Chapter 32: Un/changing

Evening was winding down at Ina’s gym, with calls of “good night” outnumbering the number of people still grappling on the mats. Konomi shook her head as she watched Atsuno engage yet another teammate for a sparring session.

 

“Atsuno just doesn’t stop, huh?”

 

Konomi looked up as Michi sat down heavily on the bench next to her, wiping the lingering sweat from her neck. Konomi lifted an eyebrow at her. “You’re one to talk – I saw you sparring a lot today.”

 

Michi shrugged, then lifted her her foot to slip her socks on. Konomi waited for the grunts that usually came, but Michi moved smoothly, the task done for both feet within moments. “I’ve been able to spar more ever since I started coming a couple more times a week.”

 

“Oh, so you’re serious now, hm?” Konomi grinned, nudging her elbow into Michi’s arm. She relaxed when Michi finally laughed.

 

“No, I wouldn’t say that. Serious would be Atsuno’s level. Did you know that sometimes she trains three times a day?”

 

Konomi’s eyes widened. “Sheesh. No wonder why she’s so grumpy every day.  She hardly has time to rest!”

 

Michi chuckled. “Have you tried the classes on Fridays?” she asked as she tied her shoes. “Atsuno runs it and the format’s a little different.”

 

Konomi winced. “Can’t make Fridays.  There’s some meetings at work that I can’t miss.” ‘Besides, who trains on Fridays other than people like Atsuno?’

 

Michi’s mouth turned sympathetically.  “Well, good training today.  See you when I see you.”

 

Konomi grinned in response. That’s what she liked about this gym. ‘Great people, no pressure.’ She stood up from the bench and waved to Ina, adding her call of goodnight to the others lingering in the gym.

 

*

 

A week later, Konomi hummed to herself as she walked through the office, thinking about tonight’s upcoming class at Ina’s gym.  She remembered what Michi had said about Atsuno and shook her head. ‘Three times a day? That’s too much for a normal person.’

 

She turned as her name was called, seeing a hand waving her into a conference room. Several of her team members were gathered around the long table, papers in front of them and charts posted on the walls.

 

“Looks like a party,” Konomi said with a grin, the tension in the room lightening as saw several smiles.

 

“We’re working on that proposal for the sales team,” Ayu began explaining.

 

Konomi frowned. “You mean the proposal that’s due tomorrow?” She made sure to have a grin at the end and was glad to see Ayu’s relaxed expression remain unchanged. Ayu was a seasoned member of the team, one that Konomi had always gotten along with well. Judging by the performance reviews from the past few quarters, Konomi could see Ayu being next in line for a team lead position for one of the teams Konomi oversaw.

 

Ayu returned the grin. “Yeah, tomorrow,” she echoed with a waggle of her eyebrows. Several chuckles rose from the group. “We just wanted to make sure these were the most recent numbers that we should be using.”

 

Konomi flipped through the report Ayu handed her. “It is,” Konomi said slowly, studying Ayu’s face, “But these numbers are subject to change. You’ve accounted for that, right?”

 

“Of course, of course,” Ayu said, flashing a look at the rest of the members around the table. Konomi’s eyes narrowed as she felt something in the air shift. “I’ll sync up with you about this tomorrow,” Ayu said with a short nod.

 

‘Shouldn’t it be me dismissing her?’  “Looking forward to it.” Konomi hoped it sounded confident, but she wasn’t sure if it was her last words that left an aftertaste in her mouth or the snickers she heard as soon as she turned from the room.

 

*

 

Konomi settled on the bench with a sigh.  ‘One of those days,’ she thought tiredly.  It had felt as if all of the techniques she had learned so far had quietly left her brain and gone on vacation.   “Well there’s always next time,” she said, glancing beside her.

 

But Michi wasn’t anywhere in sight.  Konomi frowned, putting down her socks to look around the gym.  Finally, she spotted Michi in the far corner, working with Atsuno on a technique Konomi hadn’t seen before.

 

She felt something shift again, in the air, in her mind, and she sat there until Michi started coming to her direction.  “Could you pass me the pink water bottle?” Michi asked.  She was drenched in sweat and her voice was tired, but there was an edge that Konomi hadn’t heard before.  Or maybe she just hadn’t noticed until now.

 

“Learning secrets from Atsuno?” Konomi asked with a grin as she handed Michi the water bottle.

 

Instead of the laugh Konomi had expected, Michi only shrugged. “She knows her stuff,” Michi said as she took a sip of water.

 

A furrow formed at Konomi’s brow and the shifting grew. “But I thought we didn’t like -”

 

A teammate called Michi’s name and Michi apologized hastily before turning away from Konomi.  Konomi watched her jog across the mats to begin another sparring session.  She put on her socks and shoes, and left without a word, afraid to speak with the return of a certain aftertaste in her mouth.

 

*

 

The furrow had deepened by the time Konomi stopped at the tea shop. Normally, she went straight home after training, but the way her thoughts from work and the gym were tumbling over each other, she knew going home wouldn’t help. There were some things that could only be settled in a place like a tea shop.

 

‘I wonder if Atsuno comes here often,’ Konomi wondered as she waited for Miyo to prepare her tea. ‘Drinking caffeine seems like something a serious person like her would do for training.’

 

Miyo stepped back in front of Konomi and set a steaming cup down on the counter before her. “Here you are. This has been a rather popular tea lately.”

 

Konomi blinked at her over the rim of the teacup. “It’s a delicious tea,” she said, then glanced at the tin. “The container is also really pretty.”

 

Miyo smiled, picking up the brightly colored tin. It was colored in pastels but the soft tones stood out starkly against the dark shades of the majority of the tins that lined the shelves. “That’s true. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if all of the teas were put into tins that looked the same. Would the same ones be popular? Would the most lauded still be respected?”

 

Konomi’s gaze fixated on the tea master’s last words. “Which teas are the most respected?”

 

Miyo set down the tin and crossed her arms, the quiet of her thinking taking over the shop for several minutes. “The teas with the most ceremony. For example, this tea.” The tea master picked up an unassuming tin, its only decoration a script in a style so old that not even Konomi could interpret. “This ground tea comes from a very long tradition, with several schools in the capital dedicated solely to preparing and serving just this tea. They take both their training and the tea very seriously.”

 

Then Miyo paused and gave Konomi a mischievous, child-like grin. “But if you ask me, it tastes the same whether it’s prepared through the ceremony or not.”

 

Konomi let out a soft laugh. “That’s not something I expected to hear from a tea master.”

 

Miyo smiled with her hands upturned. “How much weight should a tea master’s words have? In the end, any tea can be the most respected. It’s the person drinking it that makes it so.”

 

*

 

Konomi silently studied Ayu’s bowed head from from her seat. The half-finished proposal rested on her desk, Ayu’s pleading for an extension still lingering in the air of the office. The sounds of work from the surrounding desks still continued without pause. After all, this scene had been played out before, not only with Ayu but other people as well. Everyone knew how this scene usually ended.

 

Everyone except Konomi. That is, before yesterday, when the looks and giggles had finally registered in her gut, sharing space warmed by a tea made by a tea master she had come to respect.

 

“You and your team have been working very hard,” Konomi said. Ayu began to raise her head at her words.

 

“But I’m going to have to ask you to work harder.” Konomi studied Ayu’s face, seeing the beginnings of confusion appear. Konomi took in a breath and lifted her chin. “This must be finished today.”

 

Ayu was caught awkwardly in mid-bow, the striking sequence of emotions playing out on her face completely visible to Konomi. Konomi felt her throat tighten, words to soothe Ayu’s tight expression coming to her lips.

 

But she bit her tongue instead, and waited.

 

For several breaths, Konomi eyed the bunched muscles at Ayu’s jaw and she prepared herself for an argument. But instead, Ayu swallowed and guilt took over her features before her face was hidden once more as she bowed even deeper. “Of course,” Ayu said in a subdued tone. “I take full responsibility for this failure. I will give you updates as we progress. I sincerely apologize for causing this trouble.”

 

Konomi kept her silence as Ayu turned away from her desk, though she did take some reassurance at the glimpse of resolve on Ayu’s face as she walked to her desk. However, Konomi kept still far longer, until she felt the air around her finally settle and the sounds around her return to their normal volume.

 

She let out a breath and took up her phone. “Ayu and her team may come to you for help for the proposal – try to help them as much as you can,” she said when her assistant picked up. “Make sure they get lunch too. Oh and one more thing,” Konomi said after a pause. “Please reschedule the weekly meetings that are on Fridays to a different day. I’d like to be able to leave on time moving forward. Yes, that’s it, thank you.”

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