Disclaimer: See Part One
C&C is welcome at hawker(underscore)748(at)hotmail(dot)com.
Forest for the Trees
Chapter Four: Realizations
"Ho-chan isn't running you ragged, is she Shirou?" Harumi called out from the other room.
"Nope. She still hasn't mastered walking yet," Shirou replied, holding Hotaru's hands as she took another hesitant step. "Though she's getting close…" Hotaru had just started to crawl when Shirou had first accepted the job of babysitting her, and after six months she was on the verge of being able to walk. She still wasn't quite there, and Shirou caught her as she fell forward, scooping her up and carrying her to the sofa before setting her down.
Thwarted yet again in her wish to be able to walk around, Hotaru's lower lip trembled, and she started to sniffle miserably. Seeing this, Shirou reached over and picked up the stuffed lion he'd given her. "Look Ho-chan, it's Saber-chan… You can't cry when she's around, right?"
The little girl's eyes lit up at the sight of her favorite toy and she reached for it. "Seebaa…" she squealed impatiently, shifting forward to crawl at the stuffed lion when Shirou didn't hand it over promptly.
Smiling, but feeling another twinge of melancholy, Shirou gave Hotaru her toy and watched her hug it securely. 'Why did I give it the name 'Saber?' he asked himself for the umpteenth time. He hadn't intended to, the name had simply slipped from his lips when Harumi had asked what the doll's name was. She'd given him a funny look, clearly surprised by his choice, but Hotaru had immediately made a noise that sounded like 'Saber,' and that was all it had taken.
As Shirou watched Hotaru play with the lion plushie, her mother entered the living room, slipping a diamond earring into her left ear. "Where did you find it Shirou?" she asked. "She's never played with anything as much as that."
"A toy store near my house," he replied. "Was thinking of Ho-chan when I went in there, saw the lion, and something clicked."
"You've got good instincts," Harumi told him. "She won't go to bed without it now, and she doesn't stop whimpering when I have to wash it." She glanced in the mirror to make sure her earrings were in properly, patting down a stray brown hair and nodded, turning back to Shirou. Her shoulder length hair was styled up behind her head, allowing the string of pearls she was wearing to highlight her graceful neck. With a hint of dark eye shadow over her hazel eyes and a light application of lipstick, she looked like she was ready to go out.
Her expression told another story however; she looked as thrilled to be leaving as finding out that she had to undergo extensive dental surgery. Shirou had seen this look often, and tried the usual encouragements to lift her spirits. "You look good Harumi, and the food's always excellent at these gatherings. You'll be able to see some of your friends as well."
Harumi rolled her eyes and left out a derisive snort. "You wanna go in my place then?"
"I don't know these people Harumi," Shirou replied. "Besides, I have to watch Ho-chan."
"I think I'm getting the short end of the stick tonight." Harumi let out an exasperated sigh before she squared her shoulders, steeling herself for the nights activities. "Another night of having to be the Yazuru widow… Having to smile at people I hardly know, making polite conversation with my husbands old business partners, when I'd rather stay home with my daughter…"
"Then why don't you?"
Harumi gave Shirou a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Social obligations," she murmured. "I'm expected to attend. I'll lose face if I don't…"
"Is it really that important?" Shirou wondered.
"Yoshi thought so," Harumi replied. "He never really enjoyed these little gatherings either, but they were part of his job." Taking a last look in the mirror and satisfied that she looked presentable enough, Harumi took a wrap from a hanger and draped it over her shoulders. "Do you have everything you need Shirou?" she asked yet again.
"Yes Harumi," he replied for the countless time. Hotaru's mother tended to fret over every little detail before she left, but Shirou figured that this was normal for a mom leaving her child behind. "There's plenty of food for her in the fridge, I've got some books to read to her, and a couple of kids DVD's… And if there's a problem, I promise I'll call you."
"Sorry Shirou," Harumi apologized. "You know all of this already. If you're hungry, help yourself to something in the fridge. But please, DON'T clean the kitchen after putting Ho-chan to bed. Or the bathroom. Or any OTHER room for that matter. Just relax, watch a movie or read a book…"
"I didn't do that much with the bathroom the last time…" Shirou insisted, sounding a little guilty.
"When I got back, you were using a paperclip to pull hair out of the shower drain," Harumi countered. "If you keep doing that, I'll be forced to hire you full time…"
"Okay, I won't do any cleaning," Shirou relented. He sounded rather disappointed Harumi decided. "You'll be back at the usual time?"
Harumi nodded. "Probably around two in the morning," she confirmed. "At least I don't have to get up early on Sundays…"
"You want me to keep Ho-chan up a little later then?"
"Maybe an hour," Harumi decided. "Unless she starts to get cranky."
Harumi looked up when the doorbell rang. "That's my ride…" She walked over and picked up Hotaru. "You'll be good for Uncle Shirou, right Ho-chan?" She kissed her daughter on the forehead and handed her back to Shirou. "Behave yourself sweetie!" she cooed as she waved goodbye.
"Enjoy yourself Harumi…" Shirou replied, waving Hotaru's tiny hand at her mother.
Harumi chuckled mirthlessly. "Thanks. I doubt I will, but I appreciate the thought… Have fun with Ho-chan!"
"I was right," Harumi murmured as she walked towards the door.
"I DEFINITELY got the short end of the stick tonight…" Shaking her head, Harumi waved goodbye to her daughter and walked out the door to the waiting car.
Carrying Hotaru, who was still holding on to Saber-chan, Shirou went to the door and watched her mother make her way to the gate and pass through it, disappearing from view. "It's just you and me now Ho-chan… What do you want to do first? Read a book or watch a movie?"
Hotaru let out a brief hiccup.
"A movie? Okay, we'll do that…" Adjusting his hold on the little girl, Shirou walked back to the living room and the long entertainment center. "So, what should it be? Barney? Nah, that'll rot your brain… And mine… Disney? Okay, that works." Selecting a title at random, Shirou slipped it into the DVD player and turned on the TV, settling on the couch with Hotaru in his lap. The little girl let out an excited squeal at the sound of the intro and kept her tiny eyes on the screen as Shirou made sure they were both comfortable, and they let the story sweep them away.
To say that the Fuyuki City Country Club was 'exclusive' was like saying that people in the path of a tsunami experienced humidity; an understatement of titanic proportions. Even with an astronomical membership fee, the waiting list was three years long, and growing, and required the written references of three current members. What was afforded with membership was opulence on a scale fit for the Emperor. (It was rumored that even he had to book a tee-time a month ahead.)
The club had decades of experience in hosting V.I.P. functions, and it's staff went about their duties with a well oiled precision that belied just how difficult these functions really were to host. As usual, the clubhouse was tastefully decorated, servers went around with trays of hors d'oeuveres and chilled champagne as people talked quietly, mingling in small groups. A string quartet played softly in the corner, the low music and light level creating a quiet, intimate ambiance. Guests sipped drinks, nibbled on costly delicacies, and either talked shop or spread the latest gossip.
It was just like all the countless social gatherings that Harumi had been to in the past, and the charm of the event had gotten old rather quickly. 'Half an hour into the first one,' she recalled, taking another miniscule sip of champagne so she would at least look like she was trying to enjoy herself. 'I don't know most of these people here… Even Yoshi only knew a handful of people at these.' Sighing, and wishing that she could just walk away from all of this and tuck Hotaru into bed, Harumi nodded mechanically at a couple who gave her some insincere greeting that everyone tended to use at this type of gathering.
'I'm trapped,' Harumi thought miserably. 'I didn't grow up wealthy, but I got pulled into this when I married Yoshi. No wonder he never told me how prestigious he was when we were dating… Who would want to marry into this…?' Chastising herself for having disrespectful thoughts about her late husband, even if they were rather oblique, Harumi finished her drink and took another from a passing server. 'I could deal with this if he were here, but I'm all alone…'
"You keep having that much fun, you'll end up getting arrested…" a voice drawled out from behind her.
"Keiko!" A smile appeared on Harumi's face as she turned to face one of the few people at these events she was genuinely close to. "I didn't think you'd show up." The two friends exchanged a hug, circumstances be damned. "It's been too long… So, how's everything?"
"Not bad," Harumi's friend replied. "Ryu's started into the 'terrible twos.' Three months early by the way. But he doesn't listen when I try to tell him that…"
Harumi slumped her shoulders in a mocking gesture of depression. "Ho-chan's getting close to that age too… It's a pity, when they start walking, they're even more difficult to handle."
"I know, I know… I didn't even try teaching Ryu to walk but he learned anyway…"
Chuckling, and feeling good for the first time since leaving home, Harumi smiled at her friend's odd sense of humor. Keiko Matsumada was perhaps her only true friend from Yoshi's professional circle. Like Harumi, she'd come from a modest background, but unlike her, she was able to deal with the subtle elitism that the two of them faced. 'I guess it helps that Hiroyuki's still alive…' Over Keiko's left shoulder Harumi could see her friend's husband chatting amiably with a group of other men, laughing at some unheard witticism.
It had been almost two years since her husband had been taken from her, but Harumi still felt a flare of loneliness, if not some envy at her friend. Keiko must have noticed the sadness in her eyes, because she moved in closer and whispered, "Never mind me, how are you holding up?"
Forcing herself to smile a bit, Harumi replied, "I-I'm doing okay, I guess… It does get easier, but there are times that are harder than others."
Harumi brightened. "She's great, she should be walking anytime now…"
"That's good, she and Ryu would make a cute couple…" Keiko commented lightly, before a thoughtful look came over her. "You know, that might not be a bad idea…"
Harumi gave her friend an odd look; sometimes she couldn't tell when Keiko was being serious or not. She figured that most times she didn't know either. "What do you mean?"
"Why don't we engage them to each other?" Keiko replied perfectly straight faced.
Staring at her friend with her mouth agape, Harumi wondered if Keiko had been drinking. Then the hint of a snicker escaped her lips and Harumi couldn't keep herself from joining in, grateful for the release of tension. "This isn't some bad shoujo manga…"
"I know, but the look on your face was priceless…"
"Well, I'm glad you're entertained," Harumi grumped good-naturedly.
Keiko let out a chuckle before taking a discrete look around and moving closer to Harumi. "What about you?" she asked softly. "It's been a while, have you thought about, you know…"
Harumi sighed and took another sip of her champagne, the chilled liquid fizzing as it went down her throat. She took a minute to think about her answer before replying. "I-I guess, but where do I begin…?"
"How about here?"
"No, the only men here who are interested in me see an ATM on legs…" Harumi growled. "I had one guy proposition me after Yoshi's funeral…"
"So that's why you kicked him in the groin." Keiko murmured. "I'd wondered about that…"
"I'm too old and too out of practice."
"You're only early thirties Harumi," Keiko pointed out. "And I'm a year older than you…"
"Yeah, but you're not trying to find a man either…"
Ignoring the reply, Keiko continued. "So, what kind of man are you looking for?"
"How the hell would I know?" Harumi muttered.
Keiko smiled resolutely at her friend, knowing that Harumi's gruff exterior was normal when she was uncomfortable. 'If she'd been all cheerful and enthusiastic, I'd think something was wrong with her…' "Well, go through the obvious things first. He's got to be attractive right? A suave, debonair, James Bond-ish looking guy," Keiko gushed.
"Kei-chan, your drool is overflowing…" Harumi deadpanned. "Frankly, if he isn't ugly enough to bruise fruit, I'll be happy."
"You're setting your standards too low," Keiko pouted.
"I'm being sensible," Harumi replied.
"Fine…" Keiko relented. "I guess I can cancel that order to the modeling agency.." When Harumi gave her a look that promised an abrupt end to the conversation, Keiko decided she wouldn't get any more fun out of the chat, so it was time to get serious. "Okay, so an average looking guy will do. I assume you wouldn't want a gold-digger, right?"
"So why not chat up someone here? Most of the guys here are pretty well off," Keiko pointed out.
"So was that guy whose balls I kicked into his throat," Harumi countered. "Just because they've got money doesn't mean they'd mind having more…"
"I don't know how to avoid that," Keiko admitted.
"I guess I'll have to deal with it if it comes up," Harumi sighed. "What next? You look like you can't wait to keep this up."
"You want a nice guy I believe. Or am I wrong?" Keiko added with a smirk. "Are you one of those women who secretly crave a bad boy?"
"No." Harumi's tone DARED her friend to try to argue the point.
Keiko knew better than that. "Sorry Harumi, but you wouldn't believe the number of friends I have who seem to like jerks…"
Harumi let out a disgusted breath. "I know what you mean…"
"I'm relieved to learn we think alike about that at least."
"With Ho-chan, I can't afford to deal with some worthless bastard, I need someone reliable."
"Don't we all," Keiko chuckled. "Good with Ho-chan goes without saying…"
"You need to ask?"
"Not really. Anything else?"
"I don't know, it's not like I've been thinking about this. Did you have a list when you met your husband?"
Keiko smiled. "I did, but I never bothered to check it," she admitted. "We got stuck in an elevator for ten minutes, and when it started moving again, we'd made plans to get a drink together. Things kinda grew from there and, well, you know…" Keiko held up her left hand and moved her wedding band with her thumb.
"You never see it coming," Harumi nodded.
"Just like old age," Keiko added with a wistful sigh.
"Thanks for the reminder," Harumi growled, thinking back to earlier that evening when she'd spent half an hour in front of a mirror with tweezers, looking for grey hairs.
"Hey, if I have to spend half the night in the bathroom using lotions to look younger, I want someone to share the misery."
"No problem," Keiko told her friend sweetly. "So, you're looking for a nice guy, an average looking man, who isn't after your money, and is good with Ho-chan…" she summarized. "Now you just have to find him."
"Yeah, and then pry him from the clutches of every other woman in Japan looking for that guy," Harumi muttered. "Where am I supposed to find someone like that?"
Keiko gave her a beatific smile. "What's life without challenges?"
Harumi couldn't help but chuckle, before she moved her left hand to her temple and winced. "Ohhh…"
Instantly serious, Keiko looked closely at her friend. "What's wrong?"
"Just a headache," Harumi replied. "Maybe I had too much champagne…"
"Need to sit down a sec?" Keiko asked, gently taking hold of Harumi's forearm, ready to lead her to a seat in a quieter area.
"No, I think I'm just going to go home," Harumi decided. "I'll just sleep it off."
"You sure you'll be okay?"
Harumi smiled reassuringly. "Nothing a little rest won't fix. Sorry to leave you like this."
Shaking her head, Keiko dismissed her friend's apology. "It's nothing. We'll talk again when you're feeling better."
"Of course. Bring Ryu-chan over one of these days," Harumi insisted.
"I will. You take care."
"You too…" Harumi made her way to the entrance, retrieved her wrap and purse, and made her way to her car.
"Leaving early ma'am?" the driver asked.
"Yes. Take me home please," she instructed, sitting back and looking out the window, a thoughtful looking reflection looking back at her the entire ride.
Harumi dismissed the driver and watched the long black car pull away for a moment before she walked through the gate and trod down the path to the front door. She was still thinking about what she had talked about with her friend, Keiko's words coming back to her again and again. Entering her home without announcing herself, Harumi quietly made her way to Hotaru's room, opening the door a crack and peering in. She smiled when she saw her daughter sleeping peacefully in her crib, clutching her Saber-chan plushie, looking completely angelic. "Good night Ho-chan," she whispered as she closed the door.
'An average looking man…'
'An average looking man…'
Noiselessly making her way through the halls, Harumi slipped into a bathroom, shaking her head when she saw that the mirror looked cleaner than it had when she'd left earlier that evening. Turning the light back off, she headed towards the living room, listening for the sound of a TV, but hearing nothing.
'A nice guy, who's thoughtful…'
'A nice guy, who's thoughtful…'
As she moved through her home, Harumi found herself recalling how empty the house had felt after the death of her husband. Even when she has guests over, it had never felt as lived in since had been just her and her daughter.
'A guy who isn't just a gold-digger…'
'A guy who isn't just a gold-digger…'
Again Harumi found herself wondering why she had stayed living in this house. Yes, it was impressive looking, and a sign of status in a land poor country like Japan, but that had never mattered to her. Yoshi had bought the house so the two of them would have plenty of room to be together and start a family, but without him, the house was cavernous, empty. She would never have told him, but all she'd ever really wanted was a place of their own, it needn't have been opulent. Now she was living in a virtual palace, but it was cold comfort on those nights when the loneliness seemed to creep in from the shadows.
'Someone who's good with Ho-chan…'
'Someone who's good with Ho-chan…'
Harumi recalled what Keiko had said to her as she walked into the living room. It had basically been a laundry list, desirable traits in a man that most women looked for. The lights were on but the TV was off, a slow rhythmic breathing the only noise disturbing the silence. 'Where am I supposed to find someone like that?' she'd asked her friend, but truthfully, Harumi did know someone like that.
That someone was presently dozing on the sofa, the baby monitor on the end table near his head.
Harumi stood and watched Shirou sleeping for a while, silently debating what she should do. 'He's so-so… young… I'm what-? Fifteen years older? I'm almost old enough to be his mother…' She let out a sigh, feeling older than she had in a long time 'Of course, if our genders were switched, no one would bat an eyelash at us starting something…'
Harumi let out a derisive snort. 'Starting something? Who am I kidding?' she asked herself. 'He's my babysitter, it's not like we've ever talked about something like that. Even if I was interested in him, he'd rather have someone his own age, right? That girl who helped him, what was her name, Sakura? If he wasn't too dense to realize she liked him, they'd be seeing each other. That's another thing,' Harumi realized, adding another item to the 'CON' list. 'Shirou isn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer… He's not stupid, but he'll never be a candidate for Mensa either.' Harumi furrowed her brow as she worked to find more faults in the young man who watched her daughter.
'Oh, if he's such a cement-head, what's that make you?' another part of her psyche taunted. 'You asked him to look after Ho-chan, you practically twisted his arm to get him to do it…'
'That… that's true' Harumi admitted to herself. 'And he is good at it,' she added before it could be pointed out to her. 'He's the closest Ho-chan's had to a father figure since-' She broke off the thought, the memory still too painful even with the passage of time.
'Shirou knows what this feels like,' Harumi realized. 'He's young, but he's had more than his share of tragedy… Losing his parents, his adoptive father, the girl he loved…' Belatedly, she noticed that Shirou wasn't sleeping calmly; he wasn't thrashing about as if in the grips of a nightmare, but he was making noises that sounded sorrowful. 'Is that what I look like?' Harumi wondered. 'I know I used to cry myself to sleep, but even when I moved on a little, what was I like when my subconscious took over?'
'Maybe… Maybe we're both missing a bit of ourselves,' Harumi mused. 'Shirou's done so much for me, even when I nearly took his head off the first time we met. He's never asked for anything in return, why doesn't he think of his own happiness once in a while?' Watching the young man who'd quietly become an important person to her and her daughter, Harumi found some of the reasons why she shouldn't try to get involved with him fading away. 'So he's a few years younger… So what? I've never really cared what others thought of me… Maybe he isn't destined to be a scholar, but he works hard, he's sincere, and he puts everyone else first.' Her lips twisted up in a thin smile as another thought occurred to her. 'When you put it like that, he almost sounds perfect…'
A frown replaced the smile as her natural rationality resurfaced. 'So you'd like to start something with him. You have any reason why he'd automatically say yes?' Harumi didn't have cause to think that; if she looked at it rationally, it seemed kind of far-fetched. Silencing any dissenting thoughts, she started walking towards Shirou's sleeping form. 'I've nothing to lose by trying,' she decided. Harumi sent up silent prayers to everyone listening that she wasn't about to make the gravest error of her life.
Reaching the sofa, Harumi hesitated, not sure what she should do next. After some quiet consideration, she decided to try to not rush this too much. She carefully sat down next to Shirou's hips, but even though she tried not to disturb him, Harumi saw his eyes open before closing due to the bright light.
"H-Harumi?" Shirou murmured, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands as he tried to get used to the brightness. "Is that you?"
"Yes Shirou, it's me…"
Squinting, Shirou looked over at the clock, his eyes going wide when the time registered with him. "Ten-thirty?" he said to himself. "You're back early." A stricken look came over him when a possible reason came to mind. "Is something wrong?" He looked at the baby monitor for a second and nearly knocked his head with Harumi's when he lurched up. "Ho-chan! Has something-"
Harumi placed a restraining hand on Shirou's chest. "No, no, no, nothing's wrong-" she reassured the nearly frantic young man. "I just decided to come back early. Lay back down," she told him, gently pushing on his chest until he acquiesced. "I didn't want to wake you like that…" A quiet voice in the back of her mind was telling her that Shirou's chest had felt firmer though the shirt than she'd expected. "Was Ho-chan any trouble?"
Shirou shook his head and chuckled. "None at all, she fell asleep as soon as the movie ended. I carried her to bed and tried to read a book, but I guess I was a little more tired than I thought."
"Maybe if you hadn't cleaned the bathroom…"
Shirou blushed. "I just cleaned the mirrors… And the faucet… But I got them dirty when I washed my hands," he added.
Now Harumi shook her head. "Don't worry, it's not a big deal. At least you didn't bleach the grout this time…"
"Why'd you come back early?"
"I just wanted to."
"How was your evening then?"
"Surprisingly educational," Harumi replied after a moment's thought.
Shirou's brow furrowed. "Educational?"
"Yes, I learned something tonight. Or rather, a friend pointed something out to me tonight," Harumi clarified.
The clarification didn't help Shirou any. "I don't understand…"
Harumi smiled. "She helped me realize something."
"That sometimes what you need most might be right under your nose."
For a second, Shirou rubbed under his own nose, wondering if he had something hanging. Finding nothing, he looked up into Harumi's eyes, now noticing that she'd leaned a little closer to him. "What do you need?" he asked softly.
Harumi used the back of her fingers on her right hand to gently caress Shirou's left cheek, prompting a soft gasp from the young man. "You…" she whispered, leaning down and tenderly kissing Shirou. Harumi kept her lips pressed against his for several seconds; time seemed to stop for the widow, her head swimming as the reality of what she was doing dawned on her. She hadn't kissed a man like this since her husband had died, and part of her was gripped by guilt for betraying his memory so soon.
But most of Harumi's psyche was telling her that she'd been in mourning long enough, that it was time to move on. She tried to convey all the loneliness, sadness and longing in that one brief kiss, worried that she'd committed the greatest error of her life, and silently praying that Shirou would understand her and not think she'd lost her mind. Harumi broke the kiss, took a deep breath to get her wind back, and words poured forth like from a waterfall. She couldn't even meet his eyes, wondering just what had possessed her and made her think that this act of lunacy had been a good idea.
"I-I know I'm older than you Shirou, and I've got a child," she murmured, noticing how warm her cheeks were, and suspecting that she had to resemble a tomato. "B-but who says something couldn't work between us? You're a nice guy, responsible, good with Ho-chan, a good cook, good with cleaning…" 'Oh god, I'm babbling like an idiot,' Harumi realized. "I didn't ask you to look after Ho-chan because I wanted to get closer to you, I just thought you'd be good at it, and you have been, and I never ever thought of it till tonight, and I've been wondering if this was even a good idea since I first thought of it…"
Risking a quick glance upwards, Harumi saw that Shirou hadn't moved to back away, something she'd half expected, but his eyes were open wide as he looked at her. 'It-it's over, I'll never be able to face him again,' Harumi thought miserably. Feeling a desperate need to at least finish her explanation, she kept speaking, hoping she wouldn't humiliate herself by pleading.
"We-we both suffered personal loss," Harumi continued bravely. "I lost my husband, you lost the girl you loved, and-and I've been lonely, and I thought you might be too… But I shouldn't have kissed you, or just assumed you might want to be with me, that was stupid. I only hope you won't think I'm crazy or try to avoid me, I promise I'll never try that again, I'm sorry for being so stupid, and I hope you'll at least keep looking after Ho-chan, because she adores you, and I'll find someone else to get involved with and you won't have to worry about me trying someth- Mmmppphh…"
The kiss that derailed Harumi's rambling was as intense as it was unexpected; one second she'd been pouring out her heart to a young man she was certain she'd wronged, and the next Shirou's lips were pressed against hers, his hands on the side of her head as he opened his mouth and gently extended his tongue, slipping it between her lips. For a moment or two Harumi froze, shocked beyond words at what had happened. Her wide eyes saw Shirou's closed ones as he continued to kiss her without resistance. Part of her compared the kiss to her husband's, while another bit idly wondered how he'd managed to sit up without her noticing.
But after a sudden impulse to push Shirou away, Harumi closed her eyes and let her arms slip around his waist, angling her head and meeting his probing tongue with her own. Sliding her right hand upward, Harumi couldn't help but notice how taut Shirou's back was; he didn't have a bodybuilders physique, but it was clear he was no stranger to physical exertions. The reminder of Shirou's youth sent a spike of self doubt into Harumi. She found herself remembering looking at herself in the bedroom mirror, frowning at the faint wrinkles around her eyes, which would only get more pronounced with time. They few grey hairs she'd found and plucked, and a body softened by motherhood and the relentless march of time.
'God, does he think I'm pathetic?' she worried. 'An old maid, trying to recapture her youth by nailing one? And is that just what's going on? I was sure when I kissed him, but this is-' "Uhhh!" Harumi gasped out I surprise as Shirou broke the kiss and moved his lips to the side of her throat, kissing the exposed skin hungrily. 'He-he certainly- Ohhh, that was nice… -into this…' she thought in a daze.
Harumi heard herself cooing softly as Shirou kissed his way down the length of her neck, reaching the junction of the shoulder, gently nudging her string of pearls aside so he could place his lips on her skin. She'd idly wondered if he was a virgin, and while this could still be beginners luck, Harumi would have been willing to bet this wasn't his first time. Her eyes opened in surprise when she felt Shirou ease his hands to her back; the dress she'd worn to the function was backless and it had a plunging neckline. His fingers danced delicately over her skin, making goose bumps rise in response to the unexpected stimulations.
'He's rather sure of things, isn't he…?' Harumi had no objection to Shirou exploring her with his fingertips, she'd suspected that they'd both be doing that shortly, but he hadn't even asked for permission. It was rather unexpected from the young man, but Harumi had to admit that she was pleasantly surprised by Shirou's boldness. Deciding that she wasn't going to let him initiate everything, Harumi slid her hands to the hem of his shirt, slipping them under the garment and letting her hands map out every nook and cranny of his back. 'He's so warm, and firm.' She had a sudden urge to rip his shirt off, push him onto his stomach and explore every square inch with her tongue.
But it was Shirou who escalated things when he resumed kissing her hungrily, his tongue brusquely slipping between her lips, as he eased the right strap of her dress off of her shoulder. It whispered noiselessly to the crook of her elbow, and with a sudden blush and a draft that hadn't been there moments before, Harumi realized that she was exposed. She tried to pull her hands from under Shirou's shirt, an overwhelming urge to protect her modesty gripping her, but she hesitated when she felt a warm hand gently cup the exposed mound. She was in a daze as Shirou broke off the kiss and pulled his head back a little, looking at the newly exposed skin in open wonderment.
Harumi could tell that Shirou's palms were callused as he tenderly supported her in his hand, slowly moving it so he was caressing her. She bit her lower lip and closed her eyes as she felt herself respond to the gentle treatment. She remembered that the last time she'd been with a man Shirou's age, back when she'd been that age as well, he'd gripped her as if he was trying to throw a curveball. It had left her with ugly bruises for days afterward, but in spite of Shirou's youth, and assertiveness, he was still taking care to be gentle.
Harumi felt him lower his head, warm breath washing over her bare skin all the way down, and she let out a hiss when she felt Shirou move closer. Harumi threw her head back and let out a cry; it had felt so good that she'd yanked her right hand out from under his shirt and gripped the back of Shirou's head, his fingers taking hold of his hair. She didn't want him to stop what he was doing, and Harumi leaned forward, eager for more attention. "Ahhh…!"
To her surprise, Shirou detached himself from her chest, and for a panicked second Harumi thought he'd changed his mind. She opened her eyes and was about to ask him what was wrong when he placed a finger over her lips, a pleading look in his eyes. With a look she managed to convey, 'What's the matter?'
"You'll wake Ho-chan," Shirou whispered quietly, glancing over his shoulder at the baby monitor on the table. Harumi saw Shirou holding his breath and she sent out a silent wish that she hadn't disturbed her daughter's sleep. After a few tense, silent seconds, Shirou let out a breath, slumping in relief at the continued silence from the monitor. He turned back to Harumi and removed his finger, blushing and murmuring an apology.
Harumi had an almost irresistible urge to giggle. It made her think of the time she and her boyfriend had gotten frisky on her parents couch, and here she was, almost a decade and a half later repeating things. She settled for a gentle smile, reaching out with her right hand to caress Shirou's cheek, and pulling him towards her with her left, leaning back down and letting him rest on top of her.
After a blurred rush of heat and closeness that she would always be able to recall in vivid detail, Harumi cradled Shirou's head on her chest, breathing heavily as she tried to get her wind back. She kissed the top of Shirou's head, running her fingers through his sweaty hair, her left hand slipping up under his damp shirt and running along his perspiration slicked back. He was a comfortable weight on top of her as his breathing slowed to normal levels. Perhaps ten minutes went by before she finally got herself recomposed, and Harumi leaned her head down, wanting to share another kiss with Shirou, only to discover that he'd fallen asleep.
'What do you know…' she mused good naturedly. 'Typical man, can't even stay awake afterwards.' Harumi regarded his sleeping form for a minute, before she gently tapped his shoulder to wake him. 'I don't think we should spend the night here…'
For the second time that night, Shirou's reaction surprised her. He whimpered softly and tightened his hold on her, going from a gentle embrace to a near death grip. "Don't leave me… Please…" he murmured.
The desperation in his voice took Harumi aback. "S-Shirou, I-I need to go…"
"Don't go! Please…"
"I-I…" Harumi was at a loss for words, not expecting his to act like this.
'Huh? Saber…?' Harumi wondered. 'Why is he talking about Ho-chan's doll?' Taking a closer look at Shirou, something suddenly dawned her. 'He's still asleep…'
"Don't leave me Saber…" There were tears welling up under his closed eyes.
The loneliness and desperation in the young man's voice called out to Harumi; after a seconds hesitation she embraced him protectively, letting out a sigh of relief when he eased off on his grip, making it easier for her to breathe. She glanced over Shirou's shoulder at the baby monitor, relieved that Ho-chan was still sleeping. "It's okay Shirou," she whispered. "I won't go anywhere…" Harumi admitted to herself that she liked being held like this, and she'd missed the presence of a mans warmth next to her. 'I can spend a night with him,' she decided. 'I don't have the heart to wake him.' Giving the top of Shirou's head one last kiss, Harumi laid her own head down, closed her eyes and let the sound of Shirou's quiet breathing lull her to sleep.
Shirou woke up in an unfamiliar position, and he tried to recall what had happened. 'Did I doze off in the workshop again?' he asked himself, his usual morning grogginess asserting itself. 'No, I was babysitting Ho-chan last night,' he recalled when enough of his brain cells returned to active duty. 'Then Harumi came home and we-' "Dear God!" Shirou snapped awake instantly, opening his eyes and trying to lurch up, only to find that Harumi had him gripped securely by the shoulders.
"Good morning Shirou," Harumi smiled up at him. "Are you always this active in the morning?"
"I'm glad you remembered my name," she deadpanned.
Shirou started down at the widow in disbelief, blushing as he recalled what he'd done the night before. He was ready to stammer an apology when another sound pierced the silence; through the baby monitor the disembodied sound of Hotaru crying made the both of them look at the plastic receiver. Glancing back at Harumi, Shirou awkwardly pushed himself up from between her legs, his nose wrinkling as the stale odor of sweat and sex registered, his flaccid prick sticky and itchy. He noticed Harumi sitting up and pushing the straps of her ruined dress back up her shoulders. "I should go," he murmured softly. "I'll let you take care of Ho-chan-"
"I can't let you go looking - and smelling- like that, Shirou," Harumi interrupted. "I'm going to take a bath with Ho-chan, but you can use one of the other bathrooms. You know where they are, you've cleaned them more than once," she reminded him. "Leave your clothes in the hall and I'll wash them. I'll leave you something to wear. Come to the kitchen when you're done, we'll have breakfast."
"Shirou, you wouldn't take 'no' for an answer when you offered to carry my bags that time, and now it's my turn." Without giving him a chance to protest, Harumi walked out of the living room towards her daughter's room, leaving a confused young man in her wake.
Shirou absently zipped himself back up, frowning at how dirty he felt. 'I could use a bath,' he admitted, but he still felt uncomfortable accepting Harumi's hospitality. 'Don't want to hurt her feelings… I'll apologize after I'm presentable.' Making his way to a bathroom, Shirou closed the door behind him and stripped out of his clothes, remembering the last time he'd gotten this sweaty. 'I haven't smelled like this since I sparred with Saber,' he recalled. 'Or the time we-' Shirou cut the thought off abruptly, not wanting to compare the two women. Folding up his clothes he left them in a neat pile outside the door before he stepped into the shower and let the warm water sluice off the sweat and the smell.
After fifteen minutes and a liberal application of soap and shampoo, Shirou finally felt clean enough and he toweled off, using his hand to comb his hair. Wiping the fog off of the mirror and looking at his reflection, Shirou nodded at himself, deciding that he wasn't going to look any better under the circumstances. Making sure that his towel was wrapped securely around his waist, he opened the door, reached outside without looking and took hold of what Harumi had left for him. Closing the door Shirou looked at the garment and almost dropped it in surprise.
It was a pink robe.
It was a pink satin robe.
It was a pink satin robe with pink fur on the collar and at the ends of the sleeves.
Shirou figured that Harumi could have left him something that was even MORE feminine, but he wasn't sure that was possible. He could feel his testosterone levels dropping just by looking at it. 'I'm supposed to wear THIS!?' But after a brief thought of balking, Shirou relented. 'Well, not like I have much choice.' Slipping into the garment, and pointedly ignoring the part of him that told him that it felt nice, Shirou made his way to the kitchen and found Harumi in a similar robe feeding Ho-chan.
"Good morning Shirou," she called out. "It's… nice to… see you…" Harumi seemed to have some difficulty staying composed. Coughing a few times, she let out a breath and continued. "W-would you like… some… tea…?" She was starting to snicker, but she gamely tried to keep speaking. "Some b-breakfast…?" She finally gave up and started laughing, tears in her eyes as Shirou wished the earth would open up and swallow him. After a minute, Harumi regained her composure. "I'm sorry Shirou, that was all I had…"
"I figured that…" Feeling about six inches tall, Shirou walked to the table and sat down, taking a moment to figure out exactly how to proceed. Letting out a deep breath, he began. "Harumi, I-I'm sorry for what I did las-"
"Stop!" Harumi ordered, giving Shirou a hard look that made him recoil in surprise. "Not. Another. Word. Understand?"
Afraid to speak, Shirou just nodded.
"Don't you DARE apologize for what happened, do you hear me?" she warned. "Last night happened because -I- wanted it to happen. I didn't PLAN on it, but I didn't want you to stop either. If I hadn't been interested, I'd have broken your balls," Harumi told him matter-of-factly.
Shirou knew she wasn't kidding. "Okay, but I think I got a little carried away," he murmured. "If I hadn't made a move-"
"I kissed you first Shirou," Harumi reminded him. "I started it. I was surprised that you kissed back that intensely, but I didn't object. I didn't even think it could be that good again…"
"You liked it?" Shirou asked timidly.
"Yes, very much," Harumi replied with a small smile. "And you have nothing to apologize or feel guilty for."
"But I don't think I'm good enough for you," Shirou told her softly. "You're an important person, I'm just… an ordinary guy," he finished.
"So what's wrong with that?"
"There have to be some better guys than me out there."
"There are richer ones," Harumi assured him instantly. "Plenty of them have better pedigrees and breeding, and they had the best life could offer. But honestly, I think you're a better person than any of them…"
"But I haven't even finished high school."
Harumi gave him a smirk. "If our genders were reversed, I'd be getting praised for finding such a young companion. Why can't it work the other way?" She let him ponder that for a few moments as she returned her attention to Hotaru, using a spoon to catch some food that was running down her chin.
"How do you know I'm any good?" Shirou asked after a long silence, thinking about what he'd done in the Fifth Holy Grail War.
Harumi ignored the question. "Would you like to feed Ho-chan Shirou?" she asked, offering him the spoon.
"Uh, sure…" Shirou slid his chair over and took the spoon and began feeding Harumi's daughter, peach yogurt if he wasn't mistaken, idly wondering why she'd avoided the question. He smiled good naturedly as Hotaru didn't seem to want to eat breakfast, turning her head to avoid the spoon. "Say 'ahh!' Ho-chan," he told her, opening his mouth and sticking out his tongue. She let out a delighted squeal and mimicked the gesture, allowing him to slip the spoon into her open mouth. "There, that's good, isn't it Ho-chan?" While she appeared almost annoyed at the trickery, she opened to accept another mouthful once she'd swallowed.
"Ho-chan adores you Shirou. And that counts for a lot…"
"But I'm just a sitter."
"She sees you as a father figure…"
"Excuse me?" a shocked Shirou whispered.
"I'm sure I heard her call you 'tou-san' when you weren't here. You're the closest she's had to a father since Yoshi died."
"I like her, she's adorable, but me? A dad?" Shirou wondered. "I-I don't know if I'm ready for that…"
"Shirou, we've both been through so much, and I think we're both lonely. Couldn't… couldn't we try to change that? For both of us?"
"What would your friends think of me?" he murmured, finding himself considering the idea, but not sure he was ready for it.
Harumi let out a derisive snort. "If you mean most of the people I was with last night? They'd hit the ceiling. But the few people I honestly care about, and whose opinions I give a damn about, well, I think they'd like you." A faint smile turned up the corners of her mouth. "Keiko might even ask if you had any friends. But that would be just to tease her husband."
Shirou found himself blushing at that. Putting on a more serious expression, he tentatively slid his hand forward and rested it on Harumi's giving it a gentle squeeze, a warm feeling coming over him when she returned the gesture. "We could always try, just to see what happens…"
"I'd like that," Harumi whispered, gazing into Shirou's eyes. "Of course, it may not work out. You might end up being a real slob at home, and forget to put the seat back down, and that would drive me up the wall."
"And you're probably a blanket thief; you take all the covers and then have the nerve to say you were too hot. Or you drink from the carton, not bothering to use a glass…" Shirou countered.
"We'll probably end up at each others throats," Harumi agreed, moving her chair next to his so she could rest her head on his shoulder.
"Probably," Shirou nodded in agreement, moving his hand so his fingers intertwined with Harumi's.
There was a comfortable silence as Shirou continued to feed Ho-chan. Countless minute passed before Harumi spoke again. "You know, I think I've figured out why I like you Shirou."
"You're nothing like Yoshi was. Well, not completely," Harumi clarified. "You're both kind, but you have different personalities. For example, he wouldn't have been caught dead in that robe."
"Gee, I wonder why…" Shirou remarked dryly.
"Seriously, your personalities are like night and day… You don't even look like him. And I think that's what matters."
"You're not Yoshi Mk II," Harumi explained. "I'm not going after a surrogate."
'And you're not like Saber either,' Shirou replied silently. He continued to feed Hotaru as he let himself get comfortable in Harumi's embrace. When the yogurt was gone, he let her rest calmly in her highchair, knowing he should probably pick her up and wipe her face, but not wanting to end the pleasant moment.
"You got any plans for the day Shirou?" Harumi asked him out of the blue.
Shirou quickly went over a mental 'to-do' list. "I was going to clean up a little around the house today. Why?"
"You want to hang out with me and Ho-chan today? Maybe go for a walk?
"I'd like that."
"Okay. Once your clothes are out of the dryer, would you like to take a stroll?"
Harumi affectionately mussed his hair as she stood up. "I'll let you get your own clothes, I'll get us ready…" She picked up her daughter and walked out of the kitchen. Shirou stood up and put on some water for tea, and began looking for ingredients for breakfast for Harumi and him.
Later that morning the three of them were in the park, Harumi pushing Hotaru in a stroller while Shirou walked beside her. The morning was turning into a picture perfect day, until they passed two women sitting on a bench.
"It's nice to see a young man who isn't afraid to walk with his mother," one of the women remarked, nodding sagely.
Shirou noticed Harumi's knuckles going white while gripping the stroller. "What's wrong?"
That WOMAN said I looked like your mother," Harumi seethed. "I can't believe I look that old…"
Worried that Harumi would make a scene, especially since he could practically see the steam coming out of her ears, Shirou decided to try to calm her down. Reaching up, he took hold of her chin and before she could react he leaned forward and kissed her full on the lips, letting his tongue slip into her mouth. The kiss was long and languid, and when Shirou finally broke it off, Harumi looked a little dazed. "Did that help?"
"Those two," he indicated the startled looking pair on the bench with his head, "can't think I'm your son now…"
"You're right," Harumi replied, still looking a little out of it. "I'd HOPE you wouldn't kiss your mother like that… But feel free to do that again," she added, a pleased smile appearing on her face.
Harumi shook her head. "Why give them a heart attack?"
Shirou and Harumi kept walking, now holding each others hands as they moved and giving occasional squeezes. They made one brief stop when Ho-chan's diaper needed to be changed, Harumi taking her daughter into the washroom to do it, Shirou waiting patiently outside with the stroller. As the sun rose higher in the sky, they bought shaved ice to try to stay cool, sharing theirs and letting Hotaru have a little as well. When they were done Harumi tossed the remains in the trash and then gave Shirou a thoughtful look. "Shirou, would you mind showing me where you live?"
"Yes, I'd like to see it. See where you grew up."
"Okay. It's only mine because my dad left it to me."
"You'd mentioned that," Harumi replied. "You've lived alone ever since?"
"Mostly," Shirou answered. "I'd have guests occasionally." He didn't bother trying to explain the unbelievable week of the Grail War.
"Must have been lonely."
"…sometimes it was…" Shirou murmured. He'd always had friends like Issei, Ayako, Sakura, and Taiga, but there were times the house had felt so empty. "If you're sure, it isn't as nice as yours."
"Please Shirou, I'd like to see it."
"Let's go." The trio made their way out of the park, Shirou taking a turn pushing Hotaru while Harumi held onto his arm. It was an entirely pleasant experience for the young man, and he couldn't help but feel like it was actually his own family. He was so caught up in the heartwarming revelation that it didn't even register with him when a young woman with blonde hair crossed his path, he simply keep on walking. After a leisurely stroll, the three of them stood outside the gate. "We're here…"
Harumi looked left and right, getting an idea of the sheer size of the property. "You live here?" When Shirou nodded, she continued. "It's HUGE… the lot has to be bigger than my own…"
"You have the nicer home," Shirou countered, opening the gate and leading her into the courtyard.
"I don't know about that," Harumi replied, getting a good look at the Emiya residence. "I've always liked the more traditional type of home."
"Yoshi bought our home and made most of the decorating choices. Of course, we hadn't even met at that point. I would have wanted to get a place like yours Shirou."
"Would you like to come in for tea?"
"I don't have Earl Grey. I can go get some if you-"
Harumi shook her head. "Whatever you have is fine. You don't have to go to any trouble."
"You're very understanding."
"You're too eager to please others."
"Is that a bad thing?"
Harumi's face was wreathed by a beatific smile. "Well, I didn't mind last night…" She chuckled when Shirou blushed. "You're cute when you're flustered."
Shirou couldn't think of how to reply so he simply led Harumi to the door, opening it for her and allowing her into his home. Harumi lifted Hotaru from the stroller and carried her in, kicking off her shoes and stepping into a pair of guest slippers. She glanced down the hallway. "Very elegant Shirou. Perfectly understated… And not surprisingly, spotless…"
"Thank you." Shirou lead them to the traditional sit down dining room, before moving on to the kitchen to boil some water and prepare tea. The water seemed to take forever to reach the proper temperature, finally boiling after what felt like an eternity. Filling a thermal carafe , placing it, mugs and tea leaves on a tray, adding a plate of crackers after a moments consideration, Shirou picked up the laden tray and made his way back to the dining room. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"No problem Shirou, don't worry about it." Harumi was keeping a careful eye on her daughter as she walked carefully around the table, using it to occasionally steady herself. She looked up and saw Shirou in the doorway. Letting out a delighted squeal and toddling over to him and embracing his leg.
"Uh, Harumi? A little help?" Shirou asked, not wanting t drop the tray on the little girl.
"Come here Ho-chan," Harumi called out, her arms open. Her daughter gave Shirou's legs a final squeeze before letting go and zipping over to her mother, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Told you…"
"Excuse me?" Shirou asked, making his way to the table and setting down the platter, filling the mugs with hot water and letting the tea steep.
"Ho-chan adores you," Harumi told him. "And that means a lot to me…"
"Is that the only reason…?" Shirou wondered, handing Harumi her tea.
Harumi shook her head. "No, like I said last night, I've come to like you, and frankly, I'm tired of being alone."
Shirou took a sip of tea, a contemplative look on his face. "I… I guess I am too," he murmured. "But I still don't think I'm good enough for you."
Scoffing, Harumi dismissed his concerns almost cavalierly. "I don't care what anyone else thinks about you, I only care about you. You're the best man I've known in years, Shirou. And you're the first man in a long time that didn't just see me as an ATM in high heels."
"Why would anyone think that?"
Harumi cocked her head and gave Shirou an odd look. "You're either very sweet, or very naïve… I'll pretend it's the first one."
"Don't ask Shirou, don't ask…" Harumi picked up a cracker and began nibbling on it, breaking off small pieces and giving them to her daughter. After a few minutes of silence, both of them sipping their tea, Harumi spoke up again. "I'd like to try starting something with you Shirou. Do you?"
After a few seconds hesitation, during which Harumi was holding her breath, Shirou gave an answer. "Yes…"
Harumi smiled and slid her hand across the table heading for his. Shirou reciprocated and the two of them intertwined their fingers, each feeling better than they had in some time.
"So, what happens now?" Shirou wondered.
"The usual things," Harumi replied. "We spend time together, go on dates, that sort of thing."
"Dates…" Shirou rolled that word around on his tongue. I'd like that… But where? The movies?"
Harumi gave Shirou's hand an affectionate squeeze and leaned forward as if about to share a great secret.
"Shirou, have you ever been to Hawaii…?"
Shirou decided that being involved with an independently wealthy woman could make things interesting. Watching the sun set from the balcony of a penthouse suite on Oahu was something he'd never expected to be able to do. There were other things he remembered from that trip; watching Ho-chan build a sandcastle on the black sand beach, trying his hand at surfing only to wipe out spectacularly, much to Harumi's amusement. The way she'd looked in that white bikini she'd worn, and the many admiring looks it attracted, or the slinky gold outfit she'd chosen to wear when they went out for a candlelit dinner. And what had happened after that. It had taken her far less time to get him out of that suit than he had needed to put it on.
After returning to Japan, Shirou admitted to Harumi that he'd been a little uncomfortable with her spending that much on him. She'd nodded in understanding, telling him she'd felt the same way after she'd learned how wealthy Yoshi had been. To put Shirou at ease, they did more conventional dating activities for a while, albeit at a higher class than was the norm.
They still stayed in and spent time with Hotaru, watching movies with her, and cuddling on the couch with DVD's after putting her to bed. She had especially enjoyed the first time she spent a night at Shirou's home. Like all children, to Hotaru long hallways were an invitation to run, and she wore herself out before Shirou carried her to bed.
Harumi's friend Keiko ended up liking him a lot, and she once told him that she hadn't seen her friend this happy in a while. The acquaintances that Harumi saw only occasionally either learned to tolerate Shirou or ended up being excluded from her life.
When Rin returned from England for another visit, she and Shirou did have dinner together, but it went no farther than that, and the Tohsaka heir ended up learning a lesson about missed chances.
To no one's surprise, Shirou and Harumi ended up moving in together; the fact that she moved in with him did raise a few eyebrows however. When Shirou asked why she wanted to leave her home, she'd told him that it held too many memories of her late husband, and she wanted a chance to start fresh. Holding her close on the futon, Shirou understood what she meant about the presences of others lingering.
They spent the better part of a year living under the same roof, their relationship enjoyable, but needing a last little push for the two of them to take the final step. The push came one night, when Harumi was in Shirou's embrace, listening to his heartbeat as he nuzzled her hair. Lifting her head and looking into his eyes, she asked him, "Shirou, have you ever thought about the two of us having a child together…?"
Shirou let out a breath. "I haven't thought about it much, but I wouldn't mind. When were you thinking about having one?"
"A little over eight months…"
Shirou's eyes went wide. "Y-you mean it? You are?"
Harumi simply nodded.
Not being able to put his thoughts into word, Shirou did the first thing that came to mind; lifting Harumi's chin he leaned his forward and kissed her.
Harumi and Shirou got married a month later. She finally served him blowfish on their wedding night. After the meal, he forgot all about any possible risks of eating it.
Seven months later Hotaru gained a baby brother, Takeya.
Okay, that's all.
So why write this? Well, I'd written a few stories putting Shirou with other characters, and I wanted to see if I could try something original. And as far as I know, there are few afterwards stories that don't simply match him up with Rin, Saber, Sakura, etc, and I didn't want to use that cliché.
If you liked it, let me know.
If you hated it, well, let me know as well…
Special thanks to Random1377 and Fatuous One for pre-reading this. All errors in grammar, characterization, fact, and common sense are mine, not theirs…
If you've read this far, then please leave a review.