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Team Drama

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If there's anything good about Sasha leaving, Payson thinks, it's that there hasn't been nearly as much drama since he's been gone. Okay, so Emily's on probation and Kaylie lost her spot on the Worlds team, Lauren's dad is dating Summer again and something is going on with Emily's mom's job that Payson honestly wasn't paying very much attention to, but most of that was happening before he left, and anyway, that's still relatively drama-free for the Rock.

So, of course something has to happen to throw them all back into chaos.

It starts with a phone call - apart from official World Team practices, Ellen Beals hasn't spoken to any of them in person since the trials, and Payson's not entirely sure that's a good thing; more likely she's just storing up her anger, waiting until it really matters. Summer rushes out of the office, looking anxious enough that they all stop what they're doing, even Lauren, who's halfway through her beam routine. For a second, Payson almost wonders if Sasha's coming back, and then squashes the thought; his note was pretty clear, and it's already been weeks without any word. Payson's dealt with losing her coach before, and she's stronger now; if she survived her injury, survived coming back to gymnastics and having to start all over, she can survive anything.

Besides, she forgets about Sasha almost as soon as Summer opens her mouth.

"I just got off the phone with Ellen Beals," she says, and Payson's stomach drops. "Payson, Lauren, and Emily" - here, she shoots a sympathetic look at Kaylie, and Payson glances sideways, trying not to see the too-firm set of Kaylie's mouth or the disappointment that glitters in her eyes - "she says you guys are leaving for Germany next week."

At first, Payson's confused - since when are they going to Germany? - and then she gets it and she's just mad, her stomach settling to stone, hands curling up into fits by her side. The competition is next week, and -

"We just saw her a week ago," Emily says. "She didn't say anything about it then."

"She's probably hoping we'll miss it," Kaylie says, not quite managing to keep the bitterness from her voice. Ever since the trials - ever since she fell - Kaylie's been more vocal about Ellen Beals than any of them, except maybe Emily. "Maybe she thinks it'd make her look better in front of the NGO."

"I really don't see how missing half her team would make Ellen Beals look good," Summer says, but despite her diplomatic tone, she doesn't exactly sound like she doesn't believe it. "And anyway, if that's what she's planning, it's not going to work. We have every single competition from now until Worlds on the calendar, and you've already got visas." She looks at Kaylie, then - a real look, not a fleeting glance that doesn't meet her eyes. "All four of you. Just in case."

Lauren beams, and throws her arms around Summer. It's not really appropriate, Payson thinks, but she can hardly blame Lauren; she almost wants to hug Summer, too. "We're going to Germany!" Lauren squeals, and then Payson's smiling, too, and so is Emily; even Kaylie looks a little less grim.

They're going to Germany. And they're going to show Ellen Beals.

-

Of course, it isn't exactly that easy. Payson didn't expect it to be, really.

The second round of drama starts when they get to the airport - all four of them, plus Summer, standing in for the coach they don't have (and leaving Payson's mom in Boulder to manage to Rock, over nobody's particular objections) - and Ellen Beals looks surprised to see them, but what she says is, "Kaylie, I'm glad you could make it. I was worried you didn't get the message you were an alternate."

Payson tries not to stare. Kaylie didn't get the message, because there was no message. She doesn't even know why she's surprised.

"And Emily." This time, Ellen Beals isn't even trying to sound friendly. "You're allowed to leave the country, I see."

It's a low blow, but Emily doesn't react; just smiles, though it looks to Payson more like baring her teeth.

"We're all here," Summer confirms. "Thank you for giving us so much advance notice."

Payson's almost impressed. She didn't know Summer had it in her.

Ellen Beals ignores her, but she still looks put out. Score one for the Rock.

"Come on," she says instead. "You're late to check in."

They're not, but none of them bothers to object. They're here; that's all that matters.

But not for long.

"You made it," Kelly Parker says, once their luggage has been checked in and they're sitting by the gate. Payson didn't even know she was going to be here - as of their last practice, the Worlds team was still one member short - but she tries not to let it show. "Finally."

"And you made the team," Lauren says, without missing a beat. "Barely."

"I was injured," Kelly says, but she looks like Lauren's remark hit home, a little. "I'm sure I would have made it in either way, but your friend's little stunt at trials made it that much easier."

Her gaze moves from Kaylie to Emily, and then finally to Payson.

"Or should I say stunts?" she asks. "From what I hear, I missed quite a show. Your coach must have have a lot of pull with the NGO, getting you onto the Worlds Team when you didn't even make Nationals."

Payson's about to reply - or, more likely, Lauren is about to reply for her - but Kelly barely pauses long enough for them to get a word in.

"Sorry," she says, though she hardly sounds it. "Ex coach. You just can't seem to hold on to them, can you?"

That's too much for Payson, and she turns away; the wounds are still a little too fresh.

"Come on," she says, facing Lauren and Kaylie and Emily, ignoring Kelly. "Let's go get a drink before we get on the plane."

"Don't take too long," Kelly calls after them. "I'd hate to miss the chance to beat you fair and square."

Payson doesn't look back.

-

They're supposed to sit together on the plane, but that doesn't happen - just an added bonus from their 'late' check in. Instead, Payson ends up wedged between Emily and Kaylie, Lauren happily chatting to Summer in the row in front of them, with Kelly Parker, Ellen Beals, and the rest of the team all the way on the other end of the cabin. That suits Payson just fine, up until they land; by the time she, Emily, Kaylie, Lauren and Summer are off the plane and have found their luggage, Ellen Beals is nowhere to be seen, and it takes them the better part of an hour for them to get through customs and out of the airport.

"It's about time," Ellen Beals says, when they finally catch up outside, standing beside the shuttle that Payson guesses is supposed to take them to the hotel. "We almost had to leave without you."

"Well, we're here now," Emily says, tossing her bag into the shuttle and then reaching back to take Payson's, too.

"I'm so relieved," Ellen Beals says, and she sounds absolutely nothing of the sort.

The shuttle ride is quiet enough - if you ignore Kelly whispering to Beth and Andrea, which Payson does; ignores the way she keeps glancing back at the Rock girls like it's them she's talking about, which may or may not even be true - and by the time they get to the hotel, all Payson really wants to do is get a couple of minutes to herself, relax and refocus, and go to bed early.

She's even half-expecting to do exactly that, which is probably a mistake.

"We have practice at six a.m. tomorrow," she says, when Lauren asks her why she's so uptight, after Lauren and Kaylie have crowded into the room Payson shares with Emily and Summer has left them all with an admonishment to be in their own rooms by ten. "Maybe you should think about doing the same."

"Maybe you should think about relaxing," Lauren says, spreading out languorously on Payson's bed. (She'd glanced at Emily's, earlier, noticed Emily's sweatshirt sitting at the foot of the bed, and swerved sharply to sit on Payson's instead.) "The competition isn't for three days."

"Two days," Payson says, because today's nearly over. Lauren rolls her eyes. "And I have a lot of catching up to do."

"You already made the team," Lauren points out, like that's all there is to it.

"She has a point, Pay," Kaylie says. "You have been a bit ... uptight lately."

Payson looks to Emily for support, but Emily's just looking at her, her brow furrowed like maybe she agrees with Lauren and Kaylie. No help there, then.

"I have not been uptight," she says, and at Kaylie's look, reconsiders. "I can't afford to go easy right now. I need to show the NGO they made the right decision by letting me on the team."

"We all do," Emily says, and then, as if it just occurred to her, doesn't quite look at Kaylie. "But we can't afford to burn ourselves out, either."

"I'm not going to burn myself out," Payson says, and she's almost convinced it's the truth. She's never had to do this before - start over from the bottom, without a coach to guide her - and she's just trying to make the best decisions she can. "I promise, you guys. I'm okay."

Kaylie looks at her speculatively, but she doesn't say anything; then Lauren starts talking, about Summer and her dad and this awesome weekend they're planning, and Payson breathes a sigh of relief that they've moved on.

-

The next morning, she feels anything but okay.

"Again," Ellen Beals says. "Try to be a little less stilted, Payson."

Sasha had called her graceful, had said that she was beautiful - but Sasha's not here, and Summer doesn't know enough about gymnastics to contradict Ellen Beals when they're in training, which means Payson's on her own. She doesn't risk glancing around, not with Ellen Beals looking at her like that, but she knows exactly where the others are; Emily on beam, working on a routine that had been perfect two days ago, Lauren glaring at the parallel bars where she stumbled on her dismount, Kaylie sitting on the bleachers next to Summer, looking like she either wants to be in training with the rest of them or else somewhere very far away. They hadn't been having this many problems before they left, not even Kaylie, and Payson knows what the common denominator is - not that she's stupid enough to say anything about it.

"Perfect, Andrea," Ellen Beals calls out behind her, barely even turning around enough to see what Andrea is doing on the vault. "I can already see the gold around your neck."

Payson likes Andrea, she does, but - in that moment, she hates her.

She hates Ellen Beals more.

She gets up without a word, moves back to the centre of the mat while one of the coaches starts the music again. Less stilted, she thinks, and then, graceful. She can be graceful. She can be perfect.

When she finishes, Ellen Beals isn't even watching her.

"How was that?" she asks anyway, and Ellen Beals gives a dismissive wave, frowning over at Emily.

"It still needs work," Ellen Beals says, though Payson doubts she even saw any of it. "Go take over from Emily on beam, would you? She's a disaster out there."

"Sure," Payson says, if only so Ellen Beals won't go over there herself; even with everything that's happened lately, Emily's form has never been better, and the last thing she needs is to have her confidence shaken right before competition. Emily glances over at her as she approaches, grimacing like she knows she's having an off day - how could she not? - and hops down from the beam, looking almost grateful.

"Does she want to see me?" Emily asks, and if Payson didn't know better (which, okay, she doesn't), she'd say Emily sounded afraid.

"No," Payson says. "Don't worry, she just wants me to practice. Apparently my floor routine sucks."

"Payson, your routine is beautiful," Emily says, and there's no falseness in her tone, like she's just being nice.

"And your beam routine is perfect," Payson says. "Don't change it for Ellen Beals."

Emily almost smiles, then, looks like she's going to say something else, but then she looks over Payson's shoulder and mumbles, "We'll see if that's up to me."

Payson doesn't need to look around to know Ellen Beals is watching them, and probably not happy. Of course.

She wants to say more to Emily, but she can almost feel Ellen Beals' gaze on her back, so she keeps her mouth shut and climbs onto the beam. She can do this. All she has to do is make it through today's practice and -

"Terrible, Payson." Ellen Beals' voice rings out across the gym, twice as loud as it needs to be. "Keep your toes pointed. You're a gymnast, not a rhinoceros."

Of course, getting through today's practice might be harder then she thought.

-

"We have to do something."

Lauren's the first to speak, and Kaylie looks at her, like she's surprised.

"What?" Lauren asks, sounding defensive. "She was on my case, too."

"Not as much as some of us," Emily mutters.

"Yeah, well, just because some of us are better than -"

"All right," Payson interrupts, before this can turn into yet another argument. So far, they've all been getting along surprisingly well, and she doesn't want to ruin that. "Lauren, I know Ellen Beals has been riding us hard, but -"

"Hard?" Lauren asks. "She's like some kind of ... I don't know, okay, but we've got to make it stop. If we have to put up with one more day of us, none of us is going to make it onto the podium, and if we don't do well here, you can say goodbye to Worlds, and that means we're pretty much screwed when it comes to the Olympics"

There's a pause after she's finished, and then she looks over at Kaylie, mouth falling open.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't mean -"

"Guys," Kaylie says. "It's okay, really. I'm off the team, not dead. I'm still going to the Olympics."

"Right," Lauren says, as if she never doubted it, but she doesn't sound too sure of that. "Once you've recovered from the whole starving yourself thing. I mean, if Payson can break her back and screw up in front of the NGO and still make the Worlds team, one stupid eating disorder isn't going to wreck your chance at the Olympics."

Emily stares at her after that, but Payson studiously doesn't. She meets Kaylie's eyes over Lauren's shoulder, but Kaylie doesn't look offended, or embarrassed; instead, she's almost smiling, rolling her eyes as if to say, it's Lauren, what do you expect?

Honestly - well, Payson pretty much expected this.

"Of course it isn't," Payson says, and she hopes she sounds more certain than Lauren, at least. "And Ellen Beals isn't going to ruin ours, either. We just need to train hard and stay focused."

"Is that your answer for everything?" Lauren asks, and Payson shrugs.

"What else are we supposed to do?"

Then Lauren smiles in a way that's terrifyingly familiar. The way that means she's planning something, and not something good. "We could get even," she suggests.

"Get even?" Kaylie sounds about as dubious as Payson feels, which is something, at least. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about making Ellen Beals think about something other than how much she hates us," Lauren says. "Don't worry, I'm not planning anything drastic. Just a bit of a prank."

"A prank?" Payson asks. "Lauren, we can't go around pranking Ellen Beals."

"Why not?" Kaylie asks, and Payson glares at her; she thought Kaylie was on her side.

"For a start, we could get kicked off the team," she says, and that should be enough for any of them.

Lauren rolls her eyes. "That's not going to happen, even if we did get caught. Which we won't."

"I don't know," Emily says, and Payson starts to breathe a little easier. At least someone around here hasn't gone insane.

"Come on, Em," Kaylie says. "I promise it won't be anything big. Don't you just want to see the look on Ellen Beals' face when we, like, tie all her shoelaces together, or something?"

Lauren grimaces, and Kaylie sighs.

"Or something else," Kaylie says. "Don't tell me you don't think she has it coming."

That part, even Payson might agree with. Except she doesn't, because this is a terrible idea.

"Besides," Lauren says, and shoots a long - and very meaningful - look at Payson, "at least it's better than sitting around in our room or staying at the gym all day."

Payson ignores her; she thinks both of those sound like fine options.

Except that Kaylie and Emily are looking at her, too, and not like they're thinking about putting in some extra training before bed.

"I would love to see Ellen Beals get what's coming to her," Emily says, and Kaylie nods.

"Think about it," Kaylie says. "It could be fun, and you do kind of look like you need to relax."

"I don't need to relax," Payson says. "And anyway, that's hardly my idea of relaxation."

"That's because your idea of relaxation is staying at the gym after everyone else has already gone home," Lauren says, and Payson can't tell her she's wrong, not exactly. "Come on. Just give us twenty minutes, and then you can come back here and go to bed if you're not having fun."

As far as Payson's concerned, there's no 'if' about it.

"Besides," Kaylie says, "what could possibly -"

"Don't say it," Payson warns, and then breathes out, her shoulders slumping in defeat. She can't hold out against all three of them, not when they're like this. "Fine," she says, against her better judgement. "Twenty minutes. And then I'm out of there."

She's already pretty sure she's going to regret this.

-

Except she doesn't - at least, not straight away.

It might have something to do with the way Ellen Beals looks the next morning. Her expression is sour, like she just had salt in her coffee instead of sugar, and - well, Payson guesses that's exactly what did happen. Their prank hadn't taken more than the twenty minutes Lauren had promised her; they didn't stick around to see the results, and Payson still thinks it was probably a bad idea, but, well. She can't deny it was fun, either.

By the end of practice, she isn't feeling quite so good about it. Not after Ellen Beals has been harder on them than ever, which Payson didn't even know was possible.

It's not just the Rock girls she's being hard on, either.

"Back straight, Beth," Ellen Beals yells out, and never mind that she's on the far side of the gym, where Beth can barely hear her. "You need to stick the landing if you want to stay on this team."

Over by the beam, Kelly leans over to whisper something to Andrea, and Ellen Beals rounds on her.

"That goes for all of you," she says. "Kelly, Andrea, less time chatting and more time practicing. From what I've seen today, none of you can afford to slack off."

That isn't really fair - maybe yesterday's practice wasn't great, but today they've all been on form, especially Kelly - but Payson doesn't say anything. She's already having enough problems on her own.

As if on cue, Ellen Beals rounds on her next.

"I hope you're paying attention, Payson," she says. "I don't know what that coach of yours was thinking, but if you'd been my gymnast, there's no way I would have let you audition for this team.

Payson's perfectly aware of that, thanks.

"Your dismounts are sloppy, your lines are weak, and your extensions look like you're not even trying. I have half a mind to put Kaylie on tomorrow in your place, and we all know she can't cut it."

Especially Kaylie, who's standing right there. Kaylie's mouth tightens, but it's Payson she's looking at sympathetically, like she doesn't even care about what Ellen Beals says about her any more. Maybe she doesn't; out of all of them, Kaylie's the only one who could probably leave if she wanted to.

Payson feels like she should say something - for Kaylie, if not for herself - but she can't, not with Ellen Beals looking at her like that, not when she's so close and her whole future is on the line.

"I'll work harder," she says instead, and Ellen Beals nods; not like she's happy, or even like she's particularly convinced, but she doesn't kick Payson off the team right then and there, so Payson will take what she can get.

She does work harder - after practice, once the rest of the team has left to go back to their rooms to shower or sleep or enjoy what time they have left before tomorrow's competition, she stays back, working on her vault, her bars, her beam. Even her floor routine, which she knows - no matter what Ellen Beals says - is already perfect, or as close as it's ever going to get. She's still there when Lauren and Kaylie and Emily come back; for a moment, she wonders if they're here to train, too, but they aren't dressed for it, and instead of chalking up, Lauren goes straight to the beam, blocking it from Payson.

"This has to stop," she says, and Payson looks at her, wide-eyed and a little impatient.

"Lauren," she says. "Move out of my way."

"You're going to wear yourself out," Kaylie says; instead of backing Payson, she moves so she's standing next to Lauren, and after a beat, Emily follows her. "The competition is tomorrow, Pay. You need to rest."

"I need to practice," she says, even though she knows, on some level, that Kaylie is right. She does need to rest, but she can do that later. After she's practiced enough so that even Ellen Beals won't be able to find fault with her routines.

"No, you don't," Emily says, and Payson tries not to feel like it's a betrayal. Emily doesn't usually side with Lauren and Kaylie over her; for that matter, Lauren and Kaylie don't usually side against her, either. "Your routines are great. Ellen Beals is just trying to get under your skin."

"Well, then, it's working," Payson says. "Guys -"

"No," Kaylie says, and Payson's almost surprised. She never thought she'd say this, but she thinks maybe losing her spot on the team has been good for Kaylie; she seems stronger, somehow, ever since she got out of hospital, like almost blowing her chance means she isn't going to let anything else stand in her way. Payson knows what that feels like. "Forget about practice. We need you to come with us."

Payson wants to argue more - she should argue more, because they're wrong, and she's right - but there's something in Kaylie's expression, like she isn't going to take no for an answer. In Lauren's and Emily's, too.

"Okay," she says eventually. Maybe she will be able to get to bed early tonight, after all.

-

Or maybe not.

Instead of taking her back to the hotel room, the other girls lead her away; towards the hotel, but the lobby, not upstairs. Payson isn't quite sure what's happening - maybe they're just taking a detour - so she doesn't complain, but when they stop, on the opposite side of the lobby from the elevators, she does look at Lauren, her eyebrows raised.

"Relax," Lauren says. "You're going to like this."

Somehow, she doubts that.

"What exactly is this?" she asks. And then, because she's not entirely sure she wants to know the answer, "Can't we go to bed? You guys won, you got me out of the gym, can I please just go to sleep now?"

"You need to relax, Payson," Kaylie says. "Besides, Lauren's right, I think you're going to like this."

"Sleep is relaxing," Payson points out, ignoring the way Emily doesn't quite look convinced by Kaylie's reassurance.

"This is better," Lauren says conspiratorially, and then they're moving again, so that Payson doesn't get another chance to argue. Not that it would probably do any good.

When Lauren stops again, they're in the kitchen, white-robed staff hurrying all around them. Payson supposes it's probably around dinner time, if you like to eat late; she never has. A few of the staff shoot them surprised looks as they pass, but nobody tells them to leave; most likely, Payson thinks, it's because none of them are actually in charge, and not because they aren't supposed to be there. Either way, they should probably leave.

She's about to say as much when Lauren starts talking again, and she listens, if reluctantly. She'll hear Lauren out, so she can say she gave whatever Lauren's planning a fair shot, but that's it. She's not about to let herself be distracted the night before a major competition.

"We have a mission," Lauren says. Very dramatically, and seriously, as if it's an actual mission someone gave them as opposed to something she probably made up herself. "Make Ellen Beals pay."

"Lauren," Payson starts, and then reconsiders. "You know what, I'm out of here."

"Just hear us out," Kaylie says, and Payson rolls her eyes; this is a bad idea, all of it, even just standing here.

Except that Kaylie's kind of blocking the door, and Payson doesn't want to push past her. So.

Evidently, Lauren mistakes her silence for participation. "Great!" she squeals, and then, her voice hushed again, "So, here's what we have to do."

"Leave?" Payson asks, and Lauren ignores her.

"We have to step up our game," she says. "What we did yesterday was fun, but she deserves way worse than that. Especially after how she treated us today."

And that, right there, is why Payson stays. Not because she's being polite, or because she's humouring her friends - because, deep down, she wants to make Ellen Beals suffer as much as any of them do. She's still planning on winning tomorrow, wiping that stupid frown off Ellen Beals' face, but -

"Fine," she says, after Lauren falls silent and she realises they're all looking at her. "I'm in."

She expects Lauren to gloat, at least, but none of them even smile; instead, there's a look in their eyes, like recognition, like they're all in this together and they know exactly why.

And then Lauren speaks again.

"So," she says. "Drain cleaner in her orange juice?"

The three of them look at her sharply, and she mumbles, "Kidding."

Payson's not so sure.

"How about something a little less -"

"Likely to get us thrown in jail?" Kaylie finishes for Emily, and Emily nods.

Lauren rolls her eyes. Like murdering Ellen Beals is a genuine option. Which -

Well, there's no point wallowing in fantasy.

"We can still mess with her food," Kaylie says, like she's placating Lauren. "Just nothing lethal, okay?"

"Fine," Lauren says; she's pouting, but Payson's pretty sure that's mostly for show. "We'll do that. Emily -"

"I might know," Emily starts hesitantly, "where she left her phone this afternoon."

Lauren grins. Evilly. "Perfect."

"What about me?" Payson asks. As much as she's still not sure any of this is the best idea - in fact, she's pretty certain it isn't - she's already comitted to it, and that means she might as well see it through until the end.

"She leaves her shoes outside her room," Kaylie says. "Don't ask me why. Maybe if you got some ice or something -"

"Ice her shoes?" Payson asks. But it sounds easy enough, and unless Ellen Beals suddenly comes out of her room - unlikely, if she's ordered room service - she doesn't run a huge risk of getting caught.

Kaylie just shrugs, but Lauren says, "Great." And then, when Payson and Emily are still standing there, "Well?"

Payson rolls her eyes at being dismissed, but she goes, separating from Emily in the lobby with a small smile. She does look around nervously when she gets to the elevator, even though she shouldn't - Ellen Beals is staying on the same floor they are, so even if anyone she knew was with her, they wouldn't know anything was different - and breathes out as she presses the button, forcing herself to relax. Maybe nobody is around right now, but she still probably shouldn't be acting like she's guilty of something when she isn't. Yet.

Nobody's around when she gets off the elevator, either, which lets her breathe a little easier. Ellen Beals' room is a little farther down the hallway than her own, which means she passes the room she shares with Emily as she goes, and that gives her a moment's pause. It seems like that's the point of no return, the moment when she really decides she's in this, and even if that's silly - even if she knows she could stop this at any time, go back and get in bed and pretend none of it ever happened - it eases some of her nerves. She's always been more comfortable with things she can define, and walking past her room is a definite act.

She walks past Ellen Beals' room at first, checking it out as casually as she can, and Kaylie was right - her shoes are outside the door, lined up neatly as if all she has to do is step into them. It's definitely a little weird, and that makes her pause for a second - which, of course, is when she almost gets caught.

"Payson?" Summer asks, standing in her doorway a few rooms down. Payson starts, and then tries to look normal, like there's a perfectly good reason why she's here and not in her own room.

She's not sure how well it works, because when she turns around, Summer is looking at her like she already suspects something.

"I was just -"

And then she falters; she hasn't thought this through enough, doesn't have a good reason for being here at all. Summer's gaze flicks from Payson to the door behind her, Ellen Beals' door, and she frowns.

Payson squares her shoulders, preparing for whatever punishment Summer is about to give, but what Summer says is, "Curfew is in an hour."

That's not what Payson was expecting, but she recovers quickly. "I'll be in bed by then," she says. "I promise."

"Good," Summer says. And then she pauses for a second, like she's considering something, and says, "I'm going to bed now, so I won't be able to check up on the girls. Will you make sure they're all in bed for me?"

For a moment, Payson doesn't say anything, because - Summer can't suspect anything, right? There's no way she'd be giving them an out like this if she did. But just in case -

"I'll make sure," she says. "Thanks, Summer."

Summer nods, pursing her lips like she thought about saying something but decided against it. And then Payson is alone in the hallway again, in front of Ellen Beals' door, and if she's going to do this, she thinks, she should probably do it now.

She doesn't know exactly where the ice room is, so she follows the hallway almost to the end before she finds it. There are buckets right there, which is a good thing, because she didn't bring anything to put it in; of course, she hasn't put nearly as much thought into this as Lauren or Kaylie have. Still, she's starting to think that maybe this won't be so difficult after all when the door opens behind her, and she turns around, expecting the worst.

Which is very nearly what she gets.

"What are you doing here?" Kelly Parker asks, and Payson shrugs. If she's doing something wrong, then so is Kelly.

"I could ask you the same thing," she says.

Kelly gestures towards the ice bucket she's holding; at least she thought ahead. "I need to ice my ankle," she says. "I didn't want to bother the coach."

Payson frowns, then; she saw that fall, saw Kelly limping a little afterwards, and Ellen Beals must have, too. Payson's surprised she didn't already give Kelly an ice pack, but then, given today's practice, maybe Kelly just didn't want to admit to being injured. Payson wouldn't blame her.

"I was just getting some ice, too," she says, when it's clear that Kelly is still waiting for an answer.

Kelly leans over, peering into Payson's bucket. "Two cubes?"

Payson tries to keep a straight face. There's nothing wrong with getting two ice cubes; maybe she just wanted a cold drink.

Still, Kelly doesn't look like she's buying it.

"I saw Lauren and Kaylie in the kitchen earlier," she says. And then, at Payson's look, "What? I have low blood sugar. Anyway, I don't know where your little friend Emily is, but I'm betting she's not in your room."

Payson shrugs. "She hasn't missed curfew."

"We're still not supposed to be wandering around outside our rooms," Kelly says, although she doesn't really have to; it's not an official rule, but it's enforced just the same. "So you might as well just level with me."

When Payson doesn't say anything, Kelly sighs.

"Look, I'm not going to run and tell Ellen Beals, okay? You might not have noticed, but she wasn't exactly going easy on me today, either."

And then Kelly says something that really surprises Payson.

"I think it sucks, the way she's treating you," she says, and there's nothing in her voice to indicate she isn't being entirely sincere. "I mean, come on, if your routines sucked, I'd be the first person to tell you."

Well, that much is true enough, at least.

"Half the stuff she's telling you out there is just really bad advice," Kelly says. "Don't let it get to you."

Payson raises her eyebrows. "I thought you'd want it to get to me."

"I still want to beat you," Kelly says, smiling like it's a foregone conclusion, "but we're on the same team now, and I want to win everything. If that means going against my coach, then ..."

She could be lying - she's Kelly Parker, of course she could be - but Payson doesn't think she is. Which, maybe, is why she says, "I was going to put ice in her shoes."

She's not sure how she expects Kelly to react - maybe that she's going to run off and tell Ellen Beals, despite everything she just said - but after a moment, Kelly actually laughs.

"Oh," she says, putting her ice bucket down, "I can do way better than that."

-

The look on Ellen Beals' face the next morning is almost worth the three days of hell she put them through. Payson figures she must have had a pretty bad night, and it's almost enough to make her forget her own lack of sleep from the night before.

She catches Kelly's eye as they're about to go in, and Kelly (almost) smiles.

"Good luck out there," Kelly says, low enough so probably only Payson can hear her. "You're going to need it."

Payson smiles at that - trust Kelly Parker to still be Kelly Parker, despite everything that's happened - and goes over to stand beside Emily, silently clasping her hand. Even Kelly Parker can't rattle her now, not the way she's feeling, when the whole world slows down and she knows she's going to be great. That they're all going to be great. And even more than that - she knows, no matter how many pranks they pulled last night, that her greatest revenge on Ellen Beals is going to be this:

She's going to win.