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farewell, until we meet again

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“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” Hitomi-chan grabs my shoulders and shakes them vigorously, a wild light in her eyes. “It’s that time of the year! The time where man and woman will come together, caught up in the embrace of love! Their eyes will meet, and destiny will unravel, revealing true desire! The romance will blossom, becoming the beautiful flower that represents all that is meant to be!”

 

“A-ahh,” is all I can manage as Hitomi-chan shakes my body back and forth. “H-Hitomi-chan, I don’t think you’re making any sense…”

 

“Madoka-san, how could you not?” She looks wounded, as though I have suggested a terrible blasphemy against all of her ideals. “This is how this day came to be, you know! Ah, the tradition of card-giving, receiving roses from a secret admirer, watching all our classmates to place bets on who would confess to whom—it is absolutely, wonderfully, the true essence of love!”

 

“Yeah, and also Saotome-sensei being extra crabby with us today, cause I don’t think she had such a great time of it,” Sayaka-chan interjects flatly.

 

I giggle. “That’s true. I hear she got so mad last year that she assigned everyone extra homework.”

 

“Well—,” Hitomi-chan withdraws her hands from me at last, “I must say that, as much as I respect our teacher, she simply does not have the aptitude of a true, love-filled relationship.”

 

“I suppose you’re the only one who does, huh?” Sayaka-chan says with a sideways glance. “Since you’re the only one out of all of us dating a guy.”

 

At this Hitomi-chan gives a small, forced-looking smile. “While that may be true, that does not make me a love expert, as much as I hate to admit it.”

 

I cock my head in confusion. “Then what was all that stuff you were saying before, Hitomi-chan?”

 

“I simply like to think of Valentine’s day as the one opportunity when all repressed feelings would emerge, and true love will bloom. Perhaps I romanticize it a little,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But it’s no doubt that today is the day when you will discover if you have a secret crush.”

 

Sayaka-chan grunts. “You get love letters literally every day, though. How many was it last month, four?”

 

“Three-and-a-half. I believe the one I received last Thursday may be a prank, though I’m not very certain. I do wish that if one takes the time out of their life to write a love letter, they would do it properly.”

 

“Oh, how awful!” Sayaka-chan puts a hand to her forehead and mimes fainting. “My love letters aren’t gooood enough! This is truly the most terrible thing! Oh, how I wish that my life wasn’t so rife with suffering!”

 

We burst out laughing as Hitomi-chan glares at us, her arms crossed, before she sighs and shakes her head in disappointment.

 

I am still occasionally giggling as our school peaks over the horizon. Around us, students are travelling in the same direction, perhaps chatting amiably about the same topic. Someone seems to be resting by an umbrella table. “Hitomi-chan, you must be really lucky for that to be a problem for you.” I sigh and look at my feet. “I’m really envious, actually. I wish I got someone sending me love letters. Even just one.”

 

I do wonder, sometimes, why I don’t receive love letters like Hitomi-chan. I know I’m not very popular, especially since I only transferred here recently, but even before Mitakihara I didn’t receive any. I know I’m not very beautiful, and I don’t have any special talents either. I wonder if it’s my clumsiness, or that people know how I can only really cause trouble for others...

 

“Oh, you haven’t received a single one?” Hitomi-chan’s eyes softened as she sees me look away. “I’m sorry, Madoka-san. I’m sure there’s someone out there who loves you. Perhaps they’re simply too shy.”

 

“Yeah!” Sayaka-chan rushes to add. “You’ve got us! You don’t need to worry about becoming as popular as Hitomi. Plus, I won’t allow myself to lose you to a bunch of lousy boys! You are to become my bride, Madoka!”

 

She cackles and and I yelp as she tickles my waist. I giggle involuntarily, trying to struggle her off. “H-hey, hehehe—stop! Hehe! That t-tickles!”

 

Hitomi-chan coughs. We halt in our tracks, faces red with laughter, then pull away from each other, smiling sheepishly.

 

We walk on for a bit before she suddenly puts both hands on her cheeks and says dramatically, “I did not realize that you two had such… proclivities!”

 

“Uh,” Sayaka-chan says, “what?”

 

“You!” she points at Sayaka-chan. “And you!” she points at me. “You’re both girls!” Then she drops her hand as though that explained everything.

 

“So what’s that supposed to…” Then Sayaka-chan’s eyes widen as she realizes the implications of what Hitomi-chan was saying. She glances at me, then quickly looks away, looking red. “Wh-what! No way! It’s not like that!”

 

Feeling hot, I look down at the ground. The idea of two girls being together… I feel kind of flustered by it. Somehow, though, I can’t see myself being like that with Sayaka-chan. She’s a really good friend, but… what did Hitomi-chan say…? I don’t think I would send her flowers or love letters, would I?

 

Sayaka-chan is still stammering, “I wouldn’t like someone in that way! I don’t have time to waste for this gross romance stuff!”

 

“Gross romance stuff?” Hitomi-chan looks absolutely offended. “How could you regard one of mankind’s greatest constants as gross?

 

“Well, I call it like I see it! All that kissing stuff seems kind of gross.”

 

“I’d really like to try kissing somebody sometime,” I say fervently. “When couples do it they seem to really like it, it must feel very nice…”

 

“I am sure that one day it will happen to you as well,” Hitomi-chan reassures me. “One way or another, many of us will find our true love at some point in our lives.”

 

“But—“ a thought occurs to me— “most love letters are unsigned, right? Then how will you know…—?”

 

“You don’t. But it certainly does feel wonderful to receive flowers or a card, doesn’t it? Knowing that you have a secret admirer, someone who cares deeply about you—doesn’t it make you feel all warm inside?”

 

“I suppose it would,” I agree. But as we walk through the front door of our classroom, I think, I wonder what it would be like if I had someone who loved me like that.

 

////

 

Sayaka-chan explodes as soon as we are out of earshot of our classroom. “That was insane! What the hell kind of relationships did that woman go through to make her vent all her bitterness onto us poor students?”

 

Saotome-sensei not only gave us double the usual amount of homework, she also filled up the entire class time with nothing but silly questions about the proper way to treat women who aren’t able to cook the right eggs or buy the right shoes. It was what we are used to from her, but much worse. I don’t know if I’ll even able to finish this assignment tonight. Though thankfully I can ask Hitomi-chan.

 

“At least we weren’t given the same ordeal as poor Nakazawa-kun,” I tell her. “She asked him to stay after class. I really hope he’s not being punished or anything...”

 

“Yeah? I’ve always wondered why she picks on that poor guy. People have talked about how they’re... you know, but I never believed it.” She rolls her eyes. “Seems ridiculous to me.”

 

“Anything’s possible,” says Hitomi-chan. “Why else would she always target him like that? Perhaps he’s the son of one of the men who rejected her.”

 

“Ya think? That’s a tall order. But I guess if you step into her shoes you’d have pretty complicated feelings about seeing a kid like that.”

 

“Oh, it’s so unbearably painful your heart will turn cold and dead at every sight of the image of someone who has betrayed you!” Hitomi-chan wipes at her eyes and places a hand on her heart.

 

“Uh, and you’re speaking from experience?”

 

“No, I’m speaking from common sense!”

 

I listen to the two of them gossip and bicker and I feel relieved that, even though I haven’t had any romantic experience, at least I don’t have it as bad as Saotome-sensei. It must have been terrible for her, going through so many bad relationships. Or maybe, I think sadly, would it be better to have loved and lost than never loved at all? Wouldn't that mean that at least that a spark happened, rather than always carrying the empty feeling of something missing from you? I imagine opening my notebook to see that someone has slipped a note in there: I love you, Kaname-san! Please become my girlfriend! It makes me feel almost lonely, even though both Sayaka-chan and Hitomi-chan are there.

 

“Oh, look at the time!”

 

Hitomi-chan’s voice jerks me out of my reverie. She is standing up and taking her bookbag with her. “I’m very sorry to leave on you like this, but my piano lesson was scheduled early today.”

 

“Oh no!” I moan quietly and put my head in my hands. “I was hoping you could tutor me so that I wouldn’t get a complete fail on the homework Saotome-sensei gave us today…”

 

Sayaka-chan laughs. “You were actually planning on doing it?”

 

“Well, yes! I do worry about my grades, Sayaka-chan.”

 

“Me too, obviously,” she says airily. “I was actually gonna leave to go study with Kyoko. Wanna come with?”

 

“Er, actually…” As much as I love hanging out with my friends, I know that both Sayaka-chan and Kyoko-chan have very poor grades, and if I studied with them I might be even more confused than I am now. Sighing, I say, “I’ll have to pass, sorry. I don’t know if you and Kyoko-chan will be good study partners for me.”

 

Whaaaaat?!” Sayaka-chan gasps, look mock-offended. “I mean, sure, I got an average of fifty-three on my last five assignments, and Kyoko did even worse, but two minds are better than one, right?”

 

“I don’t know about that…”

 

“Well, fine. But I won’t forget this insult!” She begins fake-sniffling, and I swipe at her playfully.

 

Hitomi-chan looks at us with a mixture of exasperation and affection. “Well, seeing as we’re all going our separate ways, I will see both of you tomorrow at school. Good-bye!”

 

“Later!”

 

“Bye, Hitomi-chan, Sayaka-chan!” I wave at them as they go.

 

The school was still bustling with students but my table and the ones surrounding it are quiet. Deciding that it is better to get an early start, I take out the stapled sheets of paper and lay them flat on the surface.

 

“Now let’s see…”

 

Words and punctuation immediately crowd my brain, too confusing too even begin to decipher. I try to move onto the next question. I try to look up my nonsense-filled class notes. I try to desperately text Hitomi-chan, whose phone was turned off. I try to flip the sheet upside down to see if the answer is secretly hidden that way. By the time I realize that it’s hopeless, more than an hour had gone by.

 

“Ohhh…” I groan and press my face onto my assignment. “How am I ever going to get through this…” Moping, I pick at the sheet's corner, wishing that I can finish this assignment and freely take a nap. Feeling drowsy, I close my eyes...

 

“Madoka.”

 

Ah!” I sit up so fast that my knee bangs into the bottom of the table. I grit my teeth as pain shoots up my leg. Eyes blurring, I can see the figure of a student with long dark hair standing over me.

 

Hastily, I stammer, “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there, I kind of zoned out, I hope you weren’t waiting long—I… I…”

 

As my vision clears, I realize whom I’m talking to and trail off.

 

It was her. That unmistakable long dark hair and indigo eyes. Akemi Homura, the girl who introduced herself to me, showed me around her school, wrapped me in a hug, gave me her red ribbons, then mysteriously vanished out of my life—until now.

 

Heat rushes to my cheeks and I stare down at my fingers.

 

Homura-chan doesn’t seem to notice. She casts a critical eye over my work and says, “Are you having trouble?”

 

I nod mutely and try my best to make myself as small as possible. It doesn’t work. I can feel Homura-chan’s gaze scorching into me, and I rub my hands together, self-conscious.

 

“If you wish it, perhaps I can assist you.”

 

Somehow I find my voice. “Oh, no, that’s okay—I-I wouldn’t want you to go into any trouble for me, you must have homework too…”

 

“I have already completed it,” she says.

 

“Oh—well—that’s good! Then I guess I wouldn’t mind if you helped me—um.”

 

She nods stiffly and slides next to me. I am very aware of how close Homura-chan is—nearly close enough to touch, and close enough for me to feel her warmth. She seems tense, I think, with her body leaning away as if actively trying not to get close to me. I shiver at the unspoken tension in the air. I don’t know how to act, especially since Homura-chan isn’t nearly as easy to talk to as my friends. I try anyway.

 

“Um, Homura-chan, how were your classes lately?”

 

“They were fine.”

 

“Oh.”

 

And I don’t know what else to say after that.

 

Homura-chan reaches over my arm to take a pencil. “So what are you having difficulty with?”

 

“Um...” I try to forget the feeling of Homura-chan’s hand brushing briefly against my sleeve, making it hard to concentrate. “I—I think I’m having trouble understanding the English grammar rules, and the different types of clauses, and… basically everything, really,” I say with a defeated tone.

 

“I see,” she says. She points to the first problem: A pot of yellow flowers is/are lying on the desk. It took me several minutes to even fully understand the sentence. English has always been my worst subject, and even after my three years in America, I still have not fully grasped the rules.

 

“I don’t know which one it is,” I admit, feeling ashamed. “I think the second one is right because it sounds better, but then I thought it might be a trick question…”

 

“Think about subject-verb agreement. The singular subject—“ Homura-chan underlines the pot—“should always match to a singular verb.” She underlines the is.

 

“But, what about the ‘yellow flowers’?”

 

“They are not part of the subject, they are merely a descriptive phrase accompanying it,” she replies. “Think of it this way: is the sentence saying that the pot is lying on the table, or the flowers?”

 

“Oh.” I still feel somewhat confused. English is so difficult for me that I always let Mama or Hitomi-chan speak for me when I need to. “But I still think that the second choice just feels more right.”

 

“It does sound more ‘right,’” she agrees, “which is why this is a common mistake to make.” She takes a deep breath and says, “’A pot of yellow flowers is lying on the desk.’”

 

I let out an involuntary giggle.

 

Homura-chan blinks. “I apologize if I sounded funny.”

 

“No, no, it’s not that!” I reassure her, still trying to hold in my giggles. “Your English is much better than mine, I’m in no place to judge you for it…”

 

But hearing that even someone as serious as Homura-chan can say something in English with such a cute accent… it gives me a sense of relief I did not know I needed. Homura-chan’s expression makes me giggle even more—she looks as though she doesn’t know what kind of face to make, instead of her usual stoic face. After a bit of internal debate, it seems, she flushes and looks away.

 

I smile, realizing that it’s not so hard to talk to Homura-chan after all. I do want to be friends with her, but she seems so reclusive and strange in almost a scary way. But now I can see that she’s just a normal girl like anyone else, except maybe a little more lonely. And even though she acts a little strangely, she was still kind to me during my transfer, wasn’t she?

 

“Madoka?”

                                             

I give a tiny surprised squeak as I am jerked out of my thoughts.

 

Homura-chan is looking at me and I feel almost guilty, as though she can read my mind and has heard everything. If she has, though, she gives no indication of it. “So do you understand now?”

 

“Um, a little, I think. I might just need to practice some more.” I take my pencil back from her carefully, but even then our fingers brush against each other and I feel a burning sensation on the tips. “Um, Homura-chan, I want to ask…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Can you… help me with the rest of this assignment, too?”

 

For the second time—the first being the day we met—I see the hint of what could possibly be a smile playing on Homura-chan’s lips. She nods. “I would be happy to.”

 

 

////

 

 

It is quiet but focused work, and we finish much sooner than I expected. Homura-chan taught the rules to me in an ever-patient manner, even when I got the same question wrong several times. She guided me through each problem at my pace, always asking me if I had any questions and clarifying concepts that I found difficult to understand at first. She never got mad at me for asking too many questions or getting the wrong answer. In fact, I can dare to say that she might even be a much better tutor than Hitomi-chan, who tries her best to be patient, but even she has her limits when dealing with someone as clueless as me.

 

I breathe out a long sigh of relief as I set my pencil down and massage my aching hand. “Oh, I’m so glad that’s over!”

 

It is afternoon now, and the few students still mingling in the cafeteria have gone, leaving just Homura-chan and me. The sun has only just started to set, its orange rays too bright to look at even through the window. Homura-chan’s hair catches the reflection, and I notice for the first time how soft and smooth it is, dark and silky like soft fur. The sudden temptation to stroke her hair seizes me, and I barely stop myself from actually going through with it—my hand stops halfway and recedes before she notices.

 

“Is there anything else you want me to help you with?” Homura-chan asks, thankfully oblivious.

 

“No, that’s okay.” I smile at her, trying not to let my nervousness show. “I think I understand it much better now, thanks to you, Homura-chan.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it.” She begins packing her bookbag. “If you need help for anything at all, please know that I will do everything in my power to aid you,” she says, standing up. She bows to me—a slight, formal motion—and turns to leave.

 

I watch her go, her hair swaying as she walks, and I feel the sudden urge to call out to her.

 

“Homura-chan! Wait!”

 

She stops.

 

I catch up to her, panting, having hastily shoved all my papers into my bag. “Ho… Homura-chan, hold on for a bit.”

 

Homura-chan turns to me. “What is it?”

 

“I, um…” Now that she is listening to me, the pit of anxiety in my stomach seems to grow. I swallow the lump in my throat and say bravely, “I—I want to ask if you would like to… to walk home together. Or… at least walk together until we have to go to our separate ways.”

 

The adrenaline still pumping through me, I look straight into her widened eyes. Her mouth is slightly parted in surprise and an expression I have never seen before on her is crossing her face: doubt.

 

“Please,” I say, simply and without pleading. “I want to get to know you, Homura-chan.”

 

Suddenly the girl in front of me seems to transform—one moment, tall, stiff and cold; the next, shy, insecure, almost fragile. Homura-chan rubs her hands together, a near-identical gesture to the one I performed only a few hours ago. She looks down, to the side, anywhere but my direction. “I—I don’t know.”

 

“That’s okay. I don’t want to force you, Homura-chan. But…” I know this is risky, but I do it anyway. I step forward and take both her hands in mine, and they feel cold at first but I will them to warm. She gasps and looks up, her eyes glittering. I hold her hands and her gaze firmly as I say, “I had a lot of fun with you, and I think we could really be friends. So, please give me this chance, okay?”

 

Her breathing seems shaky, and her hands are trembling within mine. I wonder if those are tears in her eyes. Then she bursts out, “Do you really want to know me? Someone who scared you so much on your first day? Do you really want to know someone like that?”

 

“I do.” And as I say it, I truly believe it in my heart. Holding her hands like this feels almost familiar, like a long-forgotten sensation in the past. Images flash through my mind: Homura-chan’s hair blowing in the wind as debris fall around her; a soft, multicolored realm with upside-down portraits of me; a flower garden and two white chairs. Then they are gone, and I am looking into Homura-chan’s scared eyes, as patient as she was.

 

“Okay,” she whispers. The word almost did not come out; it was merely a rasp, meek and hesitant and fearful. But it does, and I feel so much joy well up inside me that I almost hug her but I catch myself, feeling that I have scared Homura-chan enough for several days.

 

I think about Hitomi-chan’s rambling this morning, about gazing into each other’s eyes and destiny unraveling and true desire being revealed. Maybe it wasn’t so ridiculous after all, I think.

 

////

 

Mitakihara seems particularly beautiful today. The city lights seem rosy, almost dreamlike, and I feel almost as though I am floating as I walk alongside Homura-chan.

 

It is quiet, as much as our tutoring session was, though not uncomfortable. The sounds of our footsteps match the soft tranquility of the landscape. Homura-chan keeps her eyes ahead, but unlike the day we met, she and I are walking alongside each other. I glance at her every now and then; she has returned to the Homura-chan I know, graceful and remote and beautiful. It almost brings me relief, because the fragile Homura-chan I have glimpsed, her eyes like fractured glass, has frightened me. It scared me, to look into eyes that hold that much pain. 

 

There’s so much I don’t know about you, Homura-chan. But I want to change that.

 

“Homura-chan?” I break the silence for the first time.

 

“What is it?”

 

“What’s your favorite color?”

 

She hesitates. “I’m—not sure. I never truly thought about it.”

 

“Mine’s pink,” I say. “I think it’s a really cheerful and pretty color. It’s the color of the roses Papa plants in the garden. And it’s also the color of my hair, of course!”

 

“I surmised it would be pink,” she says.

 

“Aww, what gave you that idea, Homura-chan?” I pout.

 

“Your hair, your wardrobe—“

 

“Homura-chan! Don’t tell me you’ve peeked into my closet, don’t you know that you shouldn’t look at a girl’s selection of clothes without her permission?”

 

“I didn’t know that.” Her brow furrows. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Oh, Homura-chan, I’m just joking,” I say, giggling. “But you’re right, it is pretty obvious.”

 

We round a curve, watching some children chase each other around a tree. “I don’t know what mine would be,” Homura-chan says after a while.

 

“Hmm…” I cock my head as I look at her, imagining her wearing different shades of color. “I think you’d look good in purple.”

 

“Purple?”

 

“I think it’d match your pretty eyes, Homura-chan. Plus, pink and purple are next to each other on the color wheel!” I like art, even though I’m not very good at it, so I know some basic color theory.

 

“I suppose that makes sense,” Homura-chan says, as though contemplating a deep and complex issue rather than a favorite color.

 

“Think about it, Homura-chan! You don’t have to take my suggestions, if you find that you prefer a color other than purple, then it’s totally okay!”

 

“Okay,” she murmurs. She returns my smile with a faint one of her own.

 

The highway in the distance, with its golden rungs, looks stunning in the sunset. It has always had a traffic problem, Mama told me, and she often comes home ranting about how the government needed to do something about it because she ends up being late for business meetings. It’s so close to the residence area that I worry that the poor stray cats I see now and then may inadvertently wander there and get hurt, or even worse.

 

“Hey, Homura-chan, what’s your favorite animal?”

 

Homura-chan’s contemplative expression is very cute: her eyebrows are curved downwards and her lip arches a little. “I like cats,” she answers.

 

“Cats!” I repeat, feeling pleased. I have something in common with Homura-chan! “They’re my favorite animal, too. Mama used to have a kitten in the house, but after she had my brother she had to give her away because she can’t handle a pet and two kids at once.”

 

“That’s very unfortunate.”

 

“Yeah… I still feel a little sad about it sometimes. But I like seeing them on the streets.” Like the little black one I sometimes cross paths with. I pet her and sometimes I even talk to her about my day when Hitomi-chan and Sayaka-chan aren’t around. She always seems willing to listen, and will even climb onto my lap to make me feel better if I’m feeling down.

 

“So why do you like cats, Homura-chan?”

 

“I like them…” she pauses a bit as she thinks— “because they’re like me, I think.”

 

I tip my head to the side. “What do you mean?”

 

“They are alone, too. Sometimes they had a loving owner, like your cat, only to be abandoned.” Homura-chan’s eyes are incredibly sad, absorbed in something I can’t see. “I wonder how that makes them feel.”

 

“Alone and abandoned…,” I murmur. “The cats I see don’t seem to mind, but perhaps deep down they’re hurting just like we do.”

 

Homura-chan nods and gazes into the distance. I look at her and I can’t help thinking how she does seem very much like a cat. Homura-chan is aloof, cold, wary, and independent; but she also has a timid side, and she is also very caring, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first. And, I realize with a smile, perhaps that’s why I want to stroke her hair so badly, too.

 

“I want to take care of a cat like that,” I say. “It doesn’t have to be all the cats. Even just one. I want to make it feel loved and happy, and let it know that I won’t ever abandon it.” I look at Homura-chan. “Do you think… do you think I can do something like that?’

 

Homura-chan looks at the ground for a bit before responding. “I think you can. You are selfless and patient enough.”

 

I blush, trying not to fidget. “I’m not that wonderful! I just think it’s very sad that some cats have to go through everything alone.”

 

“But most people would have walked by and not done anything. They don’t think it’s their place. The fact that you want to take them into your care, even though you don’t need to—it shows that you have kindness in abundance.”

 

“I—I suppose,” I say, a little shyly. 

 

We reach a crossroads, the same path Hitomi-chan and Sayaka-chan and I took this morning. The umbrella table is still there, looking rather forlorn and lonely as the umbrella flutters in the breeze.

 

I walk a few more steps ahead before I realize that Homura-chan has stopped. Surprised, I halt in my step and turn to look back at her. “Oh, is this where we part?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Oh,” I say. I don’t know what to do now. It felt good to be with Homura-chan, and I don’t want to leave. My feet are rooted in the ground. For a few moments, both of us stand there. It’s so hard to take one step now, despite the fact that I have taken several before this. Because who knows when will be the next time we meet? Will I—we—have the courage to do this once more?

 

What if you disappear again?

 

“Homura-chan, why did you go away?”

 

“I—“ she pauses mid-sentence, realizing what I mean, and blinks as though I physically struck her.

 

“You gave me those ribbons.” I reach up and touch them; the fabric is soft and worn and so, so familiar. “You hugged me and told me that we would be enemies. And then you—you left.” I shook my head. “I was so confused. I wondered where you had gone and why… can you tell me?”

 

“I can’t,” she says, almost immediately, in a voice so certain that it makes my heart sink all the way to my stomach.

 

“Why can’t you?”

 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she says softly.

 

My heart feels like lead, and I am peering at Homura-chan’s feet through a haze of pain. “Then… can you at least answer me this?” When I look up at her I almost glare at her. “Why did you approach me today?”

 

“You were in trouble. I wanted to help you,” she says.

 

“Even for something like this?”

 

“Yes.” Her voice does not waver even a little.

 

“Even though we just met?”

 

“Yes.” It shakes a little now, laced with hesitation.

 

The longer I look at Homura-chan, the more the seed of a suspicion in my mind grows, until I finally speak it out loud. “Homura-chan, we’ve met before, haven’t we?”

 

And everything goes white and her arms are around me, painfully tight, and I gasp out a breath and my head feels blinded with memories, too fast to recall, to keep up with, and my rapidly growing hair is stifled by her embrace, my glow diminished, the blue sky around me and the clouds swirling around me and I see the glimpse of white gloved hands reaching for me but they’re further and further and further away until they are as small as stars in the night sky—

 

For an instant, less than a second, everything is clear to me, and I use the last of my energy to say her name: “Ho… mura… chan…” with all those memories of her in my mind—

 

And then it’s gone. Homura-chan’s panting heavily, swallowing gulps of air like a drowning person. Her arms are shaking so violently that it’s a wonder she can keep them around me. I feel limp, exhausted.

 

I feel wetness on my neck and shoulder. Homura-chan says quietly, “I’m sorry, Madoka. We can’t be friends.”

 

I’m crying too, though the reason why seems to be flying away, like birds into the cloudy sky. I grasp Homura-chan’s skirt with my fingers, the only part of her I can reach. I know I can’t hold on—everything is already fading away.

 

“Madoka.” Homura-chan’s soft voice is close to my ear. “Please remember this: so many people love you. Even if you don’t receive any love letters, any confessions, any flowers—please know this. You are loved. I love you.”

 

I open my mouth to reply, but it’s too late and everything falls away into a dizzying blackness.

 

 

////

 

 

“Hey, Hitomi!”

 

Sayaka-chan and I run over to our friend, who is walking down the sidewalk with a definite grimace in her expression.

 

“I take it the date didn’t go well?” I say sympathetically.

 

“He’s impossible!” Hitomi-chan fumes. “’Hey, Kamijo-kun, how about a walk in the park?’ ‘Nah, violin.’ ‘Okay, what about watching a movie?’ ‘I want to play violin.’ ‘Why don’t we just eat dinner instead?’ ‘I need to play violin.’ Honestly!”

 

“You’re too good for him, Hitomi!” Sayaka-chan says. “I’ve known that guy since elementary school and I’m surprised his hand didn’t get permanently damaged from all that playing.”

 

“Some people just have something they’re really passionate about,” I muse.

 

Sayaka-chan snorts and rolls her eyes. “Well, there comes a point where you get too invested in something only for it to consume you. It’s not healthy.”

 

I tilt my head to the side. Sayaka-chan almost sounds as if she’s speaking from experience, but she never had a boyfriend—at least, not that I know of.

 

“Perhaps you might be a better match for him, Sayaka-san.” Hitomi-chan sighs heavily. “I don’t know if I can handle this for much longer.”

 

“Well, you know.” For some reason, Sayaka-chan is blushing, shuffling from one foot to the other in an uncharacteristically anxious manner. “I can make it up to you, if you want. I’ll treat you and pay for you and all.”

 

Hitomi-chan lets out a squeak, her face bright red. After a length pause she says uncertainly, “Well, if you’re sure, Sayaka-san… just to make it up to me, right? Of course…”

 

I giggle and catch Sayaka-chan’s wink, and I wink back.

 

“Madoka, you can join too if you want,” Sayaka-chan says. “A nice threesome dinner date, what do you say?”

 

“Oh, no, you two go on ahead.” I try to hide my smile. “I hope you enjoy yourselves.”

 

“Right, then, see you later!” She puts a hand up in the air, the other one holding that of Hitomi-chan, who is trying hard to hide the contact from passerby.

 

I am alone now. The late afternoon breeze blows gently at my face, and the city lights are turning on one by one, giving the whole world a warm glow that matches the feeling inside me. A black shape catches my eye, and as I walk closer I realize it’s a cat, a small black-furred stray with light green eyes. I kneel down and rub the area between her ears.

 

“Hello, little one.”

 

“Meow.”

 

“I’m glad to see you again. You haven’t changed a bit.”

 

She closes her eyes as I stroke her soft head.

 

“You know, I wonder if Hitomi-chan and Sayaka-chan are going to become close. I really hope they would, because Hitomi-chan doesn’t seem too happy with Kamijo-kun. But I know Sayaka-chan spends a lot of time with Kyoko-chan, too.”

 

She opens her jaws wide in a yawn, her tiny mouth showing its pinkness.

 

I chuckle. “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t very interesting to you. But it makes me happy that all my friends care about each other. Though sometimes I even feel jealous because they all have someone who loves them as more than just a friend. But I don’t feel that way anymore."


The little black cat places her paws on my leg and begins rubbing against it, purring, and I feel contentedness in my heart.

 

“I think I’ll find someone like that eventually if I'm patient. But even if I don’t, that’s okay, too. Because I have them, all of the ones who are so precious to me. Sayaka-chan, Hitomi-chan, Kyoko-chan, Mama, Papa, Tatsuya… and…” I trail off.

 

“Meow.”

 

“And you, of course, Amy. Oh, may I call you Amy? I’ve always thought that was a very cute name for an adorable kitten like you.”

 

She purrs strongly, and I decide that she agrees. “Okay, Amy.” I dislodge her gently and give her one final rub behind her ears. “Thank you so much for listening to me, as always.” I get up to leave, but an idea pops into my head. “Do you want to come home with me?”

Amy stares at me, her tail stiff. Then she places her head on her paws, shutting her eyes.

 

“I see. Well, that’s okay. I know you’re very independent, and even if you don’t want me to take you in, I’ll still come and talk to you every day. Does that sound good?”

 

Her ears wiggle slightly, and she bounds over and gives me a lick on my hand. I giggle, the rough texture of her tongue tickling me. I hold her for a moment before she waves her tail and runs off deep into the bushes, the tip of her tail vanishing inside. I don’t worry, though. I’m sure I’ll see her again.

 

As I walk back home, I see an umbrella table for two on the sidewalk. Feeling a smile beginning to spread on my face, I trot over and sit down on one of the chairs, waiting.