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A Red Umbrella

Chapter Text

“Homura-chan?”

Madoka’s voice tears me from my reverie. She stands before me at the one eastward bus stop on Mitakihara’s longest bridge, a red umbrella in her hand. Her shoes are wet, and it’s only then that I recognize that it’s raining, my clothes long since soaked through.

I’ve never seen that umbrella before. How strange.

“What are you doing here, Madoka?” She’s alone today, and this bridge won’t take her home. It isn’t like her to go downtown without a friend.

“The forecast today said to expect rain, but I saw you leave school without an umbrella.”

She followed me here? Come to think of it, I barely remember leaving school. Typically, as long as I leave class early enough today, then Mami doesn’t bring Sayaka and Madoka out, and everyone heads home instead of hunting witches. Why not today? And where did she get that umbrella?

“Want me to walk you home?”

Without waiting for a reply, she holds the umbrella out over me, pointlessly protecting what’s already soaked beyond salvation and exposing herself to the rain in the process.

That’s so much like you. No one else is that stupid.

Even when I say nothing, she sits there with a benign smile, as if she can’t feel the cold.

You idiot.

 

 

We’re well into downtown before I realize what the problem is. I’ve been taking cues from Madoka about what route to take home, only to remember that she has no idea where I live. She’s probably under the impression that I’m leading her through the shortest route home, but the right turn-off for that was ten minutes ago. There’s no way to turn around or re-route without either looking like a total space case or like I’ve deliberately wasted her time.

Except, “I’ll buy you coffee.”

“Oh.” She blinks. “I just started drinking coffee a few days ago. Thank you.”

We find a place to stop without issue, but ordering coffee at a convenience store while drenched is far from dignified. The lady behind the counter offers me a towel, and as much as I would prefer to refuse, my hair was dripping enough she ultimately didn’t wait for an answer.

We stand outside under the awning, still not talking until our drinks are almost finished.

“Where did you get that umbrella?”

“Hm?” She glances down at her hands, one holding coffee, and one holding the folded umbrella, as if she’d forgotten what was in them.

“Oh. Hitomi-chan always brings two umbrellas to school when it might rain. I didn’t want to wait to check one out, so I borrowed hers. I thought I wouldn’t be able to catch up with you otherwise.”

Not that Madoka would have caught up with me either way if I hadn’t paused at that bench, but what would the difference of a few minutes make? Either way, if I’d been trying to get home, I would have been home first. She has no reason to assume I’d wait for her. So why would she rush after me, when there was no reason to expect that rushing would lead to a different result?

I was going to get wet anyway. Why bother?

“You haven’t forgotten what I asked of you, have you?”

She tilts her head curiously. “What?”

Then, as if it only took a second to click, she says, “Oh, about making a contract. Yeah, I remember. I promise.”

“Good.”

I take a sip of coffee and wait for a couple of teenagers to pass by so we may remain unheard.

I add, “Just leave the witches to Mami Tomoe and me. As long as she cooperates with me, there’s no need for another magical girl in Mitakihara.”

She smiles again. “You’re really cool, Homura-chan. You must be super strong.”

I finish off my coffee first, hoping she can see none of the feelings on my face. For as long as I’ve strived to be the person she was for me, any sign that that might be the case makes me feel weird.

She should be looking forward to the light. She should not peer into darkness and pretend there is something to see.

“Strong enough.”

We throw away our finished coffees, and I wordlessly point the way home and begin walking. She takes a second to open the umbrella again before following, walking beside me and protecting us both from the rain.

“Don’t you get lonely?”

Lonely? It’s hard to say. The pangs my loneliness caused me early on are fewer and further between, until weeks may go by without feeling any pain at all. On the other hand, what else could you call my existence, both beside and isolated from everyone I’ve ever called a friend? It is not so much that I feel lonely; rather, loneliness has shaped me into its image.

“Not anymore. Such feelings can slow and even defeat a magical girl. The will to continue fighting means the will to continue on alone.”

Something Mami Tomoe could stand to learn.

Madoka stares down at her feet as she walks. Our pace keeps threatening to sync, but I step just off-rhythm enough that it doesn’t happen.

“Then, do you want to be left alone?”

No one else was going out of their way to spend time with me - quite the opposite - so it’s clear she means do you want me to leave you alone? It takes every ounce of self control I have to keep from snapping at her. 

You have always left me alone. I have never wanted it.

I hold that back, letting it loop in my mind until the words lose their meaning. We walk on in silence.

She breaks it first, “Could I ask for something selfish? Or, I guess you could call it a wish?”

When she catches my glare, she only giggles and grins.

“As long as it’s not for a contract, sure.”

“Mmm . . . well, it’s kind of a contract. But not a magical girl one.”

She seems delighted by her own cheekiness, but I only roll my eyes. These jokes are tasteless on a level she can barely imagine.

I ask, “What is it?”

She doesn’t say anything immediately, but she does keep looking at me long after her joke is resolved. I can’t tell why she’s staring, but whatever she’s trying to figure out, I’m not going to provide her answers by looking her in the face. It is so much easier to hide what I’m thinking when I’m not looking at her.

Finally, she says, “Even if you want to be alone, I don’t want to leave you alone.”

My hands ball into fists. That’s so like you.

“Trying to save me?” I ask, still staring on ahead. We’re getting close to my house.

She shakes her head. “I know this doesn’t make any sense, but I get the feeling that I know you. Like maybe we were best friends in a previous life?”

I start walking faster, but she picks up the pace seamlessly with me.

“I don’t believe in reincarnation.”

“I don’t think I do either,” she replies. “But this isn’t about that. It’s just a feeling. Like we could be really good friends.”

Of course we could. You are my very best friend.

“Well, wish or no wish, I had no intention of leaving you alone.”

It’s one of those things I should hold back, but talking with Madoka has a way of pulling down the barriers between what I think and what I say. It’s possibly the worst effect of being near her, and it’s caused me no end of trouble. Now I’ve all but called myself a stalker - as if that isn’t going to make everyone twice as wary of me as they already are.

A smile still on her face, she looks away again, down the street towards my house.

So quietly I’m not sure she meant for me to hear, she says, “So you feel the same way that I do, huh?”

No. There’s no way we feel the same.

We reach my front door without saying anything further.

As I go to unlock the door, she says, “Homura-chan?”

I look over my shoulder. She’s still doing her best to shield me from the rain, although she’s standing close enough that she can stay under it a little too.

“Let’s call it a promise. I won’t leave you alone, and you won’t leave me alone. Let’s be friends, okay?”

Once again, I don’t hold back properly:

“We’re already friends.”

Her whole face brightens until I can’t stand to look at it, and turn my attention back to the door. When she smiles, when she really smiles, Madoka is the closest thing this world has to an angel. I won’t let this world take her smile. Not this time.

When I get the door open, I tell her, “Thank you for walking me home,” and step inside. 

I push the door to close, but it quickly stops, and I turn to find Madoka holding the door still open.

“One more thing,” she says, opening up her bag. “I bought something for you earlier. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, so make sure you remember to bring it.”

She hands out a brand new convenience store umbrella, and I take it without much thought.

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Good night,” she says with a wave.

She closes the door, leaving me standing just inside the doorway with the new umbrella.

Why, if you purchased a second umbrella, did you walk me home under the one red umbrella? Why did you do any of this in the first place?

I’ll never fully understand her. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Chapter Text

Eight days have passed since then, and it's rained almost every day. This is the first time it's rained tonight, but ever since Madoka gave me this umbrella, I've been prepared for the erratic weather. I'd like to know why the weather could have possibly changed from this week's many iterations, but trying to determine the causality of every little variation this world produces would drive me insane even faster.

Charlotte, the Sweets Witch, is dead. Mami Tomoe cooperated with me, the second hurdle is passed, and the weeks until Kyoko Sakura's arrival should be smooth sailing. The only potential wrinkle in that prediction is Sayaka Miki. Twice in the past 8 iterations of this week, she has arrived quite unexpectedly at Madoka's house late at night, overwhelmed by her helplessness to protect or help Kyosuke Kamijo. These visits haven't failed to spur Madoka into making a contract of her own soon thereafter, so it's imperative that I know whether it happens or not.

And so I walk around the block again and again, the umbrella barely enough protection against the wind and rain, waiting to see what will happen.

To my surprise, after only a few hours, Madoka leaves her house, a red umbrella in hand. She looks both ways when she reaches the street, as if preparing to cross.

And then she spots me.

I pick up the pace to disappear into a side street, but her splashing footsteps follow a second later.

"Homura-chan! HOMURA-CHAN!"

Running away at this point, especially with magic, would probably be a waste. The best thing to do is to acknowledge her and let her draw her own conclusions.

Why does she still have that red umbrella?

I pivot in place and wait for her to catch up.

"What are you doing here?"

Spying. Stalking. Meddling. There's a lot of words for what I'm doing. All of them require that she not notice me, so they've all been rendered moot. What am I doing here now? Absolutely nothing but waiting to escape.

For some unfathomable reason, she smiles. "Still worried about me?"

I'm always worried about you.

The thought bitters quickly, and it shows on my face.

Her smile fades away as she reaches up to scratch the back of her head.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to tease you. But you're here because of me, aren't you?"

The real reason I'm here is for Sayaka, but I suppose that's more true than it is false.

"I suppose I am."

There's a pause while we stand apart, barely shielded by our umbrellas. If the wind picks up any further we're going to get soaked again.

"You still have that umbrella. I thought it belonged to Hitomi Shizuku."

"Oh, yeah."

She blushes a little, her eyes refusing to meet mine, like it's the first day of classes together again.

She says, "I just asked Hitomi-chan if we could trade umbrellas. I like this one a lot."

Why in the world would she go through the trouble? It's just an umbrella.

She glances up. "Is that the umbrella I gave you?"

I nod.

It was a gift, after all.

Somehow even that seems to embarrass her as her face continues to redden, but she at least tries to maintain eye contact this time.

Which is a little too much for me. I turn, facing across the street, giving us both some space.

No matter how many times I repeat these 6 weeks, Madoka is a little bit different every time. Even things you would never expect to change, like: can she stick up to people?; is she easily embarrassed?; does she resent meddling?; when she's angry, will she cry or will she yell? When I was younger, I believed that people did not and could not change. Some people, like Sayaka Miki, have put their all into proving my younger self correct. But Madoka always changes. She always grows.

Maybe, if she only stayed the same, I would be able to find my way out of this labyrinth. But I'm not sure I would love her as deeply if she did not making me see new things to fall in love for.

She keeps shuffling her feet, as if working up the courage to say something.

"H-hey. Homura-chan."

I shoot her a glance so she knows I'm not ignoring her.

"Kyubey says that I have a lot of potential as a magical girl, and that you're afraid of me because I would be more powerful than you, and you don't want the competition. Is that true?"

Of course he did.

"I've never been afraid of you."

I turn my head to look at her. "I just don't want to watch you suffer. And as long as I'm strong enough, you won't have to."

"I thought so."

She smiles, and I turn away.

"And I trust you. But you know, Homura-chan . . ."

She pauses meaningfully, and holds out her hand into the rain, just between us.

"Even if I don't become a magical girl, you don't have to bear all your burdens alone. I know we just met, but you're my friend. I'm right here. I promise you don't need to hide or act cool when you're worried. You can lean on me."

If I were any weaker, I would fall for this. I would take her hand, and I would promise to stay by her side, and do everything in my power to keep her safe. But she has no idea what taking my hand suggests. She might think she is offering a hand in friendship, a peace offering, but what she is really doing is asking me to accept comfort that can only lead to oblivion. The fact of the matter is that I cannot stay by her side and protect her. I can't fulfill my promise if my burdens are hers to share. And I won't fail my promise.

"These burdens are the price I paid to become a magical girl, for my wish. They are no one else's to bear."

After a pause, her hand slowly begins to fall. From the corner of my eye, I can see defeat cloud her eyes. It looks like the last of her will to fight me is dying away.

Good. Just let me protect you.

"Homura-chan," she says sternly, lifting her hand up again. Whatever conflict was on her face, and whatever hope she had before, those are both gone. In their place, there is only stubborn resolve.

"Wish or no wish, I have no intention of leaving you alone. I don't care about duty or wishes right now, but I care about you."

The wind picks up, and suddenly our umbrellas are not much protection against the rain at all. Her outstretched hand is just as wet as the rest of us.

My hand trembles as I hold it back. The edges of my vision seem to fade away as all that exists is that delicate hand, beckoning me closer, asking me to fail.

Ah.

I'm still weak, aren't I?

"Madoka! Madoka!"

We both jump as a man's voice carries over the wind. Her father stands just outside the doorway of their house, waving at us in the distance.

"Why don't you bring your friend inside? It's way too windy for you to be hanging out outside!"

"COMING, DAD!" she waves back.

She grabs my hand, and I don't contest her.

"Come on," she says, "we should get inside."

Chapter Text

Although I've been as far as the front door numerous times, I've never actually entered Madoka's house. That is, until today.

"My, you girls are soaked. What were you doing standing out there?"

It's not half as bad this time, but we're undeniably bringing wet shoes in.

"Excuse me. I was just out for a walk and lost track of the time."

Madoka's father is a kind, unassuming man I've seen many times from a distance, but never actually spoken with. If he finds my lie unbelievable, he doesn't show it. And if he has anything to say about the fact that Madoka has refused to let my hand go, he doesn't say it.

"You're a friend of Madoka's?"

I nod. "That's correct. My name is Homura Akemi; pleased to make your acquaintance."

He smiles. "Tomohisa Kaname - I'm Madoka's father. Why don't the two of you go get dry?"

"Come on, Homura-chan," Madoka says as she starts dragging me into the house. "We have spare towels and stuff."

Before we make it out of sight from the entry hallway, she turns back and says, "Dad, if you're already making coffee for mom, could you make some for Homura-chan and me too?"

He tilts his head curiously. "You want coffee? At this hour? Are you developing a taste for the stuff already?"

She shrugs. "Just a little. It's good."

"I . . . guess it's not a school night. Just a little, then."

"Thanks, Dad."

 

As we dry our hair Madoka's disconcertingly large bathroom, Madoka will not stop looking at me. Perhaps she can tell that I've been thinking about running away the whole time. Perhaps she doesn't trust me unsupervised in her house. Either way, her glances have been frequent and obvious ever since she stopped dragging me about by the hand.

The truth is, my will to fight her is depleted. At least for the moment. At the very least, I can keep an eye on her this way, even if Sayaka Miki appears out of the blue. It will be harder to justify sticking around after I leave, so I intend to stay here as long as I can to keep an eye on her.

As I'm running a towel over my head like a sander, she pipes up, "I feel kind of lucky, seeing you like this."

"Oh? And why is that?"

She turns her attention back to drying her own hair, but I can still see her face in the mirror. There's a nervous energy to her, but she looks happy about something. It reminds me of the first time we met, both unsure and pleased with herself, like someone picking up the rhythm of a new song.

"You're really cool, Homura-chan. You're always sure of yourself, you know all the answers in class, you're good at everything, you're super pretty, and you're kind of like a secret anime hero. Not to mention you're always looking out for me. Sometimes, I feel like you're from another world entirely."

I flinch, but she doesn't seem to notice.

Instead, her expression turns sweet. "But, when you're drying your hair, you look normal. Like a really cute regular girl."

Like a regular girl, huh?

The truth is, I was never a regular girl. I was less than one before Madoka found me that day, and now I'm less than even that. I am my wish, my determination given form. A solitary one, unable to connect even with my best friend as I once did. Loneliness.

None of that comes out of my mouth. For some reason, the only thing that does is:

"I actually only know the class material for the next three weeks. I've never studied past that."

She snorts, then covers her mouth as if that'll conceal the sound. Even then, her eyes seem to twinkle with delight.

"Seriously?" she asks.

I nod.

"Then, in four weeks, will you have just as much trouble with math as I do?"

"Probably more, to be honest. I was never very good at math. I used to cry when I had to solve problems on the board."

Although, I probably understand the basics well enough at this point that I won't have that much trouble in the future. Probably.

For some reason, she looks thrilled.

 

"It's only a half-cup for both of you. I don't want you ruining your sleep schedules.

"Don't worry, this stuff barely effects me," I reply as Madoka's father sets a coffee cup in front of both of us. "Thank you."

"I won't!"

The way Madoka says it tells me first that she honestly believes it, which secondly tells me she doesn't have a good grasp of how coffee affects her just yet.

He sits across the dining room table from me with a glass of orange juice, with Madoka beside us. Little Tatsuya has already gone to bed, which is for the best. I have no idea how to speak with younger children.

"So, are the two of you in the same class?"

I nod, and Madoka replies, "Yeah! Homura-chan just transferred in a few weeks ago."

"Oh? Did you just move here?"

I shake my head. "No, I was born in Mitakihara City. I was hospitalized for a time due to a heart condition, and was only discharged shortly before transferring."

He blinks. "Oh, wow. You look very healthy."

Madoka, perhaps from having taken her first sip of coffee, perks up.

"She is! She set the junior high record on the high jump her first day of class."

I take my own sip of coffee. Talking to adults is always a problem - they narrow in on the improbabilities of my story much more easily than children do.

"I made a very complete recovery."

I can see the gears turning in his brain as he tries to make sense of that, but he's quick to mask it with a smile.

"Well, that's good."

 

It's closing in on 9pm as we finish our drinks. My glancing at the clock seems to draw his eyes as well.

"It's getting pretty late. My wife has the car - are your parents able to pick you up?"

Now we have to have the troublesome conversationI just need to delay until her mother returns - that should be enough time to make sure Sayaka is or isn't coming tonight.

"I live by myself, actually. But you're right, I should be returning home."

I rise from my seat, which has the effect I expected from both of them - mild panic. Madoka even reaches out as if to physically stop me, though she doesn't get out of her chair.

"You don't need to walk!" he protests. "We can call a rideshare or something for you; it won't be any trouble."

Oh no. I completely forgot about Uber.

No, this is still okay. As long as I simply refuse-

"That won't be necessary, I-"

Completely ignoring my response, Madoka cuts in, "Maybe Homura-chan could sleep over?"

Now it's my time to respond in sync with her father:

"What?"

"Well . . ." Turning sheepish, she avoids both of our looks. "Doing a rideshare by yourself can be kind of scary. It's too dark and rainy out for her to walk to a train station. And Mom still might not to back until we both really ought to be asleep. And it's not even a school night, so . . ."

I hadn't expected this, but it really would make my job easier. Even if Sayaka shows up, I should be able to steer them both away from using magical girl contracts to solve their problems. The longer Sayaka holds off from making a contract, the better our eventual odds against Walpurgisnacht will be.

He takes a moment to think it over.

"Homura-chan, would your parents be alright with you staying the night?"

"They trust me enough to let me live on my own," I say, taking a seat again. "But if it'll put your mind at ease, I'll give them a call."

 

Even though I'm too big for them, Madoka insists I wear her clothes to bed. Even though I'm fine sleeping with my hair wet, she insists on blow-drying and brushing it. Even though I could lay their spare futon anywhere, she insists I lay it right beside her bed so we can talk.

Madoka has always been like this - attentive and caring to a fault. She gets so caught up in how to help other people that she rarely stops to think about how she's doing.

She lays sideways on her bed, feet swinging energetically behind her as she looks down at me. There's no way she's going to be able to sleep as long as she has caffeine in her system - that's the whole reason we started going to cafes together when we were both magical girls.

"Say, Homura-chan?"

"Mm?"

"Before you became a magical girl, what kind of boys did you like?"

Madoka has an uncanny perception to her, and she's often good, if not excellent, at peering into the truth of things. Even from how little we've spoken in this timeline, I feel like she has a substantial grasp on both the situation of magical girls at large and me as a person. And yet, somehow, she manages to throw out one of the most pointless and nonsensical questions she's ever posed to me in a totally serious voice.

" . . . what?"

"Like, what kind of boys did you fall for? Or have you never been in love?"

The second question gets me quite unexpectedly between the ribs. She has no reason to suspect any differently; I hardly seem capable of love like this.

"Boys never interested me like that."

She seems undeterred, that benign smile still on her face, though the fact that the only light in the room comes from the window casts her face in ominous shadow.

"Girls, then?"

Though it seems like a lifetime ago, there was once a time when that question was on my mind. Back in elementary school, and even before that to a degree, my peers and adults alike talked about loving in a way I did not understand. Why were they so distracted by aesthetic details? Why were they bickering and contesting each other so much? What did appearances and clout really do for you? We were just children. Surely those things could wait.

I spent what should have been my first year of middle school in the hospital or at home. I started reading manga and watching anime, and something changed. I really did start to think of the characters like real people, and I thought about how much I'd like to spend time with them - girls and boys. I thought that that must have been the feeling I'd been missing this whole time: the desire to love. Perhaps real people had just been too scary.

When I came back to classes for my second year, I realized I was right. Falling in love with real people just wasn't for me. They felt so distant, so alien, so incomprehensible, how was I to muster the desire to love them?

And then . . .

"Homura-chan?"

". . . Yeah."

"Did you hear me?"

"I was answering 'yeah.'"

"Oh, you mean like - oh."

Recognition finally dawns on her face. 

"Th-thank you for telling me! Whenever anyone Hitomi or anyone brings it up, they always treat it like a joke, and I was starting to think . . . maybe it was weird."

I'm not exactly a great source for what is or is not weird. Certainly, what I feel for Madoka is probably aberrant by the standards of humans, but I don't think that's because we're both girls.

"I don't care if it is or not."

"M-me too! Or, me neither I guess."

Madoks is a kind girl. I don't think she has it in her to judge people without a lot of reason. Somehow, she almost always trusts me in each timeline, even when I come into immediate conflict with other magical girls. That isn't to say she's a particularly keen judge of character, but I think it hurts her to do anything but assume the best in people. It's what makes her so vulnerable to Mami and Kyubey's attempts to recruit her, what makes her think that Sayaka will come around and improve when she starts lashing out at her friends, and what makes her so disarming for the cynical Kyoko. It's one of my greatest obstacles every time, and yet . . . I love it.

"So, what - what kind of girl did you like?"

She seems embarrassed by the question for some reason - and probably not because it's a pointless question. She's probably still afraid I'll judge her or make a joke out of this, if that's the only way anyone's ever talked to her about this.

What kind of girl did I like?

That's easy, and yet so difficult. She's sometimes tender, and others firm. She's sometimes a pushover, and sometimes stubborn. She's always a crybaby, even when she's scared or angry. She always loves her friends, even when they bring her despair. Except from a few commonalities, I can't quite pin down exactly what Madoka is fundamentally like. And it's not just those commonalities I love, but the contradictory elements too.

There is really only one answer.

"I liked girls like you."

I hate that I said that aloud. I didn't need to give her any more reasons to find me creepy. The slack-jawed look of surprise* on her face is only a step removed from horror.

I roll over in my futon with a quiet, "Good night."

"G-g-good night, H-Homura-chan!"

Of course, we both just drank coffee, so it's not like either of us is tired. She starts texting while I lay face-down awaiting the sweet release of death.

"I'm going to go to the bathroom real quick," she says, climbing out of bed. She shoots me a glance as she reaches the door to her bedroom, but I can't bring myself to look back.

Once I hear the door to her bathroom close, I'm on my feet. I transform into my costume, scoop up my clothes, shove them into my shield, and tiptoe out into the hallway.

Through the walls, I can hear her talking:

"She said she likes girls like me!"

Is she . . . on the phone? 

If it's Sayaka on the other end, it won't be long before Mami hears about this as well, and they'll all come to the conclusion that I'm a creepy stalker. It will only be twice as bad if she catches me sitting outside her bathroom listening.

I make it to the entry hall as quietly as I can, grab my shoes, shove them into my shield as well, unlock the door, and bolt into the rain without my umbrella.

Chapter Text

"Isn't that right, Akemi-san?"

Mami Tomoe's perception of her surroundings remains impeccable. Hiding in the rooftops any longer would be pointless; as long as I still have my trump card, I don't have to worry about being able to escape.

I drop into the nearly-flooded alleyway and swipe a hand through my hair to make sure it hasn't turned into a mess.

"It's true. Mami Tomoe and I have already made an alliance. You won't be able to trick anyone, Kyoko Sakura."

Her eyes narrow in suspicion. "I take it Mami has already told you about me, then?" She hefts her spear, pointing directly at my face. "What I'm capable of?"

Always the attitude with her.

Time freezes in place, giving me a few seconds to walk around Kyoko's spear and stand behind her.

When time resumes, I say, "And what you're not."

She swings around, probably more startled than hostile, but I don't feel like testing her feelings with a spear in my chest. Time freezes once again, and I walk back to Mami, my back to Kyoko, before letting it resume.

"What the hell . . ."

Mami, to her credit, shows no surprise beyond a twitch. I've been careful to avoid revealing my powers so far, but she has an excellent understanding of what other magical girls are capable of. Even that may have been enough for her to recognize time magic.

She says, "Of course. I wouldn't keep an ally in the dark about a potential enemy."

"Although I most certainly did not tell you about her,"  she says, stepping forward until we're side by side. "How do you know about Sakura-san?"

Any answer I give her will only provide more clues, so I ignore her.

"Who's the creep?" Kyoko asks, still hefting her spear.

"Now, now, why don't we put our weapons away?"

She won't listen to that.

"No . . . not until that girl looks me in the eye. Hey, creep! What's your name? What school do you go to?"

Were she any other magical girl wandering through the city, Mami would take no issue with me securing Kyoko's cooperation by force. But their complicated history, as well as Kyoko's constant defensiveness, makes that difficult on multiple fronts. Cooperation is clearly the best outcome, but cooperating with a bully without bowing to them is a task unto itself. I still haven't learned what it takes to get on Kyoko's good side as long as Mami is here.

"Just answer her. She'll be reasonable."

I glance over at Mami.

"You think too highly of her."

Nevertheless, I turn around.

"My name is H-"

"Hey, Madoka, Mami's with your girlfriend."

Everyone's attention shifts to the corner of the alleyway as Sayaka Miki and Madoka round the corner, Kyubey on Madoka's shoulder.

"Sayaka-chan! You - can't - just - call - her - that!"

Madoka play-punches Sayaka on the arm with each word while Sayaka laughs.

"Oh, hey, there's . . . some other girl. Hi other girl!"

Sayaka waves, and Madoka waves with her. Kyoko looks quite taken aback to being addressed this way.

"Mami-san, Homura-chan. Hey."

Sayaka snickers. "Don't you mean 'darling?'"

Sayaka starts laughing again, though Madoka elbows her hard enough that it cuts her laughter off early.

I was right. Madoka told Sayaka about the things I said at her house two weeks ago, and now she thinks I'm a freak. Worse, she seems to have stepped up her teasing about girls loving other girls into outright mockery. It would be one thing to make fun of me, but making these jokes at Madoka's expense is just despicable. She's just trying to find her place in this world, and I won't have Sayaka filling her head with the idea that liking girls is a joke.

"Sayaka Miki. Whatever your issues are with me, leave Madoka out of it. She's done nothing wrong."

At the same time, Kyoko points down the alleyway with her spear and asks, "Who're the kids?"

The smile on Mami's face is deeply pained.

"Miki-san, Kaname-san, it's nice to see you, but Akemi-san and I are in delicate negotiations right now. This is-"

"I'm Kyoko Sakura."

She waves a hand dismissively, "But we can forget the negotiations for just a second. What's going on here?" she asks, gesturing between me and Sayaka with her spear. The gesture seems to freak Madoka out, as she hides behind Sayaka.

Mami doesn't afford either of us a chance to respond: "Kaname-san and Miki-san are prospective magical girls and juniors of mine from Mitakihara Middle School. They've been observing me, and to some extent Akemi-san, for several weeks now."

"Cool cool cool. What's this whole 'girlfriend' thing though?" Kyoko asks with a smirk.

"That's a personal matter."

Kyoko doesn't look satisfied with my response, but no one says anything immediate in response.

Though, Mami is quick to ask "Did something happen between you and Kaname-san?" in the private venue of telepathy. It's just really not a question I'd like to answer at all, nevermind in public.

Kyoko's smirk turns scheming as she cups her chin in the L-shaped crook between her thumb and finger.

"I bet it is; ya seem awful embarrassed about it though, eh creep?"

"Hey!

To my surprise, Sayaka steps forward, Madoka still attached to the back of her blouse.

"Don't talk that way about Madoka's girlfr- I mean, about Homura-san!"

Wait. Is Sayaka defending me? Or does she just think she has the sole right to make fun of me?

To make matters more confusing, Madoka looks even more flushed with humiliation than before. Is Sayaka's attempt to stand up for me actually part of a larger joke, then? Is she simply pretending to stick up for me as part of an elaborate joke in which I am Madoka's girlfriend, and thus she would be socially obligated to do so? If that's the case, I definitely don't want her sticking up for me.

"Sayaka, I can speak for myself. You should get Madoka away from here until Mami and I have finished speaking with Kyoko."

Somehow, Kyoko has only grown more delighted as this confusing conversation continues.

"Madoka, eh?" Leering at me, she asks, "Is she yer girlfriend?"

I can't take this anymore.

"CAN YOU ALL QUIT IT?!"

I don't even realize it's me yelling until everyone's eyes are on me.

"Just . . . stop it. You're humiliating her. There's no way someone like her could be with someone like me, so please, just stop."

When that leaves everyone quiet, I try to steer things back to the point:

"Let's just handle magical girl matters among magical girls."

But they're not listening to me anymore. Rather, their attention is on Madoka, sheepishly walking out from behind Sayaka. She doesn't even glance at me as she walks past, stopping in front of an uncomfortable-looking Kyoko. Kyubey takes this an opportunity to hop down to a dry spot closer to Mami.

"It's nice to meet you, Kyoko Sakura-san. I'm Madoka Kaname."

She bows.

"I hope we can all work together, and that we'll be good friends! I like your spear!"

"Oh, thank ya much."

Kyoko blinks several times. Then, she points at Madoka, then she points at me.

"I like this one. That one's on thin ice."

Sayaka raises her hand.

"What about me?"

Kyoko quirks an eyebrow, glances up and down Sayaka, and shrugs.

"Forgot you were there," she replies.

"Hey! Rude!"

Now with the attention off her, Madoka stands upright, turns around, and walks towards me.

"Madoka?"

She grabs my wrist and begins leading me away from the group.

"I'll catch up with everyone later! I just need to talk to Homura for a minute."

Mami watches us leave, so I send her a brief message.

"If you get into trouble, just make as much noise as possible and I'll come help you."

"Same to you . . . I think?"

 

 

Madoka drags me a good distance away from the others, almost a block down the main road and into an ill-conceived series of alleys and bike paths. She walks briskly ahead of me the whole time with my wrist held tight, so I don't get so much as a glimpse of her face to tell me what she's thinking.

I made matters worse. I'm sure I did. I gave into Kyoko's taunting, got confused, and drew even more attention to her. Of course this would only make things worse.

Finally, we reach a dark alleyway far from the main street. She lets go of my arm as she catches her breath. She still isn't looking at me.

"Homura-chan . . . did I do something to make you hate me?"

Of course. From her end, it must look like I'm doing this intentionally. It might even look like revenge for letting her see a moment of vulnerability. I don't think I'm a vindictive person, but she has no way of knowing that.

"No, nothing."

Her hands ball into fists. Of course, if she's angry, that must only make her angrier. That would mean I've been humiliating her without a reason.

"Then why have you been avoiding me? Why did you run away that night?"

I wanted to spare you my presence. I wanted you to know I was sincerely sorry. I didn't want you to deal with someone creepy. I didn't want Sayaka and Hitomi to ridicule you. I didn't want you to see my shame.

. . . is any of that even true?

A water droplet lands on my forehead, and I glance up at the sky. The clouds overhead have darkened - we're in for some more rain very soon.

No, it's not.

The truth is . . .

"I know that how much I like you isn't normal. From your perspective, it must make no sense. Even I can tell I'm just weird and creepy. But even so, I don't want you to hate me."

". . . hate you?"

Madoka turns to look over her shoulder. Tears are running down her face, past what could be either a smile or a grimace.

"Homura-chan, get a clue, will you?"

She's not the first person to say that to me, but it hurts as fresh as if she was. No matter how hard I try, those words follow me, as surely as the invisible atmosphere.

"I can't. I don't get hints. I don't get what people don't tell me, or what I can't see. I just don't know how."

"I - I see."

She looks ahead again so I can't see her face, and wipes her face with her sleeves. She pivots in place, staring straight at me with that stubborn resolve again, tear-stains clear on her face.

"Homura-chan."

She bows all the way until her nose almost touches her knees, at the same time reaching her hand out towards me.

"I love you! Please go out with me!"

Oh.

I don't say anything. I can't say anything. I have no idea what I'd even say. Every thought and feeling I'd like to put into words turns into tears instead, streaming down my face.

She doesn't give up. Without looking up, she continues.

"I know I don't have a lot of skills. I'm not particularly good at any of my classes, and I'm not athletic. I'm not braver or more considerate than other girls, and I cry all the time. And I know being a magical girl means you don't have a lot of time for hanging out with friends or going out on dates. But I just can't stop thinking about you. I can't stop thinking about how much I want to call and see if you're okay every night. I can't stop thinking about all the questions I have about you. I can't stop thinking about holding your hand, and taking you to the movies, and, and singing karaoke with you. So please, let me be your girlfriend!"

Even through the tears, her speech gives me the time and the courage to croak:

"L-love? You love me?"

My voice seems to catch her off-guard, because her face snaps up to look at me.

"Homura-chan?"

As she stands upright, she takes a step forward and stumbles. I catch her hand and hold her upright as she takes a second to find her balance.

"I'm sorry! All the blood rushed to my head while I was bowing, I - I got dizzy."

I still can't seem to form words, so instead I pull her in as close as I can and hug her. She's slow to reciprocate, but once she does, she squeezes me as tightly as I could hope. We hold each other until I can speak again.

"I love you more than I can even explain why. Is that okay?"

She nuzzles the side of my neck.

"If you can find it in your heart to love someone like me, then I am so, so happy."

"Madoka . . ."

I want to tell her that she's wrong, that I'm the one unworthy of loving her, and that she can barely begin to understand all of her excellent qualities, all the times she's given me hope, all the times she's shared with me her strength. Both my fear of my own inadequacy and my absolute joy to know that she loves me overwhelm me, and all I can do is cry, my tears disappearing into her hair.

There is another fear, though. A fear more dreadful and constant, even more inescapable.

Through the tears and without letting go, I give my terms.

"In two weeks . . . a very powerful witch will come to Mitakihara. A witch so powerful that she doesn't even hide in a labyrinth, and so violent that her attack will look like a natural disaster. Walpurgisnacht."

I step back, holding her at arm's length.

"Me, Mami, and Kyoko will fight her. We'll kill her. But I need you to promise me that, no matter what happens, you won't go near her. You'll leave the fight to us, and you'll survive. If you can promise me that, I'll give you everything that I am. I will do absolutely anything you want me to. As long as you survive."

She tilts her head to the side.

"Is that what you've been so scared of?"

I hold her gaze without saying anything until she shakes her head.

"No, it doesn't matter. I'll keep my promises, and I won't make a contract. Just promise me you'll beat it, and we can all get soba afterwards."

"I promise."

The rain, which has been nothing but little droplets, turns into a downpour over the course of a few seconds.

"Oh, hey, I have my umbrella," she says, pulling the little red umbrella out of her bag and unfolding it. "Let's walk back to the others."

I reach into my shield and draw out the umbrella she bought me.

"I actually checked the forecast for once, so I have my umbrella too-"

As I go to extend it, Madoka grabs my wrist. When I look at her, she shakes her head.

"Homura-chan . . . why don't we walk together under one umbrella?"

"Because we have . . . two?"

And that, quite unexpectedly, makes her laugh. She laughs and laughs while keeping us both under one umbrella, and while I'm a embarrassed that she's laughing at me, she's also really really really cute, which makes it hard to dislike the experience.

"No, Homura-chan, I mean I want to walk under one umbrella with you. Like couples do. Here, hold it; I'll show you."

Like - like a couple?!

I know I just agreed to do whatever she wanted after she asked to go out with me, but for some reason the possibility that we might be a couple hadn't clicked until just now.

I put my umbrella back in my shield and take the umbrella. Madoka wraps her arm around mine, grabbing just below my shoulder, making it a little easier to fit us both under the umbrella.

She glances up at me as we start walking and says, "I've never seen you blush before. It's adorable."

Oh no, am I blushing?

"It - uh - no. You're adorable."

My scattered brain is doing me no favors, but that brings out Madoka's most angelic smile.

"Thanks. So are you. Which . . . I guess I already said."

The two of us walk arm in arm. It's not until we're most of the way back on the main street that something occurs to me.

"Wait. If sharing an umbrella is a couple thing, did you mean to do that that one day after school? When you walked me home?"

And Madoka's grin turns positively wicked. "Hee hee. Maybe."

"Madoka! Were you flirting with me?!"