Chapter 31: Steadfast

The door closed with a jingle from the bells hanging from the top frame. Ina listened to them sway, their sound out of sync with the view of her cousin’s back as she walked down the street.

 

Ina turned back to face the gym, her lips pursing as she started to see things through her cousin’s eyes. ‘Riyo does have a point.’ Ina walked around the gym, going over the things Riyo had pointed out. The trinkets that had seemed relaxing was now distracting and “corny”, the competition medals that had seemed in a humble spot now seemed “tossed aside” and “neglected.”

 

‘First impressions are important,’ Riyo had ranted, ‘It’s like you’re not even taking this seriously.’

 

Ina undid her ponytail as she sat at the front desk, just at the edge of the mats that lined the bulk of the space. On top of the desk however, attendance records were scattered from Riyo’s sharp eyes and even sharper tongue. Ina sighed as she looked over the records again from the past month. ‘No wonder the numbers haven’t been looking good – I’ve been doing everything wrong.’

 

She knew that it took time for attendance to be steady. Sure, there were people signing up for the free classes and there had been quite a number of people who attended the open mat earlier this morning. But in the past few month, only a handful of people had actually signed up to become members. And none of those, Riyo had noted, were people who were switching gyms. ‘You need that experience in order for your gym to stay alive. If you can’t convince people to switch, then you’ve got some other problems you need to work on.’

 

Ina had winced at the words, knowing the dig at her coaching style. It’s why she had decided to open up her own gym, so she could teach grappling the way she believed, to build up everyone’s unique abilities. ‘But maybe my approach has been too lenient,’ Ina thought. Her cousin had mentioned another gym that had started not too long ago and had become a top gym on the island. ‘If they can do it, so can you. But only if you start taking this seriously.’

 

Ina glanced around the gym. It was the most serious thing she had in her life. But in Riyo’s opinion, it wasn’t serious enough. Ina picked up her keys and rose from her seat. ‘Well, let’s go see what serious looks like.’

 

*

 

Atsuno kept her eyes on the tea cup sitting on the counter in front of her, ignoring the chatter from the group at the other end of the counter. The tea master had politely excused herself to serve them and though Atsuno had found Miyo’s presence calming, she found the solitude to be more suitable to her mood.

 

The sound of a hesitant step next to her stool made her sigh internally and she turned, fixing what she hoped looked like a neutral expression on her face.

 

It was one of the girls from the group, tall with sharp features softened by a shy smile. “You’re Atsuno, right? From the national team?” Off of the short nod, the teenager’s smile widened and her words flowed with less hesitance. “My name’s Makoto. I saw you at the competition last week and I just wanted to say that the last match was amazing.”

 

Atsuno gave the girl a brief smile in return. “Thanks. Though it would’ve been more amazing had I won.”

 

“It was so close though! And it was definitely the best match of the whole competition. That triangle variation that you did near the end had everyone on their feet.”

 

Atsuno ducked her head to hide the instinctive wince. She guessed that her coach had not been one of those people, or rather, if he had been on his feet, it had been for the completely opposite reason, judging by the scolding she had received afterward. Atsuno remembered wanting to argue, to tell him the frustration she’d had in not being allowed to train the technique and the others that were more in line with her style. ‘If I could have practiced it, I would have had more chances of pulling it off,’ she had wanted to shout, but instead, she had sat through the scolding with a bowed head.

 

“Do you train nearby?” Atsuno asked, taking a sip of her tea to recover her composure.

 

“We all do,” Makoto said proudly, gesturing to the group behind her. “Actually, we just came from an open mat from this new gym that opened. The owner was really great – it’s just her right now, but it sounded like she was looking for more instructors too. We’re definitely going to go again because it was so different from what we usually do at our regular gym.” She took a flyer from her pocket and handed it to Atsuno.

 

Atsuno took the flyer but looked at Makoto curiously. “Wait, your coaches are okay with you training at other gyms?” It was only when the question registered on Makoto’s face that Atsuno realized it was an odd question to ask.

 

“Of course,” Makoto answered, her head tilted and brow furrowed. “Doesn’t yours?”

 

Atsuno shook her head, not meeting Atsuno’s gaze. “We can only train at the main gym or approved affiliates. And even then, we’re only allowed a certain amount of time away.”

 

“Huh.” The revelation sat on Makoto’s shoulders for a few moments. Then she shrugged it off. “I guess that’s what it takes to be a champion team.”

 

Atsuno didn’t answer. The group at the counter began to stand, catching Makoto’s attention. “Well, hope to see you compete again. Good training!” Makoto gave a short bow before joining her friends as they left the tea shop.

 

Quiet settled within the shop once more, broken only by the soft sounds of Miyo moving behind the counter. Atsuno turned over the teenager’s words in her head as she reflected on her competition performance this past year. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least: she had lost all of the competitions she had entered so far, and each time she had pointed to certain holes in her skills that had led to the loss. But stepping back and taking a look at not just herself, but the people and the place she trained, Atsuno wondered if there wasn’t something more that she wasn’t taking into account.

 

Miyo appeared just at the edge of her line of sight and she looked up at the tea master’s gently smiling face. “Would you like more of the same or something different?”

 

Atsuno caught her own reflection in the last drops of tea within her cup. She let everything quiet within her, until she could hear the answer from the deepest part of her heart.

 

*

 

‘This is it.’ Ina sat in the middle of the gym, sheets of papers strewn over the mats, each of them covered with different scrawls – drawings of the gym, bulleted outlines, crossed out notes. She had been at it for a while, but finally she pulled a handful of sheets to rest in front of her.

 

Envisioned on the papers were reimaginings of the gym, the cool tones of blues and whites replaced by the stronger colors of black and red that she had seen at the other gym. The layout allowed for more serious work, and of course, the medals and trophies were moved from their corner to be displayed at the very front of the gym.

 

Ina took hold of another paper that had an outline of the new class structure. It was very different from what she usually did, but it’s what all the top gyms were doing, so it had to have some merit.

 

She stood up with the paper in hand, imagining the walls in a different shade, students lined up on the mats as she pretended to run through a typical class. She could see the students’ faces in front of her, looking up at her in askance.

 

‘Is this what it takes?’

 

Ina’s eyes shot open, looking around the gym. But there was no one else there. Just her, and her imaginings.

 

She glanced down at the paper in her hand, at the other sheets of paper strewn across the floor. Changing everything wouldn’t take very long, the longest being a day or two to paint everything. But was it what she herself wanted?

 

When she had first asked Riyo for help in funding the gym, Ina had explained that she had wanted to make it a space that was different from other places. “I want it to be a place where anyone can join, and everyone can be themselves,” she’d said, eager and hopeful. Ina realized now that her cousin had probably only focused on the “everyone” in terms of getting as much money as they could from everyone. ‘Not to mention being like everyone else…’

 

Ina studied the walls around her, and the papers littered across the mats.

 

She looked down at the one in her hand. Then crumpled it into a ball.

 

She walked to each one, wrapping a fist around each sheet. With each crumpled ball came a new thought – she could get a smaller space, partner with likeminded people, add different offerings. But behind each thought was a vow, an answer to the question she had posed to her own self.

 

She would do whatever it took – to achieve her dream her way.

 

The bells at the front door jingled lightly as Ina picked up the last sheet of paper. The young woman at the door looked vaguely familiar, perhaps from a recent competition. “I heard you were looking for instructors.”

 

Ina gave her a curious look. “I am. How did you hear about that?”

 

A shrug and a half-smile was accompanied her answer. “Someone said your gym was different. It sounded like something I’ve been looking for.”

 

Ina smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. Welcome to my gym.”

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