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Infinite Stratos Vokume 1 Chapter 4: Showdown! The Class League Match

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Chapter 4: Showdown! The Class League MatchEdit

May.

It's been several weeks since Rin slapped me, and Rin's mood hasn't improved. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

Not only did she avoid me, she made a point to deliberately look the other way when I entered the canteen. She took every chance to blast me with both barrels. Too bad the Yamato-class battleships didn’t have “Rin-cold-shoulder” class gun batteries during World War 2. Things might have gone differently.

"Ichika, the inter-class tournament is next week. The arena will be closed for refitting, so today’s the last day for a practice match."

After school, I headed to the 3rd arena for my special training. The sun was going down, gradually turning the sky orange.

Like usual, Houki and Cecilia were there to spar with me. The situation in class was pretty tense, with emotions simmering under the surface, so the questions and stares usually surrounding me had decreased drastically.

Even so, the whispers I hear confirm that I’m still the raging topic in this school. The stands should be packed!

Apparently there were even some second years who got the bright idea to sell “reserved seats” in the stands. Chifuyu-nee put a stop to that a few days ago. I heard the mastermind was confined to her dorm room for three days. That seems pretty harsh. I wonder if that’s all they did?

"At least he’s become a passable pilot. This next match should be…"

Cecilia cut Houki off.

"Of course he’s become a good pilot. With me training him, it would be strange if he wasn’t!”

"Fat lot of good your mid-range IS training has done him! Ichika's IS doesn't have any ranged weapons."

Houki raised her voice. I don’t think she appreciated Cecilia interrupting her.

Truth be told, she's right. Byakushiki doesn't have any ranged weapons, only the Yukihira Nigata.

Usually, every IS has its own signature weapon, but only one “prototype armament” wouldn't be enough, so most of them also have side arms. For example, Cecilia's primary IS weapons are the Blue Tears, with a gun and close-range sword as the side arms.

In addition to the side arms, most ISes also have something called an “equalizer”. Though the number of armaments a suit can equip differs based on its specs, most ISes have at least two. I think that should always be the case.

I have a good reason for thinking that should always be the case: my IS is an exception to the rule. I have exactly zero equalizers, and about that many sidearms. My weapons list includes all of one entry: a close-range sword.

"Oh, so you want to take all the credit, do you Shinonono-san? What about your kendo training? That’s useless for piloting an IS."

"Wha-what are you saying? Haven't you ever heard the saying 'the essence of kendo is the 'insight'? The 'insight' refers to everything that is in front of the eyes…"

"Ichika-san, let’s pick up from the 'no recoil spinning attack' we worked on yesterday!"

"Hey, no you don’t… listen to me, Ichika!"

"I’m listening, I'm listening!"

Why are they venting their anger on me?

Something felt wrong. I placed my fingertip on the door sensor to the 3rd arena’s Control Zone A, it scanned my fingerprint, and the door opened with a “whoosh”. No matter how many times I hear it, that release of compressed air still startles me with how loud it is.

"I've been waiting a long time, Ichika."

To my surprise, Rin was waiting on the other side of the door. Her arms were folded, and her smug smile gave the impression that she feared nothing. Considering how angry she was yesterday, I can’t figure how her mood has changed so much.

Uh oh, I can feel Houki and Cecilia frowning behind me. Don't look at me, it's not my fault!

"Why are you here…"

"Unauthorized personnel are not allowed in this Control Zone!"

Cecilia interrupted Houki again. I could sense Houki bristling. Give it up, Houki, it's been that kind of a day.

Rin offered a taunting smile.

"I am authorized! I'm related to Ichika."

Well, sort of, but it’s a bit weird to say… um, Houki?

"Oh, really? Then I should ask just how you’re related?"

"I guess the saying 'the wicked strikes first' refers to people like you!"

Woah, now Cecilia's mad. But Houki's twitching lips are even more terrifying. This silent rage puts a lot of pressure on me, even though it’s not my fault. Those with weak hearts, please look away. This could get ugly.

"Are you thinking something rude, Ichika?"

"No, nothing. I'm just giving a chopper knife alert."

"You, you bastard!!"

Rin interrupted Houki and me.

"It's my turn to take the stage. I'm the main character now, so all you supporting characters can just move aside!"

"Su-Supporting characters…?"

"Ugh! You people. I'll explain later. Ichika, have you reflected and done proper penance?"

"Huh? About what?"

"ABOUT WHAT?! You should regret making me mad and be thinking about how to make up with me!”

"What are you talking about?? You're the one who’s been avoiding me!"

"Don't tell me you would really not bother a girl when she says 'don't bother me'?"

"Yup."

Isn't it obvious? If the girl says "don't bother me", isn't it polite to not bother her?

"Is there anything wrong?"

"Is there anything...?!? AHH, DAMN IT!!"

Rin shouted and yanked on her hair. If you mess up your hair, it's not my fault!

"HURRY UP AND APOLOGIZE!"

Sorry, but I can't just can’t do that. It's not that I have a problem apologizing when I mess up, but I won’t apologize for something I didn’t do.

"Why should I? I did remember the promise!"

"I don't believe you! You got the meaning wrong. The important thing is the meaning!"

"Meaning (Imiga)?" That Okinawa dish made from pork? That's pig ears (Mimiga).

"You're thinking something rude again, aren’t you?"

Gah! Caught again. I should expect that from a childhood friend: she can already read by body language!

"How infuriating. So you won't apologize no matter what?"

"That's not what I meant. I'll apologize when you give me a proper explanation!"

"This… this isn’t the kind of thing I should have to explain. You should be able to figure it out! Why else would I have put it off all the way to the match!"

So what is it? I don't understand what she means at all.

I said it, so I can't go back on it. A man can't take back his own words like that; a declaration without action is just a lie. Integrity is the result of consistently taking action on what you say you’re going to do. This is what a man has to prove.

"Fine! In the class rep battle next week, the loser will have to do whatever the winner says, OK?"

"Good! And if I win, you'll have to explain it clearly."

Fight fire with fire, an eye for an eye, all that stuff. This is a deal that I just can’t back out of. As a guy, how can I step back after I've agreed? I won't be that shameless.

"Ex-Explain it...?"

For some reason, Rin started to blush. Why? Is it really that embarrassing to explain why you're angry?"

"What's the matter? You can back out if you want."

I said that kindly, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on Rin.

"Back out? Who’s backing out? You’d better be practicing your apology!"

"Why? You are such an idiot!"

"Who are you calling an idiot? You obstinate blockhead! You're the idiot here, idiot! "

How infuriating.

"Shut up, you ironing board!"

*CLANG!*

A sudden impact caused the entire room to shake. Rin had partially deployed her IS on her right arm. The air pressure from the force of her punch was like she had hit me into a wall, even though she hadn’t even touched me.

"You…! That was too far!"

Purple sparks actually flew through the IS shield.

This is bad, she's really angry now.

"I-I'm sorry about that. That was too far, and it was my fault – all my fault."

"' That was'? You mean that ALSO was! It's all your fault!"

That’s really ridiculous logic, but this probably isn’t a good time to say so.

"I was actually planning to go easy on you, but it seems like you really want to die. I can grant that wish! I'll give it everything I’ve got and crush you. You won’t even be able to crawl away from our battle!"

Rin gave me a final glare - one I'd never seen before - and stormed out of the control zone.

*SLAM*

The sound of the door closing had a terrifying finality to it. Rin’s angst was that acute.

I glanced at the door. There was a 30cm hole. She’s powerful enough to break through a metal retaining wall. No matter how I look at it, I’m in trouble.

"...and she's a close-ranged type like Ichika-san!"

Cecilia inspected the damage. I just sank into the deepest depression I've felt in the past few weeks.

I just had to say what I was thinking...

I knew that was the insult that would infuriate Rin the most. Calling her that was really low.

This is bad...

Win or lose, I'll still have to apologize to Rin.


On the day of the battle, the first match would be held at the 2nd arena and it would be none other than the match between Rin and me.

Rumors about the upcoming battle between freshmen have been spreading like wildfire, so there's not an empty seat in the stands. The sidewalks are completely filled with students, and there are even people who can't enter the place watching the match on the broadcast screens.

...but now's not the time to be concerned about that, right?

Rin is hovering silently in front of me, waiting for the match to begin. Her IS is called “Shenlong”. Like Blue Tears, the hovering components are the unique characteristic of the “Shenlong”. The cannons on both shoulders look like they can attack on their own. I bet it would really hurt to get hit by them...

That name sure is something. The kanji is different...okay, I'll call it Kouryuu.

"Contestants, please get into position."

I’m hovering in mid-air, about 5 meters away from Rin, when she opens a communication channel to me

"Ichika, if you apologize now, I'll reduce the amount of pain you’re about to experience!”

"Don’t do me any favors! Let’s see what you've got!"

This isn’t bravado. Like the battle against Cecilia, I'm always serious in battles; I won't deliberately go easy on others, and I don't like others going easy on me. This so-called decisive duel is like that: the battle is only meaningful if both opponents go all out.

"Fair warning: the IS absolute defense isn’t perfect. It’s possible for an attack to break through the defensive shield and damage the suit.”

That's not an idle threat; it’s a known fact. There’s an attack, sometimes called the “final weapon”, that can directly damage the IS pilot. However, it's against the rules, and more importantly, it's dangerous.

"It's possible to wreck the entire suit without killing the pilot."

This is just like the match with Cecilia. Representative contenders should be able to pull off an attack like that. It was a miracle that I managed to force Cecilia into a corner.

But a miracle won't occur twice in a row.

"Begin!"

At the sound of the buzzer, Rin and I charged at each other.

*HUAAAAA*

*CLANG!*

Fortunately I had already deployed Yukihira Nigata, because I had react immediately to block Rin’s first shot. Then I used a three-dimensional cross grid to grab Rin from the front.

"Not bad. You’re pretty good to actually block my first shot. However…"

Rin’s close-range weapon is a uniquely shaped sword, roughly the shape of a scimitar. Rin can twirl the thing so fast it looks like a cheerleader’s baton. It’s actually more like two scimitars, connecting in the middle with blades on both ends. Rin whipped the thing around, attacking me from either side, vertically and diagonally, with the sword spinning like a saw blade. It's moving so fast it’s hard to do more than parry, much less counter attack or even cut it in half like Cecilia’s blue tears.

Not good. This will become a battle of attrition. Got to create some distance…

“So naive!"

IS v01 209

*PA!* Rin's shoulder guards split open and fired.

*PA!* The ball-like things hovering at Rin's shoulders, which I thought were shoulder guards, split open and fired. My body was blown backward by some invisible impact.

I felt myself starting to black out, but immediately fought back to consciousness. Rin was still coming!

"That was what you’d call a jab."

She looks awfully smug. I bet she’s gearing up for the real attack…

*WHOMP!*

"WAH!"

An invisible fist slammed me into the ground. Pain pierced through the defensive shields as it struck me, and several spots on the suit lit up with damage alarms.

This is bad!

"What was that...?"

Houki was watching the live broadcast from the arena.

"Those are called 'Impact Cannons'. They compress air into the barrel, and the resulting shockwave fires out like a cannon…"

Cecilia continued to explain that they were 3rd generation weapons, like her Blue Tears, however, Houki wasn’t listening. The broadcast screen revealed that Ichika was in a tough spot.

Every time Ichika got hurt, Houki's heart would skip a beat.

Ichika…

This was proving to be a tougher battle than the one against Cecilia. Houki didn’t care about Ichika winning any more, she just wanted him to be safe.

"You’re dodging really well, in spite of the fact that the Dragon's Roar’s specialty is a projectile that is invisible to the naked eye."

She wasn’t kidding. I couldn't even see the barrel of the cannons, let alone the shots. And it seems like these cannons can continue to attack from any angle, no matter how oblique. They can attack from above, below and even behind. When it comes to using them, Rin's abilities are supreme. Whether it’s “unlimited movement” or “all-around axis reversals”, she’s already managed to master the basics. Her ability to mix and match these techniques makes her a really tough opponent.

Maybe I could use the high resolution radar to find space and the atmospheric distortions… no that would be too slow. It wouldn’t detect anything until after I'm hit. Got to strike first...

I gripped the Yukihira Nigata tightly in my right hand and mentally reviewed my training from last week.


"…the Barrier Disabling attack?"

After my match against Cecilia, Houki and I had questions on why I lost.

Even after looking through the record of the IS battle, we still couldn't figure out why I lost. Chifuyu-nee, exasperated by our lack of progress, finally explained what had happened.

"The Barrier Disabling attack. That’s something only 'Yukihira' can do. No matter how much shield energy your opponent has, it can cut through the shield and pass damage directly to the body. What would happen then? Shinonono?"

"Ye-yes. The IS will activate the 'absolute defense', which will drastically deplete the shields."

"Correct. In fact, when I won the first Mondo Grosso, it was largely because of this one ability."

In spite of Chifuyu-nee downplaying her win, it's really an impressive thing to accomplish. The 'Mondo Grosso' is held once every 3 years, and Chifuyu-nee won the very first tournament. Being the younger brother of the number one ranked IS pilot in the world made me feel… I don’t know. My feelings are both complicated and mystifying.

"So that means that I could have won if I landed the last hit?"

"If you had landed it, yes. Speaking of which, why do you think you lost?"

"Huh? I don't know why. I mean, my shield reserves dropped to 0, but why?"

"There's no ‘why’, that's to be expected. Are you an idiot? How much energy do you think you need to activate Yukihira?”

"...Ah."

I see. That means…

"That means the shield energy is converted into attack power?" asked Houki.

Chifuyu-nee nodded.

"And that means your I.S. is flawed."

"HEY! FLAWED!? DID YOU JUST SAY MY I.S. IS FLAWED!?"

*PANG* ...looks like I still have to be careful about my attitude when talking to a teacher.

"OK, maybe ‘flawed’ wasn’t the best way to say it. An I.S. isn’t complete to begin with, so it's not really defective. It’s just that Byakushiki’s much more offense-oriented than most other suits. You know most suits have their own equalizers, right?"

"That, that can be considered a flaw?"

"Listen to me! Byakushiki has no slots left for an equalizer because they're all used to wield the Yukihira. That’s what makes it so powerful!”

Now I remember.

Back then Chifuyu-nee only had the Yukihira...

And she was still the strongest. That should tell you how inhuman she is. I've always thought she was amazing, but since becoming an IS pilot, I finally realize how far Chifuyu-nee exceeds my expectations.

"Can an amateur like you survive mid-ranged combat? Do you know anything about suppressing recoil, calculating trajectory, pulling distance, stopping suddenly, or making an absolute turn? What about projectile characteristics, atmospheric conditions, and the effects of the opponent’s armaments? And that’s only the beginning. These are strategic battles. Can you handle all that? WELL CAN YOU!?"

I wilted. "...sorry."

What could I do but admit my mistake and apologize? Chifuyu-nee nodded, as if she was satisfied.

"Look, I know you pretty well, and I think you’d be better off completely mastering one technique. After all, you are my younger brother."

After that, I focused all my training on close ranged combat and basic movements like sudden acceleration and emergency stops. With the kendo training I had from Houki, I also grasped the characteristics of Yukihira Nigata’s blade and how to gauge the distance between it and an opponent’s blade.

What's left for me...? A heart that refuses to give in!

The difference in ability between Rin and me is only too obvious. Her fighting style is also different from Cecilia. In combat, she's calm and collected. That makes her a strong opponent. So what do I have to make up for the difference in our abilities? I guess that's “heart.” As long as I determine in my heart that I won’t lose, my will creates a light in the darkness. I firmly believe it. All that's left is to put it into action.

"Rin."

"Yeah, what?"

"I’m warning you – I’m not going to hold back."

I stared at Rin sternly. She looked uncertain. I think my attitude surprised her.

"Wh-What are you talking about!? That’s what you’re supposed to do! Anyway, I'll show you that we’re not in the same league!"

Rin spins the two scimitars like cheerleaders' batons, then grips them firmly. For my part, I positioned myself so I could accelerate suddenly and close the distance before she fires.

That skill is called an “ignition boost”. I just learned the skill this week; if I time it just right, I can match her despite the fact that she’s a representative contender. The I.S. itself protects the pilot from losing consciousness because of G-forces generated by the sudden acceleration.

"WAAAHHH!!"

The ignition boost only works once, so I'll have to use Yukihira Nigata's barrier disabling attack. If I can't damage her cannons by more than half, I won't be able to whittle them down the rest of the way. I can't afford another energy-eating barrier disabling attack. I'll definitely be at a disadvantage.

*THOMP* *THOMP* *THOMP* *THOMP*

"?"

Rin's double blades were coming in for the kill, when suddenly a boom reverberated throughout the entire arena. Rin's cannons didn't do that; the attack was too powerful and came from the wrong angle.

Smoke was rising from the center of the arena. It seems like the noise was from a shockwave caused by whatever just pierced the arena's defensive barrier.

"Wh-What's going on...?"

Rin contacted me through a private line. She was all confused, but I didn't understand what was going on, either.

"Ichika, the match's suspended! Hurry up and return to the control zone!"

What's Rin talking about? I didn't have a chance to ponder it, because Byakushiki's sensors sounded an emergency alert.

Source of disturbance is an unknown IS. Sealing the arena now.

"Wha--"

The arena and the barriers are made of the same material as an I.S. If something capable of penetrating the arena's shield gets in, it automatically seals as a safeguard.

In other words, we're in trouble.

"Hurry up, Ichika!"

"What do you expect me to do?"

I don't know how to communicate with the opponent, and I usually don't talk while I'm fighting, so I just asked Rin casually.

"I'll buy you some time, hurry up and run away!"

"What?!? There's no way I'm going to leave a girl behind."

"Idiot! You're the weaker fighter, so you need to get out of here!"

Rin said that without thinking. Since I don't know how to use the private line, Rin's using an open channel to talk to me.

"I have no intention of fighting till the end. I'm just buying time until the instructors can get out here to handle..."

"WATCH OUT!"

A laser crackled through the air where Rin and I just were. At the last second, I lunged at her and flew us out of the way.

"What are you doing, you idiot! Let go of me!"

"H-Hey, stop flailing around! Why are you... STOP HITTING ME!"

"Shut up! Shut up!Shut up!Shut up!"

Though I have the shields to protect me, I'm not exactly thrilled about Rin's fists pummeling me rapid-fire.

"Why are you holding me..."

"INCOMING!"

Forget about Rin! The haze from the first attack hasn't even cleared, and another shot is fired over.

I barely dodged the enemy's attack, and as I spun around it finally floated above the haze and showed itself.

"When did this...?"

The grayish I.S. doesn't look normal; it's arms are abnormally long, almost dragging the ground like a gorilla, and there's no neck or head visible.

Worse, it has full-body armor.

Normally, an I.S. will only deploy armor over a part of its body. There's no need to have full armor because energy shields handle most of the defense. Of course, there are I.S.s developed for defense that are equipped with physical armor, but even those leave the pilot's joints exposed for free movement. An I.S. without even 1cm of skin showing is unheard of.

Besides, this I.S's size is another clue that it's not normal. It's huge! Including the arms, the frame of that thing is over 2m long, and its body is covered with jet propulsion nozzles, probably all necessary to maintain its position. Its “head” has sensors arranged in a bizarre pattern, and there are 4 ports on its forearms that allow it to fire those lasers.

"What are you?"

Static. Not surprised. The mysterious intruder didn't answer my question.

"Orimura-kun! Huang-san! Leave the arena! The teachers will use their I.S.s to suppress it!"

Yamada-sensei was calling us through the broadcast channel. Is it just me or is her voice much more serious than usual.

"No! We've got to buy people time to evacuate until the teachers arrive."

The I.S. was powerful enough to break through the arena's barrier. If nobody's going to keep it busy, it could have broken through the stadium's barrier and attacked the audience.

"Are you OK with this, Rin?"

"Who, who do you think you're talking to? Can't you see I just want you to let me go? I can't even move like this!"

"Ahh, sorry."

As soon as I let go of her, Rin pushed herself away and hugged herself. Um... does she really hate me touching her or something?

"I'm really sorry."

"Orimura-kun?” Yamada-sensei was calling again. “You just can't do that! If something happens to a stu..."

I had no idea what she said after that. The enemy I.S. charged me, and I had to focus on dodging to stay alive.

"Whew. Seems like the enemy's raring to go!"

"Seems that way."

Rin and I hover next to each other, weapons at the ready.

"Ichika, you attack and I'll cover you with the shock cannons. That's your only offensive weapon, right?"

"That's right. OK, let's do this!"

*CLANG!*

We clashed our weapons together for luck, and charged forward to execute our improvised combination.

"HELLO? HELLO? ORIMURA-KUN, CAN YOU HEAR ME? RIN-SAN!!"

Yamada-sensei must be especially anxious. She forgot that there's no need to shout into the I.S. comm. The people around her must think she's just weird.

"They said they can handle it, didn't they? I say we let them go for it!"

"W-WHAT? ORIMURA-SENSEI, HOW CAN YOU SAY SUCH A THING!?"

"Calm down and have some coffee. You're only stressing out because your blood sugar's getting low."

"...erm, Sensei? That's the salt..."

Chifuyu's spoon froze in mid-air, a cascade of white powder still falling into her cup.

"What's salt doing on a coffee tray?"

"Who knows? But it is clearly labeled. I can even read it from here."

"..."

"Ah, so you're worried about your brother? I can understand why you'd make a mistake like that."

"..."

An irritating silence fell. The silence pressed in ominously on Maya Yamada, so she tried to start a conversation.

"Oh, you know..."

"Yamada-sensei, please have some coffee."

"Huh? I-Is-isn't that the one you poured salt in..."

"Here!"

Maya was quite sure she was being offered the salty coffee, but she felt that defying Chifuyu at that moment could be even worse. She sniffled sadly as she accepted.

"I-I'll take it then..."

"The coffee is hot so just gulp it down in swallow."

IS SHE SERIOUS? CHIFUYU'S BECOME A REAL DEVIL!

"Sensei, please permit me to use my I.S.! I can deploy right away!" Cecilia cried.

"I wish I could, but..."

Chifuyu tapped on one of the displays and intel filled the screen: data on the 2nd arena.

"The barriers are set at level 4... and the doors are all locked? Did the unknown I.S. do that?"

"It sure looks that way. Since we're in complete lockdown, we can neither evacuate nor send support."

Though Chifuyu's voice was calm, her hands were trembling as she tapped at the screen.

"In that the case, declare a state of emergency and ask for government support!"

"We've done that already. Right now, senior elites are busy trying to crack the system. Once we get the shields down, we have squads on standby ready to attack."

Chifuyu's eyebrows began to twitch. Cecilia had never seen Chifuyu so tense, and, fearing that any further protest could trigger an explosion, restrained herself and sat down.

"Sigh... so all we can do is wait?"

"There's no reason for you to worry. You couldn't help anyway."

Cecilia jumped to her feet. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying Blue Tears is specially designed to handle multiple attackers alone. If you tried to function in a squad, you'd just be getting in everyone's way."

"I would never! How could you say that?"

"Have you had squad-based training before? What was that mission? How did you assess the enemy? What was the duration of the mission? What position did you assume on the squad and what was your role...?"

"All right, that's enough! I get it already."

“Good. You need to understand why things are the way they are.”

Cecilia raised her hands in surrender to prevent Chifuyu from rattling on with what was becoming a very long lecture.

"Sigh... I hate feeling this powerless."

Cecilia sighed a long sigh of worry and exhaustion. Then she noticed something.

"Where's Shinonono-san..."

Cecilia was looking around casually. No one noticed Chifuyu's hawklike eyes snap toward the exit door.

"Ugh..."

Though I was able to close the distance and launch a one-hit kill, the unknown I.S. dodged effortlessly at the last second. This is the fourth time I've missed.

"Ichika, you idiot! Aim that thing properly!"

"I am aiming!"

I'd been attacking the enemy suit at angles and speeds that should be impossible to dodge. However, the thruster output on that I.S. is abnormally powerful, so much so that it could dodge out of reach in under a second! No matter how Rin tries to distract it, it still gives priority to dodging any of my sudden movements.

What a nuisance...

My shield reserve are less than 60; I can only launch the barrier disabling attack one more time.

"Run, Ichika!"

"Waaaah!"

The enemy normally executes a wild counterattack after dodging. Its extremely long arms whip up a whirlwind as they spin around at us. Even while it's spinning, it somehow manages to continue firing at us, making it impossible to go on the offensive.

"Damn it, this guy's irritating!"

Rin keeps firing her impact cannons haphazardly, but somehow the enemy I.S. can swat her invisible projectiles. Seven times it's deflected her attack so far.

I've managed to evade the enemy's laser barrage, with Rin's support. As far as I can tell, the enemy's lasers have shorter range when it's spinning.

"Rin, how much shield do you have left?"

"About 180."

We need to preserve that energy, like the health points in a video game. Even though she has a larger reserve than I do, we can't risk depleting it with random attacks. Not to mention my Yukihira Nigata eats a lot of energy.

"This is bad. With our sheild reserves depleted and that thing's firepower, we've got less than a 10% chance of taking it down, right?"

"At least it's not 0."

"You're really unbelievable! We need better than a 10% chance! You're always yapping about we should give I.S. health priority in a fight like a mother hen, and here you are wanting to throw the dice with such lousy odds? I bet you're the type who buys lottery tickets and plays those slot machines, too!"

"SHUT! UP!"

Honestly, I've never bought a lottery ticket. I just can't bring myself to gamble. The closest I ever got was during Middle School, when I ended up buying Dan Gotanda who knows how many drinks and blew my savings. Wish I had one of those pension funds, but I think they're just urban legends.

"Now what?"

"You can still run if you want to."

"Wha... stop treating me like an idiot! I'm still a representative contender, you know! I'm not about to run away with my tail between my legs!"

Sounds like something Cecilia would say. I guess they expect a representative contender to have a certain amount of pride.

"Then how about this: You rush it, and I'll cover your butt."

"Wha? Ah, mm... thanks..."

Rin blushes for some reason, and I have to shove her out of the way as a laser sweeps past. Damn it, we're in the middle of a battle! Stay focused!

"You know, Rin, that things movements remind me of something..."

"You mean something like a spinning top?"

"It looks like... what's it called? It's that robot some car manufacturer created."

"What robot?"

So you don't know. I though the robot was called “ASI...something”.

"I mean, doesn't it seem too mechanical?"

"Of course it's mechanical! The I.S. is a machine!"

"That's not what I meant! I mean... is there really someone inside it?"

"What? An I.S. can't move without a pilot."

Rin suddenly became silent.

"You know, I've noticed the enemy doesn't seem to attack when we're talking. It seems like it's interested in our conversation..."

Rin seemed to be pondering the battle up to this point. Her face took on an unusually pensive expression.

"No way, there has to be somebody inside. An I.S. can't move without anyone in it. That's just how it is."

All the textbooks say the same thing: an I.S. definitely can't move without a pilot. But is that still true? Even now, with the latest technology? It's possible they could have developed an unmanned suit, and I have to mention it.

"But say, let's just say, it's unmanned. Then what?"

"What? Are you saying we can win if it's unmanned?"

"Yup. If there's no one inside, we can can hit it with everything we've got. We don't have to hold back."

Normally, the full power of Yukihira Nigata is too dangerous for a sporting match, but if that I.S. is unmanned, I can execute the “Reiraku Byakuya” - a full-power, one-hit kill.

...and i have a plan.

"It won't matter if you go all out. You can't seem to hit a darn thing today."

"Oh, don't worry, I'll make it count this next time."

"How conceited. Well, though I don't think it's possible, let's just pretend it's unmanned and attack it anyway."

Does she know that I have a plan? I've seen that brazen smirk on Rin's face before. It says “if you're wrong, you're treating me crepes from the shop in front of the station!” That gal is really evil. I only work part time! Stop the gold-digging!

"Ichika."

"Hm?"

"What are you planning to do?"

Now Rin's looks is more serious. It says “I'll help, but if we fail... let's not think about what will happen...” The look we exchanged in that instant carried all the understanding of a heart-to-heart talk.

"When I give the signal, you hit that thing with your shock cannons at full blast."

"Okay, but what if I miss?"

"It'll be fine even if you do miss."

...I have a plan.

"Get ready..."

I swing into position, but suddenly the arena loudspeakers cut through the air..

"ICHIKA!"

*SCREEE* The speakers overloaded for a moment from Houki's scream.

"What are you doing?"

In the audio room, the match judge and commentators were lying on the ground! Did Houki hit them when she opened the door? And they were hit hard enough that it looks like they won't be getting up very quickly. Uwahh...

"IF YOU'RE A MAN... IF YOU'RE A MAN, YOU'D BETTER DEFEAT THE ENEMY COMPLETELY!"

She shouted into the mic, and the *SCREEE* echoes through the arena again. I zoomed in on Houki, and could see her panting, shoulders trembling. Somehow, she looks angry and anxious at the same time. How do girls do that?

"..."

At that moment, the enemy I.S. swung it's ugly head toward Houki. I could just feel its sensors zeroing in on her in the audio room.

Damn it! "RUN, HOUK-- " Ahh, DAMN IT! There's no time for Houki to run. It's now or never. I fire my ignition boost. As I approach, I can see the enemy I.S. leveling its cannons on Houki.

"RIN, NOW!"

"Wha... ON IT!"

Template:ISSwitch

Rin's shoulder pods open wide as the impact cannon powers up to maximum. At the same time, I deploy my “energy absorption wings” and swing into her line of fire.

"Hold on a minute! What are you doing, you idiot?"

"JUST FIRE, DAMN IT!"

"FINE! Whatever happens is not my fault!"

As soon as I felt the energy surge behind me, I activated the ignition boost.

The ignition boost works by compressing a large concentration of energy, and then releasing it suddenly through the energy absorption wings. The result is a sudden, dramatic burst of speed.

This means that I can use external energy sources, and the speed boost will be proportional to the amount of energy added.

*THOMP!* I felt something slam into my back - the blast from Rin's impact cannons. My I.S. frame shuddered and creaked as my acceleration curve spiked.

"WAAAAHHH!!"

In my right hand, Yukihira Nigata glowed brighter, and I could even see the energy blade get longer.

Power input hit 90%, and the “Reiraku Byakura” became available for use. I didn't hear that information, I just knew. The first time I touched an I.S., a flood of information entered my mind – like enhanced consciousness, much greater focus, and most importantly, I feel energy surging through me.

I will protect them - Chifuyu-nee, Houki, Rin, everyone – I will protect them all!

The enemy saw me coming, and countered. My left hand went wild, but my right landed, and hacked off the enemy's right arm. The enemy I.S. powered up its lasers for a counter attack.

"ICHIKA!!!"

Houki and Rin screamed. Didn't I say that I have a plan?

"How's your aim?"

"Perfect, of course!"

Though sometimes she can be too talkative, at this moment Cecilia's voice was the best thing I'd ever heard.

At that moment, all four Blue Tears opened fire, spearing through the enemy I.S. from multiple directions.

*BAM!* The attack broke through its shields and caused a small explosion, and the enemy IS fell to the ground. Unshielded, the enemy shouldn't be able to take even a second of the Blue Tears' assault.

A robot can't exceed its programming. A great person once said that free-will is humans' greatest advantage, and that's the case here. Humans are cunning creatures who think outside the box and use tactics robots can't adapt to.

"That was close."

"I knew you'd come through, Cecilia."

I replied confidently. Since I've fought her before, I know as well as anyone how strong she is.

"Oh, my, is, is that so? Well, that, that's to be expected! After all, I am Cecilia Alcott, England's representative contender!"

We're chatting through a private channel. I haven't learned how to use the communicator properly, and I've only figured out how to reply to someone who's already contacted me.

It feels like talking on a phone attacked to the back of my head.

"Well, it's finally over now. Let's..."

Enemy I.S. lock-on warning!

"?"

The left hand, the only part of that I.S. that's still functioning, was aiming at me from the floor and powering up to maximum.

The laser fired, and without thinking, I charged.

I was blinded by complete whiteout, and I felt a blade cutting through my armor...

"Ugh..."

Pain in my body forces me awake. I open my eyes and look around, but I'm not immediately sure where I am.

This seems to be the infirmary, and I'm lying on the bed.

I'm in a small room that feels even more cramped because of the curtain dividing it, but the tight space feels comforting somehow. The conflicting feelings of claustrophobia and comfort make it harder for me to understand what's going on.

What happened after I was attacked...

"You're awake?" The curtain rolled back and revealed Chifuyu-nee. Taking action before she confirms the situation – that's just like her.

"You weren't seriously wounded, but your body is covered in bruises. I imagine your body feels like it's on fire, but I'm afraid you'll have to get used to it."

"Uh huh..."

I'm still dazed. I hear what Chiifuyu-nee's saying as if from a distance. I'm still trying to remember what happened – why I'm my body is covered in pain. My eyes wander around the room and I find myself looking out the window. The sky is gradually turning a deep red; the school day should be almost over.

"That IS put all its power into the blast that hit you, but for some reason you turned off your absolute defense. It's a wonder you survived."

I still can't remember anything. What's this about turning off my absolute defense? I thought it couldn't be be shut down.

"Anyway, it's good to see that you're safe. It would be hard to go on if I lost my only family."

Chifuyu-nee's expression is much gentler than usual. Only a close family member would wear such a look.

"Chifuyu-nee."

"Hm? What is it?"

"Nothing. Well... sorry for worrying you."

Chifuyu-nee smiled.

"I'm not worried about you. My younger brother wouldn't die that easily."

That's a strange type of trust you have in me, but I know that this is really Chifuyu-nee's way of hiding her discomfort. It doesn't bother me.

"Well, I have other things to deal with, I'm going back to work. You can go back to your room as soon as you feel up to it."

Chifuyu-nee was already walking out of the infirmary as she said this. She takes her work very seriously, but I admire that.

"Ah – ahem. AHEM!"

Someone just brushed right past Chifuyu-nee? Only Houki would be so brazen.

*Shoonk!* Houki jerked the the curtain open with both hands. Was it really necessary to open it all the way?

"Um, Houki...."

"Hmmm?"

My dear, dear childhood friend straightens up and snorts as she shakes her ponytail. Suddenly I'd rather be facing a charging bull.

So what can I say? I don't think she's angry, exactly, but she's definitely not in a good mood.

"Well, about the battle today..."

"That match didn't count. You realize that, right?"

"Yeah, I kind of expected that. Too many weird things happened."

I'm just hoping the next match could be held after I recover.

"What were you just thinking!?"

"Huh?"

Why is she scolding me? What is she angry about? Come to think of it, is she actually angry at all? It looks like she's just acting angry to hide some other emotion.

"I wanted you to win, but you could have left that rogue IS to the teachers? Haven't you heard the phrase 'pride goes before a fall'?"

"Wait – you mean I won?"

"You mean you...? WOULD YOU STOP TALKING ABOUT WINNING ALREADY!"

What is with her?

Houki's shoulders are actually trembling, and she's kind of panting. What could have possibly made her so angry?

Wait. No way. It couldn't be.

"Were you... were you worried about me?"

Her face reddened and she looked away.

"Of, of course not! Why would be worried about you?"

Oh, come on! My childhood friend who I've known for so long wasn't worried even a little bit?

"An-anyway, your training paid off, didn't it? We will continue training just like we have been, you got that!?"

"Ahhh – okay. Yeah, I got it."

"Well, um, good, then. I'm – uh – I'm heading back to the room now."

You won't even wait for me? Kind of cold-hearted for a childhood friend, don't you think?

"...Ichika."

"Huh?"

"During the battle... you were... well, you were..."

Stupid-looking? Ridiculous? Funny? Something like that?

"Amaz... no-nothing! Nevermind"

I couldn't hear what she had started to say very clearly, but since she said it's nothing, I guess I'll just treat it as nothing!

"Okay, then."

Houki trotted out of the room, stiff-armed, as if she were trying to escape.

I just hope she remembers to close the door. And pull the curtains – that would be nice, too. Ugh – I just want to sleep.

The bed was so comfortable, and I was so tired and sore, sleep dragged me down without any resistance.

What is that? Is someone breathing on me? Who's close enough that I can feel their breath? Wait – what time is it? How long was I asleep?

"Ichika..."

"Rin?"

"Uuuuaahh!"

I knew the voice belonged to Rin, but I was shocked when I opened my eyes to see her face hovering over mine.

"…What are you doing?"

"Oh... Yo - you - ah-haha - you're awake?"

"You woke me up. Why are you so nervous?"

"N...nervous? I'm not nervous! What an utterly ridiculous thing to say. Yeah! That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, you idiot!"

Is that some kind of compulsive neurological disorder? How can someone end every single sentence with the word “idiot”? That's bound to cause her problems someday.

"Oh, I heard the match didn't count."

"What did you expect?!"

Rin was sitting beside me on my bed. Maybe she's going to peel an apple for me? Though I don't see an apple...

"Oh!"

"What?"

"Have they scheduled a rematch yet?"

"That doesn't matter."

"Huh? Why?"

"Because it doesn't matter!"

That's a lousy reason, but it sounds like she's not going to tell me anything else. It matters to me! Men care about these things.

"Rin?"

"What?"

"It's just... well, I'm sorry... for a lot of things. Just... I'm sorry."

I lowered my head. It was an honest apology. Regardless of what might happen, if I know I did something wrong, I have to apologize.

For a moment, a look of shock passed over Rin's face, but she quickly recovered.

"I was just upset that time. It's okay now."

It sounds like she forgave me. Even close friends have to show each other respect. I don't want to lose friendship's I've invested so much in.

"Oh, I remember!"

For some reason, the promise I had with Rin suddenly came back me. If I remembered correctly, we were in grade 6.

"Wasn't it an evening just like this when we made that promise? Didn't you ask 'if my cooking gets better, would you eat my sweet and sour pork every day'? Well, how about it? Has your cooking improved?"

"Huh? Ah, erm..."

Rin stuttred, apparently at a loss for words. She looked around and nodded her head, and I don't think it's my imagination that her face is really red.

"So did that really mean you'd treat me to a meal every day, or was there more to it?"

"Nonononono! You... uh... you understood correctly! It's just that when you cook for someone, um... your cooking... your cooking improves! That's all!"

Rin rattled that explanation off like a machine gun. I felt like a train had just blown by me.

"I see. I thought it would be a lot more complicated than that. Good. I guess I was just over thinking it.”

"Rin?"

"Huh? Yeah, that... that's right! You were over thinking it! Ah ha, ahhahahaha!"

That's not a natural laugh. It sure seems like Rin's trying to hide something. But if she feels the need to hide it, I'll let it go and wait 'till she's ready to talk.

That brought something else to mind.

"I bet your cooking's great, but I don't know if anyone could beat your dad's cooking. I'd love to have his food again!"

"Oh, well... my dad doesn't do that any more."

"Huh? Why?"

"Thing is, my parents got a divorce..."

What? I thought they were a lovely couple. What happened? The pain on Rin's face tells me this isn't some joke. I'm not sure what to say.

"That's why I returned to China."

"I see."

Now that she mentioned it, I remember Rin being very emotional just before she moved back to China. Back then, she acted cheery, but I could tell something was wrong and she was hiding. That always felt weird.

"Basically, my mom got custody of me. Since women are so dominant in today's society... you know."

I thought that she would try to reassure me, but instead her tone deepened.

"It's been a year since I last saw Dad. I guess he's still OK."

I don't know what to say. Her parents' divorce hit me harder than I expected. It's always a bad thing when a family breaks up, but I can't imagine what would have caused it! They were like my easy-going uncle and energetic auntie.

Why did it end up like that?

I can't ask Rin. It must have hurt her more than anybody else.

"Every family has some kind of skeleton in the closet."

I don't know what sort of people my parents were. Chifuyu-nee is the only family I remember, so I really can't understand Rin's feelings.

"Um... Rin?"

“Hm? What is it?"

"Do you want to go out some time?"

"Wha? Do you mean, like, a date..."

"I'll invite Gotanda over. We haven't all hung out together for a long time."

"..."

Rin puffed out her cheeks. "I'm not going!"

What? I only just invited you and you've already made up your mind?! Do you even understand the value of being a friend?

"The two of you together? If I had to come along like a third wheel, it..."

*SLAM!* The infirmary door flew open.

"Ichika-san, I hope you're feeling better! Now I'm here to look after yo*"

Cecelia waltzed through the door, but stopped short the instant she saw Rin by my bed.

"What are you doing here? Ichika's from my class, so a rival from class 2 doesn't have any reason to visit him!”

"What are you talking about? I'm his childhood friend, so I can visit him whenever I want! You're the real outsider."

"I-I'm his classmate, AND I'm Ichika-san's special coach!"

Cecilia emphasized the word "special" just a little too much, and then went on to point out that she's a representative contender. I knew she'd dug her own grave when she said that.

"Well, then, starting tomorrow I'll be his "special coach". After all, I'm a representative contender, too!"

"Wha?? That won't do!"

"Oh? And why not? Any special reason? After all, Ichika agrees with me, don't you?"

"No, no you can't! Right, Ichika-san!?"

Why are you asking me? I'm just happy to have someone teach me about the IS, no matter who it is. But now that I think about it, Rin might actually be better. Though she's a mixed long/close ranged fighter, she's the same energy type as me.

"Well, I think Rin would be more suitable."

"Wha...?" Color drained from Cecilia's face.

"Humph.” Rin snorted and crossed her arms. “That's right, isn't it?"

"...after all, we're both power types."

"..."

What did I just say to make them look at me like that?

"That's it? Just because you're both power types?! If that's the only reason, then I, Cecilia Alcott, as a mid-ranged type will be an excellent special coach for Ichika-san!"

...and just now she emphasized "just".

Rin seems angry. Did Cecilia's worlds set her off? To be honest, it looks more like she's glaring at me. Why's that? Am I the problem here?

"Okay," Cecilia continued, "let's analyze the battle today, Ichika-san! Just you and me."

"What are you taking about?! Ichika fought against me! So naturally we have to do the analysis! Honestly, are you an idiot!?"

"Idiot? Humph! Low-class people can be so vulgar."

"At least they're better than pretentious people."

"What did you say to me!?"

These two girls' personalities really clash. But then, Cecilia isn't any friendlier to Houki than she is to Rin. Her attitude is really what started this whole argument!

Really, girls... I just want to go back to my room and sleep. Or rather, take a shower and then sleep...

Now they're completely ignoring me. What could I do, but sigh?

50m below the school grounds is a secret place that only people with level 4 access can enter.

The IS that Ichika defeated had been transported there immediately after the battle. Over the past two hours, Chifuyu had been painstakingly reviewing videos of that battle.

The room is dark. Chifuyu's face, lit only by the console screens, wore a cold expression.

"Orimura-sensei?"

Maya Yamada's image pops up on a screen. She was reviewing data on a tablet computer.

"You may enter."

Maya strode in with an unusual sense of purpose. "I've completed analysis of the rogue IS."

"And?”

"Yes, it is... it turned out to be an unmanned drone."

All over the world, countries and organizations are continually experimenting to push IS technology forward. Remote control and autonomous movement were two popular technologies for research, and one of those was almost certainly used to control the rogue IS. Just how far the world had progressed with that technology was something members of the IS Academy were ordered to keep quiet.

"We don't know how the IS was controlled. Orimura-kun's last attack burned out the core, and it's unlikely that we can repair it."

"...and the core?"

"...not registered."

"Is that so?" Chifuyu said, then muttered, "as I expected."

Maya shot her a startled look. "Do you know something?"

"No, nothing. Not yet."

Chifuyu looked back at the console screens with steel in her gaze – a look more appropriate for a warrior than a teacher – a look that left no doubt she was once a legendary pilot who stood above all others.

"You're late!"

These were the words that greeted me the moment I stepped into my room. I swear my childhood friend is the devil.

“What have you been doing all this time? Seriously, I'm about to starve waiting for you!”

"Waiting for me for what? Wait, you haven't had dinner yet?"

"DIDN'T I JUST SAY I'VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU?!"

I almost said, “you could have gone ahead,” but I didn't because at the last second I realized it would just make her mad. Wow! I'm learning after all!

"Well, then let's get to the cafeteria! They'll be closed if we don't hurry."

"Ho - Hold on!"

I already have one foot out the door when Houki stops me. Now what? This had better be important, because the cafeteria closes at 8, which is maybe two minutes away, and I really want some anchovies.

"It's just that to - today is, erm..."

"Hm? Do I smell food?"

Suddenly I realized the room was filled with the smell of freshly cooked food. I can tell it's freshly cooked because I'm so hungry – it makes my sense of smell at least 20% stronger.

"Is... is that fried rice on the table? What's going on?"

My nose fills with the magical smell of rice fried in sesame oil, and my mouth starts watering.

"I... I cooked it."

"What? Really?"

"Don't look so surprised!"

Why wouldn't I be surprised?

And the fact that it's not Japanese cuisine surprises me even more. There's definitely something different on the wind today. Is she going to demand money from me? Heh – I'd like to see that. I don't have any money on me.

"Are you going to eat or not?"

"Sure, I'll eat. Why are you angry?"

"I am not angry!"

She sounds angry, but it is Houki, so I have to take her word for it. Trust first, right? Being suspicious of her would just hurt our relationship.

"OK, so what shall I try first?"

"Wash your hands first. Oh, and rinse your mouth out, too."

Figures. Houki's big on proper etiquette. Washing up first is just good hygiene, and I always do it anyway. Still, there are a lot of people who lack common sense, so I guess I can't blame her.

Houki was already seated by the time I walked out of the bathroom, and she indicated my seat. I sat down quietly and placed my palms together in thanks.

"Well... itadakimasu."

"Help yourself! Eat as much as you want."

I started to gulp it down, hungry as I was.

"How is it? Is it good?"

Houki looks delighted, even though I haven't commented one way or the other.

"It's... a little bland."

Houki snatched the ceramic spoon away from me took a huge bite.

"It's... bland."

"Isn't it?"

It looked like normal, tasty fried rice, but there just wasn't much flavor to it. I wonder why? It's probably missing some seasonings or spices, but it has great color if she forgot the seasoning. Maybe it's charred just a little, and my appetite magically transformed that into a delectable smell?

"Oh, no! I accidentally forgot the seasoning. I normally never do something like that!"

"Yeah, I wouldn't think that would happen very often."

"Was that supposed to make me feel better? If you don't want it, I'll just eat it all!"

"I never said that! Here, give me the spoon."

I wrestled the spoon away from Houki and started to wolf down the fried rice. Even if it was bland and I didn't enjoy it much, I still carefully chewed each bite before swallowing. After all, I still have to be thankful to a person who went to all this trouble to cook for me. A real man wouldn't leave leftovers!

After polishing off the rice, I put down the spoon and brought the palms of my hands together in thanks.

"Thanks for the meal."

Houki stared at me with an unreadable expression. Several emotions seemed to be playing across her face at once.

"What?"

"Don't get the wrong idea!"

"Huh? Wrong idea?"

"That was... just an accident. I never make a mistake like that normally!"

I wouldn't know. I think this is the first time I've seen Houki cook. That's not too surprising, considering the last time I saw her was fourth grade, so I'll take her word for it.

"OK, but why Chinese cuisine? Don't you know Japanese cooking better?"

"It's not like you have to be in the country to make the cuisine! I just wanted to show you that I can make good Chinese food."

Yeah, but after tasting that I'm still not convinced you can make good Chinese food. This dish is like an orphan without a country!

"Well if, I mean, if you're unhappy with it, maybe I could cook some for you."

"ARE YOU SAYING YOU DON'T WANT TO EAT WHAT I COOK FOR YOU!?"

"No, I never said that! What's with you? You've been acting weird today."

"I... I wanted to cook for you every day, just like... just like..."

Houki kind of crumpled, and her voice came out in a whisper. What happened to the bellow of a few seconds ago? I can't even hear what she's saying.

"This... this is all your fault! You and your stupid promise!"

"My promise... Wait, is this about Rin? I settled that already!"

"Wh-What...?"

"Yeah. I apologized to her, and she forgave me."

"…"

Um... what's that look? Are you really that suspicious of your childhood friend?

"You can't settle something like that with just an apology!"

"What do you mean? As far as I'm concerned, it's settled!"

Honestly, why she so obstinate?

"Since when can a lifetime vow be settled that easi--"

Houki's angry ranting was interrupted by the door opening.

Yamada-sensei pushed open the door. "Are Shinonono-san and Orimura-kun in?" she asked tentatively.

"What's wrong, sensei?"

"It's moving day! Shinonono-san, you can finally change rooms."

"What?"

Change rooms? Isn't this a two-person room? Who's going to take Houki's place?

"Now wait just a darn minute! Just what's going on here?"

"Ye-Yes! Sorry! Let me explain."

Houki stares daggers at Yamada-sensei, and she shrinks away like a scolded puppy. Honestly, Houki, she's a teacher! Stop bullying her!

"We've finally managed to arrange new rooms, so you two don't have to live together any more. Shinonono-san is the only one who'll need to move."

We don't have to live together... what a relief! Yamada-sensei's pretty capable.

"Ichika!"

"Uh oh." Found out again! Why? Just... why?

"Hey, I'll help out, too. C'mon let's get a move on!"

"Wa-Wai-Wait a minute! Do I have to pack up and move out right now?"

Yamada-sensei blinks in surprise. I admit I certainly didn't expect Houki to say anything like that.

"Oh, yes, I think that would be for the best. I'm sure a situation where a young man and young woman are forced to share the same room isn't really comfortable for anyone."

"Well, to be honest..."

Houki stutters and keeps shooting furtive glances at me...

Oh, I see!

"You don't need to worry about me, Houki. I will obediently wake up and brush my teeth, even without your help!"

"!" *PONG!*

Did I just hear something snap in Houki's head? Weird...

"YAMADA-SENSEI, I WANT TO MOVE OUT RIGHT NOW!!"

"O-Okay! Then let's get started!"

Yamada-sensei starts to tremble again. Despite her willing attitude she remains frozen in the doorway.

"Can I help out?"

"NO NEED!"

Yikes, she's mad - like a razor sharp katana that will cut you from the smallest mistake. I think shutting up now would be smart.

"...I was so worried about you, and yet you..."

Houki muttered angrily, but I couldn't quite make sense of what she was saying.

She finished packing her entire room in under an hour.

With my co-habitant gone, the room feels twice as large... and lonely.

I'd really like to soak in the bath house right now. The sad thing is, they're still trying to work out a guy/girl schedule. Yamada-sensei said she'd try to finalize it this month, but the look on her face makes me wonder...

Still... despite the problems, coming to the IS Academy has allowed me to reunite with Houki and Rin, and meet Cecilia. So many unbelievable events...

I've heard it said that "truth is stranger than fiction." All that's happened lately is certainly stranger than any novel I've read, even a light novel, which tend to be more vivid than regular novels... I better stop before I go overboard.

"Let's sleep!"

I took a shower, brushed my teeth and put on my pajamas – which are really just shorts and a T-shirt. Oh, well, into bed.

*POUND* *POUND* *POUND*

WAH! Whose fists are at my door? I leapt out of my bed and dashed to the door.

"Yes? Um... who is..."

Houki was standing at my door, wearing her characteristic scowl.

"Oh! Um... did you forget something?"

"..."

Houki didn't answer; she just continued to scowl at the ground. My danger sense is going off, like I'm staring at a time bomb with no idea how much time is left... not that I've ever watched anything like that.

"Well? Come in!"

"No, I'll just stay here."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"..."

"..."

Oi!

"Houki, if you don't have anything to say, I'm going to bed."

"OF COURSE I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY!"

Houki just scared the crud out of me. You know, shouting that loud in the corridor will get you a good scolding by the Demon Dorm Supervisor from Hell.

"Ne-Next month, in the individual tournament..."

Next month's tournament is different from the class representative tournament. It's a free-for-all individual tournament – there aren't many special conditions other than separating the students by year. The fact that a personal IS gives a contestant an overwhelming advantage hasn't changed, though.

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"If, if I win..."

Houki blushes furiously and stutters. For some reason, she keeps glancing nervously at me.

"If I win..." Houki's hand shoots out and points in my face. "YOU HAVE TO GO OUT WITH ME!"

"...what?"

I am totally confused. Regardless of what Houki just said, how she said it sounds like a declaration of war! Now if only I knew who she's going to war against...


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