Perhaps he decided that he didn't really want an answer to whatever question he'd been asking himself, because suddenly his watchful tension was gone. Instead, he returned to his usual attitude of apparent disgusted detachment. He made a disapproving noise and said, "You have sticks and leaves all through your hair. Does Jaken do nothing to keep you clean?"

Embarrassed at being found unsatisfactory, and worried for Jaken's sake—even if he was nasty sometimes--Rin jerked her hand back and ran it over her sleep-tangled hair. There were indeed small, hard objects in it, and she tried to quickly finger-comb them out. "I'm sorry," she said, "It's not Jaken-sama's fault. I was asleep in the grass . . ."

Sesshomaru forestalled any further apologies by reaching up and beginning to lightly pick leaf and grass fragments out of her hair with his claws. "I can't imagine how incredibly tedious it would be to have to worry about such things," he said. It was true that he never seemed to have to do anything to his own hair, which was actually quite a bit longer on him than Rin's was on her. Jaken had explained to her that like all yokai, Sesshomaru-sama was only a semi-physical being, and he didn't have to worry about the endless round of bathing, scrubbing, wringing, and drying that humans did in order to appear presentable. Rin figured that was just as well, since otherwise he'd spend half his time trying to keep tangles out of his hair and bloodstains out of his clothes.

For some time, she remained absolutely still, which was the intelligent thing to do when a demon capable of flinging acid with his claws was raking said claws through one's hair. Every now and again he'd fling away some small object and make a noise of displeasure. Rin internally winced with unhappiness every time he found something that didn't meet with his approval, until it occurred to her that he'd actually taken his hand off Tensaiga to work knots out of her hair. The sight of the "unguarded" sword handle—while someone else was within touching distance of the weapon, no less—made her eyes go wide.

Rin folded her hands up against her chest, moving them as far from the magical blade's hilt as possible in an attempt to honor the unspoken gift of trust Sesshomaru-sama had just given her. Of course, perhaps he simply thought she was only a little human girl who could do no harm anyway--which was true. He could kill her much faster than she could insult him by interfering with his sword. In any case, she remained motionless and near-breathless until he could drag his claws down the length of her hair without hitting a snag.

The needle-sharp ends of those claws of his turned out to be better at picking tangles loose than the teeth of any comb. Sesshomaru-sama was much better at the job than Jaken was—but then, Jaken didn't even have any hair, and he didn't much like having to tend to her. Nobody had taken so much interest in keeping Rin well-groomed since her mother had died.

Once he'd satisfied himself with her hair, and returned his hand to Tensaiga's grip, Rin went back to holding onto the upper edge of Sesshomaru's chest-plate. Feeling stunned and out of words again, she just pressed herself close him and listened to the different rates of their breathing for a while.

Her child's mind was not quite good enough at imagining others' lives for her to realize that she was probably the only person to have survived such close proximity to Lord Sesshomaru's claws in centuries, but she did understand that she'd just been claimed in some way. Maybe he couldn't—or wouldn't—be the hero of her dream, but he'd been willing to show that he was something to her . . . perhaps something even more startling than her wishful imagination had conjured up. Who would have expected a creature like Sesshomaru to care about a human child's hair?

The thought gave her joy, but there was danger in that kind of happiness.

A broken pane of her former life flashed through her mind, disorienting in its fragmented clarity: her mother's smiling face; the dull red glow of a hut lit by banked coals and rush lights; the sound of fire-heated water being poured into a basin for a bath; the gentle strength of her mother's hands.

The last time she'd seen those hands they were gray, streaked with rivulets of a dry, black-red stain. They'd already looked as if they'd always been withered claws, and never once rosy fingers holding out autumn-perfect slices of persimmon.

No. It didn't happen that way. Death isn't like that. You can undo it and make it better. Sesshomaru-sama knows how to do it.

Hardening herself against the onslaught of old images, Rin repeated the words in her head until they became true.

The unexpected window to her former life slid shut and grayed out as quickly as it had come, but it left her gripping Sesshomaru's chest armor more tightly than she was supposed to. If she clung to him, how could he stand up and immediately deal with enemies if they appeared?

She could already feel a tension in his body, as if something were wrong. Rin let go of his chest plate. The action-ready feel of his sword arm did not dissipate, however, and though she did not meet his gaze, she could feel him looking at her.

Still feeling oddly distant from herself, Rin heard herself asking shakily, "Sesshomaru-sama? Could we pretend something?"

"Could we pretend something?" he echoed. She didn't usually ask foolish things like that, and there was a hard edge in his voice, as if he thought her wits might have gotten scrambled.

"Could we pretend that I was your little girl, and not a human at all, and not going to die?" she asked. "That way I could stay with you always."

"Oh," he said, and returned to his position gazing off across the field, as if something that had alarmed him had turned out to be nothing. He shifted her slightly in his arm, dislodging her from her emergency-like clinging. He didn't push her away entirely, however, and allowed her to return her head to its former spot against his shoulder. At last, he gave a weary-sounding sigh.

"Rin, I don't play pretend."

END

Note: If the ending seems too abrupt, read the last line again and look for a second meaning. Sesshomaru is the master of plausible deniability. ;)

Thank you for reading!