* * *
The Flipz shoot was a prime example of Monica’s on/off relationship with Darren Hades. On some days she could tolerate the man with little more than a series of sighs and nods; other times she had to physically separate herself from him by walking off the podium, pretending to drink from her water bottle or work out a cramp. Having Sundays off helped, as cumulative pressure amassed during the workweek could be relieved at regular intervals. As long as Monica knew there would be a reprieve, she could stifle any manner of outburst, avoid any variety of argument.
For the most part.
By late November, all of Hades’ and Tracie’s preliminary observations had been completed, and the girls began working out full-fledged routines on bars, beam, and floor—with Hades choosing floor music, and Hades having final say as to which skills were kept, which were dropped, and how many pelvic thrusts and butt wiggles were to be utilized in between. Naturally, as the Keenes had been more apt to choose genres of music rather than actual tracks, ranges of skills rather than actual skills, this was a bone of contention for Monica. It wasn’t so much the sex appeal element as it was the inability to add her personal touch to her routines. Ergo, she could swing her way around the bars, work her way along the beam, or tumble across the podium, and her kips, her layouts, her pikes and arabesques meant absolutely nothing.
John bumped into her towards the end of one particular morning training session, patted her on the back when she excused herself from bars work to get a drink of water. (In the weeks since their first kiss in Patriot Park, they’d taken to holding hands and making out during recoup time—though they were strictly professional in the gym.)
“Cramp?” he asked.
“Coach,” she replied.
He squatted beside her. “Ah, one of those days, huh?”
Monica clenched her fists, curled her toes. “One day he ignores me totally, the next he wants me to perfect a dozen new skills by dinnertime! Ugh! How can someone so obsessed with consistency be so . . . so inconsistent?”
“I’d say he’s trying to be dynamic,” John said, “but you’d only kick me in the shin—and I’ve peeked across the room enough times to see he’s not really the mentoring type.”
“It’s like that show, Reality Cam!” Monica exclaimed, sighing, thinking again of her KG days. Greg always made sure you knew where you were going, knew what was expected of you; he worked with you to meet the appropriate deadlines. With Hades and Tracie, your skills were compartmentalized. You knew each and every skill, you knew how to connect said skills, but you had no idea what the finished routine was going to look like.
“Back on task, Monica!”
Monica looked up. Tracie had come to stand over her, arms folded, glare oscillating back and forth between John and herself.
John nodded, bowed out as Monica followed Tracie back to the uneven bars, resumed her practice. Five minutes in, though, and a ruckus over by the balance beam caught her attention.
Jackie was throwing a fit.
“No!” she shouted. “It’s stupid—it’s a stupid idea and I won’t do it!”
Hades, standing with his hands on his hips, looked like he was about to blow a gasket. “Fine. Then you’ll spend the rest of the day in your quarters.”
“Fine!” Jackie hopped off the beam, stalked out of the training room.
Hades watched her go; the back of his neck had turned bright red—a bullseye that was attracting the attention of nearby athletes and coaches. After a moment, he waved Tracie over for a private discussion.
Monica walked over to where her teammates were gathered around the chalk bowl.
“What’s that about?” asked Lisa.
“Beats me,” said Monica.
“He looks pissed.”
Britney ground her teeth nervously. “And right before lunchtime, too.”
“Ten ameros says he makes us do a hundred extra push-ups this afternoon,” said Kristen.
The girls watched as Hades pulled out his cell phone, punched in a number. In a moment he was juggling a conversation between himself, Tracie, and whomever was on the other end of the line. The result: a nod from Tracie, something whispered in Hades’ ear. Then she approached the team.
“Britney,” she said, “you’re going to work on the balance beam with Hades for the remainder of this session. The rest of you will be doing bars with me.”
“Is everything all right?” asked Monica.
“Petty details,” Tracie said, looking none too pleased. “Back on task, please.”
The matter was dropped until afternoon training, when, upon the girls’ first stepping onto the lot, it was announced that Tracie would be handling Britney, Lisa, Kristen, and Alana while Hades and Monica practiced alone.
“What for?” asked Monica as she and Hades parted from the group, Kim following several paces behind.
“Today we’re going to work on your falls,” Hades offered.
“Yes—how to fall without hurting yourself. Jackie didn’t seem to think it was worthy of her time. I hope you’ll be more enthusiastic.”
At first Monica thought he was talking about proper reactive techniques, lessening the chance of injury whenever she knew she was going to fall during a routine.
“Not exactly,” Hades said after she’d pressed for further information. “What I have in mind involves a more . . . proactive approach.”
He led her across the lot and to a large shed—a spare gym, Monica realized as soon as they stepped inside and flicked on the lights. It was just large enough to accommodate a balance beam and some mats. And it was completely private, no windows, no straggling athletes watching on the sidelines.
She set her bag down, unzipped her jacket. “Cozy, isn’t it?”
Hades had Kim stand outside. He closed the door. “Concentration is a virtue, Monica. Not that I’m in any way doubting your mental disciplines, but I’m going to need your undying attention for the next few hours. No teammates chattering between drills, no boys waiting to gossip with you every time you have a drink of water.”
Monica blushed, finished stripping down to her leotard. She’d thought John and herself had been discreet about their various interactions during training time, but obviously Hades had caught on. She wondered if he was at all aware of their blossoming relationship outside of the gym. If Kim had tattled, or if one of the security cameras had caught them during a make-out session . . .
“Help me out,” Hades said, ducking under the beam and motioning for her to assist him in dragging one of the mats forward. Once they’d positioned it just right, he dusted off his hands and said, “Now, before we begin, know that anything that goes on in here is strictly between you and me. You will not discuss the skills you learn here with anyone. Not your teammates, not your family or friends.”
Monica nodded, a silent thanks echoing in her head that he wasn’t going to confront her about her love life. “Yes, sir.”
“All right, up you go,” Hades instructed.
Monica complied, mounting the beam, still not exactly certain what was going on as Hades had her do a run-through of her tumbling abilities. After a handful of passes, he began giving instructions—and suddenly Monica knew what he was after. He didn’t just want her to protect herself during a fall, he wanted her to learn how to fall on cue—to fake a mistake and make it look absolutely convincing without damaging herself in the process.
During a break, she asked, “This is what Jackie was whining over?”
Hades nodded. “This is what she was whining over.”
“It’s how we’re doing things this season.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but unless we’re playing, like, golf, isn’t it pointless to cheat by lowering my score?”
“Who says we’re cheating?”
Monica shrugged. She sensed a scheme in the works, but she had no proof, only circumstantial evidence, an instinct. “I don’t know. It just seems kind of sneaky, training out here alone, learning to fall on purpose—and with you yelling at us all week not to fall.”
“I don’t yell.”
“Sure you do.”
“I give instructions, I offer critiques—”
“At the top of your lungs.”
Monica raised her hands. “Okay. You coach—but that still doesn’t explain why I’m learning to do fake-outs.”
A sigh from Hades. He’d been standing beside the beam, arms folded, but now he came to sit beside her. “You’re learning to do fake-outs because it’s what I need you to learn. During the course of a normal season I’d have a larger pool of athletes. I’d have the ability to manipulate the roster in order to better suit respective meets. With six girls locked in through Heroes’ Day, that option is lost to me—adjustments have to be made in other ways.”
“Sounds like you have your hands tied,” said Monica.
“The NPAA pulls my strings, I pull yours. We’ll manage.”
“By teaching me how to fall?” Monica shook her head—the idea was still a level or two above her.
“By teaching you how to adjust. Sometimes you fall, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you keep in the full-twisting dismount, and sometimes you take out the twist. It’s all adjustments, Monica.”
Hades held up his hand, pointed at the beam. “No buts. Let’s continue.”
Monica’s stubborn side urged her to refuse, to demand further details, though it occurred to her that Hades hadn’t chewed her out over her dating John (despite having briefly mentioned the fact). He knew—she was certain he knew—and he’d let her off without the obligatory lecture. Trust? she wondered. Or an eye for an eye. I keep his secret, he trusts me not to do anything irresponsible with John. No premarital sex, no getting pregnant.
Hades was waiting.
“All right,” she said, getting to her feet and approaching the balance beam. “Let’s continue.”