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Here At the End of the World

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Homura was absent again today. Her seat was empty and the nameplate on her desk glowed a dull red. Madoka paused at the door to their classroom, lip caught between her teeth, long enough that Sayaka looked over and noticed where she was staring.

"Ah, are you seriously worrying about that?" Sayaka laughed and wrapped an arm over Madoka's shoulders, drawing her in tight. "I told you, she's weird like that. No point in getting all worked up about it."

"I know," Madoka said. It was certainly true that Homura was Madoka's most unusual friend: the very first day they'd met, she'd asked to call her by her first name and given Madoka the ribbons right out of her own hair. She was quiet, she hardly smiled, she stared at people as if she were a hawk, and even the way she talked was unusual; she never asked Madoka questions about her family or what it was like to live in America, the way the other girls in Madoka's class did, but every so often she'd startle her by asking things like What do you consider your purpose in life? or How big do you think this universe is? as if she were a philosopher trapped in the body of an ordinary student.

Still. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, Madoka liked her a lot. There was a rock-steady solidness to her, a confidence that made Madoka want to rely on her. She was like Sayaka, or Kyoko—she never seemed to doubt herself. It was the sort of thing that made Madoka (timid and trembling, the kind of person who could erase and rewrite a test answer five times and still get it wrong) full of jealousy and admiration in equal parts.

Madoka frowned. Homura was in and out of class a lot, but normally it was only for a day or so. This was the third day in a row she'd missed now. "What if it's a health issue, though? Or she's having family trouble?" The thought of Homura suffering all alone in some hospital bed was almost too much to bear.

"Not like she'd thank us for prying if it was. Mami asked her where she lived once, polite as could be, and I swear Homura looked about ready to tear her head off for it." Sayaka snorted. "And anyway, she'll be fine no matter what. I don't think she studies at all."

"I know," Madoka said. Homura probably was smart enough that she could miss a whole month of class and jump right back in without a problem. It was amazing, the things she knew. "I guess you're right."

"I always am!" Sayaka said cheerfully, and then the bell rang to send them to their seats and that was the end of Homura talk for that day.


That night at dinner, with the sunset glowing vivid orange and pink through the kitchen windows, her mother asked her how her day went.

Madoka's fork stopped halfway to her mouth. For a moment she thought about telling her about Homura's absences, about how worried they made her feel... but Sayaka was right, after all. That was Homura's business. She didn't have any right to intrude in it.

Instead she took a big bite of her food (American-style pasta, one of her father's best recipes), and said, around a mouthful of noodles, "Good! I helped Kyoko with her homework, and I saw a really big flock of birds on my way home."

Her mother laughed, said, "Well good, I'm glad!" and that was the end of that.


Except that Homura was absent the next day too. Sayaka saw it before Madoka this time, and for a moment her face twisted into genuine anger before smoothing out into the cheery look she normally wore. (There was something between Sayaka and Homura, some real and bitter dislike, and they both pretended it was nothing more than friendly rivalry but Madoka wasn't stupid.)

"Honestly," Sayaka sighed, "how lazy is she?"

"Homura's an intense person. I don't think she'd skip out of laziness."

Sayaka waved a careless hand. "You don't know her like I do, you haven't been here that long. She can be absolutely ridiculous sometimes."

Madoka frowned. It was true, she'd only just transferred in a few... weeks ago? Month ago? Something like that. But—"I do know her," Madoka said. Quietly, politely, though her hands were shaking with a strange anger she couldn't name. "I know her well."

For a moment it looked like Sayaka might argue. Her mouth opened, her hand went to her mouth the way it did when she was thinking on what to say next. After a moment, though, she sighed. Her confidence slid to resignation like an orchestra gone off-tune. "Yeah," she admitted, "You do. I don't get why you even want to, but..." She shrugged. "Still. I wouldn't worry about it. It's better to let her figure her own stuff out, I think."

"I won't worry," Madoka lied.

The bell rang soon after, and Madoka spent most of the day trying to hide the way she kept glancing over towards Homura's empty and folded-up desk.


That night, over American-style meat and cheese, her mother once again asked her about her day. Madoka again swallowed down the urge to talk about Homura, and instead told her all about the even bigger flock of birds today she'd seen on her way home today, all perched in the trees above her, and how one of the little three-winged ones had even hopped close enough to eat some grains of leftover rice right out of her hands.

That, of course, got Tatsuya clapping his hands together and going, "Birdie! Birdie!" and from there the dinner conversation turned to how many different animals they could get Tatsuya to name and what kind of noises each made.

Madoka laughed and laughed as she snapped her hands together like a big crocodile one moment and made snarly tiger growls the next (a perfect complement to her father's impression of a roaring lion), and for the rest of the night she didn't think about Homura one bit.

(The sunset that evening was a soft muted grey, though there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It felt strange somehow.)


The next day was Friday, which made for a full week Homura had been absent. A first.

Madoka glanced helplessly towards Sayaka as they filed into class. She couldn't keep the worry off her face, and what was even more worrying was that Sayaka couldn't seem to either; Sayaka was always in control.

"I know," Sayaka said before Madoka could even get the words out. "I just... I don't know what to do about it."

"We could go talk to her?" Madoka said, nervousness turning the words into a question. "I mean, I'm sure the school has her address on file. Maybe she just needs someone to talk to."

"No," Sayaka snapped, suddenly deathly serious. She grabbed hold of each of Madoka's shoulders, pulled her close so they were staring into each others eyes. "Whatever you do. Don't."

"Sayaka?" Madoka asked. "Is something..?" She knew there was a history between them. They'd fought once or fallen out once over something that had happened before Madoka ever got here. It wasn't dislike in Sayaka's eyes now, though, or even anger. It was fear. Somehow that was worse.

"I don't know," Sayaka admittedly quietly. Her hands flexed around Madoka's shoulders. Gripping and releasing, gripping and releasing. "I should. We argued. But... I don't know."

The tension broke like a crested wave when Sayaka suddenly shook her head. She took a step back, releasing Madoka's shoulders from her grip, and ran a hand through her hair. "Look." Her smile was shaky, but it was real. "It's just weirdness between her and I, is all. Can't be that important an argument if I don't even remember what it was about, right?"

"Right," said Madoka, though she wasn't sure she agreed. Anything to help Homura and Sayaka make up.

"Still," Sayaka said, "I wouldn't go chasing after her. Sometimes it's better when you let people work their own issues out. Right?"

Madoka nodded, though she wasn't sure she agreed with that either, and then made for her seat as the bell began to ring.

After class, while Sayaka was distracted, she asked the teacher for Homura's address—"To bring her her homework, you know." Miss Saotome must have misread her, though, because when Madoka unfolded the paper she'd given her it was covered in nothing but unreadable scribbles.

Oh well, Madoka thought. Perhaps she could try again Monday, if Homura wasn't back in by then.


Dinner that night was American-style flat grey squares, textureless and tasteless, and Madoka poked at them for a minute or two before she looked across the table towards her mother and father and little Tatsuya and said, "Something's wrong."

Her father slurped the corner of a grey square into his mouth, swallowed, and asked, "Do you not like it? I was worried I might've overcooked it a little."

"Your father worked hard on this," her mother said. She was in the middle of cutting her square into smaller and more lopsided squares. "You should've mentioned if you didn't like this recipe anymore."

"It's good," Madoka said helplessly, unwilling to insult her father even now, "it's just..." It's not food, she wanted to say, but the words—silly and impossible and undeniably real—stuck in her throat.

Things like this shouldn't happen. Things like this didn't happen, not to ordinary girls with ordinary lives and nothing special about them at all. This was the sort of insanity that ought to visit truly special people, like—

"Oh," Madoka said, and she stood up so suddenly that the legs of her screeched across the floor.

"Careful, Madoka," her father said, as her mother frowned and asked, "Where are you going?"

"I have to find Homura," Madoka said, and before she could say any more, before she could let the fear building up inside overtake her, she wrenched open the kitchen door and stepped out into the garden. The street was beyond it; beyond that, Mitakihara City and, somewhere in its depths, Homura.

She didn't have shoes. She didn't have a clue where to go. Madoka darted forward and, ignoring her mother's startled cry of Madoka! started running.


The sun was setting, and it spilled as it set. It had cracked down the middle like some great yolky egg, and from its gleaming shell poured forth a stream of every color and hue and shade imaginable or unimaginable. Already the rush of color was coating the horizon, and still it coursed; if night didn't come soon, the colors might overflow until they coated the whole dome of the sky. Madoka couldn't imagine what might happen then. Would plants still grow from light like this? Would planes be able to fly? Would clouds help scrub the color away, or would they just absorb it until even they weren't white anymore?

Madoka didn't want to find out. She kept running: over lawns, down sidewalks, across roads. By now her feet should've been aching, but instead she felt like she was flying. The same thought kept echoing through her head: find Homura. She can make this right.

It was silly, of course. The most Homura might be able to do was give her a hug and tell her that yes, all of this was insane, and would she like to answer a few more philosophical questions while they watched logic completely abandon the world together? (Even that would have been a comfort at this point, to be fair; Madoka's brain was running on panicked loops, a dog chasing its own tail, and right now she wanted more than anything for someone just to agree with her that she wasn't going crazy and eating weird gray lumps for dinner wasn't natural.) It was just some childish instinct, the only thing she could fall back on here: Homura had gone missing, the world had gone weird, finding Homura would surely make things right again. Stupid.

(Except—except that she was sure. She needed to find Homura, not just to make sure the world would be okay but to make sure that Homura would be okay. She didn't know why she knew that, and didn't want to admit that she did, but she knew it all the same.)

Madoka yelped, halfway through climbing over a suddenly-overgrown shrub, when her phone rang in her pocket. It took her a moment to fish it out, but she smiled when she saw the name onscreen. Sayaka. If anyone would know what to do, it was her.

"Madoka!" Sayaka said the moment she pressed the phone to her ear. "Are you okay? Where are you? Have you seen the sun?"

"Yes and yes," Madoka said, "and I'm... somewhere in Mitakihara City, I think? Things look strange right now."

"No kidding. Look, I'm gathering up Sayaka and Mami and Bebe, we're going to figure out our next move—"

"That's a good idea. A really good idea! But"—she paused a moment, bit down on her lip to chase away the fear—"I think I already know my next move."

A long silence, and then, "You're going to find Homura."


Sayaka swore. "Look, Madoka..."

"I really think I need to."

"That's the thing," Sayaka said with a sigh. "I think you're probably right. It's just... be careful, okay? Be really, really careful."

"I always am," Madoka said. If anything she was too careful, so cautious it made her bland. She never took any risks in her life at all.

"Not with her, you're not! You always, always, always put yourself in danger for her. It's infuriating."

Madoka blinked, surprised. "When have I ever done that?"

On the other end of the line, Sayaka laughed. It came through tinny and sad and strange. "I don't... Well, that's the thing, isn't it? I don't know. But you have. I'm sure of it."

"Well," Madoka said uncertainly, "this time I'll be careful. Okay?"

There was a pause. Finally, Sayaka said, "Yeah, okay. I trust you no matter what. You know that."

Madoka smiled, though Sayaka wouldn't be able to see it. "Thanks."

She was still smiling when she hung up, from talking to Sayaka and for another reason besides. When she slipped her phone back in her pocket, she fished around for the folded up piece of paper she'd felt tucked alongside it.

Miss Saotome's note. It wasn't gibberish anymore. In fine, looping letters, nothing like her teacher's usual scrawly handwriting, it said, The vines.


Under normal circumstances an address like that might not have helped much, but when there was already a tower of massive vines sprouting up from the heart of Mitakihara, it only really left one place to check.

Bigger and bigger flocks of birds swooped around Madoka's head the closer she got. Great black ravens with feathers like an oilslick, they cheered her on with raucous croaking calls. It wasn't just the two-wings and three-wings this time (and weren't those already strange? Why hadn't she seen those were strange?); there were birds here with four or five or six or ten. Some of them were so covered in wings that the looked like nothing so much as strange pinwheels twirling through the sky. It was a wonder some of them flew.

Normally they might've made Madoka nervous—she preferred creatures to have their normal number of appendages, or at least not to stray more than one or two limbs above the average—but it would've been impossible not to like birds as friendly as these. None of them scratched or bit or divebombed towards Madoka's face; at most they circled around her, occasionally landing on one shoulder or the other before taking off again.

And they helped, too. It took her a bit to realize, but when roads twisted and turned back on themselves, the buildings squeezed up tight to shrink the alleyways leading between them, or the weeds on the street grew high and wild to block her path, she could always count on the birds to take her in the right direction. With their help, it wasn't long before she found herself standing in front of the vine-covered tower.

The door was covered in thorns that shrank away at her touch, leaving cold black marble. Madoka glanced back a moment at the birds; they were all behind her now, perched on the sidewalk or the nearby streetlights. None of them would cross the threshold of the steps leading up to the tower. She was on her own now.

Madoka swallowed, gathering her courage. "Thank you," she told the birds before she stepped forward. The massive door swung open at a touch, on hinges too perfectly smooth to be real.

Madoka stepped inside.


Inside was one great room, a massive vine-choked chamber that extended endlessly upwards. The light here was dim, but there was just enough that she could see, squinting, to the middle of the room and the massive shape crouched on the floor there. It was jet-black and hunched over, darker even than the surrounding gloom, and Madoka could just make out the impression of protruding wings.

A monster, then? Was she meant to kill it? Sayaka would, she was sure—she'd been born to be a dragon-slayer. She'd fashion a sword out of scrap metal and a shield out of a manhole cover and become a hero in a moment.

Madoka wasn't half so brave. She stood there a moment, shaking, watching as the thing in the center of the room shifted back and forth and made strange keening noises to itself. For a moment she wanted nothing more than to run, to slip back out the massive door and find her way home and pretend that everything was normal. She could live in a world like this, she was sure, could make herself forget that any of this had ever seemed horrifying and unnatural to her. She must've done it already once before.

No, Madoka thought. She clenched her hands into fists so her nails dug crescents into her palms. She could, maybe, but she wouldn't. Not anymore. She wanted the world from before, the one that made sense, the one she could almost remember living in if she closed her eyes and thought back with all her might.

And anyway, she had to help Homura. If saving her meant going through this creature, she'd do it.

Madoka took a step forward, and then another and another until she was only an arm's-length away from the monster. Close enough she could've stabbed it, if only she'd thought to bring a weapon. Instead, she did what was probably the most foolish possible thing she could have done in the situation; she cleared her throat and said, awkwardly, shakily, "Um. Hello?"

No one in the stories ever tried talking to the monster guarding the locked-away maiden. But then, Madoka figured, no one in the stories ever had flocks of swarming nightmarish crows be helpful and kind to them, either. There was a kind of storybook logic to this place, but she wasn't a powerful knight like Sayaka or an elegant princess like Mami or a trickster like Kyoko. She was just... Madoka. A commoner in the background of the tale, if she was anything. She'd have to do this her own way.

The monster flinched back, ducking close to the ground. It seemed almost as if it were trying to cover itself with its wings. As if it were trying to hide from her.

"No, wait, please"—Madoka reached a hand out, then stopped abruptly as the monster twisted enough that she could get a glimpse of one purple-hued eye. Its gaze, when it fixed its stare on her was intelligent, filled with misery and shame, and entirely too familiar. "Homura?"

"Madoka," the monster—no, Homura—hissed out. Her voice in this form sounded as if she'd been chewing on broken glass; she spoke as if each word were painful. "You shouldn't be here."

"You haven't been coming to school. I was worried." She added, stupidly, "We've got a math test next week."

Homura coughed out a misshapen laugh. "I'm not certain that's the biggest problem right now."

No. No, of course it wasn't. Madoka had thought it was only a few days ago, that doing well in math was the hardest struggle she'd ever had to overcome, and now here she was in a world where the sun could bleed and birds could have a hundred wings and her friends could wear the shapes of monsters.

"I know," Madoka said. "I—it's you causing this, isn't it? Somehow?"

Homura blinked slowly. After a long, long silence, she sighed and crouched down on the vine-gnarled floor so her head was near Madoka's feet. This close, Madoka could see she wasn't entirely birdlike: she had a mouth, over-filled with teeth like shards of glass; two patchy scaled-over arms ending in claw-tipped hands; a long, thin, almost reptilian tail; and the vague shape of an almost-human body, covered in places with sleek feathers and others with rough grey skin. "Yes," she said, softly, "yes. I thought... I thought I could control this place. Give you what you wanted. Keep you safe. But in the end I'm just a monster, aren't I? I'm sorry for bringin you here, Madoka. I understand now. This is how it was always going to go."

Her jewel-bright eyes closed. She tilted her head back. There was a slackness to her form, a deliberate untensing of the muscles, but her breathing came short and shallow and frightened.

With a distant rush of horror, Madoka realized what she meant. She was offering her neck. She wanted Madoka to—

"No!" Madoka snapped, louder than she'd intended. Her voice echoed around the cavernous room, No, no, no, no...

She hadn't been willing to kill when she thought there was nothing more here than a mindless beast. She certainly wasn't about to kill Homura.

Homura's eyes cracked open. she looked up at Madoka—not with hope, but with horror. "You have to," she said, "I'm... corrupted. Corrupting. I'll only put you in more and more danger. You don't know how many times I've wanted to devour you."

"No. You're wrong. About all of it." Madoka stepped closer. Homura shuffled away from her outstretched hand. Another step, another shuffle, until Homura was too close to the thorns lining the inner walls of the sanctum to step any further. In a moment she might try to climb them, or simply impale herself upon one—Madoka took the brief window of opportunity, and reached out and stroked the crest of feathers across Homura's head. "You're not evil. You're not a monster. You didn't stop being Homura just because you look a little bit strange right now."

"Don't," Homura said.

Madoka wasn't listening, though; she was too focused on the spot she'd run her fingers across, the spot where, even now, the feathers were melting away to become silk-soft hair again.

"See! Look, this'll work. I can help. Just hold still and let me—"

"Don't," Homura snapped, reaching out to grab Madoka with one taloned hand. (One hand that was steadily becoming less taloned the longer she held on, Madoka noticed with a quiet thrill.) "Don't you understand? This is..."

"Despair, isn't it?" Madoka asked. She spread her free hand out, gestured to the lair around them, then further out to the gibbering-mad world beyond its doors. "And all this—this is your labyrinth."

"...How much do you remember?"

"Not much," Madoka admitted. Brief snippets, if that. Witch and magic and soul, creeping misery that overcame her over and over, Homura wearing herself to the bone time and time again, soaring up on white wings and finally being free. "Enough to know that I used to be—more than I am. Right?"

She watched Homura closely as she spoke. Madoka half-expected her to deny it—No, Madoka, you were always on the sidelines, you never did anything special at all—but instead she only blinked slowly. The weight in her gaze was answer enough.

"And I know that the person I was would have been strong enough to take all this"—she gestured at Homura's despair-twisted body—"and not die from it. So I think it makes sense that I'll be able to do it too."

"Madoka, you can't," said Homura, eyes wide with sudden panic, hand clutching tighter at her wrist, "If you get hurt—"

There was an argument they could have had, then, about whether she was strong enough or not. Madoka didn't want to hear it.

She leaned in and kissed Homura, right on her cracked and bloodied lips, ran her tongue across and felt the strange shape of Homura's serrated teeth.

Beautiful, Madoka thought. It was the most natural thought in the world—how could Homura be anything but beautiful?

Homura sucked in a breath. A quiet little whimper escaped from between her knifelike teeth. She released Madoka's arm, as if to push her away, and then reached out and grabbed her and pulled her close instead.

She'd expected Homura to be cold, but this strange new body of hers ran hot instead. It was like wrapping her arms around a furnace. Except, of course, that a furnace didn't have lips or feathers or skin or—after tracing a path along that skin and up her sides—soft, lovely breasts for Madoka to run her hands across. She cupped them gently, rolled her thumb against a nipple, and this time the sound Homura made was less a whimper and more a full-on desperate whine.

How long had it been since someone had actually touched Homura? She had no family within this strange world of hers, no friends except the five of them. And even then it had been only Madoka, really, who'd ever offered her even so much as a quick hug or a pat on the back. She'd been keeping herself apart from everyone for as long as this place had existed—maybe even longer. No wonder she seemed so desperate for Madoka's hands now.

At the next soft touch, Homura jerked forward. Closer to Madoka's body, so near to her that clothes she was wearing could only be getting in the way.

If this was what it took for Homura to be okay with letting Madoka pull away the corruption, she was happy to work with it. More than happy.

"Ah," Madoka said, "here, let me—"

She'd meant to be confident about it—she'd just kissed her best friend who was a bird monster, certainly things couldn't get stranger than that—but the moment she reached for her shirt she fell back into the shaky nervousness she knew so well. Homura wouldn't judge how she looked, she reminded herself. (Then, when that failed to help: Homura had no room to judge right now, seeing as she had claws.) Moving past the mental block wasn't so simple, though. She wasn't nervous because of the vines or the feathers or the jagged edges of Homura's teeth, she was just nervous. Had she ever done this before? Not like she'd be able to remember.

"Ah." She laughed shakily. "I'm... I'm sorry, I'm just..."

"Here." Homura reached out with her less-clawed fist to take hold of Madoka's shirt. "May I?"

Madoka nodded, embarrassingly eager, and with one smooth movement Homura tore right through it.

"Oh! That's—wow. Wow." Homura really was amazing.

One more clawed slash and a sleeve fell away; another and she was standing there in nothing but her faded pajama pants and a few tattered scraps of shirt. Or, no, scratch that—another swipe of the claws and even the pajamas were in shreds.

She hadn't worn a bra for her rush across the city. She was starting to wish she had, less so she could be covered and more so Homura might've had something else to tear away. Those claws were so very precise.

Homura wasn't wearing anything at all, which was a little bit unfair but also made it easy for Madoka to run her hand along the edge of one enormous wing. The feathers smoothed and shrank at her touch. They left a strange, oily sensation behind on her fingers as they did, corruption crystallized, and a with it a slick dark residue that lingered for a moment before fading. She might've been absorbing it into her own body, but—she could handle that, couldn't she? Or at least, she was pretty sure she used to be able to. Whether that held true now...

Well. No point in worrying about it. Things would probably be fine. And it was hard to focus on the danger anymore, when the desire was suddenly so present. There was an ache building in her core, hot and painful; she wanted to reach down and press a finger inside herself just to have something to fill that emptiness.

Instead, she leaned in and kissed the scaled-over ridge of Homura's ear. "Please," she said, shocked by the neediness in her own voice, "Homura, please, I want—"

The growl that slipped from between Homura's teeth didn't sound even close to human. One hand slid down across Madoka's stomach, paused just a hand's-breadth above Madoka's mound before coming to an agonizing halt.

"I can't," Homura snarled out, frustrated. She flexed her fingers against Madoka's skin; still too clawed by half, even on the partially-dissolved side; there was no question they'd tear Madoka apart if she tried to press them inside her. "I need... hm."

A pause, and then that sleek reptilian tail unwound from its place wrapped tight around Homura's body. Curved its way up against Madoka's thigh, stopped with the blunt tail-tip brushing Madoka's folds. So close it could almost press up inside her.

Madoka sucked in a desperate breath. "Yes. Please, yes—" and the tail slid forward and forced her open around it and pressed up inside her.

Instinctively she tried to press her legs shut, but there was no forcing that thing out now that it was inside of her. She should have wanted it out; it felt huge, it felt filthy. This wasn't the sort of thing she should have ever wanted. And yet she wanted it all the same. Madoka ground down against the tail, and then had to slap one hand against her mouth to muffle the cry when it rubbed perfectly against the nub of her clit.

It made sense, in a way—this was Homura's body, wasn't it? For now, at least. She could never find anything of Homura undesirable. But that didn't explain the way she went weak-kneed and flushed at just the thought of letting it slide a little bit deeper, a little bit further. That was something that entirely her—something older, something fiercer, the same part of her that understood soul gems and contracts. She had a feeling this wasn't just something she'd suddenly started liking; she'd been wanting to do this for a very long time.

(Waiting, up above, to finally see Homura once more. Watching her fight from far, far away, with her ethereal white wings extended and her bow in hand, and being caught between hoping Homura would never ever lose and wishing she'd just be ready to rejoin her already.)

"Is this okay?" Homura asked quietly, leaning in to press a toothy kiss against Madoka's collarbone. Her eyes were fixed on Madoka, intense as ever and full of quiet worry.

"It's perfect." Madoka had to clutch at Homura's shoulder for balance as another little movement left her legs very nearly buckling beneath her. It meant she couldn't hold back the quiet noises she made whenever the tail slid against her just right. "A little—deeper, maybe? And faster?"

"Ah." If Homura's skin could hold a blush right now, Madoka was sure she'd be blushing. Her eyes went wide and she ran her tongue across her lips in one smooth, unconscious motion. "Of course, let me... here."

Had she thought Madoka didn't want this? That she was just tolerating it for Homura's sake?

Honestly, Madoka thought. For someone so completely brilliant, she often was the last to catch on. She'd always been so guarded.

Well, she was realizing now, at least. Her tail sped up, finally hitting a rhythm instead of just exploring Madoka's body. It slid into her again and again, rubbing up against her inner walls and brushing hard against her clit with every out-stroke.

It wouldn't be fair for this to only go one way, Madoka thought. She needed to do something too, more than just stand here and let Homura do all the work. Carefully, nervously, she let her hand slip off Homura's shoulder and travel lower.

It was an awkward angle, and she didn't have anything nearly as useful as Homura's tail. Her small fingers seemed like they could only be unsatisfying in comparison. But when she brushed her hand over the soft hair between Homura's legs and slid two fingers over her clit to press shallowly inside, Homura made a desperate, choked-off noise and her tail twitched inside Madoka's body with a motion that was pure pleasure. She couldn't be doing too badly, she figured, if she could make Homura react like that.

Even as she moved against Homura, pressing forward into every thrust of her tail, pressing kisses against every part of her she could reach as her fingers worked clumsily at Homura's body, she kept her eyes locked on Homura's. It was amazing, the little faces she made whenever Madoka's fingers brushed against her just right, the way she drank in Madoka's noises, the shifting patterns across her body as scales and feathers slowly shrank and melted together.

"Madoka," Homura murmured, eyes wide and unfocused, "Madoka, I..."

Madoka could feel it too; there was a heat building down in her core, growing each time Homura's tail pressed inside her just right or Homura's clawed hands pressed against her body. Part of her wanted to back off, make this last forever. The rest of her just wanted more.

Homura looked almost nervous. Shying away from her own desire, holding back even now.

That wouldn't do.

"Shhh," Madoka said soothingly, "me too," and she reached up with her one free hand to drag Homura's head down and pull her into a kiss.

Homura snarled, wild, inhibitions falling away as she licked into Madoka's mouth, and she had just long enough to gasp and clutch her tight before Homura got one hand on each side of her, lifted her—"Yes," Madoka gasped—just an inch or two off the ground, and left her helpless to do anything but squirm and pant and accept the feeling of Homura's tail thrusting inside her.

It didn't take long after that: this position made it easier for her to reach Homura's body. One more, two more strokes of her fingers, her tongue slipping out to press into Homura's open mouth, and Homura tensed and shook and came with an aching whine against Madoka's hand. Her claws dug into Madoka's skin with wild abandon, carving thin lines of exquisite pain across her hip and shoulder. Her mouth worked against Madoka's a moment more, Her tail writhed with the motion, pressing against Madoka's thighs hard enough to bruise, forcing itself even deeper inside her, and with one last little sob Madoka went over the edge with.

Too intense to think, to worry, too intense to do anything except lean into Homura's body and let the pleasure so sharp it was almost pain course through her. She panted Homura's name through it, grabbed at her, ran her hand along every inch of her body she could reach, feathers and scales and soft human skin. Madoka took the oily corruption into herself and forced it down and pulled in more, each time feeling like it was as much as she could possibly take and each time knowing she could go just a little further.

It seemed like it could have lasted a lifetime; nothing else in the world but their joined bodies and this rolling, agonizing heat. Madoka wished it would.

When she finally stopped shivering, she came back to herself just in time to fall, shakily to the ground. She caught herself and Homura, help them both slide to the ground in a tangled mass of aching limbs instead of just falling over entirely.

Homura was human again; pale skin, dark hair, not a claw or fang in sight. The last shadow of massive wings and a long, draconic tail faded away as she watched. She looked around dazedly, already halfway to exhausted sleep, and murmured something soft and indistinct at Madoka.

"It's okay," Madoka said. Her arms felt too shaky to move, but she managed to reach out and brush her fingers through Homura's hair. "I'll be here when you wake up."

Promise heard, Homura blinked once, twice, and finally her eyes drifted shut as she let herself relax against the floor with her arms for a pillow. It had to be exhausting, Madoka was sure, sustaining a body like that. All the despair she'd locked inside herself, all the power she'd taken into her own body until it spilled out around her. She must've devoured her own soul for an effect that strong.

Around them, the vines were wilting and shriveling into dried brown husks. The sound of crumbling stone echoed from far overhead. The labyrinth was falling. The magic of Homura's desperate dream had broken.

Madoka reached over and ran a hand across Homura's cheek, pulling the last few scraps of despair from her with the gesture. She took it in with the rest. It hummed and pulsed inside her, witch-hungry and vicious. No place here to safely destroy it, not with people still trapped inside this little pocket universe. And so much of her power was still cut off from her, trapped on the other side of the barrier Homura had created.

No matter. She'd been a goddess for a very long time. She'd endured worse than this.

She stretched her soul like a long-disused muscle, found Sayaka's somewhere across the strange Mitakihara and let her presence be known with a soft brush of her magic. Sayaka?

Madoka! Sayaka's voice came through panic-rough and battle-ready. I forgot. I can't believe I forgot—

Don't worry, Sayaka. She paused a moment, gathering her thoughts. Her own identity, her very existence, still felt strange around her. She hadn't been that Madoka in a very very long time. I forgot too. It's not your fault. Are there civilians around you?

Yes, I think so.

Good, Madoka said. Meet up with Bebe, then gather them up and come find me. Get Kyoko and Mami to help if you can.

But, Homura— Sayaka was gearing up for a fight. Probably had her sword out right know and Octavia's form tensed and waiting in her shadow. Staring at the warped sky and waiting for the first strike.

I have her, Madoka interrupted. It'll all be fine now. With one last message, a wordless reassurance, she broke the link between herself and Sayaka.

Maybe that was a lie. Homura was broken and terrified and filled to the brim with sorrow, barely in possession of her own soul anymore, and Madoka still had no idea whether she'd be angrier with Madoka or herself when she woke up. (Perhaps she should be angry at Homura herself—it wasn't right, after all, to steal someone's magic away or to trap them all here. But Madoka was the protector of magical girls; if one of them came to harm, it could only be her responsibility in the end.)

Still. Madoka smiled as she stood and shook out sweeping white wings, let her dress materialize around her with a thought. She pulled Homura into her arms and, soft enough not to disturb her, pressed a kiss against her forehead before turning towards the door of the crumbling tower.

When she'd made that final wish, she'd been reborn at the beginning of the universe to live every second out again. She'd seen stars form and die, civilizations rise and fall, even witnessed the birth of Kyubey's first primordial ancestor. By now Madoka was used to working on time scales beyond human understanding.

The incubators couldn't rule forever. Homura wouldn't hurt forever. It might take a year, or a century, or a hundred-thousand millenia, but... eventually, she hoped, things would be all right again.