Nobody liked train rides during peak hours, sandwiched between sweaty strangers in a stifling cabin with no room to even breathe. In Ichika's case, stuck in the middle his schoolmates'… spilling assets, earning looks that ranged from jealousy to contempt from the passengers around them. Not helping with how five girls were determined to lock him inside their booby trap.
"Get away from me, you puny Chinese twintail—"
"No, you get your filthy hands off me, you German freak—"
"Stop pushing me; don't get me involved in your stupidity—"
"Your chests have shrunk more the last time I saw you, you cheating crossdresser—"
"Don't get too full of yourself; you Brits can't even cook anything edible to save your life—"
Ichika could only let out a long, exhausted sigh at the ongoing squabble, determined to keep his eyes at the ceiling to hold back the rising heat of embarrassment at how good the softness felt on his arms, his chest, his back…
"Can you girls just shut up already?"
All six IS students turned their heads in the direction of the annoyed speaker close to them, who turned out to be a beautiful lady as tall as Ichika himself with shoulder-length wavy light-brown hair, and brilliant emerald-green eyes that were shooting daggers and the sextet. She was dressed in a full-black, figure-hugging office wear—high-neck blouse, skirt, long stockings that ended with a pair of sensible high-heels on her feet—and a white lab coat over her torso. She had a book in her hand, but nothing was written on the midnight-blue leather cover.
She didn't appear to be much older than Ichika and co. (probably because of the makeup? A dude like Ichika wouldn't know, anyway), yet her voice sounded deeper than expected. The aura of maturity this woman gave off had reminded him of Chifuyu, so much so that he didn't even realize he was gaping at her with awe… and a sense of familiarity. Why did he feel like he had met her somewhere before?
His staring at the drop-dead-gorgeous stranger didn't go unnoticed by the five girls, either.
"I-chi-ka." This was the only time that all of them could agree on something together, grumbling at the guy in question in perfect sync with each syllable. "What are you ogling at?"
"Oh please," the lady snarked, her narrowed eyes moving from one girl to another. "Your shameless display of jealousy in a public place like this is truly unsightly." Her sight finally landed on Ichika. "And you, go grow some backbones to handle your little harem better, instead of being a total disgrace of the prestigious IS Academy." She then looked pointedly at their school uniforms.
The lady did have a point there. Now that the girls were no longer bitching at each other over him, the gossiping whispers around Ichika was able to reach into his ears. Making a scene this early in the morning—what's more, on the first day of the new semester—was indeed a terrible start for him.
"Sorry." He hung his head, scratching the back of his neck with a sheepish grin. "Sorry for being noisy and all."
Seeing how Ichika had to apologize on their behalf, the girls began to reflect on their childishness. "We're sorry too."
"Right," the lady waved off the air of regret that was shrouding around the sextet, the stern look on her face softened, though she still maintained a business-like front. "Speaking of manners, I've totally forgotten to introduce myself. I'm—"
Unfortunately, she wasn't given the chance to finish her sentence.
A sudden jerk threw everyone in the train off balance, sending the passengers tumbling over each other in a series of foot-trampling, body-slamming… and of course, the infamous surprise hug tactic so common in (almost) every romantic shoujo manga that had ever existed.
Good news: luckily for the girls, none of them got the opportunity to fall right into Ichika's arms, which meant that the fair fight over him was still ongoing.
Bad news: because the person whom Ichika was embracing was none other than the lady herself, much to their shock and horror.
To Ichika, it felt like time had suddenly stopped around him: all his senses were completely filled up by this real-life Athena before his eyes. He could only see how alluring her pink lips were, only feel how soft and cool her body was against his, only smell how sweet the lavender scent was with their faces inches apart from each other…
The lady broke the moment with a rough shove at Ichika's shoulder to put some distance between them, smoothing out her coat with a hand. "Thank you," she said in a curt tone, focusing her attention on the panicking passengers in the cabin rather than Ichika's stunned attraction towards her beauty. "Well, well… What do we have here this time?"
The halted skytrain suddenly rocked left and right when something huge and heavy landed on the track above it. Screams of terror ricocheted off cabin walls, which only served to make the situation worse.
"A hijack," Charlotte breathed, her right hand tightened around the pendant on her chest. "But… we can't deploy our IS in such a cramped space…"
"That's easy," Rin piped up with a smirk. She then squeezed her way through the crowd (which wasn't difficult, given her petite build) and reached the window, before turning around to throw an order to the terrified passengers. "Stand back!"
"W-Wait!" Houki yelled after the Chinese girl. "What are you trying to do?"
"This." Without another word, Rin's right arm was covered with a part of her personal IS armor—Shen Long—and she punched through the glass. "Let's go!" And she jumped out of the broken window. A couple of seconds later, she was hovering in the air with her IS fully booted up, all ready to kick some butt.
Laura, who was the most trigger-happy among the five, quickly followed suit and was next to Rin in a blink of an eye in her personal unit, the Schwarzer Regen. "I'm not going to let you take all the credit," she spat at her Chinese schoolmate. "We'll do this together."
"Did I hear someone say 'together'?" Cecilia huffed, storming her way to the broken window. Ichika couldn't help being amazed how the passengers simply move aside to make way for a rich princess—no, a queen-to-be—like her without the need to be told to. "That means you will have to count me—" she glanced at Ichika, Houki and Charlotte, those who were left behind, "—no, all of us in, as well."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." The sharp-tongued lady rolled her eyes at them. "Cut out the stupid declaration bullshit and get going already, for God's sake." And she pushed them all out of the train without waiting for another smartass comment from any of the remaining girls.
"Ahahahaha!" Just then, a shrill voice boomed from above—from the purple-black machine latched on top of the hanging skytrain. "Took you all long enough!" It turned around… to reveal whatever was left of a woman in the middle of the grotesque, bulky IS. "Shiori-tan here is getting bored with all the dilly-dally, so let's get this party started!"
"Who the hell is that?" Laura couldn't help wrinkling her nose at the mad terrorist. "She's hideous."
The woman called Shiori had heard that, loud and clear. Her face darkened as she shifted her armor gear. "I'll make you eat those words, letter by letter, and you can kiss your life goodbye." With another cackle, she flew towards the sextet, drawing a pair of laser shotguns from the compartments on her back.
"But first…" she trailed off, the guns trained on Ichika with a loud click of the safety lock released, ready to shoot with a pull on the trigger. "I'm here for Byakushiki."
Ichika narrowed his eyes at Shiori. While he was aware that there were many people out there who were dying to steal his personal IS for research and development to create the next-generation mecha without Tabane Shinonono, the founding mother who had invented 'Infinite Stratos' (and Houki's eccentric genius sister), but to attack him at this time of the day? On the first morning of a new school term?
First, he had somehow become the first male in the whole wide world who could pilot—and even own—a personalized IS (for many years, only women could operate the mecha); then, he had ended up as a student in IS Academy, an all-girls school. Now, he'd have to fight his way through this insanity if he ever wanted to get out of this alive… and quickly if he didn't want to be late for the first class. Even if Chifuyu was his sister… He shuddered at the thought of having to face her wrath later.
As if his high school life couldn't get any weirder.
Upon hearing that their center of life—the man they all had an obsessive crush on—was the target, it made the girls more fired up to take this bitch down. To protect their Ichika Orimura at all costs.
"We won't let you lay a finger on Ichika," Charlotte said, and no one could miss the icy, killing intent in her violet eyes. "You will have to get past us first." She had her guns of her own unit, Rafale Revive Custom II, aimed squarely at Shiori.
"Hmm?" Shiori smacked her bluish lips, a devilish grin crept across her face. "So, me against six… amateurs. Ooooooh, how exciting." Only to bring out more guns from her armor. A quick count told the sextet there were more than enough to shoot all of them down.
If having six-times-a-dozen muzzles pointed at him and his friends wasn't bad enough, trying to outrun twelve homing rockets per person without harming anyone or destroying any part of the densely populated station area was going to be one hell of a challenge (actually, more like a pain in the ass).
Shiori's attack was effective to keep Cecilia too busy trying to avoid getting hit, rendering her personal IS, Blue Tears, useless to serve as a backup for the team with her long-ranged laser beams. It was the same for Laura too, forcing the German representative to go on the defense with the shield up three-sixty around herself, which prevented her from using her railgun (well, she couldn't use it here, either). Charlotte could manage herself somehow by blasting a couple of rockets in mid-air with her handgun, but she knew she couldn't shoot at Shiori without sending everyone trapped in the halted skytrain to the Great Fall of Horrible Death. She also had to threaten Rin to stop her from trying to fire her blast cannons… because it had the shittiest accuracy among all the firing weapons they had.
Which left only Ichika and Houki, who could fight close range with their katanas, to deal with the crazy bitch.
"Houki!" Ichika called out to her through the comm-link. "Still remember the formation we've been practicing over the summer vacation?"
"On it," Houki replied as she unsheathed a pair of blades from the thigh compartments. She could feel the energy of her personal IS, Akatsubaki, coursing through her mecha, her body… energizing the blade, where it started to glow a menacing red.
The color of blood.
"On my mark," Ichika ordered has he pulled out his own sword, Yukihira Type-2. The only weapon that Bykushiki had, and the only one Chifuyu ever needed to breeze through Mondo Grosso during the height of her fame and career. "Now!"
With a burst of supersonic speed, he charged at Shiori and brought down his blade with gritted teeth, only to be blocked by the woman's Active Inertia Canceler (or AIC in short), who let out a shout of mocking laughter.
"Is that all you can do?"
"Just kidding," Ichika smirked back, but it was too late for Shiori by the time she realized that she had been tricked, not noticing Houki who had advanced behind her quietly and took out a handful of those nasty rocket launchers on the villainess' back with a quick swing of her dual katanas.
"You're going to pay for this!" Shiori's ear-piercing screech forced Ichika to back away, then his cringe turned into horror when the woman's IS shifted gear again.
"I've never seen an IS like hers," Charlotte's worried voice came over the comm-link. "Ichika, get away from her! Quickly!"
Even their instincts were telling them to pull back as Ichika and Houki back off from Shiori, whose IS seemed to be growing bigger… and becoming more revolting than before.
"Oh my God," Cecilia gasped, after she led the last rocket to Charlotte to allow the latter to blast it out of the way. "Her suit is becoming too unstable—she's going to blow herself up with the skytrain! We've got to stop her!"
"How?" Rin roared over the sound of exploding rockets behind her, causing a sharp static noise to spike in everyone's comm-link. "Ichika and that Japanese girl can't get close to the terrorist anymore in that unstable form, and we can't just open fire here as per Dunois' order." She spat out the last bit with irritation.
While the sextet were racking their brains (on top of arguing over the comm) trying to come up with a Plan B, their navigation screen flashed to inform them of more incoming IS.
Ichika sighed. Things just kept getting better and better—
"Student representatives from IS Academy," Ichika nearly lost his flight control of Byakushiki at the sudden booming voice that could be heard throughout the entire station area. "We are the Special Task Force sent here by Commander Orimura. Please stand down and allow us to handle the rest."
Ichika frowned. Who had called for reinforcements? He was pretty sure none of them had sent an SOS to his sister…
While he was mulling over in his own world, the Special Task Force had already neutralized Shiori and her mutating IS in five seconds flat without breaking a sweat.
One hour later_
It was an anticlimactic end, but at least there was zero casualties. More importantly, all of them were excused for being fashionably late on the first day of the new school semester, saving Ichika from another near-death experience from someone even closer to him.
News about the short but dumb—and weird—terrorist attack on the skytrain this morning sure traveled real fast in the campus. He was bombarded by endless questions, praises, and some gibberish he couldn't make out over the chaotic chatter the moment he stepped foot into the academy in one piece, forcing him to duck into a secret shortcut he had discovered in the previous school term to escape from the overexcited girls clamoring over him.
Except that he wasn't the only one who knew about this safe route to get to homeroom far away from the vicious crowd of gossiping girls.
"I-Ichika?" Houki was as surprised as he was when they almost bumped into each other around a corner. She took a few steps back and some deep breaths to recollect herself. "It's pretty crazy outside now, huh?"
"…Yeah." He shuffled awkwardly. "Well… Let's go to class together…" he trailed off, his eyes widened as he peered over Houki's shoulder.
It seemed like the other four girls also knew about this not-so-secret-anymore shortcut.
He swore he could feel a chill running down the back of his spine. Not again.
"Are you lot ever done flirting with each other?" Thank goodness he was saved by a very familiar voice from behind him, putting a stop to the dangerous tension between him and the furious girls. "And you're all blocking the damn way."
Ichika turned around, almost butting heads with the same lady whom they had just met on the train awhile ago. "S-Sorry!"
She raised a finger to his lips. "You need to stop apologizing for every little thing." She sighed, shaking her head. "Because you all are taking your own sweet time having fun with that terrorist's stupidity, I had to call Orimura-sensei in to sort it out before we're all dead."
"You did?" That made sense… but more questions soon followed. She knew his sister? What kind of relationship did they have? Why hadn't Chifuyu told him about this beautiful lady?
"Oh yeah, where was I before I was rudely interrupted when that Shit-ori showed up…" She grabbed Ichika's hand and gave him a firm handshake. "I'm Tsubasa Tokihara, and I'll be working as an IS engineer here starting from today. Pleasure meeting you all."
Ichika and the girls were still too stunned to speak with the lady's intimidating aura pressurizing them.
"Well, what are you standing here for?" Tsubasa crossed her arms before her. "If you don't hurry up, you're going to miss homeroom completely. And you're already very late for class."
Chifuyu was really going to kill him in the end, after all.