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The bow feels cumbersome in her hands, so Homura resolves to practice until it doesn’t.

When she first started using pistols, it was Mami who showed her the basics. “Easy, Akemi-chan,” she would say, her hands steadying Homura’s sweaty grip. Mami’s gloved palm was a comforting warmth against the soul gem nestled on the back of her hand. “Don’t jerk back the trigger like that; squeeze it lightly....”

The stench of cordite was thick in the air when she finally managed to hit her target, but the congratulations—an approving smile from Mami and a grudging one from Sayaka, outright cheers and an ecstatic embrace from Madoka—brought a tremulous grin to her lips, her chest bubbling with pride.

All she has this time are the diagrams and videos she finds on the internet, but she makes do. She nocks arrow after arrow until her triceps stop quivering with the effort, until her form is textbook—back straight and feet shoulder-length apart. She practices until her aim is perfect, until the crackling arrows she looses pierce the demons’ distorted faces each time, without fail. Perfect marksmanship is necessary more than ever, now that she cannot reach out and dilate a second into several.

She learns how to tie ribbons into her hair, too. They don’t quite fit her—their shade of red is much too vivid, clashing with the muted colors of her wardrobe and magical girl outfit—but she wears them all the same. Homura was never good at being ordinary, even before she became a magical girl. It takes another tutorial to learn how to tie them in a style she likes, but she’s satisfied with the result. It’s simple. That, at least, suits her.

Perhaps styling is something Mami could have helped her with. Archery may not be one of her areas of expertise, but ribbons certainly are. Kyoko might also have been helpful, given her past. Something stops her from seeking the other girls out, however. Homura stays away, wary of any sign of the madness that compelled Tomoe Mami to turn a musket on her allies.Without territory to claim or Miki Sayaka to rescue, Sakura Kyoko will leave soon. Homura knows it.

Still, they meant something to Madoka, hadn’t they? She keeps that in mind and watches them from afar. For her sake.

— . . . —

Homura descends from her vantage point as the last demon crumples, its face shattered by one of her arrows. She lands with a soft click of her heels and runs a hand through her hair, her fingers skimming the surface of her ribbons.

Across the street, Mami looks panicked at the sight of her, and soon Homura understands why. There is the rattling clang of Kyoko’s spear against the sidewalk, and then she is upon her. Kyoko grabs Homura roughly, her hand making a fist around her collar. “You’ve got some nerve showing your face around here,” she snarls.

Not much has changed, if Kyoko still receives the help of others with hostility. Narrowing her eyes at the other girl, Homura supposes there was only so much Madoka could do. “We are both puella magi,” Homura says. She enunciates her syllables slowly, as if she were addressing a child. “Is it so surprising that my duties would bring me here?”

The light of the street lamps glints off Kyoko’s canines as she barks out a short, mirthless laugh. “So you actually take these duties seriously?” She pulls at her collar abruptly, and Homura’s boots scuff against the asphalt. “You make me wanna throw up.”

Mami hurries over to them and lays a hand on Kyoko’s shoulder. “Kyoko, please,” she says. “Akemi-san is a friend.”

Nostrils flaring, Kyoko shrugs off Mami’s hand with a jerk of her shoulders. “She’s got a funny way of showing it,” she grits out.

“Kyoko.” Mami’s tone is firmer this time. “Please let her go.”

Part of Homura expects her not to out of principle—Kyoko was always defiant the few times her return to Mitakihara coincided with Mami’s survival—but instead, she loosens her grip and rocks back on her heels, scowling. “Whatever,” she mutters.

“Thank you,” Mami says, but Kyoko is already stomping away from them and down the sidewalk. Her dress dispels itself in a flash of red light. A few feet away from them, the spear does the same.

Mami sighs so softly it is almost inaudible, then turns her gaze to regard Homura. Tentatively, she offers her a strained smile. “I apologize for Kyoko, Akemi-san. She’s... still grieving for Miki-san.”

Nonplussed, Homura methodically smooths out the wrinkles the other girl’s hands left on her blouse. “I understand.” This isn’t the first time an iteration of Kyoko has threatened her, after all. She suspects it won’t be the last either.

Mami stays silent for a long moment, watching as Kyoko plucks the demons’ remnants from the pavement. By the glow of the streetlamp, Homura notices the sheen of sweat on Kyoko’s thighs and back of her neck, beneath the sweep of her high ponytail. Mami is in an uncharacteristically similar state of disarray—her beret askew atop her head, her blouse sticking damply to her arms.

It had been a tough battle; Homura would not have interfered had it not been.

Mami clears her throat as Kyoko makes her way back with the remains. Kyoko's fingers curl around the hem of her hoodie, lifting it for use as a makeshift pouch. When she’s close enough for them to see, she extends her arms outward to show them the haul.

“I counted twelve,” she says without looking at either of them, “though you might wanna recount them to make sure....” Her voice bristles with sharp insinuation toward the end, but Homura ignores the jab.

“That would make four each,” Mami says.

Kyoko looks like she wants to protest, but she holds her tongue. Sensing this, Mami meets and holds Kyoko’s eyes for a moment. Once the other girl shrugs with calculated disinterest, Mami nods, reaches into the pouch, and cups eight remnants in both hands. She offers them to Homura with a smile and says, “Thank you for your help, Akemi-san.”

A glance at their soul gems, their vibrancy occluded by swirls of corruption, is all she needs to make her decision. Homura only takes two. Mami looks surprised, questioning. Homura says, “You need them more than I do.”

She doesn’t have to look at her own soul gem to know that it’s still clear. The need for grief seeds—cubes now, she reminds herself—has become less urgent; her soul gem burns brighter, fiercer, almost as if there were a dozen, separate iterations of herself pooling their magic. She overflows with it, immaterial wings erupting from her back unbidden to break her falls, the tips of her bow leaking purple trails of energy whenever she shoots.

Mami nods, weary with gratitude, and offers another to Kyoko, who pockets it quickly and, pulling a box of pocky from the pouch of her hoodie, walks off without a backward glance.

Mami lingers a little longer, taking a moment to revert to her school uniform and press the cubes to her soul gem. When its glow has been restored, Mami gives Homura another strained smile. “Thank you again, Akemi-san,” she says, bowing her head.

Homura only watches her walk away.

Once Mami is out of sight, Homura looks into the darkened mouth of an alleyway, her eyes honing in on the glinting red eyes of the Incubator. “Did you find that entertaining?”

“Not particularly,” Kyubey replies in his habitually flat, cheerful tone. “It was a great deal more concerning than entertaining.”

“I doubt you even have the capacity for concern, Incubator.”

Kyubey trots out of the shadows and stands in the lamplight. He regards her with his head cocked to the side. “That is true, but we do have a vested interest in the well-being of our partners.”

She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and tries to remind herself that Kyubey is not her enemy anymore. Not here. “Of course,” Homura agrees. There is still a good deal of tension in her shoulders, but it’s a start.

Looking away, she goes about draining what little corruption has accumulated in her soul gem, tossing the spent cubes in Kyubey’s general direction once she’s finished. She watches disinterestedly as he catches them in the strange receptacle in his back, waiting for him to continue with the lecture he came to give her.

As always, he doesn’t disappoint.

“We intended for the three of you to work as a unit,” Kyubey says.

“I work better alone,” Homura replies.

Kyubey stretches, catlike. “While the sudden, exponential growth of your powers has certainly thrown off our projections, their implications remain the same. The efficiency of your partnership with Tomoe Mami was roughly equivalent to the efficiency of her current partnership with Sakura Kyoko, but the addition of a third magical girl to that partnership would bolster the amount of energy we could harvest from this sector significantly.”

“Is that why you contracted Miki Sayaka?”

“Correct,” says Kyubey.

Homura narrows her eyes. “And yet you intentionally provoked Kyoko to return here as well.”

“Also correct.” Kyubey sits on his haunches, his tail flitting back and forth. “Miki Sayaka proved to be more a hindrance than an aid to your group dynamic. A correction was necessary.”

She considers the merits of shooting an arrow through his head. “So you had her... discarded?”

“Not at all.” He almost sounds offended at the suggestion. “Sakura Kyoko was intended as an addition to your team, not a replacement. Miki Sayaka’s death was an unfortunate development. We do not waste our assets.”

The urge ebbs, though only slightly. “Regardless,” Homura begins, “your quota is not at risk. I have no intention of leaving this... sector. Perhaps you should turn your attentions toward convincing Sakura Kyoko to remain here.”

She turns to leave, but Kyubey follows her down the sidewalk. “Our concern is more for Tomoe Mami and Sakura Kyoko than it is for you, Akemi Homura.”

Homura stops midstep.

“The miasma has been thickening over the past month," says the incubator. "We have no doubt that you can defend yourself adequately, but Tomoe Mami and Sakura Kyoko have not been coping as effectively as we hoped. You saw evidence of that yourself a few minutes ago, didn’t you?”

“So you....” She pauses to swallow the lump in her throat. “So you... want me to partner with them to increase their chances of survival?”

“Correct,” Kyubey confirms. “There is safety in numbers, as you humans say.”

Homura pauses, mulling over the Incubator’s words.

“The choice is yours, of course,” Kyubey adds before she can formulate a response. “We would prefer it, however, if all three of you continued to exist. Effective puella magi take considerable effort to cultivate, and it would be a shame if this sector's energy yield amounted to less than what was invested in it.”

She waits a moment before starting to walk again, the clack of her heels fading into dull footfalls when she reverts to her school uniform.

— . . . —

It has been two weeks since Miki Sayaka was officially declared missing, but the cafeteria is still abuzz with talk about her.

The girls who surround Homura at lunch are probably the main source of Sayaka-related gossip; the rumor that Sayaka-chan ran off with an older boy she met online had definitely been their work. Despite the fact that she was used to their inane chatter, Homura took to eating lunch at her desk after that one.

Mitakihara Middle School hasn’t changed, apart from the two empty desks in the middle of Saotomoe-sensei’s classroom. Homura, who sits in the same front row seat she always has, tries to avoid looking at them as much as possible. She can’t see her desk without cringing, and she suspects she’ll never stop.

The roof is another place she has not visited yet. Everything about the school reminds her of Madoka, but she imagines her memory is thickest there, where she ate lunch with Mami and Homura that first and second month. It is not so much being reminded of her that Homura wants to avoid—she already thinks of Madoka every day. It’s facing the people who will not remember her, no matter how much they should, that she shies away from.

But Kyubey’s words have lodged themselves in her head, and Homura finds herself climbing the familiar staircase to the rooftop the next day. She hesitates when she reaches the doorway, her fingers brushing against the doorknob. It is still warm.

She takes a deep breath, curls her fingers around the knob, and twists it open.

The sudden burst of sunlight makes her flinch, and she hovers in the doorway uncertainly as her eyes accustom themselves to the brightness. When they have adjusted, she peers out onto the roof, and finds Mami and Kyoko staring back at her in surprise.

Kyoko is the first to recover, snorting derisively and lifting a piece of pocky to her lips. Mami shoots a chastising look at her companion, then offers Homura a polite smile. “Hello, Akemi-san,” she calls. “Would you like to join us?”

Homura nods and makes her way over. She takes a seat across from the two of them and goes about the business of opening the box lunch she prepared the night before, acutely aware of the way their gazes follow her every movement.

A tense moment of silence passes between the three of them; it’s broken when Kyoko nabs an apple bunny from Mami’s bento. Mami gives her a milder version of the chastising look from before, clucking her tongue in mock disapproval. Kyoko only pops it into her mouth, ignoring Mami and staring at the clouds.

“So Akemi-san...” Mami begins, “did you make that lunch yourself?”

Homura nods curtly. “Yes,” she clarifies.

“It looks lovely,” Mami says, her lips curved in a cordial smile.

Kyoko takes advantage of the opportunity and sneaks something else from Mami’s bento; an octopus-shaped hot dog, this time. Mami only sighs in that long-suffering way of hers, the kind she used to reserve for Sayaka’s overuse of milk and sugar for her tea and Madoka’s insistence that they stop to call out to every cat they passed.“I swear, Kyoko. Sometimes I think you only sneak up here to eat my lunch.”

“You’d be right then,” Kyoko retorts around a mouthful of octopi.

Mami clucks her tongue again; Kyoko steals another apple bunny.

Homura looks away and picks at her instant lunch absently, feeling more out of place than hungry.

— . . . —

Kyoko is gone by the time the bell signaling the end of lunch period rings, jumping off the railing with a quick goodbye to Mami. Homura watches her land on the grass below and take off down the street, her hands casually pushed into the pockets of her hoodie. She’ll be going to the arcade, Homura figures. It has always been one of her favorite haunts, after all.

She and Mami walk back to class together in silence. The crowd of students in the hallway push them together, Homura’s shoulder against Mami’s. It still feels familiar, albeit distantly so. Homura doesn’t know what to think about that.

Before they part ways, Homura says, “I would like to join the two of you for tonight’s patrol, if that’s alright.”

The older girl blinks at her, then says, “Of course it’s alright, Akemi-san.” There is something warm underlying the surprise in her voice, something that Homura can only attribute to the fact that they were partners in this world. Perhaps they were even friends, before Sayaka contracted and Kyoko returned to Mitakihara.

Homura clears her throat. “Should I meet you at the gate after school?”

“Yes,” Mami replies, and then she’s smiling at her. It is a fragile, tentative thing, but Homura almost finds herself returning it.

She doesn't know how to feel about that either.

— . . . —

Relief flits across Mami’s face when Homura approaches her after class. She pretends to ignore it, along with another one of those smiles Mami gives her.

“Shall we go, then?” Mami asks.

Homura nods in response, and they set off toward Mami’s apartment in companionable silence.

— . . . —

Kyoko takes her presence much better than Homura had predicted. Instead of threatening her or making rude remarks, the other magical girl settles for a roll of her eyes and the cold shoulder. That suits Homura just fine. She’s used to it.

As soon as they reach the apartment, Mami insists on serving them tea and slices of cake. “It’s not good to fight demons on empty stomachs,” she reminds them.

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Kyoko drawls, smirking hungrily as Mami lays out the food.

Homura only sips her tea and nibbles at the slice of cake to be polite, but Kyoko gulps and wolves her portions down, reaching across the table to grab seconds.

It’s early evening by the time they finish, the sun just beginning to set. Mami carries the plates, tea set, and silverware back into the kitchen, refusing Homura’s offer of help with a smile.

Kyoko gets to her feet and stretches, arms extended over her head, back arching. “Ready to go?” she calls after Mami impatiently.

“Just about,” comes the reply from the kitchen, Mami’s voice muffled by the clatter of plates in the sink. Kyoko grumbles something under her breath, her back turned to Homura as she stares out the window.

Left with nothing to do but wait, Homura lifts a hand to shake out her tresses. Her fingers linger on her ribbons as she looks around Mami’s apartment, mostly empty save for the economic furniture arranged tastefully around the room. This isn’t the first time Homura has visited Mami’s apartment, of course. It used to be a tradition: Mami inviting Homura, Madoka, and later Sayaka over for tea and sweets after a day of hunting witches and their familiars. Those days feel lifetimes away, the memory of being wrapped tightly in yellow ribbons and spoken to with barely concealed vitriol much fresher in her mind. Returning here after all the misunderstandings and conflict feels surreal, like the blank slate Homura could never find the time to take advantage of—not with Mami.

She is shaken out of her reverie when Mami reappears in the threshold a few minutes later. Her hand retreats down to her neck, and from there to hang limply at her side.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” Mami says.

“Finally...” Kyoko mutters.

“Oh, shush,” Mami says, her tone more fond than anything else.

— . . . —

It only takes an hour or so of patrols for Homura to realize that Kyubey was right: the three of them do work well together. Between the vicious sweeps and thrusts of Kyoko’s spear, Mami’s nearly continuous musket fire, and her own, more precise strikes, the demons they encounter crumble easily. They collect almost four times their usual haul, most of which goes unused, their soul gems still glowing relatively bright by the end of the night.

She isn’t the only one to realize it either. The understanding is plain as day on the other’s faces. It is obvious in the way they are unscathed by the demons’ attacks, their outfits still crisp and dry.

“Same time tomorrow?” Mami asks before they part ways.

Kyoko bits her lip, heaves a sigh, and shrugs her assent.

The two of them turn to regard Homura, who nods after a moment’s hesitation.

Mami smiles. “Wonderful.”

— . . . —

The next day is a Saturday, so they end up performing an afternoon patrol. Demons prefer lurking in the darker, more isolated parts of the city during the day, so that is where they go, following the pulsing of their soul gems to abandoned warehouses and condemned buildings, slicing through their ranks like a hot knife through butter.

They finish earlier than expected, the grief cubes divvied up and pocketed before the sun has even begun to set.

Mami wrings her hands nervously. “I was hoping—since we finished so early—that perhaps we could go see a movie together?” Kyoko pales and Homura looks away, but Mami continues all the same, “It seems like a really touching film, and the cast seems—”

“Is it one of those romances you like so much?” Kyoko interrupts. When Mami doesn’t reply, Kyoko jams her hands into her pockets. “You can count me out, Mami. Those aren’t worth the money, you know.”

“I’ll treat you!” Mami calls after her, but Kyoko is already walking away. She waves at them before turning the corner without looking back.

When Mami turns her hopeful gaze on her, Homura feels cornered. She shouldn’t have expected any better from Kyoko, really, especially since the two of them weren’t even on good terms this time around. Truth be told, she isn’t too keen on spending a couple of hours watching a movie either, but when she opens her mouth to tell Mami that, she cannot bring herself to say the words.

Scowling a little, Homura decides to surrender. “Fine,” she says, “but I’ll pay for my own ticket.”

“Sounds fair to me, Akemi-san,” Mami says around a pleased smile.

— . . . —

While Mami does let Homura pay for her own ticket, she insists on buying a large tub of popcorn for the two of them to share.

“A trip to the movies wouldn’t be complete without some snacks,” she says, and Homura acquiesces to this as well, taking a few pieces and munching on them halfheartedly as they walk down the hallway to their theater.

There are only a few other people in the theater, most of them older couples. Mami leads her to the center seats in the center aisle, looking quite pleased to have secured what she assures Homura are the best seats in the theater. There are countless lifetimes in Homura’s head, but she cannot remember the last time she did something like this.

From the looks of how Mami can barely contain her excitement, it would seem like she can’t either.

The movie isn’t good by any conventional standard. It was marketed on the posters outside as a tearjerker, but the actors’ performances are much too melodramatic for Homura’s tastes. Still, there is something about the plot—the story of a temple priestess who was sacrificed and a man, her beloved, who made a deal with a demon to restore her to life—that pulls her in.

Tasked by the demon with destroying a number of magnificent creatures, the man journeys across the land to hunt them down. By the time he has slain the fifth, however, it becomes clear that something is amiss: his skin has begun to turn ashen, his body warping with the evil of his misdeeds. He refuses to give up, however, and he continues, heedless of the toll his quest on his body and the growing distance between himself and his beloved—

It all hits too close to home, and before she knows it, she is sobbing so loudly that the rest of the audience turns around to glare at and shush her.

Mortifyingly enough, she cannot choke them down.

Mami hesitantly grabs her by the hand, whispers something into her ear, and leads her outside. The fresh air does little to calm her, but Mami does the rest, wrapping a steadying arm around her shoulder and leading her down the street. “Come on, Akemi-san,” she says. “I know just what will help.”

Homura has calmed down a bit by the time they reach their destination, a small French bakery that’s only a few blocks away from Mami’s apartment. Mami has Homura sit down at a table by the storefront window, and returns a few minutes later with two plates of chocolate cheesecake.

“Here you go,” says Mami quietly. “I hope you like cheesecake.”

Sniffling, Homura picks up her fork and cuts a piece. Under Mami’s watchful gaze, she lifts the fork to her lips and puts the piece into her mouth. It’s good, almost familiar, and Homura slowly eats another forkful.

“I used to come here all the time, when I was feeling down,” Mami tells her. “Their desserts really are the best in the city, and it was fun, learning how to bake these myself.”

Homura looks up from her slice to stare at Mami. “You... tried to replicate the desserts here?”

Mami nods. “It felt silly at first, and my first attempts were really terrible. But I suppose my efforts paid off in the end.” She smiles thoughtfully. “It’s a fulfilling hobby. I’ve found that baking is a good way to get your mind off your troubles, especially since the things you make can be shared with others. By the time Kyoko needed a slice, I had some cakes in my refridgerator that were just as good as the ones here.”

Setting the fork down onto her plate, Homura lifts a hand to pull at her ribbons. “I... apologize for ruining the movie for you. It was inconsiderate of me.”

“You don’t need to apologize for what you feel, Akemi-san,” Mami chides softly. “We all need to let those things out, sometimes; ignoring those feelings would be a disservice to yourself.” A pause. “Perhaps if Miki-san had been more forthcoming about what she’d been feeling, she wouldn’t have....” She trails off.

Ah. Miki-san.

For the first time in weeks, Homura allows herself to consider Miki Sayaka. The two of them had never really been friends; Sayaka had regarded Homura with suspicion and hostility from the start. Perhaps that was why Homura had only ever thought of her within the context of saving Madoka. Homura may have spared a thought to the well-being of Mami and Kyoko, but Sayaka had always been something of an inconvenient obstacle to be overcome. Waking to a new world where Miki Sayaka had just died had not phased her in the least, not after watching her succumb to despair countless times before, and certainly not after Madoka had just erased herself from their reality.

There is no way to turn back the clock now; no magic shield that will allow her to reset all the misfortune and wake up to the sight of the hospital ceiling, the future hers to change. Madoka is gone from this world for good, and so is Sayaka. Homura could never grieve in the same way for both of them, but she allows herself to think of Sayaka now, too.

She had been Madoka’s friend, after all. That counts for something.

Almost as if she could sense her thoughts, Mami says, “Kyoko insisted we make a memorial for Miki-san. It’s rather small, but it’s the least we could do for her.”

“Where is it?” Homura asks.

“At the train station.”

Homura nods, more to herself than Mami. “I see....”

— . . . —

They part ten minutes later.

“It’s my treat,” Mami insists.

“I....” Homura stops, considering. “Thank you, Tomoe-san.”

“Please, Akemi-san. Call me Mami.”

“Then....” Homura blinks her stinging eyes. “Call me Homura.”

Mami smiles at that. “That sounds fair, Homura.”

Homura heads home, thinking about Madoka and Sayaka, Mami and Kyoko. There are no do-overs here, no second chances. Not for her or for anybody.

She lifts her head.

— . . . —

Sayaka’s makeshift memorial is right where Mami said it would be. 

It’s small—just the characters for justice carved into the pillar—but it’s more than most puella magi could ever hope to get. Homura kneels, and sets two flowers in front of the marker—one from her, and another from a friend who could not be there herself. She bows her head and clutches at her ribbons solemnly, offering a halting prayer for Sayaka’s soul. She trusts Madoka, knows without a doubt that she came to retrieve Sayaka, in the end.

When she gets to her feet and turns to leave, she finds Kyoko watching from across the platform, her expression unreadable. Homura stands her ground, her eyes on Kyoko’s. Neither of them breaks the stare for a few long moments, and then Kyoko is walking forward and past her to kneel in front of the marker herself.

Homura says nothing, waiting as Kyoko pays her respects.

Kyoko gets to her feet a couple of minutes later. “You don’t wear red when you’re mourning, stupid,” she points out, though there is no real bite to her words.

She has nothing to offer Kyoko this time; no deal that would give her sole control of the city, if she only allied with her to defeat Walpurgisnacht.

Uselessly, Homura shrugs.

Kyoko’s lips quirk upwards at that. This time, when she pulls out the box of pocky, she offers Homura a stick.

— . . . —

“Mami’s birthday is coming up soon, you know.”

They are at the arcade, Homura watching as Kyoko plays another round of Dog Drug Reinforcement. It’s a different song this time, so Homura isn’t quite as disinterested as she had been the last few times.

“In two days, actually,” Kyoko clarifies.

Homura cocks her head to the side. “You remember Mami’s birthday?”

“And you don’t?” She tsks at Homura, her foot stomping onto the left tile and holding it there for a good five seconds before she starts moving again. “I thought the two of you were friends. Are you really that empty-headed, Akemi?”

She chooses to ignore that, remaining silent so that Kyoko will get to the point.

“Well,” Kyoko goes on, “you have a kitchen where you live, right?”

“Yes.”

“I was thinking of surprising Mami for her birthday with some food. You think I could use your kitchen to do that?”

Homura mulls the request over for a moment before nodding. “That would be fine,” she agrees.

Her back may be turned to her, but she can hear the smirk in Kyoko’s voice when she says, “Great.”

— . . . —

Kyoko shows up at Homura’s apartment well before sunrise, two bags of groceries in each hand. Homura considers shutting the door in her face, but she is well aware that Kyoko knows how to pick locks—she was the one who taught Homura how, after all.

“Hey,” Kyoko greets her. “You gonna let me in or what?”

Homura steps aside to let Kyoko walk past her and into the kitchen. When she hovers in the living room, Homura is reminded, belatedly, that she has never actually visited her apartment in this world. So she leads her there, flicking on the light switch to reveal the dusty counter and appliances.

If Kyoko is bothered by the kitchen’s lack of cleanliness, she gives no indication of it. “Where d’ya keep the pots and pans?” she asks instead, and Homura, who has never cooked anything in this apartment, spends a couple of minutes helping Kyoko look for them.

Homura ends up skipping class that day, staying home to help Kyoko with the cooking as much as her inexperience allows. At lunchtime, the two of them collect all the food, half-cooked as it is, and carry it to Mami’s apartment. To Homura’s surprise, Kyoko doesn’t need to pick the lock; she simply reaches into the potted plant outside Mami’s door and fishes out a spare key.

While Kyoko sets up again, Homura walks to the bakery Mami took her that Saturday and orders a cheesecake. She adds some candles as an afterthought, thinking absently of how bizarre this situation is. She imagines Madoka watching her and giggling in that effervescent way of hers, and that brings a smile to her face.

— . . . —

Mami can only blink in surprise when she returns home from school that afternoon and finds that Homura and Kyoko are already there. She looks like she’s about to cry when the two of them wish her a happy birthday, but she manages to compose herself and embrace each of them. Homura suspects that it’s what she did when she excused herself to go to the bathroom, even if her face didn’t look the slightest bit red or puffy when she reemerged.

They eat at Mami’s low table, the food Kyoko prepared piled high between them. Homura is mostly silent as the other two girls talk, Mami offering Kyoko compliments on her cooking and Kyoko alternating between self-satisfaction and her usual gluttony.

Homura eats more than usual, and she is left feeling lethargic by the time the food is finished. They move to the couch and, before she knows it, she has closed her eyes.

She dreams that Madoka has come to the party as well, wearing the white dress that makes her look like she’s shrouded in a galaxy. Only Homura can see her, and Mami and Kyoko carry on with their conversation, oblivious. Madoka watches them with a smile on her face, and Homura only stares back at her, a matching smile curving her lips upward.

Mami shakes her awake. “Homura,” she calls. “Homura? Are you awake?”

Homura nods, still caught between dream and reality.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” Mami says, “but our soul gems....” A quick glance at her own shows her that it is glowing urgently. Demons have manifested from the miasma; it’s time to go. “Kyoko and I can probably handle this on our own, but I thought it would be best if we told you—”

She shakes her head. “No,” she says, getting up on her feet, “I’ll go.”

Mami nods approvingly. “Alright.”

Homura gets to her feet and stretches a bit, the kinks in her back and shoulders throbbing dully. She stares at the spot Madoka had sat in her dream. On a whim, she draws near and rests her hand on the cushion. It is cold; no one has sat there all night. Homura sniffs, disappointed in herself for entertaining the fantasy. The air smells faintly of rose petals.

By the doorway, Kyoko taps her foot impatiently. “You two sleepyheads ready to get moving yet?”

“Shush, Kyoko,” Mami replies. Her transformation bathes the apartment in yellow light.

Smirking, Kyoko does the same, and Homura dutifully follows suit. The scent is gone, swept away by the rapid outpour of magic and humming air conditioner, but she smiles softly to herself all the same.

"Ready?" Mami asks her.

"Yes," says Homura.

Mami grabs her hand as Kyoko opens the door. Together, they step out, and let the light of each other’s soul gems guide them to exactly where they're needed.