The three of them were sitting around the table drawing when Tatsuya’s parents – not Madoka’s, Homura still had to correct herself – got home from dinner. It was earlier than Homura expected, they usually didn’t turn up until after she’d put Tatsuya to bed, and although she’d never show it, she wished they hadn’t come back so soon. Partly because it meant a little less time alone with Tatsuya, and that meant a little less time with Madoka. And partly out of embarrassment that they’d walked in just when they were having an animated three-way conversation, which to Tatsuya’s parents just looked like he and Homura were talking to an empty chair.
Tomohisa looked a little bemused when Homura trailed off mid-sentence, but Junko just swept in and patted her shoulder while she kissed Tatsuya on the top of his head. “Having fun?”
“Yeah!” Tatsuya waved a hand in the air, a crayon in his chubby fist. “Homura’s telling us the story about how she fought the scariest witch ever!”
“Last story before bed time,” said Homura, quickly. “I can finish telling it later.”
“Are you in a hurry?” Tomohisa asked. “I’m so sorry for asking you to come over on a Saturday night.”
“I’ll drive you home,” Junko added. “Or somewhere else if you’re going out.”
“It’s no trouble,” Homura hastily shook her head. “There’s no rush. Really!”
“And you have to finish the story!” Tatsuya added.
“Homura can tell you the rest of the story another time,” Junko said, and patted him on the head again. “Now go and brush your teeth.”
“It’s not me,” he insisted. “Madoka wants to know the ending too!”
Homura bit her lip for a moment, willing herself not to look at his parents, not wanting to have to explain why she was talking to their son’s imaginary friend.
“Well then,” Junko said, smiling. “Next time Homura-san comes to look after you, we’ll just have to make sure to invite Madoka too, okay?”
“Okay,” said Tatsuya, and then yawned. He slid off his chair, hugged Homura and ran off to the bathroom. But not before he’d turned to wave at Madoka as well.
Junko had spent all week apologising for asking Homura to babysit on a Saturday, and she never seemed to believe her when she it wasn’t a problem. Time with Tatsuya was precious, though, and Homura wanted to take every moment of it that she could. Every day that passed brought them closer to the day he would be too old to play with imaginary friends, which meant that Madoka would finally, definitely only exist in Homura’s memory. So there really was nothing Homura would rather do on a Saturday night – on any night – than play with Tatsuya and his sister.
She wished Junko would stop apologising, though, because every time she did, Homura was forced to remember how disappointed Mami had been when Homura said she didn’t want to hang out with her tonight.
“Just back to your place?” Junko asked, when they got in the car. “I can drop you off with your friends if they’re out somewhere fun.”
The image of Mami kneeling on the floor of her apartment came to Homura’s mind unbidden, surrounded by cakes and pouring herself a single cup of tea.
“Just home,” said Homura, firmly, and stared out the window into the dim evening light.
Junko was quiet for a moment, but when they got onto the main street she said “It’s good that you can talk to Tatsuya’s friend like that.”
“Madoka,” Homura corrected her, automatically. “Then... you’re not annoyed?”
“Of course not. It’s good.” Junko smiled fondly, though she never took her eyes off the road. “He loves Madoka, and his father and I try to play along, but I think we’re both too old to get it right. He’s always correcting us. But you seem to know the right things to say, even though she’s just a character in his mind. I don’t know how you do it.”
Homura turned to stare out the window. “I just imagine she’s a real person, I guess. That’s all it is.”
“My imagination isn’t what it used to be,” Junko said, wistfully. “I have to rely on you kids. So what’s she like, this Madoka?”
Homura wasn’t sure what to say to that. Madoka was naive, and she was a dreamer. She’d do anything to protect her friends, even if it killed her. She was perfect.
“Madoka’s like his big sister. That’s all.”
“Hmmm. Is she a good sister?”
“Of course she is,” Homura mumbled. “She’s the best. She’s... she’s really kind, and she always makes time to play with him, and... yeah. Yeah, she’s a good sister.”
They fell into silence again for a moment, and Homura hoped that conversation was over, that she could just watch the streetlights flick past for the rest of the trip. But Junko spoke up again after a moment.
“It’s strange,” she said, “But I still get such a nostalgic feeling when you mention Madoka. I don’t know what it could be. She’s just a game that you and Tatsuya play, really, but something about it makes me feel a little bit sad.”
“Maybe she reminds me of someone you lost.”
“Maybe.” A pause. “Is there someone you’ve lost, Homura-san?”
“I’ve lost everyone,” Homura said, harsher than she meant to, and immediately felt guilty for it. But Junko didn’t say anything, just gave her a moment and started talking again.
“It’s funny how he chose ‘Madoka’ as her name, and you say she’s like his sister. I always wanted to have a daughter, too, and Madoka was one of the names I thought about giving her.”
“You could still have a daughter.”
“I could,” Junko agreed. “I’m not sure if I’d name her Madoka, though. It might be odd, since Madoka’s already a person in Tatsuya’s mind. What do you think?”
“You should ask Tatsuya,” Homura said, and tried to concentrate on something else. She almost wanted to scream. She wanted to tell Junko that Madoka was her daughter, who was real and then she was gone and nobody remembered any more. Nobody except for Tatsuya and Homura, and sooner or later that number was going to come down to one. And she couldn’t just have another child and act as though it was the same. It never would be.
“You know what I think? I think seeing you two play makes me sad because it’s not going to last,” said Junko, at last. “Tatsuya’s so cute now, but eventually he’s going to grow up. He’ll grow up and he won’t be my little boy any more, he’ll be his own person.”
“That’s silly,” Homura said, not really thinking about it. “He can’t stop being your son just because he grows up.”
“Of course he won’t, but he’ll change,” she sighed. “The way he is now, when he’s sweet and kind and talks to a friend who isn’t even there, that won’t last. But he’ll still be my boy.”
“But Madoka won’t be his big sister any more.”
“No, probably not,” she admitted. “There are some things you can replace, but others you can’t. All you can do is move on and try not to let it stop you from seeing the other great things in your life.”
Homura was lost in thought when they pulled up in front of her apartment, trying to think remember the way Madoka looked when they said goodbye. But she kept thinking of Mami instead, sitting at home, wishing that Homura would come by.
“The thing is,” said Junko, “Even when Tatsuya gets too old to have an imaginary friend, I’d really like him to have someone around to be his big sister.”
Homura blinked at her, and Junko reached over to stroke her hair.
“I know I’m not your mother, but you don’t have to be alone, Homura-chan,” she said. “If you want a family, we’re right here. Any time you need us. Or even just if you want us. You don’t have to wait until we call you up to come and babysit.”
“Thank you,” Homura mumbled. “Really, thank you. I... I can’t...”
“It’s okay.” Junko patted her shoulder. “You don’t have to say anything. I just want you to know I’m here to help.”
She looked out the window, up towards her apartment, and then out at the road. “Um, I know you just brought me home, but do you think you could drive me to my friend Mami’s house instead? It’s not far.”
“I’d take you if it were on the other side of the city, Homura-chan,” Junko smiled. “Just tell me where to go.”