Author's Note: Well, here it is—the final chapter of Absence. I want to thank everyone again for all the lovely reviews, and I hope you'll all find this a satisfying conclusion to the story. I'll make my final remarks at the end—for now, read on!
When she got home, Kenji was sitting at the kitchen table with his laptop and piles of documents spread out before him. He glanced up from his work when she walked in, eyebrows raised in mild surprise. "Thought you said you'd be gone a week," he commented as she set her purse on the counter.
She gave him what she hoped was an easy smile before turning away to busy herself hunting around in the fridge. She wasn't really hungry—she just felt like she needed something to do with her hands. "Well, things didn't end up taking quite as long as I'd thought, so I came back early," she answered vaguely, pulling an orange out of the fruit drawer and wandering back over to the counter to peel it.
"So your friend is feeling better then?"
She hesitated a moment, then nodded, not looking up from her orange. "Mm-hm. Much better."
The orange slice was coming away in frustratingly small shards. Usually she was better at this, but her fingers seemed oddly out of practice at such a mundane task. In her peripheral vision, she saw Kenji lean forward to rest his elbows on the edge of the table.
"What's going on?" he asked, his voice serious, but not quite accusing.
She glanced up suddenly to see him watching her steadily, waiting for her to answer. "What do you mean?"
"I think you know what I mean."
She swallowed, but kept her voice mild and easy. "No, I really don't."
A wry smile spread across his face at that, and he settled back in his chair, folding his hands across his stomach. "Come on, Kagome. You've barely spoken to me in three weeks. When you're here you can't even seem to look at me. And you keep disappearing off to some place with no phones and no address. I think I have a right to know the truth. Are you having an affair?"
"No," she said quickly—and in all honesty, she didn't think of it as an affair. After all, two impulsive kisses and a lot of childish bickering hardly constituted an affair, did it? That word seemed to connote something much grander and more glamorous, and involving a lot less kidnapping and dirt and demon guts.
"Don't lie to me."
"I'm not lying. I'm not having an affair. It's just…" She didn't know what she was trying to say. How could she even begin to explain what had been going on these past few weeks? She didn't really even understand it herself.
"I…I don't know. I've just been…reconnecting with some things I thought I'd put behind me, and it's been making me a little crazy."
"But there is someone else, isn't there."
She hesitated, fidgeting with the pulp of her now fully-pealed orange, trying to figure out how best to answer—but in the end, she couldn't think of anything better than, "Yes and no."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that yes, this all started because of someone, but…it's not really about him anymore. I mean, some of it is, but—I don't know. It's about more than that."
"What are you saying, Kagome?" When she didn't answer, he continued, "I thought we were okay. I thought we had a good thing going here. When did that change?"
"We did—I mean, we do. Look," she took a breath, trying to sort out her thoughts, "it's not about that either, it's just…I'm confused. There were all these things…" She knew she was repeating herself, and that she wasn't making any sense, and that was the most frustrating thing of all—but she didn't know how else to put it. "And I thought I'd gotten away from all of that and I was okay with it, but now it's all come up again, and I'm not sure what to do about it."
"Well then talk to me, Kagome—let me help," he implored.
She looked into his calm, concerned eyes, and for a moment she teetered on the edge of doing just that—but it was too much. She wouldn't even know where to begin. She just wasn't prepared for that conversation. "I…I can't. Not right now," she added quickly.
"I'm your husband, Kagome—I love you. Whatever is bothering you, we can work it out together. But I can't do anything to fix it if you keep shutting me out like this."
A wave of guilt crashed over her at the somewhat hurt look in his eyes, and mentally she berated herself for the way she'd been acting—the way she was still acting. He deserved better than this. "I know," she said quietly, "and I'm sorry—believe me, I am—but I think it's something I have to deal with by myself, at least for now. I just…" She set the orange aside with a sigh, admitting defeat and shifting to rest her hip against the counter as she looked at him directly. "I just don't know about anything anymore. I'm sorry, I wish I could give you a better answer than that, but it's the truth."
He paused, watching her carefully as her eyes drifted thoughtfully back to the countertop. And then he asked quietly, "Do you still love me?"
She looked quickly over at him, startled by the question. "Of course I do," she replied—and as she said it, it was the truth.
He glanced down at the screen in front of him, though she could tell he wasn't really looking at it, his expression quietly brooding as he mulled over everything she had said—and everything she had not said. Finally, he looked up again, his voice still calm and serious, but without accusation—which, somehow, only made her feel worse. "What do you expect me to do with all this, Kagome? What happens now?"
That was the question, wasn't it—what happens now? And the answer was that she didn't have a clue. "I…I guess just…give me time. I promise I'll explain everything—and it'll be soon—and I know it's a lot to ask, but I just need you to be patient with me for awhile."
He heaved a sigh and rubbed his hands over his eyes. When he looked back at her his expression was tired, but at last he nodded his agreement.
She wanted to say thanks, but somehow it didn't seem quite enough, so she walked over to him and perched on the edge of the chair next to him, giving him a light kiss and a warm smile. "I'm going to bed, alright—don't stay up working too late."
He looked at her for a moment, but then returned her smile with a somewhat half-hearted one of his own, accepting her overture of normalcy. Alright, so they weren't quite okay—but it was all she could expect for the time being.
Kagome spent the better part of the next three days alternately spacing out and thinking about her situation and trying to avoid thinking about her situation by burying herself under piles of backlogged paperwork. The latter effort was helped a bit by the fact that Hitomi kept giving her stern looks every time she passed by the open office door—clearly she wasn't particularly happy with Kagome's irresponsible behavior of late, and Kagome couldn't really blame her. She felt incredibly guilty for neglecting her work while off on her adventures, and it gave her a sort of déjà vu feeling, recalling her school days and the disappointed looks she'd gotten from her teachers when they passed back her less-than-stellar test scores and homework grades.
By the time she was finishing up at work late in the evening on the third day, finally beginning to feel at least close to caught up again, she felt she knew in the back of her mind what her decision had to be, though she was reluctant to really admit it to herself: This was her life. This was reality. It wasn't always fun, and it wasn't always exciting, but that was the way it was. She had responsibilities here—she had promises to keep. And in the long run, she told herself, it would be easier and better for everyone this way. After all, what was her alternative? Dumping a sweet, kind, loving husband of five years, a good job, a beautiful house, and a sensible, grown-up life to go chasing demons in the Feudal Era? She couldn't do that. She had to be responsible.
She had to grow up.
She tried to be as quiet as she could as she slipped into the dark house, closing the garage door gently so it wouldn't squeak and wake Kenji. Taking off her heels, she padded into the kitchen and flipped on a light, pausing to glance around the room—there was no one there. A wry chuckle contracted her chest, and she shook her head at her own stupidity. What, had she really expected him to show up? He had told her unequivocally that he would not be coming after her this time—and he was a man of his word. Besides, it would only have made things harder for both of them.
With a yawn and a sigh, she set her purse and shoes on the counter and shrugged out of her tailored coat, going over to poke through the refrigerator for a few leftovers to munch on before bed—she'd been so busy she had completely forgotten about dinner. Oddly enough, she wasn't really even all that hungry—but for some reason she just didn't feel ready to go to bed yet.
After picking at some old, borderline-stale noodle dish for a bit, finally deciding that it wasn't really worth the calories, she dumped the rest in the trash and headed upstairs to change into her pajamas. The floorboards creaked softly beneath her feet, but Kenji's light snores from their bedroom never missed a beat, so she knew he must have been sleeping for awhile, and in no danger of waking up any time soon.
Once changed, she slipped quietly beneath the covers, pulling the comforter up over her shoulder and curling her arm beneath her pillow, contemplating her husband's sleeping profile. She wanted to reach out and run a finger over the rough, dark stubble on his chin, but she was afraid he'd wake up—and she wasn't ready to talk, not just yet. Even so, she could practically feel it beneath her fingers, just thinking about it. She knew every part of him. He had granted her the privilege of sharing himself—sharing his life—with her, body and soul. She knew how he liked his eggs, she knew how to stop him from snoring, she knew the first thing he did when he woke up, she knew what he liked in bed, she even knew what size underwear he wore. And likewise, he knew that as a child she'd had a bee phobia, he knew how to calm her down when she was spitting mad, he knew that she couldn't stand the sight of pink and red next to each other, and he knew just how she liked to be kissed.
But there were things he didn't know. He didn't know she had fallen down a magical well when she was fifteen. He didn't know she was the reincarnation of a powerful priestess. He didn't know that she had spent the better part of her late teens battling mythical creatures and purifying jewel shards with her spiritual powers. And he didn't know that she had been sneaking away to the Sengoku Jidai these past few weeks to visit an old hanyou flame she'd thought she'd snuffed out years ago.
He was a good man. He was one of the kindest, most honest men she had ever known. He didn't deserve to be lied to. She'd never really thought of it as lying—not until now. At first she had just kept from telling him because the subject never really came up—not many conversations came around to, "So, ever slay a giant bat-youkai?" But later she'd found it harder and harder to avoid. Soon she'd found herself giving him the same excuses she had used back in middle school—telling him she'd been ill, and that was why she hadn't been able to spend much time with her friends, or why she'd never joined any clubs, or why she'd missed so many of her classes. And then as time had gone by and things had gotten more serious, finally she'd realized it was just too late to tell him the truth.
And maybe, if she was being completely honest with herself, she'd wanted to keep him separate from all that. Then she could pretend it didn't exist.
But it did exist. It had always existed—and no amount of repression had gotten rid of it. And now she wasn't sure she wanted it to anymore.
She sighed and inched a bit closer, sliding her free hand into his beneath the covers, lacing their fingers together. He shifted slightly in his sleep, and his hand closed around hers gently. It was warm and familiar against her skin, and she smiled slightly. Her heart ached—but not with love. It wasn't love she felt when she looked at Kenji, she now realized—it was longing. She wanted so badly to be the woman he thought she was—the woman she had tried to become. She wanted so badly to be normal and grown up and practical, like she was supposed to be—if not for herself, then for him. He deserved that much. But she wasn't like that. And no amount of trying would ever change it.
Suddenly, she wasn't the least bit tired anymore. She got up out of bed and started pacing back and forth across the room, her palms pressed together in front of her face as her mind raced. What now? Finally, without a doubt, she knew what she wanted—but was it too late to get it? Her eyes darted to the digital clock on the bedside table—it was after one in the morning, on the fourth day. She paused in her tracks, flirting with panic, but quickly shook it away; she couldn't give up just because of a silly little thing like that, not now that her head was finally clear. Inuyasha would understand, he would take her back—she knew it. He had to. But there was something she had to do first, before she could even begin to think about Inuyasha.
Quickly and quietly she changed back out of her pajamas and into a pair of jeans and a sweater before slipping downstairs to her office. There she scrounged up a few pieces of stationary and a pen and began to write:
I need to tell you a story…
It took her most of the night to finish it, everything from beginning to end, from the day she'd been dragged into the well when she was fifteen to when she had left the Feudal Era only a few days previous. Part of her felt guilty for being too much of a coward to stay and tell him the truth in person—but there was no time. And anyway, somehow it all seemed more believable when it was written down.
I'm sorry I never told you all this, she wrote. I'm sorry it's taken me this long to realize the truth. I'm sorry I couldn't find the courage to explain all this to your face. I'm sorry for hurting you. But in the long run, I think this is the best thing for both of us. Maybe I'm just chasing a fantasy—maybe these feelings I've rediscovered won't last—but all I know is that it's something I need to find out for myself. And even if they don't last, I think we both know that they couldn't exist at all if you and I were really meant for each other.
Forgive me. Be happy. I'll speak to you soon, I promise.
She left the letter on the kitchen counter, only pausing to grab her purse and a pair of sneakers before getting into her car and heading for the other side of town. The sky was just beginning to grow light as she pulled up in front of the shrine, and she took the steps two at a time in her haste to reach the grounds. Without a second thought she bypassed the house and headed directly for the well.
It was only as she perched herself on the edge, fingers clutching the rough, weathered wood, that her fears overrode her adrenaline and came back to her in full force. What would Inuyasha do when she arrived? How would he react? Had he really meant it when he'd said he would put her behind him? Would he give her another chance? Was it too late?
She couldn't think about that. If she did, she wouldn't be able to do what she had to do. So she firmly pushed all her doubts and fears to the back of her mind, gathered her nerve, and shoved herself off of her perch and into the time-slip.
The dim, pre-dawn light made it rather more difficult than usual to make her way up out of the well, but she managed it without actually falling on her ass, which she considered a minor victory. She was just brushing the dirt from her jeans and enjoying the feeling of being on solid ground again when a movement in the corner of her eye made her gasp and take a step backward, nearly stumbling back into the well.
"Inuyasha," she whispered in relief, clutching at her hammering heart as she recognized his form.
He merely stared at her impassively, arms crossed over his chest. "You're late," he said finally, neither his voice nor his expression betraying anything of his thoughts.
She shrugged, giving him a small smile, which he didn't return. "Better late than never."
He still didn't react, though his expression had turned slightly wary. "What are you doing here?" he asked, his voice still serious.
"Isn't it obvious?" she asked meekly. "I came to…to ask you to let me stay."
"Why," he said, his tone slightly sharper now, almost accusing, "you want to jerk me around awhile longer while you're still waffling over your decision?"
"No," she said quickly, taking a step toward him. "No, that's not it at all. I've…I've already made my decision."
His eyes narrowed slightly, as if suspecting a lie. "What do you mean?"
"I left him," she replied seriously—and then a small, bemused smile crossed her face. "I don't know why it took me so long. I guess I was just afraid, you know? I mean, I thought I'd had everything figured out there for awhile, and then…and then you showed up again, and suddenly nothing made any sense anymore, and it really scared me. Even now, these past three days, I tried so hard to convince myself that the best thing to do would just be to forget about you—and I almost let myself believe it too. But then last night I got to thinking, and I realized I didn't want to forget about you. I like it here, and I like who I am when I'm around you, and I don't care if it's messy and confusing and it doesn't make any sense, because—I love you, Inuyasha. That's the only thing that makes sense to me anymore."
He stared at her for what seemed like an eternity, but she didn't look away. When he took a slow step towards her at last, she had to school herself to keep from flinching, afraid that he would just walk on past her, without a word—but he didn't. Instead, he came to a stop about six inches in front of her, still looking her straight in the eye with that inscrutable expression. But now that she could see him close up, she could see a softness in his eyes as well, though she still couldn't read what he was thinking. Then he lifted a hand to her chin and bent down to press a gentle kiss to her lips.
She drew in a breath in surprise, but the moment she realized what was happening she melted against him willingly, bringing her hands up to his chest and slowly winding them around his shoulders. His hand moved from her cheek to delve into her hair, which she realized she hadn't thought to comb before she'd left the house—but he didn't seem to mind. His free arm wound around her waist and pulled her against him as he deepened the kiss, and she swore she could actually feel the blood pumping from her heart, warming her from head to toe the longer she spent in his embrace.
The kisses slowed, but neither one made a move to separate. Finally, Kagome opened her eyes to look into his, unable to suppress the relieved smile that spread across her face. In spite of himself, Inuyasha's mouth quirked upward at the ends as well. "I knew you'd come back," he murmured cockily, and she slanted him a skeptical look. He rolled his eyes in defeat and amended, "Okay, I didn't. But I hoped you would."
She grinned at that and pushed herself up on tiptoe to kiss him again.
It was a relatively small office—though perhaps it seemed smaller than it was because of all the boxes of case files and documents that were stacked in the corners and in front of the bookcase that sat to the right of the door. The wall of windows opposite the door looked out across the invisible street below to another glass-fronted office building full of tiny, cluttered offices just like this one. When she knocked on the doorjamb and stepped tentatively inside, Mr. Takahashi looked up from the papers he was reviewing at his desk to her left and gave her a kind smile. "Mrs. Sakamoto," he greeted, standing up to give her a small bow as she crossed to the desk, "lovely to see you again. Or do you prefer Ms. Higurashi?"
She gave him a somewhat grim smile, but he didn't seem to really expect an answer, so she didn't bother.
"Well," he continued, resuming his seat and motioning toward one of the chairs across from him, "everything seems to be in order here—not that we really expected it to be otherwise. All that's left is for—" he broke off, looking at someone over her shoulder. "Mr. Sakamoto, come right in," he welcomed with that same friendly smile he had given her.
Kagome couldn't quite bring herself to look directly at Kenji as he settled quietly into the chair next to her—but his crisp charcoal suit and ice-blue tie made her feel distinctly frumpy in her jeans and cotton shirt. She supposed he must have come from the office—she'd forgotten it was a weekday. It had been hard for her to keep track lately, ever since she'd left her job at the publishing house.
"As I was just telling Mrs. Sakamoto, everything seems to be in order, and if you two would just sign where indicated," he passed a small sheaf of papers to each of them, pointing out the color-coded tabs marking the signature lines, "you can consider yourselves officially divorced."
They each picked up a pen and began shuffling through the documents. Kagome skimmed a few paragraphs here and there out of habit, but she already knew what they said: basically, he kept everything, and she kept nothing. Not because he'd been vindictive (which he hadn't) and she felt guilty (which she did), but because she really didn't want any of it. The house, the cars, even their brand new four-slice toaster—it was all just part of something she had tried to make fit. None of it was really hers. In the end, she came away from the marriage with nothing more than she'd had when she went into it—except, perhaps, for a little perspective and self-awareness. And if that was what it had taken to get her to where she was now, she had no regrets—not for herself anyway.
When they each finished their half of the papers, they traded and signed the other half. Finally, they both put down their pens and handed the documents back to Mr. Takahashi, who stacked them up in the proper order and rapped the edges on the desk to straighten them. "That's it folks—that's all I need," he said with the cheerful air of someone telling them they'd just finished purchasing a brand-new BMW. "We'll have these filed and you'll receive your copies in a few weeks."
That was their cue to leave, so they both got to their feet and expressed their gratitude before exiting the office. Once out in the hallway, they fell in step with one another as they headed toward the elevator, though neither said a word. He reached the elevator bay just ahead of her, so he pressed the call button and stepped back, hands in his pockets. She rested a hand on her purse strap and glanced up at the space above the elevator doors where there would have been a floor indicator if they had been in the lobby. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him shift his weight back onto his heels. A small "ding" signaled the arrival of the elevator, and they stepped inside, facing front.
After the doors closed and they began moving down, she finally worked up the nerve to look at his face. He didn't return her gaze, but she knew he was aware of her. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. She'd said it what seemed like a million times over the past few months, but somehow she felt it bore repeating.
"I know," he replied flatly, still not looking at her.
"Really, I am. I mean, if there were any way I could—"
"Kagome," he interrupted, turning to her at last, "I know." His eyes looked more weary than anything else. "It's okay. Well, no," he amended, "it's not okay. It sucks. Sometimes it makes me so mad I almost wish I'd never met you."
She pressed her lips together, slightly stung, but knowing very well that she deserved it.
Then he glanced at her again, his gaze softening somewhat, as if in resignation. "Almost."
The elevator came to a halt and the doors slid open. He lingered only a moment before turning and stepping out into the lobby. She hesitated a bit longer before deciding to follow him.
She caught up to him on the sidewalk just outside the front doors. "Kenji," she said, standing before him and looking him directly in the eye, "I don't know if I ever really said this to you, but…thank you. I know things haven't turned out at all the way we planned, and I've made a lot of mistakes, but…I don't consider being with you one of them. Whatever else may have happened, I know I wouldn't be who I am right now if it weren't for you."
A morose shadow of a smile twitched at his lips at that—and then he caught sight of something over her shoulder, and his gaze turned pensive. "That him?" he asked, nodding toward the object of his scrutiny.
She looked around to find Inuyasha—dressed uncharacteristically in jeans and a grey Tokyo U t-shirt (she supposed it must have been one of Souta's), a black baseball cap covering his ears—watching them closely from several yards down the block, and she couldn't quite suppress a little smile. "Yeah, that's him," she answered, turning back to Kenji.
"You weren't kidding about those features—he looks like a biker or something."
"I know. Acts like one too, half the time. He's really not a bad guy when you get to know him, though."
Kenji nodded thoughtfully, then flicked his eyes back to Kagome seriously. "Does he make you happy?"
She nodded solemnly, telling nothing but the truth.
"Good," he replied simply.
She gave him a small smile, and then—hoping her hanyou would remain a docile puppy for just a few moments longer—she leaned up to give Kenji a kiss on the cheek. They looked at each other a moment longer, clasping hands gently in silent farewell, and then he turned and headed off down the street.
After he disappeared around the corner, Kagome turned to walk back down the block towards Inuyasha, who pushed off from the wall and met her halfway.
"Thanks," she said to him as they fell in step, continuing down the sidewalk.
"For not interrupting."
"Feh," he scoffed, "I'm not a complete jerk, Kagome."
She glanced over at him in half-serious appraisal. "You know, that's true. Maybe you have matured a little these past eight years."
"Feh," he scoffed again. "At least one of us did. Hey, mind if we go get some ramen? I'm starved."
She laughed. "You want more ramen? You've eaten practically nothing else for the last three months."
"What, it's good," he justified simply.
She shook her head in amusement, still smiling wryly. "I guess it's true what they say—absence makes the heart grow fonder."
He frowned over at her. "Who says that?"
"People," she replied vaguely, shrugging. "But I've never really believed it."
"Oh? So you're saying you don't love me twenty times more now than you did before you left?" he teased.
"No," she said with a laugh, "but in our case it doesn't count."
"How do you figure that?"
She glanced over at him with a sly smile. "Because I never really left."
He returned the grin and conceded with a nod, "You got a point there."
Then, in a moment of playfulness, she grabbed him by the forelocks and tugged him forward for a kiss, enjoying the way his hands rested easily at her waist, and his jaw moved gently against hers.
"What was that for?" he asked slightly blurrily when she pulled back.
She shrugged. "Because I can. I'm a free woman now, remember?" His smile faded slightly at that, and her brow lowered in concern. "What?"
He looked back at her seriously. "Are you okay, Kagome? I mean, with all this."
She let out a breath in a rush, an affectionate smile spreading across her face as she moved her hands to rest gently on his cheeks. "Yes," she replied sincerely, looking him in the eye.
He peered at her a moment longer, apparently watching for any signs of doubt or uncertainty. Finding none, he grinned once more and kissed her again.
When they broke apart again she gave him a genuine smile. "Come on, Inuyasha," she said, nudging him into a slight crouch so she could hop up onto his back, giving no thought to the strange looks she knew she must be getting from other passers-by, "let's go home." When he took to the rooftops, the ground falling away from them at superhuman speed, she tightened her hold on his shoulders instinctively. With the breeze and the eclectic scenery of modern Tokyo speeding by them, a little smile curved her lips as she rested her chin on Inuyasha's shoulder and snuggled closer, closing her eyes and enjoying the ride.
A/N: Well, this has been quite a journey! For such a relatively short story (posted in such a relatively short time), it's been a long evolution from the beginning of the idea over three years ago to the final result you see before you. I'm tempted to go into a detailed explanation of how all the various aspects of this story evolved into what they are, but I have a feeling it would end up being longer than the chapter itself, so I won't. If anyone is interested, email me, and I'll chew your ear off for awhile (--grin--). Overall, I'm really quite happy with the way it turned out—there's still a rough spot or two here and there, things I never quite got to work as well as I wanted them to (the Kenji scene at the beginning of this chapter was one of the most problematic in the entire story—must have rewritten it completely five or six different times), but in the end I'm satisfied. That's a nice feeling.
Incidentally, as a general rule, I really don't write sequels—but if there were ever a story I might consider "sequeling," it would probably be this one. I actually have a couple of rough ideas (mainly things that occurred to me while writing this story, but didn't really fit the arc of the plot well enough to justify including them) that might turn into a shorter sort of sequel/companion piece at some point down the road. No promises—if it turns out badly, I won't post it—but it's a possibility.
Anyway, thanks again for all your support, and I hope you've enjoyed reading this story as much as I've enjoyed writing it. As for the future, I've got a few other pieces in progress (mostly oneshots of various shapes and sizes), some of which are close to completion, so hopefully you'll be seeing more from me in the near future… (--grin--)