pilaf.

Sasha nodded, washing down his food with the cider. "I got it at that place on Main, Celery."

"The vegetarian place? I hadn't eaten there yet and I wanted to desperately."

"I know," he said, "You mentioned it the other day."

Payson smiled, "You're really racking up thoughtful points tonight," she said.

He chuckled and raised his eyebrows at her, "I know." Their laughter mixed together.

"Are you done?" she asked, noticing his plate was almost clean. She stood and picked up her own plate, before taking his and walking towards the sink. She rinsed off the plates with warm water before drying her hands on a towel, when she felt his strong arms wind around her waist, his lips pressing a hot open-mouthed kiss at the base of her neck.

She shivered at the contact, feeling his body press against her back. She leaned back into him as the contentedness that always accompanied his embrace washed over her. "This house was a really good plan," she said, as his mouth nuzzled against her shoulder. She turned in his arms to face him. "Whose idea was that again?" she asked, cheekily, as he moved his lips from her cheek to the small spot behind her ear he always found.

"Yours," he breathed against the patch of skin, "Bloody brilliant idea, love."

She dipped her head to bring their lips together again. He stood tall, pushing her fully against the counter ledge. She rose up on her tip toes to help alleviate the disparity in height. "You had a brilliant idea too, you know?" she said, pulling back a fraction of an inch.

"Did I? he asked, their lips brushing as he spoke.

"Mmhmm, the king-sized bed upstairs," she said, her voice dripping with suggestion and promise.

He chuckled, "How about that tour?" he asked, knowing it would only have one stop.

She grabbed his hand and backed out of the kitchen before releasing him. "How about a race?" she challenged, taking off up the stairs, him hot on her heels. She ran down the hallway, through her bedroom doorway and just made it to her bed as his arm wrapped around her and their combined momentum send them careening onto the mattress together.

Payson smiled up at him, "We win."

Chapter 31: Scholarships and Secrets

Life settled into some measure of routine at the Rock, though as a gym it had never been through an Olympic cycle quite like this one. They'd never had a legitimate Olympic contender, let alone seven and the pressure was definitely building on the athletes. Sasha studied the gymnasts working hard on the gym floor, watching for any possible problems. He looked to his right and saw two people, dressed from head to toe in a soft blue color familiar to most club gymnastics coaches. UCLA had come to call and Sasha had a pretty good idea who they wanted. He was actually surprised that they hadn't arrived sooner.

He jogged down the stairs to introduce himself to the two coaches, both of whom practically stumbled over themselves to shake his hand. He grimaced. These coaches represented a six time National Championship team. They should at least act the part. He invited them to his office, stopping on the platform to turn and look at the gym floor again. Every eye was trained on him. "Get back to work," he barked, sending every gymnast and assistant coach scurrying.

"This is a fine gym you have here," the female coach said, with a genuine smile. The awe seemed to have worn off for her.

"Thank you, we're very proud of it," he said, sitting behind his desk, "Now what brings you to the Rock."

His instincts had been right. They were looking at Emily Kmetko. He smiled at them. "You do realize Emily is on the fast track right now? She's a definitely Olympic contender and she probably wouldn't be able to attend and compete full time until the Fall of 2012, at the earliest, the Spring of 2013 if she did well enough at the Olympics to demand major media attention afterwards."

The male coach scoffed, "She would be able to come now. We'd coach her until the Olympics if necessary." Sasha eyed the man whose eyes darted away quickly.

"And if she decides to forfeit her amateur status?" He said, directing his question to the female coach.

She smiled, "We're UCLA, Coach Beloff. We will be offering her over one hundred thousand dollars worth of education simply to compete on our National Championship gymnastics team. I've coached girls with Olympic aspirations before."

"Coach Field," Sasha said, "all due respect. You haven't coached them well enough. I'm sure you realize that gymnastics at the NCAA level and the elite international level are two very different things. The Olympians that have come out of your program have been overwhelmed on the international stage."

The woman narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you saying you'll advise Emily to refuse our scholarship offer?"

Sasha shook his head, "No. I'm saying I will be upfront with her about her chances at the Olympics if she ceases training at the Rock. Even you can't deny they decrease significantly."

Coach Field shrugged noncommittally, but her assistant seemed to be offended, "I disagree," he said. "I believe the Emily would flourish at our school."

Sasha shrugged, "As a person and a student, I have no doubt, UCLA would be a great fit for Emily, but as a gymnast, she would become complacent. Walking in the door she would easily be the best gymnast you have. Here at the Rock, she has her teammates, the current World and National champion and a former National champion pushing her to get better, as well as an Olympic gold medalist on the men's side. As a Bruin, she would plateau and that's not something she should be doing a year out from the Olympic games."

Suddenly, the office door opened and Payson walked in, her head down, looking at a thick brown paper envelope, "Sasha?" she asked, not looking up. "The paperwork for Becca's participation in the Pan-American games arrived." She looked up. "Oh, sorry, I didn't realize you had visitors." She approached them confidently. "I'm Payson Keeler," she said, her hand extended. Each of the UCLA coaches rose to shake her hand, practically drooling on her and the thought of the World Champion wearing the gold and blue, even as that was now an impossibility due to NCAA amateurism bylaws.

Sasha stood, "Payson, this is Coach Field," he said indicating the woman. Payson shook her hand.

"A lot of coaches myself included were very disappointed the day you gave up your amateur status. I know we were hoping to snag you," Coach Field said, with a smile.

Payson returned the smile, but shrugged, "I never had any intention of competing at the collegiate level."

"And this is Coach..." Sasha trailed off, intentionally forgetting the assistant head coach's name.

"Coach Waller, member of the 1992 Olympic team," he said, shaking Payson's hand but glaring over her head at Sasha. Sasha smirked, having known exactly who the coach was, a moderately well-known male gymnast who'd had some success at the club level before moving on to UCLA. He'd competed against him several times when Sasha first moved up to senior elite at the age of sixteen.

Payson looked between the two men with a small smirk on her face. "Well, sorry to interrupt. I'll let you get back to your meeting."

"Payson," Sasha stopped her retreat. "Send Emily up here, would you?"

Payson nodded, handing him the envelope, "Sure. Also, Tara wanted you to know that the level tens are ready whenever you are and Lauren wanted to run her beam by you before she left for the day."

An hour later, Sasha and Emily walked the UCLA coaches to the door of the Rock.

Coach Field handed Emily here card, "Feel free to call me if you have any questions, any time. My cell number is written on the back."

"Thank you," Emily said, taking the card.

They watched the twin set of blue track suits leave. "So, what do you think? Emily asked, not taking her eyes off the coaches.

Sasha sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. "I can't tell you what to do with this one, Emily. You have to weigh your options."

"I'm not going," she said, very quietly, more to herself than to him.

Sasha shook his head, "Sit down with your mum and your brother and anyone else who might have an interest in this decision." She had the grace to blush at his roundabout mention of Damon Young, the LA based rock star she was dating. "Talk it over and don't make any decisions right now."

"You think I should go?" she asked, frowning at him.

"Come on, we'll talk inside."

They made their way back to his office. Emily shut the door behind her and sat down on the couch. "Well?"

"Well, what?" Sasha asked. "I told you, I won't tell you what to do."

She rolled her eyes, "You always tell me what to do, it's what you're good at. It's how this coaching thing works."

Sasha chuckled, "So what are you asking me exactly?"

"If I go to UCLA in the spring, what does that do to my chances to make the Olympic team?"

He sighed, "It effectively kills them. Your training would not be nearly at the level required. You're not competing in team finals on beam unless absolutely necessary at Worlds already. If you left now, I don't know how my father would react after you've spent months working out of an inferior program."

"And if I waited? If I put it off until after the Olympics?"

"And if you get injured between now and then? Then what?" he asked, playing the devil's advocate for her, while loathing the words coming from his mouth. "UCLA is a very good school, with an excellent gymnastics program. You would dominate at that level, win National Championships, but the choice is yours."

She nodded, before pocketing the card. "I'll talk it over with my mom tonight," she said. "Thanks, Sasha."

She left his office and he twisted his mouth into a frown. "Damn it," he muttered, punching the desk lightly. He had no idea how to advise her. Emily was an extremely talented gymnast and had just begun to scratch the surface of what she could do, but sometimes life got in the way of dreams. The opportunity UCLA was offering her was one he couldn't let her simply pass up. It was one of the best universities in the country, a place she could still do gymnastics at a high level and get her education paid for, all at the expense of the one thing she'd been working toward her entire life: the Olympics. There way no way she'd be able to maintain the training schedule necessary to compete in elite international gymnastics, while balancing a college workload and competitive NCAA gymnastics. It wasn't possible. He knew it sounded arrogant, but there was the coaching as well. Even if she attempted to keep up with her training, Sasha knew he was simply a better coach than the people UCLA had in place. They were competent, but they didn't understand fully the requirements of training for the Olympics, at least not at the expense of their own program.

There was one thing he did know, if Emily Kmetko decided to go to UCLA, his father was going to go nuts.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there mulling it over, but his thoughts were eventually interrupted by Kim waving her hand in front of his face, "Good night, Sasha." He looked up and shook his head, "Sorry, night Kim. Have a nice weekend."

"You too." She pulled on her sweater, "You staying late?" she asked, a concerned look on her face.

"Hmm? Oh, no, I'm leaving," he said, standing up, grabbing his own jacket from the back of his chair.

"Sasha, could I ask a favor of you?" Kim asked.

He nodded, "Of course."

"Would you mind going to check up on Payson at her new place? I promised I wouldn't intrude on her, she's trying to be independent and I get that, but I can't help but worry and if you went over there, well it wouldn't be me."

Sasha sighed. Shit. "Kim, I'm not sure that's the best idea," he said, hating that he was lying yet again, even if it was a lie of omission.

"Please, I wouldn't ask, except that, she respects you. She wouldn't have a problem with you checking up on her, as her coach."

What the hell, Beloff, just tell her yes. You were headed over there anyway. He held a hand up to stop her, "Okay, I'll go over tonight, see how she's doing."

Kim smiled, "Thank you," she said, relief crossing her face. Another lie, another moment she'll look back on and despise you for.

Sasha shook his head, "No reason to thank me, Kim."

A half hour later, Sasha was climbing the steps to Payson's townhouse. He knocked on the door and waited patiently for her to open up.

The wooden door swung open and she stood there, looking amazing in a pair of worn in jeans, and one of the many tee shirts she'd stolen from him, though he thought it looked much better on her, the neckline big enough to expose the smooth skin of her collar bone and one of her shoulders.

"Hey," she said, as he stepped inside. She moved back against the door to allow him room and he leaned down to kiss her. A soft peck and then another, his tongue gently nudging her lower lip before they both pulled back.

"Hi there," he said as they moved into the hall and she shut the door behind him. He could smell dinner cooking. "That smells incredible," he said, as they walked into the kitchen together.

"You want to help?" she asked. "Those peppers could use chopping." She pointed with the wooden spoon she was using the stir the tomato sauce in the pot on the stove.

He took one of her knives from the drawer and began to chop up the peppers. "So your mother asked me to come check up on you tonight. I'd say you're doing pretty well, right?"

She sighed, "She's worried?" she asked, frowning.

"She's your mum; it's her job to worry." It was his turn to sigh, "Can't say I really enjoy lying to her."

"I know, this is such a mess isn't it? I mean look at us, we're so normal, but if people found out it would be a national controversy. And I hate lying to my family. I'm starting to feel like such a fraud."

Sasha put down the knife and in two steps had her in his arms. "Me too," he said, holding her close. "We could always come clean, tell them everything."

She let out a mirthless laugh, "I think we both know how well that would go over. We can't expect the rest of the world to act like Austin or your father. I love them both, but…"

Sasha finished for her, "neither of them is exactly normal."

That she laughed at, "Exactly." Then suddenly her laughter ceased, "My dad will never trust me again. He'll forgive me eventually, but he'll never…" she trailed off, her voice catching at the thought. She was shaking in his arms now.

Sasha reached around behind her and shut off the burners. He kissed her forehead and took a shaky breath. This was not where he'd expected their conversation to go. "Do you want to stop?" he asked. "We could, you know? I could leave right now and tell your mum you're doing well and just be your coach and no one would be the wiser." They were the words he had to say, the words of a man who loved her enough to let her go.

She shook her head, pulling back from him just a little, "And what would be the point of that? I'd be miserable without you," she admitted, unashamed of the intensity of her feelings.

Sasha's entire body relaxed in relief as she refused his offer. He wasn't sure what he would do if she took him up on it. "I never should have put you in this position. I should have waited," he said, pulling her close again, "I'll never forgive myself if you lose what you have with your parents."

She ran a hand into his hair and leaned back, looking him in the eye, "They know you're a good man, Sasha. Eventually, they'll forgive both of us."

Sasha laughed, "Your dad will never forgive me," he said. She opened her mouth to protest. "It's okay, Payson. I knew that the moment I kissed you on the plane to Rotterdam. Your dad loves you. You're his little girl and I violated his trust. He'll never forgive me that."

They were silent for a moment, when suddenly Payson's cell phone broke out into the familiar Kid Rock song, "Austin," she said, grabbing her phone from the counter.

"Take the call," Sasha said, "I'll start up dinner again."

He turned the burner on, and picked up the wooden spoon from where she'd set it on the counter.

Then from directly behind him, Payson shouted into the phone, "She what? Austin, what are you…oh my God. Yeah, um, thanks. I'm gonna go." The wooden spoon nearly flew out of his hand.

"Is everything okay? What's the matter?"

Payson looked at him and sighed. "It's Emily."

Emily Kmetko was no idiot. She knew this decision was too big to make on her own. She needed to talk to someone about it, someone who'd been through it before. She immediately thought of Payson. Her parents had originally refused to let her take sponsorship money because it would cause her to forfeit her amateur status, but that decision almost backfired completely when she broke her back. It was a miracle she'd gotten another chance, but she thought that of everyone Payson would have the most perspective on the issue.

She got in her car and drove. She smiled as she pulled into the community's gate. She still couldn't believe Payson had her own house. It was so grown up, but then Payson had always been more adult than the rest of them. She pulled her car onto Payson's street. She lived at the other end of the block. There was a silver truck in front of her and as they approached Payson's house, she saw it slow down and then pull into the driveway.

Emily frowned, pulling over. It was dark and the street was dimly lit, so she had to squint to see. She watched as a tall man got out of the car and took the stairs to Payson's front door two at a time. He knocked, shoving his hands in his pockets waiting for an answer. The door opened and Payson stood there. Then something happened that Emily had not seen coming, the man took a step forward and kissed Payson. Her immediately thought was to leap out of the car and scream bloody murder, but then she saw her friend's arms come around the man's back, leaning into the kiss, accepting and participating willingly.

Emily wasn't sure what happened next, but then the door was closed and she was still sitting in her car. She shook her head, starting up her engine and pulled away from Payson's house. Austin's lake house was just down the road. He and Payson were really close maybe he could shed some light on this development. She couldn't believe Payson hadn't told her that she was seeing someone, and it was serious enough that he'd be showing up at her house at eight at night for what? Dinner? Dessert? Breakfast? Her mind was reeling with possibilities, each one more sordid than the next.

She shook her head, this was Payson. What's the big deal? So she had a boyfriend. We all do or did or will, it's not like anyone follows that stupid no dating rule anyway. So she kept it a secret. Good for her, it's almost impossible to keep secrets at the Rock.

She pulled her into Austin's driveway and made her way up to his front door. She knocked. The scene she'd witnessed flashed through her mind again, the silver truck, the tall, athletically built man, the way he leaned down to kiss her, she was so much smaller than him and blonde and wearing clothes this time and not a towel like she had been in London.

Austin pulled the door open, "Hey Emily," he said with his signature smile in place.

"How long have Sasha and Payson been together and how long have you known about it?"

Austin's smile faded, "Come in, we should talk."

Chapter 32: Looking Toward the Future

Austin sat back on his couch, watching Emily pace back and forth. He'd escaped to the kitchen under the ruse of grabbing her a bottle of water and had called Payson immediately to give her the heads up. He felt like he was embroiled in some huge conspiracy that now hung by a thread. It all came down to Emily Kmetko and her reaction, which so far hadn't been all that reassuring.

"How long has it been going on again?" she asked, stopping in her mad dashes across his living room to look at him.

"I'm not sure exactly, but it's been a year or close to it," Austin said, "I'm pretty sure it happened just before Worlds last year, or just after. I haven't exactly had Payson over for a slumber party to dish on the details, Em."

She shook her head, "And when did you find out?"

"Officially? In London, just after you unknowingly walked in on them."

Emily shook her head, "And then she lied straight to my face about it. What was she thinking? Doesn't she realize how bad it could have been if things between them hadn't worked out? Sasha could have left. We would have been without the best coach in the world because Payson had a crush. And him? It's practically child abuse."

Austin let her rant and then looked up at her. "Are you done yet?" he asked.

Emily shook her head and sighed, "Yeah," she said, plopping down on the couch next to him.

He looked at her sideways, "Really? Child abuse?"

She rolled her eyes, "Fine, not child abuse, but really, Austin, this is insane."

"Not from a certain point of view."

Emily frowned at him, "Okay, Obi-wan, how is our coach who's almost thirty, sleeping with my teammate, who's just eighteen not insane."

Austin didn't bother to correct her on the sleeping together thing. Payson like to hedge and mince words, but he knew what they were doing was close enough. He just shrugged, "Take the age out of it for a minute and think about the people. I haven't been able to talk about it with anyone before, but can you imagine any two people more perfect for each other than them?"

She shrugged, "I don't know, I've never thought about it before." She sat back with a sigh. "This is just freaking surreal. They lied, Austin, to everyone."

He nodded, rubbing his chin contemplatively, "They did, but did they really have a choice?"

"Yes, they had a choice, they could have chosen not to put themselves in the position to lie. Sasha shouldn't have allowed it and Payson should have controlled herself and vice-versa. What could possibly make this okay?"

Austin hesitated, unsure if he should reveal what he knew, but he saw Emily was about to go off he deep end. "They love each other. You can't help who you love, Kmetko. You and I know that better than most people."

They both sat there for a moment, Austin hoping he did the right thing, as the words sunk in for Emily. They were both startled out of their thoughts as his doorbell rang twice in quick succession. "That's probably..." he said.

"Payson," she finished for him. "You called her?"

He shrugged, "You're my friend and so is she. You deserve an explanation and she deserves a chance to explain." He left Emily in the living room and opened his front door, surprised to see both Payson and Sasha standing there. Austin sighed, "You might want to talk to her first," he said to Payson, nodding towards his living room, "alone. She's pretty upset."

Payson nodded, dropped Sasha's hand and moved towards the living room. "Come on, we'll go wait it out in the kitchen," he said, as they entered his spacious kitchen, not that he ever used it for anything except to eat take-out. "You couldn't have waited until you were inside with the door closed?"

Sasha glared at him, "Shut up, Tucker."

"Want a drink?" Austin said, opening his refrigerator.

"I want twelve drinks. Got any Guinness?"

Payson walked into the living room to see Emily sitting on Austin's couch, arms crossed over her chest. She was staring into space and her body language was stiff, agitated even.

"Hi," she said, biting her lower lip, sitting down in a chair across from the couch.

Emily rolled her eyes, "Here to do damage control?" she spat at her. She's angry, well can't say I blame her. I'd be angry too.

Payson nodded, "If you want to call it that, but mostly I want to explain and apologize. I lied to you, to everyone, a lot. There's no excuse for that, but there are reasons."

Emily tilted her head, "Reasons? Payson, you're a lot of things, but you're not stupid and this is one of the stupidest things you could ever do. Our coach? The man we trust to help get us to the Olympics. I can't believe you would risk all of that, for what exactly?"

Payson bit her lip, "I love him. I know. I know how stupid and crazy and irresponsible it was, and it's not something we could control, it was just there, all the time. What was I supposed to do? Ignore it? It was impossible to ignore. We tried for months. It was unbearable."

Emily snorted, "So what you have this whole soul mates thing or whatever? That's bullshit, Pay. You two made a conscious decision to be together. Things like this just don't happen, people choose. And soul-mates, they don't exist."

"It's not that. This is me, Em. You're not talking to Kaylie here. I don't believe in crap like that, but what I do know is that without him my life feels empty. I feel empty, like a part of me is missing." Payson ran a hand through her hair. "I'm not explaining this properly. I don't if there are words to describe it, except that I love him."

Emily looked at her, studying her carefully. "And he loves you back?" Her voice was skeptical at best.

Payson nodded, but as she opened her mouth to speak, she heard a voice answer for her, "I do."

Emily's eyes shifted upwards and Payson turned to see Sasha and Austin standing behind her. Payson had no idea what to say. This was as awkward a moment as she could ever imagine. She closed her eyes, hating this, hating that Sasha had to defend himself to one of his gymnasts because of her.

Sasha sat down in the chair next to hers, "I'm not about to ask for your approval or your understanding, Emily, but I do want you to know something. What you saw tonight, what you learned, it has nothing to do with you and will not affect your goals in any way. I once asked you to trust me and I know that you feel like I violated that trust and for that I'm sorry."

Payson looked at Emily whose expression was unreadable. "You're right. It has nothing to do with me and I don't understand it, but I don't think," she sighed looking at Payson, "I don't think it's my job to approve or disapprove. You're one of my best friends, Payson. You're not just my teammate. I know why you lied. I hate it, but I know why you did it. You do realize though that if you guys get caught, we're all screwed, every single one of us."

Sasha nodded and Payson sighed. "We'll be more careful. Sometimes it's just nice to try and forget that we're not just a normal couple," Payson said, reaching over and taking Sasha's hand in hers.

"Okay, that might be a little much for me," Emily said, averting her eyes from what had to be a very odd sight for her.

Austin sat down next to her on the couch. He'd been oddly silent. "You get used to it. They're not sickeningly sweet when they're together though, unlike some people who shall remain nameless," he said, nudging Emily.

"Austin," Emily said, looking at Sasha anxiously.

Austin sighed dramatically, "Relax, Emily. You're not going to get in trouble for having a long distance relationship with a rock star from your coach who's having an elicit relationship with one of your teammates. Wow, this sounds like a bad soap opera."

Emily snorted, "Complete with a love triangle. Tell me, Austin, are you and Kaylie on speaking terms again?"

"Shut up, Kmetko," he said.

Payson looked around her and shook her head, "Okay, since this is possibly the most surreal and uncomfortable moment of my entire life, how about we call it a night?" she suggested, eager for this little pow-wow to end.

"Just one question, Emily, what were you doing by Payson's house anyway?" Sasha asked.

"I was going to stop by and talk to her about UCLA and their offer. I thought she of all people would have the most perspective," Emily said, still not meeting Sasha's eyes.

Payson sighed. It could be an uncomfortable few days in the gym. "Well, why don't you come over now. I made dinner and we could talk it through."

Emily hesitated, her mouth opening and closing, "No, I mean, obviously you had other plans," she said, finally looking towards Sasha.

Sasha shook his head, "It's fine. I'll see you all tomorrow, six sharp," he said, his coaching voice slipping through.

"You take your car here?" Austin asked him.

"Yeah, thought it would be best since we didn't know what to expect," Sasha said.

"Why don't you hang out? I've got Halo," Austin said, trying to be helpful.

"Sure," Sasha said.

They stopped at the door and unconsciously Payson stood on her tiptoes, leaning against his shoulder and chest for balance, his hands caressed her waist lightly as she kissed him briefly on the lips, "See you tomorrow," she said.

Emily snorted behind them and Payson rolled her eyes, "Yeah, that's going to take some major getting used to."

They arrived back at Payson's townhouse only five minutes later. Payson went immediately to the kitchen and frowned at the pasta she'd started and stopped too many times to be usable. She dumped it in the garbage and then put a cover over the sauce. She'd use that tomorrow.

Emily watched as Payson bustled around the kitchen, wiping up a mess on the counter, storing what was left of the ruined dinner. She looked at the kitchen table, set for two, a half finished salad, where someone had been chopping veggies, she guessed Sasha. "You were making dinner together?" she asked and Payson turned to her.

"Yeah. I like to cook and he likes to hover and taste test," Payson said with a smile. "He's less annoying if you give him a job." She nodded towards the cutting board with the peppers on it. "You want some salad? It's pretty much the only salvageable thing." Emily shook her head as Payson put plastic wrap over the bowl and put it in the fridge.

Emily sighed, "I'm sorry I interrupted you guys. Looks like you had an uh - evening planned."

Payson shrugged. "It's fine. Do you want some tea or something?"

Emily shook her head, "Look, I don't want this to be weird. You're my friend, Pay, but it's still, strange for me."

"I know. I know it's freaking you out, I can see it on your face. There isn't anything I can do to make it easier for you is there?"

Emily shrugged, "I don't know. I think maybe I have a few questions."

Payson nodded, seemingly open game, "Sure, ask away."

"Is he the same? I mean when you're not at the Rock, is he the same?" Emily knew it wasn't the clearest question in the world, but she got the sense Payson knew what she meant.

She smiled and shook her head, "He's still intense, but in a completely different way." Emily saw her face take on this dreamy quality, before she snapped out of it a little, "He's funny, you wouldn't think it, I know, but he's got this amazing sarcastic wit and he's not just a brilliant coach, he's really brilliant. We talk about things, real things."

Emily frowned, "LIke what? Gymnastics?"

Payson shook her head, "We rarely talk about gymnastics outside the Rock. We talk about books and he indulges my inner science geek and we cook together," she said gesturing around the kitchen, "and we do the Sunday crossword together and we talk politics. He's addicted me to MSNBC."

Emily wasn't sure if she believed what she was hearing, it all sounded so normal. Not much sordid about it after all, so she couldn't help the next question, "And do you do other things?" she asked, her meaning crystal clear.

Payson's eyes flew to her, a soft pink hue coloring her cheeks. "Some other things," she admitted.

Emily suddenly couldn't help herself, she was painfully curious. Damon was in LA and it had been so long since she'd had anyone to talk about this stuff with that wasn't Lauren or Kaylie and their drama was too much for her. Payson and Sasha's secret relationship, though highly inappropriate seemed so simple in comparison. "And..." she trailed off.

Payson glared at her, "And what?"

"C'mon," Emily said, "I'm being pretty cool about this, I think. I'm trying and for a minute I'm going to pretend that Sasha's not our coach, but this gorgeous, English man you're dating and I want a few details, isn't that what friends do?" she asked with a smile.

Payson sighed, "Fine, what do you want to know?"

"Everything. Was it weird kissing him at first?"

Payson shook her head, but then shrugged, "The first time it was so unplanned and spontaneous and we were both so freaked, that was weird, but after that it was really natural, we just sort of let things play out."

Emily leaned foward in the chair, "Natural, so it was never awkward?"

Payson laughed, "Sasha has never been awkward in his life. I swear, Em, that intensity he brings to the Rock, it just multiplies when we're together. He's got this incredible ability to focus and when you're the sole object of that focus..." she trailed off with a silly grin.

For a moment, Emily could see it. Suddenly, Sasha wasn't just her gymnastics coach, he was just that attractive man, a very attractive man with an aura about him that exuded an intriguing intensity and sex appeal. She swallowed roughly at the picture Payson was painting, grey-blue eyes, the ever present five o'clock shadow, rugged good looks, the muscled frame that he couldn't conceal beneath his jeans and tee shirts.

She snapped out of her haze to see Payson smirking at her, knowingly. She smiled back, "I guess I never really thought about him that way before, but I can see it." She thought back to what Austin said to her earlier, "You know I think Austin was right."

"Oh, don't tell him he was right, his ego doesn't need any more feeding."

Emily laughed, "He said that when you take away the age thing and obviously the coaching thing, that he'd never seen two people more perfect for each other. Seriously, Pay, I don't disagree."

Payson sighed. "I know, but there isn't any changing those two things. Eventually it's going to come out and it'll be a disaster. A private family freak out at best or a witch hunt at worst."

"Well, no one will hear it from me," Emily said, reaching out to cover her friend's hand with hers. She gave it a squeeze.

Payson smiled, "Thanks, Em. Now this isn't what you came here for. You wanted to talk about UCLA right?"

Emily nodded. She'd gone back and forth in her mind over and over again, One minute she knew she couldn't refuse an offer like the one they made and the next, she knew she just couldn't give up on her Olympic dream. "I just keep going over it and each time I do I change my mind," she said, with a sigh. "The problem is there isn't any rightdecision. It's just two choices each with it's own positives and negatives."

Payson bit her lip. "You talked to your mom?"

"Yeah, she said it's up to me. No help whatsoever."

"And Damon?" Payson asked.

"Same thing, although he told me that if it were him he'd tell UCLA that if they really wanted me they'd wait til after the Olympics, like him." Payson laughed. "That's not what they were talking about though, they were saying that they wanted me now or no dice."

Payson sighed. "This is simple, Em. For once in your life, you've got to decide what you want. Don't worry about anyone else, don't worry about how people will react, either way, you have to do what you want to do."

"That's just it, I don't know what I want," Emily said, looking at her friend incredulously. "I just told you that."

"But you do," Payson said. "Watch," she said, fishing out a quarter from her pocket. "Heads, UCLA, a college scholarship, four years at a great university, maybe a National Championship or two, tails, the Rock, the Olympics and everything you've dreamed about since you were a little girl."

Emily shook her head, "Are you nuts? I can't leave a decision like this up to chance."

"Sure you can. Let fate decide what you should do, if you can't." Payson flipped the coin. It landed on the table, clinking against the tiled top. It vibrated for a moment, neither of them able to make out what side it had landed on. "Heads," she said. "UCLA."

Emily stared at it with a frown. "Flip it again."

"Olympics it is then," Payson said, turning the coin over for her.

Emily shook her head and slowly smiled. She nodded, "Olympics it is."

"And UCLA?"

"I'll call the coach tomorrow. If they really want me, they'll wait. If not, then they'll have missed out on an Olympic level gymnast. and when I kick their ass wearing Stanford red in two years, they'll regret it." Huh, where did that come from? When have you ever thought about college, let alone a school like Standford. Well, why not? They have a great gymnastics program.

Payson smiled, "Stanford, huh?"

Emily grinned, "Why not? It's a better school anyway." They laughed together. "What about you? You going to go to college?"

Payson nodded, "Obviously, not for gymnastics, but I definitely want to go to school. Haven't figured out where yet. I always thought maybe I'd go to UC Boulder, but I don't know anymore."

"You mean after the Olympics you'll be leaving Boulder?" Emily guessed. It made sense. She figured the only thing really keeping Payson and Sasha in the closet was their relationship as a coach and athlete. After the Olympics that relationship would cease and it would probably be impossible for them to remain in Boulder as a couple.

Payson smiled, "You're really sharp tonight, Em. We're not sure where we want to go yet. He's got a place in New York and one just outside of London. I think we're leaning towards London right now. His old coach Nicolai, he coaches out of gym there now and is thinking about retiring. I know Sasha would love to coach at the gym he earned his gold medals out of."

Emily tilted her head. It sounded like it was all about what Sasha wanted, "And you?"

"London has some of the best universities in the world. None of it is set in stone though. It's all hypothetical at this point. We might stay in the States. His place in New York is gorgeous."

Emily smirked, "Is that where you went that night? When you walked back to the hotel?"

Payson had the grace to blush, "We took a cab to his place downtown. His mother was old money, it's probably one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, across from Gramercy Park. I haven't seen the house in Wimbledon yet, but I'm sure it's lovely."

Emily asked the hard question then, "And your parents? Becca?"

Payson shrugged, "I doubt very much they'll still be speaking to me."

"And you're willing to give that up? For a guy?" She shook her head, "They're your family, Pay."

"They're my family and I love them, but they aren't going to understand this and I get that. They're going to blame Sasha. My father is going to be furious at him. My mother will be disappointed and feel betrayed by the both of us and rightly so. I wasn't kidding before when I said I loved him, but it's more than that, Em. Months ago when we were trying to stay away from each other, trying to ignore our feelings, there was this constant ache inside of me, a dull pain in my chest. I'm not being melodramatic," Payson said and Emily didn't doubt it. If there was one thing Payson Keeler wasn't, it was dramatic. "I need him, simple as that. My parents will either accept that eventually or they won't. It hurts, but not as much as it would hurt to be without him."

"You say it so casually," Emily observed. She wasn't sure if she would be able to deal with something like that so rationally, but then she and Payson were very different people.

"I've had almost a year to think about it. I knew the moment Sasha and I decided to move forward, despite the timing, I knew this is what I would be facing. I want to be able to tell them myself, after the Olympics. It's going to be hard, but I'm ready for that, at least I think I am." Payson's face was expressionless, obviously trying to steel herself against her emotions. "I have to say, I'm really glad you know. I haven't been able to talk about this with anyone, except Austin and he's not exactly great with the girl talk."

Emily shook her head, "We're friends, Pay. You're here for me and I'm here for you, always."

Payson smiled, the stone-faced expression gone, "Thanks, Em."

"No problem. Now back to those other things you do, you are going to dish some details, Miss Keeler, if I have to drag them out of you!"

Payson rolled her eyes, but then a smile lit up her face as the words began to spill out of her mouth, her happiness evident with every syllable.

Chapter 33: Lies and Misunderstandings

Nicky Russo wasn't an idiot. He could see the writing on the wall, or at least a punk, about six feet tall, wearing a leather jacket with a spray paint can in his hand, shaking it up ready to cover the damn wall. He was a distant second and they were only halfway through this Olympic cycle. Austin Tucker had two years on him, he was already sitting at the top of the men's gymnastics world and he hadn't yet reached his physical peak. Nicky knew that as long as Austin Tucker was ahead of him, no matter how hard he worked, he'd be in his shadow. He sat down at his desk and pulled out a thick folder. Flipping through the papers quickly, he could see the different logos, Stanford, Michigan, MIT, some of the top men's gymnastics programs in the country. He'd never hired an agent officially, never taken any endorsement money, and yet he'd never considered collegiate gymnastics until he finished second, yet again, to Austin Tucker at Nationals. Not only that, the margin of victory had widened, thanks to Austin's ridiculous parallel bars routine. Austin Tucker, the bane of his existence in the gym and out of it. Not that you're still hung up on her, right, Nick? You got over Payson Keeler a long time ago. You're with Kaylie now, a girl that chose you over that punk. Now the resentment, it's only about the gymnastics. Sure it is.

Nicky did resent it, not the routine or the success or even that Austin had somehow convinced Payson to be with him, but that he worked twice as hard as Austin Tucker, always had and was still the runner-up. It was a cruel lesson, but in gymnastics, sometimes you can't replace natural talent and body type. Nicky was incapable of replicating Austin's routines, he was just too damn short. Height was usually a major disadvantage in their sport, except, the six foot one inch National, World and Olympic champion had what no one else did, Sasha Beloff, a man standing eye to eye with him, knowing exactly what it took for a tall male gymnast to dominate at the international level.

He sighed, looking down at the papers again. There was a soft knock on his bedroom door. Kaylie, he thought, catching the scent of her perfume as he turned and saw the petite brunette leading against the door frame. "Hey, Princess," he said, closing the folder and standing up.

"Your housekeeper let me in. You okay?" she asked, stepping into the room, placing her purse on his dresser, her forehead wrinkled in concern. She approached him and he pulled her into his arms, embracing her.

He kissed her forehead lightly, before pulling away. "Fine, just thinking about how the hell I'm going to come up with a routine for London that will beat Austin Tucker."

Kaylie's frown deepened, "Sasha can't help you with that?"

Nicky shrugged, "Sasha is a great coach, but he's got a half a foot on me."

She laughed, "He's got an entire foot on me and he designs my routines."

"That's different, he can easily remove himself when working with female gymnasts, I'm sure it's harder for him to do when he can remember executing moves a certain way himself."

She laughed at him again, "You're insane, Nicky."

He shrugged, "Maybe, but, it's been difficult, Sasha demands a certain level of risk and that's not really my style."

"Nick, that flare series isn't going to measure up. You need the increased difficulty." The frustration was rolling off of Sasha in waves and Nicky could feel it as he dismounted the pommel horse. He designed a new pommel horse routine, working on it day and night. He'd asked Sasha to evaluate it after he thought it was perfect. His coach had practically scrapped the entire routine started from scratch after just one viewing, declaring it a disaster.

"I won gold at Nationals on this event with a routine less difficult than the one I designed. It's too much. I'm just as likely to fall off the horse as I am to land the move. It could be the difference between gold and not medaling at all."

Sasha frowned at him, his disapproval obvious, "That's a risk you're going to have to take, Russo. You've never competed in a Olympics before, what you bring to the table at Nationals is not the same thing as what the World, your American teammates included, will throw at you at the Olympic games. What's it going to be, gold or nothing?"

"I want gold," he said, wondering why his coach was even questioning him in this way. He was the most dedicated athlete at the Rock, except maybe Payson. His work ethic was above reproach.

Sasha's arms crossed in front of his chest, his eyes narrowing, "I'm not sure that you do."

Kaylie sighed, "I know this isn't exactly my area of expertise and I know I went overboard with it, but Sasha's right, you have to take measured risks in order to win. I would know, I was..."

"The National Champion. I know," he said, "but as quickly as you got that title, you lost it." The words were out of his mouth before he even thought about it.

Kaylie flinched visibly. "Well, then, maybe you should ask Payson about it, since she was the one who should have won it to begin with." Huh, asking Payson might not be a bad idea, he thought, but as he looked up he saw Kaylie glaring at him. She grabbed her purse and began to flee the room, but Nicky caught up to her, grabbing her arm to stop her escape.

"Kaylie, wait, I didn't mean that and you know you earned that title. I'm just frustrated, Princess. I don't know what to do." Frustrated and annoyed as hell and considering taking another path entirely, working out from under the shadow of Austin Tucker and Sasha Beloff.

She pouted, her lower lip jutting out in that adorable way of hers, "Well, don't take your frustration out on me."

Nicky nodded, "I'm sorry," he said, leaning down to kiss her lightly. "Okay, I declare an official moratorium on gymnastics talk for the rest of the night. How about a FroYo run?" he asked.

Kaylie snorted, "Right, Nicky, you can't not talk about gymnastics. I will however take you up on the frozen yogurt. I deserve a treat. I've been working my ass off trying to get my other routines ready for Worlds and it's just not happening. I have to prove to Boris that I'm one of his all-around options for the Olympics."

Nicky nodded, but inwardly he cringed. Does she really think that's possible at this point? Payson was far ahead of everyone and both Kelly and Emily were improving steadily, the fourth all-around option right now was probably Andrea Conway, plus there would be juniors coming up to the senior level. That was one thing he was grateful for, juniors rarely moved into the senior ranks and went directly to the Olympic team on the men's side of things. He wasn't sure Kaylie was even on Boris's radar as far as the all-around was concerned. He thought of their coach's father, the man whose coaching style suited his gymnastics much more so than his son's. Boris loved consistency and Nicky Russo was nothing if not consistent. Maybe that was his solution, maybe he should talk to Boris.

The frozen yogurt place was packed when they arrived, there was some counter space, but they definitely wanted a table. "Look, I'll just go find a table, you go order," Kaylie said, squinting into the crowded ice cream shop. Nicky did as he was told, getting a plain vanilla cup for her and strawberry for himself. He quickly scanned the crowd, catching a glimpse of Kaylie's brown ponytail toward the back.

He pushed through the crowd and arrived to see Kaylie talking to Emily who was sitting with some people, though he couldn't see their faces.

"Hey Em," he said, handing Kaylie her frozen yogurt.

"Hey Nicky," Emily said. His eyes focused on the two people who'd been blocked by the crowd.

"Hi Nicky," Payson said, with a small smile, though her eyes were flicking uneasily between him and the man seated to her left, Austin Tucker.

Payson smiled at him in a reassuring way and Nicky felt his stomach clench, the same way it always did when she smiled. The thought of Payson with that punk made him more than a little ill, especially since Austin had been sniffing around Kaylie not too long ago. "Hey guys, I thought you were going over Nicky's house tonight?" Payson asked, looking at Kaylie meaningfully. What the look meant was beyond Nicky entirely, girls were confusing enough without trying to interpret their silent language.

Kaylie smiled brightly, "We were, but Nicky suggested frozen yogurt and so here we are."

Payson nodded as if the words held another meaning entirely. "Oh, well okay, we were just meeting Emily, you guys want to join us?" she said, it, her eyes glancing up at Austin, but Nicky couldn't read the expression. Was it asking for permission? The thought infuriated him. What kind of relationship was it if she felt like she needed to defer to him? He was disappointed in her. He never thought he'd see the day when Payson Keeler deferred to anyone.

"Sure, the table looks big enough for everyone," Nicky said, meeting Tucker's eye, his anger simmering under the surface.

Austin grimaced, "I don't think there's a big enough table in the world," he muttered under this breath and Payson nudged him in the ribs, not even attempting to be subtle about it.

"Actually, we were just leaving," Payson said, grabbing her purse from the table. "I have to drop Austin off at the airport."

"Right," Austin said, a small grin playing across his face.

"Where are you headed?" Kaylie asked him. Nicky frowned in her direction.

"City of Angels, gonna catch Emily's boyfriend in concert tonight and I have some endorsement stuff with MJ tomorrow."

"You're not going, are you Payson?" Nicky asked, unable to help himself.

She shook her head, her blonde hair flowing over her shoulder, "No, unlike the media diva over here, I limit my endorsement work," she said, patting Austin on the forearm. "You ready?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said, standing up.

Nicky, Kaylie and Emily watched them go and as they left, Austin slung an arm around Payson's shoulders. A few of the more astute shop patrons snapped pics with their camera phones.

Nicky and Kaylie sat down with Emily. "I don't know what she sees in him," Nicky said.

Emily opened her mouth, but looked at Kaylie and shut it again. "It's not really out business, I guess," Emily said, though she was looking at Kaylie.

"I don't think they're serious," Kaylie said, with a shrug.

Nicky looked at both of them incredulously, "She's your friend, do you guys really think Payson would get involved with someone casually?"

Kaylie shrugged and Emily sighed and repeated the action. There was definitely something else going on, that much was obvious. Nicky Russo was not an idiot although right now, he kind of felt like one.

Payson's eyes fluttered open to the soft light shining through her curtains, a cool breeze floating through the open second floor window. She sighed, feeling the comforting weight of Sasha's arm across her stomach. She trailed her fingers from his wrist, up his arm, turning onto her side towards him. His face was so relaxed in sleep, completely free from the stress of his job. He slept with his mouth open slightly, softly snoring. She google'd snoring once and apparently it got worse with age. His arm tightened around her in his sleep, pulling her closer to him. She smiled. She'd willingly let him snore next to her for the rest of her life. His eyes flickered open and he sighed before his vision focused on her.

"Hey," he said, his hand flexing against her back.

"Morning," she said.

"Christ, you look good when you just wake up," he said, rolling onto his back and pulling her with him, allowing her to pillow her head on his chest. She laid her arm across his chest.

"You must need glasses," she said, running her finger tips down his chest lightly.

"Mmm," he hummed noncommittally, as she grew a little bolder in her explorations. She looked up at him, his eyes had drifted closed. She shifted her leg over his hips and pushed up, straddling his waist. His hands immediately settled on her waist, their lower bodies pressed together tightly. She leaned down, her blonde hair creating a curtain around them as she kissed his lips, sweetly at first, almost chastely, then one of his hands crept from her waist to the back of her head, holding her there to maintain their contact and deepen the kiss. Things were just getting interesting when Payson's phone rang.

"Don't answer it," he mumbled, his mouth trailing behind her ear, presenting a convincing argument.

She let out a groan of pleasure before she reached out blindly to grab her cell phone from the nightstand. "It's my mother," she said, her breath coming in short spurts. "I have to answer; she knows I'm up this early on weekdays." She sat up, bringing the most sensitive areas of their bodies into sharper contact. He groaned in reaction, but she put a finger to his lips, begging him to stay quiet.

"Hey Mom," she said, "Yeah, caller ID" Her mother was speaking so quickly she could barely understand her. "There's what on Good Morning America?" She laughed. "Thanks for being outraged for me, Mom, but I told you they were uh - seeing each other."

Sasha had obviously grown bored with the conversation and was running his hands up and down her thighs, completely distracting her from her mother's voice. "No, I'm not heartbroken, Mom." She rolled her eyes at Sasha and he grinned in return. "I would actually have to feel something beyond friendship for Austin to be heartbroken over the fact that he was, what did they call it, canoodling with MJ this weekend at a club in LA."

Sasha threw his head back and let out a bark of laughter. She glared at him and put a hand over his mouth. "No, Mom, that was just a dog outside. I slept with the window open; it was so warm last night." Sasha lifted an ironic eyebrow at her and she blushed in response. In actuality, the room had been quite comfortable until their nighttime activities had raised their body temperatures considerably. "I'll see you at the Rock later," she said, effectively cutting her off. "Bye Mom."

"Austin's cheating on you?" Sasha asked, his hands trailing up from her thighs to the hem of her tank, rubbing his thumbs lightly against the small patch of exposed skin between the bottom of her top and the top of her pajama shorts.

"Apparently," she said with a smile. "Good thing too, since obviously I've been cuckolding him this entire time."

"Mmm, big words, very sexy," he said, moving his hips against hers suggestively.

She looked at the clock and grimaced. "Rain check?" she said, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. "We've got to be at the Rock soon." He frowned. "I need a shower," she said, a corner of her mouth turning up.

"We don't have much time," he said, "It'll take too long if we go separately."

"It really will," she said, sliding off him, backing towards the master bedroom's en suite bathroom.

They arrived at the Rock, him a few minutes before her, having opened the gym already by the time she arrived. She saw him up in his office and lifted a hand in greeting. She began to stretch and saw Austin waltz in, his headphones firmly in place. She smiled as he approached to stretch with her. "Apparently, you've been cheating on me," she said as he pulled out his earplugs, letting them hang around his neck.

"Huh?" he asked.

"It was on television this morning, apparently you and MJ got your picture taken in LA this weekend," she said with a smile. "The reporters at Good Morning America were very concerned about how I was taking the news. Apparently it was all they could talk about this morning."

Austin threw his head back and laughed. "They should only know the truth," he said.

They stretched out completely before moving off to their respective equipment. Sasha joined them a few minutes later, moving to work with Austin first, as they'd discussed the degree of difficulty on the still rings on Friday before his trip to LA. Payson smiled as they began working together, a warm feeling in her stomach at watching two of the most important men in her life developing a bond of their own.

Suddenly, the door to the Rock slammed open and Payson watched as Nicky Russo flew into the gym, looking around frantically. He stormed over to where Sasha and Austin stood. Payson's stomach sank immediately as she caught sight of the expression on Nicky's face. She raced over to where they were standing, but didn't get there in time.

"You son of a bitch," Russo said, loudly, hauling back and punching Austin squarely in the jaw, catching him completely by surprise.

"Whoa," Sasha yelled, moving between the two young men, as Austin reeled around, ready to start swinging. He grabbed Austin's arm and held him back.

"Sasha, I swear to God, let me go; the robot has had one coming for a while."

"Russo, my office, now." There was no room for argument. Nicky turned on his heel and marched away from them.

Nicky walked by her, "I can't believe you're with that asshole," he muttered.

Payson frowned at his back as he climbed the stairs two at a time and ripped the office door open before disappearing inside. "I am going to kill, Kaylie Cruz."

Chapter 34: Tears, Ego and a Fight

She was in over her head and she knew it. Kaylie looked into the eyes of one of her best friends and saw the anger and frustration there. As soon as she walked into the Rock, she'd been cornered by Payson. The expression on her friend's face made it abundantly clear that they were going to talk immediately. Payson led her to the gym office and shut the door.

"Why are we in Sasha's office? Why are you so upset, Pay?" she asked, watching Payson pace back and forth across the mat before running her hands through her blonde hair.

"I asked Sasha to let me talk to you as team captain and handle this without him." Payson finally stopped moving around and turned to face her. "Kaylie, this morning Nicky showed up here and punched Austin in the jaw."

Kaylie's jaw dropped at the revelation. Nicky was as non-violent as guys got, he usually let things roll off his back. "Why? What did Austin say to him?" It never failed, just when things were going great in her life, just when she'd found a guy she loved and loved her back, Austin Tucker popped up making a mess of things.

Payson shrugged and shook her head, "He didn't say anything; he didn't give him a chance. Sasha asked Nicky why he did it and apparently, he did it for me. He thought that he was defending my honor, I guess."

Kaylie sighed, "I don't understand, Payson. Why would he think that?"

"You should understand. You're the one that told Nicky, Austin and I were dating, which we're not and when footage aired on Good Morning America today that linked Austin and MJ together, which they are, Nicky thought…" Payson trailed off. "He was being a good guy, but Kaylie, why did you lie to him? He said you told him over and over again that Austin and I were together, that we were keeping a low profile because of the Rock rules, just like you and Nicky and then last Friday you told him that Austin and I weren't that serious, that we were in a casual relationship, which he totally didn't buy by the way. Why would you do that?"

Kaylie shrugged, "I just thought it was easier. I mean you guys were so close and you always acted kind of like you were together and if it eased his mind that Austin was with someone else, so much the better, right?" she said. She could feel the tears building. "But then I thought about it and you guys don't really act like a couple so I thought maybe saying it wasn't that serious would make it more believable. Pay, I'm such an idiot."

Payson sighed, "You're not. Austin's the one who came up with that little fib to begin with, and it's partly my fault that I didn't make it clearer to Nicky when I talked to him in London, but why did you keep it up, Kaylie? It was just so unnecessary."

Kaylie shrugged and then looked up at her friend. "It was, it was two reasons I guess, but it boiled down to the same one. Nicky, I really, really like him and I knew he had a thing for you, so if he thought that you were with someone else, well then so much the better and if he thought that Austin was with someone, well then…"

Payson finished the thought for her, "Then he wouldn't think anything was going on with you and Austin. Jeez, Kaylie, when you do something like this, you don't do it by halves," she said, sighing heavily.

"Was Nicky really angry?" Kaylie asked, cringing at the thought of him, the most amazing guy she knew, so focused and intense, but with a softer side that gave her butterflies, even now. She'd never meant to hurt him.

Payson nodded, "Yeah, he was pretty pissed off. He apologized to Austin, who felt bad for him I think. Kaylie, you've gotta talk to him and to Austin. Apologize and make it right. I kept this off Sasha's desk for now, but if there's a ton of tension..."

Kaylie nodded, "I know, I know." She knew they all had every right to be angry. She'd been so desperate to hang on to Nicky and to keep Austin out of the picture, despite her attraction to him, that the lie had fallen from her lips multiple times. It would be a miracle if either of them spoke to her again. Then she looked up at her friend, "And what about you, Pay? Are you angry at me too?"

Payson tilted her head and sighed, "I was, a little, at first. I mean come on Kay, a casual relationship? You know that's not my thing, but I'm not really angry at you. I'm upset that Nicky's hurt and Austin got hit for no reason, but I get it, Kaylie. I get why you did it. You're one of my best friends; this isn't going to change that."

Kaylie took two steps towards Payson and pulled her friend into a hug. They pulled back, "So, will you talk to Austin for me, before I go and apologize to him?" Kaylie asked, biting her lower lip. "You're one of his best friends, Pay, he listens to you."

Payson sighed, "All I can tell him is that you're sorry and honestly, Kaylie, I'm not sure he'll care. He was pretty pissed off."

"All because of a stupid lie," Kaylie said, annoyed at herself and the ridiculous way she'd behaved. This was not like her and she was going to make up for it, however she could, even if it meant groveling to Austin Tucker. Her pride was going to take a blow, but she had to fix this.

Payson shook her head, "About the lie," she agreed, "but mostly I think he's hurt. He still feels something for you Kaylie. I don't know how strong it is and I'm not willing to say more than this, but you two have to clear the air before more than his jaw gets hurt."

"She's sorry?" Austin said as he sat at Payson's kitchen table. "I get punched by her boyfriend for cheating on a girl I'm not dating and she's sorry. That's great, well why doesn't she say so to my face?"

Payson nodded, holding out a spoon full of sauce, her hand under it for a taste test, "She will. I just thought it was important you knew that she was sorry. She was pretty devastated when I talked to her today. She still feels something for you, Austin. I just don't know any more than that. You have to work it out between you. How's that?"

He nodded, "A little more garlic," he said, standing up. "Fine, I'll talk to her, but no promises. I thought I was done with this drama."

Payson smiled at him, "You don't get off so easy. If you hadn't intimated to Nick that we were dating in the first place, none of this would have happened."

Austin rolled his eyes, "The only reason I did that was to cover your ass because you are having an undercover under covers relationship with our coach."

Payson laughed, "Please, you didn't know that at the time. You were just having too much fun with it. In fact, it was mostly that, you're just a washwoman who loves gossip."

Austin smiled, kissing the top of her head as he grabbed his jacket from the back of the kitchen chair. "There is that too," he said. "Enjoy dinner, more garlic," he said, backing out of the kitchen.

She smiled down at the sauce, adding a little more garlic. She heard voices in her front hall, then the door shut and Sasha appeared in the kitchen entryway. "Hey," she said, turning towards him. Her stomach flipped at the picture he presented her, leaning against the frame of the archway, his jeans riding low on his hips as usual, the long sleeves of his ribbed Henley shirt rolled up to the elbows, the ever present five o'clock shadow, and those eyes, staring at her as if she were the only thing in the world. He's just to gorgeous to be real, but he is real and he's mine.

"Hey," he said, stepping closer to her, pulling her into his arms. They kissed for a moment, just a soft caress of their lips, before she pulled back.

"Dinner's just about done. Set the table?" she asked, moving back towards the stove.

He clinked around in the cabinets before coming out with plates and flatware for them. "Austin was here," he began, allowing her to fill in the blank.

"Yeah, he wanted to talk about some things."

"Things being Nicky Russo and getting punched in the mouth."

Payson nodded and sighed. She knew she'd have to tell him everything. He'd been incredibly patient with her so far, allowing her to handle it as the team captain, but she knew Sasha and he was very protective of all his gymnasts. It was probably killing him that he didn't know the full story. "I think we've worked it all out. You know Nicky punched him because he thought Austin was cheating on me with MJ."

"Right," Sasha said, "That's the part Russo filled me in on. There's more?" he asked.

Payson nodded, "It's partly Austin's fault, probably partly my fault and partly Kaylie's fault."

Sasha's brow furrowed, "Kaylie's fault?" He sighed, "Kaylie and Austin? Or Kaylie and Nicky? Or both? Payson, what is going on?"

"I thought I knew, but I'm not sure." She turned to face him, squaring her shoulders, she knew this might be a battle. "I think, maybe, this wouldn't have happened if the Rock didn't have a no-dating rule."

Sasha's expression shifted from confused to something else entirely. He narrowed his eyes, "You think the no-dating rule is to blame for one of my gymnasts assaulting the other?"

She shook her head, "No, there are a lot of things to blame for that, including our relationship, but I do think the rule had something to do with it. Without the rule, Kaylie and Nicky would have been free to be open about their relationship. Nicky assumed what he heard about Austin and I was the truth because he knew if I were involved with someone, especially Austin, I would keep it under wraps, no confirmation or denial. It added confusion to a situation that was confused enough and honestly Sasha, no one follows that ridiculous rule anyway." she said, her voice rising with each word. She was frustrated, for herself and for her friends. Her eyes refocused on him as she finished speaking.

His hands were crossed over his chest, his lips pursed in thought. "So you're saying my rule is the cause of all this? That this is somehow my fault."

"Don't be stupid, you know that's not what I'm saying, but I do think a lot of this could have been avoided and it is a silly rule. It's not really even a rule if no one, including me, follows it. More to the point, everyone knows you won't enforce it, especially since everyone's been so successful. They know you won't kick out members of the National team, Olympic contenders."

She saw his jaw clench his grey-blue eyes flashed with anger, anger at her. Shit. "I hadn't realized that my authority as a coach had been stripped to such a point that people think they can do whatever the hell they want and that there won't be consequences for their actions. Is that why you wanted to handle this today, Payson? To keep your friends out of trouble?" His voice grew louder as he stepped closer to her.

She looked at him sideways, raising her voice as well, "You're kidding right? I wanted to handle it because it's part of my responsibilities as team captain and because I didn't want to put you the in position of having to do something you'd regret, like suspending members of your elite team a week and a half before the World Championships."

He scoffed, "Right, you did it for me. I get it. How magnanimous of you, Payson, really."

"Nice," she said, "Real nice. I try to help and you pick a fight with me. That's great, Sasha," she said, turning away from him and turning down the burners. She poured the sauce into a bowl and tossed the pot into the sink.

"What am I supposed to think? They're your friends, of course you want to protect them, but I'm their coach and I'm your coach and it's my responsibility to look after their best interests. It's my job, Payson, not yours."

"They're my friends, but they're also my teammates and I am their captain. I asked you to let me handle it and I did. Why are you acting like this?" she asked, but suddenly her eyes narrowed at him, "Oh I get it, this is about your ego."

He scoffed, "Please," he said, rolling his eyes at her dismissively.

She glared at him, annoyed at his condescending tone. "No, it is. Your gymnasts, your responsibilities, your ego. They ignored your rule and you knew they were doing it, but now you're upset? Get over yourself, Sasha. I'm trying to help you out. This wasn't a problem a few hours ago, why is it a problem now?"

Sasha immediately went on the defensive. It was one of his weaknesses, something that most people learned about him quickly, though it had never been an issue with Payson, his ego. He'd been accused of being a self-centered, ego-maniac before and for a long time it had been true, but he thought he'd put that part of himself to rest after what happened in Romania. "This isn't about my ego," he said to her, between clenched teeth. "What you're saying is that I've lost my ability to control my athletes and that's unacceptable."

She spun around, "Listen to yourself, control your athletes. Is that what you want to do? Control them? Control me? Is that what this is?"

"Don't be ridiculous," he said, with a wave of his hand.

"Right, I'm the one being ridiculous. You know what, forget it," she said.

"Fine," he said, turned on his heel and marching out of the kitchen, down the hallway and out the door, slamming it for good measure behind him. "Shit," he said, kicking at the bricks of her front landing before plodding down them towards his car.

"You have a fight with that pretty girlfriend of yours?" a raspy voice called from across the driveway.

He squinted to see an older man, maybe sixty or so sitting on his front steps smoking a pipe. "What gave it away?"

The older man chuckled, "You two have got some pipes. I could hear you all the way out here. Got 'er dander up did ya?"

Sasha sighed, "She got mine up and then I got hers up," he said, not even sure why he was sharing.

"What were you fighting about?" he asked. Sasha looked at the old man and scowled. "It ain't exactly often we hear angry noises coming through the walls from you two, if you catch my drift."

Sasha hadn't blushed in a very long time, but he felt the heat creep up his neck and over his ears at the man's insinuation. He was struck speechless.

"Don't take any offense, young man, Sasha isn't it? That short for Alexander? I knew a Sasha when I was in the army, Russian, his was short for Alexander."

Sasha nodded, flushing deeper at how the old man had probably learned his name, "Yes, but only my mother ever called me Alexander. And you are?"

"I'm Roy," he said and Sasha stepped forward to shake his hand. "You really going to leave?" the man said, taking a long pull from the pipe.

Sasha rubbed the back of his neck and looked at the keys in his hand, "Yeah, I was going to."

"She's a sweet thing, your girlfriend. Always brings in the garbage pail for us, helped my wife with the groceries the other day." The man squinted at him. "You're a might bit older than her, aren't you?"

"Yeah," he said, but the old man cut him off with a wave of his hand.

He put the pipe to his mouth and said, "Nothin' wrong with that. Girl like that needs a man and not some boy. She's got a good head on her shoulders. You know about the kid on the motorcycle that comes by?" he asked.

Sasha smiled, Roy apparently had his back, "Yeah, friend of both of ours," he said. "Like her brother," he assured the older man.

"You love her?"

Sasha sighed and looked back at the house. The lights were all out now, except for her bedroom light. He could see her shadowy figure moving around the room.

"Then my advice to you, Alexander, don't leave." Roy tapped the pipe against the brick and stood up before slowly, but steadily making his way back up his stairs and into the house.

Sasha sighed, looking down at his keys before looking back up at her window, still glowing with light from her bedroom lamp. He shook his head and moved back up the stairs and knocked firmly on the door. He waited, hands in his pockets, staring at the brickwork of her front steps before the door opened and she stood there, wearing one of his shirts, not dissimilar to the one he was wearing at the moment and nothing else. Her hair was down and she looked up at him with red rimmed eyes. An immediate pang stabbed at his gut. He'd made her cry.

He didn't say a word, just stepped into the entryway and allowed her to shut the door behind him. She looked up at him again. He lifted his hand to her face, stroking just under her eye with his thumb. "I'm sorry," he whispered to her, not really caring what he was sorry for.

"Me too," she said, pushing up to her toes and kissing him lightly, then again with more urgency. He wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting her up, feeling her wrap her arms around his shoulders and then her legs around his waist as his hands slit down to support her weight. "Upstairs," she murmured into his ear before biting down gently on the lobe, giving it a soft tug.

He needed no further urging, making his way towards her stairs, feeling sharp pains in his knee all the way up, but ignoring them as he carried her to the bedroom and laid her on the bed, covering her body with his. Looking down at her, her long blonde hair spilling over the pillow, his last real coherent thought was that if Roy and his wife thought they'd been loud before, they hadn't heard anything yet.

Chapter 35: Discoveries and Detectives

There weren't many things that made Lauren Tanner jealous. Kaylie's relationship with Carter Anderson had been one, Emily's amazingly annoying and close connection to her mother was another, but Payson Keeler's townhouse that overlooked the lake, that might top the list, especially since things between her and Carter had fizzled out months ago and after getting to know Chloe Kmetko, she was more than happy to let Emily have her. So really, it was down to Payson's house. She'd asked, rather begged her father for one, but he hadn't budged.

"Daddy, please. I promise, I'll be super responsible with it," she'd asked over dinner, one of the few they'd had lately without both Kmetko's present.

"It's out of the question, Lauren. You're seventeen years old and you are not nearly responsible enough for something like that."

"Mark and Kim Keeler let Payson do it. She's only a few months older than I am."

Her father had eyed her knowingly, "You really want to get into a responsibility comparison between you and Payson? Besides, Mark and Kim had no choice in the matter when it came down to it. Payson's eighteen and she used her own money to buy that house. And you, my darling daughter, have no money of your own, at least not enough to buy a townhouse by the lake."

"Only because you won't let me hire MJ to represent me," Lauren stuck out her bottom lip and opened her eyes wide. It was her fall-back expression, the one he very rarely said no to, maybe if she couldn't get one of the townhouses, he'd come around on hiring an agent.

"Maybe we'll reconsider representation soon, but I have to know I can trust you, Lauren and from what I've seen this year, that's just not on the table right now."

"Why do we have to go on lockdown again?" she whined, lying across Payson's bed. "Why can't we just stay here with you? You're like a coach, Payson, all serious and focused all the time. It would be just like lockdown here. No boys, no fun." Lauren knew it was cruel, but she was frustrated and Payson was the perfect target. Their team captain rarely let talk get to her, in fact Lauren was pretty sure she barely listened to her half the time.

"At least we don't have to sleep on the mats this time," Payson called from her closet, before emerging with an arm full of gym apparel. "I was terrified I was going to get ring worm."

"It's only for three days," Emily said. "Boris just wants to be sure of his choices before he submits his Worlds' roster." Lauren raised her eyebrows at Emily and smirked. Emily rolled her eyes, but she knew her message went through loud and clear.

Kaylie looked up from the book she was flipping through. "It's going to be hellish. Three days trapped in the Rock with Boris Beloff, Sasha, Marty, all the other club coaches." She tossed the book onto the bed and Lauren picked it up. She began flipping through the pages, huge words, highlighted neatly in yellow like plasma catecholamine, popped off the page at her and she shut the book quickly.

"Don't forget Kelly Parker," she added, examining the title. "The American Journal of Applied Physiology? Really, Payson?" Lauren rolled her eyes. "Is this thing even written in English?"

"It's for one of the courses I'm taking at UC Boulder," Payson said, grabbing it from her. "Actually, thanks for reminding me. I have to bring it with me."

"College courses, you're insane. As if your workload isn't enough already, you had to sign up for classes. You really make us look bad sometimes, Pay." Lauren said.

Payson looked into her bag and frowned. "I'm missing something." Lauren leaned over and examined the contents.

"Your toiletry bag," she said, bouncing off the bed and waltzing into Payson's bathroom where the bag was sitting on the counter. She examined the bathroom carefully, quietly peaking into the medicine cabinet. It was something she did, even though she knew it was a total invasion of privacy. You just never knew what you'd find there. Payson's was pretty standard however, nothing of note, not even an embarrassing prescription.

"Lauren, did you go to find my toiletry bag in Guam?" Payson called.

Lauren jumped at the sound of her voice and spun around, knocking the bag off the counter. "Just admiring your bathroom. Your shower is huge," she called back, bending to pick up the bag. It was then she saw it, calling to her like a beacon, the only contents of Payson's garbage pail, a used condom. Lauren's mind reeled. Payson "I'm not having sex until I have an Olympic medal and maybe not even then" Keeler was having sex. She looked around the bathroom again and suddenly everything looked different. There was not one, but two toothbrushes in the holder built into the wall. She looked into the medicine cabinet again and examined its contents more carefully. There were two perfume bottles on the bottom shelf and she smirked when she realized that one wasn't perfume, it was Lacoste Essentials, a men's cologne, an expensive men's cologne. It was definitely a guy with good taste, or money, probably both. A toothbrush and cologne, if he had his things here, well then, he'd practically moved in as far as Lauren was concerned. So much for little Miss Responsibility. She's not just having sex; she's shacking up with some guy.

That conclusion formed, she moved on. Who was she shacking up with? It had to be Austin Tucker. There was no one else, even though Payson insisted that she and Austin weren't seeing each other. But he was always around, they were so affectionate and Austin had pretty much stopped speaking to Kaylie all together, which was total boy-speak for, "See, honey, that other girl I was interested in, I don't pay attention to her anymore." Of course, Austin was photographed with MJ in L.A. and Payson hadn't even flinched. She'd almost seemed amused by it. An open relationship? No, that wasn't Payson's style, even if it might be Austin's. Then again, Lauren had never pegged Payson for having a guy secretly living with her. Lauren's mind worked overdrive trying to figure it out. Guess I'll have to drop a few hints this weekend and see how she reacts.

She picked up the bag and returned to the bedroom, handing it over to Payson who secured it in her duffle bag. "All done," she said and Lauren stared at her as she lifted the bag over her shoulder. "Are you okay, Lauren?" Payson asked her, and Lauren nodded, though not shifting her gaze, as if staring at her would somehow produce the name of the guy across Payson's forehead. "What?"

"Nothing," Lauren said, shaking her head and looking at Payson's king-sized bed. Suddenly, everything was making sense, especially the ridiculous size of the bed. "Are we ready to go?"

They arrived at the Rock to find the other National Team members milling around. Lauren and the rest of the Rock girls moved away from the group towards the room in the back where they'd helped set up rollaway beds the day before.

"Just like one big slumber party," Kelly Parker said, though her sarcasm was less biting than usual as she moved into the room behind them, her face the picture of resignation.

"You know what they say, Parker, don't be the first to go to sleep, you never know what might happen," Lauren shot back.

Payson stepped between them, "None of this. It's three whole days together, in a small enclosed space, can we keep the bickering and trash talk to a minimum. This is going to be hard enough."

"Aye, aye, captain," Kelly said, nodding to Payson before brushing past Lauren, bumping her shoulder as she did so. That was something Lauren didn't understand either. Payson and Kelly Parker had come to some sort of "We're awesome and we know it" truce the last few times the National Team had been together. Lauren glared at her friend. What was wrong with her?

"Wow, Pay, way to stand up for your teammate," she shot at the blonde World Champion.

"You're both my teammates," Payson said, with a steady, hard look at Lauren. "We can't operate as a club anymore, Lauren. We have to operate as a National Team. This entire year, it's about Worlds and the Olympics, and beating the Chinese, not who can get a leg up on each other, Denver Elite or the Rock. Grow up."

Lauren pursed her lips, "Whatever."

The training was intense. Boris was driving them hard, really hard. Emily had been right, he obviously was trying to make sure that he'd made the right decisions about who would compete at the World Championships and so far, they'd mostly proven him wrong. Payson frowned as Emily stepped out on her tumbling pass for the third straight time. She looked over at Boris who was frowning in the general direction of the floor. She was standing next to Sasha and she turned to him, concerned. "Is Emily blowing it?" she asked, under her breath as she chalked her hands.

"I'm more concerned about Kaylie," he said, as they watched the former National Champion run towards the vault and land shakily. It wasn't exactly confidence inspiring. Sasha sighed and put a hand on Payson's shoulder. "Don't worry about it, do a bars set and then stretch out your knee fully for the vault. I'll be over to help you in a minute," he said, moving towards his father.

Payson sighed and then stepped up to the bars, working through her routine flawlessly. "Excellent, Payson," she heard Boris's voice echo from the floor. Sasha was working with Emily on the tumbling pass giving her trouble. Payson smiled at the older Beloff before moving away from the bars to stretch out her knee. She made sure she faced the floor as she watched Emily run through the tumbling pass again and something caught her eye. A slight hesitation just before the double layout was causing the step out. Emily's foot landed past the white line again.

Payson stood, shaking out her knee and moved towards Sasha with purpose. He kept his eyes trained on Emily as she spoke, "It's the double layout. She's hesitating just a split second, but it's forcing her momentum forward." Just as she said it, Emily did it again. He nodded and moved away from her towards Emily and Payson smiled in satisfaction.

She went back to stretching as Lauren joined her. "Did Kaylie tell you that Nicky isn't speaking to her?" Lauren asked, rather bluntly.

Payson nodded, "Yeah, she mentioned it, that they hit a rough patch."

Lauren smirked, "Did you she tell you why."

Payson sighed. She supposed it was best to play dumb, "No, she didn't. It's not really my business."

Lauren shrugged, "I think it's a classic Nicky Russo move, the Robot needs to focus before World Championships if he has any hope of beating Austin." She placed an odd emphasis on Austin's name that made Payson look up at her.

"I guess so. Austin's looked pretty good lately, but anything can happen."

Lauren smirked, "Austin has looked pretty good lately, more than good, dead sexy is more like it."

Payson wrinkled her nose, "He's a good-looking guy, but I don't really think about him like that. He's just Austin."

"Oh come on, like you haven't thought about it. He's easily the most attractive guy at the Rock and everyone is always linking you guys together. Don't tell me there isn't at least some truth to it."

Payson laughed, "Is that why you've been acting so weird all day, Lauren? You think Austin and I are hiding a relationship?" Lauren frowned at her and Payson shook her head and laughed harder.

"What's so funny that you're laughing when you should be stretching?" Sasha asked as he approached from behind them. "Well?" he asked when they both lapsed into silence, though Payson's eyes still twinkled in amusement. "Lauren, you're up on vault," he said, nodding towards where his father was standing, waiting none to patiently for Lauren to start her run. "Payson, let's take care of that knee of yours."

Lauren stood and jogged away from them. Lauren ran down towards the horse before launching herself into her vault, landing with just a small hop and then raising her arms over her head. "Good, Lauren. Work harder for that stick," she heard Boris call from the other side of the gym. "Every tenth is needed."

She nodded towards him and moved back towards where Sasha was still helping Payson stretch out. She raised her eyebrows at the interesting picture they presented, Sasha kneeling between Payson's spread legs, Payson's eyes closed tightly, her bottom lip caught between her teeth as Sasha pushed against her knee. Ha, from this angle it kind of looked like they're…now that would really make headlines. The World Champion and her Coach. Too bad there's no way in hell that would happen. That would just be classic. She walked towards the water cooler to grab a drink before she began beam work. Payson denied being with Austin flat out. So maybe it wasn't someone from the gym? Maybe it was a guy from her neighborhood or something. Lauren smiled to herself. It was killing her, not knowing. Hopefully she wouldn't have to deal with it for long.

"What was that about?" Sasha muttered, as Payson extended her leg toward him.

"She thinks I'm dating Austin Tucker," she told him with a roll of her eyes.

"You mean she doesn't know about that whole mess with…" he trailed off as Andrea Conway walked past them towards the bars.

"Nope," Payson said with a smile, "She's a little out of the loop and that's not a bad thing."

Sasha nodded in agreement before pressing forward using his weight to stretch out her knee. Payson let out an involuntary groan. It was an unnatural position, but it was the only one that helped limber up the joint. "So listen, I know I slipped out early this morning," he said quietly, thankful that there was no one around them. "I had some last-minute things to take care of here."

"I got your note," she said, her voice no more than a whisper. "It was sweet. And you were right, you know, last night. I suppose I didn't thank you for stopping when you did."

He shook his head, "Don't thank me. I've been castigating myself ever since for stopping. You have no idea how hard that was."

She smirked up at him, "Oh, I think I have some idea. As I recall, it was very hard."

"Was that a dirty joke?" he asked, the side of his mouth quirking up in a small grin before he applied a little more pressure to her knee.

"Ouch, yes," she said, before sliding out from under him and standing up. "I think that's good." She shook her knee out and nodded.

Boris approached her and walked with her towards the end of the run. "How is your knee?" he asked, his expression both concerned and calculating.

"Fine, there's no damage, it just twinges from time to time," she said.

"And my son, how is he?" he asked, breaking eye contact from her, staring blindly towards the rest of the gym. For the first time since she met Boris Beloff, his voice was quiet and restrained.

Payson did not let her expression change, but inwardly she smiled. "He's doing well. He's excited for Worlds. It was all he could talk about the other night, something about a soccer team and Istanbul," she said vaguely, though she knew Boris would understand.

"Yes, Istanbul," Boris said. "We went to a soccer match years ago together in Istanbul, just after he left Romania, but before he went to California."

She nodded, "I know, he told me about how you two went together." In reality, Sasha had a DVD of the match, which apparently needed watching, complete with pauses for his own commentary and lengthy explanations of why the red team from England was far superior to the white team from Italy, which Payson had thought dubious at first, as the white team went ahead by three goals very quickly. He'd had little to say about his father, except to say they attended the match together, but there was no need to inform the older man of that however. Payson followed Boris's gaze as it landed directly on Sasha, now working with Kaylie on the floor.

"And you are doing well, together?" he asked, his voice much quieter now than even before. She found his voice was rather pleasant when he wasn't shouting at the top of his lungs.

She smiled. "We fought last night," she said, though she had no idea she was about to confess it until the words were out of her mouth.

He looked down at her, his mouth set in a firm line, "Fought? About what?"

She shrugged, "Nothing important, it was actually very stupid," she said, a frown appearing across her face.

"Rebecca and I fought often about very stupid things and about some very important things. My words to you, noră, do not go to bed angry. You will not find sleep and neither person will want to…" he trailed off, seemingly searching for the right word.

"Apologize?" she offered, wondering what it was he called her. Noră, it was something Sasha had never called her before. She'd ask him about it later.

"Yes, apologize," he agreed with a firm nod. "Neither will want to apologize because they are angry and have no sleep."

"We didn't," she said, though she could feel her face flushing, she felt the need to reassure him that her relationship with his son was strong. "We didn't go to bed angry."

He put a hand upon her shoulder and squeezed gently, "He apologized?" he asked.

"We both did," she said and that caused a smile to appear across Boris's face.

"Perhaps then you are not quite as much like my Rebecca as I thought," he said and smiled down at her brightly.

Payson didn't know what to make of it, but she smiled back at him shakily. "Thank you?" she said, though it was definitely a question.

"It is good, you fight and you both, as you said, apologized. You are good for my son, Payson. I am very glad he has found you."

She sighed and for a moment had to fight tears from gathering in her eyes. She knew that despite everything, the tension and the cold distance between them, still very much wanted his father's love and respect and therefore she wanted it as well, for the both of them. The words of approval clenched at her heart and she looked away, hoping to compose herself quickly. "Thank you," she said as she felt his large hand squeeze her shoulder again.

"Good," he said, as if their chat was something he'd crossed off his check list for today's practice, she wished she could sneak a peek at his clipboard, not that she could understand the Romanian chicken scratch he'd used to write out his plan for the day. "Good, vault, now. I wish to see your Produnova."

Payson shook her head, a grin appearing, like father, like son.

Chapter 36: Supper and Secrets

Payson looked down at the Chicken Francese and smiled. It was absolutely perfect. She heard a knock at the front door and smiled, "It's open," she called and suddenly the house was awash with noise as Becca ran inside.

"Payson!" Becca shouted and she turned just in time to be nearly bowled over by her younger sister, who was practically glowing. "We won," she said breathlessly. "And I won silver on the bars!"

Payson beamed at her younger sister, "I know, Becca. I'm so proud of you," she said as her mother and her father approached the kitchen. She smiled at them over Becca's head. "Hey guys."

Her parents were smiling brightly. They'd just returned from the Pan American games in Vancouver where Becca's first international competition had been a rousing success, a tea m gold medal, individual silver on the bars, along with finishing 5th in the All-Around and Becca Keeler was suddenly one of the nation's top elite juniors, an amazing accomplishment since she still only viewed gymnastics as something she did for the fun of it.

"That smells amazing, Pay," her mom said, walking towards the stove and looking at the chicken and potatoes.

Payson smiled, "Thanks, I'm really getting a handle on this cooking thing."

Her dad joined her mom in admiring the food, "You do this a lot? That's a lot of work, cooking for one," he said, impressed.

She shook her head, "It's rarely for one. I'll usually drop some off for Austin and Sasha and sometimes Boris. All three of them have terrible eating habits," she said, which was not a lie. She obviously cooked for Sasha often, but she had taken to saving leftovers for Austin and Boris, who she'd adopted into this little surrogate family she was building. She sighed and smiled at her real family, her flesh and blood, people she loved more than anything, but slowly she'd been building a wall between them. She knew it was a good possibility that her parents wouldn't be speaking to her a little more than a year from now. She knew they'd be bitterly disappointed in her and angry. She just hoped they didn't make her choose.

She shook herself from the rather maudlin thoughts and focused on the dinner. "Let's eat," she said. "Mom, could you grab some glasses from that cabinet?" she asked as she slid the chicken onto a serving plate, which was quickly taken from her by her father. She wiped her hands on a dish towel.

Her mom was looking into the cabinet oddly, "Champagne flutes?" Kim asked when Payson stepped next to her to see what had fascinated her.

"Housewarming gift," she said with a smile.

Kim narrowed her eyes and Payson shrugged, "From whom? Austin?" her mother guessed and Payson rolled her eyes.

"Austin's not nearly that thoughtful," she said. Payson had found it was better to be as honest as possible in these situations. "They're from Sasha actually. When he took me to that ballet last year, we had a whole conversation about the plastic champagne flutes they serve sparkling cider in and he bought these for me when I closed on the house."

Kim nodded. "That was thoughtful of him. You sent him a thank you, didn't you?" she asked.

Payson fought desperately to keep the blush from rising in her cheeks when she thought about exactly how she'd thanked Sasha for his thoughtfulness that night. It was much more effective than a thank you note. "Yes, of course I did, Mom." She took two glasses from the shelf and Kim took two more.

They sat down and for a moment everyone was silent and Payson realized that somehow she'd become the focus of their attention. "What?" she asked, looking down at her shirt self-consciously. "Do I have something on my face?"

"Nothing," her dad said, with a small smile, before picking up his fork and serving himself as they all dug into their food.

Kim smiled, "What your father means is it's nice to all be together again. It's been a while."

It was said innocently enough, but Payson sighed. "You guys understand why I had to do this right? I mean it had nothing to do with you, I just needed to get out on my own." She looked at each of them carefully. She had assumed that after their initial conversations on the subject her parents had honestly understood, even if they hadn't known the entirety of her reasoning.

Mark shook his head, "We told you we understood, Payson and we meant it. It's just nice to sit around the table, all four of us, especially since you're headed to Turkey in 48 hours."

She smiled and then focused her attention on Becca, anxious to change the subject, "So I want to hear everything, right down to the look on Li Chang's face when she realized you beat her on bars."

Payson smiled enthusiastically as Becca regaled her with tales from the event. She sounds just like I did, but different. She'd expected a full run down on skills she'd successfully completed, others that she hadn't and the newest phenom to hit the junior circuit, a last-minute addition to the junior National team, eleven-year-old, Julia Harrison. It was then Payson realized that Becca's stories were much more about the people she'd been with and the places they'd gone and with just a little bit of gymnastics thrown in, almost as a side note. Her sister and her parents were so normal; sometimes she wondered where she herself came from.

"So, how was lockdown?" her mom asked, startling her out of her reverie.

Payson rolled her eyes and grimaced, "Awful, but not worse than last time. Boris was tough and I think he's probably going to make some changes."

Kim raised her eyebrows, "Who?" she asked, looking afraid of the answer.

"Kaylie," Payson said with a sigh, "She was shaky all weekend, not terrible, just not strong. And maybe Emily, although she got better as the weekend went on." She sighed. Emily had gotten better the further into lockdown they got, but Boris had seemed far from convinced that she was an All-Around option for Worlds. Payson originally thought that Emily would be competing on floor and bars in Istanbul, but it was possible she'd lost her floor spot to Andrea Conway, who'd looked very solid all weekend, while Emily had issues with her tumbling passes.

"And Lauren?" Kim asked, her expression still awash with concern for the other girls.

Payson nodded, "Strong on beam and vault. Really strong on beam. She's got a great chance to medal at the event finals if she hits that routine in Istanbul. Kelly was strong on all four and he didn't say anything to me all weekend except, 'Excellent job, Payson' so I'm assuming nothing's changed."

Mark snorted, "You're the World Champion, Pay. Of course you'll be competing all-around in the team finals."

Payson shrugged, "Its team gymnastics, Dad. Sometimes you have to do what's best for the team and not what's expected."

Becca rolled her eyes, "Please, you're DOD is the highest in the World. The level tens were doing the math one day and you could step out on all four of your tumbling passes and still medal."

"Well, whatever, all I know is Boris is giving a press conference tomorrow morning where he'll be announcing the six girls attending."

Her mother stopped her fork halfway to her mouth, a piece of chicken falling back on to her plate. "I can't believe he would change his mind this close to competition. You all leave the day after tomorrow," Kim said, frowning.

"He's Boris, Mom and he can do whatever the hell he wants. He's a little crazy," she said with a shrug.

"Crazier than his son?" Mark asked, not having much contact with the elder Beloff.

Kim snorted, "A lot crazier and that's saying something."

Payson grinned a little, unable to completely keep the affection from her tone, "Sasha's not crazy, he's just…Sasha."

Becca rolled her eyes, "He's just like you and you're crazy."

Payson shrugged, "If you say so."

"So you're all packed and ready to go?" Kim asked.

Payson smiled at her mother, thinking of the suitcase sitting at the foot of her bed. "Yep, another stamp on the passport, Istanbul here I come."

The next two days flew by, Payson and the rest of the National team had time to train, eat and sleep and not much else before they boarded a chartered flight out of Boulder to Istanbul, with short stops in New York and Paris to refuel, overall, it was nearly eighteen hours in an airplane and all anyone wanted to do when they arrived was sleep, unfortunately it was noon and going to sleep would have just set their body clocks off completely.

"I'm so tired," Emily said, flopping back onto her bed. Payson just groaned an agreement from the bed opposite her. Lauren and Kaylie were back to being best friends, this week, after Kaylie confided in her that she and Nicky had broken up.

"We can't just lay here, we'll fall asleep," Payson said, sitting up, a yawn escaping.

Emily pouted, "Well, it's not like we can go anywhere." Emily was not about to leave the hotel room after the debacle in France where she'd been suspended for breaking curfew. It was better to be safe than sorry and the safest place right now was in her hotel room.

Payson sighed and turned over on her side, "How's Damon?"

"He's going to try to come," Emily said, suddenly, sitting up kneeling on the bed, a grin plastered across her face. She'd been dying to share the news with someone, but it hadn't been official until this morning when Damon had texted her, with a short but sweet, 'Got my tix, C U Fri.'

Payson sat up as well, shock written across her face. "Seriously? Em, that's awesome. He's got time off?"

Emily nodded, "They just wrapped production on the second LP and he's going on tour, but that doesn't start until next week."

Payson grinned, "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked. "You must be so excited."

"It wasn't official until this morning. I am so excited though; I haven't seen him in months. "

Payson smiled at her and then flopped back onto her pillow. "I can see you guys after the Olympics, living in LA, jet-setting all over the world, not locked in hotel rooms, unless you want to be," she said, her eyes twinkling at her friend mischievously.

"Speaking of…" Emily trailed off. "I'm going to have another one of those moments when I pretend Sasha isn't our coach." It was something she struggled with, understanding exactly what was happening between Payson and Sasha. She had a hard time separating Sasha, their coach who barked out orders on the gym floor with the Sasha, the man, who made her normally stoic teammate smile dreamily.

Payson rolled her eyes, but couldn't help the silly grin that plastered across her face. She sighed and looked at Emily expectantly, "Hit me with your best shot," she said. It was exactly what Emily was hoping to hear. She'd been dying to ask one question in particular. The more she thought about it, the more it nagged at her. Sasha was someone who was obviously experienced, a quick Google search revealed more than Emily had ever wanted to know about her coach's personal life and Payson, as far as Emily knew, Payson's experience level was similar to her own.

"I can't believe I'm asking you this, but I'm so curious, are you two…" she trailed off again. She couldn't even say the words.

"No, we're not," Payson said with a sigh of what sounded like regret. "Not for lack of trying though."

Emily's eyes grew wide at the implication of that statement. There were a lot of things Sasha Beloff was, but she'd never though impotent was one of them, "You mean he can't," she said, lifting her eyes in suggestion.

Payson's eyes grew wide, "No," she cut her off, "that is not a problem at all. We're waiting until after the Olympics. We crossed so many lines already; I think there's a part of him that can't bring himself to cross that final one."

Emily furrowed her eyebrows, "That's actually kind of sweet," she said. She had never thought of Sasha as sweet,

Payson laughed, "Sweet, but very frustrating."

"You mean you don't do other things?" Emily asked.

"Everything but," Payson said, with a shrug. Emily's eyebrows shot up in surprise, she hadn't actually expected that, though she wasn't sure what she expected. "I swear the other night; I thought it was going to happen. We fought over something totally ridiculous and later we were apologizing and we were so close and it just didn't happen. He wants to wait until after the Olympics, I swear, the way he told me he didn't want to, it made me want him even more. 'I'm going to make love to you every way I know how. You'll never want to leave my bed.'"

Emily swallowed harshly, she could practically hear Sasha's voice in her head, "Wow, he said that?"

Payson sighed, "He really did. My knees nearly gave out on me."

"Yeah, I bet," she said. "So obviously, you want to?"

"I want to, but he's right. We should wait. I mean it's not like we're suffering the way you and Damon are, barely seeing each other. I don't know what I would do."

Emily looked at her closely, before she asked something that she'd wanted to ask for a long time. "You really love him, don't you?"

Payson smiled. "I really do." Emily shook her head. She just couldn't picture it. She'd seen glimpses of it, the night she found out, little touches and a kiss good night before she and Payson left Austin's house, but they were extremely good at hiding it at the gym. If she hadn't known any better, she would never be able to guess by the way they behaved. It probably took a superhuman amount of self control, something they both had in spades.

"I don't know who has it worse, you and Sasha having to pretend every day or Damon and I not seeing each other."

Payson didn't even hesitate, "You and Damon. We get time to ourselves; we spend almost every night together. Honestly, Em, I don't know how you do it."

Emily shrugged and sighed, before looking away, "It's hard, but our dreams are coming true and that's more important right now than being together all the time. He's doing his thing and I'm doing mine. My dream just has an expiration date, August 12, 2012."

Payson laughed, "Not that you're counting down or anything."

Emily shook her head, "I try not to look at it like that, this is my dream and I want to live every moment of it."

"We're almost there," Payson said with a grin. "Less than a year now and it'll be over."

"Easy there, captain. We've got a pretty big meet this weekend, don't we?"

Payson laughed, "I suppose we do. Are you ready for it?"

"Absolutely. I finally fixed that stupid tumbling pass, even though I don't think I'll be doing anything other than bars in the team finals." Payson grimaced and Emily knew her friend agreed. She wasn't exactly one to mince words or lie to save someone's feelings. "Sasha didn't say…"

Payson shook her head, "Em, I can't…."

Emily sighed, "I know, I know, I'm sorry, I won't put you in the middle. Besides it's not Sasha's decision."

"Nope, it'll be Boris who decides," Payson said, stating the obvious, but biting her bottom lip. Emily could tell it was making her uncomfortable.

"Don't worry about it, Pay. I know I choked at practice; at least it was physical mistake this time and not a mental one. If I do well during day one here, I'll qualify for the All-Around and hopefully I can show Boris that I'm ready for the big time."

Payson smiled and nodded, "You will," she said, firmly and for the first time since her disastrous performance during lockdown, Emily felt like it was possible.

Down the hallway, Lauren Tanner sat up, trying to stay awake. She'd nearly failed in the attempt when she remembered that she'd been waiting for days to talk to Kaylie. Their friendship was finally back to the point where it had been before the Carter mess and Lauren was determined to keep it that way. The first step, sharing. They'd always shared everything with each other, told every secret and Lauren had the mother of all secrets bouncing around in her head.

"Oh my God, I can't believe I almost forgot to tell you," she began, grabbing Kaylie's attention immediately.

"What, Lo?"

"You won't believe what I saw just before we went into lockdown," she added, giving it as much build up as she could.

Kaylie shook her head, urging her to continue, "What?"

"Payson's having sex." The words burst out of her mouth uncontrollably.

Kaylie's reaction was not what she was expecting however. The petite brunette stared at her for a moment before she burst out laughing. "You're kidding. Seriously, Lauren, this is Payson we're talking about here. You saw her having sex."

Lauren rolled her eyes, "Of course I didn't see her having sex. It was when we were helping her pack for lockdown, I went into her bathroom to get something for her and there was a used condom in her garbage pail."

Kaylie shook her head, "No way, it's has to be another reason. She's taking a bunch of science classes at UC Boulder, maybe it was for class, an experiment or something."

"Yeah, because they do condom testing in college," Lauren said and then paused, knowing there was something funny about what she just said, but not wanting to stop and make a joke when she needed to convince Kaylie of the truth. "It wasn't just that either. There were two toothbrushes in the holder and I found men's cologne, expensive men's cologne in her medicine cabinet."

Kaylie's mouth dropped open in shock and Lauren smirked in victory, "Lauren, that's a complete invasion of her privacy. Why would you do something like that? Wait – did you say men's cologne?"

Lauren nodded, "Lacoste Essentials. Whoever this guy is, he's practically living there if he has his things in her master bathroom."

Kaylie looked stunned, "Any ideas on who it is?" she asked, her focus drifting towards the wall.

Lauren shrugged, "I thought Austin at first, but I don't know. She flat out denies it and he's pretty open about that disgusting and totally inappropriate thing he has with MJ." She shook her head and pursed her lips. "What does he see in her anyway, she's so old."

Kaylie shrugged noncommittally, "I'm pretty sure she's not with Austin."

"Why would you think that?" Lauren asked, narrowing her eyes. "I mean they've been out together, paparazzi photos and everything."

Kaylie shrugged, "Payson mentioned it to me, they are pretty close, but I don't think it's him. It's probably someone we don't even know. Maybe he's a classmate or someone from her neighborhood?"

Lauren shook her head, "All of her classes are online, she doesn't have any classmates. I guess it could be someone from her neighborhood, but she's only lived there for a couple of months and it's not like she's there all the time. She practically lives at the Rock."

Kaylie shrugged, "No idea then. Besides maybe there isn't a guy at all and there's a perfectly reasonable explanation behind all that stuff. You could always ask her about it."

Lauren rolled her eyes, "Right, so she could deny it and then be super careful. No way. I want to find out who it is. We're her friends, you'd think she'd tell us."

It was Kaylie's turn to roll her eyes, "Sometimes secrets are secrets for a reason, Lauren, because people could get hurt. I think you should just leave it alone."

There was a knock at the door and Lauren bounced off the bed to answer it. It was Boris, here for bed check. "In for the night, Lauren, Kaylie?" he asked, nodding towards the both of them. "Good night."

It was then Lauren smelled it, citrus and sandalwood, the same scent from the cologne she found in Payson's bathroom. "Good night," she responded weakly and shut the door behind him.

"Lauren, are you okay?" Kaylie asked.

Lauren could feel the bile rising in her throat; she raced towards the bathroom. "I think I'm going to throw up."

Chapter 37: To Control and To Fly

Kaylie could not enjoy her breakfast; she could barely stomach it as she sat across from Payson wondering if what Lauren said was true. It was a reaction that couldn't be faked, Lauren had been sick over it, absolutely convinced she knew what was going on.

"It was his cologne," she said, kneeling over the toilet bowl, heaving. "It was the same cologne from Payson's medicine cabinet." She coughed again, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Payson is sleeping with Boris Beloff," she concluded. "Oh my God," she said, as Kaylie held her hair back again while she emptied whatever was left in her stomach. She sat back up and stood before going to the sink and filling up a glass of water.

Kaylie frowned, watching her swish the water around in her mouth before spitting it out again, "Lo, really? Boris? Let's be real for a second. The man is nearly seventy years old. And Payson? You really believe that Payson is sleeping with anyone, let alone the most disgusting option you could possibly imagine?"

"I know what I saw and I know that scent. It was the same, Kaylie, sandalwood and citrus, so distinct. What are the odds? C'mon, it's got to be him."

Kaylie wasn't convinced. She still wasn't convinced that Payson was having sex at all. This really wasn't her area of expertise, Lauren was so much better at reading people, but she overslept and was still in the room getting ready.

So she was studying her friend on her own, very carefully, watching for any out of the ordinary behavior. She just had no idea what she was looking for. She hadn't noticed anything was different to begin with, so what changes was she supposed to look for now? She supposed the usual things, staring off into space, eye contact, meaningful looks, excuses to spend time together, and physical contact. She shuddered. She didn't want to think about that, it was just too gross. She narrowed her eyes as Payson stood and looked around, finding Sasha at the entrance to the restaurant, she walked toward him. They spoke for a moment, both looking amused and Kaylie, determined to get to the bottom of this followed her. Isn't it weird, she's with his father and she stands there and just talks to him like there's nothing going on? This just does not add up, at all. It must be a mistake.

"Morning, Kaylie," Sasha said, greeting her with a smile, an unusual expression for him, especially on the day of competition.

"Morning," she said and then looked at Payson, who appeared to be containing her laughter. "What's so funny?"

Payson nodded towards the lobby just outside of the restaurant where Boris was arguing fiercely on the phone, his usual charming mix of Romanian and English probably confusing the hell out of whoever was on the other end of the line and making absolutely no progress at all. Kaylie grinned and suddenly knew she was right. There was absolutely no way Payson and Boris Beloff were anything other than a coach and a gymnast.
"Excuse me, girls, I should go handle it before he causes an international incident over his luggage." Sasha brushed past her and Kaylie smiled lightly, Sasha always smelled good, especially early in the morning. She certainly wasn't interested, but there was just something about a male who smelled nice that made her smile. Then suddenly it hit her. Citrus, and a hint of something else, not a common scent and she'd bet a small fortune it was sandalwood. Her eyes shifted towards Payson who was watching Sasha go, a soft expression on her face, not her friend's usual competition day stoicism.

It suddenly made all the sense in the world. Boris is rooming with Sasha, if his luggage got lost, he would have used Sasha's things, maybe even his cologne. Her eyes darted back and forth between her friend and their coach. He was older, but certainly not ancient. Payson didn't have the patience to deal with someone their own age. She looked across the lobby at Sasha and mulled over who he was, besides their coach: gorgeous, intelligent, intense and passionate, exactly the kind of man she would design for her friend if she'd been asked to do so. It all clicked into place. This she could see happening. Payson and Sasha had always been close and after Payson's spinal surgery, Kaylie actually resented their relationship. As she'd wallowed in self-pity, letting the anorexia control her, she'd watched her friend recover and blossom, literally and figuratively under Sasha's guidance.

How had it started? Kaylie had no idea, but it must have been going on for a while. She had no reason to doubt what Lauren saw, a toothbrush, cologne and a condom? It was no coincidence, but she couldn't imagine it was a recent development. Payson wasn't someone to jump into something headlong without fully considering it and though she didn't know Sasha as well as she did Payson, at least not on a personal level, he struck her as a think before you leap kind of guy.

Now that she'd figured it out, Kaylie realized how simple it was. Who else could it possibly have been? She laughed to herself a little, as it struck her how perfect they probably were for each other and how at the same time it was wildly inappropriate.

"He lost his luggage?" she asked Payson in a strangled voice, trying to keep her expression as neutral as possible. They had kept this a secret and for good reason. If it got out it would be an international scandal, it would ruin Sasha's career, probably his entire life.

"Yeah, Sasha said it somehow got taken off the plane in Paris and it should be here soon, but Boris insisted on calling himself," she said. "They could be a while."

Kaylie nodded, "I'm going to head back to my room to see if Lauren's done," she said and Payson smiled at her before moving back to their table where Emily, Kelly and Andrea still sat.

She grabbed an elevator and when the doors opened as it reached her floor she was greeted by a sleepy looking, bed-headed Austin Tucker. "Morning," she murmured, pushing past him, the scent of his cologne now invading her senses. She should have known better when Lauren had suggested Austin as a possibility. She knew exactly what Austin Tucker smelled like, and it wasn't citrus and sandalwood. He wore muskier cologne, a scent she hadn't identified, all she knew was it made her heart race. She turned quickly to say something to him, but he was disappearing behind the closing doors of the elevator. Her shoulders sunk as they made eye contact and then he was gone. She sighed and began making her way down the hallway when a sharp, 'Ding' stopped her progress.

"Kaylie?" his voice flowed, honey smooth over her name.

She turned to face him, surprised to find him standing directly behind her. "Hey Austin," she said, inhaling deeply. It was a heavy spice, a smoky scent, mixed with whatever soap he'd used. She closed her eyes, letting it wash over her.

"Are you okay?" he asked, stepping closer, her senses overwhelmed by his proximity now.

"Fine," she said. "Just going to grab my gym bag before we have to meet in the lobby," she said. I wonder if he knows, she thought and then it occurred to her and she shook her head, feeling like an idiot. Of course he knows. He and Payson are as thick as thieves. That's why they let the media have a field day, because if people think Payson and Austin are together, it gives each of them the perfect cover to do what they want, or who they want. And obviously Austin wants MJ.

"You're sure? You don't look fine." The concern in his voice actually made her heart ache. She'd thought she'd been doing the right thing by dating Nicky. He was a great guy, he gave her butterflies and they were good together. They made sense, the bickering and the banter and a solid foundation to build a relationship on. She looked up into his grey eyes, almost stormy as they pierced into her, digging around for the truth, like he had when she was sick.

She had her chance and she'd blown it, royally sunk every last hope she had to be with him. She nodded, forcing a small smile, "I'm fine, Austin, really."

He grimaced, acknowledging the small truce and somehow understanding that the idea of them was suddenly not possible, not after everything that happened, it was over. "Good luck today," he said, taking her hand and squeezing it tightly for a moment.

"Thank you," she said, as he dropped her hand and walked back to the elevator. She watched him for a moment, his back to her firmly, not wavering or turning. She walked back down the hallway trying to understand what just happened, castigating herself for her stupidity and blindness, but she stopped halfway to her room. This couldn't continue. She had to block it out. World Championships were today and her mind had to be clear. She didn't have time to focus on Payson or Sasha or Lauren or Nicky or Austin, the only thing she had time for today, was her team. She was a former National Champion and today, finally, she was going to compete like it.

Sasha stood on the floor, his arms crossed over his chest, a stance he normally took as he sent his gymnasts out to compete. He watched them closely, constantly encouraging and positive in front of the television cameras. Competition wasn't the time to correct errors; it was simply time to be there for his gymnasts. He felt a presence at his shoulder and knew it was her immediately. "You spoke to the girls," he said, as they looked around the packed arena.

"Yeah," she said, "They're ready. We're ready for this. We're the defending World Champions, despite that controversy and we're going to fight to keep it."

He uncrossed his arms and put a hand on her shoulder, giving it a brief squeeze. He couldn't help it, he had to touch her. It was such an incredible turn on when she got competitive and her voice took on that steely tone. It was one of the things he loved most about her, that drive to win, to be the best. She was practically a force of nature at moments like this and woe to anyone who got in her way.

He looked to his left and saw a camera man kneeling just a few feet away, the camera trained on them. He knew Payson was the story of these World Championships. She was the defending Champion and the tale of how she'd recovered from her injuries never ceased to be a media marvel, add to that the uproar that occurred when Austin had gone public with MJ and it was a miracle she'd managed avoided most of the media. Of course, Payson had done her upmost to remain aloof during several required interview sessions. If she was trying to imitate his famously unapproachable attitude when it came to the press, she was doing a remarkable job. He really hoped he was never on the receiving end of one of the icy glares she'd directed at one of the reporters earlier that day.

They filed into the arena and Sasha was prepared for anything. The European press was a lot tougher than the American press and they had the language barrier excuse to fall back on after they asked completely inappropriate questions.

Sasha stood just off to the side, his father next to him, both men glaring at the gaggle of reporters who were ready with questions for the girls. Most of the reporters had kept their questions gymnastics related or at the very least, hit on innocent topics like school and how the girls spent their time out of the gym, but there was always one…

"Payson," a woman with a French accent call, "How do you respond to reports of your boyfriend and your agent being together behind your back?"

Sasha opened his mouth, ready to respond for her, but he felt his father's hand on his shoulder. He watched Payson set her mouth into a firm line and lock her eyes on the reporter. He could have sworn the reporter actually cowered backwards. "You should really get your facts straight. Austin Tucker is my friend and MJ Martin is my agent and beyond that, I don't have a comment. I think we're done here," she said, standing and walking away from the group. There was a moment where the reporters were all completely silent before they began asking questions again, but one by one, led by Emily Kmetko, then the rest of the National Team as a whole stood and followed their captain away from the media.

"We're starting," Payson said, breaking into his thoughts. He turned to her, watching her square her shoulders and lift her chin. Their eyes met and Sasha nearly groaned aloud. The look in her eyes, it was almost predatory, the same expression she wore whenever she took control in bed. This was a different Payson Keeler; the old Payson was stoic and silent, allowing the competition to wash over her, her focus on her routines, calm and collected. She was a rock in the midst of chaos. She was different now, as if she were the root of the chaos. He could practically feel the heat radiating off of her. She was humming with energy, but she contained it beautifully. He looked over at the broadcasting trio only a few feet away, shuffling papers, preparing to go on air. They had no idea what they were about to see. He wished he could go over there and give them a heads up. He grinned to himself, but then it wouldn't be nearly as much fun to watch.

As the girls began to warm up on the vault Boris came to stand next to him. "She is different today," he said, as Payson fired down the run at full speed and powered into her Produnova.

Sasha nodded, watching as Emily vaulted her Yurchenko double.

"I have noticed this shift coming for a long time now. It is what I told you about, that bond between the two of you. I saw it happen when you went to train with Nicolai, only he taught you control."

Sasha turned to look at his father, "And what have I taught Payson?"

Boris chuckled heartily and motioned with his hand, flitting it through the air, "You have taught her how to fly."

Payson collapsed back onto the bed with a sigh. That was incredible. Her team had come out with a vengeance on the first day of competition, nailing routine after routine solidly, emphatically even. They had a narrow lead on the Chinese going into the team finals the day after tomorrow and Payson felt extremely confident in her teammates. She, Kelly Parker and Emily had all qualified for the All-Around and Payson had successfully qualified for all four event finals. Things were going exactly as they planned. They were going to prove to everyone that they were the best team in the world.

But first they had to attend the reception, the agonizingly horrible event that they'd been excused from last year because Ellen Beals thought it was too distracting. Apparently, Boris did not share in this belief and was requiring all of them to attend.

She looked at the dress hanging from the closet door and sighed. Yet another party where she wouldn't walk in on Sasha's arm or be able to stand with him the entire night quietly mocking the other guests and commiserating about how much they didn't want to be there.

Emily emerged from the bathroom looking like a million dollars. "You look great, Em. Damon is going to flip." Emily twirled, allowing the dress to twirl with her, the black silk contrasting beautifully with her naturally fair complexion, her makeup expertly done, thanks to, Payson assumed, many lessons with Chloe over the years.

Emily stopped spinning and sat down on her bed, wringing her hands. "Thanks. Urg, I don't know why I'm this nervous. I wasn't even this nervous today during my routines. This is ridiculous."

Payson smiled, "It is not ridiculous, but as soon as you see him the nerves are going to fly away."

She'd been right, when Damon met Emily in the lobby of the hotel, she'd watched her friend morph from a ball of nerves into someone practically glowing with happiness. She sighed, unhappy with the longing tone it took on as Emily took Damon's arm and they went into the party together.

"I suppose I'm meant to overlook that?" Sasha said. She could feel him standing just behind her, the heat of his body practically pulling hers towards him. His cologne, that intoxicating combination of citrus and sandalwood that she immediately associated with him floated by her and she smiled. She wished she could stand up and fall into him; let his arms circle her waist, pulling her closer, brush his lips against her forehead, then down to her mouth. She huffed and turned to him cheekily, trying to brush aside her brief daydream.

"Overlook what? I don't see anything do you?" she responded, turning to face him with a smirk on her face. He just smiled down at her, their eyes twinkling playfully at each other before he looked away clearing his throat, eyes darting quickly around the lobby.

"Shall we go in?" he asked. She saw his hand twitch at his side before he obviously made a decision and held it out to her.

She smiled at him, taking his hand and holding it for a moment as he grasped the object she'd slid into it. "Eleven o'clock, room 433," she whispered as she stood, smoothing down her dress.

"You look beautiful in that dress," he whispered as he released her hand, placing her room key surreptitiously into his jacket pocket. "And you'll look even more beautiful out of it." She smiled, their eyes meeting just like they had before the competition began that morning.

Sasha swallowed roughly, the fire was back, the same fire she'd been brimming with all day long and now it was focused on him. She broke contact first and walked away from him and he admired the view as she entered the party without him, the blue silk of her dress sweeping gently across the backs of her thighs with each step she took. He checked his watch. It was eight o'clock. Christ, Beloff, you need a drink.

Chapter 38: Letting Go

Austin Tucker leaned casually against the wall, observing the various party goers mingling around the room. People were milling around, some at their seats, several people out on the dance floor, others simply standing in groups, drinks in hand. It was the usual riffraff, coaches and gymnasts, agents and sponsors and a ton of press, all out to get their egos stroked and their pockets padded. He was only making a cursory appearance at the event, the men's team competition began tomorrow and he was looking to win gold this year. Not just for himself, but for his team. He saw Payson enter the room and pushed off the wall, intending to congratulate her for the way she blasted a French reporter today before the first round of the team competition for the women. He was pretty impressed with the way she competed as well, but he knew she would brush off any compliment to her gymnastics. She expected to be the best in the world and anything less was unacceptable. He was almost to her when he felt a small hand on his arm. He stopped and turned to see Kaylie looking at him, her bottom lip caught between her teeth, her eyes darting around the room.

"I have to talk to you," she said, pulling him away from the crowd, back towards the wall.

Austin sighed. He knew that silent moment in the elevator hallway was too easy. Kaylie had a way of making things more complicated than they needed to be and he had a feeling it was about to happen again. "Kaylie, I thought we understood each other," he said, allowing himself to be moved further away from the rest of the party, into a corner.

"We do," she said, shaking her head. "It's not about that." She flicked a strand of her bangs out of her eyes and took a deep breath, obviously building up to something. "Look, I don't know what you know. I don't really even want to know, especially since Payson didn't tell me herself. She has her reasons for keeping it a secret and that's fine. She doesn't even need to know I was the one who told you,I just thought you'd want to know, Lauren's on the war path. She knows Payson's seeing someone. She thinks it's Boris."

Austin took a moment to process everything she was saying and then suddenly he reacted, "She thinks what? Is she crazy?"

Kaylie laughed, "Maybe, but it's better than the truth." Austin was more than inclined to agree with her. If Lauren found out about Sasha and Payson, at best she would hold onto the knowledge until it served her purpose to hang it over their heads or she'd out them immediately. Either way, Austin wasn't about to let it happen.

"Why would she think it's Boris? That doesn't make any sense."

"She was snooping in Payson's bathroom before we left for lock down and she found a used condom in the garbage. I guess that peeked her curiosity and she found an extra tooth brush and men's cologne. Then yesterday at bed check, she smelled the same cologne on Boris." Kaylie rolled her eyes. "Obviously it's not Boris." She looked at him meaningfully and it finally sunk in that she knew.

"Obviously. How did you..." he trailed off, shaking his head. He didn't really want to know how she figured it out. It wasn't important. "Why are you telling me this?" he asked, although he thought he knew the reason. Kaylie knew how close he was with Payson. She knew he would try to protect her.

Kaylie smiled at him affectionately, "I know you, Austin. You're going to do anything you can to protect her. It's what you do. You're a white knight."

"A white knight, huh?" he asked, grinning at her, not being able to keep the flirtation out of his voice. It was instinct when he was with her, his mouth and body reacted independently from his brain.

She shrugged, obviously uncomfortable and he regretted it immediately, "Okay, maybe a gray one, not white, but not all dark either." He supposed she was making a joke, but he didn't laugh. They lapsed into a tense silence.

He scanned the crowd quickly and saw Payson standing near a group of American club coaches, a fake smile wearing thin across her face as her patience waned. He saw Lauren with a few of his teammates on the other side of the hall, but her eyes seemed focused on Payson. Then they shifted away to where Sasha and Boris were standing, speaking with several members of the Romanian gymnastics contingent. Kaylie was right, he had to do something.

He pulled out his phone and sent a quick text message to Sasha. I'll explain later. Sorry. Snapping his phone shut, he crossed the room quickly and approached the group that Payson was standing near.

He hovered over her shoulder for a moment and then slowly ran his hand from the nape of her neck, to her shoulder, squeezing gently, "There you are," he said, leaning down to place a soft kiss against her cheek. "I've been looking all over for you." He looked up at the club coaches with a roguish smile, "You won't mind if I steal her away for a minute? She promised she'd dance with me tonight," he said, even adding a wink for effect. The coaches looked confused for a moment, all having heard Payson's short answer to the reporter today, but they graciously nodded and Austin led her away from them onto the dance floor.

"Austin, what are you doing?" she mumbled between clenched teeth, as he pulled her close and they began swaying to the slow jazzy tune playing along with several other couples on the floor.

"Do you trust me, Payson?" he asked, looking over her head at where Lauren was standing, her eyes had focused on them, her lips pursed in obvious agitation.

"Of course I do," she said. His hand gripped at the soft material at the small of her back. She looked at him strangely, "Are you okay, Austin?" she asked, stepping closer to him. Perfect, he had to make this look good and unknowingly she was helping. He let his eyes drift closed and moved closer as well. He dropped his head a bit, allowing his cheek to rest against her hair.

"I'm fine, but I need you to trust me right now, Pay. What I'm about to do, it's important and you need to go along with it," he whispered. He focused on the scent of her shampoo and perfume mingling, the soft hair pressed against his cheek. She was a beautiful girl, this shouldn't be too difficult. He opened his eyes and caught sight of Sasha across the room who'd obviously received his text message because he wasn't glaring at him, simply looking confused. He steered Payson closer to where Lauren was standing, still staring at them. "Do you understand, Payson? You need to play along." He looked down in her eyes, the questions there innumerable. His hand came up to stroke against her cheek lightly.

"I understand, Austin, but," she whispered, but he didn't let her finish the thought, trailing his lips from her temple, down to her cheek before brushing against hers, drawing her body even closer to his, their bodies pressed together tightly. It was unnatural and awkward at first. He'd taken her by surprise, but then he felt her hands grip the front of his shirt, hanging on tightly and kissing him back. His tongue tentatively sought hers out, nudging against hers lightly before deepened it completely, his open mouth against hers. He let it carry on, probably longer than he should have and she was the one to pull away. She looked up at him, breathing harshly, her eyes flashing dangerously. "There better be a spectacular explanation for this."

He smiled, pulling her against him again as he led her off the dance floor, "Oh there is." They left the ballroom quickly and he pulled out his phone, sending Sasha another text, Room 420, five minutes. "C'mon," he said, leading her towards the elevators. "You are not going to believe what happened."

Five minutes later, Payson was sitting on his bed, staring up at him in shock as he explained what Lauren knew and his reasoning behind kissing her. "It was the only thing I could think of that would throw her and everyone else off completely. Just like before, if we're together, then you're not with anyone else."

"What about MJ, isn't she going to be angry?" Payson asked.

Austin shrugged, "I don't really care. The thing with MJ, it is what it is. She probably won't care, in fact she might be happy. She thinks it's good for both our images to be together. Gives you an edge, gives me a softer side, I think is how she put it."

Payson rolled her eyes, but he noticed she couldn't argue with the reasoning.

There was suddenly a loud pounding on the door and Austin opened it quickly, allowing Sasha to push past him, "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't punch your bloody lights out," Sasha ground out between clenched teeth.

"I did it for you?" Austin said, suddenly his plan not sounding nearly as brilliant as he thought it was only a few minutes earlier. He heard about Sasha's right jab. Marty Walsh had been put down in one punch.

Payson stood and walked over to Sasha, putting her hands on his chest lightly, "He did," she said, looking back at Austin with a small smile.

Concern flashed over Sasha's face, "What happened?"

It was a beautiful thing, watching the person most important to you in the world succeed. Sasha smiled as Payson stood at the top of the podium, the World Champion on the uneven bars, the last event final held in 2011 World Championships. She would be walking away with six medals again, gold in the team, all-around, beam and uneven bars, silver on the vault and floor. She was quickly becoming one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time, a two time World Champion, a chance for a third and an Olympic medal in 2012. He was practically bursting with pride as he watched her. He felt the sharp prick of tears gather in his eyes and he wiped them away roughly. She descended after getting her picture taken hundreds of times and walked straight toward him, the gold medal still around her neck, the flowers they'd given to her in her arms. Her arms went around his waist as she leaned against his chest.

"I'm so proud of you," he murmured, holding her tight. He brought a hand up to stroke his fingers against the back of her neck, but thought better of it and placed it upon her shoulder lightly. It was the most they could hope for in public, an embrace between a coach and his athlete.

It had been a media circus for days, all because Lauren Tanner had snooped around in Payson's bathroom. The press was going crazy over the very public kiss, caught by several people on their camera phones, one person had been industrious enough to video tape it. It had aired during the coverage of the event as well, the press eager to not only confirm that Payson Keeler and Austin Tucker were together, but to redeem themselves after Payson had snapped at them before the competition began. Yet, Payson had shut out all the voices, all the distraction and won despite it all.

Hours later, he sat on his hotel room bed holding the key card to her hotel room between his fingers, staring at it. It had begun as a small thought days ago, when they lay together in her bed, their bodies sticky with sweat, entwined together, slowly allowing sleep to overtake them and grown steadily from that moment. He knew what he had to do. He closed his hand around the rectangular piece of plastic and gripped it firmly as he stood and left his room, closing the door behind him, muffling his father's snoring. The ten steps to her hotel room felt like miles as he approached the door and stared down at the lock and then the key. He shook his head, pocketing the key and knocked lightly.

He heard her footsteps approaching the door, there was a pause as she looked through the peephole and then it opened wide. She stood on the other side, looking as grim as he felt. Is it possible she's thinking the same thing you are, Beloff? Now, wouldn't that be incredible and more painful that you can possibly imagine?

"Hey," he said, entering the room, there was soft music playing in the background. She shut the door behind him and then suddenly she was in his arms, kissing him lightly once, twice and then slowly opening her mouth beneath his, a slow, intimate kiss, breaking apart and coming together, neither willing to stop, until they both broke away, breathlessly.

She rested her forehead against his chest, one hand grasping the front of his shirt, the other resting against his bicep, stroking the skin just below the edge of his tee-shirt sleeve.

"You were amazing this weekend," he said, his voice low, though they were alone.

"Thank you," she said, turning her head, pressing her ear against his chest. He knew she could feel the uneven beat of his heart. He gave into the urge he'd felt earlier in the day, lifting a hand and stroking his fingers against the nape of her neck, pulling her closer to him, simply holding her. It could have been hours, but it was probably more like minutes when she looked up into his eyes. He saw the same pain and fear in her eyes that he felt inside himself.

"I love you," they said together. Sasha let out a small, mirthless laugh and she smiled humorlessly, tears beginning to gather in her eyes.

She finally continued, "I love you, but…" she trailed off, unable to say the words.

"We can't do this anymore," he finished for her, his eyes drifting closed as he could barely choke the words out.

"You'd be blackballed; your career would be ruined, not to mention your life. I almost took that away from you once and I'm not going to do it again," she said, her voice unsteady, her grip on his shirt tightening.

He felt a lump form in his throat, "You did beautifully under pressure, but you shouldn't have to deal with it, not at the Olympics, not when I can prevent it. If it came out, you're reputation, everything you stand for, your relationship with your parents, your family and friends; we've put it all at risk. We can't do this anymore." The words were no easier the second time around, even accompanied by his reasons. "It would be all too easy for the wrong person to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. My cologne almost outted us. So it's enough now. I won't let you put yourself at risk anymore."

He felt her shoulders begin to shake and tears gathered in his own eyes. His vision blurred as he took a shuddering breath. She looked up at him, tears swimming in her eyes. She brushed away a tear streaming down her own cheek, before reaching up and catching one of his with her thumb.

"I love you, Sasha. I love you more than any woman has ever loved a man. I know it deep in my soul." Her eyes slid shut, as the words seemed to give her actual pain. The tears flowed freely now and she shook her head, unable to continue, looking down at the floor.

He ducked his head, lifting her chin with his finger, forcing her to look at him. She bit her bottom lip lightly and she took a harsh breath before sniffling softly. "Payson, I have never loved anyone the way I love you. You woke something up inside of me I never even knew existed. Sometimes it feels like I need you just to take my next breath. I will love you for the rest of my life, I swear it."

She cried then, gasping for breath, unable to stop the steady stream of tears falling from her eyes. He pulled her close, trying to sooth her pain, though he knew he was the cause of it. "Shh, it's going to be okay. I promise."

"No, it's not. How can this be okay? I know it's what we have to do, I know that, but it hurts so much, Sasha," she said, her voice catching on her words, her breathing ragged and strained.

"I know," he said, and he did. He could feel an iron clamp gripping his heart, squeezing it so that he could barely breathe from the pain. "I know it does."

"So this is it then," she said, trying to bring herself under control, succeeding only mildly.

"For now," he said, brushing the tears from her cheeks again, Even now, her eyes puffy and red, her cheeks flushed from crying, she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

"I love you so much, I never want to let you go," she said, fresh tears appearing again.

"I know," he said, pulling her into him again. He vaguely heard the slow sultry notes of the music coming from the radio on the nightstand playing in the background. He recognized the song, it was the same one she'd danced to with Austin the other night. "Dance with me," he murmured, beginning slowly, shuffling his feet, allowing her to follow him.

They danced, long after the song ended, replaced by another, but they kept the same slow pace, their bodies pressed together tightly. Every so often, a soft sob would escape her throat, though her tears never subsided.

Later, they lay in her bed again, just holding each other, reveling in the closeness, trying to fight off the break of dawn. She fell asleep eventually, though it never came for him. He heard the call to prayer as the sun rose and he gently slipped from her bed. He felt that pain in his chest again, it settled into a dull ache that he knew would remain for a little less than a year. That is if she still wants you then, Beloff. Otherwise you'll feel it for the rest of your life. He watched the warm sunlight drift in through the curtains, illuminating her face, so innocent in sleep. He quietly slipped out of the room, steadfastly not looking back, knowing he would not be able to leave had he done so.

Chapter 39: Back to the Grind

She woke up alone, in her own bed, the steady beep of her cellphone alarm rattling her mind into a foggy consciousness. She supposed she'd get used to it eventually. She'd woken up alone every morning for the past two weeks and before she owned her house, almost every morning before that. She still found herself reaching for him in her sleep, jerking awake when her hands found only the cold sheets next to her. Mostly, she woke up clutching a pillow to her tightly, her instincts drawing her towards his side of the bed. The pillow still carried the scent of his soap and shampoo and his blasted cologne. She grabbed her phone, silenced its incessant beeping and checked the time. Four in the morning. She was wide awake, her body programed, knowing today was a training day. She sat up and stretched, no ache in her muscles, her body having adjusted over the last few days. She found that she missed it, the last small reminder of their relationship, the dull, pleasant pain in muscles she'd never used before, stretched to the limit to accommodate him within her.

She thought back to that night without regret. She had never felt so complete in her entire life. It had hurt, a lot, but she'd had worse pain before, much worse and then towards the end, the pain had mixed with a pleasure that she hadn't fully understood, but could recall upon simply closing her eyes. She had barely seen him since, the two weeks post-competition dedicated to media and appearances, even a few exhibition events, though she loathed appearing in those. Today would be her first day back at the Rock since bringing home team and all-around gold at Worlds, again, along with gold or silver in all the event finals. She smiled to herself, not only had she done well, but her teammates had too. Lauren and Emily came home with bronze medals on the beam and uneven bars respectively and Kelly Parker had taken bronze in the all-around and floor exercise. All in all it had been an extremely successful World Championships for the Women's National team. Training for the Olympics wasn't just a distant, vague idea now, it was hard and fast. The games were ten months away, with only the Pacific Rim championships, Nationals and World between. Three more competitions before the last and biggest meet of her career and she was going to make the most of the time she had.

An idea had formed over the last few days, it was a little crazy and maybe even a little reckless, but it was something she needed to do and the only person who could get her there was the one person she didn't really want to ask. Maybe it would be good for him too, a distraction, despite the constant proximity it would place them in.

She pulled her car into the Rock, as usual, she was the first to arrive, but the door was already propped open and she frowned, before grabbing her gym bag and going inside. He was hanging from the high bar of the uneven bars, doing pull ups at a steady pace. She approached, watching the muscles in his biceps and forearms strain as he lifted and lowered himself slowly. He noticed her and did one more before dropping down to his feet.

"Hey," he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead with his forearm. "How, uh, how are you?" he asked, his voice awkward and concern in his eyes.

She smiled at him warmly, "I'm okay," she said. He looked relieved, though not totally convinced. She hadn't realized that he would be worried about her. "Really, I'm okay, with everything."

He cleared his throat roughly and nodded, "Good." He smiled at her slightly and she returned it. "What are you doing here so early?" he asked, almost hopefully.

She wondered what he was thinking, though she knew she couldn't ask him. "I wanted to talk to you about something, about my training," she said. He nodded, grabbing a towel hanging from one of the cables, prompting her to continue. "I've had some time to think about it, over the last couple of days."

His expression suddenly became panicked, "You're not leaving, are you?"

Her eyes grew wide, "What? No! I would never, I couldn't leave the Rock," she said and then her expression softened as her voice lowered to a whisper, "I couldn't leave you."

He smiled and she found herself smiling back, but she shook her head quickly before the eye contact became something else entirely, something they'd decided to put aside. "Right, so I was thinking, about my training."

His expression grew serious, "What about it?"

"You know how theoretically every gymnast on the Olympic track's goal is a gold medal?" she asked, though he knew it was a rhetoric question. "I've got something else in mind."

His eyebrows furrowed in confusion, "You're goal isn't to win a gold medal?" he asked.

She smiled at him, her eyes twinkling, "No, my goal is to win six."

He tilted his head at her and then slowly a smile spread across his handsome face, "You want to sweep?"

She bit her lip, but she couldn't help the grin that was forming. "I want to blow everyone out of the water. I want to bury the competition and I want to start today." She pulled a packet of paper from her gym bag. On it she'd diagrammed her new routines, along with several elements she'd designed herself, created with the idea in mind of blending her artistic strengths and the power she maintained. She handed him the papers and he began to leaf through them, his smile growing wider every second.

"These are," he said, looking up at her, "these are incredible, Payson." He fixed his eyes back on the papers and then frowned, "You're going to have to..." he stopped himself, looking up at her.

"Lose just about ten pounds," she finished for him, "I know. I'll still easily be in my target weight range." His face took on an oddly disappointed expression. She thought she knew what he was thinking, but when their eyes made contact again, she knew it for sure. "There will be plenty of time to fatten me up again after the Olympics," she said, rolling her eyes. Many times he'd commented on how much he loved her curves, how it was incredible she could do what she did as an athlete and still keep feminine lines. He'll get over it, she thought.

He grinned wickedly at her for a moment before he quickly caught himself, forcing his face into a neutral expression. "Great, let's get started," he said, his coaching facade firmly in place.

She nodded and took off her sweatpants and pullover before moving towards the floor to start her warm-up circuits.

Sasha watched her and nodded, mostly to himself. You two are going to be alright, Beloff. He'd been terrified after he left her that morning. What if he'd hurt her, really hurt her physically, but she was too afraid to say so? He'd calmed himself down. He knew enough about sex, more than enough, to know when a woman enjoyed herself and Payson had definitely enjoyed it, but it hadn't stopped the worry, especially after he'd returned to Colorado and she'd done two weeks worth of press and appearances from New York to California. Now she was back and he felt reassured, not just about their last night together, but that they'd somehow make it through this year. Her goal of a gold medal sweep was sheer insanity, but at worst, all it would do was make her a better gymnast and keep them both focused on something other than their relationship outside the gym.

He heard the door to the gym open and he turned to see Austin Tucker entering, a frown plastered across his face. He was sure Payson had talked to her friend about what happened between them, but still, the reigning National, World and Olympic champion looked less than pleased with him.

Austin had been looking forward to this for two weeks. To say he was upset with his coach was an understatement, but the violent tendencies had long since passed. He made eye contact with Sasha across the gym and pointed towards the office. Sasha nodded and shifted his gaze towards the floor. Austin saw Payson warming up and frowned. They were alone in the gym together, just like he'd found them every day for the past year. What exactly had changed? He took the steps two at a time and grabbed a seat at Kim Keeler's desk, waiting for Sasha.

His coach was only a few steps behind him. "Austin," he said distractedly, entering the office, staring at a pile of papers.

Austin's eye twitched in agitation over Sasha's obliviousness, "You wanna look up from your paperwork and talk to me?" he snapped.

Sasha's head shot up, a steely glare in his eyes, "You have a problem, Tucker?"

Austin smirked, "Yeah, I have a problem. I go out on a limb, lie for you, practically throw away the most amazing sex I've ever had, and how exactly do you repay me? You break my best friend's heart?"

Sasha shook his head, "You talked to Payson didn't you? It was a mutual decision. Her entire life was almost ruined because Lauren Tanner knows what my cologne smells like. I'm sorry it screwed up your, whatever it is you had with MJ, but believe me you're better off in the long run. I never did thank you, but excuse me if I wasn't exactly thrilled with the way you decided to go about it."

Austin wanted to leap over the desk and punch his coach's sorry lights out. "You fucked her and then left her," he ground out from between clenched teeth. There had been something different about Payson, the way she held herself, the way she walked and then when he found out that she and Sasha had put on the breaks, it had all clicked into place.

"You slept with him, didn't you?" Austin said, frowning at her. He was disappointed in her and he let it show on his face. She didn't looked ashamed in the slightest.

"That's not any of your business," she said, "but what if I did? I love him, he loves me and we agreed to put things on hold for a year, Austin. A year is a long time. We wanted something to hold onto."

"There could be consequences," he said, eyeing her middle section. "Did you ever think of that?"

"Thanks for the sex education lecture. We were careful and I haven't had my period since I started training again, if you want to get into the nitty-gritty details," she said, a smug smile appearing on her face when he winced.

"I thought you wanted to wait," he said, shrugging. Honestly, she'd become his best friend, the person who understood him better than almost anyone. He couldn't help it, despite the initial attraction, it had morphed into a need to protect her and be there for her, no matter what. Even if that meant kissing her in front of nearly a hundred people, including the woman he'd been sleeping with, effectively killing that arrangement.

She sighed, "I did, but it was the right time. I don't regret it."

Austin knew he probably shouldn't go there, but he did anyway, "And he was - look I know a girl's first time can be painful. He didn't..." he trailed off.

Payson sighed, "Thanks for the concern, Austin, but you don't have to worry about that. It was..."

He cut her off before she could get too detailed, although there was a part of him that was curious, "I don't need details, but that's good because I saw Sasha beating the crap out of that punching bag in the fitness center and honestly, I think I'd have only gotten in one good punch before he leveled me."

He knew the exact moment when Sasha's patience wore out and it was as the word, 'fucked' crossed his lips. "Get the hell out of my office and start training."

Austin sighed, regret consuming him. He liked Sasha; he was a great coach and a good man. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "It's just - she was miserable, these last couple of weeks. She put on a good show, but I could tell. The media was ruthless and there wasn't anything we could do to stop it. She handled it pretty well; she just took what they threw at her and didn't let it rattle her. Honestly, though, I just don't get it. I don't get why you guys gave up."

"Don't get what?" Sasha asked, tossing the papers onto his desk in frustration, "You don't get that her entire world would come crashing down around her ears if people found out and that we were one tantrum from Lauren Tanner away from that happening?"

Austin shook his head, "No, that I get, but we were handling it," he said. "You two were just..."

"What, Austin, we were what?" Sasha practically shouted at him. He could see the frustration in Sasha's eyes, his nostrils flared and his jaw twitched.

"You were so in love. I thought - it doesn't matter," he said, shaking his head.

"You thought what?" a female voice asked from behind him. He turned to see Payson standing in the doorway to the office. She didn't look upset, just concerned. "You thought what, Austin?"

"I thought that maybe someone could be happy, just once and if anyone would be, it's you two. You guys gave me, I don't know, hope, I guess."

Sasha rubbed a hand across his face. He recognized the tone in Austin's voice. He'd heard himself use that same tone, though his voice had been three octaves lower at the time. His parents sat him down and told him they'd be getting a divorce. Well, this little family dynamic might be even more screwed up then your actual family, Beloff and that's saying something.

He looked out the window of the office into the gym and saw several of his elites filtering into the gym. With a sigh he looked back at Payson and Austin. "Look, as much as I'd love to relive the single most painful moment of my life so Austin can feel better, this is a gym, not a shrink's office. You two should get back to work," he said, turning again towards the window. "If anyone asks I was lecturing you about the severity and consequences of your actions," he said, trying to keep his voice cold, but knowing Payson would see through it. His eyes caught sight of Kim Keeler's brown hair as she began to climb the stairs. "Your mum is here," he said, turning around. "Go on," he said, nodding towards the door.

They both left the office, trying to look properly chastised. Second later, Kim Keeler walked into the office shaking her head. "Good morning," she said.

"Morning," he responded, watching Austin and Payson walk off separately to begin their training regimen.

Kim sighed and fell into her desk chair. "Well, I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so."

"What?" Sasha asked, turning towards her, confused.

"I told you she was seeing Austin Tucker and she was." Kim did not look happy to be right, however. "How could she lie like that?"

Sasha swallowed harshly, hoping his face wasn't giving him away completely, "It seems like it was a lot more complicated than that, Kim."

She snorted, "Obviously. She still won't tell me the entire story. She told me to believe whatever I want, since that's what everyone else is doing. There's something else going on, I just wish I knew what it was. Mark was furious when he saw that video. You saw what it looked like. He kissed her and then they left that ballroom together to go do Lord knows what. I just, I don't know what she was thinking. She's always been so level headed."

Sasha wanted to reassure her, wanted to tell her that he'd gone straight after them and that Payson had slept alone that night, but it would be a lie, so he hedged, "Sometimes, when you care about someone, level-headedness goes out the window. Payson's a world class athlete and the United States best hope for Olympic gold, six Olympic golds if she has her way. She's got her head on straight, Kim. You don't have to worry."

She snorted, "I can't help it. I'm a parent. I'm programmed to worry." He smiled. "You'll see, one day, your children become your life."

His smile widened as he pictured it. It was his house in Wimbledon, they were out in the garden behind the house, sitting on a bench, there was a small boy kicking a football around the yard and a little girl tugging on his left hand, a white gold band around his fourth finger, pulling him towards a small trampoline. "Bounce with me, daddy," she said, her eyes just like her mother's, lit up with excitement. He allowed himself to be pulled off the bench and looked back at Payson who smiled indulgently, her hand resting lightly on her swollen stomach; amusement and love clear in her eyes.

"Sasha?" Kim's voice cut into the small fantasy, one he'd been having repeatedly for the last year or so, in various forms and stages. Sometimes they were in New York, other times in Wimbledon, sometimes right here in Boulder, but they were always together. There were always children around them, and they were always happy. He knew he wanted that and sooner rather than later, though later was his only option and he was more than willing to wait.

"Sorry," he said shaking his head, clearing his thoughts.

She smiled at him indulgently, "Do you want kids?" she asked, her eyes twinkling at him in the way her daughter's did on occasion, when she discovered something about him that she found interesting.

"Yeah, I do, someday" he said. "Always thought it would be great to have kids. Two, maybe three."

She nodded and studied him for a moment, "I think you'd be a great father."

He looked at her and wrinkled his brow. He hadn't ever really thought about the kind of father he'd be, hadn't wanted to, in case it was genetic. Now that's a frightening thought, Beloff. "You think so?"

"Yeah, you've definitely got the instincts," she said. "You've got a great capacity to love, Sasha. I know you're a man and men don't talk about things like that, but I see it in you. And really, when it comes down to it, what kids need is for their parents to love them."

He chuckled, "I think there might be a little more to it than that," he said, "but thanks just the same."

"We just have to find you the right girl," she said with a wink.

He shrugged, turning towards the floor again, watching his athletes mill around, some working hard, others wasting time. He caught sight of Payson on the tape next to the beam, her focus like a laser as she worked on one of the new elements she'd created, replicating the diagram and description that sat on his desk almost perfectly. "She'll come along," he said. "I'm not in any rush."

Chapter 40: Awkward Turkey

Kim smiled as she sat down to the breakfast table with her husband. It was just the two of them. Becca slept over Lily's the night before and Payson was obviously at her own house, with Lord knew who. She frowned momentarily, thinking about how her once close relationship with her daughter had slowly been deteriorating over the last month or so. There hadn't big a blow out fight or a defining moment, she just felt her drifting away. She rarely came over for dinner anymore, rarely spoke beyond polite conversation on their days and news at the Rock. She'd noticed a change in her daughter more generally as well. She wasn't happy. The last year she felt like Payson had undergone a renaissance of sorts, marrying her drive and focus with an unbridled joy for the sport she so dominated. She'd returned to the serious, young woman who rarely cracked a smile. It was unsettling to say the least, since Kim traced the change back to just after the World Championships, the same night she suspected Payson had slept with Austin Tucker. She couldn't prove it and she hadn't shared her suspicions with anyone, but there was something different about Payson and based on the various versions of the story she'd heard about the night of the infamous kiss, it was the only conclusion that made sense. It was disconcerting to say the least since it appeared Payson's relationship with Austin hadn't changed in the slightest. She still maintained that they were nothing more than friends, that the kiss had been a moment of insanity and nothing else, but Kim knew her daughter was suffering and everything pointed to Austin.

"So I talked to my sister Cathy yesterday," she said, avoiding the topic swirling through her head. Mark had not taken the media frenzy well and while Payson had talked to him about it, it was still very much a sensitive issue.

"Yeah, I saw them last week for dinner," he said, passing her maple syrup for her pancakes. "Chaos, as usual."

"She was talking about coming down next week for Thanksgiving," Kim said with a smile. Their relatives never came to Boulder. Most of them had disagreed with their move to begin with and so they'd never made the trip down.

Mark nodded, "That would be nice to have Cathy and Dave here and it would be good for the girls to see Payson and Becca."

"That's what I thought. I'll call her today and invite them to stay," she said with a nod. "I'll invite Sasha as well," she added. "He won't have anywhere to go."

Mark tilted his head, "Does he even celebrate Thanksgiving? Sasha's so British. Pilgrims probably aren't his thing."

Kim rolled her eyes lightly, "That's besides the point. He should have a place to go."

Mark smiled at her indulgently. "Sounds like we'll have a houseful."

She smiled, "It'll be nice. It's been too quiet around here lately."

Mark grimaced and nodded. "You spoke to Payson yesterday?" he asked. The expression of resignation almost broke Kim's heart. She knew he wasn't sure how to go about bridging the distance that had developed between them and Payson.

"I did. She's looking forward to the holiday," Kim said with a smile.

"Is she still maintaining that she's not dating that Tucker kid?"

Kim shook her head, "Austin and yes, she says their just friends, that the kiss was just a kiss."

"And you believe that?" he asked, setting down his fork in frustration.

Kim shrugged, "I don't know, Mark. I've seen them together, they're definitely close, but," she shook her head, "I just don't know. She says they're not together, I don't see what choice we have other than to believe her."

He frowned and then asked a question Kim hadn't expected, "What does Sasha say about all this? Does he think they're together?"

Kim tilted her head, "You know, I don't know. I do know he spoke to both of them after they got back from Worlds, but I don't know what he said. He hasn't really said one way or the other."

Mark nodded, "Then he must think they're not together. He's not about to let two of his gymnasts flout the rules right under his nose." He took a bite of his pancakes.

Kim bit her lip and looked up at Mark almost apologetically, "I didn't tell you, did I?" she asked and he looked at her expectantly, "The parents board overturned the no dating rule on Sasha's recommendation. He was saying something about it causing more trouble than it prevented."

"Alex 'Keep All Male Species Away from my Daughter' Cruz went for that?" He snorted.

"Alex trusts Sasha and so does the board," she said, "I'm inclined to agree with him."

Mark smirked, "I kind of liked that rule. That rule was every father's dream."

"It was obviously ineffective and I think Sasha's right, it causes more harm than good. Look at it this way, say Payson and Austin are seeing each other, which really, what's wrong with an eighteen-year-old girl having a boyfriend? Without the rule in place she wouldn't have felt like she had to hide it from anyone, especially us."

Mark nodded, "And even with the no dating rule gone, she's still denying that she and Austin are together?" he asked.

Kim pursed her lips thoughtfully and shrugged, "So maybe they really aren't together after all."

The Rock was pulsing with activity when Kim arrived, after seeing Mark off to the airport. She caught sight of her daughter on the beam, working through her new routine under Sasha's watchful eye. She stopped for a moment to watch and saw Payson dismount the beam directly from a practical tumbling pass across the length of the four inches. She made it look easy, but the scuttlebutt around the gym was that when the new code of points was released, Payson's dismount would be rated a G skill and called a Keeler. She landed it solidly and looked to Sasha, both wearing the same stoic expression.

"Good," she heard Sasha say. She saw him raise his hand, ostensibly to pat Payson on the shoulder, but he stopped halfway there and shook his head before nodding back towards the beam, "Again," he said and she grimaced, but followed orders.

It had been this way for almost a month now, this fierce intensity that radiated between Payson and Sasha as she trained. Nothing ever seemed good enough, they focused like a laser beam on the minutia that would possibly see Payson to Olympic gold. Kim frowned. She'd seen a change in Sasha as well, almost a 360 degree circle from when he first arrived. He hadn't exactly been footloose and fancy free, but there was a sense of peace around him. He'd seemed happy. The lines around his eyes and mouth had become less pronounced, he'd seemed at ease with himself and the world around him and then he shifted again, back to the stoic, taskmaster that he'd been when he first began coaching at the Rock. He'd come home from Istanbul, different, much like Payson had, in fact she'd briefly considered that the two had a falling out of some sort, but their relationship seemed unchanged the more she watched them together. She suspected it had something to do with a woman, maybe MJ, she knew those two had a history and she couldn't imagine what else could possibly throw off Sasha Beloff.

Professionally, things were great, the girls had done very well at Worlds, though Kaylie had been disappointed, finishing just off the podium in both the floor and vault event finals. The men's team was more than holding its own as well, though Nicky Russo's fourth place finish in the all-around had been a disappointment, but Austin held onto his title and Carter had medaled again. No, it had to be something personal, His relationship with his father, maybe? She was determined to find out. Sasha had become something of a, well she didn't know how to define it, she wouldn't quite call him a son, she didn't think she was quite old enough to be his mother, but it was close enough. She cared about him and she wanted to help. The invitation to Thanksgiving dinner was a way of trying to cheer him up a bit, if it was possible. Whatever the problem was, it seemed to be consuming him.

Sasha saw Kim arrive out of the corner of his eye as Payson executed another perfect dismount from the beam. Her routines were coming along beautifully and at a faster pace than he expected, even from Payson. She'd dropped two pounds a week over the last month and that was aiding in the development of her new skills.

She approached him, her pretty face serious and her mouth drawn in a line. Their professional relationship hadn't changed much, if anything they operated on another level entirely, one he'd never accessed before with any athlete he'd worked with.

His eyes met hers, the look communicating exactly what he thought of her perfect dismount and then he switched focus, "Your mum just arrived."

She nodded, "Yeah, she had to drop my Dad off at the airport this morning. He'll be back at the end of the week for Thanksgiving." He raised his eyebrows, "Don't worry, strict diet for me, no overloading on carbs, I swear." She smiled a little and he thought he caught an ironic lilt in her tone, but he wasn't sure.

He shook his head, not giving voice to his thoughts that she'd been perfect before and he found himself missing the soft curve of her hips, less rounded now than they'd been a month before as he'd held onto them while buried deep inside her, her skin soft and supple under his fingers. "No, that's not it. I'd forgotten there was a holiday coming up," he said, masking his true thoughts well enough, though perhaps she saw through him. He was sure she always knew what he was thinking, especially now.

She smiled at him briefly, though the serious expression was back in place quickly enough, "I better get back to it." She moved towards the beam again.

"Yeah," he said, "Run through the whole routine four more times before moving over to the floor." She nodded and he headed straight for his office, not chancing another glance in her direction. If this was where his head was today, he had better stay away from her. There were some things that he couldn't control and his mind was one of them. There was a pile of paper work waiting for him on his desk. Tara and Jake had practice well in hand and he wanted to work on it when he knew Kim was there to answer any questions he had.

"Morning," he said, as he entered the office, Kim already at her desk hard at work.

"Good morning," she said with a smile, handing him a packet of papers to add to the already intimidating pile of work on his desk.

"Thanks," he said, his sarcasm clear as he sat down behind his desk, picking up a pen.

"Before you plow into that, I wanted to know if you had plans for this Thursday, yet?" Kim asked, drawing his attention.

"This Thursday? No, I don't," he said, wishing he could pull back the words as he said them. He knew what was coming next and he knew he wouldn't be able to refuse her. You're such an idiot, Beloff, you were just talking with Payson about the holiday.

"Great, then you are cordially invited to spend Thanksgiving with the Keeler family. Nothing special. My sister and her family will be down from Minnesota and the more the merrier, I say."

Sasha opened his mouth, not being able to find his voice, "Kim…" he began,

"Nope, sorry, not taking no for an answer," she said with a smile.

He couldn't help but return it. He genuinely liked Kim Keeler and that's what made it so difficult to be around her. He knew he had her respect and affection and he knew that one day in the not so distant future that he would lose it. Her smiled brightened as he shrugged helplessly, "What should I bring?"

"Yourself and a bottle of wine wouldn't go amiss."

So that was how Sasha found himself dressed in one of his two suits, standing outside the Keeler's front door holding a bottle of red wine. He rang the bell and the door was opened just seconds later by the person he'd hoped.

"Hey," she said, a soft smile playing on her lips. Christ, she looks beautiful. It wasn't the dress, although the crystal blue color reminded him of something, and it wasn't her hair, though she wore it in soft curls, flowing down her back and over her shoulder, just as he liked it. She was just glowing at him. Then he realized it. It was the first time they'd seen each other outside of the Rock in a little more than a month. He swallowed roughly, the urge to pull her to him, press their bodies together and kiss her almost overwhelming, but was quickly quashed as Mark Keeler popped his head around the door and smiled.

"Sasha," he said, moving around Payson and extending his hand. "Happy Thanksgiving."

He shook Mark's hand firmly, "Happy Thanksgiving," he said, and handed him the bottle of wine.

"Payson, were you going to invite him in or keep him outside the entire night?" Mark asked his daughter who flushed a little and opened the door wider. Her father stepped away from them, bringing the bottle of wine towards the kitchen.

Sasha stepped inside the house and was immediately besieged by the noise level. He looked around and saw two unfamiliar people standing in the dining room, glasses of wine in hand already and four, maybe five blonde girls running around in circles until suddenly he felt something slam into the backs of his legs. Immediately a wail went up and Payson, who'd been standing next to him, crouched down and stood again, this time with a small girl perched on her hip.

Sasha's heart practically pounded out of his chest as the picture she presented him. The little girl, buried her face in Payson's neck, as she made soothing sounds, brushing a small kiss on a chubby cheek. "It's okay, Livy," she cooed lightly at the child, who couldn't be more than two. "You're okay and Sasha's not angry. You should say sorry for bumping into him though," she murmured.

The little girl lifted her head up and looked at him curiously, two fat tears running down her cheeks. "Sowry," she whispered.

His heart melted on the spot. "It's okay, little love," he said, reaching out and wiping the tears off her cheeks with his thumb. "I'm sorry too, I got in the way."

"Oh my God," a voice he didn't recognize pronounced. "Look at them; doesn't it look like Livy could be their daughter? All that blonde hair! Wouldn't that be a scandal?" Despite the obnoxious, grating voice that delivered the statement, Sasha couldn't help but agree. Any child of theirs would be fair-haired and the sight of Payson holding the little girl in her arms was almost too much for him.

Payson looked up abruptly, her eyes meeting his in slight panic before she sighed in resignation, "Aunt Cathy, this is my coach, Sasha Beloff," she said, "Sasha, this my mom's sister, Cathy and her husband, my Uncle David."

He smiled at the pair, "Pleasure to meet you both," he said with a nod.

"Wow, that accent! So you're British? Isn't Sasha a girl's name though? Always thought it was a girl's name. Doesn't matter, though if you look like you do. No one is going to doubt you're all man." Payson's Aunt Cathy rattled on without taking a breath and Sasha could feel the heat rising on his neck. He turned towards Payson who looked livid.

He smiled in what he hoped looked like a genuine way, "My name is Alexander actually, Sasha is an old Russian nickname for Alexander."

"You're Russian? But your accent, it's English," she continued to speak.

"He's English and Romanian, Aunt Cathy," Payson cut in, looking at her uncle pleadingly.

Her uncle seemed to take the hint, "Cathy, why don't you see if Kim needs help in the kitchen? I'm going to try to round up the girls." He put a hand on his wife's shoulder and led her out of the entry way, back towards the kitchen.

"Wow," he said, quietly. "That's your mum's sister?"

"They're very different," Payson said, an embarrassed frown appearing again.

Suddenly, the little blonde girl seemed to tire of being in her cousin's arms and squirmed until Payson let her down. She stood in front of Sasha and looked up, craning her neck. "Up!" she demanded, lifting her arms high. He looked to Payson who shrugged, so he bent down and lifted the little girl into his arms, "Whoa!" she exclaimed. "High up top," she said and giggled.

"And what's your name? he asked, as the little girl leaned back in his arms to study his face carefully.

"Wivy," she lisped and he smiled.

"That's a lovely name, Livy. I'm Sasha," he said and caught Payson's eye. She was smiling at him in that way that usually led to a kiss. It was an easy leap to make at the moment, though he knew it wouldn't be happening.

"Washa," she mumbled to herself, letting out a small giggle.

Suddenly a voice cut into their moment, "I hate to say it, but I think my sister-in-law was right, you three do make a picture," Mark said returning to them. "Are you going to come inside or are you and Payson going to pow-wow in the hallway with my youngest niece for a while longer?" They followed him into the living room.

Payson quietly mumbled, "Sorry about my Aunt. She's had five glasses of wine already and that's actually her being well behaved."

"Don't worry about it, love," he murmured back. Her eyes shot up to his and they met for a brief moment before he caught himself. "Sorry," he whispered.

She shrugged and gave him a small smile. She didn't mind, but it was a small reminder to be careful. "Down," Livy suddenly demanded and he let the little girl down as she toddled off in the direction of the most noise, down the hallway, where he assumed the rest of the girls Payson's uncle had mentioned were.

"Sasha!" Kim called as they entered the kitchen, "Happy Thanksgiving," she said, bussing his cheek lightly.

"Happy Thanksgiving," he said, accepting a glass of wine from Mark who'd opened the bottle he brought.

Payson turned to the only person in the room he hadn't been introduced to, "Sasha, this is my cousin, Maureen," she said. He took in what had to be Cathy and David's eldest daughter. She looked to be in her early twenties and was a near replica of her mother.

Cathy leaned forward, "Maureen is a senior at U of M," she said loudly and her daughter glared at her. "Going to be a teacher. Payson wouldn't you be in college right now if you weren't doing your gymnastics?"

"I am in college, Aunt Cathy," Payson said sweetly, though Sasha immediately recognized the insincere tone of voice she used. "I'm going online at UC Boulder right now, so I can concentrate on my training."

"Right, right," Cathy said, waving a hand in the air dismissively. Sasha's eyes flitted around to everyone in the room. Kim and Mark seemed to be used to this kind of behavior and little fazed by it, but Payson looked absolutely mortified.

"So you're Payson's coach?" a new voice asked and Sasha turned towards Maureen.

"Yes, I am," he answered, not sure if he was supposed to elaborate.

"And you were a gymnast beforehand?" Maureen asked. She was pretty enough, dirty blonde hair, a small upturned nose, dark brown eyes, but the way her eyes were taking him in made him nervous.

"Sasha is a four time Olympic gold medalist," Payson said, her frustration evident. "I told you that last night, Mo." Maureen shrugged, her expression outwardly bored, but she met Sasha's eyes and what he saw was clear as day. She was coming on to him, in front of her entire family. He looked to Payson whose eyes were shut as she shook her head.

The awkwardness was broken by a high pitched shriek followed by a loud roar of answering screams. "Payson, would you?" Kim asked, her daughter. Payson shot her mother a desperate look before she turned and left the room towards the sounds of chaos.

"They listen to her," Cathy said, with a shrug.

Kim looked at Sasha as he watched her daughter leave the room. Maybe inviting him hadn't been the best idea. When her sister, brother-in-law and their six daughters, ages twenty to two, had arrived the day before, the sole fixation had been that Sasha would be attending dinner. Cathy had plied her for details on the young man, obviously intending to match him up with her daughter. Kim loved her sister, but she had no delusions about her.

"Don't you think he'd be just the thing for Maureen?" Cathy said, as they sat in the living room. Mark and Dave had taken the younger children out for frozen yogurt, leaving Kim, Maureen, Payson and Cathy with the house to themselves.

"Is he hot?" Maureen asked, looking towards Payson for an assessment.

"He won't be interested," Payson said shortly.

"Payson," Kim cautioned her daughter, who shrugged unapologetically. She and Maureen had never gotten along as children and it seemed that had carried into young adulthood.

"Why wouldn't he be interested in my Maureen? She may not have posed practically naked in a magazine, but she's pretty enough to be a model," Cathy shot towards Payson.

It had started when they arrived. Somehow in their absence, Cathy and Maureen had formed quite a lot of resentment towards Payson's success and there wasn't much they were holding back.

Payson rolled her eyes, "Excuse me," she said, standing up and leaving the room.

As soon as she was gone, Cathy reeled on her, "Well, Kim really, that girl of yours. I really think all this fame has gone to her head. And they're still talking about that magazine picture of her in town. I can't believe you and Mark would let her do something like that. Then we arrive her and she's not even living at home anymore?"

It had been all Kim could do to keep her mouth shut. She wanted this holiday to be a pleasant experience.

When she called them all to dinner, it was an absolute relief that they would have the food to occupy them at the table.

"Sasha, how did you get involved in gymnastics?" Dave asked and Kim smiled.

"It's in my blood actually. My father was a gymnast for Romania and it was something I grew up doing."

"So you've never had a real job?" Cathy asked and Kim cringed. Sasha had rebuffed all of Cathy's not so subtle hints, pushing him towards Maureen all night and now her sister was in attack mode.

Sasha's eyes flashed briefly, but he seemed to reign himself in, "I suppose that's one way to look at it. I've never had to work at a job I've hated. I've been lucky enough to do what I love since I was a very little boy."

"Is that what you plan on doing as well, Payson?" she asked quickly, and Kim saw Sasha's eyes narrow towards her sister and instead of allowing Payson to answer he jumped in.

"Payson is a world class athlete. If she does as is expected next year in London she will arguably be the greatest female gymnast of all time. She has worked harder than any athlete I have ever encountered and overcome the most astounding obstacles a person could face to get to this point. So, no, I suppose she won't have to resign herself to the drudgery of simple employment for a paycheck. Excuse me," he said, standing, dropping his napkin on his chair and leaving the dining room.

The entire table sat there with their mouths agape. Kim made to rise, to go after he guest and apologize, but Payson's hand on her stopped her. She shook her head and stood to follow him.

"Well, how rude," Cathy said, her eyes fixed on Kim. "Are you just going to let that man speak to me that way?"

Kim stared at her, "Are you serious, Cath? After the way you've been behaving? All your little comments and insinuations, what is the matter? Are you jealous? Is that what this is? You thought us moving here was a mistake and we've proved you wrong and now you're jealous? Excuse me, I've lost my appetite." She stood and marched into the kitchen where the kids were eating, oblivious to what had happened in the dining room.

Becca looked up from cutting Livy's turkey for her. "Sasha and Payson went out back," she said off handedly.

"They needed some fresh air," Kim said as an excuse, though she knew it was a weak one. She moved towards the window and looked out into the yard, not seeing the pair.

"I don't know, Sasha looked pretty angry," Becca said. "Payson will be able to calm him down though. She always does."

Kim looked back at her daughter. "What you do you mean?"

"You know, like when we're at the Rock. Whenever Sasha goes off the deep-end about something, Payson's the only one who can get through to him without getting her head bitten off."

Kim nodded, still looking outside into the dark yard before finally spotting them near one of the large trees. Sasha had given Payson the jacket to his suit, which made sense since it was only about forty degrees outside. It looked like they were talking. Kim watched as they both seemed to calm down, their shoulders more relaxed, the tension gone from their posture. She saw Payson nodding and then Sasha leaned down to brush a kiss against her daughter's cheek. She took off his jacket and handed it to him and he left the yard from the side gate. Apparently, he'd had enough, not that Kim blamed him. She looked back towards her daughter who was standing in the middle of the yard, staring at Sasha's retreating back, holding her hand to her cheek, as if she were trying to keep something there. Kim's eyes widened and she gasped. Suddenly, the changes in her daughter made sense, the shift from completely and utterly content and happy to the overriding sense of sadness that hovered over her, the tension she seemed to be operating under on a daily basis. Payson had fallen in love with her coach.

Chapter 41: Black Friday

For most people, the Friday after Thanksgiving consisted of braving the overcrowded stores looking for the holiday sales and the perfect presents for their loved ones. For Payson Keeler it was just another day. Although officially, the Rock was closed, she wasn't about to take another day off and she certainly wasn't about to spend the day with her family, not after the disaster that Thanksgiving at the Keeler house proved to be. It was the worst kept secret in their family that Aunt Cathy felt inferior to her sister. So when the Keelers moved to Colorado five years ago to pursue Payson's dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast, Cathy pounced. She constantly questioned the decision, insinuating that they were delusional, and setting Payson up for a failure she'd never recover from. It had all come to a head the night before, when Sasha of all people had defended her in front of her entire family, most of who had learned to simply ignore Cathy's ramblings for what they were, the biting words of a woman unhappy with her own lot in life. Payson hadn't cared, not really, but hearing Sasha describe her and her accomplishments, using the harshest tone he possessed had sent the butterflies in her stomach into frenzy.

She touched her mother's hand lightly as she rose from the table, silently communicating that she would follow Sasha. He'd taken the route through the kitchen, so she knew he hadn't left, had simply removed himself from the awkward situation after his outburst.

"He looked angry," Becca said as she made her way into the kitchen. "What happened?" she asked.

Payson eyed her younger cousins and shook her head at Becca, "He just needed some air," she said and Becca nodded. She left the house, not thinking about how chilly the late November air would be. She spotted him near one of the large trees in their backyard, breaking apart a small twig, tossing the pieces away.

"Hey," she said, wrapping her arms around herself, rubbing her hands against her skin, trying to stay warm.

Wordlessly he removed his suit jacket and with a flick of his wrists placed it over her shoulders, pulling the lapels together tightly. He waited for her to replace his hands with hers before he took a step away, the close proximity already affecting them both. "I'm sorry. It was unconscionably rude of me to say that to your Aunt. I should go back and apologize."

Payson smiled up at him, "Don't be sorry," she said, "you said what I've wanted to for years now. She excels at belittling what I do without actually coming right out and saying it. We mostly just ignore it now, but thank you just the same."

"I should probably go then," he said, a frown marring his handsome face. "I think I've caused enough trouble for one night."

She smiled, "I'm glad you came tonight," she said. "It was nice to have you here with my family, almost like…" she trailed off.

"Almost like we'd told them everything and we were just a normal family celebrating a holiday together?" he finished for her, a sad smile replacing the serious expression he'd worn since she came outside.

"Yes," she said, looking up into his eyes. For a moment, one terrible and wonderful moment, she thought he would throw aside their agreement and kiss her. She could feel the magnetism that always seemed to flow between them pulling them closer. Her eyes darted to his lips, her own tongue peeking out and wetting her lips in anticipation. She looked up into his eyes and the eye contact broke the moment. They couldn't do this.

"I should go. Tell your parents thank you for a lovely evening," he said and she nodded, taking off his suit jacket, but not before inhaling his scent deeply. It had long since faded from her bed sheets and the thought of spraying his cologne onto her pillow had seemed borderline pathetic. Her eyes drifted closed as a small shock of pleasure ran through her, her body reacting instinctively to what it associated his scent with: mind numbingly wonderful sensations.

"I will. Thank you for coming," she said, looking up at him, their eyes meeting again.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Payson," he said and before she could react he leaned in and brushed a soft kiss on her cheek. Then he was gone, striding purposefully to the side gate and out into the front. She put her hand up to her cheek and let her eyes drift closed, trying to memorize the feeling of his lips again. It had been so long. She heard the distinctive sound of his engine turning over and his truck pulling away before she opened her eyes and made her way back into the house.

Her mother was standing in the kitchen, a curious expression on her face. She relayed Sasha's message and they both returned to the dining room, her mother looking at her with that same odd expression. It lasted all through the remainder of the awful dinner and then while they were cleaning up.

Finally, as they were putting away the last of the dishes, Payson looked up at her mother, "What? Why do you keep looking at me like that?"

Kim shook her head and grimaced, "You know you can talk to me about anything, right?" she asked and Payson sighed.

"Mom, if this is about Austin again, I don't know how many times I can say it."

She shook her head, "No, it's not about Austin. You know that don't you? Anything at all."

Payson knew that there'd been a rift forming between her and her parents since Worlds. It was just too hard to be around them, though she loved them very much. It was still nice to know that her mom was there for her, at least in theory. "I know that, Mom."

"And you wouldn't keep anything big from me right?"

Her smile faded and she sighed, putting down the dish towel and looking at her mother seriously, "Mom, there are just some things that you're better off not knowing." It was the only answer she could give without lying to her face. The truth was she had kept something big from her mother and would continue to do so without hesitation. She knew it was semantics at this point, the lies of omission were enough to ensure a complete break in their relationship once the truth came out, but Payson couldn't bring herself to actually utter the words.

Kim frowned, but remained silent on the subject, redirecting her attention towards the leftovers that had to be put away.

Payson sighed as she finished her warm-up circuits, Sasha standing off to the side watching her. It hadn't been brought up again, butthe tension remained. She knew they'd have to address it eventually, but since Payson had no idea where it came from, she didn't know what she could do about it.

She went to the water cooler and took a quick drink before moving towards the uneven bars.

"Have they gone home yet?" Sasha asked, his first words to her since they said good morning when she arrived.

"Tomorrow morning," she said, rolling her eyes. "I won't be going over there again 'til they leave. You should have stayed. Maureen was so angry with her mother for scaring you away," she teased lightly, trying to make him smile. It worked as the side of his mouth quirked upwards in a small, lopsided grin. "Thank you, by the way, for what you said."

He shrugged, "It was the truth," he said. She nodded and moved off to the bars to begin her set. "Payson," he said, and she stopped in her tracks, looking back towards him curiously. "They're not invited."

She wrinkled her brow in confusion. "Not invited?"

"To the wedding."

She didn't know what possessed him to say that, but as soon as the words flowed from his lips, she knew they'd been the right ones. They needed a reminder, something more tangible than the memories they made over the last year. She'd taken his words at face value, though suddenly it had little to do with an invitation and was more about the general idea. They would get married one day. The word itself sunk in for both of them and a lovely smile spread across Payson's face, one he mirrored before they both nodded and looked away. She moved towards the bars again and taking a slow, deep breath pushed aside her emotions and focused on her new bars routine, one that she had to begin landing consistently for there to be any hope of her sweeping the golds at the Olympics.

She came home from training that day feeling bruised from head to toe. The shower at the gym hadn't done the job and the one thing she wanted more than anything was a long, hot soak in her bathtub. It was a thing of beauty, her tub. It could easily fit two people, something she and Sasha had discovered relatively quickly and it was a Jacuzzi tub, with powerful jets that would ease the ache in her body. The uneven bars routine was coming along nicely, but she'd eaten mat more times than she could count today working on her release combinations.

She threw her gym bag on her bed, turned on the hot water and lit some candles placed strategically around the bathroom. The soothing smell of lavender invaded her senses as she stripped off her clothing, clipped her hair at the top of her head and then, as the bath filled quickly added some bubble bath to the steaming hot water. She slowly lowered herself into the water, her muscles almost instantly relaxing as she settled her head against the side of the tub and closed her eyes. She let herself drift away, memories washing over her as she remembered leaning up against Sasha's strong chest, his hands running along her body as they washed away the grime and stress of their days away, his lips against her neck and shoulders. She sighed as she conjured up imagines burned into her memory. Her hand dropped into the water, disappearing below the surface –

"Payson!" a panicked male voice called out. Her eyes shot open and Austin Tucker was standing in the doorway to her bathroom, looking like someone had been strangling him.

She didn't even have the energy to yell at him, her head simply fell back against the tub. "Austin, what are you doing here?" she asked, tiredly.

"I, uh, I," he stuttered. She'd never seen him so flustered. "You weren't answering your cell and then you didn't answer the door. I got worried. You looked like maybe you were asleep and then you moved your hand and I realized that you definitely weren't asleep. Sorry, I just wanted to see what you were doing for dinner."

She sighed, "There are Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge," she said. "I was going to warm them up later, but I'll do it now."

He shook his head, "No, you, uh, you stay in there. I'll warm them up," he said. "Sorry, I interrupted." He fled the room quickly enough and she laughed lightly to herself.

A half hour later, she'd thrown on pajama shorts and a tank top and made her way downstairs, following the smell of food into her kitchen. Austin was at the table, a virtual smorgasbord of food surrounding him. "Want some?" he asked, his mouth full of what looked like mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes.

She shook her head, "I brought most of that back for you anyway. You know I can't have that crap."

He nodded, unconcerned and dug back into the food. There was a knock at her front door and she went to answer it. She was shocked to see her mother on the other side.

"Mom, what are you doing here?" she asked, opening the door to let her mother in from the freezing cold.

"I did some Christmas shopping for Becca and your father today and I was wondering if I could hide the presents here. Your father is such a snoop and Becca's not much better." She lifted the shopping bags she had in her hands.

Payson smiled, "Sure," she said, leading her mom into the house.

"Did you warm up the leftovers?" Kim asked as they approached the kitchen, obviously able to smell them.

"What, uh," she began, but wasn't able to finish as Austin came out of the kitchen, looking perplexed, holding a Tupperware full of apple pie in his hands.

"Hey, Pay, how do you open this thing?" he asked, not looking up.

Kim Keeler stopped and took in the scene and Payson sighed. She knew what her mother was thinking. She looked down at herself. She was practically in her pajamas, barefoot, her hair was wet and Austin was looking very much at home.

She was about to open her mouth again, when her mother looked at her sharply. "C'mon, I'll put them in my closet," she said, taking some of her mother's bags and leading her upstairs. Austin didn't need to hear the lecture she was about to get, especially since he hadn't really done anything to earn it.

As soon as they entered her bedroom her mother started, "What's up, Pay?" she asked, her tone clear.

She sighed, "Nothing, Mom. I know you don't believe it, but nothing." She knew how it looked and she knew her mother's trust in her had been waning, especially since the incident at Worlds. Pictures and video were tough to deny, despite that she was actually telling the truth when it came to her relationship with Austin.

"See, I'm finding that hard to believe. I just don't understand what's going on with you, Payson." She paced the floor a bit and then turned, catching sight of the bathroom, the candles lit around the tub, the lights were dimmed and the bubble bath hadn't completely drained. "Is this…were you two…" her mother obviously couldn't even voice the thoughts bouncing around in her head.

Payson sighed and shook her head, "I took a bath when I got home from training, alone. "

Kim sat down on her bed and looked at her, concern replacing the outrage of a moment before. "I know you think I won't understand, but I think I do."

She shook her head, "Mom, I doubt that very much."

Kim shook her head and sighed, "I know it can be confusing, especially if you have feelings for someone you can't have. Sometimes you jump into something else or you go back to someone you can have because it's easier. You have to know, Payson, that's not fair to you or to that other person. You'd just be hurting him."

Payson furrowed her brow at her mother in utter confusion, "Mom, I really have no idea what you're talking about. Are we talking about Austin? I don't have feelings like that for Austin and he doesn't feel that way about me. I don't…"

Her mother cut her off, "I saw you and Sasha in the backyard yesterday," she said.

Payson still wasn't sure what her mother was alluding to, nothing happened in the yard after dinner, they'd talked and he'd left. "Okay, I don't understand," she said.

"You really don't do you?" Kim said, shaking her head. "I saw him kiss your cheek Payson and I saw the way you looked at him as he left. It nearly broke my heart to see you like that. I just wanted to let you know, it's okay to have those feelings. Sasha's a good man, the kind of man you should have feelings for someday, but he's your coach, sweetie and so much older than you. I'm sure you realize that. It must be so hard for you to train with him. Would you feel more comfortable training with someone else? We'll figure something out."

Payson stopped her, holding up her hand and shaking her head firmly, "Mom, you don't need to say anything else. I do not want to talk about this at all. Sasha is my coach and what you're saying, it's just, you don't know what you're talking about. So please, leave it alone." She chose her words carefully, trying not to lie outright, though what was the point of that really?

"Payson, I'm just trying to help. It can't be easy for you. Did you realize it in Istanbul? Is that why you've been so sad lately, honey?"

She closed her eyes, trying to hide the pain. Her mother had hit far too close to home and the dull ache she felt inside of her when she woke up alone each morning until she steadfastly buried it came roaring to life. She hadn't realized just how much she wanted to share what she was going through with her mom. They'd always been so close. A girl should be able to talk to her mother about the man she fell in love with, especially when he was a man like Sasha, who was, like her mother just said, a good man, the kind of man she wanted for her. There was just no ways she could tell her, not now and when it did come out, she doubted very much her mother would understand.. "Mom, please, just don't," she said, looking her in the eye. "Sasha is my coach and Austin is my friend. You don't know what you're talking about." She had no idea what else to say.

Kim nodded, biting her lip and Payson felt the guilt wrench tightly in her stomach. "Okay. I just don't want to see you make a mistake and do something you'll eventually come to regret. "

She stood up and took a few steps, wrapping her arms around herself. "Mom, please."

"I can't drop it. You seemed so happy for a while there, Pay and I hate to see you upset. You can't deny you've been down lately."

"I've been focused. There's a difference, I've got just under ten months until the Olympics. I've been training harder than I ever have before."

"You're different than before, Payson and whatever was responsible for that change, I can't say I'm a fan of it. And it's not your training. I've seen you focused before, Pay and this is different. You're different."

Payson scoffed lightly. "Mom, I'm going to ask you again, please drop this." She met her mother's eyes, pleading with her. She had no desire to escalate the conversation into a full scale battle, but she would if she had to.

Kim raised her hands in defeat, "Fine, but just, be careful, Payson. Don't get yourself into something that you can't handle. It'll only hurt you in the end."

A few minutes later her mother left, obviously unsatisfied with their conversation, but there wasn't much Payson could do about then. Austin cleared out just a little bit later, taking most of the leftovers with him.

She sighed, sitting down on her bed, physically and emotionally exhausted. She set her alarm to go off at four in the morning, though she knew her body would probably wake up without the aid of a blaring cell phone insisting it was time to wake up. She looked at her phone and studied it for a moment before she made a decision. Just the press of a few buttons and it was ringing and then connected.

"Hello?" his voice rasped into the receiver, full of sleep.

"Hey," she said, her voice sounding small even to her.

"Payson," he mumbled, sounding slightly more alert. "What's the matter?" he asked, and she sighed, suddenly feeling very silly and not a little childish.

"I know we said we wouldn't do this, but I need to hear your voice," she said.

"You okay, love?" he asked, his concern palpable even through the phone line.

"Yeah, my mom stopped by. She thinks I'm in love with you and sleeping with Austin to try and get over you."

She knew the words would wake him up fully, "Well she's half right," he said and they both laughed lightly. She proceeded to tell him the full story, exactly as her mother had relayed it to her. "There's nothing we can do about this, Pay. She doesn't really know anything. She only suspects your feelings. We'll just have to continue to be careful."

Payson began to feel better, "There was one thing she said, I thought you might like to know."

"What's that?" he asked.

"She said you were the kind of man I should love."

"She said that, did she?"

Payson could hear the smile in his voice. "She did, although there was something about your advanced age and position as my coach thrown in there too."

He sighed, "I bet." They were silent for a moment, "Go to sleep, Payson. Try to imagine I'm there with you, wrapping my arms around you, tucking your head into the crook of my neck. You could even put your icy cold feet against my calves, I wouldn't complain tonight."

"I love you," she said, trying to imagine it was just as he said.

"I love you too."

Chapter 42: In the Home Stretch

Sasha surveyed the busy gym floor and nodded in satisfaction at what he saw. The Rock was hosting the Women's National team along with the Junior Girls' National team, the first of many combined practices that would lead them into the Olympics in August. The junior girls turning sixteen in the calendar year would remain ineligible for most major competitions until the Olympics themselves, but based upon what he saw, there was a good chance one or possibly two of the current juniors would be taking spots on the Olympic team in place of two current members.

Everything was still very much up in the air, but if Sasha had to lay a bet on it, Kaylie Cruz had to step up her game and fast if she wanted to be included on the 2012 Olympic team. She had never really recovered her championship form after her time away from the sport after her collapse at the 2010 World Championships. After these Worlds, where some said she underachieved, the rise of Isabella Ruggeri seemed imminent. She was the perfect age and a flawless performer. He felt someone at his shoulder and looked over to see his father standing there, the same content expression upon his face. It was the program his father always dreamed of building in Romania and despite the requirements of working through the club system and not a united national program, he could see the unbridled joy wash over his father's face as his eyes flitted from one gymnast to another. His eyes finally stopped on Payson who was standing next to her sister and the youngest member of the junior team, eleven-year-old, Julia Harrison. She was their golden hope and his father had no idea what was about to occur in the gym. It was a new year and Payson's routines were ready. She'd debut them at the Pacific Rim championships in May, but she'd perform them for the first time at a National team practice today.

He smiled to himself and his father noticed, "What makes you smile like that?" he asked.

"You're going to want to watch Payson today," Sasha said, unable to keep the grin from spreading. His father began every National team practice with a simple rotation, allowing all the gymnasts to run through their routines fully before they began evaluations, corrections and critiques.

Boris pursed his lips, "She has new skills?"

"Just watch," he said, nodding towards the bars where she swung up under the watchful eye of most of her teammates. He did not watch the routine, he'd seen it hundreds of times, he wanted to see the reactions of the rest of the national gymnastics program, from the awe in the faces of the younger gymnasts to the unbridled envy washing across the faces of the other club coaches including Marty Walsh who was standing at his other arm. He saw the gasps and smiles as she flew into her release combinations, one after another and then another, and then the dismount. He heard her feet hit the mat and then an anonymous "Holy shit," exclaimed from one of the girls in the crowd that gathered.

Payson pointedly ignored the attention and nodded towards Isabella Ruggeri, the fifteen-year-old junior national champion, who suddenly looked nervous about doing her bars set.

"What is the…"

He cut Marty's question off, "Eight point zero," he said, unable to keep the superior tone from his voice as he quoted the calculated difficulty level of Payson's bars routine. He heard Marty suck in a breath and then let out a low whistle.

"Way to bring your A-game, Beloff," he said and Sasha smiled at him.

"I believe it was Payson who completed the routine," Boris barked at them. He approached the bars and glared at the gathered crowd, "All of you, show is over, back to work," he said, clapping his hands in their direction. "Payson," he said, calling her over and putting a hand on her shoulder. Sasha approached from behind them, more interested in watching Ruggeri's bar routine than listening to whatever his father had to say about Payson's routine. The old man was smiling as he spoke to Payson who smiled in return. Sasha focused on the bars and watched the fifteen-year-old swinging around, her tiny body flying through the air. Her routine was excellent, would bring a solid score in the high sixteens. He smiled at the young girl as she landed on the mat, taking a small hop and then raised her arms. She sighed in relief, obviously just happy to stay on her feet and keep her routine clean.

"Nice work, Isabella," he said as she moved past him.

"Oh, umm, thank you," she said, looking up at him with large brown eyes. She seemed more than a little overwhelmed by the people surrounding her at the moment.

"Focus on those handstands," he said, nodding to where Kelly Parker was working her set. "Watch Kelly, twelve o'clock every time, legs glued together, toes pointed. Every time," he said. They both watched Kelly Parker finish her routine.

"Good job, Kelly," Marty called from the other side of the mat.

Payson watched Isabella perform her bars set and was impressed. She needed some polish, but the girl was definitely legitimate. She cringed as she looked across the gym where Kaylie was working on her floor routine. Boris was standing by her side. "That new routine, you and my son designed it?" he asked.

She smiled at him, "I drew it up originally and we worked on it together. It's very different from my original design. I have new routines on all the events," she said and he raised his busy, grey eyebrows in surprise.

Boris nodded and his expression shifted, "And how is he?" he asked.

It was standard procedure now, whenever the National Team practiced, Boris would find an excuse to talk to her alone and then he would quietly ask about his son. Payson winced. This time was different however, she hadn't seen Boris since she and Sasha had called a halt to things and she glared towards Sasha who obviously hadn't informed his father. She sighed, "He's doing well," she said and Boris nodded. She had to tell him. Sasha didn't get along with his father, but she did. "We haven't been seeing as much of each other, outside of training," she said quietly.

Boris's eyes flashed to hers and she was shocked at the rage she saw there. She sought to cool his temper, "It was, necessary, after the world championships" she said, not sure what else to say.

"You say, necessary?" he asked. Her words hadn't had the effect she hoped. He looked even more angry than before. "And why was it necessary?" he practically seethed. Suddenly his anger seemed directed at her. Then she remembered: the kiss, he thinks it was about the kiss.

"You should talk to Sasha," she said, with a sigh.

"I will," he said, storming away from her.

"What was that about?" Isabella asked and Payson turned to her. They were the first words the junior National Champion had uttered to her.

"Boris being Boris," Payson said with a shrug and as sincere a smile as she could manage. "He tends to run hot and cold. Don't let it faze you."

The younger girl nodded. "That routine was incredible," she said, almost shyly.

Payson looked at her. The girl was tiny, probably no more than five feet tall, dark brown hair held in a high ponytail and green eyes that matched the dark green leo she wore. Payson smiled lightly, Isabella was making an effort and it wouldn't kill her to do the same. The way things were shaking out, this girl would probably be her teammate in London. "Thank you. It's still new, so I'm trying to work out the kinks, but hopefully it will be ready for Pacific Rim."

"It looks great right now. You work here at the Rock with Coach Beloff, right?" she asked and Payson looked up sharply. The answer to the question was obvious, Isabella knew she trained at the Rock, the entire gymnastics world did.

"I do," Payson responded, eyeing the girl carefully, "along with Lauren, Emily and Kaylie."

"My parents, they're thinking of moving to Colorado," she said, looking at Payson meaningfully. Ah, she's looking to make a move.

Payson shook her head, her smile widening. "Do your parents want to speak with me?" she asked, and looked past Isabella into the parents' viewing area where she saw what had to be Isabella's parents staring at them. She nodded to them and she saw Isabella's mother smile. "Where do you train now?"

"I'm from Chicago," she said, looking shocked that Payson didn't know where she was from. "My parents think that my coaches have taken me as far as they can."

"And what do you think?" Payson asked, trying to take stock of this little girl who could possibly help her towards a team gold medal.

Isabella shrugged, "I might have planted the idea in their head," she said and they both laughed a little. Payson remembered when she'd first brought up the idea of moving to Boulder. Her parents thought she'd lost her mind.

"They really should speak to Sasha first," Payson said, looking across the gym where Sasha was watching Lauren on the beam, his father standing next to him, looking put out, but not furious like he had when he'd left her company. She'd royally screwed up that conversation, she could only rely on Sasha to mop up her mess.

"They want to hear from you, about what it's like here."

"And what about you, do you want to hear about what it's like here?" Payson asked raising her eyebrows.

"The Rock has seven national team members here right now and Coach Beloff. That's all I need to know," she said. Payson smiled. She liked this girl.

Kaylie finished her floor routine and looked over at Boris who was not paying attention in the slightest. She sighed. How had it come to this? She was a former national champion and she couldn't hold the attention of the national team head coach. She sighed and moved off the floor to let Becca Keeler work through her routine. Her eyes flashed across the floor towards the uneven bars and saw Payson standing with Isabella Ruggeri, the junior national champion. They were smiling and laughing, as if they hadn't a care in the world, which they didn't. Kaylie fumed and Lauren was suddenly by her side, after completing her beam set.

"What going on over there?" Lauren asked, nodding her head towards Sasha and Boris, who seemed to be snapping at each other. There was nothing unsual about that however, they were always sniping and being sarcastic with each other. Kaylie figured it was how they showed their affection.

Kaylie shrugged, "No idea. Boris hasn't been near me all day, so I wouldn't know what's going on in his head." She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice, but she couldn't help it. She saw the writing on the wall. Boris had his golden girl with Payson, Kelly was a solid number two and Andrea had become his all-around fall back, finishing sixth in the all-around at Worlds. Emily had proved she could be counted on to be consistent and Lauren was money on the beam. The ways in which she could help the team at the Olympics seemed to be dwindling and Isabella Ruggeri was breathing down her neck. She looked over again and saw Payson moving away from them, towards the beam where Sasha and Boris were still speaking. No one else in the gym would have dared to do it, but Kaylie supposed when you were a two-time World Champion the rules, even unwritte ones, were a little different. Or, you know, sleeping with the coach probably helps too. She shook her head. Payson was her friend and she would help her again if she could. She remembered their media tour after the World Championships. They had just completed an exhibition with the men's national team and were attending an party in Los Angeles, on the last night of their tour before heading home.

The club was practically pulsing, the bass from the music pounding through Kaylie's ear and chest as she moved as far away from the dance floor as she could, where she spied Nicky dancing with a girl completely unfamiliar to her. It hurt a lot more than she had any right to feel after the way she treated him. She spied a set of doors that looked like they led outside and she moved through the throngs of people towards them. They led onto a large stone balcony where there were only a few people milling around. She caught sight of a familiar blonde head leaning against the stone railing, staring out into the bright cityscape.

"Hey, Pay," she said, bumping her friends' shoulder lightly with her own. Payson quickly wiped at her cheeks, trying to compose herself. Kaylie sighed. The media had been ruthless these last two weeks, constantly barraging her with questions about Austin. She didn't think it would be enough to reduce Payson to tears. Her friend was usually so strong. "You okay?"she asked.

Payson nodded and then shook her head, "Austin told me you knew, that you figured it out and you warned him about Lauren," she said and Kaylie frowned.

"I asked him not to tell you."

Payson laughed, "You know Austin, you tell him to do one thing and…"

"He does another," Kaylie finished for her, briefly remembering the day he'd come to warn her parents about her disorder and how he declared himself right there, in front of her parents.

"Exactly," Payson said, wiping away a final tear. "I wanted to thank you, for doing what you did. I know I didn't deserve it. I lied to you I've been lying to everyone."

"Payson, please, you're my friend. End of story." Payson smiled at her and Kaylie returned it.

"Thanks, Kaylie," she said. For a moment Kaylie thought she was going to go on, tell her something, something that Kaylie thought might be important, but then she clapped her mouth shut and sighed.

They stood in silence for a while longer before Kaylie could no longer contain herself, "So you and Sasha, I admit I didn't see that coming."

Payson laughed mirthlessly, "Neither did I, until it happened."

Kaylie took in her friend's expression, She didn't appear particularly happy. "Are you sure you're okay, Payson?"

"I'm fine, I just, I miss him," she said. It sounded simple enough, but Kaylie thought she saw something in Payson's eyes, something that meant more than missing a man she'd see the next day. She didn't pry, it wasn't her place and there were some things she just didn't want to know.

It was the last time she'd really talked to Payson. When they returned home, her friend threw herself head first into her training and the old Payson, the one that zoned out and barely heard a word people said around her most of the time, was back.

"Hello, Earth to Kaylie," Lauren said, snapping her fingers in front of her face.

"What?" she said, shaking her head, "Sorry."

"You're starting to act like Payson," Lauren said with a smug smirk. They may be best friends, but Lauren Tanner never could pass up a chance to get in a small jab. Thanks to Austin's very public display, she was totally convinced, just like the rest of the world that he and Payson were together. Who could blame her though? The kiss had been remarkably convincing.

One night, feeling particularly masochistic, Kaylie had watched the video. It was all over the internet, some crazy fans even creating music videos of the footage. As she watched Austin and Payson dance, his cheek brush against her hair, and finally their lips coming together, Austin's tongue flicking lightly against Payson's bottom lip, before their mouths opened against each others, deepening the kiss before Payson pulled away abruptly and they walked out of the ballroom, Austin's arm around her waist. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought it was very real and not a complete farce. The only thought that ran through her mind when she saw it was that it was a grown-up kiss. For all her experience with Carter and Nicky, and even the few moments she'd shared with Austin, she didn't think she'd ever been kissed like that. And it wasn't even real. She thought back to what Lauren once said to her. She was the kind of girl that boys wanted to marry, not the girl boys wanted to have sex with. Was she still that girl? What made her different from Lauren or even Payson, the girl who swore she'd be a virgin until she won an Olympic medal? She looked around the gym, first towards Lauren standing at her side, a virtual lock for the Olympic team with her beam skills and the confidence, at least outwardly, to say and do whatever she liked. Her eyes shifted to Emily, on the other side of the floor, a scholarship at UCLA awaiting the conclusion of her international career and a rock star of a boyfriend who worshiped her. Then she saw Payson, the reigning National and World Champion and the favorite to win the Olympic all-around, standing next to the man she adored, a perfect match in the gym and out of it. Then she turned her thoughts to herself, and suddenly Kaylie felt very young, very silly and very much on the outside looking in.

Kim Keeler watched from the office windows as both her daughters trained under the expert eye of some of the best coaches in the world. She had never imagined this when she'd first signed her constantly bouncing four-year-old up for gymnastics back in Minnesota, so she wouldn't have to chase her around the jungle gym while nearly seven months pregnant. If anyone had told her this was what their life would become she wouldn't have believed them.

The initial rotation was finished and Payson had moved immediately to the beam, shoulder to shoulder with Sasha as they discussed something. Payson hopped up onto the four inches and moved towards the far edge. She flipped her body into the air from a standing position, somehow creating her enough momentum to complete what looked like a tumbling pass across the beam, finishing with her toe practically curling over the edge. Sasha moved forward as she finished and stood just in front of her. He spoke to her and she answered. They had a brief conversation, before Sasha tapped her foot lightly with his hand and she sprung backwards, again from a standing position across the beam, one skill flowing seamlessly into another. Kim didn't know what they were called, but the routine had been enough to stop the entire gym when she performed it earlier. In fact, all four of Payson's routines during the initial rotation had drawn the attention of every other occupant of the gym. Her eyes refocused on Payson as she dismounted the beam and moved off the mat quickly to let another girl work. Sasha approached her, both wore equally serious expressions as they discussed something, it didn't seem to be gymnastics related as their eyes kept shooting towards the parents viewing area. Then Sasha nodded and Payson walked away towards the vault to begin stretching out her knee.

She'd watched them carefully for months now, ever since confronting her daughter about her feelings for Sasha after Thanksgiving. She had no idea what to make of what she'd seen. Either her daughter was an extraordinary actor or she hadn't been kidding when she told Kim that there was nothing to worry about. She didn't seem uncomfortable or tense around him, if anything, they seemed comfortable. She'd briefly toyed with the idea of bringing it up with Sasha, but the thought of that conversation made her uneasy. She didn't want to make Sasha feel uncomfortable around Payson. It was a tricky situation, one that she was starting to believe she imagined the expression of longing that crossed Payson's face on Thanksgiving, but then it would flash across her mind again and she knew it was real. She felt completely helpless. There was nothing she could do for her daughter, but sit back and watch and be there for her if she needed her mom.

"Kim," a voice startled her out of her reverie.

She nearly leapt out of her skin, she hadn't seen or heard his approach, "Sasha," she said, putting a hand over her heart. She turned and smiled at him.

"Sorry," he said, and moved past her to sit at his desk.

"No, I was just in another world. How's the practice going?" she asked, nodding towards the floor as she returned to her desk.

"Well enough. I think Payson is making everyone at the NGO feel very comfortable about her leading us into London. Maybe a little too comfortable," he said, frowning.

"And the juniors, how are they handling this?" she asked, waving her hand around in the air. It was a major concern of several junior national team parents that their girls would suddenly be training with the older girls. The junior girls were the top in their sport, for their age, but the level of skill on the senior national team blew them away in general.

"Well enough," he said. "Isabella Ruggeri is thinking about coming to train at the Rock," he said. "She put a feeler out with Payson."

"Wow, well that would be…" she trailed off.

"Uncomfortable and a little too much of a good thing," he finished for her with a sigh. Kim couldn't help but agree. The Rock currently housed four Olympic hopefuls on the women's side and there were only six spots to be had on the Olympic team. For all their talk about gymnastics really being a team sport, there would likely be some backlash from some of the elite families about adding another elite girl to the already packed roster.

"She's the junior National champion," Kim said. "You don't turn down a talent like that."

Sasha smirked, "I'm sure that's what they said when Payson wanted to come train here."

Kim snorted in agreement. She'd been told enough stories from other parents to know that was true. After Marty recruited them from Minnesota, several of the other parents, including both Steve Tanner and Alex Cruz had expressed reservations. Their daughters were the stars of the gym and would have to take a back seat to the top junior in the country. That wouldn't be the case now, but Ruggeri was excellent and would probably rank at least third in the gym right now, despite her junior status, maybe second. Those same parents would probably have those same reservations, especially this close to the Olympics.

"No matter," Sasha said, "as you said, you don't turn down talent like that. It doesn't come around very often." He smiled, mostly to himself as his gaze drifted towards one of the pictures on the wall. Kim turned and saw it was a photograph from the World Championships two years ago, coach and athlete embracing, the scoreboard in the background flashing a ten for execution. Kim was struck at the level of affection clear as day on his face.

Slowly, very slowly, a tiny voice in the back of her head told her to take notice of it, but as quickly as the expression appeared it was gone and the voice with it. "Sasha," she began, not entirely sure what she wanted to say.

"Hmm?" he asked, his eyes moving towards her expectantly.

She shook her head, "Nothing. I'm going to grab some lunch; do you want me to pick you up anything?"

"No, thank you. I'm actually having lunch with the parents board," he said, his eyes rolling up to the ceiling. "After I speak to the Ruggeris."

"Oh wow, well have fun," she said, chuckling to herself as she grabbed her coat from the back of the chair.

He snorted derisively, "About as much fun as a heart attack."

Chapter 43: Left and Right

Payson didn't know what to say to either Lauren or Kaylie. She knew she had to say something, but the words that usually came to her, simply failed her. It wasn't a snub, it wasn't unfair or a bad decision, it just simply was. The Pacific Rim championships held every year, allowed senior and junior elite gymnasts to compete together on an international stage. Boris took his top three seniors and his top three juniors, two of which would be age eligible for the Olympics later that year. She bit her lip watching Lauren and Kaylie's hopeful expressions drop as Boris announced the six names in his eastern bloc accent and then abruptly walked away from them, consolation and explanation not part of his coaching repertoire.

She looked over at Sasha whose expression seemed cold, but she knew his emotions were swirling behind his eyes. She watched as Lauren spun on her toe and marched away, most likely to go complain to her father about how unfair it all was, but Payson was more worried about Kaylie who wore a sort of resigned expression. She felt a mix of relief and sadness. She was glad Kaylie wasn't shocked, most of them had seen it coming, but it was difficult to watch someone's dream begin to unravel, especially when you counted that person as your friend.

She approached her slowly and Kaylie grimaced, "You don't have to say it, Pay," Kaylie said, with a small shake of her head, "it is what it is."

Payson sighed as the former National Champion, the girl she once resented for having it all, walked away. Her shoulders slumped as she approached her parents, both of whom wore expressions of concern and sympathy, Alex's face edged with a little anger to accompany the former emotions.

She looked towards the group of five girls, all gravitating towards each other. They would be her teammates in Melbourne where they would take on teams from nations that lined the Pacific coast, large and small. They would be huge favorites, but really it was about gaining experience, giving girls who had little to no experience at the senior elite international level a chance to prove that they could perform. Boris would be watching carefully, especially the two age eligible juniors, Isabella Ruggeri, the newest Rock girl and Justine Turner, gold and silver medalists in the all-around at Nationals and the silver and 4th place finishers at junior Worlds.

Payson had watched Isabella train over the last few months after her move to the Rock and she was the real deal. Sasha had upped her degree of difficulty immediately and she had taken up the challenge, often training with Payson from dawn 'til dusk. She had a lot of natural talent and now that talent was being honed by the best coach in the world.

Just days later they boarded a plane after everyone arrived in Los Angeles, a small contingent this time around, six men, six women and their national coaches. Payson sat down beside Emily and sighed. "This is weird," Emily said, looking around, just as Kelly Parker sat down next to her.

"Really weird," Kelly agreed. Payson and Emily both looked at her dubious expressions on their faces.

She rolled her eyes, "No seriously, it's really getting down to it, isn't it? I mean it was all in theory before that only a few of us would make it and now, well here we are."

Payson took a deep breath, "You're right. I mean aside from Julia," she said, nodding towards the eleven-year-old sitting a few rows ahead of them, the youngest gymnast to ever make the junior national team, "the five of us, we could be the team going to London."

They all sat back, letting the idea wash over them, thinking about each of their teammates and moments later they looked at each other again, "If this is the team, we take to London, we've got a really good shot," Emily said, her eyes brightening.

Kelly nodded and Payson agreed, "More than a good shot. We're going to win," she said confidently.

The flight attendant came and asked them what they would like to drink. The girls gave their orders before she moved on to the row to their left where Sasha sat.

"And what can I get you, sir," the flight attendant's voice took on a much different tone than the sweet one she'd used with them. Emily turned to Payson with her eyebrows raised, but she just shrugged. Sasha was an attractive man; women were going to flirt with him.

"No Guinness?" he asked, looking over the in-flight menu.

"No, I'm sorry, sir. We do have several fine American beers," she said, leaning her hip gently against the seatback in front of him.

Payson felt slightly gratified to see that he was either ignoring the women's attempts at flirtation or oblivious to them. She'd never felt jealous before, but in that moment she frowned at how unfair it was that she couldn't simply be with him. She remembered the last time she'd sat next to him on a flight, on the way to Rotterdam, one of the defining moments of their relationship. The flight attendant on that flight thought she knew something about them. She wished this one could have drawn that same conclusion, but it was not to be, at least not right now.

Payson volunteered to room with Julia, feeling that as team captain, the girl should have someone to look out for her. Looking at the tiny girl as they both unpacked, she wasn't sure if she'd ever been that small. She was listed at four feet seven inches tall and the ninety five pounds was probably a generous estimate. She absolutely flew through the air on every element; she was far better than Payson had been at that age. The sky seemed to be the limit for her. She was also practically silent. The next youngest member of the national team was fourteen years old and the difference between eleven and fourteen was huge, even in elite level gymnastics.

Payson finished unpacking and put her suitcase in the closet, before turning towards the younger girl. "We have a little while until dinner. I don't know how you do with time differences, but a nap is probably a good idea."

"I am a little tired," Julia said, the weariness suddenly obvious on her face. Payson looked at her closely. She wasn't sure how this girl was holding up. It was just so much so fast. She'd made the junior national team after earning a last-minute invitation to nationals, finishing a surprising fourth. When she turned up at a national team practice later in the year, she impressed Boris so much he named her to the Pan American games team. Julia's rise had been sure and steady ever since.

Payson smiled. "I'm just going to…"

"Hang out with your friends?" Julia finished for her, a yawn finishing off the last syllable.

Payson shrugged, "Maybe for a little while. If I crash too soon after a flight, my body clock gets all out of wack."

"Not me," Julia said, slipping under her covers, her eyes flickering closed almost immediately.

Payson chuckled under her breath. It seemed like the girl was already out cold. She pocketed her keycard and slipped out of the room, flicking off the lights before she left. She made her way down the hallway, towards where Emily and Isabella were sharing a room. She was halfway down the hallway when she saw Sasha leaving his hotel room.

"Hey," she said, smiling at him, just a small grin, but when he returned her smile with one of his own, she felt hers spread wider.

"Hey," he returned the greeting. It had been months, and now she felt that old tension, the cloud of magnetic energy that used to surround them, forcing them to give in to desires they hadn't put a voice to almost a year ago.

"Can't sleep," she said, shrugging her shoulders.

"You never can after a long flight," he said, for once not censoring himself. "Feel like getting a cup?"

The tension broke and she nodded, "Yeah, there was a little café in the lobby," she suggested. It was so silly. Here they were, intending to build a future together and they could barely carry on a decent conversation because of their self-imposed restrictions, rules meant to protect and yet in this moment, Payson didn't feel protected. She felt exposed.

They made their way down the hallway together. The last time they'd really been alone outside of the Rock was at Thanksgiving, the night that had given birth to her mother's suspicions about her feelings for him. Except Mom isn't here right now.

They stood in the elevator bay and she remembered another night, in Rotterdam, she'd fallen into his arms and they held each other, celebrating an enormous day for her professionally, but giving into their mutual desire to be close. Her eyes flicked upward and he was already looking at her, one side of his mouth quirked up. She thought maybe he was remembering the same moment. They entered the elevator and she made a decision. Maybe they couldn't be together the way they wanted, but it had been so long since she had any real physical contact. She stood close to him and allowed the back of her hand brush against his. His shoulders tensed, but then his hand twitched and suddenly she found her fingers caught up by his, and then entwined, his palm pressed against the back of her hand tightly.

They reached the lobby and moved apart before the doors to the elevator opened again, only to be met by the frowning face of Boris, obviously waiting for an elevator to take him up. His bushy eyebrows rose in surprise, but he looked gratified as he allowed them to exit the elevator without a word. Sasha kept his eyes forward, but Payson looked back and he winked at her as the door closed.

They found a small table tucked in the corner of the hotel's coffee shop. As they sat down with their drinks, Payson sighed in relief. "This is so …"

"Nice," he finished for her, and she nodded. "I forgot how much I love just sitting with you."

She took a sip of the tea she ordered and sighed. He was right. This was how it started, how it really began, beyond the almost painful physical attraction, these quiet moments together when they talked about everything and anything; this was the foundation of their relationship.

It was so simple, just sitting here at a table, like they had hundreds of times before, like he hoped to thousands of times in their future. "So, Payson Keeler, how are you?" he asked and he looked at her affectionately.

She gave him an answer he didn't expect, "Miserable without you," she said, her eyes flickering around the café quickly before she reached out and put her hand on the table, just millimeters from his. Casually, he hoped, he slid his hand towards hers, letting their hands brush, she lifted her pinky and moved it over his. "How are you?"

He swallowed and nodded, "About the same," he said. He looked at her, trying to read her face, but for the first time in a long time he found her inscrutable. He sighed heavily, needing to change the subject, "How's school?" he asked and he found he chose the right topic. She brightened almost immediately and launched into a complicated stream of scientific gibberish that went straight over his head. He let her talk, happy enough to sit back and let her ramble, gesturing wildly with her hands, her face lit up with excitement over her second passion, science.

A waitress came over suddenly and took their cups from them, cleaning the table with a towel, leaning into his view of Payson who stopped talking and looked on bemusedly. The waitress finally stood and looked at him expectantly. He nodded and smiled tightly, "Thank you," he said before turning back to Payson.

The waitress hesitated for a moment before moving away and Payson smiled at him strangely, "What?" he asked, furrowing his brow.

"You never have any idea when women flirt with you shamelessly, do you?" she asked.

He snorted, "Her breasts were practically pushed into my nose when she was wiping the table down. I got it," he said and she raised her eyebrows. "It's been a while, so yeah I noticed." He immediately wished he could reel the words back in, but it was too late. Her smile faded and she looked down at the table, the hurt unmistakable across her face. "Payson, I…"

She nodded, not meeting his eyes, "No, I understand, you have needs," she said, her gaze drifting from the table, over his shoulder and then down to her lap. She sat back in her seat and bit her lip.

"Payson," he tried again, but she cut him off again.

"It's okay, Sasha," she said. "I get it. I mean I can't be with you so you may as well…" she trailed off, gesturing vaguely with her hand, but he knew what she meant.

His eyebrows shot up. "That's just not….Payson, I don't want," he stopped. "Look at me," he whispered raggedly. He barely recognized his own voice. Her gaze met his and he reached across the table, taking her hand again, "If we had a place to go, right now, I would take you upstairs, and show you exactly how much I don't want any other woman."

She squeezed his hand, "Sorry, I don't know where that came from," she said, her tone full of regret. "I just miss you, I think."

"I miss you too." He put as much meaning into his voice as he could. "I miss you in every way."

"I think about that night all the time," she said, and then lowered her voice, "sometimes if I close my eyes I can still feel you inside of me."

His eyes fluttered shut and he swallowed roughly, his throat suddenly dry as a bone. "Payson," he said as images spun across his mind's eye, her head thrown back in pleasure, her flat stomach quivering under the touch of his lips, her hair sweaty and matted against her forehead, her cheeks rosy and flushed, their sticky skin pressed together, their bodies moving as one. He opened his eyes and met hers. He knew that look. It seemed their minds had traveled to the same place.

Her eyes twinkled at him and her face grew serious. "What if we had a place to go?" she asked. "I don't have to compete until Friday and I haven't put this to good use yet." He watched her slide a black plastic card from her wallet and twirl it around on her fingers. "Apparently I'm a big deal, a big enough deal for an American Express Black card."

His eyes focused on that piece of plastic. He didn't want to think about it. He'd spent the last few months thinking about it. He looked up at her and she knew exactly what he decided. She slid from her seat. "Five minutes," she said as she slipped past him.

He turned and watched her go, watching the way her hips swayed gently as she walked away. He quickly threw a few bills on the table, having no idea how much he'd over or under tipped and moved out of the restaurant, towards the lobby store. He found what he needed almost immediately and paid for them wordlessly, slipping the small box into his jacket pocket. From the windowed walls of the store he watched her move towards the front desk, passing her card across the marble counter and then receiving a packet of card keys. She tossed her hair over her shoulder before she searched across the lobby for him. He moved towards her. Their eyes met and she nodded, before she broke the eye contact and walked purposefully towards the elevators. They stood in the elevator bay again, a different sort of tension washing over them now.

To Sasha it was almost ridiculous how anxious he suddenly felt when really, he should be reigning himself in. It was exactly this sort of circumstance that outted them to his father. They stood slightly apart as they waited for an elevator with three other people. They shouldn't be doing this, but he couldn't bring himself to care. It had been so long and their split which had seemed so rational and important in Istanbul, suddenly seemed silly and unnecessary.

He followed her out of the elevator on the seventh floor, a full five floors above where their other rooms were located. To be safe he kept his distance, following just a step or two behind her towards the room she just reserved. She slid the key into the lock and pushed the door open, stepping into the room and with a quick glance back and forth down the hallway, he slipped in behind her and didn't let her get far.

Her back was to him and he stepped behind her, sweeping her hair away from her neck, lowering his mouth to the smooth skin he'd been denied for months. He snaked his arms around her waist, pulling her back into him. She gripped his arms, digging her fingers into his forearm as he once again found that spot just behind her ear. He actually felt her knees buckle, as she pushed into the caress of his lips, a low groan escaping her throat.

The sound snapped whatever control he had over himself. He spun her around and pushed her up against the wall, pinning her there, his hands braced on either side of her head as he lowered his mouth to hers. It was an all consuming kiss, dominant and forceful as he pushed his tongue into her mouth immediately, claiming her as his own. Her fingers slid into his hair, taking everything he had, giving as good as she got. His hands moved off the wall, to her hips, pulling her lower body into sharp contact with his, grinding against her roughly. Her hands braced against his shoulders and he knew what she wanted.

He slid his hands lower, caressing over the curve of her ass before lifting her up and allowing her to wrap her legs around his waist. She was lighter than he remembered, a product of the work they'd done over their foolhardy attempt to distract themselves over the last few months.

They reached the bed quickly and he sat down, allowing her to take control for the moment, hovering over him. "I love you," she said, the first time he'd heard those words pass her lips in far too long.

"I love you too," he rasped, just as her mouth descended upon his.

They lay there, later, their breath evening out as she pillowed her head upon his chest.

"What exactly were we thinking when we decided to give this up?" she murmured to him.

"It's not all that clear anymore," he responded, kissing the top of her head lightly.

She sighed, "I have to get back. I left Julia napping. She'll wake up soon and wonder where I am."

He was struck by what her words sounded like; like a mother worried about her child. "We don't have kids yet, love." His voice was teasing, but she looked up at him, a curious expression on her face.

"How many kids do you want?" she asked. Her tone seemed casual, but he suddenly knew they weren't just speaking hypothetically.

"Three," he said, "or maybe four." The more he'd thought about it after briefly discussing it with Kim Keeler, the more he wanted a large family, two or three had changed to three or four and he wouldn't be disappointed if a fifth arrived.

She laughed, "You want a big family?" she asked, though it wasn't a question.

"I'm an only child," he said, in explanation. His hand wandered from the bed sheet towards her stomach, caressing gently against her lower abdomen. She shivered in response, gooseflesh appearing across the smooth skin.

"We'd wait a little while," she said, and this time it was a question, even if she hadn't phrased it that way.

He chuckled, "It's a long way off, Payson."

"I know," she said. Then she turned to her side a little and smiled at him, "Three?"

"Or four," he responded with a cheeky grin, knowing it would infuriate her. He rolled into her again, kissing her lightly, before their amusement faded and he deepened the kiss again. "Round two?" he asked, though he already knew the answer.

Chapter 44: Sleepless Nights

Kim Keeler could not sleep. She slipped out of bed around two in the morning, in search of a glass of water, only to see a faint glow under the door leading to Becca's room. She stuck her head in, "Becca Keeler, what are you doing?" she rasped.

Becca smiled guiltily and shrugged, "Watching the meet," she said, and shifted over to let Kim sit next to her on the bed. "We have a comfortable team lead; the rest of the field isn't even close. Payson's leading in the all-around, but Justine is having the worst day of her life."

Kim nodded, knowing that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. She knew in Boris's mind the alternative to Justine Turner was probably Kaylie Cruz. The worse Justine did, the more likely it was that Kaylie would be included on the Olympic team. She watched as Justine ran towards the vault, twice, pulling up both times, scratching on the event. The fifteen year old moved off the podium and threw herself into a chair, before burying her face in her hands. Payson moved towards her and patted her gently on the shoulder, but the younger girl remained inconsolable. It was hard to watch, but Justine would have another shot, four years from now, this would be Kaylie's first and only Olympic cycle.

The United States cruised through the rest of the rotation and the camera focused on Payson as she stretched out her knee before she would anchor the team on the event. Sasha approached her and Kim watched her daughter look up at her coach, not with the serious expression she expected, but with her eyes twinkling, and an emotion she wasn't sure she wanted to identify playing across Payson's face. It wasn't longing or wistful, it was more than that, a knowing expression, something intimate, extremely personal. She looked at Sasha the way a woman looks at a man, not the way a girl looks at her coach. She wanted to brush it off as Payson's competitive spirit getting the best of her, a knowing expression before performing a vault that would easily dominate her competition at this event, but it still gave her pause. It reminded her of something, a look she'd seen on Payson's face before, but she couldn't place it.

"Payson Keeler is looking extremely relaxed," she heard the commentator say, after Payson performed her vault flawlessly and the teams began leaving the floor. "Perhaps the sports' most dominant athlete, she hasn't been without controversy in her career. After coming back from a fracture in her back, Payson sky rocketed to the top of the sport, leaving the rest of the world in the dust, but lately it's been her personal life that's attracted most of the attention. She's rumored to be dating two time men's world champion and defending Olympic champion, Austin Tucker and their relationship, at least as the press documented it has been a rocky one. She's been in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, with tons of sponsorships, there's only one thing missing: the Olympic gold."

That's when it hit Kim. She knew that expression because she'd seen it before; it was the same face Payson wore in her Sports Illustrated photo. What had Payson told her about that picture? The photographer had given her directions. "The photographer told me to think sexy, to think about someone I wanted and to pull him in with my eyes and that's what I did." She watched as the coverage wrapped and the screen went to black.

"Can you rewind this?" she asked Becca, who nodded, fiddling with her mouse. She scanned through the last bit of footage, letting her pass Payson's vault and only telling her to stop when she saw the camera focusing on Payson and Sasha. She saw the intense and passionate expression pass over Payson's features and she looked at Sasha. He seemed to be looking back at her passively, his face more stone than anything else. Then Payson stood and walked up the stairs towards the podium and the camera remained on Sasha for a moment and a small smirk appeared, slowly before the camera panned away towards where Payson was about to begin her vault run.

Kim frowned. Out of context, it was just an amused expression. She had no idea what to make of it. "What's the matter, Mom? That was a great vault, as usual." Becca said.

"Nothing, it was a great vault," she said, patting her younger daughter on the shoulder. "Good night, Becca."

She retreated back to her room, the glass of water long forgotten. What did it mean? Should she confront Payson about it? She already had, just after Thanksgiving and that hadn't gone well. Payson had practically begged her to leave it alone and she had. But that was when she thought that Payson was suffering through unrequited love. Maybe it was time to talk to Sasha about it, but what would she say?

"Sasha, I don't like the way my daughter looks at you and that little smirk of yours isn't exactly my favorite expression either." In all likelihood it was nothing, a harmless little crush or at worst, a passing attraction. He would likely stare at her, having no idea what she was talking about.

It was just instinct that something wasn't as it should be and with something this important, something that could possibly drive a wedge between her and her daughter, she had to be sure. She wasn't even sure she knew what she was seeing. The only issue that had ever come between her and Payson had been boys. Yet, Austin Tucker was one thing. He was older, but not by much, and he and Payson were very much equals, both still competing. Sasha was at least ten years older than her daughter and her coach, in a position of trust, a trust that should be sacred. Would Sasha take advantage of that trust? Would Payson ever allow herself to be taken advantage of? She knew they were close, but were they too close? Was this at a point where it could be nipped in the bud? Or had they progressed beyond that?

She settled into her bed and sighed, staring up into the dark. What was the worst case scenario? Her mind flashed immediately to things a mother shouldn't ever think about her daughter. Shaking her head, she realized she didn't want to think about it, not really. Was this even any of her business? Payson had been on her own for a while now; she makes her own decisions good or bad, and the vast majority of them were good. She also had an independent streak a mile wide, she always had. It was a tense time, just five months out from the Olympics. After this competition, they would compete at Nationals and the Olympic trials in quick succession before the Olympic Games in late July. It was the worst possible time for something like this to become an issue, if it was an issue at all.

Kim shook her head, not believing that she was rationalizing this. But what this was exactly, she still had no idea. She closed her eyes, but she knew sleep would be elusive tonight.

Austin Tucker was glad he lived in the twenty-first century because while the Pacific Rim championships were taking place in Melbourne, Australia, a place so far away it was actually tomorrow there, he was able to watch the entire meet on his computer. He'd opted out of the event, allowing some of his other teammates to attend and get some international experience, which would only make the team that much better in London. It served him well, because when he saw Justine Turner, a junior elite gymnast continually choke on each apparatus and finally, the pièce de résistance, her nerves overtaking her so much that she scratched her vault on the final rotation.

He saw Payson stretching out, preparing for the vault. Sasha stood next to her. He watched her eyes flick up to their coach's. There was no mistaking the love and more than a little lust that passed through their eyes. He knew they fooled people because no one was looking for it, but it was obvious to him. He suddenly couldn't wait until they got home so he could tease her about it. How long had they lasted? He counted in his head quickly, October to almost April. He cringed, it had been six months, almost seven, which meant it was also seven months since he and Kaylie had ended whatever was between them, though in an unspoken and much less tangible way than Payson and Sasha. He and Kaylie hadn't shared much more than a few stolen kisses, but he'd carried those moments with him since then. He didn't want to feel this way about her, especially after the way she'd tossed him aside in favor of Nicky Russo, but as Payson told him more than a few times, you can't help who you love.

He stared at his cell phone, knowing that no one else was awake. It was two o'clock in the morning. His good judgment, something he'd been listening to more and more over the last two years told him to leave the phone alone, finish watching the meet and then go to bed, but a niggling voice in the back of his head persistently whined at him that it was just a phone call and she probably wouldn't answer anyway. Before his better judgment could win out, he made the decision. He grabbed his phone and the steady tone echoed in his ear, before her voice answered on the other end.

"Hello?" she asked, clearly half asleep. She could always be counted on to have her phone within arm's length. It was one of the things that simultaneously annoyed him about her, and yet he somehow found it endearing.

"Austin?" she rasped, "it's…it's two o'clock in the morning, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said, muting the commentators on his laptop. "I was just watching the meet." He tried to keep his voice as casual as possible, but he could feel his stomach tighten. They'd barely spoken to each other these last months beyond the basic courtesies of hello and goodbye. He took her by surprise that much was clear. Hell, he'd taken himself by surprise.

There was a long silence on the other end. He knew she wasn't sure if he was calling with good news or bad news. It gave him pause; did she really think he'd be that cruel? "That's great, Austin, but I was sleeping."

"Kaylie, I just thought you should know, that junior, Justine Turner," he trailed off. He wanted to let her sweat a little bit, especially since he was delivering good news. She knew Turner was her major competition, a solid gymnast, who hadn't proved herself on the international stage as of yet, while Kaylie had on more than one occasion.

"What about her?" Kaylie asked, impatiently. The caution in her voice was gone now, replaced by a desperate need to know what her chances for the Olympic team looked like.

"She's choking, big time. Nothing higher than a fifteen on the first three rotations and she just scratched on the vault."

"You're kidding?" she asked, her voice suddenly high pitched. "That's…that's a shame," she said, trying to remain gracious.

Austin laughed, "You do know what this means, don't you?" he asked.

He could practically hear the smile in her voice, "Go to bed, Austin. I'll see you tomorrow morning at the Rock."

"Good night, Kaylie," he said, glad he called her. He heard the other line go dead; he ended the call and he smiled to himself. He tossed his phone on the bed next to him and looked back at the screen as the teams marched out of the arena, the day's work done. He shut down the laptop and switched off the lamp on his bedside table, but he knew he'd lay awake for a long time that night, thinking about Kaylie Cruz and how in a phone call that lasted no more than five minutes, something important had suddenly changed.

"Home sweet, home," Payson said as they pulled into the empty spot in her two car garage. Sasha got out of the truck and turned to see the sun setting just beyond the lake.

Suddenly, he heard a voice from just outside. "Where were you off to this time, young lady?" He took a few steps out towards the driveway to see Roy, Payson's next door neighbor sitting on his front steps, smoking his pipe.

"Melbourne, Australia," Payson answered.

"Ah, down under," Roy said. "I was there, for a little while, during the war, we took some leave in Melbourne, slept in their cricket stadium." Sasha stepped out from behind the back of the truck, "Ah, Alexander, haven't seen your face around here for a while." The older man's voice was admonishing at best. Sasha felt properly scolded.

"You two know each other?" Payson asked, looking between them.

Roy nodded, "We do."

Sasha cleared his throat, "Roy was nice enough to give me some advice one night."

Roy chuckled, "A kick in the ass is more like it, but if you're more comfortable with advice, that's alright, my boy."

Payson laughed. "I'll just let you two catch up then," she said, pulling her luggage from the back of the truck's cab. She brushed past Sasha lightly, her hand lightly caressing his, almost entwining their fingers, but her hand slipped through his and she made her way up the stairs, "Good night, Roy."

"Good night," the older man called as they both watched her disappear into the house.

Sasha turned to him, somehow feeling that he had to explain himself, that his prolonged absence had been a matter of necessity, not of choice, but as he discovered in, their reasons for staying apart suddenly seemed silly and manageable. Roy just looked at him with his old brown eyes, "Well, young man, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Sasha sighed and shook his head. He had no idea why, but he felt like it was important that Roy understood what happened, "I was trying to protect her," he said, finally, the words sounding hollow even to him.

Roy scoffed, "From what? Nosy fools? People should mind their own damn business." Sasha gaped at the older man. For the first time he realized that Roy knew exactly who he and Payson were. He knew how much younger than him she was, he knew that he was her coach and yet, somehow, he approved. "You thought I didn't know? I'm old, Alexander, I don't live under a rock. The girl is the best gymnast in the world and you aren't exactly anonymous. I remember you, the British rebel who blasted away America's hopes at the Sydney Olympics. So what happened? Someone find out?"

Sasha was struck speechless, but shook his head. He found his voice a moment later, "No, but it was a close shave."

"Huh, didn't think you were familiar with the concept," Roy cracked and laughed heartily at his own joke. Then he grew serious. "You hurt her, you know? Oh, she'd always smile and put on a good show for me and my wife, but you could tell. I had a mind to look you up and knock you upside your head. Never seen that girl so sad, nearly broke my heart to see her moping around."

Sasha nodded and looked up at the house, a sense of déjà vu washing over him as he saw Payson's bedroom light flick on. "It did break mine," he said, quietly, though he knew Roy heard him.

"So what changed?"

Sasha shook his head and looked back at the older man, "Nothing," he said. "Nothing's changed. We're less than five months out from the biggest moment of her life and it just doesn't matter." He knew the frustration was evident in his tone. He knew he should have had more self control, been able to put a stop to the wave of passion that completely swept them away in Melbourne. She'd been in his bed more than not on the trip, as they flouted good sense and simply reveled in each other. It was a miracle they hadn't been discovered. "If you really cared about her, you'd be chasing me off, telling me to stay away or at least bide my time."

Roy scoffed, "You're too noble for your own good, Alexander."

Sasha laughed, "Now that's one I haven't been called before." Roy laughed with him for a moment and shook his head.

"Take it from someone who's been there and is closer to the end than the beginning, that girl, she's special and wasting time, like you two did, it's just plain nuts. A year ago, now, five months from now, what's the difference? You love each other, so be together. If you act like you're doing something wrong, then you are."

Sasha snorted, "You want to come with us when we tell her parents?"

"I've met her parents. They seem like reasonable people," Roy said, taking a draw from the pipe. "They'll come around eventually, once they see how happy their daughter is, once they see that it's going to last. Or you could just give them a grandchild. Us old folks tend to forgive a lot when there are grandchildren to spoil rotten."

Sasha outright laughed at that, "That might be a while, Roy. She had a lot she wants to do before we have kids."

Roy clapped his hands together and rocked backwards on the step, "Ha! I knew it," he said, the pipe hanging precariously from the side of his mouth. "You two plannin' on kids and tryin' to stay away from each other. Just plain nuts."

Sasha shook his head, "Maybe it was crazy and obviously ineffective, because here I am."

"Here you are, indeed," Roy said, "So you gonna stay outside all night, talkin' to an old man or are you gonna go inside and…"

"Christ, Roy," Sasha interrupted him, as he felt the heat rise on the back of his neck.

Roy stood, chuckling to himself. "Good night, Alexander and tell that pretty girl of yours that if you hurt her like that again, I will knock you upside your head and set her up with my no good grandson. Maybe she'd straighten him out."

Payson was just about to go outside and get Sasha when she heard the front door shut firmly and his solid footsteps on the stairway. She felt him standing there, hovering in the doorway. Turning towards him, she smiled, tilting her head at him, "You and Roy have a nice chat?" she asked.

He shook his head, a small smile gracing his handsome face. She loved this, having him here, in her bedroom again, the warmth she'd taken for granted before they tried to stay away, was suddenly back. "He knows about us, you know? Who we are."

Payson shrugged, "He won't tell anyone," she said. "And if he did…" she trailed off.

He sighed, "It would almost be a relief," he finished for her.

"My thoughts exactly," she said and suddenly realized they'd been moving closer to each other with every word. "Stay with me tonight," she said, though she lifted her tone a little, making it more a question. They hadn't worked out the details; it had been more a physical reunion than a verbal one. She smiled to herself as images of their nights together in Australia flashed through her mind.

"I'll stay every night, Pay. I'm done hiding. I'm not saying we have a press conference or shout it from the rooftops, but I'm done trying to stay away from you. I love you and I'm staying until you tell me to leave."

She wound her arms around his neck, feeling his hands rest lightly at the small of her back, "Then it looks like you're going to be around for a while."

Chapter 45: Interesting Developments

The sound of rain beating against her windows slowly drew Payson from her sleep. Her eyes fluttered open, the room was still dark, a product, she was sure of the overcast skies. Her body was telling her it was time to get up. She let her eyes drift closed again and that's when she noticed it, a weight, heavy and warm against her stomach, his arm curving protectively around her body, two fingers tucked slightly into the waistband of her pajama shorts. She could hear his soft, even breathing on the pillow next to hers. She recognized the deep, slow rhythm, he was sound asleep. Not wishing to wake him, but needing to see him to believe it was true, she carefully rolled over. His arm remained around her, instinctively pulling her closer as she shifted towards him. As usual, he was practically radiating heat and she snuggled closer to the warmth. She sighed contentedly, letting her eyes drift closed again, sleep slowly overtaking her.

She woke later, sleepier than when she'd roused the first time, the rain still pelting away at her windowpanes. Her eyes opened and a slow smile spread across her face. Sasha was awake now, still holding her close, his eyes focused on her. "Hey," he whispered, nudging his nose against hers.

"Hi," she breathed, their lips brushing together softly. "This is nice."

He nodded in agreement, "Mmm, more than nice. If I could wake up like this for the rest of my life, I'd die a happy man."

She smiled, tucking her head into the crook of his shoulder, "I think that can be arranged. I sleep better when you're here," she said, her fingers absently drawing patterns against the skin of his bicep.

They lay there for a few more moments in silence before she heard him sigh, "Sasha?"

"There's something we should talk about," he said, foreboding words, though his tone didn't give that impression.

"Yeah?" she asked, titling her head up to meet his eyes.

"Yeah. The lease is up on my flat in New York in August and the people I've let it to want to renew it, but I told them it was possible I'd be moving in to the apartment in September," he said. "What do you think?"

"New York," she said, and bit her lip. Suddenly, everything they'd talked about, everything they intimated and assumed and even wished for was more concrete, more tangible. "I love that apartment."

He smiled, "Me too."

"I applied to Columbia you know?" she said. She'd applied to several schools as a transfer student as well, including several in the London area. She'd taken online courses at UC Boulder and completed several liberal arts requirements in the last year. "I heard from them two weeks ago. I got into their Biology program."

He snorted, "Of course you did. Was there ever any doubt?"

She shook her head at his confidence in her, "Well, I wasn't sure," she said with a small smile. "it's a great school."

"I suppose I should start looking for gym space in New York to rent out and put some money aside to incorporate and get insured. It won't be quite the Rock at first, but I think we might draw some quality gymnasts," he mused.

"You want to coach in New York?" she asked. "I wasn't sure if you wanted to be a club coach again, after all the stress of this Olympic cycle and dealing with the NGO's politics."

"It's what I do, Payson. I left gymnastics once; I'm not going to make that mistake again." There was something in his voice that gave her pause.

"Sasha," she began, "If you wanted to stay in Boulder, I mean, you're established here at the Rock. You'd have to start all over again in New York and hope that someone came along with enough talent…"

He shook his head and cut her off, "The Rock won't have any problem finding a new coach and I never intended to stay here. There isn't anything that would keep me in Boulder after the Olympics, Payson, unless you wanted to stay. Your family and friends are here."

She looked up at him, searching his eyes, and then shook her head, "No. I want a fresh start after the Olympics in a place we don't have to hide or pretend. No one will care who we are or that we're together."

"And one day some little girl will bounce into our gym wanting to be the next Payson Keeler and we'll take them to the Olympics," he said, kissing her forehead lightly.

She smiled, loving when they talked about their future, "So it's New York."

"New York it is then," he said, his fingers stroking gently against her hair.

"Wow," she whispered, a smile burgeoning across her face. "We're moving, together, to New York. It doesn't sound real when I say it out loud yet."

"Did you tell your parents about Columbia yet?" he asked. "That's a big deal, Pay. They're going to be really proud of you."

She frowned and sighed, "No, I thought I'd save that news for when we talked to them. It might make them feel a little better to know I'm going to continue school. That is something we should talk about though, about when we talk to my parents and what we're going to say," she said, pushing up onto her elbow. He mimicked her and they lay on their sides facing each other. "We'll talk to them after we get back from London?"

"Yeah," he said. She looked into his eyes and for the first time in a very long time, she wasn't sure what she saw there. She stared at him long enough that he knew she expected him to voice his thoughts. "Are you sure you want to tell them at all, Payson? It's totally up to you. I'll do whatever you want to do, but you'll be going to New York and strictly speaking, they wouldn't be any more aware of what's going on with you than they are now."

She bit her lip and shook her head. She knew he had to suggest it. Similar thoughts had run through her mind here and there over the last few months. In theory, he was right. She could very easily move to New York, settle in at school and Sasha's presence in the same city would be nothing more than a pleasant coincidence, a friendly face in a new city, but she knew she couldn't do that. "I don't want to lie to them anymore," she said. "We've been doing this for so long now; I know it's just semantics at this point. I don't know, maybe I just want to relieve myself of the guilt of lying to them for so long, but they deserve to know. I'm happy, Sasha. I'm happy and I'm in love with an amazing man and we're going to build an amazing life together and I know they won't see that right away or understand it, but they will eventually. I want them to be a part of it, even if at first they…"

"Stop speaking to you," he finished for her. It was a painful thought, but she knew it was a possibility.

She studied the stitching at the edge of her pillowcase intently, "Even if they stop speaking to me."

She felt his hand reach out and touch her shoulder, sliding down her arm and then caress her hip gently. He pulled her close and held her tightly to his chest, "They'll come around eventually, Payson. I know they will."

She buried her head in his chest and sighed against his skin. "No sense in worrying about it right now." She glanced over his shoulder and saw the time. "What time did you want to be at the Rock today?" she asked.

"Around noon," he said, the hand at her hip slipping under the hem of her shirt gently stroking the skin at the small of her back.

She smiled, though he couldn't see her face, "Three hours, whatever shall we do with them?"

His body shifted and suddenly she found herself on her back, his weight pressing her into the mattress, his lips hovering just over hers. "I've got a few ideas."

Austin wasn't a morning person. There was a reason he was usually one of the last people to leave the Rock, it was because he was also one of the last to arrive. He knew it took discipline and dedication and all of those d-words to win Olympic gold and he had those qualities in spades, but he also knew that it didn't require waking up at an ungodly hour. Training was just as effective at noon as it was at six in the morning, at least it was for him. So when a steady thumping noise invaded his sleeping subconscious and woke him up on a rainy Monday morning, he thought maybe he was simply dreaming, but then the thumping was joined by a ding-dong, his doorbell, followed closely by his cell phone vibrating on the nightstand next to his bed. He looked at the phone quickly. It was a text from Kaylie, "At ur door. Brkfst?"

Suddenly, without a real thought to what he was doing and why, his legs flew over the edge of his mattress. He groped around his floor for a spare pair of pants and a tee shirt. He stumbled down his stairs, nearly breaking his neck on the slippery wood of his stairs before he raced to his front door and threw it open, "Hey," he said. Kaylie was standing there on his front steps, under an umbrella, two Styrofoam cups in a cardboard cup holder and a brown bag with a heavenly smell coming from it.

"Hi," she said, looking unsure of herself.

"Uh, come in," he said, stepping back and allowing her room to walk past him.

"Thanks. I thought maybe we could have breakfast," she said, taking in his front hall, but steadfastly not meeting his eye.

"Yeah, um, great, we can eat in the kitchen," he said. Austin had no idea what was going on, but he assumed it was a return peace offering, like the phone call he'd made on Friday night.

The awkward stuttering continued as they sat down at his kitchen table. "I, uh, got egg white omelets. I wasn't sure what you liked in yours, but I figured egg whites and veggies were a safe choice," she said, passing him a box. He didn't have the heart to tell her he despised egg whites and his idea of breakfast was fried eggs, bacon, hash browns covered in as much Tabasco sauce as his tongue could stand, but he smiled gratefully and grabbed them some knives and forks.



They spoke right over each other. "Go ahead," he said, motioning with his hand.

She took a deep breath and finally made eye contact with him. He felt himself getting lost in those brown eyes, just like he had many times before, but he broke away from her gaze. It was a slippery slope. He knew he was vulnerable to her. "After you called me on Friday, I realized that I never really apologized, for what I did. I lied and I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."

Austin shook his head, "I wasn't mad about the lie, Kaylie. That was just the straw that broke the camel's back," he admitted.

"Then what?" She wrinkled her nose in confusion and he vividly recalled the last time she had done that. He'd been trying to explain to her why he couldn't just be her friend. She'd stomped on his heart again a moment later and this time he steeled himself for the pain, knowing he should be prepared.

"I was in love with you," he admitted quietly. "I was in love with you and you didn't want me."

She shook her head, "It wasn't that I didn't want you," she said, though so quietly he could barely hear her voice. "I wanted you too much. I still do."

There it was. The admission he'd been waiting nearly two years to pass her lips. The worst part about it is that he'd known it all along. He'd known it and suffered and she'd simply ignored it. He felt his chest constrict and his sucked in a breath before letting it out slowly. "Kaylie, I tried so many times. A guy can only get rejected so many times before he gives up."

She narrowed her eyes at him, though not in anger, in confusion, "Then why? Why did you call me the other night?"

"I…I don't know. I was just watching the meet and I knew I had to call you." He rubbed at the back of his neck, uncomfortably. "I didn't really think about it."

Kaylie bit her lip. "Right, of course. Look I shouldn't have come here. I'm sorry. I'm just going to go," she said, getting up from the table and walking out of the kitchen. Seconds later he was out of his chair, at full speed chasing after her.

"Kaylie," he called, catching up to her just as she made it to his front door. He put his hand over hers on the doorknob and pulled it away, holding it in his own. "Don't go," he said, leading her away from the door.

"But you just said…" she trailed off.

"I'm an idiot, don't ever listen to what I say," he said, stepping closer. He leaned down and watched her eyes drift closed. He remembered another moment like this, when she'd been waiting for him to kiss her and he'd pulled away. Austin had made a lot of mistakes in his twenty-two years, but he wasn't about to make this one twice. He leaned in and pressed their lips together. The spark was still there and he let it lead him, though they kept it chaste, just a small press of their mouths together. He pulled back and looked down at her. Her eyes were still closed. Then slowly she smiled and opened her eyes.

"Do that again," she said, leaning into him. He was more than happy to oblige her.

He brought a hand up to cup her cheek gently and brought their mouths together again, this time attending to her bottom lip, before brushing his tongue against it gently, asking for permission. He didn't know why he kissed her like this, as if she were made of glass, but it seemed like the right thing. Her mouth met his softly, allowing him to guide her.

Austin had never been a morning person and he hated egg whites and he was still angry as hell at her for the all the pain she'd put him through, but as Kaylie's mouth opened beneath his and their tongues danced together in his front hall at an ungodly hour, he couldn't help but thing that mornings were growing on him.

Kim arrived at the Rock with Becca in tow. She knew not to expect Payson until later that day. Her older daughter hadn't gotten in until late the night before, but after what she'd observed when watching that meet, even through the fogginess of her mind at two in the morning, Sasha's absence was conspicuous. He was usually tireless, arriving at the gym first, long before most of the gymnasts. She'd gone to his trailer and knocked on the door, but there'd been no answer and his truck was not parked in its usual spot around the back of the gym. So when he arrived around noon, whistling to himself, she wasn't really in the mood to be cordial.

"Hey there, good morning," he said, smiling at her in that charming way he had, but suddenly that smile did not seem quite the same.

"Afternoon," she corrected sharply and his smile faded.

"Right," he said, glancing up at the clock and shrugging.

"Here's your schedule for the rest of the day," she said, trying to keep the hostility from her voice. After all, she didn't have any proof, any real evidence, just a feeling and it wasn't fair to be angry at him because of a feeling she had.

"You okay?" he asked, obviously sensing something was up.

She put a hand to her head and sighed. "Yeah, sorry, I'm just a little tired. Welcome back," she said, finally.

He smiled and she realized she hadn't seen him smile like that in a long while. It lit up his entire face with genuine joy. She sighed. She remembered that not so long ago she'd been trying to figure out what was making him so sad, reverting back to the serious, unwaveringly stern coach he'd been when he first arrived in Boulder. He was still smiling, to himself now, humming the same song he'd been whistling when he wandered in.

"Unforgettable," she said, finally recognizing the tune. "Nat King Cole."

He looked up at smiled, "Yeah, it's one of my favorites. My mother loved him, used to make me listen to his records all the time and he just sort of grew on me."

Kim felt her throat tighten. He was different, happier, and she couldn't help but believe it had something to do with her daughter, her daughter who also had a soft spot for Nat King Cole. What were the odds? She still didn't even know what exactly she suspected about them. She bounced between Payson's unrequited love to a simple attraction between two people who spent inordinate amounts of time together, to a sordid affair where Sasha was taking complete advantage of her young and naïve daughter. Her confusion was such that she couldn't even muster up the anger she'd directed at him just moments before. She settled down at her desk and looked across the room a him as he shuffled through a stack of papers she'd left on his desk. He'd stopped humming, but a small smile played across his face now, as he set to work. It was the same expression he'd worn on the computer screen, just after he'd broken eye contact with Payson.

"Sasha," she said, not sure what she was going to say. For a moment she thought her mouth would run away with her and she'd outright accuse him of…what exactly would it be? Payson's eighteen years old, and though he was her coach, any relationship, strictly speaking, would be legal.

"Yes?" he asked, looking up at her, expectantly and she hesitated.

She shook her head, "Nothing," she said, going back to work. Maybe she was insane; maybe she was letting an overactive imagination get the best of her. Sasha had every right to be a good mood and it didn't necessary have to have anything to do with Payson. She studied the top of the younger man's head as he began to hum absently again. Kim wasn't a gambler, but if she was she'd bet the house that if she found her daughter out on the floor right now, she'd be wearing a similar silly grin and quite possibly be humming the same tune to herself, as she trained. There was nothing for her to do. There was no one she could talk to about it and no one she'd really want to talk to about it. The only thing she could do was sit back, wait and hope that whatever it was she'd sensed building between her daughter and her coach didn't come crashing down around them all.

Chapter 46: Constant Struggles and Comfortable Ease

An entire week at home and already Payson felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off her shoulders. Sasha's mere presence, each night and every morning had given her a sense of peace, a wonderful feeling of rightness that settled over them as they reestablished their routines. The sensation was almost overwhelming because every once in a while she would remember that it was permanent, no more prolonged absences, they would simply be together.

"Okay, I'm headed out," Sasha said, as he emerged from the bathroom, showered, dressed and ready for the day. He moved behind her, pressing a kiss against her cheek as she made their bed. His hands snuck over her waist pulling her back against him, making it nearly impossible to pull the fitted sheet onto the corner of the mattress. She leaned back against him and closed her eyes as his lips drifted over her neck. One hand remained splayed against her hip, holding them together as the other travelled up to cup her breast firmly.

"You've got to go," she murmured, before they could get too lost in each other.

He groaned against the skin of her shoulder, as he'd been about to pull down the strap of her pajama top. "I know. Have a good day today, take it easy," he said.

"Bring home something from Celery for dinner?" she asked. She'd been craving veggie stew and rice pilaf for days.

"Yeah, around seven," he said, a smile crossing his face as he left the room. Moments later she heard the garage door opening, followed by the sound of his truck starting up and then the garage door closing again as the sound of his engine faded down the street.

He was headed to the Rock for Sunday lessons while she planned to simply spend the day relaxing and recovering. Her training had only intensified as they inched closer to Nationals and the Olympic trials and her body was taking a beating on a daily basis. She needed a break and she was secure enough in her abilities and the time she'd been putting in to give herself a day off. She was thinking about calling her mom and maybe having lunch or going shopping. It had been a while since they did anything together.

She wandered down stairs, still in her pajamas, intent on making herself some breakfast when someone began pounding on the door. Before she could get to it, the person on the other side had it unlocked and was stepping into the entryway.

"Austin?" she asked her friend as he turned towards her, looking more lost than she'd ever seen him before. He was dressed in shorts and a sleeveless shirt, iPod strapped to his arm. He'd been out for a run and made his way over here. It could only mean one thing, Kaylie. She frowned and sighed. "What happened?"

He shook his head, "Honestly, Payson, I have no idea. Where's Sasha? He didn't stay last night? If I had known that I would have come last night."

She shook her head, "He just left; he's got lessons today with the level sixes and sevens."

Austin nodded and ran a hand through his hair nervously, "Oh okay."

She bit her lip, inviting him into the house. He sat in his customary seat, taking up nearly all of her sofa by himself. She took the large armchair nearest the couch, sitting Indian style, atop the cushion. "Start from the beginning."

Austin frowned, "You know the first part. She came by last weekend, while you were in Australia and we worked things out. She apologized and we kissed." Payson nodded, she'd heard the story, from both sides.

"I don't understand, I thought things were going well?" she asked. In fact, Kaylie had called her the other night and gushed about how amazing Austin was and how well they were getting along and what an amazing kisser Austin was. Payson hadn't said it aloud, but she'd silently agreed. Austin had kissed her once and it was for show, but he was very skilled in the art; that much she could attest to.

"I thought so too. Everything seemed great. We didn't fight over anything at all, which I thought maybe was a miracle and then last night we were kissing and one thing led to another," he trailed off.

"You slept together?" Payson cut in. She wasn't sure why it surprised her, she knew how they felt about each other, but then she looked up and saw Austin shaking his head. Then suddenly her mind began to reel. Kaylie was a virgin, that much she knew and if something went wrong, if Austin was upset then…

His voice pulled her back from the tornado of thoughts. "No, Butinsky, let me finish," he said, giving her a small glare and she shrugged apologetically, "We didn't sleep together. Things were progressing in that direction though and she seemed to be enjoying herself. No, I know she was enjoying herself and then suddenly she went completely cold on me. It was like one second she was there and we were on the same page and then, nothing. I stopped, obviously, I'm not in the habit of forcing myself on anyone and I asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn't tell me. She just shrugged a little bit and then a few minutes later she made up some lame excuse about having to meet Leo for dinner and she bolted. I texted her and called a few times, but she's ignoring me completely. I thought maybe she might have called you," he said, finally, running his hands through his short brown hair.

Payson shook her head. "She didn't call and I have no idea, Austin. Maybe she just got freaked out. I know she has really strong feelings for you and maybe it's too much too quickly."

Austin rolled his eyes to the ceiling and sighed, "It's been two years, that's the opposite of quickly. I told her that too, I told her that she was worth it all, the wait and the suffering. I told her that I'd do it again just to get to where we are now."

Payson nearly melted. She knew Austin had a hard time expressing his emotions verbally, especially when talking to someone he cared about, so it was a big deal. She wondered if Kaylie knew that about him. "You said that? Austin, that's so...I didn't know you had it in you," she teased lightly, not knowing what else to say. She knew Austin was hung up on Kaylie, but she hadn't realized quite how intense his feelings might be and then suddenly it clicked into place. "You told her how you feel? Just like that, you laid your cards on the table?" she asked, though she believed she already knew the answer.

"I did. We both were, she was talking about how sorry she was and how much she wanted me and I thought maybe it was a good time for confessions and so I put it out there. I told her it's always been her; I told her," he hesitated and looked up at Payson, "I told her a lot of other things too." His emphasis was clear and Payson knew he'd probably been explicit in describing whatever it was he'd told Kaylie.

Payson sighed and shook her head, "Austin, you know that," and now it was her turn to hesitate. It wasn't really her place to be divulging personal information, something Kaylie might not want him to know, even if it would help.

"Know what?" he asked, obviously desperate for her advice, anything that might help him.

"Nothing," she said and sighed. "I think maybe you freaked her out, things got a little too intense for her and she's not really used to that, Austin." She tried to put as much meaning into her words as possible. Perhaps he'd come to the conclusion all on his own. "I think you scared her."

"Scared her? I don't…" he trailed off and she practically saw the light bulb flicker on above his head. "You mean physically? But I stopped when she did, I don't understand."

Payson grimaced, "Austin, speaking as someone who was the inexperienced half of a relationship, it's more than a little intimidating."

"Inexperienced? But she was with Carter and Nicky, she isn't," he trailed off, his eyes widening as realization washed over him. Payson nodded. "I just assumed that…"

She shook her head, "Never assume."

Austin studied her carefully for a moment, "You say you were intimidated by Sasha's experience?" he asked, obviously trying to understand.

Payson sighed. "Kaylie and I are very different, Austin, I can only speak from what I went through."

He waved away her excuse. "It's close enough. You're a girl and her friend, if you don't mind sharing," he asked, finally realizing that it might be a little too personal.

She shook her head, "No it's fine," she said. "For me it was more fear of disappointing him than anything else. I had no idea what I was doing and I didn't want to look like an idiot. He was so sweet and patient, but I knew that he was holding back because I was inexperienced and I didn't want that."

"So you pulled away? You ran?" he asked, furrowing his brow. "That doesn't sound like you."

Payson bit her lip, but she felt one side of her mouth quirk up in a small smile, "No, I, umm, did the opposite, the details aren't important, but before that, there was a little voice inside my head, it was constantly telling me that I didn't measure up to the women he'd been with before and I never would. It was terrifying to push that aside and move forward."

He pursed his lips, "But you didn't run away? You love Sasha, so you stayed and you moved forward." She could practically see the wheels turning in his head, if it were possible steam would be coming out of his ears, the cogs were spinning so fast. "So she doesn't feel for me what you feel for him, then? She doesn't love me."

"No, I don't think that's the case," she said, shaking her head firmly and reaching out to put a hand over his. "I know you've been waiting for each other for almost two years, Austin, but you've only been together a week. I can't speak for Kaylie, but…" Again, she hesitated, not wanting to get too personal or detailed.

"Payson, stop beating around the bush, just spit it out."

She couldn't help herself, "I never spit it out," she said, before her brain fully comprehended that he'd even left himself open for a dirty joke. His eyebrows shot up into his hair and together they burst out laughing. "Fine, you really want to know?" she asked.

"Well, you can't get much more detailed than you just did, so go ahead."

"With the physical stuff, Sasha's always allowed me to be in the driver's seat. Every progression, every step, I've always initiated it. It just felt more natural that way. It went unspoken that there wasn't much territory he hadn't covered and that I still had some major firsts. I know the conversation might be uncomfortable, but if you let her know that you'll go at whatever pace she's comfortable with, that might help. You are willing to go at her pace, aren't you?"

He nodded and rolled his eyes, "You're my best friend and I'm only going to say this because you're my best friend, but this really blows. Kaylie is amazing, but how many hang-ups can a person have? I get that this one is a normal one, but seriously, it feels like everything is a struggle."

For a moment Payson felt outraged, for Kaylie and for herself, or at least the girl she'd been just before she got involved with Sasha. There wasn't a timetable for things like this and she knew how Kaylie felt, but at the same time, she knew where Austin was coming from. She remembered the frustration she sometimes saw in Sasha's eyes when things had been very new for them. She knew he was willing to wait, but she knew that willingness hadn't made it any easier.

"Pay?" Austin asked. She looked up at him. "I shouldn't have said that. I know that's a big deal for girls, I just, nothing comes easy for us."

Payson shook her head, "Austin, I get it and you're right. I know it's got to be frustrating for you, not just this, but everything. What you have to ask yourself is, is she worth it?"

He sighed, "I used to think so, but," he shook his head. "Look, I don't want to be that guy, the guy who can't handle being with a girl because she won't sleep with him, but it's not that, at least it's not just that. Nothing can ever be simple. I swear, I've talked to you about my relationship more than I've talked to her about it. She just shuts down and runs away."

Payson laughed lightly, hoping to ease the tension she saw in his entire frame. "You realize that makes you the girl in the relationship, right? Wanting to talk about your feelings."

Austin rolled his eyes, "There's that too. I'm the mature one, the voice of reason, that's just not normal, Pay. I'm supposed to be the irresponsible jerk and she's supposed to I don't know, tame me or something."

Payson laughed so hard at that her ribs started to hurt and tears began to gather and fall rapidly, "You're insane, you know that?"

Austin didn't join in her laughter, but he nodded sullenly, "Yeah, I know."

She sighed, wiping away the last of the tears and trying to bring her breathing under control, "I was going to make some breakfast; do you want something? I'll make you that scramble thing you like."

He nodded and watched as she stood and moved towards the kitchen. For a moment that only thing his brain processed was: long legs, nice ass, little cotton shorts, trim waist, tiny tank top, long blonde hair, before he shook himself out of his stupor.

It's Payson, he reminded himself sharply and stood to follow her into the kitchen. It was easy to forget sometimes, a little too easy. He'd never had a close female friend before. Emily had started to be that, but it had faded when Damon Young popped up in her life over and over again, despite their "split." With Payson it had been almost natural, their friendship was one of equals, he was there for her, she was there for him, no questions asked. It was simple and Austin realized, that's why he kept showing up at her doorstep. It was the simplest relationship in his life and in the face of the complications Kaylie constantly presented to him, he craved that simplicity.

He moved into the kitchen to see her hovering at the refrigerator door, biting her lip in indecision, "I've got turkey bacon, is that okay?"

He snorted, "I'll overlook it this time," he quipped.

He felt, rather than saw her roll her eyes as she bent over to retrieve whatever ingredients she needed. He sighed. She was like his sister, but she wasn't actually his sister, so whenever she did things like that he tried to simply look away and ignore it, but he'd been in nearly a constant state of arousal for a week. It was almost too much to ask of him to ignore. He must have made some sort of strangled noise, because she stood and popped her head out from behind the door, looking concerned.

"You okay?" she asked and he nodded. She stepped back and kicked the door of the fridge shut before moving to the counter and laying out the ingredients for his breakfast.

He shook his head, taking her in again. "I'm just going to say something, but you've gotta promise not to get mad or freak out or take it the wrong way."

She laughed, still organizing herself, before reaching over her head to grab a frying pan from the rack above her head. As she did, a small sliver of creamy skin appeared between the hem of her top and the waistband of her shorts and Austin shook his head in disbelief. Whatever higher power was up there was having a little fun with him this morning. "Fine, no getting mad or freaking out or taking it the wrong way, go ahead."

He sighed, "You ever think about how much easier our lives would have been if we had fallen in love with each other?"

She froze and then turned to look at him, "No, Austin, I haven't actually given that a lot of thought."

He shrugged, but wilted a little under the glare she was shooting at him, "Well, it would have been, easier, I mean."

She turned back to his breakfast, putting the pan on the stove and spraying it with some vegetable oil, "Easier doesn't mean better," she said, grabbing a knife and pulling out her cutting board as she chopped up some of the vegetables.

"Maybe, but your parents wouldn't be in the dark; you wouldn't be lying to the rest of the world. And me, I wouldn't be constantly questioning my every thought, worrying if she's going to take me at my word or scamper away like a scared little rabbit. It would just be easier. Even that time I kissed you, it was so easy."

She laughed at him then and somehow he found, it hurt more than he should, "It was easy because it didn't mean anything."

"It meant something," he argued, but she cut him off.

"You were helping me out, you were being my friend." He knew all this, he didn't know why he needed her to explain it to him, but he did. "Here, make yourself useful, chop up these mushrooms," she said, looking back at him. She laid a knife on the cutting board, next to her. "You really do need to get laid,"

He stood and went to the sink to wash his hands quickly before he took up the knife and chopped the mushroom into little chunks. "I bet if we slept together it would be easy, just like when we kissed." He felt her freeze next to him. "You promised not to take it the wrong way," he said and she moved again, putting a bell pepper in front of him to cut, and taking the mushroom away.

"Maybe," she allowed, finally, but then she continued, "maybe it would be easy, but I'm not looking for easy and neither are you. You're looking for the real thing, Austin and I've already found it."

The lapsed into silence for a moment, the moment turned into minutes until suddenly they were sitting across from each other at her kitchen table. He dug into the breakfast scramble she'd made for him and she sighed before rising, grabbing herself a bowl and pouring her usual honey-nut cheerios, a little skim milk and a glass of orange juice.

"This is really good, Pay," he said, around a large bite, as she came back into his view.

"Yeah, I know," she said, shaking her head. He looked up and met her eye and he knew he was forgiven for being an idiot. He smiled and she returned it.

"You really are my best friend," he added, looking back down at his breakfast.

She stood, taking her now empty glass with her, "Yeah, I know," she said, filling it with more orange juice before moving back towards her seat. She stopped next to him and ruffled his hair affectionately. It was longer than usual, time for a trim. "You're mine too."

Chapter 47: Too Fast, Too Slow, Just Right

Tuesday mornings, by ten, the only gymnasts left were the young men and women on the Olympic track. The younger gymnasts at lower levels were all gone, usually at school and wouldn't return until later that evening. Kaylie studied the floor carefully as she stretched on the mat next to the floor. She watched Payson chalking her hands next to the bars as Austin joined her, about to begin his own bars routine. They spoke quietly for a moment and then moved away.

Kaylie bit her lip and stood, shaking out her limbs. "Those two are so obvious," Lauren said, as she approached, pulling her arm across her body, stretching her triceps and back. "Do they really think they're fooling anyone? Meeting at the chalk bowl is so cliché."

Kaylie glared at her lightly and Lauren shrugged unapologetically. "What? It is. Why do they have to meet at the chalk bowl anyway? I mean they both have houses, what's with the secrecy?"

"Maybe they just needed chalk?" Kaylie snapped.

Lauren chuckled, shaking her head, "Or maybe they're talking about their plans for tonight. Dinner and some dessert," she said, a suggestive smile playing across her face.

Kaylie rolled her eyes, "Shows how much you know," she mumbled, but she immediately winced, knowing Lauren heard her.

Her blonde best friend's eyes lit up, "Why? What do you know?" she asked, jumping all over it immediately.

Before she'd even decided to speak, Kaylie whispered, "They're not together."

Lauren's eyes lit up at the new information, "What? Did they split up? What happened? I mean I saw them kiss."

Kaylie grinned and shrugged, "I don't know." She looked around quickly realizing that they were almost completely alone. "Look, if I tell you something, you have to promise you won't say anything, Lo. It's really personal and I'm sort of freaking out about it a little bit."

Lauren nodded quickly, "Of course, Kaylie. You're my best friend."

Kaylie raised her eyebrows and Lauren sighed. "I know, I know, but if you ask me to keep something secret, I will."

Kaylie sighed and lowered her voice, "Austin and I, we're sort of, together" she said and bit her lip to keep from smiling.

She watched Lauren's eyes grow wide as her jaw dropped. "You're hooking up?" she asked. "Oh my God, did you guys…" she trailed off, her meaning clear.

"No," she said, shaking her head, "although we were close the other night." She frowned at herself for a moment and stopped speaking, leaving out the part about freaking out and practically running out of his house.

"What happened? You have to tell me," Lauren said, but just as the words escaped her mouth, they were interrupted.

"Girls, this isn't social hour. Kaylie, you're supposed to be running through your floor routine and Lauren, I asked you ten minutes ago to stretch out for vault. We're less than a week out from Nationals and three weeks from the Olympic trials. I shouldn't have to ask you twice," Sasha barked at them, arms crossed over his chest. His glare was more than enough to send them jumping.

Lauren moved past her with a smile on her face as Kaylie looked up at Sasha. "Well?" he asked, motioning towards the floor. "Anytime you're ready."

"Sorry," she said and moved to the center of the floor to begin her routine. It felt good; all four tumbling passes landed cleanly, her dance elements on point. She felt totally prepared for Nationals, one of her last chances to completely convince Boris that she was the stronger option over Justine Turner, after her disastrous performance at the Pacific Rims.

Sasha nodded in approval, "Nice job, Kaylie. That should bring in a nice score at Nationals."

She smiled tightly at him and moved away to grab some water. She wasn't sure if Payson ever told Sasha that she was keeping their secret. He hadn't given her any indication either way, but that wasn't exactly odd. Sasha wasn't exactly the sharing type. Their relationship hadn't shifted at all. He still demanded nothing less than her full effort and the highest degree of difficulty she could manage consistently. She didn't even notice a difference in his relationship with Payson, not that she ever saw them outside of the gym.

Despite their vows not to let it happen, they had all gradually drifted apart again, but more and more Kaylie found herself in Lauren's company, at first not out of any desire to be around her former best friend, but mostly from a lack of options. Payson was never around; Emily was balancing her time between training and helping her mother plan her wedding to Steve Tanner and Lauren, having learned of the engagement, was avoiding her father like the plague, finding ample time to spend with Kaylie. She and Carter were back together, constantly on again, off again, but Kaylie had assured Lauren that she was over him and she definitely was. Austin Tucker had filled every single space in her heart; she knew there was no denying that. He was annoying and immature and charming and handsome and he really liked her, maybe even loved her. She wasn't far from feeling that way about him either. It was all so perfect and so overwhelming at the same time. Just as things started to get intense, she'd bolted.

She'd sat in the middle of her bed that night, staring at her cell phone as text message after text message and several voicemail alerts blinked at her from the screen of her phone, but she ignored each one and now she was ignoring him. That was almost four days ago and she bit her lip, watching him land out of his bars routine and nod to himself, satisfied with the set. She knew she would have to be the one to make the first move this time. He'd put himself out there and now she'd have to do the same. The problem was working up the courage to do it. She saw him look up, obviously sensing her gaze, but she averted her eyes quickly and moved towards the beam.

Payson watched Kaylie scamper away from simply making eye contact with Austin and she shook her head as she stretched out her knee to prepare for the vault. Lauren moved next to her and sat down with a small sigh. She looked entirely too happy not to have some sort of gossip floating around in her head. Payson rolled her eyes, but wasn't about to ask. If Lauren wanted to share, she'd have to do it unsolicited.

"Kaylie and Austin would make a cute couple, don't you think?" she asked, smirking at Payson, obviously trying to draw a reaction.

Payson looked up at her and forced her expression into a pensive one, giving off the impression she was considering it. Finally she looked back at Lauren and shrugged, "I guess so."

"I think they would. Their looks complement each other, brown hair, olive skin," Lauren said, as if she'd given it a lot of thought, which upon further consideration, she probably had. "They won their first National Championships in the same year too. But of course, I mean you guys sort of had something going on there for a while, didn't you? I mean that kiss we all saw, that was a hell of a kiss," Lauren asked, feigning ignorance.

"Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss," she said. Payson smiled at her and shrugged, "Austin and I are good friends. He's not really my type."

Lauren snorted, "Your type isn't gorgeous, charming, Olympic gold medalists?" She rolled her eyes and Payson had to give her that one. That was in fact, exactly her type.

Finally, Lauren seemed to give up, taking Payson's silence as disinterest. She left and Payson sighed in relief. She still counted Lauren as a friend, if one she had to be very careful around, but sometimes the girl just drove her insane. Obviously Kaylie had told her something happened between her and Austin and now she was fishing to see if Payson knew anything. It was the same silly game Lauren had been playing for years, but Payson refused to indulge her.

She finished stretching out her knee and moved towards the vault, taking a deep breath and clearing her mind before she ran towards the horse and launched herself into the Yurchenko two and a half that had been giving her some trouble lately. She landed it cleanly but felt the smallest of twinges in her stupid knee. MRI after MRI had come back clear; it was simply a pain she had to live with, though the doctor said that whenever she felt something she should shut it down for the day and ice it immediately. Twinges meant inflammation and inflammation meant compensating using her other leg, which could lead to major injury. She walked off the mat, shaking her leg, making sure it was only a small pain from the contact and not a lingering one.

She moved off to the trainer's room and dug into the cabinet to grab an ice pack. She hopped up onto the trainer's table, one that held a lot of memories for her, but mostly she remembered this room as where Sasha first said, "I love you." It had been unexpected and completely out of the blue, but that made it all the more special in her mind. She leaned back on the table and closed her eyes, trying to keep her mind off her knee. She remembered what else happened in this room, before their mutual expressions of love. They'd moved far beyond those first physical encounters, but that night had been a night of several firsts, if she remembered correctly.

"Hey, I thought I saw you come in here," Austin's voice drew her out of her pleasant reverie.

She opened her eyes and smiled at him, "What's up?

He jumped up onto the table opposite her, "Kaylie's still avoiding me. She won't even look at me." He frowned. "Seriously, Pay, I'm about ready to give up. What are we twelve?"

Payson sighed, "I think she might have told Lauren you two are together," she said, knowing she had to tell him, but wishing she didn't. She knew he would be furious.

"She told that lying, scheming bitch about us and she won't even talk to me?" He slammed his fist down on the padded table.

"I said, I think, Lauren was hanging around me earlier and said she thought that you two would make a cute couple. That's Lauren Tanner speak for, 'ask me why I think that.' I didn't, obviously, but you really should talk to Kaylie. If she won't come to you, you'll have to go to her."

"That's just it," Austin said, "It's always me. I always have to make the first move. Not this time. If she wants to make this right, it's going to have to come from her. She's going to have to take the first step."

"Does this count?" Kaylie's voice echoed from the doorway of the trainer's room.

Payson sat up quickly and tossed her ice pack in the garbage. "That's my cue," she said. She gave Austin an encouraging smile and then nodded to Kaylie before leaving as fast as possible. One of two things was about to happen, they would work this thing out or they wouldn't and she really didn't relish being around for either.

She wandered back onto the floor and found Sasha observing Isabella's bar routine. "I'm going to head out," she said, moving next to him. "I felt that stupid twinge in my knee again. I'm going to go take a Jacuzzi and just try to stay off it for the rest of the day."

He didn't pull his eyes from Isabella's routine, but he nodded. "Remember, after you put it under the jet: ice, compression and elevation."

"Yes, Doctor Beloff," she said, a slight mocking edge to her voice.

Isabella finished her routine and he called out, "Good, Isabella," he called out to her, "Keep those handstands at twelve o'clock. No silly deductions this year."

"Yes, Sasha," the junior national champion said, shooting a smile at Payson before she walked away towards the water cooler.

"See you later," she said, giving him a lingering smile as she stepped away. She could feel his eyes on her back as she grabbed her gym bag from the floor and fished around for her keys.

She scaled the steps to her house, frowning that her knee wasn't giving her any trouble now. It was the nature of whatever was wrong. It only seemed to pain her after a major stress inducing trick, but would feel perfectly find later. She briefly thought about getting back in the car and driving right back to the Rock, but Sasha would just send her home.

She sighed to herself as she entered her house, their house, for it had become as much Sasha's home as it had hers. His guitar hero game was hooked up to the television in the living room. He had taken over several drawers in her dresser and his shampoo and soap sat next to hers in the shower. She frowned taking in her surroundings. She would have to start packing soon, she thought as she climbed the stairs towards her bathroom. They hadn't discussed furniture or anything like that, but she definitely wanted to take some of her things to New York, though she wasn't going to put this house on the market. She wanted to have a place to go in the area, after all her family would be staying in Boulder, even after the Olympics.

No matter their reaction she wasn't about to cut them out of her life, even if her parents didn't understand or accept it, she firmly believed they would eventually when they realized that it wasn't a passing fancy or a brief fling.

She quickly ran a bath and set the Jacuzzi on a comfortable setting, before sinking into the steamy hot water. She sighed in relief and leaned her head back against the edge of the tub, the massaging jets and the hot water soothing her into a semiconscious state. She let her mind go blissfully blank for a moment before a memory washed over her, only a few days before. It was becoming one of their rituals when they had the time, soaking in the tub together, winding down, exploring slowly, or relaxing in a comfortable silence. But a few nights before, Sasha had something on his mind.

Payson cupped some water in her hands and let it spill through her fingers as Sasha's lips brushed gently against her neck, trailing down to her shoulders. She rested against his chest, his body cradling hers in the steamy, hot water. He gathered her hair in his hand and laid it over her shoulder. It floated at the surface gently separating. His lips pressed a hot open mouthed kiss to the nape of her neck and despite the heat of their bath, Payson shivered. She leaned her head back against his shoulder and sighed as his arms wrapped around her, drawing her body against his.

She sighed softly, stroking her finger tips lightly up and down the corded muscle of his forearms. "What's going through that head of yours?" he asked softly.

"Hmm, nothing," she said, "blissful nothing. You?" She felt him tense just slightly at her question. "Sasha?"

"Do you think we should get married?" he asked.

She exhaled and then furrowed her brow in confusion, "Was that a proposal, because you're really going to have to do better than that."

He chuckled softly at her indignation. "I was thinking about it, I've been thinking about it for a while. It might have some impact on your parents, if you had a ring on your finger when we spoke to them."

She leaned forward and scooted away just a bit so she could look at him in the eye, "I want to marry you some day, but on our terms. I don't want to get married because people expect it or because it might make things easier. I want to get married because we decide it's the right time, because we want to spend the rest of our lives together, because we're ready to settle down, start a new chapter of our lives. Not to make my parents feel better."

"So, that's a no?" he asked and she smiled at him affectionately, reaching out to caress his stubbled cheek lightly.

"That's an 'ask me again properly sometime,' when we're ready to stay put for a while. I'm going to Columbia in the fall, you'll be starting up a new gym, we'll be busier than we are now and that's saying a lot," she said, before adding. "I'm not in a rush, Sasha. Are you?"

He shrugged, "I wouldn't call it a rush, but I'm there, Pay. You're the…"

Her hand slid around from his cheek to cover his lips lightly. "Stop," she said, "whatever you're going to say, save it, hang on to it for when you ask me properly."

Sasha nodded, kissing her fingers where they were still pressed against his lips, "Promise me one thing," he said as she moved her hand away.

"What's that?" she asked, trailing her hand around to the back of his neck, running her fingers through his damp hair.

"When you're ready, give me a hint or ten?" he asked.

She leaned in, smiling against his lips, as his hand slid from her knee, around her waist, drawing her closer, "Promise," she said.

Payson smiled at the memory. They'd gotten water all over the floor, a flood of near epic proportions, as their bath time activities grew adventurous. She opened her eyes and sighed. The bath had grown cool, so she stood and dried off quickly, wrapping a fluffy towel around her body, stepping onto the cold tile floor. She felt completely relaxed as she entered her bedroom. Grabbing, a pair of flannel shorts and a tank top from her dresser, she dropped the towel.

"Wow," a voice said from the door.

She nearly leapt out of her skin, as she looked up and saw Sasha leaning against the doorframe, a smug smirk playing upon his face.

Payson raised a challenging eyebrow at him, "What are you doing here?" she asked, as he began advancing towards her.

"Lunch break," he mumbled, standing mere inches from her now.

"Working lunch?" she quipped as she pulled at the edge of his shirt, lifting it over his head.

"Payson," he said, as his hands flew to his belt buckle, yanking it free quickly as he toed off his shoes and socks.

"Yeah?" she asked, undoing the button at his fly and lowering the zipper slowly.

"I've got about twenty minutes, so…" he trailed off, running a hand over her shoulder, into her damp hair, the other winding around her waist, drawing her close.

"Less talk?" she said, pushing up onto her toes.

"Exactly," he murmured against her lips.

Chapter 48: Confidence and Doubts

Sasha stared down the quasi-busy street of downtown Indianapolis. Not exactly the intense flow of people found in New York or London, but it was where the 2012 National Championships were being held and thus, the only place he wanted to be. It was almost a relief to be back at Nationals, where the thumb of the National Committee could not push down on him too hard. Here he was simply a club coach with an entire lineup of gymnasts competing at all levels. Also, he distinctly did not have to share a room with Boris, as the Rock paid for the team's expenses at this event and not the NGO. His relationship had been strained to say the least with the old man since before the Pacific Rim championships. He shook his head at the irony of it all. Even when Boris was expressing his concern, he couldn't help but offend his son in the worst possible way. Any progress they'd made was completely washed away with the utterance of a few words.

Sasha nodded his head in approval as Lauren ran through her beam routine. She was solid, as usual. Her degree of difficulty was exactly where she needed it to be going into the last push before the Olympic Games. She would be an incredible asset to the team in London, where your beam rotation could make or break a competition. "Excellent Lauren," he murmured as she completed an intricate aerial series.

Suddenly he was aware of a presence just beyond his shoulder. He turned to see Boris, posture rigid, arms crossed over his chest. He looked ready for battle and Sasha sighed inwardly, wondering what he'd done wrong now. It was a familiar feeling, one that had begun in childhood and only increased in frequency as he grew older.

"I must speak with you," Boris grumbled, his voice kept unnaturally low. It made Sasha take notice. Boris was not a subtle man and rarely contained himself. Sasha turned towards the older man, his face was flush and his nostrils were flaring. He was upset and Sasha could think of only one thing that would make Boris this angry. His eyes flicked over to Payson who was speaking with Isabella Ruggeri.

"It's not what you think, Dad," he said, not taking his eyes off of Lauren as she completed her routine. "Great job, Lauren."

"Thanks," the confident blonde said with a smile for both of them as she pranced away.

"It is not what I think?" Boris snapped quickly as his son. "I never expected, I thought she would be the one to be hurt by this, never you. She made a fool of you with that boy and you have just taken it? That is not what I expected of you. You have no pride? No coaie*."

Sasha's eyes flew to his father's in anger. "Enough," he slipped into Romanian to mask their conversation, "it is not as it appears. We were forced into an impossible situation and Payson did what she had to. Don't blame her. Her actions were necessary. Our love is strong, stronger than ever, but it would be foolish to remain together when so much is at risk."

Boris joined him in their native tongue, "It was not risky before? I will never understand you, Alexander."

Sasha reeled around, practically nose to nose with his father, "Don't ever call me that," he ground out between clenched teeth. "And don't ever question Payson's integrity."
Out of nowhere Payson appeared, as if he summoned her from across the gym by coming to her defense, "You two are beginning to draw an audience. You explained?" she asked, her eyes lifting to his.

Sasha nodded, but swallowed roughly. It was the most intimate contact they'd had since Thanksgiving, this little bit of eye contact and he held on to it fiercely, though it seemed she was reluctant to look away as well.

Boris coughed roughly, forcing them back into reality. He shook his head as he stomped away from them, "Proşti tineri," he muttered to himself.

"What did he call us?" Payson asked, quietly as she began to stretch out against the beam.
"Young fools," Sasha whispered and as their eyes met again, he'd never admit it aloud, but he thought perhaps his father was right.

Things were different now and his father had been right, they were being foolish. Sasha was thankful that they'd figured that out, but his father's inherent ability to come down on him had worn thin long ago and the uneasy peace they'd made more recently had come to an end as far as Sasha was concerned. He was tired of biting his tongue. Sasha had been dealing with this kind of thing from Boris since he was a small child. Disapproval disguised as concern was one of Boris's oldest tricks and he'd stopped allowing himself to care about it a long time ago.

Sasha turned towards the hotel entrance and nodded when he saw his girls emerge, dressed in their club tracksuits, bags over their shoulders, ready to board the bus. Several parents bustled out behind them including Kim Keeler, whom he smiled at; he thankful she was around to keep everyone on schedule.

The trip to the arena was uneventful and quiet. The girls knew a lot was at stake today, the second day of competition when the all-around champion would be named, as well as the medalists in each of the events. For most of them it would be their last chance at a National Championship, though it would take a disastrous day from Payson for anyone else to have a shot at the gold. Mostly it was a chance to prove they belonged on the Olympic team, but for Sasha, these championships represented one step on the path towards freedom. Just three major events, these Nationals, the Olympic trials and then the Olympics themselves stood between him and Payson finally being free to be together, if not publicly for the entire world to see, at least openly with their friends and family.

He was tired of sneaking around and so was she. An edginess had seeped into their relationship, one he didn't appreciate, other than perhaps during the night when that unease erupted into increasingly intense encounters. She was passionate and almost desperate in her need to be close to him and he was more than happy to oblige. Where slow and sweet had done it for her in the past, rough and hard were what she practically begged him for long into the night, until they fell asleep in an exhausted heap, barely enough energy to wrap their arms around each other. Despite the overwhelming satisfaction they both took from it, the underlying tension was obviously wearing on them both. They were so close and yet, it felt like the moment would never come. He awaited that moment with both anticipation and trepidation.

He looked over the heads of his gymnasts as they shuffled off the bus and into the arena and saw Kim Keeler again. He knew she wasn't blind. Payson told him months ago that Kim suspected her feelings for him. He knew anyone who was paying attention at all would be able to read his feelings for Payson easily, especially if they were looking for it. Most people explained it away as affection and respect, but more and more he thought that maybe Kim Keeler knew more than she was saying, though he knew she probably didn't have much evidence if she'd kept quiet and maintained her friendly, almost family like relationship with him at work. Family, that is the plan one day, isn't it Beloff? You'll be her son-in-law one day. You'd be halfway there already if you had your way, wouldn't you? It was the truth. He'd been more than a little serious when he'd awkwardly asked Payson to marry him in the bath just a week earlier. Her reaction hadn't surprised him, but he knew it was only a matter of time, though perhaps more time than he'd like. As if he didn't remind himself hundreds of times a day, he let the thought run though his head again. She's still very young.

He grimaced. She was only eighteen and while she was mature, much more mature than anyone he'd ever met at that age, eighteen-year-olds simply didn't get married unless they had to and that certainly wasn't going to happen. Briefly, his thoughts flashed to that scene he seemed to conjure in his mind more and more, the closer they got to the Olympics. This time they were lying in bed, his bed in Wimbledon, Payson's head cradled against his shoulder. She was sound asleep and so was a small child laying atop his chest, a little boy, his curly blond hair tousled gently by Payson's breath each time she exhaled. He was awake, staring at them, awe clear as day written across his face.

Sasha was suddenly jolted out of his little fantasy by a security guard letting him know that the teams would be lining up shortly. He nodded and moved towards the group of coaches and competitors waiting to march onto the floor and begin the second and final day of competition. He had to stop that train of thinking, it would be a long time coming. They both had goals, her involved a degree, his a brand new gym, developing a program from the ground up. For so long it seemed as if the time would never come and now that it was close, it still felt removed, as if their dreams were just that, dreams and would never happen. Stupidity, Beloff. That's what that is. If you want something to happen, you make it happen, just like you have since you were a boy.

A woman with a headset nodded in his direction and he cast his eyes downward towards Payson, standing next to him confidently. Just two more, after today, Beloff. Two more and all the waiting will finally be over.

It was almost fait accompli, Payson thought as she stood atop the podium, though she'd learned long ago never to take anything for granted, she knew going into this day that she would probably become the National Champion, successfully defending her title. Now the medal was around her neck and it barely seemed real. She wasn't overwhelmed by it, far from it, the victory almost seemed hollow. She was the national champion, a title that she nearly killed herself over just two years before, but now it was not enough. Now suddenly, a national championship couldn't satisfy her. She needed more, wanted more. Olympic gold, six Olympic golds were the goal, and suddenly it seemed possible.

As they descened after the medal ceremony, she turned to a reporter who shoved a microphone into her face, "Payson, how does this feel? Your second national championship in two years and a sweep of the golds in the event finals."

She put on an even brighter smile and responded, "This is just one step this year. I'm headed in the right direction."

The reporter looked taken aback and Payson grimaced. She knew it wasn't the answer he was looking for, but she wasn't in the mood to smile and pretend to be satisfied when she wasn't. "The right direction?"

She nodded, "Obviously I'm pleased with winning here, but the ultimate goal is in London."

The reporter finally seemed to pick up on her tone, "And what would you consider a successful trip to London?"

She smiled, finally getting the question she wanted, "My goal has always been to win."

"Win? Win what? Everything? All six?" the reporter asked, his professional persona dropping as he gaped at her.

She shrugged, a small smirk pushing through, "That's the idea."

The reporter realized that he'd stumbled upon a story and he nodded to her in thanks, before facing the camera, "Well there you have it folks. Payson Keeler will be headed to London on a Phelpsian quest for six gold medals."

She inwardly rolled her eyes at the comparison to Michael Phelps, but kept the smile on her face until he cut the feed. "Thanks Payson," he said before moving away towards Kelly Parker.

Payson looked beyond the reporter's shoulder and saw MJ smirking in appreciation. "That was savvy," her agent said and Payson shrugged.

"The rest of the world should know what they're up against."

"Or be intimidated out of their minds," MJ added. "I like this ruthless Payson Keeler. Unapproachable or not, this I can sell."

MJ spun on a pointed stiletto heel and moved away, nodding to Sasha as he approached. "Why does she look so happy?" he asked, warily.

Payson pulled her gold medal over her hand and examined it, "She's seeing dollar signs."

"Another national championship will up your endorsements?"

Payson smiled and shook her head, "No, but the gauntlet I just laid down for myself in London will. I told a reporter about the sweep."

Sasha rolled his eyes, "Of course you did."

They began walking off the floor, stopped every few feet by someone wanting to congratulate her. "What? He was asking about this win and I told him it didn't mean anything unless I won in London."

Sasha looked at her, concern written across his expression. "What ever happened to living in the moment?"

She looked at him seriously, "I haven't been living in the moment since the day we decided to be together." She kept her voice low, but her eyes spoke volumes to him, she was sure. She knew he understood. There was a new seriousness surrounding them recently, a sense that everything was somehow coming to an end, though really they were approaching a beginning. The last few barriers between them were falling quickly and the intensity of their bond increased on a daily basis. She felt like she couldn't get close enough. The night before, heedless of the danger of being caught, she left Emily alone in their room, taking Sasha completely by surprise. Normally the night before an important competition, a good night's sleep was the key, but she'd found herself feeling restless, unable to keep her thoughts from racing. She'd only been able to think of one thing that could calm the storm raging inside of her. She wasn't even sure what she'd said to Emily. It was probably an extremely lame excuse. Just minutes later she'd been on her back, nails dug into the skin of his shoulders, screaming his name in pleasure, begging him for more. Finally, hours later they'd collapsed in a sweaty tangle, eyes drifting closed, their bodies pressed close together.

"Payson!" Payson startled at the sound of her mother's voice. She looked up to the stands. Her mom and dad were leaning over the railing.

She smiled, "Mom," she said, reaching up and taking her hand. "Dad."

"We are so proud of you, Pay."

Mark nodded, "You looked great out there.

Payson's smile wavered a little, "Thanks guys. I'm going to go change. I'll meet you back at the hotel." She turned towards Sasha's who nodded to her parents.

They walked back into the tunnel together and moved towards the locker room. "We can tell them, soon," she said, letting out a shaky breath. It was getting harder and harder.

She felt his hand squeeze her shoulder gently, a gesture of support. "Soon," he agreed.

Payson continued down, away from him towards the locker room to change. Most of the girls were almost finished, but she was greeted by a chorus of congratulations.

A quick shower later and she emerged from the locker room. slinging her gym bag over her shoulder.

"Payson," a gruff voice said. She looked up to see Boris Beloff, leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, a stance not unlike the one his son often took.

"Boris," she said with a nod. She knew that he and Sasha hadn't been on speaking terms for a while. They'd actually had a fight over it, albeit a small one, after they arrived home from Australia.

"Well, your Dad will be happy," she said as she placed a steaming plate of pasta primavera in front of him.

Sasha looked up at her confused, "What do you mean?"

"He was upset that we were apart, wasn't he?" she asked, sitting across from him.

Sasha rolled his eyes and shook his head, "Yeah, I suppose so. It doesn't matter. I haven't spoken to him since."

"Why not?" she asked. She'd thought their relationship had come a long way. Payson frowned. "I don't understand. I thought you said you were going to work on getting along with him."

Sasha shrugged, "I changed my mind. He's never going to change. It's always the same things, over and over again with him. I never measure up to whatever impossible standard he sets for me. I've spent my life trying to do that and I'm finished. I was finished before that. It was a mistake to ask the National Committee to bring him on as a coach."

Payson rolled her eyes, "He's better than Ellen Beals and he is a great gymnastics coach."
"A great gymnastics coach and a terrible father. Look, can we drop this? I have no desire to talk about him and it's really none of your business."

Payson drew back at his words, her mouth dropping open a little in shock, "I'm sorry, I was just..."

She saw him take a deep breath and then shake his head, "No, I'm sorry. I didn't meant that. I just really don't want to talk about him. We're together now and we're happy and that's all that matters." He reached out and took her hand in his, squeezing it gently. "This pasta looks amazing, Pay."

She studied him carefully for a moment before squeezing his hand back lightly and smiling, deciding that it wasn't worth a fight and that his father was a sensitive subject. "Thanks. Dig in, there's plenty."

Now, looking at him from across the hallway, she realized she hadn't spoken to him since Australia and that had been strictly gymnastics related.

"Will you walk with me?" he asked, extending his hand in the direction of the exit.

"Sure," she said, looking up into his crystal blue eyes, something else he shared with his son. Most of Sasha's features came from his mother, but those eyes, those belonged to Boris.

"How is my son?" he asked, cutting to the chase. Boris never was the type to beat around the bush.
Payson smiled up at him, "He's doing really well, we're doing really well."

He nodded, "You both seem different than before. I told him that what you share is special and that he should do everything in his power to hold onto it. You will rise to great heights in London."

Payson looked up and grimaced. "Our relationship isn't just about gymnastics," she said.

Boris scoffed, "It is the sport that brought you together. You and Sasha, you will always be about gymnastics."

She stopped and looked up at him, "We're about much more than that," she said.

Boris shrugged and shook his head. "No, gymnastics, it is where you both begin and end. It will be different when you are finished competing. It was very different for Rebecca and I."

Payson frowned. She hadn't known that Sasha's mother was a gymnast. They very rarely talked about her. "What do you mean?"

"After she retired it was very different for us. We had few things in common. Our days were spent apart; our lives did not match anymore."

Was that what was going on with them? The tension, the intensity. Were her instincts telling her that things would be different after the Olympics? She knew, intellectually, that everything would change, but she hadn't really thought about it. Would they grow apart? Would they last or would their lives not match, as Boris put it. "Excuse me," she said, increasing her pace, nearly running out towards the car that was waiting to take her back to the hotel, as MJ arranged.

The trip flew by, her mind swirling again, much like it had the night before, though this time it wasn't nerves, this time it was fear, pure unadulterated fear that drove her from the car, up the elevators and straight to Sasha's hotel room door. The confidence from earlier, as she stepped onto the podium to receive her gold medals was gone. The attitude that allowed her to reveal her goal of a gold sweep at the Olympics to the rest of the world was replaced by a need to speak to Sasha, to have him reassure her that they would not be like his parents after she finished competing.

At her knock, Sasha answered almost immediately. Looking back and forth down the hallway quickly, she stepped under his arm and into the hotel room.

"What's wrong?" he asked, taking in her expression.

She shook her head and just fell into his arms. He stood stock still for a moment before she felt his arms come around her, holding her tight to his chest. "Payson, tell me what happened."

"I spoke to your father on my way out of the arena," she said, pulling back slightly.

Sasha rolled his eyes, "And what did the old bugger have to say?" She took a shaky breath and shook her head again. "Payson, what did he say?"

She avoided his eyes and waved her hand in the air vaguely. "He mentioned how he and your mother grew apart after she stopped training and I was just thinking…"

Sasha shook his head, "You think too much," he said and moved closer to her, his hands coming to rest on her arms, squeezing gently, reassuring her with a simple touch. "My parents grew apart because my father was a arrogant bastard and my mother was strong enough not to put up with his crap. It had nothing to do with gymnastics."

Payson met his eye, "I thought, that maybe this new thing between us, what's been happening when we're together, I thought maybe it was because we knew what connected us was coming to an end."

Sasha smiled at her slowly, a crooked smile, as he lifted a finger to trace the line of her cheek, "Payson, what's happening between us, it's normal." She raised her eyebrows at him doubtfully. "Maybe normal is the wrong word. It's far from normal. I mean the change is normal."

She sighed, "Good," she said simply, "that's a relief."

He smiled at her wickedly, "Oh yeah, and why's that?"

Reaching out to smooth imaginary wrinkles in his shirt, she caressed his chest lightly, "Because what happened between us last night, that was…" she trailed off, her meaning abundantly clear.

"It definitely was," he agreed.

She pushed up slowly on her toes as he leaned in to kiss her, but just as their lips touched she pulled away. "Shit, I forgot. I have to meet my parents and Becca at seven. We're going to dinner." Her shoulders slumped. "I wish you could come."

Sasha sighed and pulled back. "We'll be able to tell them soon."

She smiled, "And then maybe after a decade or so, they'll finally be speaking to us and then we can all have dinner." She was joking but neither of them laughed. Sasha brushed a soft kiss across her forehead.

"Go on. I'll see you later."

She left the room feeling much better than when she'd gone in, but that tension was still there, that need to go back and be close to him, as close as she could possibly get and she didn't think that was going to change any time soon.

Chapter 49: A Very Rocky Wedding: Part 1

The drops of rain pelted at the windows. Was rain a good omen or a bad one? Emily sat up in bed with a sigh. Today was the big day, today her mother was getting married to Steve Tanner. Today Lauren Tanner, the bitch of the beam, would become her step-sister. She'd finally have a bedroom of her own. Be careful what you wish for, Kmetko, you just might get it. It was too true. All her life, the only thing she'd ever really wanted for her family was some stability, to not worry about paying the electric bill or where they would find money for groceries and now her prayers had been answered. Their days of financial issues were long over and yet, Emily would gladly work at the Pizza Shack if it meant not sharing a home with Lauren Tanner. There were some positives about today, despite where'd she be sleeping. Damon would be at the wedding. She hadn't seen him in months. He'd been on tour all over the country, headlining for the first time, but he'd flown in after a show in Seattle last night and would be in Boulder for the wedding.

She was helping Brian pack up the last of his things, as well as the tuxedo that he'd be wearing to the wedding, when there was a knock at the door. "That's probably Mr. Tanner," Brian said, looking oddly excited about Steve Tanner's arrival to pick him up. The men would all be getting ready at the Tanner house the next morning, while the women would congregate at the Keeler residence for hair, makeup and nerves.

She smiled she hoped in an encouraging way at Brian before opening the door. It wasn't Steve Tanner.

"Emily Kmetko," he said and her breath caught in her throat. "Hey."

"Damon," she whispered, before launching herself into his arms. He caught her and held her close.

"I missed you," he said, his warm breath tickling her ear. Her arms tightened around him.

"I missed you too." He leaned back at her words, just enough to look at her closely. His hand caressed her cheek lightly, tucking her bangs behind her ear before their lips met for the first time in months.

"What are you doing?" her mother's voice echoed in her ears, breaking her out of her memory, as she came around the corner in an ancient pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. "Get up, the car is going to be here any minute to take us to the Keelers."

Emily sighed and shrugged, "It's not like I have to get ready. We're getting ready there. I just have to grab my dress and shoes and I'll be ready to go."

Chloe nodded and took another deep breath. "I know this isn't something you're looking forward to Emily, but I love Steve and he loves me and I just want today to be perfect."

Emily felt the guilt stab at her stomach, so she stood and looked her mother in the eye, "It is going to be perfect. And I'm happy you've found someone who makes you happy."

Chloe saw right through her, "You're a bad liar, Emily, but thank you," she said and hugged her before quickly pulling away as a car honked loudly from outside. "That's it, let's go."

Emily grabbed her last suitcase, the garment bag laid over the couch that held her bridesmaid dress and the small bag of toiletries she'd been living out of after their things were sent to the Tanners' house, her new home. They wouldn't be returning to this apartment again. Chloe was already out the door, but Emily took one last look around. This place held a lot of memories, some good, some bad, but mostly she realized it was the ending of one chapter of her life and the beginning of another. A week ago she'd won bronze in the all-around at Nationals, virtually cementing her place on the Olympic team. In just a few more months she'd been in Los Angeles, living at UCLA, either reveling in a victorious post-Olympic glow or simply trying to move on from a disappointment. The Olympic trials were only two weeks away and from there, hopefully London. All of it, everything, the pain, sacrifice it was all finally coming to a head.

"Emily, let's go," Chloe called again.

"Coming," she called and strode out of the apartment not looking back. She shut the door behind her and as if symbolic of the life that awaited them, the driver of the long, shiny, white limousine stood, holding the door open, his hand extended to let them in. Emily shook her head, this was going to be interesting.

They arrived at the Keeler house and the place was already buzzing with activity. Her mother's friends from the salon were stationed throughout the house helping everyone get ready. The only people they knew in Boulder were from the gym and when the older generation, namely Kim and Ronnie balked at the idea of being bridesmaids, Chloe enlisted Payson and Kaylie to join Emily and Lauren in the bridal party.

Despite their shared dreams and aspirations, they were four very different girls. Shopping for bridesmaids dresses had been more like a cold war than anything else.

"I promised my dad I'd stay here for an hour and then I'm out of here," Lauren said, right to Chloe's face.

Emily watched as her mother plastered on a resilient smile, "Thanks for coming, Lauren. I think we're going to find a great dress for you girls today. I've got a fitting today, so take a look around and pick something you all like."

Emily looked to Kaylie and Payson, both of whom only looked slightly more enthused than Lauren did and she couldn't say she disagreed. She'd dreaded this for weeks now, ever since the girls agreed to be a part of the wedding party.

They began digging through wracks of dresses, each of them pulling a few they liked. "What about this one?" Kaylie said, holding up a pink mini dress.

Payson raised a blonde eyebrow, "Cute, Kaylie, but I'm pretty sure I'd look like a sausage in it."

Lauren shrugged, "I like it," she said and Kaylie smiled in response.

Emily rolled her eyes and Payson smiled wearily back. "I'm pretty sure you'd look like a sausage too, Lauren," Payson said and Emily snorted in response. "It's Emily's mother's wedding, why doesn't she just pick the dress?"

"Absolutely not, I will not wear anything that woman chooses," Lauren said.

Emily rolled her eyes, "As much as I hate to agree with her, my mom's taste isn't exactly, it's just better if we pick it out," she said and Kaylie nodded emphatically.

"Does your mom care what color?" Kaylie asked, diving back into the racks.

"She decided on a couple of different shades of green and a cream color with the wedding coordinator –"

"That my dad hired," Lauren cut in.

Emily rolled her eyes, "So I guess those shades would probably be best," she finished.

"Most of these dresses can be ordered in any color," Kaylie said, pulling out a book from a shelf. "They have a bunch of them listed here. So really, we only have to choose a style and then your mom and her wedding coordinator can pick whatever color goes best."

Emily nodded, "That sounds like a great idea." Kaylie smiled and Payson nodded.

"What about this one?" Kaylie asked, emerging with yet another mini dress and Payson sighed. "Just try it on, Pay. I bet it will look great on you."

Payson huffed and grabbed the dress from Kaylie's hands before moving to the changing room to try it on.

"You sure you want her to wear that? I mean Austin's coming to the wedding, isn't he?" Lauren hissed to Kaylie, but Emily heard her loud and clear.

Kaylie rolled her eyes, "Austin Tucker can do whatever and whoever he wants," she said sharply and Emily looked up in shock.

"I thought you guys worked things out?" Emily asked. The last time she'd talked to Austin, he hadn't mentioned anything about a fight.

"We didn't," Kaylie said and shook her head, "I really don't want to talk about it."

Lauren shrugged, "Is he still hung up on Payson."

"He was never hung up on Payson," Kaylie and Emily said together and looked at each other in shock.

Lauren looked at the both of them, "I still think there was something going on between those two. What did you guys fight about?" she asked Kaylie, who shrugged, obviously not willing to give an answer. "

"Think what you like," Payson said, from just behind them, hands on her hips. "I don't care, but I am not wearing this dress inside of a church."

Lauren's eyes went wide and Emily turned to see her friend, the curviest of all of them looking like something out of a magazine. "Holy crap, Pay," Kaylie said, giving voice to their collective thoughts.

Payson waved off their reaction. "How about this, we all choose a dress we like and that doesn't make us look like a porn star and get it in the color Emily's mom chooses. We'll all match and we'll all be comfortable."

That's what they had done, each girl finding a dress that fit her individual style and ordering it in the light, mossy green color Chloe chose. Emily smiled as she entered Payson's old bedroom which was serving as the girls' dressing room.

Payson was sitting in a chair, the final touches of her blonde updo being sprayed into submission. "Hey Em," she said, their eyes meeting in the mirror. "Kaylie and Lauren are in the kitchen getting their makeup done." She stood and moved out of the chair making room for Emily to sit and get her hair done.

"Excuse me for a second, girls. I'm out of hairspray, there's some more in the kitchen," the stylist said, leaving the room.

"Damon's here," Emily said, as soon as she was out the door.

A smile lit up Payson's face, though it wasn't one of shock or surprise, simply joy. "That's great, Em."

Emily's jaw dropped, "You knew!" she said. She would have grabbed a pillow and thrown it at her friend, but her hair wouldn't have survived the onslaught. It was pulled up into an intricate updo, blonde curls strategically framing her face.

She shrugged, "He needed to know what to wear and when to go get Brian. I would have told you, but he wanted it to be a surprise."

Emily smiled and sighed, "It was a great surprise. We never get to see each other and then he was just right there. I didn't realize how much I missed him. "

Payson smiled, "You deserve it, Em. I can't imagine how hard it is to be away from each other all the time. When he called, he sounded desperate to see you. It must have been some reunion."

"It was." Emily felt her face flush, thinking about how they'd gotten caught up in each other, completely forgetting that Brian was just a few feet away.

Payson stood from her chair and moved towards her bedroom door, checking to make sure no one was within hearing rang. She turned back towards Emily, her face growing serious. "So, I talked to Austin," she said and Emily's eyebrows shot up. Payson wasn't exactly a gossip so this must be big. "And he finally told me what happened with Kaylie."

Austin Tucker pulled at the lapels of his tuxedo jacket sharply. The invitation said white tie and that meant a penguin suit, complete with tails, a white waistcoat and a white bowtie.

"You'll do," Sasha said from across the room, his outfit an exact replica. "Trust Steve Tanner to insist on white tie dress at his wedding, never thought that was Chloe Kmetko's style."

Austin shrugged. "Emily said something about them trying to blend their tastes."

Sasha raised his eyebrows, "This wedding might be more interesting than I thought."

"Yeah," Austin agreed, cringing at the idea of running into Kaylie. There would be no way to avoid her. He'd managed it at the gym since their conversation in the trainer's room before Nationals. He couldn't help but think that maybe that last fight had something to do with her systematic melt down at Nationals. She'd finished seventh in the all-around and hadn't medaled on a single event. Embarrassing for a former National champion and it was possible she'd blown her chances at making the Olympic team, even after the disaster Justine Turner had put in at the Pacific Rim championships. Turner had won the silver in the junior all-around and looked impressive.

The women's team was still very much up in the air, but the men's squad looked all but set. For the third straight year, he and Russo had gone one and two, with Carter finishing a surprising third. The remaining three men had solid strengths on two or three events. It would be a strong team and they would definitely contend for a medal. As far as he was concerned, Austin felt even more prepared for these games than he had for Beijing. His degree of difficulty was where he needed it to be and he was ready to dominate the field, just like Payson was. It was going to be a fun two weeks in London if they performed up to expectations.

"Austin?" Sasha asked, waving a hand in front of his face. "You in there?"

"Yeah, sorry, just thinking about…nothing forget it." Sasha shrugged and turned toward the mirror to tie his bowtie. "Can I talk to you about something?"

"Sure," Sasha said, not taking his eyes off his reflection.

"I think maybe I psyched Kaylie out before Nationals. I think it's my fault, how badly she did."

Sasha stopped tying his bowtie and turned to face him. "Austin, Kaylie did badly at Nationals because she allowed outside influences to affect her, again, just like she has her entire career, for good or bad. Whatever is going on between you two, she shouldn't have taken it onto the floor."

Austin nodded and he suddenly had the urge to spill his guts entirely. "I told her that I couldn't be with her."

They stood in the trainer's room in silence, Kaylie still hovering at the door after Payson left them alone.

"So does it? Do I get credit for taking the first step this time?" she asked, moving into the room and shutting the door behind her.

Austin shrugged, "I don't know, Kaylie. What happened? You ran out on me and I haven't heard a damn thing from you since."

She bit her lip and looked down at her feet. "I know and I'm sorry about that. I just, everything happened so fast."

"Fast? Kaylie, we've been going back and forth with this thing between us for two years. I guess I just don't understand."

She shrugged, "I guess you don't. I don't know, Austin." It looked like she might have more to say, but then she just trailed off, not finding the words.

He sighed heavily in frustration, running a hand through his hair. "You don't know what? You don't know if you want to be with me? After all this time, everything we've been through?"

Again, she looked like she wanted to respond, but she didn't speak. Her mouth opened and then closed again, her eyes avoiding his.

"Fine then, have it your way. I've had enough," he said, moving past her toward the door.

"Austin," she said, and he stopped dead in his tracks, hoping she would give him something, anything to hold onto, but she grew silent again and he sighed, before leaving the room, her still standing there silently.

Sasha's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. "Wow, that's…"

Austin nodded, "I know. I don't even know what made me do it, but it's the right decision. It was just a constant struggle with her. It was always one step forward two steps back and I don't want to live like that."

"Okay," Sasha said. Austin knew that his coach didn't have much context for the conversation. He knew the last thing Sasha was interested in was the personal lives of his gymnasts. He'd already talked about it with Payson, after she'd badgered him for details for weeks, but while she was his best friend, she was also a girl and Kaylie's friend. Her perspective was very different from his own.

"Can I run something by you?" he asked, and Sasha shrugged in response, still battling with his bowtie.

Sasha turned and faced him frowning, "It's not that I don't want to help, Tucker, but…"

Austin shook his head, "Just generally, it's more a philosophical question than anything else."

Sasha snorted, "Fine, go on," he said, turning back towards the mirror.

"Do you think that sometimes people aren't meant to be together, no matter how right for each other they might seem?"

Sasha stared at him back through the mirror, "Seriously? Have you been reading those stupid magazines that match people up by their astrological signs? You either want to be with someone or you don't."

"But," he began, but Sasha cut him off.

"No buts. You feel what you feel. If anyone knows that, it's me. Obstacles, bumps in the road, the Great Wall of China, if you want someone, you go for it, simple."

Austin sighed, "You make it sound so easy."

"It is easy, at least it's easy to make the decision, but keep this is mind, just because people seem like they're right for each other, doesn't mean that they are."

Austin ran a hand through his close-cropped hair in frustration. "It's like she's two different people, you know? Sometimes she's this confident, strong woman and other times she just retreats into a scared little girl."

Sasha snorted, "That's all women." He sighed at the mess that had become his tie and began again.

Austin stood up from his seat on the couch arm rest and folded his arms across his chest. "Hang on, no it's not. Payson's not like that," he argued. He'd never seen Payson flounder like Kaylie did. She was always so strong, despite everything, even when she was scared of something she conquered that fear.

Sasha rolled his eyes, "Of course she is. She doesn't show that scared little girl to just anyone, not even her best friend." Sasha acknowledged him with a small nod. Austin frowned, but Sasha continued, "She shows it to me."

Austin snorted in disbelief. "Payson isn't weak, Sasha. She's not…"

Sasha pulled firmly on his bowtie, now straight and resting firmly at his throat, "That's not what I'm saying. Everyone has their moments, Tucker. Everyone and the person you choose to be with, that's the person you lean on in those moments." He turned to him. "I don't know what happened between you and Kaylie, frankly I don't want to know, but it seems like neither of you is willing to lean on the other. If that's the case then you shouldn't be together. But then what the hell do I know about it?"

Austin left the question unanswered as they both looked at their reflections one last time. They had to be at the church in fifteen minutes. "I think we'll pass inspection," Austin said as they left Payson's house and climbed into Sasha's truck.

Austin sat in the passenger seat watching the small city of Boulder flash by him. They pulled up to the church, watching much of Boulder's elite walking through the parking lot in their finest. Emotions would be running high today, combined with an open bar, it could prove to be an interesting day to say the least.

"Let's go, Tucker," Sasha called, having already gotten out of the truck. It was raining when they woke up that morning, but the skies had cleared into a startling blue, the sun warmed his face through the car window. A good omen, maybe?

Austin stepped out, straightened the lapels of his jacket as they joined the procession towards the social event of the year, the Kmetko-Tanner wedding.

Chapter 50: A Very Rocky Wedding: Part 2

Sasha hadn't been inside a church in years. It smelled the same, wood polish and floor cleaner, mixing with the fresh scent of flowers hung strategically on the pews and windows. He and Austin moved steadily through the gathering guests, until they reached a man dressed in a suit, holding what looked like programs.

"What is this? A play?" Austin asked, taking the program.

"Bride or groom?" the stuffy looking man with a thick mustache asked.

"Bride," they both said together, quickly before looking at each other and laughing. Neither one of them wanted to be associated with Steve Tanner.

"This way, gentleman," the usher said, leading them to the left side of the church. Sasha caught sight of Kim and Mark Keeler, sitting with Becca. Kim raised her hand in greeting, though Mark glared right through him. Sasha had a fleeting moment of panic before he realized that Mark was glaring at Austin.

"Yeah, he hates me," Austin muttered from between clenched teeth.

Sasha laughed humorlessly and clapped him on the back, "Give it a couple of months. You'll be his favorite." They moved into the pew. "Kim, Mark, Becca," he said, shaking hands with Payson's father firmly before kissing the cheeks of both the Keeler women.

"Sasha," Mark said with a nod, but ignoring Austin completely.

Austin stood there awkwardly. "Hi there," he said, before planting himself down on the bench. Becca moved down quickly, sitting next to him, allowing Sasha to sit next to Mark. He heard Becca mumble something to Austin about Damon Young, Emily's boyfriend, but for the most part, the silence was overpowering. Then several Rock families filed into the pew behind them and struck up a conversation about gym scuttlebutt.

Sasha checked his watch. It should be starting any minute now and just as the thought passed through his mind, the organist, accompanied by several violinists struck up Pachabel's Canon in D. The gathered crowd turned in their seats as the back doors of the church opened and Kaylie, the first of the bridesmaids began walking down the aisle.

Each of the girls wore a different dress; that much he knew, but they were all of a similar color, a light green she'd called celadon. It was actually odd to see Kaylie out of her usual pink. Next to him he heard Austin take in a sharp breath. Kaylie studiously avoided looking in their direction, but that was telling in itself. For a moment, despite all the secrecy, he was grateful for his relationship with Payson. Everything was so very simple for them. They loved each other, they'd known it before either of them voiced it and they did what they had to do to be together.

He saw a flash of motion back by the doors and his eyes focused on Payson as she walked down the aisle. It was his turn for his breath to catch. The dressed hugged her body beautifully, the soft material flowing gently from her waist. The makeup was understated and her hair was pulled up into some sort of design, but the loose blonde curls that framed her face where what caught his attention. All he could think about was tonight when he would be able pull the pins from it one by one, letting it fall down around her shoulders. It was rare for him to see her dressed this way. The last time she'd been dressed up in his company had been at Thanksgiving and then before that the night they'd called a halt to their relationship in Istanbul. Hopefully, this day would be better than those.

Her eyes flickered over their row. She smiled just behind him at her parents and then her gaze met his and her smile softened a touch. He watched her, even when Lauren and Emily appeared, even when the music shifted and Chloe walked down the aisle, radiant and glowing, like all brides, he never took his eyes from her. Maybe he was being obvious, for some reason he couldn't bring himself to care. He depended upon everyone's distraction. She looked absolutely beautiful.

So while the rest of the gathering watched Chloe and Steve, the most unlikely couple imaginable vow to love, honor and cherish each other, he simply watched her. The minister's words echoed through his consciousness, a sense of contentedness washed through him, words like love, honor, cherish, for as long as you both shall live, he knew he would ask her soon, sooner than she probably expected. It was what he wanted and despite her age, what she wanted as well. He'd been told to ask her properly and he would. She smiled as the minister pronounced them husband and wife and then as guests stood to watch the happy couple proceed out of the church, their eyes met again. Then she was gone again and the crowd was pressing forward, everyone moving out of the aisles, the ushers, handing out cups filled with rice.

He and Austin found Payson on the stairs, waiting with the rest of the bridal party and guests for the bride and groom to emerge from the church doors. The Keelers were just behind them, but he risked leaning forward just a few inches and whispering, "You look stunning." She turned back towards him with a bright smile.

"You clean up pretty well yourself," she said, taking in the tuxedo. There was one thing Sasha knew about formal dress, men might feel like idiots, but women loved the way they looked in a tux. "It was a nice ceremony, don't you think?"

He shrugged, "I wouldn't know. I was distracted." Emily was next to Payson and she looked at him, her eyebrows raised at how open they were being. Sasha was unconcerned; they were surrounded by a large group of people emitting a buzz so loud it was hard to hear the person next to you.

Payson finally turned to look back at him; glancing quickly to their sides to be sure no one was near enough to hear. "Why's that?" she asked.

"Still thinking about this morning. I had a hard time getting out of bed," he said casually. "I knew I had to get up, but something was keeping me there."

The rain pounded on the windows. It was fitting, that it would rain the morning of Steve Tanner and Chloe Kmetko's wedding. That was a match Sasha hadn't seen coming. Emily and Lauren had been at each other's throats for months because of it. He wasn't looking forward to dealing with them on a day to day basis once they were living in the same house.

Payson shifted in her sleep. Her feet, ice cold as usual, pressed up against his calves. He shivered in response and pulled his legs away, but her feet followed and he knew she was awake. "That's not very nice," he whispered, wrapping an arm around her and pulling the rest of her body into his.

"But I'm cold and you're like a space heater," she mumbled into the skin of his shoulder, pressing a kiss there. He entwined their legs together, allowing her to draw whatever warmth she could. "Thanks," she said, snuggling closer.

"We have to get up soon. You're supposed to be at your parents' at seven and Austin is coming over here to get ready," he said after glancing at the clock, but his head cleared as her hands began slowly exploring his chest. She leaned into him and he rolled onto his back, taking her with him. Their bodies pressed full length against each other. For a moment they just lay there, her legs straddling his hips. He cupped her cheek gently and brought her lips down to his.

"Whoa! Hey, you two!" a voice echoed through the room. Payson pulled away, rolling her eyes.

"Serves you bloody right for just walking in here," Sasha grumbled as Payson slid out from under the covers.

"What, you said, six thirty, it's six thirty," Austin protested, laughing now.

"Get out," Payson said, laughing too, pushing him back through the door.

Payson laughed at his vague reference to their morning and then turned away from him again. The doors to the church flew open and a cheer went through the crowd as rice flew through the air, raining down on the happy couple as they raced to the car waiting for them on the street.

It was all so exciting. Becca knew she was lucky to be invited. She was one of the few from her group of friends that got to go. Lily, her best friend, had been green with envy when she told her that she was going to the wedding. She and Payson had gone shopping for a new dress and she felt really grown up in it. The soft, silky fabric swayed gently around her knees and the blue fabric matched her eyes almost exactly.

All the way from the church to the St. Julien Hotel, one of the ritziest places in Boulder, she was practically bouncing in the back seat of the car. Her parents both shook their heads at her, but it was impossible to contain her excitement.

"This is going to be so much fun," she said as the train of cars that they'd followed from the church pulled into the parking lot. They got out and her dad handed the keys to a valet. Even her parents, regular, everyday Mark and Kim Keeler looked like movie stars tonight. When she got married, she was going to have white tie formal. Everyone looked so….elegant.

"Where is the wedding party?" she asked her mom as they entered the hotel, following a sign that pointed them towards the Kmetko-Tanner wedding.

"They'll be around," Kim said. "They're probably taking some pictures right now. Oh, wait there they are."

Becca caught a flash of the light green bridesmaid dresses and was off in a flash. She vaguely heard her mother calling out to her, but she ignored her, seeing Payson's blonde hair standing next to two men in tuxedos.

"Payson," she said and her sister turned to her with a smile.

"Becca," Payson said, waving her over. "The dress looks great."

"Thanks," Becca said, suppressing the urge to twirl around. She looked up and saw the two men standing next to her were Austin and Sasha. She smiled at them quickly, but then looked urgently at her sister, "Is…"

Payson smiled knowingly, "He'll be here soon, Becca. He rode over with Brian and he's helping Brian with his chair."

"Little Keeler have a thing for Damon Young?" Austin asked, smirking at her and Becca felt her entire face flush in embarrassment. "You didn't mention a crush when we were at the church."

"Ignore him, Becca," Payson said and Austin snorted.

"Don't worry about it," Austin said, throwing an arm over her shoulder lightly. Becca looked up at him strangely. She knew he and Payson were friends, but never knew if she was supposed to take what he said seriously or not. He was just extremely confusing. Payson seemed to understand him well enough, but she just didn't get him. "It must be genetic, having a thing for older men." Payson narrowed her eyes at him.

"Shut up, Austin," she muttered. Becca looked up and saw Sasha glaring at Austin as well.

Confused, Becca opened her mouth to ask what they were talking about, when Emily stepped over to them, "Come on, we're going to go take pictures," she said, grabbing Payson's hand.

"Becca, do you want to watch?" Payson called over her shoulder as she was dragged away. She didn't have to be asked twice, slipping out from under Austin's arm and racing towards her sister and her friends.

After what felt like the hundredth group shot, dozens of poses and the photographer asking for serious faces and then smiles and then pensive, Becca was bored out of her mind. She couldn't imagine why someone would need this many photographs of what looked like the exact same thing. She was sitting in one of the chairs that lined the small garden, her chin resting wearily in her palm, when someone's shadow passed over her.

"Hey, how long have they been at this?" a raspy voice asked.

"Almost an hour," she responded not looking up.

"You're Payson's sister right?" the voice asked and she finally looked up in the deep, soulful, amazing eyes of Damon Young.

She nodded, though she wasn't sure how she managed it. "I'm Damon," he said, taking a seat on the chair next to her. "Emily's boyfriend."

Becca nodded again, this time finding her voice, "I'm Becca and I know who you are."

He let out a small bark of laughter, but somehow she knew he wasn't laughing at her. "Yeah, I guess a lot of people do now. It's weird, one minute you're just an anonymous nobody and the next everybody knows who you are, even your girlfriend's friends little sister."

She nodded in understanding, though she really didn't understand at all. "Do you have any idea how long this might take?" she asked him, proud that she'd formed a complete sentence in front of the Damon Young, the famous singer. He was just so cute.

"You said they've been doing this for an hour? I can't imagine it'll be much…" he trailed off and nodded towards Kaylie and Payson as they approached, leaving Steve, Chloe, Lauren, Emily and Brian to take family shots.

"Hey Damon," Payson said and he stood, kissing her lightly on the cheek and then moving towards Kaylie as well in greeting.

"What was taking so long?" Becca asked, nodding back towards the photographer.

"The photographer has to take a lot of shots to make sure there's a few perfect ones in the bunch," Kaylie explained. Becca nodded.

"How long do you think they'll be?" Damon asked.

Payson smiled at him, "Not that long. I'm going to head inside," she said and Kaylie nodded following her. Becca looked up to see Austin Tucker approaching them.

"Austin," Damon called out and they hugged briefly as Payson and Kaylie disappeared inside. Becca leaned back on the bench as Austin and Damon sat as well. "That was…" he trailed off.

"She's avoiding me," Austin said, rolling his eyes.

Becca watched Damon's eyes squint at Austin, "Last time I talked to Emily she said…"

"Things change," Austin said quickly, his eyes shooting towards Becca and suddenly she realized that they wanted to talk and they couldn't because she was sitting there.

She bit her lip and tried to be casual, "I'm going to go find Payson," she said, standing up and wiping at imaginary dirt on the skirt of her dress.

"Nice meeting you, Becca," Damon said politely and she smiled back at him.

"You too," she said before spinning around and practically running back inside the hotel.

"Bye Little Keeler!" Austin's voice followed her, but she ignored him as Payson had instructed her to do earlier.

Lily was going to be so jealous when she told her that she'd met Damon Young and he's already known who she was! Her breath came rapidly as she moved back into the room they were holding the cocktail hour in. She saw Kaylie over by the bar, but she didn't see Payson. She wanted to talk to her sister. Twirling around she exited the room and out of the corner of her eye she caught a flash of light green and blonde hair disappearing down the hallway into another room altogether.

She moved in that direction, stopping just outside the door. It was shut, but the plaque on the wall read, Library. She turned the knob, shaking her head, but stopped when she heard hushed voices inside.

"You look so bloody incredible," a clipped English accent said. Sasha's voice, she'd know it anywhere. "There I was standing in a church and all I could think about was the way this silk hugged your body."

A female voice laughed lightly and then was silenced. Then followed the soft sounds of their lips meeting. She peaked slowly around the edge of the door and her jaw dropped, her eyes growing wide. There, pressed against a wall of bookshelves, was Payson, her arms wrapped around Sasha as they kissed. It looked like something out of a movie. Sasha cradled the back of Payson's head with one hand, the other resting on her hip. Their breathing was ragged as their lips parted and came together again, until it seemed like their mouths fused together. As Sasha's hand moved lower and then around towards her sister's backside, Becca suddenly came to her senses. She backed out of the room, pulling the door slowly with her, hoping against hope that they wouldn't notice her.

Her mind reeled. Payson and Sasha. Payson and Sasha kissing. Her mind couldn't wrap around it until she remembered what Austin said earlier. It must be genetic, having a thing for older men. Austin was one of Payson's closest friends. He knew about this. Who else knew? Not her parents. She heard them every once in a while talking about whether Payson and Austin were together, but nothing about Sasha. Becca made a face. Sasha Beloff, their coach. He was just so – so old. She shook her head and gave voice to the only thought swimming through her mind. "Ew."

As soon as Austin Tucker made an appearance, Kaylie Cruz had taken off in the other direction. She had absolutely no intention of being anywhere near that man for the rest of the evening if she could prevent it. She and Payson parted ways as they went back inside the hotel. Kaylie headed straight for the bar. She was about to order herself some gingerale, when suddenly a foolish thought entered her mind and escaped her lips before she thought about it, "Vodka and cranberry," she told the bartender, who served her without a second glance.

She was on her second drink when Lauren and Emily appeared, Emily moving off with Damon to some secluded corner she supposed, while Lauren found her immediately. "What's that?" she asked.

"Vodka," Kaylie said sharply, downing the last of her glass. "Austin's here somewhere. I really can't deal with this."

Lauren smirked. "You know the Russos are here too right? My dad invited them." Lauren nodded her head towards the other side of the room where Nicky Russo stood with his mother and father, looking remarkably dashing in his tuxedo, just like every other man in attendance.

Kaylie turned towards the bartender, "Another," she said. The drinks weren't very strong, she could barely taste the vodka in them, but she knew it wouldn't take much to take the edge off. Just a little buzz, it was all she'd need and then she would dance with every cute guy at the wedding, completely ignore both Nicky Russo and Austin Tucker and have a fabulous time.

Chapter 51: A Very Rocky Wedding: Part 3

Payson fell into her seat with a sigh and a smile. The church portion of the Kmetko-Tanner wedding had very much been the "Tanner" part, while the reception was all Chloe Kmetko. Forty people lined up on the dance floor of the swankiest resort in Boulder, dressed in tails and evening gowns, doing the Cupid Shuffle was proof enough of that.

"I can't believe we just did that," Emily said, sitting beside her, before taking a large sip of the ice water at their place settings.

Payson nodded towards where Damon and Sasha were leaning up against the bar ordering drinks, "I'm pretty sure they can't believe it either. They look like something out of Gatsby." They really did; their casual posture, the tuxedo jackets, the drinks in their hands, it was a departure from their everyday personas, but they wore it well. She wasn't sure if Emily told Damon about her and Sasha, she'd guess not, but they seemed to be getting along pretty well. They'd both watched in amused horror as they'd made idiots out of themselves on the dance floor.

"We're pretty lucky aren't we?" Emily said, keeping her voice low, though there was no one around to hear her.

Payson nodded and smiled, "We are." She took up her glass and watched as Austin joined the other two, a tumbler in his hand and the smile grew as one of the many roaming photographers snapped a picture of the trio. "I want one of those," she murmured to Emily who smiled and nodded.

"So it's really coming down to the wire for you guys, huh?" Emily asked and Payson's eyes jerked away from the men towards her friend whose face was a mix of sincerity and curiosity.

Payson nodded, "Yeah, we're getting there." She sighed. "If I tell you something…"

"It stays here," Emily cut her off and Payson knew it was true.

"We're going to New York," she said, a smile lighting up her face. "I got into Columbia and he's going to start up a new gym in the city."

"Columbia, wow, Payson, that's amazing," Emily said and nodded. "New York, I can see it. You guys will come out and visit right?" Payson looked oddly at her friend. She seemed almost desperate for confirmation and Payson realized just how close she and Emily had grown over the years. There was a bond there, a strong one. She hadn't recognized its existence until this moment.

She reached out and put her hand over Emily's, "Of course and you'll have to come to New York. I'm sure Damon'll be doing something or other that'll require a few visits." They both broke out into large smiles. Not only were the Olympics looming, the most important moment of their lives, but they'd both be moving on to completely separate and completely different lives afterwards. It was frightening, but despite the knowledge they'd be on separate coasts, the idea that they'd be going through that change together was something. It was the 21st century after all; constant contact would be easy enough. She squeezed Emily's hand again and sat back in her chair as familiar notes to a well loved song struck a chord in Payson's ears. She sighed as the smooth voice of band's singer echoed through the room. She felt his eyes on her immediately from over at the bar, but she didn't meet his gaze.

Damon was already at Emily's side and Payson turned to give her friend a tight smile. She watched them move to the dance floor and then stood, wanting to escape the room for at least as long as the song was playing. She moved through the French doors just behind the dais, back where they'd taken photographs earlier in the evening. She leaned against the door, hearing the satisfying click as it shut behind her, though it didn't drown out the music entirely. Closing her eyes she let the warm summer breeze wash over her.

She caught his scent as his approached, heard his footsteps and as her eyes flickered open she took in his face. He tilted his head in question, simply holding his hand out to her. She took it lightly and he closed his around hers, stroking his thumb gently over the top of her hand as he pulled her closer. One hand pressed into the small of her back, stroking gently over the silk of her dress. She rested her free hand on his shoulder, the tips of her fingers lingering at the nape of his neck.

"It's not fair," she whispered to him softly and she felt his lips press against her forehead for a moment before he pulled her closer.

"I know," he murmured back as they swayed together.

Before she knew it, the song was over and the crowd inside was applauding politely. Sasha pulled back the hand that held hers letting go only to cup her cheek gently and kiss her lips briefly. He gave her an encouraging smile and then moved away again, back around a corner, to whatever door he'd used to sneak away. Payson sighed and turned to go back inside when the door clicked open and her sister stepped out onto the patio with her.

"Hey Becca, it was getting really warm in there, wasn't it?" she asked, trying to play it off as coolly as possible, but her sister bit her lip and shook her head.

"I guess," Becca said with a shrug, taking a step closer. "I saw you Payson, you and Sasha."

Payson swallowed roughly trying to stay calm and collected, "We were just…."

Her younger sister, who Payson realized wasn't really all that young anymore shook her head, "You were dancing and he kissed you, but I saw you earlier too, in the library. You were kissing, not just kissing, you were. I don't really…." It was Becca's turn to trail off, obviously not being able to find the words.

Payson sighed and then took a deep breath.

"I won't tell anyone," she said quickly. "I swear."

That wasn't going to happen. It was one thing for her to keep something from her parents, even another for her friends to do it, but she couldn't ask that of her little sister. It just wasn't right. "No, that's not…Becca I can't ask you to lie. I'll talk to Sasha tonight and then we'll tell Mom and Dad tomorrow." She took a shaky breath. They'd gotten careless, both of them, sneaking away with so many people around. They were lucky it was Becca who'd seen them and not her father or Lauren or countless other people.

Becca looked away and then back at her, shaking her head, "You can't do that. I'm sorry I told you then. Were you going to tell them, I mean eventually?" she asked.

"After the Olympics. We were going to tell them after the Olympics." She sat down on one of the benches, and buried her head in her hands.

She heard Becca move closer to her, "I don't get it, Payson. He's our coach and he's so…so old. He's always yelling at us and just, I don't get it."

Payson looked up at her sister, "He's not that old, Becca."

"He's like thirty," Becca retorted, "that's old."

"Twenty nine," Payson corrected and then cringed at how stupid it sounded, even Becca rolled her eyes. "Well he is; he won't be thirty until December."

"He's our coach though, Payson. I mean he's like in charge of us, isn't that kind of weird?"

Payson shook her head, "It's not like that, when we work together, it's just different, it's not like working with a coach. It's like having a partner." She shrugged, "I don't know how else to explain it."

Becca took another step closer and sat down on the bench next to her, "Do you love him?" she asked. "I saw the way you guys were dancing and before in the library, it just, it looked like, you know, when people in the movies, it looked so perfect."

Payson breathed out harshly and shook her head, "We are so far from perfect, Becca, but I do love him and he loves me."

"He loves you?" Becca asked, obviously shocked. "How do you know? I mean people say that all the time and they don't mean it."

Payson smiled at her sister's curiosity, "Well, he did say it, but it's a lot of other things too, little things." She tried to think of a way to describe it so her sister would understand. "We had a snow storm last winter, one of the many," she began, "but this one kind of caught everyone by surprise, the weatherman said it was going to rain and the temperature dropped and it snowed instead, like eight inches. Do you remember?" Becca nodded. "Anyway, when I woke up the next morning, I looked out the window and he was out there, clearing the driveway because he knew I would be unhappy if I couldn't make it to the Rock to train. He got up at three in the morning to go out in the freezing cold and shovel the driveway, just to make me happy."

"You know he loves you because he shoveled your driveway?" Becca asked, her face a complete mask of confusion. "Wait, did he like stay over? Are you guys having sex?" as the words passed her mouth she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

Payson rolled her eyes and glared at her sister, "That's none of your business," she said.

They sat in silence for a moment and then Becca said, finally, "Don't tell Mom and Dad. You don't even have to tell Sasha I know."

Payson sighed, "I already told you, Becca, I can't ask you to lie to them. It's not right."

"I won't be lying. I'm just not going to say a word. If I hadn't told you I saw, you wouldn't even know that I know, so telling them just because I told you would be stupid. Did that make sense?" she asked and Payson laughed.

"I think so," she said and put her arm around her, pulling her sister in for a hug. "Thank you, Becca. We wanted to wait until after the Olympics so…"

"So that when Dad punches Sasha there won't be any TV cameras around," Becca said bluntly.

Payson snorted, but then shrugged. It wasn't far from the truth. "It won't be pretty," she admitted.

"You really love him?" Becca asked. "I mean really, the forever kind of love?"

"I do."

"Then I'm really happy for you, Pay. That's kind of huge."

Payson smiled and felt the prick of tears at the corner of her eye. She blinked them back quickly, "Yeah, it kind of is. Thanks Becca."

"Just don't tell Mom and Dad that I knew," Becca asked quickly. "I'd be grounded forever."

Payson laughed, wiping away the one tear that escaped. "I won't."

Austin remained at the bar as Damon walked off to claim Emily for a dance and then as Sasha watched Payson leave the room and left not long afterwards in the opposite direction, but ostensibly to follow her. He turned to the bar tender and ordered himself a whiskey sour and sipped it slowly as he observed the room around him. The floor was filled with couples as the band slowly strummed the notes to "When I Fall in Love". The singer wasn't bad and the mood of the room shifted from the party atmosphere of just moments earlier. His eyes searched her out, he couldn't help it. He caught a flash of light green at the far edge of the dance floor, but that was Lauren pressed up tightly against Carter Anderson. Two whole months in a row for them now, which might be some sort of record, now that he thought about it.

He drained his glass and motioned to the bar tender for another one, as her continued his survey of the room. That's when he saw her, dancing with some guy. He'd seen her dancing with a lot of guys tonight. Each time the knife twisted a little deeper into his gut. She was trying to hurt him, he knew that. It was so unlike her and that's what hurt the most. The Kaylie he knew, the Kaylie he'd fallen in love with, she wasn't spiteful. She was one of the kindest people he'd ever met, sweet, a little naïve maybe, but genuine. They had a rough start, but beneath the bickering had always been a deep rooted sense that they were somehow important to each other.

Maybe that was gone now, at least for her. The song ended and he sighed, looking down in the amber liquid in his glass. Rolling his eyes at himself, he downed it in one gulp and slammed the tumbler down on the bar, walking away. He stormed across the dance floor and out of the room, down the hallway and nearly careened head long into Sasha who was on his way back towards the ballroom.

"Austin?" he asked, looking concerned.

Austin raised his hands in mock surrender, "I'm done. I'm nearly drunk. I'm gonna get a room and just yeah, I'm gonna get a room," he said, motioning vaguely in the direction of the lobby.

"You need some help?" Sasha asked, the concern not leaving his face.

"I'm drunk," Austin said, "but I can still take my credit card out of my wallet and use the elevator." He was drunk, not fall down and sober enough to know his words were slurring. It was an odd state to be in and he intended to remedy that using the minibar in his room as soon as he got there.

Sasha nodded, "Alright, Tucker. See you tomorrow."

Austin moved away from his coach and waved a hand vaguely in the air. "Probably not," he called back and he heard Sasha's answering bark of laughter.

It was easy. He pulled his wallet out, handed the nice lady behind the desk his credit card and smiled and two minutes later he had a room. He wandered away from the front desk and towards the elevators when he saw something he didn't quite believe at first. Kaylie Cruz headed towards him at about a hundred miles an hour.

"Where's the fire?" he asked, as she approached him, though she hadn't caught sight of him yet.

She looked up and stopped dead in her tracks, like a deer caught in the headlights she simply froze, staring at him wide eyed. "I umm...I was just going…" she trailed off.

He nodded, "Yeah, me too," he said. He looked at her, studying her carefully. She looked beautiful, though it was strange to see her in a green dress, it looked beautiful on her. Her dark hair was piled at the top of her head, though it seemed to have begun its inevitable descent. Her light mocha skin looked as soft as ever. It was only a few weeks before he'd been allowed to run his hands over that skin. He'd discovered it was even softer than it looked. So were her lips come to think of it. They still were.

He pulled away from her, wondering how they'd begun kissing and then wondered why he stopped. He moved in again, their mouths meeting. He tasted something on her tongue, fruity and sharp at all once. He tried to bury his hand in her hair, but was hampered by something already in his hand. Then he remembered his hotel room keys. He pulled away and looked down at his hand. She looked as well and then smiled at him crookedly. He smiled back as she took his hand in hers and began pulling him towards the elevators.

Vaguely in the back of his mind, a tiny voice said that maybe this wasn't a great idea, but as they entered the elevator and she pulled his mouth back down to hers, the voice disappeared as quickly as the elevator door closed.

Kim Keeler's feet were killing her. She hadn't danced this much in a very long time and the shoes she'd worn to the wedding were more for show than for comfort. Mark was next to her, their hands still joined. She couldn't remember the last time they'd slow danced, but when the band began to strum the opening notes to "When I Fall in Love" he'd extended his hand to her and raised an eyebrow in question.

She took a sip of water and looked around as the band began a faster tune. She saw Payson and Becca up at the dais, where the bridal party, along with the bride and groom had their seats. They both looked happy, obviously having a good time. "We have beautiful girls, don't we?" Mark asked from next to her, having followed her line of sight.

She smiled and turned towards him, "We do." She watched as Becca left Payson, moving out towards the dance floor, where many of the guests close to her age were doing a dance she didn't recognize.

Her eyes moved back to Payson who sat down at her seat. The content expression was gone from her older daughter's face, replaced by something else entirely, a weariness that someone that young shouldn't possess. She'd given up trying to figure out what was going on with that girl. She knew Payson was hiding something, but it somehow had ceased to matter what that something was. There were moments where it seemed she couldn't be happier and then others when it looked as if she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. Whatever the cause of one, the other or both, she was immensely proud of her. In two weeks she'd compete for a spot on the Olympic team, though that was almost a given at this point and then less than a month later, they would be in London. Her daughter's dreams were about to come true and in the end, that was the most important thing. She watched as Emily and her boyfriend sat down beside her and they struck up a conversation, then oddly enough, Sasha approached and pulled up a chair. The conversation seemed to flow freely for the foursome, laughter echoing down from their seats. Kim narrowed her eyes. Not so long ago she'd entertained the thought that Sasha and Payson's relationship had somehow shifted, either for one or both of them, but she hadn't had solid proof. She watched Payson's eyes light up as she looked at Sasha and her breath caught at the pure adoration in his gaze as he looked back at her.

Mark squeezed her hand and for a moment she thought he saw what she did. She turned to him and he smiled, "C'mon, they're playing our song." Snapping out of her daze she listened and realized that the band was in fact playing the song they danced to at their own wedding, twenty years before, Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." She took his hand again and let her husband lead her onto the dance floor, her eyes moving back towards the dais where Payson was still sitting with Sasha, Emily and Damon having risen, likely to dance. She saw Payson smile at her coach, her…what else? Mark pulled her close and she rested her head on his shoulder, like she'd done twenty years before, vowing to talk to her daughter, again, as soon as possible. This time she would get some answers.

Chapter 52: The Morning After

Austin woke up with a splitting head ache. His eyelids felt like they were a hundred pounds each and someone had glued each one in place as he tried to open them. He could feel the light shining in through the windows as he sat up. His eyes flickered open and the room spun on its axis. His head pounded, as the sunlight blinded him. He hadn't been this hung over in a very long time, not since, not since the last time Kaylie had stomped on his heart. At least this time he'd found a bed. Last time he'd woken up on the couch in Sasha's trailer, not exactly made for his six foot plus frame. He slid his feet from beneath the covers and leaned his elbows on his knees. The room stopped spinning and he groaned.

What he wasn't prepared for was an answering groan from the other side of the bed. He turned quickly, which turned out to be a mistake since it caused his head to spin and the bile to rise in his throat. Instead of focusing on the other person in the room, he sprinted as fast as he could to the bathroom where he violently emptied the contents of his stomach.

He stood shakily, wiping at his mouth before moving to the sink. He tossed some cold water on his face and looked in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot. He looked terrible, but not as bad as he felt.

He heard groaning and suddenly a brunette blur moved past him towards the toilet and began heaving. He turned and squinted. Kaylie. He kneeled next to her and held her hair back as she retched.

Finally, she sat back on the cold bathroom floor and let out a shuddering sigh. "The last thing I remember is…"

Austin nodded, "Passing out on me mid-kiss," he finished for her, his memories of the night before clear as a bell. They're mouths had barely parted from the elevator all the way to the room. It had taken six attempts to simply get the keycard into the lock as neither wished to lose contact for more than a millisecond. His jacket, waistcoat, bow tie and shirt had made it to the carpeted floor, followed not long after by her silk dress, but then suddenly, kneeling in the center of the bed, she'd gone limp, literally.

He'd panicked for a moment, thinking she was unconscious, but then she'd curled up in a ball, hugging one of the pillows to her tightly. She was drunk, asleep and on her side. There wasn't much else he could do for her. So he'd done what any other guy would do, he took off his belt and his pants to get comfortable, gotten under the covers and gone to sleep.

Her sigh drew him back into the present and he realized she was still in just her bra and underwear. He supposed he ought to be a gentleman about this, after all they'd both been blitzed and not in their right minds. He stood quickly and moved to the closet, taking out one of the fluffy bathrobes the hotel provided.

Entering the bathroom again he saw she was washing her face, using some of the mouthwash provided on the counter top. "Here you go," he said, putting the robe over her shoulders. She looked up, their eyes meeting in the bathroom mirror.

"Thanks," she said, pulling her arms through the sleeves and tying it snuggly around her waist. "Look Austin," she began, but he just shook his head, cutting her off.

"You don't have to say it, Kaylie. I get it."

She furrowed her brow, "What do you think you get exactly?"

"I get it. You're attracted to me, maybe you even like me a little, but obviously you don't want more than that and that's okay."

Her jaw dropped open. "Austin, that's not what I was going to say."

He ran a frustrated hand through his hair, "Then what is it? What keeps stopping you?"

She bit her lip. Crap, she's going to cry. "I don't know. I know I want to be with you. I know that, but it scares me so much. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that if I open myself up again I'm just going to get hurt."

He sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bathtub, "I'd never hurt you, Kaylie," he said softly. "Don't you know that?"

She pulled her arms around her middle, hugging them tightly to herself, "You say that and you mean it, but it doesn't make it true."

He broke off eye contact, studying the tiled floor intently, "I can't guarantee things would be perfect, that we'd never fight or that neither of us would get hurt. If that's what you want, I can't give that you to you." He looked back up at her, "No one can."

She nodded and he realized that this was it. This was the end; even after all those other times he thought it was over, they were finally finished. She wanted him, he wanted her, but she wasn't willing to take a risk. This was why she'd never recovered her form after returning to the sport, not because she wasn't capable, but because she simply wouldn't take a risk. He thought about saying that to her, wanting to hurt her for hurting him like this, but their eyes met and he found he couldn't do it. She was hurting too. She was hurting herself. He could see it in her eyes, the tension and the pain. He stood, moving towards her. He stood stock still for a moment before leaning down to brush a soft kiss across her forehead. "Goodbye, Kaylie," he said softly and moved out of the bathroom. He gathered his clothes quickly, tossing the shirt back over his head.

It was a walk of shame, an obvious one, but he didn't care. He'd call a cab from the lobby and go home. He was done.

Emily woke up and had the odd sensation that she wasn't where she was supposed to be. She sat up looking around and sighed. Her new bedroom, in the Tanner house, her house now, at least until January when she'd move to Los Angeles to start school, but this was where her mom and Brian would be for the foreseeable future. It was home now. She swung her legs out from under the covers and stood, her toes curling into the plushy carpet that lined the floor of her room.

She went down to the kitchen to make some breakfast when she ran into the Tanner's housekeeper and cook.

"Miss Emily, what would you like for breakfast?" Consuela asked, "We can have eggs or French toast."

Emily bit her lip. She hadn't thought about this, that there would be someone to wait on them hand and foot. She wasn't exactly sure how comfortable she'd be with that. Consuela seemed to sense her hesitancy. "It is my job," she assured her.

Emily nodded and took a deep breath, "Egg white omelet with veggies?"

The cook nodded and smiled at her, "Si, coming right up."

She sat on a stool at the counter and waited feeling very useless, until she rolled her eyes at herself realizing that she could help. She got herself a glass of orange juice. "Utensils?" she asked and Consuela pointed at one of the drawers with a smile. She found herself an apple in the refrigerator and then sat down just as her omelet was done. "Thank you," she said and smiled.

The cook stopped and looked at her for a moment before nodding in approval, "De nada."

Minutes later Lauren swept into the room and looked around, "Consuela, is my breakfast ready?" she asked, frowning.

"Coming right up, Miss Lauren, I just finished Miss Emily's breakfast," the cook said, nodding towards Emily's plate.

Lauren huffed and rolled her eyes before sitting down at the counter as well, drumming her fingers impatiently.

Maybe it was how delicious the omelet was, or waking up in her own room for the first time or believing that her mother was really happy, but Emily decided that she would try. "Are you ready for this week?" Emily asked, taking another bite of her eggs.

Lauren looked at her, shocked that she'd been spoken to. "Uh, yeah, I guess. What do you mean?"

Emily rolled her eyes lightly and laughed. Obviously Lauren was still caught up in a post-wedding haze if she'd forgotten. "MJ, she's coming down to do her fluff pieces for the Olympic trials, remember? Prep work today, filming and interviews for the rest of the week."

Lauren nodded, biting her lip as if trying to hold something in, but then suddenly it burst out of her, "It's almost here, we're almost to the Olympics." She smiled at her and for the first time ever, Emily thought maybe it was genuine.

Kim knew she'd have to get to Payson's house early if she wanted to talk to her before practice, but as she stood at the door at five, ringing the door bell repeatedly to no answer, she was beyond confused.

"Up and gone by half past four," a voice called out from the house next door. She turned and saw an older man, standing on the porch easing his way down the steps. "Don't know what we were thinking buy a house with a stoop like this one," he muttered, obviously not requiring a response. He reached the first landing and sat down, before pulling a pipe out of his jacket's front inner pocket and set about lighting it.

She moved down towards the driveway that connected the two homes, "Gone by four thirty?" she asked.

"Every day, except Sundays," he said with a nod. "I'm up all hours, that's what they don't tell you about getting old, you except sick and slow, but no one ever tells you that you can't sleep. Anyway, you're Payson's mother aren't you? We've met before, when you're daughter moved in."

Kim bit her lip, remembering the introduction, but not the man's name. He took pity on her, "Roy Hodgson," he said with a smile.

"Kim Keeler," she said and nodded. "Thanks for letting me know."

He nodded absently, "What are you doing here so early, if you don't mind me asking?"

Kim frowned, not sure if she did mind, but then, what was the harm? "There was something important I wanted to talk to Payson about and it just couldn't wait."

Roy pursed his lips after taking a drag from the pipe. He exhaled the smoke and looked back at her, "She's a good girl, your daughter. Sweet as pie," he added. "You can imagine when my Rose and I heard they were selling the place to a teenaged girl, well we had a moment of panic, but after meeting Payson, that girl just charmed the hell out of us."

Kim smiled, "I'm very proud of her," she said, not knowing what else to say.

"You should be proud of yourself too. She's so successful, with that gymnastics she does and all the traveling and the smarts too. You don't see young people like that much anymore. I had a mind to set her up with my grandson."

Kim's eyebrows raised, "Why didn't you?" she asked. This man was Payson's neighbor, obviously retired and probably spent much of his time at home. He probably knew more about Payson's personal life than most people did.

He smirked at her and chuckled, "He's not good enough for her," he said with a shrug. "Besides that, the girl's heart was stolen a long time ago and I think you know that."

She frowned, not liking his tone, "No, I don't know that, Mr. Hodgson," she said.

He flicked a hand at her. "It's Roy," he corrected. "Well, if you don't know that, I guess she's got a good enough reason."

Kim took a step closer, "I'm her mother," she said, "what reason could she possibly have to keep something like that from me?"

Roy looked at her, his old eyes piercing into hers. "Is that why you came over here? To talk to her about him?" His words were vague, but she knew who he meant.

"I did," she said, her hands landing upon her hips as she pursed her lips in agitation.

"Your daughter looks just like that when she's fired up about something, you know that?" he observed and chuckled.

She furrowed her brow in confusion. "Last winter I was coming down these very stairs, don't even recall why now. Oh, that's right, I was going to clean the snow off our car so I could take Rose to the store. But she stood right where you're standing right now, told me in no uncertain terms to go back inside and that she was going to clean off the car or Rose could just give her the list and she'd do the shopping for her. Knew it was no use arguing right then and there." Roy laughed, before taking another draw from the pipe and Kim smiled. It sounded like something Payson would do. "Then she and that young man of hers shoveled our driveway, cleaned off the car and took the both of us shopping. She helped Rose make dinner that night too. It was nice having them over, very lively company. Listened to our stories and such."

Kim was stuck back on his words, "Her young man?" she asked and Roy rolled his eyes, a gesture she didn't really appreciate.

"Mrs. Keeler, you're daughter is a rare kind of girl, did you really think no one would notice? He's a good boy and she's got him wrapped around her little finger, though she doesn't even know it. Take it from someone who knows, Mrs. Keeler, she's made a good choice and when she's ready to tell you, she will."

She looked at him archly, "If she's made such a good choice, why can't she tell me now?" she asked. Suddenly the rest of what he revealed seemed to permeate her mind. Shoveling snow, going to dinner, taking this old man and his wife shopping, it implied something. It implied a life together, one of the few things she hadn't considered when running through the worst and best case scenarios she'd created in her mind.

Roy shrugged, "I can't say for sure, but sometimes you just have to have a little faith. You raised a good girl, Mrs. Keeler and I think you know that. Like I said, when she's ready, she'll tell you."

She shook her head, "And if it was your daughter and she was with someone and hadn't told you about it?" she asked.

Roy smiled at her and shook his head, "You might have me there, Mrs. Keeler."

Kim nodded, but somehow didn't feel like she'd won the argument. He hadn't confirmed anything for her, though the more and more she thought about it, the surer she was about her suspicions. Payson and Sasha were what? Dating? No, that didn't seem like the right word. They were together. They'd kept it under the radar for obvious reasons. They'd kept it from her for reasons even more obvious.

Roy cleared his throat and she looked up, having forgotten he was there, "Before you do anything, Mrs. Keeler, just think about it. The wall between these two houses is pretty thin. He's not doing anything to hurt your daughter. In fact, the thing that probably hurt her the most is when he stayed away for so long."

"Stayed away?" she asked. "What? When?"

Roy looked pensive for a moment, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Oh, it was probably almost a year ago now; she came back from, where was it?"

"Istanbul," Kim supplied for him, already knowing what he was going to say.

He pointed to her and nodded, "Istanbul," he said. "My wife and I watched her on the television, it was a sight to see. We've been keeping up with her career since she moved in. Anyway, she came back from Istanbul and suddenly we didn't see him around anymore and that girl of yours, Mrs. Keeler, she was different. Same sweetness, same seriousness, but not happy, that much I could tell. It near broke my heart to see her that sad. I had a mind to hunt that boy down and give him the lashing of his life."

Kim nodded, "Yes, I noticed that too. They were both like that," she said. She remembered how changed both of them were after Istanbul. At the time she hadn't put the puzzle pieces together, but now it all made sense. They'd fought in Istanbul, broken up, and that was the cause of the change she'd seen in them.

Roy shrugged, "Once he started coming around again, I'd say about six months later, it was like someone flipped a switch. You can't fake that kind of emotion, Mrs. Keeler. She's in love with that boy and he with her."

"Do you know what happened, why they split?" she asked.

Roy frowned, "Not sure as to the details of it, but from what I gathered, they were trying to protect each other. Just plain foolishness, and I told my wife that, but, well she said to me, 'Roy, we're all fools in love.' I suppose she's right, her and whatever scribbler she stole it from."

Kim made it to work around seven after picking Becca up. She saw MJ's car in the parking lot and she remembered that she and a crew would be around all week filming and interviewing the girls. She nodded towards her daughter's agent as she entered the Rock. MJ was on the far side working with a camera crew. Becca took off for the locker room to change. She saw Sasha working with Isabella on the beam, his focus laser like on the junior National Champion.

She made her way up to her office and was shocked to see Payson sitting at Sasha's desk waiting for her. She moved to her own desk and sat down as Payson stood up and took a deep breath. "I taught Roy how to text. He said you stopped by this morning."

Kim looked up in shock. She hadn't been ready for this. She'd come to the gym willing to forget it entirely, to simply wait until Payson came to her, if she ever did. She met her daughter's eyes and for the first time in a long time saw a real vulnerability there. "I did. He and I had a nice long talk."

Payson nodded and took a deep breath. "Yeah, he said that too. Do you have something you want to ask me?"

There it was. Payson was giving her an in, cracking open the door to her life that seemed shut for so long. Kim nodded and she saw her daughter brace herself. She looked at Payson, really looked at her. She was eighteen years old, intelligent, beautiful, virtually at the top of the world and Kim knew what happened in the next few moments could send her daughter's life crashing down around her ears. She wasn't going to let that happen.

"Are you happy, Pay?" she asked, though her words carried a lot more weight on them than that simple question.

Payson blinked at her, confused and then her eyes cleared, somehow understanding what her mother was asking. She closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them, smiling softly, "I am."

Kim had hundreds of questions on the tip of her tongue. Do you love him? Does he love you? Are you being safe? When were you going to tell me? What are your plans? Are you sure this is what you want? She held them in and looked at her daughter again. Their eyes met and a sense of understanding passed through their gaze.

Payson moved forward first and Kim practically jumped out of her chair. They embraced tightly and the normally stoic Kim Keeler felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. She blinked furiously, holding them back.

Payson pulled away and stepped back, "After London, I'll tell you everything," she said and with another smile, she was gone, out of the office and down to the training floor.

She wasn't sure what she expected from this day. When she got into her car this morning to drive to Payson's, she never thought this was how it would go, but somehow she felt like this was the best possible result. She had so many unanswered questions still and then of course there was Mark. Her husband was not going to take this well, but for now, for right now, everything was okay.

Chapter 53: Dropping the Pretense

"This might be the worst idea I've ever had," Payson mumbled as she locked her bedroom door.

Sasha pushed off the hallway wall grabbing his bag from the floor, "I think it's a great idea," he said, "Honestly, I think it's about time you four got together again, and you're much stronger as a team than individuals."

She smiled at him tightly, "Maybe so, but we're also not exactly as close as we used to be. This night could be a complete disaster."

Sasha moved closer, his hands resting lightly on her hips, "Somehow I don't think that's going to happen. Somehow I think you're going to handle it all beautifully and this team, our team is going to come out the stronger for it."

She leaned her forehead against his chest, the cotton of his t-shirt soft against her skin, "Your faith in me is really frightening sometimes."

His hand crept from her waist up to cup her cheek gently. She looked up at him and he smiled, "I've told you before, Payson. You're a leader. Like it or not, those girls, they listen to you and tonight might be your last chance to unite your teammates before the Olympics."

She laughed softly, her eyes fluttering closed as she shook her head, "You used to be a lot better at these pep talks."

His jaw dropped in mock outrage, "Oh really?" he asked, leaning in as she wound her arms around his neck.

"Yeah," she said, her smile fading only as his lips covered hers. It was a sweet kiss, just a simple caress of his lips and hers, both knowing they didn't have time for anything else. Payson pulled away. "You have to go. They'll be here soon and I just de-Sasha'd the whole house. You standing here when they arrive might ruin the effect."

"I'll be at the trailer," he said, leaning in for another quick peck, but lingering for a moment before she pulled back, glaring at him. "Okay, okay, I'm going."

He jogged down the stairs and she heard the front door shut, the engine to his truck revving to a purr and then the noise fading down the street before she moved from the spot. She sighed and went downstairs to get the living room ready.

Despite Sasha's words of encouragement, she still felt like this could all blow up in her face. She didn't know what possessed her, but things were pretty shaky at the Rock today. MJ's mere presence in the gym set everyone on edge.

"What's with Lauren today?" Payson asked, as she watched Lauren move through her beam routine, rushed, barely focusing.

Emily blinked, as if unsure Payson was addressing her and then shrugged, "I don't know, she was fine this morning."

Then they heard a loud thud from the bars and they both whirled around to see Kaylie lying face first on the mat. She slammed it in frustration, "Damn it."

Payson bit her lip as she turned again to watch Lauren simply leap off the beam, not even attempting her dismount. She watched Lauren walk away, her mind obviously not on her training before looking toward Emily who was staring into space, then back to Kaylie who was walking away from the bars to the chalk bowl, violently rechalking her grips. Her eyes moved past Kaylie towards where MJ was setting up her camera angles for tomorrow's filming and interviews. At this rate the upcoming week would be a complete and utter catastrophe.

"Emily," she said suddenly, pulling her friend's attention from whenever it had been moments before. "Why don't you come over tonight? I'm thinking that it's been a while since we've all hung out."

Emily raised her eyebrows, "All of us?" she asked, looking towards Lauren and then Kaylie.

Payson nodded. Her instincts, the ones she depended upon, the ones that had very rarely lead her astray were telling her this was the right thing to do, "Lauren," she said, as the beam specialist walked past, "do you want to come over tonight?"

Lauren stopped and looked at her like she had ten heads for a moment. Her eyes pierced into Payson's obviously looking for her motives. She must have been satisfied with whatever she saw. "Sure. I'll bring Breakfast Club," she said and Payson felt a small smile creep over her face. The first time they had a sleep over, just after Payson moved to Boulder, she'd brought Breakfast Club to Lauren's house. Neither she nor Kaylie had ever seen it. That Lauren remembered was kind of sweet.

"Breakfast Club?" Kaylie asked as she stopped halfway to the bars.

Payson nodded and smiled, "Yeah, slumber party tonight at my house. Just the four of us."

Kaylie looked away and the others followed her eyes across the gym to where Austin was training on the floor. Payson looked back at her just as her eyes shifted back towards them, "Sounds good," she said with a shrug before moving back towards the bars.

Payson was jolted out of her thoughts when the doorbell rang. It was an odd sensation, having to answer the door. For the most part the only people who came to her house were Austin and Sasha and both of them simply let themselves in. She opened the door to see Lauren and Emily.

"You came together?" Payson asked, seeing only Lauren's car in her driveway.

"We're 'sisters' now remember? We live in the same house," Lauren said and stepped past Payson into the house. The last time Lauren had been inside was just before they'd left for Istanbul. Payson had combed the house for evidence of Sasha and put away anything remotely associated with him, but she still had a sinking feeling in her stomach. Suddenly those instincts that urged her to do this were annoyingly silent.

Emily smiled at her and shrugged, following Lauren in. Payson saw Kaylie pulling up in her convertible, and smiled as the last of their group scaled the stairs. "Hey Pay," she said, practically radiating false cheerfulness.

"Hi Kaylie," she said, stepping back, allowing Kaylie past her.

They moved into the living room where Lauren and Emily were standing and for a moment all four of them stood there awkwardly, just looking at each other. It was the first time they were all alone in a room together in a very long time.

Payson sighed. This could be a long night. "I figured we could order from Celery, there are menus on the table," she said, "Anyone want anything to drink?"

"Water," all three girls responded together and oddly it broke the tension.

"I'll help you, Pay," Kaylie said and she nodded.

"Lauren, can you put the movie in?" Payson asked and Lauren pulled the dvd box out of her bag with a smile.

"Breakfast Club," Emily said. "What's that?"

"You've never seen Breakfast Club?" Lauren asked and as Emily shook her head, she clucked her tongue in disapproval.

Kaylie and Payson made their way into the kitchen. Payson moved to cabinet to retrieve four glasses.

"Look Pay, I'd appreciate it if you didn't say anything about what happened last night between me and Austin," Kaylie said.

Payson turned to look at her friend, her brow furrowed. "Something happened? The last I heard you guys weren't speaking."

Kaylie bit her lip and looked annoyed. She shook her head with a huff. "You mean he didn't tell you?"

She set the glasses down on the counter. "I didn't see him after the wedding. He got a room at the hotel. Sasha said that he was drunk. Next time I saw him was this morning at the Rock." She suddenly had a sinking feeling in her stomach and she looked towards Kaylie quickly. "Kaylie, did you and Austin…"

"No," Kaylie cut in, "no, we didn't, look it doesn't matter. I'm sure he'll tell you eventually, but Austin and I, we both got a little tipsy last night and nothing happened, just that this morning, before training we sort of decided that it was over."

"What's over?" Lauren asked, coming into the room. "The movie will be over if you guys take any longer getting four glasses of water."

"Nothing," Kaylie said and Payson shrugged, moving towards the freezer to fill each cup with ice.

Lauren rolled her eyes, "Right," she said, taking two glasses and filling them from Payson's water filter, handing them to Kaylie who left the kitchen quickly.

"Here," Payson said, handing over the other two glasses.

"We used to tell each other everything," Lauren said, filling one glass and handing it to Payson. "It seems like a really long time ago now."

Payson nodded, "Yeah I know." It really did. It felt like it had been decades since the times when every secret was spilled within minutes. When their bond was stronger than anything any of them ever imagined.

"What happened?" Lauren asked and Payson looked at her sharply. A lot of the blame rested on Lauren's shoulders. Three years ago things had changed forever when she'd slept with Kaylie's boyfriend. Lauren just rolled her eyes at Payson. "It wasn't just that," she said, though there was a note of uncertainty in her voice.

Payson nodded, "No, it wasn't," she agreed. Much of it was her own fault. She'd removed herself from her friends, first because of her injury and then when her path to the Olympics diverged so completely from theirs, but the thing that separated her the most was her relationship with Sasha. She'd made a choice, a conscious one. She chose her feelings for him over her friendship with them, though at the time they hadn't known it. Had she failed them as a teammate because of that decision?

Lauren put her hand on Payson's arm lightly, "It wasn't you either," she said and Payson frowned at her in confusion.

Lauren sighed and ran a hand through her blonde hair, "I know that look. It's the Captain Payson face. You didn't abandon us or whatever you're thinking right now. You won, fair and square; you were better than us before your injury and you were better after it and just because we couldn't keep up doesn't mean that you aren't still our leader and a really good one. My dad has this saying and it's really stupid, but he uses it all the time: you can lead a horse to water,"

"But you can't make him drink," Payson finished for her. "My dad says that too."

Lauren shrugged, "You lead us to water for years, Pay. You still do, even tonight with this little get together, sleep-over, whatever. Even when Kaylie was team captain; you were giving her advice on how to lead. You were always our leader and look at us, we're all going to make the Olympic team, Payson. A lot of that is because of you."

"Lauren, are you feeling okay?" Payson asked, with a small laugh. Lauren wasn't usually the type to wax philosophical about anything, let alone what someone else was feeling.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking these last couple of days. Just thought I'd let you know." Payson felt her squeeze her arm lightly before moving past her back towards the living room where she could hear the opening sounds of the movie.

Sasha pulled into the Rock parking lot and was startled to see Kim's car was still there. He'd left her there hours ago, but he figured she'd be long gone by now. He had studiously avoided her at the gym today after Payson told him of their conversation. It was cowardly he knew and it was better that they talked sooner rather than later, but despite that he'd knew this day would come and that it fast approaching the closer they drew to the Olympics, he was terrified. He counted Kim Keeler as one of his friends, an ally in a world where he knew those were on short supply and today might be the end of that, despite what Payson had described as a very even tempered reaction.

He took a step towards the he trailer and then shook his head. This wasn't who he was and it wasn't who he wanted Kim to believe he was. He was the right man for her daughter, he knew that. He wanted her to know it too and in order for that to happen, he couldn't hide.

He tossed his bag back into the car and went into the Rock. He looked up at the office, but the lights were off. He scanned the darkened gym, just the recessed lighting was on, giving the gym an unearthly feel. He saw here then, leaning up against the balance beam staring out at the rest of the floor.

"Hey," he said, approaching her slowly, giving her time to recognize his presence.

She blinked, having obviously been deep in thought. Her eyes focused on him for a moment before narrowing. "Hello," she said, formally, drawing an obvious line from what their relationship had been just the day before to what it was in this moment.

He nodded, respecting that and stood near the uneven bars, allowing her to dictate how this would go. They stood there in silence as the minutes ticked away, their even breathing the only sound in the entire gym.

Sasha watched her, but she kept her eyes off him, staring into space. He sighed. Obviously she didn't want him here. He took a step towards the door when her voice stopped him. "Payson was always incredibly mature for her age," she said and he turned to face her. She still wasn't looking at him, but it was a start. "She was just this serious little thing from the day she was born. Never really cried, even when she wanted something, very self sufficient. She never really gave us any trouble until one day I walked into the dining room and there she was literally swinging from the chandelier, a bright smile on her face. I'd never seen anything make her that happy. I was pregnant with Becca at the time, so I took her down to the local gym and signed her up for the only program they had for little ones, the toddler tumbles program. They kicked her out after a few weeks because she'd always find her way to the high balance beam or the uneven bars, getting in the way of the older girls who were training. I wonder if those people know who they kicked out of their gym?" she asked with a smile, finally looking back at him.

He shrugged and opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off, her smile fading. "How old are you Sasha? Thirty?"

He sighed and nodded, "I'll be thirty, this December," he said.

She nodded and looked away again, shaking her head, "She always was mature for her age." Then she sighed heavily and looked at him again, their eyes meeting in the darkened gym. "I know my daughter, Sasha and I thought I knew you, I think I still do. You're a good man, the kind of man I've always wanted for her. I don't think you'd ever hurt her. That much I know. It's the lie, that's going to take me some time to get over."

Sasha crossed his arms over his chest and nodded, "I understand."

She smiled at him thinly, moving towards him. She stopped directly in front of him, placing a hand on his forearm lightly. "My husband though…" she trailed off, her meaning crystal clear.

"I understand that too," he said. She looked up at him and nodded, before squeezing his forearm lightly before walking away, out of the gym, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

He supposed it was the best he could hope for as he locked up the gym for the night and retreated back to the airstream. He hadn't slept there for months. He kept it around for the sake of appearance and it struck him then. The lies had crept into almost every aspect of their lives. It wasn't something he'd ever imagined himself capable of. He had hope that one day Kim would forgive him, but a knot settled into his stomach and he knew he'd have to talk to Payson about it soon. They couldn't ask Kim to keep something like this from her husband, it was too big, the kind of thing that could destroy a marriage. He'd talk to her tomorrow. Her father was in Minnesota for work and would be home in a day or two. It would have to be then.

Once the food arrived, any lingering tension between the girls dissipated as they dug into some of the best food in town, shamelessly stealing from each other's plates and keeping a running commentary on the movie.

All in all, Payson was thrilled things were going this well.

"You know Payson can actually do that," Lauren said as Molly Ringwald used her breasts to apply lip gloss, successfully drawing an ovation and then ridicule on the screen.

Payson laughed out loud remembering the night she had discovered that particular talent at a slumber party much like this one. Lauren leapt up and got a tube out of her bag, tossing it to Payson who snatch it out of her air shaking her head.

"C'mon Pay, you have to," Kaylie said as they all dissolved into giggles.

"Okay, okay," Payson said, rolling her eyes lightly and smiling. Seconds later they burst into raucous applause as she smacked her lips together, displaying her now perfectly glossed lips.

"Perfectly kissable," Lauren said and grinned, as Payson handed her lip gloss back to her. "Too bad there aren't any boys around to kiss."

"Since when do I not qualify as a boy?" a deep voice echoed from the entryway. All four girls leapt at the sound and Emily actually squeaked in surprise, but they all relaxed when they realized it was Austin, besides of course Kaylie. She remained seated, her back ramrod straight looking like a deer caught in the headlights. "Sorry, Pay. I didn't realize you had company."

Payson jumped to her feet and moved over to him, "Yeah, we're having a girls' night," she said loud enough for the others to hear her. "Kaylie told me what happened, are you okay, Austin?" she asked, her voice much lower, inaudible to the girls behind her.

He nodded, looking past her, ostensibly at Kaylie. "Yeah, I just wanted to uh, talk, but I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" he asked and nodded to the group behind her, "Ladies," he said, "have a nice night."

Just as quickly as he appeared he was gone, leaving them all in a tense silence. "Does he come over a lot?" Lauren asked.

Payson nodded, "Yeah, he eats my food and uses me for my cable when his satellite goes down. He's…" she trailed off and shook her head. She was tired of lying. Her mother knew and her sister knew, her father would know soon enough. Both Kaylie and Emily knew. "Austin and I aren't together Lauren. We never were, even if sometimes we acted like it, it was easier that way, so people wouldn't figure out who I really was with." She looked to Kaylie who was still sitting stock still and then to Emily whose eyes cautioned her, but then she shrugged as if to say, it's up to you.

Lauren looked at her, tilting her head as if trying to figure it out, before her eyes grew wide in disgust. "It's not…"

Payson laughed lightly, "No, Lo, it's not Boris; I know you thought that for a little while." Lauren glared at Kaylie who shrugged. "It's Sasha. Sasha and I are together, have been almost two years now."

Lauren looked at her, her mouth open ever so slightly, and then she looked to Kaylie and Emily who both nodded. Her eyes focused back on Payson, "I am such an idiot," she said and laughed. "Of course you and Sasha are together, duh, Lauren. It all makes sense now."

"You can't tell anyone, Lauren," Payson warned, though she knew it should have been implicit.

"Obviously," Lauren said and rolled her eyes, and then a large smile spread across her face. "Oh my God, Payson, I mean I know he's our coach and everything, but he's, he's so hot."

Kaylie snorted and Emily let out a little giggle. Payson smiled and shook her head. "Yeah, Lauren, that much I'm aware of."

"So that cologne and the condom, oh my god, you're sleeping together aren't you? Is he good in bed? I bet he is, the man is like a volcano, probably goes all caveman on you, doesn't he?"

"You shouldn't have been snooping to begin with," Payson admonished lightly.

Lauren rolled her eyes and waved the rebuke away like it was a bothersome fly, "You didn't answer the question, missy. We're not allowed to tell anyone, but it's only fair you give us some details. Even if these two knew all this time, I know they wouldn't have the guts to ask you, so come on spill, is he amazing in bed?"

She wasn't going to answer, she really wasn't, but then she looked into the eyes of her friends, the girls she'd wished for months and months she could share this with. Slowly a smile spread across her face as a light blush stained her cheeks.

Chapter 54: Revelations

Sasha awoke his hand searching out for her, but all he found was air and cold mattress beside him. He rolled over and forced his eyes open and realized he was in his bed in his trailer and not where he'd slept for the last few months, in their bed. He slid his legs out from under the covers and grabbed his watch from the shelf at the head of the bed. He blinked at it and saw it was quarter to five. He stood, his entire body protesting the movement. How the hell did you sleep on that damn thing, Beloff? It's like a bloody piece of cardboard. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and stretched his arms up to get the kinks out only to hit his fists against the roof of the airstream. "Shit," he muttered. He was no more used to sleeping alone than he was waking up alone.

It had been like this for three days now. Three days of living in this stupid, bloody trailer while MJ and her cameras wandered freely. He was tired and cranky, his jaw still hurt like hell and hadn't been able to sleep next to the woman he loved for three straight nights. It was great for the cameras. America would eat up the strict, tough as nails coach who demanded no less than perfection from his athletes, or at least they would sympathize and root for the girls, which is what the footage was supposed to be about, the girls.

He showered quickly and was standing in just his pants, scrubbing the last of the water from his hair with a towel when he heard a knock at the door. He glanced at his watch. It was probably Payson wanting to open the gym up. "It's open," he called, reaching for his toothbrush, "just take the key, Pay and open it up. I'll be done in a minute." He managed this around his toothbrush, but he figured Payson would be able to interpret.

"Huh, nice abs Beloff, but then you always did stay in great shape," an accent not much different from his own said.

He turned, toothbrush still hanging from his mouth and rolled his eyes at MJ, before turning and spitting into the sink. "Thought you were Payson," he said, grabbing a shirt and pulling it over his head. "What do you want MJ?" he asked, cutting to the chase.

"Several things," she said suggestively, but as he frowned crookedly and raised his eyebrows, indicating he wasn't in the mood to play around, she continued, "I need an hour with each of the girls today and an hour with you."

"No," he said, moving around her to grab his keys from the countertop. He moved around her and left the trailer, knowing she'd follow quickly.

"If you give me the time today, I can be out of here be this afternoon. You'll have your gym back on tomorrow," she called out as he moved towards the gym.

Turning, he smiled at her and nodded, "Done, but if I see one camera in here tomorrow…" he warned.

"My crew and I are on a flight back to LA tonight," she said. He nodded and continued towards the gym to start the day, but he stopped when he heard a car pull in, definitely not one of the convertibles and he smiled when he saw it was Payson's Audi pulling into her spot.

"Morning Payson," he heard MJ say to her. "You're here early."

Payson shrugged, "I'm actually running a little late this morning," she said and Sasha smiled. "Good morning, Sasha."

"Morning," he said, trying to keep his expression neutral, "meet you on the mats in five." He unlocked the gym door and flicked on the lights, nodding in satisfaction as the gym lit up and the day began.

Payson grabbed her gym bag from the front seat of the car and nodded to MJ politely before taking a step towards the gym.

"Payson," her agent called out to her. She clenched her teeth and wrinkled her nose. So close, she sighed and turned.

"What's up, MJ?" she asked. MJ was still her agent, still represented her to her sponsors and was still doing an incredible job if the deposits into Payson's accounts were any indication, but they hadn't actually spoken more than a few words in a long time, even in the days she'd been here at the Rock.

"We need to talk, about after the Olympics, Payson. What are your plans?" MJ asked, hands on her hips. She was in full agent mode, obviously ready for any answer Payson would throw at her.

Payson sighed, "My plans are to retire from gymnastics, obviously. My body couldn't handle another Olympic cycle. I'm done after this."

MJ nodded, "I thought so and life after gymnastics? There are a few networks who are already angling for some time with you after the games."

Payson shook her head, "No, I'm done. Whatever endorsements still want me, great, I'll keep them, but I've made enough money."

MJ smiled, "You're definitely not the typical…" she trailed off.

"I've never been typical," Payson said, smiling at her agent lightly, nodding towards the building and moving in that direction.

"So what's next then? School?"

"Yeah," she said as they entered the Rock. Sasha was working on the bars, setting them up for her. "Columbia."

"New York," MJ said, obviously impressed. "I can't say I pictured you there. That's a big city to go and live in, not knowing anyone."

Payson smiled at her, secretly, "I think I'll be okay."

"I'm sure you will be," MJ said. "So is there any chance I could get you to tell me how Sasha got that bruise on his jaw. No one seems to be willing to give up that juicy little tidbit."

Payson shrugged, "Sorry, no clue. Sasha's not exactly, well I'm sure you know."

MJ rolled her eyes, "Yeah, I know."

The agent walked away as her crew started arriving and Payson sighed, looking out at Sasha again who turned to her his mouth twisted into a frown. "Today?" he asked, his coaching instincts taking over as they usually did in the gym.

She nodded moving towards him, dropping her gym bag, "MJ wants to know who punched you," she muttered as she sat down on the mat and began to stretch.

"And what did you tell her?" he asked, still fiddling with the wires on the bars.

"What do you think?" she said, rolling her eyes.

"Have you spoken to him?" Sasha asked, finally turning to face her, his eyes asking a lot more than his words.

Payson nodded, "No. I spoke to my mom last night. She said maybe over the weekend. He's still really angry."

Angry was the understatement of the year. Her father was absolutely furious. Once her mother figured out what was going on, both Payson and Sasha realized that they would have to tell her father and sooner rather than later, so when he'd arrived home on Tuesday afternoon, she'd asked her mother if she and Sasha could stop by that night to talk about everything. She'd never seen her mom so relieved in her life, saying she'd send Becca to Lily's for the night and that they should come by around seven and Payson knew then, watching her mother's reaction that no matter her dad's response, telling them was the right decision.

They arrived together, despite coming in separate cars. Sasha was staying at his trailer this week while MJ and her crew of ever present cameras were following them around. The last thing they needed was video footage of something leaking out before the Olympic Games.

He'd parked out in front of the house and she'd pulled into the driveway, so she waited for him, leaning up against her car as he strode from the street towards her.

"Hey," he said, his voice a little rough. She knew this wouldn't be easy on him, not by a long shot and she was thankful she'd fallen in love with someone like him, someone who'd walk with her willingly into this.

"Hi," she said, taking his hand in his and squeezing it gently. It was the first intimate contact they'd had all week and so they lingered for a moment.

They moved up the walkway together and Payson lifted her hand to knock on the door when she shook her head at herself and simply opened it up to find Mark Keeler standing there, hand extended obviously about to open the door himself.

"Dad," she said with a smile, embracing him quickly.

"Hey kiddo," he said, his arms coming around her and for a moment Payson didn't want to tell him, she just wanted to stay his little girl, the little girl he was hugging right now. He released her after a moment though and looked behind her to see Sasha standing there, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking a little uncomfortable. "Sasha, didn't see you there," Mark said and extended his hand towards her coach, who he thought was just her coach, but what so much more.

"Mr. Keeler, how are you?" Sasha asked, stepping into the house, shaking her father's hand firmly.

Payson took a shaky breath as her father laughed, "Mr. Keeler? I thought we moved past that a long time ago, Sasha. It's Mark." Sasha just nodded and smiled weakly, but didn't respond.

She looked around and saw her mother enter the room, "Payson, Sasha," Kim said, motioning down the hallway, why don't we all sit down in the living room."

Her dad led the way, followed by her mom and Payson bit her lip before following them, feeling Sasha's hand gently rest against the small of her back, a small touch of encouragement, simply letting her know he was there, as they moved into the living room and sat down on the couch.

They sat in silence for a moment until Payson realized it was up to her to speak first, these were her parents and she was here to tell them about her decision. "Mom, Dad, there's something that I, that we have to tell you," she began, not looking at either of her parents, simply studying her knees, focusing on a small bruise just above her right kneecap when she felt Sasha's hand suddenly come up and cover hers gently. She realized she'd been winding her hands together nervously. She looked up at him and met his eyes, taking a steadying breath, she turned towards her parents. Her mother looked nervous as her eyes darted from their joined hands back towards her father. Payson's eyes shifted directly in front of her, towards her dad. He looked confused for a moment before his eyebrows knit together and Payson saw a tiny muscle in his jaw twitch.

"Dad," she began, hoping to head off whatever explosion was building. "Dad," she said again, trying to draw his eye, but he was glaring at Sasha who met his gaze with as passive an expression she'd ever seen on his face.

Mark finally looked at her, but only briefly before his eyes moved back to Sasha, "Get your hand off my daughter," he said, finally, through clenched teeth. Payson felt Sasha's hand lift from hers, but she shook her head and placed her own hand on his forearm, meeting his eye again. Despite everything, all they'd been through together, she wanted to make sure he knew that no matter what her father said in the next few minutes that they were in this together.

Finally, she looked back at her father, "Dad," she started again, "please, I know you don't want to hear this, but Sasha and I, we love each other."

Mark stood up violently from his chair and began pacing, "Please, spare me, Payson, you're eighteen years old, you don't know what love is and he doesn't love you, he's using you for – "

"No," she said and stood now, moving in front of her father, feeling the tears beginning to build in her eyes, "that is not what's happening. I love him, Daddy." She reached out for his hand, but he pulled away.

"How long?" he asked, looking at her, the anger and disappointment easily apparent in his tone.

She sighed and looked away, shaking her head. "It doesn't matter what I say, does it?" she asked. "Keeping this from you and mom was the hardest thing I've ever done. It killed me not being able to tell you. It killed me to see the look of torment on Sasha's face every time your names came up. Lying about this, we didn't want to, we had to!" She knew she was screaming now as the tears streamed down her face. "It's been two years, Dad. Two years of lying and pretending and I'm so sorry, Daddy," she said, but he wouldn't look at her. He just stood staring at the wall beyond her head.

She stepped back, away from him, wrapping her arms around her middle tightly, until she felt Sasha's warm hand on her shoulder, his thumb landing gently on the back of her neck. A familiar touch and one she allowed herself to relax into. She took a deep shuddering breath and looked up at him. She knew there wasn't anything he could do about this, even though his expression said that he would do anything to make it better. "I'm sorry," he murmured softly.

"You're sorry," a new voice said. Payson turned to see her mother standing now, looking between them all. "I'd really like to know, what exactly are you sorry for, Sasha?"

His hand dropped from her shoulder and she bit her lip at the loss of contact, "I'm sorry for lying to you both, for not waiting, for betraying your trust."

Payson shook her head as she watched both her parents continue to glare at him. "Hang on, you can't take all of this on yourself," she said, taking his hand in hers again and looking up at him. Sasha looked down at their joined hands and sighed.

"I told you to take your hands off my daughter." It seemed her father had enough. He took two large steps forward and in one swing landed a punch on Sasha's jaw that sent the younger man staggering back.



Payson met her mother's eye and quickly they moved between the two men. She was sure Sasha wouldn't hit her father, in fact he'd once told her that he would be more than willing to let her Dad take a swing. She thought he'd been joking. Apparently not.

She moved towards Sasha whose eyes were shut as he gingerly pressed his finger tips to his jaw. "Don't touch it," she said, swatting his hand away. "Open your eyes," she told him and he did as instructed, his expression softening as she examined his jaw and then gently stroked her fingers against the stubble roughened skin.

"I'll get some ice," she heard her mother say from just behind them and turned to see her dad holding his hand with the other carefully. Payson sighed, taking in how absolutely wretched her Dad looked.

"Dad," she began again as he sat down.

He shook his head, "Just a second, okay, Payson, just give me a second." Kim came rushing back into the room holding two bags of ice, handing one to Payson and the other to Mark.

"Why don't we all just sit down again and try to talk about this like adults," her mother said and Payson nodded in agreement, leading Sasha back to the couch and handing him the bag, which he pressed up against his jaw with a wince.

They sat in an uncomfortable silence for what seemed like eternity before Payson broke the tension again, "What do you want to know?" she asked, finally, not knowing where to begin.

Kim, ever the voice of reason in their family nodded to her and shook her head, "Why don't you start at the beginning?" And so she did, beginning with her impulsive kiss late one night at the Rock, to their building relationship, confessing their love for each other, taking a step back after Istanbul and when she mentioned it, Sasha took her hand again, as she faltered, trying to describe the pain of their separation, helping her continue right up to the moment when they knew they had to come clean. She left out a lot of details, there were some thing that were private, no matter what her parents thought they were entitled to hear, but she was sure they got the general idea and then some from her story.

"And what are your plans?" Kim asked, obviously trying to keep her voice as measured as possible.

Payson felt slightly relieved. This was some news they would like. She smiled, "Actually, I was accepted to Columbia earlier this year and I'm going to start in September."

"Columbia," her father said, the first words he'd spoken since he'd hit Sasha. "Payson, that's, that's incredible."

She nodded, "I'm really excited. They have an incredible biology program and I absolutely love New York."

"And you're staying here?" he asked Sasha and Payson cringed.

Sasha shook his head, "No actually. I'm going to New York as well. My mother left me a flat there and I plan on starting my own gym in the city."

"So you'd be moving to New York together," her mother said and Payson nodded, taking Sasha's hand in hers, suddenly needing that physical link again.

"It's okay if you don't believe me, I get it and I understand how angry you guys must be, but we do love each other, very much. This isn't casual or some vague inclination." Suddenly, inspiration hit her. "Sasha, Mom, would you guys mind if I talked to Dad alone for a minute?" she asked and they both seemed to understand why she needed to do that.

They left the room together, moving out into the kitchen and Payson looked at her father, "Go on," she said.

He shook his head, "What, Payson? What do you want me to say?"

"Ask me, ask me whatever questions you've been dying to ask for the last few minutes."

It was like a dam breaking, "Did he, Payson did he ever, I swear I'll kill him if…"

She shook her head, "Dad, he would never do anything like that, he would never, ever – that's not the kind of man he is. He's such a good man, honorable and loving and I wish you could see how much it killed him having to hide this. He would have waited, I know that. It was me. I didn't want to wait until after the Olympics, two years it seemed like forever and we fought it for months. It just wouldn't go away. It's been two years and that feeling hasn't faded at all, in fact I love him more now than I did then, even though that didn't seem possible at the time."

Mark shook his head, "Explain it to me, Payson. You say he's good and honorable, but this isn't something good men do, men go to jail for things like this."

She shook her head firmly and looked her father in the eye, "I don't want to get technical about this, but I want to be clear, nothing illegal ever happened." As the words crossed her lips her father looked away uncomfortably, but she continued. "And it's not like we're dealing with a normal situation. I'm about as far from normal as you can get. I have a professional athletic career, Dad. I made more money last year than a lot of the guys you watch playing hockey every night. Have I ever done anything that's made you doubt my judgment?"

Mark shook his head, "No, you haven't," he agreed. "But Payson, this isn't something I can just accept. You lied to your mother and I for two years, that's something I can't understand or just ignore."

She nodded, "I know that and I know how hurt you must be and I can't tell you how sorry I am, but I just hope that one day…" she trailed off as her mom and Sasha came back into the room.

"How's it going in here?" Kim asked, sitting down on the arm of Mark's chair, resting her hand on his shoulder.

Payson looked at her dad and their eyes met. He was still angry, she knew that, but the anger seemed measured and so with a shaky breath and a nod, she looked at her mom and then at Sasha, "Okay, I think we're doing okay."

That was two days ago. She and her mother had spoken, but her mom said that her dad was still working things out in his head and needed some time. Payson just hoped he'd be there in London. She knew it was selfish, given everything she'd just put him through, but she wanted her Dad there with her for the last meet of her career, Olympics or not.

"You ready?" Sasha's voice drew her out of her reverie. She just stared at him for a moment and it hit her. It was done. They were together, her parents knew, her friends knew and the weight suddenly lifted from her shoulders. The drama and the lies and the intrigue, it was over and for the first time in a long time, the only thing that mattered was gymnastics. "Payson?" he asked again, concern flashing in his eyes.

"Yeah," she said looking up at him with a confident smirk. "I'm ready."

Hours later, working through her bars and beam routines and after she spent a torturous hour in front of the camera telling silly stories about training and working towards the Olympics, Payson moved towards the floor, intending to work in as soon as Isabella finished up her routine.

"Fancy meeting you here," a familiar voice said behind her. She turned and raised her eyes towards the still rings, where Austin was holding himself in a pike position, before releasing slowly and swinging down to the ground, allowing Carter to work in.

"Hey stranger," she said and smiled at him. She hadn't really been able to find a moment to talk to Austin since he'd inadvertently crashed her slumber party on Monday night.

He nodded, "Sasha told me you told your parents."

"Kaylie told me what happened with you guys," she said. He shrugged, "Look, he's gotta stay late tonight with the level tens. Why don't you come over, I'll make some dinner and you can eat all my food and whine about Kaylie."

Austin smiled at her lame attempt at humor and shook his head, "Sounds great, Pay. Seven?"

"Seven," she said, meeting his smile, though she cringed inwardly. Just when I thought I was done with the drama, it pulls me right back in.

Chapter 55: Control Issues

Four years. When Austin Tucker looked back and realized it had been four years since Beijing, four years since out of nowhere he shocked the world, and himself, by winning the Olympic gold, he wasn't ashamed to say it, he'd stolen that gold medal, taking advantage of major mistakes from the favorites and allowing his adrenaline to blindly power him through his routines. That would not be the case this time around. Four years later, the week before the Olympic trials, Austin Tucker was prepared, more prepared than he'd ever been physically and technically. It was his mental game that was a complete mess. He just needed to hone his focus, as Payson would say, but that was easier said than done. Some of them were mere mortals who couldn't simply shut out the rest of their lives when they were in the gym.

He watched Payson leaving the women's locker room, raising hand to him in goodbye, shooting a glance at Sasha who flicked his head in her direction. Austin ran through his parallel bars routine one last time, finishing the routine and shaking his head.

"Your hips," Sasha called from the complete other end of the gym where he was working on the beam with the level ten junior girls. The young gymnast startled at his voice and nearly fell off the beam, "Not you, Tammy," he said and turned towards Austin, making a show of standing up straight and centering his hips.

Austin nodded and raised a hand in acknowledgement before beginning again, not wanting to end on a poor note. It was better this time and when he looked up, Sasha was standing at the edge of his mat nodding in approval. "Better," he said.

Austin smiled at him, "I'm going over your place for dinner," he said. "She said you were staying late with the munchkins."

Sasha nodded, "Yeah she mentioned it. I'll be back around nine if you want to play Halo."

"Hell yeah," Austin said, taking a swig from his water bottle, "I'll see you later then."

A quick shower later and he was headed towards Payson's house, his stomach already rumbling. Payson was an elite gymnast, that was true, but her skills in the kitchen were right up there too. He pulled Lolita into her driveway and waved to her old neighbor, Roy who was smoking his pipe on the steps.

"Tucker," Roy said with a nod.

"Hodgson," he responded with the same mock seriousness. He liked the old man.

"She made stroganoff," the older man said with a sigh. "Brought some over for me and Rose, you're in for a treat."

Austin's stomach just rumbled louder in response. "See you later, Roy."

He entered the house and he could smell the most amazing scent coming from the kitchen, "Hey," she said with a smile as he entered the kitchen.

"I swear, Pay, I'm starving and it smells so good," he practically moaned when she lifted the lid from the pot and the entire kitchen was filled with the strong aroma of her beef stroganoff.

"It's done. I've had it warming for a while. Just grab the bottle of Cotes du Rhone," she said, nodding towards her wine rack.

He stared at her blankly as she plated some for the both of them, "The what?"

"Wine, Austin, the half empty green bottle with the white label," she said, sitting down.

He joined her, studying the bottle carefully, impressed and then poured them each a glass. "Nice wine," he commented. "What are we celebrating?"

Payson smiled and sighed with relief, "Everything. My parents know, the major press is done for the Olympic Trials, we are both considered the favorites in the all-around in London. Life doesn't get much better," she said, raising her glass towards him. He returned her smile and clinked his glass gently against hers.

He knew his smile was weak at best and he knew she was going to call him out on it, so he took a large sip of his wine.

"Austin?" she asked with a frustrated sigh. "Alright, spill." She put down her fork with a clatter and tilted her head at him. Her expression was crystal clear. She knew he would tell her everything eventually; she just wasn't going to beat around the bush.

He sighed and took a bite of his stroganoff to buy some more time, which he almost choked on because it was still hot. She rolled her eyes at him as he coughed and took another sip of wine.

"You see, the universe punished you for avoiding my question," she said, her voice annoyingly condescending. He may have taken on the role of her big brother, but she'd fully embraced her little sister status.

He finally recovered his voice and frowned at her, "Kaylie didn't tell you everything?" he asked.

Payson rolled her eyes and grinned, "Of course she did, but that's her side of the story. I want your side of the story. I'm sure what actually happened is somewhere in between."

He shook his head with a small grin, "You're such a gossip, Payson. Who'da thunk it?"

Her jaw dropped in mock affront, "I am not. You're both my friends and…" she trailed off, finally realizing that he was teasing.

So he told her everything, from their drunken and all too short making out session to the horrible conversation the next morning where Kaylie once again dropped him like an unlucky penny.

"I'm done," he said, finally, meaning both the amazing stroganoff he'd just finished and his ridiculous relationship with Kaylie Cruz. "She obviously doesn't want me, at least not enough."

Payson sighed, sitting back in her chair as she rose, taking both of their plates to the sink. "She wants you Austin, she's just terrified."

He shook his head, "See that's what I don't get. What exactly is she terrified of? She dated Carter, he hurt her, I get that, but that should be enough to spook someone that thoroughly."

Payson bit her lip and it was obvious she wasn't sure if she should be sharing whatever was on the tip of her tongue. "Spit it out, Pay. I won't tell."

She shrugged, "It wasn't just Carter. That was pretty traumatic though. She and Carter hid their relationship for almost a year before he slept with her best friend. That's not exactly a normal break up. And her parents' divorce, that wasn't exactly amicable, at least not at first. Her mom slept with her coach and she had to keep that secret for a long time…"

"Wait, not Sasha," Austin cut in, completely shocked.

Payson laughed and rolled her eyes, "No, Marty Walsh. It's why he left the Rock in the first place. Steve Tanner found out and blackmailed him into leaving after Lauren lost her place at Nationals to Emily. Wow, that was three years ago now, it feels like yesterday."

"You're kidding," Austin said, wondering how he'd missed all of this in the years he'd spent in Boulder.

"Nope, but anyway, after that, that's sort of when the anorexia took hold and you were there for that entire meltdown and then the Nicky thing, that was all about control, being able to stay in control of herself and with you, she can't do that."

"You took Psych last semester, didn't you?" he asked, only half joking and she stuck her tongue out at his attempt at levity.

"You terrify her, Austin," she said, taking a sip of her wine. "That's all I'm saying."

He raised his eyebrows doubtfully, "She can be terrified all she wants, if what she feels isn't enough to get over that fear, then obviously she doesn't lo…" he stopped himself right there. He didn't want to say that word out loud, it was time to start moving on and he'd start right now. "I really don't want to talk about this anymore, Payson. It's over and I think I'm going to be happier because of it. There's a whole city of co-eds that I've been ignoring for a long time."

She turned from the sink and crossed her arms, laughing at him lightly, "As long as you're okay," she said, her eyes burning into his. She would know if he lied to her.

"I will be," he said and smiled tightly.

Payson studied him for a moment before nodding. "Good."

He nodded, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. Talking about feelings wasn't exactly his strength, even if it was with his best friend, quasi-sister. "I'm gonna go set up Halo in the living room. Sasha and I…"

She laughed, "I know, you like him better than me," she said, placing her hand on her forehead dramatically.

"It's Halo, Pay," he said, though he knew it didn't mean much to her.

Sasha finished up with the level tens at around eight. Payson had asked him to give her some time with Austin. He knew Austin was going through something and Payson was better at talking to him about girls, whenever he tried, they usually ended up passed out in his trailer, so he was going to work out to give her some time to get through to her best friend about whatever was eating at him. If he had to guess, he's say that something was just over five feet tall with a brown ponytail and a penchant for pink, but that was just his opinion.

He waved goodbye to the last parents to pick up their daughter and quickly changed into shorts and sneakers before heading into the fitness center. He wrapped his hands carefully with tape, forgoing gloves as he had no one to help him get them on and off, pulled his shirt over his head, tossing it on the bench beside him and stretched out before approaching the heavy bag. Boxing was something Nicolai had insisted he learn when he began training with him. It was all about control his mentor told him, though a frustrated, teenaged Sasha hadn't understood it at the time as he regularly got his head pounded in by the amateur talent in the area.

"Gymnastics is about control, Sasha and you must learn how to harness that anger before you will become a great gymnast," the old man told him time and time again.

He understood eventually and even now, he would use this particular activity to take out whatever aggression he could feel building inside of him. And right now all that aggression was focused on just one person. Himself.

He began slowly, lightly tapping the bag, getting himself into a rhythm. Double left jab, right cross, left hook, right upper cut, and again, varying it up, building up a sweat quickly, breathing harshly through his nose, exhaling as he landed each blow.

He couldn't blame Payson's father for being angry. Mark Keeler had every right to be furious, he just wished he would direct his anger solely at the party at fault. If he had simply remained in control of himself, waited, like he said he would have, no matter how persuasive she was, no matter how beautiful or how she looked at him, her father would be speaking to her and his jaw wouldn't ache like a mother –

"Not bad," a voice cut into his thoughts.

He turned to see Mark Keeler standing there, arms crossed over his chest, a defensive stance to say the least. He stood still, trying to catch his breath, and nodded silently, not wanting to say the wrong thing. Instinctively he knew that this conversation, one he was woefully unprepared for, would make or break his relationship with Payson's father.

"Where did you learn how to box?" Mark asked, taking a few steps closer.

"My coach," he answered, his breath still heavy, "he thought it would be good for my gymnastics and my temper," he acknowledged.

Mark considered him for a moment. "My wife says I should apologize for hitting you," he said and Sasha couldn't help it. He smiled. Kim Keeler was wonderful, but she definitely didn't understand how men operated sometimes. Mark shrugged. "I think we both know I'm not going to do that."

"Yeah," he said, picking up a towel off the bench just behind him and wiping the sweat off his forehead and arms, before grabbing his shirt and replacing it. "If it were me, I wouldn't have stopped with just the one punch."

Mark nodded, "If Payson and Kim hadn't been there, I wouldn't have." It was obviously the truth, but for a moment, Sasha wasn't sure if he was about to get punched in the mouth again. He knew he wouldn't fight back, but Mark looked pretty calm. "Kind of grateful you didn't hit me back though. Why is that?"

"I deserved it," Sasha said, looking Mark directly in the eye. "I deserve whatever you want to throw at me, Mr. Keeler."

Mark finally uncrossed his arms. "My daughter thinks she's in love with you, she thinks you're in love with her. Is she wrong?"

Sasha shook his head, "I love your daughter very much," he said without hesitation. "More than I should, obviously."

"If that's the case, forgive me, I'm trying to understand, if that's the case, you couldn't have waited?"

Sasha knew what he was about to say could possibly get him into even more trouble, so he was very careful with his tone, "Mr. Keeler, Payson, she's very…she made it crystal clear what she wanted…" he trailed off now, not wanting to say too much.

Mark nodded, "I know my daughter, Sasha and when she wants something she goes after it." He sighed. "I'm not happy about this, not by a long shot. I don't think you're the right man for my daughter. The age is one thing, but you two are at completely different places in your lives and she's eighteen years old, she should be out there exploring what the world has to offer her, not settling on the first guy that comes along. I think in the long run you're bad for her, that you'll only end up hurting her in the end."

Sasha nodded, it was nothing that he hadn't thought himself. "I understand."

"That being said, my wife says you make her happy and if that's the case, well, we'll see won't we?"

"That's all I want, Mr. Keeler, her to be happy."

"Good, then we at least agree on that." With those words Payson's father turned away from him and began leaving the gym, but Sasha couldn't just leave it at that.

"I would never hurt her," he called out to Mark Keeler's retreating back. "I'd like to prove you wrong about that."

Mark didn't turn around, but his shoulders stiffened, "I'd like you to prove me wrong too," he said and then without another word he strode out of the fitness center not looking back.

He stood in the empty gym for a while wondering what just happened. Had Mark Keeler called a truce or something of the kind? He wasn't sure. It didn't really seem that way, but things were better than they'd been after the other night and that was something. He wanted to talk to Payson about it, but then thought maybe that wasn't such a great idea. She probably wouldn't be thrilled that he and her father had discussed her without her present. He frowned and shook his head. He'd talk to her about it; he wouldn't not be able to.

He parked his car on the street noticing Austin had considerately taken up the entire driveway with his motorcycle and rolling his eyes he let himself into the house.

"Hey man," he said to Tucker who was already on the couch playing Halo, who spared him a grunt in response.

There was a heavenly scent coming out of the kitchen and he moved purposefully in that direction, seeing his objective leaning against the counter, seemingly staring into space. In just a few long strides he'd pulled her into his arms, lifting her off the floor easily, pressing his lips to hers urgently. He hadn't kissed her in days. While she responded on instinct as his tongue swept up against hers, he could feel her resistance almost immediately and confusion over took him until he heard a throat clearing pointedly. Setting Payson down on her feet he turned and saw Kim Keeler sitting at their kitchen table looking bemused. He shook his head at the odds and grinned ironically. "Hi Kim."

She frowned and sighed, "Hi Sasha, I guess that's my cue."

He shook his head quickly, "No, you stay, talk, sorry I er interrupted," he said and looked at Payson who was smiling at him affectionately, shaking her head. He turned quickly and went back into the living room, slapping Austin on the back of the head as he walked by him. "Thanks for the warning."

"Ow, what?" the younger man asked, pausing the game quickly.

Sasha rolled his eyes and grabbed a controller, joining the game.

Payson watched as Sasha left the room in as much a hurry as he'd been to enter it.

"That happen a lot?" Kim asked, her eyebrows raised at her daughter.

"What?" she asked. "Him coming home and kissing me? Pretty much every day."

"Home? So he stays here?" Payson looked at her mother. She hadn't confirmed it in any of their talks up to now and she'd unthinkingly let it slip.

She nodded, "He does," she said, looking her mother directly in the eye, not wanting there to be any confusion on the subject.

"You were okay, after the first time?" her mother's voice cracked a little and Payson felt a small pain in her chest at thought of her mother worrying about this.

She smiled, hoping to convey just how happy she was, "I was fine, he was…" she trailed off, "He loves me, Mom and I love him, it was perfect." She conveniently left out the part that they'd made love for the first time as a goodbye and the complete desolation she felt when she woke up that morning to find him gone, despite knowing it was what they agreed to.

Her mother's voice drew her back to the present. "And you're being careful? What kind of birth control are you using?"

Payson felt her face flush slightly, "I got an implant earlier this year. I couldn't do any of the pills or the shot, the hormones would have thrown my body chemistry out of wack and I don't…" She stopped speaking. Her mother didn't need to know that she didn't like condoms.

Kim raised her eyebrows, "An implant?" For a moment Payson thought her mother almost looked impressed.

"Yeah," she said, taking a sip of her wine, hoping it would help take the edge off a little.

Her mother had shown up out of absolutely nowhere wanting to talk. Payson had no idea what she could possibly want to discuss that hadn't been beaten to death over the last few days, but suddenly it was clear. Her mother wanted to talk about sex.

"Pay, I know we never really got to discuss this. I just didn't think it was an issue for you, but…"

"Mom, the ship has sort of sailed on this, don't you think?" she asked, but her mother glared at her and Payson bit her lip. "Fine," she said with a sigh.

"No, you're right. I was always going to tell you and your sister that sex is a wonderful thing, to be shared with someone you love, ideally your husband, but as you said, that ship has already sailed."

"He asked me to marry him, you know?" she said, the words slipping from her tongue before the thought had even fully formed in her mind. She smiled, thinking back to that night in the bathtub as she leaned up against his strong chest and he asked her to marry him in the most unromantic and spontaneous way imaginable.

Her mother stared at her in shock, her mouth hanging open slightly, "He did?" Kim asked, obviously not knowing what else to say.

Payson nodded with a smile. "We were," she shook her head remembering again, but knowing she couldn't quite share the details with her mom, "it was a horrible proposal, completely out of the blue and I told him no, obviously."

"You told him no?" she asked, her brow furrowing.

The corner of Payson's mouth lifted as her eyes twinkled at her mothers, "Actually, I told him that he was going to have to do better and ask me properly sometime."

For the first time in a while, Payson saw her mother's smile, a genuine smile, not a forced grin a fake spreading of the lips. "And you think he will?"

"I do," she said. "We've talked about it, getting married, having kids, the whole nine yards. That's why I need you guys to understand, Mom. This is real. He's it for me." She looked at her mom for a moment, wondering if she'd said too much, wondering if her mother's level headed reaction to this point was about to come to an end.

Kim nodded, digesting the information and a silence overtook them, though it wasn't uncomfortable. "Do they do this a lot?" she asked, nodding towards the living room where sound effects from the video game system could be heard.

Payson smiled both in relief for a change of subject and at the question, "Sometimes. Austin is here a lot. He's a good friend."

Her mother sighed, "You did always say you and Austin were just friends."

"Nothing just about him. He's a great guy and he was there for me when I didn't really have anyone else to talk to."

Kim twisted her mouth into a frown and Payson knew she was holding something back, a sharp retort, but she seemingly swallowed it, "I'm glad you had someone to talk to," she said simply and left it at that.

Her mother left a few minutes later, completely unnoticed by Sasha and Austin who were engrossed in their game. Payson stood behind the couch and watched them play for a moment before she approached them from behind. She slowly ran her fingers over Sasha's shoulder and up the nape of his neck before sliding them into his hair. She leaned down pressing her lips lightly to his temple before whispering softly in his ear, "Come to bed," she said, letting her lips brush against his ear.

"Dude, focus," she heard Austin protest as her actions had probably caused some erratic play from Sasha.

She saw a small smile begin to curl up at the corner of his mouth, so she went in for the kill, "I've been thinking about you all day, it's been a week, Sasha. I want you inside of me." A half-second later she let out a small squeak of surprise as he leapt from the couch and lifted her into his arms, kissing her thoroughly as muscle memory allowed him to carry her from the livingroom to their bedroom without a hitch in his step. Vaguely she heard Austin shouting something about bros before hoes, but as she felt Sasha's mouth against the sensitive skin of her neck, everything else faded into obscurity as she man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with made love to her.

Chapter 56: Trial by Fire

The arena was buzzing, much more so than it had during Nationals only a few weeks before. There was something special in the air. Olympic Fever. That was what Kim decided to call it and it was sweeping the nation. Reporters called almost every day, several had camped out outside of their house, unaware that Payson no longer lived there. Now they were in San Jose, at the Olympic trials and the tension was mounting. Despite all the preparation, the thirteen girls currently on the US Senior Elite National team, joined by the age eligible juniors, and others, girls hanging on to the fringes of the senior elite level, were feeling the pressure. This was it. Everything they'd worked for their entire lives led them to this moment and very little was a guarantee. A misstep, a fall, a freak injury and it was all over, despite how close they came. It would only be that, a close call and the dream would be dead, especially for the older girls.

She glanced to her right and saw Becca sitting there, practically vibrating with excitement. Kim wasn't sure if it had to do with the event itself or because Damon Young was sitting in the row just ahead of them to support Emily, but either way she was almost relieved that Becca wouldn't turn sixteen until next year, thus leaving her ineligible for the London games. Going through this with one daughter was one thing, but two might have put her over the edge.

She watched as the girls set up into their rotations, the five Rock girls in one single rotation to make it easier for Sasha to coach them. It was almost a sure thing at this point and it was astounding that one club could possibly be sending five of the six athletes on the team to London. Isabella Ruggeri had only trained at the Rock for a year, but it was remarkable nonetheless. She hadn't taken the time to look it up, but she was sure that nothing like this had ever occurred before and she couldn't imagine it ever happening again. Especially when Sasha leaves the Rock after the games, that'll put a dent in recruitment for a while.

She looked down towards the floor again and easily caught sight of Payson standing next to her coach and Kim sighed. If only it were that simple, a coach and his athlete standing next to one another, but as she saw Sasha reach out a hand and squeeze Payson's shoulder lightly a mere show of encouragement to most, but something entirely different now to Kim. She found herself looking for deeper meanings in every conversation, every touch or celebratory hug. Despite knowing intellectually that Payson, who would be turning nineteen later this week, was confident about her relationship, Kim couldn't help but have reservations. They didn't seem any different than before and she didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She frowned, biting down on her lower lip. She was flying blind on this one and there wasn't anything she hated more than that. Maybe that was her problem? Not the relationship itself, though she obviously had her concerns, but that she'd been in the dark for so long that while Payson and Sasha were comfortably settled into a long term relationship, her brain wasn't capable of seeing it for what Payson repeatedly insisted it was: a healthy, loving partnership, despite the different circumstances. Kim desperately wanted to believe it, so much so that she'd begun defending them whenever she and Mark discussed them.

She watched as her normally even tempered husband ran an agitated hand through his hair. "Damn it, Kim," he said, "whose side are you on here?"

"Payson's," she said, raising her voice. "Our daughter's side, Mark. Our beautiful, intelliegent, successful, daughter who has never, ever given me reason to doubt her."

Mark rolled his eyes at her, "She lied to us, Kim. She lied for two years. That girl you're talking about, she wouldn't do that."

"What else could she have done? Really, Mark, what if that had been us? We met when I was twenty, but what if we met when I was seventeen. Are you saying you wouldn't have fallen in love with me? Would we have waited?"

"That is not the same thing," Mark said, his mouth set firmly in a line. "And even though you were twenty, we did wait, as I recall, something our daughter and that – that –," he trailed off, not finding an adequately nasty word to describe what he was feeling about Sasha. "Why are you defending them? They lied to you, to your face, every day, Kim. For two years."

Kim sighed and shook her head, "I know that, Mark. Don't you think I know that? Don't you think I've been going over every conversation I had with the both of them? They lied to me, over and over again and that's what," she swallowed thickly, "and that's what starting to convince me that they really do love each other."

"I don't understand. You think that they actually…"

Kim suddenly felt a stab of guilt. She'd noticed things over the last two years, which in isolation hadn't seemed like a big deal, but now looking back, she couldn't believe she hadn't put the pieces together sooner. "I do, I think they actually love each other. You remember, Payson said that they put on the breaks after the World Championships in Istanbul? When they came home from that meet, Mark, they were both so different from before. I remember noticing the change, wondering what could have caused it. I feel like an idiot now, I should have figured it out then. They were so sad, the both of them, so completely and utterly sad. You can't fake that and why would they have? No one knew about them. They weren't putting on a show, not for me or anyone else, it was real. And then it changed again, when they got back from Australia. I've never seen either of them so happy. He makes her happy, Mark. What more could we possibly want for her?"

Mark hadn't answered her and they sat in silence for a while before he said he was going for a drive. She begged him to take it slow and he'd left after pressing a kiss to her forehead.

She'd gone to Payson's house then, wanting to confirm what she'd just voiced to her husband and it seemed Mark had a similar instinct, having gone to the gym to talk to Sasha. When they saw each other later that night, they both felt marginally better, but it was still difficult to say the least. She watched as the music in the arena came to a sudden stop, signaling to the crowd and competitors alike that the trials were about to start.

Payson landed on her feet, almost softly, an aesthetic she'd been working on for her bars dismount for months. Landing lightly after a double layout with two and a half twists wasn't something the judges were necessarily looking for, mostly they'd be thrilled with her landing on her feet, but it was her signature skill now, the only gymnast to land it successfully in competition and she wanted to make it look easy. And she did, saluting quickly to the judges and allowing just a small glimmer of a smile to appear across her face as she looked to Sasha standing just off the mat ready to spot her.

"Excellent," he said, as they embraced quickly, but she moved away, allowing him to immediately focus on Kaylie who was next.

"Great job, Pay," her friend said as they passed each other.

"You got this," Payson said, as they bumped fists lightly before she moved back down to the floor, with the rest of their rotation. She looked over at Emily who smiled and nodded, then to Lauren whose face was blank, a sure sign she was nervous. The bars were easily her weakest event and despite the fact that Boris has no intention of allowing Lauren to compete on that apparatus in London, Payson could practically see the tension radiating off her friend.

She sat down next to her and began pulling off her grips, nudging Lauren's thigh with her knee. "Hey," she said, drawing her attention.

"What?" Lauren asked, obviously startled out of her thoughts.

Payson smiled at her and rolled her eyes, "Relax," she said, though her tone was not serious in the slightest. She felt the tension melt off of Lauren.

The beam specialist took a deep breath and shot her a smile, "Thanks," she said, before standing up to get her own grips on and prepare for her turn.

"No problem," Payson said, depositing her grips into her gym bag and wiping the chalk off her hands with a towel. She looked up and saw Kaylie land her double straight with a full twist dismount cleanly. The former National champion saluted and smiled brightly for the judges. Payson nodded, Kaylie looked on today and had since warm-ups. It was necessary. Andrea Conway and Justine Turner were hovering on the fringes of these trials and after Kaylie's rather lackluster seventh place finish at Nationals this year, watching her land a more than solid bars set was encouraging.

"Great job, Kaylie," Payson said as her friend bounced down the stairs back to the floor. They embraced quickly. She could practically feel the relief in Kaylie's hug.

There were scores posted at the trials, but it was obvious no one was really paying attention to them. Scores weren't important, impressing Boris Beloff was. Boris, much like National team coordinators of the past, was sitting at a table observing, surrounded by national committee members, all of whom thought they should have a say in who would be a part of the Olympic team. It was laughable really, as if Boris Beloff would let anyone, let alone some paper pusher from the NGO, tell him what to do. Payson was gratified to see he'd watched Kaylie's routine. A bars set like that would help them out tremendously in the team competition and if she nailed it, Kaylie would have a shot at the event finals, should another American gymnast slip up.

Payson looked up as Emily landed out of her dismount and smiled confidently. So far, so good. Just Isabella and Lauren's sets left. The Rock girls were setting themselves up for a great first day. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. These trials are a formality, but in the end, no matter the results, it's Boris who'll make the decisions. It doesn't hurt if we make his decision a little bit easier though.

"Let's go, Izzy," she called to the junior National champion, who smiled to her, as she set up her spring board for her round off Arabian mount. Much as she was at Nationals and during training, Izzy Ruggeri was nearly flawless on the uneven bars. Payson turned and saw a tiny smile appearing on Boris's face from his point of observation just a few feet from her. She could almost see the cogs in his mind turning. They were going to bring an incredibly strong team to London and what had begun to take shape months ago during National team practices was finally coming to fruition. It was only the first day and there would be another day of trials tomorrow, but as Payson watched Boris turn and move towards where Kelly Parker and several of her Denver Elite teammates were working on vault, she knew, almost as if he'd told her himself. It didn't matter what happened here today or tomorrow. It was that expression, almost amused, as if he was in on a joke that everyone else missed, a cocky, self-assured countenance accompanied it and Payson knew what it meant. She'd seen that look on Sasha's face more than once, usually after he'd make a decision about something important. And what could be more important that choosing the members of an Olympic team? Boris had his team now, she was sure he'd made up his mind. Now the question was simply this: who was on it?

The uncomfortable knowledge caused the rest of the rotations to fly by for Payson. She performed well, as had her teammates, but she couldn't shake the feeling that it was all a farce, a complete waste of time.

She stood patiently waiting to be interviewed by NBC sports, trying to shift her mood into a positive place.

"Payson Keeler, two time National and World Champion is with us and you have to be very pleased with your performance today," Andrea Kremer asked. The closer they got to the Olympics, the bigger media names were brought in to work their events.

She nodded and smiled, "I was. I'm really just trying to consistently land my routines. There are only so many chances in a year to compete in front a crowd this large in a pressure packed environment like we're going to experience in London, so it's really important to stay focused."

"Much has been made of your stated goal, a challenge you laid down for yourself this year after winning your second straight National championship, six gold medals, a feat never before accomplished at an Olympic games. What inspired that decision and what do you think your chances are?"

Her smile brightened, "The decision to go for the sweep wasn't difficult. I'm at a place right now where everything is clicking on all four events and I believe that we're going to go to London and take the team gold. I have total confidence in my teammates and our coaches. As far as my chances, there are a lot of incredible gymnasts in the world right now, girls from China, Romania and my own teammates who are going to make it extremely difficult, but I'm up for the challenge. What would be the point of competing if you didn't want to win?" she asked, quirking an eyebrow up and smirking at the reporter.

Kremer nodded and shook her head, "I couldn't have said it better myself," she said into the microphone. "Back to you, Al." The camera feed cut and she looked towards Payson again. "Thank you," she said. "I just wanted to let you know, we're all going to be rooting for you, everyone at NBC, our affiliates, it's all anyone talks about in our meetings."

It was a genuine statement, almost heartfelt, that much Payson could tell, so she smiled and nodded towards the reporter, "Thanks. That means a lot." And it did. Sometimes it was nice just to hear that people were rooting for her. Long hours in the gym, working her body to the point of perfection, solidifying her mental approach, it was exhausting sometimes and knowing that people were out there cheering her on, it really did help.

She left the floor, briefly looking up into the crowd, seeing her mom and Becca sitting near the rest of the Rock contingent before heading straight to the locker room to change. Almost everyone had made the trip, except for her father. Payson tried to comfort herself with the fact that her dad hadn't planned on coming to San Jose, even before she'd told him about her relationship with Sasha, but it didn't stop the small pang of regret. She spoke to him before they left Boulder, stopping by the house to say goodbye and they'd studiously avoided the topic hanging over their heads, instead he wished her luck and hugged her tightly. She knew her father was a man of few words, so the embrace meant a lot more than anything he could have said. They were on the right path and much sooner than she thought they'd be, but she still hated the awkwardness and the obvious disappointment in her father's eyes. They would get past it, she knew it, but for now she had to live with it.

What a bloody, long ass, slog of a day, was the only thought running through his mind as Sasha lay back on the hotel room bed. He'd coached both sessions on the first day of the Olympic trials for the men and the women, followed by a torturous dinner with the NGO National Committee. He exhaled deeply, letting his eyes drift shut for one blissful moment before a loud pounding on his door caused them to fly open. He launched himself to his feet and in three steps had his door opened, gaping at who was on the other side.

"Christ, Dad, did you have to make it sound like a bloody earthquake?" he asked, rolling his eyes at Boris, who'd been conspicuously absent after the trials and at dinner.

"I am sorry, did I wake you?" his father asked, though Sasha could tell from the tilt of the old man's eyebrows and the deep rooted frown that he wasn't sorry at all. "Here," he said, thrusting a piece of paper towards Sasha's chest and he took it, rubbing at his eyes, trying to clear his vision.

"What's this?" he asked, though he was rapidly figuring it out. There it was, laid out on paper in his father's sloppy scrawl: the Olympic lineup or at least what looked like one. There wasn't supposed to be an Olympic lineup yet. There was another day of competition tomorrow, followed by what were supposed to be extensive meetings with the NGO's committee and perhaps even a final practice or two before it was narrowed down to six names and the events each athlete would compete in, both for the qualifying and team finals, but again, that was all beside the point, because obviously Boris Beloff had made his decision. Five girls on each apparatus in the qualifying round and then their top three on each event in the team finals:

Payson Keeler Q: AA TF: AA

Kelly Parker Q: AA TF: BB, FX, V

Isabella Ruggeri Q: AA TF: UB, FX

Emily Kmetko Q: UB, FX, V TF: UB

Lauren Tanner Q: BB, V TF: BB, V

Andrea Conway Q: BB, UB, FX

Alternate: Kaylie Cruz

"You've got Kaylie as the alternate?" Sasha asked, ready to fight for his gymnast. It wasn't lost on him that this was the first real conversation he'd had with his father in a long time.

Boris raised a hand to stop him. "She did very well today, but she has become too inconsistent. This is the Olympics. She cannot be counted on to perform under the pressure, so she must be the alternate. You have four athletes on this team; you should be celebrating, not complaining to me."

Sasha shook his head, "You're not supposed to do this yet, you know? There's a whole day of trials tomorrow and then the committee…"

"Bah, that committee is not knowing a thing about who should be in London. Too many opinions and no leadership. No, this is the team we will take to London." Sasha recognized that tone of voice and it grated on him.

This was ridiculous. Andrea Conway was a nice gymnast, but Kaylie's degree of difficulty, not to mention success on the international stage completely blew her away. A knock at the door interrupted Sasha as he opened his mouth to argue further with Boris. His father, obviously sensing that he could avoid a long drawn out battle with his son if he opened the door, did so with alacrity.

"Payson," Boris said, waving her into the room. "Excellent work this afternoon, noră," he said, leaning forward quickly and kissing Payson on the forehead before making a hasty exit. Sasha sighed, running a frustrated hand through his hair.

Payson looked at him, her head tilted in confusion and he just shrugged and shook his head. "Noră? He's called me that before," she said, looking towards him for translation.

He smiled crookedly at her, "It means daughter-in-law."

Her face lit up at his answer and he couldn't help but smile wider in return. "Oh!" she exclaimed, looking a little flustered, but also extremely pleased. "I guess that's, well that's kind of sweet, isn't it?"

Sasha shook his head, "My father is about as sweet as a bee sting."

She rolled her eyes at him and shrugged, "What did he want?"

For a moment he wanted to tell her, wanted to show her the crumpled up piece of paper in his hand, talk it through with her, but he knew that he couldn't. It wasn't official yet, not by a long shot and at the end of the day, for another four weeks, until the closing ceremonies, he was still her coach. They'd walked that fine line for two years now, trying to avoid the natural conflicts and pitfalls of that part of their relationship and he wasn't about to change that now. "Oh, you know, the usual nonsense," he said, shrugging before stepping closer to her, wrapping his arms around her waist, pulling her into his chest, inhaling the beautifully familiar tang of her shampoo and perfume, intoxicating to his senses as the first time he'd caught that scent.

"Mmm," Payson sighed as she buried her head against his chest. "Everyone did really well today," she said.

"Yes, they did," he said and it was the truth. Everyone had done well, but as Sasha leaned down to kiss her, he couldn't help by feeling he'd just lied and he was going to light into his father tomorrow for putting him in this position at all.

Chapter 57: Trials and Tribulations

He hadn't expected her to stay the night. Usually when they were at a hotel she was up and gone long before his eyes opened, but maybe she needed her sleep because when he woke she was still pressed up against him, her hair tickling his nose lightly, her head tucked under his chin, pillowing against his shoulder, his arm curled around her body, holding her close. Their legs were tangled together and his hand had crept beneath her cotton tank, resting gently against the smooth skin of her stomach. He shifted against her, sweeping her hair away from his face and kissing the newly exposed skin of her shoulder lightly before he slowly rolled away, trying not to jostle her too much. Her breath was even and deep, a sure sign she was still very much asleep. He had to get up early, but she didn't. Payson stirred, rolling towards where he'd just moved away from, burying her head into his pillow, wrapping her arms around it.

He stood, stretching, running his hands through his hair and rubbing at his eyes, clearing his vision. He pulled on his Team USA polo shirt and a pair of khakis before scribbling a quick note and quietly leaving the room. Checking his watch he realized he'd have to hurry if he wanted to catch his father. Boris Beloff was a creature of habit. He ate breakfast at quarter to eight every morning no matter what and it was already eight. Sasha was sure he was in the hotel restaurant, alone, likely contemplating his next insane idea.

In the elevator, all the way down from the 8th floor to the lobby Sasha thought about the night before. Lying to Payson wasn't something he was comfortable with, in fact in all the time he'd known her, he'd never uttered an untrue word. Sure, it was a lie of omission, but even still, it made him queasy.

His lips lowered to hers and kissed her, his tongue gently probing against her mouth. She allowed him access and he explored her mouth thoroughly, his tongue stroking against hers, his lips possessive and dominating, but holding back, the kiss a solitary act and not a prelude to more.

"What's wrong?" she asked as they separated, her fingers stroking the skin at the nape of his neck. She knew him too well, read him like a book, even through a kiss.

He shook his head, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear, "Nothing. I'm just...I'm just tired."

She considered him for a moment, biting her lower lip, her hand drifting from his neck. He was sure she didn't believe him, but wordlessly, as their eyes met, he asked her to leave it be. Her gaze softened and she nodded. "Okay," she said, pushing up on her toes and brushing a soft kiss against his whiskered cheek. "Let's just go to bed then. Maybe you need a good night's sleep."

A good night's sleep? What a joke. He hadn't slept a wink. She'd fallen asleep quickly, his body cradling hers, but he laid there for hours, the unwanted knowledge of his father's intensions turning over and over in his mind. Kaylie was going to be devastated, the committee would be furious over his father's total lack of discipline, he was furious in general. He'd been the one to bring his father into the fold. It was on his suggestion to both parties that it would be a good match. He didn't believe for a minute that things would have been better with Ellen Beals in charge, but this was a problem of his own making and there was no one to blame but himself.

He caught sight of his father sitting alone at a table, taking large bites of eggs and sausage and he made a beeline for him.

"We need to talk," Sasha said, pulling up a chair and glaring at his father. "You can't do this, you know? The NGO is going to go ballistic."

Boris chewed his food and swallowed before speaking, "I will do this. It is already done. It is my decision. I am the coach, it is my team."

"Then why, exactly, did you tell me?" Sasha asked, crossing his arms over his chest. "I had to lie to Payson last night about it. This isn't a game, Dad, it's my life. Do something like that again and I won't lie. Your noră would not deal with this as quietly as I am."

Boris's bushy grey eyebrows rose speculatively, but he shrugged and Sasha rolled his eyes. He knew the opportunities for something like this to happen again would be few and far between, but they had a lifetime ahead of them and he looked forward to the day when his father felt Payson's wrath. He hadn't been around at the time, but he heard from his friend Marty Walsh about how she stormed into Denver Elite and verbally castrated him in front of the entire gym and then again privately.

Despite his father's lukewarm reaction, he was sure his point had been made and Sasha moved on to what he really wanted to discuss. "I want you to reconsider Kaylie."

Boris shook his head, pointing at Sasha with his fork, "I have already given it much consideration. She is too inconsistent and winning at the Olympics is about consistency from the team."

Sasha shook his head, "And if one of them stumbles? If Ruggeri gets on that podium and can't handle the pressure? Anyone one of those girls could fall. Conway's DOD isn't enough to supplement a major mistake, not with the five and three rule. If someone in the top three gets hurt? You really want a 6.0 start value on a bars set going up against the Chinese and Romanians or a 5.5 vault instead of a 6.5?" It was a struggle, but he kept his voice measured in the crowded restaurant. "Kaylie is one of the best gymnasts in the world and using her as an alternate is prostie*," he said, slipping into Romanian to make his point as clear as possible. "It could cost us the gold and if that happens, you will be to blame."

"Termină!*" Boris barked. "You are speaking to your father and a gold medal winning coach. You should have more respect."

Sasha met his father's glare with one of his own, "And you are speaking to an Olympic champion who coached your country's team to ten medals in Athens, double what you won in Sydney if I remember correctly. You should have more respect." He pushed back from the table and strode out of the restaurant, not looking back.

Payson's seat was high up, in one of the arena's luxury boxes reserved by the NGO. She watched silently as the men warmed up, halfway through their six rotations. Austin was in the lead, but it really didn't matter, he could sit out the rest of the event and still be named to the team later this afternoon, along with Nicky Russo and Carter Anderson from the Rock. They were virtual locks along with Frank Donovan from UCLA and Harrison Peters from Stanford. The final spot was up for grabs and Payson didn't have a vested interest. So as they competed, her mind wandered to earlier that afternoon in one of the arena's large conference rooms after the women's final session of competition.

They all assumed that when a meeting was called it would be to narrow the field and announce the next step in the trials. What happened next turned the gymnastics world on its head.

Boris Beloff stood at the front of the room, a piece of paper in his hand, staring out at the gathered crowd of elite level gymnasts. The silence hung over the room, no one dared to fidget in their seat or blink, losing sight of the Olympic head coach for even a moment.

He surveyed the room one last time before he opened his mouth, "I have just come from a meeting with the Women's National Committee. In this meeting it was decided who would be representing the United States at the Olympic games in London, as well as the members of my coaching staff. This is my team…" he trailed off. Boris was nothing if not impressed with himself and he let the room hang on the precipice, letting the seconds tick by in silence before he spoke again.

"Payson Keeler."

Payson felt her entire body relax as the room around her applauded and the people next to her patted her shoulders and smiled in her direction. Despite everything, knowing that she was considered the best gymnast in America, if not the world, now it was official. She was going to the Olympics.

"Kelly Parker."

She turned to her right, down the row just a little, where she knew Kelly was sitting and she couldn't help smile at the small, "Yes," the former national champion exhaled at the mention of her name.

"Isabella Ruggeri."

Izzy was sitting just in front of her. Payson leaned forward and squeezed the shoulders of the young junior National champion in congratulations.

The tension in the room suddenly increased tenfold. The three girls who'd been announced hadn't been a surprise. Now it came down to three spots, three dreams that were about to come true and the death of dozens of others. Payson closed her eyes, she couldn't bear to watch.

"Emily Kmetko," Boris's voice echoed and Payson felt her friend jerk upright in reaction next to her. Her eyes flew open. Emily was smiling and her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Payson squeezed her hand tightly as the room clapped politely, the cloud settling over them more quickly this time. Two spots left.

Boris hesitated and the room held their collective breath. Payson thought she knew what was coming next, it had to be Lauren. They needed someone strong on beam and vault if Emily made the team.

"Lauren Tanner."

She looked down the row where Lauren and Kaylie were, and she smiled tightly at Lauren, but quickly her eyes met Kaylie's. This wasn't good. It seemed Boris wasn't announcing the team in random order, he seemed to be listing them in order of degree of difficulty and if that was the case….

"And the final spot on the team will be determined later this week after more deliberation by the committee," Boris cut into her thoughts and the room stared back blankly. One final spot? "If necessary there may be an invitational practice to finish the roster." Payson looked up and studied his face. He looked angry, his eyebrows drawn together, as if the news gave him pain. Had the committee forced this on him? What was going on?

An air of confusion was still hanging around each and every person in the national box hours later. Even for the five girls who were already on the team, everything seemed so uncertain, so up in the air. She looked to her right and smiled tightly at the tall, leggy blonde there to support Austin. As if they day hadn't been awkward enough...

They left the meeting still reeling from the possibilities, Kaylie looked completely stunned and Payson understood. There was something about knowing either way, good or bad, but being stuck in limbo like this, not knowing, it was terrible. The worst part about it, the media was waiting for them in the small conference room the girls who'd been selected were currently being shuffled into. Payson, Emily and Lauren watched helplessly as Kaylie's brown ponytail moved in the opposite direction with the rest of the girls.

"Come on, we have to do this," she told her teammates and the other girls nodded and moved into the room, up onto a dais where small cards with their names on them had been placed in front of each chair. The cameras were clicking incessantly, reporters murmuring questions to themselves and each other.

The session was easy enough, simply expressing joy at being selected and confidence in each other, but then some idiot decided to make things more interesting.

"Payson," he said, She recognized him. He was from one of the entertainment shows, not a sports reporter and certainly not catering to the tween demographic like many in the crowd. "What's your reaction to Austin's ex-girlfriend, French supermodel Odette Vienneau being here to support your ex?"

She rolled her eyes and sighed. "I was excited to meet her," she answered smoothly, though she hadn't yet been introduced to the international runway queen, "Austin is one of my best friends so any friend of his is a friend of mine."

The reporter frowned at her and she smiled sweetly in his direction, her mouth saying one thing, and her eyes something else entirely. The remainder of the press session stayed on topic and they left the room quickly. Payson headed immediately down towards the floor of the arena. She knew Sasha would be there and the trials weren't set to begin for another hour at least. It was possible she'd be able to talk to him.

Her credentials hanging around her neck swung as she jogged through the tunnel maze underneath the arena, making her way towards the locker room. She saw Sasha from a distance, his blond head sticking up out of the crowd of much smaller men at the more typical height of elite gymnasts when she nearly ran headlong into the man she'd been discussing just a few minutes earlier.

"Where's the fire, Pay?" Austin asked, quirking an eyebrow at her, but then shook his head and enveloped her into a bear hug, lifting her off the ground for a moment. "Congratulations by the way, not that I'm surprised or anything."

She smiled as he set her down, "Thanks. It looks like we're going to London together."

Suddenly there was a soft cough, alerting her to the presence of someone else. She looked just behind Austin and smiled. Odette Vienneau was even more stunning in person, tall, in her heels almost as tall as Austin, long blonde hair that hung in perfectly quaffed loose curls and light blue eyes. The only thing Payson knew about her is that she and Austin used to be a "thing" in his words and that they'd both appeared in the same swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

She smiled, "Hi, I'm Payson Keeler," she said, extending her hand to the girl who was making her feel short, fat and ugly, despite her own high self confidence. People shouldn't be allowed to be that beautiful.

"Payson," Odette said, ignoring the hand and bussing a small kiss to each of Payson's cheeks, her soft French accent making her name sound odd to her own ears. There was a genuine smile lighting up her face as she stepped back. "It is so nice to meet you. Austin has told me what great friends you are. I must tell you, you are an inspiration to me."

Drop dead gorgeous and nice. Payson felt the urge to roll her eyes at the universe, but she held back. "Thank you. It's a pleasure to meet you too."

"You handled that moron reporter pretty smoothly before," Austin said, sliding an arm around Odette's tiny waist.

Payson shrugged, "He's an idiot. I'm not going to let him spoil one of the most amazing days of my life."

"How did…how did Kaylie take the news?" he asked. Payson's eyes flashed briefly to Odette, but it seemed Kaylie's name had no effect on her.

"I haven't been able to talk to her yet. It's not over yet. She's still got a great chance. It's probably down to her and Andrea if I had to guess. I was going to…"

"Talk to Sasha about it?" Austin finished for her and smirked.


Austin shook his head, "You can talk to him about it later. He's working," he said, easily dismissing her intentions. "Actually I was wondering if you'd be able to show Odette up to the national box? I have to stay down here obviously and I was going to ask security to show you…" he trailed off his eyes shifting from Payson back to Odette.

Payson looked past him and saw that he was right. Sasha was nowhere to be seen and was probably already out on the floor. Then suddenly Austin's words sunk in. He wanted her to take Odette up to the national box. Her eyes bore into his and he had the grace to look a little guilty. She couldn't say no though. He was her best friend and if this is what he wanted….who he wanted, then she had to support him.

"Sure," she said, shifting her gaze from Austin to Odette and smiling. "I'll show you the way and we can trade embarrassing stories about Austin."

So now here she was, sitting next to Odette, who was actually very interesting and very sweet and someone she would normally love for Austin to be seeing. Except that her eyes kept shifting towards the other end of the box where Kaylie and Lauren were sitting together, Kaylie looking absolutely devastated and Lauren, in her usual fashion, not consoling her very well.

"Excuse me for a minute," she said to Odette after Austin took his turn at the vault and landed a phenomenal Tsuk double pike for a 16.8.

She made her way over to her friends and sat down next to Kaylie, giving Lauren a look that read loud and clear, go away, I got this.

"I went down to talk to Sasha right after the press conference, but I couldn't find him. We'll figure out what's going on, Kay and then figure out what we have to do."

Kaylie shook her head, her outer visage calm and collected, "There's nothing Sasha can do about this, Pay. I did this to myself and I've got to work my way out of it. I think I might have made a start this weekend."

Payson nodded. Kaylie had a solid Olympic Trials, placing fourth in the All-Around, just behind Emily, but being the fourth best all-around gymnast didn't necessarily translate to a spot on the Olympic team, not when she'd been so inconsistent for the last two years.

"Who's Austin's flavor of the month?" she asked, her eyes shifting towards the direction Payson had come from.

"Odette Vienneau."

Kaylie snorted, "Tall, blonde supermodels," she mumbled under her breath.

"She's very nice," Payson said, but left it at that, knowing anything else would just hurt Kaylie and the former national champion had enough hurt for one day. "I'll talk to Sasha this afternoon, see if he has any idea where his Dad's head is."

"Thanks Pay," Kaylie said and stood up. "I'm going to go back to the hotel and get some rest. I should call my Dad too. He's probably having an aneurysm right now."

As Kaylie left the box and Payson took her seat again next to Odette, she sighed. "Who was that girl?" the French model asked, honestly curious.

Payson wasn't sure what to say. There were so many possible answers. "Kaylie Cruz," she said, but didn't elaborate as they watched Carter Anderson land a Yurchenko two and a half with just a small step for a 15.9. Lauren stood up and started cheering and applauding wildly and Payson smiled at her. "Her boyfriend," she said, nodding towards Carter and Odette smiled.

"Apparemment." *

Austin grabbed his bag as the rotation ended. They were headed for p-bars and he looked up at the leader board. He had a comfortable lead over Russo, not that it mattered for anything other than his ego. His eyes then shifted to the large screen where, not for the first time, the cameras were focusing on Payson and Odette sitting next to each other in the national box, chatting with smiles lighting up both their faces.

He tossed his bag down on a chair near the parallel bars setup and began to stretch his arms out.

Sasha stood just off to the side, staring up towards the screen as well where Payson and Odette were stil featured, both girls sitting in their seats observing the trials, legs crossed at the knee, every once in a while speaking to the other. "They sort of look alike," his coach said, seemingly to himself and Austin looked again. They did, especially when they were sitting down and you couldn't tell that Odette had a good six inches on Payson.

"They kind of do," he agreed. They shared many similar features; in fact one of the first things that drew Austin to Payson was that she sort of resembled Odette, in looks, but mostly in personality. "More inside than out though."

"And she's…" Sasha trailed off, his meaning clear.

"An old friend," he said, as casually as he could manage. "More than an old friend," he corrected at the look of utter disbelief on Sasha's face.

He'd called Odette on a whim after they arrived in San Jose. She was a five hour drive away in Los Angeles and after a half hour of catching up, he'd suggested she hop a flight up to San Jose and watch him at the trials. They had parted on good terms a few years ago and after seeing her again, he'd forgotten why they'd split at all.

You moved to Boulder, Colorado, you idiot. You were scattered and you needed to focus. So you left LA and moved to Boulder, where you met Payson and Emily and Kaylie. Kaylie. He hadn't really thought about her all weekend until he heard the announcement this morning. He hadn't given a ton of thought to the possibility she'd be left off the team and suddenly that seemed like there was a good chance she wouldn't be coming to London. There was a little part of him, the cruel, self-centered part that was relieved. He'd be able to focus on gymnastics if she wasn't around to distract him, but the rest of him, the major part of him that cared about her deeply, despite all the pain, was completely torn up inside over it. Boris Beloff was insane if he didn't think she was good enough for that team. He would make sure to tell the old man that if he got the chance, not that it would matter.

"Austin," Sasha's voice intruded on his thoughts. He spun around and looked at his coach. "You're up," he said and rolled his eyes.

"Right," he said, his arms feeling limber and ready to go. He'd obviously stretched thoroughly out of habit.

A clean parallel bars routine later, he sat on a chair unwrapping his wrists and taking off the leather grips. Sasha stood just a few steps from him. "Your Dad is insane, you know that right?" he said.

Sasha turned to look at him and rolled his eyes, "Yeah I know. Would you believe me I told you that what happened a few hours ago was actually the sane option compared to what he intended?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, standing and moving next to his coach so Sasha would be able to tell it without being overheard.

Sasha hesitated and then shook his head, "You'll know soon enough anyway. He came to me a few nights ago with the team roster done."

"But he can't do that, it's supposed to…"

"I know," Sasha said, "and I told him that, explained it all to him. It wasn't that he didn't understand it, he just didn't care. So this morning at our meeting with the NGO when he announced his team, they went nuts and then he went mental. Marty and I managed to calm everyone down and that was the compromise we came up with. Everyone agreed with his first five choices so we decided to announce those today and then hold off on the sixth member and alternates until next week."

Austin let the information wash over him, let it sink into his pours. "So Kaylie has a week to convince your father she belongs on the Olympic team?" he concluded. "What can I do to help?"

Sasha looked at him, his eyes penetrating, obviously trying to figure out where Austin was coming from, what his intentions were. "You can stay out of her way, don't distract her and let me do my job."

Austin took a deep breath. He wanted to do more than that, he wanted to be involved, but he knew that was impossible. "I can do that," he said, as Sasha moved away to watch Nicky Russo's bars set. I can do that.

Prostie – madness
Termină – Enough!

Apparemment – Apparently

Chapter 58: Under Pressure

It was late and the dark night sky was clearly visible through the high windows at the Rock. They stayed late all week and tonight was no exception. Sasha had pawned off the entirety of the Rock's membership on various gyms around Boulder so the only gymnasts currently training inside the spacious Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Training Center were the Olympic bound, with one exception. Lauren's eyes flashed across the gym to where Kaylie was working through her floor routine. She grimaced as Kaylie landed barely landed her double arabian. Lauren shook her head, Kaylie the Inconsistent. It was a title she'd granted her best friend, in her head of course, after managing to go from National Champion to anorexia patient to fourth in the World All-Around at an Olympic test event and then back to just seventh best in the United States. The year Kaylie won her National Championship had been the beginning of the end. Her best friend had always been painfully consistent, she played it safe, kept her nose clean and landed her routines, but after Payson broke her back and Kaylie won, everything changed.

Or maybe everything changed after Carter cheated on her, with me, a tiny voice echoed in the back of her mind, but she shook her head, ridding herself of the thought. Kaylie was long over it, they'd talked it out and that was that. Lauren's eyes shifted from the floor to the parallel bars were Austin, Nicky and Carter were all stretching, preparing to complete their sets under Sasha's watchful eye.

Sasha Beloff, the best coach in the world, the coach she and her father brought to the Rock and made this club in the country the best in the world, seven athletes going to the Olympics, eight if Kaylie could just get her head out of her ass. Her eyes drifted over to Kaylie who was getting a drink at the water cooler with Payson.

Lauren sighed, pulling her arm over her head, stretching her shoulders out for the vault. Payson Keeler, the best gymnast in the world. Why everyone was so surprised by that was completely baffling, it didn't shock Lauren. Payson had always been the best, since they were little. That was the way things were. A fracture in her lower vertebrae wasn't going to stop Payson Keeler. It was one of the few constants in Lauren's life, almost comforting. When in doubt you could count on Payson to come through, to win, despite the odds. Which was why, after the initial shock had worn off about thirty seconds after Payson told her, Lauren hadn't been all that put off by the idea of Payson and Sasha's relationship being more than what it seemed to the rest of the world. Payson and their coach, on the surface it should be appalling, but really, it made sense. They were so similar in their approach to life that it was like kismet. She watched as Kaylie moved away from Payson and back towards the floor, while Payson hovered near the men, not too close, but not too far from Sasha's side. Plus, they looked great together. Lauren was absolutely sure their children would be gorgeous.

Ugh, children, she shuddered. That had shocked her, when Payson mentioned they'd talked about getting married and starting a family. That was something Lauren had absolutely no intention of doing to herself, her body and most of all, the poor kid. She'd be a terrible mother; Payson on the other hand would probably be phenomenal at it, just like she was at everything else. Payson was exactly the kind of girl Lauren usually despised, except she was Payson, so she couldn't hate her. She focused her eyes back on Sasha and Payson who were standing next to each other now, arms crossed over their chests as they both studied Austin's parallel bars routine, the same thoughtful expression on each of their faces, analytical and critical, then as he finished they both nodded in approval. Payson said something Lauren couldn't hear to Austin who nodded and then looked to Sasha who nodded his agreement as well.

In sync, that's how Payson described their relationship, two separate people who operated as one. In sync was an understatement, Lauren thought, especially after the juicy details she, Kaylie and Emily had dragged out of her the night of their sleepover.

She watched a light blush creep over Payson's cheeks as she asked the one question that popped into her head as soon as she'd made the connection. Payson and Sasha were sleeping together and she had to keep it a secret, the least Payson could do was share a little.

"It's," Payson shook her head and rolled her eyes, "I can't believe I'm saying this…"

Lauren leaned forward on her knees and looked to Emily and Kaylie, both of whom were staring at their friend and captain, hanging on her every word. Apparently she wasn't the only one who was curious. "You haven't said anything yet," she scolded lightly.

Payson glared at her, though mockingly and then her smile changed. It was an expression Lauren hadn't seen before. "It's," Payson finally attempted, "it's like…I can't even think of a word to describe it adequately."

"Oh c'mon, Pay. At least tell us what type he is." Payson gave her a blank look and Lauren rolled her eyes in frustration, "You know, hard and fast, slow and gentle, wham, bam, thank you, ma'am? Every guy has a style. Like Carter, he's all about being submissive, letting me take control. Emily, what's Damon's style?" she asked her new step sister, who blushed and then smirked to herself a little.

"Slow and intense," Emily said, dreamily. Lauren snorted. It figured, he was a musician.

"Wait, you've had sex too?" Kaylie suddenly burst out. "Am I the only virgin left on this team?"

Lauren looked to Payson and then Emily. "I'm pretty sure Izzy's a virgin," she said, trying to be helpful and Payson shot her a scathing look. "What?"she asked, not sure what she'd done wrong.

"Izzy is fifteen," Kaylie shot back.

Lauren had enough, "Well, it's not our fault you didn't sleep with Carter or Nicky or Austin and this isn't about you, this is about Payson," she said, redirecting the conversation back to their blonde teammate who'd grown silent, probably hoping they'd forgotten about her. "So, Payson, what's Sasha's style?"

Payson glared at her for a moment, obviously annoyed the spotlight had refocused on her relationship, but then she turned serious, no blush in sight now, "He doesn't have one," she said simply.

"Huh," Lauren said, "sorry, is it, is it not that good? I mean I know guys hit their sexual peak at eighteen and Sasha's what? Thirty? I guess it's understandable if he doesn't really…"

"Twenty nine," Payson corrected absently, cutting her off, "and you misunderstood me. When I say he doesn't have a style, it's because his style is whatever we're feeling in that moment, intense if we've had an emotional day, hard and fast if it's been a little while or if we're fighting, slowly if we're apologizing. It doesn't matter, I always feel like I'm the most precious thing in the world to him, even when we're in such a frenzy we barely make it inside the house," she said, nodding towards the front door, a wicked grin appearing on her face, morphing quickly into a softer, almost sentimental smile, "My favorite is making love in the mornings, barely awake, exploring each other slowly, taking our time…." she trailed off, her eyes cloudy and unseeing, until she snapped out of her reverie. "Does that answer your question?" she asked, innocently, too innocently to truly be so.

Lauren cleared her throat. She hadn't expected that. She kind of pictured Payson as a lie back and think of England kind of girl, she was so stoic most of the time and Sasha didn't seem like he had the patience to wait for someone else's pleasure before his own, but what her friend just described, it sounded…perfect. She didn't know why it surprised her though of course Perfect Payson Keeler would break one rule, albeit a big one, but still end up with a man who was an apparent sex god.

"Wow," Kaylie muttered, breaking the silence that reigned in the room for almost a full minute.

"Yeah," Emily concurred, "wow."

Lauren narrowed her eyes, "It sounds too perfect."

Payson laughed though she detected little humor in the sound, "Perfect? It's not perfect, Lo. It's messy and insane, but we're just sort of in sync. We always have been, in almost every way, I don't see why you'd expect it to be different with this."

Lauren considered that for a moment and decided she was right. She was insanely curious now, even more so than before, "So is he as good with his tongue as he is with his…"

"Enough, I don't want to hear about it," Kaylie interrupted and Lauren glared at her in disbelief. It was plain as day that she was just as curious as both she and Emily, but Payson saw her out and took it.

"No problem," Payson said, falling back on to the couch with a relieved sigh.

Lauren bit her lip. She and Carter had tried the up against a door thing, but she couldn't imagine what Payson had liked about it and Carter hadn't exactly been into it, complaining about having to hold her up to even their heights and they'd given up quickly enough.

With a sigh she stretched her core for just a moment longer and worked in on the beam after Izzy finished up.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sasha approach and begin to observe her routine. She'd been hitting it solidly for months. He should be over watching Kaylie on bars, not worrying about her nearly flawless beam routine. She worked through confidently and dismounted. "Good Lauren," Sasha said, almost mechanically from his position just off the mat. She nodded in his direction and then went to grab a drink of water. Payson joined her from the bars seconds later and they watched as Kaylie moved to begin her set. They both saw Kaylie's eyes flash to them, then to Sasha and then to Austin who was standing a few feet away still working in on the p-bars with the other guys. She swung up onto the bars and it was good, but it was obvious to anyone who knew Kaylie well that her focus wasn't totally on her routine.

"Damn," Lauren heard Payson curse lightly under her breath and their eyes met. The frustration in Payson's eyes was clear. The World Champion just shook her head and moved away, towards the bars to work in on her own set. Lauren couldn't help but agree with Payson's assessment. Routines like there weren't going to be enough if Boris was worried about Kaylie's consistency. She needed to hit everything like she had at the trials, not sleep walk through her routines. What was wrong with her? Did she want to go to London? Hadn't they been dreaming about this together since they were little girls? Why couldn't she just put all the drama out of her head and just – at the risk of sounding like Payson – focus.

Kaylie dismounted cleanly and raised her hands above her head in salute before unwrapping her grips and moving to join her at the water cooler.

"Hey Lo," she murmured.

Lauren felt something in her snap, "And what the hell was that?" she said between clenched teeth.

Kaylie blinked at her, "What are you talking about?"

Lauren shook her head and it took all her willpower to not grab her best friend by the shoulders and literally shake some sense into her, "You need to get over it, Kay. Everything, all the drama, all the guy crap with Carter and Nicky and Austin, the anorexia and all the other shit, everything. What's the matter with you? This is the Olympics and Boris is making his decision tomorrow. You've gotta either use it to power you through or push it out of your head because the shit we saw from you today, it's not good enough and you know it."

Kaylie's mouth dropped open, but she didn't respond. Then suddenly her eyes shifted from Lauren to something just over her shoulder. "What?" Lauren asked, turning and seeing Austin standing behind her, looking less than pleased.

"Okay everyone, that's enough for the night. Cool down and get a full ten hours tonight," Sasha suddenly called out from the center of the gym and everyone began to disperse.

Lauren turned back to Kaylie, but her friend was already fleeing towards the locker room, her posture rigid. "Crap," she muttered to herself.

Their training was intense and mostly they showered and changed in silence, not rushing, but no one wasting time. Everyone simply wanted to get home and get some rest, but Lauren had other plans. She and Carter were going to have a romantic dinner at his place and then some dessert.

Unforutnately, as silent as the girls were in their locker room, the men were the exact opposite.

"How could you say something like that to her, Lauren?" Carter asked, the food she brought over growing cold in their Styrofoam boxes on his kitchen table. Apparently, Austin had gone straight to her boyfriend and told him exactly what she'd said to Kaylie as practice ended.

"I was trying to help her. She'd been choking big time and it's because she's letting all the crap in her life get to her."

"So you thought that throwing it all in her face was the best way to help her stop thinking about it?" he accused. It wasn't his words, but his tone of voice that made her jaw clench. "Kaylie isn't strong like you, Lauren and you've already made the team. Don't you think she knows how important this is?" This time a word did hurt, just the way he said her name. Maybe she imagined it, but she always felt like whenever Carter said her name, his lips formed it more carefully than any other word he could utter and it meant so much more than simply her name. Kaylie was his first love, the one that got away and that would never change, no matter how much they loved each other or how long they were together.

"Well she isn't acting like it and if she can't take me being honest with her – "

"Then what?" Carter asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "If you think that was going to help her, you're crazier than I thought."

"You think I'm crazy?" she shouted at him, her eyes narrowing dangerously.

"Lauren that's not what I…"

"Then when did you mean?" she asked, though she didn't want or expect an answer. "Forget it. I'm out of here." She stormed out of the apartment, anger coursing through her veins. Once she slammed the door shut behind her she let out a frustrated groan and then huffed before she marched furiously to her car.

Where exactly did he get off lecturing her about how to treat Kaylie? He was the one who'd cheated on her in the first place. Lauren hadn't known they were seeing each other, at least not officially, but Carter had knowingly slept with his girlfriend's best friend and when you boiled Kaylie's problems down, they all began when Carter cheated. And now, three years later, he was still defending her, still taking her side, even though Lauren was his girlfriend and they'd been dating for twice as long as he and Kaylie had.

She came to a major intersection and began to signal left, towards home, but then a split second later she changed her mind. She didn't want to go home. Shifting her car into reverse, she backed up quickly and cut across two lanes of traffic into the right turn lane. The jerk behind her leaned on his horn and she rolled her eyes, some people thought they owned the road.

Payson's house wasn't far from Carter's apartment complex and she pulled into the driveway, noting that most of the lights were out except for one of the front windows on the second floor, Payson's bedroom. Good, she's still awake.

Lauren raced up the stairs and rang the bell three times in succession before pounding on the door with her fist. She waited a minute and then two, before ringing again, this time pressing the bell five times. What was taking so long?

She lifted her fist to pound on the door again when it flew open, a very disheveled looking Payson Keeler on the other side. Payson rolled her eyes and sighed, "It's just Lauren," she called over her shoulder and Lauren peered into the room to see Sasha standing in the living room, shirtless, pajama pants riding low on his hips, his hair sticking up in several directions. It was a far cry from the intimidating man that stomped around the Rock all day or even the well-groomed side of him that surfaced whenever they had a gymnastics function to attend. Lauren Tanner wasn't the blushing type, but the expression on Sasha's face made her bite her lip in contrition. She looked at Payson again and saw her friend was wearing a t-shirt that looked suspiciously like the one Sasha wore during their training sessions today and her hair was in even more disarray than Sasha's.

She's obviously interrupted something. Whoops.

"Yeah, it's just me," she said, sending an awkward wave in Sasha's direction before turning her attention back to Payson. "Can we talk?"

"Oh, um, sure," Payson said and steps back to let her into the house, closing the door behind them and then following Lauren into the living room. "What's up?"

"I, uh," she stumbled over her words, her eyes moving towards Sasha, who lifted an eyebrow ironically at her and shook his head. The anger she was feeling at Carter momentarily shifted to Sasha. Who the hell was he to look at her like that? She knew his dirty little secret, in fact he was standing shirtless in the living room of one of his gymnasts, an inappropriate relationship in the extreme, where did he get off looking at her with that level of disapproval. All it would take was a phone call to the right reporter to send this little game of house he and Payson were playing right to the front pages of every major newspaper in the world.

Payson stepped into her field of vision, laying a hand on Sasha's arm lightly. His eyes moved from her down to her friend and his expression softened immediately, "Go on, I'll be up I in a little while," Payson whispered.

He murmured back, "Nu fi prea mult timp.*" (Do not be too long)

"Just a few minutes," she said, obviously understanding the gibberish Lauren guessed was Romanian.

It struck her that she'd never seen them like this, together. They were incredible at hiding this at the Rock. No wonder no one guessed they were more than just a coach and athlete. They hid this side of their relationship so well. The look of complete devotion of Sasha's face was stunning. No man had ever looked at her like that, certainly not Carter. They really loved each other. It wasn't just an infatuation, not for either of them like she first thought. This wasn't Sasha wanting a sweet, young thing in his bed, saying what he had to, promising a future together simply to get what he wanted and it wasn't Payson lusting after their hot coach, attracted to his experience and the excitement of a forbidden relationship. This was love and in that moment Lauren knew she couldn't out them, not if it was real.

Sasha nodded in her direction, this disapproval still there, but more muted now. He disappeared up the stairs and they both watched him go.

"You understand Romanian now?" she asked, avoiding the subject of her unexpected arrival.

"A little. He's teaching me."

"Sorry if I interrupted." She wasn't actually sorry and they both knew it.

"What's up, Lo?" Payson asked, folding herself into the large armchair, motioning for Lauren to take a seat.

She spilled her guts, practically throwing herself on the sword, confessing how harsh she'd been with Kaylie at practice and how Carter called her out on it and how maybe he didn't love her after all, while Payson listened patiently, making appropriate noises of understanding and sympathy as she wove her tale of woe.

Finally, when she finished, Payson sighed and ran a hand through her hair, doing nothing to calm the mess Sasha had obviously made, only making her look more thoroughly ravished than she already did. "There's only one thing for it, Lauren."

Lauren rolled her eyes, "Yeah, I know."

Payson smiled, "Text her and apologize. She's your best friend and you two have been through worse things than this. And Carter, I don't know, Lo, but maybe just tell him that you apologized to Kaylie and…"

"That's perfect," Lauren said, cutting her off and sho