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Infinite Stratos Volume 1 Chapter 2: Class Representative Selection Match!

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Chapter 2: Class Representative Selection Match!Edit

"Um… Houki?”

"..."

"Hey, are you still mad at me?"

"I am not mad at you."

"Then why are you still wearing the mad face?"

"This is the face I was born with!"

How can she act so indifferent?

It's 8 am on the second day of school. We're in the first-years' cafeteria, and like before, there are girls all around us. I still can’t get used to the fact that even the staff members are all female (though it's logical).

I’m supposed to be her roommate, so I’m having breakfast together with Houki, but we haven’t had a proper conversation since last night.

My breakfast is of traditional Japanese style, including natto, blocks of salmon, miso soup and mild pickle - very delicious. Maybe we get such great food because of exorbitant taxes. Long live Nationalism.

Houki and I ordered the same thing. Being Japanese, I do feel that having rice for breakfast is the best. Even though I like bread, this salmon hits the spot. The rice is soft and hot - wonderful. An electric rice cooker can't make it taste like this, so was it cooked over a rice stove?

"..."

I glanced over at Houki. She’s still ignoring me. As if to emphasize that she was ignoring me, Houki deliberately picked up a piece of salmon while I was watching.

Never mind, I can handle this. I grew up living with Chifuyu-nee, so I don't get that feeling of “Oh my gosh! I'm living with a girl! My heart is beating like crazy! I'm so nervous!” Besides, I handled Chifuyu-nee's dirty laundry for years, so I'm not going to panic over a piece of girl's underwear.

But then again, maybe my experiences don't matter to Houki. She’s probably unhappy because of my attitude when I saw her underwear, right? But why is she angry?

"I said I'm not angry!"

Did she read my thoughts? She didn't turn her face toward me at all when she said that. Even when our eyes met, she would look away frantically. If it wasn't for her “mad face”, I could believe that the world was peaceful.

"Look! Look, he's the famous boy…"

"I heard he's also Chifuyu-sama's younger brother, you know."

"So both siblings are IS pilots? Is he strong like her?"

Today's the same as usual. The girls keep their distance, but they form a perimeter around me, as if I’m the last cookie in the jar. Everybody wants it, but nobody wants to look greedy. If it were deep-sea fishing, I would be quite a catch... um, that's a pointless example.

"So as I was saying, Houki—"

"Don't call me by my first name!"

"...Shinonono-san."

"..."

Okay, if she won't let me to use her first name, I'll just use her last name. This time though, she could only remain silent. Houki still doesn't like to be called by her last name, huh? Y’know, her name has quite the history…

"O-Orimura-kun, can we sit here, please?"

"Huh?"

I could see three girls holding their breakfast trays as they anxiously waited for my reply.

"Sure, have a seat."

The girl who spoke heaved a sigh of relief. Behind her, two friends that were offering moral support looked delighted. Nearby, quite a commotion erupted.

"Awww, I should have tried to talk to him earlier..."

"It-it's just the second day. Nothing to panic over!"

"Speaking of which, all the girls who rushed into the Orimura’s room yesterday are here as well!"

"WHAT DID YOU SAY!?"

That's right - 8 first-years, 15 second-years and 33 third-years came over to introduce themselves yesterday at break. It's already tough enough to memorize the names in my class. If anyone came up to me and asked “do you remember me?”, I’d only have about a 20% chance of getting her name right. This is too cruel.

My mind should be sharp early in the morning, but I can't even remember three names.

I had barely gotten the words out when the girls were magically sitting across from me. It was only six-seat table. Houki and I were sitting on the side nearest to the window, and they filled up the three seats on the other side. As for the remaining one, I hoped no one would squeeze in.

"Wow, Orimura-kun, you sure do eat a lot in the morning."

"Such a typical guy."

"I'm the type who eats very little at night, so I have to eat a lot in the morning or else I won't be able to make it."

After experimenting for several years, trying all sorts of eating methods, I’ve found this works best for maintaining my health and staying in shape. I learned it from Chifuyu-nee.

"Actually, I was wondering if that’s all you were eating for breakfast?"

The trio, though they had three different menus, all had a drink, a piece of bread and a side dish. A very small side dish.

"U-Us?"

"Yeah, won’t you get hungry?"

Fuel doesn’t cost that much. Don't tell me the reason only girls can pilot an IS is because they starve themselves.

“Oh, don’t worry about us.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine.”

"Because we eat a lot of snacks!"

You'll get fat if you eat too many snacks. It’s not good for your health, is it? They’ll ruin the flower of their youth eating that way. A human starts to “get old” starting at age of 22, right?

"Orimura, I'm excusing myself." Houki stood abruptly.

"Huh? Okay. See you later."

Houki had cleaned her plate and left immediately. Though it was a buffet, she still chose a traditional meal. As usual, she's trying to maintain that samurai image. She’s the picture of Japan's traditional Yamato Nadeshiko. Well, actually, I don't know what qualities a Yamato Nadeshiko should have.

Still, I’m glad it’s Houki that’s rooming with me. I don’t know what I’d do if it was someone I didn’t know.

When I was in first grade, Chifuyu-nee took me to the Shinonono dojo to train. That’s where Houki and I became childhood friends. We were in the same class until 4th grade.

Our parents were out of the picture, so Shinonono’s parents kind of took us in. They’d often invite Chifuyu-nee and I over for dinner. We didn’t have much money back then, so it really helped us out a lot.

In spite of that, Houki’s and my relationship wasn’t that great. In fact, let's say it was terrible. Though we walked the same path – though we were called comrades as samurais - we parted ways shortly after 4th grade.

Things seem so hazy now. I can’t remember much about the past at all.

Never mind, that’s not who we are now. The past is the past, and the present's the present.

"So, Orimura-kun, you and Shinonono-san must be really close?"

"I even heard that you two are living in the same room..."

"Ah, sort of. We're childhood friends."

Though I really didn’t understand what was so significant about that statement, it seemed to spark quite a commotion around us. Some people even let out a “WHAT?”

"Um… does that mean…”

The girl beside me – was it Tanimoto-san? – was just about to ask a question, when a clapping sound interrupted us.

"How long are you going to eat? Pilots have to eat fast and efficiently! If you're late to class, you'll have to run ten laps around the school!"

Chifuyu-nee's voice echoed throughout the canteen, and everyone inside started frantically gulping down their breakfasts. One lap around the IS Academy is 5 kilometers, and if I know Chifuyu-nee she’d make us run every centemeter. I was gulping my food along with the rest of them.

It seems like Chifuyu-nee's the first-year dorm supervisor. As usual, she's not getting any rest at all. As her brother, I'm a little worried, but it should be fine. Nobody knows how to cope with fatique like Chifuyu-nee.

Meanwhile, I can't seem to focus on learning the IS even with a good night’s sleep!

I still have the match against Cecilia next week. Before that, I need to learn how to control the IS.

Hah. Learn to control it…

Studying late last night didn’t help. Before second period ended, my head was already spinning.

With enough practice, people can learn most terminology, but there are some of these terms that are impossible to understand in the first place. It’s like a math problem that can't be solved no matter how many geniuses put their minds to it. Some of this stuff is impossible to understand unless someone can give me an example.

This situation doesn’t make sense to me. When I first touched the IS, it felt like I was familiar with it, with many years of experience, but I really can't understand anything about it by reading the textbook like this. It makes me wonder if I really activated that IS before?

I crossed my arms and stared at the textbook on my desk. Class was back in session. Though Yamada-sensei ended up speechless at times, she continued to teach the students the basics regarding the IS.

"…the IS was originally created for space work, so the pilot is protected by a special shield. Also, the IS has the ability to adjust body functions to keep the pilot in a stable state. It can increase heart rate, pulse, lung capacity, amount of sweat lost, and endorphins, which are amino acids that the brain releases during times of pain, exercise, or excitement…"

"Sensei, is that really healthy? It's kind of scary to think of a machine manipulating my body like that." One of my classmates looked pretty uncertain. It's true that the unique feeling of piloting an IS is uncomfortable for some people.

"It's really not that bad. Everyone's wearing a bra, right? It’s like having that kind of support. It actually helps you rather than causing any adverse effects. Of course, that’s why it’s important to customize your IS, just like having a bra that doesn’t fit your measurements quite…”

Our eyes met, and Yamada-sensei stopped mid-sentence, dumbfounded. After a moment, her face turned bright red.

"Well, that… no, that's… haha Ori-Orimura-kun? I guess you might not understand this... I, I don't know… this example. ah… um… hahaha..."

Yamada-sensei giggled nervously. Her discomfort seemed to spread throughout the classroom, and some of the girls self-consciously folded their arms in front of their chests. Like the mishap with Houki’s clothes yesterday, I don't get all that excited by seeing a girl's underwear. At least, I didn’t. However, I'm surrounded by all these girls and being forced to think about it, and I find myself wanting to see and yet not wanting to see at the same time. It gives me this itchy feeling all over, and my heart just won’t stop racing.

This awful atmosphere hung in the room for another 10 or 20 seconds.

"Ahem, Yamada-sensei, please continue with the lesson." Chifuyu-nee to the rescue.

"Eep! Ah, okay."

Deliberately faking a cough, Yamada-sensei returned to the topic, though she looked like she’d rather crawl into the pages of her book and close the cover.

"Right, well, this is important. The IS has something similar to a human consciousness that can converse with the pilot. In other words, the longer the someone spends piloting an IS, the more the IS understands the pilot's characteristics."

I see. In other words, it means that I can't slack off during training.

"And the better you and the IS understand each other, the more powerful and efficient you become. So instead of thinking of the IS as a tool, think of it as your big, mechanical partner."

Immediately, a girl raised her hand.

"Sensei, when you say ‘partner’, do you mean like a boyfriend?"

"Well, that, mm, I don't really know… I mean, I haven’t experienced that before, so..."

The girls in class ignored Yamada-sensei, who lowered her head as she blushed, and started to chatter about dating and boy/girl relationships.

Is this really what an all-girl’s school is like? I could almost swear I smell petunias wafting through the ventilation system.

Honestly, in this classroom - well, not just in here – everywhere in the school, the air is… sweet. Put hundreds of girls together, with hundreds of brands of perfume (plus whatever girls smell like without perfume), and you get an idea of what every breath is like for me. If I think too much about it, I get sick to my stomach.

"Is, is there anything wrong, Orimura-kun?"

"Ah, it's nothing. Nothing at all."

Yamada-sensei vaguely waved her hand at my response. It feels like someone's staring at me... again.

Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong.

"Ah, now it’s time for some practical training. For the next lesson, we're going to start learning basic IS braking while in the air." The IS Academy doesn’t just teach theory; it’s also in charge of all hands-on training. While the teachers have gone to prepare for our hands-on session, we have a 15-minute break.

"I say, Orimura-kun?"

"Do you have some spare time today?”

"Over here! Over here, I have a question!"

“Do you have some time after school?”

“Do you have any time tonight?"

The scenario from yesterday is clearly over. Once Yamada-sensei and Chifuyu-nee walked out of the classroom, my desk was surrounded by a wall of girls three layers deep. At least half of the girls in class were crammed into an area the size of a desk. Amidst the cacophony of voices, I heard the words “Can't afford to delay this any longer!”… several times.

"Then, uh, please let me say something…"

If I thought my head was spinning before, it couldn’t compare to trying to hold conversations with fifteen girls at once, all of them trying to speak before any of the other girls. While I was trying to get a word in, I saw a girl selling some sort of coupon or raffle ticket. Are you seriously gambling on who gets to talk to me first!?

My childhood friend, Houki, was standing back, watching the chaos. Seems like she's still angry. I really wish she’d talk to me about it so I could understand what I keep doing wrong.

I wanted to ask Houki to teach me about the IS, but I'm already lost. Even if I could wade through this sea of girls to talk to her, it looks like she wouldn’t want to hear anything I have to say. I’ll have to ask later.

It’s only been a couple of minutes with the girls are bombarding me with questions and desperate “hurry up and answer me!” looks, but my head’s about to explode. Now which question should I answer?

"What’s Chifuyu-sama like at home?"

"Well, you might be surprised to know…”

PANG!*

"Break time's over. Scram."

When did she get behind me?! Chifuyu-nee’s the only one who would smack me from behind like that. She's probably doesn’t want me spilling any dirt on her, right? Y’know, Chifuyu-nee, if you keep hitting me so cruelly I won’t need to spill any dirt on you!

"Orimura, I’m afraid it will be a while before your IS is ready for you."

"What?"

"There isn’t an IS available for you, so you’ll have to wait. However, the school will provide you with a personal IS."

The entire classroom started buzzing. I was just confused.

"A personal IS? For a first year!?"

"Awwww, I want my own personal IS."

"Does that mean the government is supporting this?"

What's going on? Why do they all sound so envious?

At my blank look, Chifuyu-nee ground her teeth as she muttered, "Page 6 of the textbook. Read it out loud."

"Um… OK… let me see… 'Today, even though many countries and enterprises engage in Infinite Stratos research and development, all information related to manufacturing the central component, called the core, has never been released. The cores of the 467 IS that exist today were all personally created by Doctor Shinonono. The IS core is effectively a black box, and no one other than Doctor Shinonono has succeeded in manufacturing one. However, Doctor Shinonono has declined to create more than a certain number. As a result, all countries, organizations and enterprises are forced to do their research, development and training with their allotted number of IS cores. Trading of cores is strictly prohibited by Title 7 of the Alaska Treaty...’"

"That’s why having a personal IS is quite a privilege. You understand?"

"Sort of..."

Hum. Let me get this straight.

1. There are only 467 IS cores in the entire world. 2. Only Doctor Shinonono can create the cores, and the she’s not willing to create more. 3. I’ve been given a special privilege, probably because they want to test me like those DNA people.

Now I get it. On a side note, the name “Doctor Shinonono” sounds very familiar…

"Um, sensei. Is the Shinononon-san in our class a relative of Doctor Shinonono?"

The girl trembled as she asked. “Shinonono” isn’t the most common name, so the question was bound to come up.

Tabane Shinonono, the super genius who singlehandedly designed the IS, was Chifuyu-nee's classmate, and Houki's elder sister. Every time I met her, I felt this overwhelming sense of “genius”.

"As a matter of fact, your classmate is Doctor Shinonono’s younger sister."

Hey, Chifuyu-nee, is it a good idea to divulge other people's personal information like that? Since the announcement of the IS, Tabane-nee was placed under all sorts of security – more even than a president or prime minister. Though she's not a criminal, her whereabouts are a closely guarded secret since she effectively controls all IS technology. Almost every government and technology corporation in the world has complained about that at some point or another.

Tabane-nee herself never seemed to mind though...

Tabane-nee always seemed to have a haughty look on her face, like she had a secret. She was a kind, gentle person, though. I guess I could describe her as “a cunning sheep”. On the other hand, Chifuyu-nee's an “honest wolf”. Woah – I can’t think about that too long or the images start rotating in my head.

"WHAAAAAT?! This, this is great! We have two famous people's relatives in our class!"

"What’s Doctor Shinonono like as a person!? What was it like living with a genius?"

"That must mean Shinonono-san's a genius too! Will you teach me how to operate an IS?"

We were supposed to be in the middle of a lesson, but the girls had gathered around Houki’s desk. That makes a nice scene – must be what my desk looked like earlier. Just like me, nobody can help you out.

Speaking of which, has Houki actually piloted an IS before?

Searching back through my memory, I couldn’t think of a single time I’d seen Houki pilot an IS. Besides, Tabane-nee and Houki…

"SHE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME!"

Her outburst cut through my thoughts like a shard of bamboo.

All the girls surrounding Houki had the same look on their face: no clue what was going on.

"Sorry for shouting, but I'm not my sister and there's nothing I can tell you about her."

That threw a wet blanket over everyone’s enthusiasm. Houki turned to stare out the window. The girls shuffled back to their seats, disappointed.

I don’t remember Houki hating Tabane-nee?

Again I tried to search through my memory, and for some reason, I couldn't find any images of them being together. In fact, Houki always refused to talk about Tabane-nee, and if anyone brought her up, Houki would change the subject.

"Then let's start the lesson. Yamada-sensei?"

"Ye-Yes."

Yamada-sensei looked concerned about Houki as well. For once, she actually looked like a professional teacher. The lesson finally started.

I'll have to ask Houki later...

I opened the textbook, still distracted by these thoughts.

"I’m actually pleased to hear you’ll have a personal IS. Now I needn’t worry about you limping along in a training model."

During break, Cecilia came over to my desk and placed a hand on her hip. She seems to really like that posture.

"The victor's already obvious. It would be even more unfair if you were in a training model, though."

Oh, is that so, Cecilia-san? “Why do you say that?"

"Oh my, you still don't know? All right, as a noble, it is my duty to inform a commoner like yourself. I, Cecilia Alcott, am the glorious representative contender for England. As such, I have my own personal IS."

"So, what?”

"Are you making fun of me?"

"No, I bet you're amazing. I just don't know how amazing you are."

"Now I know you’re making fun of me!”

SMACK!* She slapped both hands hard on my desk. Hey, you knocked my notebook on the floor!

"Ahem. Didn’t we just discuss this during the lesson? There are only 467 IS units in the entire world. In other words, people with a personal IS are the elites among elites chosen from the world’s population of 7 billion."

"Is, is that so..."

"That's right."

"Wow. The global population is already over 7 billion!" I said that just to irritate her.

"That's not the point!"

SMACK!* Hey, now you knocked my textbook on the floor!

"I say! There you go making fun of me again!"

"No, no such thing."

"Then why would you say..."

"Oh, hello, Houki. Is there something you needed?"

Houki walked over to my desk. In an instant, a glance passed between us in which Houki silently said “I DON'T WANT TO CARE ABOUT YOU!”

“You're Doctor Shinonono's little sister, right?"

Cecilia stared daggers at Houki, who responded in kind.

"I'm just her little sister."

Um, Houki, are you trying to scare people? That look - that voice - is terrifying. Even Cecilia's uttering an "uuuhhh..." sound. Are you wanting to attack everyone in class?

"Well, ta ta, I’ll be on my way. As for who's suitable to be class representative, beware of Cecilia Alcott."

Cecilia flipped her hair with her right hand as she turned and sauntered off. Every step was a pose – like a model walking the runway.

"Houki?"

"..."

"Shinonono-san, let's go and eat." I was being extra nice to patch things up. I could sense a rift forming between Houki and the rest of our classmates. I couldn’t just leave it like that.

"Does anyone want to join us?" If I pretend everything’s fine, maybe it will be.

"Me me me!"

"I want to go, too!”

"I made my lunch, but I'll go as well!"

Good! Lots of people are willing to join us for lunch.

“Sure! It’ll be great to get to know our fellow classmates, isn't that right, Houki?”

"I think I’ll pass."

"Aww, don't say that. Come on, stand up, stand up, let's go."

"Hey! Hey, I said I'm not going! Let go of me!"

Hahaha, I knew Houki would refuse, so I was ready for this. I need to force her this time so things won’t be weird with our classmates in the future.

"What, you don't want to walk? I’ll carry you piggy-back!"

"Wha...!"

Houki blushed. So help me, she will come along even if she doesn't want to.

"Let... let go of me!"

"Sure, once we get to the cafeteria."

"Let go of me right now! EEE-YAH!"

Houki took hold of my elbow at the center and twisted my arm. Right when it started to hurt, the room flipped around me and I was flat on my back on the floor.

"Owwww…"

A sense of pain spread slowly through my back. All the other girls stared in shock.

"Your technique is sharp as ever."

"Humph. Or maybe you’ve become weak. That’s a little trick from my kendo training."

Of all the girls in Japan, you're probably the only one who's learned all those “little tricks” from an ancient martial art.

"Umm, maybe… we should pass this time.” The girls ran like wild animals exercising the “flight” part of their “fight or flight” instinct. Look what you have done, Houki! I asked them to come with us for your sake.

"..."

After saying goodbye to the ground, I dragged myself to my feet and patted myself clean of dust. Houki didn’t apologize or even show any remorse. She just folded her arms in front of her chest and looked away.

"Houki."

"I told you not to call me by my first name!"

"Let's go eat."

I'm hungry. I grabbed Houki's hand.

"Hey! I told you to let go!"

"Just shut up and follow me." That was pretty cold of me, but Houki actually followed obediently. I should have done this right from the start.

The cafeteria was pretty crowded, but it looked like we could find seats for two.

"Houki, we’re okay, right? You'll eat something, won't you?"

"Don't treat me like a pet kitten. I can take care of myself."

"Hmm… ah! I'll have two daily specials, please. It's salted mackerel today."

"Are you listening to me at all?"

"Sure I am. But what'll happen if you can't make any friends? Your High school life will be lonely and boring, that’s what. Why else do you think I asked those other girls to join us? But you had to go all kendo on me and ruin it."

"I don't remember asking you to take care of me!"

"I don't remember you asking, either. Ah, here we go: two daily specials. Can I leave the meal coupons here?"

I dropped the meal coupons in the collection booth, and then reached for both meal trays with my right hand. What was my left hand doing? Not letting go of Houki. She could escape faster than a Cactuar.

"You know what? I wouldn't do this for just anyone. It's because it's you, Houki."

"Wha? What do you mean?"

"We’re childhood friends and roommates, and besides, I owe your aunt a lot. So at least let me meddle in your life a little bit?”

"..."

Houki heaved an exasperated sigh and stared at the ceiling. I swear, she’s gotten more and more eccentric ever since I moved in with her. No, I keep forgetting – she was always like this. If I'm not careful, she'll disappear into her own little shell and ignore everybody.

"Ergh. Okay, then thank you, I guess.”

The burly lunch lady smiled heartily as she pushed our trays across to us. She seems like a nice person.

"Hey, Houki, are there any empty seats?"

"..."

"Um… Houki?"

Since she didn't reply, I looked over at her. Medusa couldn’t have given me an uglier look. I could almost feel my legs petrifying.

"There're some empty seats right over there!"

She shook my hand off, grabbed her own lunch tray and stomped toward the table. Now what have I done wrong?

I caught up with Houki, and slipped into the seat beside her.

"Um… I’m sorry to ask this, but…"

"Whuff?" Houki’s mouth was full of miso soup. I'll slice up my fish nice and slow so I have time to talk.

"Can you teach me about the IS? The way things are now, I'm going to lose to Cecilia in next week’s match.”

"That’s what you get for letting her provoke you, you idiot!"

Oh, that sounds like a “no”. How depressing! My chopsticks clacked as I clapped my palms together and begged Houki. It's said that once a man admits his faults, he won’t be ashamed to talk about them any more. But it’s also said that “A man is useless if he doesn't want to win.” So, I’m begging, because it’s my only chance to win.

"I know I shouldn’t have let her get to me like that, but please? Please teach me about the IS!"

"..."

Silence. She’s ignoring me. In fact, she’s not just ignoring me, she’s making a point of slowly taking another bite of spinach and chewing ever so carefully. Such a cruel person.

"Um, Houki…"

"Hey, aren't you that person I’ve heard about?"

A girl had appeared beside our table. Judging by the color of her tie, she must be a third-year. The color of the tie varies according to the year: blue for first-years, yellow for second-years, and red for third-years. Her hair is curled up at the ends, which makes her stand out, and she looks really friendly. She reminds me of a squirrel in the park, sitting on its haunches begging for nuts - completely different from this childhood friend of mine with eyes narrowed like a snake’s.

This girl is refined and carries herself like an adult. You see, Houki? Good manners are a must.

"Ah, I probably am."

The senpai casually sat down beside me. She clasped her hands and placed them on the table, and leaned in with her face close to mine.

"I heard that you're going to duel that representative contender, right?"

"Um… yeah, that seems to be the case."

How has the rumor spread that fast? I'd always heard girls love to gossip, but I guess I never really believed it before!

"But you've never flown for real, right? How long have you spent piloting an IS?"

"How long? I guess about 20 minutes."

"You don’t stand a chance, then. Nothing substitutes for spending time in the IS. Your opponent's a representative contender, right? Then she’s spent at least 3 hours in her IS – probably more."

I don’t see why having more operational time makes such a big difference, so I didn't really get what she’s saying. But she's right that I'm doomed to lose to Cecilia.

"Sooo… do you want me to teach you about the IS?" The senpai (I still don't know her name) slipped her arm through mine.

Um… are we having a moment here? No matter what it is, it's a far cry from my childhood friend. Relief was washing over me like a summer rain.

It’s like when the garbage truck pulls up right when I’m on the curb to throw a big packing box away.

"Okay, please—"

Before I could say “please help me out”, Houki cut in.

"No need. I'll be teaching him everything he needs to know."

Houki didn’t have her mouth stuffed with food for the first time this entire meal, and actually went out of her way to offer to teach me? How’s that?

"You're only a first year, right? I don’t mean to be rude, but since I’m a senior I’d be a much more suitable teacher."

"But I am Tabane Shinonono's little sister!"

I couldn’t believe she actually said that. She sounded confident, but the look on her face told me she hated dropping her sister’s name.

"Erk! THE Tabane Shinonono?” The senpai was stunned. That’s to be expected, since every IS pilot knows the name “Tabane Shinonono”, and it must have been quite a shock to be sitting right across from her younger sister.

"So there's no need to bother you."

"Then I guess it can't be helped..."

The affable senpai suddenly became rather awkward. She jerked her arm out of mine, stood, and stalked away. Figures. Dropping Tabane the genius’s name would strike fear into anyone.

"What?"

"You mean… you’re actually going to teach me?"

"That's what I said."

Wouldn't it have been simpler if you had just said that right from the start?

Anyway, at least I've got someone to teach me now. Time to get practicing.

"Today, after school," Houki said.

"Hm?"

"Come to the kendo dojo later. I want to see if you've gotten rusty."

"No, I want to learn about the IS!"

"Just do as I say."

"Um... got it."

Why are so many stubborn girls surrounding me? Maybe it is fate. Good grief.

"What was that!?"

"What was what?”

We were at the kendo dojo after school. Even though it was packed with spectators, Houki was still raging at me.

I lost one set after only 10 minutes, and Houki went on some tirade about “men”.

"Why have you become so weak!?"

"Cause I was studying for exams, I guess."

"What clubs were you in during middle school?"

"The ‘go home right after school’ club! I had three years of perfect attendance."

Well, actually, I went to work part-time to support my family.

"Pathetic. I’ve got to retrain you."

"What?"

"Retrain! This comes before piloting an IS! From now on, I'll train you for three hours every day after school."

"Three hours? How is that going to help me pilot an IS?”

"That's why I said this is a more serious problem!"

Wow, she's angry. Seems like she won't listen no matter what I say.

"How pathetic. Forget the IS; you’re supposed to be a man and you can't even beat a girl in kendo? Aren't you ashamed of yourself, Ichika?"

"Well, I guess I feel a little embarrassed about it."

"EMBARRASSED!? You're thinking about embarrassment at a time like this? Oh, I see! You're happy to have so many girls to show off for!"

Grrrr* No matter how angry she is, there's no reason to tell me off like that.

"How can I be happy about this?! I'm being whipped like a dog here! And to top it off, I have to live with a girl! What kind of farce is…"

"Oh, so now I’m unbearable to live with!?"

SHUAH!* I managed to block her shinai with my own at the last, critical moment. I took off my gear already, you idiot! Are you trying to kill me?

"Calm - calm down a bit, Houki. I don't want to die yet, and aren't you too young to become a murderer?"

Now that I think of it, I singlehandedly blocked the full force of Houki’s assault with just my right hand. Of course, my left hand was trembling like crazy.

"Um, Houki? I'll treat you to something special, and I promise I’ll do better next time, okay? Okay? So… let me off this time!"

"Humph. Spineless."

I finally managed to defuse Houki’s anger, but she glared at me with disdain before heading to the changing room.

Houki’s so much stronger. In the past, I would have won easily.

She had swatted my forearm badly, and it’s aching. Ah, it's all swollen here...

"Gee, Orimura-kun is… well..."

"Rather weak?"

"I wonder if he can really operate an IS?"

Despairing voices from spectators filled the room. Damn it, there's nothing more humiliating for a guy than losing to a girl, especially with this many spectators.

I can't forgive myself, any more than anyone else would.

Right now, I can’t think about competing and winning - not when I can't even protect those close to me.

I just sat there on the floor and sulked.

So, training's about to begin again?

Since I'm on the lowest rung, I can only go up, right? I can't run away from these problems.

…right, got to work hard. I can't falter here.

Maybe I was a little too harsh on him…

Inside the kendo dojo’s changing room, Houki was changing out of her uniform. She kept thinking these same words over and over again.

After six years, two childhood friends finally see each other again, and that’s how I treated him?

She thought over places they went together and the time they spent together growing up, and her heart started to race.

No, that’s to be expected. He's not the kind of person who would push himself, and he clearly hasn't wielded a sword for at least a year, or else he wouldn't have lost to me.

Ichika has gotten stronger in the last six years, and he's so much cooler than other boys.

Erk! That is, I mean… I’m not thinking that. He’s OK looking, I guess.

Of course, he's a lot more mature than 6 years ago. That confident expression he always has on his face makes him seem more manly.

But he gave up so easily. Isn’t he embarrassed to lose like that? Why didn’t he take our fight more seriously? Really!

The more she thought about it, the angrier she got.

What's going on with him? He always trained so seriously in the past, and now he's become so weak. That’s not like a man at all!

Normally, you lose your edge in kendo if you go just three days without practicing. It’s obviously been longer than that in Ichika’s case.

It's not that he lost his skills, but he lost his fighting sense. And regaining that sense takes the longest. A fighting sense is gained through accumulation of experience. It's hard to gain, but easy to lose.

Even so…

Houki removed her ribbon, and silky black hair cascaded down her back past her waist.

He remembered everything about me…

6 years... it's been 6 years since they were 9 years old. Even though her face and her body have matured, her childhood friend knew it was her without even hearing her name.

“Heehee!” That made her extraordinarily happy.

Houki only knew it was Ichika by his name. If his photo hadn't been in the news reports, she probably wouldn't have recognized him. She certainly wouldn’t have known that her childhood friend had become so manly. To be honest, she even admired his physique. The moment she'd heard his name on the news, she dropped the bowls she’d been carrying. Ichika said that he had read about her winning the national championships. Those reports normally don't have any photos. In spite of that, Ichika said, "I recognized you immediately.” He did say that.

Does this mean that it was worth not changing my hairstyle?

It's as if she had placed all her hope on one single, minor coincidence; as if she had been hoping for a wish to be granted. It was a childish thought. Besides, she’s only 15, so it's natural for her to be cautious about romance.

"Huh!?"

Suddenly, she saw her face in the mirror and twitched in shock. "Ohhh…” She sighed, feeling rather embarrassed about that naive expression on her face.

"..."

She stared at herself in the mirror. There’s really nothing special about the look on her face. If anything, it looked like she was trying to hide her own embarrassment, and the only way she could regain her composure was to rearrange her face into her signature scowl.

Anyway, starting tomorrow, it'll be special training every day after school. It'll be troublesome if I don't get him back in shape.

How troublesome would it be? What does “in shape” look like for an IS pilot? Though she hadn't sorted it out, she folded her arms and nodded in agreement with herself.

Besides, that means I’ll get to be alone with Ichika every day after school.

"No! I’m not thinking of it like that!"

Right, she’s just concerned about her childhood friend’s weakness. There's nothing to worry about. There's nothing strange about it at all!

"That makes it OK!” Houki, alone in the spacious changing room, clenched her fist as she shouted.

Week 2, Monday. The day of the match against Cecilia.

"…as I was saying, Houki…"

"What now, Ichika?"

After living together for a week, our relationship had returned to a first-name basis. Maybe the six-year gulf was smaller than we expected. Good.

"Maybe I'm over-thinking this."

"Maybe you are."

But there's still a problem that's not settled yet.

"But what about my IS training?"

"..."

"Don't… you… pretend… to be… looking… somewhere… else!"

Over the past six days, Houki has drilled me extensively on kendo. The problem is, that's the only thing she did.

"That can't be helped. You don't have your personal IS yet, anyway."

"Yeah, you're right… no wait! You could have taught me the textbook stuff and basic operations!"

"..."

"Don't… you… pretend… to be… looking… somewhere… else!" My jaw was so tense I could barely grind the words out.

Regardless, she’s right that I don’t have my personal IS yet. There seems to be quite the furor over my personal IS, so its arrival has been delayed. So here we are, the day of the match, and it has yet to arrive.

"..."

Houki and I remained silent.

"O-Orimura-kun! Orimura-kun! Orimura-kun!"

Did she really need to call my name three times? Yamada-sensei came running to the A-block seating area of the 3rd arena. Her feet moved so erratically that she looked like she was going to tumble at any moment. Everyone looked worried for her, like usual. However, she seems a lot hastier than she normally is.

"Please calm down, Yamada-sensei. Here, take a deep breath...

"Okay, breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… breathe out….

"Okay, stop now."

"Mm."

Sure feels like I'm doing a demonstration here. When I said “stop now”, Yamada-sensei really held her breath. After a while, her face started to turn red due to the lack of oxygen. Can't she tell it's a joke?

"..."

“GASP! Is, is something wrong?"

Seems like she just doesn't know when to stop.

PANG!* "You have to respect your seniors, idiot."

There was a cracking sound of at the back of my skull. I could stand it if the pain was like burping a carbonated drink through your nose, but unfortunately, it was more like having a dumbbell dropped on my foot. That’s what you’d expect from Japan’s former representative contender.

"Chifuyu-nee..."

PANG!*

"Call me Orimura-sensei. Remember that or die!"

Wah! You heard that? I don’t think a teacher should talk like that. You know this brash cruelty is why you don't have a boyfriend, even though you're a beauty.

"Hmph. If I didn't have to take care of this stupid brother, I could already have a boyfriend – no I could have already gotten married by now."

There she goes reading my mind again. Any trick is useless against Chifuyu-nee.

"It's here! Orimura-kun's personal IS is here!" Yamada-sensei said.

Huh?

"Orimura, hurry up and get ready,” Chifuyu-nee said. “We can only use the arena for a limited period of time, so we’ll have to do the customization during the match."

What?

"This is just an obstacle. If you're a man, get past it, Ichika."

"Huh? Huh? Wha..."

"HURRY UP!!" Yamada-sensei’s, Chifuyu-nee’s and Houki's voices overlapped each other. The females around me were all on the same page.

The cargo doors of the base opened with a blunt, hollow groan. Next, the slanted, crosshatched fire doors ground open, gradually revealing the IS.

White. It was snowy white: no decorations, no colors at all. The pure white IS armor was waiting for its pilot.

"This is..."

"That's right! This is Orimura-kun's personal IS, Byakushiki!"

Snowy white and inorganic, this thing seems like it’s waiting for me. It’s just like the last time at the high school entrance exams: it's been waiting. It’s always been waiting for just this moment.

"Hurry and mount up,” Chifuyu-nee said. “We don't have much time, so we’ll do the formatting and fitting during the battle. You'll lose if you can't pull that off, got it?"

I reached out and touched the IS.

"Strange..."

I didn't get the electrifying feeling from touching the IS like I did during the exam. Instead, my mind flooded with knowledge and understanding. What it is, why it exists - I understood it all.

"Lean back. Yes, just like that. You should feel like you're sitting down. The system will optimize itself."

I followed Chifuyu-nee’s instructions and left my body to the IS – to Byakushiki. It feels like someone's riding on me as the armor fits itself to my body and closes up.

The hiss of escaping air sounded as the armor joined with itself and covered my body. It felt like it fused with me, as if it became compatible with me. Like it had been created for me in the first place, Byakushiki and I are “linked.”

My vision seemed to widen and become clearer, like I was seeing at a higher resolution. Then the feeling spread through my entire body. Values, readouts, displays all spread throughout the sensors on my body, and I could understand each and every one of them as if I've been staring at them every day.

“Detecting an IS in standby mode.” The IS seemed to speak directly in my mind. “Pilot name: Cecilia Alcott. IS codename: ‘Blue Tears’. It's a long-range model suit, and has unique armor specifications…

"The high-spec IS sensors are functioning well. Ichika, are you feeling okay?"

Nothing showed on Chifuyu-nee’s face, but I could sense something in her voice. Is she worried about me?

"No, Chifuyu-nee. I'm all right."

"I see."

She sounds reassured. I don’t think I could have sensed those hidden feelings without the enhanced IS sensors.

But she called me by my first name, so I should have sensed it, right?

I secretly focused my consciousness on Houki. I didn't need to look directly at her, since the IS allowed me to see “everything” 360 degrees around me.

"..."

All I could see was that she was trying to say something, but she obviously couldn’t find the words. If it were just me, I wouldn't have been able to sense that, either.

"Houki."

"Wh-What?"

"I'm going."

"Ah... umm… OK! Win this!”

I nodded, then bent down slightly. Byakushiki floated lightly into the air and flew forward, headed towards the control room’s gateway.

clak* clak* clak* clak* clak*

My conscious mind was clear, but behind it I could sense Byakushiki processing tons of data and configuring its primary settings to conform to my body. Each second, Byakushiki was continually changing its own surface and even its shape. If I focused on them, I could see both the software and hardware values reaching extremes I never saw during the entrance exam.

Though it’s fascinating, now's not the time to notice this background processing. I only have 2.05718422 seconds before the doors open - and the “enemy” is waiting out there.

"Oh, so you didn't run away."

Cecilia snorted derisively and placed her hand on her hip, radiating that princess vibe again.

However, I don’t care about that. Byakushiki's sensors don’t have “princess vibe” detection.

Cecilia’s machine, “Blue Tears”, is bright blue and has four unique rear fins on the back armor, making it look royal and knightly.

Cecilia was wielding a large, 2m long gun - Byakushiki's readout told me it was identical to a six or seven caliber laser gun called “Starlight Mark III”. As the IS was originally developed for space activity, it can just float in the sky, so it’s not strange for her to wield a weapon taller than she is.

The arena was 200 meters in diameter, and the time estimate for a shot to reach its target was only about 0.4 seconds. The bell indicating the start of the match had already rung, so an attack will come anytime now.

"I'll give you one last chance."

Cecilia pointed at me with the hand that was on her hip; her other hand casually held the muzzle of her rifle pointed downwards.

"Chance?"

"It's obvious that I'll defeat you overwhelmingly. So if you don’t want to find yourself battered to a pulp and pathetically begging for mercy, I may forgive you if you apologize now."

She narrowed her eyes at me. A voice sounded in my head, “Warning! enemy IS pilot's left eye is in firing mode. Confirmed removal of safety lock.”

I received the flood of information the IS gave me and paused for a split second to sort myself out. If I don't, I might be swallowed up, either by Cecilia or by Byakushiki.

"You can’t really call that a chance!"

"Oh, I can’t? Well, too bad for you!”

“Warning. Enemy IS entering firing posture. Firing mechanism triggering confirmed . Energy shot incoming!”

"Time to say goodbye!"

KA-CHOOM!* An ear-splitting explosion sounded at the same instant that a flash pierced my body.

"Wha?"

Byakushiki's defense system seemed to have protected my body. Though I avoided a direct hit, bits of debris were falling off my left shoulder. An instant later a sonic boom ripped through my left arm, as every nerve in my arm was jolted with something like an electric shock.

Byakushiki immediately activated its servos to drag my arm back, and I managed to end up without any blood loss. Though there was an anti-vertigo function that prevented me from losing consciousness, I did feel a several Gs pressing in on my chest.

“Defensive armor pierced. Damage: 46. Shield Energy remaining: 521. Actual damage assessment: Low.”

Damn it! I can't keep up with Byakushiki’s reactions!

In an IS battle, one contestant wins if their opponent's shield energy falls to 0. But if that happens, only the armor is left to protect the pilot. If the armor is pierced through, there'll be actual damage. This is different from shield strikes, where energy can be redistributed to shore up the damaged areas. Armor damage, no matter how big or small, will end up affecting the battle.

The IS has a last line of defense, called “absolute defense”, which is designed to keep the pilot alive at all costs. It can block any attack, but will drastically reduce the energy reserve. At least, that’s what it said in the textbook, so it must be true, right? Since I was hit on the shoulder, the IS didn’t activate “absolute defense”, probably concluding that “a shoulder isn’t vital; it’s all right if it's blown away.” How comforting.

"Now, let's dance. Dance to the waltz that Cecilia Alcott and Blue Tears are playing!"

Shot after shot after shot. Cecilia’s attacks continued to rain down on me, and they were all so precise, it was impossible to dodge every one. The shield energy continued to drop, and Byakushiki continued sound alerts.

"Weapon! Where are my weapons!?"

Immediately after asking this, a weapon checklist appeared before my eyes… how can I call that a checklist?

"There's only one?!"

The only item on the checklist was something called a “close combat sword.” Please tell me I’m only imagining this! *sigh*

"Well, at least it's better than nothing!"

I chose the close combat sword, helpfully called “name unspecified”, and summoned it.

clang!* With a high-pitched chime, my right shoulder released a ball of light, which shaped itself into a sword right in my hand.

This 1.6 meter long “sword” is my weapon.

"So that’s your plan? To challenge my long-range IS with a hand-to-hand weapon? What a joke!"

Cecilia launched another attack. Though I managed to dodge it, the distance between my opponent and me was a staggering 27 meters. That might as well have been several kilometers. However…

"I will not give up!"

I can't admit defeat. The real battle starts now!

"…27 minutes. You've really hung in there; I'll give you credit for that."

"Thanks..."

My shield energy was down to 67, and the actual damage assessment was at “medium.” Though I'm using my weapon, it's just barely.

"You've lasted longer in an initial match against Blue Tears than anyone."

Cecilia looked like she was praising a dog that had managed to chase down a Frisbee as she stroked the four independent mobile weapons that floated around her.

One of the mobile weapon things had a “BT laser muzzle” installed directly on it. I’m not sure what “BT” stands for, but I’m pretty sure it’s complicated, so they simplified it to “Blue Tears”.

In other words, this is the first IS to be equipped with the prototype armaments called “Blue Tears”, so they named the whole IS after them. Cecilia has been rattling on about her amazing third generation IS for the past 27 minutes - even though I didn't ask. Got to remember to thank her for the explanation.

"But let's end this!"

Cecilia chuckled and raised her right arm, commanding two of the Blue Tears to – bah, it’s too complicated to explain. Suffice to say, two of the BT lasers attacked me simultaneously from different angles.

"Gah!”

The BTs boxed me in from above and below, started to glow, and then fired high-intensity lasers. Regardless of whether I block or dodge them, Cecilia will use the opportunity to fire on me with her rifle. She’s already used the tactic several times.

"I'll take your left leg!"

Damn it! She’s already penetrated my left leg’s armor, so if she hits it again, the 'absolute defense' will definitely be activated and the shield energy will drop to 0. I'll lose.

Looks like a desperate attack is my only choice…

"EEEYAHHH!!"

CLANG!!* Sparks flew as metal scraped metal. I pushed my acceleration to maximum and slammed into Cecilia's rifle, forcing it aside. I finally managed to avoid being hit, at least once.

"What!? You're just messing around, but resistance is futile!”

Cecilia pulled away from me and swept her left hand across her body. In response, the 2 BTs that were on standby came flying at me.

Now I get it.

Dodge past the lasers – swing down with the sword – YES! I feel metal being sliced in half…

Blue and white sparks danced on the BT that was sliced in half, and it exploded. One down.

"How did you…?"

Cecilia was stunned, and I pounced on the opportunity. I flanked behind her and swung the sword down hard.

"Ooooooh..."

Cecilia dodged the attack and waved her right hand. BTs 2 and 3 came after me.

"These weapons will only move on your commands! Also…"

After taking a moment to track their movements, I destroyed the rear boosters on BT2 and it went down.

"…you can't launch any other attacks, because you have to concentrate on the BT commands, right?"

"...!"

Cecilia's right eyebrow twitched. Heh, I've got her! There are only two BTs left, and I can already guess where they're going. They'll attack me from an angle where my reaction will be the slowest.

The IS offers a complete field of vision, but the humans who use it can't “look” behind, below and above simultaneously. Our brains need a moment to processes the information, and Cecilia must be watching for that moment to launch her attack. On the other hand, it means that I can lure the enemy to attack from where I want. The logic is simple; I just need to create an opening, let the opponent attack from there, and launch my counterattack.

This will work! I just need to concentrate.

I gripped the sword in my right hand. The training I did after school with Houki has been unexpectedly helpful. Kendo is basically about the strike, and I haven’t lost the fighting sense I gained from my years of study, even though I am pretty rusty.

Is it just me, or is Byakushiki more agile? You’d expect an IS to perform worse the more damage it accumulates, but for some reason I feel like the response speed is a lot faster than it was at the beginning of the match.

If I can close the distance, I'll have the advantage.

Cecilia said herself that her IS is a long-range type. At a distance suitable for close-range combat, that long rifle is completely useless, and from what I see, she doesn't have any close range equipment.

She might have close-range equipment on “standby”, but if I close the distance fast enough, she shouldn't be able to deploy it in time.

This little ray of hope started my heart racing.

"Ooh...Orimura-kun's amazing!" Maya Yamada was watching the live broadcast of Cecilia’s and Ichika’s fight on the screen in the control room. “I can’t believe this is only his second time in an IS.”

Chifuyu, on the other hand, looked rather irritated.

"That idiot. He’s too worked up."

"Wha? How do you know?"

"See how he keeps clenching his left hand? Whenever he does that, he starts making stupid mistakes."

"Wow! To know that, you really must be his sister!"

Maya hadn’t meant anything by the comment, but Chifuyu was stunned.

"Ye-Yeah. How do I put this… even though he’s a blockhead, he's still my brother."

"Huh? Are you embarrassed? ARE YOU EMBARRASSED?"

CRRRAACCCKKK!!* A bone-crunching crash sounded in Maya’s head.

"OOWWWWWW!!!"

"The one thing I hate the most is to be made fun of!"

"Yes, yes! I know, I know! So please let go of—OWWWW!!!"

Houki was completely unaware of the commotion behind her. She was staring intently at the screen, watching Ichika’s every move. Her normally sour expression became even more frightening. Houki wasn’t a praying type of person, but her hands were folded in front of her in a gesture of supplication. In reality, a storm of emotion was raging inside her.

Ichika…

Houki bit her lip, as the battle shifted again.

Got her.

I entered striking range of Cecilia and swung my sword to destroy BT3. Thanks to the IS’s zero gravity mechanism, I was able to kick BT4 away.

She can’t get a bead on me with her rifle, so this is the perfect time to land a hit on her.

"I've got you!"

Cecilia smirked. Smirked? Damn it! My instincts are telling me to get out of range, but it's already too late.

PAM*

The skirt-shaped armor spread from Cecilia's abdomen, and two sections activated.

"I'm sorry, but there are six Blue Tears!"

I can't dodge them in time! They're not the same as the laser-mounted BTs – they seem to be auto-tracking missiles.

BOOM!*

I was trapped in the center of a white-hot explosion.

"ICHIKA!!"

Houki cried out when she saw Ichika vanish behind Cecilia’s attack.

Chifuyu and Maya halted in the middle of their squabble and looked at the screen in alarm. A screen filled with nothing but black smoke greeted them, and their squabble was forgotten.

"Humph." While the smoke cleared, Chifuyu let out a derisive snort, but the relief on her face was unmistakable.

"The IS saved him. Little twit.”

The clearing smoke seemed like a curtain being pulled back to reveal a new and changed Byakushiki…

“Formatting and optimization complete.” The voice sounded directly in my consciousness. “Please confirm.”

What? What now?

A window appeared in front of me, with a “confirm” button right in the middle. I didn’t know any better, so I pressed the button. After that, a wealth of information came flowing into me.

No, wait! Shouldn’t Byakushiki be processing this information for me?

Somehow, I understood what was going on. I could feel the importance of this transformation.

PING!* A high-frequency sound echoed in my head, but I could sense a gentleness within it.

At that moment, my IS was wrapped in light - no, the ball of light WAS Byakushiki, disappearing and then reshaping itself.

"Is this…?"

The newly-shaped IS glowed dimly, and all the damage from the match was erased in its newly refined appearance.

"Don't - Don't tell me that's your first shift? How could anyone last this long in a match with their IS in a default setting!?” Cecilia was, if possible, even more stunned.

So that’s what the window displaying “Formatting complete” and “Settings optimized” meant: This IS has finally become my own.

I looked at my suit. The harsh lines that were there in the beginning were gone, replaced by polished curves reminiscent of medieval armor.

What had changed the most was my weapon.

“Close range enhanced sword Yukihira Nigata.”

The blade seemed more like a katana than a European longsword. There was a shallow groove on the blade itself, which glowed with a sense of expectation. It was so powerful and intricate, it could only be a sword for an IS.

Most important was its name: “Yukihira Nigata”. That's what Chifuyu-nee’s weapon was called: “Yukihira”. Apparently, this sword is an upgraded version of Chifuyu-nee’s weapon.

"I really do have the best sister in the world."

No matter how far I look back, whether it's three years, six years ago, or even fifteen years ago, Chifuyu-nee has always been there for me. However, I think it's about time to change the relationship. It’s time for me to stop needing protection. From today onwards -

"I'll be the one to protect my family!"

"What are you blabbering about?”

"I’m saying I'll defend Chifuyu-nee's name! It’ll look lame if her brother’s a candy-ass weakling."

I'm the younger brother of Japan’s former representative contender and a world champion. How can I let the cool, aloof Chifuyu-nee lose face? OK, maybe the occasional joke, but there’s a limit. Besides, at the moment, nobody’s laughing.

"Ahh! You’re such a pain!"

The two BTs reloaded themselves with guided missiles, and Cecilia ordered them toward me. It's another multi-angle attack, trying to catch me in a crossfire, and they're faster than the laser-type BTs. However—

“Too late! I’ve already seen them!”

I clenched my right hand. Yukihira Nigata seemed eager to commence the attack, as it vibrated with a deep mechanical hum. I already know how to use it, since I watched a few of Chifuyu-nee's matches without her knowing, and I remember how she used the Yukihira.

SHING!*

The blade split along its glowing line, and a blade of light stabbed outward. With a flick of my wrist, the new blade flashed, and the BTs speeding toward me were cut in half, and passed by harmlessly before exploding.

I rode the shockwave from their explosion forward to attack Cecilia. The suit shot forward, and I could sense everything around me so much clearer than before. Byakushiki seemed to know my thoughts, and was much easier to control.

"OOOOWWAAAAAHHH!!"

File:IS v01 120.jpg

The energy pulsing through my sword hand became steadily more intenase, and Yukihira’s blade glowed brighter, eager to unleash its power.

“Yes! I CAN WIN THIS!”

I charged right at Cecilia, and swung with a reverse kesagiri.

…but just before the attack landed, a buzzer sounded, signaling the end of the match.

"Match concluded. Winner: Cecilia Alcott."

“What?” I was shocked.

"What?” So was Cecilia.

And it wasn’t just us. All the spectators in the 3rd arena, including Houki and Yamada-sensei, who were watching the match from the control room, felt the same. Everyone was simply shocked.

Only one person - only Chifuyu-nee – seemed to understand. She was wearing that “I can't stand you right now” look.

For some reason I didn’t understand, the match ended.

I lost.

"Everyone was actually rooting for you, and this is what you gave them! You... gigantic... idiot!"

After the match ended, Chifuyu-nee upgraded me from an idiot to a gigantic idiot. Not the kind of upgrade I was hoping for. She never was one to mince words.

"You lost because you didn't consider the impact your attack would have on your own IS. Now you’ve learned the hard way, haven’t you? Starting tomorrow, I expect hard work out of you. Activate and control that IS every spare minute, got it?"

"...Yes."

I nodded. What else could I do? I guess I deserve it after I followed up all my bravado with such a spectacular loss.

"The IS is in standby mode right now, but if you call it, it'll deploy right away. However, there are quite a few rules and regulations that go along with having your own IS, so please study this closely.”

THUD* Yamada-sensei dropped a book in front of me, and it landed with a “thud”. A deep, ominous "thud". The cover says it’s about the IS, but it sure looks like a phone directory - for all of mainland China. Not only is it miserably thick, the pages are extra thin. How many pages are in there, anyway??

"That's it for today. Head back to your room and rest."

Chifuyu-nee doesn't consider anyone's feelings at all when she gives an order. I really hope that she can learn some compassion someday – like from painkillers or even antidepressants. Why did I ever think I needed to protect her?

"Let's go."

Another heartless person appeared at my side: none other than Houki, my childhood friend.

My bones creaked as I stood and started trudging back to the dorm.

"..."

Houki was staring at me as we walked slowly back to the dorm.

"What?"

Did she just discover some treasure? Am I that treasure?

"Loser."

Huh? What's with her!? You're like an evil priest avatar in a role-playing game, who revives a character with only one health point before sending him into a deadly labyrinth. I’ve heard the old saying “there’s a devil within everyone,” I just didn't expect to witness it firsthand.

This is like a bad novel: turn to a new chapter, and the plot starts to unravel. The enemy suddenly becomes an ally, and the enemy you join forces to fight turns out to be your former assistant – who’s already dead. To top it off, the world's fate rests on you and the clock is ticking, and your enemy turned ally is moving in on you - no wait, don't come near me!

"DON'T COME NEAR ME!"

"What?"

Did I say that out loud?

"Nothing..."

Houki's glaring at me, so I better not say anything else. Didn’t the author say, “The most important things are what the eyes cannot see.” So, I should just put this down in my journal: “April 9th: Dear, Diary, today Houki glared at me.” Mark in on the calendar so I can celebrate “Getting glared at by Houki Day” or something like that.

"Are you making fun of me in that head of yours?"

"Where did you get that from?"

"What’s with your tone of voice?"

"What about it? It’s not weird or anything. This is perfectly normal – everybody speaks like this… in South America."

"Ohh..."

Her shinai magically appeared in her hand. I didn’t even know she had it with her. Are you really going to swing your practice sword around here in the middle of campus? Houki, didn’t Chifuyu-nee tell me to rest? Kendo training is different from resting! I can't call it resting if I have to do some activity.

SMACK!*

"OOOOWWWW!!! THAT HURTS! YOU, YOU, WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?"

"I’m just knocking on the airhead to see how hollow his skull sounds."

She’s speaking so casually, she could have said, “I’m opening my umbrella because it’s raining.” What makes you think you can keep using violence like that? Where’s a cop when you need one?

"What are you anyway, the envoy of violence!?"

"Want me to go again?"

"...sorry, I'll shut up."

Houki slid her shinai back into her bag with a hiss. She's scarier than Mount Osore... Well, Mount Osore isn't really that terrifying. (TN: Literally “Mount Fear.” It's a volcano in the center of the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, Japan. The Bodai Temple near the crater’s lake is considered one of the three great spiritual fields.) Houki and I walked on silently. It's not that we have nothing to talk about, I'm just really depressed by today's defeat, so I have nothing to say to her.

At the moment, all I really want to do is to take a shower. The feeling that comes from lazing around in a bathtub just can't be found in any other activity. I mentioned that to Dan Gotanda once. He called me an “old man”. He really doesn't get the beauty of a silent simplicity.

Speaking of which, don't I have someone like that walking beside me right now?

Houki might be able to understand that feeling. Though, honestly, if I were to introduce her as someone from the Edo period, 60% of people would believe me, even though I made it up in my own head.

"Ichika."

"Hm, what's up?"

Is she actually talking to me? Did she read my mind and know what I was thinking about her? That would be really convenient – way better than a cell phone, and I wouldn’t have to pay monthly bills. How alluring.

"It’s just… well... Are you unhappy about losing?"

"Of course I am."

"Is, is that so? That's good..."

Since when is that good? Are you talking about me losing? You're too much!

"Then, s-starting tomorrow... um… you’ll have to start some intensive IS training."

Why was she trying to sound so courteous? Is that a note of distress I hear beneath the courtesy...?

"So are you still gonna teach me how to control an IS?"

"I, I don't intend to force you! Wouldn't you prefer Chifuyu-sensei to teach you?"

"No, it would just annoy Chifuyu-nee, and I don't want people to misinterpret it as favoritism."

"How, how about getting a sempai to teach you? The seniors could teach you lots of things, and it's important for you to learn as quickly as possible."

I thought Houki would try to change the subject, but these leading questions are just weird. And why does she keep glancing at me? It seems like she's waiting for something.

"Ok, I get it. Since you don’t want to, I'll just look for someone…"

"I DIDN'T SAY I DIDN'T WANT TO!"

She’s scary, shouting out all of a sudden like that. I kind of shrank back from her. Houki seemed to notice that she was too fierce, and immediately pulled herself together.

"Then... ahem*. I-Ichika, do you want me to teach you?"

"Of course I do! That’s why I asked you to begin with.”

It would be so much easier to learn from a friend I’m comfortable with instead of having other girls teach me. Besides she's Tabane-san's little sister, so she should understand ISs pretty well, right?

"Oh, is that so? Heehee! I see. I guess I have no choice then."

Why is she so happy all of a sudden? Did something good happen? She started playing with her hair again, continually flicking her long ponytail with her fingers.

"All right, since these are special circumstances, I hereby agree to teach you about the IS.”

For some reason, it felt like she emphasized the words “special circumstances” quite a bit. Truthfully, I'm really grateful for it, though. If I were to continue losing to girls, my male ego would shrivel and die. Though, honestly, it's already halfway there.

"Starting tomorrow, I want you to be waiting for me after school, okay?"

"Okay."

Since there are no clubs I can join (they're all girls' clubs), this is perfect.

I can't stand smearing Chifuyu-nee's reputation like that. No matter what, I have to get stronger.

"Oh yeah, Houki."

"Hm, what is it?"

Since she's still in a good mood, I have honest question I've been wondering about.

"Have you been holding it all this time? I mean, do you need to go to the bathroom?"

SMACK!* The shinai caught me between the eyes.

drip* drip* drip* drip* drip*

Hot water flowed from the shower head, landed on her skin and flowed down the curves of her body. Her figure was unusually well-proportioned, a fact Cecilia was really proud of. Her long legs were silky and beautiful, so much so that they could compete with a model’s, if not beat them outright in a beauty contest.

Though her breasts were a little smaller than other white girls her age, they served to emphasize her figure. She had conflicted feelings about her breasts: both wishing they were larger, but also pleased at how they accentuated her other curves. But then, compared to most Japanese girls, they were more than enough; they could even be called big.

Cecilia let the water cascade down her breasts as she pondered, lost in thought.

File:IS v01 129.jpg

Today's match…

She still didn't understand why Ichika's shield energy dropped to 0. However, if he had struck her with that last hit, she didn’t know what would have happened.

She went into the match so sure that she would win, and she fought her best. Yet, there was a real risk that she would have lost, and Ichika was so amazing, the bewilderment made it impossible for her to relax.

I definitely won...

Winning just didn’t satisfy her; on the contrary, it made her uneasy.

Ichika Orimura…

The unrelenting look in his eyes haunted her. His determination contrasted with Cecilia's own father.

Daddy would always give in to Mommy's whims...

Having married into a wealthy family, her dad must have felt extremely inferior to her mother. Growing up, Cecilia always thought, “I don't want to marry such a useless man.”

After the IS was introduced, her dad become increasingly depressed. Her mom must have been so disappointed in him that she eventually stopped talking to him.

Her mom was always an impressive woman. Even before society became “women-strong-men-weak”, her mom had managed numerous companies, and was an accomplished businesswoman. Though she was extremely strict, Cecilia had always respected her a lot.

Yes - “had”. Her parents were no longer alive. They had died in an accident three years previous.

Why were her parents together on that particular day? They had been working at their separate jobs, hardly seeing each other for weeks prior. To this day, she didn’t know what had brought them together on that fateful day.

Though there were some conspiracy theories early on, the accident investigation concluded foul play was very unlikely. It was a cross-border railway accident with more than a hundred causalities.

Just like that, her parents were torn from her, never to return. She would never see them again.

Time flew after that. Cecilia had a vast inheritance, and in order to protect the money from those who wanted to hoard, launder, or con her out of it, she threw herself into her studies. During an IS suitability test, which was part of her curriculum, she got top marks. Hoping to encourage loyalty to her country, the government made all sorts of generous concessions, and in order to protect her parents' inheritance, she agreed. Cecilia was chosen to be the first test pilot of the 3rd generation IS prototype, “Blue Tears”. In order to get the best possible education and battle experience with the IS, she came to the IS Academy in Japan, and then…

…then she met Ichika Orimura. She met the ideal man, with those determined eyes.

"Ichika Orimura…"

She called out his name. Unbelievably, she felt a warmth swell in her chest.

Her heart was pounding, unbridled. Unconsciously, she reached up and gently stroked her lips. The pretty, moist lips that she was so proud of quivered with excitement, desiring to be touched: a feeling warm and sweet, saddening yet delighting.

What is this feeling?

Her chest was overwhelmed with this… longing.

I want to know.

She wants to know what's behind this feeling – to understand its true identity.

I want to know. I want to know - about Ichika.

Only the sound of flowing water echoed through the bathroom.

The next morning during the student homeroom meeting, something unexpected happened.

"Then, the representative of class 1-1 will be Ichika Orimura-kun. Ah, it sure is nice to have a “1” for everything!" (ED: “ichi” – the first four letters of Ichika’s name – means “one” in Japanese.)

Yamada-sensei was delighted, and the girls squealed with pleasure. I was the only one in the dark.

"Um… Sensei, I have a question." I raised my hand.

"Please ask away, Orimura-kun."

"I lost the match yesterday, so how did I become the class representative?"

"Well, because…"

"Because I stepped down!"

Cecilia stood up commandingly and put her hands on her hips. She's radiating that princess vibe again. Though, honestly, I barely noticed. What’s really on my mind is - why did she resign? She seems rather emotional this morning... no, wait - she's always like that. She doesn't seem angry like she was yesterday, though. In fact, she seems to be feeling rather happy. But… why?

"Even though you lost, what other outcome could there be since your opponent was me, Cecilia Alcott!"

Erg! As irritating as she is, I can't argue, since I really did lose.

"I have reflected on my actions, and was quite ashamed for being so childish, so…”

So?

"…so I decided to let Ichika-san be the class representative. Practice combat is really the best way to improve your IS piloting, and as the class representative, you will have lots of battles."

Oh, thanks for giving me the burden. Wait! Did she call me by my name? That's weird.

"Ooh, Cecilia's really thoughtful!"

"That's right! Since he's the only male in the whole school, our class has to give him our full support!"

"Not only can we can gain valuable experience with Orimura-kun, we can sell his data to other classes! Having him in our class can kill two birds with one stone!"

Didn't I tell you not to cut deals like that already? What kind of person would sell out her classmate like that?

"Ahem… Therefore…"

After coughing a few times, pretending to clear her throat, Cecilia placed a hand on her chin. This is a new gesture for her; is there some special significance to this? I feel like it means something, but I just don't know what it is.

"…if an outstanding, graceful, elegant and perfect person such as myself were to tutor you in your piloting, you would definitely improve much fast…”

SMACK!* Houki leapt to her feet, slamming her hands on her desk in the process.

"Sorry, but Ichika already has a tutor! He already asked me directly."

Uhhhh - what's going on? Houki sure emphasized “me” when she said that, and then glared at Cecilia with intense hatred.

Houki, Didn't I already tell you that those eyes could scare the fangs off a vampire!?

But for some reason, Cecilia looked rather smug about Houki’s reaction. That’s a complete reversal from last week, when she actually seemed scared of Houki. Cecilia took Houki's glare head on and stared right back.

"Oh my, class C pilot Shinonono-san has a question? Is there something you wanted to ask of a class A pilot – namely, me?"

"This... this has nothing to do with level! I was asked specifically. Ichika begged me for this!"

I didn't exactly beg.

"Huh, Houki's class C?" Oops. Did I say that out loud?

"I said that it has nothing to do with level!"

That was directed at me. Oh, boy, something else I have to smooth over with Houki. On a side note, apparently I received a class B ranking. Even so, Chifuyu-nee did say that this is the initial ranking from our first attempts in the training suit, so it's not really significant.

"Sit down, you idiots." PANG!* PANG!*

I don’t know how Chifuyu-nee moved so fast, but she appeared to smack Cecilia’s and Houki's heads simultaneously.

As you might expect from the Japanese competitor in the first Mondo Grosso, the terror Chifuyu-nee can cause dwarfs Houki. Both girls could only sit down dejectedly. Dreadful and dejected: it's really interesting to combine those two things together. (TN: A pun here. Dreadful (凄味, sugomi) and dejected (すごすご, sugo sugo), which is why Ichika found it interesting.)

PANG!*

"WHAT ARE YOU GETTING ALL WORKED UP ABOUT?!"

Chifuyu-nee hit me with the attendance book. Chifuyu-nee, do you realize that’s a hardback book? I certainly know it now. In fact, I’d say the cover is made of iron.

"Your precious levels are like arguing over which bit of trash stinks less. From my perspective, you’re all birds of a feather. No – not birds – eggs of a feather! Don't go boasting about your superiority before you’ve even hatched!"

It seemed like Cecilia wanted to protest Chifuyu-nee’s harsh words, but she wisely kept her mouth shut.

"I didn’t think I’d have to point out that even representative contenders have to learn everything from the beginning. Some would say it's a privilege of youth to bicker over something so trivial, but unfortunately for you people, I'm in charge, so you better respect each other more."

So Chifuyu-nee's pulling rank on us? That's really unexpected. She isn’t usually the kind of person to fall back on position, like some snooty noble who always complains that the food tastes bland.

I don’t know why I thought of this right now, but since I'm living in the dorm, how will Chifuyu-nee take care of the house? No one will be living in it, right? I guess I'll have to go back on weekends. Speaking of which, has Chifuyu-nee been doing her laundry properly? She always asked me to help her wash her laundry in the past. I wonder if she’s remembering to put her – what do ladies call it? – “intimate apparel” in the laundry net. If she were to wash everything together and damage her undergarments, she would be the one angry. You’d think at 24 years old, she would have learned to do her own laundry.

PANG!*

"You're thinking of something rude, right?"

"No, not at all."

"Is that so?"

PANG!* PANG!*

"I'm very sorry!"

"That’s better!"

What kind of upstanding citizen always resorts to violence? This defies all logic!

"The class representative will be Ichika Orimura. No one has any objections, right?"

"No, ma’am!" Everyone replied in unison (except for me). I guess unity is a good thing.

Of course, it would be even better if it was also good for me. That's just my opinion.


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