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PART I

Sara Lance is a ninja.

Technically. Sort of.

She’s not a ninja in the way most people would think of upon hearing the word, but she’s been competing on American Ninja Warrior for the past three seasons now, so it counts in her book.

Her friend Mick disagrees, but Sara doesn’t really care.

She loves being a ninja. She loves stepping up to conquer a course that some think is impossible. She loves the rush of proving those people wrong.

Above all, she loves having fun. The ninja courses are her playground, and Sara knows that her tricks and flips are entertaining to watch, but that’s not why she does them. She’s genuinely enjoying herself that much that she can’t contain it.

Four years ago, Sara had stood in the walk-on line for over a week. Her video submission had failed to get her selected, but she’d been determined to compete. She’d stepped up, finished the qualifying course, and had completed seven out of ten obstacles in the city finals course. The next year, she’d been chosen by producers to compete, and had made it all the way to Stage One of the National Finals in Las Vegas. Last year, she’d made it to Stage Two.

This year, Sara wants to go all the way. Complete Stage Three and then climb the rope to a million dollars at Stage Four. She knows she’s capable, or she will be capable in a year or two if this season doesn’t go her way.

It will go her way.

Sara knows it.

Well, she believes it.

Or, rather, she hopes it.

Pushing away the niggling insecurities, she looks up. Several feet in the air, a course tester is doing his job – running through the obstacles so Sara and the other hundred or so competitors can see how they should be completed.

Or not, Sara muses, as the man loses his grip on the new Doorknob Drop obstacle and plunges into the tank of water below. The aforementioned ‘drop’ had peeled his fingers off the little spheres he’d been gripping onto. Sara makes a mental note to watch out for that.

Just off to the side, the Warped Wall awaits. Fourteen and a half feet high, Sara can run up it in her sleep. That hadn’t always the case; her five-foot-six frame had given her a slight advantage over some of the other women, but she’d had to train relentlessly on her technique in order to be able to reach the top.

This year, there’s a bigger Warped Wall next to it. Named the Mega Wall, it stands at eighteen feet in height, and offers a ten thousand dollar prize to any athlete who can reach the top in one attempt, provided they make it that far into the course.

Sara knows she probably won’t be able to do it. Not in one attempt. Besides, her focus is just on hitting the buzzer at the end of the course.

She turns to her friend, Wally, who’s nodding his head as they watch the next course tester tackle the obstacle. Wally’s twenty-one years old, and it’s his first year competing. In the couple of years she’s known him, he’s become a little brother to her, and to the group Sara trains with.

Not all of the group are competing here today. Given that they’re becoming pretty big names within the sport, the producers of the show had asked them to spread out a bit over a few of the different qualifying locations. Sara, for example, is running in Los Angeles, but some of her training group will be running in Miami, and some in Philadelphia.

But the Los Angeles qualifiers and finals are the first to be taped this season. Sara doesn’t live that far away; in truth, she and “The Legends” (as people had taken to calling them) all live in Long Beach, California, so they’re all coming out to watch her and Wally run the course.

It’s nice that she’ll have people on the sidelines, Sara thinks.

“What do you think, kid?” She asks Wally.

“Seems like the drop is a pretty big jolt to tired arms,” Wally says thoughtfully. “Grip strength would be dope here.”

Sara smiles at him. Wally pays a lot of attention to the obstacles he tackles, visualising how best to approach them. Then, when the time comes, he moves so quickly and effortlessly through the course that it looks easy. Sara’s watched him grow up over the past couple of years, and make his way up the rankings in local ninja competitions. Now he’s ready to take on the American Ninja Warrior course.

“Stay fast, stay light, don’t hold your bodyweight for any longer than you need to,” Sara tells him, and Wally flashes her a grin.

“Yes, Captain.”

 

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Once night falls, Sara watches the hosts arrive. They do their bit to camera, introducing the show, themselves, and the objective. It takes them two takes to get it how the producers want it.

Then they pass it down to Gideon, the show’s sideline reporter. She runs through a breakdown of the course ahead. Sara knows from experience that they’ll film the intro to the finals tomorrow night. For the audience, the qualifiers and finals for Los Angeles will air about six weeks apart, but in reality the episodes are taped over two consecutive nights.

The ‘wranglers’ tell them how tonight will be structured. First, they’ll run the one hundred people who have been selected to compete – Sara and Wally included. Then they’ll run as many people from the walk-on line as they can. Sara estimates they’ll get through about thirty before filming ends.

Sara’s number eighty-five in the running order, so she won’t be facing the course for hours. She stays, though. She has the advantage of watching lots of other athletes take their shot at the course, and she fully intends to learn from their mistakes.

The first obstacle is the Floating Steps; something that’s truly embarrassing to fall on. Jumping over the water and up to an angled step five times isn’t hard. At least it’s not for Sara, whose background is in Parkour. This is followed by a new obstacle – the Jumper Cables. Sara will have to swing on a set of vertical handles and make a jump to grab onto what looks like a punching bag and propel it to the platform.

Next up is the dreaded balance obstacle; the Spinning Bridge. An uneven run made up of 6 big spheres that will spin if you don’t step directly on top of them. Sara knows she’ll need to be quick and light across them, otherwise she could be making an early exit from the competition. The fourth obstacle looks to be a fun one – the Sky Hooks are made up of three sets of hooks six feet apart, a ring on the first hook of each pair. The athletes will have to jump the ring onto the second hook and then transition to the next set. Laches – a move that will be required here – are one of Sara’s specialities, so she’s really looking forward to this one.

After that comes the Doorknob Drop, which will be much harder after the upper body test of the previous obstacle, and then the final obstacle for tonight is the Warped Wall. Sara estimates she should be able to get through the course in about three and a half minutes, maybe less.

Forty competitors have been and gone, and so far there’s only been one finisher, who had put up a pretty slow time. Sara watches the builders set up for the next athlete, wondering if there’s going to be anyone who actually interests her.

“And up next, I think we’re going to see something special,” Carter Hall – one of the hosts – says. He turns to the other host, Kendra Saunders, excitedly. “This next ninja is only a rookie, which means it’s her first year of American Ninja Warrior, but she’s been turning heads at ninja competitions all over the west coast. Out of San Diego, California, this is Ava Sharpe!”

That gets Sara’s attention.

She’d been turning heads at ninja competitions alright. Thirty-two years old, but being treated like a twenty-one year old prodigy, Ava Sharpe and her stupidly tight bun had been climbing up the rankings for the past year. At the last competition, she’d even beat out Sara.

Sara really hadn’t enjoyed that.

She also hadn’t enjoyed the air of aloof smugness that had radiated off of Ava Sharpe. Ninja Warrior competitors had become a sort of extended community over the years, but Sharpe had seemed to want no part of that, keeping exclusively to herself.

It rubs Sara the wrong way.

But here’s the thing. Ava Sharpe is a damn good athlete.

Sara can see her now, standing by the start line. Her tank top shows off her impressive shoulders and arms, and her shorts reveal strong, toned legs that seem to go on for days. She’s stood perfectly still; doesn’t even look nervous. How the hell is she not nervous?

Ava gets her countdown, and then she’s off. With her long strides, she makes quick work of the Floating Steps, jumping for the rope and taking an extra swing before landing on the platform.

“Now facing the Jumper Cables,” Kendra comments. “Can she time it right?”

Sara rolls her eyes. Kendra knows as well as she does that Ava Sharpe isn’t going to make a mistake on the release. Sure enough, Ava takes one swing and propels herself to the bag, arms and legs wrapped around it securely. She drops from the bag to the platform to the sound of rising applause.

Ava appears not to hear any of the cheering, or even the supportive words from a dweeby guy in glasses on the sidelines. Sara doesn’t know who the hell he is, but if he’s Sharpe’s boyfriend, she instantly feels sorry for him.

Staring down the Spinning Bridge, Ava looks focused, planning her steps. Then she takes off in a sprint, her five foot nine frame carrying her across the uneven bridge almost effortlessly. Sara wants to stamp her foot, it’s that unfair.

Ava’s foot slips on the last sphere, but her momentum carries her to the landing platform with only a slight stumble, and the crowd cheers.

“A little misstep there, but she’s through,” Carter says. “Now Ava Sharpe faces down the Sky Hooks.”

Ava makes the leap from the trampette – an angled mini trampoline – to the first ring. She uses her lower body to generate a swing, then lifts up and pushes forwards, making the jump and landing hard on the next hook. The movement jolts her body, but her grip holds firm. Sara unwittingly sucks in a breath. As much as she doesn’t like Ava, and as much as she thinks she needs taking down a peg or two, she does like to see other women do well.

Just as Ava makes a better lache with the next ring, someone slings their arm around Sara’s shoulders. Not even flinching, Sara turns to smile at her best friend.

“She’s good,” Amaya says, nodding to where Ava is generating a swing for her third and final lache.

“She’s okay,” Sara responds, rolling her eyes. “Bit insufferable though.”

Amaya ignores her. “Think she’ll finish?”

“Probably.”

“How are you feeling?” Amaya asks her.

“Pretty good,” Sara says. “There’s nothing here I can’t do, besides the Mega Wall. And I don’t need to do that. Where’s Nate? I thought he’d be with you.”

“He’s parking the car,” Amaya says. “We were a bit late setting off.”

“Ew,” Sara wrinkles her nose. “I don’t want to know.”

Amaya rolls her eyes good-naturedly as Zari, one of the other legends, meanders over to join them.

“Zari!” Amaya reaches out her free arm to pull Zari into a hug, effectively squishing Sara in the middle.

“And why are you so late?” Sara asks her.

Zari shrugs. “Had a nap.”

“Of course you did.”

By now, Ava is halfway through the Doorknob Drop. She makes the one-eighty transition to the next panel, and Zari hums thoughtfully.

“She’s good.”

Sara scoffs. “She’s okay.”

“She looks strong,” Zari comments.

“Please don’t tell me you’re drooling over her,” Sara groans.

“Nah, she’s not my type,” Zari says. “Too tall, too blonde.”

The panel drops, jolting Ava, although not enough to make her fall. She makes the sideways dismount to the cheers of the crowd, and then she’s facing down the last obstacle.

“She’s going to try it,” Kendra says as Ava lines up on the Mega Wall. “Eighteen feet high, let’s do this!”

Ava rocks back then pushes forwards into a sprint. She leans back slightly as the starts to ascend the wall. One, two, three strides and then a jump. Her hand stretches to the top and misses by a few inches. Ava slides back down the wall as the crowd groans in disappointment, and Sara can’t help but feel a tiny bit smug.

“Now that she’s failed the Mega Wall, she only has one shot at the regular wall,” Carter tells the audience, and the camera. “But one shot is all she needs, and Ava Sharpe is going to hit the buzzer at her first attempt!”

Ava scrambles over the top of the Warped Wall, and slams her palm down on the red buzzer before throwing her arms up in celebration. Sara reluctantly claps along with Amaya and Zari as Nate jogs up to them, car keys in hand.

“What did I miss?” He asks, leaning down to peck Amaya on the lips.

“Rookie finished the course,” Zari says, looking back up to where Ava is making her exit with one final wave to the crowd.

“Hey, isn’t that the woman who beat Sara last time out?” Nate asks, and Sara glares at him.

 

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It’s around two in the morning by the time Sara takes to the course.

She stands at the start line, shaking out her limbs as she waits for her countdown. At the sidelines, the rest of the legends are gathered in front of a camera crew. Wally, Amaya, Nate and Zari are joined by Ray and Jax, all cheering her on. It makes Sara’s heart feel lighter that they’re all there for her.

Deep down, she wishes certain other people were there, but that’s impossible now. So, Sara simply takes a breath and waits for her countdown. Once she’s released, Sara makes quick work of the Floating Steps, bounding from one to the next with practiced ease.

“This is Sara’s fourth straight season,” Kendra announces as Sara swings to safety on the rope. “She’s been impressive since her debut, and last year she made it to Stage Two at the National Finals. She’s thirty years old from Long Beach, California, and I know this crowd will be waiting to see if she does any of her signature tricks!”

There’s not room for a lot of tricks on the course, Sara thinks, as she swings out on the Jumper Cables, landing softly on the bag and sliding to the platform. She stares down the Spinning Bridge, which looks far more imposing from this angle. She can hear her friends yelling encouragement from the sidelines, and Sara knows she’ll probably have to get past at least this obstacle if she wants a spot in the women’s top five.

(The top thirty competitors move onto city finals, as do the top five women, although these days there are usually two or three inside the top thirty anyway).

But Sara hasn’t come here to scrape through. She’s come here to finish.

She runs at the bridge. One, two, three, four steps go well, but then she nearly overshoots the fifth sphere, and if she carries on this trajectory, she’ll land in the water between the last sphere and the platform. So, Sara thinks quickly and pushes off hard from the fifth sphere, tucking up and diving into a roll. She skips right over the last sphere and comes up out of the roll onto her feet, safe on dry land.

The crowd seems to think she’s done the flip on purpose, and they go wild, but Sara knows her friends will have been able to see her near miss. Carter and Kendra, being former competitors themselves, will have also noticed.

“Excellent quick thinking by Sara Lance on the Spinning Bridge,” Carter says. “Now she steps up to face the Sky Hooks.”

Sara jumps from the trampette and grabs onto the first ring. She takes a couple of swings to get her momentum up, and then makes the lache to the hook six feet away. She lands fairly gently, and grins, reaching out one hand to her left to grab the other ring. She doesn’t let go of the first ring; she’d seen too many earlier competitors start swinging sideways due to their momentum, so she keeps one hand on each ring until the last swing, quickly putting both hands on the second ring on the backswing and pushing forwards and up once again. She almost overshoots the landing with the power of her swing, the ring slamming hard into the hook, but Sara’s grip strength has always been good, so she hangs on with no problem. She reaches out to the right and uses the same trick to generate a forward swing, making sure not to overshoot the landing this time. Once she’s made it to the last hook, she gets a smaller swing going and jumps to the landing pad, grinning as she hears the crowd cheer.

She rolls her shoulders and shakes out her arm muscles before she climbs the rope that will take her to the Doorknob Drop. She uses the rope as long as possible, wrapping her feet up to take the weight off her arms, and then once she gets far enough in, she untangles her feet and then she’s just relying on her upper body.

She uses her hips to generate a bit of momentum, especially when she has to start travelling upwards. Sara’s biceps are getting tired, but she tries to keep the ‘L’ shapes with her arms, moving swiftly up to the top of the panel. She can feel it teetering, and it finally drops when she’s at the top. Sara gasps as the jolt rips one of her hands off the doorknobs, and she’s down to one hand.

The crowd gasp in horror, but Sara reaches out and twists her body, grabbing onto the first doorknob of the second panel to right herself. She lets out a breath. This run is turning out a bit more tumultuous than she’d expected.

She’s more careful making her way along the second panel. When it drops, she cushions the jolt by lifting her body up, and then makes the sideways dismount. Shaking out her aching arms, Sara lines up on the smaller Warped Wall.

“Seems like Sara Lance is unbothered by the Mega Wall,” Kendra announces.

Or, Sara thinks, she knows she won’t get within a foot of the top after running the rest of the course. She runs up the wall, firmly grabbing hold of the top and hoisting herself over easily. She presses the buzzer and whoops, looking out over the crowd as they applaud and cheer for her. She can see her friends on the sidelines celebrating, and she gives the hosts a little salute as they congratulate her on her run.

She climbs back down the other side of the wall, looking ahead to the extra obstacles that will be in tomorrow night’s course. She can’t wait to take them on. As soon as she’s back with her friends on the sidelines, the cameras are on her again. The legends mob her in a group hug, and she hasn’t felt this loved and this giddy in a while.

Sara’s told her time; three minutes and twenty-four seconds. Her initial prediction had been pretty much spot on. At the moment, that slots her into third place on the leaderboard. Not only is she guaranteed a place in city finals, but it seems like she’ll have a pretty advantageous spot in the running order.

 

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Soon enough, it’s Wally’s turn to take on the course. The producers have placed him ninety-eighth to go out of the hundred selected competitors, so they’re clearly expecting big things from him.

Sara stands with the other legends on the sidelines, crossing her fingers even though she knows she doesn’t need to, because Wally’s got this.

And, sure enough, Wally breezes through the first four obstacles without a hitch. He’s fast, faster than almost anyone to this point, and after a slightly awkward moment where he has to cross his hands over on the Doorknob Drop, he gets through that obstacle too.

Wally stands in front of the Mega Wall, psyching himself up while the legends yell encouragement.

“Come on, kid!” Sara shouts, and she can see Wally smile before he bolts at the wall.

He takes three long strides and then pushes up, stretching his six foot tall body up towards the top. The fingers of Wally’s right hand reach the ledge, and he hangs on for dear life. The audience roar as his grip holds, and he gets both hands on the top, pulling himself up and over to bring his hand down on the buzzer victoriously.

The legends go wild on the sidelines. Nate picks up Amaya and spins her around, Zari nearly hits Sara in the face by accident, and Ray clings to Jax like a lifeline as he jumps up and down in joy. Wally blows them a kiss from the top of the wall.

“We have just witnessed something very special, ladies and gentlemen,” Carter says excitedly. “Wally West, in his American Ninja Warrior debut, becomes the first person up the Mega Wall. He takes home ten thousand dollars, not bad for a night’s work!”

By this point, it’s getting on for three in the morning, but Sara couldn’t care less. Between her own run, and Wally’s just now, she’s wired.

By the end of the night, there’s cause for more celebration. Wally has completed the course in the fastest time, giving him pole position tomorrow night. Sara herself is in fifth place, which means she’ll run twenty-eighth. She notes, with satisfaction, that she’s ahead of Ava Sharpe’s ninth place finish. There’s one other woman in the top thirty – someone who failed on the Doorknob Drop – and the top five women are rounded out by two who had placed outside the top thirty, bringing the total number of competitors to thirty-two.

Sara sees Ava briefly, talking to the dweeby man who’d been on the sidelines for her run. She looks neither happy nor sad, just stern. Sara briefly wonders if she has any actual emotions beyond ‘smug’.

Sara scowls, and reminds herself that she doesn’t care.

 

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Since they don’t live far away, the legends go back to Long Beach for the day. Sara says goodbye to them and then goes straight to her apartment, falling asleep within seconds of her head touching the pillow. She sleeps from five until midday, waking from a dreamless sleep and stretching as she gets out of bed.

Sara reaches for her phone and sees that she has a text from Amaya.

Amaya

Late lunch at 2 with me and Zari?

Sara

sure thing

Sara scrapes her hair back into its usual ponytail and changes into a sports bra and gym leggings. She goes for a quick jog to loosen her muscles, and then stands under her shower for longer than is perhaps necessary. She puts her white ‘Team Legends’ tank top through the wash, ready to wear again tonight, and changes into jean shorts and a soft t-shirt, grabbing her bag and sunglasses as she goes. It may only be March, but Long Beach is starting to warm up, and it’s sunny today.

She doesn’t need to ask where they’re meeting, because she and Amaya (and later, Zari) have been meeting at the same diner for a long time now. When Sara arrives, she can already see Amaya and Zari at their usual booth in the back, sitting next to each other on one side of the table. They’re chatting animatedly, bodies half turned towards each other as they talk, and they’re so deep in conversation that they don’t notice Sara approaching until she slides onto the bench opposite them.

This happens from time to time. Sometimes Sara thinks she’s a perpetual third wheel, especially when it comes to her best friend. If she’s not third-wheeling Amaya with Nate, then she’s third-wheeling her with Zari. It doesn’t make her jealous or anything, but Sara sometimes wishes she had someone she was close with in that way. She and Amaya never seem to lose themselves in conversation the way that Amaya and Zari do.

“Hey, Sara,” Amaya greets her. “How are you feeling?”

“Pretty good,” Sara says. “No sore muscles. Just need to refuel before tonight.”

Zari pushes a menu towards her, and Sara grins because even as she looks over the menu, she already knows that all three of them are going to order the same thing they always do. This diner is the one place that Sara lets herself be somewhat unhealthy, and she orders a burger and fries with a side salad. Amaya orders a chicken salad, because apparently she’s perfect even at their cheat meal establishment, and Zari orders a stack of pancakes.

“So,” Zari starts as she digs into her food. “How are you feeling about your chances tonight?”

“I’m gonna finish the city finals course,” Sara says resolutely. “I don’t care how tough it is, I’m gonna beat it this time.”

“Nice,” Zari says around a mouthful of pancakes. Amaya rolls her eyes at Zari fondly.

For all her success, Sara hasn’t actually completed a city finals course before. They’re notoriously tough, and she’s nearly done it, but only a few athletes tend to finish them at each location, and Sara’s never been amongst their numbers. Not that many women have finished a city finals course at all. Amaya had, last year, but she’d been the only one to do so that season.

“You’re going to crush it,” Amaya promises. “And we’ll all be there when you do.”

“Thanks guys,” Sara says. “And hey, you’d better join me in Vegas. I can’t wait to watch you guys run next month.”

“Are you kidding?” Amaya laughs. “I made it there my second season. Zari here made it there at her first attempt.” She throws her arm around Zari’s shoulders, who blushes at the praise. “This woman right here is a beast,” Amaya declares.

“Yeah, well, I learned from the best,” Zari mumbles, and Amaya beams at her.

“Make sure you guys are on time tonight,” Sara reminds them.

“Don’t worry, I’m planning on taking my nap earlier today,” Zari reassures her.

Sara turns to Amaya. “And you… hold off on banging Nate until after city finals.”

Amaya laughs. “I’ll try.”

Zari stabs her pancake with a little more force than necessary, Sara thinks. She raises an eyebrow at Zari, who shakes her head almost imperceptibly.

“You okay, Z?” Amaya asks.

“Fine,” Zari says. “My hand slipped.”

This satisfies Amaya, but Sara makes a mental note to ask Zari about it another time. Even though she’s not the oldest or the most experienced competitor in the legends, she can’t help but feel responsible for them. She’s not that used to being the one to take care of people, but she’s finding that she likes it more and more.

 

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That night, her friends are mercifully on time.

Sara stands with them as they watch the first twenty competitors run the extended course, and not one of them make it to the buzzer. The last few obstacles are proving particularly brutal; nobody has yet made it past the ninth, and only a couple have reached that obstacle.

Sara warms up at the same time as Wally, but they take a break to watch Ava Sharpe’s run on the big screen. Just out of curiosity.

She’s wearing the same outfit as she had done the previous night; tank top and shorts, and she shakes out her legs as she waits for the countdown. If Sara didn’t know better, she’d say Ava was feeling the pressure more this time.

Ava’s given the all-clear to start, and bounds through the Floating Steps with the same ease as she had done the last time. The Jumper Cables, too, she makes quick work of; then she’s regrouping for the Spinning Bridge. The camera holds a close-up of the intense look of concentration on her face, and Sara grudgingly admits to herself that Ava Sharpe isn’t terrible-looking.

This time Ava doesn’t so much as slip on the Spinning Bridge. Her steps are precise and well-calculated, and she goes into the Sky Hooks with no hesitation. She’s not racing through the course, but she’s not hanging around either, and she keeps her swings efficient and controlled, and her laches well-measured.

The Doorknob Drop doesn’t seem to sap much strength from her arms, and Ava runs right up the Warped Wall. The Mega Wall is gone now – it had only been an option for the qualifying course – leaving the fourteen and a half foot wall as the only option.

The crowd cheers as Ava jumps down the two steps on her way to the back half of the course. She’s the second woman to make it this far tonight, and the other woman had fallen on the next obstacle – the Salmon Ladder.

But Ava doesn’t, of course. She jumps from the trampette and grabs the metal bar in a switch grip, stilling her body before kipping up and jumping the bar up to the first rung. She has to make four jumps in total, and she executes them with almost military precision, never losing her ‘L’ shapes or her perfect form.

“And with that, this rookie has guaranteed herself a spot in our Vegas lineup!” Kendra says excitedly from the announcer’s booth. “She’ll definitely be in the women’s top two, with only Sara Lance to come after her.”

And okay, fine, Sara’s kind of impressed.

Ava takes one hand off the bar, shaking out her arm, before doing the same with the other one. Then, she reaches out with one arm and grabs hold of the Swinging Peg Boards. This obstacle looks brutal; made up of two peg boards that swing side to side. Ava makes use of the pegs already in place, and traverses her way across the first board. Mid-swing, she switches her hands around and uses her right hand to reach up for the second peg board. Holding the first one still, she removes one of the pegs (since there’s only one in place on the second board) and slots it into one of the holes near the edge of the second board.

This board now starts swinging, and Ava looks to be breaking a sweat for the first time in this course as she slowly works her way towards the platform. Sara can just about make out a grimace on her face as she spots her exit, and she builds momentum with her legs to make the jump to the landing pad.

She doesn’t land on her feet, safe and unharmed as she tucks into a side roll. It’s not a pretty dismount, but she’s still in the game. Ava gets up, a hint of a smile on her face for the first time, although it’s gone soon after as she examines the next obstacle, the Stair Hopper. Only two people have attempted it so far tonight, both of them men, and both of them had fallen.

Ava grabs the metal bar and slides it into place on the rails. Her feet leave the platform, but she doesn’t stay hanging from the bar for long before she jumps it down to the next ‘stair’. She makes the next two jumps down easily enough, and then she starts to build up a swing. Sara realises that she’s aiming to skip the bottom ‘stair’, which means she’ll have to jump the bar straight across, but twice the distance. With a huge effort, Ava lands the risky move, and the crowd roar. She jumps the bar up twice, which appears to be significantly harder than going down, and it seems to take a toll on her.

“She’s looking for the dismount, Kendra,” Carter says. “I don’t know if she has the strength for the last hop up.”

Ava swings back and then releases the bar at her closest point to the platform. She gets most of her body on the landing pad, pulling her trailing leg up before it can touch the water, and kneels while she catches her breath.

“And this rookie does what those before her couldn’t!” Kendra practically yells. “Ava Sharpe becomes the first person through the Stair Hopper, and now she only has one obstacle left!”

“Yes, but does she have the strength?” Carter muses as Ava gets to her feet and strides over to the Elevator Climb. “This obstacle is brutal on the arms and shoulders, and she’ll have to pump those handles up thirty-five feet to the buzzer.”

Sara watches, enraptured, as Ava gets into position, facing out towards the crowd and putting her hands on two separate bars in front of her. She pushes up with one arm, then the other, and uses the momentum of her hips to help push the rest of her body up. Ava keeps a good pace until she’s climbed fifteen feet, when she starts to slow down. The pain is evident on her face, but she grits her teeth and keeps fighting. The landing pad moves up the tower a few feet below her, ready to catch her should she fall, but Ava is resolutely not looking down.

It’s when she reaches twenty-five feet that her fingers peel off the handles.

Ava drops the short distance to the landing pad as the lights on the course flash red, signalling the end of her run. Ava sits on the pad as it descends, sides heaving with the effort as the crowd give their ovation. Sara claps along with them, shaking her head in disbelief.

“Just ten feet from the buzzer,” Kendra laments. “But Ava Sharpe puts up a memorable run, punching her ticket to Vegas in the process.”

“Damn, she’s something,” Wally admits, and Sara shrugs.

Maybe she agrees, just a little bit, but it doesn’t mean she has to like Sharpe and her attitude. Maybe she’s also a little bit pleased that she hadn’t finished the course at her first attempt, because that just isn’t fair, especially given Sara’s failed three times.

She watches on the screen as Gideon interviews Ava, although she looks so tired she can barely speak, and then Sara remembers there’s only a few to run until her turn, so she gets back to stretching, clearing her mind of anything except hitting that buzzer.

 

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The first part of the course goes better for her this time around. She nails the Spinning Bridge and is prepared for the jolts of the Doorknob Drop, and before Sara knows it, she’s running up the Warped Wall with ease and lifting herself up and over the top.

“Sara Lance making it look easy,” Kendra says, and Sara – level with her and Carter’s booth – gives her a wink.

“Salmon Ladder now, flirt later,” Carter laughs, and Sara grins and shakes her head, stepping down the other side of the wall to face up to the seventh obstacle.

Sara loves the Salmon Ladder.

She makes the jump from the trampette to grasp the bar, both her hands facing forwards. She knows some people use a switch grip, but she’s always trained this way. Kipping her body, she jumps with an explosive movement, taking her up two rungs in one jump.

“Just skipping rungs,” Carter marvels. “What power out of Sara Lance.”

Okay, maybe Sara likes to show off very occasionally. She does the rest in the standard two jumps, reaching the required rung and reaching out to grasp hold of the first peg board. By doing so, she’s guaranteed a spot in the National Finals, but that’s at the back of her mind right now. Her focus is on the buzzer, and more importantly, these Swinging Peg Boards.

Sara makes sure she has a firm grip on the peg before letting go of the bar, sending the board into motion as she swings out. She quickly brings her left hand to one of the other pegs, and when the board swings to the right, she moves her right hand to the peg at the edge of the board. Keeping her eyes on the next peg – on the second board – she times her move, bringing her left hand to join her right just before she reaches out her right arm as far as it will stretch, and grabs the peg.

Holding on tight, she hangs between the two boards as she pulls out the peg she’s holding with her left hand. It doesn’t come easy, but she gets it, and then she’s holding on with one hand as the second board starts to swing, although thankfully not as much as the first had. Sara slots the peg into one of the holes, and then rests her weight on it as she moves the peg in her right hand along the board.

Right, left, right, left, right.

Sara’s sure she’s close enough to make the dismount now. She works her hips in tandem with the swing of the board, letting go with her left hand a second before she releases the right and makes the lache. It’s quite a long way down, and Sara rolls as she lands to cushion the impact, standing up quickly and taking in the whoops and cheers of her friends on the sidelines. Rolling her shoulders, Sara takes the bar out of its holder for the Stair Hopper, and slots it into place on the metal tracks.

She pushes the bar out as far as she dares, and then her feet are leaving the platform and she’s hanging from the bar. She pulls her upper body upwards, getting more control over the bar before jumping it down the first step. She tests the pain and finds it isn’t too bad. The next two jumps aren’t too bad either, but Sara knows the ascent is going to be harder, and she decides to skip the bottom step and take the bar straight across. She knows it will work, and she still has enough grip strength left to not fall on the impact, so she does it.

Sara puffs out a breath as she lands, pulling her body back up to start the ascent. Her biceps protest the action slightly, but Sara ignores it and makes the first jump up. She makes the second fine, but she knows if she jumps again it’ll put a lot of strain on her arms, and she still has one more obstacle to go.

Deciding that she’s made much bigger laches successfully than this, and that if Sharpe can do it then so can she, Sara gets a swing going and then launches herself forwards. She lands with one foot, one knee, and a hand on the ground, her other hand behind her back, and grins.

“Superhero landing!” She can hear Nate yelling.

Sara rises to her full height, staring down the Elevator Climb with steely determination.

“The final obstacle is all that stands between Sara Lance, and her first city finals buzzer,” Kendra says. “She’s come close before, but it’s never quite happened. Could this be the day it all changes?”

Sara takes a deep breath, sets her hands on the handles, and starts the climb. The crowd are chanting for her to ‘go’, and she does. She can just about see Ava Sharpe on the sidelines, watching her closely, and fresh determination rushes through her body. Sara closes her eyes against the burn in her arms and shoulders, and pushes on. Everything hurts, but she uses her whole body to propel herself upwards, trying to be as efficient as possible.

“Twenty, twenty-five, thirty feet,” Carter counts the distance. “I think she’s going to do it!”

Sara grits her teeth for the last five feet, body screaming in protest, as her head passes through the hole in the floor of the podium. As soon as she can get her legs up, she levers herself through the hole and just about remembers to press the buzzer before she sinks to the floor, utterly exhausted.

She rolls onto her back, putting a hand over her mouth. She’s done it. She’s finally finished the city finals course.

Sara laughs, sitting and then standing with difficulty to look out over the defeated course. She can see her friends jumping up and down and hugging each other, and Sara waves at them as the grin threatens to split her face.

Sara doesn’t really recall how she gets down from the tower, she’s so giddy, and the next thing she knows she’s standing next to Amaya and the other legends talking to Gideon.

“This is the first time you’ve completed the city finals course,” Gideon says. “How does it feel?”

“Amazing,” Sara says, still short of breath. “That was one of my goals this year, and I knew I could do it in theory, but it’s something else entirely to actually do it.”

“What are your other goals?”

“Hit the buzzer on Stage One,” Sara tells her. “Then Stages Two, Three and Four.”

The crowd cheers as her friends laugh. Gideon smiles her megawatt smile.

“Well, I know we’re all wishing you the best of luck, Sara.”

“Thank you,” Sara responds.

“Carter and Kendra, back to you guys,” Gideon says to camera, and the hosts take over as the builders finish resetting the course for the next competitor.

Sara is engulfed in a group hug, and wraps her tired arms around her friends. Right now, she’s in first place, and even though it might not stay that way, no one can take this moment away from her.

She emerges from the huddle to see Ava Sharpe regarding her. Sara’s usually pretty good at reading expressions, but she can’t tell if Ava is impressed or not. Her face is almost passive, but there’s a look in her eye that indicates that she’s not indifferent to Sara.

Sara jerks her chin up, and the corner of Ava’s mouth twitches. Her attention is pulled away by the dweeby guy that Sara still doesn’t know the name of, and then Ray is in Sara’s line of sight, talking about Wally’s upcoming run. By the time Sara answers him and he moves away, Ava is nowhere to be seen.

 

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“Wally!”

Sara watches her friend and teammate plunge into the tank of water as the crowd gasp in shock. She’s surprised herself, eyes snapping up to the clock on the big screen and trying to work out if Wally’s out of the competition for this season.

He’d fallen on the Swinging Peg Boards, the eighth obstacle, but he’d been quick up until that point. Thirteen competitors had reached the next obstacle, leaving only two places. Sara had been the only finisher, although three more had made it to the Elevator Climb.

Finishing on top of the leaderboard isn’t even in Sara’s mind as she waits anxiously for the verdict. Wally climbs out of the tank and takes the proffered towel sadly, and Sara knows he’s already kicking himself for his mistake. Jax claps him on the shoulder and Wally locks his jaw, trying not to betray how upset he is, and Sara’s heart goes out to him.

“The results are confirmed, and Wally West finishes the city finals stage in fifteenth place,” Kendra says, and Sara’s eyes widen.

Wally seems to understand it a split-second later, because his jaw drops open as he realises that he’s made it. By the skin of his teeth, yes, but he’s going to Vegas. Sara launches herself at him at the same time as the others do, not even caring about her clothes getting wet as she hugs her friend tight.

Later, Sara’s waiting alone for Ray to drive her and Wally home (she doesn’t think either of them have the physical or mental capacity to drive a car right now) when she sees her again.

Ava Sharpe approaches her general direction, a frown creasing her brow as she looks around for someone. Such is her distraction, she nearly collides with Sara, who sticks out a hand to stop her.

“Watch where you’re going,” Sara says, but there’s not much of a bite to it. She’s too tired for that.

Ava recoils, but doesn’t apologise. Instead, she seems to realise it’s Sara she’s bumped into, and her eyes narrow.

“Lance,” she says shortly.

“Sharpe,” Sara mimics her, and Ava scowls.

“Your shirt is see-through,” she tells her, and Sara looks down at her tank top, which is pretty much soaked through from hugging Wally after he’d gotten out of the tank. Sure enough, her sports bra is visible. Not that Sara cares.

“See something you like?”

“No,” Ava says witheringly. “Just wondering why you’d wear a white shirt to a course with water underneath it.”

Sara smirks. “It’s so I can distract the competition.”

“That’s a dumb tactic,” Ava says.

“It got you to comment on it,” Sara fires back, and Ava glares. “Who were you looking for anyway? You know, when you almost knocked me over.”

“Please,” Ava scoffs. “And not that it’s any of your business, but I can’t find Gary, and he’s supposed to be my ride home.”

“Is Gary the nerdy glasses guy?” Sara asks

“That’s him,” Ava sighs, and Sara thinks that Gary probably gets described to others like this quite often.

Sara nods to somewhere over Ava’s shoulder. “Your dweeby boyfriend is coming this way, so I think you’ll be fine.”

Ava wrinkles her nose in distaste. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Ouch, don’t let him hear you,” Sara says, raising her eyebrows. “You sound like you’re about to throw up.”

Ava rolls her eyes, and spins on her heel to face an out-of-breath Gary, who looks more than a little terrified.

“Ready?” He squeaks. Ava nods, and doesn’t spare Sara a second glance as she walks away.

Sara lets out a breath.

Ava Sharpe may be a damn good athlete, but she’s also an asshole.

 

Chapter Text

PART II

Sara spends the next few days not doing much. She doesn’t like to admit it, but the city finals course had taken a lot out of her, and she doesn’t want to risk an injury by getting back into training before she’s had an adequate rest period.

By the end of day two she’s getting restless. It doesn’t help that Amaya and Zari and Nate are in full-on preparation mode for their upcoming qualifiers in Miami. It’s not until the middle of April, but the three of them are at the gym five times a week training on various obstacles.

The closest ninja gym to them that’s any good is a thirty minute drive away in Santa Ana, and it’s where the legends train together, and have been for a while. It had all started with Nate and Ray, who had already been friends before they started competing. Five seasons ago, Nate had entered American Ninja Warrior, done fairly well, and come home more determined than ever. He’d started training more, convincing Ray to train with him, and they’d both competed on the next season.

Sara had known Ray vaguely, and had been bored out of her mind, and so had joined them the next year. The three of them had formed an unofficial team, helping each other train. Sara had enjoyed their company, but being the only woman in the group hadn’t been a great feeling.

So when Nate had started dating this rock climber named Amaya, Sara had been thrilled to have a new friend. She and Amaya had hit it off instantly, and Amaya had been an extremely quick study when she’d started working out with them. She’d taken to ninja competition straight away, and had been the top female rookie in her first season two years ago.

The team had seemed to keep adding more people from then. Wally, who’d been nineteen years old and too young to compete on the show, had looked up to them in competition and they’d befriended him, adopting him into their training group just after Amaya’s first season.

Then Jax had followed, forming an immediate bond with the guys and annoying the hell out of Sara with his pranks. Lastly, Amaya had made a friend in Zari at a baking class she and Nate took, and had encouraged her to train with them. Zari had ended up being pretty damn good, and had made her American Ninja Warrior debut just last year, falling on Stage One after making it to Vegas.

Now there’s seven of them in “Team Legends”, as they had been dubbed by the public, and it’s something they’ve fully embraced. They all compete in their “Team Legends” shirts (which is extra useful as the show has rules about promoting existing brands through clothing) and even though Sara thinks it’s kind of lame, they’re all colour-coded.

Sara, for example, wears white. Everyone else has a different colour that they wear, and Ray says it’s symbolic – that their individual colours make up an eclectic mix of brightness, or something like that. Sara hadn’t really paid much attention.

A couple of weeks after the Los Angeles taping, the Dallas competition takes place. The legends fly over to watch the competition – none of them are competing, but they like to see the other athletes in the extended ninja community run – and Sara thinks she should be more used to airports and planes by now. She’s not scared of flying, but she doesn’t trust the plane as much as she trusts her own two feet.

“Well, when you’ve figured out how you’re going to physically fly to Texas, you let me know,” Zari says dryly, when Sara mentions this to her.

“If I could propel myself by harnessing the wind, then I’d be set,” Sara says.

“Oh, like airbending?” Ray joins in, popping up from his seat behind Sara and Zari on the plane.

“What?” Sara’s lost.

“Avatar,” Zari says by way of explanation.

“Nerd stuff, got it,” Sara says.

“Hey!” Ray pokes her. Sara catches his finger and doesn’t let go.

“Never said it was a bad thing,” she says, turning to look at where Ray is watching her hand with a slightly apprehensive expression. She rolls her eyes and lets him go.

 

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The preparations for the Dallas competition are in full swing when they arrive. Jax saunters off almost immediately to see some of his buddies who are competing, waving goodbye to the others with a grin.

Wally looks up at the course with an awestruck expression.

“Look at the balance obstacle,” he says, pointing to three ‘U’-shaped red objects in a row, just slightly offset. Sara thinks they look like magnets.

“They look a bit like tuning forks,” Amaya comments.

As it turns out, Sara is way off and Amaya is pretty spot on – the Tuning Forks appear to be the name of the new obstacle, and are anticipated to cause a lot of problems. Then again, balance obstacles tend to be some of the more unpredictable ones, at least from what Sara has seen over the years.

They stand behind the barriers, waiting for the first competitor, as Ray and Wally wander off to talk to people. Nate wraps his arms around Amaya’s waist from behind, leaning his chin on her shoulder as they wait. Sara rolls her eyes fondly.

She’s about to make a comment to Zari, when she notices the tightness in Zari’s body language. She’s resolutely staring at the course, shoulders hunched, jaw clenched. It’s a complete one-eighty from her demeanour five minutes ago. Sara moves closer to Zari, leaning in so she can talk to her without Amaya and Nate hearing.

“Are you okay, Z?”

“Fine,” Zari unclenches her jaw long enough to speak, continuing to look straight ahead.

“That’s a lie,” Sara comments. “Whatever’s going on, you know you can talk to me, right?”

Zari takes a deep breath. “Maybe another time.”

“Zari—”

“Please,” Zari whispers harshly. “Just drop it.”

“Okay,” Sara says. “I’ll drop it, for now.”

“Thanks.”

Sara looks at her in concern. Something is definitely very off with Zari, she just isn’t sure what.

“I’m gonna go find a bathroom before the competition starts,” Sara tells her friends, pushing off the railing and watching how Zari closes her eyes momentarily as she makes to leave.

Sara’s so distracted trying to work out what’s wrong with Zari that she walks straight into another person.

“God, I’m so—”

“Watch where you’re going,” a familiar voice snarks, and Sara looks up to see that she’s just walked into none other than Ava Sharpe. Sara cuts her own apology off quickly.

“We have to stop meeting like this,” she says instead, and Ava glares at her.

“What are you doing here?” She asks. “I didn’t think any of your team were running here.”

“I have friends who are,” Sara defends.

“Friends?”

“Acquaintances I’ve met through ninja training and competition,” Sara clarifies, trying to spell it out for her.

“And you flew all the way out here to support your… acquaintances?” Ava raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” Sara furrows her brow. “We’re all part of a larger community, right?”

Ava shifts uncomfortably, and Sara’s face relaxes into a grin.

“Or, at least, most of us are.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ava frowns at her.

“Nothing,” Sara says airily. “Just that you seem pretty intent on being a lone wolf for some reason. Why are you here, if not for the people?”

“I want to see the courses first hand,” Ava says. “Watch the mistakes that other people make.”

“If you say so,” Sara says amusedly. She can’t resist getting a dig in. “Although, are you sure it isn’t because you’re stalking me? I do tend to make an impression on people.”

Ava scoffs. “You think a lot of yourself, don’t you, Lance?”

“Sure do,” Sara smiles sweetly, enjoying the feeling of getting under Sharpe’s skin. “Anyway, as lovely as this little catch-up has been, I have to go find the ladies room.”

“Charming as ever,” Ava comments and rolls her eyes as Sara brushes past her.

“Everyone pees, Sharpe,” Sara laughs. “Unless you’re a robot. You’re not a robot, are you?”

Ava doesn’t dignify that with a response, and Sara grins to herself as she walks away. Sharpe is a pain in the ass, but at least she’s fun to mess with.

 

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The course is about as tough as Sara had expected. The Tuning Forks cause problems for a lot of good athletes, and a couple of Vegas regulars get tripped up and their season ends almost before it’s begun. Out of more than one hundred starters, there are twelve finishers – standard for a qualifying course – although there are about five in the top thirty that had failed at the fourth obstacle out of six, which is slightly more unusual.

Sara watches everyone run with interest, stood with Ray on the sidelines. He makes lots of verbal observations, and while Sara’s grateful for them, her attention keeps wandering to where she can see Ava Sharpe studying the course and the athletes who tackle it.

Her expression is one of ultimate concentration – she never notices Sara watching her – as she analyses what makes each attempt a success or a failure. Sara’s honestly kind of surprised she’s not scribbling in a notepad or something like that.

“She’s certainly thorough,” Ray says, interrupting Sara’s train of thought.

Sara turns her head to see him nodding at where Ava is standing. She hums in agreement.

“For a loner she seems to be everywhere,” she says.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Ray asks.

Sara bites her lip. She wants to say it’s a bad thing, but something’s holding her back. Surprised, she shakes her head like she can physically rid herself of these doubts. She shrugs.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” she says instead. “Let’s go find the others.”

“Maybe she needs some friends,” Ray says as they walk away, Sara sending out a group text to meet at the start of the course.

“Just last week you said she seemed really mean,” Sara reminds him, slipping her phone back into her pocket.

“Well, yeah, but maybe she’s only mean cause she has no friends,” Ray reasons.

“Then how do you explain Gary?”

Ray considers this for a moment. “Statistical outlier?”

“I’m surprised he’s not here,” Sara comments. “He seems to follow Sharpe everywhere she goes.”

Ray pulls a face. “That’s a little weird.”

“You can say that again,” Sara mutters as she spots Jax and Zari already waiting for them.

 

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The next afternoon, there’s a bit of a stand-off.

“You did what now?” Zari stares at Ray, severely unimpressed.

“Come on guys, it’ll be fun!” Ray protests, looking around the group pleadingly. “Plus, I already booked the tickets a couple of weeks ago, so I’d rather they didn’t go to waste.”

“Ray, there’s a Medieval Times thirty minutes from where we live,” Sara reminds him, exasperated.

“And we’ve never been!” Ray exclaims. “And there’s one here in Dallas, and I knew we were all gonna be here together, and I wanted to make it a little more like a holiday—”

“Ray,” Sara sighs, but Ray keeps going.

“And you know how much I love knights, and my birthday is coming up, and—”

“Fine,” Sara says. “We’ll go.”

“We will?” Zari asks dubiously.

“And we’ll pay for our own tickets,” Sara insists, to a few scattered groans. “Come on, guys, we can’t expect Ray to pay for all of us out of his pocket money.”

Ray ignores the jab and hugs Sara tightly. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sara pushes him away gently. “Just… don’t expect another outing for your birthday, cause this is it.”

“Noted,” Ray grins. He starts handing out tickets for the evening’s show. “And it’ll be over by seven, which gives us more than enough time to get to the course for the finals competition.”

“Good,” Zari says, reluctantly taking her ticket from a very excited Ray. “That’s kinda what we’re here for, after all.”

“Now, the seating is first come, first serve,” Ray explains. “So we’d better get going!”

Zari catches Sara’s eye, and makes a face that says this had better be worth it.

 

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As it turns out, Medieval Times is pretty fun.

“Finish him!” Zari yells, as their knight advances upon another that he’s just bested in a swordfight.

They’re sat on the front row of the yellow and red section, wearing paper crowns and eating the food with their hands (knives and forks would apparently be a historical inaccuracy). Sara’s watching the fight choreography closely. She’s pretty sure she could do it.

“Why aren’t there any female knights?” Sara asks, as the yellow and red knight wins his battle and their section cheers.

“They say historical accuracy, but I think it’s more to do with the controversy they might get,” Nate says.

“Plus, knights are marketed more towards boys,” Ray says. “I don’t think there’s as many women who grew up wanting to become knights.”

“Yeah, cause we were never told we could be knights,” Zari turns her attention back to the conversation. “A bit like how American Ninja Warrior started out.”

“Maybe they don’t think women can do it,” Amaya rolls her eyes.

Sara scoffs. “I could totally do this. Swordfighting, easy. Charming ladies, even easier.”

“What about the horse riding?” Wally asks from the end of the row.

“I’d get it eventually,” Sara waves him off.

“Are you giving up ninja competition to try out for Medieval Times?” Amaya asks her with a laugh.

“If that’s what it takes to get more women into stuff like this,” Sara says, and she’s only half-joking.

“You’re making a huge impact on the courses,” Ray says. “All three of you. There’s more women than ever applying, and I’m sure that’s partly down to you guys.”

Sara smiles. She has noticed a lot more women trying out for American Ninja Warrior over the last few years. Maybe one of her runs, or Amaya’s, or Zari’s amazing first season last year had inspired a woman to apply, or a young girl to start training.

Sara herself had been inspired by watching people like Kendra Saunders and Nora Darhk compete. Nora is still going, about to enter her sixth season, and for all she’s a formidable individual she’s made it to Las Vegas four times, and most recently had been the first woman to beat Stage Two.

Sara wants to be the first woman to win.

 

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Two weeks later, and they’re in the final week of preparation for Miami.

Amaya, Zari and Nate are training harder than ever, and it’s also giving Sara a real boost – forcing her to up her own game in practice. She’s confident that all three of them are going to do well, and make it to the National Finals; all they need to do is keep up their concentration.

Sometimes, Sara feels like the ‘mom friend’ – it’s something she’d resisted at first, but over time she’s gotten more used to the idea. Her only request is that no-one actually calls her ‘mom’, which the team has thankfully respected. Instead, they’ve taken to sometimes calling her ‘Captain’, which suits Sara just fine.

Beyond the usual obstacles, they have no idea what Miami will challenge them with, and so they train for everything. Grip strength, balance, flexibility, upper body, lower body, laches, climbing… everything they can think of, they practice.

Sometimes they race each other – making a course at the ninja gym after hours and seeing who can do it the fastest. Wally usually wins those, unless he slips up on an obstacle due to his speed.

Sara’s never been the fastest ninja. She’s perfectly capable of speed when she needs it, but she prefers to not push herself into making stupid mistakes. Even her occasional tricks are well-measured enough that she doesn’t risk eliminating herself.

They’re all more than able to complete a course in a decent time, but unfamiliar obstacles usually require a steadier approach. Sara’s noted over time that most of them have quite different ways of running a course. Out of the members of the team running in Miami, for example, Nate runs similar to Sara in the way that he has a lot of fun and brings out an occasional trick, but he relies more on his strength than Sara does. Amaya is perhaps the most graceful person Sara has ever seen on a ninja course, rarely putting a noticeable foot wrong. Zari’s runs, on the other hand, can be quite messy. She’s unorthodox, but highly effective. Zari has the enviable ability to fix mistakes even as she’s making them, and Sara’s seen her pull off some amazing saves in training.

Even now, Zari’s hand slips on the Ultimate Cliffhanger replica they have – a thin ledge that a person works their way across hanging by their fingertips, complete with one-eighty transfers. Amaya starts forwards, almost like she’s going to try and catch Zari despite the crash mat on the floor, but Zari’s fingers hold onto the narrow ledge, and she brings her other hand back up, righting herself and continuing on a little slower than before. Amaya breathes out a barely noticeable sigh of relief.

Zari reaches the end of the obstacle, safely dropping to the mat, and wipes her hands on her thighs. She winces, and Sara holds out her hand as Zari nears them.

“Let me see.”

Zari reluctantly lets Sara inspect her, and she can see some ripped skin on Zari’s hand from when she’d lost her grip. Zari grits her teeth, and Sara can tell she doesn’t want to let on how much it hurts.

“Amaya, can you come with us and help me patch up Z?” Sara asks.

“Of course,” Amaya says, leaving Nate to train with the boys as she walks on Zari’s other side over to the office.

Lily Stein, the owner of the gym, lets the legends come and go as they please – and that includes access to the office. She’d said it was the least she could do given recent events; Martin had, after all, bought the gym essentially so they had somewhere to train, so it was only fair that it remained largely ‘theirs’.

Sara sits a protesting Zari down in the chair and fetches the first aid kit. Amaya stands with a comforting hand on Zari’s shoulder.

“Guys, it’s fine,” Zari insists.

“You’re competing in less than a week and some torn skin on your hand is going to be a pain in the ass if we don’t treat it,” Amaya tells her firmly.

Sara pulls out a small pair of scissors. “I’m going to cut away the ripped skin, okay?”

Zari’s eyes widen, but she nods. “Have you treated this sort of thing before?”

“A couple times,” Sara says, trying to reassure her. “This kind of injury is common with gymnasts and rock climbers, and I’ve spent enough time with both.”

Amaya nods. “I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened to me or one of my climbing friends.”

Sara carefully cuts away the soon to be dead skin. Zari bites down on her lip, but doesn’t make a sound as Amaya rubs her shoulders in solidarity. Once she’s done, Sara takes Zari over to the sink that Lily washes her coffee mugs in, and makes her wash her hands with soap and water to clean the blood away.

“Motherfucker,” Zari grits out against the sting of the soap. “This better work.”

“It’ll clean out all the impurities and bacteria,” Amaya assures her, patting Zari’s back placatingly.

Meanwhile, Sara’s searching the first aid kit for antibacterial ointment. Finding it, she turns the tap off and Zari breathes a sigh of relief. Sara spreads the ointment on the injury while Zari glares half-heartedly.

“That stings.”

“Sorry,” Sara says. “But it’s better than doing nothing and risking you this weekend.”

“I suppose,” Zari grumbles.

Amaya, being the tactile person that she is, starts stroking Zari’s hair. Zari closes her eyes as some of the tension leaves her body, and Sara sends Amaya a silent thank you. She finishes up with the injury, cleaning the scissors and putting them back into the first aid kit, but keeping the ointment. She hands that, as well as a small bandage and a bottle of Vitamin E oil from the kit, over to Amaya.

“Zari, before you go to bed I need you to wash your hand and put on the ointment again,” Sara instructs her. “Then bandage your hand overnight. In the morning, wash it again, put on some Vitamin E oil, and then I’ll tape your hand for training tomorrow, okay?”

“Aye aye, Captain,” Zari sighs, eyes still closed.

Sara turns to Amaya. “You live closer than me to Zari, can you drive her car home, and make sure she actually does it?”

“Hey!” Zari says indignantly, opening her eyes to squint at Sara.

“Of course I will,” Amaya says. “I’ll even send proof.”

“Thank you,” Sara says, smiling at her friend and ignoring Zari’s momentary flash of not-quite-panic.

As Amaya takes Zari back out into the gym, Sara feels like she’s on the edges of maybe figuring out what’s up with Zari, but it’s blurry. Her gut tells her it’s something to do with Amaya, and she suspects it’s something tied closely to Zari’s emotions. But Sara’s never been very good with her own emotions, let alone the emotions of others, so she lets the thought go for the time being.

The boys have pretty much finished up their workout, and Sara can see Jax hanging by one hand on the Ultimate Cliffhanger, wiping away the traces of blood that Zari had left. They lock up, Amaya stashing the medical items in her bag and turning to smile reassuringly at Sara.

Nate comes up to them, car keys in hand.

“Your chariot awaits, m’lady,” he grins.

Amaya puts a hand on his chest with an apologetic expression. “I’m going with Zari tonight, to help her with the injury.”

Nate’s face falls before he collects himself. “Yeah, no problem,” he says. “Are you staying over at hers?”

“Probably,” Amaya says. “In case she needs anything. I don’t want her to hurt herself even more trying to do something she can’t.”

“Right.”

“She’s one of my best friends, Nathaniel,” Amaya continues, a slight frown creasing her forehead. “One of our best friends. I’m sure you’ll survive without me for one night.”

“You’re right,” Nate says. “Sorry.”

Amaya smiles at him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Nate kisses her. “Love you.”

“You too,” Amaya says as Nate walks to his car.

Sara looks over to where Zari is waiting by her own car, studying the ground. Sara knows full well that Zari had heard everything, from the way she’s decidedly not reacting. Amaya hugs Sara goodnight with a promise to call later to update her, and then heads over to the car, taking Zari’s keys with a grin.

Sara watches Nate’s car peel out of the lot, and then watches Amaya and Zari get into the other car, and rubs her temples. She still doesn’t really know what’s going on, but it’s starting to give her a headache.

 

----------

 

The hotel in Miami is swarming with ninjas when they arrive.

Sara can see the brother-sister duo of Oliver and Thea Queen laden down with bags and equipment by the check-in desk, the lightning fast Barry Allen talking to his wife Iris in a corner of the lobby (Sara thinks he’s probably trying to convince her to apply next year), and notorious asshole Malcolm Merlyn arguing with an employee of the hotel.

Altogether, they’ve booked three double rooms – one with a camp bed to accommodate the three-person room. They’d admittedly left booking the hotel to the last minute and this had been pretty much all they could get. But the hotel is right next to the course, and it’s of a nice standard, so they’d been happy to take what had been left.

Amaya and Nate are, of course, sharing a room. The other three guys are sharing the room with the camp bed, which leaves Sara rooming with Zari. She’s determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on with her before their trip is over.

Zari’s hand has healed up nicely, and she’s confident it will hold up against the course. The night of the injury, Sara had received a call from Amaya saying that Zari’s hand had been bandaged and that she had fallen asleep not long afterwards. Amaya had stayed on the couch overnight just in case, and helped a protesting Zari come morning.

Sara sets her stuff down on the bed, flopping dramatically down onto the sheets. It’s mid-afternoon; they won’t be needed on the course for a few hours, and even then that’ll just be for competitors to watch the course testers tackle the obstacles. The actual competition won’t start until nightfall.

Sara used to think filming at night was just for dramatic purposes, but now she knows that there’s other reasons. There’s a lot less noise interference at night for the sound recording, and it also means that the editors can shape the broadcast episode how they want – they usually air the most impressive or inspiring run last but that run can come from anywhere in the original order. The casual viewer won’t notice if everyone is shown out of order, and it makes for a more entertaining episode of television, at least according to the producers.

Zari leaves before too long to record her intro – something that Sara had done at her regional competition. It’s tedious, but it’s how the audience get to know a bit about her personality, and seeing how the show seems to want to create ‘stars’, the press and the intro are necessary parts of competing for a lot of athletes.

Sara hadn’t done press her first season, but she’d been asked to every year since after she’d started making a name for herself in the show. It’s gratifying, in a way – almost like a measure of success, but Sara is still first and foremost here for the challenge rather than any recognition or fame that comes from it.

 

----------

 

“Mick!”

Sara marches straight up to him, clapping her friend on the shoulder.

“Long time, no see,” he grunts good-naturedly.

“Good of you to come out and watch,” Sara grins.

Mick’s local to Miami, and it’s always a toss-up whether he’ll turn up at the qualifying stage or not. He always makes sure to join them in Las Vegas, but Sara’s pretty sure that’s more to do with the location than the competition.

“Yeah, well, gotta make sure Pretty doesn’t die,” Mick says, raising a bottle of what Sara’s pretty sure is beer to his lips.

“Nate’ll be fine,” Sara says dismissively. “How’s things with you?”

“The same,” he shrugs. “Hitting the same walls.”

“They still won’t take arson seriously as a profession?” Sara asks, and she’s only half-joking.

Lighting things on fire is one of Mick’s favourite things to do, and if he could make a living out of it, Sara’s confident he would. For now, he’s working in construction – or deconstruction – depending on how he feels that day.

“Tearing a thing down is more fun when you can burn it,” Mick says.

“That’s fair.”

“So,” Mick starts. “When’re our nerds running?”

“Zari’s around the quarter mark, Amaya’s around the three-quarter mark, and Nate’s the last to run before the walk-ons,” Sara reels off, and Mick nods.

“Still time for another drink then.”

He’s evidently finished this bottle, because he wanders off in search of another. Sara lets him go without comment, knowing he’ll be back. Now that he’s here, there’s no way he’d miss their friends’ runs. Although he doesn’t compete, and he doesn’t live with the rest of them, Mick’s still family to the legends. Even if he won’t say it himself.

Sara’s pulled from her thoughts when she spots a now-familiar blonde bun in the crowd.

Great. She’s here, again.

Like she knows Sara’s watching, Ava turns to face her and their eyes meet. Ava doesn’t look surprised to see her – she must know that three of the legends are running here tonight, but she does fix Sara with an even stare.

Sara raises her eyebrows and mouths ‘stalker’ at her. Ava’s eyes narrow, and she clenches her jaw before turning away, eyes back on where the first competitor is almost ready to start the course. Sometimes, Sara thinks, this is just too easy.

The first competitor falls on the second obstacle, the Fly Wheels. To be fair, it’s not an easy one; three wheels in a row that the athlete has to transfer between. The first two wheels turn so that the competitor can get a swing going, but the last one doesn’t – the entire wheel swinging back and forth with a long way to the landing. This dude falls on the first transfer, and Sara can see he didn’t have a big enough swing to make it to the second wheel. The lights on the course flash red, and the technicians are already setting up for the next ninja.

 

----------

 

The legends are together on the sidelines when Zari’s turn comes.

Dressed in a red ‘team legends’ tank top with black gym leggings, Zari fidgets impatiently at the start line. It’s clear she wants to get out there as soon as possible, not keen to wait for Carter and Kendra to introduce her.

Once she gets her countdown, she’s off the mark quickly. She bounds through the Floating Steps (a constant at every regional course) and jumps for the rope, just about sticking the landing at the first attempt. She steps up to the Fly Wheels, leaping and grabbing the first one.

Sara claps her hands together. “Let’s go, Zari. Big swing!”

Zari pushes her knees forward, doggedly generating a forward swing. Her form isn’t perfect, but she’s effective, taking just two swings before jumping for the second wheel. She gets both her hands on it, her momentum killed for now, but she pushes forwards once again and in what must be a matter of seconds, she leaps for the last one.

This wheel seems to be a little harder to get moving, especially for a relatively small and slight athlete such as Zari.

“Now, she’s five foot six and a lot lighter than most of our usual competitors,” Carter says. “That will work against the momentum, but it also means she’s not holding up as much weight as our heavier athletes.”

It takes a short while, but Zari gets the wheel swinging enough to make the dismount. She lands it reasonably comfortably, cushioning the blow by bending her knees. Zari straightens up and heads towards the balance obstacle: Razor’s Edge.

It’s a series of three narrow tilting ledges, set up so they’re all just slightly off-centre. Zari’s discussed it with the rest of them, and decided that speed is the best approach. She sprints a couple of steps, taking just three strides over the obstacle. She hits the landing pad hard, rolling on her side, and Sara’s not quite sure what just happened. Luckily, Kendra seems to have spotted it.

“I think on her final stride, Zari’s foot wasn’t fully on the top of the ledge,” she says. “It means she didn’t get a good push off of it, but luckily she had enough momentum to carry her to safety.”

Zari gets up and dusts herself off, grinning at the rest of the legends.

“Be careful!” Amaya yells, and Zari winks at her.

“Stepping up to the Ring Turn,” Carter says. “Only a few have gotten past it so far.”

“The reach will be a huge challenge for her,” Kendra notes. “She doesn’t have the longest limbs.”

Zari jumps from the trampette and grabs hold of the first giant ring. She makes as if to climb up it, rotating the red circle so that the locking mechanism clicks into place. She curls her legs up, finding purchase on the ring as she swings up and reaches up for the next one. She gets it with her fingertips, clinging on tightly and repeating the process all over again.

Once the second ring is locked in, she builds up a swing for the third, much smaller, ring that’s a transition to the landing pad. She misses it the first two times, and Sara can see the frustration on her face as she reaches out as far as she can with no luck.

“I don’t think she’s going to be able to reach it,” Carter says in shock.

Amaya grabs hold of Sara’s hand, eyes fixated on their friend.

“Come on, Z!”

“She might have to jump for it,” Sara mutters, and Amaya nods.

Zari evidently has the same idea, because she takes her legs down from the second ring and uses them to build up the biggest swing she can manage. At her highest point, she releases, stretching her right hand as far as it will go. Her fingers close around the ring, and the legends cheer.

Swinging by one arm, Zari makes the infinitely more comfortable dismount, dropping to the mat and puffing her cheeks out.

“Unconventional approach, but she’s through,” Kendra smiles.

“Yes, but so far nobody has gotten past the fifth obstacle,” Carter reminds everyone as Zari faces down the Slippery Summit. It’s a bridge-shaped board with dividers, and the ninjas will have to hold onto a bar and jump it blind up and across and down the track, hanging underneath the board.

“The design of this obstacle means her arms will be extended, putting more pressure on her grip strength,” Kendra explains. “And given she doesn’t know where the dividers are, she’s just gonna have to keep on going.”

Zari hops the bar forwards, tilting slightly before she evens the bar out. She slides back a ways, kipping her body to push on up the slope. It’s a constant movement, Zari hanging beneath the slope with her arms above her head, gripping onto the bar with both hands in an effort to keep it balanced.

Sara’s seen the three athletes to attempt this before her lose their balance and tip to one side, and she notices Zari sometimes sacrificing ground in order to keep the bar level. But she knows Zari is strong, and she keeps her fingers crossed as the team yell out encouragement.

Zari reaches the flat section, where there’s no dividers, and makes short work of hopping to the edge to begin the descent. She blows a loose strand of hair from her eyes, and hops the bar over the divider and down. She ends up landing about halfway down the descent, and it jolts her whole body.

Zari grits her teeth, hanging on with everything she has. Beside Sara, Amaya is jumping up and down, crushing Sara’s hand in hers. Zari’s next few hops are more tentative, and she reaches the bottom, getting a small swing going before ducking her head and making the dismount.

The stands erupt in applause as Zari becomes the first ninja to complete the Slippery Summit. Zari’s grin is almost splitting her face as she stands in front of the Mega Wall, and Sara’s quite surprised she’s giving it a go.

“One shot at ten thousand dollars,” Carter says, as Zari rocks back and takes off in a sprint.

She misses the top of the eighteen foot wall, but not by much. Honestly, Zari doesn’t look too upset, and she runs right up the smaller wall with no problem, hitting the buzzer as the legends celebrate.

“Yes, girl,” Amaya laughs in joy, and Zari hears her, beaming down from on top of the wall.

“Zari Tomaz becomes our first finisher of the night,” Kendra announces, and Zari whoops. “We’ll see you back for city finals!”

Zari gets down from the wall and runs straight to the rest of the legends. They all swarm her in a group hug, and Sara can hear herself yelling praise at her friend. Her once injured hand hadn’t caused her any problems on the course, thankfully, and with a pretty fast completion Zari had set herself up well for tomorrow night’s run.

 

----------

 

By the time Amaya runs, it’s past midnight.

Sara’s confident that she’ll put in a good run. Amaya’s probably one of the most consistently improving members of the team, and Sara has to admit that Amaya’s never been in better form than she is now.

“This is Amaya’s third season,” Kendra says. “She made it to Stage One of the National Finals last year, so she’s got a very impressive track record for someone with her level of experience.”

“I think training with her boyfriend Nate Heywood, as well as the rest of the legends has really helped her,” Carter comments.

Nate’s front and centre on the sidelines, wringing his hands nervously as Amaya breezes through the first three obstacles. She runs right along the top of Razor’s Edge without faltering, smiling as she reaches the other side.

Amaya’s flawless on the Ring Turn, and Sara knows she’s discussed tactics with Zari. She’s pretty much the same height as both Zari and Sara, and so runs into the same sort of problems, but her climbing experience means that the long reaches aren’t as difficult for her.

Being a former rock climber also means that Amaya has good grip strength, which she shows on the Slippery Summit. She never once lets the slipping backwards affect her, and bares her teeth as she powers up the slope. The legends are yelling encouragement from the sidelines as she reaches the top. Nate’s jumping up and down excitedly, and he whoops as Amaya reaches the bottom of the slope and swings to the landing pad.

“That’s my girlfriend!”

Sara laughs, but Amaya seems not to have heard. She’s too busy setting up for the Mega Wall. Sara can feel the anticipation in the air.

“Five foot six rock climber meets eighteen foot wall,” Kendra says. “Who’ll come out on top?”

Amaya pushes forwards, and stretches up, getting a fingertip to the top. But not even her grip strength is that good, and she slides back down the wall to the groans of the crowd. She dusts herself off and shrugs, running up the smaller wall and hitting the buzzer just like Zari had earlier. Her time is marginally slower, but she’s guaranteed a spot in the finals tomorrow.

Amaya points at them from on top of the wall, grinning from ear to ear.

“I love you!” Nate shouts enthusiastically. Mick, standing next to him, thumps him on the shoulder.

“She knows that,” he grumbles. “Doesn’t mean we need to.”

Sara grins at her friends, and can’t help but notice one member of the team has vanished.

“Hey, where’s Zari?”

 

----------

 

Nate makes it up the Mega Wall in the fastest time of the night.

Sara’s not exactly surprised, but she’s thrilled anyway. Nate’s been competing for over five years, and he’s one of the most dedicated ninjas Sara knows, so he deserves all the recognition he’s getting. He’ll be running pole position again tomorrow night, and now the pressure’s really on.

Once again, Sara catches a glimpse of Ava Sharpe as they’re all leaving for the hotel. She’s here alone, seemingly, and Sara doesn’t know how she does it. Does Sharpe get lonely at all? Does she feel anything at all?

But as soon as Sara’s back in her shared hotel room, all thoughts of Ava leave her mind when she sees Zari slumped on the bed in her pyjamas. Sara gives her space for a little while, going to the bathroom to change her clothes and brush her teeth. She wipes her makeup off and washes her face, coming back into the room proper to see Zari lying on her back staring at the ceiling.

“You were awesome tonight,” Sara tells her, going about switching the lights off and getting into bed. She plugs her phone in to charge and settles under the sheets, waiting for a response that doesn’t come.

Sara sighs. “Zari, what’s up?”

“Nothing.”

“Bullshit.”

Zari turns her head to glare at Sara. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“And you think I want to talk about feelings?” Sara asks. “In Dallas you said you’d talk about it another time. It’s another time.”

“Who said anything about feelings?” Zari eyes her warily.

Sara scoffs. “I’m not a total idiot, Z. I don’t know what’s up with you exactly, but I know it has everything to do with your feelings about something.”

Zari snorts derisively.

“Or, about someone?” Sara tries, and even in the dark she doesn’t miss the way Zari’s eyes widen. “This is about Amaya, isn’t it?” Sara asks softly.

Zari’s silent for a moment, eyes now screwed shut, and Sara’s kicking herself that it’s taken this long for her to put the pieces together. Because it’s so obvious. Zari’s so close to Amaya, and yet she pulls away when Amaya and Nate are acting all loved-up. They’re not too heavy on the PDA, so it’s not always an issue, but thinking back Sara’s suddenly correlating a lot of Zari’s bad moods directly with Amaya and Nate’s relationship specifically. And Sara had known that it had been something to do with Amaya, but it’s only now that she realises the full extent of what Zari’s going through.

“It’s such a shitty situation,” Zari says quietly, and Sara lets her speak uninterrupted. “They’re happy, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I can just be friends with her.” She takes a stuttering breath. “I thought I could just be friends with her. But, every time they’re together with those stupid grins on their faces, it hurts.”

Sara reaches out with one hand, curling it around Zari’s fingers and squeezing in what she hopes is a comforting gesture.

“Sara, it physically hurts,” Zari’s voice shakes, and before Sara knows it, she’s opening up her arms and Zari’s tucked up against her. She doesn’t say anything still, just holds her friend close, because she and Zari aren’t exactly touchy-feely often, and Sara doesn’t want to spook her.

Zari’s not crying, exactly, but Sara can tell it’s taking a lot of effort not to.

“I want her to be happy, and if she’s happy with him then she’s happy with him, but…” she trails off.

“It doesn’t make you love her any less,” Sara finishes, and she can feel Zari’s head nodding against her neck. She lets out a breath. Zari hadn’t denied loving Amaya, and Sara’s heart aches for her. “Z, you can’t turn your feelings off. Trying to ignore them isn’t going to do you any good.”

“Says you,” Zari’s muffled voice says.

“Fair point,” Sara mutters. She knows she has a habit of bottling her own emotions up, but this isn’t about her, and she tells Zari as much.

“I just want everything to be okay,” Zari says.

“How long have you felt like this?” Sara asks.

Zari laughs, but it’s devoid of humour. “How long have I known her?”

“Jesus,” Sara whispers. “That long.”

“Yep.”

Sara’s head is spinning. Zari’s been feeling this way for a year and a half. “Does anyone else know apart from me?”

Zari shakes her head. “I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it. You guys are all so close, and I’m still the new one, and—”

“Zari, we’ve been friends for eighteen months,” Sara says incredulously. “You’re not the new kid on the block, okay? You’re one of us, and your feelings are just as important as anyone else’s.”

“Thanks,” Zari mumbles awkwardly.

“And, honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m third-wheeling you and Amaya,” Sara admits.

“Don’t say that,” Zari huffs. “It’s not like that.”

“I know,” Sara says. “I’m just saying that you two obviously have a very deep connection.”

“Yeah, well, me being in love with her will do that,” Zari sighs, and then pauses. “That’s the first time I’ve said it out loud. I’m in love with her.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m in love with Amaya.”

 

----------

 

When Sara wakes up, Zari isn’t there.

She panics for a moment, but when she checks her phone there’s a few texts waiting for her.

Zari

went for a run. don’t stress cap.

thanks

for listening

Sara sighs. She may have gotten to the root of Zari’s problem, and she’s glad Zari had confided in her, but it’s not going to be easy to sit idly by on the side when she knows why her friend is in so much pain.

She gets ready for the rest of the day, taking a shower and not bothering to blow dry her hair. It’s late morning, so there’s still plenty of time before the finals tonight. Just as she’s slipping her phone into her pocket, Sara’s stomach growls.

Number one priority – food.

Hair still damp, Sara grabs her keycard and her wallet, taking the elevator down to the ground floor and making her way to the restaurant attached to the hotel. She doesn’t know where the rest of the legends are – honestly, they’re probably all still asleep –  but the place is packed full of ninjas and regular guests alike.

They’re still just about serving breakfast, buffet-style, so Sara grabs a plate and loads it up. She’s not too concerned with what she’s eating, rationalising in her head that she’s probably earned a cheat meal after all the emotions stuff of last night.

The problem with the place being packed is that there’s no free tables. There’s barely even any free seats. Sara scans the room, weighing up her options. Either she sits at the table of a lovely-looking family of strangers, or…

Sara wants to laugh. Instead, she restricts herself to an over-cheery smile and walks over to where Ava is finishing up her own breakfast, nose in a book.

“Hey, stranger,” she says conversationally, and Ava’s head jerks up. Her features morph into an expression of distaste as soon as she realises it’s Sara.

“Now who’s the stalker?”

Sara just smiles winningly and sets her plate down. “Hope you don’t mind. You’re not saving this seat for anyone, right?”

“Yes actually, that spot’s reserved for my ghost friend,” Ava says, sarcasm practically dripping from her voice.

“You have a friend?” Sara gasps. “Good for you.”

Ava rolls her eyes. “Why are you such an asshole?”

Sara shrugs. “It’s how I get my kicks, day to day. Plus, you’re really fun to mess with.”

Ava huffs. “Glad I can provide so much of your entertainment. You must be really bored.”

Sara starts eating after her stomach growls again, and Ava goes back to her book. The silence is weird. Sara doesn’t like it. She manages a few minutes before she’s itching to break it too badly.

“Gary skip out on you again?”

“He’s at work,” Ava responds, a slightly confused frown creasing her features as she keeps her eyes on the page in front of her. “He got time off for Los Angeles and Vegas, but that’s it.”

“So you just travel to the other qualifiers alone?” Sara asks.

Ava glances up. “Yeah. What about it?”

“Nothing,” Sara hums thoughtfully. “Just seems lonely, is all.”

She has no idea why she’s now being borderline civil to Ava instead of actively trying to rile her up. Maybe she’s still in the protective friend mindset from her talk with Zari.

“I get by just fine,” Ava scowls at her.

“What’s with your face?” Sara asks.

“What face?”

“That face,” Sara brings a finger up to point at Ava’s expression.

“What’s wrong with my face?”

“Do you want me to go down that road?” Sara raises an eyebrow.

“Absolutely not,” Ava says firmly.

Sara smirks.

“Stop that,” Ava mutters.

“Stop what?”

“Making that face.”

“I think we’re just going round in circles now,” Sara notes.

Ava narrows her eyes at Sara like she doesn’t trust her, which is fair enough. Sara hasn’t exactly made the best impression. Not that Ava had, either. And maybe she’s going soft, or maybe she’s realising that compared to others her own problems are miniscule, but Sara just doesn’t feel like goading Ava today.

“How did you get into ninja competition?”

“Excuse me?” Ava looks surprised at the change of topic, putting her book down.

“Did you watch the show, or did someone get you into it?” Sara asks. “A friend, a boyfriend…”

“Gross,” Ava mutters. “Not really one for boyfriends.”

“Oh?”

“I started watching the show a couple of years ago,” Ava relents. “And I thought to myself, if other people can do this, then why can’t I?”

Sara tilts her head in consideration. “Good mindset.”

“I know.”

“Your city finals run was… impressive,” Sara tells her.

Ava raises an eyebrow. “Was that a compliment from the infamous Sara Lance?”

“Infamous?”

Ava shrugs. “I watched the past couple of seasons. You were competing. It’s not like I have no idea who you are.”

“That’s…” Sara doesn’t quite know what to say. She thinks back to the conversation she’d had with the team at Medieval Times, about inspiring other women to apply for the show. “Ava Sharpe, did I inspire you?”

“No,” Ava says immediately.

Sara just grins as Ava checks her watch.

“If you’ll excuse me,” she says, standing up. Sara doesn’t say anything, and Ava doesn’t wait for her to before walking out. Sara shakes her head, grinning to herself.

As she finishes up her breakfast, Sara notices that Ava’s left her book behind.

 

----------

 

Zari apologises to Nate for missing his qualifying run, claiming a headache that she’d wanted to get rid of before the finals. Nate brushes her apologies aside and draws her into a hug, asking if she’s feeling better, and Zari nods with a slightly pained expression.

Because if it isn’t hard enough that Zari’s in love with Amaya, she also has a great friendship with Nate.

Sara knows that she’s watching Zari worriedly, but she doesn’t realise how obvious she’s being until Zari sidles up to her on the walk over to the course that evening.

“Stop looking at me like I’m going to break down any second,” Zari mutters.

“Sorry,” Sara says, running a hand through her hair. “Now that you’ve told me everything, it’s all I see.”

“Sorry to burden you.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Sara says gently. “I just want to look out for you.”

“Okay, mom,” Zari smirks, and Sara narrows her eyes.

“I’m going to let that one slide because you shared your feelings the other day,” Sara tells her. “But just this once.”

Zari snorts, and shakes her head. “Fine. What are you holding, by the way?”

“A book.”

“I can see it’s a book, dumbass,” Zari rolls her eyes. “I’m asking why you have a random book with you.”

“Oh, it’s Ava Sharpe’s,” Sara shrugs. “She left it at breakfast, so I thought I’d return it.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Zari looks utterly confused. “Breakfast?”

“There were no free tables,” Sara says, not quite understanding why there’s an edge of defensiveness to her voice.

“Since when were you and Ava friends?”

“We’re not,” Sara says. “We just had a conversation and she left her book behind.”

“And you’re returning it,” Zari’s eyebrows are creeping further into her hairline. “Why?”

Sara pauses. “I… I guess it’s the nice thing to do.”

“Yeah, no offence, but you’ve never seemed concerned with being nice to her before,” Zari points out.

“I’m just returning her dumb book,” Sara says exasperatedly.

Zari smiles, but stays mercifully quiet.

 

----------

 

With four women in the top thirty plus the one extra in the top five, there’s thirty-one competitors taking on the Miami finals course. Mick turns up only slightly drunk, and the legends watch the first twenty or so competitors try their luck. The back half of the course is tough; the Salmon Ladder, Giant Cubes, Circuit Board, and Elevator Climb are the added obstacles.

The Giant Cubes seem to be the obstacle that nobody can figure out. It’s a tricky transfer from the Salmon Ladder to the first plexiglass cube, which only has a couple of hand and foot holds on the first side and a narrow ledge for the fingers. But it’s the transition to the second cube that is taking out the most people. A cat-grab jump with a one-eighty mid-air turn to grab onto the ledge. No foot holds.

It’s the jump that has the most people falling, although there are some who don’t have the flexibility to lift themselves from the transfer bar up to the first cube.

The Circuit Board is fairly similar to the Keylock Hang on Stage Three, with athletes hanging from their hands on two handles, sliding them in and out of the board above them in order to move forwards. It’s an obstacle that needs planning ahead of time, and Sara knows that if they reach that point, her friends are really going to have to think the obstacle through.

With her eighth place finish, Amaya is the first of the legends to run. She practically glides through the first half of the course without breaking a sweat. Once Amaya’s completed an obstacle once, she’s usually got it nailed.

She hops the bar up the Salmon Ladder, taking her time to make sure she doesn’t slip, and then reaches out to the transfer bar, working her way down it feet first towards the Giant Cubes. Sara watches her closely, watches how she uses her climbing skills to work her body around the cube, pulling herself up to the ledge and starting to make her way around the side.

“Can she be the first to make the transition?” Carter wonders aloud, as Amaya gets ready for the leap. Her hands are on the ledge, and her feet braced against the side of the cube, one knee almost to her chest. She looks over her shoulder, pulling into the cube for a second before pushing hard off it. She twists her body in mid-air, her fingers finding purchase on the ledge of the second cube even as her feet scramble uselessly against the plexiglass.

After a tense second, it becomes clear that Amaya isn’t going to fall, and Sara crosses her fingers as the crowd behind her roars for the first athlete to stick the landing. Amaya works her way around the side of the second cube, her back and shoulder muscles evident under her light blue tank top, and almost throws herself to the landing pad.

It’s somehow still kind of graceful, and Ray starts jumping up and down excitedly with Wally’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, almost headbutting him in the nose. Not that he notices the near miss. They’re all too focused on Amaya starting the Circuit Board, and Sara knows that if her arms can last it, then she’ll get through it. She’s got the mental capacity for it.

Sure enough, Amaya takes it steady, planning each move before she makes it. She’s not heavy, and she’s insanely strong, so hanging from the board for a while doesn’t really present a huge challenge.

“C’mon girl,” Jax mutters from one side of Sara. On her other side, Zari is watching with rapt attention.

Once she gets to the third board, Amaya seemingly decides she’s had enough of the slow progress, and starts generating a swing.

“She’s going for the dismount, Carter,” Kendra says, and Amaya flies, making it to the edge of the landing pad on the other side of the water.

“Yes!” Sara shouts, unable to keep any semblance of composure anymore as Amaya takes a deep breath and gets into place for the Elevator Climb.

Sara knows first-hand just how gruelling this obstacle is, and she hopes Amaya has enough strength left to make it. Amaya starts the climb, the legends screaming encouragement from the sidelines as she pushes higher and higher.

A grin starts to split Sara’s face as she realises that Amaya’s going to do it. She looks gassed out by the time she’s crawling though the hole in the podium, but she makes it, slamming her hand down on the buzzer with a glint in her eyes.

“Amaya Jiwe becomes the first finisher of the night!” Carter grins. “That run was practically perfect, and she gave a masterclass on how to complete the Giant Cubes. Right now, she’s standing by with Gideon.”

Sure enough, Amaya has rejoined the legends on the sidelines as Gideon approaches with her microphone. She asks Amaya a couple of questions, to which Amaya slings each of her arms around Sara and Zari and cites them as her biggest motivators. She also points to the “Team Legends” on her tank top and explains that all of them push each other to be better.

Sara grins, pressing a quick kiss to the side of Amaya’s head. Zari holds onto the hand that Amaya’s draped over her shoulders, looking at Gideon as she finishes up the interview. Once Gideon’s signed off and the cameras have moved away, Amaya turns to Zari.

“Better get to the start line,” she grins. “You’re up after this next guy.”

“Wouldn’t have missed your run for the world, though,” Zari smiles before making her exit.

Amaya grins after her, finally turning to Nate and hugging him in celebration.

 

----------

 

Zari comes so close to completing, Sara’s sure she can almost taste it.

It’s the Elevator Climb that gets her in the end. For all Zari’s strong, she’s not quite as experienced as most of the others in the field, and the rest of the course takes too much of a toll on her. She drops to the landing pad about twelve feet from the top of the tower, and Sara closes her eyes as the crowd groan in commiseration. So close.

Zari’s disappointed she didn’t complete, sure, but mostly she seems happy to have made it back to Vegas. Because there’s only five more athletes to come after her and she’s currently in second place behind Amaya, so she’s definitely in the top fifteen.

Amaya wraps her up in a hug that Zari only mildly protests when she joins the group, telling her that she did amazingly well.

“I’ll get that buzzer next year,” Zari promises with a slight smile.

“It took me until this year to do it,” Sara points out. “You’re ahead of the curve.”

In between Zari’s run and Nate’s run, one more athlete finishes the course, and one more makes it as far as the Elevator Climb. Both of them are faster than the girls, so Amaya gets pushed down to second, and Zari to fourth. But both of them are moving on, so they don’t seem to care that much.

Nate, as the final runner of the night, gets a big cheer when he steps up to the starting line.

“First place in the qualifiers, won a ten thousand dollar bonus for making it up the Mega Wall, three time National Finals veteran,” Carter sets him up. “What can he do tonight?”

“He’s finished two city finals courses over his five years of competing,” Kendra comments. “So he has the form.”

Nate gets his countdown, then he’s bounding through the Floating Steps, taking one stride on each step and leaping for the rope. He lands it on the first attempt, and moves swiftly onto the Fly Wheels.

He takes two swings on the first wheel and jumps to the second, cushioning his landing with his biceps. He gets that wheel swinging too, and makes the lache to the third and final wheel easily.

“I think he’s going for the fastest finish, Kendra,” Carter says.

Nate lines up on Razor’s Edge, sending a wink to Amaya. He points to her, then slaps a hand over his heart, fingers bunching the steel-grey material of his tank top before he refocuses on the obstacle in front of him. Amaya snorts with laughter.

Nate sprints at Razor’s Edge, taking two long strides across the first two ledges, but he loses his balance slightly on the second stride. It all seems to happen in slow motion; Nate’s foot misses the top of the third ledge and he tilts to the side as he tries to right himself. But it’s to no avail. His foot lands on the side of the ledge as it spins, smacking him down in the water. The lights flash red, and his run is over at the third obstacle.

The crowd don’t even gasp. There’s just a stunned silence as Sara’s body freezes, mouth agape. Nate wades to the edge of the tank, unharmed but stone-faced as he hoists himself over the side to dry ground.

Sara turns to Amaya, who looks stricken as Nate brushes past them on his way to the exit. Sara can see Gideon in the distance – she’d seemingly been asked to interview Nate, but he’d put a stop to that before it had begun.

She can see the scoreboard from where she’s standing. Nate’s run has put him in twenty-eighth place – well and truly out of the top fifteen. His season is done.

Jax is the first to speak.

“Let him cool off,” he says quietly. “He’ll be ready to talk sooner or later.”

Zari looks cautiously at a shell-shocked Amaya. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I just don’t know what happened,” she replies.

“He went too fast,” Sara grimaces. “Underestimated the obstacle.”

“Damn it, Nate,” Ray sighs.

The mood is unusually sombre for a few minutes before Sara decides that enough is enough.

“We’ll regroup with Nate when he’s ready,” she says. “For now, let’s celebrate Amaya and Zari.”

The girls both smile at her, and Wally asks them about the Giant Cubes and if they think someone could do the splits between them instead of doing the cat-grab. As the conversation picks up, Sara spots Ava leaning against the barrier. Suddenly remembering the book she’s been grasping this whole damn time, Sara makes her way over.

“I believe this belongs to you,” she says, holding out the book.

Ava’s eyes widen. “My book.”

“You left it at the table this morning,” Sara says, handing it over. “You know, when you ran out.”

“I didn’t run,” Ava scoffs.

“Whatever you say,” Sara grins. Ava huffs at her, and for a moment neither of them says anything.

“Sorry about Nate,” Ava says finally, and Sara looks at her in surprise. “He’s a good athlete, he didn’t deserve to go out that early.”

“Maybe,” Sara concedes. “But it was his run, and as much as I hate to say it… his mistake.”

“True,” Ava muses. “But two out of three legends through to Vegas isn’t bad going.”

“Yeah, the girls did great,” Sara smiles, thinking of their success on the course. “Hopefully it’ll even inspire other girls to start training.”

Ava glares at her. “I know what you’re trying to do.”

“Worth a shot,” Sara teases. “I’ll get you to admit I’m your inspiration one of these days, Sharpe.”

“Keep dreaming, Lance,” Ava says. “Thanks for returning this, by the way.”

“My pleasure,” Sara says, doffing an imaginary cap. Ava rolls her eyes.

“You’re really annoying.”

“Thanks, I try,” Sara grins.

Whatever Ava’s about to say next gets cut off by Jax clapping a hand on Sara’s shoulder.

“Ready to go, Cap?”

“Sure,” Sara says, pushing away from where she’s leaning against the barrier. “Until next competition,” she says to Ava.

Ava doesn’t say anything, but she nods once, and Sara thinks that’s probably as good as she’s going to get.

As they walk away to catch up to where the other members of the team are idling back to the hotel, Jax nudges her with his shoulder.

“I didn’t want to interrupt your flirting, but—”

“Flirting? There was no flirting,” Sara frowns.

Jax looks unconvinced. “So, you’re not trying to sleep with her?”

“Of course not,” Sara glares at him. “Why would you think that?”

Jax shrugs. “I don’t know, just the vibe I was picking up.”

“You need your head examining,” Sara mutters.

 

----------

 

Sara and Zari are just about to pass out in the bed when there’s a knock on the door. Zari doesn’t look like she’s about to move anytime soon, so Sara gets up and answers it. The door swings open to reveal a teary Amaya.

“Amaya,” Sara says worriedly, letting her in. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Zari sitting up. “What’s wrong?”

“I had an argument with Nathaniel,” Amaya explains. “I was trying to talk to him about what happened, but he didn’t want to hear it, and then we were yelling and I just ended up leaving the room.”

Sara rubs Amaya’s back as they sit down on the edge of the bed. Zari crawls over to join them, tentatively resting a hand on Amaya’s shoulder. Even though she could be happy that Amaya and Nate had fought, she’s clearly not. Zari mostly just looks sad and concerned as Amaya covers her hand with one of her own.

“Things have been off for a while,” Amaya admits. “I thought it was because of prep for the competition and the stress that comes with it, but I’m starting to think maybe we’re just not working anymore.”

“Come on, let’s get some sleep,” Sara tells her gently, sensing an incoming breakdown which she doesn’t want Amaya to have to deal with right now after the past couple of days. “You can stay with us, right Z?”

“Yeah, of course,” Zari says, and Amaya smiles gratefully at them.

“I love you guys.”

Sara glances at Zari, who’s looking at the floor.

“I do have one condition,” Sara says. “If we’re doing a spooning train, I refuse to be in the middle.”

Chapter Text

PART III

You have a new friend request from Ava Sharpe.

Sara looks at the notification in surprise, her thumb hovering over her phone screen for a moment before she presses the ‘accept’ button.

You and Ava Sharpe are now friends, Facebook tells her. If only it were that simple, Sara muses.

It’s early afternoon, and she’d let Amaya and Zari go downstairs for something to eat while she showers last. As Sara had checked her phone for the first time that day, she’d seen the notification, and had been more than a little confused.

Sure, she’d been getting on a little better with Ava over the past day or so, but Sara’s not sure why Ava’s chosen now to reach out. Maybe she’s not as content with being on her own as she’d first appeared.

Ridding her thoughts of Ava for now, Sara goes about her routine, only worrying over her friends a little bit. Amaya had been pretty upset last night after her fight with Nate, but she had yet to expand on what she’d said about things having been off for a while.

Nate and Amaya don’t tend to fight a lot, at least not to the best of Sara’s knowledge. They’ve been dating for over two years, living together for the past seven months, and from what Sara’s observed and been told, it’s been pretty smooth sailing. And of course it makes sense that Nate would’ve been out of sorts after his failure on the course, but if their relationship’s not been strong for a while then that might have been the final straw.

Sara doesn’t know what’s going to happen. She doesn’t want anyone to be hurting – but then again, she’d only recently found out that Zari had been hurting for pretty much the entire duration of their friendship.

Standing under the spray of water, Sara heaves out a sigh.

 

----------

 

Things are tense when Sara arrives in the restaurant.

She’s the last of the legends to arrive, still pulling her damp hair into a bun as she walks through the door to see her friends sat at a table. Amaya and Nate are about as far away from each other as they can get, with Ray and Zari between them on one side of the table. Wally and Jax are sitting opposite them, leaving a free chair for Sara opposite Amaya.

She sits down, taking the menu Jax passes her with a muttered ‘thanks’ and tries to ignore the air of awkwardness surrounding the group. It doesn’t feel nice. They’re meant to all be a team, and it’s not like there’s never been disagreements over the years, but they usually get talked out pretty quickly. This, though, this has the potential to be bad.

Nate looks sullen as he glances through the menu, Amaya keeps her gaze on the table, and Zari’s eyes keep flickering between Amaya, Nate and Sara with a worried expression on her face. The guys seem to know the outline of what’s happened, but they’re definitely a bit confused.

Hell, Sara probably knows more than they do, and she’s still confused.

She wishes she could fix it. But first, she needs to know exactly what’s she’s dealing with, so she takes Amaya aside after lunch.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Amaya bites her lip, considering her options for a moment before nodding. “Things haven’t been right for a couple of months.”

“Months?” Sara asks disbelievingly. “That’s—”

“A long time to go without saying anything?” Amaya smiles ruefully, and Sara thinks about Zari keeping her own secret from everyone for a year and a half.

“Yeah,” she says instead. “How have they been wrong?”

“It just doesn’t feel like we’re a team anymore,” Amaya sighs. “Competing together hasn’t been an issue the past couple of seasons, so I don’t know if that can be it.”

“I mean, him blowing it last night probably didn’t help,” Sara points out. “But yeah, Nate’s never been the type to be jealous of anyone’s success. Can you think of any other reason you’re drifting apart?”

Amaya’s gaze strays from Sara for a split second. “No.”

Sara studies Amaya carefully. The eye dart had seemed unintentional, and Amaya isn’t a liar by nature, so she lets it go. But there’s something not adding up, and Sara doesn’t know what it is.

“Is this… do you think this will be a break-up?” Sara asks.

“It definitely has the potential to be one,” Amaya closes her eyes, and Sara lets out a shaky breath.

“Do you want it to be one?” She asks quietly.

Amaya opens her eyes, a fearful expression on her face. “I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t think it’s been working for a while, but I guess there’s a part of me that’s scared to end it because I don’t know where I stand with the team if we break up. If I even want to break up.”

“Amaya, hey,” Sara rubs her arm comfortingly. “You’re everyone’s friend just as much as Nate is. You won’t lose us if you and Nate end things.”

“Even though Nate’s basically the founding member of the team?”

Sara scoffs. “Doesn’t matter who was here first. We’re a family, okay?”

“Okay,” Amaya nods, stepping forwards and hugging Sara. And even though Sara feels like a perpetual third wheel around her best friend, she doesn’t think there’s anything that will shake the feeling that they’ll be friends until the day they die. Amaya had been one of those people that Sara had formed an instantaneous connection with, and that’s not going to change.

But Amaya still hadn’t told her about the difficulties she’d been having in her relationship. Sara understands why, in a way, but this is the second secret Sara’s found out in as many days, and it’s starting to mess with her head.

 

----------

 

Such is her distraction, that things go badly wrong less than a week later.

They’re eight weeks out from National Finals, and the legends are at the gym again, training hard. Ray and Jax’s qualifier is three weeks away in Philadelphia, and the show has visited three out of six locations so far, Vegas drawing ever closer. Next up is Indianapolis in a under a week’s time, and Sara’s looking forward to seeing her old friend Sin run the course for the first time.

She’s practicing some old moves – scaling walls like she hasn’t in a while due to all the ninja training, and thinking about how messed up things have gotten. Amaya and Nate are barely hanging onto their relationship (Nate’s staying with Ray, apparently), Zari looks more and more miserable each day, and the guys are on edge constantly. It’s making Sara jumpy.

There’s a commotion from the other end of the gym just as Sara drops down from the top of the wall, and she glances over long enough to miss her landing. Her right ankle twists painfully as she hits the ground, and a surprised cry tears itself from her throat as the sharp wave of pain rolls through her.

Sara drops to the ground, taking the weight off her foot as soon as she can and looking up to see Ray already on his way over, concern etched into his features.

“What happened?” He asks, crouching down beside her.

“I’ve done something to my ankle,” Sara grits out. “It fucking hurts.”

“Oh, pancakes,” Ray mutters, untying Sara’s sneaker and easing it off her foot.

Sara growls at the fresh wave of pain as he does so, trying in vain to pull off her own sock before giving up and letting Ray do it. She can see the beginnings of swelling around the joint and grimaces.

“Shit.”

The others have since gathered around where Sara is collapsed on the floor, looking at her worriedly, and Sara’s getting a bit scared now. She’s had a couple of ankle injuries before, but not for years. Usually, she’s pretty careful. Sara doesn’t feel like she’s broken anything – it feels like a sprain, but she doesn’t know how bad it is yet. Potentially, it could take longer to heal than she has before Vegas.

“Let’s get this checked out,” Ray says, scooping her up in his arms and carrying her towards the door.

“Ray, you need to be training,” Sara tells him.

“One day off won’t hurt,” he says firmly, his tone leaving no room for argument.

“God, you’re so nice,” Sara huffs, and Ray smiles.

“Anything for my friends.”

 

----------

 

Sara’s mind goes into a spin when she’s told it’s a grade two ankle sprain. She searches her mind, trying to recall how long those take to heal, but she can’t quite remember off the top of her head.

“You have a partial tear to the calcaneofibular ligament,” her physio tells her. “There’s a slight instability to the ankle joint, which means you’ll need to keep it immobilized for a while.”

“I have National Finals in eight weeks,” Sara grits out.

“If the recovery goes to plan, it should be healed and sound by then,” her physio says. “But I can’t guarantee anything.”

“Okay,” Sara says, blowing out a relieved breath.

“But no training until I say you can.”

“Fine,” Sara sighs. “So… rest, ice, compression and elevation, right?”

The physio nods, and Sara exchanges a look with Ray.

“I’ll give you some exercises to do,” the physio tells her.

Sara groans, and Ray looks at her sympathetically.

“It’ll be okay,” he tries to reassure her. “The courses are mostly upper body orientated, anyway.”

“Having working ankles would be a bonus, though,” Sara arches an eyebrow.

“Well, yes,” Ray admits.

They’re excused once Sara’s ankle is bandaged and she’s handed a pair of crutches, and Sara’s not looking forward to getting this bill. She takes quite well to crutches though, she thinks, pushing herself out of the door into the parking lot with relative ease. Ray watches her closely, and Sara tries not to get too frustrated.

“I can’t believe this,” she says, once they’re in the car and Ray’s backed out of the parking space.

“You never usually fall,” Ray comments.

“I got distracted,” Sara admits. “Everything’s been so on-edge lately and I just… damn it!” She hits the dashboard suddenly.

“It’s okay,” Ray soothes. “You heard him back there, you should be all healed up before the finals.”

“Even if I am, that’s still weeks of training I’ll be missing,” Sara points out. “I’ll be coming into the finals cold.”

“You’ve got the skills to make it through, Sara,” Ray says. “You’re not going to lose those if you miss training for a few weeks. The most important thing is making sure it heals.”

“I know,” Sara grumbles, looking out the window. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

 

----------

 

Sara is bored out of her mind.

She’s been on rest for three days and it’s the most tedious thing she’s done in a long while. She ices her ankle every few hours, she keeps it elevated above her heart, she sits around all day watching trashy daytime TV, and it’s literally the worst.

On top of that, she can’t go see Sin run in Indianapolis. The rest of the legends are going, at Sara’s insistence, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sara’s been pretty much forced to stay on her couch.

Her friends had brought her food and books and the like to keep her alive and as interested as possible, and it’s a huge help, but Sara’s starting to feel like a burden. And as much as the team would’ve stayed for her rather than going to watch the action, she’d refused to let them miss out.

“I’ll make it to Philly, mark my words,” she tells Ray and Jax. “I wouldn’t miss your runs for the world.”

Her phone pings, distracting her from her (quite frankly, miserable) thoughts. It’s not her text chime, and it turns out to be a Facebook messenger notification.

Ava Sharpe

Hey, Sara. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about community and the like, and as much as it pains me to say it, you were right. I think I’d like to be more involved with the other ninjas, so consider this the official extension of the olive branch.

Sara stares blankly at the message for a while. With everything going on, she hadn’t given too much thought to Ava’s friend request and what could be the beginnings of a tentative connection between the two of them. Certainly, this is the first message Ava’s actually sent her. She types out a reply.

Sara Lance

thanks for your v formal way of letting me say i told you so

so

i told you so

and as much as id like to tell you in person, youll have to miss me in indy

Ava Sharpe

You’re not going to be in Indianapolis? I thought you went to all of the qualifiers?

Sara Lance

yeah well as it turns out a sprained ankle will put a stop to that

Ava Sharpe

Are you okay?

Sara Lance

i

i just said i have a sprained ankle

keep up

Ava Sharpe

Obviously I know that you idiot.

I just meant to ask how you’re coping?

Oh. That’s not something Sara had expected. She debates brushing it off, but before she knows it, she’s typing out the truth.

Sara Lance

honestly im bored out of my fucking mind and its only been 3 days and im worried it wont heal before vegas

anyway

try not to miss me too much this weekend then

Ava Sharpe

Actually, due to circumstances beyond my control, I’m not going either.

Sara Lance

need to recharge your batteries at home?

get it

cause you’re a robot

Ava Sharpe

Wow, you must be losing your touch going stir crazy, because that was weak.

Sara Lance

fuck you asshole

ok why arent you going

Ava Sharpe

My apartment building is suddenly set to be demolished so I can’t exactly spend extra money on flights.

Sara Lance

whaaaaaaat

that sucks

Ava Sharpe

It really does.

Sara’s focus on her phone is broken by Wally announcing his arrival, Zari and Amaya in tow. Sara had given them a spare key to share between them for coming and going so she doesn’t have to get up to answer the door every time, but she’s still getting used to her apartment door opening every so often and someone coming in.

Wally puts down a bag of groceries and starts unpacking them in the kitchen while Amaya and Zari make their way to the living room where Sara is sprawled on the couch. Amaya offers her a tentative smile, which Sara does her best to return.

“How are things?” Sara asks.

Amaya glances to Zari, who shrugs, and then turns back to Sara.

“Nathaniel and I broke up,” she says, and Sara’s eyebrows shoot up.

“Shit, Amaya, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Amaya reassures her. “We had a long talk the other day and decided it was for the best.”

“So Nate’s okay with it?” Sara asks.

“Well, not completely, but he does understand,” Amaya clarifies, and Sara whistles lowly.

“I’ve been missing everything. What’s the living situation?”

“He’s still staying with Ray,” Amaya says.

“I doubt he’ll ever move out,” Zari comments. “Or that Ray will make him move out.”

“He’s nice to a fault,” Sara smiles.

“All done,” Wally announces, stepping in to join them with a grin, and Sara senses the break-up conversation is over for now.

“Thanks guys, how much do I owe you?” Sara asks, but the three of them wave her off.

“You can pay us back by promising that you’ll have someone come look after you while we’re away,” Zari says.

“I’ll be fine,” Sara tries to reassure them, but they all stare her down, and Sara senses this is a fight she has no chance of getting her way in. “Alright, fine, you win. I’ll get someone to look in.”

“And help you day to day,” Zari says, with a pointed sniff. “Starting with making sure you take a shower.”

“Now,” Amaya says, eyeing Sara’s phone with an arched eyebrow. Sara looks pleadingly at Wally, but his eyes are very much fixed on the ceiling.

Sara doesn’t know who to contact that lives close enough. A lot of her friends are on the east coast now. Her phone makes the decision for her, chiming with a new message at the worst possible moment from the worst possible person.

Ava Sharpe

Did you drop your phone or something? I know you wouldn’t be able to reach it in your current state.

Zari snatches her phone up before Sara can respond, and suddenly she’s reading through their conversation with poorly-contained glee.

“Ava lives in San Diego, right?” Amaya asks, glancing at Sara’s phone from over Zari’s shoulder. “That’s only a couple of hours away from here.”

“Don’t you even—” Sara starts, cutting herself off with a yelp as Zari starts to type.

“She’s conveniently free this weekend, too,” Amaya says.

“Just because she can’t go to Indianapolis doesn’t mean she isn’t busy—”

“And… sent,” Zari grins as Sara glares helplessly from the couch. “Come on, what’s the harm in asking?”

“We’re barely even friends!” Sara protests.

The phone pings. Zari reads the message, grinning like an idiot before tossing the phone back to Sara with a flourish.

“There. Now, don’t back out. We’ll be in contact.”

“That’s needlessly threatening,” Sara huffs, reading the most recent messages.

Sara Lance

actually i have a huge favor to ask. my friends say i need babysitting when theyre away… can you come to long beach and make sure i dont accidentally injure myself even more. cause im a moron.

Ava Sharpe

I won’t disagree with you on the moron bit. Keeping in line with the olive branch, yes I can come up if you need me to, I guess. If only to make sure you don’t end up dead.

Sara reluctantly decides to keep the conversation going. She’s still unsure about this whole situation, but if it’ll keep her friends off of her back…

Sara Lance

wow you really dont have any faith in me do you

Ava Sharpe

As a functioning human being? No.

Sara Lance

harsh

anyway they leave tomorrow, coming back monday night

if you could bear to drop by 4 days in a row

Ava Sharpe

I suppose greater burdens have been bestowed upon others. I’ll bring some documentaries.

Sara Lance

cant believe im regretting this already

Ava Sharpe

That’s no way to talk to your carer. What’s your address?

Sara types it out, and then glances up at her friends, who are apparently still here, and are looking at her expectantly.

“I guess she’s in. Happy?”

“Very,” Amaya says, and Zari wiggles her eyebrows.

“Try not to have too much fun while we’re away.”

“Gross,” Sara mutters. “As if I’d go there. She’s a pain in the ass.”

“Yeah, but you seem to like that in a person,” Amaya winks at her before putting a hand on Zari and Wally’s shoulders. “I believe our work here is done.”

 

----------

 

Ava arrives Friday morning, and it’s weird. Her hair is once again in a tight bun (Sara’s starting to think of it as a Signature Ava Thing) and she’s clutching two honest-to-goodness DVDs in one hand, and what appears to be a bag of relatively healthy snacks in the other. Sara raises her eyebrows.

“What?” Ava frowns. “I didn’t know if you’d be hungry.”

“No, it’s just… this is a lot,” Sara says, stepping aside as best she can to let her in. “Couch and TV are through there.”

Ava goes through to deposit her offerings on the coffee table while Sara uses her crutches to follow. Ava turns back and stops in her tracks when she sees Sara right there.

“You’re fast on those things,” she comments, helping Sara back down onto the couch and propping her foot up.

“Crutches are my bitch,” Sara shrugs. Ava gives her a strange look. “Give me a break, it’s my fourth straight day of doing nothing.”

Ava straightens her blouse, looking around the room somewhat uncertainly. “I, um, brought some documentaries.”

“Of course you did,” Sara rolls her eyes. “On DVD as well. You know I have Netflix, right?”

Ava narrows her eyes. “Ah.”

“Sit down,” Sara sighs, patting the couch with one hand. “You look like a lost dog or something.”

Ava scoffs at her, but perches on the edge carefully, looking every bit out of place. They sit in silence for a moment as Sara struggles with finding something to say.

This is weird.

Up until recently, she and Ava had kind of been at each other’s throats. Somewhere along the way it had turned into a grudging respect and somewhat flowing conversation (even if there had still been verbal sparring and insults exchanged). And now, Ava’s in her apartment, bringing her food and arguably shitty entertainment because Sara – well, technically Zari – had asked her to.

Sara’s still not entirely sure what the reason behind Ava’s one-eighty in attitude is, but she’s not hating it. She is, however, unsure of what to say.

“Ugh, this is awful,” Ava says eventually. “Surely we can find something to talk about.”

Sara looks at her in amusement. “Okay. How about you explain your choice of documentary to me? Because I’m genuinely confused.”

“The rise and fall of the Roman Empire is a fascinating subject,” Ava says earnestly, and Sara doesn’t know whether she finds it cute or annoying.

Annoying. Definitely annoying.

Ava huffs at her lack of answer. “How did you sprain your ankle anyway?”

“Fell off a wall,” Sara says nonchalantly.

“The great Sara Lance fell off a wall?” Ava laughs.

“I was distracted,” Sara defends. “Everything’s been so messed up lately with my friends and my mind just… wandered at the worst moment.”

Ava furrows her eyebrows. “I thought the legends were meant to be this infallible team.”

“We are, mostly,” Sara says. “But Nate and Amaya just broke up, and it makes things complicated.”

“Complicated how?” Ava asks. “I mean, besides the obvious.”

Sara shakes her head. “Sorry, Sharpe. Been sworn to secrecy on that one.”

Ava hums thoughtfully. “Well. I hope everything works out.”

“Thanks,” Sara says quietly. “And thanks for coming out here while the guys are away. You didn’t have to do that.”

Ava shrugs. “Well, work haven’t been giving me shifts since I went to qualifiers instead of tuning up, so I had nothing better to do.”

“Ava Sharpe, blowing off work for ninja competitions?” Sara says incredulously.

“I booked those days off but apparently that means nothing to them,” Ava shrugs again. “And I guess I just needed to get away from San Diego.”

“Yeah, what’s happening with your apartment?” Sara asks.

Ava rolls her eyes, seemingly frustrated even talking about it. “I have no idea what they’re planning to build, but apparently it’s more important than all of us having a place to live.”

“Shit,” Sara breathes. “What are you going to do?”

“Still working it out,” Ava says. “We don’t get kicked out for another few weeks, and Gary said I can stay with him until I find somewhere new.”

“You’ve only been given a few weeks’ notice?” Sara’s eyes widen. “Isn’t that illegal or something?”

“Probably,” Ava shrugs. “But it’s not like any of us have enough money to fight it.”

“God, I think I feel bad enough for you to watch the stupid documentary,” Sara muses, and Ava snorts, relaxing more into the couch.

 

----------

 

Ava leaves in the evening, and she’s back before eleven on Saturday, letting herself in with the spare key that Sara had entrusted her with the previous day. Things are more comfortable today, thankfully, and Ava flops down on the couch as soon as she gets there, tossing a pack of gummy worms at Sara’s face.

“God knows why that was your only request, but here you go,” she sighs, wrinkling her nose as Sara tears the packet open. “Have you eaten anything today?”

“Yes,” Sara lies, and Ava sees straight through it.

“No, you are not having gummy worms for breakfast,” she says, snatching the packet out of her hands again. “Stay put.”

She strides to the kitchen, and Sara can hear her muttering darkly about how Sara’s meant to be a professional athlete. Sara bites her lip to stop a laugh escaping.

Presently, Ava returns with some actual cooked food which makes Sara’s stomach rumble as soon as she smells it. She wolfs it down with no regard to her present company – but, then again, she’s still in last night’s pyjamas and hasn’t brushed her hair yet, so her table manners probably aren’t the worst thing she’s subjecting Ava to.

“I had a message from Zari this morning,” Ava starts, and Sara looks at her in surprise. “She asked me if you’d taken a shower, since you’re not answering her messages.”

“What did you tell her?” Sara asks.

“I said that based on smell alone, you probably hadn’t.”

“Well, it’s hard to shower when I’m not meant to put weight on my ankle, and I don’t have a bathtub to lie in!” Sara huffs. “I showered a few days ago and it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.”

“You’re being dramatic,” Ava sighs. “Right, you’re taking a shower today, like it or not.”

Sara scowls at her, but the effect is somewhat ruined by her still eating the breakfast that Ava had prepared for her.

“Fine, but you might have to be on standby to help me,” Sara grumbles.

Ava sighs again. “I should be getting paid for this.”

 

----------

 

That afternoon, true to her word, Sara attempts to shower.

She’s able to put a small amount of weight on her ankle, but not without the compression bandage, and she still finds it impossible to dress herself unless she’s sitting down, so she knows this is going to be a challenge. Ava turns the shower on, letting the stream of water warm up as she leaves the room and lets Sara undress.

The bandage is already off, and her shirt follows, dumped unceremoniously on the floor next to where she’s sitting on the closed toilet lid. She knows Ava is waiting just outside the unlocked door in case Sara needs help, but she’s determined to avoid the awkwardness of asking Ava Sharpe to take her clothes off. She works her shorts down her legs until they join the shirt, and then reaches out for her crutch.

Only it isn’t there.

She’d left her crutches by the couch while Ava had helped her over to the bathroom. And now steam is filling the room, and Sara is sat naked, very much not in the shower.

“Shit.”

“Are you okay?” She hears from the door.

“Yep. Fine,” she says, using her one good leg to stand up and staring down the distance to the shower. She can make it if she hops. She can hop.

She falls over.

Shit!

“Sara?” Ava’s worried now, Sara can tell. “That sounded like a crash.”

“I may have fallen, slightly, a little bit…” Sara admits. She’d managed not to jolt her ankle too badly, catching herself with her hands as she lowers herself fully to sit on the ground.

“I’m coming in, okay?” Ava pauses, giving Sara time to refuse. But Sara’s resigned herself to the humiliation now.

“Fine.”

The door opens behind Sara, and she cranes her head over her shoulder to see Ava walk in, eyes consciously averted. Sara’s never been shy about her body, but she does hate being seen as vulnerable. And she can’t think of anything more vulnerable than being naked on the floor and having a new friend help her because she can’t get up by herself.

“I’m going to hoist you up by the arms,” Ava explains, crouching in front of where Sara’s sat on the cold tiling.

Keeping her gaze above Sara’s head, she puts her hands under Sara’s arms and lifts, straightening her legs as they rise up. And, okay, Ava’s pretty strong.

Sara gets her good foot on the ground and winces as her right ankle smarts with pain. It doesn’t feel like she’s made it any worse, but maybe the progress of the last day or so of rest has gone down the drain.

“Feeling okay?” Ava checks in.

“Peachy,” Sara grunts. “Just how I wanted my day to go.”

Ava guides her over to her shower cubicle and opens the door. Instantly, steam hits both of their faces and Sara screws her eyes shut against it. When she opens them, Ava helps manoeuvre her into the shower itself. Water beats down on Sara’s body, and she stands on one leg under the spray, hands braced against the wall because she doesn’t particularly trust her balance right now.

“Should I wait—”

“Stay in the room, please,” Sara asks. “I just… don’t want to slip on my way out or anything.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ava says, and she makes a show of looking around the bathroom while Sara showers. She manages to pour some shampoo onto her head directly from the bottle and lather it in with one hand, letting the water do most of the rinsing work. Sara can see her razor, but she doesn’t even want to attempt shaving her legs right now.

Once she’s done, Sara shuts off the water, and Ava passes her a towel to dry her skin and wrap around herself. It’s only then that Ava will look at her properly, letting Sara use her as a crutch as she hops out of the bathroom and into the bedroom.

“Can you—” Sara nods to the dresser, and Ava lets Sara sink down onto the bed before picking out some underwear, athletic shorts, and a soft t-shirt and tossing them to her.

Sara puts the underwear and shorts on under the towel, and then shrugs out of it to pull the shirt over her head. She starts towelling her hair dry.

“Well. That was more dramatic than it needed to be,” Sara says with a laugh, and she can hear Ava’s chuckle from behind her.

“I’m starting to think I might have preferred you to be smelly rather than—”

“If you say ‘naked’ I’m going to be very offended,” Sara teases, turning her head to regard Ava.

“In pain, is what I was going to say,” Ava raises an eyebrow. “And I didn’t look.”

“Such a gentlewoman,” Sara grins. “Sorry to put you through all that.”

“It’s fine,” Ava brushes it off. “I’m just going to make you sit through another history documentary as payback.”

“Should’ve known your heroic antics had a catch,” Sara tuts. “I’ll watch it if you help me put a fresh bandage on.”

Ava smiles at her, and they do just that.

 

----------

 

Tuesday rolls around, and then Ava isn’t over at her apartment every day.

Sara hates how quickly she’s grown used to Ava’s presence. She kind of misses her.

A phone call from Wally in Indianapolis had let Sara know that Sin had done well for a rookie, and had only narrowly missed out on going to the National Finals, and that things between Amaya and Nate were thankfully getting less tense.

Ray and Jax drop by Tuesday morning, and Sara’s missed them. The legends see each other pretty much every day, so to go five days without them had been strange. She’d had Ava though, which had been surprisingly nice. Sure, the stupid documentaries had been boring as hell, but Sara had found that watching Ava watch them had been way more entertaining.

Her ankle has improved, too. She feels good enough to begin the flexibility and strengthening exercises the physio had given her, and the boys help her to do them. It’s not comfortable, but Sara’s not in agony anymore, and she can shower by herself now, which is a huge relief.

She’s still wearing a compression bandage and walking on crutches, but with about seven weeks to go until Nationals, Sara’s pretty sure she can make a full recovery by then. She’s confident that she’ll be off crutches before Philadelphia, at any rate.

“I can’t wait to see you guys run,” she tells Ray and Jax. “Who do you think is your biggest competition?”

“Nora Darhk,” Ray says immediately. “I’m pretty sure she’s going to be the first woman up the Mega Wall.”

Sara hums with interest. Nora certainly has the technique and determination to do it. “Is she faster than you?”

“On her better days,” Ray admits.

“He’s just saying that cause he has a crush on her,” Jax teases, and Ray looks scandalised.

“I don’t!” He says. “I think?”

Sara resists the urge to laugh, shoulders shaking with the effort. “Crush or not, don’t let her psyche you out.”

“I won’t,” Ray promises. “Eyes on the buzzer. Nothing else.”

“How was your sleepover with Sharpe, by the way?” Jax asks, a mischievous grin on his face.

“There was no sleepover,” Sara rolls her eyes. “It was a bit awkward at first, but I think we can actually be considered friends now.”

“That’s good,” Ray smiles brightly.

Sara doesn’t say anything about what she’s now dubbed The Shower Incident. She doesn’t want to give Jax – or God forbid, Zari –  ammunition for further jokes. Instead, she enjoys being around her friends again, and makes a mental note to message Ava later and thank her for her help over the past few days.

 

----------

 

“What do you mean I can’t go to Philly?”

Sara’s livid, staring down her physio with deadly intensity.

“Miss Lance, although you no longer need crutches, if you wish to begin training again you still need another week or two of rest,” the physio explains, not intimidated by Sara. “That means no airports, no luggage, and no stressing about your friends.”

“I told them I wouldn’t miss their runs for the world!”

“I’m sure they’ll understand that this is a matter of your recovery,” the physio says patiently.

“Aren’t I meant to be introducing day to day walking now?” Sara challenges. “Why can’t that be in Philadelphia?”

“Because as soon as you go there, you’ll forget your exercises,” the physio puts his foot down now. “You’ll forget your recovery. You’ll also tip off the general public that you have an injury, and I know the producers of the show won’t want that.”

“I don’t care what they want,” Sara insists.

“If you care about competing in Las Vegas, you’ll stay home this weekend,” the physio says, and Sara can tell that it’s final.

The fight leaves her in a rush. “Fine,” she says. Defeated.

She’s not looking forward to breaking the news.

The boys take it surprisingly well, to Sara’s relief. She knows they’re sad that she won’t be there in person, especially after she’d promised she would be, but she knows she can at least be there on a video call from someone’s phone.

A weight lifted off her shoulders after they leave, Sara pulls out her phone and sends a text to Ava (they’ve since progressed from Facebook messenger in the time they’ve been talking over the past few weeks).

Sara

hey so you were right about the guys

they took it well

Ava

I did tell you. They understand, even if you’re disappointed in yourself. Which you shouldn’t be, by the way, for putting your healing first.

Sara

i just really wanted to be there for them

Ava

I know.

If you want, I can come over that evening and keep you company?

An involuntary smile slowly spreads over Sara’s face.

Sara

yeah id like that

 

----------

 

Ava knocks on her door at six in the evening.

They’re a few hours behind Philadelphia time, so the competition is only just starting there, and Amaya’s promised to facetime before Jax’s run, which Sara doesn’t have an exact time for. Sara lays her phone on the coffee table as she and Ava sit on the couch, waiting for it to ring.

“How’s the apartment hunt coming along?” Sara asks, and Ava pulls a face.

“Terribly,” she admits. “I can’t find anywhere I like, and on top of that, my ninja gym is closing down.”

“You’re kidding,” Sara groans. “You should just come train at Firestorm with us.”

Ava smiles. “What, live with Gary and drive two hours there and back every day? While trying to fit work around that?”

“Are they giving you shifts?”

Ava shakes her head. “Hardly any. Man, I can’t wait to be as successful as you guys and get paid appearances or something so I don’t have to have a normal job.”

“Hey, it takes long years of hard work to get there,” Sara says indignantly.

“When did you quit your regular job?”

“That’s not important,” Sara waves her off, unwilling to admit that she’d ditched her job after her first season.

She’d still worked the occasional security job here and there, but now she gets sponsorship deals, and does workshops at various gyms around the country in the off-season of American Ninja Warrior. It pays enough for her small, fairly modest apartment, at any rate. The apartment’s not anything special; in fact, there’s a whole building full of them…

“That’s it,” Sara mutters to herself.

“What?” Ava frowns at her.

“One of the tenants a few floors up just moved out,” Sara says. “The rent here isn’t too bad, the landlord isn’t a dick, and it’s a pretty nice area of town.”

Ava clearly sees where she’s going with this, because her eyes widen. “You think I should live here?”

“Yeah, I mean, why not?” Sara shrugs. “You need an apartment, and a ninja gym, and clearly you love my company…”

“That’s…” Ava’s face contorts in a pensive expression. “That’s not actually a bad idea.”

“See?” Sara says brightly. “We’d be neighbors, and you could train with us instead of—” she cuts herself off.

“Instead of by myself,” Ava finishes, and Sara winces.

“Yeah.”

“Look, I had my reasons for keeping everyone at arm’s length,” Ava wipes a hand over her face with a sigh. “I’ll think about it.”

Sara nods, sensing that this is perhaps a sore subject. She and Ava haven’t been friends that long, and Sara doesn’t want to push too far and make her close up again. She actually likes who Ava is around her now, even if she’s sometimes still a bit too tightly-wound for her own good.

 

----------

 

Both Jax and Ray complete the qualifying course, and Sara’s ecstatic. Both of them fail the Mega Wall, too, but Sara chooses not to focus on that. Nora Darhk, however, gets up the eighteen foot wall just like Ray had predicted, but her time isn’t quite fast enough to top the leaderboard.

That honour goes to Ray himself, and Sara’s phone clatters to the ground as she surges forward and hugs Ava when they find out. It’s a shock to them both, but Sara doesn’t do things by halves, so she stays, arms wrapped around Ava’s waist as Ava begins to relax.

The angle’s a bit awkward with them sitting side by side on the couch, bodies half-turned towards each other, but they make it work. Sara finds that she likes Ava’s hugs; they’re warm without being stifling. Her initial surprise makes it seem like maybe Ava doesn’t get a lot of hugs either, and Sara’s suddenly determined to change that.

It’s gone midnight by the time Sara hangs up on Amaya with a promise to repeat the whole process tomorrow night, and Ava yawns, stretching out her long limbs and closing her eyes.

“I gotta go,” she murmurs sleepily, and Sara looks at her in concern.

“No way you’re making the drive back without dying,” she tells Ava, who cracks an eye open and squints at her.

“Since when are you so paranoid about safety?”

“Since it involves you falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into a tree,” Sara raises an eyebrow. “You can stay here tonight, if you want.”

“I don’t want to be a burden,” Ava starts.

Sara levels her with a look. “Do you want to stay here?”

“Okay,” Ava relents. “Thank you. I’ll take the couch, don’t worry.”

“The couch I’ve been practically living on for the better part of a month?” Sara wrinkles her nose. “I don’t think you want to do that.”

Ava glances at where her hands are planted on the seats, and puts them in her lap instead.

“Plenty of room in the bed,” Sara says nonchalantly. “It’s no big deal.”

“No, I suppose not,” Ava says after a moment’s consideration. “But no spooning.”

“Cross my heart,” Sara grins. “I’m not a sleep-cuddler.”

Ava gives her a half-smile that turns into another yawn, and Sara levers herself up off the sofa. She’s walking almost normally now, and hopefully next week she’ll be given the all-clear to start training again. Then it’ll be less than four weeks of preparation before leaving for Vegas. Sara’s still doing her special exercises, and her ankle feels a lot stronger than it had done, like the ligament won’t just tear again the minute Sara drops from ten feet up.

Once they get to her room, Sara opens a drawer and chucks a tank top and sweats to Ava. “Can’t have that blouse getting all wrinkled.”

Ava glances down at it, and back to Sara. “Right. Thanks, I’ll just go and…”

She motions to the bathroom, and Sara nods. “There’s an unopened toothbrush under the sink,” she calls after her.

Sara changes into her own pyjamas, testing how much weight she can put on her right ankle. She’s pleased to find that she can change clothes standing up now, and counts it as a big victory. She tidies her room while she waits for Ava to be done in the bathroom, kicking odd socks under the bed and out of sight. Ava’s been in her room before, seen the slight mess first-hand, but for some reason Sara just wants it out of the way.

“Done with the bathroom,” Ava says from the doorway, and Sara turns around and resists the urge to laugh.

Being a few inches taller than Sara, the sweats are a little short on her, even with the waistband resting low on her hips. The tank top is pretty stretchy, but the two articles of clothing don’t quite meet. Ava doesn’t look too uncomfortable though, so Sara supposes it will have to do.

Her hair is loose around her shoulders. Sara’s not sure she’s ever seen Ava with her hair down. It’s nice; makes her look softer.

Sara goes to the bathroom to wash her face clean, and brush her teeth. She puts her toothbrush down next to the one Ava had used, smiling a little before returning to her room. Ava’s hovering near the bed, seemingly unwilling to get into someone else’s bed first.

“What side do you sleep on?” Ava asks.

“The middle,” Sara shrugs. “So pick whichever side you want.”

Ava slides into the bed on the right side, peeling the covers back carefully and manoeuvring her long legs into place. Sara turns the light off and gets into bed on the opposite side, tugging the hemline of her shorts down just to be safe.

Sara settles on her back, resisting the urge to spread out like she always does, and getting used to hearing Ava’s breathing even out. She thinks that this might be the first time someone’s slept over in this bed without sex being involved. Certainly, Ava’s the first non-legend to do so.

Sara does find nowadays that she has to be careful who she dates, and who she sleeps with. She still sometimes doesn’t realise that people consider her somewhat of a public figure, and that she has to be careful not to take advantage of that, or to let other people take advantage of that. So, she hasn’t really dated a lot in the past couple of years.

Maybe that’s why she’s finding it hard to get to sleep.

Because when she’s sharing a bed with one of the legends, that’s cut and dry friendship. She’s completely relaxed around all of them, which translates to sharing a bed quite well. She’d shared a bed with Amaya and Zari, at the same time, in Miami. But she doesn’t know Ava as well, isn’t as used to her presence, so it’s taking her a bit longer to adjust.

Eventually, though, she does, her body relaxing into a dreamless sleep.

 

----------

 

Sara feels warm.

She feels warm, and safe, and more comfortable than she has in a while. She’s drifting, somewhere between asleep and awake, and as she regains more consciousness she becomes aware something solid under her head. Her foggy brain stutters slightly. Her pillow is usually softer than this…

Sara cracks one eye open. As the world comes into focus, she can make out an expanse of skin, punctuated by some fabric and a whole mess of blonde hair that isn’t hers. She’s on her side, Sara knows that much, and her arm is above the mattress, resting on something soft that’s rising and falling rhythmically.

In a rush, Sara realises what’s going on. Ava’s in her bed. Not only that, but in her sleep, Sara had thrown an arm over her stomach and propped her head on Ava’s shoulder, chin resting just above her breast.

Sara freezes.

Both her eyes open and blinking rapidly to rid the sleep from them, she listens for any irregularities in Ava’s deep breathing that might indicate she’s awake. But she appears to still be sleeping. Her arm moves, and that’s when Sara realises one of Ava’s hands is splayed on her back.

As she becomes fully aware of her body, she also notices that one of her legs is thrown over one of Ava’s. Sara sighs. She’s not entirely sure how to extricate herself without waking Ava up.

“Thought you said you weren’t a cuddler,” a raspy voice says.

Too late.

“I’m not,” Sara defends.

“Then what do you call this?” Ava asks, like she’s trying not to laugh, and Sara doesn’t really have an answer for that.

She huffs, rolling onto her back and stretching her limbs out before getting out of bed and walking to the kitchen. She’s not usually capable of talking much until after she’s had some coffee, and she doesn’t really feel like confronting her slight embarrassment about latching onto Ava in her sleep.

“What do you want for breakfast?” Sara yawns as Ava follows her into the kitchen. She seems a lot more awake than Sara, and she should’ve known that Ava’s a morning person.

“Do you know how to make French Toast?” Ava asks hopefully.

“Totally,” Sara says. It’s not a complete lie; she sort of knows what to do.

“Thanks,” Ava smiles. “Be right back.”

She disappears in the direction of the bathroom, and Sara uses the opportunity to grab her phone and look up how exactly to make French Toast. Sara’s more of a ‘devour a plate of bacon’ type of person herself, but she mostly-successfully manages to make Ava’s desired breakfast for them both.

All in all, French Toast and coffee consumed leaning against the kitchen counter in Sara’s apartment is one of her better starts to the day. Even if this day starts at ten in the morning rather than a more reasonable time.

“What do you want to do today?” Ava asks. “We’ve got loads of time before the city finals start.”

“I should probably do some walking,” Sara sighs. “Start getting the muscle strength back up.”

Ava nods. “You could show me around the neighbourhood,” she suggests. “If I’m going to be living around here.”

“You’re doing it?” Sara smiles.

“I mean, why not?” Ava shrugs. “It’s a roof over my head without inconveniencing Gary, with a ninja gym nearby. Plus, I like the style of this apartment way more than any of the ones I’ve seen back in San Diego.”

“I’ll give you a killer reference,” Sara tells her. “And like I said, the landlord’s not a dick or anything. We could go talk to him today.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ava says, finishing the last of her coffee.

 

----------

 

“Hey, Zari,” Sara answers her phone a few hours later. “How’s it going?”

“Nate cried on my shoulder last night,” Zari says, and Sara grimaces. She can only imagine how awkward that had been. “I think he’s feeling better today, but yesterday was a long day and the first time one of us has competed since the break-up, so…”

“Yeah, but why was it you he broke down on?”

“Because the universe hates me, clearly,” Zari sighs. “I think he was hoping I’d have the inner workings of Amaya’s mind figured out.”

“Do you?” Sara can’t help but ask, glancing over to where the landlord is showing Ava around the empty apartment, talking about what’s included in the rent and answering Ava’s many, many questions.

“Not really,” Zari says. “I told him that Amaya doesn’t lie, though, and that the reasons she gave for breaking up with him were probably all there was to it.”

“There’s not been a divide, has there?” Sara asks. “I know I’ve been a bit out of the loop lately.”

“Hey, no, don’t worry,” Zari reassures her. “Everyone’s basically fine, and it’s not your fault. As much as you somehow think it is, none of this is your fault.”

“And how are you doing?” Sara asks. “I know this hasn’t been easy for you.”

“I’m better now that Amaya’s happier,” Zari tells her. “It’s complicated. Obviously on one level I’m glad she’s not with Nate anymore, but it was rough seeing her so sad.”

“That’s a way more selfless answer than I’d have given in your shoes,” Sara says gently. “You’re a good person, Z.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get all sentimental on me,” Zari says, but Sara can hear the smile in her voice. “How are things on your end?”

“Good,” Sara says. “I might have solved Ava’s housing problem.”

“Oh?”

“Well, you know how Cassandra Savage just moved out a few floors up in my building?” Sara starts, but she’s cut off by Zari’s laughter.

“You didn’t! Oh my God, that’s amazing,” she manages, and Sara frowns.

“What’s so funny?”

“It’s not quite U-Hauling, but I’d say it’s the next best thing,” Zari says. “Things last night went that well, huh?”

“Z, it’s not like that,” Sara hisses, making sure Ava’s still wrapped up in conversation with the landlord. “She’s my friend, I saw an opportunity to help her out. Besides, her ninja gym is going under, so it makes the most sense for her to train with us.”

“Uh huh, sure, whatever helps you sleep at night,” Zari’s voice is shaking.

“Glad I’m such a good source of entertainment,” Sara rolls her eyes. She sees Ava coming her way and panics. “Gotta go.”

“Don’t let me interrupt your—”

Sara hangs up on her.

“Everything okay?” Ava asks amusedly as she draws closer.

“Yeah, just Zari updating me on stuff,” Sara says. “So…”

“Guess we’re going to be neighbors,” Ava smiles, and Sara hugs her tightly, feeling more carefree than she has in a while.

 

----------

 

Ray and Jax both run near the end of the order in the finals. The course is proving impossible so far – only one person has made it past the eighth obstacle.

The Nail Clippers.

Sara doesn’t know exactly how to describe them, but from what she can see on the phone screen, they’re four cylinders with little ridges that rotate on them. Athletes have to work their way across them, hanging on by their fingertips and rotating the cylinders to lock into place as they do so.

It looks tough physically and mentally, and the one ninja that had gotten past it had gone down on the next obstacle – too tired to continue. Even Ava looks dumbstruck by the obstacle; and she can usually figure out anything.

It doesn’t bode well for the legends.

Jax’s run starts out really well. He makes it through the first half of the course with ease, although for all Sara knows there could be a couple of slips that the phone doesn’t catch. The picture’s fairly good quality, but it’s nowhere near the same as actually being there.

Jax makes it up the Warped Wall with a little fist pump of victory, and jumps down the steps to face the Salmon Ladder. He jumps the bar up four rungs, looking like he’s barely expending any energy, and reaches out to start the Nail Clippers.

“This is his second year of competition,” Carter says, voice muffled through the phone’s speakers. “He’s twenty-four years old, five eleven tall, and very strong.”

“But will he be able to hold himself up on these Nail Clippers?” Kendra asks. “It’s seemed to suit the lighter athletes.”

“I don’t think it’s suited anyone at all so far,” Carter comments, and Sara’s inclined to agree.

For the first time, Jax looks to be struggling, and the commentators are drowned out by the legends’ shouting. They’re yelling encouragement as Jax makes the transfer to the third cylinder, but it’s to no avail, and he goes plunging into the water soon after.

“Damn it,” Sara sinks back against the cushions in disappointment.

“He might still make it through,” Ava reminds her.

“I don’t know if he’ll be fast enough,” Sara bites her lip.

She tells Jax she’s proud of him, though, when he rejoins the group. Blowing him a kiss, he gives her a half-smile and goes to dry off. Sara and Ava watch a few more people go, including Nora Darhk. Nora looks for a moment like she’s going to be the first woman through the Nail Clippers, but she falls on the final transfer.

By the time Ray runs, twenty people have fallen on that one obstacle, so Jax is still in with a chance. Sara keeps everything crossed for Ray, who makes it to the back half of the course without wasting any energy. He’s not the fastest to this point, choosing instead to take a slow and careful approach as he hops the bar up the Salmon Ladder.

Sara’s eyes are glued to the screen as Ray takes on the Nail Clippers, using his arms to support himself as he rotates the first cylinder to lock it into place. He reaches out and digs his fingers into the ledge of the second cylinder, making the transition successfully. He repeats the process for the next two, Sara getting more and more tense watching. Unlike last time, the legends are all silent.

That is, until Ray drops safely to the crash mat on the other side. Then, the legends explode with cheers. Sara wants to jump to her feet, but she forces herself to hold the phone screen steady, not wanting to miss a second of Ray’s run.

Ray breezes past the ninth obstacle, and then he’s staring up at the Elevator Climb. He takes a deep breath and goes to work, using the handles to push himself up the tower.

“Come on!” Sara yells, too into it all to be embarrassed, and Ava clings onto her wrist as she leans closer to the phone.

Ray makes it to the top, pressing the buzzer with a huge smile on his face. Sara and Ava both cheer as they hear the legends go wild, and Sara wishes more than anything that she was there in Philadelphia with them.

But as she looks over to where Ava is grinning wide for someone who’s technically not even her friend, she supposes it could be worse.

 

----------

 

The mood, however, is brought down soon after.

Jax had finished in seventeenth place on the leaderboard, and hasn’t qualified for Las Vegas. It’s the second year in a row that he’s only just missed out, and Sara’s heart aches for him. Understandably, he doesn’t really feel like talking to anyone now, but Sara suggests to Nate that he discuss things with him before too long. Nate, having gotten over most of his disappointment at failing to qualify for the National Finals, assures Sara that he will. Sara makes sure to congratulate Ray once more before she hangs up, fidgeting in her seat at the thought of one of her friends going through this and not having her there.

She’s meant to be their Captain.

Ava, perhaps sensing her incoming spiral, breaks the silence.

“I never thought I’d have any friends beyond Gary.”

“How come?” Sara looks over at her.

“Didn’t really have a lot growing up,” Ava shrugs. “No siblings, no neighbors my age. I worked hard in school, and kept to myself. Turns out that’s a surefire way to never get invited to anyone’s parties.”

“Nobody even tried to befriend you?”

“Some did,” Ava says. “But by that point I guess I was just used to being on my own, and I told myself I preferred it that way. Then once I came out, kids were… wary.”

Sara had guessed long ago that Ava isn’t straight, but it’s nice to get confirmation, even if the story she’s telling isn’t a particularly happy one.

“It was a long time ago, but that kind of trepidation stays with you,” Ava explains. “And it’s not an excuse for all the snarking I did when we first started talking, but I guess, partly, you being so open about your sexuality made me insecure.”

“I was probably worse to you than you were to me,” Sara says. “God knows I was annoying as hell.”

“Still are,” Ava smiles. “I’m not in the closet, mind, but it’s like I just don’t know how to be open about myself. It doesn’t come easy. Except around you.”

“Me?” Sara’s taken aback. “Even when I gave you all that shit earlier this year? About you not being part of the community.” Sara’s suddenly beating herself up for her choice of words.

“I know you didn’t mean it like that,” Ava says quickly. “But I guess it got me thinking. About how I want that feeling of community. And weirdly, I thought you’d be the easiest person to talk to.”

“What?”

“Well, you’re never short of something to say,” Ava reasons, and Sara guesses she has a point. “That’s why I came up here, when everyone was in Indy. I wanted to see if I could be part of the ninja community. If I was actually capable of making another friend.”

“How do you feel now?” Sara asks her.

Ava pauses for a moment. “Like maybe making friends isn’t as hard as I thought.”

“Good, because you’re stuck with me now,” Sara says, knocking her shoulder against Ava’s. “No more training alone, do you hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” Ava grins, and it puts Sara off balance, just a bit.

“I thought you were an asshole to start with,” Sara says, and Ava pulls a face.

“That’s fair.”

“But now,” Sara continues. “I don’t know, it feels like we’ve been friends longer than a month.”

“I know what you mean,” Ava says thoughtfully.

Sara just smiles at her, and Ava smiles back, and the air suddenly feels a fraction heavier. It appears to startle Ava, who checks her watch.

“I have to go,” she says abruptly, and it’s like a bucket of cold water’s been dumped over Sara.

“Yeah, of course,” she clears her throat. “Sorry to keep you.”

“Sara,” Ava says firmly. “I just did a whole big speech about you being my friend, do you think I would still be here if I didn’t want to be?”

“Guess not,” Sara says.

“I thought I was meant to be the one who’s paranoid that I have no friends,” Ava jokes.

“Well, you’ve got Gary, at least,” Sara says, as Ava stands and gathers her things. They start walking to Sara’s front door.

“Just Gary?” Ava raises her eyebrows.

“You’ve got me, too,” Sara says. “So, you’ve doubled your friendship group already.”

“Asshole,” Ava laughs.

“What, just cause I’m right?”

“Goodnight, Sara,” Ava shakes her head somewhat fondly, wrapping her arms briefly around Sara’s shoulders. Sara leans into the contact contentedly, amazed at how far she and Ava have come in a relatively short space of time.

Soon after, Ava is slipping out of the door with a promise to be back, for good this time, once she’d gotten everything sorted out back in San Diego, and Sara’s left leaning against her closed front door wearing a stupid grin that she can’t wipe off her face.

Chapter Text

PART IV

A week later, Ava moves in upstairs.

There’s five weeks to go until the National Finals, and Sara’s ankle is getting better every day. She’s itching to get back in the gym, but there’s still another week until her physio will even let her look at a treadmill, so she reluctantly relegates herself to helping the rest of the team when they train.

‘The team’ doesn’t quite include Ava yet; she’s still a bit apprehensive training around anyone who isn’t Sara, so Sara accompanies her to Firestorm, reasoning that technically Ava isn’t training alone, even if Sara’s not allowed to do anything much.

She’s there now, standing by the Ultimate Cliffhanger as Ava attempts to cross it. She’s doing well so far, even though by her own admission climbing isn’t her strongest area, and she makes it to the second one-eighty transition before her hands slip and she lands on the soft mat below.

“Didn’t get a good push-off,” she pants, getting her breath back as Sara tosses her a water bottle.

“Might be because there’s nothing to actually push off from on this transfer,” she raises an eyebrow, and Ava rolls her eyes.

“Thank you, Sara, I do have eyes.”

“And they’re such a pretty shade of blue,” Sara grins as Ava shakes her head with a small smile, taking a gulp of water.

Sara absent-mindedly watches the way her throat moves when she swallows before speaking again.

“The key is to use your core muscles to compensate for the lack of a foot-hold.”

“Noted,” Ava says, throwing the bottle back to Sara, who catches it in one hand. Ava steps back up to the start of the obstacle, chalking her hands before working her way up to the ledge.

Ava’s relentless when it comes to training, which Sara really appreciates. She may even push herself harder than Amaya and Ray do, and that’s really saying something. It’s almost like Ava’s a machine, tackling an obstacle again and again until she can do it with her eyes closed with the same level of sharp focus the twentieth time as she had the first time.

It's quite an enviable quality to have.

The downside, of course, is that she doesn’t know when to stop. Ava doesn’t really do ‘taking a break’ so Sara has to trick her into it with jokes and questions. Anything to keep her off the obstacles for a couple of minutes while she catches her breath.

Ava falls again in the same place, and Sara can see the muscles in her jaw tighten in frustration. She may not have been training with Ava for long, but she already knows the signs of an incoming tantrum.

Well, tantrum is the wrong word.

It’s less of a kicking, screaming thing, and more of a sullen, quietly furious-at-herself thing that Ava does, and it worries Sara slightly. Everyone gets frustrated, but Sara’s not sure that bottling all that frustration is good for Ava. She doesn’t quite know how to broach the topic without getting said bottled-up frustration sent her way yet, so she keeps quiet, for now.

After the fourth fail in the same place, Ava’s about a half-step away from physically fighting the wall, so Sara throws the bottle her way and starts talking.

“Did I ever tell you how we got the run of this place?”

Ava looks around the gym, empty but for her and Sara, and shakes her head.

“It belongs to Lily, a friend of ours, but before that it belonged to her father, Martin Stein,” Sara tells her, a smile turning up the corners of her lips. “Back in the day, this place didn’t have half the obstacles it does now. It wasn’t even called Firestorm. A few years ago Martin took it over, changed the name, got new equipment… once our team started expanding it was difficult for us to train when the place was packed.”

Ava nods in understanding as she takes a swig of her drink, but she doesn’t say anything, letting Sara continue uninterrupted.

“He and Jax hit it off right away. I think he knew Jax needed some sort of father figure, and eventually he told us we could have the run of the place after hours, so we could train without getting in anyone’s way, or anyone getting in ours,” Sara recalls.

“Did he retire?” Ava asks.

The question is innocent enough, and it’s far enough in the past that the pain in Sara’s chest has dulled, but it still catches her off-guard.

“No,” she says, hoping Ava will understand. From the way her eyes search Sara’s before softening, she thinks Ava’s got the gist. “Lily inherited this place, and she gave us a set of keys. Told us it’s what her dad would have wanted.”

“I had no idea,” Ava says quietly.

“There’s no way you could’ve known,” Sara brushes off her implicit apology. “I just thought now would be a good time to share the story.”

“To stop me beating up the obstacles?” Ava asks with a half-smile, and Sara huffs out a little laugh.

“Something like that,” she says. “Feeling calmer?”

Ava nods. “Thanks.”

Sara shrugs, catching the water bottle that’s thrown her way as she watches Ava step up to chalk her hands again, slower this time. It’s not the most fun story to tell, but as Sara watches Ava finally beat the Ultimate Cliffhanger, she’s somewhat glad that she’d told it.

 

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Sara meets up with Amaya and Zari at their diner later that week.

Again, there’s barely any space between them in the booth when Sara walks in, but Zari spots her coming and scoots away from Amaya just slightly. Amaya frowns minutely as Zari greets Sara, who settles in opposite them with a grin.

“Your ankle’s looking a lot better,” Amaya says. “How long until you can start training again?”

“Just over a week,” Sara says. “And it can’t come soon enough.”

Amaya gives her a sympathetic look. “I know it can’t be easy watching the rest of us.”

“It’s fine,” Sara shrugs. “Means that if I feel like making you guys do wind sprints, I don’t have to join in.”

“You wouldn’t,” Zari looks at her fearfully.

“Guess you’ll have to wait and see,” Sara teases, and Zari glares playfully at her.

“Hey, Sara, how’s Ava doing?” Zari’s voice is innocent enough, but there’s something in her eyes which tells Sara that the question is anything but.

“She’s doing good,” she says carefully. “She beat the Ultimate Cliffhanger for the first time.”

“Those private training sessions are really starting to pay off, huh?” Zari’s trying to keep the shit-eating grin off her face, but she’s failing miserably, and there’s no mistaking what she’s getting at.

Sara looks to Amaya for help, but Amaya gives her a look that says, you’re on your own.

Fine, Sara thinks. Two can play at this game.

“Yeah, I’ve been pushing her really hard,” she says instead, leaning forward as if she’s about to share a secret. Zari looks at her with interest. “She wasn’t listening to my instructions at first, but after her back hit the mat a few times she started to get the idea.”

Zari’s eyes widen almost comically.

“She’s got amazing stamina, can go for hours,” Sara continues with a smirk. “And you want to know what else she’s amazing at?”

“What?” Zari’s completely on the hook, and Sara leans in closer, making sure she’s got Zari’s undivided attention before speaking again.

“Respecting her friends’ private lives.”

Sara sits back as Zari groans, shaking her head.

“You got me, Cap. I was about to throw a party.”

“I don’t know why you think there’s something going on,” Sara says. “But Ava and I are friends. Nothing else.”

Zari holds up her hands in defeat. “Fine. But in all seriousness, I’m glad she’s doing well.”

Amaya jumps in. “What Zari means to say is that we’d love it if Ava trained with all of us too.”

“Yeah, that,” Zari adds.

“I’ll let her know,” Sara tells them. “But she’s been training alone for a long time, it would be quite a big adjustment for her.”

“And we get that,” Amaya says quickly. “But the offer’s there, and it comes from all of us.”

“Thanks, guys,” Sara smiles, and her friends grin back before they all finally study the menus.

 

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In return for Sara’s physical training assistance, Ava insists on helping Sara with the mental aspect of competing.

They sit on the couch in Sara’s apartment, watching Sara’s runs from past seasons on the television. Ava helps her to pick apart every move she makes, every mistake, and she even has colour-coded pens to note things down, because of course she does. Sara thinks it’s a bit much, but she really appreciates the sentiment. How can she not, when Ava’s so damn earnest about it all?

It’s strange, watching herself compete. Sara hasn’t done it before, doesn’t like to look back if she can help it, and it’s only now that she’s truly seeing her tendency to rush into obstacles without a solid plan.

“So let me tell you about this thing called visualisation,” Ava begins, eyes lit up, and Sara’s only listening to about half of what she’s actually saying because she’s more interested in watching the way Ava’s hands gesture as she speaks. She never used to do that around Sara.

At the start, she’d been stiff and almost expressionless, but now that she’s more relaxed around Sara, it’s like she can’t stop herself from moving. She speaks with her whole body now, and Sara finds that she loves it. “—Sara? Are you listening?”

“Hmm?” Sara snaps back to reality to see Ava looking at her curiously. “Sorry.”

“It looked like you were a million miles away,” Ava comments. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, everything’s fine,” Sara brushes off the concern. “Really, I just zoned out.”

“I’m that boring, huh?” Ava teases her, and Sara taps Ava’s arm with the back of her hand.

“No, I’m just an asshole.”

“Well, I can’t argue with that,” Ava grins. “But in all seriousness, visualising yourself completing the obstacle is a huge help, even if you don’t have time to do it on the course itself.”

She’s referring, of course, to the time limits on most of the stages in the National Finals. Out of the four of them, Stage Three is the only one that isn’t timed.

“Got it,” Sara nods. “I know I’m not acting like it, but I really am grateful for your help.”

“I know you are,” Ava says softly. “And it’s the least I can do given you’re practically giving me private ninja lessons for free.”

“I could still hit you with a bill for it, if you’d prefer?” Sara asks, and Ava rolls her eyes. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”

“The bill?”

“No, I promise there’s no bill,” Sara laughs. “I was talking to the others and they’d love it if you’d consider training with us all.”

“As in, train with the legends?” Ava asks, and Sara can’t tell whether the way she says it is a good thing or a bad thing.

“You don’t have to get a colour-coded shirt or anything,” Sara promises. “But the offer of a support group is there, if you want it.”

“I…” Ava trails off, and Sara thinks she might be overwhelmed.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to—”

“—No, I want to,” Ava interrupts her, taking a deep breath. “It’s just…”

Sara shifts closer to Ava, putting a hand on her shoulder in what she hopes is a reassuring gesture.

“When I was a kid, I did gymnastics,” Ava starts. “From the age of, like, three. I was good, mainly because I didn’t know enough to be worried about hurting myself. My parents took me to a bunch of competitions, and I liked the way they smiled at me when I won a trophy, so I kept trying.”

Sara’s not quite sure where this is going, but she lets Ava continue on.

“I told you before that I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, but that wasn’t completely true,” Ava admits. “I had friends at gymnastics, but the closer I got to them, the less happy my parents were. They told me that I should keep myself to myself, that they’d steal my routines and use my skills against me to beat me in competition.”

“God,” Sara breathes.

“It was messed up, telling a child that people would only use her,” Ava agrees. “But as much as I didn’t completely understand what they were saying, I got the message. If I kept hanging out and training with them, no more trophies, and no more smiling parents. So, I started practicing by myself. My parents helped me come up with different routines than what my coach taught me, to trick the other girls, even though I’m pretty sure none of them ever tried to copy me anyway.”

“But you were only a kid, you didn’t know that,” Sara tells her, and Ava laughs humourlessly.

“I trusted my parents’ word,” she explains. “And the older I got, the less I trusted anyone who wasn’t them. I shut myself away, got really competitive at gymnastics, and didn’t wantto have any friends.”

“When did you stop? Gymnastics, I mean,” Sara asked.

“When I came out to my parents,” Ava sighs, and Sara thinks she knows what Ava’s about to say. “My parents… weren’t thrilled about me being gay, and their reaction is what it took for me to stop trusting them so much. I didn’t know what to do, so I dropped out of gymnastics and just focused on my schoolwork.”

“How old were you?”

“Fourteen,” Ava says. “I didn’t understand why my parents were so upset, so I pulled away from them, but by that point the damage was done. I didn’t know how to make friends, and even if I did, word got out about me being gay and nobody wanted to be my friend anyway.”

Sara leans her head against the side of Ava’s, wrapping her arm around her shoulders as Ava looked at the floor.

“I met Gary after I moved to San Diego, and he pretty much did all the work in building our friendship. I just let it happen, but he’s done a lot of good.”

“Do you miss him?” Sara asks quietly.

“Yeah,” Ava admits. “He came to visit a couple of days ago, and he’s not far away, but it’s weird not being in the same city as him. Not that I’d ever tell him any of this.”

“I completely understand if you don’t want to train with us, especially after what your parents put you through,” Sara says. “It can just be you and me if you prefer, but the legends are some of the best people you’ll ever meet.”

“They don’t hate me for being a bitch to you?”

Ava’s not crying, but her voice is less steady than it usually is, and she’s refusing to make eye contact with anything but the carpet.

“Ava, hey, they don’t hate you. They want to get to know you, okay?” Sara’s hand squeezes Ava’s far shoulder as she pulls her head back to try and catch Ava’s gaze.

“I… can I get back to you? About the training thing?” Ava asks.

“Yeah, of course,” Sara reassures her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to open up old wounds by asking.”

“No, Sara,” Ava sighs and finally looks her in the eyes. “Don’t be sorry. I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t want to.”

“Okay,” Sara relents. “Well, thank you for trusting me.”

“I do trust you,” Ava says. “I don’t entirely know why, but I do.”

“It’s because I’m amazing,” Sara winks, and Ava huffs, sitting up straighter. Sensing the moment has passed, Sara withdraws her arm from around Ava’s shoulders. Her body feels colder, and she frowns at the sensation.

“I was getting too tall for gymnastics anyway,” Ava clears her throat, turning her attention to the television as she plays Sara’s Stage One run from two years ago. The camera cuts to the sidelines, where the legends are all cheering for her. Further along the course, Sara sees two faces that make her heart clench painfully.

The graphics that come up on the screen name them as Laurel and Quentin Lance, Sara’s sister and father respectively. They’re only onscreen for a matter of seconds, but it feels like an eternity to Sara.

She doesn’t realise that Ava’s noticed her abrupt change in body language until she feels herself being nudged gently. She turns to see Ava looking at her in concern.

“Are you okay?”

Sara nods, not trusting her voice. Hoping that Ava will accept it and move on.

She doesn’t.

“I’ve not seen your family in many of these clips,” she says gently, and Sara takes a shuddering breath.

“That was the only competition they both came to,” she says quietly. “Laurel was at the city course that year and dad came to join her in Vegas to watch.”

There’s a pause in which Ava is clearly considering whether she should ask the question burning at the front of her mind. And Sara could make this easier for her. She could bare her soul as Ava herself had just done, and tell Ava why neither her sister nor her father have watched her compete in almost two years. But there’s a voice in her head telling her not to. That learning how fucked up Sara’s life had gotten for a while will make her run away.

Logically, Sara knows that isn’t true. Ava is showing every sign of sticking around. But as much as Ava bottles her frustration, Sara does the same thing with her pain, and it’s difficult to talk about it. If she doesn’t talk about it and doesn’t think about it, she’s okay. Her head’s above water.

But if she allows the memories to invade the forefront of her mind, then Sara knows she’ll break down, and she really doesn’t want to do that.

“I think I’m done for tonight,” Sara whispers, looking at her hands.

“Okay,” Ava says, switching the television off. She looks like she doesn’t quite understand, but Sara’s grateful that she’s not pushing the matter.

“Thank you,” Sara says. “For the visualisation.”

“Of course,” Ava gives her a gentle smile that tugs at something in Sara’s chest. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you. Anything.”

Sara gets her not-so-hidden meaning. If you want to talk about it, I’ll be here.

 

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Three weeks out from National Finals, Ava turns up at legends team training.

Sara’s finally been given the all-clear to start training again, although her physio has suggested she avoid the Warped Wall for a little longer, and she’s about to try the Salmon Ladder when Ava walks in, shoulders tensed.

Taking her hands off the bar, Sara jogs over to meet her. Her ankle feels as good as new now, and she can’t quite believe it’s been five weeks since she’d sprained it. Five weeks since she and Ava had really become friends. On paper, it doesn’t seem like a long time, and Sara’s a little bit taken aback by how quickly she and Ava had gone from snarking at each other to finding a comfortable rhythm together, but Sara can’t deny that somehow Ava’s become very important to her.

Which is why she’s so glad that Ava’s decided to join team training.

The legends (including Nate and Jax, who aren’t competing but are still training) all greet her warmly, and Sara can see Ava relax a bit. Sara gives her a grin, holding out a hand for Ava to take.

“Ready?”

Ava nods, slipping her hand into Sara’s and allowing herself to be led over to the others. Her hand is warm and she squeezes Sara’s once before letting go and turning her attention to the Salmon Ladder.

“Were you about to give a demonstration?” Ava asks.

“Doctor said I was good to go,” Sara grins. “And not a moment too fucking soon.”

Ava cracks a smile and turns to look at the legends, taking a deep breath.

“First of all, I want to apologise for being an asshole,” she starts, but Zari waves her off.

“So was the Captain,” she says. “Besides, it was never us you were rude to.”

“Still,” Ava persists. “I am sorry. And sorry for not taking up this offer sooner, I just had some stuff to work through.”

“Hey, Aves,” Sara says, standing in front of Ava and putting her hands on her shoulders. “The important thing is that you’re here, and we’re all psyched about it. Right guys?”

There’s a chorus of affirmation from the other legends. Sara grips Ava’s shoulders, feeling the firm muscle beneath her hands. Ava has really nice shoulders and—

“What?” Sara asks, because Ava’s looking at her funny.

“You’ve never called me ‘Aves’ before,” she says, the corners of her lips upturned into a smile.

“Yeah, well,” Sara clears her throat. “Everyone has a nickname here, it’s part of the rules.”

“I don’t have one,” Ray supplies unhelpfully, and Sara fights the blush threatening to rise in her cheeks.

“It’s okay, I like it,” Ava says quietly, and Sara doesn’t quite know what to say, so she smiles and releases her hold on Ava, turning back once again to the Salmon Ladder.

“As you were,” she addresses the legends, and they disperse, leaving her with Ava.

Although, Sara doesn’t miss the look that Amaya and Zari exchange as they leave.

 

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Ava seems surprised by how well she fits into the team dynamic over the next week. Ray is extra nice to her, offering help where he thinks it’s needed and also asking advice from Ava, taking care to make sure she feels included. Nate seems wary of her – Sara thinks he’s intimidated by the version of Ava he’s seen glaring at Sara in the past. Jax toes the line between funny and annoying in an attempt to get a reaction, and to Ava’s credit she puts up with it, although she’ll sometimes send a certain look in Sara’s direction, begging for a rescue as Jax starts on his seventh terrible knock-knock joke.

Wally enjoys competing with Ava, challenging her to see who can hang from a bar in an L-sit for longer; a challenge Ava’s all too happy to take up. Zari, too, likes to compete against Ava, but in such a way as she doesn’t take it too seriously. Ava, on the other hand, will always be competitive, but it’s bringing her out of her shell around Zari in a way she’s not even aware of, which Sara finds endlessly amusing.

Amaya, nice as she is, offers to teach Ava some climbing techniques. Ava’s a natural, and Amaya winks at Sara from across the gym, and Sara rolls her eyes, because she knows exactly what’s being implied.

Everyone seems to think she has this huge crush on Ava, which blatantly isn’t true. Just because sometimes Sara gets distracted watching Ava train (which is becoming an issue now that Sara herself is back in training and not just standing on the sidelines) doesn’t mean she likes her as anything more than a friend.

Just because Ava is actually hot as hell (Sara’s not blind, okay?) and she’s strong and lithe and looks really damn good in her workout gear, or her jeans, or her pyjamas, or anything she wears, doesn’t mean Sara’s distracted.

Just because Sara feels lighter whenever she’s in close proximity to Ava, whether they’re at the gym, or hanging out on Sara’s couch, or going for food together when the rest of the legends are all ‘busy’, doesn’t mean she has feelings.

Feelings are dumb anyway, and Sara’s pretty sure Ava shares her views on that, so even if she does have a crush, nothing will ever come of it.

So, Sara obviously doesn’t have a crush on Ava.

Sara turns her attention back to the rope climb she’s meant to be practicing, ridding her head of any potentially confusing thoughts. She’s just glad Ava’s been able to settle into a team environment. Clearly, inviting her to team training had been a great idea.

 

 

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“Inviting Ava to team training was a terrible idea,” Sara says frantically, pacing Amaya’s apartment in her pyjamas three days later. Well, it used to be Amaya and Nate’s shared apartment, but he’d insisted that she be the one to keep it.

“Sit down,” Zari rolls her eyes, sprawled in the middle of Amaya’s couch.

“Why was it a terrible idea?” Amaya asks her, sat next to Zari.

“Because,” Sara exclaims. “I’m meant to be training myself, but I can’t focus on anything because I’m just thinking about her! And then I turn around and she’s doing pull-ups or something, and then I forget what I’m even supposed to be doing.”

Zari starts laughing uncontrollably.

“It’s not funny!” Sara turns to her, eyes wide. “What if I injure myself again because Ava distracts me?”

“Are you even listening to the words coming out of your mouth?” Zari’s incredulous. She turns to Amaya. “I don’t think she is.”

“I don’t even know why I keep thinking about her,” Sara mutters to herself.

“Is she stupid?” Zari asks Amaya, not even bothering to lower her voice. Amaya just smiles.

“Give her a moment.”

“Holy shit,” Sara says, her pacing coming to an abrupt halt. “I have a crush on Ava.”

“There it is,” Amaya says, and Zari rolls her eyes.

“Only took ten million years.”

“Guys, are you not listening to me?” Sara snaps her fingers at them. “I have a crush on Ava. This is awful.”

“I’m gonna punch her,” Zari decides, making to stand up from the couch, but Amaya pulls her back down with a hand on her wrist.

“It’s not awful, Sara,” Amaya soothes her. “And, honestly, I was starting to think you weren’t going to realise.”

“No, it is awful,” Sara continues. “Because we’re friends, we trust each other. I don’t want to ruin that by having feelings. If she finds out, what if she thinks I’ve just been training her to get into her pants?”

Zari narrows her eyes. “Have you?”

“Of course not,” Sara rolls her eyes. “C’mon, Z, you know—”

She cuts herself off abruptly, horrified at what she’d almost let slip. She’d been about to say that Zari knows how she feels about not wanting to ruin a friendship with feelings, so caught up in her own realisation that she could’ve completely thrown her own friend under the bus by accident.

“You know how much I hate dealing with stuff like this,” Sara tries to recover it, and Zari – whose shoulders had tensed momentarily – relaxes again.

Amaya looks at them strangely.

“I know you do,” Zari says. “But this reaction still isn’t like you. You don’t normally freak out about anything.”

And Sara knows she doesn’t. But, then again, she’s never been in this situation before. Yes, she’s had feelings for people that she shouldn’t in the past, but it’s never been a fellow competitor, it’s never been someone she’s become so close to, it’s never been less than two weeks away from National Finals. She hasn’t been this attached since Nyssa, and that had been torn apart years ago. Sure, she’d had flings before and after Nyssa, with both men and women, but Ava’s a friend, and that makes it dangerous.

Plus, Sara hasn’t exactly done a lot of dating since she’d started getting recognised from American Ninja Warrior. What if she doesn’t remember how?

“It’s just… a lot right now,” Sara sighs, flopping down on the couch on the other side of Zari. Amaya gives her a sympathetic look.

“You don’t have to do anything about it right now,” she tells Sara. “I mean, you probably need to work out if you want to tell her or not, but you don’t have to consider anything until after Vegas.”

“Part of me wants to tell her,” Sara admits. “But I’ve only just figured it out myself, and I have no clue what’s a good idea or not right now. God, she probably doesn’t even feel the same.”

Zari snorts. “I’ve never seen you like this.”

“I know, it’s so dumb,” Sara groans.

“It’s not dumb,” Amaya reassures her. “It’s human. We can’t help who we have feelings for. It’s like… you tell yourself you don’t want donuts or something like that, but sometimes your heart just… wants donuts, and there’s nothing your brain can do about it. So, either you don’t have donuts and then you’re sad and you’re thinking about the donuts you won’t let yourself have, or you go for what you want and—”

“—Eat the donuts,” Sara mumbles.

“Are you telling her to eat Ava?” Zari raises her eyebrows.

“No!” Amaya exclaims, before pausing and tilting her head to the side. “Well, I mean if she wants to…”

“I get it,” Sara waves a hand to get Amaya to stop talking. She’s not sure why Amaya had chosen to go with that particular analogy (maybe it’s a side-effect of hanging out with Zari as much a she does), but she does understand where she’s coming from.

Zari’s looking at Amaya thoughtfully. “Maybe you should tell her,” she says, turning back to Sara. “Even if she doesn’t feel the same, I don’t think she’d run away screaming.”

“Exactly,” Amaya agrees, regarding Zari with an encouraging smile. “You won’t know unless you try. Besides, her answer might surprise you.”

Sara suddenly feels like she’s intruding on a private moment as Zari looks over at Amaya. Letting the two of them have whatever moment it is they’re having, Sara’s mind wanders back to the beginning of her and Ava’s friendship.

“She has seen me naked,” Sara muses aloud. “Well, she claims she didn’t look, but who can say?”

Amaya and Zari both turn, as one, to look at her incredulously, and Sara suddenly remembers why she’s been careful not to mention The Shower Incident until now. When they speak, they say exactly the same thing in exactly the same tone.

What?! 

 

----------

 

Hanging out with Ava a couple of days later, Sara can’t deny that something has fundamentally changed. Not like things are awkward or anything, but it’s like now Sara is hyper-aware of even the most casual of touches.

Ava will nudge Sara’s shoulder with her own when they’re making dinner, or backhand her lightly when Sara makes a sarcastic comment, and Sara’s skin feels like it’s on fire. It’s not fair; she never used to notice this.

But she’d sort of felt it before she even realised she had feelings.

The way her body had felt cold when she’d put some distance between herself and Ava should have really clued her in. But, for better or worse, Sara’s aware of her own feelings towards Ava now.

She doesn’t think Ava suspects anything. She’s acting the same around Sara as she has been recently, and Sara’s careful not to change the way she’s acting around Ava. It’s hard though, because part of Sara wants to put as much distance between herself and Ava as possible, because Ava is extremely distracting. But the other part of her wants to get even closer to her. Sometimes, Sara will look at Ava, half-asleep on her couch because she can’t be bothered to go upstairs to her own apartment, and wonder what would happen if she just leaned over and kissed her.

She knows Ava’s gay (one thing Sara prides herself on is her inability to fall for straight girls), but Sara knows better than anyone that it doesn’t mean Ava’s into her by any means. For example, Sara and Zari have been friends for a year and a half, and it’s only ever been friendship. Sure, Sara can appreciate that Zari is hot, but she’s never felt the urge to kiss her. She doesn’t feel like she’s burning up when Zari touches her.

Training with Ava continues to be a challenge.

Because as much as Ava doesn’t tend to break a sweat on the course, she pushes herself hard in training – to the point where she’s flushed and sweaty. Strands of hair will come loose from her bun and she’ll be breathing hard, and that will invariably be the moment that Sara turns to ask her something. Sometimes, she’s unlucky enough that Ava will be using the bottom of her shirt to wipe her forehead, and she’ll be looking directly at her abs, which, wow.

Sara’s no stranger to the sight of good abs – after all, her own are legendary within the ninja community – but seeing Ava’s gives Sara an indescribable feeling.

Which is dumb. This whole thing is dumb.

Sara pushes herself hard in training – it’s their last week before they leave for Las Vegas and she’s missed weeks of preparation because of her ankle, making her feel wholly unprepared. Logically, she knows that she’ll be fine, because she’d made the transition back into training well enough and it’s not like she’s lost any of her skills. But it still niggles at her; her less-than-perfect lead up to National Finals.

 

----------

 

It’s two days until their flight, and Sara’s once again sprawled on her couch next to Ava as they watch a programme on the Vikings. She doesn’t mind this one, to be fair, but she’s still not as into it as Ava is.

Sara watches Ava watch the documentary, eyes focused on the screen. There’s so much intelligence behind Ava’s eyes that Sara sometimes thinks she could’ve been a historian if she hadn’t been an athlete.

Ava turns to look at Sara, and Sara tries not to feel like she’s been caught. But Ava just smiles softly at her, those eyes flickering around Sara’s face until she feels like she can’t breathe. She could do it. She could throw caution to the wind and kiss her right now; the urge to do it is becoming overwhelming. But maybe Ava doesn’t want to be kissed, and then everything would be a whole mess.

Before Sara can really decide on anything, Ava’s phone rings.

Sara pauses the documentary (she knows that Ava – despite probably having watched it before – won’t want to miss anything) as Ava answers the call. She tries not to listen in, studiously checking her social media accounts on her own phone, but she can’t help the way her senses gravitate towards Ava, whose voice is tight.

“I understand,” she says. “Bye.”

She hangs up with a sigh, and Sara can feel the frustration pouring off her. Ava runs a hand through her loose hair and closes her eyes.

“That was Gary,” she says, in response to Sara’s unasked question. “He just found out he can’t come to National Finals.”

“What? Ava, I’m so sorry,” Sara shuffles closer to her and Ava leans her head on Sara’s shoulder almost instinctively, taking the comfort that Sara wordlessly offers.

“It’s his job,” Ava says. “He works for an office that ask way too much of him, and they’re understaffed right now… He was really looking forward to coming, too.”

Sara wraps an arm around Ava’s shoulders. “I know, Aves.”

“It’s just… I was counting on him being on the sidelines and now I’m not going to have anyone – and I know it’s not the end of the world but I just really hoped that—”

“You have me.”

Sara’s voice is quiet when she interrupts, and she feels Ava suck in a breath.

“I do?” She asks.

“Of course,” Sara’s voice is stronger now. “I’ll be on the sidelines, you just try and stop me.”

“I – thank you,” Ava says. “Really, you don’t have to do that.”

“But I want to,” Sara tells her. “I want to be there for you when you get through each stage, front and centre.”

Because Sara knows how important it is to have people in your corner, cheering you on. The legends had been that for her even when her family couldn’t. Sara takes a deep breath. She’d avoided it weeks ago, but now she finds herself wanting to tell Ava the whole story. She’s not sure why now feels like the best time to bring it up, but Sara’s always trusted her gut when it comes to physical challenges, so maybe she should start listening to it more when it comes to the emotional stuff.

And maybe Ava will run away once she knows – Sara can’t control her reaction. But if she does, it’s better that Sara knows now. She doesn’t think that will happen though, and she wants to tell Ava everything.

So she does.

“You once said you hadn’t seen my family in a lot of the old clips of me,” Sara starts softly. Ava hums in acknowledgement, but she doesn’t lift her head from Sara’s shoulder, which Sara’s grateful for. Eye contact with Ava would only make this harder. “My rookie year I was a walk-on, and I didn’t even tell my family I was competing. Nate and Ray were there, and that was it. The next year, Laurel came to watch my runs at city qualifying and finals. It was amazing, having her there, and she called our dad before Vegas and flew him in as a surprise. I mean, I ran out of time on Stage One, but they were still so proud of me.”

Sara swallows hard, struggling to keep the oncoming tears at bay.

“A few months before my qualifying run last year, Laurel died,” Sara whispers, and she hears Ava exhale shakily. “Dad… he, um, didn’t want to come and watch that year. I didn’t even know if I wanted to compete that year, but he said she would’ve wanted me to.”

“I had no idea,” Ava murmurs.

“I didn’t want anyone to know,” Sara says. “I didn’t want it publicised, so I didn’t talk about it on the show. I was running for her, but I didn’t want anyone except the legends to know that. And then my dad was killed a week after I fell on Stage Two. Police raid gone bad.”

Sara’s voice breaks on the last word, and it’s like the floodgates have been opened. She’d done enough crying over Laurel last year that she hadn’t had any tears left for her dad, just numbness. But now, sitting on her couch with Ava, she can’t stop crying. She hadn’t meant to start, but maybe Sara’s been bottling up the pain for one day too many, because Ava puts her arms around her shoulders and holds her tightly, and Sara clings onto her with desperation.

She’s distantly aware of herself apologising over and over for crying, and Ava soothing her, telling her that it’s okay, that she’s glad Sara told her. Ava keeps holding her until Sara’s sobs subside, and for all she feels a bit crappy, her shoulders admittedly feel lighter for having talked about it. Ava presses what feels like it could be a kiss to the place where Sara’s neck meets her shoulder, sending shivers down Sara’s spine, and then she pulls back to look at her. And to Sara’s relief there’s no pity in her eyes. Sadness, yes, but no pity.

“The legends, they… they’ve always been there for me,” Sara says, voice somewhat hoarse. “Whether or not any of my blood relations have been at the competitions, they’ve become my family. And I know that’s the cheesiest thing ever, but it’s true.”

“Oh, Sara,” Ava whispers, stroking Sara’s hair impossibly gently as they slump together against the back of the couch. “It’s not cheesy.”

“We all needed each other, I think,” Sara admits. “We all have family issues one way or another, so we just became that for each other.” She pauses. “If you want, we can be that for you.”

“Even though I’m not officially part of the legends?”

“You’re legends-adjacent, at the very least,” Sara manages a small laugh, wanting to move away from her own ‘tragic backstory’. “Or, if having them all there is too much, you can just stick with me being your personal cheerleader.”

“Did anyone ever tell you you’re the best friend ever?” Ava whispers, dropping a brief kiss to the top of Sara’s head, and something like guilt stabs through Sara so fast she can’t even be sure it happens.

Because, yes, she’d be Ava’s friend until the end of time if that’s what Ava wants. But Sara knows that in an ideal world, they’d be more. Brushing it aside, because now is really not the time to go spilling her feelings, Sara starts to disentangle herself from Ava.

“Many times,” she jokes weakly, pressing play on the documentary.

Ava looks at her like she wants to say something more, but she remains silent, and Sara lets her eyelids drift half-closed as they continue to watch. She’d told Ava everything, and Ava is still here.

Something like relief spreads through her at the realisation, and Sara thinks that even if nothing comes of it, having feelings for Ava may not be the worst thing in the world.

 

----------

 

Sara blames the awareness of her own feelings when she notices the way Amaya acts around Zari.

And, sure, it’s not like Amaya’s never been this affectionate with Zari or anything – Amaya is a tactile person by nature and Zari has always been receptive to her touch despite claiming she isn’t a cuddler – but Amaya has apparently stepped it up a level.

Or maybe, Sara considers, she just hadn’t been seeing it before.

She’s aware of Zari’s feelings, obviously, but Sara hadn’t really stopped to consider if Amaya feels the same. Amaya has never really felt the need to define her sexuality in any way, so Sara wouldn’t be surprised if Amaya were to date a woman, but she’d been with Nate for almost as long as Sara had known her. Now, though, what if Zari’s feelings aren’t as unrequited as they’d both thought?

She wants to ask Amaya about it, but she can’t figure out a way to do it without tipping her off that Zari’s in love with her. Sara thinks about enlisting Ava’s help, but shoots down the idea soon after. For one, Ava doesn’t know about Zari’s feelings either and there’s no way in hell Sara will go behind Zari’s back and tell anyone something like that.

She decides to just make herself available should Amaya want to talk to her about anything. On their last day of training before their flight to Las Vegas, Sara gathers everyone around in a big huddle – the kind that features in every team sports movie ever made – and takes a deep breath.

“Okay, you guys know I don’t really do speeches,” she says. “But, I just want to say how proud I am of all of you. At National Finals, whether you’re competing or not—” Nate and Jax exchange a well-meaning grimace—“I know that you’ll all be rooting for each other, and that’s what I love about each and every one of you. If you want to talk about anything at all, and I mean anything, I’ll make sure I’m there to listen. Sound good?”

There’s a chorus of general agreement, everyone buzzing with nervous energy, and Sara notices Amaya regarding her with a thoughtful look on her face.

Sara turns to Ava, who she hasn’t really spoken to since her long-overdue breakdown about Laurel and her dad. Ava gives her a reassuring smile as she approaches.

“You ready?” Ava asks her.

“Yeah, I think I am,” Sara says honestly. “It hasn’t been the ideal lead up, but I think I’m good.”

“Good,” Ava echoes. She pauses, sweeping some flyaway hairs out of her eyes. “I just wanted to thank you properly for trusting me. Y’know, the other night. I know telling me all that couldn’t have been easy.”

“I’m glad I did,” Sara replies. “I feel better for it, actually.”

Ava gives her that smile that makes Sara’s chest ache. She appears to choose her words carefully when she speaks again. “Just… just know that you can tell me anything, Sara. I’ll be right here for you.”

Sara wonders what she did to deserve Ava Sharpe as her friend. Unable to speak, she simply nods, knowing that she’ll never be able to put into words what she’s feeling. In the back of her mind, she can’t help but feel like Ava will be the absolute death of her.

But then again, there are worse ways to go.

Chapter Text

PART V

“Remind me again why we’re flying to Vegas instead of just driving?” Ava asks, sat with Sara in the back of a Lyft on their way to the airport. It’s early afternoon, and the June sun is beating down on them even through the windows of the car.

Sara shrugs. “Tradition. We always fly to out of state competitions.”

“Even if it’s just the next state over?” Ava raises an eyebrow.

“Now you’re getting it,” Sara grins. She wraps her arms around where her backpack is perched on her thighs and sinks back into the leather seat.

She’s doing everything she can to keep her nerves at bay. The next three days are going to be fraught with emotion, so she’s trying her best to keep calm and collected until then. Ava sitting next to her is both a blessing and a curse; Sara always feels calmer in her presence, but she can’t ignore how aware she is of the distance or lack thereof between them whenever they’re together.

“How similar do you think the courses will be to last year?” Ava asks.

Sometimes Sara forgets this is still Ava’s first year competing, and all she has to go off is what she’s seen on television and the legends’ stories of competing in Vegas.

“They tend to keep the shape of the course the same, at least as far as Stage One goes,” Sara tells her. “They’ll have the Jumping Spider and the Warped Wall for sure. The last bit will almost definitely be the cargo net, too, and I don’t remember when they last changed the Propeller Bar. Everything else could be different, though.”

“Okay,” Ava says, taking a deep breath. Sara looks over at her and sees that she has the intense look of concentration that leads to headaches, so she reaches out and covers Ava’s hand with her own.

“Worry about it tomorrow, Aves,” she says, and Ava looks down at their hands before nodding. Her hand moves, and Sara thinks she’s going to pull away, but then Ava’s fingers are lacing with her own, and warmth spreads through Sara’s chest.

She’s never noticed until now, but their hands fit together perfectly.

 

----------

 

“There you are!” Amaya sighs in relief as Sara and Ava join the group near the baggage check.

“Relax, Amaya, we’re in plenty of time,” Sara soothes her.

“I know, I know,” Amaya says.

“She’s running on ‘Amaya time’,” Zari pipes up. “Which is about two hours ahead of everyone else.”

Amaya turns to her with a bashful grin. “I like to be early, so sue me. Just because you’re always late.”

“I’m never late,” Zari says indignantly. “I’m always on time, but by the time I get there you’ve been waiting for twenty minutes.”

Sara gets the feeling they’re not talking about airports.

Seemingly, so does Ray. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Nothing,” Zari says quickly.

“Zari still thinks she wasn’t late when we went out for dinner the other night,” Amaya tells him, and Sara raises her eyebrows at Zari.

Zari glowers at her as if to say not another word.

Sara just smirks at her, and Zari looks pointedly at Ava. Sara knows what she’s getting at; she and Ava go out for dinner together all the time. Or cook together, depending on what they feel like doing. Sara knows she can’t make fun of Zari for something she does too, which is fair enough. Zari gives her a satisfied little nod, and Sara rolls her eyes. She looks over to see Ava watching the wordless exchange with amusement.

Amaya gets them all moving, and Ava falls into step beside Sara.

“What were you and Zari not-talking about?” She asks.

“I was going to make fun of her for something, but then I realised it would’ve been hypocritical,” Sara explains as best as she can. “So now she’s smug.”

Ava shakes her head bemusedly. “You got all that just from a look?”

Sara shrugs. “Zari and I have always been on the same wavelength.”

“Must be nice,” Ava comments.

“It’s a real pain sometimes,” Sara says. “I can’t get away with anything around her.”

“At least the same goes for her,” Ava offers, and Sara hums in agreement.

Everything goes pretty smoothly at the airport; they get onto the plane with no hold-ups, and Sara doesn’t even mind that she’s sat next to a random person because the flight is only an hour. She can manage an hour next to a dude she doesn’t know, even if he does smell like cheese.

Sara catches Ava’s eye from two rows behind on the other side of the aisle and pulls a face. She gets a smile in return. Sara puts in her earbuds, pressing shuffle on her flight playlist, and zones out as the plane begins to taxi to the runway.

 

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They get to the hotel early evening, and Amaya and Ray go to collect their keys while the rest of them wait with the luggage. From her vantage point across the lobby, Sara can see Nora Darhk standing next to them at the desk. She nudges Ava to get her attention, and nods over to them.

“What?”

“Just wait,” Sara says.

Sure enough, Ray notices that Nora is standing beside him and awkwardly tries to engage her in conversation. To Nora’s credit, she talks back to him, and Sara even thinks she sees her smile once or twice. Maybe Ray’s not-so-secret little crush isn’t hopeless after all.

Ray’s crush on Nora. Zari’s feelings for Amaya. Her own feelings for Ava. Sara finds herself hoping against all odds that they’ll all work out somehow, although she doesn’t see how all of them could be that lucky.

“That’s kind of cute,” Ava comments.

“They’ve known each other for years,” Sara tells her. “But they didn’t really start talking until pretty recently. Nora’s dad is kind of…”

“Intimidating?”

“A dick,” Sara finishes. “But Nora finally told him to get out of her life, and she’s been a lot more approachable since.”

“Did you know her before you started competing?” Ava asks.

Sara shakes her head. “I knew of her,” she says. “She’s one of the reasons I wanted to do ninja competitions, actually.”

She watches as Amaya collects the keys, and Ray makes an adorably clumsy attempt at a goodbye before the two of them make their way back to the rest of the team. Nora watches him go with a fond smile, before she turns to face the desk and Sara can’t see her face anymore.

“Four rooms, each with two double beds,” Amaya tells them. “Who’s bunking with who?”

“I call Ray,” Nate says immediately, and Ray fist-bumps him. Jax slings his arm around Wally to claim him, too, which leaves the four girls.

Ava shifts nervously, and Sara feels compelled to speak up.

“I’ll share with Ava,” she says, and feels Ava relax next to her. Sara’s kind of relieved that she’s not the only one who feels most comfortable when they’re together.

“Guess that leaves us,” Amaya turns to Zari with a smile.

“Guess so,” Zari replies, shooting a look at Sara. It’s a look that means Zari’s deciding whether to thank Sara or murder her in her sleep. Sara predicts the choice will depend on the outcome of sharing a room with Amaya for four nights.

Sara just winks at Zari, who scrunches her nose up in distaste. Sara’s attention is pulled from Zari when Ava nudges her in the ribs.

“You’re doing it again,” she says with a smile. “Having a silent conversation.”

“Give it time, you’ll be doing it too,” Sara promises her. “Ready to move into our room?”

Ava nods, taking the offered keycards from Amaya with one hand and grabbing the handle of her suitcase with the other. Sara follows her to the elevators, and they take one up to the third floor. Sara’s pretty sure they’d all managed to get rooms near each other, so she knows the others won’t be too far behind.

Ava checks the number on one of the cards.

“Room 312,” she stops in front of the door, putting the keycard in the door and waiting for the light to turn green before she opens it and Sara follows her inside.

It’s a pretty nice room, Sara thinks. Two decently sized beds against one wall, a flatscreen television mounted on the wall opposite. There’s a desk in one corner, and from what Sara can see, the ensuite bathroom looks quite big and very clean. She can definitely appreciate her home for the next few days.

Ava sets her backpack down on one of the beds and turns to look at Sara, a grin spreading across her face.

“We’re at the National Finals,” she says, like she can’t quite believe it.

Sara can’t help but match her smile. “We are.”

“I’m nervous.”

“I’d be worried if you weren’t,” Sara reassures her.

 Ava grabs the remote. “Do you think this hotel has cable?”

“Let’s find out.”

 

----------

 

The next morning finds every one of the remaining one hundred competitors gathered on the course. Rookies like Ava are gaping at the huge structures, and even Sara – who’s been here twice before – can’t help but look in awe at the seventy-five feet tall tower of Stage Four looming over the rest of the courses.

For now, though, they’re all focused on Stage One. Course testers are running through each obstacle just as they had apparently been doing yesterday, giving the athletes some idea of how each obstacle is best run. Sara knows that the builders will have been making small adjustments to the obstacles over the past day or so, and may continue to do so until the first competitor runs that night.

Sara’s currently watching someone try the Double Dipper, an obstacle which objectively looks absolutely terrifying. Sara had faced it last year, and even though flight was something that came naturally to her, she’d been scared. She’d slid down over fifty feet of track in total; holding onto one horizontal bar as it raced downwards and then back up, releasing and making the eight foot jump to the second bar that slid down a shorter track before letting go and landing on the mat. It had been exhilarating; better than a roller coaster. And Sara had conquered it on her way to finishing Stage One.

Now Ava’s looking at it with fearful eyes. Sara knows that flying isn’t new to Ava – she used to be a gymnast after all – but an obstacle like the Double Dipper is something else entirely. The man attempting the obstacle flies down the first track, but he releases the bar a fraction too late, sending him upwards instead of forwards. He grabs uselessly for the second bar, plummeting into the water below with a loud splash, and several of the athletes look unsettled.

Last year, this obstacle had taken out more competitors than any other, and it’s not hard to see why.

“You’ll be fine,” Sara says lowly, dragging Ava’s attention away from the obstacle. “It’s kind of fun.”

“You have a very weird definition of the word ‘fun’,” Ava tells her.

Sara’s about to respond, but cuts herself off as Nora Darhk approaches her.

“Sara,” Nora greets, reaching out a hand for Sara to shake. One thing she’s learned about Nora is that she isn’t exactly a hugger.

“Good to see you again, Nora,” Sara gives her a smile. “How’s that Mega Wall money treating you?”

Nora snorts. “Not as well as the million dollar win would.”

“Always a bigger fish,” Sara tuts. She notices Nora’s eyes slide over to Ava. “Nora, this is Ava Sharpe. She was one of the top rookies in qualifying.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nora says, shaking Ava’s hand too. “Ray mentioned you earlier.”

“He did?” Ava looks surprised.

“Mhmm,” Nora hums, and there’s a spark of mischief in her eyes as she looks back at Sara. “He said that you and Sara stopped being assholes to each other and started working together.”

“Ray Palmer said that?” Sara raises an eyebrow disbelievingly.

“Well, I might be paraphrasing slightly,” Nora admits. “Ray’s never sworn in all the time I’ve known him.”

“He’s a damn boy scout,” Sara smiles, biting back a comment about how Nora could probably make Ray swear if she really put her mind to it. Professionalism, and all that.

“You ready for this?” Nora asks. “Ray may have also told me about your ankle.”

Sara groans. “The producers wanted me to keep that quiet until my press bit later.”

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Nora promises. “Just wanted to know how you’re doing.”

“All healed,” Sara confirms, sending a quick smile in Ava’s direction. “I had excellent entertainment while I was recovering.”

“I knew you liked the documentaries,” Ava says smugly, and Sara doesn’t have the heart to tell her she was actually referring to Ava’s company and not her choice of DVDs.

Nora watches them amusedly. “As lovely as this little catch-up has been, Sara, I need to go check out this underwater obstacle everyone’s been talking about.”

“What?” Sara and Ava both say.

Nora gestures to the Stage Two course, and sure enough, there’s an above-ground tank of water. Sara assumes there’s more to it than simply swimming across, but even so, she’s never heard of American Ninja Warrior having an underwater obstacle before. Usually, the objective is to stay dry.

“Let’s hope everyone who gets that far can swim,” Nora grimaces. “Seems like it’s going to be a bit different to wading to the edge of a tank you’ve just fallen into.”

Ava starts laughing suddenly, and Sara and Nora both look at her in confusion.

“Sorry,” Ava says. “It’s just… Sara, do you remember when I asked why you wear a white shirt to a course with water underneath it?”

Sara groans, realising what Ava’s implying. “My shirt is gonna turn see-through, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think anyone will be complaining,” Nora tells her. “Right, Ava?”

Ava chokes on her laughter. “Right.”

“What did you say when she asked you that?” Nora asks Sara with interest.

Sara thinks for a second, then grins as she remembers. “I said it was a tactic to distract the competition.”

“Well, good luck with that,” Nora laughs. She gives them both a smile before shaking her head and making to leave. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“See you later,” Sara calls after her. Nora waves, and then she’s gone.

“Did you bring goggles?” Ava asks.

“Don’t need them,” Sara shrugs. “I can keep my eyes open underwater. Probably.”

 

----------

 

Sara doesn’t think much of it when Amaya corners her and asks if she wants to grab a bite to eat. She’s about to invite the others when Amaya stops her with a hand on her arm.

“Can it be just us? Please?”

She looks unsettled, so Sara agrees and lets herself be dragged away from the others. She follows Amaya to a quiet café and picks up a sandwich and a bottle of water from the display. She knows now that Amaya’s here to talk to her about something important, but she might as well eat while they’re at it. Amaya orders some sort of herbal tea and leads them to a little table in the back.

Sara sits down, takes a bite of her sandwich, and looks at Amaya expectantly.

“So,” Amaya starts. “You’re probably wondering why I brought you here.”

“Only a little bit,” Sara jokes, but Amaya only smiles absently, her mind clearly on something else. “You can tell me anything, remember?”

Amaya takes a deep breath. “Okay. So, um, I think I might be in love with Zari.”

Sara, who had been taking a sip of water, starts spluttering. Not because it’s necessarily a surprise – Sara had been wondering whether Zari’s feelings were reciprocated for a little while now – but she hadn’t been expecting Amaya to say it outright. And ‘love’, no less.

“Sara, are you okay?” Amaya asks in concern as Sara gets her breathing back under control.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she says hoarsely.

“It’s probably a bit of a shock,” Amaya says sympathetically. Sara chooses not to answer that bit, instead letting Amaya continue. “I just… I mean, I realised it not long after Nathaniel and I broke up. Looking back, I may have even felt it before then.”

“But you didn’t recognise it for what it was,” Sara suggests, and Amaya nods.

“I thought Nathaniel and I had just been drifting apart, and I think that was a big part of it, but I can’t deny that the way I feel about Zari… it’s not how I feel about my friends. But that’s the problem. She’s one of my best friends, and I don’t want to lose that if something goes wrong. She’s way too important and I just don’t know what to do. God, you’re the only person I’ve said all this to because I don’t even know how to explain it to anyone else.”

Amaya rests her chin in her hands, looking up at Sara for help. Distantly, Sara remembers her conversation with Amaya at the hotel in Miami, asking her if there was a reason she and Nate had been drifting apart. She recalls the way Amaya’s eyes had strayed from Sara’s as she’d answered no, almost like she hasn’t been aware of it. Amaya doesn’t lie, but she hadn’t known that she’d had feelings for Zari at the time. And yet her body language had still somehow betrayed her.

Sara also recognises the position she herself is now in. Zari had sworn her to secrecy about her own feelings, and now it looks like Amaya is going to do the same thing. Sara’s the only person in the world who knows how Zari and Amaya both feel about each other, and yet she can’t tell either of them that their feelings are returned. It’s maddening.

“It’s going to be okay,” she reassures Amaya.

Amaya shakes her head. “You were right. Feelings are dumb.”

“Amaya, hey,” Sara frowns. “I was wrong. Kind of. Okay, yes, feelings can be dumb… but I think I’m learning that it’s okay to feel things. Even if they’re overwhelming to start with.”

Sara thinks of the way she feels about Ava. How she feels lighter around her, how her senses are electrified whenever Ava gets close, how she finds herself just studying Ava’s features and simply admiring.

“Sometimes, maybe feelings are good. They make me feel more alive,” Sara smiles, before realising her choice of words. “Um, they make us  feel more alive.”

Amaya’s looking at her with a gentle smile on her face now. “Did you just make a breakthrough?”

“I think maybe we both did,” Sara says. “And, listen, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to talk to Zari about it. Her answer may surprise you. Donuts and all that.”

“Using my own advice against me is rude,” Amaya groans.

“Turnabout is fair play,” Sara shrugs, taking another bite of her long-forgotten sandwich. She doesn’t know how to tell Amaya to go for it without giving away what she knows. Sara wracks her brain, trying to think of a solution, but she comes up empty.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Amaya says quietly.

“I won’t. I promise,” Sara assures her.

She’s sure she’ll think of something. After all, she’s never been one to back down from a challenge.

 

----------

 

Sara pulls on a lightweight hoodie as night falls on the course. She can hear Carter and Kendra recording the intro to the show, sounding incredibly enthusiastic about the night ahead. The show records over three nights, and three episodes will be made – although Stage One will be split into two episodes, with the rest of the stages airing in the third, given that one hundred athletes will attempt the first stage and significantly less will move on to the next.

With the press bit done, the first competitor runs at around nine in the evening. He falls on the Propeller Bar, the second obstacle. Sara winces as he bellyflops into the water, and she doesn’t know why, but she has a feeling that’s going to set the tone for the night.

Sara’s a bit confused when Ray departs for the sidelines about ten runs in, but then she sees the name of the next competitor, and she gets it.

Nora Darhk stands at the start line, stretching out her legs with an expression of steely determination on her face. Sara can see Ray standing with a couple of Nora’s friends that Sara doesn’t recognise, and wonders how he managed to go from stumbling through a conversation to Nora asking him to be on the sidelines for her run.

Nora gets her countdown, and then she’s sprinting towards Archer Alley, the first obstacle. She strides the first two sloping triangles, and then two-foots the last, jumping for the rope as the triangle rotates away from her. Nora swings to the other side of the water, scrambling up the ramp and running straight to the Propeller Bar.

She gets a good jump off the trampoline, her hands landing on the bar as it begins to spin. Nora snags the rope with her feet, taking one hand off the bar to grip it, then switching her other hand onto it and swinging to safety.

Nora gets through the Double Dipper and the Jumping Spider with no problem – she’s completed both obstacles in the past, and she has plenty of time left at halfway through the course. Sara starts to relax watching her, reminded why Nora is one of the most experienced and respected competitors.

She jumps to the cargo net with twenty seconds in hand, making short work of the climb, and becomes the first finisher of the night. Sara whoops when she hits the buzzer, and she can see Ray jumping up and down excitedly.

“Nora Darhk becomes the first person to beat the course this season!” Kendra announces.

“She made that look easy,” Carter grins. “Nora, we’ll see you on Stage Two!”

Nora gives them a thumbs-up, and Sara grins, knowing that the three of them used to compete together. She can’t imagine what it would be like to commentate on a friend’s run.

Wally is the first of the legends to run, at number seventeen in the order. Sara can tell he’s nervous, and she gives him a hug before the ‘ninja wranglers’, who are really just production assistants with earpieces, come to take him to the start.

“You got this,” she tells him, and Wally gives her a tight smile.

Jax watches him go. “He’s nervous about the Double Dipper,” he murmurs to Sara. “He was telling me about it last night.”

Sara links her arm with his as they move to stand in front of the cameras on the sidelines, ready for Wally’s run. All the legends are there for him.

Ava is on the phone with Gary somewhere, having wished Wally luck before his run but unsure if she should have a spot with the rest of the legends. Sara had let her go, but she does want to talk to the legends and ask if they want Ava on the sidelines moving forward. She doesn’t see why they wouldn’t. For all intents and purposes, Ava’s one of them now.

Wally breezes through Archer Alley easily, only taking one swing on the rope before he’s safe. He gets a lot of hang time in the air before hooking his arms around the Propeller Bar, meaning he lands quite hard, but he seems okay. After a second of struggling with the rope, he swings to the landing and climbs up the steps to the Double Dipper.

“Come on,” Sara mutters, squeezing Jax’s arm as Wally takes hold of the bar. He seems unsure of how to hold it, and decides on a front-facing grip, which Sara’s not sure is the best way to control the bar. The advantage is that the bar will stay more even, but it also makes it easier for his fingers to peel off the bar.

Wally slides it forwards, and suddenly he’s flying down the first track. The track curves upwards, and not wanting to get jolted, Wally releases the bar a fraction of a second too soon. He gets his hands on the second bar, but can’t hang on, and Sara closes her eyes as Wally falls into the waiting tank of water.

“No!” Carter laments. “A single tiny mistake costs this first-timer dearly.”

“But we know he’ll be back better than ever next year,” Kendra encourages as Wally hoists himself out of the water. “Despite what just happened, this twenty-one year old has had a very impressive rookie season.”

Wally shrugs as he rejoins the legends. “I knew it was gonna get me,” he sighs.

He knows as well as anyone that mind over matter is a huge part of obstacle course racing, and that his mental block may have cost him. Sara makes a mental note to speak to him about it in the near future, but that’s not what he needs to hear right now.

“You did good, kid,” she tells him, and he gives her a small smile.

“Thanks, Cap,” he says.

“Next year, man, you and me,” Jax promises him. “Stage Four, we got this.”

 

----------

 

There’s a long break before the next of the legends are up. The running order had been roughly worked out based on performances at the city finals stage, and the rest of them had all finished near to the top of the leaderboard, having either completed or nearly completed the finals courses.

Zari will be the next to compete, but she’s three-quarters of the way through the order, and they’re barely halfway done now. There have been nine finishers so far, including Nora, which is down on last year’s numbers at this point. Sara’s confident there’ll be an influx of completions later on, and the broadcast will divide the finishers pretty equally between the two episodes, but it’s still nerve-wracking as hell.

Sara talks to the legends, who are more than happy for Ava to be on the sidelines, and she relays the information to an adorably surprised Ava, who grins somewhat bashfully when Sara tells her that she’s become part of the team.

When they’re nearly at the three-quarters mark, Sara makes her way over to where Zari is fiddling with the hem of her red ‘Team Legends’ tank top, aside from everyone else. Amaya’s confession weighing on her mind, she asks Zari how she’s feeling before her turn.

“I’m scared,” Zari admits. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous for a run in my life.”

“I know you can do this, Z,” Sara says lowly. “You’re ten times stronger than you were last year.”

Zari nods. “I know. I think the obstacles are going to be fine.”

“Then why are you so scared?” Sara asks, puzzled.

Zari sucks in a breath as the wrangler approaches. “You’ll see.”

Utterly confused, Sara lets her go, walking back over to the others as they take their places. Sara stands between Ava and Amaya, folding her arms as she watches Zari take her position at the start line.

“Next up is Zari Tomaz,” Kendra says. “She’s a part of the popular ‘Team Legends’ group of ninjas, as you can see on her shirt.”

“Hang on,” Carter says. “What’s she doing?”

Sara cranes her head to get a good view of Zari, who’s currently taking off her legends tank top to reveal another one underneath. This one is red, too, but something’s printed on the front in light blue lettering, although Sara can’t make out the words herself.

“What does it say?” Carter asks, and Kendra has the answer.

“It says ‘I love donuts’.”

It takes her a second, but as soon as she realises, Sara’s jaw drops, and she hears Amaya’s breath catch next to her. She knows most people will have no idea what Zari’s shirt means, but she also knows that Amaya realises exactly what this is too.

This is Zari’s way of telling Amaya she loves her.

Sara chances a glance at Amaya, who’s looking at Zari like she hung the moon itself. Zari’s looking in their direction, and Sara knows she’s making direct eye contact with Amaya. She can’t see Zari clearly enough until she looks up at the big screen, but she thinks there’s a nervous smile on her face.

“I promise I didn’t say anything,” Sara murmurs to Amaya, who’s only half-listening.

And that’s the thing – she hadn’t said anything. Sara has nothing to do with this; this is Zari, by herself, doing one of the bravest things Sara has ever seen.

Zari gets her countdown, and then she’s all focus. She makes it past the first two obstacles easily enough, and then she’s facing down the Double Dipper, which has been the so-called ‘ninja killer’ of the night so far. She grasps the first bar in a switch grip, and carefully slides it forward until her feet leave the platform.

“Bar’s uneven!” Carter warns, but Zari fixes it as she slides down, riding the curve up and then releasing at the perfect time. Zari makes the eight foot lache to the second bar, sliding down the shorter track and jumping to the landing pad. She stumbles slightly, but rights herself and grins.

Sara breathes out a sigh of relief, but it’s short-lived, as the next obstacle is the Jumping Spider. Zari runs at the trampette, and gets as far into the chute as she can before thrusting out her arms and legs to lock herself in. Amaya’s fingers dig into Sara’s skin through the sleeve of her hoodie as Zari makes her way through the four feet wide tunnel, dropping down to the landing pad shortly after.

Sara looks to her other side, where Ava is studying Zari’s technique carefully, watching how she moves through the obstacles. Zari strides through the four tyres that make up the first part of a new obstacle, Jeep Run, jumping for the first circular ‘steering wheel’ hanging horizontally from a metal arm.. The momentum swings the arm attached to the wheel around, stopping about six feet short of a second wheel. Zari makes the transfer, and the second arm rotates, bringing her face to face with the last tyre.

“Now, she’ll have to be precise with the dismount,” Kendra warns. “Because that last tyre will spin back on you if you’re not careful.”

Zari’s careful, though, and lands on top of the tyre. It starts to spin but Zari’s already jumping off it to the mat, just about sticking the landing. Sara checks the countdown clock and sees that Zari has plenty of time left as she approaches the Warped Wall.

This wall is different to the one at city courses. There’s a shorter run-up, and the first part of said run-up curves downwards, making the approach tricky. Zari takes a second to fill her lungs with air before she explodes into a powerful sprint, getting one hand to the top of the wall and hanging on for dear life.

Sara’s excitement builds at the same time as her nerves do. Zari runs right along the top of the Razor Beams – a balance obstacle that seems easy compared to the rest of the course – and then she’s facing down the final obstacle: Twist and Fly. This obstacle consists of two sets of curved handles that rotate freely, and so lots of athletes had been getting thrown off their timing by the spinning.

Zari’s never been the most graceful at getting a swing going, and it shows here, the first set of handles spinning wildly as Zari hangs on. Sara’s chest constricts with worry, but Zari somehow gets herself facing forward a moment before she makes the transfer to the second set of handles.

“Just one more jump, and then a climb,” Carter says excitedly, and Sara can feel the coiled anticipation rolling off of Amaya in waves from next to her.

Zari jumps for the cargo net, landing high, and scrambles up it to the top just as the countdown starts to reach ten seconds. The klaxon has just sounded for the first time when Zari’s hand slams down on the buzzer and Sara’s anxiety explodes into joy. She gets crushed in a group hug with the rest of the legends but she doesn’t care in the slightest. All that matters right now is the look on Zari’s face as she beats Stage One.

Zari fiddles with the hem of her tank top again, her expression turning shy as she meets Amaya’s gaze from thirty feet in the air.

 

----------

 

Once Zari gets down from the platform, Gideon snatches her up for an interview. The legends get ushered out of the way as the next competitor takes their place at the start, and although Sara can tell that Amaya wants to go to Zari, she lets the other have their moments first.

Away from the crowds, Sara stands with Ava and Amaya, watching as Zari disentangles herself from Ray and makes her way over. She looks nervous, even though Amaya’s smiling widely at her, and even though she throws her arms around Zari in a tight hug as soon as she’s close enough.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” Amaya laughs. “Wearing that shirt, too.”

Zari pulls back from the hug, although Amaya’s arms stay looped around her neck. “Did you, um, get what I was trying to say?” She asks quietly. “Because I didn’t know if the reference was too—”

Amaya kisses her, quieting Zari’s worries pretty effectively.

Sara can feel Ava’s eyes on her, completely bewildered, but she just smiles at her two friends. She’d been so preoccupied trying to think of ways to get them together, but in the end they hadn’t needed her input at all. Sara can’t quite believe how weirdly proud of them she feels in this moment.

Zari and Amaya don’t look like they’re about to stop anytime soon, so Sara finally turns her attention to Ava.

“Not that I don’t wholeheartedly support this,” Ava says, gesturing vaguely to where Amaya and Zari are almost smiling too wide to keep kissing each other (although they’re giving it a damn good try). “But, what is happening?”

Sara sighs dramatically, reaching up and slinging an arm around Ava’s shoulders. “Love, Aves. Love is happening.”

“That didn’t really answer my question.”

“I’ll explain later,” Sara says. “I think since you’re witnessing this, I can let you in the loop.”

It becomes awkward a second later, because a moan slips from Zari’s lips, and Sara’s standing there watching with her arm around Ava, their sides pressed together tightly. Suddenly aware of the complete lack of space between them and her own rapidly-reddening cheeks, Sara clears her throat just loud enough to get her friends’ attention, dropping her arm from Ava’s shoulders and moving to a safer distance.

Amaya and Zari finally resurface, looking stunned.

“Thank God, I thought you were never going to breathe again,” Sara snarks, if only to distract from her own embarrassment. Besides, Zari’s spent enough time giving Sara shit about Ava, so she’s only too happy to return the favour.

Zari scowls at her, but any retort she has is drowned out by a gasp from the crowd.

Sara turns back to the course, seeing a medic make his way swiftly over to the Double Dipper, and that definitely isn’t a good sign. She watches as a few assistants help someone out of the water tank, and when she sees who it is, her heart sinks.

“That was a nasty impact for Oliver Queen,” Carter says, evidently shell-shocked. “It seems to be his ankle that’s giving him trouble. Let’s look at that again.”

A slow-motion replay plays on the screen; Oliver sliding down the first track of the obstacle. His transfer is high, and he lands steeply on the second bar. When it starts moving, his fingers are just barely hanging on. In the end, it’s the slight ascent that gets him, and his fingers peel off the bar, sending him feet first into the side of the crash mat. One of his ankles hits at a weird angle, and Sara winces. She’s pretty sure what she’d just witnessed was the great Oliver Queen breaking something.

“Oh my God,” she hears from next to her, and she can tell Ava is panicking.

“Ava, it’s okay,” Sara says, taking hold of Ava’s upper arms and physically turning her so that she can’t see the replay anymore.

“It’s not okay, Sara,” Ava hisses with wide eyes. “Oliver’s been competing for seven years and he just broke his ankle on an obstacle I’m going to have to do in, like, two minutes. This is my first year, I’ve never—”

“Ava, listen to me,” Sara says. “You will be absolutely fine. You know how to do it – you’ve watched everyone else like a hawk. You’ve already learned from their mistakes. What did Ollie do wrong?”

“What?” Ava keeps trying to twist her head around to look, so Sara moves her hands up, cupping Ava’s cheeks and looking her dead in the eyes.

“Tell me what Ollie did wrong on that obstacle.”

“He, um,” Ava thinks. “He let go of the first bar too late. He went too high and had to grab the second bar in a front-facing grip. The force of his landing made it so he couldn’t hang on when the bar went up the final curve.”

“Exactly,” Sara tells her. “So what are you going to do?”

“Time it right,” Ava says. “Grab the bar in a switch grip.”

“Good,” Sara says. “Now breathe.”

Ava closes her eyes and takes a shallow, shuddering breath, shaking her head. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” Sara tells her firmly. She moves one of Ava’s hands so it’s splayed across the top of her own chest. “Breathe with me, okay? Focus on me.”

She keeps her hand covering Ava’s as she closes her eyes and forces herself to take the deepest, slowest breaths she can. And she thinks it’s working. Ava’s breathing starts to regulate, and the tension starts to leave her body until her head sags forwards, forehead knocking almost softly against Sara’s own.

“Ava, you’re an incredible athlete,” Sara murmurs. “You’re the most focused person I know. You’re going to be absolutely fine.”

“I’m going to be fine,” Ava repeats, her voice much steadier than it had been.

Now that Ava’s calmer, Sara finally allows herself to take in how they’re positioned. Foreheads leaning together, one of Sara’s hands cupping Ava’s face, and the other covering Ava’s hand which rests just under her collarbones. Sara really hopes that Ava can’t feel how fast her heart is beating.

“Ready?” Sara asks. She feels Ava nod, and that’s when she steps back, opening her eyes again to see Ava already looking at her, significantly calmer.

And not a moment too soon. Sara can see a wrangler approaching them, and she gives Ava an encouraging smile.

“You’ll be there?” Ava asks her.

“I’ll be there,” Sara confirms. “Now go crush it.”

The wrangler escorts Ava away, in the direction of the start line, and Sara breathes out a huge sigh. She turns, and is almost surprised to see Amaya and Zari watching her.

“What?”

Zari shakes her head in disbelief. “That was…”

“Zari, please don’t make a smart comment,” Sara pleads. She’s feeling just a bit too vulnerable for Zari to rip into her. “Not right now.”

“No, I was actually going to say that was really beautiful, what you just did,” Zari says earnestly, as the three of them start to wander over to the sidelines. “And that I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Sara frowns.

Zari glances at Amaya, who smiles encouragingly. “The comments I’ve been making, about you and Ava, I think they were coming from a pretty bitter place. Because I didn’t think I had a chance with my own feelings.”

“Zari,” Sara softens, linking their arms together as they walk. “It’s okay. Yes, they were kind of annoying, but you weren’t exactly wrong in the end.”

Zari sighs dramatically. “It did take you a long time to realise that you have big squishy feelings for Ava.”

Amaya nudges Zari gently.

“Which is actually really sweet and not at all hilarious,” Zari continues, and Sara gets the feeling that Zari’s teasing has been a topic of conversation for the two of them on previous occasions.

“Go watch,” Amaya smiles, pushing Sara forwards in front of where the sideline crew stand waiting.

Shaking her head fondly, Sara watches as Ava stands at the start of the course, looking the most determined Sara’s ever seen her.

 

----------

 

Ava makes quick work of the first two obstacles, breezing through them like they’re nothing, and then she’s standing at the top of the Double Dipper, taking hold of the first bar and sliding it a little way out onto the track with her feet still on the platform. Sara bites nervously on the sleeve of her hoodie as Ava pushes off, flying down the track.

Sara holds her breath as she releases the bar, perfectly timed, and Ava’s hands find the second bar in a switch grip. Ava’s body cushions the impact as the bar slides down the shorter second track, and then she’s releasing that bar, landing on her feet on the landing pad.

“Yes!” Sara can’t help but exclaim in relief, although Ava’s only about a third of the way through a brutal course.

“Ava Sharpe is through the Double Dipper,” Kendra comments. “And that’s got to be a confidence boost! Onto the Jumping Spider…”

“And she’s locked in!” Carter confirms, as Ava sticks the landing in the chute and starts to work her way through it. “She’s our tallest female competitor here, so her height plays to her advantage on this obstacle.”

Ava makes her way through with relative ease and drops to the landing pad. Sara checks the countdown clock and sees that she looks to have enough time. Ava sprints at Jeep Run, well-balanced as she strides the four ascending tyres before jumping and hanging from the first wheel. Once it’s stopped, she gets her hands to the front of the wheel and starts to swing, only making the transfer when she’s sure she can. The second wheel’s arm swings around to the last big tyre, and Ava repeats what she’d done with the first wheel, landing on top of the tyre and jumping for the landing before it can spin her backwards.

“Lining up on the Warped Wall,” Kendra says. “And right up it!”

“A lot of ninjas have looked gassed out at this stage in the course, but Ava Sharpe still looks to be going strong,” Carter says.

And he’s right. Ava runs across the top of the Razor Beams and straight into Twist and Fly without taking a breather. Sara can see Ava building to a transfer, but the obstacle starts spinning wildly just before she’s about to let go, so Ava tightens her grip and stays on the first set of handles.

Sara lets out a breath. That could’ve been a big mistake.

The downside to Ava playing safe and taking another swing is that she’s now eating up valuable seconds. When she finally makes the transfer onto the second set of handles, she only has fifteen seconds left on the clock.

Sara crosses her fingers, knowing full well that her anxiety is clear to see.

“Come on, Ava!” She yells, ignoring the camera in her face.

Ava is getting the hang of Twist and Fly, it seems, because she keeps her body fairly straight on the second set of handles. It only takes her a couple of swings before she’s jumping for the cargo net. Her countdown reaches ten seconds, the klaxon sounding every second as the lights flash red on and off. Ava scrambles up the net, and Sara doesn’t think she’s ever been this nervous for someone else’s run.

Ava reaches the summit and dives for the buzzer, hitting it with about two seconds to spare.

“It was touch and go on the last obstacle,” Kendra grins. “But Ava Sharpe has just completed Stage One at her first attempt!”

Sara’s first thought is one of overwhelming relief. Her second thought is that both on and off the course, Ava is something special.

 

----------

 

By the time Amaya’s up at number ninety-one in the running order, there have been twenty-four finishers, including Barry Allen (who is currently holding the fastest finishing time) and Malcolm Merlyn. Sara grits her teeth when she sees Malcolm hit the buzzer.

“I guess sometimes good things happen to terrible people,” Nate mutters in her ear. “Make sure you end up beating him overall.”

“Don’t worry,” Sara says. “I’ll beat him, even if it’s just out of spite.”

Amaya’s up next, though, so Sara puts all thoughts of Malcolm Merlyn far out of her mind and turns her attention to her friend. Next to her, Zari’s crossed her fingers, her arms, her legs, and presumably anything else she can in preparation.

She needn’t have worried, though.

From the outset, Amaya doesn’t look like she’s going to put a foot wrong. She strides her way through Archer Alley, is quick and efficient on the Propeller Bar, and makes the Double Dipper look positively easy. She sticks the landing in the chute of the Jumping Spider with only a miniscule wobble, and moves swiftly through Jeep Run.

The legends are all yelling encouragement, but Amaya’s in her own zone, where nothing exists but her and the obstacles. She runs right up the Warped Wall, crosses the three offset Razor Beams without pause, and only allows herself a moment’s breathing before taking on Twist and Fly. She only gets turned around once or twice, and lands high on the cargo net, meaning she has less to climb. Amaya reaches the top and stops the clock with the fifth-fastest time so far. She’s also the quickest woman at this stage in the competition, a fact which Kendra takes great pride in announcing.

Amaya waves from the top of the net, blowing a little kiss in Zari’s direction, and Sara really should have known that they were going to be a nauseatingly cute couple. She doubts they’ve had time for the ‘relationship talk’ yet, but there’s no doubt in Sara’s mind that they’re going to get together properly.

In what seems like no time at all, it’s Sara’s turn. It’s gotten colder, the clock now reading two-thirty in the morning, but Sara’s so wired that she doesn’t feel it even as she takes off her hoodie and gives it to Ava.

Ava nods at her, and Sara doesn’t need words to know what she’s conveying. It’s I believe in you and you can do this with your eyes closed and I’ll be right here.

Sara grins back and follows the assistant to the start line, doing a quicker warm-up than she had done earlier in the night, just to get her blood flowing again. Her muscles have been warmed up and ready for a little while, but she does a few final stretches and jumps to make sure she’s completely ready before stepping up to the starting platform.

She feels a breeze ruffle the few strands of hair she hadn’t schooled into a ponytail, and tucks one of them behind her ear to keep it away from her face as Carter and Kendra introduce her. She tunes out their exact words, feeling a strange sense of calm wash over her as she sees her family huddled together on the sidelines. Ava’s squished between Zari and Ray, both of their arms around her shoulders. She looks happy.

Sara tunes back in when her countdown starts, feeling her adrenaline spike, and then she’s rocking back and pushing into a powerful sprint, striding through Archer Alley. From the moment her feet touch the triangles, Sara knows her ankle is going to hold up just fine. She takes two steps on the final triangle to get her closer to the rope, and catches it mid-jump. The rope swings her to the landing pad and she scurries up the ramp to the next obstacle.

The Propeller Bar looms, and Sara gets a good jump off the trampette, flying forwards and upwards. She grabs the wide bar with her hands, forearms resting on the wood as she waits to get close enough to the rope. She snags it with a foot, bringing it closer so that she can get her hands to it. Sara transfers her weight from the bar to the rope, swinging out over the water to safety.

There’s a couple of huge steps to climb before she gets to the Double Dipper, so Sara bounds up them without expending a lot of energy, wiping her hands on her shorts before carefully taking hold of the metal bar and sliding it out to the start of the descent. She takes a deep breath, remembering that she got through this obstacle last year, and pushes off from the platform.

Her stomach feels like it’s in her throat as she races down the drop, the wind whistling in her ears for a couple of seconds as she nears the transfer. The track curves up, and Sara waits for the right moment, letting go and allowing her momentum to do most of the work as she becomes weightless and flies.

She grabs the second bar, one hand facing forward and the other facing back as she slides down the track and watches the landing pad rush closer. She releases the second bar at the end of the ascent, her legs out in front of her, but the trajectory isn’t quite right.

Quickly realising her dismount is trying to send her upside-down and refusing to let herself panic, Sara makes a split-second decision and tucks her knees up, letting her momentum take her into a backflip, just like the ones she’s practiced over so many years of Parkour.

Sara lands on her feet safely (if a little unsteadily) on the landing pad, and distantly, she can hear the watching crowd losing their minds over her accidental stunt. She doesn’t have time to think about it right now, but Sara imagines (hopes, rather) that it had looked cool. It had been a while since she’d pulled out a trick, anyway.

She takes a moment to refocus before her approach to the Jumping Spider. She jumps off the trampette, locking herself into the chute with her hands and feet. Her trainers slide slightly against the plexiglass but Sara holds firm, collecting herself before moving through the chute. She reaches the other side fairly quickly, dropping to the crash mat and turning left to take her to the curve of Jeep Run.

Sara strides along the tyres, climbing slightly with each one, and pushes hard off the last tyre with her right foot to jump up and grab the first wheel with both hands. The arm swings the wheel around, and Sara moves her hands to the other side of it, using her legs to generate a swing so that she can transfer to the next wheel.

She waits for that wheel to move her round to the final tyre, swinging back and forth before she makes the lache. She lands just past the centre of the tyre and it spins forwards, sending her down to the landing mat with such speed that Sara’s lucky she doesn’t land on her ass.

She runs down the curve on the approach to the Warped Wall, keeping her shoulders back as she takes three steps up the face of it. She pushes off her last step, reaching her arms up as her fingers grab the top of the wall. Hoisting herself over, the final obstacles come into view. The final thirty second countdown hasn’t begun yet, so Sara knows she has plenty of time left. She’s not exactly been dawdling on the course, after all.

Sara stays straight as an arrow along the Razor Beams, thankful that this obstacle is easier than the previous year’s balance test, and runs towards Twist and Fly. There’s something of a springboard in lieu of a trampette, which doesn’t give her as big of a jump, but it’s enough for Sara to grab the first set of curved handles. Immediately, she realises how difficult this obstacle is, particularly after the obstacles that had come before it. Even though she tries to keep her body straight, the slightest sideways movement is enough to send her into a spin. Sara grits her teeth, fighting against the beginnings of tiredness in her arms, and somehow makes the jump to the second set of handles.

Getting the hang of the obstacle, Sara manages a few less swings before she’s at the cargo net. The final thirty seconds had commenced at some point during her battle with Twist and Fly, but all Sara’s aware of is the feeling of rope under her hands and feet, and the urge to just climb. She’s methodical about her hand placement, getting to the top and hoisting herself over the edge, and Sara knows she’s got plenty of time to spare.

Distantly, Sara thinks her smile could actually split her face as she brings her hand down on the red buzzer, releasing sparks either side of the platform as she celebrates. Allowing herself to focus on something other than her run, Sara looks down to see the legends on the sidelines. She can hear them whooping, and a sudden feeling of determination rises in Sara’s chest as she surveys the rest of the finals courses from her vantage point.

She may have failed Stage Two last year, but Sara knows she can do it this time.

She sees Ava on the sidelines, and so much has changed since they were last in this position at the Los Angeles city finals. For one, Ava is actually on the sidelines instead of somewhere in the crowd. She’s also cheering Sara on instead of just watching her with an unreadable expression on her face. Standing at the end of a ninja course is becoming a feeling Sara’s used to, but she doesn’t think she’ll ever get used to the sheer level of support she gets from the people she gets to call her family, and that’s a feeling that Sara just can’t put into words.

 

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Ray is the second-to-last competitor to run the course, and the general consensus is that he’s one of the favourites to win it all this year. He’s made it to Stage Three before, something which hasn’t been achieved by that many people, and his quick and accurate style means that a lot of people have faith in his abilities.

Plus, Ray is just so damn nice that it’s hard not to root for him.

He stands at the start line, proudly wearing his black “Team Legends” tank, a relaxed grin on his face as he waits for his countdown. Nate is already cheering loudly for him, yelling something unintelligible about ‘his best friend in the whole wide world’ and just generally making a lot of supportive noise.

Sara can see Nora Darhk leaned up against the barriers, watching with no small amount of interest as Ray sets off and skips through the first obstacle like it’s nothing. The Propeller Bar, too, poses no threat to Ray.

He goes through the Double Dipper extremely fast, being one of the heavier competitors (Sara’s jokingly warned him about the dangers of being tall and muscled, but sometimes it does actually put him at a disadvantage), but he sticks the landing well and moves straight into the Jumping Spider.

Sara loves watching Ray compete, because – like with Amaya – she doesn’t worry about him falling as much as she does with some of her more unorthodox friends (take Zari and Nate, for example). Ray’s completed Stage One twice, never failing to hit the buzzer, and it shows in his approach to the course.

Even Kendra and Carter aren’t trying to build suspense, because everyone knows Ray is going to complete the course. He speeds through Jeep Run and runs almost lazily up the Warped Wall (although Ray isn’t technically lazy about anything). He crosses the Razor Beams and even though he gets turned around quite a bit on Twist and Fly, he has so much time left that a few extra swings don’t matter.

Ray hits the buzzer in the second-fastest time of the night thus far, missing out on Barry’s time by a few seconds. Sara can see his megawatt smile from down on the ground, and he waves at the crowd, some of whom are holding cardboard signs dedicated to him, because Ray is just that popular with the viewers.

“And with Ray’s completion, that brings us to an even thirty ninjas moving onto Stage Two, with just one athlete left to run,” Kendra says, as Ray disappears down the other side of the finishing platform.

 

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The final ninja falls on the very first obstacle, which is something of an anti-climax, so the total number of competitors for tomorrow night’s second stage remains at thirty. The legends walk back to the hotel, tiredness only now just beginning to hit, but it hits hard.

The course is built just off The Strip, which is where their hotel is, and so it’s not too far to walk. Even so, Sara finds herself leaning against Ava as the day’s events start to catch up with her, too tired to pay much attention to what she’s doing or whether it's a good idea.

Zari’s practically hanging off Amaya’s back, almost asleep. No-one comments on it; Sara thinks that maybe everyone already knows, even if they didn't witness what she and Ava had. Nate even looks at the two of them with a small smile, and Sara takes note of that with no small amount of relief.

When she and Ava get back to their room, Sara’s first instinct is to pass out on the bed without taking her clothes off. But once Ava comes back in from the bathroom dressed in her pyjamas, Sara concedes that it’s probably a good idea to get changed herself.

She knows Ava is curious about Amaya and Zari, and the lead-up to what had happened today, but Sara can’t really get into it just now. She’ll fill Ava in when they wake up. Sara pulls the covers back on her bed and sinks into the sheets with a sigh.

She expects sleep to find her quickly, but what Sara doesn’t see coming is the nightmare.

It’s about Laurel, because of course it is. Dream-Laurel is berating Sara; yelling at her for daring to compete without her being there. Laurel’s face becomes more and more misshapen the more she screams about betrayal, and Sara feels like curling up into a ball and sobbing. Laurel accuses Sara of using her death to get sympathy, and asks her what dad would think. Sara tries to argue that she hasn’t done that, that she’s just been trying to live in the wake of the awful things that had happened, but Laurel isn’t listening to her.

It’s when a ghostly version of Quentin Lance appears, blank eyes rolling back into his head, that Sara screams.

“Sara!” She hears being yelled, only it’s through a haze, and the dream versions of her family are closing in on her. “Sara, wake up!”

Sara shoots upright, her face drenched in sweat. Or, it could be tears, judging from the sudden sobs that escape her. Trying to calm her ragged breathing, Sara can just about make out Ava in the darkness, kneeling on the bed with her.

“I’m here, Sara,” Ava whispers, putting her hand over Sara’s heart, and it jogs the memory of Sara guiding her hand to the exact same place earlier. The thought tethers her to the ground, and her body sags, flopping back down onto the bed. Sara’s lucky enough that she doesn’t usually dream, and it’s been a while since she’d had a nightmare like that.

Sara keeps her eyes on Ava, who’s mumbling nonsensical things in an effort to keep Sara calm, and it’s starting to work. She can see that Ava’s worried, and Sara wants to explain it properly, but all she can choke out is: “Nightmare. Laurel.”

And Ava appears to understand, because the next thing Sara knows, Ava is sliding under the covers with her, leaving enough distance so as not to crowd her, but keeping her hand where it is. Although, it might be Sara keeping Ava’s hand where it is, as Sara suddenly notices her own hands clutching Ava’s wrist like a lifeline.

“It’s okay,” Ava whispers, wiping Sara’s tears with her free hand. “I’ve got you.”

It’s the honest simplicity in that statement that brings a lump to Sara’s throat. The fact that Ava isn’t questioning her, or demanding any answers from her. She’s just offering her presence as comfort because somehow she knows that’s what Sara needs right now, and Sara rolls onto her side to face Ava, hiding her face in the crook of Ava’s neck.

Ava holds her, and she’s warm and solid and smells so familiar. Her heart rate gradually starts to slow, and Sara doesn’t even realise she’s copying Ava’s breathing until her chest feels like a lead weight has been lifted from it.

“Go back to sleep, Sara,” Ava murmurs. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

And Sara believes her.

She knows, realistically, that Ava can’t control Sara’s dreams. But she’s there, stroking Sara’s hair in a way that makes her drowsy, and she’s perfect. Somehow, everything Ava does is perfect, like she’s become so attuned to what Sara needs, and that thought makes something flutter in her chest. Sara only hopes that she’s become, or will become, the same thing for Ava.

There’ll be time for explanations and for introspections when she wakes up, but for now, with Ava’s warmth surrounding her, Sara lets herself fall into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

PART VI

It’s the heat that wakes Sara up.

She doesn’t know what time it is, but this is Nevada in the summer, so she suspects her skin will have acquired a light sheen of sweat in her sleep. The nightmare earlier hadn’t helped with that either.

Sara’s eyes fly open as she remembers the dream, and the events that had followed. As she becomes more aware of her body the more she wakes, she comes to the abrupt realisation that Ava is spooning her.

Sara can feel the length of Ava’s body pressed tightly against her back, can feel her exhale against the nape of Sara’s neck – something which sends shivers down her spine in a not at all unpleasant way. She can feel their mostly-bare legs tangled together under the sheets, and Ava’s arm slung over her side. Her hand is just barely resting over Sara’s heart, like it had been when she’d been calming Sara after her nightmare.

Like Sara’s hand had been when she herself had been calming Ava down before her Stage One run.

It’s far too intimate.

Ava shifts, and Sara screws her eyes closed again as she feels Ava’s breasts move against her back. She tells her mind not to go there, but it’s no use. Trying to find something to do that doesn’t involve thinking about how it would feel without the fabric of their shirts in the way, Sara rolls away so that she’s on her other side. Distance. Yes, distance is good.

Except now she’s facing Ava, and that’s not much better, because Ava’s frowning in her sleep as her arm drops to the mattress, and it shouldn’t be as adorable as it is. Sara lets herself be selfish, drinking in every detail of how Ava looks just before she wakes up.

The sunlight streaming in through the windows hits her hair in a way that makes it look golden. Locks of hair spill over her shoulders and onto her face, and Sara’s hands itch to push them back. To tuck them behind Ava’s ear like she’s in some kind of cheesy romantic comedy; the ones that she knows Ava secretly likes. (She’s keeping that particular secret from everyone else on threat of disembowelment.)

She wants to smooth out the lines of Ava’s forehead where she’s frowning at the loss of contact. She wants to move closer and trail feather-light kisses up from Ava’s collarbones to her lips to wake her up. She wants to wake up with her every morning.

Ava sighs deeply, her limbs starting to stretch out as she wakes up. Sara knows she should stop staring at her like a creep, but she can’t quite bring herself to look away, even as Ava’s eyes open.

Ava blinks a couple of times before she appears to register Sara, and she stiffens almost imperceptibly.

“Hi,” Sara whispers, as if it’s early morning.

“Hi,” Ava replies. Her voice is scratchy, and it stirs a memory in Sara. A memory of the other time they’d woken up together after Ava had stayed the night when the legends were in Philadelphia.

Truthfully, it hadn’t been that long ago, but so much has happened since that Sara had almost forgotten about it. At the time, it hadn’t exactly been a big deal, because Sara hadn’t had feelings for Ava back then.

Or maybe she had, but hadn’t realised it.

Had that morning possibly been the start of it all? The start of feeling like she wanted nothing more than to be close to Ava. The start of feeling colder when they were apart. Sara’s mind is racing, memories from the past month or so rushing to her head. She gets flashes of Ava’s smile, and the smell of whatever food she’s making in Sara’s kitchen, and the lingering touches that set a trail of fire along her skin.

Sara’s eyes flick around Ava’s face as she comes to the sudden, crashing, overwhelming realisation that she’s fallen deeper than she’d ever expected.

“Um,” Ava says, clearing her throat. She drops the eye contact with Sara. “How are you feeling?”

Like I think I might be in love with you, Sara thinks immediately, and her insides twist with panic at how easily that thought had come to her.

“Better,” she says instead, hoping that Ava hasn’t suddenly gained the ability to read her mind.

“Good,” Ava breathes. For all Sara had rolled away, there’s still not much space between them, and Sara doesn’t know if she wants to close the distance or run for the hills, so she does neither.

“So, Amaya and Zari,” she says. “Who saw that coming, am I right?”

Ava arches an eyebrow at her. “I’m pretty sure you did.”

“Fair point,” Sara concedes. “Okay, so the short version is that both Zari and Amaya told me how they feel about each other and then swore me to secrecy about it.”

“So you couldn’t even hint to Amaya how Zari felt, and vice-versa?” Ava asks, and Sara nods.

“It was almost comical,” she tells Ava, careful to leave out specific details such as how long Zari’s had feelings for Amaya, and the word ‘love’. Anything that she’s not sure Amaya and Zari have discussed, she’s keeping quiet about for now. Even to Ava.

“And the donuts thing?” Ava furrows her brow in sleepy confusion. “What was that about?”

“That was, ah, a bit of… life advice, from Amaya,” Sara hesitates, knowing there’s only so much she can say about this without revealing that Ava had been the subject of that conversation. “About going after the things you want.”

“You want… donuts?” Ava looks a bit lost.

Once again, Sara’s thoughts come to her without permission. Yes, I want donuts, she thinks. And you’re the donut, you donut.

Sara shrugs, ignoring her brain – which is very unhelpfully telling her to kiss Ava right now, consequences be damned – and twists her body around to pick up her phone from the little bedside table. It’s nearly two in the afternoon, and Sara grimaces.

“We should probably get up,” she says.

“Right, yeah,” Ava clears her throat again, even though the initial scratchiness had already faded from her voice.

 

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Once they’re out of the bed, things feel kind of awkward.

It’s like the bed had been a safe little bubble, where they could lie there and look at each other and just talk, but now they’re back in the real world. Sara doesn’t particularly want to confront the fact that Ava had held her in her arms, no questions asked, until she’d fallen asleep. Neither does she want to confront her nightmare. Neither does she want to confront her latest personal revelation.

So, Sara does what she does best, and avoids her feelings.

When they eventually make it down to the course to watch the testers run the Stage Two obstacles, everyone is already there waiting for them, sat on the bleachers that will later hold the spectators. Zari and Amaya are sat together talking, and Sara doesn’t think she’s ever seen Zari as calm and content as she is right now.

Sara’s happy for them, but she can’t help but relate it to her own… situation.

Zari’s bravery makes Sara feel like a coward. She wishes that she could make some grand gesture to tell Ava how she feels about her, but maybe Ava wouldn’t like that. Even just having a conversation with Ava about her feelings, that would be brave, but Sara’s scared. Just because it had worked out for Zari and Amaya, doesn’t mean it will for her. And just because Sara’s accepted her own feelings, doesn’t mean Ava will be comfortable hearing it.

Ava probably doesn’t even think of her as anything more than a friend.

“Afternoon, Cap,” Nate greets her from where he’s sat with the guys. “Sleep well?”

Sara scowls, trying to discern whether there’s an innuendo in there, but Nate seems genuine and oblivious.

“Peachy.”

Ray points up at the course. “That new obstacle seems like a nightmare.”

Sara looks up at where he’s pointing to see a tester start to tackle obstacle number three; two horizontal bars, one after the other, both on hooks. It looks pretty simple.

“Just wait,” Ray tells her, anticipating what she’s going to say.

Sara watches. The tester hangs from the first bar, facing backwards, and unhooks it. Attached to wires, the bar arcs down, backwards, and up – almost like a trapeze. The tester lands the bar on another set of hooks on the other side of what had been the second bar. He then reaches out for it, turning himself around to face the dismount.

The second bar has two ‘levels’ of hooks on it, and the tester looks to be getting weary as he jumps the bar down and out of its holdings. His fingers lose their grip as the bar drops, and he plummets into the water below.

“He was meant to swing again, let go, and land on that mat over there,” Ray sighs. “It’s right after the Criss Cross Salmon Ladder, too.”

“Ouch,” Sara winces, thinking of the strain her arms are going to be put through tonight. And there’s still Wingnut Alley afterwards – where she’d fallen last year. “What about this underwater obstacle?”

“The Water Walls,” Ray says, and he’s clearly been studying this course hard already. “Three walls, each with a door in them, in a big tank of water. You’ve got to slide the first door open, lift the second one, and turn a wheel to open the third.”

“At the end of this course,” Sara raises her eyebrows. “My breath control will have gone to hell by that point.”

“I think that’s the general idea,” Ray grimaces. “But the tank’s shallow enough that you can stand with your head above water, so there’s not too much actual underwater stuff.”

Sara glances over at Ava, who looks determined.

“How many people are they expecting to get to the Water Walls?” Ava asks.

Ray shrugs. “Maybe five, at a push. They’re saying you should give yourself about two and half minutes for the last two obstacles.”

“The time limit is four minutes thirty,” Ava says, and Ray nods.

Sara whistles lowly. Two minutes for the first four obstacles. The rest of the time allowed for the last two; Wingnut Alley and the Water Walls. It’s not going to be easy.

“Okay then, kids,” she says, clapping her hands together once. “Let’s talk strategy.”

 

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At dinner that afternoon, Sara grabs Zari by the arm.

“Sorry,” she grins at Amaya, who pouts as Sara drags Zari away. “Emergency.”

Amaya turns to strike up a conversation with Mick, who had managed to miss Stage One in a Vegas-induced distraction, but had promised to be in the crowd for Stage Two.

“What gives?” Zari asks, as Sara leads her to the bathroom.

“Dude,” Sara pushes her shoulder lightly. “Spill. You and Amaya.”

Zari smiles at the mention of Amaya’s name.

“You’re so whipped,” Sara laughs.

“Like you’re any better,” Zari points out, and Sara stops laughing. “Okay, well, you obviously saw the… outcome of what happened with the whole donut shirt idea—”

“—Genius, by the way,” Sara interrupts.

“But we didn’t really have a chance to talk about it until we got back to our room last night. Or, this morning, technically.”

“Did you, you know, talk?” Sara winks, and Zari rolls her eyes.

“It was just talking,” she says. “And maybe a bit of making out, but mostly talking.”

“And?”

“Things are good,” Zari grins. “Really good.”

“Are you guys officially together?” Sara asks.

Zari nods, biting her lip in an attempt to keep her smile in check, and it’s one of the sweetest things Sara’s seen. She hugs Zari, letting go quickly. She’s aware that they don’t do the hugging thing a lot.

“I just can’t believe it all worked out,” Zari says. “Honestly, I didn’t even think she liked me back.”

“Well, I don’t think Amaya thought you felt the same way as she did, either,” Sara reasons. “So at least you’re both in the same boat.”

“Like you and Ava,” Zari says.

Sara shakes her head. “I, uh, think I’m the only one in that particular feelings boat.”

Zari scoffs.

“No, really,” Sara persists. “Like, I think I’m actually in love with her, but Ava just sees me as a friend. Which is fine, honestly, it is.”

Zari gapes at her. “Wow. Okay, first of all, you’re an idiot.”

“Ouch.”

“Do you really think that Ava doesn’t have feelings for you?” Zari asks, like it’s the most confusing thing in the world to her.

“Well, yeah,” Sara says. “I’m usually pretty good at reading signals, and I haven’t really gotten any signals from Ava, so…”

“Do you think maybe she’s hiding the signals for the same reasons you are?” Zari points out.

“I mean—”

“Sara, I’m your friend, right?”

“Of course,” Sara says, puzzled.

Zari looks her dead in the eyes. “I promise you, I don’t look at you the way Ava does. None of us look at you the way Ava does.”

“What?” Sara says weakly.

“Whether she knows it or not, that woman is crushing hard on you,” Zari tells her.

“Hard on,” Sara snorts quietly, and Zari groans.

“I’m going to punch you in a minute.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Sara holds her hands up. “You know I’m not good with the feelings talk.”

“But seriously,” Zari says. “You’re in love with her?”

Sara’s breath catches in her chest. She hadn’t even registered saying that. But she thinks back to how she’d felt when she’d woken up, and she knows it’s true.

“I… yeah, I think I am,” Sara breathes. “It’s too fast, isn’t it?”

“I’ve been in love with Amaya since almost the first moment I met her,” Zari shrugs. “So, no, I don’t think it is.”

“I don’t—” Sara cuts herself off. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“What do you want to do?”

Sara lets out a slow breath. “Part of me just wants to go for it. Tell Ava everything.”

“And the other part is scared?” Zari asks.

“I think all of me is scared,” Sara says honestly, and this ‘ignoring her feelings’ thing isn’t going as well as it usually does. “The other part of me doesn’t want to risk losing her if things go sideways, or she doesn’t feel the same.”

“Sara,” Zari says gently, putting her hands on Sara’s shoulders. “You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. But if you want my opinion, and if Ava makes you happy, then I think you owe it to yourself to try.”

Sara blinks rapidly, trying to clear the sudden tears that threaten to gather there. “God, Z, you get a girlfriend and suddenly you’re the love doctor.”

A slow grin spreads across Zari’s face. “I have a girlfriend.”

“You have a girlfriend,” Sara echoes. “Remind me to give you both the shovel talk when we get back home.”

 

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As Sara does her first stretches of the night in the ‘backstage’ area, Ava joins her, and she tries not to let her heart rate increase too much. Ava gives her a nervous smile as she stretches her legs out, and it reminds Sara that regardless of how she feels about Ava, they’ve both got a job to do tonight.

They’re part of the top thirty athletes of this season, about to face the second stage of the National Finals, and Sara needs to focus.

Ava is eighth in the running order – her time hadn’t been the fastest on Stage One – and it puts her at more of a disadvantage than Sara’s spot as the twenty-third competitor. Sara will at least get to see more people run the course than Ava will. But Sara also knows that Ava’s been studying the obstacles on previous years’ courses for a while, and that she’s been watching the course testers attempt the new obstacles all afternoon.

“You’ve got this,” she tells Ava quietly.

Ava lets the arm she’d been stretching out drop to her side. “You think so?”

Sara nods. “You’re a badass, Sharpe.”

Ava hums thoughtfully. “Well, you’re not so bad yourself, Lance. What trick are you going to pull on the Salmon Ladder this time, by the way?”

Sara laughs. “You remember me skipping a rung in qualifying?”

Ava shrugs. “It was impressive.”

“You hated me back then.”

“I never hated you,” Ava murmurs, almost too soft for Sara to hear.

“You didn’t?” Sara asks.

Ava shakes her head. “You were annoying as hell, sure, but I never hated you, Sara. Why, did you hate me?”

Sara thinks about it. “No, I don’t think I did. I did think you were arrogant, and aloof… and a really good athlete. Too good.”

Ava looks at her questioningly, and Sara explains further.

“I was jealous, I think,” she admits. “Because you’d only just started doing ninja competitions, but you beat me in our last event before qualifying. You’ve done so well in your first season, and I guess back then it made me a little insecure about my own abilities.”

“But you’re Sara Lance,” Ava says, as if that explains it all.

“Names don’t mean anything,” Sara says simply. “All that matters is what you do. And, Ava, what you do is incredible.”

Ava just stares at her, something indescribable in her expression. So much for focus, Sara thinks.

“So, do I think you’ve got this?” Sara smiles. “Of course I do.”

Ava hugs her, then, arms wrapping tightly around Sara’s shoulders. Sara rests her hands on Ava’s back, feeling the deep breaths she’s taking. She closes her eyes for a moment, letting herself get lost in the hug.

“You’re the reason I started competing,” Ava whispers.

Stunned, Sara pulls back far enough to see Ava’s face. “I—what?”

“I was a jerk to you at the beginning, but it was your qualifying run from two years ago that inspired me to start ninja training,” Ava says, and it feels like her hands are burning the skin of Sara’s neck. Or maybe Sara’s just blushing.

“Wait a minute,” Sara says, realisation slowly creeping in. “You said it. I was your inspiration; you said it.”

“Shut up,” Ava huffs, her cheeks tinting pink.

Sara grins, tugging Ava back into the hug. She’d long since given up trying to get Ava to admit she’d been her inspiration – honestly, it had started as a kind of joke; a way to rile Ava up. But to know that it’s actually true…

“I inspired you,” Sara sing-songs into her ear, and she hears Ava groan.

“I’ll take it back if you’re not careful,” she threatens.

Sara lets it go. But she does start to wonder what else, if anything, Ava might be holding back on saying.

 

----------

 

Nobody from the first seven competitors gets past Wingnut Alley.

To be fair, it’s a brutal obstacle; four swinging red ‘wingnuts’, with a huge sideways lache between each one, and two changes of direction. The hand-holds of the wingnuts are relatively forgiving to land on, but that’s the only easy thing about them, and on tired arms…

It’s not a surprise that no-one has made it through them yet.

Ava’s next to go, and Sara stands on the sidelines nervously, fiddling with the zipper of her hoodie as she waits for Ava to get her countdown. Ava’s eyes find hers from the starting platform, and Sara nods at her. Ava smiles briefly, but it drops into an expression of utter concentration as soon as the countdown starts.

“Ava Sharpe gets underway here on Stage Two,” Carter announces as Ava takes a running leap at the first obstacle; Epic Catch and Release.

“Locks in the first bar,” Kendra says as Ava pushes the swinging horizontal bar into the mechanism and reaches out to grab the second bar. She unlocks it by pulling it back, then works her way along the length of it as it swings to get in range for the dismount. She lets go and lands on the mat safely, and Sara breathes a sigh of relief as Ava gets the first obstacle out of the way.

Ava gets her hands on the bar for the Criss Cross Salmon Ladder, and Sara knows from experience that this is like the obstacle on the city finals course to the extreme. Two jumps up, then a cross to the other side. Another three jumps (or less, depending on how far up each person can land), then another cross over back to the first side where one final jump up awaits. The whole obstacle can be done in as little as three moves, or as many as eight. Sara has her own plan for how to tackle it, but right now it’s Ava who’s making her first jump.

She takes the two jumps up, and then turns her body around, changing her grip accordingly. She takes a swing, then pushes the bar upwards and forwards, landing one rung from the top of the second section. It’s an explosive move for someone with as little experience on the Salmon Ladder as Ava, but it’s exactly what Sara had taught her.

Ava jumps the bar up to the top rung, and then turns around again ready for her final cross. She gets a good backswing, and skips the bar to the top of the Salmon Ladder.

“Nice,” Sara says under her breath, keeping her eyes fixed on where Ava is reaching up to take on the new third obstacle, named Déjà Vu.

So far, this obstacle has already taken out half of the people who have attempted it, and people are already muttering darkly about its difficulty. But Ava used to do gymnastics. Trapeze shouldn’t be a problem for her. Sara doesn’t know whether or not she’s trying to convince herself, but Ava is already unhooking the first bar and swinging backwards.

Going backwards on the swing means that she can see the hooks she has to land the bar on, however, and she does so solidly, reaching out to transfer over to the second bar and turning around to face the landing.

“She unhooks the second bar with no issues,” Kendra says, and Sara can tell she’s nervous, too. “She’s hanging on, going for the dismount…”

“She lands it!” Carter exclaims, as Ava’s feet hit the crash mat and Sara exhales once again. “Now looking at the thirteen foot leap onto the Swing Surfer.”

The Swing Surfer itself is a pendulum, with two huge leaps to make during the completion of the obstacle. The leap onto the pendulum itself is marginally further than the dismount to the rope, but both transfers would be terrifying to someone unused to obstacles like this.

However, Sara and most of the other ninjas consider this obstacle a ‘let up’.

Ava takes the short run-up in a sprint, pushing off the edge of the platform and landing on the small ledge. She braces her hands against the upright column in the middle of the pendulum, working her way around it to the other side as it swings back and forth. She keeps one forearm braced against the column as she waits for the right moment, then jumps from a standstill and catches the rope.

“She’s got it,” Kendra says excitedly, as Ava climbs up the rope and over the top of the partition. She sits on top of it for a few seconds, catching her breath, before dropping down to the starting platform of Wingnut Alley.

Sara crosses her fingers.

There are a few wingnuts at Firestorm, so Ava knows the technique, but nothing can really prepare her for the real thing. Ava looks out at the obstacle, filling her lungs with air after the trials of the first four obstacles. The clock is ticking, counting down, and she’s got about two and a half minutes left. Right on target so far.

“Come on, Ava, you got this!” Sara yells up at her, and Ava nods to herself.

She takes one last deep breath, wiping her hands on her plain navy tank top before jumping off the trampette and grabbing the first of four wingnuts straight in front of her. She stills her body quickly before working up a sideways swing, taking her closer to the next wingnut.

Ava releases at the perfect time, flying sideways and mostly keeping her position so she lands correctly on the second wingnut. She keeps her sideways momentum going, building up to her next lache.

“This transfer is twelve feet, further than the one she’s just done, and she’ll have to twist her body ninety degrees in mid-air,” Carter informs the audience, but Sara barely hears him because the transfer Ava’s about to attempt is the place where Sara had fallen last season.

Ava doesn’t make the mistake Sara had, and lands on the third wingnut safely. Sara puffs out a breath, keeping an eye on the clock. Ava’s taking her time on this obstacle, making sure she has a powerful enough swing before jumping, and it’s eating away at her remaining time. She’s already been on Wingnut Alley for close to a minute.

Ava has to change the direction of her swing for the next lache, which means building momentum from scratch, and she works her hips and arms in tandem to get a good swing going. Her arms are a little straighter than they had been, Ava hanging lower beneath the wingnut, and Sara knows she’s starting to get tired.

But one thing Sara’s learned about Ava over the past few months is that Ava grits her teeth and keeps fighting.

Ava makes the transfer to the fourth and final wingnut, her hands grabbing the holds and hanging on firmly. Again, it’s another change of direction, so Ava gets to work building a big enough swing to go for the dismount.

People have fallen on the dismount before, but not Ava. She arcs through the air, landing with both feet on the mat and a minute left on the clock. Sara hopes it will be enough, but nobody has a real frame of reference for how long the Water Walls will take to complete.

Ava grabs the provided goggles from the edge of the tank, pulling them over her eyes as she jumps into the water. She ducks down so her head is under, grabbing the handle on the first door and bracing her feet against the edge of the tank to pull it open. She gets it open, but has to resurface to take a breath before she submerges herself again and swims through the gap.

Ava’s head breaks the surface of the water on the other side, and she’s already gasping for breath. Sara’s yelling encouragement, pointedly ignoring the camera crew right in front of her as she watches Ava lift the second door open before swimming through that one. Right now, she has less than thirty seconds left, and the last door is the hardest one to open.

Ava wades over to the wheel, and Sara knows she’ll have to have her head under the water to turn it properly. Ava takes a huge breath and dips below the water. Sara watches through the side of the tank as the final door gradually opens, her eyes flicking up to the big screen as the clock keeps counting down.

Ava ducks underwater just as the ten second countdown klaxon starts to sound, and everyone around Sara is yelling in a mixture of excitement, nerves, and downright panic. Sara is almost beside herself internally, willing Ava to the finish.

Ava gets through the door and swims for the end of the tank. She jumps up the step with the last of her energy, eyes fixed on the buzzer. It’s going to be close. Sara can barely watch as Ava lunges for the buzzer, her hand hitting the button just in time.

Sara looks at the clock to see that Ava had completed the course with half a second to spare.

Ava rips the goggles off as the crowd goes wild, sinking to her knees in exhaustion.

“Ava Sharpe, in her rookie year of competition, has just become our first finisher of the night!” Kendra yells into the microphone, and Sara doesn’t know if she wants to laugh, or cry with relief. Ava had done it. She’d actually done it.

Gideon is already there next to her on the platform, mic at the ready, as Ava staggers to her feet, soaked to the bone. Droplets of water are running off her clothes and splashing onto the carpet of the platform.

Sara watches Ava manage to give a somewhat coherent interview, although she doesn’t take in any of what Ava actually says. She’s too focused on the fact that Ava had just completed Stage Two at her first attempt. Sara doesn’t think any woman has done that before. It had taken Nora Darhk a couple of attempts to do it, and Sara’s pretty sure she’s the only other woman who’s beaten Stage Two. Kendra hadn’t quite managed it in her years of competing. It’s a little hard to think clearly right now, but Sara thinks she might have been right in her initial assessment.

Ava’s handed a towel as she makes her way back to Sara. For a moment, before the rest of the legends mob Ava, it’s just the two of them: Sara grinning at Ava, and Ava smiling back in the way that she does when she can’t quite believe she’s done something.

Then Wally practically koala-hugs her, and the moment passes as Ava staggers on tired legs.

 

----------

 

Once Ava’s changed into dry clothes, she rejoins the legends to watch Zari’s run.

Before Zari had been taken to the start, Sara had seen Amaya pull her aside and start talking to her, their foreheads leaned together. It had seemed like a pep talk, and Amaya had ended it by pressing a quick kiss to Zari’s lips.

The legends had all pretended not to be aware of it, but the reality is that everyone knows. Sara knows her friends well enough to see that they’re following Amaya and Zari’s lead on this one. That they’ll wait and see if the two of them want to make an announcement or not. Sara’s keeping an eye on Nate, still, but she can’t see anything to suggest he’s at all bitter, which is a huge relief.

Now, Zari stands at the beginning of the course, back in her usual ‘Team Legends’ top. This seems to confuse Carter and Kendra, who still don’t appear to know what the significance of the donut shirt had been. Although, Sara kind of likes that it’s a reference that only a select few can understand.

Zari begins her run, putting her whole body behind pushing the first pole of Epic Catch and Release to lock it into place. She reaches out to grab the second bar, and it takes her a couple of attempts, but she gets it unlocked and swinging. Zari works her way along the bar, letting go and propelling herself to the mat.

She’s somewhat cautious going up the Salmon Ladder – Zari’s had to work hard on kipping her body correctly, but it’s paying off, as she completes the obstacle with only one more move than Ava had used.

Sara’s heart almost stops on Déjà Vu – when Zari hooks the first bar, only one side of it actually lands. The bar tilts dangerously and Sara sucks in a breath, but Zari gets the other side of the bar up and even a second later.

Sara lets out a sigh of relief, and turns her head to see Amaya exhaling with one hand over her chest and the other on her forehead. If Sara’s heart had almost stopped just then, she doesn’t like to imagine what Amaya must have felt in that moment.

Zari completes the third obstacle without any further mishaps, and Sara once again thanks her friend’s ability to think quickly and correct her missteps in time. On the course, Zari leaps off the platform onto the Swing Surfer, landing like a cat on the narrow ledge. It takes her a while to work her way around, but she manages it; leaping for the rope and climbing up and over the partition that will take her to Wingnut Alley.

Sara can see the grimace on Zari’s face as she surveys the next obstacle while catching her breath. Her eyes flick over to where Amaya is, and the grimace melts into an expression of determination. Sara looks at the clock and sees she has less time than Ava had at this point.

Zari makes the jump to the first wingnut, working hard to build a big swing. She transfers to the second one with no problem, trying to keep her momentum going. Sara can see how much this obstacle is taking out of her, and she knows first-hand just how tough it is. She just hopes that Zari can make it through.

Such is the power of Zari’s swing, that she almost overshoots the next jump. Her forearms impact against the wingnut and she slips. Sara doesn’t know how, but Zari manages to hang tough, her fingers hooking over the edge of the handholds.

“How did she do that?” Carter asks, baffled, as Zari gets a swing going.

“I have no idea, but it didn’t look painless,” Kendra says.

Zari lands much softer on the last wingnut, and if she’s in pain, she’s not showing it. She uses her whole body to build a swing for the dismount, her time left ticking away worryingly fast.

Sara hopes that Zari has enough gas left to get through the Water Walls in time.

“Come on, Zari!” Amaya shouts, as Zari grabs the fresh pair of goggles put out for her and jumps feet first into the tank of water.

Zari’s strong, yes, but she doesn’t have as much muscle as Ava does, and that makes opening the underwater doors harder for her. She fights hard to slide the first one open, taking a deep breath before submerging herself and swimming through it.

It’s when Zari’s fighting tooth and nail to lift the second door that Sara’s stomach plummets as she realises Zari’s not quite going to make it. Amaya seems to realise it too, but she keeps on encouraging her girlfriend up until the last second.

Zari’s head has just emerged from the water as she makes it past the second wall when the lights flash red and her time runs out.

The legends are silent as the crowd behind them groan in disappointed sympathy. Zari shakes her head, seemingly to herself, before hoisting herself over the side of the tank. Sara’s gutted for her; they all know how close she’d come to completing the course. Zari’s handed a towel on her way over to the legends, and Amaya pushes back the loose strands of hair that have been plastered to Zari’s forehead by the water.

“I’ll be okay,” Zari mutters. “Just stings like hell right now.”

“Next year,” Nate says, holding out his closed hand for a fist-bump. Zari manages a tiny smile, knocking their fists together.

“Next year,” she echoes. “Thanks.”

Nate nods at her, leaving her and Amaya be. The rest of the legends follow suit, telling Zari that they’ll be there if she wants to talk about it. Sara gets the feeling that she just kind of wants to talk to Amaya, though, and she understands it. One person is a lot less overwhelming than seven, after all.

Ava looks over at Zari, and Sara hates that she can tell exactly what she’s thinking.

“Don’t feel guilty,” Sara says, and Ava looks at her in surprise. “You earned your spot on Stage Three, fair and square.”

“By the skin of my teeth,” Ava says. “Zari really deserved to get through it.”

If someone had told Sara three months ago that Ava Sharpe would be feeling guilty for her own success over one of Sara’s friends, she would’ve asked them if they were on crack. But now, Ava’s doubts make perfect sense to her.

“Aves,” Sara starts. “Zari will be fine. She just needs a little while to get over the disappointment, but I promise you she won’t give up. And she won’t be mad that you made it and she didn’t, okay?”

“Even though I’m just a rookie?” Ava asks.

“You’re not ‘just’ anything,” Sara says. “I’ll keep telling you until you actually believe it, Ava, you deserve to be here.”

Ava shakes her head, a smile starting to tug at her lips. “What did I ever do to deserve you, Sara Lance?”

Sara’s chest tightens.

The way Ava’s looking at her now, with something deep in her eyes, is stirring butterflies in Sara’s stomach. For a moment, she lets herself believe that Ava has feelings for her, too. Ava’s eyes roam around Sara’s face, and Sara swears they drop to focus on her lips—

“Guys!” Ray runs up to them excitedly. “Nora’s about to run!”

Sometimes, very occasionally, Sara wants to punch her friends. Perhaps sensing this, Ray scurries off in the direction of the sidelines, leaving a slightly awkward atmosphere behind.

“Right,” Ava clears her throat. “I guess we should go watch Nora’s run.”

Sara nods. She doesn’t trust her voice to be completely steady right now.

They find the rest of the legends again, and Mick’s wandered over to join them since, out of them, only Ray is on the sidelines for Nora’s run. He grunts when he sees Sara, and raises his beer bottle in her direction.

“Good of you to show up this time,” Nate’s ribbing him somewhat affectionately when Sara and Ava arrive.

Mick shrugs. “Vegas, man.”

“Strip club?” Amaya asks, pulling a face. Mick just grins at her.

Sara suddenly realises that for all Ava’s heard about Mick from the legends, she’s never actually met him before.

“Mick, this is Ava Sharpe,” she says, nodding to where Ava is standing only a little bit awkwardly. “Ava, meet the one and only Mick Rory.”

Ava holds out her hand to shake, and Mick looks at her in confusion. Ava drops her hand.

“You made it to the next stage,” Mick grunts in acknowledgement, nodding his approval.

Ava looks to Sara for help.

“He’s a man of few words,” Sara explains quietly. “Don’t take it personally.”

Sara hears the beeps of the countdown and the roar of the crowd around her as Nora starts the course. She turns to lean against the barriers, which gives her a pretty good view of the later part of the course.

From where Sara’s standing, apart from when she gets a bit hung up on Déjà Vu, Nora makes it through the first half of the course pretty easily. She’s well on target for time as she completes the Swing Surfer and prepares herself for Wingnut Alley.

Nora has very good technique when it comes to generating a swing. Because she’s a similar height to Sara, Nora had been someone that Sara had studied extensively when it came to the way to get through obstacles that were suited more towards the taller athletes. It’s one of the reasons Sara had looked up to her so much when she herself had been starting out.

Nora makes the first lache, cushioning the jolt of the landing by lifting her body up so that her fingers don’t get ripped off the handholds. She keeps her swing going, and when it’s big enough, she lets go. Nora twists in mid-air so that she’s facing the third wingnut, and sticks the landing on it.

But like Ava had before her, Nora’s arms are starting to straighten out as she gets tired.

“Looks like she expended a lot of energy on that third obstacle,” Carter says, eyes fixed on where Nora prepares to make the transfer to the last wingnut. Sara knows that both he and Kendra are willing their friend on with everything they have.

But it’s not enough.

Nora comes up short by millimetres. She gets her fingertips on the handholds, but can’t hold on, and it sends her spinning backwards wildly as she falls. Nora hits the water with a smack, and the crowd winces collectively.

“Shit,” Sara breathes, but then Nora resurfaces, swimming towards the edge of the huge pool of water beneath the course. She seems unhurt, thankfully.

Ray rushes over to offer her a hand out of the pool. As tough as she is, Nora takes it after a moment’s hesitation, and lets Ray pull her out of the water. Sara can see her talking to Ray, and it looks like she’s reassuring him that she’s fine.

“She looks to be okay, but that was a hell of a fall,” Kendra says, craning her neck from the announcer’s booth to see Nora walk away unharmed. “Not to be this year for Nora Darhk, but we know she’ll be back next year, stronger than ever.”

 

----------

 

There’s only a few competitors between Nora and Sara’s runs, of which Malcolm Merlyn is one. To Sara’s utter delight, he falls on the Criss Cross Salmon Ladder, putting his season to an end.

Sara had been planning on completing Stage Two anyway, but now if she does it she’ll have the added benefit of beating him.

(It’s not anything nefarious. She just really, really doesn’t like him.)

She’s just finishing her final warm-up in a secluded corner of the backstage area when the wrangler comes to get her. She unzips her hoodie, taking it off and dropping it on top of her backpack, which is carrying her change of clothes for after the course. Whether she falls, or reaches the final obstacle, her clothes are going to get soaked.

Sara had needed a moment alone before her run to clear her head. It’s not that Ava’s distracting her from the competition, not exactly, but she just needs a little bit of space. From everyone. She’d failed the course last year; Sara refuses to let herself make the same mistake this year.

She thinks about the visualisation techniques Ava had taught her. There won’t be a hell of a lot of time to stop and visualise on the actual course, so Sara does it now. She follows the wrangler blindly, picturing herself completing each obstacle. She has a plan for how she’s going to do this. Sara just hopes that everything goes somewhat the way she’d prepared it. If not, she can always improvise.

Sara walks up the ramp to the start, faintly hearing the crowd cheer her arrival. She smooths back the flyaway strands of hair, the rest pulled back from her face in a ponytail like usual, taking deep breaths as she waits for her countdown.

“Next up to face the course is Long Beach’s Sara Lance,” Kendra announces. “This is her fourth year of American Ninja Warrior, and her third straight trip to the National Finals.”

“She has good form this season,” Carter informs the audience. “She’s hit three buzzers out of three courses so far, but she fell on Stage Two last year. She’ll be hoping to go one better tonight.”

It’s a textbook dramatic set-up. Clearly, Carter and Kendra think she’s going to do well. She’d been asked about Wingnut Alley earlier in her press interview, too, so maybe the producers are hoping she gets revenge on it this year.

Feeling a sudden surge of confidence, Sara grins as she gets her countdown. Her four and a half minutes begin, and she takes a couple of powerful strides, leaping from the platform to grab the first pole of Epic Catch and Release.

Her push is strong enough to lock in the bar at the first attempt, and Sara reaches out with one arm and then the other, hooking them over the second bar as she transfers her weight fully. Positioned towards the back of the bar, Sara jerks her body up to unlock it. The bar comes free and swings forwards in the direction of the landing pad. Sara works her way along it, reaching the end just as the swing nears its peak. She lets go, her momentum carrying her forwards to dry land.

It's definitely a relief to get the first obstacle out of the way.

Sara flexes her fingers before she takes hold of the bar on the Criss Cross Salmon Ladder. She’d done this obstacle last year in five moves, but it had wasted time and expended some unnecessary energy. Ava had asked her earlier what trick she was going to pull out for this obstacle, and Sara hadn’t answered her, but she’s been planning her approach to this for the past year.

Tonight, she’s going to do it in three moves.

The first jump is easy; it’s just skipping one rung. She’d done that in the city finals course back in March, with six obstacles already behind her. Sara jumps the bar up to the top of the first section, turning around to face the other direction. It’s almost choreographed, the way she spins and changes her grip on each hand. She takes one swing, and then the muscles in her abdomen are tightening and she’s propelling herself as high as she can as she pushes forwards to jump the bar across the gap.

Sara reaches up with the bar, and it lands at the top rung of the second section. Sara’s not entirely sure, but she thinks she hears a collective gasp from the crowd. Grinning, she quickly turns herself around again to face the third section, and this jump is easier than the one she’d just made. She lands the bar on top of the Salmon Ladder and reaches out to grab the transition bar that will take her to the next obstacle.

“She just did the Salmon Ladder in three jumps!” Kendra exclaims. “I don’t think we’ve seen anyone even trythat.”

“It just goes to show how strong Sara Lance is,” Carter says. “She may not be the tallest, but I think that – proportionally speaking – she might be our most powerful competitor.”

Sara smiles. She really does love the Salmon Ladder.

But now it’s an obstacle she’s never faced before: Déjà Vu. Sara gets into position on the first bar, her back to the landing pad. She kips her body up, unhooking the bar, and then she’s dropping. She tightens her grip on the bar as it swings backwards and arcs up, keeping her eyes on the set of hooks she’s aiming for. She lands the bar safely and reaches out with one hand to unhook the next bar from the first set of hooks. It’s not easy, but she manages it, and that’s one less jump for her to do. It hadn’t been in her plan, but Sara’s never really been good at actually sticking to her plans one hundred per cent.

She gets her other hand on the bar, turning around to face the landing, and unhooks the second bar fully. She holds tight to the bar as it drops into the arc, swinging her forwards this time. Sara realises she’ll come up short if she tries the dismount immediately, so she lifts her legs up on the backswing, putting as much power behind it as she can, and times her release down to the split-second.

Sara flies through the air, and lands on the mat with only a slight stumble. She lets out a sigh of relief at getting one of the so-called ‘ninja-killers’ out of the way. Next is the Swing Surfer, and Sara’s made far more risky leaps than this before, so she lands the first jump with no problems, setting the pendulum in motion.

She works her way around to the other side, keeping her right forearm braced against the middle as she edges her feet out on the ledge. It’s a twelve foot jump to the rope, after all. At the crux of the swing, she pushes off hard, and her hands grab the red rope and hold firm. Sara starts to climb, using her feet against the wall of the partition to take the pressure off her arms, which are just starting to burn.

Sara drops to the ground, and now it’s Wingnut Alley she has to take on. Sara shakes out the muscles of her arms, rolling her shoulders in preparation as she slows her breathing. According to the clock, she has about two minutes forty-five left, so she can afford a few moments to rest before taking on the obstacle that had ended her season twelve months ago.

Sara knows she’s stronger than she had been a year ago; both physically and mentally. She knows that she can do it this time. She manages to pick out Ava’s voice on the sidelines, because her brain is apparently attuned to her at all times now, and she grins as she remembers a thought she’d had back at city finals: If Sharpe can do this, then so can I. She and Ava have always been pretty evenly matched, Sara thinks, so why break tradition now?

Sara takes a running jump at the trampette, springing up and grabbing hold of the first wingnut. She lifts her knees up before lowering them slowly, killing her forwards momentum so she can build up her sideways swing. It doesn’t take long, and then she’s looking to her right; spotting her landing as she makes the jump.

Shaking out her muscles had been a good temporary solution – there’s no burn in her arms as she lands on the second wingnut, but Sara knows her body well enough to realise that the ache won’t be kept at bay for too much longer, especially on a gauntlet of a course such as this one.

“This next transfer is where she fell last year,” Carter reminds everybody, and Sara resists the urge to roll her eyes as she builds her swing. She’s well aware of that particular fact.

Confident she won’t make last year’s mistake and come up short, Sara launches herself into the air. She twists her shoulders to the right, her hips following the movement, and stretches out her arms to catch herself on the wingnut. She lands it safely, allowing herself a second of internal celebration before she starts working on building her swing again.

But the obstacle is far from over. Sara’s not sure how much time she has left now, so she can’t afford to slack. She knows she has enough gas left in the tank for the Water Walls, but first she needs to finish Wingnut Alley once and for all.

Sara makes the next ninety degree transfer, her hands finding the holds and gripping tightly as she lands, and tries to kill her momentum again so she can build it up in the right direction. Now there’s only the dismount to go, but plenty of athletes have fallen here in the past couple of seasons. Determined not to be one of them, Sara waits until she’s swinging high enough before letting go and launching herself safely to the landing pad.

Glancing at the clock as she pulls the goggles on, Sara sees she has a little under ninety seconds left, which should give her plenty of time – provided these doors don’t give her too much trouble.

Sara jumps feet first into the water, landing as close to the first wall as she can. The water is pretty cold, and it makes her chest constrict uncomfortably. She gasps involuntarily as she tries to adjust to the temperature, taking a deep breath and ducking her head below the water. She pulls hard on the handle to the first door, sliding it open without too much bother.

Ignoring the growing burn in her arm muscles, Sara swims through the gap. Her lung capacity is usually pretty good, but Sara’s out of breath and tired from the rest of the course, and she has to resurface immediately after passing through the first door.

She wades over to the second door, just about managing to keep her chin above the surface of the water as she lifts it open. She takes another breath and sinks below the surface, getting down to the floor of the tank and going feet-first through the gap. She pushes off the floor with her feet, propelling her to the last wall, and Sara doesn’t know how much time she has left, but the klaxon hasn’t started to sound yet, so she’s pretty sure she’s good.

Adrenaline coursing through her veins, Sara cranks the wheel of the third wall as much as she can. It’s the hardest door to open, and it takes her a bit longer using the last of her energy, but she manages it eventually. She turns the wheel until it won’t go any further, coming up for air, and then dives underwater for the last time, swimming through the gap and towards the end of the tank.

Exhausted, Sara pushes herself up the step and back onto dry land, ripping the goggles off with her left hand and bringing her hand down on the buzzer with her right.

She’s completely spent, her tank top is see-through and plastered to her skin, she’s soaked to the bone, but Sara’s done it. She’s completed Stage Two.

 

----------

 

In the end, she’d finished with about twenty seconds to spare.

Sara gives her interview to Gideon as best she can considering she’s tired, wet, and starting to shiver. As soon as that’s over, she makes a beeline for the production assistant with a towel, taking it gratefully and wrapping it around herself like a cape.

The legends all mob her then, and Sara doesn’t even mind when Jax tries to ruffle her sopping hair. She doesn’t see Ava, though, and a frown creases Sara’s brow. She hadn’t run off, had she?

Sara excuses herself to go find her bag with the change of clothes in it, leaving the legends for now and wishing Amaya luck (her run being the next but one). Sara starts to towel herself dry on her way over to the backstage area, wringing out her ponytail as she walks.

She’s almost there when she collides with someone. She doesn’t see who, being too preoccupied with getting herself dry, until she hears a familiar voice.

“I thought you said we had to stop meeting like this.”

Sara looks up to see Ava grinning down at her, hands braced against Sara’s arms.

“You did it!” She says.

“I did it,” Sara beams back, the last of her adrenaline still buzzing through her body. “I didn’t see you when I got back.”

“I left when you were giving your interview,” Ava explains, holding up Sara’s backpack. “I went to go get this, you looked like you were cold.”

“You’re the best,” Sara sighs with relief, draping the towel over her own shoulders as she reaches for the strap of the backpack. Once again, she marvels at how pretty much everything Ava does is somehow perfect.

Ava laughs, smoothing the top of Sara’s hair back down after Jax had messed it up. Her fingers trace down Sara’s temple, pushing the loose hairs back behind her ear. It reminds Sara of Amaya doing the same thing after Zari’s run earlier, and she sucks in a breath, looking up from the bag she’s now holding to meet Ava’s gaze.

“We’re going to Stage Three,” Ava tells her, like she can’t quite believe it herself. Her hand drops from Sara’s cheek back to her arm.

Sara laughs breathlessly. “We’re going to crush Stage Three!”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” Ava says, both sincere and giddy with excitement (and probably no small amount of nerves for what’s to come tomorrow).

“Yes, you could,” Sara protests good-naturedly. “You’re extraordinary, Aves.”

“So are you,” Ava breathes, suddenly serious, and Sara laughs – still high on the joy of what she’d just managed to accomplish.

“Not as—”

Ava closes the distance between them, leaning down and cutting Sara off pretty effectively. Sara’s eyes close on instinct as her brain short-circuits.

Ava is kissing her.

Her hands are still gently gripping Sara’s arms, and her lips are warm against Sara’s own. Where she felt cold only a few seconds ago, Sara now feels like there’s liquid fire coursing through her veins. It’s as if she’s burning up from the inside, but she doesn’t even care because this is surely the best way to die.

Just as Sara’s brain starts to catch up, Ava pulls back almost as suddenly as she had kissed her. Sara’s eyes are still closed, her lips tingling like she’s back in eighth grade or something ridiculous like that. She opens them to see Ava staring at her, wide-eyed. Sara almost swears that she sees Ava tremble.

“I’m sorry, I—” Ava cuts herself off, wringing her hands together, and that’s when Sara realises that Ava isn’t touching her at all anymore; she’s even jumped back two paces.

Sara tries to make her voice work, her lips parting to say something, anything, when Ava continues.

“I shouldn’t have done that.”

And that stops Sara in her tracks.

Ava backs away, tripping over her own feet as she turns on her heel and hurries away. Sara’s brain is still slow on the uptake, but she gets the sudden, overwhelming feeling that Ava had regretted the kiss as soon as it had happened.

 

----------

 

Sara’s torn between going after Ava, or leaving her be.

She’s leaning towards the latter, and not just because she still seems to be frozen to the spot. Sara brings her fingers up to touch her lips, which still feel warm with the ghost of a kiss she’s starting to realise she’ll probably never feel again. Sara doesn’t think she can handle more rejection right now.

Her stomach is churning as her brain replays Ava’s words over and over again. ‘I shouldn’t have done that,’ Ava had said. But she had. She’d kissed her, and immediately decided that it had been a bad idea.

Sara’s shivering again.

Coming back to her senses, she changes into her dry clothes, glad for more than one reason that she’s stood in a fairly private area. Wrapping her hoodie around herself protectively, Sara gets her feet moving. They subconsciously take her back to the legends, and Zari seizes her forearm in relief.

“There you are,” she says. “Amaya’s about to run.”

“Sorry,” Sara mumbles. “Got held up.”

“Where’s Ava?” Zari frowns, craning her neck.

Sara opens her mouth to answer, but she doesn’t know how to even begin to explain the events of the last five minutes. She doesn’t have to anyway; pretty much as soon as she and Zari reach their places on the sidelines, Amaya gets her countdown.

Sara’s only half-aware of Amaya running the first half of the course. It’s like she’s watching from underwater, and she’s furious with herself because Amaya is one of her best friends and she should be supporting her properly, but she can’t focus.

She claps along with the legends each time Amaya completes an obstacle, trying to pull her mind out of the spiral it’s falling into. She blinks rapidly, tuning back in as Amaya leaps onto the Swing Surfer, making her way to the other side of the pendulum before leaping and grabbing the rope. Her hands slip, but she catches herself before she can slide down more than a few inches.

Sara hisses under her breath. That had probably hurt.

Amaya makes it to the top of the rope a little slower than usual, considering her background is in climbing, and hauls herself over the partition. She drops to the ground on the other side, inspecting her palms. Sara thinks she sees her grimace.

After spending a few moments catching her breath, Amaya jumps from the trampette to grab the first wingnut. Sara groans under her breath, because Amaya had definitely grimaced that time.

“Come on, come on, come on,” Zari whispers under her breath, her hands covering her mouth as she looks anxiously to where Amaya is gritting her teeth against the pain to build a swing.

Sara hopes against hope that Amaya can push through it, but miracles don’t often happen on this show. Sure enough, Amaya can’t stick the landing on the second wingnut, dropping into the water below. Sara closes her eyes, cursing that damn rope.

 

----------

 

Sara goes with Amaya and Zari to find a first aid kit.

There’s a little tent set up for non-serious injuries such as Amaya’s rope burn, and they make a beeline for it, Zari consoling Amaya along the way. Sara stays quiet, not wanting to intrude, and trying her best not to feel like even more of a third wheel than she normally does.

Ava’s rejection still fresh in her mind, Sara tries to ignore the way that Zari cups Amaya’s hands between her own, smiling softly at her as the medic treats the burns. She’s staring off into space, the kiss – and Ava’s subsequent backtrack – playing on a loop, and she doesn’t notice Zari trying to get her attention until she physically pokes Sara.

Sara jerks her head around to look at Zari, who’s staring at her expectantly.

“Say again?” Sara asks.

“I was just asking if everything’s okay,” Zari says, and both she and Amaya look concerned. “You’ve been spacing out ever since you went for your change of clothes.”

The medic announces that he’s finished, and so Amaya thanks him as she stands and the three of them walk out of the tent and back towards the course. There’s only a few people left to run the course, Ray included.

“Yeah, um, not really,” Sara admits. She considers lying, saying that everything’s fine, but part of her knows that Amaya and Zari would see straight through her.

“Sara, what happened?” Amaya asks.

Sara screws her eyes shut for a second, taking a deep breath. “Ava kissed me.”

There’s complete silence for a second as those three words sink in.

“I’m confused,” Zari says eventually. “That’s a good thing, right?”

“No, Zari, it’s not,” Sara sighs. “Because right after she kissed me, she said ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ and practically ran away.”

Zari whistles. “Shit.”

“Clearly, she thinks kissing me was a mistake,” Sara rubs at her temples, feeling a headache coming on. “And, clearly, you were wrong about her having feelings for me.”

Zari shakes her head. “Sara, even if she ran away, she still kissed you. That has to count for something.”

“Zari’s right,” Amaya says. “Okay, I need more information about this. What did you say after she kissed you?”

“I, um, didn’t actually say anything?” It comes out as more of a question, Sara’s voice rising in pitch towards the end of her sentence.

“Anything at all?” Amaya asks.

“Well, I was kind of caught off-guard,” Sara defends herself.

Amaya is quiet for a moment, deep in thought. “Sara, when Ava kissed you… did you kiss her back?”

This stumps Sara. Her immediate thought is: Of course I kissed her back. But the more she thinks about it, the more she starts to realise that, no, she hadn’t. She’d been too surprised to react; her brain hadn’t really caught up to what was happening before Ava had pulled away. She’d just stood there, stock-still and silent, while Ava had kissed her.

Sara looks at her friends, stricken.

Zari shoves her, none too gently. “You idiot.”

“Shit,” Sara says, raking her hand through her hair – forgetting it’s still tied back and grumbling as it gets caught. “Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“I need to talk to her,” Sara says.

Amaya holds a hand up. “Woah. Give her some time, Sara. Give yourself some time, too. It happened, what, ten minutes ago?”

“She’ll be anxious,” Sara protests.

“And the last thing she needs right now is you finding her in a whirlwind of nervous energy,” Amaya says firmly. “Take a few moments to think about what you’re going to say before you go in all guns blazing.”

Sara still disagrees with Amaya about waiting, knowing Ava well enough to guess that she’s probably spiralling as well, but she obeys. She does recognise that she probably needs to calm down before she speaks to Ava, not wanting to spook her even more.

“You think the reason she regretted it was because I did nothing?” Sara asks.

“Yeah,” Zari says. “Ava Sharpe wouldn’t have kissed you if she didn’t mean it, dummy.”

“Sorry, sorry, you know I’m not good at the whole feelings thing,” Sara sighs. “I just don’t want to screw this up even more by assuming the kiss meant more than it did.”

Zari rolls her eyes. “You’re hopeless.”

“Come on,” Amaya links her arm with Zari’s. “Ray’s due on the course soon. Wait until he’s run, and then talk to Ava.”

 

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Sara’s not actually that surprised when Nora joins them on the sidelines.

What she is surprised about, however, is how nervous she looks. Sara’s not sure Nora Darhk even experiences nerves – certainly not for her own competitive runs – so it’s more than a little strange to see her fingers tapping out an irregular rhythm on her crossed arms, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth as Ray takes on the first obstacle.

Ray still appears to be one of the favourites in this years’ competition, and almost all of the ninjas are crowded around the barriers to watch him take on the course. He’d completed Stage Two last year, and it’s clear that everyone expects him to do the same this year.

Ray isn’t hanging around on the course, but he’s not speeding through it, either. Watching twenty-eight other people attempt the course has given him a really good idea of the pace he needs to keep up to be inside the time limit, and his approach to each obstacle is measured and careful.

He’s textbook perfect through Déjà Vu, not letting his heavier frame drop him like a stone when he unhooks each bar. Sara supposes that he makes up for the weight disadvantage by it being muscle, making him more than capable of supporting his own body.

Sara knows that Ray can get a little nervous about big leaps, but he judges the thirteen foot gap onto the Swing Surfer comfortably, and he climbs up the rope on the other side with no issues. With a seventy-five foot rope climb being the test of Stage Four, all the legends are pretty adept at that particular skill, just in case.

Sara really feels like one of them could make it to the final stage this year – a feeling that only increases when Ray makes it through Wingnut Alley successfully. With one obstacle left, and enough time on the clock to make it to the finish comfortably, Sara finds herself relaxing slightly towards the end of Ray’s run.

The Water Walls don’t really pose much of a challenge to someone with Ray’s level of strength, and the legends plus Nora cheer him all the way to the buzzer as he becomes just the third finisher of the night, with only Barry Allen left to run.

When Ray makes it back over to them, Nate’s the first one to get to him, arms already held out for one of their signature bro-hugs. Sara’s pretty sure they’re still living together, and she idly wonders if Ray will ever ask Nate to move out, or if they’re permanent roommates now.

Nora’s actually the second person to Ray, stretching up on her toes to hug him, and his smile is positively blinding. Sara exchanges a look with the others, who are all doing a very bad job at hiding their interest in Ray and Nora’s exchange.

While Ray had been running, Sara had been doing a pretty good job of not thinking about the Ava situation, but now the feelings hit her again, full-force. She’s calmer about it than she had been before, though, and Sara is on the edges planning what she’s going to say to Ava.

She wants to tell her that she liked the kiss. She wants to tell her that she has feelings for her, and has done for a while. She wants to ask if Ava really does feel the same way about her.

(She doesn’t want to tell Ava that’s she’s pretty sure she’s falling in love with her – heaven only knows how fast Ava would run for the hills if she says that.)

Excusing herself just as Barry’s run comes to an end on Déjà Vu, Sara slings her backpack over her shoulder and heads back to the hotel. Her nerves start buzzing as she enters the lobby, taking the elevator up to the third floor. If things go south, she can always ask to stay in Zari and Amaya’s room next door, Sara reasons, trying to calm her racing heart.

Standing outside room 312, Sara takes a deep breath. She can do this. She can have a mature conversation with Ava about her feelings. It sure isn’t the best circumstance – in an ideal world, they’d be having this conversation back at Sara’s apartment, sat on the sofa without the pressures of competing hanging over their heads and not in the middle of the damn night – but Sara can do this. She has to clear the air.

She unlocks the door, pushing it open as she goes over the plan one last time.

“Ava, I—”

Sara’s voice dies in her throat, and the plan temporarily gets thrown to one side, because Ava is fast asleep in her own bed, snoring lightly with the most peaceful expression Sara has ever seen on her face.

And Sara hadn’t known what exactly to expect when she came back; maybe Ava would have been pacing the room, or sitting up waiting for Sara’s return, or even not there at all. Ava being sound asleep less than an hour after what had happened had been pretty much the last thing Sara had thought she’d come back to.

Sara doesn’t know what this means. Does it mean Ava’s over what had happened already? Had Sara fooled herself into believing Ava would be more anxious and torn up about it than she actually is? Had Sara just been projecting her own feelings onto Ava this whole time?

She’s tired. Sara’s so tired, and nothing’s really making sense at the moment. So, she decides that this is a problem for future Sara and grabs her pyjamas from her suitcase, going into the bathroom to brush her teeth and change.

She climbs into her own empty bed, trying not to think about how cold it is without Ava’s warmth surrounding her, and closes her eyes.

Chapter Text

PART VII

When Sara wakes up, Ava’s bed is empty.

Trying to ignore the disappointment that rises in her chest, and cursing past Sara’s choices, she throws back the covers of her own bed (which feels inexplicably cold without Ava in it) and rubs her eyes. She takes a deep breath, trying to sort out her head.

Whatever’s going on with the Ava situation, they’re both running Stage Three tonight, along with Ray. She needs to focus.

Sara manages a small smile as she thinks about the legends cheering her on like they always do. She’s glad Ava has them now, too. But… what if Ava doesn’t want them anymore? Maybe she won’t feel comfortable around any of them because of what had happened with Sara. A sudden frown creases her brow.

Sara knows Ava (or, at least, she thinks she does) and she knows that Ava could try and distance herself from them all. She might not even want Sara on the sidelines anymore. If that’s really what Ava wants, then of course Sara will respect that, but she doesn’t want Ava to feel like she has nobody in her corner.

An idea strikes her.

Hoping it won’t be a dead end, Sara grabs her phone and clicks on a contact that she’s never used before. The phone rings exactly three times before she hears a curious voice on the other end.

“Hello?”

“Gary, hi, it’s Sara,” she says. “Um, Sara Lance.”

“I know who you are,” Gary says cheerily, like they’re old friends. “How are you?”

“Fine,” Sara says, rolling her eyes at how utterly unconvincing she sounds. “Listen, Gary, I need your help. It’s about Ava.”

“What’s wrong? Is she okay?” The tone of Gary’s voice immediately switches to concern.

“It’s a long story,” Sara sighs. “But the point of it is that I think she really needs you here tonight when she runs the course. And I know you have work, and that’s why you couldn’t come in the first place, but I don’t know if I’m what she needs right now. She needs for you to be cheering her on, in person. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I’m just calling you out of the blue and—”

“I’ll be there,” Gary promises. “I’ll find a way.”

Sara lets out a relieved breath. “Thank you,” she says.

“She’s my best friend,” Gary says simply. “The only reason I didn’t beg for the time off after all was because Ava told me she’d be okay because she had you.”

Sara’s chest tightens. “She… she said that?”

“Yeah, a day or two after I dropped the news that I couldn’t come,” Gary says, and if he notices the hitch in Sara’s breath, he doesn’t comment on it. Sara can hear him scrambling around on the other end of the line. “I’m setting off for the airport now. I’ll get a ticket and be there in a few hours.”

“Gary, are you blowing off work, like, right now?” Sara asks.

There’s a pause. “Maybe.”

“You’re not as much of a dweeb as I thought,” Sara says, genuinely impressed.

“Thanks, I think,” Gary says, just as brightly as he’d done when asking Sara how she was. “I’ll see you soon.”

“See you soon,” Sara echoes. She’s about to hang up when Gary speaks again.

“By the way, whatever’s going on with Ava… it might seem hard to talk to her, but she’ll open up to you about it. I know she will.”

Sara doubts that, but she thanks him anyway. Hitting the ‘end call’ button, Sara checks the time. A little after midday. It’s no surprise that she hadn’t slept as long or as well last night as she had the night before. If Sara closes her eyes, she can feel Ava’s arms around her as she’d woken up less than twenty-four hours ago.

If she concentrates, Sara can feel the ghost of Ava’s lips against her own.

Maybe if Sara had recovered from the shock in time and kissed her back, they wouldn’t be in this mess. Sara buries her head in her hands, unable to focus. One way or another, she needs to try and clear the air with Ava as soon as possible.

She won’t lose her.

 

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Sara stops to grab a bite to eat on her way down to watch the course testers, hoping the food won’t come back up later because she feels that sick with nerves. Her nerves about the course are colliding with her anxiety over talking to Ava, and it’s not a fun feeling.

She sees Ray, and she’s about to walk over to him when she sees that he’s talking closely with Nora. She looks no worse for wear after her fall last night, but Sara knows Ray well enough to know that he’ll still be worried about Nora. So, she decides to leave them to it.

Sara wonders if everyone but her can talk to the person they like without it turning into a disaster. She and Ava had been fine. They’d been fine, and then Ava had kissed her and had run for the hills a few seconds later, and now things are weird.

She almost wants to be mad at Ava for kissing her like that; before Sara had confessed how she felt about her. Truthfully, Sara’s more mad at herself for not reacting and for letting Ava run away without knowing how she felt. But she still doesn’t know whyAva had chosen that moment to kiss her. There are three possibilities in Sara’s mind: One – Ava has feelings for her, too, and tried to backtrack when Sara hadn’t kissed her back. Two – Ava had thought she had feelings for her, but had realised she hadn’t when they’d kissed because clearly Sara’s whole life is a lie and she’s that bad at it. Three – it had been a spur-of-the-moment celebratory mistake, and Ava had never had feelings for her.

Sara really hopes it’s the first one.

She watches the testers go through the Stage Three obstacles, and there are some new ones this year. Not that Sara’s ever competed on Stage Three before, but both Ray and Nate have, so she has some inside knowledge when it comes to certain obstacles.

People seem to be thrown off by the new design of the Ultimate Cliffhanger, even though the dimensions themselves haven’t changed. The only real difference is that the wall is made of clear plexiglass so that the audience seated behind it can have a better view, but that seems to be challenging people.

Sara feels like the Curved Body Prop could be her undoing. She’s plenty strong enough to traverse the length and height of it when she’s fresh, but it’s halfway through the course and Sara is the shortest athlete left by a good few inches, so she’ll have to stretch her tired body more than most. And that’s even if she makes it that far.

Trying to keep her focus on the course, Sara’s eyes can’t help but wander – looking for Ava. She feels like she’s always looking for Ava; has been since even before they’d become friends. Somehow, even back at qualifying, Sara had always been able to spot her in a crowd.

Sara’s heart skips as she sees Ava, sat in a corner of the bleachers with her knees pulled up to her chest. She only hesitates for a second before she starts walking towards her.

She doesn’t want to take Ava by surprise if she’s as lost in thought as she appears to be, so Sara keeps her approach slow and purposeful, putting herself in Ava’s eyeline.

Ava’s eyes go from staring at something in the middle distance to locking onto Sara’s own, and Sara thinks she can see a flicker of a nervous smile cross Ava’s face. It gives her some hope that she hasn’t totally ruined everything.

Sara doesn’t suspect that Amaya and Zari will be up for a while, given they’re not running Stage Three – which is a pain, because she could do with some solid advice right now. She replays Amaya’s words from last night in her head: Think about what you’re going to say.

She can almost hear Zari yelling ‘communication!’ at her and threatening to punch her if she screws this up again, and it’s enough to push Sara into giving this whole ‘mature conversation’ thing a try.

Taking a shaky breath, Sara climbs the stands until she’s reached Ava at the back of the bleachers. She gestures to the space next to her.

“Is this seat taken?”

Ava shakes her head, looking at Sara like she doesn’t know quite what to expect from this conversation. Sara can relate. She sits next to Ava, trying to ignore the prickling of heat that spreads through her body as she does so. Sara’s starting to think that she just feels warmer when she’s close to Ava, and she’s a little bit addicted to it.

“I wanted to apologise,” Ava starts quietly, looking down at her hands.

“What for?” Sara frowns, and it might be one of the dumbest things she’s ever said, if the way Ava looks at her is any indication.

“For kissing you,” she mutters agitatedly, glancing around to see if anyone can hear them, and then the floodgates open. “And because I made things weird, and because even though I wanted to apologise to you last night, I got scared so I pretended to be asleep. And I snuck out before you woke up, so now you had to come and find me, and I just keep thinking that if I hadn’t been so damn selfish we wouldn’t even be in this mess and you wouldn’t be uncomfortable around—”

“Ava, slow down,” Sara puts her hand on Ava’s arm, which had been getting dangerously close to knocking her out once Ava had started to get louder and more open with her body language.

“Sorry, sorry,” Ava murmurs, dropping her hands back down to rest on top of her knees. Sara’s brain starts to process everything Ava had said, and one thing jumps out at her.

“What do you mean about you being selfish?” Sara asks.

Ava sighs, closing her eyes.

“When I kissed you, I was only thinking about what I wanted,” Ava says softly. “Not what you wanted. God, Sara, I didn’t even ask, or give you any sort of warning and I feel terrible—”

“You… you wanted to kiss me?” Sara’s brain, once again, is having a challenge processing.

“Please don’t make me spell it out, Sara,” Ava whispers. “It’s fine, it’s not what you wanted.”

“What if it was?” Sara says, and she can’t quite believe the turn this conversation has taken, but she’s sure as hell not going to let this chance pass her by yet again.

Ava still doesn’t open her eyes, but she does pause uncertainly. “What?”

The imaginary Amaya has joined the imaginary Zari in yelling ‘communication!’ in Sara’s mind, so she takes a deep breath and steels herself.

“Ava, I’d been wanting to kiss you for a while,” Sara admits, finally, and Ava’s eyes open. She turns to look at Sara with wide eyes and an adorable crease between her brows, like she can’t quite comprehend what Sara is saying. “In fact, I’d been wanting it – wanting you– so much that when you kissed me, it was like my brain just stopped working out of shock.”

A sudden laugh escapes Ava, seemingly before she can stop it. It surprises both of them, and Sara finds her own lips pulling into a sheepish grin. But now that she’s started telling Ava how she feels, it’s like she can’t stop. 

“I’d been waiting all this time, and I didn’t even kiss you back,” Sara recalls. “I felt like the biggest idiot in the world. Still do, actually. And just as I was trying to find any sort of words, you said that you shouldn’t have done it, and the next thing I knew, you were gone.”

She shrugs, trying to make it clear that she doesn’t blame Ava for running away. In Ava’s position, Sara would have at least considered – and quite possibly done – the exact same thing.

Ava sighs, like things are starting to make sense. “I only said that because I promised myself that I wouldn’tkiss you, no matter how much I wanted to.”

Sara’s silent for a moment. “I think we’re the biggest dumbasses in history.”

“I think you’re right,” Ava grimaces.

“I like you,” Sara says simply, and it seems juvenile compared to what she’s really feeling. She decides to leave out the ‘love’ bit, though; she doesn’t want to spook Ava when they’re only now just figuring out what they are to each other. And she’s not lying; she does like Ava. She really, reallylikes Ava.

Ava nods slowly, looking a lot happier than she has in a while at hearing Sara’s words. “I like you too,” she says, and the words leave her in a rush of air.

And even though Sara had guessed as much from the past few minutes, she still can’t describe what it feels like to hear Ava say those words to her. For a blissful moment, she lets herself believe that everything’s resolved, and she and Ava will skip off into the sunset together. But she gets the idea that it’s not going to be as simple as all that, as Ava glances around them again.

“Do you not want people to know you’re gay?” Sara asks gently.

“No, it’s not quite that,” Ava says. “It’s just… do you remember when I told you that I find it hard to be open about myself?”

Sara does remember. The night of the Philadelphia finals, when Ava had come over to keep Sara company while she was healing from her sprained ankle. It had been the first time that Ava had told her something really personal about her past. She nods, and Ava continues.

“The only person that I really feel like I can be completely myself around is you,” she says. “And I know you said that names don’t mean anything in this sport, but they mean something to the press, and to the public, and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to navigate the attention that would come from this.” Ava gestures between the two of them, and Sara thinks she gets what Ava’s saying. Her heart starts to sink.

“You never felt like you could be yourself around Gary?” Sara asks, mostly as a deflection, but she’s also genuinely curious.

Ava considers for a moment. “Mostly, I can. But he’s so sensitive sometimes that I don’t want to tell him when I’m hurting. You’re the one I want to tell, Sara.”

Sara allows herself to soften at that, even as she tries to think of a way to help Ava become more open around the others because Ava really shouldn’t have to feel like she can’t be herself around them.

“So, you think the press and the questions and stuff would be too much,” she guesses, getting back to what Ava had been saying a moment ago.

“It’s more like…” Ava pauses, searching for the right words. “How I feel about you, Sara, that’s so special to me. I don’t want usto be jeopardised by, say, the producers finding out and spinning it into their own story.”

“We won’t let them,” Sara reassures her. “We can refuse to answer any questions. I’m not saying it would be easy, Ava, but we could try.”

Now that Sara knows her feelings aren’t as unrequited as she’d led herself to believe, that there’s a them, she doesn’t want to let either of them give up quite so easily. She gets that the situation is delicate, she really does, but there’s a way through. There has to be.

“If you don’t want to be with me, I get it, I’ll back off,” Sara says quietly, reassuringly. “I’d be your friend until the end of the universe, if that’s what you wanted. But what I don’t think I could do is lose you, Aves.”

“I couldn’t either,” Ava admits, reaching out to grip Sara’s hand. “And believe me, Sara, I want to be with you. You have no idea how much I want to.”

“But?” Sara breathes, trying her best to memorise every detail she can about Ava, just in case this turns out to be the beginning of the end even after what Ava had just said.

Ava sighs, and her hand trembles. “But I just don’t know if I can do this.”

And even though Sara’s heart is kind of breaking right now, at least she knows.

She knows that Ava has feelings for her, too, and that the kiss hadn’t meant nothing, and that Ava does want to be with her. Sara swallows roughly.

“Okay,” she whispers, and she doesn’t want to give up on Ava, but she doesn’t want to be the person who pushes her into something she’s not ready for. Not sure quite what to do, Sara makes to stand up, but Ava’s hand stays covering her own.

“Can I just have some time to think about things?” Ava asks, and it’s almost a plea. Sara looks at her, seeing the worry in Ava’s eyes. She doesn’t want to be the cause of that, so she turns her palm over and interlaces their fingers, giving Ava’s hand a comforting squeeze.

“Of course,” she says. “Ava, I’d never want you to do something you’re uncomfortable with, okay? Even… even if it means—”

“That I can’t kiss you again,” Ava finishes, and her expression clouds over.

Sara smiles ruefully. “I really should’ve kissed you back.”

Ava’s eyes drop to her lips, there’s no mistaking it, but Sara knows it can’t happen. Not right here and not right now. So, she reluctantly pulls her hand away and finally stands up.

“Will we be… okay?” She asks.

To her relief, Ava nods. “Yeah. We’ll be okay.”

 

----------

 

 

Sara catches up with Ray a couple of hours later.

Since her conversation with Ava, she’s been feeling kind of like her heart is weighing her down, and Ray is the most positive person she knows, so she hopes he’ll be able to cheer her up a bit. She finds him hugging Nora goodbye, and she briefly wonders if they’ve left each other’s sides since she’d last glimpsed them.

“Hey,” Sara greets him, and he jumps slightly, too focused on watching Nora go.

“Sara,” he says brightly, and she smirks despite herself.

“Wasn’t interrupting anything, was I?” Sara asks innocently.

“Don’t be silly,” Ray brushes it off, clapping his hands together once. “So, how are you feeling about tonight?”

Truthfully, Sara hasn’t given it that much thought. “Mildly terrified,” she says.

“Me too,” Ray says, grinning conspiratorially. “I’ve only attempted it once.”

“Still once more than me,” Sara reminds him.

“True,” Ray concedes. “Do you want any advice?”

“I would love some advice, Ray,” Sara says, and she thinks his megawatt smile might be working. She feels a bit better already.

“Okay,” Ray looks thrilled at the prospect of helping. “If you pinch your feet on the Floating Boards it takes a lot of the pressure off your hands, makes it a lot easier. The next two obstacles I don’t really know anything about doing, but they’re both upper body strength so you’ll be fine.”

Ray has such faith in her.

Sara almost feels envious, as Ray’s words wash over her; she wishes she had his level of faith in herself. She knows, objectively, that she’s strong, and quick-thinking, and determined… but this is completely unchartered territory for her. And sure, she’s practiced the Ultimate Cliffhanger they have at Firestorm a thousand times, but this is the real thing out there on the course. Back at the start of the season, Sara had been sure that she could do it. But now that she’s actually here…

“Are you okay?” Ray asks her, and Sara starts. She hadn’t even realised she’d been zoning out.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she waves his concerns off, but he doesn’t look convinced.

“How’s Ava?” He asks cautiously.

Sara shrugs, too casual. “Ava’s fine.”

She doesn’t ask why he’s inquiring, because she has a gut feeling that he knows something’s not quite right between them. Sara thinks perhaps all the legends know – which is unsurprising; looking back, Sara had been the furthest thing from subtle.

It’s like how they all knew when something had changed between Amaya and Zari – even the ones who hadn’t seen their kiss. Sara wonders now how many of them had seen it coming. She wonders if they’d noticed the same thing about her and Ava.

“How’s Nora?” She asks him in return, arching an eyebrow. And maybe she’s asking to take the attention off of herself, but it’s also really adorable when Ray blushes over someone.

“She’s good,” Ray says brightly. “Disappointed she’s not competing tonight, obviously, but she said she’s going to be there for… all of us.”

Sara narrows her eyes playfully as Ray corrects himself at the last second. Sara and Nora like each other, sure, and Nora had gotten along pretty well with Ava when they’d met, but there’s no doubt in Sara’s mind that out of the three of them left she’s going to be cheering Ray on to win.

“There’s three of us left,” Sara realises out loud. “Ray, there’s three of us left in the competition.”

“And we’re all legends,” Ray beams, and Sara gets what she knows is an impossibly soft smile on her face, because Ray had included Ava in that description.

No matter what’s happening between them right now, Ava is a legend.

 

----------

 

Sara had almost forgotten about the phone call she’d made earlier that day, until Ava’s eyes fix somewhere over her shoulder, and her jaw drops.

All of them are hanging out in the hotel lobby, the excitement building as the sun starts to sink lower. It’s starting to turn from afternoon to evening, and it’s only a matter of hours until the competition continues.

Ava’s in the middle of her sentence when she stops, blinking rapidly like she can’t quite believe what she’s seeing. Sara twists around in her seat to see Gary, oversized backpack weighing him down as he spots them all and waves wildly.

Then Ava’s moving, getting up out of the chair she’d been sitting in and nearly running to throw her arms around her friend. Gary’s never looked happier as Ava hugs him, and Sara can’t help but wonder if Ava’s ever hugged him like this before.

They talk for a moment, and they’re just out of earshot but Sara thinks that Ava is asking Gary what the hell he’s doing here. Gary says something, and then Ava looks over and her eyes meet Sara’s, and Gary’s clearly told her that Sara had called.

Sara ducks her head, hoping Gary doesn’t reveal too much.

But when she glances back up, unable to keep her eyes off Ava for too long, Ava’s looking at her with such open adoration that it takes Sara’s breath away. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen Ava look at her like that before, and she wonders if maybe she’s always looked at her like that, but it’s only now she knows how Ava feels that she’s really noticing it.

When Mick asks who the hell ‘that dweeb over there’ is, Sara realises with a start that the others don’t really know Gary. They know of  him, but they’ve never been properly introduced. As the evening wears on, Gary proves to be the best combination of awkward and genuine, which isn’t exactly an uncommon thing for the legends, so they accept him pretty readily.

Ava keeps glancing between Gary and Sara as the conversation carries on, the topic turning to what they should eat for dinner before heading out to the course for the night. Sara’s itching to talk to her, to explain that she’d been worried that Ava wouldn’t want her anymore but that she should still have someone on the sidelines.

She doesn’t get a chance at dinner, because clearly Gary has a lot of stuff to catch Ava up on, which is completely fair. Sara knows it’s been a while since they’ve last seen each other, so she lets Gary talk Ava’s ear off while she looks at him with a sort of fond exasperation.

Sara eats light, being careful to eat enough to keep her going while not making her feel weighed down by a full stomach. She’s starting to get fidgety waiting for shooting to start.

One of the production assistants finds her just as she’s finished eating, asking if she can do some interviews for her intro when the show goes out to the public. He asks Ray and Ava, too, but takes Sara first.

She quickly excuses herself to change into her clothes for when she runs the course, and follows the assistant to the usual room somewhere on the ground floor of the hotel, where there’s a camera crew in front of a backdrop and a stool. Sara’s been through this twice already in the past few days, so she’s quite familiar with the procedure.

Rip Hunter, the artistic director for the promo shoots, asks her a few questions about making it through Stage Two and the like, which Sara does her best to answer. It’s hard to find the words when she’s still having trouble believing that it had really happened.

“Good. Great,” Rip praises. “Now, there’s three of you left, and you all train together. What’s your secret?”

It’s become common knowledge that Ava’s kind of joined up with the legends, thanks to Nate and Wally’s social media accounts. Group pictures at the gym are a common occurrence, and Ava had deigned to join in once she’d gotten a bit more comfortable with the team.

Sara grins. “I guess we just push each other to be better, you know? A bit of friendly competition goes a long way.”

“What does it feel like to be competing against your friends?” Rip asks.

Sara considers this for a moment. “It doesn’t feel like I’m competing against them, if that makes any sense? It’s more like… it’s more like I’m competing alongside them, and we’re all each other’s cheerleaders.”

She knows what she’s saying is clichéd as hell, but it’s the honest truth.

“Any final thoughts on Stage Three?” Rip asks.

“I’m ready to get out there,” Sara says decisively. “Whatever happens, I’m going to make the most of it.”

Rip smiles at her. “Brilliant, Miss Lance. I was wondering if you could do one more thing before you go?”

“Depends what it is,” Sara says, not quite sure what she’s about to be asked.

“I’d quite like to have a sort of slow-motion power shot when the graphic with your name comes up,” Rip explains. “And I think if you did some sort of… trick or flip, and then folded your arms like this—” He demonstrates a typical ‘power stance’, “—then it would look rather badass.”

“I guess I could,” Sara trails off, looking around the space. The floor is hard – not sprung at all like some of the studios she’s used in the past – so backflips are probably out of the question. “I could do an aerial cartwheel?”

“Perfect,” Rip says, dashing forwards to get the stool out of her way. “Land the cartwheel and, if you can, one smooth move into staring down the lens.”

Sara works out the logistics in her head, backing up to the edge of where the backdrop is to give herself as much room as possible. She goes into the aerial, kicking her back foot up to help her with the rotation and keeping her arms away from the ground as she goes upside-down.

She lands facing the camera and tries to lock her eyes onto it, bringing her arms up and crossing them over her chest as she tries to keep her expression serious. For a first attempt at smoothing it out, it’s not bad, especially since it’s been a while since Sara’s done an aerial.

Rip asks her to do it a couple more times before he’s completely satisfied, and Sara wonders when exactly this became her life.

But it’s done, for now at least, and Sara leaves the room to see Ray waiting for his turn, his black ‘Team Legends’ shirt proudly on display. She high-fives him as she walks past, heading back to find the others.

 

----------

 

The tension is palpable as the audience file into the bleachers.

Sara knows they’re hoping to see someone win a million dollars tonight by finishing Stage Four, but the show’s only gotten as far as the final stage a couple of times in the past. There’s only been one winner of the prize in the show’s history, and he’d retired from competition as soon as he’d won.

Night has fallen on the course, and Sara gets more and more impatient.

Having had the fastest completion on Stage Two, she’ll be the last to run the course, which is difficult even though it’s technically an advantage. She gets to watch Ava and Ray try out the course, but she almost wants to just get it out of the way. This format prolongs the anticipation.

Carter and Kendra are in the middle of filming their introduction to camera when Sara leans against the barriers, fresh off of her first warm up of the night. Her muscles are loose and ready for the strain they’re about to be put through. All in all, Sara doesn’t feel too rough, considering what she’s put her body through in the last couple of days. She’s sure she’ll be feeling the after-effects eventually, however.

“For the first time in American Ninja Warrior history, the women outnumber the men,” Kendra says proudly. “Ava Sharpe and Sara Lance will be only the second and third women to ever compete on Stage Three in regular competition.”

“Making it to Stage Three is a huge achievement in itself,” Carter says. “And that’s why, if nobody wins the million dollars, we’re excited to announce a prize of one hundred thousand dollars to the last ninja standing.”

Sara’s jaw drops.

That is… a lot of money. And one of them is going to be bringing at least that home. She really can’t afford to think about that right now, though. She needs to focus. It feels like all she’s doing is trying to focus.

But because the universe hates her, clearly, Ava appears at her side right then. Focus flies out the window.

Ava whistles lowly. “That’s something.”

“Yeah,” Sara says, dumbstruck. It’s crazy, because everyone who had competed had known about the million dollar prize, but this… This is a certainty of one of them winning a good deal of money, and Sara doesn’t quite know how to feel.

“How are you?” Ava asks quietly, almost nervously, and Sara thinks she’s referring to more than the competition.

She turns her head to see Ava regarding her, expression open. It’s like now they’ve had the feelings conversation (even though it hadn’t turned out exactly like Sara had hoped) Ava’s face has become a lot easier to read.

“I’m okay,” Sara tells her. “Nervous.”

“Yeah, me too,” Ava says. “I… I’ve been doing a lot of thinking today.”

“Oh?” Sara’s heart rate increases, and she tries in vain to squash the fluttering of hope in her chest. “About?”

“About you,” Ava says honestly. “About me. About you and me.”

Sara’s breath catches. Ava chews nervously on her bottom lip, and Sara’s eyes are drawn to it. She thinks it’s criminal that she hadn’t really been able to commit how Ava’s lips had felt against her own last night to memory.

“And?” Sara whispers.

Ava opens and closes her mouth a couple of times, looking like she’s trying to work herself up to saying something. Something potentially important.

“And I—”

“Hey guys!”

Zari arrives, flinging an arm around each of their shoulders, and she’s never had worse timing. Amaya trails after her girlfriend, looking between Sara and Ava with a gradual expression of realisation. She looks at Sara with a questioning expression: Do you want me to get Zari out of here?

Sara shakes her head almost imperceptibly. The moment’s passed, and Zari probably just wants to wish them luck. It’s not her fault that she’d walked in at perhaps the most frustrating time possible.

“You’re going to kick ass tonight,” Zari says decisively, and Sara manages a smile.

“Thanks, Z.”

“Thank you,” Ava says quietly, smiling as Zari squeezes her shoulder, and Sara gets an idea.

“How about we all be on the sidelines for each other tonight?” She suggests. “Nora and Gary, too. If that’s something you’d want,” she directs the last bit to Ava, who lights up.

“Yeah, that would… that would be good,” she says, and Sara’s just happy that Ava finally seems to have accepted that she’s a part of the team now.

“Then it’s decided,” Sara says. “We’re all one big group.”

Amaya smiles at her. “I’ll let the others know,” she says, taking hold of Zari’s hand and lightly tugging her away from Sara and Ava.

That leaves them alone again, and Sara’s dying to ask Ava to continue what she’d been about to say, but she doesn’t know if it’s the right time anymore. So, instead, she asks Ava about her evening with Gary.

“It’s been great,” Ava sighs happily. “I’ve actually really missed him, and he had a lot to catch me up on. Apparently he’s seeing some British guy in a trenchcoat; invited him to Dungeons and Dragons and everything.”

“Sounds serious,” Sara laughs, and Ava hums in acknowledgement.

“Thank you, for calling him,” she says, soft enough that Sara has to strain her ears to hear her over the chattering of the crowd behind them.

“I thought, after last night, that you might not want me there when you ran the course,” Sara admits. “But I didn’t want you to be alone.”

Ava rests her chin on her arms, crossed on top of the barrier between the spectator area and the course. “I don’t think I could ever not want you there,” she says.

Sara swallows, her throat suddenly tight. “Oh.”

And she’s still getting used to this; the fact that Ava actually has feelings for her, too. That she’d wanted to kiss her. That she wants to be with Sara, present tense. Sara’s not sure she’s ever been in quite this position before, and she’s unsure of what it is she’s meant to do. If thing were simple, she’d just kiss Ava there and then.

But things aren’t simple, and there’s a bunch of people around them, and they’re about to face the biggest challenge of the competition so far. For a fleeting moment, Sara wishes they’d met in a more normal way; maybe at a coffee shop, or a bar.

But Sara doesn’t really do normal. That’s something Laurel had always said about her – that Sara had always found normal boring. And she stands by that to this day. She’d much rather be doing ninja competitions with Ava than sitting down over drinks and pretending their lives aren’t kind of crazy at the best of times.

A production assistant taps Ava on the shoulder. “Five minutes,” he tells her.

Ava exhales shakily, and Sara automatically moves closer to her.

“You’ve got this,” she reassures Ava, reaching out and turning her shoulders so they’re facing each other. “Ava, you’re a total badass.”

“And if I don’t have this?” Ava asks.

Sara shrugs. “Then you’ll have it next year.”

Ava nods, looking slightly out of it, and then her arms are around Sara’s neck and she’s hugging her. Sara relaxes into the embrace, pointedly ignoring her body’s reaction to being surrounded by Ava. She wonders if her body will always have this reaction to her.

“Thank you,” Ava whispers.

“What for?”

Ava squeezes her a little tighter. “Just… being you.”

And that’s all she really needs to say, because Sara understands. It’s a thank you for letting Ava in, for supporting her, and for not pushing the issue earlier that afternoon. It’s a thank you for being there.

Sara doesn’t want to let go, but she knows she has to eventually because – right now – Ava’s got a job to do.

Ava follows the production assistant to the start, and Sara quickly rounds up the others, who have been told the game plan by Amaya and Zari. Even Mick is there, beer bottle in hand as they all gather in a huddle at the sidelines.

Jax pushes Sara to the front of the group as Ava eventually takes her place at the start line. Stage Three is made up of seven gruelling obstacles, and Ava surveys the course, focus written all over her face as she shakes out her arms and chalks her hands one last time.

“This incredible woman has reached Stage Three at her very first attempt,” Kendra announces. “What can she do on this course tonight?”

“The first obstacle is the Floating Boards,” Carter continues, as Ava gets her countdown. “Remember, there’s no time limit for Stage Three, but speed may have to be used to determine the last ninja standing if this stage ends in a tie.”

Ava takes hold of the first board with her left hand, and reaches for the second board with her right. She pinches hard with both hands, lifting her feet off the ground as she swings past the first board and steadies her feet against the second. The Floating Boards are quite narrow, and tapered towards the end, so even with Ava using her feet, it’s still very upper body intensive.

She moves her left hand to the second board and reaches out for the third with her right, and from where Sara is situated she can see the concentration on Ava’s face as she makes her way safely across the first obstacle. She moves steadily, and completes the obstacle in about thirty seconds.

The second obstacle is new. Named En Garde, it’s a test of reflexes as well as strength and precision. Ava shuffles the horizontal bar along the tracks, hanging from it by just her hands, and stops just before the first gap in the tracks. Before her, the chute on the outside of the tracks narrows.

“Can she figure out the logistics?” Carter poses the question. “She has to move her hands closer together to shorten the length of this adjustable bar, but she’ll only have a split second to do so.”

“And she has to judge it just right,” Kendra adds. “It’s a challenging obstacle that nobody before her has faced in competition.”

Ava figures it out. She hops the bar up and forwards, shortening it and landing on the tracks of the second chute. Sara breathes a sigh of relief. Ava’s not unintelligent by any means – in fact, her intelligence is one of the things Sara loves the most about her – but it’s good to see that she’s still thinking well under the pressure.

Ava has to lengthen the bar again on the second and final jump, and she nails it once more, landing the bar safely on the third part of track. Sara’s checked it out, and there’s not too much room for error between the tracks and the side of the chute, so it’s a real challenge to judge.

Ava makes a small lache to the landing pad, and then she’s facing another new obstacle: The Crazy Clocks.

Hanging from the hands of the clock, if you were to look up, you’d see the circular face of the clock above you. The game is to get one hand on either ‘hand’ and push outwards and around until the hands face the opposite direction. The obstacle is made up of two clocks, and it’s a real test of strength.

But strength is something that Ava has plenty of.

Sara grabs onto whoever’s closest to her (she thinks it’s Nate) as Ava – faced screwed up in determination – pushes the hands of the first clock around and into place in one movement. The crowd cheers as Ava makes the lache to the second clock, shaking a few stray pieces of hair out of her eyes before she pushes the hands around.

Ava jumps to the little landing area over the water, and there’s not a lot of room for error on these dismounts either. She chalks up her hands again as she looks to where the Ultimate Cliffhanger towers over her.

Sara’s heart, already beating overtime, speeds up again. When she’d first started training with Sara, Ava had struggled with this obstacle. She’d figured it out eventually, but Sara just hopes that she doesn’t slip up now.

Ava climbs up, straight through the middle of the zig-zag, and traverses her way across the wall. Her fingers cling onto the narrow ledge, and she reaches up and to the side for the first transfer. It’s a long reach, but Ava has height on her side, and makes the first – and then the second – upwards transfer with no issues.

Ava steadies her left foot against the little foot hold lower down the wall as she checks over her right shoulder; the first of two one-eighty leaps over the water being the next challenge. She bends her knees, and Sara’s nails dig into Nate’s arm as Ava pushes off from the wall. She makes the cat grab look easy, not swinging too wildly as she lands. On this side of the obstacle, there’s no actual wall, just a plexiglass panel with the finger ledge to move along, so she’s unable to brace her feet against anything for the next jump.

Ava turns herself around before the jump, taking the one-eighty part out of the equation, and this is a veteran move that she’s trying. Hands facing backwards, she starts to build a swing, releasing her grip at the apex of her movement and flying towards the wall.

Ava lands hard, but her grip holds, and Sara doesn’t quite know how she’d managed it. Ava drops safely to the mat, but she looks fatigued. She rolls her shoulders, wincing as she does so.

“The majority of this course is very upper body focused,” Carter explains to the audience. “It puts a great deal of pressure on the arms and shoulders.”

“But this next obstacle is a full-body workout,” Kendra grimaces. “Thirty feet in length, with a six foot descent and a ten foot ascent at the end, this is the Curved Body Prop.”

The crowd is shouting general encouragement at Ava, who takes a few deep breaths before getting into position. Her palms press against one side, with her feet against the other and her body bridging the gap, and then she’s moving slowly along. The descent doesn’t pose too much of a challenge, but it’s when the track starts to go steeply up that Ava really starts to struggle.

“Come on!” Sara yells, voice drowned out amongst the rest.

She can see Ava’s arms quivering from twenty feet away, and she knows that this is the beginning of the end. Ava’s fought so hard on every course she’s run, but it seems like she’s just about hit her current limits.

Almost in slow-motion, Ava’s hands start to slide on the plexiglass. The quivering in her arms turns into violent shaking, and all at once, Ava buckles. Her arms give out, and then she’s plummeting into the water, hitting it with a splash as the lights on the course flash red.

Sara doesn’t yell out, or groan, or put her head in her hands like some of the others do. She simply applauds as Ava’s head breaks the surface of the water, because Ava had put up one hell of a fight. And Sara knows she’ll be disappointed, but she also hopes that Ava can recognise just how incredible she’s been.

 

----------

 

Gideon is waiting to interview her once Ava drags herself out of the tank.

“Ava, that was an incredible performance,” she starts, trying to catch Ava’s eyes. Ava’s staring resolutely at the ground, although a smile flickers across her face at Gideon’s words.

“Thank you,” she says.

“Talk us through that Body Prop obstacle,” Gideon says, and Ava shrugs.

“I just had nothing left,” she says simply. “I wasn’t strong enough.”

“But you’ll be back next year?” Gideon asks hopefully, and Ava nods.

“Definitely.”

“That’s good to hear,” Gideon says warmly. “And remember, you’ve achieved something incredible tonight.”

Ava inclines her head gratefully as Gideon finishes off her interview, and then the course is being reset for Ray. Ava walks back over to the legends, catching the towel that’s thrown her way by a production assistant with a mumbled thanks.

Sara can tell that Ava doesn’t want everyone piling onto her, and the others seemingly pick up on that as well, as they merely clap her on the shoulder for a job well done. Somehow, they wordlessly agree to give Sara and Ava some space – or, as much space as they can get on the sidelines – as they give Ray some last-minute advice.

“Ava, you were amazing,” Sara says softly, as Ava starts to towel her arms dry.

“Not amazing enough, clearly,” Ava replies, smiling ruefully.

“You really don’t know how special you are, do you?” Sara asks, and Ava looks at her in surprise.

“What?”

“I mean it,” Sara says firmly. “I can’t remember a time when someone last got to Stage Three in their rookie year. That’s extraordinary.”

“Yeah?” Ava says uncertainly, and Sara looks her straight in the eye as she answers.

“Yes. You gave everything you could, and maybe tonight it wasn’t enough,” Sara shrugs. “But I know you, and I know you’ll come back next year and push even further.” 

Ava ducks her head again, and Sara reaches out and lifts her chin up, her touch and her voice softer than she ever thought she had the ability to.

“You don’t give up, Ava, and that’s one of the reasons why I love you.”

Ava’s eyes widen, and as Sara’s brain catches up with her mouth, she realises what she’s just said. Sara’s mouth opens and closes once, twice, three times, as she tries to find something to say. But for all she’d had lots of words in her head a few moments ago, everything’s fled her mind with that admission.

Feet itching to run, but knowing it will solve exactly nothing, Sara drops her hand from Ava’s face as she watches her words sink in. For a long moment, Ava’s silent, but she doesn’t look like she’s going to bolt.

“Ava, I, um—”

Sara doesn’t know how exactly her sentence would’ve ended, but the roar of the crowd stops her in her tracks. She turns her attention to the course, where Ray is ready at the start line. Suddenly the cameras, which had backed off for the last couple of minutes, are back in her face and Sara knows she absolutely can’t say anything now.

Ray’s getting his countdown, and Sara works hard to school her face into something that doesn’t immediately give away how screwed she is. Because she really hadn’t meant to tell Ava that she loves her. Not right now.

As Ray makes his way through the Floating Boards, Sara tries to think of ways she could explain away her slip of the tongue. She could always say she’d meant it in a platonic way, and if it was twenty-four hours ago, she might’ve gotten away with it. But with everything that’s happened in the last day, Sara doesn’t think Ava would buy it for a second.

“Ray Palmer is through the first obstacle,” Carter says. “Now, he steps up to face this new obstacle, En Garde.”

“Ava Sharpe worked this one out moments ago,” Kendra adds. “Can he do the same?”

Sara glances over at Ava’s profile. Her eyes are ostensibly fixed upon Ray, but Sara knows that Ava’s aware of her gaze. There’s still droplets of water running down her face from the tank she’d fallen into, and she has strands of hair plastered to her forehead. She’s so beautiful that Sara has to force herself to look away and watch Ray’s attempt on the course.

He makes it through En Garde with no problems, and Sara claps along with everyone else. A quick look over at Nora sees her eyes trained on every move Ray makes. Nora’s biting down nervously on her bottom lip as she watches, her fingers crossed as Ray moves onto the Crazy Clocks.

Sara can’t help but let her gaze wander again to Ava, and Ava glances back at her. Looking into her eyes, Sara decides, there and then, that she doesn’t want to backtrack and find an excuse for what she’d said, because she’d one hundred per cent meant it. She loves Ava, and even if it’s too soon for her to hear – they’re not even together, after all – Sara thinks she deserves to know.

A gasp from the crowd pulls Sara and Ava’s attention away from each other, and they see Ray dangling by one hand from the second clock. He rights himself before Sara can get too worried, and she watches him carefully complete the remainder of the obstacle.

“A near miss there,” Carter sighs in obvious relief. “Next up is the Ultimate Cliffhanger.”

“Ava Sharpe completed the first four obstacles in three minutes and ten seconds,” Kendra says. “If Ray can finish this one faster, then he goes above her in the rankings.”

Sara knows that Ava hadn’t been aiming for speed, and it’s not like Ray is burning through the course, but he’s definitely on track to beat her time.  Nevertheless, Ava cheers him on, and it warms Sara’s heart to see how supportive she is of the legends.

Ray breezes through the first half of the obstacle, making the first cat grab with relative ease. He’s moving quickly, his muscle weighing him down as he attempts to spend as little time holding up his weight as possible. Ray faces the second jump over the water, swings, and lets go.

He comes up ever so short on the landing, fingers finding purchase on the narrow ledge, but unable to hold on. Almost like Nora had done on Wingnut Alley, his momentum sends him spinning into the water.

Sara’s utterly shocked. Ray had gotten past the Ultimate Cliffhanger last time, but one slight misjudgement had ended his season. Ray’s still smiling as he comes up for air, completely unharmed, and the legends all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Gideon interviews him, and then he’s making his way back over to the group. They go in for a group hug, which Ray accepts gratefully, pushing his wet hair back out of his eyes.

“Not to be this time,” he shrugs, starting to dry himself with the towel he’d been given. “That’s okay, though. There’s always next time.”

It’s such a Ray way of looking at it, and Sara feels a rush of fondness for her friend. That’s immediately followed by a rush of nerves, because she realises that she’s next up. She’s given her five minute warning by a wrangler, and turns to leave for the start line. A hand on her arm stops her momentarily.

Sara turns to see Ava looking at her, eyes alight with a sort of fiery determination – the kind Sara’s used to seeing when Ava takes on a new challenge. By contrast, when she speaks, her voice is quiet.

“Did you mean it?” Ava asks. “Did you mean what you said a few minutes ago?”

Now or never, Sara thinks.

“Yes,” she says. “Every word.”

“Okay,” Ava says, almost to herself, and she nods sagely at Sara. “Go kick some ass. Don’t hold back.”

And with Ava’s words ringing in her ears, Sara makes her way to the warm up area.

 

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“Our final competitor is Sara Lance, and she’s making her Stage Three debut tonight,” Kendra says as Sara chalks up her hands, ready to go.

“If she makes it past the Ultimate Cliffhanger faster than Ava Sharpe, she’s guaranteed the hundred thousand,” Carter reminds the audience. “If she completes the course, she gets the chance to climb for the cool million.”

Sara takes a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart. She’d done her final warm up less than a minute ago, and she’s fired up and itching to start. She waits what feels like an eternity for her countdown, and then she’s off.

She reaches out for the first and second boards, getting her feet into place as she skips past the first one. She brings her left hand to join her right on the second board, and reaches out with her right hand for the next one. She pinches the board with her thumb on one side and her fingers on the other, putting all her weight on her arms while she moves her legs over, one knee either side of the board as she presses her feet together on it. She repeats the process again, and then her feet are touching the ground on the other side.

One obstacle down. Six more to go.

Her first transition on En Garde very nearly doesn’t work. She only has a fraction of a second to shorten the bar, and she nearly overdoes it. The bar just about lands on the tracks, and Sara breathes a sigh of relief, wiggling her hands just so to lengthen the bar again slightly. The second transition goes a lot better, and Sara makes it to the end of the obstacle without further incident.

She jumps up to grab onto the first clock of the third obstacle, positioning her hands so that they face away from her body. With a huge effort, she pushes the hands of the clock around its face. Sara takes a moment to breathe; it’s harder than Ava and Ray had made it look. She laches to the second clock and repeats the action, and she knows the effort is showing on her face.

As she drops to the landing and chalks her hands again in preparation for the Ultimate Cliffhanger, Sara takes a moment to look over to where her friends are. A smile splits her face when she sees them cheering for her – even Gary, who barely knows her even if he is one of Ava’s best friends – and she waves at them.

Ava smiles encouragingly at her, and Sara knows that she’s on the verge of overtaking her, but she also knows that Ava doesn’t care about that because she wants Sara to do what she hadn’t been able to this time.

Sara scales the first part of the wall, fingers finding the holds and gripping tightly. If there’s one thing Sara’s grateful for, it’s having spent a couple of years training with Amaya. Being a great climber, Amaya’s always full of advice and climbing strategies and as a result, Sara feels pretty at home on this obstacle. Still, as Ray had just proved, she can’t afford to make a mistake.

Sara holds on tight as she lands the first one-eighty transfer, her feet swinging under the plexiglass with nothing to brace against. Sara waits for her body to still before she moves along the panel to the next one. She turns herself around so that she’s facing her landing, her fingers are turned back towards her, and kicks her legs forward to build a swing.

At the highest point, she releases her hold, quickly bringing her hands back in front of her to catch herself on the ledge. She grips on tightly as she lands, absorbing the shock with her body, and grins as she registers the cheer from the audience.

She swings to the mat and checks her time. Two minutes, fifty-seven seconds – faster than Ava. And even though Sara’s just won a minimum of one hundred thousand dollars, she doesn’t feel any different. Besides, it’s not like she’s going to hoard the money or anything (most likely, she’ll use it to help Lily get more stuff for the gym; maybe make it a proper training destination for more ninjas), but it’s the realisation that she’s the last ninja standing that gives her the most joy.

But next up is the Curved Body Prop, and it’s what Sara’s been looking forward to the least. From here on out, her feet won’t touch the ground until she reaches the buzzer, as each of the next three obstacles leads straight into the next.

Sara takes a deep breath, and gets into position. The rest of the world, which had briefly come back into her peripheral, fades away again and she can’t hear anything but the beating of her own heart. The burn in her muscles starts as soon as she gets moving, and Sara grits her teeth.

The past few days have been a huge strain on her body, and she’s really looking forward to spending the majority of tomorrow in bed doing exactly nothing. But for now, Sara pushes through the pain, carefully making the descent and preparing herself for the steep curve upwards.

The ascent of the Curved Body Prop isn’t quite straight up, but it might as well be with the way it sets Sara’s muscles on fire. She’s already straining to stretch her body enough for a secure position in the chute, even without adding in all the other things that make this obstacle difficult.

Sara gets about halfway up the ascent before her body starts shaking. It’s almost imperceptible, but Sara feels is very clearly – the same feeling she gets when she holds a plank too long, only a thousand times worse. She wants to screw her eyes shut against it, but she’s so close to the top that she needs to look out for her transition to the next obstacle. Sara bites the inside of her cheek, pushing on until she can reach the next task: The Peg Clouds.

Nine cuboids suspended in the air, each with a hole in the side facing away from Sara, just big enough to fit the little cylindrical pegs in. Sara had studied this obstacle last year, watching as only one person had been able to complete it. The only forgiving thing about the Peg Clouds are the tiny ledges to rest your feet on, but those ledges are almost level with the handholds, so it’s not much of a rest.

Sara has a plan for this obstacle; she’s pretty sure she’s flexible enough to make it work, but she just hopes that she isn’t too tired to pull it off. She braces her weight on her trembling right arm, reaching out with her left to take hold of one of the fixed pegs on the side of the first cuboid. Sara lets go of the Curved Body Prop, glad it’s behind her, and reaches around to hold onto the other fixed peg, so now she’s facing backwards and hanging from her tired arms.

This won’t work. She needs to rest them for a moment.

Sara kicks her feet up and over the pegs, positioning her legs so that the pegs are under the backs of her knees. Once she’s secure, Sara carefully lets go with her hands. She stretches the rest of her body, hanging upside down from the obstacle as she shakes the feeling back into her arms.

After a few moments, Sara reaches back up with her arms to take hold of the removable pegs in the next two cuboids. There are four sets of these ‘clouds’ to traverse, and Sara moves the peg in her right hand back to a cuboid in the second set, getting as far out as she can without moving her legs from their current position.

But it’s here that she’ll have to put her plan into action.

Sara slowly lifts her legs from the first cloud, twisting her body so that she’s almost facing the audience. She hooks her left leg over the top of her right arm, letting her right leg hang free for balance as she removes the left-hand peg and reaches around the next cloud to slot it into place. It’s excruciating work, and it’s slow progress, but Sara’s not sure she can do this on upper body alone. She repeats the motion with her right hand, switching her legs around, and everything is hurting even if this tactic is taking some of the pressure off her arms.

Sara feels her muscles begin to give out, her arms starting to shake violently. She’s still got three more transfers to go, but her body is screaming at her to stop. Sara takes a deep breath, trying to squash the pain, but it’s not working. She goes to put the peg in her left hand into the next cuboid, and that’s when her tricep spasms and she misses.

She feels her fingers of her right hand start to slip on the peg, unable to support her weight on one hand anymore and suddenly, Sara knows her run is about to come to an end. She fights it as long as she can, but eventually her body can’t take any more, and she falls.

Sara’s last thought before she hits the water is: Not bad, Lance.

The cool water feels almost refreshing on her skin, she thinks, her feet pushing off the bottom of the tank as she straightens her legs. Sara stands, almost neck deep, and wipes the water away from her eyes. She blinks, and then the legends come into focus, all of them hurtling towards her. Sara doesn’t have enough time to shield herself from the splash before her friends are vaulting the side of the tank and jumping into the water with her.

Sara’s whole body aches, and she hadn’t finished the course, but she can’t bring herself to care too much about that right now. Not when Zari’s splashing her with water while Amaya laughs, and the boys are trying to dunk each other while Nora wades over to intervene, or maybe to join in. Even Gary is having fun just repeatedly submerging himself. Mick watches on from dry land, raising his bottle in Sara’s direction with a curt nod.

But it’s Ava, in the pool again even though she’d only just gotten herself reasonably dry, that Sara can’t keep her eyes off of. Ava, who has that same fire in her eyes as she had done before Sara had left to do her final warm up.

“Hey,” Sara says, because what else is there to say?

Suddenly, Ava’s close – closer than she usually is – and Sara tries not to go cross-eyed looking up at her.

“I love you,” Ava whispers, a slow smile taking over her face, and Sara forgets how to breathe for a moment.

Surprised at how fast tears spring to her eyes, Sara blinks them away rapidly. “You do?”

Ava nods decisively, reaching out to cup Sara’s cheek with one hand. Her thumb strokes over the skin there, and Sara’s eyes close at the sensation.

“I really do. And I want to kiss you so badly right now,” Ava says, like it’s physically paining her not to be doing that right this second, and Sara opens her eyes again to look into Ava’s own. They’re clearer than she’s ever seen them, and hope bursts inside her.

Sara has to be sure. “You know what will happen if you do.”

“I don’t care anymore,” Ava declares. She swallows heavily. “I just… I just want you.”

And that’s all Sara needs. Under the water, her feet take her a step closer, and now they’re breathing the same air. Sara makes herself wait for one more moment, gives Ava one last chance to back away, but Ava stays.

Sara doesn’t know who closes the distance between them in the end. Maybe they both do, because one moment there’s space in between their bodies, and the next moment there isn’t. Ava’s lips are warm against her own, and her other hand comes up to frame Sara’s face – tilting her head just so as she kisses her, finding the perfect angle.

Sara’s dimly aware of her friends whooping and causing a general commotion, but she couldn’t care less right now. She’s too busy committing the feel of Ava’s lips to memory. She’s too busy making up for the last time Ava had kissed her. She’s too busy getting lost in sensation.

Ava’s lips move slowly over her own, and Sara could do this forever. Her hands land on Ava’s waist under the surface of the water, fingers tangling in the fabric of her shirt to pull her closer still. The water laps between their bodies, and Sara shivers from a combination of the way Ava’s kissing her, and the chill that’s starting to set into her extremities. Her chest, though, that feels warm, like it’s never going to be cold again. Sara could get used to that feeling.

Kissing Ava – properly kissing her – feels even better than Sara had imagined, and she doesn’t ever want to stop. She knows she’ll have to, eventually, but for a few more moments Sara lets herself pretend that they’re the only two people in the world.

Eventually, they break the kiss, but Ava stays close. She leans her forehead against Sara’s, her thumbs still stroking over Sara’s cheekbones, and Sara’s sure that she’s never been this in love with anyone. It still scares her a bit, how much love she has for Ava, but she’s starting to realise that it’s the best kind of fear.

 

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Miraculously, Gideon doesn’t bring up the kiss during Sara’s interview. She keeps it professional, and lets Sara talk through the reasons she hadn’t been able to complete the course. Sara’s disappointed she’d fallen, of course she is, but when she looks back at how far she’s come this year, she can’t bring herself to be too upset.

The person she’d been back before qualifiers had been intent on winning the million dollars this season, and she still wants to conquer Stage Four soon, but Sara’s starting to enjoy the journey.

Besides, she’s the last ninja standing, and that counts for something. That counts for a lot, in Sara’s books.

Towards the end of her interview, Sara gets swamped by her friends. The only thing she can see is a mass of arms as she’s engulfed, and she almost wants to cry with how much she loves her them all. Without them, Sara’s not sure she’d still be competing after Laurel. After her dad.

Sara laughs through the burgeoning tears, feeling happier than she has in a while, soaked head to toe with tired muscles that she knows she won’t be able to move when she wakes up tomorrow. But she’s happy.

Once Carter and Kendra have done their outro, and filming is wrapped, Sara’s allowed to go back to the hotel. Her body is exhausted, but her mind is wide awake. She hangs back on the walk, glancing over her shoulder one more time at Mount Midoriyama. She stops, letting everyone go past her and turning fully to face the tower of Stage Four. Sara feels a sudden rush of determination. One day, she’ll do it.

Someone comes to stand at her shoulder, and Sara doesn’t even have to look to know that it’s Ava.

“I don’t care how long it takes me,” Sara says, nodding towards the structure. “I’m going right to the top.”

“I know you are,” Ava says simply, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Sara reaches out with her hand, finding Ava’s and lacing their fingers together.

“I love you,” Sara tells her, because now that she’s started saying it she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to stop. The words feel right in her mouth, like they’re simultaneously the most important and the most normal ones that she can say. She turns her head to look at Ava; finds her already staring back with a soft smile on her face.

“I love you, too,” she says, and Sara’s heart has never been one to flutter, but it’s the only way she can describe what Ava does to her.

“What changed your mind, about us?” Sara asks quietly, curiously. “There’s an us, right?”

Ava nods. “There’s an us. And I guess I just realised that even though there’s so much to lose, the thought of not being with you…” Ava exhales shakily. “When you told me you loved me, that first time, it was like everything I was so afraid of didn’t seem to matter anymore.”

“So, if I were to ask you to be my girlfriend…” Sara trails off, hoping that they’re finally, truly on the same page.

“Then I would say I’m yours,” Ava whispers, turning to face Sara fully. “And that I think I’ve been yours for a long time.”

Sara reaches up with her free hand, curling it around the back of Ava’s neck and drawing their lips together in a searing kiss. They’re alone, and it’s the middle of the night, and the wind that’s picked up over the last half hour whips at their dry changes of clothes, and Sara’s on fire.

Ava’s arm wraps around the small of her back as she squeezes their joined hands together, letting herself fall into the kiss like they’ve been doing this forever. Now that there’s no cameras, Sara can kiss Ava without restraint, and she does. Ava parts her lips, and Sara takes the opportunity to slip her tongue past them, the touch exploratory and hungry at the same time.

She licks into Ava’s mouth, and Ava groans, clutching Sara tightly. And Sara knows that they’re both exhausted, too exhausted for anything past this tonight, but the sound still sends lightning down her spine and it’s something that she’ll definitely have to revisit soon.

Ava’s hand slips under the back of her hoodie, her cold fingers ghosting over warm skin. Sara arches against her, gasping into Ava’s mouth, and she feels Ava’s lips curl into a smirk. Sara grips the back of Ava’s neck tightly, getting as close as she possibly can. Her other hand is still interlocked with Ava’s, tethering Sara to the ground. Without it, she feels like she might just float away.

Sara breaks the kiss, her need for air becoming too overwhelming.

“I am, too, by the way,” she says breathlessly, eyes closed and her lips barely a hair’s breadth from Ava’s. “Yours.”

 

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During the short walk back to the hotel, the exhaustion catches up with them.

When they finally get back to their room and kick their shoes off, Sara doesn’t hesitate in pulling Ava down onto her bed with her. Her eyelids feel heavy, and so do her limbs, and she doesn’t want to let go.

“Stay?” She asks sleepily. “I missed you last night.”

“Of course,” Ava says, pressing a kiss to Sara’s temple as she manoeuvres them into a comfortable position to lie down. They still have their spare clothes on, but Sara’s far too settled to think about changing into pyjamas. Besides, the spare clothes pretty much consist of sweatpants and soft shirts, so Sara just tugs her hoodie off and throws it somewhere on the ground before settling fully against Ava.

She ends up curled into her, on her side, one arm across Ava’s stomach as she rests her cheek over her heart. She can hear it beating, strong and rhythmic, and Ava tangles their legs together under the sheets.

“Goodnight,” Ava whispers, and she sounds more content than Sara’s ever heard her before.

“G’night,” Sara replies, feeling herself drifting off. She knows they still have a couple of things to talk about, and they will. The prospect of it doesn’t scare Sara as much anymore. But for now, surrounded by Ava in the most perfect way, Sara lets herself sleep.

Chapter Text

PART VIII

For the third time in the past six weeks, Sara wakes up in Ava’s arms.

And for all Sara had insisted that she wasn’t a sleep-cuddler back when it had happened the first time, there’s really no denying it now. Maybe it’s just because she feels safe like this, like she doesn’t always need to be some kind of protector. And, yes, of course she feels the urge to protect Ava – from anyone who’s ever made her doubt herself – but Sara also feels like she can let Ava protect her in return, and she doesn’t think she’s had that with anyone. Certainly not in a romantic sense, at any rate.

The first two times they’d woken up like this, Sara had felt a flash of panic. The first time was because she hadn’t really known what was going on, or why she’d felt so comfortable. The second time was because she’d come to the realisation that she loved Ava and everything in that moment had just been far too intimate.

But this time, Sara doesn’t feel the panic rising in her throat. This time, when she comes to, it’s because she can feel Ava’s heartbeat underneath where her cheek rests, and the rise and fall of Ava’s ribcage under her arm. It’s summer, and probably afternoon, and the heat should be stifling, but it’s not.

Sara lifts her head from Ava’s chest, and just watches the peaceful expression on her face as she sleeps. She feels a smile creeping onto her face at the realisation that she can do this now – just drink in the sight of her sleeping with no guilt, without feeling like she’s overstepping.

Like she can feel Sara’s eyes on her, Ava begins to stir. She sighs as she opens her eyes, her gaze almost immediately finding Sara’s. Their faces are close together, and Sara wants to lean over and kiss her. A momentary flash of doubt makes her hesitate; she doesn’t normally dream, but what if yesterday had been the product of her unconscious mind. What if, even if it had actually happened, it had simply been a result of emotions running high?

The doubt evaporates as soon as Ava smiles softly at her, cheeks tinging with pink as her eyes roam Sara’s face.

“Hi,” Ava whispers, her hand finding Sara’s over her stomach. Her thumb sweeps gently over the back of Sara’s hand, and she can’t resist any longer.

Sara leans in and presses a featherlight kiss to Ava’s lips.

“Hi, yourself.”

“Did you sleep well?” Ava asks, lifting her arm to brush some of Sara’s hair back and hissing in surprise as pain crosses her face. “Ouch.”

Sara moves her own arm from Ava’s stomach, her muscles protesting in response, and she knows exactly how Ava’s feeling. She runs her fingers down Ava’s arm, feeling how tight the muscles beneath her skin are. Ava had evidently completely spent the last of her effort on the course last night.

“I did,” she says, in answer to Ava’s question. “In fact, it’s definitely a good thing that we have late checkout today, because I think we probably slept for about ten hours.”

Ava raises her eyebrows in surprise, like she’s never slept that long before in her life. “Well, then. That explains the full-body stiffness, and the general feeling of not being able to move.”

“Shower,” Sara advises.

“Are you saying that I smell?” Ava asks indignantly, and Sara laughs.

“No, I’m saying that hot water will help,” she says, wincing as she sits up in bed. “And as I’m saying it I’m realising that you probably already know this.”

Ava is, after all, an athlete.

Sara’s more used to the muscle pain that comes after multiple days of ninja courses than Ava is, but it doesn’t mean it affects her any less. She checks the time on her phone and sees that she was right about how long they’d been asleep. Filming hadn’t wrapped until past midnight – earlier than for the other two stages but still quite late – and Sara guesses that they didn’t get back to the hotel until maybe one. It’s just past eleven right now, which means they’ve got nearly four hours until they need to leave for the airport.

Sara insists upon letting Ava shower first. Part of her wants to suggest ‘conserving water’ by showering together, but Sara’s not entirely sure she could cope with that. Besides, she wants to make sure she and Ava are on the same page as far as certain developments of their relationship go.

So, Sara sits on the edge of her bed, scrolling through her social media and trying very hard not to think about Ava in the shower.

Checking her mentions on twitter, Sara can see several tweets asking her how she got on at the National Finals. She can’t tell anyone, of course; the results of the finals are kept a closely guarded secret until the airing of the footage in a couple of months’ time.

There had been NDAs to sign for everyone involved – athletes, behind the scenes crew, audience members, and anyone who now knew the outcome of the season. This also means that now the producers still have a couple of months to try and get Sara and Ava – or Amaya and Zari, even – to comment on their relationship. Sara really hopes they won’t, because she’d kind of hate to tell the show to go to hell right after they’d given her a very generous sum of prize money.

Sara’s pretty sure she won’t receive that until after the airing of the final episode of the season. The producers are probably worried about Sara spending it all and tipping off anyone looking for a ‘winner’.

Preoccupied by her thoughts, Sara doesn’t notice that the water’s shut off in the bathroom until Ava walks out, a towel wrapped around her body. Sara’s mouth goes dry as she tracks the progress of the droplets of water running down from her collarbones and tries not to stare.

Is she allowed to stare now? Does the no-guilt rule apply here?

“Bathroom’s all yours,” Ava says, voice slightly hoarse, and Sara nods to herself.

“Right, I’ll just…” she trails off, motioning towards the bathroom and tossing her phone down on the bed as she stands.

It’s ridiculous, because Sara’s seen Ava in a sports bra and shorts more times than she can count, and the towel covers more than those clothes ever had, but it’s seeing Ava like this that makes her brain short-circuit completely.

Rolling her eyes at herself, Sara turns the water back on with sore arms, hoping this shower will ease the tension she’s feeling.

 

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When she and Ava make their way downstairs for some food, Sara’s not sure quite what to expect from the rest of the legends. Their kiss had, after all, been extremely public and there’s no doubt in Sara’s mind that it’s going to be aired on national television in a couple of months’ time, but that’s a whole other matter.

Almost like they’d rehearsed it, as soon as Jax and Nate spot them they fling their arms around each other in a dramatic fake kiss, and Sara sighs. Of course. She glances over at Ava, who’s laughing at them, and relaxes slightly. If Ava’s comfortable with it, then she can let it slide.

Sara brushes the back of her hand against Ava’s, who takes the opportunity to link their fingers together as they walk over to their friends, and it probably shouldn’t make Sara’s heart swell as much as it does.

The legends have left two chairs next to each other for them at the table opposite Zari and Amaya, and Zari passes Sara a menu with a wink as they sit down. Jax and Nate, having since finished their display, settle back down. Sara spots Gary down the far end of the table, only looking mildly out of place as he chats with Wally.

Nora’s there, too, sitting next to Ray and narrowing her eyes at anyone who looks at her funny. Not that any of the legends are particularly surprised to see her. Sara wonders if something’s happened already between them, or whether they’re in the ‘mutual pining’ stage that she and Ava had been in, as well as Amaya and Zari before them.

“Up late?” Zari asks Sara innocently, while Ava starts up a conversation with Amaya.

“Went straight to sleep, actually,” Sara says, knowing exactly what Zari’s implying. “Surprisingly, we were a bit tired after the past few days.”

“Hmm,” Zari doesn’t look like she completely believes her, but she’s distracted by Amaya pressing a kiss to her temple. Zari leans into it, and the movement makes something dark on the base of Zari’s neck catch Sara’s eye.

“You, on the other hand…” Sara smirks, gleefully eyeing the mark as Zari looks back to her. “You were clearly up late last night.”

Zari glares at her, and Sara’s very much enjoying having the upper hand for once. “Shut your mouth, Lance.”

“Hey, I’m just pointing out the obvious,” Sara holds her hands up in defence. Ava looks between her and Zari, her expression confused before she seemingly comes to the same realisation that Sara had.

Amaya just looks smug.

“Point taken,” Zari rolls her eyes. “I’m nosy, we already knew this. But you guys are together, right?”

“Yes,” Ava says, almost immediately. She looks over at Sara with a smile on her face. “We are.”

Sara simply nods, happy beyond words at how open Ava’s being because she knows how hard that can be for her sometimes. And she knows that being open about their relationship to their friends and being open about their relationship to the world aren’t the same thing, but it gives her hope that Ava had meant what she’d said, about the things she’d been scared of not mattering anymore.

“Finally,” Amaya sighs. “Sara was actually turning into an idiot for a moment there.”

“Hey,” Sara protests. “She surprised me, we’ve been over this!”

“You talked about me?” Ava asks inquisitively, and she doesn’t seem mad to have been a topic of discussion.

“Are you kidding me?” Zari rolls her eyes. “Sara hasn’t shut up about you for months, even before she knew she had feelings for you.”

“Is that so?” Ava grins, and Sara groans.

“Yeah,” Zari continues. “She was all ‘why did Sharpe beat me at that last event, where the hell did she come from?’ and ‘ugh, it’s not fair that she’s that tall – she’s like eighty percent legs’ and ‘I’m just returning her dumb book, Zari, stop looking at me like that’—”

“I don’t sound like that,” Sara mutters, cheeks flushing as Zari goes through the progression of her feelings about Ava.

Zari ignores her and carries on. “Oh, and ‘there was no flirting, guys, I just bat my eyelashes at all of my casual acquaintances’ and ‘as if I’d go there, Zari, it doesn’t mean anything that she’s going to look after me when I’m injured’ and ‘so we’re friends now and I asked her to move into my apartment building because that’s definitely not one step away from U-Hauling’ and my personal favourite: ‘Ava keeps doing pull-ups and I can’t focus on anything and I don’t even know why I keep thinking about her what’s happening?’”

Ava’s eyebrows are in her hairline, and Sara buries her head in her hands.

“Are you done?” She asks weakly.

“For now,” Zari says. “But those are all from before you even realised your feelings, you idiot.”

“I was oblivious, okay?” Sara says.

She feels Ava’s hand between her shoulder blades, rubbing soothing motions there even if Sara can tell she’s trying not to laugh. Sara sighs, lifting her head and trying to rid herself of the blush she knows is heating up her face. She might actually have to murder Zari.

 

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By the time they’re back in Long Beach that evening, Sara’s muscles are feeling a lot looser. Taking a moment to be grateful for her body’s ability for quick recovery, Sara turns to her friends – who are milling around deciding who’s taking a Lyft to where and with whom.

“I’m so proud of you guys,” she tells them, and the legends stop what they’re doing to give her their full attention. It makes Sara feel a bit under pressure to say something meaningful. “I told you all at our last training session that I don’t really do speeches, and that’s still the case, but I just wanted to let you guys know that I, for one, couldn’t have done any of this without every single one of you.”

“Feeling’s mutual, Cap,” Nate says, and the rest of the legends murmur their agreement.

“And that’s what I love about this team,” Sara continues. “Sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to, but what makes this special is that win or lose, we’re all here for each other. That’s what real family is, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of misfits after everything that’s happened over the past couple of years.”

The legends all nod at her, because they know Sara had struggled after losing Laurel and her dad, but it had never become the focus of their friendship. They’d all struggled with family, and they’d all understood.

“I hope everyone learned from this season, one way or another, because Team Legends are going to be back in Vegas next year, better than before,” Sara grins. “So, everyone take a week off from training, and after that I’ll see you bright and early at Firestorm. The show may not start taping again until next March, but there’s still lots to be done.”

“To family,” Ray says, and it’s a fitting toast even if none of them actually have anything to toast with. They all echo his words, and then somebody starts a group hug that they all get pulled into, and Sara should be cringing with how cheesy this all is. But she loves it. She loves them.

Eventually, they go their separate routes back home. Zari and Amaya head off together in a Lyft, as do Ray and Nate. Jax and Wally each go their separate ways, leaving Sara with Ava and all the time in the world.

It’s not far to the apartment block, and they’ve only got one suitcase and a backpack apiece, so Sara holds out her free hand for Ava to take.

“Fancy a walk home?” She asks, and Ava laces their fingers together with a smile.

They walk in comfortable silence, the rolling of suitcase wheels on the sidewalk the only sound. This part of town is quiet, and Sara lets herself bask in the sun as they make their way back.

 

----------

 

Ava lives a few floors above Sara, but she doesn’t press the button for it when they step into the elevator. Sara’s glad; she’s spent so much time this week in close proximity to Ava that she doesn’t think she could handle them being apart just yet.

Unlocking her front door, Sara shoulders her way into the apartment. She drops her keys on the table, leaving her suitcase and backpack by the door, as well as kicking off her shoes. Ava follows suit, following where Sara leads her to the living room. Sara collapses onto the couch, pulling Ava down with her, as everything that’s happened over the past few days really begins to settle in.

Being sprawled on her couch with Ava is by no means a new thing – it’s been happening since almost the first time Ava had been to her place, after all – but it feels like it is. Ava curls into her side, and it makes Sara’s heart beat faster. She’d thought her heart’s capabilities had been pushed to their limits recently, but clearly she’d been wrong.

“History documentary?” Sara asks quietly, like if she speaks any louder the bubble will suddenly burst. “I think you left one about pirates here somewhere.”

Ava shakes her head. “Maybe another time.”

“Is everything okay?” Sara asks softly, because she’s never known Ava to refuse a documentary.

“Yeah,” Ava breathes, lifting her head up from Sara’s shoulder to look at her. “Jus’ wanna be here with you. Talk and stuff.”

“Okay,” Sara smiles. “Yeah, we’re probably overdue a talk, aren’t we?”

“To be fair, we’ve had quite a lot of talks over the past two days,” Ava reasons. “But I did want to just ask you a couple of dumb things.”

“Go ahead,” Sara encourages her, dropping a kiss on the top of Ava’s head just because she can.

“What Zari was saying earlier…”

“Oh God,” Sara mutters, already embarrassed.

“No,” Ava laughs. “It’s just… when did you realise you had, you know, feelings?”

“Not that long ago,” Sara admits. “Two weeks, maybe. But the realisation was a while coming. Looking back, I think I first started feeling something when you came over here to watch Ray and Jax’s qualifiers with me because I couldn’t be there in person.”

She does the mental math, and realises that the Philly qualifiers had only been about five or six weeks ago. Sara hadn’t been wrong when she’d told Zari it had been fast, the way she’d fallen for Ava, but it’s real. It’s the most real thing Sara’s ever felt.

“What about you?” She asks, because Ava’s just kind of looking at her with an expression of wonder on her face, and Sara wants to know what she’s thinking.

“Well, I always thought you were hot,” Ava says wryly, laughing when Sara flips her hair dramatically. “Stop, it’s true. I also thought you were an asshole, but then you sat with me at breakfast in Miami… and then you returned my book, and, well…”

“You sent me a friend request the next day,” Sara remembers suddenly, and Ava blushes slightly. “All it took was me being nice to you one time, and you fell in love?”

Her tone is teasing, and Ava rolls her eyes good-naturedly. “Not right away,” she explains. “But that day is what started it, yeah.”

“Wow,” Sara muses. “I’m so glad I sat with you at breakfast and not that one family of strangers.”

“Me too,” Ava murmurs, leaning up to press a soft kiss to Sara’s lips.

Sara chases Ava’s lips when she pulls away, eyes still closed, and she doesn’t think she’ll ever quite get her fill of kissing Ava.

“So, I got a question,” Sara says, turning her body more to face Ava, who tilts her head in contemplation. “I know you said before that everything you were afraid of didn’t seem to matter anymore, but what you said yesterday on the bleachers… that’s completely valid, so I just wanted to ask if you’re sure about us? I’m not the kind of person to go posting everything on social media, but some of the others are, and I don’t ever want to put you in an uncomfortable position.”

The last thing Sara wants to do is to question Ava about this, because it would be torture to go through all of this and lose her to doubts and fears, but Sara has to make sure. It seems from Ava’s expression, though, that she has nothing to worry about.

“I’m sure,” Ava says, eyes softening as they roam around Sara’s face. “I’m still kind of scared, I’m not going to lie, but I’m more scared of losing you than I am of whatever publicity being with you brings to my life. I want this, okay? I love you.”

She kisses Sara again, firmer this time.

“But thank you for checking in with me,” she continues, leaning her forehead against Sara’s. “I promise I’ll tell you if I ever think something’s a bit much.”

“Alright,” Sara says. “Besides, I think we’re probably going to get a phone call sooner or later about keeping our relationship on the down-low until after the National Finals have aired.”

Ava huffs. “Imagine that, us posting spoilers of our own lives.”

“Producers,” Sara shrugs. “But I can’t pretend I’m not going to enjoy just being with you; no pressure from anyone else. No questions.”

“Well, we’ve got a couple of months until the season finale goes out,” Ava says, pulling Sara even closer. “What do you want to do until then?”

And for all the past few days have been exhausting, Sara doesn’t think she’s ever felt more awake than she does right now. Ava, too, has more energy now than she had even a few minutes ago; her breath hitches as Sara closes the gap between them once again.

Sara’s hands go to Ava’s hair. She always loves it when Ava wears her hair down, but it’s even better now, because now she can tangle her fingers in the strands as they kiss. Ava’s hair is soft, and long, and wavy, and Sara just adores it.

Ava’s kissing back insistently, hungrily, and it makes fire spark low in Sara’s belly. She teases Ava’s mouth open with her tongue, letting herself get lost in the feeling of having Ava this close to her.

Ava moans when Sara slips her tongue past her lips, grabbing Sara’s waist and holding on tightly. Emboldened by her reaction, Sara’s hands clench in Ava’s hair as she kisses her with everything she has. She scrapes her teeth over Ava’s bottom lip as she pulls back, breathing heavier than before.

Ava is breathing harder, too, and her eyes are the darkest blue Sara’s ever seen them. There’s no mistaking the way in which she’s looking at her, and Sara’s mind flashes back to this morning; seeing Ava wrapped in only a towel and the way it had made her feel. The way seeing Ava working out always makes her feel. Suddenly, all she wants is to feel Ava beneath her.

“I – I need—” Ava gasps, her hands tugging at Sara’s shirt. Clearly, Sara’s not alone in this want.

“I know, baby,” Sara whispers, barely registering her own use of the pet name as she raises her arms above her head and lets Ava pull the shirt off.

Ava kisses her again, her lips capturing Sara’s before trailing down to her neck. Sara actually hears herself whimper when Ava finds her pulse point, her lips closing in on it and sucking what Sara’s sure will be a mark there.

Technically, a hickey on her neck isn’t ‘on the down-low’, but Sara doesn’t have it within herself to care right now, as Ava moves her lips down past her collarbones to explore the skin that’s visible above her sports bra.

Sara feels Ava’s hands creep up from her waist, and she sighs into Ava’s mouth as she feels her hands run over her breasts. Ava squeezes, just barely, but Sara’s so sensitive right now that her whole body shivers.

Ava’s mouth teases the line of the fabric, and Sara can’t take this anymore. She wants to push Ava down onto the couch and just have her, but she also realises that there’s somewhere much more comfortable and accommodating they could be doing this.

Sara swallows roughly as Ava’s mouth drifts up, her tongue dipping into the hollow of her throat.

“Bedroom?” Sara manages, and Ava freezes against her.

Sara thinks she might have pushed too far for a moment, as Ava pulls back to look at her, but then Sara sees the desire behind her eyes. Ava nods, a slow grin spreading across her face, and Sara suddenly feels very hot under her gaze. It’s a feeling she could get used to.

Ava takes her by the hand and pulls her up from the couch. Sara kind of wants to laugh at the fact that Ava is leading her to her own damn bedroom, but it’s drowned out by the need that’s pulsing through her body.

Sara pulls the bedroom door shut behind her, holding onto the handle with one hand and using it to anchor herself as she pulls Ava back with the other. Once Ava’s close enough, Sara releases her hold on the handle and spins them so that Ava’s back hits the door.

“Smooth,” is all Ava manages before Sara’s kissing her again.

Sara’s hands inch under the hem of Ava’s soft shirt, and she feels Ava’s abdominal muscles tense under her fingers. Ava’s thumb strokes over her cheek; a soft counterpoint to the intensity with which she’s kissing, and Sara melts a little bit.

Sara pulls back to ask permission, but Ava’s already nodding at her.

“Take it off,” she says, and Sara doesn’t need to be told twice.

Ava only winces slightly as she lifts her arms, and it reminds Sara that despite its protests, Ava’s body is still pretty tired. She rubs Ava’s arms gently as they come back down, the shirt discarded somewhere in the room.

“Let me take care of you,” Sara whispers, less frantic than before, her fingers going to the clasp of Ava’s bra.

Ava nods again, breathing heavily, and Sara undoes the hooks. She lets the garment fall to their feet, and for a moment, she just looks. She must have been idle for a moment for too long, because Ava’s eyebrows knit together in confusion..

“What?”

“Nothing, it’s just…” Sara trails a hand around from Ava’s back, tracing a path to one of her breasts. “You’re so beautiful, do you know that?”

Ava’s breath catches. Rather than replying, she pulls Sara into another kiss, which makes Sara think that she really doesn’t know – or, at least, doesn’t believe it. Vowing to change that, Sara pulls Ava with her away from the door, turning them around and guiding her backwards until the back of Ava’s knees hit the mattress. Ava sinks down until she’s sitting, and her hands find the waistband of Sara’s gym leggings.

(The thought of wearing jeans this morning had been too painful to consider for both of them.)

Sara nods breathlessly, and then Ava’s working the leggings down until Sara can step out of them and kick them to one side, toeing her socks off with them. Sara pulls her own bra over her head, stomach muscles stretching up as she does so, and Ava’s fingers trace the lines there almost reverently.

Ava glances up to meet Sara’s eyes, before leaning close and pressing her lips to Sara’s stomach. Sara gasps softly, her hips canting forwards of their own accord as her eyes flutter shut.

Ava draws back, shuffling upwards towards the head of the bed with a glint in her eye. Like she’s being pulled by an invisible string, Sara follows, her knees bracketing Ava’s thighs as she settles in her lap. Ava’s arms wrap around her back to keep her steady as she ducks her head and takes one of Sara’s nipples into her mouth.

Sara whines, her hands sinking into Ava’s hair once more as sensation threatens to overwhelm her. And it was supposed to be her taking care of Ava, but Sara has to admit, this works just as well.

Ava switches sides, giving both of Sara’s breasts equal attention, and Sara doesn’t even realise she’s been rocking her hips against Ava until she feels Ava’s hands there, encouraging her.

“You’re still—” Sara manages, “—wearing too many clothes.”

“Maybe you should do something about that,” Ava says, releasing Sara’s nipple and looking at her devilishly.

Sara smirks at her, pushing lightly on Ava’s shoulder to encourage her to lie back as she begins to pull Ava’s leggings down. She plucks at the edge of Ava’s panties when they’re revealed.

“These too?” She asks sweetly, smiling like she doesn’t know exactly what this is doing to Ava.

“If you’d be so kind,” Ava says, sounding a bit strangled.

Sara strips away the clothing until Ava’s completely bare before her, and wow. She really is the most gorgeous person Sara thinks she’s ever seen. Ava’s legs fall open, and Sara can see from here how wet she is. She swallows, hit with the realisation that this is all for her, all because of her.

Knowing she can affect Ava like this makes Sara bolder, and she suddenly knows exactly what she wants to do first. She presses her lips to Ava’s sternum, and Ava’s muscles ripple as Sara’s hair falls over her stomach. She kisses a path downwards, and if the change in Ava’s breathing is any indication, she knows exactly what Sara’s plan is.

“Tell me if you want to stop,” Sara whispers, her mouth hovering above Ava’s hips.

“Not gonna happen,” Ava says breathlessly. “But thank you.”

Sara kisses the inside of Ava’s thigh, feeling it tremble under her mouth as she slowly works her way over to where she knows Ava needs her the most.

“I love you,” Sara tells her, just before her tongue makes contact.

Ava makes a high-pitched sound an octave above her usual register, and it’s already addicting. Sara holds her hips still, although she’s not sure she’d be able to if Ava wasn’t already so tired.

She’s content to explore for a bit, committing everything to memory before she makes any real effort to build Ava up. Before long, Ava’s hips start a staccato grind, looking for more than Sara’s giving right now, so she steps up her efforts.

Sara’s tongue finds Ava’s clit, and the effect is instantaneous.

“Fuck,” Ava gasps. “There, don’t stop.”

Sara’s not inclined to disobey. Not when she’s enjoying the reactions she’s eliciting this much. After a moment, she brings the fingers of her right hand up to join, letting the tip of her index finger tease at Ava’s entrance. She’s not sure yet what Ava likes and what she doesn’t like, so she keeps it at teasing while she draws circles around Ava’s clit with her tongue.

Ava’s hips stutter, and her muscles begin to tense.

“Sara,” Ava pants, and Sara’s eyes flick up to find Ava – braced on her elbows – looking at her. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are bright. Sara sucks on her clit, just barely dipping the tip of her finger inside, and that’s all it takes.

Ava comes, none too quietly, and Sara finds that she loves how vocal Ava is. She brings her down gently, resting her chin on Ava’s thigh once she’s done. Ava’s head, which had tipped backwards when her upper body had collapsed down onto the bed at some point, rolls to the side as she goes boneless against Sara.

Sara presses one more kiss to her thigh before she crawls up the length of Ava’s body. Her insides are electrified, and she thinks she might die if Ava doesn’t touch her soon, but there’s something to be said for how breathtakingly beautiful Ava is like this.

“Hi,” Sara says, holding herself up on her arms above Ava.

“Hi,” Ava replies, smiling almost shyly up at her. “That was…”

“Incredible, astounding, or just plain extraordinary?” Sara jokes, trying to ease the tiny part of her brain that’s doubting herself.

“All of the above,” Ava assures her, and Sara wonders how Ava sees through her bravado so easily. “Come here.”

She draws Sara’s head down for a kiss with a hand on the back of her neck, humming as she tastes herself on Sara’s lips. Sara’s body shivers in response, and she’d never known how much of a turn-on that was for her until now.

Ava pushes herself up into a sitting position with only slight difficulty, managing to keep from breaking the kiss as she tucks Sara’s hair behind her ears. Sara’s arms wind around her shoulders, enjoying the feel of Ava’s skin against hers.

Her hips jolt when Ava’s hands find the elastic of her underwear, and it’s like her body kicks into overdrive. Sara’s fingers scrabble against the material, helping Ava to push the underwear off and to the side somewhere as she settles back on her knees, one each side of Ava’s thighs.

“What do you need?” Ava breathes against her lips, fingers running over almost every inch of Sara’s skin.

“Just you,” Sara says, grabbing hold of one of Ava’s hands and guiding it between her legs. “Like this.”

Ava gasps as she makes contact, her fingers finding no resistance. “Is this…”

“All for you,” Sara swallows. Her body jerks forwards. “Ava, please.”

All of a sudden, two of Ava’s fingers slide into Sara, and lightning arcs down her spine. Her hips begin a rhythm of their own accord, Ava matching it, and Sara is powerless to do anything but clutch onto Ava and listen to the words she’s whispering into her ear.

She doesn’t register what Ava’s actually saying, too focused on her rapidly building orgasm, and it should be embarrassing how quickly it’s all happening. But, then again, Sara thinks that maybe they’ve been building to this since the day they’d met.

Ava’s thumb finds her clit, brushing over it, and Sara’s hips jerk as she shudders. She’s close, and she knows that Ava’s aware, and everything just feels so damn good. The muscles in her stomach coil tighter and tighter, and Sara finally catches what Ava is saying.

“I love you, I love you,” she’s whispering, over and over into Sara’s ear, and Sara doesn’t think she’s ever felt this safe.

Ava’s thumb brushes over her clit again and Sara stiffens, her muscles going taught, and then she’s coming. A moan spills from her mouth, increasing in volume the more Ava draws out her orgasm.

Sara’s fingers dig into Ava’s shoulders, clutching on for dear life as wave after wave washes over her. She sags against Ava when it’s all over, completely spent, and her body twitches as Ava withdraws her fingers and wipes them on the sheet.

Pulling her head back so she can look at Ava properly, Sara tries to catch her breath. Ava smooths Sara’s hair back from her eyes as they just look at each other, and Sara has no idea how she ever got lucky enough to call this woman hers.

“God, I love you,” Sara breathes out, and even though it’s not the first time she’s said it, it still feels like a loud confession in the sudden quiet of her bedroom.

“I love you, too,” Ava says, leaning in to press their lips together sweetly – almost chaste.

Sara’s stomach rumbles loudly, breaking the spell, and Ava laughs.

“Are you hungry?” She asks.

“I just ate,” Sara shrugs, and Ava looks scandalised.

Sara. Well, how about I make us some actual dinner?” She pokes Sara’s side, grinning when she squirms.

“Fine, fine, but only if you’re not too tired,” Sara says, conscious of everything that’s happened in the past several days.

“I think I can manage,” Ava kisses her again. “Food, and then sleep?”

“Sounds good,” Sara hums against her lips. “Better than good, in fact. Sounds perfect.”

 

----------

 

“Nate, the ad break’s over. You’re going to miss it!”

Nate comes running in from the kitchen at Zari’s yelling, laden down with snacks, and dives onto the floor between Ray and Wally. Sara rolls her eyes with a grin, curled up against Ava on one end of her couch. The other end is commandeered by Amaya and Zari, which had led to Jax dubbing it ‘the couples’ couch of cuteness’, which is a much more PG name than Sara had thought he’d come up with. Ray offers some of Nate’s snacks to Nora, who’s visiting the legends for a couple of weeks.

It’s a flimsy excuse, because Nate still lives with Ray and – according to him – nobody is actually sleeping on the couch. Sara’s pretty sure everyone’s on the same page as far as Ray and Nora go, but Nora sometimes gets this look in her eye like she’s daring someone to make a comment about them, so they tend to leave it be.

American Ninja Warrior plays on Sara’s television, coming back from its final ad break of the season as they introduce Sara’s Stage Three run. A few nerves flutter in Sara’s stomach. In a few minutes’ time, the little bubble she and Ava have been living in for the last two months will be burst.

They’re solid, though. More than solid, actually, so Sara’s pretty confident that they’ll be fine. Still, it’s nerve-wracking in its own way.

Sara watches herself make her way through the course, and it’s still weird to see her runs back – given she never used to rewatch them – but she’s learning a lot from it. The camera cuts to the sidelines when Sara completes the Ultimate Cliffhanger, and Sara can see a proud grin on Ava’s face despite Sara having just beaten her into second place.

Television-Sara makes her way steadily through the Curved Body Prop, and it’s only because Sara knows that she was shaking on the ascent that she notices. To the outside eye, she looks pretty stable.

Sara watches herself pause before the Peg Clouds, hanging upside-down from the obstacle, and she kind of wants to laugh at how ridiculous she looks. That urge grows stronger when she sees her crazy attempt at the obstacle itself.

“I look like a pretzel,” Sara muses, and Zari snorts. Amongst the general chatter, Sara feels Ava lean in close.

“It was actually kinda hot,” she whispers. “Seeing how flexible you are, I mean.”

Sara bites her lip, glancing around the room before turning her attention to Ava. “Ava Sharpe, you know full well how flexible I am.”

“I do now,” Ava reasons. “I didn’t back then. But, hotness aside, it was a very impressive technique.”

“Not quite impressive enough,” Sara notes, as she watches herself fall into the tank of water. Kendra and Carter lament her defeat, and the camera cuts back to the legends all charging at the tank.

“Looks like we have a pitch invasion,” Carter laughs. “Seems like Sara’s friends are joining her in the water.”

“She may not have completed Stage Three, but Sara Lance is our last ninja standing,” Kendra’s voice overlays the picture of the legends in the water. The camera zooms in on where Ava’s standing close to Sara.

Sara sees her lips move on the screen, and clearly the mics hadn’t picked up what she and Ava had been saying, but she can tell the exact moment Ava says she loves her, because television-Sara starts blinking back tears.

Sara leans her head against Ava’s shoulder as she watches the moment unfold, and it’s strangely nice to have had this moment recorded. On the screen, Ava reaches out to cup Sara’s cheek.

Kendra and Carter are uncharacteristically quiet, like they’re both holding their breath, and as the Sara and Ava on the screen exchange a few more words, Sara knows what’s about to happen.

The camera keeps steady as Sara and Ava kiss, and in the present, the legends start ‘awww-ing’. The legends of the past start celebrating in the pool, high-fiving and yelling excitedly. On the television, Sara and Ava ignore them all.

Sara feels Ava drop a kiss in her hair as they watch the moment unfold. Her phone starts to vibrate with multiple notifications, and Sara switches it off. They’ll get to all that later. For now, though, she just settles even more against her girlfriend.

Ava interlocks her fingers with Sara’s, lifting her hand to press her lips to the back of it. Sara sighs contentedly, happy in the knowledge that, for once, everything is good.