Chapter 21: Finals

Makoto took the bottle of tea Miyo held out to her without question and without looking. It didn’t seem that Makoto was seeing much of anything, judging from the way her gaze was fixed on something beyond not only Miyo’s sight, but also everyone else’s.

 

“Don’t worry, she’s always like this,” Yui said, taking a proffered bottle. Her smile, however, had a touch of grimness to it. “But this match is going to be tough. Her opponent was last year’s winner. Plus, they have very different styles.”

 

Miyo thought back to how Makoto usually trained. Prompted by Makoto, the team had asked Miyo for tea recommendations to match their training regimen. After watching several sessions, Miyo had decided to go further and created blends specific to each team member and their states of training.

 

Yui, for example, went at her own pace, but would get focused right before the match. For her, Miyo actually created two different teas. The first tea, which Yui was drinking now, was meant to ride the mellow carelessness Yui typically carried herself. The second tea Yui only drank right before a match, where the strong flavors helped kickstart the focus needed for the match.

 

Makoto didn’t need much help in that regard, easily slipping into a quiet intensity whenever she needed to. Today, however, her energy permeated the very air around her, and being near Makoto felt like touching an electrical current.

 

“Whenever I watch Makoto, she reminds me of those rains that happen when it’s completely sunny – you never know what to expect,” Miyo mused outloud.

 

Yui laughed. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”  She tapped her bottle in thought for a moment.  “Her opponent, Ikuha, she’s like one of those gray, oppressing rains that just never lets up.  Not to say that she isn’t fast, though.  The difference is that with Makoto, you always have this feeling that she’ll find some way out or around or something. Ikuha grinds you into submission.” Yui winced, eyes distant in memory.

 

Miyo studied her curiously. “You’ve trained with her before?”

 

Yui nodded. “They’re the top team here in Crescent Island, and one of the top three in our region. They’re known for that intense pressure style and really hard training. I was much lighter when I trained with them,” Yui admitted with a self-deprecating half-smile.

 

“But others have the same style here too, right? For example Niwaka, she’s very explosive,” Miyo said, glancing at the blend that she had on hand specifically for her.  “So it’s not something Miyo hasn’t faced before.”

 

Yui waggled her hand back and forth. “Sure, it’s the same style, but Niwaka is still bigger than her.  Things change when it’s someone your same size.” Yui let out a deep breath. “Makoto’s going to have her work cut out for her, for sure.”

 

*

 

“Just one more,” Ikuha said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

 

Kazuo eyed her closely.  “Don’t take this one too lightly.”

 

“I’m not. I just feel good about this one. Last competition, she was really weak in deep half guard – I can definitely get her there.”

 

Kazuo opened his mouth but closed it, catching the glint in Ikuha’s eye. He knew that look well, had seen it at countless other competitions where any game plan they had previously trained for was suddenly discarded.

 

He shrugged. Most of the time, it went well for Ikuha.  Besides, she had been training hard and performing well in all of the competitions this year.  Which was not something Kazuo said lightly.  He’d trained with and coached some of the best, would still be in the competition circuit himself had it not been for his hip injury. Being at competitions like this made him itch to have his name back in those brackets.

 

But today was about Ikuha. She’d started at the gym as a child and had quickly established herself as a rising star.  Sensing the strength and confidence from her, Kazuo nodded to himself in agreement.  Today would be one more medal to add to her already overflowing collection.

 

Kazuo motioned to Ikuha and they began some light drills. As they did, Kazuo shared what Yuuto had seen when he had visited Makoto’s gym last week. There weren’t any rules against people training at different gyms, though it was more common in districts where the islands were closer together. As Crescent Island was a bit isolated, everyone likewise kept to themselves, unless they were looking to change gyms or for a little inspiration.

 

At least, that was the story Yuuto had presented when he had dropped in unannounced to Makoto’s gym. Visiting regular classes had the advantage of seeing both what the gym emphasized and the level of the different members within the gym. Research, as what Kazuo called it, was just another part of training. If no other gyms thought to do the same practice, that was their loss.

 

What Yuuto had found hadn’t surprised Kazuo in the least. After all, their own team  took pride in the high level of intensity with which they trained – no one could match them in that.

 

Both Ikuha and Kazuo straightened at the referee’s call, and they exchanged short nods before Ikuha turned towards the mat, not once looking back.

 

*

 

‘She’s strong,’ was Makoto’s first thought as they fought for grips on each other’s uniform. Makoto finally managed to sneak her hand into Ikuha’s lapel, but when she pulled, there was no movement at all.  It was like trying to pull on a mountain.

 

Caught in disbelief, the mountain moved, taking advantage of Makoto’s grip and using it to pull her down to the mat.  Ikuha quickly entangled her limbs around Makoto’s right leg like a snake.

 

Makoto shoved Ikuha’s head down and managed to slip her leg free, only to find her left leg trapped and Ikuha lodged underneath her. Panic started to pull at Makoto’s breath.

 

She hated this position.  When she had first learned deep half guard, she had known that it would take her years before she’d feel comfortable executing it or escaping it.  For a time, even, she hated Yui because she used this position all the time.  Sometimes, Makoto would even allow herself to get swept, pulled down to the mat. Even though it put her in a worse position and lost her points, Makoto preferred that than having to actually be in deep half at all.

 

There were some days when she actually tried.  Recently, she had been in a particularly stubborn mood, and spent nearly the entire round with Yui trying to escape but to no avail.

She sat on the side of the mat, growling a bit in frustration.  But she perked up in curiosity, noting that Niwaka had paired up with Yui. In terms of size, Niwaka was failry closes to her, though she was a bit bigger and had been training for a while longer than Makoto.

 

It was to no surprise to Makoto that within a few seconds, Yui had tucked herself under Niwaka into that favored position of hers.  But just when it looked like Yui was about to sweep her, Niwaka slipped through and Yui was curling up into a ball.

 

Makoto blinked. ‘How …?’

 

She waited until the round was over and tapped Niwaka’s shoulder once she had got up from shaking hands with Yui. “That deep half escape, that was amazing! How did you do that?”

 

“It’s mostly timing really. But the tip that coach taught me a while back was to really pressure in with the underhook, in order to turn their head away.”

 

Makoto tried to picture it in her head, then bit her lip. “Could you … show me?” She realized that she hadn’t asked Niwaka for this kind of advice before.

 

Niwaka grinned. “Sure, but only if you show me that submission from knee on belly. I saw you catch a couple people with that yesterday.”

 

Makoto paused in tying her belt.  “You did?”

 

Niwaka laughed.  “Of course!  You better watch out – Hana seems to think she has a counter for it.”

 

Before setting up the position with Niwaka, Makoto glanced around the gym. There were several people on the sidelines, talking, some watching, most of the others training. She hadn’t ever realized that she would be one that others would actually be watching. ‘I guess that’s why we’re called a team – always pushing each other to grow…’

 

Makoto heard her teammates calling out to her as she dropped her weight instinctively like she had practiced countless times with Niwaka and Yui. She frowned, then shifted her weight, passing over so she was able to disconnect from Ikuha.

 

‘That felt too easy…’ But there was no time to think – her teammates were yelling with fervor and Makoto immediately went on the attack. She recognized the beginnings of panic in Ikuha, the jerkiness of her movements, the quickened breathing.

 

It felt as if everything went into slow motion.  Makoto could see every shift, every thought that ran through Ikuha’s mind and Makoto was moving far before Ikuha could even complete the thought. An opening at the Ikuha’s hip – Makoto snuck in before Ikuha recognized the danger.  Ikuha’s arms tried to block her, but Makoto was already moving to the other side, already coming around to Ikuha’s back, clamping down.  Makoto could feel Ikuha panicking, but she was too slow – too slow to block Makoto’s legs climbing up to Ikuha’s ribs, too slow to block Makoto’s hands from digging into her lapels and pulling.

 

Makoto felt Ikuha tap on her arm and heard the referree’s call for stoppage immediately after.  As soon as Makoto released everything, all sound and time came rushing back. In the cacophony, she heard her own name, and she smiled.

 

Ikuha was quiet when she stepped off the mat. Kazuo clapped a hand on her shoulder. “You did good,” he said simply. It was true – it had been a strong showing.

 

“She’s gotten a lot better since the last competition,” Ikuha said, eyeing Makoto across the way. She smiled faintly. “Looks like she’s got a good team.”

 

*

 

Makoto accepted her teammates hugs, relieved that it was over and elated at the win. “So why can’t you do that when we roll?” Yui teased, handing her a water bottle.

 

Makoto narrowed her eyes. “Want to try it now?”

 

Yui laughed. “Tomorrow, tomorrow. Now, it’s time to celebrate! You did it!”

 

Makoto held her glare for a moment but then softened it. “No, we did.”

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