When the sun rose Monday morning, Kaede was feeling significantly better about her situation than she was going into the weekend. The night she spent with Maki was calming and reassuring, and even though she had grown to love cheerleading, she was still looking forward to getting a free pass that week and being allowed to relax on a Friday afternoon.
And then she was given plans for Sunday when Maki invited her to go on a field trip with the kids. It was an invitation extended immediately after Shuichi had left the lunch table, and Maki almost seemed hesitant to tell her about it. "Oh, you mean I get to meet the kids from your orphanage?" Kaede's eyes lit up at the prospect. "I would love that, Maki! If we go somewhere with a piano, maybe I can play something for them while we're at it."
Maki looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "But your wrist won't be better by then, will it?"
Kaede shrugged. "I could go easy on them. Play something nice and simple like Der Flohwalzer."
"Sure," Maki said with a smirk. "I suppose we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."
Despite the free afternoon on Friday and the plans she had with Maki the Sunday after, the temptation to watch practice was there, if only because it would mean getting to watch Maki in action from a distance for once. In fact, as practice got closer, she had a strange feeling that she would want to sit in on it. It was a feeling in her gut that told her something important would happen and that she would want to be there for it.
It was a bit of an off-putting feeling, but she followed her gut regardless and headed to the gym alongside Maki once the last class of the day let out. Maki didn't question it at first, since it was just a matter of habit at that point, but about halfway to the gym, she started questioning things. "Wait, what are you doing? You should be going home," she said, assuming Kaede was also just following the motions that had become so ingrained in her over the school year.
Kaede shook her head. "Nah, I decided to sit in on practice today. It would just feel wrong if I wasn't there, you know?"
Maki didn't exactly want to argue about her girlfriend being present, so she shrugged it off.
It was then that Miu passed them, basically scrambling to get to the gym. "Whoa, where's the fire?" Kaede asked, noting her unusually frantic pace. "You're not late or anything."
Miu didn't even slow down. In fact, it didn't even seem like she'd heard her.
"Weirdo," Maki mumbled, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
When the couple arrived with Kaito in tow a couple minutes later, they saw Ophelia and Miu huddled around the latter's phone in the middle of the gym. Hearing the doors to the gym open, Ophelia snapped to attention and glared at Kaede and Maki. "Girls," she said curtly. "Would you mind?"
A lump formed in Kaede's throat, and she could tell Maki was just as freaked out as her. "What d'ya need, coach?" Kaito asked, following them as they nervously stepped closer to her.
"Not you, Kaito," she snapped. "Go change." Her tone of voice scared him into scurrying off into the locker room, leaving just Kaede, Maki, Ophelia and Miu standing in the middle of the gym. "Would you like to explain what Miss Iruma is showing me right now?"
The look of glee on Miu's face was unsettling, and she gladly turned her phone to show Kaede and Maki the video playing on it.
"Alright, but if you need anything at all, just let me know."The sound of Maki's distorted, recorded voice sent shivers down their spines, and the video itself was a shaky shot of Maki and Kaede in the locker room the week before.
"Will do. Thank you, Maki." The camera zoomed in on the two girls as their lips met, and the shot held for most of the kiss. As they separated, the video cut and started to loop, at which point Miu paused the video.
Ophelia's gaze held, and she watched the girls' faces contort into various expressions of anger, outrage, and despair. "So?"
Kaede started stuttering something, but she couldn't form any words. Meanwhile, Maki just silently glared at Miu, multiple violent thoughts going through her mind. "Girls," Ophelia snapped, knocking the girls out of their trances. "You do realize what this means, don't you?"
Kaede was still dumbstruck. "Wh—Miu, how could you—but I..."
"Because you two were breaking one of Ophelia's only rules, and I couldn't let you get away with it," Miu spat. "Be thankful I didn't record the other nasty shit I heard you do! Instead of exposing that, I used it as a clue to be watching the locker room extra close when you two were alone there."
"That's enough," Ophelia sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. "I can't say I approve of the methods used here, but the point remains. You two have blatantly broken one of my biggest rules. What made you think that was okay?"
Maki remained silent, but Kaede couldn't bring herself to mutter much more than a nervous, "um..."
Ophelia shook her head. "Let me ask this again. You know what this means, don't you? I can't continue to have you two on this squad if you're going to disregard my rules like this."
Kaede looked over at Maki, and immediately a wave of regret, guilt, and anger washed over her. "O-Ophelia, please, the school year's almost over, and..."
Ophelia's nostrils flared and her eyes went wide. "I can't simply overlook this just because the year's coming to a close. You had a strict guideline in place and you couldn't follow it to the letter! Effective immediately, you are both off the squad, and you won't be receiving any credits it has to offer for this school year!"
Those were the words Kaede was dreading. Her heart shattered the moment the words left her mouth, and she felt like collapsing right there. She was just over a month away from graduating and going on to do great things, but after all this struggle, she would be held back for this?
Held back?! For this?!
The instant she thought the words, she wanted to puke. She felt like the shards of her broken heart had fallen down and punctured her stomach. She slowly looked over at Maki to see that she was violently shaking, hands curled up into fists. Her eyes weren't watering like Kaede's, but it was clear they could burst at any moment.
Now Kaede felt selfish. Not only had she dragged down her own chances of graduating, but now Maki was going to suffer for it, too. The words she had said about cheerleading echoed around her head. This was the only use of Maki's athletic abilities that had ever made her happy, and now she was on the verge of losing that, too. What if breaking this rule became a part of Maki's reputation, dooming her from ever pursuing a career path like this?
The girls were about to lose everything, and it was all because they couldn't keep their hands to themselves.
Ophelia had turned to leave, but Kaede reached out and grabbed her sleeve. "Ophelia, wait," she said. "Don't punish Maki for this."
Maki snapped out of her anger and looked to Kaede with wide eyes. "What?"
"Maki's been in the squad for four years now, and she hasn't broken a rule once," Kaede explained. "It was my idea to start dating while we were still on the squad, so I'm the one who broke your rules. Don't punish Maki for my mistakes."
Ophelia's expression softened. It was evident she didn't want to be so harsh, which was probably why she relented. "Alright," she said quietly.
"Wait, no!" Maki took a step forward. "Kaede, this is the last credit you need to graduate!" Miu and Ophelia were visibly taken aback by this level of emotion coming from Maki.
Kaede shook her head. "I can handle another year. It's my own fault, after all. I don't want to be the reason you're missing out on doing something you love."
Maki clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling the sob she let out. "But..."
Kaede turned her attention back to Ophelia. "Do we have a deal? I'll leave right now and never come back during a practice again. Just let Maki stay."
Already convinced, Ophelia nodded her head. "Okay. My one condition is that Maki and Miu sit out this practice."
Miu's face fell. "Wait, why me? What did I do?"
"Consider it your punishment for eavesdropping," Ophelia said. "Now all three of you, get out of here. I have a squad to instruct."
With that, Ophelia turned and stormed off, leaving the three girls staring at each other in a daze. The tidal wave of emotions Kaede was riding on turned to anger, and if looks could kill, she and Maki would have obliterated Miu on the spot. "I hope you're happy, Miu," Kaede spat. She grabbed Maki's hand and lead them out of the gym before she could get a response.
"What were you thinking back there?" Maki snapped once they were out of the gym. "You're going to get held back for an entire year because of one credit?"
Kaede didn't turn to face her as they marched through the mostly empty halls of the school. "I don't care, Maki. I did this to myself, and I'm going to suffer the consequences."
Maki took her hand from Kaede's grasp, forcing the other girl to turn and look at her. "Well, I do care! About you. I don't want everyone to leave you behind just because...because of me."
Kaede took a deep, shaky breath. She could barely handle looking at Maki without bursting into tears. "And I care about you, Maki," she said quietly.
"But you didn't have to sacrifice your graduation for me," Maki insisted. "At least let us suffer together."
Kaede shook her head. "I'm sorry, Maki. I caused all this, so let me take the punishment. I'll see you later? I'm busy tomorrow, but..."
Unable to control her emotions, and unwilling to break down in public, Maki just pushed past Kaede. "I'll just see you on Sunday," she said quickly before making herself scarce.
Kaede had no idea what to make of that. She supposed it didn't matter at the moment. Perhaps Maki would come around once things had cooled down.
Until then, she had some news to break to her parents.
If Maki had it her way, she wouldn't have ever left her house again, except to rip Miu's lungs from her chest. Oh, the ways she vividly imagined hurting Miu were enough to make the most hardened serial killers blush. She knew she could act on them, too, because she was a master of murder without getting caught.
Still, there was always the chance, and she would rather not have more blood on her hands than absolutely necessary. In fact, she had a very important role in a plan to hopefully make sure she would never need to kill again. Ideally. She was still wary that the Yakuza would call her up to repay her debt to them, but really, what was the difference between them and the Holy Salvation Society? Whichever thumb she was under, it wouldn't make a difference to her. The other children at the orphanage, though, would never have to worry about going through what she did if the Salvation Society was disbanded, so she ultimately hoped for whatever would mean the best future for the kids.
She had volunteered to be a chaperone on the Easter Sunday field trip to a religious exhibit at a museum in the middle of the city, but once there, she could easily see that the entire staff of the orphanage was present, so her and Kaede didn't really need to be there. In fact, she kind of wished Kaede had bailed on her, because the awkward air between them was too heavy to ignore. At least, it would have been under different circumstances.
The fact that so many adults were there was unsettling. Had they been told they wanted to be far away from the orphanage that day? Who would have told them? Did the cult members anticipate a raid that day and tell them to stay away? If they knew what was coming, Shuichi's well-laid plan was sure to fail.
Maki had to do something.
It could have been Kaede's anxiety rubbing off on her, but Maki was a bundle of nerves at the museum, even with her girlfriend next to her. About an hour after the children had gotten distracted by the stuff on display, she excused herself as silently as possible. Outside, she started running through the city for the orphanage, using back alleys that she knew all too well to make the trip faster.
She could hear the sounds of gunshots and sirens echoing through the alleys and bouncing off the buildings, and it gave an otherwise peaceful, crisp morning a thinly veiled feeling of dread. As she ran, she slipped her jacket off her shoulders and unsheathed her knife from its holster on her thigh. She wanted to keep her involvement in this a secret, so she cut enough fabric from her jacket to slip over her head, making sure to poke some holes for her eyes.
Her long pigtails would be a dead giveaway for her employers, but perhaps they would think she came to help? As she ran physically, she mentally ran several different game plans through her head, accounting for every possibility.
Or, what she thought was every possibility. As it so often goes, the one she didn't account for was the one that ended up actually happening.
It took Kaede no time at all to notice that Maki had disappeared. At first, she thought she had simply moved forward in the group of shuffling kiddos, but when she didn't see any long, dark hair ahead of her, she realized Maki had left the group entirely. They had just taken a bathroom break, so the odds of Maki being there were low, so where could she have gone off to? Kaede also left the group, her meandering search for Maki taking her outside to the front of the building. She looked around, taking note of distant, unfamiliar noises in the city air. They weren't the usual sounds of city life, aside from the sirens in the distance, so she didn't know what to make of those sounds. "Maybe she just didn't want to see me today..." She wondered aloud to herself.
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the wind carried a scrap of cloth out of a nearby alleyway, catching her eye immediately. She scooped up the piece of clothing and followed the alley it came from. When she found several more just like it fluttering in the wind, she could immediately tell that they were pieces of Maki's jacket. "What happened to Maki's jacket? What happened to Maki?"
Feeling a spike of anxiety in her chest, Kaede broke out into a sprint, chasing the floating pieces of fabric down a couple of alleyways until she had collected most of them. By the time she'd run out of pieces to grab, she had mostly caught up to Maki, catching a glimpse of her hair as she whipped around a turn. She tried to call out for her, but her voice caught in her throat as those sounds from earlier rang out again, but much closer than last time.
Now, Kaede could tell they were gunshots.
And Maki was running right for them.
She knew it would be a better idea to turn back and trust Maki to be able to handle this situation, but the idea of something happening to her was too much for her to bear. The next time she caught a glimpse of her girlfriend, she was felt with the same vague feeling of dread she'd felt almost eleven years ago. The same gut feeling that something bad was about to happen, and she just needed to get out of there…
But again, there was the back of someone she loved, walking straight toward this perceived danger.
"Never again," Kaede grumbled to herself, picking up speed. When she caught up to Maki, they were behind a clean, white building. The sounds of gunshots were even louder now, and even in the mid-morning light, Kaede could see the red and blue lights of the cop cars parked in front of the building bouncing off their surroundings and the playground in the building's backyard. Could this have been the orphanage? Before she could wonder about it further, she watched Maki, face covered with what was left of her jacket, vault over the tall fence, brandishing a knife with one hand and holding onto the fence to steady herself with the other.
Kaede ducked into the shadow of a nearby building, knowing that seeing her here would cause Maki to stop in her tracks. Once Maki had her back turned, she started to peek out, but a voice called out, giving both of them pause.
From the back entrance to the building came a voice, calling the girls' attention to the dark figure standing in the doorway. "Something told me you would try to get involved today, Maki."
"Let me in," Maki demanded, stomping toward the house.
The other person stepped outside as Maki came closer, and as they closed the distance between each other, their voices got quieter, making it harder to hear their conversation. From that distance, Kaede could see the silver hair the other person wore and the glint of steel in her hand. Was a fight about to break out?
The woman blocking the entrance shook her head. "I can't let you interfere. We're stopping these monsters today."
"I know," Maki said impatiently. "I'm trying to help. I know where they're holed up."
This seemed to surprise the other woman. "You're...here to help?"
Maki nodded. "Now let me in."
The woman paused, but eventually let her through, grabbing a radio from her belt. "I've got backup coming in," she said into the device. "Don't shoot the girl with the long, dark hair."
Kaede only picked out bits and pieces of this conversation, but once it looked like both of them had disappeared into the building, she approached the fence. She looked it up and down and examined the chain links, humming to herself. "I think I can climb this," she said. She took a few steps back and started her pre-routine stretches, removing her wrist brace in the process. Was this a terrible idea? Most certainly. And could it go terribly wrong? Absolutely.
But she felt like she had to.
Once she felt suitably limber, she ran at the fence and took a leap. She slammed into the fence at a much lower height than Maki was able to hit it at, but she quickly climbed upward. It was a much less graceful attempt, but in moments, Kaede was over the obstacle and in the yard. She broke out into a sprint, heading toward the orphanage's back door. She reached for the handle, but it swung open, revealing the same woman Maki talked to.
However, she was much less welcoming to Kaede. She brought the sword at her side up to Kaede's face, pointing it at her threateningly and stopping the blonde in her tracks. "Who the hell are you?" She demanded.
Kaede didn't know how to respond to that, and the sounds of sirens and gunshots all around them were putting her more on edge. "I...I'm in love with the girl you just let through, and now I'm going in there to protect her!"
She felt a lot less cool saying that out loud than she felt thinking it, but the other woman clearly didn't care about her wavering confidence. "You're not going anywhere near here," she said coldly. "Now turn around and leave."
Her serious tone was causing Kaede to waver, but she shook her head. "I can't. I have to help her!"
The woman didn't budge. "I'm here to make sure nobody gets in or out of this building. The only reason I let Maki through was because she knows this place better than anyone. Leave."
Suddenly, another volley of gunshots rang out, and she craned her head around to make sure nobody was approaching. Kaede saw an opportunity and she took it. The sword at her face lowered ever so slightly, so she clenched her fist and swung downward, knocking the sword out of the woman's hand. The sound of it hitting the ground was drowned out by the sound of gunfire, and before she could even realize what had happened, Kaede was running past her, further into the building. "Wha—wait!" The woman grabbed her radio again, speaking into it as she knelt to pick her sword back up. "There's a civilian in the house, be very careful!"
This was the stupidest thing Kaede had ever done, but she couldn't think about it as she ran through the building, looking around desperately for any sign of Maki. She came skidding to a halt near the front of the building when she saw Maki standing just inside, surrounded by police officers. They didn't seem to notice their new visitor, instead focusing on Maki's instructions. "...And in that room, there's a false bookcase leading into their bunker. They probably know the exit's blocked, so they'll be prepared to fight back."
The police officer closest to her nodded. "Alright then. They still trust you, right? Can you go in and tell them you're there to protect them? They'll let their guard down and we can bust in after that."
Maki's face was covered by her makeshift mask, and her eyes betrayed no emotion as she agreed to the plan. From where Kaede was standing, she could see that Maki had this more under control than she had expected, and now the anxiety of getting herself into this situation was starting to get to her.
She had determined that it was time to turn back, but before she could, someone had grabbed her wrists tight and pulled her close to them, causing her to squeal and catch the attention of Maki and the police. As the group in front of her whirled around to look at her, she felt something hard and cold press against her temple. "Nobody move!" A voice from directly behind her sounded. "If you don't want this girl's brains painting the wall, you'll do as I say."
Maki was frozen in place, eyes wide. "K-Kaede..."
Everyone stopped moving, and the man with a new hostage started backing away from the scene. As they backed off, he leaned in and whispered in Kaede's ear. "I don't know where you came from, girlie, but just help me get away and I won't kill you. Probably." She could only whimper in response, so the man turned his voice outward again. "You'll regret this, Maki! We're going to get out of this, and when we do, we'll remember your treachery."
Maki was rooted in place. The police around her were at a loss for what to do as well. Everything was silent as Kaede was dragged farther away from the group. Her wrists were aching from the man's tight grip, and the gun pressed against her head felt like it was digging into her skull. Then, she caught a glimpse of another man. He was dressed in pure white robes, with a hood obscuring his face, so he stood out from her perspective, but he was behind Maki and the police, so they didn't see him. Kaede didn't know what to make of him until he brandished a knife and took a step closer to Maki.
It was still a tense, silent moment, but the tension was palpable, and it was easy to tell that even the slightest motion out of turn would set everything off, for better or worse. But, since she could see Maki's attacker, Kaede had to be the one to do it.
Kaede lurched forward, groaning as though her stomach was aching. The man seemed caught off guard by this, so the instant the gun wasn't pressed against her head, she screamed, "Maki, behind you!" and quickly whipped her head back, bashing his face with the back of her head. In that instant, the silence shattered. Maki whirled around, delivering a roundhouse kick to her attacker's face and sending him sprawling out. This scattered the police, and they darted for where Maki told them to go, one of them staying behind to cuff the man behind Maki, and another stepping closer to Kaede and her attacker.
Kaede, her wrists free, whirled around and started trying to wrestle the gun from the man's hand. He was stronger than her, but he was clearly off his rhythm, so while she couldn't snatch it from him, she was able to knock it from his grip and send it skidding across the floor. She heard Maki tell her to duck from behind her, so she dropped to her knees in time for Maki to take a leap and kick the man in the chest, taking the air out of him and knocking him to the ground. The second officer there rushed to pin and cuff him while Kaede got to her feet and threw her arms around Maki.
Maki was not in the mood for hugs, though. She grabbed Kaede's shoulders and held her at arm's length. "Kaede, what the fuck are you doing here? Do you want to die?"
It was a phrase said many times in jest, but this time it was deadly serious. "I-I thought you might be in trouble, so I followed you and...and..."
Maki sighed and shook her head. "We'll talk about it later. Get out of here!"
"But you might need my help!"
Maki raised her eyebrows and looked at Kaede like she was genuinely stupid. "Have you ever fought someone in your life?"
Kaede gulped and shook her head.
Amidst the chaos, the girls could hear the clashing of blades at the other end of the building. Maki let go of Kaede and turned around. "Sounds like Peko's fighting someone. I need to help. Go somewhere safe."
Maki marched off, the knife in her hand at the ready.
Kaede knew what she needed to do, but when she looked at the discarded, forgotten handgun on the ground that had been pointing at her minutes ago, she made a vital decision.
Maki reached the back door to see Peko engaged in swordplay with a member of the cult, and despite Peko's mastery of the sword, it seemed to be an even match. Maki tried to sneak up on him and slit his throat while he was distracted, but the instant Peko's eyes darted to her, he was onto her. He spun around and swung at Maki with his sword, only missing because she ducked out of the way. He didn't seem all that bothered about being outnumbered, and Maki knew his samurai-style sword could easily outreach her knife, so she needed to come up with a plan. Since she was already close to the ground, she decided to kick out and try to sweep his legs out from under him, but he jumped to avoid it and slashed downward with his sword as he came back to the ground. Maki rolled out of the way and jumped to her feet while Peko engaged him once more.
She closed in on her target with intent to kill, but he effortlessly whirled around and disarmed her. The knife flew from her hand with so much force, it stuck fast into the wall and the man pointed his sword at Maki's face, inches from cutting into the fabric of her mask. She hoped Peko would help her, but in the seconds he was fighting her again, it looked like he'd managed to knock her glasses off her face, so now she was on the ground, blindly grasping for her glasses. "Traitor," he hissed. "We raised you and provided you with a comfortable living, and this is the thanks we get?"
Maki scoffed and glared at him. "You didn't raise me as anything but a killing machine. You stole every chance I had at living a normal life just so you didn't have to get your hands dirty and risk getting caught. You all have had this coming for a very long time."
The man did not look amused, and even seemed unafraid, which sent chills down Maki's spine. "A pity you chose your last words to be so generic." He reeled back to swing, but a single gunshot rang out, causing all three combatants to freeze.
The wall to Maki's right exploded as the bullet hit it, whizzing right past her attacker. She looked to her left to see Kaede, pointing the smoking gun int heir direction, eyes wide and hands shaking violently.
"Don't move!" She screamed, panic evident in her voice. "I won't be making any more warning shots!"
The man cracked a sinister smile. "Oh, this is just adorable. Who let you in?"
Maki briefly shot a pointed glance at Peko, but the swordmaster didn't see it, instead looking to the source of the new voice with wide, unseeing eyes.
"I won't let you lay a finger on Maki," Kaede said. "Now drop your weapon and step back."
The man lowered his blade and turned to face Kaede. "Now I don't recognize you from the orphanage..." He put his free hand to his chin as he hummed in thought. Then he turned to Maki, who was still frozen in place. "Is this a friend of yours, perhaps? Is this the kind of thing you wanted in your 'normal life' you wanted so bad? A couple of dumbass friends with zero sense of self-preservation following you around like lost puppies? Well Maki, I hope you remember their faces well enough, because as soon as this is over today, we're going to kill every single person you've ever cared about." As he spoke, he stepped closer to Kaede. "By the time I'm finished with your friends, you'll be begging me to kill you, but trust me when I say I won't be ending your suffering so mercifully."
Kaede narrowed her eyes at the man and swallowed hard, eyes misty with tears. "I said step back!" An adrenaline rush hit her, and she had just steeled herself enough to pull the trigger, but in a flash, the man was on her. He reached for the gun in an attempt to take it, but Kaede tried to yank it out of his grasp. They struggled over the gun for several seconds as Maki watched in horror, trying to think of a way to resolve this. The man's hand started to close around Kaede's, and he tried aiming it elsewhere, but she would force the gun to go further in the direction he wanted until it was pointing straight up or down.
Under the sound of the shuffling, Peko was finally finding her glasses, but she would get to her feet too late.
Because that was when the trigger got pulled.
Everyone froze, trying to see where the bullet had gone, unable to discern where it was pointing when it went off.
And then Kaede saw Maki stumble backwards, eyes wide, hand slowly moving to her midsection, where a splotch of red was slowly spreading.