Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha.

A/N: Written for CinnamonGrrl at iyflashfic.

Thanks to my excellent beta tarrin4ever.

An Iris in the Water

The last time Ayame saw Koga, she vowed to find a way to detect the Sacred Jewel shards and win his heart. Two years later—two years of nothing but running and searching—and she was no closer to achieving her goal than when she'd first set out. She'd sought out witches and demons of all shapes and sizes (and some of questionable authority) to no avail. Now there was only one option left to her, one last lead to try. If she failed in this endeavor, all hope of marrying Koga failed with her…

--

Ayame came to an abrupt halt and caught her breath as the whirlwind of dust she'd kicked up settled about her. She stretched her sore legs and pushed the hair sticking to the back of her sweaty neck away. How long had it been since she'd taken a break? One day? Two? Time seemed to melt together since she'd discovered the rumors of the only person in existence who could help her fulfill her quest. Rest could come later. Ayame had only one priority right now: To find the legendary demon.

She gave the air an anxious sniff, and an encouraged smirk came to her face. The scent of water—and decay—had grown stronger. Her destination would not be much farther now. She adjusted her course slightly and burst off with fresh determination.

When she arrived at the lake, neither the gruesome skeletons clinging to its waters nor the acrid odors burning her sensitive nose took her by surprise. The horrible rumors were well founded. She had expected that. What she did not expect was to find the object of her pursuit waiting there for her.

"You're late."

Ayame froze. In the middle of the lake on a large, flat rock stood the strangest looking demon she had ever seen. He was ancient, a crooked figure hunched over a wooden cane, his bulbous head appearing almost comical in comparison to his withered frame. He had no eyes—or rather he had eyes, but no lids with which to open them—but even that was not his most remarkable characteristic, for it was his ears that rendered Ayame speechless. They stretched down from his head to his knees, the elongated lobes dangling in midair. It was as though they were in a contest with his beard to see which could grow the longest. (The ears were winning.) It was amazing that the tiny figure could hold his head up at all.

Finally Ayame remembered she had a voice. "It's you. You're the one I've been looking for. You're—"

"Tired of waiting around is what I am. I heard you heading my way five days ago. What took you so long? I thought you wolf demons were known for your speed."

Ayame's eyes widened hopefully. "You heard me…five days ago? So the rumors are true, then. You're Mimisenri, the demon who hears all and knows all."

"Correct." Mimisenri had a mischievous look on his face. "And you are the wolf princess who likes to talk in her sleep. So, tell me…who is this Koga fellow you dream of at night?"

Ayame blushed till her cheeks turned as red as her hair. "He's my fiancé. He's the kindest, strongest man I know."

"But I take it there's trouble in paradise, otherwise why would you be here to see me, eh?"

"Yes," Ayame nodded, a bit taken aback. Despite his decrepit appearance, the old demon was astute. Ayame explained, "Koga promised to marry me a long time ago, but now he's in love with someone else, a priestess who can detect the shards of the Sacred Jewel." There was the unmistakably bitter tinge of jealousy in her voice.

"I see."

"I know that if only I could detect the shards too, then Koga would fall in love with me. Please," Ayame begged, "There must be some way you can help me. How can I learn to detect the Sacred Jewel shards?"

"Ah, love," Mimisenri smirked. "It's always about love. Love or power. Of course, what is love if not power over another's emotions?" He chuckled knowingly to himself. "You foolish girl. I've heard plenty of stories like yours and it always ends the same way. Girl loves boy. Boy loves another. Girl's heart breaks. Let me offer you some advice, princess. Don't bother me with your childish nonsense." He started to turn away, waving her off like she was a fly to be batted aside. "Go back home and forget about this man. You'll learn to love someone else sure enough."

Ayame grabbed his shoulder. "No! No, I won't let you turn me down! I will never love another man. Koga is the only one I could ever love." She stared straight at Mimisenri, eyes shining. "And if you tell me that there's no way I can get Koga to love me, then I'm as good as dead." She stood her ground, breathless, her last hope about to slip through her fingers.

"Hmm." Mimisenri seemed to be studying her—how, Ayame didn't know, since he was blind. But still, she got the distinct feeling that he could see into her soul.

"All right," Mimisenri finally announced. "I shall take a listen and see what I can find. But I warn you," he added, "You might not like what you'll hear."

"Oh, thank you!" Ayame could hardly keep from trembling with excitement, a new surge of adrenaline pumping through her body. "Thank you."

"Quiet," Mimisenri shushed her. "I need to concentrate." Without another word, his body grew unearthly still. He was in some sort of trance, listening to far-off conversations that Ayame could not hear.

She waited impatiently, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, as a cold breeze played with her hair. Skeletons drifted past her in the water; their gaping eyes seemed to stare up at her. As minute after minute passed with no change or indication from Mimisenri, Ayame suddenly felt foolish standing there in the uncomfortable surroundings. How long was this supposed to take, anyway? She wanted to ask him if he'd found anything yet, but bit her lip instead, trying to remind herself that after two years of searching she could stand to wait a little while longer. But she was so tired. She'd been traveling for days, and running almost non-stop. Maybe she should sit down…

By the time the sun began to set, Ayame's eyes had practically glazed over. Dully, she glanced over at Mimisenri to make sure he wasn't dead. Nope, he was still standing there as stiff as a board. What was that on his chin? Ayame got up to inspect closer. Drool?

The old fart wasn't in a trance—he was asleep! It abruptly dawned on Ayame that Mimisenri was pulling a fast one on her. He'd tried to get rid of her earlier, and when she wouldn't leave he simply tricked her into thinking he was helping her out.

Ayame grit her teeth. She had failed. There was nothing left to do now but leave, dragging her feet. As she made her way through the forest, suddenly she heard a crotchety voice calling after her.

"What, leaving so soon?"

Wha… Ayame's eyes lit up. Quickly, she darted back to the edge of the lake. Mimisenri stood at its center on the rock looking slightly amused. "You kids nowadays. You're so impatient."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Ayame called, panting. "It's just…I thought that you—" she started chuckling nervously. "I thought that you were sleeping."

Mimisenri puffed himself up in an exaggerated show of indignation "You thought that I, The Great and Powerful Mimisenri, Hearer of All Things, Keeper of Wisdom and Knowledge, had been so foolish as to fall asleep? Of course not," he lied. In fact, Mimisenri had happened to discover vital information for Ayame's case right before the droning buzzes only he could hear had put him into a deep snooze. But now, he had to keep up appearances. In his most haughty voice, he went on. "What do you think I am, some senile old codger?"

"Forgive me, Mimisenri. I shouldn't have doubted you," Ayame appealed to him earnestly.

"Humph. I'll let it pass. Now then, as I recall, you wanted to know how you could become a shard detector and win the heart of your beloved."

"Yes." Ayame leaned forward eagerly. "Yes, please. What can you tell me?"

For a moment, Mimisenri hesitated. "About Koga, he … I learned what I already knew: It's pointless for you to try. You're better off forgetting about this fellow and moving on."

"What?" Ayame's face grew pale.

"You heard me," Mimisenri snapped. "Now go home." With a jolt, the slab of rock he was standing on began to descend into the water.

"Wait!" Ayame cried. "There's something you're not telling me. There must be more!"

Mimisenri hunched his shoulders as the water climbed to his knees. "There isn't. Now leave me."

"You don't understand! I don't care what I have to do to become a shard detector! I don't care how dangerous or painful it is! I don't care what trial I have to go through, or what sacrifice I have to make! Just tell me what to do!"

The water had risen to Mimisenri's chest now. He lowered his voice. "Even if you could detect the shards, that wouldn't help you."

Ayame couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What are you talking about?"

Mimisenri studied her again, in that odd sightless way he had. He seemed to be wrestling within himself over whether or not he should divulge more. A hint of pity washed over his face. As the water threatened to overtake him, he managed to get out three words that made Ayame's blood freeze.

"Koga is dead."

Then he was gone, buried beneath the lake's surface, and Ayame was alone, save for the skeletons bobbing methodically in the black water.

She fell to her knees, and stayed there for hours, until the moon was high and bright in the sky, not unlike the night she and Koga had shared under the lunar rainbow. Slowly she took the iris from her hair and carefully laid it upon the water. "I don't care if it takes a thousand lifetimes, Koga," Ayame whispered. "Someday, I'll marry you."

---

"Kagome, you don't have to go to school today." Mrs. Higurashi stood outside Kagome's bedroom as her daughter brushed her hair. "I know you must be upset over what happened to your friend."

"I miss enough school as it is, Mom. Besides, what I really need right now is a bit of normalcy in my life." Kagome picked up her backpack, so much lighter now that it held textbooks instead of camping and medical supplies.

"All right," Mrs. Higurashi uttered as Kagome rushed out. "But take it easy, Honey."

--

By the time Kagome was down the shrine steps, she couldn't hold in the tears any more. She had tried to put on a brave face for her mom, but now she was free to let it out before the mask came on again at school.

Koga was dead. The words sounded odd in Kagome's head.

It had all happened so suddenly. They were in another battle with Naraku. Koga had already used the divine protection of the Yourouzoku once. He didn't have that protection anymore. Midoriko's will acted upon the Shikon shards in his legs, and he couldn't move. In a flash, Naraku obliterated him, absorbing his body and the shards with him. Then, with the shards in his possession, Naraku simply escaped, leaving the bewildered group to deal with their wounds and their loss.

Miroku and Sango agreed that Kagome should go home while they recovered. Kagome wanted Inuyasha's opinion, but he hardly looked at her. They couldn't talk to each other about Koga's death, and Kagome relished the chance to escape the awkward situation for a while. Koga had always been a sore spot between her and Inuyasha.

It was all so silly. Inuyasha had acted exceedingly jealous just because Koga showed an interest in her. And it wasn't like there was anything going on between them. Koga was just a friend, and not even a friend she saw that often. More like someone who happened to show up at the same place and the same time as her.

Kagome choked a little. But if he was just a friend, why did she feel this way about losing him? More than sad, more than hurt. Maybe it was because Koga had always made her feel…special.

Yes, that was it. Koga had always treated Kagome with care. He always protected her, looked out for her, rescued her. She was always on his mind. He told her she was beautiful…

Kagome rubbed her eyes and wiped her face as best as she could. She would be coming up on the school soon. She had to put on the mask.

--

Hojo walked into the schoolyard, scanning the crowds of students carefully for the person he most wanted to see. He passed a girl with bright red hair and green eyes without noticing her.

"Hi, Hojo! Big day for you tomorrow, huh?" She smiled at him sincerely, eyes shining brightly.

"Oh, hi Akari—HEY, HIGURASHI!" From the corner of his eye he'd spotted the girl he was hoping to find. Without so much as a "Later" to Akari, Hojo ran off to Kagome, who'd just arrived. Wistfully, Akari watched him go, and then shuffled off to class.

Hojo caught up to Kagome. "Higurashi! I see you're feeling better! I was hoping you'd be at school today." He grinned.

Kagome's mind seemed to be someplace else. She blinked at him a moment, eyes dull. "Oh, hi Hojo." She gave him a smile, which Hojo didn't notice was forced.

"Goodness, Higurashi, are you sure you're well enough to be at school? Your eyes are all red and puffy. You didn't catch pinkeye, did you?"

"What—oh—no. This is just…allergies."

"Hm, well now that you mention it, I know a wonderful herbal remedy for irritated eyes. I'll bring you some tomorrow." Hojo tried to put just the right amount of warmth into his voice. He hoped he sounded charming.

"That's…great. Thanks." Kagome gave him another forced smile, which only served to strengthen Hojo's confidence. The conversation was going perfectly. Now was his chance.

"Say, Higurashi…" He rubbed the back of his head. "I've been meaning to tell you, I'm running in the—"

"KAGOME! Kagome, over here!" Suddenly, Eri, Ayumi, and Yuka ran up and ushered Kagome away in that weird herd formation that all girls seemed to move in.

"Oh my gosh—"

"I can't believe you're here—"

"How's your boyfriend?"

Hojo could hear the girls chatter as they ran off to class. At the last remark, he blushed to think that they were talking about him.

--

"Kagome, what were you doing talking to Hojo?" Eri wondered.

"Yeah," Ayumi added. "You're not cheating on your boyfriend, are you?"

"What?" Kagome was taken aback. "Of course not. He just came over to say hi. And I'm surprised you guys rushed me away from him."

"Why not?" Yuka countered. "He's yesterday's news. I mean, you have that cool boyfriend now. Who cares about Hojo?" She chuckled. "And the best part is, he's completely clueless. He thinks he still has a shot with you."

Eri, Ayumi, and Yuka laughed, and hurried into class. Kagome stood there thoughtfully for a moment before running in after them.

--

After school, Kagome made an excuse and parted from her friends. It felt like the longest day of her life. She'd gone through school like a zombie, feigning smiles, laughing at jokes, pretending to listen to her teacher's lecture on parallelograms, but inside none of it registered.

She arrived at her shrine's steps sooner than she'd realized. After staring at them for a moment, she turned in the other direction and headed for the park. She didn't feel like being around anyone right now, but neither did she want to lock herself in her room and make her mom worry.

The park was pleasant—sakura trees in bloom, children laughing carelessly on the jungle gym. It was everything Kagome was not. She found an empty bench under the shade of a tree as far away from the cheer as possible, and claimed it.

Koga was dead.

She buried her face in her hands and sobbed quietly. All the background noise—the wind, the kids, the laughs—drowned together in her head. She didn't notice that someone was standing over her until she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Are you okay, Higurashi?"

Kagome looked up, startled, and quickly tried to wipe her face. "Hojo! What are you doing here?"

"I guess I just happened to be in the same place at the same time as you." He looked concerned. "Mind if I join you?"

Kagome scooted over, too embarrassed to say anything while Hojo sat down. She couldn't believe he had caught her crying.

"Now tell me," he said, "What's bothering you?"

"It's nothing." Kagome sniffed. "Really." She smiled as though to reassure him, but this time Hojo realized it was forced.

"You don't have to tell me…" He took a breath. "But I want you to know that I worry about what's going on with you. I know you're ill a lot, and it must be hard for you. If there's anything I can do for you, just let me know." He held his breath and reached for her hands. "I care about you, Higurashi. I can't stand to see a beautiful girl like you cry."

Kagome gasped a bit as his hands met hers. Before she knew it, the words just started flowing out of her mouth, tears streaming down her face. "Someone I knew … died recently. It's not that I got to see him that often or anything, but still, I … I loved him."

Hojo gripped her hands tighter. "I'm so sorry."

Kagome stared at Hojo, astonished at her revelation. She could have never talked to Inuyasha like that, but something about Hojo made it okay. Something familiar…

Suddenly, Kagome found herself hugging him, and if she was surprised at her action, then Hojo was doubly so. Eyes wide at first, heart beating madly, slowly he wrapped his arms around Kagome in return, and they held each other on the bench under the sakura tree.

--

Akari hadn't meant to spy on Hojo. They were next-door neighbors, after all. It wasn't her fault that she had to take the same route home after school. So when she spotted him heading into the park, curiosity got the best of her, and she decided to follow after him.

Akari's interest piqued when she saw him go over to Kagome on the bench. She hid in some bushes that were close enough to see them clearly, but far enough away so as not to be noticed. Squinting through the leaves, she watched as he sat down on the bench. He was sitting close—too close—to Kagome. Akari's chest tightened. Then Hojo held Kagome's hands. Akari clenched her teeth. But if Akari had been mad then—if she had been heartsick and angry and jealous—then it was nothing compared to the way she felt when Hojo and Kagome embraced.

Akari's green eyes flashed with fire as she stared in disbelief at the couple's private moment. How could Hojo do this to her… She dug her fists into the dirt as tears dripped to the ground.

--

A dog barked and Kagome opened her eyes, suddenly conscious of the significance of what she was doing. "I better go," she murmured as she let go of Hojo. "My mom's probably wondering where I am."

"O-okay," Hojo stuttered, hardly believing what he and Kagome had just done. "Oh wait, Higurashi, I wanted to tell you…"

"Yes?"

"I'm running the 1200 meter in the Track and Field meet tomorrow and I was … I was hoping you would come. To, uh, you know, watch me race. Since you're feeling well, and all."

"It means a lot to you, doesn't it?"

Hojo blushed. "I know it's just a stupid race … but I've been training for it all year."

"I'll be there, Hojo. I promise." Kagome smiled, and Hojo's heart skipped a beat knowing that she was sincere.

That day, Hojo walked home with a spring in his step and a whistle on his lips.

--

After Hojo and Kagome left the park, Akari got out of the bushes, sick to her stomach. Right then she didn't want to be anywhere remotely close to the proximity of that two-timing jerk Hojo, but she had to follow him. She had no choice. They'd lived next to each other their entire lives.

--

"Hi, Mom!" Kagome called as she entered her home. "Sorry I'm late coming home from school," she yelled as she ran to her room and opened the door. "I stopped by the—"

Inuyasha was sitting on the floor of her room, playing with her cat. "You're late."

Kagome stood in the doorway, mouth agape. "What are you doing here?"

"You don't usually take so long coming home from school. Where were you?"

Kagome sighed, exasperated. Inuyasha was the last person she wanted to see right now, and here he had barged into her life, bringing back all the issues she was trying to leave in the Feudal Era. "I was out in the park, hugging another man!"

"Keh, fine, you don't have to tell me where you were. Just don't be so bitchy about it. It's not like I was worried or anything."

Kagome's expression softened. Inuyasha being defensive was like a peace offering. "What are you doing here?" she repeated, gentler this time. "When I left, you wouldn't even look at me."

"I'm sorry," Inuyasha mumbled, eyes rooted firmly on the floor.

"What?"

"I said … it's my fault. It's my fault that Koga died. I could have saved him … if only I'd been faster. That's why I couldn't look at you. I didn't want to see the pain I'd caused you."

"Inuyasha…"

"I thought it would be better to let you go. But I can't deal with this without you, Kagome." He looked up at her. "I need you."

"Inuyasha, it wasn't your fault," she murmured. "It wasn't your fault." She took his hand, and held it for a long time in silence. Buyo purred on the ground contentedly. Somehow, Inuyasha and Kagome had come to an understanding.

"C'mon, Kagome. Let's go home."

--

Akari hated Hojo, she decided. Hated his guts, hated his face, hated the stupid dimples that appeared in his cheeks when he smiled. Who did he think he was, hitting on another girl like that? He wasn't even that cute anyway. Yep, Akari hated him. In fact, she hated him so much that she didn't care if she never saw him again.

She went to the race anyway.

--

Hojo felt like a dozen hungry wolves were tearing through his insides as he lined up for the 1200 meter event. Sweat already poured down his temples, and he hadn't even started running yet. He scanned the crowd in the stands desperately looking for a friendly face, trying hard not to vomit. The world was spinning; he couldn't focus. Everyone in the stands became a sea of black hair. Hojo thought he would fall over…

Suddenly, Hojo spotted a dot of red standing out amongst the black. Akari…

She was staring straight at him with a concerned look at her face. Her face twitched when she realize he was staring back at her. You can do it, she mouthed.

"Hojo! … Hojo! … Hojo!" she began chanting. The crowd around her started picking it up. Louder and louder it grew.

The wolves in his stomached vanished. Hojo nodded gratefully at Akari. A voice came over the loudspeaker.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to begin the final event of the day, the 1200 meter. Runners, on your mark … get set … GO!"

--

After the race, Hojo was bombarded by his fellow teammates and dozens of enthusiastic spectators. Akari had to wait till they finally left to approach him.

"Congratulations, Hojo. First place! I knew you could do it."

"Thanks. I couldn't have done it without you."

"What do you mean?"

"Did you see me before the race started? I was a nervous wreck." His fingers played timidly with the leaves in his winner's bouquet. "It really helped me to have you here cheering me on."

Akari felt her cheeks grow hot.

"Say, Akari, I wanted to ask you…"

"Yes?"

"You didn't happen to see Higurashi, did you? I was hoping she would be here."

Akari looked down bitterly. "No, I haven't seen her."

"Oh." For a moment Hojo's smile faltered. "Right. I guess I should have expected that." He chuckled. "Well, at least you showed up. That's what I like about you, Akari," he said cheerfully. "You're reliable."

"Gee, thanks. You make me sound like a car or something." Akari had had it. No matter what she did, Hojo was too blinded by Kagome to appreciate her. She turned to go.

"No, wait, you don't understand. What I meant was," and he reached for her hand then, "You're a really good friend, Akari."

When his fingers touched hers, Akari jolted slightly. Hojo smiled at her. "Would you mind if I walked you home?"

--

"Remember when we were kids, Hojo? You'd come over to my house, and we played together all the time."

"Of course I remember. How could I forget? You used to beat me up! I've still got the scars to prove it!" He pushed Akari playfully.

"Hey, no fair. That was only when I could catch you. Even then you were the fastest thing on two legs."

The two of them laughed. "Yeah," Hojo added, "We always had fun together."

"You even told me that when we grew up, you wanted to marry me." Akari stopped, blushing furiously. She hadn't meant to say that. It just slipped out.

Hojo stared at Akari seriously for a beat before bursting into a smile. He chuckled. "Yeah, that was funny. The silly things kids do."

"Yeah," Akari laughed with him. "Silly."

They walked on again in silence until they reached their homes. "Well," Akari said, "Congratulations again. See you in school."

"Akari—wait. I want you to have this." He handed her his winner's bouquet. Then, he plucked a flower from it and placed it in her hair. It was an iris, soft purple and in full bloom.

There was a gleam in his eyes. "It suits you."

Then, he was gone, a house apart and a lifetime away.

Akari sat on her steps, and sighed, playing with the iris in her hair. Hojo didn't love her. Perhaps he never would. But she would always try.

THE END