"Kagome's sick again, huh?" Eri's not quite sure how she ran into Hojo here, on this rather normal Thursday, but right now, it doesn't seem all that important. She's sitting with him in this fast food joint because he looks down, and the boy that's meant for bright, cheery Kagome can't be depressed.
"Uh huh," he nods slowly, sipping his soda idly, and Eri's quite certain she's never seen anyone so pitiful in her life.
Right now, he doesn't seem like the dreamboat out of any girl's fantasies, but the ordinary boy who's trying to do something right for someone he cares about.
"Well, don't let it get you down." She says, smiling and trying to be supportive, because Hojo needs to be together with Kagome, because otherwise, Kagome isn't the girl she knew but the woman she doesn't understand.
Hojo says nothing, only nibbling on his food.
"Why do you give Kagome all those old-fashioned remedies anyway?" she's not really curious, but she's realized she doesn't know who Hojo is at all.
Which is strange, considering he's "the perfect guy" for Kagome.
Hojo shrugs, and it seems like that's the first time she's seen him do that. "She lives at a shrine, so I thought she'd appreciate the more traditional kinds of medicine." His words are quiet and calmly reserved, and for the first time, Eri wonders exactly why he's so popular. "Things from the past seem to fit her better than things today."
Eri doesn't want to believe that, so she bites down on her burger as if the thoughts of chewing processed modern food would make it go away. "Well, Kagome's lucky to have someone so thoughtful."
She's not jealous of that kind of attention.
"Oh, please. I'm not all that great." Hojo waved his hand, and he seemed like a little boy, shuffling and unable to accept the compliment. It stirred something in her, but she didn't want to think about that.
Eri crumples the burger wrapper, tossing all of it onto her tray as she stands. "It was nice talking to you." She smiles because she's not sure what else to do, because frankly, she's never actually talked to Hojo.
But it really was nice, she supposed, as she was out the door.
It's been a week since she talked with Hojo. He's nodded and smiled at her in the hall once, she returned the favor another time.
Nothing much. Just two acquaintances acknowledging one another's existence.
At the end of that week, Kagome returns to school in time for another major exam, looking tired, exhausted, but still able to smile and accept another of Hojo's archaic remedies.
Eri tries very hard not to frown disapprovingly as Kagome tucks it away in her backpack, as though it were some fleeting afterthought.
After all, it's not polite to take such nice gifts so lightly.
On Thursday, Kagome isn't there. Hojo is, and so is she, though.
"Do you want to grab something to eat? My treat, of course."
Eri blinks. She certainly didn't expect that. "Uh..." she's also not sure how to respond.
"Is that a no?" Hojo asks, his smile dimmed and flickering.
"No!" she blurts out without thinking, before the words start rushing out of her mouth, "I mean, no, that's not a no, so it's really a yes, and-"
Hojo laughs. It's not the unconcerned, "next time then" laugh he uses with Kagome, but the amused laugh of a real person who she's quite certain is laughing at her.
"Well, there's no need to laugh at me." Eri huffs, crossing her arms and looking irritable.
"Sorry." Hojo apologizes, returning to the nice guy persona he always wears. "But you'll go, right?"
"Uh... sure." Eri smiles, and she's not sure that the heat in her cheeks is because of the temperature.
"So why me?" Eri asks curiously, sipping her drink as she gazed at him coolly, realizing the implications of this little rendevous. After all, it's not exactly normal for nice boys to take their supposed girlfriend's best friend out for a meal.
"I... don't know, actually." Hojo laughs, and once again, it's not the sort of laugh he uses around Kagome. He eats his fries in half-bites and tends to drop them at times, but he's clean about it- he even uses the napkin instead of his pants to get the salt out of his hands.
"You're pretty strange, you know that?" Eri chuckles, shaking her head.
"Thanks... I think." Hojo smiles, and Eri thinks Kagome is missing out on something wonderful.
"I lied to you." Hojo says, as they leave.
Eri blinks. "You? You lied?" her tone is dubious and she knows it, because this is Hojo, Mr. Nice Guy, even if he was a bit lacking in the sensibility department.
"I wanted to talk about Higurashi." He admits slowly, as though he was revealing some sin to a preacher.
"Oh." Eri says, and nothing more.
"Has she said anything?" Hojo asks, his voice quiet, his head down, hands shoved into his pockets. "Not about me... about... anything?"
There's that real boyfriend of hers, Eri thinks to herself, but that's a bit of news that might hurt Hojo more than it might help. "No." She replied, shrugging her shoulders.
It's Hojo's turn to look away. "Oh." He murmured softly. "Well... thank you." He turned away, ready to go back to where he came.
Eri only hesitates for a moment, but decides that Hojo shouldn't be walking home, not like that. "Do you want to go to the arcade tomorrow?" she asks quickly, before he can leave.
Hojo jerks and looks surprised as he turned back around, shaking his head and smiling. "Thank you, but no. I've got to get home."
"Then how about next Thursday? We can eat here again." Eri pressed, unsure why but she decided she was going to follow her instincts on this one. "My treat."
Hojo doesn't speak for a moment and Eri's afraid she's crossed a line or two.
Finally, he smiles. "I'd like that."
It's been two Thursdays and Eri's fast realizing that she's becoming a bit too attached to Hojo. At least, to her mind, to be attached to Hojo at all meant something that was definitely not something she wanted, since, after all, Hojo was blindly in love with Kagome, and Kagome deserved a guy like Hojo.
But, Eri considered, did Kagome want a guy like Hojo?
Wanting and deserving were two very different things, she was fast realizing as well.
On the third Thursday, Hojo asked her to come with him after their customary meeting. Blinking, she barely remembered agreeing as they went along their way, past the shiny, modern shops and into a much older, rustic part of town.
Before Eri could ask exactly where they were going, he tugged her into a rather dusty, dim shop that smelled faintly of something archaic and worn and unusual.
"Ah, welcome back Hojo!" a middle aged man sat in the back of the shop, smiling as he waved them in. "And you brought a lady friend, I see. Would you be the sick little miss he's been taking care of?"
"No sir, that'd be my friend, Kagome. I'm Eri." She replied quickly, politely, not daring to look either the shopkeeper or Hojo in the eyes.
Hojo cut in through the awkward silence with a smile. "Ah, Mr. Tachibana, do you have my order?"
The shopkeeper smiled warmly in relief, nodding. "Just a moment, lad." He crouched, reaching under the counter for a few moments. When he returned, a lacquered, antique wooden box was in his hands.
"Here ya go, kid." Tachibana grinned, passing the box into Hojo's waiting hands. "One genuine enchanted charm."
Eri blinked as Hojo immediately opened the box, holding the charm in front of her.
Her heart skipped a beat.
"Uh... Hojo..." she said slowly, but he cut in with another smile.
"Do you think Higurashi will like it?" he asked, still smiling. "Remedies don't seem to be enough, so maybe just some good luck will help."
Eri smiled, even as something broke within her. "Yeah... she'll love it, Hojo." She turned away, letting the shadows of the shop cover her face. "And... I don't think I'll be able to make it next Thursday. Maybe if Kagome's back at school by then you can ask her."
She doesn't run, no matter how much she wishes she could.
Two Thursdays come and go and Kagome doesn't show. Hojo smiled at her in the hall the other day, and Eri pretended to be distracted by something out the window.
Eri's decided that Hojo is a great person, and that Kagome deserves him.
What she wants is not a factor here, of course.
"You've been avoiding me." Hojo said quietly, standing outside of her classroom door.
"I have not." Eri denies quickly, and tries to leave, but Hojo places himself in front of her.
"I thought we were friends." Hojo continued, sounding hurt and lonely and suddenly Eri dearly wished she could be Kagome's friend and Hojo's at the same time.
"We are." Eri said, and she did her best to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "But I'm also Kagome's friend, and she comes first."
Whether or not Hojo understands is not her concern, and she leaves him behind, once again, trying her best not to run as fast as possible.
Kagome's back, and Hojo hasn't had the chance to stop by yet.
"So how are things going between you and that dangerous guy?" Yuka asked.
"He's still as stubborn as ever." Kagome replied blithely.
"Well, I'm sure you'll work things out." Ayumi smiled, clasping her hands together.
Eri decides she has to speak. "Oh, Kagome. Hojo has something to give you." Her voice is quiet and withdrawn, but Kagome can't comment on it because Yuka's already talking.
"See! Hojo's much better than any bad boy." Yuka interjected loudly, and glanced at Eri for support. "Don't you think, Eri?"
Eri swallowed, and plastered the best smile she could manage on her face.
"Yeah. He's a really great guy, Kagome. And he only has eyes for you, after all."