Miranda, the sharp-tongued witch with a belligerent nature. Her barrier is full of webs designed to keep outsiders away from her. Anyone who comes too close, she will poison. The only beings she allows inside are her minions, who believe she is the only person of value in this world.
Homura dodged a stream of boiling liquid, spun on her heel, and fired off three quick shots at the coffee-mug-shaped minion. It exploded into fragments of ceramic, fake glasses spinning off into the distance.
This labyrinth was strewn with glasses of all styles and sizes, the walls and ceiling a forest of sports pennants. Maybe in her former life the witch had loved sports, but somehow Homura doubted it; everything was covered in cobwebs, as if it had been set up to make a show and then left untouched for decades.
Another minion, this one a dark bird with a logo printed on its chest, dive-bombed her. Homura tossed aside the empty gun, grabbed a pair of glasses the length of her arm, and whacked it as hard as she could.
The webs got larger and stronger the farther she advanced into the labyrinth, until Homura pried open a ceiling panel and found herself looking at one that climbed several hundred feet straight up. The strands near the top were thick enough to hold the witch: a hulking spider with legs coming out at all angles and jet-black wings curling out from what Homura could only assume was its back. Half a dozen of its limbs clasped something tiny and pink.
Homura froze time and started climbing.
The pennants here hung from the webbing rather than the other way around, waving and swinging as the witch bounced them around, all now frozen in mid-flutter as Homura ascended past them. She couldn't read the runes that spelled out the team names, though she did note that none of them were pink.
Wouldn't it be convenient, if the witch simply took Madoka for a new bit of merchandise to toss in her collection and ignore?
Convenient, but not likely. Homura climbed faster.
The splash of color in the overwhelmingly gloomy barrier wasn't solely due to Madoka's hair. It was a Saturday, so for once she wasn't walking around in her school uniform; she wore a rose-colored shirt with puffed sleeves, a cute denim shirt with a line of pink trim, and red socks that matched her hair ribbons. She made Homura think of strawberry ice cream, or cupcakes topped with maraschino cherries. She might have been a focal point for all the sweetness in the world.
One of her polished Mary Janes was still on her foot. The other was in her hand, suspended in the middle of batting a pincer away from her arm. Brave, amazing Madoka. A spider the size of a tow truck, and she was going after it with a shoe.
It wasn't working, of course. The witch already had her pinned with six or eight segmented legs, and as Homura got within striking distance she realized that one of them had a kind of stinger on the end, dripping with violet ichor as it sank into Madoka's ankle.
Homura didn't burst out with any of the curses she wanted to rain down on the witch's head. She didn't even unfreeze time. Coolly, methodically, she snapped off each leg at the joint and tossed the broken pieces down in the the abyss.
One moment, Madoka felt a stinging in her heel as she flailed wildly in the witch's grip. The next, she was in Homura's arms, eyes dazzled first by an array of explosions and then by the distortion as the barrier faded away.
"H-Homura-chan?" she stammered, shivering as the trees and stones of an ordinary human graveyard came into focus. "Wh-what—?"
The puella magi wore her usual scary-calm expression. "I'm sorry. I wasn't able to save your shoe."
Madoka looked at her mismatched feet and blushed. What was she going to tell her mother? On the other hand, better the shoe than her. "It's okay, Homura-chan. You saved me, and that's the important thing, right?"
Was it her imagination, or did Homura's eyes get colder? "Don't speak too soon. Can you stand?"
"Oh! Yes, sorry, you don't have to keep carrying me," babbled Madoka, face going red again as Homura set her down. If Homura hadn't been so insistent that she not become a puella magi, she probably would have done it already just to spare the other girl the inconvenience of protecting her all the time.
The gravel of the path was uncomfortably rough under her sock foot, while the heel of her remaining shoe made her legs uneven. It wasn't going to be fun to walk home like this. Then she tried to take a step and her vision blurred with dizziness, the world awash in too much light.
"Hey, Homura-chan? Are you sure we're not in another witch barrier? Only, the ground seems to be moving...."
Homura insisted on carrying Madoka back to her apartment. The toxin would spread more slowly if she kept her heart rate down.
"It's funny," murmured Madoka. She was sweating, breathing labored in Homura's ear, and every now and again she flinched at something that wasn't there; and none of it had stopped her from trying to be cheerful. "I never thought you would be a My Little Pony fan."
Homura, who had transitioned out of puella magi form to be less conspicuous, looked down at her clothes for the first time. She hadn't even paid attention when getting dressed, but sure enough, she was wearing a Fluttershy babydoll tee, earlier versions of which had been ripped in half at least twice.
"It's an old shirt," she said. "I'm not that kind of person anymore."
"You don't have to be embarrassed!" said Madoka. "It's nice that a cool girl like you can have some girly-girl interests. I...I think it's cute."
Homura thanked her lucky stars that Madoka couldn't see her blush. "You shouldn't talk. Save your strength."
"You shouldn't have to take care of me all alone," countered Madoka, trying and failing to hide the faintness in her voice. "Call hospital. My mother has good insurance, they'll pick it up...."
"There's no need," said Homura flatly. "They wouldn't know how to deal with it anyway. I cleansed as much as I could with my soul gem, now all you have to do is rest while you work it out of your system."
"Will that work, though? I mean, I'm just a normal person. Are you sure I'll...recover?"
She sounded so fragile. Homura tried to remember how recently Mami had died—was this one of the timelines where she had gotten to Charlotte first? Mami was definitely dead in this timeline, though. She was eighty-five...no, ninety percent sure of it.
Mami had been stung by Miranda a few times. She'd survived most of them. Sayaka had been stung, and survived, only to turn into Oktavia a week later. Kazumi had died, after a long night of struggle. Hitomi, not a puella magi, had died quickly—but Hitomi wasn't a potential, either. Madoka was doing better than her already. Madoka would be fine.
And even if she wasn't, that just meant Homura could quit stockpiling for Walpurgisnacht and find somewhere to hide until it was time to reset everything.
Homura knelt to let Madoka slide off her back, propping her against the wall beside the apartment door. Before fishing for her key, she clasped Madoka's shoulders and looked directly into her eyes, the rose irises glassy and the pupils blown wide open.
"Kaname-san, listen to me," she said, putting the authority of all her uncounted years into the words. "I swear on my honor as a human being that I will not let you die."
Madoka all but passed out on the way to the bed. It was a good thing Homura had been carrying her after all; even with the minimal strain, her limbs were papery and her vision overwhelmed with strange whorls and flickers.
"Drink this." Homura pressed a glass of water into Madoka's hand. When had she gotten it? Madoka must have fainted at some point after all. "I'll get your shoe and socks off. Do you feel feverish, or chilled?"
"Hot," said Madoka vaguely. Homura's figure blurred at the foot of the bed; her touch on Madoka's feet felt far away. Once her heels were bare, Madoka squinted to get a glimpse of the stinger's wound, and promptly wished she hadn't. Her skinny, pale ankle was marred with a raised purple welt, a vivid rash fanning out around it. "Is that as bad as it looks?"
"It'll get better," said Homura. "Lie still while I get you some ice."
Madoka closed her eyes, trying to block out the light. Homura's bedroom was so very bright, with a cacophany of digital images floating as if in water on the pure-white walls. At least the sheets were cool.
Homura returned with another glass of water, this one filled to the brim with ice, and a cold soaked cloth. Without preamble she pressed it to Madoka's forehead, then flinched when Madoka gasped. "Is this all right?"
"It's fine! You just surprised me, that's all." Madoka swallowed. "I...I should call home. Tell my mother I'm sleeping over."
"That's a good idea. She worries about you."
"You sound like you know her," said Madoka, confused.
Homura looked away, though her hand didn't leave Madoka's forehead. "It's what all mothers do, isn't it? They worry."
"I suppose so." Madoka reached into her pocket, where her hand closed on her phone. "Homura-chan? Do you live alone? Where are your parents?"
"You should look out for your own family," said Homura coldly. "Don't worry about mine."
Madoka couldn't blame her. It had been an awfully personal question.
The spots in her vision had receded as the heat went down, leaving Madoka able to focus on the phone's numbers. Before she had finished dialing, though, a flash of motion appeared in the corner of her eye, bigger than the hallucinations, too erratic to be on the walls. "Behind you!"
Homura leaped up from the bed, soul gem brilliant on her hand; she hit the ground in uniform, ribbons flying out behind her. "I don't see it. Where?"
"N-nowhere," stammered Madoka, as the disembodied legs with pleated skirts and roller skates flickered out of view. "I thought—but it wasn't real. I'm seeing things. I-is that bad?"
"It's normal." Homura relaxed, at least by a few millimeters. "The poison will make you delirious for a while. Try to relax. If anything dangerous gets in here, my soul gem will pick it up."
Of course it would. Madoka should have known that from the start. "Sorry, Homura-chan. Please don't feel like you have to look after me! If you have work to do, or...you should do that."
Homura cocked her head, as if she didn't understand the offer. "Does the light bother your eyes?"
"Well, yes—a little—but that's not why I—"
The otherworldly whiteness and the shifting images flicked off all at once, revealing an ordinary room with blue wallpaper by the glow of Madoka's phone and the soft purple radiance of Homura's soul gem. "It's all right. Call your mother. I can work in the dark."
Homura was so very bored with algebra.
She did the homework anyway, filling in the numbers by rote, then working through a series of English translations so familiar she could have done them in her sleep. To skip it would have been to admit that this might not be the last timeline. She didn't dare.
Madoka had fallen asleep soon after calling her mother; Homura could just see the contours of her body on the fringes of the old desk lamp's range. Her clothes hung limp, damp with sweat; her hair was out of its ribbons, plastered to her face and fanning out across the pillow. Even the most original, challenging math problem couldn't have kept Homura from keeping tabs on the sound of the younger girl's breathing.
The thought caught her off-guard. When they had first met, Madoka had seemed so much older: mature, elegant, self-assured. And she was still essentialy the same in this timeline, all the pieces in place, if not focused by the sense of purpose that being a puella magi had given her. But Homura was probably older than all of them now.
How many years had the oldest puella magi lived? She would have to ask Kyuubey some timeline. The little rat never lied outright, and you could sometimes get a straight answer out of him if you kept the question simple.
Madoka's breathing stopped.
Homura, who had never changed back out of puella magi form, froze time. She wasn't willing to waste the few seconds it would take to Madoka's side.
But it had only been a gasp, the pause before a long shudder. Homura hissed under her breath as she realized that Madoka's skin was icy, and froze time again to get quilts. They were going to get witch ichor on them from Madoka's unbound wound; she'd have to throw them out. Not that it mattered.
With a moan Madoka stirred. "Don't," she pleaded.
"You're having chills," said Homura. "We have to keep you—"
"Mami, don't," continued Madoka.
A lump swelled in Homura's throat.
"Please, no—" She pushed feebly at the blankets. "It's got teeth—"
"She's already dead," murmured Homura, not sure if Madoka would hear any of it, or could understand if she did. "I'm so sorry, Kaname-san. But you don't need to be scared for yourself. I'll protect you, I swear I'll protect you, so just lie still and let me warm you up—"
Homura went stock-still. Madoka had grabbed her wrist, right above the diamond-shaped soul gem, hard enough to hurt. But her eyes were glassy in the dimness, staring straight through Homura to whatever Homura she was seeing instead.
"Hold still," she said, with desperate urgency. "He'll cut you."
"Him! The fuzzy little...with the mustache..."
"He's not here. Madoka-san, you're hallucinating. We defeated that witch. She and her familiars are gone."
Madoka sank back onto the bed, her grip slipping from Homura's arm. "Promise you'll be careful," she mumbled, disconsolate.
"I promise." With a soft, clean cloth Homura wiped off Madoka's face, bringing some order to her disheveled locks. What she really ought to do was get the other girl into fresh clothes, and maybe scrub the injured leg with good old mundane soap and water while she was at it. But she couldn't bear it while Madoka wasn't lucid.
She settled for piling the quilts around Madoka's shivering form, tucking them up around her chin, and freezing time for a moment so she could warm up a heating pad.
"Careful," repeated Madoka. "Don't get stomped."
"It's a hallucination," said Homura, slipping the heating pad between the covers. "Nobody's going to stomp anyone."
"They will," said Madoka. "The green elephants."
Her eyes filled with tears, not seeming to notice that Homura's were wide with shock.
"Homu-chan, I'm scared."
Homura's hands clawed at the fabric.
"You think I'm not?" she burst out, over the sound of Madoka's chattering teeth. "You only think I'm so cool because you haven't even known me for a month! If you knew—if you could see—I'm terrified, anyone would be—but I'm still fighting, even if the only thing that keeps me going now is getting to see Madoka-chan's smile, over and over. So you're not allowed to give up, do you hear me? Not before I do!"
The tears dried. Madoka squinted at her through a veil of pink bangs.
"Why do they have squares on their faces?" she whispered.
She was babbling. It didn't mean anything. When (if) she woke up, she would be no closer to despair than Mami's death and Sayaka's impending breakdown had already pushed her.
In relief and exhaustion Homura collapsed across the bed, sobbing into the mountain of quilts.
Madoka drifted into consciousness with a spinning head, an ache that went deep into every muscle, and a full bladder. The last of which was not helped by something pressing on it.
For a moment her sleep-blurred eyes thought she saw Amy, the black stray cat who had been coming by her house, although it had been a while since Madoka heard her familiar begging meow. Then the dark blur resolved into Homura's head: the other girl still in uniform, face drawn and lined, using Madoka's stomach as a pillow.
Madoka tried to wriggle out from under the covers without disturbing her. No such luck; Homura was up like a shot, her normally shampoo-commercial-perfect hair forming a halo of frizz around her face. "Kaname-san! I'm sorry—I fell asleep—"
"It's fine, Homura-chan. Although, could you please let me up? I need to go to the bathroom...."
Her vision flickered. Homura's position changed only subtly, except for her hair, which was suddenly smoothed. "O-of course. I'll show you where it is."
Madoka was relieved to find that she could walk, though her legs were shaky, especially the one that had been stung, and she was glad for Homura's arm to lean on. The bathroom was all set up for her, and even had notes: on the small pile of clothes at the edge of the tub (Please change into these), on the fresh cake of soap by the sink (The sting should be thoroughly washed). No wonder Homura was exhausted, if she had taken the time to set all this up.
It would explain a lot. And Kyuubey had never mentioned any limits to a puella magi's potential abilities. There was no reason to think Homura couldn't stop time.
But there might well be a reason she hadn't revealed it, so Madoka decided not to pry.
By the time she got around to changing, her ankle was so strained that she sat on the floor to pull on the borrowed clothes (a loose pink blouse that didn't seem like Homura's style either, a pair of dark shorts, and an oddly well-fitting set of white underthings). She opened the door before settling on the tub's edge, just in case Homura was afraid she had passed out again, and fought with the old-fashioned metal knobs over the faucet.
"Let me." Homura glided in, out of uniform now, although her dark skirt and violet turtleneck had almost the same silhouette. Her soul-gem ring clinked against the knobs as she twisted them. "Do you still feel chilled?"
"Normal. Just achy," admitted Madoka, leaning against the tiles as wrm water pooled around her heel. The rash was still there, but the swelling had gone down, the angry purples faded to the hue of an ordinary spider bite.
"Are you still seeing things? Colors, motion...creatures?"
"Everything's bright, but that's all." Madoka blushed, remembering her dreams: the details were fuzzy, but she was sure they had been as vivid as the one in which she had first seen Homura, and even more chaotic. "Did I talk in my sleep?"
Without needing to be asked, Homura picked up the soap and a washcloth and knelt by her side, where she began to work up a lather on Madoka's ankle. The welt was tender; her hands were gentle. "A few times. If you're through the delusions, you're on the way to recovery. You'll have to take it easy for the next few days, that's all. Are you hungry?"
Belatedly, Madoka realized there was a gnawing in her stomach beyond the soreness of the rest of her. "Um, if I'm okay, I can always go home for breakfast! You don't need to worry about feeding me."
"It's no trouble."
Homura's gaze was fixed on her work, but Madoka could guess what expression she was hiding. "I'll make it up to you."
"I told you, you shouldn't—"
"Ah, no, I don't mean becoming a puella magi! But even though you look cool, this is hard for you, isn't it? So...so I'll find some way to repay you. Even if I'm not special or talented, I'll come up with something. I promise."
Homura didn't answer. In silence she cupped a handful of clear water and let it run down Madoka's leg.
A new onrush of light across her vision made Madoka flinch. "H-Homura-chan...if I'm still seeing flashes...is that bad? Does that mean it's not over?"
Homura froze. "Light sensitivity is normal," she recited, as if reading something out of a book, and not doing it very well. "Do you see shapes? Things moving when they shouldn't?"
"No. Nothing like that. It got bright, that's all."
The mask came closer to cracking this time. Homura let go of Madoka's foot and pulled her hands out of the water, clenching them into fists; her upper body sank until her forehead was pressed to Madoka's nearer knee. Madoka didn't move. It might have gotten awkward if she was wearing a skirt, but as it was, all she wanted was not to scare Homura off until the other girl had taken all the time she needed.
"It's fine, then," whispered Homura at last. "You're going to be fine."
When Madoka remembered it later, she thought there might have been a shape to the brilliance after all. Not like the images that had stalked her fevered nightmares; just a trick of reflections, a Rorshach blot to which her mind had only assigned meaning after the fact.
It had looked, she thought, like Homura had spead a pair of pure-white wings.