NFG Season One - Ugly Streets and Beautiful Dreams.

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Description: To be seen for who you are. To see others for who they are. To be acknowledged, respected, and treated with dignity. One would think that such dreams would be small things, but it only takes a simple walk through the Sunshine City streets to see how massive such dreams may truly be. Ichika knows little about fighting, but she knows even less about the shape of the world and how to find her place within it. These things must be corrected before practical instruction can best bear fruit. After all, how can you play the game, when you haven't even set the pieces in their proper place?

To one who wasn't raised amidst the sprawling mess of contradictions that is North America, Sunshine City is a harsh introduction to that nation's attitude of willful ignorance. At its heart lies an almost idyllic idea of what a West Coast city should be, with plenty of open plazas bathed in golden sunlight, trendy retro throwbacks like an honest to goodness Drive In, and a high school pulled straight from an American teen drama. But as one moves further from the core, that insolated nucleus of perfection quickly fades. Buildings drop sharply from light neglect to crumbling squalor, bars appear in the windows of businesses and taped cardboard in those of homes. But worse than all of that, far worse is the state of the people. Hard edged, desperate, and violent out of necessity.
It is through the very heart of this desperation that Peng You leads his young student, the pair of them stepping down from a poorly maintained bus into the dubious shelter of an even worse stop. For blocks around there is nothing to be seen but crumbling buildings and filthy cement, trash piled against the bricks and ragged scraps of chain link coiled around vertical poles that might once have been fences. The ancient master is not smiling as he takes in their surroundings, his attitude distant, expression almost seeming wistful where not hidden by his signature conical hat.
Exhaling softly through his nose, her Sensei lifts his battered wooden staff and sets off along the sidewalk, bamboo sandals scuffing quietly over grit and ground in grime.
Moving through the defuse grey light of dawn, the pair of them pass crude patches of graffiti in various colors, but no people as of yet. Once, a skin and bones dog crosses the street a short distance ahead of them, eyeing them warily as it slinks off down a nearby alley. The lambent eyes of cats and rats gaze out at them from low ledges and trash piles, skittering and scuttling but seeming disinclined to emerge.
But despite the slumbering threat of the place her master remains quietly serene, leading her down a drunkenly twisting street full of potholes, and up to the ruined skeleton of a sprawling complex that somehow, against all the odds, is still mostly surrounded by fence.
"Ahh," he breathes, voice that same oddly commanding murmur that it was during her draft. "This should do nicely."
Pressing a weathered but wrinkle-free hand against the gate, the ancient master pushes it open with a loud groan of protesting metal, wandering into the shadow of the rusting metal frame without apparent concern.

At first, Ichika had not thought Sunshine City would be so different to Southtown after all. Southtown, too, is idyllic in its way. The hidden shrines, the ancient architecture blending with the new. It is a mix of a Japan that never was with a Japan that very much is. Seeing the beautiful core of Sunshine City brought that to mind, albeit with an American twist. She had smiled faintly to herself at the thought. See, this was not so very strange! Yes, the people are loud, and disrespectful, and there is much more touching, and the food is bad, but she can forgive all of that. These are not things to hold against a people, they are only cultural differences.

And then they had gotten further from the City's heart and towards its true face.

She is suddenly very aware of how nice the brand new kimono her mother had gifted her is. How out of place she looks on the bus. The envious, or even hateful, stares. But it is not the reaction of the locals to her which makes the smile fade from her lips. It is the very obvious deprivation of the place.

Southtown has its poor areas as well, of course; those that desperately need renovation or restoration, especially after all the battles that have been fought there. Even those areas controlled entirely by gangs of criminals. But, it is a different flavour of need. In those areas, there is still a sense of community. People banding together to help one another, even when they need to do so outside of the law, even when doing so means knuckling under to a violent power that will protect them.

Here, there is no sense of protection. There is no safety. There is only... oneself.

The girl followed her tutor without complaint, but when the gate is opened she seems to take this as a sign that they can talk about what they are seeing, rather than merely observing it in silence.

"Sensei. Is much of America like this?" She asks. The girl's discomfort is written all over her; from the tightness in her gait to the deep frown pulling on her features.

Neither of the Americans that she counted as friends had said anything about all of this pain. But, she realises with a shiver of shame, she hadn't, actually, asked them about their homes. How ignorant was she?

"Do not make the mistake of pinning what you have seen on a single people, or place, Ms. Kasumoto." Peng You corrects, though not ungently. Having continued his meandering path toward the open maw of the structure, he halts to lift his empty right hand to the cracked cement that frames the gaping hole where impressive double doors might once have barred their path.
"Places such as this exist in all parts of the world. Forgotten remnants of once mighty dreams."
Perhaps the Sensei means only this complex, with its rusting network of pipes swaying gently in the morning breeze. Or, perhaps he refers to the greater community as a whole. The shimmering mirage of a sunlit city sprawling across the land, brought so sparingly into reality.
"But that is not why you are here. I feel that, in the distant way of youth, you understand the weight of your own dreams. The burdens that they bring."
Glancing calmly back over his shoulder, Peng You softens the comment on her youth with a quick flash of a grin, showing his teeth in a way perhaps less familiar to her. It is a surprisingly youthful expression for one who seems so old, wearing his blanket of years like a cloak where Ariastra's lurks within her eyes. In fact...Has she ever even seen the master's eyes?
"Already I have given Ms. Beaumont and Mr. Finley their first lesson. A basic understanding of Energy and Essence. How these can be framed, discussed, as they walk their warrior's path. But what, I wonder, should I do for you?"
Turning away from the entrance, the ancient being leans upon his staff and considers her from beneath the shadow of his hat, seeming in no hurry to make the decision himself.
"A single stroke of the sword repeated one thousand times before dawn? Sacred meditations lost to the ravages of time?" A slight twinkle of mischief enters his otherwise reflective tone as he continues, suggesting idly, "Twelve Tips for taming unruly locks?"
Was, that last one an article in the teen magazine at the hotel's gift shop display?

"... Yes, Sensei."

Ichika says the words, but they don't make her feel any better. She'd never seen anywhere like this in Southtown, but perhaps that was more ignorance. Or perhaps these places existed in Japan, just not in her home. She had barely traveled outside of it before. The weight of her dreams is an elegant way to put it. She has always understood the expectations placed upon her as one of the Super Elite, and more than that, she has always embraced it. With the constant level of faith in her, how could she do anything else? She has to repay the trust, love and support she is showered with.

And that apparently means solving a level of poverty that is both much more widespread and much more corrosive than she had even begun to understand.

She follows, and she is lost in her own thoughts until Peng You speaks again. The fact that her fellow students had obtained one of the lessons she dearly yearned for does cause a pang in her, but she does her best not to let it show. It isn't until the third suggestion that her emotions are betrayed - a hot flush rising quickly on the youth's features.

Her hand is already halfway through running over her scalp before she realises that is what she's doing, and then she jerks it away with a faint, embarrassed huff.

"I, do have a lot of questions." She admits, and whether she could see the old man's eyes or not is rendered irrelevant by the way she stares intensely at the floor. "But, if there is one thing that I have learned so far, it is that I am profoundly ignorant. I do not know enough to know what questions I should begin with. And when I act on my assumptions, I fail. So, I will gladly take any lesson you choose to impart, Sensei."

A momentary pause, just a heartbeat, and then...

"Even if it is related only to my, struggles, with my hair routine."

Her Sensei's quiet grunt is equal parts amused and contemplative, though said amusement fades into the soft sigh that follows.
"Immortality," he responds with crackling care, "is more a curse to the mortal mind than gift. And yet it is sought more than any other. It is not my place to reveal the struggles, or secrets, of those who would teach you, but do not set aside your instincts so readily."
Continuing to lean upon his staff, posture relaxed and hidden gaze studying the top of Ichika's bowed head, Peng You gives her a moment to internalize before continuing on with almost paternal fondness.
"There is a reason we are here, in this place. A reason that your first lesson has little to do with Energy, or fundamentals. These I will teach you, and you will learn as you spar with your fellow students. Your first lesson is one of perspective."
Pushing upright, her Sensei returns to her with unhurried steps, reaching out with the tip of his staff to tap the ground twice beneath her gaze, motioning it up to him even as his other hand indicates their ruined surroundings. The forgotten detritus of dreams. Ravages of poverty.
"Your dreams, are not yet so big."
If spoken a certain away, this could be an admonishment. A rebuke for not dreaming at a suitably large scale. It could be a belittling statement on how worthless she is, and may always be. And yet, in Peng You's quiet crackle of a voice it sounds oddly reassuring.
"The road before you is long, and perhaps one day you will have to face these concerns. But the weight of the world is not yet yours to bare. You may dream of glory, of honor, and of perfecting your skills, and this place will not be the result. That, is a powerful thing. Such space into which to grow. So many opportunities to show your Truth."
How, exactly, he manages to put just such an inflection in that word to convey secret knowing and fondness is hard to say. Some trick of age that comes about once you are far beyond such petty concerns as personal pride, when the joys of life come about through seeing discovery come about in others. Whatever the case, it is clear the aged master is not teasing her so much as sharing the secret between them, gesturing hand lifting to place one finger lightly beside his nose.

There's a faint shiver that runs down Ichika's spine as the old man speaks. She is, indeed, pleased that she listens to her instincts in this instance. Because at first it would have been tempting to object about the size of her dreams; to try and convey just how vast she feels they are. But her instinct tells her that when this man speaks, she must listen. Really listen. And it is a startling thing, to feel truly seen. So often she finds her words inadequate; her attempts to make herself understood only resulting in further confusion. And so, she finds herself smiling.

There, in that dilapidated place, she settles down. Kneeling upon the floor, she takes her saya from its place and lays it out between them, setting it just-so on the ground, to show that she understands there will be no fighting. They are talking over the sword, they are not using it.

"It is the place of the Super Elite to have big dreams." She says, at last. "For a long time, I did not want to be part of that. Perhaps, sometimes, I still wish that it was not where I belong. I do not trust myself. But, I trust the people who trust me. And I understand that it is... often a misconstrued thing, to say that you claim such a title. People think that you are being arrogant. That you think you are, better, than them. Which is not the case."

It's a contradictory thing, surely, to say that it isn't? What else is a Super Elite if not better than a commoner?

But the Master had asked to talk perspective, and this is where her thoughts have been drifting most commonly, lately. Her place in the world, and her discomfort with it.

"To be Super Elite is to be one of the people whose, approach, whose, skills, whose, ideas, define the world. To set the path that others will follow. The first one to walk a path is not superior to the ones who follow after them in any moral sense of the word. Capability does not mean we are more deserving of dignity and respect. It means only that we are the ones who must guide others."

She gives a soft laugh, then, bowing her head a little.

"Perhaps, in that way, it is not so different to immortality? Something that people are doomed to struggle for, only to find that when they have it, it is more... obligation, than privilege."

What kind of fifteen year old speaks like this?

Well. A Super Elite, apparently.

"Some similarities do come to mind." Peng You agrees, having returned to leaning upon his staff as his young student settles upon her knees. It is a supplicant posture for her to take, but the Sensei does not seem to notice, as comfortable in his skin and surroundings as he always seems to be.
"To be this, Super Elite, as you know it. This will grant you opportunities. There are many in this world with great ability that will never be recognized. They will live, and die without sharing their gifts with anyone. As with the suffering around you, do not fall into the confusion of ability with opportunity. You have earned one with the other, but that is not always the case. A great hero that rises at the head of a rebellion must still have rebels to lead. Without that opportunity she may forever remain a farmer's wife."
A slight smile is given then, thought it seems more inward facing than out. A memory, perhaps, or a glimpse of something not yet to pass.
"Regardless, hold to your doubt but do not let it drown you. Confidence in oneself is best earned slowly, and over time. Give yourself that opportunity, as you would any other."

Ichika's expression turns pained at the note, and she nods her head seriously.

"I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops." She says, "The man who said that was an American. It is why I thought..."

She trails off, for just a moment. Why she had thought what? That the land which produced people capable of such wisdom would not have fallen so far short of her expectations? That the Land of Opportunity would let everyone rise to their position? She is naive. She takes a deep breath, and makes herself look up at the old man. It is easy to talk to him in a way it hadn't been with Ariastra. It feels as though he really understands.

"That is my dream, though." She says, "I... don't come from any great family. The Kasumoto family is a humble one. It is only thanks to Imawano-sensei's vision that I am given the chance to prove myself. To help shape the world."

Those bright eyes of hers look up, then, and she hesitates. But it is only for a moment. She had tried to say this once before, but she didn't think it had made much sense. She must try again.

"And that is my dream. That we are ALL seen. I, don't know how to achieve that. But when I heard Lightheart-hime's speech... I realised that it is what we need, now more than ever. No more dying unappreciated in sweatshops and cottonfields. No more forcing people into the shadows."

Real determination at last. A conviction in those blue eyes of hers as hard and bright as diamond.

"We make this world. Every day. We choose how it is built. We WILL make it better."

Though the smile on Peng You's face does not fade, the introspective tilt becomes just a touch sad. A taste of pain that lingers around the edges of tan features as weathered as ancient stone.
"Your dream is noble."
There is caution hidden within the quiet praise, but he does not voice it with words. Ichika may be young, but she is not a fool. Perhaps her dream is yet too big for a girl of 15, but as her Sensei said, there is plenty of time for her to grow into it. To find a path forward toward, if not the completion of such a task, the realization of its first few steps.
"I have seen the best, and the worst of humanity. Tyrants and saints, privileged and oppressed. There is startling depth to be found in the hearts of mortals. It is my hope you will someday find yourself in a position to help them explore those depths, as I will do for you."
Stooping slightly over her, Peng You offers a hand to help her up, the fingers rough and calloused like that of a worker. Though there is little of the youthful beauty of her other Senseis about him, he does, somehow, seem to understand. To see that part of her she is trying to show him.

Ichika gathers her sword, and accepts Peng You's help in getting back to her feet. The katana is slid neatly back into place. It was surprising to her how naturally such movements came; she really hadn't been working with a sword for that long, but as he would no doubt have noticed by now, she is more than capable of navigating spaces with it without the weapon getting in her way.

"Thank you, Sensei." She says, and then she gives a laugh, one genuine, bright and clear. "I, am very happy that this was the lesson you chose. I tried to force it, I think, with Ariastra-sensei, and that was difficult, though she taught me many other things. I feel better knowing that... someone understands. I'm not sure how I would even begin to broach this subject with my fellow students... or the other sponsors, really..."

She didn't know Ayame at all, except by reputation, and what she knew of that reputation certainly did not paint her as an approachable person. And how could she say anything about this to Lyraelle without it seeming insincere? She'd need to prove her commitment with deeds, there, rather than words... if she could even figure out how to begin doing that.

"All things in their time." Peng You assures his youngest student as she gets herself settled, drifting a step away to give her that little slice of comforting distance. Staff tapping lightly against the cement, he leads her back through the gate and out of the bones of someone else's dream, the pair of them moving unhurriedly along the road full of potholes.
"If you wish tips on your hair, Lyraelle's staff would be a wise choice. Much about someone can be learned through those who serve them. And Sensei Ichijo shares more in common with you than she will be willing to admit. Engaging both will be suitable tests of your instincts, I think."
With the sun beaming down from the east and the sprawling city laid out before them, the master continues to chat amiably with his student on their way back to its glittering heart, voice rising softly toward the heavens as he adds a somber, "And as for your fellow students? Well. Who truly can predict the minds of today's youth?"

Log created on 12:26:56 06/06/2023 by Ichika, and last modified on 04:33:31 06/07/2023.