Chapter 13: Contention

A gentle breeze came in through the open door, the scent of new flowers and sunlight filling the shop as Miyo wiped down the counter. So far it had been a calm, routine day that had Miyo in a thoughtful mood.


Her light humming trailed off when an unfamiliar rhythm of footsteps sounded on the stairs. She readied herself behind the counter, gleaming in the afternoon sun, feeling the curiosity rise in her at the thought of a brand new customer.


But Miyo was surprised to see Makoto’s face at the doorway. “Good afternoon,” Miyo greeted automatically, hiding her confusion. As soon as Makoto crossed into the room, however, Miyo realized why she hadn’t recognized her footsteps.


“Would you like some heat or ice for your leg?” Miyo asked.


Makoto shook her head. “No thanks, I’m okay. I just pulled something during the competition.”


A memory bubbled to the surface of Miyo’s mind. “That was yesterday, right?”


Makoto gave her a thin smile as she settled into one of the seats at the counter. “Yes.”


The beat of the word stuttered awkwardly into silence. “How did it go?” Miyo asked cautiously.


Makoto took in a measured breath and let it go slowly before answering. “Let’s just say things didn’t quite go as planned.”


Miyo winced at the tone in Makoto’s voice and gave what she hoped was a conciliatory smile. “Things will be better next time.”


“I guess.”


Miyo felt her smile start to slip, unsettled by the uncharacteristic negativity coming from Makoto. Though Miyo had noticed Makoto having become more tense in the past few days, there had still been that air of practical diligence around her that Miyo had come to associate with the teen. Now, it seemed like Makoto was a completely different person, with half the world weighing on her shoulders.


Miyo studied Makoto thoughtfully. ‘Well, if this was any other person, what would I do?’ As soon as the thought came to her, the words came automatically from her lips.


“What tea may I share with you today?” Miyo asked formally.


Makoto’s gaze wandered along the tins lining the shelves. “Do you have anything that would make me stronger?”


“Stronger? ”


Makoto dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand. “Never mind. Just a plain black tea. That’s probably all I deserve anyway.”


The way Makoto’s words and shoulder started to fold into herself pulled at her, but Miyo bit down on her reply.  Instead, she just gave a small bow, not wanting to take the risk of further drawing Makoto’s mood even lower than it already was.


While waiting for the water to boil, the whine of a scooter’s engine cut through the air. It stopped in front of the store, followed by a bouncing quickstep on the stairs.


“Good afternoon, Shinya,” Miyo greeted, despite not being able to actually see Shinya behind the box she carried.


From her seat, Makoto gaped as Shinya made her way to the end of the counter near Miyo and carefully lowered the box. On the floor, it came well above Shinya’s waist but Shinya didn’t seem the least out of breath. “That should be it,” she said cheerfully.


Miyo gave her a gracious bow. “Thank you, as always. Would you like your usual?”


“Sure.” Shinya turned to take a seat but paused when she spotted Makoto. “You competed yesterday, didn’t you? You had that tough match at the quarter-finals.”


Makoto nodded grimly. “It was a hard, losing that one. Were you competing too?”


Shinya shook her head as she settled into the chair next to Makoto. “One of my coworkers competed so I was just there for emotional support. It was his first match as a purple belt.”


“Me too.” Makoto sighed. “Maybe it’s just purple belt, but everyone was really tough. The quarter-final though, she had an answer for everything I tried. It was like she was on a completely different level than I was.”


Miyo placed a steaming cup in front of Makoto. “I’m sure you did your best,” she said, having heard the frustration creeping into Makoto’s voice. “That’s all that matters.” She caught a dubious look cross Shinya’s face. “Right?”


Makoto straightened, her eyes narrowing as she turned to fully take in Shinya’s form. The unassuming delivery garb must not have left an impression on Makoto. “You’ve competed before?” she asked, skepticism clear in her voice.


“No, but I’ve had my fair share of fights,” Shinya said. She flashed Makoto a feral grin, causing Makoto to draw back slightly. “The thing about fighting is that it’s not about your best – being in your best shape, or doing your best moves. It’s about refusing to give anything but all of yourself. The person who’s willing to risk the most, wins.”


Makoto frowned. “That’s short-sighted though. If you’re too spent, you won’t win the next match.”


Shinya raised an eyebrow. “There won’t be a next match if you don’t win the one you’re in. Isn’t that what happened yesterday?”


Makoto’s jaw bunched and shifted before she turned away. “You’ve never competed,” Makoto said, glaring at her tea cup. “You wouldn’t understand.”


“Which part?” Shinya ignored Miyo’s concerned look and leaned her elbows on the counter, fixing her gaze on Makoto. Her voice was quiet but with a steel that was unrelenting. “The part where there’s an endless line of people waiting to destroy you? Or the part where everyone you admire, everyone who’s helped you, watching from the sidelines and expecting you to win?”


Her voice dropped to a lower pitch. “Or is it the part where you feel completely out of your depth and terrified that everyone is going to think you’re useless?”


Shinya noted the catch in Makoto’s breathing, the twitch in her face. “Sounds pretty similar to me,” Shinya said, leaning back into her chair. She took up her cup as if she’d just had a conversation about her latest delivery. From Miyo’s view, Shinya’s nonchalance was a sharp contrast to Makoto’s melancholy.


“Have you ever been in a fight, Miyo?” Shinya asked, finally breaking the suffocating silence that had fallen. She chuckled at Miyo’s wide eyes. “Let me try to explain then.


“The thing about fighting and competing is that it’s never you against them. It’s about you against yourself. To be more specific, the part of you that you know is weak, that you want to change. And you have only that moment to prove it. Once that moment passes, it’ll never come again. That’s why it’s so important to give your all, not your best. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in regret.”


Shinya jerked her chin towards Makoto. “Kinda like how this one is right now.”


Miyo held her breath, afraid that Makoto would sink even further into her darkness. But to her surprise, Makoto let out a dry laugh. “You don’t hold anything back, do you?”


Shinya gave her a pointed look. “Why would I waste my life doing something like that?”


Makoto’s drew in a sharp breath, a tumble of emotions clouding her face. After a few minutes of silence, Makoto abruptly stood up and handed Miyo her payment.


As she reached the door, a chime sounded and Makoto fished out her phone from her pocket. “Coach? I was actually just about to call you. Yes, I’m fine. Could you open up the training room? There are some things I’d like to work on.”


Miyo smiled as Makoto’s voice faded away. “Would you like another cup before you go?” Miyo asked, already turning towards the tin-lined wall.


“I suppose.”


Miyo turned at the dull tone in Shinya’s voice, surprised to find Shinya’s shoulders slumped, the calm from earlier completely gone. Catching Miyo’s concerned look, Shinya gave her a thin smile. “I was pretty harsh, huh?”


Miyo hummed thoughtfully. “I think it’s what Makoto needed at the moment. Some things we’ve become so blind to within our own mind, that the only way to see it is to have someone else show it to us.” She smiled as she poured out more tea for Shinya. “It’s a rare thing, to have someone who cares enough to be as honest as you were.”


Shinya shrugged. “It’s just things I wish someone had told me when I was her age. If someone had, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.”


The moment felt like an echo of one Miyo had just shared with Makoto, from the way the note in Shinya’s voice curved her words and shoulders downward, to Miyo’s own lacking confidence. She swallowed down the safe platitude that had readied itself on her tongue, and dug deeper into herself for her next words.


“I don’t think time can be wasted,” Miyo said slowly, fixing her gaze on the teacup Makoto had left on the counter. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Shinya’s head raise. She wasn’t sure what expression was there, but she continued anyway.


“Who you are changes over time. Even over the course of a day, you can become someone completely different from the person you were when you woke up. That person will have different goals, different priorities, different standards that you’ll judge yourself against.


“I think when people get to a point where they look back and say, ‘That was a waste of time,’ that’s because they’re looking at things through the eyes of a different person. They’ve changed. The person they were, the goals they had during the moment they were so-called wasting time were completely different from the moment after it. But they haven’t noticed.


“It makes me sad when that happens because being able to change is such a beautiful thing. It’s something we should celebrate. But instead, people end up criticizing themselves … I’m sorry, I ended up rambling.”


“It’s okay,” Shinya said with a chuckle as Miyo pressed her palms against her flushed cheeks. She nodded to herself and said softly, “I think that’s what I needed at the moment.”  She raised her tea cup in a toast, and they let the silence settle comfortably around them once more.

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