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this time feels new

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To tell the truth, Homura had wanted to kiss Madoka ever since the first time they spoke to each other, in a glass hallway, while Madoka, bathed in sunlight, told Homura she should try to live up to her name.

Luckily, Madoka didn't notice. If she did, she probably wouldn't knock on Homura's window every night after patrolling for witches, sit Homura's embarrassingly childish pink-bunny-covered blanket, and tell Homura all about her day.

“It’s nice of you to come here so often,” Homura said one night, hugging her knees to her chest.

“It’s nice of you to keep letting me in,” said Madoka. Her hand was so close to Homura's they were almost touching.

“It’s different,” said Homura. “You’re a magical girl who saves people every day, and you have superpowers and a cool outfit, not to mention you’re the nicest girl in our class, and so pretty—” she cut herself off before she could say something incriminating.

"But that's not true,” said Madoka. “I’m not very pretty, or talented, or any of that. Before I made the contract, I was just another middle school student. And being able to make the contract doesn’t make me special. You probably could, too, if you wanted to.”

Homura nodded once. She’d thought about it, of course, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask Kyubey. She could so easily picture him telling her she didn't have the potential to become a magical girl, and just thinking about it made her want to throw up.

“You only think I’m so special,” Madoka continued, “because you like me and care about me. And I see you the same way.”

She reached out and touched Homura’s hand. Homura jolted—touching Madoka made her feel happy and terrified and mildly nauseous all at once.

“Are you all right?” said Madoka.

“I'm fine,” she managed to say. If she were a different person, she would say, yes, if you're here, would have said, you were never just another middle school student, would lean over and press her lips to Madoka’s and see if they were really as soft as she imagined.

“Then you believe me?” said Madoka. “That you’re special to me, the same way I’m special to you?”

“Yes,” Homura lied. The truth was, she didn't think it was physically possible for anyone, let alone Madoka, to feel that way about her. It almost felt like a violation of some universal law.

(The truth was, she wouldn’t really believe it until just before Madoka died for the first time).

It all happened so fast. One moment she was running towards the witch's center and trying not to trip on her own feet, the next moment everything exploded and she was falling and then she wasn't and Madoka was hugging her.

She, Homura Akemi, had killed a witch.

Afterwards, Madoka insisted on celebrating with her. Homura clutched Madoka’s arm as they walked down the street, as if she’d fall over if she let go. Madoka didn’t seem to mind.

“You can pick anywhere you want, my treat,” she was saying.

Homura swallowed. She’d won. Madoka had called her amazing.

She pulled away from Madoka’s arm.

“Kaname-san,” she said. “There’s something I want to tell you.”

“Oh?” said Madoka, stopping. She was still beaming.

Homura clenched her jaw. I'm cool now, she thought. I took down a witch. I can do this. She closed her eyes and screwed up her face.

“I’m in love with you and have been since the day we met,” she blurted out. Immediately, she winced. She hadn’t meant to lead with “love,” even though it was true, wasn't it? When Madoka looked at her, Homura trembled. When Madoka spoke, Homura hung onto her every word. She fell asleep thinking about Madoka, dreamed about her. She'd even gone back in time for her. That was love. It had to be.

She opened her eyes. Madoka was smiling, and Homura’s heart seemed to pound so loudly she couldn’t think. She, too, began to smile tentatively.

“Homura-chan,” Madoka said gently. “It’s not that I don’t care about you.”

For a second, she thought about going back in time again, just to erase this moment from history.

“It’s just that…to me, you’re more like a little sister. The best little sister I’ve ever had!” Madoka said, smiling. The worst part was that she clearly thought she was being nice.

Madoka put her arm around Homura. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t let this change anything between us.”

Touching Madoka like this, knowing it would never lead to anything more, hurt so bad that Homura wanted to cry. But that would only hurt Madoka’s feelings. Instead, she bit her lip, and continued walking.

Madoka fell asleep in the middle of a late-night Walpurgisnacht strategy meeting, curled up on Homura’s bed and surrounded by empty takeout containers. Homura knew she should probably wake her up—time was running out—but, in the face of Madoka’s small smile and gentle, even breathing, couldn’t bring herself to.

Then Madoka’s breathing began to quicken. She made a small, distressed noise, and her lips tightened, like she was holding back a sob.

“Kaname-san?” Homura said tentatively. She nudged Madoka with her hand.

“Don’t,” said Madoka. “No, don’t!” Her whole body twisted, knocking one of the takeout containers off the bed.

“Wake up!” said Homura. She grabbed Madoka and shook her. Madoka startled awake, eyes wide with terror. She immediately launched herself at Homura, burying her face in Homura’s shoulder, and cried softly. Homura froze, as if a butterfly had landed on her shoulder and she didn’t want to displace it. Even after everything they’d been through together, it still felt miraculous when Madoka touched her like this.

“Um,” said Homura, “um, it’s okay, Kaname-san.”

“No, it’s not,” said Madoka. “Everything’s horrible.”

“You can’t think like that,” said Homura, instinctively touching her soul gem. “You have to think about…about everything that’s worth protecting, and—”

“Don’t,” Madoka said, and her furious voice dragged against Homura's ear like fingernails on skin. “Don’t lecture me about how there’s good in the world when I can’t even sleep, when Sayaka and Kyoko and Mami are…” she started crying again. Homura felt tears welling up in her eyes, too. "Sorry," she said.

Madoka pulled away.

“No, I'm sorry,” she said, swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. “I can’t let all this get to me like that. It’s not fair of me to lash out at you.”

“It’s all right,” said Homura. Too afraid that meeting Madoka's eyes would make her cry, she made eye contact with one of the pink bunnies on her bedspread instead.

Madoka took a deep breath. “Hey,” she said softly. “You’ve lived through this a couple of times, right?”

Homura nodded.

Madoka rested her head on Homura’s shoulder once again. “Can you tell me about something good that happened in another timeline? Anything at all, as long as it's happy.”

“All right,” said Homura, and here, with Madoka’s head on her shoulder, she could only think of one thing. “There was the day when I killed a witch for the first time.”

“Yeah?” said Madoka.

“You’d been working so hard on training me to use my time magic,” she said, “and afterwards you hugged me and said I was,” she swallowed, “amazing. You took me out to eat to celebrate.”

“And then?” said Madoka.

Homura shook her head. “The rest isn’t as good.”

“Oh,” Madoka said, biting her lip, and Homura could tell by the look in her eyes that she was imagining something horrifying.

“No! No. I did something stupid, actually. I, um, confessed to you.”

“You did?” That actually made Madoka smile. “What did I say?”

Homura blushed. “That I was like your little sister.”

“Then you weren’t the stupid one,” said Madoka, taking Homura’s hand. “I was.”

Homura felt like someone had stuck her with a needle full of adrenaline. “You mean…we could…” she stammered.

Madoka turned her head to look at Homura. Her breath smelled stale, like week-old coffee grounds. Their faces were so close that it would be easy for Homura to lean forward just a bit and kiss her. But Madoka’s eyes seemed to say, not yet.

“Everything’s so horrible right now,” said Madoka. “I don’t even want to think about things like that. After what we learned about…about what’s going to happen to us, everything we do seems like it’s doomed. I don’t want what happens between us to feel like that.”

“But maybe, once we get rid of Walpurgisnacht, we can figure out some way to change our fates. And when all of this is over,” said Madoka, “I’d love to take a walk in the park with you. As a date.”

Homura put her arm around Madoka and pulled her close. “When all of this is over,” she said. It tasted strange and fresh in her mouth. For the first time in a long time, she felt hopeful.

This timeline, Homura’s plan was to get close to Madoka, to spend time with her and earn her trust. Then, once Madoka would believe her, she would tell Madoka and only Madoka everything. Hopefully, that would at least stop Madoka from contracting, and the two of them could work with Kyoko to find a way to beat Walpurgisnacht.

(Whenever Homura felt like she couldn’t keep going anymore, she thought of the long nights in a faraway timeline, bent over maps covered in coffee stains, their hands almost-but-not-quite touching, and the shared promise of after, of someday, hanging in the air.)

This was why she’d asked Madoka to help her study after school. Alone. Almost like a date.

Purely for strategic purposes, of course.

The library was old, with warm wooden walls and an itchy dust-and-old-books smell that made Homura restless. Not very many windows, and there were several shelves between them and the door. There were a couple other students sitting at nearby tables, both alone, both buried in their respective books.

And there was a clock on the wall.

"So, Akemi-san," Madoka said, looking a little nervous, "do you have any hobbies?"

Keeping you alive, Homura thought. "No," she said.

It was an old clock, analog, with gold filigree hands and Roman numerals. It ticked.

“I thought maybe you were interested in sports,” said Madoka.

Tick. The lack of natural light meant that the library was full of dark corners. Almost all of them were big enough for a small creature to hide in.

"You ran so fast today in gym," said Madoka. "Especially for someone who's been sick for a very long time, like you."

Tick. Homura noticed something move out of the corner of her eye. She tensed. It was just one of the other students, getting up to get another book. She didn't relax.

"How did you stay in shape?" said Madoka. "Was there a treadmill in the hospital or something?"

Tick. Tick. Madoka sitting in front of her, smiling, innocent. Madoka’s lifeless body in the water. Madoka screaming and writhing as her grief seed went black. Madoka sitting on a bench next to Kyubey, about to contract, that's why she could run so fast, that's how she stayed in shape.

Tick. Tick.

How much time did she have left? How many times could she do this before she witched?

“I have to go,” she said. She got up and ran out of the library, through the doors, down the street, and finally into an alleyway where she sank to her knees.

She couldn't spend time with Madoka as friends. Not now, when Madoka was still in danger, when she had to be ready to fight for her at every turn.

That could wait until all of this was over.

Sayaka hadn’t been careful during this fight. She'd shattered a window, and Madoka had tripped and ended up with several glass shards buried in her left leg. Homura didn’t waste time being frustrated—this was the third time she’d seen this happen, she knew exactly what to do. She carried Madoka to her apartment (she knew that if Madoka went to a hospital Kyubey ended up leading Madoka towards the children’s ward and Madoka ended up contracting then and there) and laid Madoka down on her couch and hummed the lullaby Madoka's mother used to sing to her while she bandaged Madoka's leg. After she was done, she filled her teakettle with water and got out a box of Madoka's favorite green tea blend. While she waited for the water to boil, she sat on the couch next to Madoka.

"Are you feeling better?" she asked.

Madoka swallowed. “Why are you doing all this for me?”

“Because I love you,” Homura said—she didn't mean to, but it slipped out as naturally as an exhale.

She’d been wrong, the first time she said that. What she’d felt then wasn’t love. Love was what she felt at the beginning of every timeline because the first thing she had to do was rescue a kitten from being hit by a car so Madoka didn't contract to save it. Love was knowing Madoka intimately, remembering every little detail she learned over the course of hundreds of timelines—her favorite pop star, the barrette with the kitten on it she’d had since she was five, the notebook full of magical girl costume designs. Love resetting time again and again without a second thought, because there was no other choice, could never be any other choice.

Madoka moved a few inches away from Homura on the couch, looking at her nervously out of the corner of her eye.

Homura's maps of the city were laid out on the table, the same ones she’d pored over with Madoka who-knew-how-many timelines ago, but they were clean now, the coffee stains erased when she reset time. Even if they were there, Madoka wouldn’t remember what they were from.

And Homura realized that there would be no after, because Madoka would never know Homura the way Homura knew Madoka. Maybe that timeline long ago had been their last chance.

She heard the teakettle whistle. The water was boiling.

"Forget it," she said. "I don't mean what you think I mean." She got up to get Madoka her tea.

Homura was a better fighter than most, but she was reckless—old habits from being willing and able to reset time at will, she supposed. Besides, she'd done the hardest, most important thing she'd ever have to do. Without an all-consuming purpose driving her every action, she felt like a puppet with cut strings.

She died eight years after Madoka after getting between a wraith and a younger, less experienced magical girl.

She woke up lying in a grassy field.

Rubbing her eyes, she sat up. The sky was blue, cloudless. When she looked to her left, she saw a familiar garden of pink-and-red flowers. She walked closer, inspecting it, and felt a childish sort of hope. This was the Mitakihara City Park, right down to the silver benches lining the pathway through the garden.

On one of those benches, a familiar pink-haired girl sat, smiling. Older, but still clearly the same.

“Homura!” she called out, and Homura knew that voice so well that she started to cry. She ran towards the bench.

“I missed you,” she said, and her voice sounded small, pathetic, like she was in middle school again.

Madoka indicated the space next to her on the bench. Gingerly, as if the bench and Madoka would disappear if she touched it, Homura sat.

"You remember what I told you when I made my last wish, right?" said Madoka. "I remember everything."

Hot tears streamed down Homura's cheeks as a long-abandoned hope began to thaw in Homura's chest. She dug her fingernails into her palms. "This is…everything…if this is some kind of trick—"

Madoka gently took Homura's hand. "No tricks. Not here." Madoka smiled, and her smile was the same as always, small and sincere, but something new glinted in her eyes. Power. "This is my domain, and as long as you're here, nothing will ever hurt you again. And," she said, tilting her head slightly, "there are no clocks.

"Oh no," said Homura, letting out a small, strangled laugh. "You remember the library."

Madoka giggled. "I told you," she said. "Everything."

"I'd like to kiss you," Homura blurted out with all the gracelessness of a thirteen-year-old. "If that's all right."

Madoka nodded, and Homura leaned in.

Homura had been afraid that, after years of building it up in her head, actually kissing Madoka would be disappointing. This was not the case. For once, everything went exactly right.

After several long minutes, they pulled away. Madoka was smiling giddily, and it seemed impossible, that Homura could make her that happy, but it was true. It was all true.

"There are no clocks," said Madoka, "because we don't need to keep track of time. We have forever."

Homura grabbed Madoka and kissed her again, hard. Then she stood up, and offered Madoka her hand.

And Homura finally said, "Let's take that walk."