Chapter Fifteen

Ichika calmly lifted his left arm, the physical therapy required for the finer movements paining him visibly. Gross, sudden movements were easy to make, but the finer ones weren't. He could pull a trigger, but he couldn't hold the gun leveled without a prop.

This made Laura unhappy, for some reason, but Tatenashi was instead quite pleased with the result. Or Katana. Was her name really Katana? Who'd ever call their child 'Katana'? Well, she was a weapon against Phantom Task, so to be born as a weapon probably justified using the name of a warrior's weapon.

The Infinite Stratos Academy's Gym was normally devoid of girls. The IS by themselves did not require a fit pilot, and as long as they watched their diet, the girls weren't actually required to put in any gym hour. Piloting skills took precedence over physical ones, and the laps to run as stretching were more than enough to keep the pilots fit.

As he lifted the weight once more, he concentrated on the movement his arm and muscles made, ignoring the sudden stabs of pain that rushed across his skin. The First Years tournament was just around the corner, and he had barely managed to get most of his movements back.

Dakutaipu requesting Pilot Ichika's Input. Should I Execute a Phosphorous Shower?

Ichika sighed, and softly whispered back, "No."

The reason he said that was mainly due to the amount of girls that was now using the gym. Well, more than using, actually sitting around the equipment with eyes in his directions, gazing, and 'oh-ing' and 'aw-ing' at each of his movements. He could swear he now understood how a piece of meat felt at the market. It was nothing to be happy for.

"You not done with the set yet, Ichika?!" Laura snapped. "You putting up a show for someone or what?!"

Ichika winced, and then chuckled as murmurs spread around the girls, making Laura growl a bit more.

"Laura," Charles said. "Don't be so hard. He shouldn't even be out of bed yet."

"Thanks Charles," Ichika said with a smile on his lips. "But she's right," he added. "I should be faster than this."

"Ohhhh~ A love triangle!" a girl exclaimed from the crowd.

"Enough!" a voice barked, belonging to Houki who appeared through the crowd, walking stiffly and with a glare that could kill people just fine, rather than the wooden training sword she had in her hands. That too could kill people actually. One just had to aim for the eyes, or hit the head hard enough.

"This is a gym! Either use the facilities or get out!" Houki barked. She was scary enough that by the time she was done, the gym was once more deserted.

"Why don't they listen to me, but hear her out?" Laura asked, before staring for a moment at the wooden sword. "I have a gun."

"I don't think it's about weapons," Charles said gently. "More like, they don't think you'll deliver?"

Laura frowned. "Why not? I have a gun. I am a trained military operative. I can break your neck in five different ways without breaking a sweat. I am more dangerous than her," Laura said, shocked. "She's what? A kendo champion? I can gun her down from more than a mile away."

Ichika chuckled, while Houki neared with both eyebrows raised. "Really! Is this something normal to talk of? Who's stronger?"

"Not who's stronger," Ichika said. "Who's more capable in delivering death," he looked at Houki, and then at Laura. "I'd give the victory to Dakutaipu though," he said, eliciting a pleased beep in reply from his neck. "But her aside, I'd think it would be even between Tatenashi and Laura."

"That's not normal conversation," Charles said softly. "Has anyone seen a movie recently?"

Houki caught up to the argument, but Ichika just sighed.

"What about me?" a voice asked, and Ichika turned just to catch a glimpse of Rin going past the girls.

"You?" Laura asked, a snort rising to her lips.

"Yes, me," Rin said with a prideful undertone. "I have military training, you know?"

Laura blinked. "You?" she asked. "Do you even pass the height requirement?"

Rin growled softly at Laura. "I've not been chosen as the Chinese representative cadet because I have connections!" she narrowed her eyes at Laura. "Want to battle it out?"

"You think China's worst can compare to Germany's best?" Laura retorted hotly.

"What makes you think I'm the worst?!" Rin exclaimed.

"Because you're pint-sized. They don't even serve beer to people like you in Germany, more like kid's milk!"

"Ouch," Ichika winced. "That's a low blow."

"Hey!" Rin yelled, this time at Ichika.

"Ops, sorry," Ichika said hastily. "I didn't mean to."

Dakutaipu requesting Pilot Ichika Input. Who would win in a straight-up match to the death between the Insufferable Rabbit and the Chipmunk?

"Play nice, Dakutaipu," Ichika whispered.

The abrupt tension was suddenly cut, as Ichika stood and deposited the weights on the rack, before wiping away the sweat from his forehead using his right arm. Yet, it returned almost immediately.

"How about we have a go right now?" Rin snapped at Laura.

"Please, I don't bully children," Laura replied.

"Why you!"

"Hey!" Charles said suddenly. "Why don't we do something else?" he suggested. "Like, going out for a coffee?"

Houki blinked. "A coffee?"

Rin and Laura bristled.

Ichika frowned, and raised an eyebrow. "We can do that?"

"There are coffee shops inside the academy," Charles said, as if pointing out the obvious. "There's a cinema, why shouldn't there be? There's also an aqua-park."

"Ah," Ichika said, and blinked once, a puzzled expression on his face. "I forgot for a moment."

"What?" Houki asked. "Ichika, what did you forget?"

"Nothing important," Ichika said with his voice calm and controlled, as he shook his head.

He had forgotten. There weren't soldiers at the academy, but 'sports' pilots'. The IS Cadets would do 'sports' in the academy, and then learn how to wield the weapon properly back in their countries, after the training was over. They'd train in the Russian steppes, or the American's soils. They'd practice hidden in the mountains, or deep below the ground.

Phantom Task knew where the pilots received their military training -it was how they knew where to strike to recover cores.

Laura was a soldier. Tatenashi was a soldier. He had a few doubts on Rin's training, but she probably hadn't lied about having done at least some military service -wasn't it compulsory in China anyway?

Charles and Houki on the other hand hadn't, really. Of course, the IS made most training moot, taking care of a lot of things and being so easy even a first-timer could fight on equal grounds with a practiced expert, but there were still...finer points, to it.

"Have you already found a partner for the tournament, Shinonono?" Charles asked Houki, who shook her head.

"Then would it displease you to be mine?" Charles said with a soft smile, making Houki blush.

Ichika raised an eyebrow at that. Charles was...well, he was a pretty boy. It made sense for Houki to blush, right?

And he had been polite about it.

"I'll be going with Cecilia," Rin said primly. "We'll kick your asses, you just watch!" she lifted her right fist and waved it in front of Laura's face.

"Then I will show you just why China's a second rate country when compared to the might of Europe's strongest," Laura drawled out.

Sparks sailed in the air between the eyes of the two.

"Isn't it Italy leading with the Tempesta-Duos model?" Charles said softly, and yelped at the glares leveled by both Laura and Rin.



"Nationalistic fervor is nice and all, but," Tatenashi said with a smile as she appeared, fan in hand with the words 'Russia Number One' on it, right next to Ichika, linking arms with him. "I'll go ahead and have tea with my vice-president. He needs a stern talking to for what's about to come!"

"Hey!" the girls exclaimed. "That's-"

Tatenashi smiled as a thick white mist spread suddenly; it covered the gym in a dense fog, which lifted only after they had disappeared.

Ichika flatly looked at Tatenashi, holding a cup of tea within her hands. They had arrived through the president's IS to a nearby cafe, which was probably a gross misuse of the IS' true potentialities.

On the other hand, the staff had apparently been waiting for them.

"So," Tatenashi said. "Did you miss me?"

"You are a strange woman," Ichika said. "And no, I didn't miss you."

Tatenashi pouted, before her lips curved into a cheerful smile. "How would you like to have a bit more of rope?"

"So that I can hang myself with it?" Ichika replied.

"Muh, don't think like that!" Tatenashi chided him, opening her fan with the words 'Shady Proposition' written on it. "The deal's solid, you can trust me!"

"I don't think it's you I shouldn't trust, but those you work for."

"I work for no one, I'm just the one best suited for offering you this sweet, sweet deal!" Tatenashi said with the smile still on her face. "You see, some nations found out the hard way that their IS could be remotely deactivated with the push of a button! And they didn't like that at all, you see? So, here's the way it's going to be, if you'd like it, of course."

Ichika inclined his head to the side, but nodded, keenly listening.

Tatenashi opened a fan with the Russian flag on it. "You deliver to a certain country the means to prevent such a 'forced shut down' and they will put pressure so that you can have a bit more of space, my comrade."

Ichika raised an eyebrow. "And why shouldn't I go to another country with that information?"

Tatenashi closed her Russian fan with a snap, and sulked. "Do you want little old me to betray my country? They told me I absolutely must acquire that information!" she brought a finger to her shirt's upper buttons. "Maybe we can find another deal? You're at that age, aren't you?"

Tatenashi smiled sultrily. "How about something more...special?"

Ichika raised an eyebrow, and began to drum his fingers on the cafe's table, watching the small waves made by the tea within his cup. "Another nation," Tatenashi unclasped her front button, to reveal the edge of yet another fan -so that was where she kept them- and grasp it. This fan had the American flag on it. "Is willing to execute the same amount of pressure to get your leash loosened a bit. They've already pushed a bit on the entire thing to let certain arguments down, but you know how it is with you being such a wild stallion around the academy..."

Dakutaipu mood set to 'Angry'. The new call sign of 'Mysterious Lady' is 'Bitch In Heat' as in 'About to be Heated with Plasma'.

"You know I'm more of a free spirit," Ichika replied with a shrug.

"I know," Tatenashi sighed. "I know, Ichika," she said softly. "But the time for games and mercy's over with. There are more pressures on me than you can imagine. There's no more time," she bitterly gave him an awry smile. "You can choose either of evils or take them both head-on. But it's going to get worse the more you oppose this in the end. They will, eventually, get what they want. It's just a matter of time."

"I could always escape and return to my job," Ichika dryly remarked.

Tatenashi shook her head slowly. "Maybe, maybe before you could have stood a chance. Now? You'll be shot down the moment you try to break the atmosphere. I'm sorry. The most I can do is give you until the end of the tournament to come up with a decision. Once that's done with however, you'll have to choose. Or they'll acquire the information another way."

Ichika sipped the tea in front of him as Tatenashi stood up and walked away, her expression sober.

He had forgotten.

He wasn't in a vacation resort. He was in a prison with golden bars.

And in the end, they were tightening the screws to wring out whatever they could from him.

To acquire a strategic advantage.

To cease the Cold War the IS had brought forth, and finally obtain an undisputed ruler of the world.

For he who controls the IS controls the world.

That much had been true since the White Knight incident.

His left arm hurt him with a sharp jab over the shoulder, and as he massaged it in silence, he began to think.

He had little precious time.

And he could no longer waste any of it.