Author's note: Awhile back, I was talking with one of my fanfic reviewers (and if it's you, please let me know!) about the fact that Hiko is a supercilious, arrogant bastard (but in a good way) who needs to fall in love just to take him down a peg or two. Because it would be funny. Yes, I know there are probably lots of fanfic stories featuring this exact premise, so I wanted to add mine to the mix. Heads up – this contains an OCC as a main character. I couldn't really think of anyone in the RK canon who would work for the story I have outlined, so I made up a brand new character to suit my needs. Please read and review!

Fifteen years ago, I found that fool boy on a night like this, Seijuro Hiko thought to himself as he lifted the sake bottle to his lips and drank deeply, letting loose a unstifled belch after he swallowed a mouthful, then frowned heavily. "Still bellyaching on about that are you, Seijuro?" he muttered aloud, trying to push away the swarm of emotions that sparked to life every time he thought of his runaway apprentice: a hazy mix of ire, pride, scorn, and, though he would not admit it to himself, grief. He had poured himself into the scrawny runt, lived and slept in the same house day after day for six years, watched the snot-nosed brat morph into a skilled teenager, and been damned proud of the swordsman the lad was growing up to be. Then, suddenly one day without preamble...

Scowling, Hiko lifted the sake bottle again and took another gulp. No matter, he grunted internally. Who's to say where the damned kid is these days? He could be one of the stupid fools currently kicking up dirt in Satsuma, or a hired bodyguard for some rich idiot grubbing for power, or hell, even sitting on some government seat trying to push his idiotic ideas of freedom and justice for all or maybe dead and gone...No. Hiko shook his head. The baka deshi he had beaten on for years was a fool but not stupid enough to let himself get killed. Wherever the brat was, he was most certainly alive. He hadn't mastered Hiten Mitsurugi but he'd gotten damned close and was too good a swordsman to be dead. Fact was, Hiko had never quite given up all hope that one of these days the red-haired runt would get his head screwed on straight enough to come back and finish what he'd abandoned.

Swishing the bottle, Hiko scowled to realize it was nearly empty. Irritated, he lowered it to his side but a noise caught his ear as a ripple of agitated chi shimmered in the cool spring wind, distracting him from thoughts of drink. Setting the bottle down on the ground, Hiko felt his instincts snapping into place, gearing up for battle, and he moved forward to investigate.

Harsh voices and the screams of someone in pain quickened his footsteps and sent his hand reaching for the blade. "You bitch!" a man's voice rang out as another joined it. "We were gonna go easy on you so long as you played nice, but you're..."

"What in the blazes is all this noise about?" Hiko thundered as he strode into the clearing, his narrowed eyes sweeping the scene and quickly giving him the picture. Four against one, two of the attackers down and bleeding but still conscious enough to curse loudly and the other two honing in on their solitary opponent who, to Hiko's astonishment, was a young woman, armed and intent on finishing off the two ruffians who were not currently dripping blood all over the spring grass.

The two unwounded attackers swung around instantly to face the master as he stepped across the clearing, hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. The young woman did not move, frozen in a ready position, waiting for the attack that did not come as her assailants quickly transferred their attention to Hiko.

"Enough of this," he growled. "Take your wounded and leave if you want to keep your lives." Looking the two men over, he sighed internally. Young, stupid, and brazenly self-assured of your own dubious sword talents. Almost a dishonor to kill you, even if...

Two heads went flying in almost perfect unison, hitting the dark grass and rolling into the shadows. Even if you're idiotic enough to attack me though I gave you clear warning. Such a waste. Drying his sword off on a piece of cloth he fished out from the inner folds of his cloak, Hiko shot a look in the woman's direction and said, "Are you alright?"

The woman, girl really, said nothing. She was still standing on guard, holding her katana with the obvious air of someone accustomed to wielding one, and tensed like a coiled spring as if she expected Hiko to be her next assailant. He looked her over briefly, taking her in with curious eyes. She was a little thing and quite young, still in her teens, he guessed. Blood flecked her garments and dripped slowly off the edge of her sword, but a quick glance told him that none of it was likely hers. The two men she had wounded were slowly edging away into the night's shadows, glancing at Hiko with terror-filled eyes. He ignored them and finished wiping his blade clean of blood, then slid it back into its saya.

"Hey, girl, I said, 'Are you alright?'" Hiko repeated roughly. He wasn't much accustomed to women, much an less armed one who had just survived a four-against-one fight and looked like she was seriously contemplating attacking him before he had a chance to draw a blade on her. For a second time, she did not answer him but her eyes dropped to the headless bodies lying not far from her feet and froze in shock, the tip of her sword lowering towards the grass at her feet.

Sighing in irritation, Hiko stomped over to her and handed her the cloth in his hand. "Here, clean your sword before the blood dries," he ordered. Obediently she took it and mechanically wiped her blade clean, then resheathed it smoothly, despite the fact that it was obviously too long for her short frame; she automatically cocked a hip back and aligned her body so that the weapon slipped easily into the sheath. As the sword slid home and made a soft click as tsuba met with koiguchi, she straightened up and looked at Hiko curiously, measuringly as if assessing his trustworthiness, then her eyes glazed over with blankness.

Hiko caught her before she hit the ground, her small frame sagging against his arms. Dammit, he thought to himself as something like alarm swept him. Now what the hell do I do with her? He wasn't just going to leave her there, prey for the two men she had wounded who likely wouldn't overlook a chance for revenge. Well, it wasn't too far from his house and she didn't weigh that much. Groaning a little in frustration, Hiko stood upright, the girl lying limply against him, and turned towards home, grumbling the entire way.

Walking up the steps to his house, Hiko pushed the door open with his foot and maneuvered the girl inside, careful not to bang her head or legs against the door frame. He stood for a second inside the dark house, pondering what to do, then with a shrug stepped forward and lowered her to his futon. There wasn't anywhere else to put her except on the bare wood floor. She was still unconscious as he arranged her on the futon and pulled a blanket over her slight frame, hoping she wouldn't get blood on the fabric. Scowling, Hiko briefly considered trying to ease her out of her garments and into something clean but the thought made him clear his throat and push away from her abruptly. Her sword he let lie at her feet, hoping that she wouldn't wake in the middle of the night, panic, and try to attack him; he didn't fancy having to bolt upright from a dead sleep and fend off a crazed female, no doubt resulting in a lot of questions and possibly some ruined furniture after the fact.

Standing to his feet, Hiko searched out the lamp and lit it with a coal from the banked fire; the warm glow from the lamp softly lit the girl's features as he peered curiously at her face. She was a pretty little thing with long lashes resting against her cheeks, ink-black hair pulled back in a high horsetail, and full lips. He guessed her to be in her late teens, but there was nothing else to identify her status or rank. Surprisingly, she was clad in a dark blue hakama and gi, and the fabric at her left hip showed the wear of a sword rubbing against it. The katana at her feet was of a good make, nothing special (or as least as far as he could tell without seeing the mei) but the slight dents in the saya indicated it had been well-used. Frowning, Hiko knelt next to the girl and gingerly picked up her right hand, turning it over to see her palm. Sword callouses lightly patterned the finger joints and made a ring of circles where the slender digits met her hand.

Putting her hand back down, Hiko peered at her darkly. "Well, girl, who are you?" he muttered quietly, puzzled over the mystery. Never mind. He would find out in the morning. For now, it was growing late and the girl was currently occupying his futon with no sign of waking up. Hiko stared at her again, trying to remember the last time there had been a woman in his bed. It had been, well, it had been a long time.

Sniffing, he moved to a chest and pulled out Kenshin's old futon which he had kept for some reason, sentiment likely. Or maybe he had just never gotten around to throwing it out. It's not like I regularly entertain houseguests, Hiko grunted to himself as he rolled out the bedding. It smelled musty but he ignored it and stretched out on the floor, trying to process the events of the day. Tomorrow, he would find out who the girl was and get her back to where she belonged, then bury the bodies of the two men he had killed if their companions had not done so already. And then, the day as usual: make pottery, practice, drink sake. One day the same as the next since the dratted brat had left on his fool's mission.

However, as sleep claimed him, Hiko had an uncomfortable feeling that life as he knew it was about to undergo a radical change, and the idea clung firmly to his mind as he fell into a deep but slightly troubled sleep.

The scent of miso soup and rice. The quiet clatter of someone at the hearth. Hiko rolled over to one side and grunted to himself, Good, the boy's awake. Wonder if he's scared up any eggs? An omelet would be...With a start, the last befuddled shimmers of sleep left Hiko's mind as the previous night's events galloped back into his consciousness, sending him rolling up quickly and blinking his eyes in alert wakefulness.

"Good morning," a quiet voice greeted him, and Hiko squinted in surprise to see his "guest" kneeling in front of a small fire, calmly preparing breakfast as if cooking for a complete stranger in his house was the most normal thing in the world. While her clothing still bore traces of blood splatter, her hair was neatly sleeked back into its horsetail and her eyes were tranquil as if last night's battle had been merely a bad dream.

"Morning," Hiko grunted a trifle hesitantly, then pulled the blanket back and rose to his feet as the girl began quietly dishing up rice and soup into the bowls at her side. Hiko opened his mouth, then closed it with a shrug before moving to the fire and seating himself on the floor. Silently, the girl placed two steaming bowls in front of him, then filled a teacup, the scent of tea mingling with the cooking odors.

Placing her hands on her lap primly, she gave him a long look under her thick eyelashes and said quietly, "Thank for helping me last night, sir."

"You're welcome," Hiko responded dismissively. Picking up the soup bowl, he tried its contents and nodded slightly in approval. Good as what the brat used to make, he thought. After a few slurps, he realized the girl hadn't made any movement towards dishing up any food for herself and with a frown, commanded "Eat."

His unexpected breakfast companion dipped her head and gracefully picked up a bowl for herself. With something like discomfort, Hiko shot a look towards the food preparation area and saw that the growing mound of dirty dishes he had been meaning to wash had disappeared, no doubt cleaned and put away by the apparently efficient person sitting across from him. Well, I've been busy with other things, he grumbled to himself, and picked up the other bowl. It was neatly mounded with well-cooked rice, and as he emptied it, the girl's gaze swung back in his direction. She had rather disconcerting eyes; calm and clear, giving away nothing yet creating a distinct impression that they perceived far more than one would expect from someone so young.

Finally she spoke. "I am Hayashi Sako," she said, her voice even and with a slight lilt to it, hinting that she had been educated.

"Seijuro Hiko," he grunted in response. Looking her over narrowly, he said, "Not too many women I've seen running around with swords, much less one who wields a blade well enough to avoid getting killed when faced with four opponents."

Sako's hand clenched slightly on the fold of her hakama. "My...father taught me," she said. "Ever since I was ten. He...was a fine swordsman."

Hiko frowned, beginning to grasp a hint of possible events that had led to this strange female sitting in front of his fire. "What happened to him?" he questioned.

"He died. Over a month ago of cholera," Sako said dully.

"And your mother?" Hiko continued.

"She died when I was ten. I was their only child," Sako replied softly. Her full lips pressed together for a few moments, then she continued slowly. "We were never a rich family but we had the money for what we needed, or so I thought. When Father died, Kobayashi, our village leader, claimed that my father owed him hundreds of ryo, and the villagers believed him. He said that marrying him was the only way I could replay the debt and restore my family's good name." Sako paused for a second and her voice hardened a fraction. "I challenged him to a duel to restore my father's honor. He laughed in my face, saying no woman could fight for her family's name. I saw no other option but to leave. So I did," she gave an almost imperceptible shrug, "About a week ago."

"Leave? Where?" Hiko furrowed his brows.

"Anywhere, I didn't particularly care," she responded evenly. "I...thought with my sword skills that I could find work as the bodyguard of a wealthy woman. The day I left, I found a caravan of travelers and was with them for several days as their guard until they reached their destination but there was no work for me there. It was the next day, as I traveled alone, that I encountered the bandits who attacked me last night."

Hiko's scowl deepened. "It was a foolish thing to do, a young woman traveling by yourself," he rumbled.

The barely perceptible shrug returned. "There were few options available," Sako stated evenly. "Kobayashi already had two wives dead, and rumors whispered that both had died at his hands. He was a violent man prone to excessive drinking and I had no desire to bind myself to him, but with the entire village expecting me to marry him, there was no one to turn to and no other marriage prospects. Besides," the faintest glimmer of a wry smile fluttered across her face. "The fact that I have trained with a sword for almost eight years rather...disinclined other young men from proposing."

Hiko harrumphed but decided to drop the topic for now. Transferring his attention back to the second helping of soup the girl placed in front of him without a word, he fell silent, digesting her words along with the meal. After a few minutes, she spoke again.

"You are a sword master, sir?" she said.

"13th master of Hiten Mitsurugi," Hiko responded proudly, preening a bit. Sako's wide, perceptive eyes peered out from under her long lashes, studying him intently for a moment, but her next words caught him completely by surprise.

"Would you teach me?" she questioned.

"What?" Hiko's hand tipped slightly, almost slopping soup on his lap. Incredulously, he shot her a hard look, certain he must have heard her wrong.

"Would you teach me?" Sako repeated in the same calm tone as if she was asking him to pass her a spoon.

"You? Are you daft, girl?" Hiko rumbled. Incredulous scorn steadily growing in him, he set the nearly empty soup bowl back down on the floor. "I don't teach women the sword," he scowled at her.

Sako took a dainty sip of tea. "Why not?" she inquired calmly.

Hiko glared again, irritated that she had asked and even more irritated that he didn't have a ready answer for her. "Don't be foolish, the way of the blade is no path for a woman."

"I have trained with the sword since I was young," Sako said quietly. "You saw me fight against four opponents last night..."

"And who knows how it would have turned out if I hadn't happened by?" Hiko growled darkly. "You got lucky and managed to wound two of them, that's all." Anger rising, he picked the bowl back up again, his mind sputtering with indignant thoughts.

"But with the training of a master such as yourself, surely I will be able to face four again, if not more," Sako pointed out, a curl of flattery edging her tones. "And isn't the instruction of a truly great teacher enough to overcome any defaults in the student?"

Dammit, Hiko thought angrily. She's got me edged in a corner. Darkly he stared at her, furious with the bind she had neatly put him in. If he he refused to train her, well, the way she put it, that was tantamount to admitting that he, Seijuro Hiko, was unable to do something. And that was intolerable.

"Besides," Sako's perceptive eyes swept the room, falling pointedly on the cobwebs lurking in the corners, the pile of clothes kicked off to the side, and the wobbling shelves haphazardly covered with assorted dusty pottery. Hiko felt a flush of something like embarrassment rise up in him as she scanned the room. He had been meaning to give the place a good cleaning one of these days but, dammit, a man had better things to do with his time than go after every last speck of dust in his house. "You clearly do not have an apprentice and I currently have nowhere to live. I believe my proposal could be mutually beneficial," Sako said evenly.

Hiko huffed again and clicked his chopsticks together angrily. Peering at the dratted woman sitting by his fire, he remembered what she had said, ran a quick mental calculation, and demanded, "You're eighteen?"

"I will be in a month," Sako responded.

"Too old to be an apprentice," Hiko grunted.

"I have almost eight years of experience training..." Sako began but Hiko cut her off.

"That means you've got eight years of ingrained habits in another sword style I'll have to beat out of you," he huffed. "I don't know what style your father taught you, girl, but it's not Hiten Mitsurugi which means a lot of what you learned will be useless."

"I am a quick and diligent learner," Sako said, giving him a serious look and for a moment, something like fire flashed in her eyes before it was swallowed up in calmness.

Hiko grunted again and reached for a second cup of tea. Settling back, he pointedly ignored the girl as she quietly finished eating and, without a word, collected their empty dishes and washed them with quick, practiced hands. Hiko waited until she was done and had returned to the fire where she settled back on her knees and placed her hands on her lap before sinking into calmness, seeming to be perfectly at ease. He watched her narrowly as her eyes slid to almost shut, waiting to see if she would press the issue any further, but she seemed content to wait.

Finally, Hiko rose to his feet irritably and stomped towards the door. Pausing on the threshold, he looked back at her over his shoulder and barked out, "Well? You coming, girl? Get your sword and let's see what your fool of a father taught you all those years."

I must be an idiot, Hiko thought darkly to himself as he thundered towards the clearing where he had trained his last stupid apprentice. By the gods, how do I keep stumbling upon these wayward fools and feel sorry enough to take them in? You're going soft and senile in your old age, Seijuro.

She's not that terrible, Hiko thought grudgingly to himself as Sako moved carefully through the kata he had demonstrated for her, face expressionless but frame clearly intent on making every move perfect. After a morning of yelling at her and putting her through the paces, he had to admit that she had potential and had obviously been carefully trained. And she clearly had maturity; no matter how many times he bellowed, her face showed nothing but still serenity, not a trace of frustration or anger crossing it, her entire being focused on the task at hand. Still...

Abruptly, he called out, "That's enough for now." Sako stopped, sweat dripping off her forehead and staining the collar of her gi. She was breathing too hard for his liking, and he frowned. Needs better endurance, he grunted internally. She had quick eyes and feet, but her strikes were far too light and she began to suck wind far too soon and...

What the hell am I doing? Seijuro, you idiot, Hiko berated himself, then turned to the girl. "Go inside and make lunch," he commanded. Seko nodded silently and departed, leaving him in the clearing along with his thoughts. He dithered for awhile, stomping about irritably and thinking of all the things he could be doing with his time rather than trying to teach some fool girl the way of Hiten Mitsurugi but surprisingly the list was shorter than he expected. Finally, he gave up in irritation and thundered towards the house.

The scent of food mollified him somewhat, particularly when full dishes were set in front of him, and despite the situation, he had to admit that having the girl around to cook and clean wasn't a particularly bad prospect. Kenshin, for all the sheer bother the brat had been, had kept up with all the chores in the house, and Hiko had grudgingly missed the convenience of someone else doing all the cooking and shopping. But still, to take on a female apprentice? Gods, my old master would be rolling in his grave if he knew, Hiko groaned to himself.

Lunch was a silent affair, both parties absorbed with their own thoughts, but Sako didn't seem to find the lack of conversation disturbing at all. She ate quietly, her eyes fixed in the distance, seemingly at ease and serenely ignoring the obviously perturbed sword master sitting feet away from her. In contrast, Hiko fumed and glowered to himself, occasionally shooting hard glances at the female invading his house as he tried to collect the thoughts swirling in his head into some decisive pattern.

Finally Hiko broke the silence. "More ginger next time," he announced and Sako's eyes swung to look at him. "I like a lot of ginger in okazu," he muttered. Peering at him with those queer eyes of hers, Sako nodded in compliance.

Hiko scowled at nothing in particular for several moments, then added another comment into the silence, "Your kiriage angle is wretched. You turn your blade over far too soon and your elbow's too flat. That's break your sword off inside your enemy quicker than anything."

A slight smile touched Sako's lips. "Father always said the same thing too," she said with soft fondness. "It is a weak area I have."

Hiko frowned. "You'll learn to overcome it or I'll beat it out of you," he threatened. Scowling down at his bowl, he added darkly, "We'll work more on that after lunch." He did not miss the fleeting smile of triumph that flittered across the pernicious female's lips before the tranquil expression replaced it, and he felt a flush of irritation but also a strange feeling of mild satisfaction settle over him. Huffing, he thrust the empty bowl at her, silently demanding a refill and damned if he was going to get it himself. That's what apprentices were for, weren't they?

Sako quelled the tremor of excitement and relief that rose up in her belly as the scowling sword master pushed his bowl into her hand commandingly. She had earned a place to stay and the promise of training, at least for the time being, and although the hard-faced man in front of her was clearly less than pleased with the prospect, she silently vowed to exhaust herself working to earn his approval. He would see that a woman could be just as skillful a sword fighter as a man. She would fulfill her promise to her mother. I will not fail you, Mother, Sako murmured silently as she carefully dipped another serving into Hiko's bowl while he glared at her darkly.

Keeping the triumph out of her voice, she said meekly, "Yes, Master."

kiri age – angled cut starting at hip and rising to opposite shoulder

koiguchi – mouth of the sword sheath

mei – swordmaker's inscription

ozaku – side dish

ryo – unit of currency

saya – sword sheath

tsuba – sword hilt