Author's Note: I started this little piece months ago in response to one of the LJ challenges—don't remember which group it was, but I'm pretty sure the prompt was "Nice Guy." Anyway, this idea popped into my head, but I discovered as I started to write it that it was going to be a bit longer than I really had time for that week, so I gave up and tucked it away to finish later. Finally, a couple of days ago I was flipping through all my many half-finished oneshots hoping that something would spark my interest, and this one did. Voila.

I thought about posting it to one of my "short-fic" collections, since it's a bit on the short side for a true oneshot, but it was long enough that I felt it deserved its own slot, so here it is. Oh, also, if memory serves, I think this is the first piece I've ever written in first-person present-tense. I generally favor third-person past, but this one just seemed to flow more naturally like this.

Also, heads up, this is post-manga. I doubt that many people out there still don't know how everything ends, but just in case…

Finishing Last

It's been almost three years since she ran off to get married, and I still can't forget her. Pathetic, isn't it?

Okay, so it's not like I think about her all the time. It's not like I sit around my apartment flipping through old photo albums and yearbooks looking for pictures of her; not like I lie awake nights wondering where she is, what she's doing, if she ever thinks about me. That would be too pathetic for words. After all, we barely even had a relationship, if you could call it that at all in the first place. It's not like I was in love with her.

Except, I sort of was. I think. I don't know—I've never been in love before. At least not with someone who loved me back.

Most of the time I manage to keep her out of the way, in the back of my mind—but put a drink in my hand, and it all comes flooding back. It's a sweetened agony, this rush of self-pity. What did I do wrong? I did everything I knew how to do to show her how I felt. I took care of her, brought her presents, asked her on dates. I was always respectful of her family; I never made passes at her, or anything like that. I was understanding of her frequent absences, her breaking of dates, her distractedness and sudden changes of plans. I always thought she sort of needed someone like me—someone steady, who could take her occasional bouts of temper and irrationality in stride. I thought we made the perfect couple. I thought I was doing everything right.

And then one day I hear from her brother that she's run off and married that delinquent jackass who was always hanging around her house, mouthing off to her family and ordering her around. I couldn't believe it. The guy treated her like shit, and yet she still chose him over me. Why?


"Hojo," a familiar voice scolds as Keiko plops herself unsteadily onto the arm of my chair, "you're not moping again, are you?"

"Of course not," I say wryly, taking another sip of my beer. "Who could be depressed in a place like this?"

She glances around at the trashed frat-house strewn with plastic cups, overturned furniture, shed clothing, and equally trashed college students, and gives a drunken giggle, swaying against my shoulder. "Oh come on—they're having fun. That's the whole point—don't you want to be young before you're old? Shake it off. Loosen up."

"Hey babe, where'd you go?" A James Dean look-alike materializes from the crowd and slides his hand up Keiko's leg, eliciting another giggle as he leans in to nibble at her neck. Great—the latest entrant in the world's biggest loser contest. I don't know why she puts up with these guys. I don't know why any women put up with these guys. It's the same old story: Nice guy meets nice girl. Nice girl meets total asshole. Total asshole fucks her around for awhile. Nice guy sleeps alone.

Leaving them to their fun, I down the last of my beer and make my way through the crowded living room to see if they've got anything stronger in the kitchen. I have to nudge aside a couple of guys making out against the refrigerator, but at last I dig out a bottle of vodka from the freezer. Debating briefly whether I should mix it with cranberry juice or orange, I solve the problem by just sloshing it into a glass and throwing it back straight. When the buzz doesn't settle in quickly enough, I throw back another.

Finally I can feel the medicine taking effect, easing my pain, if not my frustration. I wander back out into the living room, observing the veritable orgy around me wistfully. Sometimes I wish I were bad. Sometimes I wish I could use women like tissues, casting the spent ones aside without a thought. Seems like that's the only way you get anywhere with any of them these days. What's the use in being polite and respectful—what's the use in being nice—if all any woman really wants is some big, tough guy who'll treat her like dirt? I could just grab one of these half-dressed, half-conscious sluts walking by, drag her into a closet, and have my way with her, and no one would care. She probably wouldn't even remember it in the morning. That's the norm, isn't it? Nameless, faceless sex with drunken strangers? Does it happen any other way? A foul mouth and a giant cock—that's all you need to get by in this world.

I down a half-finished beer sitting on a nearby table and hurl the plastic cup across the room, frustrated by its harmless, unsatisfying bounce. Fuck the world. I'm not like that. And no matter what I do, I'm never going to be like that.

I guess nice guys really do finish last.

Keiko's still making out in my vacated chair with Slicky McTight-Pants. Feeling defeated and slightly nauseated—though whether from the alcohol or the display, I'm not sure—I turn and head for the front door, deflecting drunks and clingy couples as they stumble into my path. I'm going home. Alone.


"Hey, where'd you disappear to last night?"

I glance back to see Keiko perched on the checkout counter beside my register, legs crossed at the knees. "Home." I shrug, going back to straightening the books in the window display. "The drinks were getting to me—I was starting to feel sick."

"Bullshit," she scoffs. "You went home to mope about her some more, didn't you."


"Don't hand me that—I saw the look in your eye. Miss Perfect. The one that got away. Seriously, you've been obsessing over her for as long as I've known you. Don't you think it's time to give it up? Maybe think about starting a relationship with…someone else?"

I turn back to her blandly, arms crossed. "If you've got any suggestions, I'm open to them."

Her expression at this is a mixture of dismay and frustration. "Oh come on, there must be plenty of girls you'd be interested in."

"That's not exactly the problem."

She frowns. "What is the problem?"

I want to tell her to get back to work and leave me alone—but we haven't had more than two or three customers all day, and it would be hard to pass this off as simple professionalism. "Let's just say I'm not exactly the kind of guy who's in high demand."

"What makes you say that?"

"You should know—who was that guy I saw you with last night?"

"Who, Shin?"

"Hey, at least you got a name this time."

This stings her—I can see it in her face, but it's too late to take it back. She slides off the counter and straightens out her skirt. "You know what? I take it back. You shouldn't try to get a date. Any guy as dense as you are doesn't deserve one." And then she walks away, heels clicking on the aged wood floor. Rolling my eyes away from her retreating back, I return to the window.

It's a couple of weeks later, and I'm on my way home from class when I decide to stop into the grocery store to pick up a couple of things for dinner. I don't usually have time for cooking, but I'm sick of takeout, so I figure I'll make up a pot of stew or something. I'm in the vegetable aisle, hunting for a tomato that's not bruised or starting to shrivel when I look up and do a double take—there she is.

Self-conscious, I look away quickly, hiding my face on the pretense of inspecting a tomato more closely while surreptitiously observing her over the collar of my jacket. Is that really her? It seems impossible. I haven't seen her once since she left, and it's always sounded as if she and her boyfriend—husband—lived far away, someplace that made it difficult to visit often. As far as I know, she's never even been home since then. And yet, I'm sure it's her—standing there, big as life.

I've never been nervous talking to her before—back in those simpler days, it seemed so easy—but now it's like she's stepped out of my imagination, and suddenly I don't know what to do. I feel awkward. Would she even remember me? Is she back in town for good? Is she still with…him?

"Higurashi?" I say, coming up beside her just a little before I'm really ready.

She looks up, and for a moment her face is blank—but then, to my relief, recognition floods it, along with a very familiar smile. "Hojo! How are you? My, it's been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Yeah, it has. I didn't know you were back in town—are you here for awhile?"

"Mm, not too long," she replies, readjusting the weight of the basket resting on her hip. "Just a visit."

"Oh—I see. Well…are you free for dinner?" I blurt out, immediately regretting it when her smile fades slightly. "I mean, not to be too forward, but I'd really like a chance to catch up."

"Oh," she says, looking apologetic. "That would be lovely, Hojo, but I really can't. They're expecting me home for dinner any minute—I just came to get a couple of things Mama had forgotten."

"I see," I reply, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice. "Well, maybe some other time then."

Her brow furrows guiltily, and I can tell my disappointment must have shown anyway. Finally she offers, "But why don't you come along? I'm sure my family would love to see you as well, and I would like to catch up, hear how everyone is doing."

I really shouldn't accept—I know she's probably just doing it to be polite—but I can't help myself. For all I know, I may never get the chance to see her again. At the very least I have to know that she's alright—and maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to work up the courage to ask her the question I've been asking myself for three years: Why?

We finish up with the grocery shopping and walk back to her house, chatting about mutual friends. From the sound of things she's been completely out of touch with everyone from around here since she got married. This worries me a little—I can't help wondering in the back of my mind if maybe that jerk-off husband of hers put pressure on her to cut off all ties with her old friends. He always seemed like the jealous, possessive type—and from what I've heard through Eri and the others, he definitely wasn't above making irrational, hypocritical demands of her. Apparently he had been seeing someone else for a long time during his relationship with Kagome, and yet he'd still seen fit to keep her on such a tight leash. The more I heard about him from those three, the less I could understand why on earth Kagome would let him live, much less agree to marry him.

As we start up the long flight of steps, Kagome seems slightly distracted, glancing up at the house and grounds repeatedly, peering around as though on the lookout for something. I look around curiously myself, but nothing seems amiss—and whatever it is she's watching for, she doesn't seem to find it.

There's a slight apprehension in her demeanor as we reach the door, and she moves quickly to see that she enters the house ahead of me. "Here we are," she says, stepping inside, her breezy tone not entirely convincing, and I can't help but wonder exactly what's got her so on-edge.

"You want me to take these into the kitchen?" I offer, lifting the grocery bags I've been carrying for her.

"Um, sur—"

"Kagome?" a gruff male voice calls down from upstairs. "Who's that you're talking to?"

Kagome hesitates, pressing her lips together and darting me the smallest of glances before calling back, "It's Hojo, Inuyasha."

"Who?" the voice responds, and I can hear footsteps in the upstairs hall, a bare foot and a voluminous red pant-cuff appearing on the top step.

Kagome's eyes widen and she darts up the stairs to stop the foot in its tracks. I have no earthly idea why she's acting so nervous, though I can't help but make the connection that she's been on-edge since the moment we got within sight of the house, and that her husband seems to be the source of her concern. I try not to think about why that might be. He'd always seemed like an asshole to me, but I don't want to think that Kagome might be mixed up with some guy who actually abuses her, physically or otherwise.

Although I know I really shouldn't, I lean in a bit to try to catch snatches of their furiously whispered conversation. Nothing much comes through though, other than the fact that they seem to be arguing.

"Uh, Hojo," Kagome calls down lightly, presumably just remembering that I'm here, "you can take those groceries in to my mother. She should be in the kitchen."

"Sure thing, Higurashi."

"Thanks, Hojo," she says as I head down the hall.

Rounding the corner into the kitchen, I find Mrs. Higurashi busy at the sink with her back to me. I set the grocery bags up on the counter and she turns at the sound. "Hi, Mrs. Higurashi," I say, feeling every bit the awkward teenager I still was when I last saw her. Funny how things like that can take you back.

"Hojo, dear, what a lovely surprise!" she greets me warmly, but I notice her eyes flick briefly toward the hallway behind me, bemusement crossing her expression.

"I bumped into Kagome at the grocery store, and she invited me for dinner," I explain, hoping it will answer that question in her eyes. "I hope I'm not imposing."

"Oh no, not at all," she replies, and although her welcome is nothing but sincere, I still get the feeling she's worried about something. She's got an echo of the same look Kagome had when we were approaching the house.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" I offer automatically, and she laughs that "so-sweet-of-him-to-offer" laugh that I hear from most every mother I meet. Mothers have always liked me. Too bad their daughters don't agree.

"Thank you, dear, but I'm nearly done—you go right ahead and have a seat. We'll be eating soon."

I nod and wander over to the neatly set kitchen table as she returns to work. It occurs to me that they wouldn't have set me a place at the table, so rather than troubling Mrs. Higurashi, I retrieve a plate, napkin, and chopsticks and set one for myself in front of an extra chair. I don't have any problems finding the right utensils—not because I spent all that much time over at Kagome's house when we were in school together, but because I just always seem to know my way around a kitchen. It's one of my skills.

Looks great on a resume.

I hear footsteps in the hall, and soon Kagome appears in the doorway, breathing a sigh and straightening her sweater at her waist. She flashes me a smile, then turns to join her mother in the kitchen. I can't actually hear them, but as they stand casually side-by-side at the stove, facing away from me, they seem to be conversing in a whisper. I'm beginning to feel just a little uncomfortable about being here, wondering if maybe I really am intruding, and I really ought to have just gone home—but then I catch sight of Kagome's face when she turns away from the stove to arrange the food on a serving plate at the counter, and I know it was worth it. Maybe I shouldn't have come, but I know I would have spent months kicking myself if I hadn't.

Kagome's grandfather comes downstairs soon, and he and I sit discussing the shrine and its upkeep while Kagome and her mother set out the food at the center of the table. When Mrs. Higurashi seats herself beside Kagome's grandfather, and Kagome comes to take the seat beside me, a tiny, pathetic thrill runs through me as I realize that this is what things would have been like. If Kagome and I had been together, if I'd been the one she'd chosen, this is what things would have been like.

Of course, that's when her asshole husband chooses to make his appearance, striding into the kitchen in a pair of jeans, a button-down shirt, and a baseball cap, looking slightly perturbed. "The kid's asleep," he mutters as he takes the seat next to Kagome, and his eyes flick briefly over me with distinct, if restrained, dislike. I can't help but find him a little intimidating, but the feeling is trumped by my own lingering resentment. Vaguely, it strikes me as odd that this guy would still refer to Kagome's little brother as "the kid"—he must be eighteen or nineteen by now. I also wonder why he's sleeping so early in the evening—I hope he hasn't had problems with illnesses like his sister did in her teenage years.

I glance up from my meal to see Kagome's husband tugging slightly at his button-down shirt, and notice her hand on his arm as she catches his eye, mouthing what looks like "Thank you." He still looks disgruntled for some reason, shrugging her off, albeit somehow gently.

"So, Higurashi," I say, only partly motivated by the desire to break up their little exchange, "what have you been doing with yourself? Where did you end up going to school?"

Kagome looks up attentively, and then gives a small, awkward laugh. "I—I didn't go to University, Hojo. After we got married," she glances back at the man beside her, then returns to me, "it just didn't seem…necessary."

I can't help the slight raise of my eyebrows, the slight tightening of my jaw, but I school my features quickly back into an easy smile. She didn't go to University? She let that jackass talk her out of it? No doubt so she'd spend all her time waiting on him hand and foot and become completely dependent on him—unbelievable. And she was such a smart girl too—even with all the school she'd missed, she'd always managed to keep up somehow.

"Well, then what do you do for a living?"

"Oh—I don't work," she shrugs off. Then she seems to realize what she's said, and elaborates. "Well, I work, of course, but I don't have a job."

"What kind of work do you do?" I press.

"All kinds of things," she replies, but seems more uncomfortable by the second, and I wonder what it is she's hiding. Her husband's eyes are narrowed, glancing back and forth between me and her, but he doesn't seem like he plans to come to her rescue.

"Charity work, mostly," Mrs. Higurashi chimes in, and Kagome and her husband both stare at her, the husband quirking a curious eyebrow—but Mrs. Higurashi seems unfazed. "She spends a lot of time helping the ill and infirm—isn't that right, Kagome?"

"Uh…yeah," she agrees. "Yep, I certainly do…"

There's definitely something strange about this conversation, but I'll be damned if I can figure out exactly what it is. Anyway, I suppose I shouldn't pry too much, since it seems obvious that something about this subject is making everybody nervous. But I just have to ask one more.

"And Inuyasha, what do you do?" The name feels foreign on my tongue. Although I've heard it plenty of times, mostly from Eri, Yuka, and Ayumi, I don't know if I've ever said it before.

His brow knits in bemusement. "What do I do about what?"

"For a living, I mean. Your job. I assume you have a job." The last bit is probably a little impudent of me, but I can't help myself.

His frown deepens. "Not that I…know of…" he replies glancing around at Kagome for help.

She winces and shoots him a dry look. His expression seems to reply silently, "What?"

Just then the tension in the air is cut by a soft crackling sound, and a muffled sort of whine. "Damn," Kagome's husband says, reaching behind his back and un-clipping something from his belt. As he holds it up, I realize it's a baby monitor.

A baby monitor. Holy shit.

"I'll get it," Kagome says, starting to rise, but her husband stops her with a hand to her shoulder and gets to his feet instead.

"Don't worry about it, I got it," he says, and disappears down the hall toward the stairs.

I can't seem to find my balance. I feel like I've just been sucker-punched. "The kid's asleep." I can't believe I didn't realize he meant an actual kid—their kid. I can't believe it…

"Kagome, you have a baby?" I breathe when my voice starts working again.

She looks over at me, and a proud smile spreads across her face as she nods. "A little girl. She just turned two years old a month and a half ago. Usually she takes her nap a little earlier than this, but we were out at the zoo for so long this afternoon, and when we got back she just crashed."

"That's…" I begin, though I have difficulty figuring out how to finish. "That's wonderful, Kagome. I'm so happy for you."

Her smile turns a little more understanding, and her hand closes on my wrist for just a moment. "Thank you."

I return to my meal, though I can't seem to muster much of an appetite. Kagome's grandfather takes charge of the conversation, asking about the zoo, and I listen dimly, but nothing really seems to land. I don't know why it hit me so hard—it's not like I honestly thought I could take her away from him or anything, or like I would even try. Whatever I may think of him personally, and whatever misgivings I may have about some of Kagome's choices, I'm not in the habit of breaking up people's marriages. And anyway, it's not really my place to tell Kagome how to live her life. Still, something about knowing that she has a child—that there's this irrevocable bond between them, something that will always tie her to him for as long as they live—makes it all seem so…final.

Once everyone has had their fill, Mrs. Higurashi starts to clear away the dishes. Kagome's grandfather gets up to help, as do Kagome and I—but as I lift my plate to begin collecting them, Kagome takes it from me to set it back down, and motions with her head toward the back door. "Come on," she says. "Let's walk for a bit."

It's dark outside by now, but the near-full moon sheds a lot of light over the paving stones of the shrine grounds. We don't go far, just stepping off the back porch and continuing at a slow stroll. Kagome doesn't speak, but the silence isn't awkward. Kagome has always had a knack for silences. I get the feeling she knows something is bothering me, and she's giving me the opportunity to get it off my chest, free of interruptions.

Not about to let the chance slip through my fingers, I come to a halt and turn to face her. "Kagome—can I ask you kind of a personal question?"

She nods. "Shoot."

I take a breath. "What do you see in Inuyasha?"

Surprise registers in her expression, but doesn't linger long, a warm smile curving her face as she glances down, then off to the side. "He has a good heart," she replies at last.

I watch her carefully, waiting for more, but she seems to feel that's enough. A part of me deep inside scoffs. "No offense, Kagome, but—are you sure that's enough?"

She frowns, meeting my gaze again. "What do you mean?"

I shift my weight, suddenly uncomfortable, but I've come too far to turn back. "I just mean that, well—he's always seemed like kind of an asshole to me, and to Eri and Yuka and Ayumi too. I don't like the way he treats you, and I wonder if maybe…maybe you're a little blind to him. Maybe."

Something fierce flashes in her eyes, and for a moment I think she's going to lash out at me—but then she seems to think better of it, and releases a sigh instead. "No offense, Hojo—it's sweet of you to be concerned—but you really don't know what you're talking about."

My smile is wry. "Fair enough. I guess you know him better than I do."

Silence falls again, and I step away, gathering my courage for the next question I need answered. When I turn back, she's watching me expectantly.

"Why?" I say at last, my voice quieter than I'd expected. "Why him and not me?"

Her eyes are sympathetic. "It's complicated, Hojo."

"Well then explain it to me. I'm sorry…I don't mean to pry or put pressure on you, but…I just have to know."

"For what it's worth," she says, taking a step toward me, "it was nothing about you."

I laugh, unable to completely suppress the bitterness. "Thanks, but I find that hard to believe."

"No really, Hojo, you're a great guy. If things had been different—"

"No don't," I interrupt, lifting a hand to stop her. "Don't do that. I don't want to hear that."

Kagome sighs, and I can't meet her gaze. I'm afraid to see her pity. I already know I'm pathetic and hopeless—I don't want to see that she knows it too.

"Hojo," she says slowly, as though wavering on the edge of a decision. And then she seems to decide, letting out a breath and taking my hand to lead me across the grounds. "Come here—I want to show you something."

I frown, curious—what on earth could she want to show me that would have anything to do with what we were talking about? At first I think we're heading for the sacred tree, but then she leads me a bit further to the left, and I realize we're heading for a small shed at the edge of the grounds. Once there, she lets go of my hand to push open the sliding doors, spreading them as wide as they go until moonlight spills over the threshold and partway into the shed. I can see a wooden platform around the edge, but beyond that a set of stairs leads down into the darkness at the center.

Kagome steps into the shed, and I follow her, my eyes gradually adjusting to the dim light. As we descend the short flight of stairs onto a dirt floor, I see what looks like an old wooden well enshrined at the center of the structure. Confused, I glance up at Kagome, waiting for an explanation.

Her hands are behind her back, and she's fidgeting a bit as though nervous, but I can't tell why. "It's a long story, Hojo," she begins, looking over at the well, and then back at me. "You probably won't believe it, but I swear it's the truth, and I have to ask you not to tell anyone about it—no one knows but my family."

"No one knows what?" I ask, nonplussed.

"When I was fifteen, I fell down this well…and I ended up in the Sengoku Jidai."

I can feel my eyebrows disappear into my hairline, and I feel certain I must have misunderstood. Either that, or this is some kind of very weird joke. "The Sengoku Jidai?"

Kagome laughs a little, but nods seriously. "I know, it sounds crazy, right? But I promise you it's true. Ask my mother—she and grandpa and Souta didn't believe it when I first told them either, but once they met Inuyasha—"

"Inuyasha," I interrupt. "What does he have to do with this?"

"That's where I met him—in the Sengoku Jidai. He's a half-demon, and he was pinned to a tree in the forest by a sacred arrow. Actually, it's the same tree that's on these grounds."

"Wait, wait—back up. Demons? There's no such thing as demons, Higurashi."

"There's no such thing as time-travel either—but as it turns out, a lot of the things that supposedly 'don't exist' actually do. You'd be surprised," she replies with a small grin. "Anyway, I released Inuyasha from the spell, and…well, a lot of things happened. Some of them were good—some of them were not. We had a sort of a…quest to complete, and there were a lot of evil demons who tried as hard as they possibly could to stop us. For almost a year I traveled back and forth between the two worlds, battling demons on the one side and trying to keep up with my homework and pretend to be normal on the other side—and somewhere in the middle of all that, Inuyasha and I fell in love."

"For a year…" I murmur as something clicks into place. "Your illnesses—you were traveling to the other side. That's why you missed so much school. That's why your grandfather would never let me see you when I came by to see how you were."

She nods, her expression apologetic and entreating. It's a lot to swallow—a lot to swallow—but there's something about it that makes a strange sort of sense. Looking back on it, there were a lot of things that never seemed to add up with her, especially during that year. She always seemed distracted, and she would say strange things from time to time, and then try to take them back. I always just assumed it was because of her illnesses, but the truth is that the few times I was able to see her, she certainly didn't seem very sick. If it is true—if she really was traveling through time and having adventures in another dimension, or whatever it is—it explains so much.

Of course, if it is true, it also means that there was this whole other side of her life that I never even knew existed. All this time I've thought of her laden with all those illnesses, finally overcoming them to complete her studies. Whenever she seemed detached from the world, even after she got well and resumed her life, I always felt so sorry for her, wishing I could help her to readjust to things. I've thought how difficult it must have been for her to languish in bed for weeks on end while her friends all moved on without her. Not that we left her behind, but she missed so much, and I've always thought she must have felt terribly lonely and left out. But the truth is, it wasn't that we were pulled away from her—it was that she was pulled away from us. She didn't fall behind—she moved on. Just in a different direction.

"What was it like, Kagome?" I ask, at once grateful that she's shared this with me after all this time, and sad to realize that the distance between us has always been much wider than I ever imagined. "Where you went, the quest—what was it like?"

Kagome grins and perches herself on the lip of the well, so I follow suit, sitting beside her. "It was hard, and scary sometimes. I missed having things like shampoo and air conditioning a lot, especially at first, and there were always bad guys after us—but Inuyasha always protected me. Even back then, at the beginning, when we couldn't stand each other, when push came to shove, he always proved he would dive in front of a poisoned, spiky tentacle rather than see me get hurt. Anyway, he's had a hard life, and he talks a good game, but he's not nearly as callous and domineering as he seems. He can be really sweet when he wants to be. He just never had anybody who cared enough to find that out before I came along. Well, except Kikyo, of course," she glances at me—I raise a questioning eyebrow, and she returns a crooked smile. "But that's another long story…"

"But what about the two-timing, Kagome? Eri and the others always told me he had some other girl he was seeing while he was stringing you along."

Kagome rolls her eyes, but looks affectionate. "Eri and the others never knew the whole story, and it was sort of hard to explain otherwise. Inuyasha never 'two-timed' me, not really. There was a woman he was in love with before me—Kikyo—but they were tricked by an evil demon into betraying each other, and she was killed as a result. She got resurrected by a demon witch sometime after he and I had started traveling together, and Inuyasha sort of ended up trapped in the middle. But we weren't really together then—we were just friends. Maybe a little something more, but neither of us were anywhere close to admitting it. Even after I realized I was actually in love with him, it took me a long time to admit how I felt. He was still pretty hung up on Kikyo, and I was always afraid I couldn't possibly measure up to her—so I kept my mouth shut, but I stayed with him. God, you have no idea how much it hurt every time he went to see her, or even sometimes when he'd get this look in his eye, and I knew he was thinking of her. I wanted to tell him to just let her go, to open his eyes to what was standing right in front of him—but I also knew that anything between us would never be worth having if I didn't give him the chance to move on in his own time. And eventually, he did. Sorry," she says sheepishly, "I'm rambling, aren't I."

"No—it's okay," I reply. Something in what she's saying strikes a chord in the back of my mind, but I'm not sure why. It's like it's familiar somehow. I release a short breath, a wry smile tugging at my lips as I stare down at the ground. "I never even had a chance, did I?" I whisper.

I can see her kind smile out of the corner of my eye, but she doesn't reply. She doesn't need to.

We walk back up to the house in companionable silence and slip back in through the back door. Inuyasha is in the kitchen swaying soothingly from foot to foot, a small, silver-haired child in his arms. The child turns her face away from her father's shoulder as we approach and blinks big brown eyes at us with innocent curiosity.

"What were you two up to?" Inuyasha asks, with just a hint of suspicion in his tone.

This doesn't seem to bother Kagome, however, as she pats him indulgently on the shoulder and leans in to kiss her daughter on the cheek. "Just catching up. I see the little missy didn't feel like going back to sleep." When Kagome runs a hand over the child's head, I notice two small bumps peaking out from under her hair, almost like animal ears. My eyes flick to the top of Inuyasha's head, and it occurs to me that I've never seen him without a hat, even indoors. I peer at the child's head again, and one of the bumps twitches, like a cat's ear flicking away an itch. Inuyasha catches me staring and glances at Kagome, presumably wondering what she's told me and why I haven't commented on the odd feature I've clearly noticed, but he apparently decides to save that question for later.

"Nah," he shrugs, shifting the child's weight so she's resting a little higher up on his torso. "I gave her a bottle, but I don't think she'll be ready to go down for a few hours yet. I told you we shouldn't have spent so long at that friggin' zoo."

"Inuyasha," she scolds.

"What? That wasn't swearing…"

There's something in their comfort with one another, their strange, unique brand of domesticity, that makes me feel both empty and full at the same time. On the one hand, I'm still alone, and there's no chance of ever having Kagome for myself—but somehow that doesn't hurt as much as it did before. Not only can I see that she's happy—really, truly happy—but I know that the girl I thought I loved all these years wasn't exactly her. Maybe she never really existed at all. You'd think that would make me feel worse, to find out one day that I've been mooning over a fiction for half my life, but oddly enough it makes me feel better. Because it means that I didn't lose the love of my life to another man. She didn't chose him because I wasn't good enough; she chose him because they belong together. She and I never did.

Okay, so maybe I can't jump in front of slimy tentacles to save girls—or whatever she said he did—but let's face it, no ordinary guy could compete with that. Still, I've got a lot to offer, and just because the first girl I ever had feelings for happened to fall down a magical well and meet some kind of mythical forest spirit is no reason to give up for good. Of course a nice guy is going to finish last if he's racing with Superman.

I say goodbye to Kagome and her little family at the door, and turn away to descend the shrine steps for what I imagine will be the last time. Still, somehow, my heart seems lighter than it has in years. Strange that losing Kagome for good could possibly come as a relief, but it does. And oddly, I don't feel quite as alone as I thought I would either. It's as if, now that she's out of the way, I can see all the people who are still in my life more clearly. I'm not looking past them toward that unattainable goal anymore.

Keiko drifts unbidden toward the front of my mind, and I feel myself smile. I hear her voice in my head, the words falling differently upon my ears in memory than they did in person: "Maybe think about starting a relationship with…someone else?"

I shudder to a halt on the sidewalk, almost laugh at myself for not seeing it before. It seems so obvious now. I might have had no hope of triumphing over Inuyasha, but a guy like Shin I can handle. I know that now.

Turning right at the next block, I decide to take the long way home.

A/N: I wanted to try my hand at a more fleshed-out version of Hojo. He often gets neglected, and I've always found him completely uninteresting as a character, but I figure just because a guy is nice and polite (and yes, a bit oblivious) doesn't mean he doesn't have problems. Sometimes being nice and polite is just as much a matter of self-defense as being gruff and standoffish.

Oh, also, if you want another glimpse of Inuyasha and Kagome's daughter (my version, that is), I wrote a short-short several months ago called "Small Steps" that has her in it when she's a few years older (it's in the collection Random Inspirations). When I started writing this one, I figured I might as well just be consistent and use the same character…