Sayaka and Madoka are both clapping and cheering as the two puella magi stroll calmly out of Charlotte's fading labyrinth. Mami smiles at both of them, bounces on her heels, drops a modest curtsy. Homura adds her own shy smile and tries out a move she's been working on, a cool flip of the tresses.
"That was amazing!" gushes Sayaka. "You were like, pow pow pow—" She mimes gunshots. "—and it was like roaaaar and Homura was all oh no you don't! Who's the bomb? Homura's the bomb! Woohoo!"
Madoka doesn't even try to talk over her friend. She just pounces on Mami for a hug (Homura is not seething with jealousy, nope, definitely not). "You did it!"
"I did it," echoes Mami. "Because you believed in me, Madoka-chan."
(Okay, now there's a little seething. At least she's doing it quietly.)
"Are you still okay with our deal?" Mami continues.
"I'm ready!" Madoka twirls to face Kyuubei, twintails flying, and claps her hands. Before Homura knows what's going on, she exclaims, "I wish for a delicious cake!"
And just like that, it's over. Homura could shout at her, but what good would shouting do? May as well stay calm. Keep her blood pressure down (not that she needs to any more, but old habits die hard).
She joins them around Mami's table, where they toast each other with milky tea and carve forkfuls of icing and sliced cherries. One thing Homura has to admit: it's a truly delicious cake.
"Are you sure you'll be okay, sweetheart?" asks her father, fiddling with his wallet as an excuse to dawdle in the entryway. "I don't have to make okonomiyaki tonight. We can have something else. Or we can order in. Is there anything you'd like?"
Madoka doesn't look up from the science paper she's been staring at for the past half hour. "It's okay, Papa. All I want to eat is your cooking. Please go to the store."
"All right. Your brother's in his room. I'll be back as soon as I can."
He goes, slowly, giving her as much opportunity as possible to call him back, until finally it's just her and her pointless homework and the gaping chasm in her heart.
A quick round-trip to the store is half an hour, and it's twenty minutes later when she hears a thump upstairs. Tatsuya's in his room, his would-be wanderings cut short by childsafe gates, so it can't be him. And it's too heavy for Kyuubei, not that the creature would ever be so gauche as to trip and fall in the first place. A visitor, perhaps? Homura? Or maybe some other magical girl, assuming there are still any around....
Madoka drops the homework (her teacher will understand, must understand, why she doesn't have the strength to finish it right now) and goes to investigate. After stopping in the kitchen for a knife, because if there's anything Sayaka taught her, it's that you have to walk into potentially deadly battle armed with something more dangerous than a sketchbook.
There's no puella magi upstairs. No witch, no familiar, no Kyuubei, nothing magical at all. There's only Tatsuya, halfway down the stairs where he landed, the plastic gate on the top landing hanging unassumingly open.
(he's not breathing)
The knife slips from her hands and clatters on the tile.
Closing her eyes (necks aren't supposed to bend that way), Madoka shouts, "Incubator!"
He pretended to walk away from them once before, but when Sayaka called he was right there. Of course he's here now. —Is there something you want, Madoka?—
She didn't wish Mami back because it never occurred to her. She hasn't wished Sayaka back because her own subsequent death would only break Sayaka once again. This is different.
(If Papa and Mama have to lose a child, let it be the one who wasn't watching.)
"I wish for my brother to come back...and have a long and healthy life!" exclaims Madoka.
Everything looks normal by the time Papa walks in the door. Tatsuya runs on chubby legs to greet him, and Madoka remembers the feel of a bow of living wood growing in her gloved hands, and almost smiles.
(By now Homura has started making a checklist. After this timeline, sneak extra flour into the Kaname cupboards goes at the top.)
Madoka twirls to face Kyuubei, twintails flying, and claps her hands.
"No!" shouts Homura, but it's too late, the words are already out: I wish for a delicious cake!
Homura flees. She doesn't look back, even when Madoka's heartbroken voice calls that they'll save her a slice.
The puella magi assemble like a multicolored garden blooming over the ruins of Mitakihara. Kasuza and Maki and Misaki, Yuzuna and Sei and Shimako, Airi and Yuuri, Haruhi and Yoshino and Haruka, Elise and Claire, Ami and Michiru, Hiyori and Komachi, Emi and Maron and Miyako, Juri and Shiori, Rei and Ahiru, and hundreds of others, maybe thousands, too many to count, too many to name. Pillars of light erupt around them as their soul gems reconstruct out of thin air.
In the basin of a crater, filthy water soaking into her stockings, Homura curses the Incubators, this cruel world, its nonexistent God.
It's only in the last dozen timelines or so that Madoka has had the power to make a wish this powerful. The last time it happened, Homura shot her without stopping to explain and rewound time before the body had hit the ground. This time she isn't close enough. Even using her powers, she wouldn't know which direction to run.
On the edge of a building, about twenty meters above, a flash of blue. The caped silhouette is familiar enough that it might be Sayaka, and far enough away that Homura can't tell. If it is, Kyoko's probably somewhere nearby. It's as if they're all connected afterward, being pulled back in on a limited set of invisible ropes.
The windows of the crushed train before her reflect a burst of gold, and Homura can't help but turn. Sure enough, there's Mami, fear turning into astonishment as she realizes she's escaped death once again.
Homura's still looking at her as the shadow falls over them.
Mami still hasn't figured out what's going on, but she's still a puella magi. Silver muskets erupt from the wreckage around her. Across the cityscape echoes the whoosh and the ring and the rattle of a thousand different weapons being drawn.
—That was an unusually clever wish,— says Kyuubei.
Homura didn't even hear the little rat sneak up. He's perched on a downed telephone pole, tail swishing contentedly back and forth.
—Restoring all the previously killed Puella Magi to life? If I had been permitted to suggest a wish, I don't think I could have picked a better one. Since each of these girls will have a second opportunity to turn into a witch, we will end up with double the amount of energy from each Grief Seed. And that's not even counting the considerable energy harvested from Madoka herself.—
He doesn't get to say any more, because Homura stuffs a grenade in his mouth.
She doesn't bother waiting for his next body to appear. Wiping flecks of red from her shield, she turns the dials, and leaves the world's largest puella magi army standing doomed in the shadow of Kriemhild Gretchen.
Madoka twirls to face Kyuubei, twintails flying, and claps her hands.
"I wish—" she begins, then screams as the puffy white form falls in pieces to the sidewalk.
Homura blows a trail of smoke off the muzzle of her PPK. "You'll thank me later."
(The sun sets on Walpurgis Night, and Madoka stands on a shredded bridge and wishes for the power to save people. Homura watches pink light explode like a star above as she falls through the air. She doesn't let herself hit the ground.)
"Timelines" doesn't begin to describe what's filtering through Madoka's incorporeal hands. It's a bundle of time-loops, a knotty time-tangle, a multidimensional partly-theoretical higher-order mess in the temporal tapestry that is all of human experience.
Homura remembers them all in order. Madoka, now, remembers them out of it: every one fresh and present as a breath just taken.
At last she understands the hidden blushes and glances, blinked-back tears and gritted teeth, the whole menagerie of different species of tremors in Homura's voice as she pronounces Madoka's name. (Always in full after a certain point, Kaname Madoka, when she's given up trying to remember what honorific they've gotten to this time around.) They map the journey from hero-worship to full-blown crush to a love that now forms the foundation of Homura's soul, interspersed with bouts of helpless fury. (Never despair. She can hate herself, she can even hate Madoka for short whiles just to get it out of her system, but if she despairs there'll be no coming back.)
If only one of those Madokas had wished for understanding! A few choice words in any of the countless cycles, and Homura's feelings could have reached her halfway through the journey instead of only here at the end. That day, when Homura saw the hated pink uniform with its red ribbons and white frills, Madoka would have run to her and kissed her and said it's okay, don't be sad, there's always next time.
The Madoka who is now a goddess takes [a minute / an eon / an infinitesimal instant] to remake her outfit into something a little more transcendent, with pure-white billows and stars hidden in its folds, before drawing back her bowstring on another arrow.
Another volley of pink bolts fires into the bundle of alternate time-threads, aiming straight for each iteration of Madoka's heart at the moment before her wish or her death, whichever comes first. Homura's memories won't change, only reality. As it must be.
An unknown number of ordinary schoolgirl Madokas turn to the shadow of the Incubator and repeat the same phrase: "I wish to make Homura happy!"
And because the only way to make Homura happy begins with not wishing, each now-impossible timeline divides itself by zero, their threads falling away one by one.
From the alternate dimension where she's been sequestering all the now-abandoned familiars, the Goddess plucks an Anthony and cuddles it while the universe reorders itself. When at last the flow of real time is smooth and unbroken, she tries to put it back. A few steps, winged heels clicking, and it reappears under a fold of her trailing skirt, mustache twitching hopefully.
"All right," laughs the Goddess, "you can come along. But stay out of the way, okay? I have one more witch to deal with, and it might eat you if you get too close. Then I'm going to need some private time with Homura-chan. Do you promise to behave?"
The Anthony nods, chittering nonsense in German. The Goddess gives it a friendly pat on the head, tucks her bow away, and walks with it hand in leaf back into her newly created world.