It was a beautiful, sunny morning, the kind that reminded Sayaka that being alive was amazing. Even if it was a school day.
"Good morning!" Madoka ran up to the two girls waiting for her.
"Good morning, Madoka-san", Hitomi said.
Sayaka poked Madoka in the shoulder. "Where were you yesterday?"
"Sorry. I wasn't feeling well in the morning, and mom decided to be a little overprotective, so dad took me to the doctor."
"Oh? That doesn't sound like your mom, Madoka. Are you ill?" Sayaka tilted her head. Hitomi also turned back to look at Madoka with concern.
"Don't worry, it was nothing. I feel great today." Madoka grinned at her friends. She took her usual place between them, starting their daily walk to school.
"Well, you missed quite a show. The girl of your dreams showed up! Destiny has brought you together at last", Sayaka intoned solemnly. "Or it would have, had you not found a way to skip your classes."
"You're making fun of me", Madoka complained, though she was smiling.
"No, really!" Sayaka laughed. "The beautiful and mysterious Homura Akemi transferred to our school. That's the same name that you asked us about, right? Homura? Was she just as impressive in your dream, I wonder!"
"Surely this is a coincidence, Sayaka-san." Hitomi said. "I think dreams can sometimes mean something, but this..."
"Sure. But it's a funny coincidence."
"Sayaka-chan, what do you mean by a show?" Madoka asked.
"Oh, you should have seen her. What a show-off! Gym, math, is there anything the girl isn't good at? And the way she looks at everyone, so haughty!"
"Sayaka-san, is it a crime for a girl to be beautiful?" Hitomi blinked innocently, then added softly "Or better at math than you?"
"He-ey now! I'm not saying anything against you, you young hottie. After all, you had the excellent taste to become friends with me. And with Madoka-chan, of course", she added, seeing Madoka point to herself with a serious face.
The girls laughed.
Sayaka continued, "But the way this Akemi girl acts, I don't think she's going to make friends in a hurry."
"Well, that's not good", Madoka said decisively. "We're not leaving the girl from my dreams to flounder."
"Eh? You want us to become friends with her? I know you like to be nice to people, but maybe wait till you meet her before having ideas. There was already a whole crowd fawning over her yesterday, and that sure went nowhere."
"I think there is something to Madoka-san's idea", Hitomi opined. "Maybe it's just that Akemi-san is new in town. She could be shy, and act distant because she doesn't know how to make friends."
"Maybe." Sayaka made a skeptical face. "Oh, fine. As long as she agrees to tutor me in math. But I don't know how to make friends with someone like that, either."
"We could try anyway." Madoka seemed strangely carefree. "What's the worst that could happen?"
It didn't take long before they stood in front of the school building.
"I have a plan", announced Hitomi.
"Oh, a plan! Let's hear it, Napoleon-sama", said Sayaka. "Does it involve walking up to her and telling her about Madoka's dream? Not that she told us any details."
"Sayaka-chan! Now I'm glad that I didn't."
"Oh, and why is that, Madoka? Were the details unfit for our innocent ears?"
Hitomi cleared her throat, waiting for silence.
"Akemi-san is recovering from a heart condition, and, if I heard correctly, she sometimes needs to go to the nurse's office to take her medicine. We could start a conversation by introducing the class health officer to her." She motioned towards Madoka.
"A heart disease, are you sure? I missed that. So what was she doing breaking the prefectural record in the high jump, and all that?"
"Now that you ask about it, it is rather strange..." Hitomi conceded.
"That's it. Whatever medicine they've been giving her, I want some!" Sayaka declared, and stormed into the glass building. Madoka and Hitomi giggled, and followed.
Mami went through her morning routine like a robot. At the end of it she wasn't even sure what she'd eaten for breakfast. She did snap back to reality in time to make certain she was presentable before it was time to go to school, but for the most part her mind was churning with thoughts about yesterday.
Getting to know Homura Akemi might as well be considered a failure, if the beautiful girl was more mysterious to her now than before their meeting. The newcomer wasn't exactly unfriendly, and they did get on a first-name basis - it felt right at the time, after Homura saved her life. But there were those little things that didn't add up about her. The final event of the evening, Homura's rushing off to meet Kaname-san after she heard her name from Mami, was probably the strangest. It made no sense. Mami hadn't met the potential magical girl yet, but, according to what Kyubey said before he left, Madoka had lived in Mitakihara all her life. If Homura had known her and been close to her before, why was she so surprised that she still lived here?
One thing was certain: life was changing. There was now a new magical girl in town, and soon there might be four of them in all, once the two potentials were contracted - five if she counted Kyouko. At least it might get more lively.
And then there was the threat of outsider demons; Kyouko's e-mail warned that yesterday's encounter wasn't the last one.
How it would all play out, Mami didn't know. Just one day earlier she'd considered herself the undisputed protector of Mitakihara, expecting to end up with three junior magical girls under her. As it turned out, Homura was at least as strong as her, and already knew Madoka Kaname, which meant Sayaka Miki was probably also a friend of hers. And now Mami found herself wondering if she'd end up as the fifth wheel in her own city, even as they all faced new enemies with which she had little experience.
If only Kyubey had stayed, so she could have met the two potentials a few days earlier, and made friends with them in her own right before Homura showed up...
Well, it was too late for that. But in some ways it didn't matter. The fundamentals of her life were the same today as yesterday: she was a magical girl, and had her duties. Some would say a life of fighting wasn't much of a life, but that was what she'd bought from fate on that painful day two years earlier, as she lay dying in the crashed car. All else was a luxury. And when she looked at it like that, an important problem existed that she actually could do something about right now.
Mami decided not to go to school that day.
The school hallways were sparsely filled with small groups of students, chatting away the time until the start of classes. Most were yet to arrive: waking up earlier than really necessary to get to homeroom on time was not a very popular sport. The girls noticed that Homura Akemi was there, though, staring out the glass outer wall. Even though she stood alone, she seemed to be in a good mood. This was a change; previously it had seemed that the girl found it beneath her to even have a mood.
The trio wasted no time in cornering her. "Good day, Akemi-san", Hitomi said.
Homura turned around to face them. "Good day", she said softly. The neutral expression returned, though her eyes had a benign look to them that hadn't been there the previous day.
Madoka had to mentally talk herself out of giving her a hug right there and then.
Hitomi gave a short bow, followed by Madoka and, a moment later, Sayaka. The dark-haired beauty bowed back, her posture a perfect match for Hitomi's ladylike manner.
Hitomi said, "I don't know if you remember us? We're your classmates. I'm Hitomi Shizuki, the class representative."
"And I'm Sayaka Miki, the class disgrace", the other girl said with a grin.
Hitomi coughed at the interruption, and finished, "And this is Madoka Kaname-san."
"Nice to meet you all", Homura said. And thank the stars this is the last time ever that you people introduce yourselves to me.
"You don't look too well, Akemi-san." Madoka tilted her head critically. "Did you sleep last night?"
Sayaka couldn't help but stare at her sideways. That sort of bluntness was out of character for Madoka - as was inventing something over which to fake concern for the purpose of breaking ice. And there was a smile on her face that Sayaka couldn't quite place.
"I did", Homura replied.
Madoka put her hands on her hips and met the transfer student's eyes, still smiling.
"...for about an hour", the dark-haired girl admitted.
Oh. Now that Sayaka paid attention, she saw that Akemi did look a bit pale.
"I thought so." Madoka nodded.
"Madoka-san is the class health officer." Hitomi explained. "That's why we're here."
"I'll be in your care, then." Homura inclined her head towards her secretly-best-friend.
Madoka beamed at her.
"She was playing truant yesterday, so you couldn't meet her", Sayaka added helpfully.
Homura smiled back at Madoka. "I'm sure it was nothing like that."
The bell rang.
"Uh, English." Sayaka groaned, distracted. Technically it was homeroom first, but English was scheduled in the same classroom afterwards. At least there was some hope that Saotome-sensei's usual ramblings would mercifully cut into the foreign language lesson and shorten their suffering.
"Oh my, it seems we need to go", Hitomi said. "Akemi-san, will you sit with us during lunch break?"
"Certainly. Thank you for inviting me."
To Homura, English was painless and uneventful. She tuned out the teacher's explanations about the difference between passive and active voice; the distinction might have been more difficult to understand in her original life, but by now she didn't even remember if that had been the case.
Instead, her mind wandered back to the previous day - that magical, wonderful day, when she discovered that Madoka was alive, and then she reunited with her. It took effort not to react when she noticed the girl from the corner of her eye, walking into school with her two friends. Fortunately, Homura'd had a lot of practice at not-reacting. Still, even now she had to stop herself from looking back over her left shoulder at the girl in question, who was occupying that once empty chair near the back.
Happiness. This was what normal people called happiness.
Homura stiffened at hearing Madoka's telepathy, a sing-song voice. It was like a cold shower to her. She replied in a low tone, "How are you able to talk to me?" First Amy, now this. But Madoka wouldn't be lying to her about being uncontracted.
"I've been wondering about that myself", Madoka said. "I think you're enabling me, like Kyubey."
She's been wondering?
"What do you mean, you've been wondering? How long have you known?"
"Well, I first got this feeling when you were leaving, yesterday." If two in the morning still counted as yesterday. "I didn't think much of it, though, probably because you immediately went out of range. But as soon as I saw you today I was sure."
Homura accepted this. The peculiar feeling one got when it was possible to send thoughts was subtle, and an inexperienced, uncontracted potential wouldn't normally be aware of it without being told by Kyubey. But Madoka had as many timelines in her memories as Homura, and she'd likely used telepathy in most of them.
How unique. Madoka was now both a normal girl and a magical veteran at the same time. Not to mention a Goddess on retirement.
"Let me look", Homura sent back. She withdrew into herself a little, focusing on the flow of her magical energies.
She could feel her soul gem's connection to her nervous and endocrine systems, as well as the infinitesimal streams reinforcing her magical girl body, responsible for how it was more resilient than normal human flesh and bones; all this was universal, instinctive magic that came with the contract.
She sensed the constantly maintained protective shell around her true body - currently in the form of a ring on her finger - securing it against accidental damage. She'd torn down and rebuilt this spell three times by now, once before Madoka's ascension and twice after, as experience gave her ideas on how to improve it. Her native protection had been woefully inadequate, at least in her opinion, although, like with most magical girls, certainly good enough against a glancing hit from a basic demon-laser.
She could detect the tiny spell on the ribbons in her hair, which kept them strong and the colors unfaded over the years she'd spent in the previous timeline.
And, yes, now that she knew to look for it, she could sense a telepathic connection between her and Madoka, originating with Homura herself.
All this had taken about five heartbeats.
"You're right. I see it now."
More instinctive magic, then; Homura's mind reaching out to the one person who mattered to her more than anything. Noticing it was like becoming aware of her own breathing: she could stop it if she wanted to, but the moment her attention wandered off, the telepathic link would probably resume. Not that Homura minded - Madoka having a pretty much permanent connection to her, at least as long as they were within range, was hardly something she'd object to.
Still, she diligently made sure that she wasn't using magic unconsciously in any other ways. That would be at least potentially unsafe, and the lack of control wasn't very fitting for someone as experienced as Homura. The inspection took only a few seconds, and turned up nothing. Good, she thought. Her control wasn't falling apart completely.
"So, you were saying?" she asked.
"I just want to know when we can get away for a bit so I can hug you to death. I thought I'd die when we stood there and I had to pretend I just met you!"
Homura closed her eyes, working to master the flood of joy that would have made her grin like she was insane. Not a good idea while the teacher was almost right in front of her. "I felt the same way."
They fell silent for a moment.
"Well, getting away shouldn't be a problem later on. By the way, have you seen Mami today?"
"Already ahead of you, Madoka. I checked with her homeroom teacher; apparently she called in sick."
"Magical girls don't easily get sick."
"I know. Let's look for her after school", Homura said, though she would have preferred to spend more time alone with Madoka. But some of the things they had to do wouldn't wait.
Before Madoka could respond, Kazuko demanded attention from the class. "I almost forgot: I have the results of the test from two days ago."
"Uh-oh." Madoka's mental voice had a humorous tone to it.
The announcement was met with groans and apprehensive whispers. As in the previous timelines, not many students found the foreign language easy to learn, or even interesting. Homura glanced back. Hitomi was unruffled as usual, but Sayaka didn't look too confident. Madoka was failing badly at a poker face.
Once the tests were distributed, the class was over. "Those of you who failed will be taking a make-up test on Monday, so please study hard!" the teacher said cheerfully.
Three more hours dragged on before the students were allowed to spill out of their classrooms and head for the cafeteria.
"So how did you do at the math test today?" Hitomi asked as they walked.
"No worse than usual, I'm sure!" Sayaka claimed boldly.
"Sayaka-chan, no worse than usual isn't that good for us..." Madoka said.
Sayaka blinked, then: "We'll just have to find out tomorrow! Let's not worry until then."
"And I'm sure Akemi-san did well", Hitomi probed.
"Yes", Homura said. "What about that last English test, was it hard?"
"Oh, don't remind me." Sayaka shook her head. "Thirty-one points, so it's Monday for me. What did you get, Hitomi?"
"Ninety-four", Hitomi said modestly, then addressed Homura. "But you don't have to worry about it, Akemi-san. Saotome-sensei won't make you take it with the make-up students, since the original test was before you transferred in."
For all her repeated experience, Homura didn't find Kazuko's behaviour nearly as predictable as the authority with which Hitomi spoke suggested. But it didn't matter.
"Well, time to find out what score Madoka got!" Sayaka announced, holding up a sheet of paper.
"Sayaka-chan! How did you get your hands on my test?" Madoka tried to take it away, but Sayaka ran to hide behind Hitomi.
"I planned ahead! Last time getting you to show your test took too long. Now, let's see... okay, someone pinch me. Ninety-seven? That's a nearly perfect score!"
Hitomi turned around to stare at the test. All four of them gathered around the offending piece of paper.
"It's not what you think!" Madoka gesticulated theatrically.
"And what do I think?" Sayaka looked up at her.
"I'm not betraying you as a make-up test buddy!"
Hitomi and Homura exchanged amused looks.
Sayaka protested. "Oh, come on, we don't fail that often. But I've never seen you do better than miss Great-At-Everything here", she pointed at Hitomi. "Let me guess: you were missing yesterday because your brain went into a coma for a full day, after all that last-minute effort?"
"Even I can get lucky on multiple-choice", Madoka said. It was somehow unconvincing, even though, until she said it, that was exactly what Sayaka had assumed.
"All right, who are you, and what did you do with Madoka."
Madoka just sighed, which broke into a short giggle at the silliness of the situation, as she took her place in the cafeteria line. Only the dark-haired girl now standing behind her had any idea just how familiar she was with the learning material in the few weeks ahead.
Once they all got their food and found a table, Hitomi decided to follow-up on the morning's conversation.
"Akemi-san, you mentioned sleeping trouble, and yesterday you had to go to the nurse's office. If you don't mind, does your heart problem often keep you from sleeping?" she asked in polite tone, before picking on her plate.
"Not really. I've made a very good recovery since my last operation, actually. I just had a lot to think about, and ended up stressing about it and staying awake", Homura said.
"I guess everything's new to you", Sayaka said between bites, "after all that time in the hospital. Uh, we're not being too intrusive there, I hope..."
"It's all right. And no, only one thing is really new to me."
Softly, Madoka asked "What is that?"
Homura met her eyes. "I like it here. Being in Mitakihara, attending this school. I'm looking forward to the foreseeable future. I haven't felt that way in... a while."
Madoka grinned. "And that kept you awake?"
"Part of me keeps expecting something to happen that will change that. It feels too good to be true."
Sayaka and Hitomi exchanged brief looks. The conversation was starting to feel a bit eery. Akemi was giving honest replies to personal questions, and Madoka seemed to be expecting it.
"There is no such thing", Madoka opined confidently. "So I expect you to get a full night's sleep tonight, Akemi-san."
Homura chuckled, and lowered her eyes in mock submission. "Yes, Ma'am", she said in English, then took a sip from her drink.
Sayaka's gaze shifted from Homura to Madoka and back. She grinned mischievously.
"So, Akemi-san", she said. "Do you think you'd have time on Saturday to come to my place and help me with mathematics? To be honest, I have a feeling I didn't do well on that test today."
"You'd like me to tutor you?"
"If you would be so kind? I'll treat you to some great home cooking. I bet all you eat is food from convenience stores and the like."
"I guess that's mostly true", Homura admitted.
Madoka intervened. "As I'm now responsible for Akemi-san's wellbeing, I cannot allow that. At least, I should be invited too, so I can first inspect whatever you try to poison her with."
Sayaka responded "Oh, I won't do the cooking myself. My mom's a great cook, though. Surely you won't object to that, Madoka?"
Homura chuckled, catching on to what Sayaka was doing. "So you three don't have a study group going already?" she diverted.
"Nothing permanent or formal", Hitomi said. Studying really hadn't been the kind of activity that glued their group together. "Though I guess we've helped each other through a crisis a few times. Have you ever been part of one?"
Sayaka figured she didn't need to point out that it usually meant Hitomi helping out her and Madoka, rather than receiving help herself. As kind as Hitomi's choice of words was, Akemi wasn't stupid.
"Not really", Homura said. "It's an idea, though. But, speaking of responsibility for my wellbeing, could Kaname-san take me to the nurse's office now?"
"Of course, Ho... Akemi-san!" Madoka said.
Sayaka grinned. She hadn't gotten an answer, but she didn't really want one.
"So, what were you really doing all night, Homura-chan?"
"I was making bombs", Homura answered telepathically.
Step after familiar step, Homura found herself following Madoka along the well known way: turn left, then right, then into the tunnel connecting the two parts of the building.
"Going back to your roots, Homura-chan? I hope you didn't forget to steal a golf club, then." Madoka smiled. "But you know, I meant it. It's going to be all right. So maybe you should relax a bit."
Homura said nothing. She was going to relax once she understood all the anomalies about this timeline. Until then she'd be ready for anything. I'm not going to let what I have be taken from me by surprise.
The tunnel was pretty much always empty, and this time was no different.
Madoka stopped and turned around to face Homura.
"Homura-chan", she said softly. And smiled. It felt so much better than 'Akemi-san'.
"Madoka", Homura responded, almost whispering to herself.
They embraced, strongly, as if the previous evening had made no dent in how much they'd missed each other.
Time passed too quickly. Madoka muttered something about not wanting to go back yet.
Me neither, Homura thought, nodding. Then she pulled back from the hug. "Madoka..."
"I've had something of yours all these years. It meant the world to me when you were away, but now that I don't need them to remember you... I think they'd look better back on you."
Then she reached to the left side of her head and carefully untied the ribbon that was tied in a bow there. Madoka gasped softly.
Homura continued "I know this won't help us pretend that we'd only just met, but... it's just something I want to do. And your mom was going to get them for you on Monday, anyway. She always did, in every timeline. So maybe just keep them hidden until then?"
Madoka moved forward to stop the dark-haired girl's hands before she could also take off the one worn as a headband.
"No, Homura-chan. It was a gift. Please keep at least that one."
Homura smiled uncertainly, then nodded. "All right."
Madoka smiled back, then carefully took the other ribbon from Homura's hand.
"So, how are you going to...?" Homura asked.
Madoka, still smiling, removed the elastics holding up her twin tails, letting the hair fall down.
"I need a mirror", she said, and turned back to find the nearest washroom.
Hitomi wiped her mouth elegantly, having decided not to finish her meal, then asked "So, what do you think?"
"Mm?" Sayaka responded with her mouth full.
"Madoka-san is acting a little strange, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, I'd just say Madoka is really fond of our new friend."
"I don't know, Sayaka-san. She wasn't quite herself on Tuesday, either, and that was before she met Akemi-san. And on Monday she seemed so sad about something... Maybe we shouldn't be reading too much into things when it comes to Akemi-san", Hitomi said. "I feel we're missing something else."
At that point, the two girls reappeared in the cafeteria. Sayaka's mouth fell open. Madoka's hair was missing the usual twintails, and, as she turned to navigate between tables, Sayaka saw that it was now gathered behind in a simple, low ponytail, tied together with a red ribbon. It was quite a change, and it was obvious where the ribbon had come from.
"You were saying?" she whispered to Hitomi.
In the western part of the city a girl was following a trail only she could see. She walked carefully, with a serious expression on her face. The sun had just set.
She'd followed the subtle miasmatic flow for a few kilometers now, and wasn't surprised at the destination: a somewhat neglected park. There was just a single demon, probably only a few hours old, and it attacked her as soon as she stepped through the entrance gate. It kept its distance as it fired on her, not allowing Mami to close, so she just shot it apart.
Then she realized it might have been a mistake, given her purpose today. The light of her soul gem no longer pulsated. With how still the psychic currents were, she wouldn't be surprised if that proved to be the whole threat that evening. There were days like that.
But no. There was something about the park itself... there was the same feeling as yesterday. No actual trail, but a seemingly residual, inactive trace of evil. If she hadn't had the previous day's experience still freshly in mind, and if the background miasma wasn't so weak, she would've almost certainly missed it.
Mami turned quickly, suddenly certain that something was about to sneak up on her - but no, there was nothing. The trees and bushes were dead quiet, as there was no wind.
The park wasn't empty. She was more certain of that with every moment. She couldn't go home now - this thing would follow her, and she wouldn't dare sleep until she'd dealt with it. Besides, even if she lost it, it would hurt someone else. She held out the egg-like soul gem in her hand, making it radiate magic more forcefully.
"Show yourself, demon", she whispered.
Then she started walking forward, letting her instincts guide her. The unseen radiance of her soul gem, more of a warmth than a light, penetrated the darkness.
Suddenly, her invisible opponent's restraint gave out. The park transformed, now looking like a haunted forest, the branches of trees almost seeming to reach out for something to grab and tear apart. Everything dimmed, and a wind seemed to pick up. A figure moved into sight, deathly white, emanating hatred - and power. About as much power as the one that could have killed her last time. Mami grew pale.
This time, she wouldn't have Homura to back her up.