At lunchtime, I was the first one to arrive at the communal dining room. I loaded my tray with an extra portion of rice and fried pork and walked to the nearest of the two long tables. Other fighters usually arrived later, taking their time after the training to shower and chill out. I didn’t commence my training yet so I had nothing better to do than to stroll around and wait for the dining hall to open.
I sat down on tatami and started eating. The food was excellent and I could eat as much as I wanted. Having regained my appetite fully, I didn’t hesitate to take double or even triple portions.
Three days ago we left the doc’s house and came to this place. I pinched myself every morning since to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. K kept her word and brought me to the training compound for Yamato Damashi fighters.
I had never seen anything like that. Located in a park on the outskirts of Tokyo the compound seemed like a peaceful, green oasis amid the concrete and always busy landscape of the city. It was made up of several, traditional-looking, wooden houses, most of which were different gyms or places of practice, specializing in one martial art or another. It was a fighter’s paradise.
My luck has turned, finally. I couldn’t stop smiling as I mused about it. Two fighters sat down at the other end of the table, too far from me to start a chat. I preferred it that way, and they didn’t seem too eager to talk to me either. I noticed the fighters kept to their groups and didn’t socialize much with fighters from other groups. I couldn’t quite tell what were those divisions based on.
Yesterday K took me on a short tour around the compound and explained to me some basic rules.
“Three meals per day are served in the communal kitchen at the specified hours. If you’re late, you can’t get the food until the next meal.”
“Training halls are open from 8 am to 8 pm. You’re not allowed to enter any of the practicing halls without me. I’m in charge of your training schedule,” she emphasized it several times. “And most importantly, you always, but always, take your shoes off before you enter any of the buildings.”
So far so good.
“No visitors on the premises are allowed unless you get prior permission. Also, no sleepovers in the rooms and no noise after 10 pm. You wouldn’t have anyone to sleep over, would you?” she asked, eying me curiously.
“No, of course not“
Was that a relief I just saw on her face? “But, if I have, I’ll make sure to tell you in advance.”
Her eyes narrowed at me during a silent moment, then she continued: “Right…what else is there…. The common spaces in the house where you sleep have to be cleaned by the occupants themselves.” She proudly pointed at my name on the list for cleaning. “Here it says when it’s your turn.”
No other, significant restrictions were imposed. The rules went hand in hand with the strict routine of a professional fighter, so I had no problem with any of them.
The daily, training routine, however, depended completely on K. I began to understand, as I peeked, despite K’s warning, into one of the gyms this morning and got politely but decisively dismissed by the door, what huge role proxies had for their fighters.
After I finished my lunch, I walked to the most imposing house in the compound. Elevated slightly off the ground, this wooden structure had two stories, a double roof curved out at the corners and a wooden veranda, which ran around the outside of the house. To me, it looked more like a temple than a house.
I sat on the front part of the veranda, near the entrance, and waited for K. We were supposed to meet at noon. Twenty minutes passed and there was still no sign of her. Tired of waiting I went inside the house. Before I reached the shoe rack, a guard immediately stood up from his desk and asked me about my intentions.
“I’m looking for ..umm…K…” Shit. I didn’t even know her full name. “She’s my proxy.” Other Yamato officials and, according to K, sometimes even the oyabun stayed in this place.
“I will let her know. Please, wait outside,” the guard responded politely and escorted me back to the door.
It took another twenty minutes before K finally sauntered out of the house, wearing black sunglasses and looking more pale than usual.
“Morning…” she muttered and yawned.
“It’s almost one,” I replied. “You told me to meet you here at noon.”
“Umm, sorry.” She heaved a sigh and turned her head in the direction of the dining house. “I need coffee.”
I sneaked glances at her as we walked to the hall. Her shoulders hunched, her head down, and her hands stuffed in the pockets of her black, tight pants, she looked gloomy and unhealthily thin. The only vibrant thing about her were the blue highlights on her black hair, which glowed prominently on the midday sun.
We stopped at the vending machine outside the dining hall and she eagerly went through her pockets searching for change. Relieved once she gathered the needed amount, she pushed the coins in the machine and grabbed the can of ice coffee as soon as it dropped out. Then she leaned on the wall nearby and slurped the coffee, making sighs of pleasure after each sip.
Noticing my stare, she chuckled. “I feel much better now.”
“Heavy night?” I asked.
She frowned. “What? No, no…just you know…there’s no life without a morning coffee…”
“It’s past noon…”
“Yes, yes….so you signed those papers I gave you yesterday?”
“The contract? Yeah, I did, I have them in my room.”
“Good, let’s go and get them.”
“By the way…” I started saying as we headed toward my lodging house.
She turned to me. “What?”
I puffed out some air. For some reason, this was very hard for me. “I…I want to thank you for…for saving my life. I mean you and Sueno san… I heard you two were there when I…stopped breathing…and…well, that’s it, just wanted to thank you…and Sueno san of course. ”
Turning her head immediately forward, she passed her hand through her hair and muttered: “Sure, no problem. After all, it was partly my fault you got injured.”
Partly? I pursed my lips and did not pursue the conversation further. It seemed it was as awkward for her as it was for me.
The house where we, the fighters, slept was a few minutes away from the dining hall. I got a room on the third floor, slightly bigger than the one in the hostel but equipped with a small, private bathroom and a kitchen niche. The interior reminded me of the room I had at Sueno’s. It was clean and neat, with tatami flooring and a large futon.
Once in my room, I gathered the papers, which were scattered over the small table, and handed them to K. The contract I had to sign seemed fair enough. The signatories were Mr. Minamoto, the president of Yamato Damashi, and Mr. Fujiwara. There was no mentioning of K or any other proxies. According to the contract, all costs for lodging, training, and other expenses connected to fighting and fighting events are covered by Yamato Damashi. I would also get a decent monthly stipend. The money I would get from actual fights was going to be divided between me and the organization according to a set percentage, which varied depending on the importance of the fight. There were other articles about sponsorships and so on, but the truth was, I would have probably accepted everything they would give me, as long as they let me fight for them.
Without removing her sunglasses, she checked the last page for my signature and smiled. “Great, so that’s out of the way….I’ll go now, have a good rest.”
“Heeey, wait…wait!” I sprung after her and grabbed her elbow, just before she reached the door.
She adjusted the sunglasses that slid down on her nose from my sudden pull and removed the elbow from my grip.
I made a step back and slid my hand in the back pocket of my jeans. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…umm…look, I’m feeling really well and I think I’m ready to start training. We should make a schedule. Perhaps visit one of the gyms this evening?”
Her lips twisted on one side. “Hmm…don’t think so.”
“What? What do you mean?” I frowned.
“You’re still too weak.”
“But I’m not. I’ve been eating well, I feel strong. I’m telling you, I’m ready.”
She shook her head. “No, not yet.”
I spread my arms, feeling a twinge of annoyance. “So what am I supposed to do? Until when will I have to wait?”
“Do you want a TV in your room?”
“No, I don’t’ want a fucking TV. I need to get in shape. Isn’t that what you brought me here for? Remember, the fighting?”
She pushed her glasses up on her head, revealing her tired-looking eyes. “You will do yourself no good if you rush into training and injure yourself. Proper recovery takes time. Be patient. I’ll have a TV brought to you in any case. Oh, and you’ll get a phone too. You can also go out and stroll around Tokyo. Your stipend is already on your account and the credit card should be ready by tomorrow. Go and do some…shopping…” She flashed me a grin, put her glasses back on, and walked out of the room.
I felt like punching the wall. Annoyed by the situation I stayed in my room until dinner time, and went to the dining room much later than the previous two evenings, knowing the place would fill up with fighters coming from their training.
After taking my meal, I sat down on an empty spot at one of the tables, next to a group of fighters, Japanese and a few foreigners. James was also there, sitting across me. He was the reason I chose this table in the first place. I was hoping to talk to him and ask him a few things.
I waited for the right opportunity, but James did not as much as look in my direction, let alone spoke to me.
“Hey, James!” I called over to him, once I finished my miso soup.
Hearing his name, he briefly looked at me and immediately continued the conversation with the colleague sitting next to him.
“You must be surprised to see me here,” I persisted, disregarding his apparent wish not to talk to me. “Any chance I can go with you guys to your morning training tomorrow? Just to watch of course…”
My question turned quite a few heads. Some of the guys snickered, some directed derisive looks at me and James.
James scoffed, pretending he didn’t hear me.
I didn’t give up that easily. “No? Ok, then. How about we go to Tenko again? I’m sure Ela will be happy to see you.”
This provoked a visible reaction on James’s face. “Hey man, what’s your problem…I don’t even know you,” he retorted, stood up from the table and walked away with his tray.
More muffled remarks, laughs, and whispers among the rest followed but nobody said anything to me.
A guy - a Japanese in a flashy, bright-blue suit – waved at me from the other table, beckoning me to join their group. I was so surprised I first pointed at my chest to make sure he meant me. After he nodded I approached his table. He looked about thirty, his short hair was dyed blond, and he had a gold stud earring in his left ear.
“Are you To-to…umm…“ He turned his head sideways in thought. “To-ru-sten san?”
“Yeah. You can call me Nik.”
“Pleased to meet you, Nik san. My name is Fujiwara Kentaro. I’m the proxy of Fujiwara clan and these are my fighters.” He extended his arm and made a half-circle with it, presenting the fighters at the table. “I heard you’ve met some of them in Tenko club already.” His lips curved in a smirk.
Indeed, the mean-looking Japanese with the high ponytail was there as well as the Caucasian guy that kicked my face.
“So, Nik san,” continued Kentaro; “Is it true that K is your proxy?”
“Ooo…” He nodded his head several times. “So you’re K’s fighter?”
He nodded again, looking at his fighters. “He’s K‘s fighter,” he repeated to them. “And what exactly did you do to be chosen as a fighter? What are your, umm… credentials, mmm?”
He stared directly at me while waiting for my answer. I didn’t know what to say. The conversation started to make me feel uneasy.
“Oh, wait, let me guess!” He pointed his index finger upwards and grinned. “You won K in a drinking game? Ha? Am I right?” His lips spread even wider, showing all his perfect, white teeth. Some of his men around him burst into laughter and, after seeing he put me on a spot, he laughed out loud as well.
Only now I picked up on their hostile attitude.
“Nik san, I never saw you in training halls. Unless, you’re training elsewhere…like in a pub, or a night club?” His remarks continued to provoke more laughter.
“I bet K is preparing your training schedule for tonight right now. She’s deciding whether to do a few bottles of sake or.. something stronger…shochu perhaps?” he said, adding to the amusement of his guys.
I answered with a fuck you stare, which I kept firmly on him until his silly remarks stopped. Then I took a sip of my tea and stood up. “I guess we’ll see the results of my training in the ring.”
Crossing his arms in front of his chest, Kentaro raised his eyebrow at me. “Can’t wait,” he said, smirking.
The Japanese with the high ponytail snorted and gave me a condescending look.
I heard them snickering and bantering behind my back. I didn’t care about them at all, but their insinuations about K put some concern in my head. I stepped out of the dining house annoyed and preoccupied when somebody pulled me to the side.
“What the hell was that, man?”
It was James, his huge body overshadowing mine in the dim light of the dusk.
“Huh, so now you’re speaking to me?”
“Who are you anyway? I don’t even know your name. And why the hell did you have to mention Ela like that?”
I pulled back and raised my eyebrows. “What? What did I say?”
“You know damn well what you said.” He leaned closer. “You know how this environment is…I and Ela are good friends, but that’s all…I don’t want others to think…” He paused, averting his big brown eyes sideways.
“It’s all in your mind, I didn’t say anything that--”
He returned to me with a glare. “Doesn’t matter, just don’t talk about her anymore, especially not in front of other fighters. We clear?”
“Yeah, sure.” I looked down and shifted from one foot to another. “Fuck, I only wanted to have some decent conversation…don’t care about you and Ela…”
“Groups here are tight. Just keep to yours.”
“Really?” I chuckled. “Last time, in the club, when you and the other guys fucked me up, you all seemed to be pretty good friends, even with K.”
“Of course, we are from the same clan and when needed the clan comes first. But within the clan, your main loyalty is to your proxy and the fighters from your group. You have to understand, the rivalry here is very intense. You’re new. You’ll learn.” He was about to walk off.
“Hey, what about K?” I stopped him.
“What about her?”
“Is she…”I hesitated. “Is she a good proxy?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to see.”
James caught up with the rest of his group while I stayed behind pondering…What the fuck did he mean by that?