Akiyama Yukari felt her back stiffen in surprise at the soft voice behind her and her cheeks slowly reddened in embarrassment. Had her current position been any less compromising, she would have been delighted to exchange greetings with her beloved Nishizumi-dono. However, with her body stretched out on the grass (keeping a low profile to avoid detection), a pair of binoculars held to her eyes (taking full advantage of the vantage point atop a hill), and her face black and green from camouflage paint, Yukari must have looked like a dangerous pervert on the lookout for new prey. This was far from what Yukari wanted Nishizumi-dono to think of her. She had to fight an internal battle to tear the spying device away from her eyes and give up the only thing helping conceal the expression on her face.
Yukari leapt to her feet, hastily shaking off any dirt that might have gotten stuck to her khaki shorts and jacket with one hand, hiding the binoculars out of sight with the other. Something in her mind finally clicked and she realized what exactly went wrong in her carefully-crafted plan. Nishizumi-dono showing up in the park at this time was within her predictions, of course. Yukari had been the one to invite her friend and commander in the first place, delighted that Miho agreed to spend her precious day off from school with just the two of them together. But Yukari had wrongly assumed Miho would be coming from the south-east standard, the direction the girls always took when coming here from school. Obviously enough, Miho took the shortest route from her apartment instead and approached Yukari from behind. So much for Yukari's superior vantage position, camouflage and scouting equipment.
"A wonderful day, isn't it, Nishizumi-dono?" Yukari rattled off at machine gun speed, not giving Miho the time to return her greeting "Did you happen to see anything unusual on the way here?"
Finally tearing her gaze and hands away from her now clean clothing, Yukari went on to admire the oak tree to her left and the fluffy clouds above – anything that would allow her to avoid eye contact with her friend.
There was a moment of awkward silence.
"Nothing much… I think?"
Miho responded with an underlying note of doubt in her voice. But this, Yukari knew, was just her Nishizumi-dono being considerate. It was not just the issue of whether Yukari apparently spying on the local populace was enough to qualify as "something unusual" or not. If Miho had come from Yukari's behind, she must have passed no more than a few meters away from the Panzer II Ausf. E/F Yukari had hidden in the bushes not far away. Camouflage paint notwithstanding, Nishizumi-dono would not miss her favorite tank type parked in the middle of the neighborhood. It was reasonable to assume Miho knew it was there. And she probably also knew that Yukari knew. This being Nishizumi-dono, she probably even suspected that Yukari knew that she knew, and decided to keep quiet about it out of courtesy.
Every second that that followed felt too long, much too heavy to bear as Yukari raked her brain for a way to salvage what was left of her plan.
Anyway, I'm glad you could come! That was what Yukari intended to say. But as she finally plucked up the courage and faced Miho for the first time that day, the words died in her mouth. A sudden gust of wind swept through the park, as if to fill in the silence. But it was not the wind that robbed Yukari of her words.
Nishizumi Miho, the friend and commander whom Yukari knew so well, looked different today. Her knee-long white skirt fluttered lightly in the breeze. The blue stripes on her shirt seemed to melt into the sky above. Yukari suddenly realized how rarely she had seen Miho in anything other than their school or sensha-dou uniforms. In her casual clothes, Nishizumi-dono appeared warmer, kinder, even more of a wonderful girl than usual.
And along with this realization came an overwhelming surge of two conflicting emotions. First was the sense of near-comical inadequacy, as if she and Miho were playing out a twisted version of the Lady and the Tramp. On the one side Akiyama Yukari, her face smeared with paint, her attire better suited to trench-digging than hanging out with friends, a girl who could not even make a single friend before high school or pull off a simple surprise. On the other side, Nishizumi Miho, gentle and kind, but hiding the unmatched power which had brought a small school like Ooarai ever higher in the nationals. They were like heaven and earth, too distant from each other to ever be connected.
But no sooner than this feeling of insignificance encompassed her, Yukari felt an even more powerful impulse bursting through to the surface – the need to act, to do something, no matter how pitiful a struggle it might be. The two girls were infinitely far away. But at the same time, right now, there was no more than a few meters between them – a distance which could disappear entirely if one of them took a few steps forward, a distance little more than where an outstretched hand could reach. Act! Clumsily, stumblingly, just act! Because there was no more foolish a choice than throwing this moment away.
"Nishizumi-dono! Please wait a second!"
Looking straight into Miho's eyes and seeing the Nishizumi give back a weak nod, Yukari sprinted past the other girl and towards the tank hidden in the bushes. She allowed herself not to think about how jumping over assorted greenery was not the most graceful thing she had ever done in front of Miho. Leaving reservations behind, she focused on the task at hand. She jumped onto the tank, climbed to the hatch with two quick steps, and was slipping inside a second later.
To Yukari, the interior of the tank smelled different from how a true tank should. The fragrance of oil and iron, while still present, was unusually thin. This was not a genuine, combat-capable tank to begin with, but a rental unit intended for use in parades and the like. The redesigned interior offered enough space for Yukari to keep a neatly-folded change of clothes and a bottle of water to clean her face with, but she had already decided to leave the items be. The damage was done – there was no use making Nishizumi-dono wait any longer than necessary. Renting the thing out cost Yukari two weeks' worth of her part-time job salary, and she would make it earn its due.
Yukari sat down in the driver's seat and set the tank moving in reverse and out of the bushes. Of course, it would be perfectly possible for her to just drive forward and trample over the shrubbery in her way. But leaving lasting property and terrain damage when driving a tank outside of an officially sanctioned match was not only bad manners, but also the fastest way to get your tank license taken away. And Yukari would sooner die than get lectured by the police right in front of Miho.
As she rounded the corner and drove out into the open, Yukari kept stealing glances at her friend. Miho followed the enclosing tank with her eyes, a questioning look on her face. Yukari slammed the brake a few meters before the other girl. She climbed out of the driver's seat and began moving the tank's main gun, not giving herself the time to start doubting again.
Miho watched in puzzlement as the gun slowly spun in her direction. With the gun's line of fire passing a safe distance above Miho, there was no fear she would be in the way of any projectile it might release, even if the panzer were a fully operational tank. But Miho understood less and less what this meeting, which had at first seemed like a simple invitation for a walk in the park, was all about.
With the gun trained above Miho's head, Yukari took her hands off the controls. She climbed up, opened the hatch and peeked out of the tank, leaning forward and supporting herself with both hands on the outside armor of the turret. She caught Miho's gaze and did not let go, taking away the option of escape both from herself and her friend.
A deep breath.
Before, Yukari was afraid, really afraid that she would back down after getting this far. But now the momentum of the instant carried her forward, stripping away unnecessary thoughts.
"I'm happy I met you, Nishizumi-dono!"
Miho could only blink at the abrupt declaration. But the raw emotion behind it was compelling, demanding an answer in return.
"Me too, Akiyama-san!" Miho raised her voice to make up for the distance between them "I'm happy I could meet you!"
A smile came unbidden to Yukari's face, and she let go.
"Thank you for inviting me to the team!"
"Thank you for never giving up!"
"Thank you for putting up with a weirdo like me!"
"Thank you for being my captain!"
"Thank you for always being kind!"
Those were the feelings Yukari wanted Miho to know, but had lacked the courage to express. But no more.
"Nishizumi-dono! Thank you for being there!"
Thank you – the simple words Miho wanted so badly to hear. Not because she carved the attention or recognition, but because she had spent a year running away from her guilt and doubts. And Ooarai, the acceptance and support from the friends she found there, was her salvation.
In the end, Yukari's words were too sudden and her smile too powerful for Miho to be able to respond immediately. But she could think. And even if those thoughts did not find their way into words…
Thank you for cheering me up when I feel down.
Thank you for keeping me strong when I feel weak.
Thank you for helping me out when I make mistakes.
Thank you for your smile.
…even if she did not have the strength to say those things out loud, if eyes were truly the window of the soul, Yukari would understand.
Akiyama-san, thank you for being yourself.
And then there was a momentary pause, a stillness between them, disturbed only by the gentle wind. But it was a moment of transition, no longer of hesitation. Yukari released Miho from her gaze, moving her eyes upward to stare somewhere between the sky and the treetops.
"You know, I thought the world ended right then and there. With that last blast against Black Forest Peak, I thought there couldn't be something more exciting, more incredible waiting ahead. So I thought I would be satisfied, whatever the result." Yukari let out a chuckle. "But it seems I'm greedier than I thought. I have nothing to offer but want more for myself. Silly, isn't it?" Yukari pushed against the turret, straightening out. "But I thought, Nishizumi-dono is so kind, maybe she can accept even a greedy girl like me?"
And without a moment's pause, Yukari flashed Miho a smile and disappeared once more inside the tank.
A second later, the park resounded with the thunder of a tank gun going off. But the sound was not as loud as it should have been, and Miho felt no shell whizzing above her head. The Nishizumi instinctively shielded her eyes from any dust or debris which might be coming her way. But that instant of apprehension soon gave way to surprise.
Miho felt a softness descending on her hands, the sensation starting in one place and then spreading out rapidly, as if somebody was pouring feathers over her head. But Miho opened her eyes to see not the white of feathers, but the red of roses, the yellow of tulips and the blue of forget-me-nots. Surrounding her was a veritable storm of flower petals, an undulating whirlwind of color with her at its center. The petals of all shapes and sizes fell at different speeds only to rise up again with the slightest blow of the wind. Some of them rested on her hands and head, tickling her with their velvet softness. Others spun right before her eyes and twisted away before she could follow, as if in a childish game of "it".
And as Nishizumi Miho reached the peak of her bewilderment, Akiyama Yukari emerged once more from inside the tank turret to look down at her handiwork. The flurry of petals was vibrant and beautiful, chaotic and imperfect. That was fine. It was fine even if Yukari could not offer Miho perfection.
Yukari called out to her friend and commander with a wide smile on her face.
"Please go out with me!"