Aiko stared at the young man before her.
"Are you alright?"
His voice was like a gentle caress, soft, yet full of concern.
"Are you hurt?" he asked again as he helped her up, then picked up the sack of rice she was carrying. "Let me help you with this." His warm smile lit up his youthful face like the sunlight dancing amongst the overhead leaves.
"Where do you live?"
"I-I…live…uhm…" She stared. She had dreamt of meeting him someday. Yet, never in a million years would she have thought of seeing him here, in a lonely side alley, away from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of Tokyo. Aiko shook herself out of her reverie. "I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude but you remind me of someone I used to know."
"Oro?" The young man blinked. A wave of maternal affection washed over Aiko, filling her heart and soul with a feeling of warmth despite the chill wind that was stirring around them.
"I live quite some distance from here." She finally said.
"That's alright. I've got spare time on my hands at the moment, nothing really urgent that requires my attention."
"In that case, follow me." The young man fell into step beside her as she led the way back home. They maintained communication silence as they walked along. Once or twice, she thought she heard the young man speaking to her but she remained lost in a wave of memories that engulfed her from the moment she saw him, slowly taking her back to the past…
"Shh…not so loud…"
Yuki leaned over to Aiko and whispered into her ear. Aiko's eyes widened. "You're with…" Yuki sealed Aiko's mouth with her hands. "Not so loud…I don't want others to know about it."
"I want to give him a surprise the next time he comes to visit."
Aiko giggled. "Alright then, this will be our little secret."
Aiko served the sixth concubine of the Shogun. She was the personal handmaid of Yuki. Their friendship blossomed out of the isolation and loneliness of living within the palace walls, separated from their families, their loved ones.
As the months flew by, Aiko noticed a change in Yuki. She became more withdrawn, melancholy, and often stared forlornly out of the window, seemingly trapped, like the last rays of the golden dusk sinking beneath the picturesque landscape over the horizon, yearning to pierce through the heavy velvety blanket of the night. The fiery chariot that rode across the blue skies in the day succeeded only in creating little peepholes of light in the darkness which enveloped the world. Yuki's spirits sank with each passing moment of each night, all her energies sapped out of her, softly stroking her bulging waistline…slowly…affectionately, as if a reminder...
"Yuki?" Yuki remained oblivious to the presence of Aiko. Aiko placed her hand on Yuki's shoulder. Yuki turned round slowly. Her eyes were shimmering with unshed tears.
"…he won't come…" Teardrops slowly cascaded down her cheeks. "He hasn't been coming to see me for over half a year. He'll probably never know of it. My child will never get to see the Japan that lies outside this walls."
"The Shogun is a very busy person but no matter how busy he is, he'll come. I promise you that."
A tiny ray of renewed hope sparkled within Yuki's lost eyes. Smiling through a stream of bittersweet tears, those eyes found a new direction, a new meaning in life. Yes, he will come...he MUST come...
"Yuki! Calm down!" Aiko clung on to Yuki in a desperate attempt to make her come to her senses.
"I don't want it! Kill it! Filthy Gaijin dog!" Yuki made a lunge for the little wailing bundle on the bed once again.
A hard slap resounded across the room. "HE IS YOUR SON!"
Yuki sagged against Aiko and sobbed miserably. "You don't understand, Aiko. It is an abomination that has to be got rid of, it is the reason he doesn't come and see me anymore…"
"Get a grip on yourself. The Shogun doesn't even know of his existence."
"His hair…his eyes…filthy creature..."
"What does the colour matter? He is still yours, every part of him, all yours."
"Yes, all yours. Look at him." Aiko pulled Yuki over to the bed. "True, his irises are violet but take a good look at the shape of his eyes…aren't they yours? He has your nose, your chin, his little hands and feet…he may look different but what does colour matter? Deep down inside, he is still Japanese. Every part of him belongs to you, you're the reason he exists."
Yuki checked her tears, stared intently at the little bundle of life on the bed, then tentatively reached out and touched his tiny fingers.
"…mine…but…he's crying…" Yuki blinked at Aiko, puzzled.
"He's hungry." Aiko explained.
"…hungry…" A ghost of a smile flickered across Yuki's eyes. "I'll feed him."
Yuki paused in her sewing and looked over to where Aiko was playing with her son.
Yes, my son… The thought fired up a warm bubble of pride within her. Yet, at the same time, she was worried. The Shogun hated foreigners. If he knew, he would not allow her son's continued existence.
"I hope he never comes."
"Aiko! Quick! Take him and go!"
"He knows. The Shogun knows he isn't normal. The doctor told him. He's coming over right now. Please, take him with you and leave. Give him to anyone who will have him."
"Please go now! There is no time to waste! I'll try and stall the Shogun."
"GO! I am not asking, I am ordering you to!"
That was the last time Aiko and Yuki ever saw each other.
Aiko looked at the young man walking next to her now. He was struggling valiantly with the sack of rice. She smiled covertly.
"We're here." Aiko finally announced. She stopped in front of an insignificant little wooden hut, miles from civilisation, hidden deep within the lush greenery of the forest. The trees towered over it creating a green canopy.
"Oh. I'll just leave this here then." Relieved, he placed the sack of rice next to the door, then paused for a moment to take in his surroundings. After a while, he asked, "Are you living here by yourself?"
He frowned. It was not safe for a woman, more so an elderly woman to live out in the wilderness all by herself. What if she was attacked by bandits? There would be no one to come to her aid. "Don't mind my asking , but, why don't you live in the town, at least there'll be people to take care of you…no…please don't get me wrong, I'm not implying that you can't take care of yourself. It's just that…what about your family? Don't you find it lonely living out here all by yourself? And…a tad dangerous?"
Aiko laughed affectionately. "I don't have a family. As for danger, there is nothing to fear, my child. Who would want to take the trouble to rob a penniless old woman living in the wilderness?"
"Besides, I like the calm and solitude of the forest. Cut off from the violence of the cruel world, I feel closer to nature. I feel…at peace…" Aiko closed her eyes, revelling in the quiet that could only be found away from civilisation.
"Oh! I'm sorry. Where are my manners? Do come in and take a sit." There was a note of barely suppressed eagerness in her request.
"Uhm…no thanks, I'd better get going, I just remembered, I promised my friend that I'll help her get some groceries." Now what was it? Rice, oil, salt… Kaoru's going kill me if I don't get home soon.
Aiko's heart sank. He would be leaving her once again. Each step he took further away from her was like a sharp stake being driven deeper and deeper into her heart. The burning desire to know more about this young man…to find out if he was the very same little boy that she carried out of the palace to safety on that dark night consumed her entire being. She could not bear it any longer…
"WAIT! Before, you leave, what is your name?" The question burst forth from her lips in a frenzy. Regardless of what he thought of her, she must know…
"Huh?" The young man turned and blinked his large violet eyes several times in succession. He was surprised that Aiko would be asking for his name in such a desperate manner, as if it was really important for her to know.
Aiko took a few steps forward, halting only when she was directly in front of him. "Please," she pleaded.
Perhaps she just realised how lonely it was for her to live alone, that's why she badly wants to know who I am, so that she can look me up sometimes to chat. He smiled.
"Himura. Himura Kenshin."
Himura…that's the peasant family that I left him with…Aiko reached out and gently stroked the X-shaped scar on his left cheek. He must have suffered a lot…
The young man flinched but did not move away. He understood how important it was for someone who had been living in isolation for so long to experience human contact. By giving her a helping hand, he had provided her with the first stepping stone to make her way back, to integrate and mingle with society once more, to discover for herself that the world is not all cruel and violent as she thought it to be. Like he once thought it to be…
"Himura-san. Thank you for your aid. Do come and visit when you have the time."
He smiled, then nodded.
Aiko watched as he walked away into the sunset. Perhaps he sensed her watching him, he turned, smiled once again, then waved. His red hair tied back in a silky ponytail, his large violet eyes, the exact replica of Yuki's, his smile, Yuki's smile. Even his frown earlier on, just like Yuki's, that little furrow between his delicately arched brows, the slight narrowing of his eyes, just like Yuki's… There was no doubt about it. He was Yuki's boy.