She'd been so naive, once. She'd admired Tomoe-san, her senpai, so cool, so composed, so graceful. The first time, she'd even had a bit of a crush on her; Madoka was her friend, her best and only friend, but she looked up to the older girl. But then, as Madoka left her behind to fight Walpurgisnacht, then she'd understood what she was really feeling. Mami's death was sad, but Madoka's sucked all the color out of the world.
She'd tried her hardest to learn from them both, to help them, and they'd been a team. A real team, stronger than just the combination of their powers. She'd held out hope, despite the defeat, despite Madoka becoming a witch, despite learning they'd all been deceived.
And then it all went wrong. Another of Madoka's friends was pulled into the cycle; Homura had barely been aware of Miki Sayaka's existence before, and now here she was, raising doubts about Homura's trustworthiness, feuding with Kyoko, disrupting their focus. Mami, her friend once, now distrusted her nearly as much as Sayaka did. Her explosives, a brilliant innovation last time, were now a risk. When Sayaka became a witch, Homura couldn't even oppose the plan to try to retrieve her. Maybe it would work. Maybe there was hope. But Sayaka was attacking Madoka, and there was no choice left.
And then Mami snapped.
She'd held out hope, until then. She'd thought that if there were just enough of them, working together, trying hard enough, as a cohesive team, that would be enough. But it wasn't enough, and each new world was different.
Not very different. Sayaka was always volatile, prone to depression and thus despair. Kyoko was always a fractious wild card but, if she could be persuaded, a reliable ally. Madoka was always kind, and always terribly prone to being hurt. To caring.
And Mami was always brittle. Behind the friendliness, the home-cooked meals and hospitality, behind the show she put on for the new girls, she was at the end of her rope. She didn't always snap. Once, when she was alive after Sayaka's transformation, she simply collapsed, sobbing, her grief seed clouded. Twice it darkened dangerously. The first time, Homura, faced with another transformation when they were all drained, just shot her. When Kyoko came after her, she'd had to use a flash grenade to escape; she had to face Walpurgisnacht alone, that time. She didn't stop hearing Madoka's screams for the next two timelines.
The second time it happened, Homura stopped everything. She looked at Madoka, in her school uniform, crouched on the train station floor, and Kyoko, both fists clenched around her lance. And then at Mami, shoulders slumped, gem dim and spotted with black. Homura held a grief seed, and her gun, and she had a decision to make.
Mami was never reliable. She was changeable; she could be trusted to a certain point, but no further. She was too attached to Kyubey to be able to willingly face what he'd done to them all, and when forced to, she would crack, in unpredictable ways. She was a strong fighter, experienced and calm, and she was a valuable asset against Walpurgisnacht, when she made it that long. But she was about to despair again, and Homura had never seen evidence that this would help. Or that it wouldn't.
She walked to the girl, and held a grief seed up to Mami's hazy gold gem the way Madoka had once done for her, that terrible time when she'd asked Homura to shoot. She didn't want to hear Madoka screaming because of what she'd done again. And while she couldn't trust Mami, she could sympathize; she was different each time, as well.
She'd tried not to touch her, but she must have brushed Mami's shoulder as she lowered her hand; the girl blinked at her. "Akemi-san?"
Mami froze again as the contact broke, and Homura took the moment to think. And to reach a decision. She grabbed Mami's hand. "Everyone else is frozen in time. Listen. Mami-san." She had to force herself to keep her eyes on Mami's face, rather than the gem she wore. "I know it's hard to accept."
"What's the point to going on like this? We'll just become witches to replace the ones we've killed."
"Not yet. We can fight it. It's about hope as much as it's about how much power we use. Sayaka used too much, but she was also unhappy. She lost hope." Mami didn't speak, or struggle, so Homura continued. "I know it's hard to be hopeful right now, but you can't give up. I used a grief seed on you. As long as you don't give in to despair, you won't become a witch. Do you understand?"
"How do you know all this? How can I trust you?"
"I've been doing this for a long time." It wasn't even a lie.
"You used a grief seed on me. You can do that? I thought you had to use it on yourself..."
"I don't think you've ever called me by just my given name before," Mami said, because she would never say exactly what Homura expected.
Homura was afraid she might actually have blushed. She looked down. "I was... Madoka kept calling you that. I guess I picked it up from her."
"I see." Homura couldn't look up right away. She felt like she was still the pigtailed girl with a golf club, trying not to let her friends down. "Akemi-san..." Mami said. "We should have listened to you, shouldn't we? Or at least given you a chance to tell us..." When Homura looked up again, she saw tears in Mami's eyes. "Akemi-san, thank you for spending a grief seed on me. I'll... do my best." She tried to smile, and Homura felt a small, sad, answering smile on her own face. She'd never seen Mami live through Walpurgisnacht. There could always be a first time, or there might be a next time, when Homura would see her die again, or have to kill the girl who was sometimes her friend. But Mami was still just a girl, her own age - maybe a little younger, by this point - and this time, she was no threat.
"We'll fight Walpurgisnacht together," Mami said.
"It's a promise," Homura replied, holding onto Mami's hand for a moment longer, not ready yet to hear Madoka sobbing over Sayaka, and to begin marching toward the next death.