Tomoe finds Homura alone in the food court, picking over the remains of something low-fat, iron-rich, and so tasteless that if it weren't for the doctors' continued warnings of anemia she would have thrown it out long ago.
"I was eating with Kaname-chan," she explains to Tomoe's sympathetic face. "And her friends, Miki-chan and Shizuki-chan. It was Kaname-chan's idea. It was kind of her, offering to make a place for me. Only...."
"Only there wasn't room for you?" suggests Tomoe. "With long-time friends like that, it's understandable that you won't fit in right away. Give it time."
Time to heal, time to build her muscles back up, time to catch up in school, time to be ordinary again. Homura stares at Mami's wrists, at the styrofoam cup of green tea in front of her. "I don't think it will help."
The rest of the story comes out in fits and spurts. Miki and Kaname's girls'-love-love teasing...Shizuki's cry of dismay and impossibility...the rolling of eyes, the flips of dismissive hands, the geez, Hitomi-chan, it's not like that! Don't be silly! With Homura shrinking into her seat a few extra millimeters every time one of them laughed, because....
(It's the closest she's ever come to shaping the knowledge into words; how pathetic is that? Tomoe and Kaname can face down eldritch monsters without batting an eye, but fragile Homura can't even admit — )
Her composed, golden-haired sempai regards her evenly. "Do you think they're right, Akemi-chan? That for a girl to like another girl is something strange?"
She hedges. "I...don't know."
Tomoe sips her tea and gives Homura a winning smile. "Let me tell you a secret."
She'll have to fight for it, of course, but she can handle that. She can handle anything right now.
"No dizziness, no lightheadedness, no chest pains!" she singsongs to the nurses (they whisper behind her back about the lack of balloons and flowers, but she's just glad the people who might send such things are back from the dead).
"I made a contract! I can fight alongside you!" she gushes to Madoka (in the middle of class, but who cares, she's too happy to be embarrassed right now).
"I know that one!" she exclaims to Saotome-sensei, hand spiking the air as if the math problem is a volleyball (she's had the lesson twice, which is maybe cheating, but she worked it out herself this time rather than just remembering the answer, honest).
"I'm making new friends!" she assures her aunt and uncle's answering machine (they probably won't call back, but that's okay, saying the words is a thrill all its own).
"I like girls!" she crows after bringing down the shadow witch (Madoka turns pink and stammers a lot, but Tomoe hugs her tight and congratulates her, and in that moment she feels brave enough to take on Walpurgis Night one-handed).
It takes a breathless combination of leaping, dashing, swinging from ribbons and climbing last-minute ladders, taking insane shots while falling through midair, and Homura using a barrier T-shirt to slide thirty meters down a clothesline just in time to grab Mami's shoulder and stop time before Madoka has fallen out of her reach. A ribbon hammock shoots downward, a bouquet of grenades soar above their heads, and when time clicks back on the girls tumble out of reach of the explosions and land safely among the trees beside the shrine, Homura's shield batting away the barrier's remnants, an un-contracted Madoka safely in Mami's arms.
When Homura turns, still panting, Madoka and Mami are liplocked like there's extra oxygen in each other's lungs.
It's a long minute before either girl remembers that there's a world outside the adrenaline rush of panic and relief. They stumble apart, Madoka in particular cherry-red from ear to ear, and four guilty eyes settle on Homura before avoiding human contact altogether.
Oh, right. It's probably the first with-a-girl kiss, not to mention the first hell-yes-we're-still-alive kiss, for each of them. The timelines are blurring together a little. Homura should probably start making notes.
For the moment, she picks up Mami's fallen beret, brushes some dirt from it, and hands it to the older girl as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary has just happened. "What," she says, with practiced nonchalance, "no kiss for me?"
Homura's run this through a dozen times now, and it's starting to verge on boring. She has notes and photos on the witch's weak spots; she knows all the best moves to defeat it.
She also knows what it used to be, which has a way of sucking the joy out of their victories.
For Mami, of course, this is all fresh and new and nothing more complicated than the eternal duel of good versus evil. Mami goes into battle knowing precisely none of the moves, and when this particular match ends Mami tumbles out of reach of the explosions, lands in Homura's arms, and crushes their mouths together.
(Neither Sayaka nor Madoka have contracted this time. They're safe at home, or at the mall, or somewhere else far away.)
Homura freezes with indecision, and stays like that until Mami pulls back, her usual composure overwhelmed with a stammer. "I...I apologize, Akemi-san. I didn't mean...to impose, or to assume that you...."
Explaining that she assumed right would take time. Explaining that all this has happened before would take longer. Kissing her, on the other hand, would cover all the relevant details, and do it pretty quick.
So Homura kisses Mami, and then ups the ante by pulling her down into the grass.
At the sight of a stranger in ribbons and heels sitting at her wedge-shaped glass table, Mami transforms in a golden blur. "Kyoko-chan?" she hazards, hand open, ready to materialize a musket.
"My name is Akemi Homura. I need your help, Tomoe Mami."
"For what? How do you know me? How did you get into my apartment?"
"Something important. I'm a time traveler. You — a version of you I knew in a previous timeline — gave me the key."
"Do you expect me to believe such a ridiculous story?"
"You wished to stay tied to life in spite of a fatal car crash," intones Homura. "Sakura Kyoko swears by your peach pie. You feel lonely a lot of the time, however much you try to hide it. You're a girl who likes girls, though you try to hide that as well. Something bad is going to happen, and I can stop it, but only if you help me."
(Is it true? For all she knows. And for all Mami knows, which is the important part here.)
"It isn't very polite," says Mami after a long pause. "Bursting into a person's home and...time traveling, or mind reading, or whatever it is you've done. Of course I'll help you...as long as it doesn't involve harming anyone else. All you had to do was ask."
Her hands are trembling, Homura notices. And she understands far less than she thinks she does. And in spite of her calm sempai grace, she's so young.
They're all so very young.
On the far side of the train tracks, Homura's boots are rooted to the spot. The precognitive puella magi is faster than Homura; Oriko will see any decision to stop time and act before it can happen, so that Homura will run across the cold grey world to find Madoka with a snapped neck or a severed spine or blood and entrails pouring from a wound across her stomach. Her only hope is to change Oriko's mind.
And that's never worked at the best of times, let alone after Kirika's brutal murder has shredded what sanity Oriko had left.
"Selfish, short-sighted Homura-kun," cackles the white-garbed puella magi, darkness swirling in her soul gem. "You know it's the world or her! But all you can think to do is throw away a hundred worlds, and for what? For some stupid — " She shakes Madoka, who whimpers in fear but keeps her eyes open. " — schoolgirl — " Another shake, harder. " — crush — ?"
In the same breath, Oriko yanks Madoka's head nearly off of her neck, and collapses with a hole in her head from a magical musket round.
Homura launches herself across the tracks. Pausing time and running on pencil-thin heels both come as naturally as breathing now; she pounds through the gravel toward the two figures, suspended mid-fall like a sculpture of a swan taking flight.
She's there before Madoka lands, arms oustretched as Madoka topples and Oriko's skirts flutter. Her knees buckle, but she lowers the blank-eyed body without dropping it. One last heartbeat flutters and dies under her hands.
She doesn't have to look up to know that it's Mami's silhouette stepping forward out of the gloom.
"Is it over?" says Mami, breathless with (understandable) (monstrous) hope.
"She's dead," hisses Homura. And then, because the only person Homura cares about is the one Mami's not asking about: "They're both dead. And it's your fault."
"I'm sorry," says Mami simply.
It's not the first time. Homura's seen Mami pull the trigger on Madoka directly, ripping through the girl's heart or shattering her soul into glittering pink fragments. But somehow this is worse, because those were Mami crazy, snapped in a way that it would take more than a month and a half for Homura to bulwark her against, and this is Mami sane. This was a calculated decision to take out a threat, and let Madoka become collateral damage.
The fact that Homura hadn't come up with any better way to cut the Gordian knot doesn't make her fury any less wrenching.
"I'm sorry," repeats Mami. "It always hurts when there's someone you can't save. And...was it true, what she said? Did you...."
Did she what? Choose Madoka over the world? Leave Mitakihara in ruins a hundred times over, consigning every soul in the city to the very sentence Mami just passed down on one single unimportant pink-haired schoolgirl?
Homura, who in all these years hasn't said the words out loud even to herself, bends over Madoka's still-warm body and wails like she's fourteen again.
When Mami is the leader, the onee-san, the calm and knowledgeable one, she shines. When her sense of authority begins to fall apart, she crumbles. If the collapse is mild enough, sometimes Madoka's friendship and kindness can hold her together. Sometimes.
Homura doesn't have that much kindness. Maybe she did once, but it wore out ages ago.
So she hides things. She misdirects, she rationalizes, she flat-out lies. Sayaka was killed, she says; the mermaid witch got her. Kyoko, oh, she's sure Kyoko's fine, just run off again like the noble lone wolf she is. Maybe she'll come back to fight Walpurgis Night. Even if not, Homura has plans, never fear. Rockets are stationed here, bombs set up there, a subway car full of missiles ready to move as soon as the first circus familiars appear in the streets.
The easiest falsehoods are those built on truth. Homura can rattle off the positions and angles of the rocket launchers in her sleep. Mami never finds out that they haven't been set up this time.
With fifteen hours and thirty-two minutes left on her sand timer, she stumbles into Mami's apartment, overflowing with present-day anguish and the memory of trust. Mami puts the kettle on, offers her tarts, kisses her forehead. Homura counters with a kiss on the mouth.
The tarts go stale and the kettle boils dry.
Thirteen hours and fifty-seven minutes before she can flip the timer over, Homura closes her sore eyes against the soft skin of Mami's breasts and says, "Do you remember Kaname Madoka? Sayaka's classmate, the pink-haired one?"
"I remember the green-haired one...." Mami frowns, unbound curls tousled around her face. "Unless...did the girl who died in Izabel's labyrinth have pink hair? I never saw her."
Mami's fingers, on the hand with the gold flower mark on her fingernail, dig into the knots in Homura's shoulders. "Don't be sad, Homura," she soothes. "We can't change the past. All we can do is keep fighting as puella magi, to make sure as many people like Kaname-san as possible get saved in the future."
She looks young enough that the barista offers to call someone rather than just throwing her out.
"An' another thing!" she slurs, tottering along on stupidly-high heels with her arm heavy over Mami's shoulders. "How come alla th'mahou shoujo gotta be lesbians? Hm? Izzit like a requir'ment or somethin'?"
"Wh-what are you talking about?"
"Alluv 'em!" cries Homura. She waves her free arm, sways nearly fit to topple both of them, and lets her costume ripple back into a jacket and ballet flats. "White-and-squirrely's got a kink or somethin'? You like girlsh. I like girlsh. Madoka likesh girlsh...."
"There's Sayaka," stammers Mami. "She likes that boy in the hospital, remember?"
"So she'sh bisu..bishex...goes both ways," says Homura wisely. "Sheen 'er makin' out with Kyoko. Bet 's why Hitomi's never gots a contract. That'un is alllllll about th' cock."
Mami sighs, apparently in defeat. "I'm going to transform so I can get you home faster. Do you want to sit down?"
"No, no, 's fine. Gonna fix up my system with my soul gem." Homura bursts into giggles. "Get it? Soul gem? 'Cause it's your soul!"
She tries to fumble off the ring. It takes approximately three times as much coordination as she has just now.
"Dammit," mutters Homura, and puts the effort on hold to throw up over the curb.
Mami's proven to be a good listener, even when Homura speaks only in the vaguest terms, or can't put her feelings into words at all. It's gotten to the point where she's thinking about truly opening up. Mami has come far from that lonely person who let Homura down timeline and timeline again; she's been able to grow, to stabilize, to truly internalize the calm and centered persona that used to serve her only as a flimsy and breakable shield.
The apartment when Homura reaches it is quiet, which probably means Kyoko and Yuma are out. There are no delicious bready, sugary, fruity, and/or honeyed scents wafting through the air, but Mami answers the door anyway. "Akemi! Come in, come in. But shh, the baby's sleeping."
"The...baby?" echoes Homura. Months rush by now so much faster than she's used to — they keep vanishing into oblivion every time she blinks her eyes — but it can't have been that long, surely? "When did you have a baby?"
Mami laughs, friendly and innocent. "You're so funny sometimes, Akemi."
It turns out she's babysitting, and the boy they look in on is more a toddler than an infant. For a second Homura thinks it's Tatsuya, but no, he's in grade school now. It's a hard thing for her to remember. He stayed young for so long.
"I probably won't ever have children of my own," says Mami, leading Homura back to the sitting room. She's trying too hard to sound the dependable onee-sama; the lightness comes out forced.
"Probably not," agrees Homura, and begins trying out all of Mami's chairs. (The apartment has new furniture, and Homura isn't used to not knowing where she most likes to sit.) "Being a puella magi doesn't leave much time for that sort of thing."
"True...although that isn't what I was getting at." Mami fidgets. "What I'm trying to tell you is...I'm a lesbian."
"Oh, right. That too."
Mami gapes, dumbstruck. "Is that all you want to say?" she exclaims at last. "I finally get the courage to tell you, and your only response is 'Oh, right'?"
Homura relaxes onto a comfortable beanbag, feeling better already. This is the kind of world she lives in now: battles are good versus evil, heroes are rewarded in the end, and obstacles against which you summon all the courage you can bear turn out to be (the pun is awful, but she's not even sorry) a piece of cake.
"Honestly, Tomoe...it's what you might call old news," she says, beaming. "I don't suppose you've noticed, but I'm gay too. And that's only the least of the things I want to tell you."