He felt as though he was walking in his father's footsteps. Each stride that took him closer and closer to Toutousai's cave-like dwelling brought that odd displacement further and further to the forefront. He had hoped to never understand Inutaisho's feelings in those last years of his life, but Sesshoumaru found that they were now inescapable. This was a circumstance that was forcing him to quell his pride. It simply had to be done.

His feet made light cracking sounds as they tracked across the frosted ground and, as he approached the maw-like cave, he could easily make out the distant ringing sounds of colliding metals. Apparently the old man was already at work on something. Sesshoumaru doubted overly much that Toutousai would be pleased to see him. They had never been on particularly pleasant terms before, but the sword-maker's help was needed and Sesshoumaru was going to take whatever means necessary to gain it.

To be in such a situation … , his mind grumbled. It nearly physically pained him to come find the old man for this task. The same man who had once so audaciously told him that Inutaisho had had high hopes that Tenseiga might one day help Sesshoumaru grow at least a semblance of a heart. Just one smug look, you old bastard, Sesshoumaru's mind warned darkly, and your insides are going to litter the floor … 

But, strangely, as much as Toutousai always seemed to have feared him in the past, Sesshoumaru could admit to being slightly puzzled by the lack of surprise from the old man as he entered Toutousai's home. If anything Toutousai seemed barely interested in this sudden arrival.

"Sesshoumaru. What is it that you want?" his voice called, taking a moment to blow a wave of fire over whatever it was that he was creating.

"I believe you owe me a sword," Sesshoumaru replied instantly, his tone lightly threatening. "I am here to collect."

Toutousai paused and looked up, scratching his chin and narrowing his eyes in thought, as though recalling their last encounter. "How long do you dog demons hold grudges…?" he asked almost to himself before adding, "And aren't you a little early?"

Sesshoumaru blinked. So he had already heard … His mood deteriorated even further as he awaited a snide comment to come from that ancient creature. "One can never tell how long you might live, Toutousai," Sesshoumaru replied warningly, moving further into the grimy cave.

Apparently completely unconcerned about the vague hints of potential bodily harm, Toutousai turned his back on Sesshoumaru and lowered something into a vat of water. Instantly an angry, hissing cloud of steam rose into the air. "Well," he finally said, "your brother beat you to it. He showed up last week asking me to forge it for you."

"Inuyasha …," Sesshoumaru murmured half-questioningly. He scowled then, watching Toutousai as he again resumed pounding on the weapon he was working on. What could possibly have possessed the hanyou to stick his nose into my business? he wondered in irritation.

"Yep," Toutousai went on, even though Sesshoumaru had not yet replied. "He even offered up one of his own fangs."

"His fang?" Sesshoumaru repeated, unable to keep the incredulity out of his voice. It was laughable, completely absurd. As though the fang of a half-demon had any hope of being enough to forge this sword. Inuyasha's delusions of grandeur were becoming more and more pronounced, it seemed.

"I figured you wouldn't go for it, but he said you were too much of a proud, pretentious jackass to go do this yourself," Toutousai explained casually, but then held up his hands in a defensive posture. "Inuyasha's words, not mine. So, anyway, he's commissioned it already. I never thought I'd see the day when you'd admit that any child of yours would need one of my swords to seal his hanyou blood. But you're brighter than I gave you credit for, I guess."

Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed angrily at this disrespect, but he held back his temper. Indeed, he had always been certain that he would never be placed in such a situation, either. He had become far too much like his father. This hanyou child's birth had been accidental as well, just as Inuyasha's had been, and yet … Sesshoumaru found that he would sooner disembowel himself than admit that any mistake had been made. Besides, hanyou or not, Inushiro was his … and what child of his, hanyou or not, could ever be weak?

Still … he had learned lessons from his father's mistakes, as well as his smarter decisions, which was why he had finally given in and come to the sword-maker. Inuyasha knew well the necessity of Tetsusaiga and he had been correct in predicting Sesshoumaru's reticence. It had taken him months to come to the conclusion that this was absolutely necessary, but as Inushiro's birth had grown closer, the memories of what he had seen Inuyasha become when his demon blood became dominant had been coming to mind more and more often.

"Have you made it yet?" he questioned Toutousai, who regarded him with upraised eyebrows.

"No. I had a feeling you'd show up. I figured you wouldn't let Inuyasha get away with showing more sense than you," Toutousai answered.

"I still don't like him," Sesshoumaru muttered.

"Funny, he went out of his way to tell me the same thing," Toutousai said, his face remaining even as his voice betrayed the humor he found in the situation.

Sesshoumaru let that comment pass, extending his hand to drop his own recently-extracted fang into the old man's hand. "Here. Forge it. I'll return for it within the week."

Toutousai regarded the sharp, shiny object that lay in the palm of his hand, then asked, "And what of your brother's fang?"

"Use them both," Sesshoumaru ordered before sweeping soundlessly from the cave.

He had been forced to retreat, there was simply nothing else to be done. The shrieks of little girls at play were putting his ears into misery. Such small beings … and yet so loud. Sesshoumaru had never been one to enjoy the prospect of being swarmed by lots of people and yet that was precisely what had happened. His house was completely overrun by the uninvited invasion that had been Kagome and the wretched hanyou. Worse yet, they seemed intent on staying for a while.

To gawk at the child? Likely. Inuyasha had been distinctly disappointed to find that Inushiro had not been cursed with the dog ears that made the boy's uncle such an eyesore.

Which reminded him of another reason why he had evacuated himself … the incessant squealing of Kagome and Rin over such ridiculous aspects of the child as fingers and toes and tiny, pointed ears … it was some bizarre, maternal lunacy. Naturally, Inushiro had all of those things. It was beyond Sesshoumaru's comprehension to understand why the boy's mother and aunt seemed intent on celebrating the fact that he had not been born an appendage-less freak of nature.

Beyond that unexplainable insanity, the child looked remarkably like Inuyasha, something Sesshoumaru's brother had crowed about from the instant he had barged his way through the front door. It had taken great restraint on Sesshoumaru's part to keep from removing (in an appropriately violent fashion) the smirk of satisfaction that had welded itself across the hanyou's face.

"You can't call me ugly anymore, now can you?" Inuyasha had taunted.

"He is fine. You are still ugly," Sesshoumaru had replied coolly.

"He looks just like me, moron."

"It's the ears that make you so hideous."

Sesshoumaru was able to at least take amusement in the fact that Inushiro had been born early enough to make his appearance well before Inuyasha's own son, something that was clearly eating the hanyou alive. Inuyasha had spent most of the evening prowling around Kagome, eyeing her expectantly, as if she had any control over the situation, almost as though it had been a conspiracy on her part to allow Sesshoumaru's son to be older than his own. Finally, she had simply hissed her sit command and that had settled the matter. 

Sesshoumaru had actually grown almost fond of the miko over the last several years. Anyone who could so effortlessly humiliate the bratty Inuyasha earned status as far as he was concerned. And, beyond that, Kagome had proven herself to be highly capable for a human.

"Oji-samaaaaaa!!" came a high-pitched call, one that was accompanied by the sounds of small feet running headlong down the hallway.

Sesshoumaru closed his eyes. There was simply no escaping it … these people were forcing him to interact. And unlike his brother, who he would simply tell to go to hell, the person who bounded through the partially-open door was not one whose feelings he dismissed so easily.

Miya bounced into the room, flushed and cheerful from her play, and Sesshoumaru was, as always, struck by her resemblance to the one who had possessed her soul hundreds of years before her. He had recognized her from the moment he had first laid eyes on her, only hours after her birth. Midoriko had indeed found a way to end the Shikon no Tama … she had been reborn in this form, either knowingly or not. And though their vastly different personalities proved that Miya was certainly not Midoriko, that soul still held remnants of the woman he had known. Beyond the physical resemblances, there was the attachment she had formed with him from the very beginning. Something within that little girl recognized that he had once been very important to her … and was so again.

Midoriko, in a sense, had been allowed another human life, one in which she was excessively happy, with an intact family and more people to devote attention to her than was likely healthy. There was no more loneliness … no more sadness. And only time would tell if she would develop the spiritual powers that had been hers before. For the sake of a normal life, Sesshoumaru hoped they never manifested themselves, but the influence of Kagome's own abilities made him wonder if that was going to prove to be a false hope.

"Why are you alone, Oji-sama?" Miya asked, her wide golden eyes inquisitive as she met his impassive stare.

"There is no reason," he said simply. His tone changed to questioning. "I was told by your father that you were involved in a fight."

"Fight?" she repeated, and he could almost see her brain working furiously to think of a way to excuse her behavior. "It wasn't a real fight … I just … tripped him," she said innocently, then took on a look of such unapologetic defiance that it could only have come from Inuyasha.

"And why was this?"

"Kenji-kun insisted that Miroku-sama is stronger than Father and he wouldn't back down," she stated, as though this perfectly justified her actions

Still defending her demons …. yes, Midoriko's soul was certainly inhabiting that body, Sesshoumaru thought wryly. 

"Kenji … was incorrect," Sesshoumaru found himself saying. It was still an adjustment, having to alter how he talked about Inuyasha in the presence of his brother's child, but that was an unspoken agreement that had developed between them. Neither spoke poorly of the other in the presence of the children … that was saved for other times and places when little ears were not listening. When words escalated to arguments and then on to physical altercations (which they inevitably did), it was explained away as "practice". It was so simple … fooling their little minds.

"Are you stronger than Father?" came the next question. She cocked her head and looked at him, awaiting his answer.

Okay, that was going too far …. "Yes," he said emphatically. If Inuyasha did not like that answer, Sesshoumaru decided he would be more than happy to take the matter up with him later.

"Father says you aren't," Miya replied instantly.

"Your father is … ," Sesshoumaru halted the word he was going to use … paused purposefully … and then chose one more carefully, " … senile."

"What does that mean?" she asked with an honest frown.

Sesshoumaru closed his eyes against the endless questions. Speaking with a child was unbelievably circular, very much like dealing with Jaken ….

More footsteps were coming and Sesshoumaru felt almost as though he was being rescued, as he recognized the gait that was coming down the hallway … slower and more dignified than the rambunctious Miya. This person was certainly coming to pull the child away so that they could resume their raucous play.

He looked up from Miya's face when Ashitera entered the room. These two girls were world's apart as far as personalities were concerned, very much like the differences between himself and Inuyasha … yet, when they were together, they could create an unbelievable amount of havoc. And, Sesshoumaru found himself admitting, I suppose that is also like myself and Inuyasha ….

"I thought the two of you were feeding Aun," he said, studying Ashitera's face suspiciously. He could read that child like a book.

A sly, guilty look formed on her face, confirming his suspicions, but her violet eyes hinted at great amusement as she glanced up at him. "We were, Father … "

Father. It had been this child who had first accustomed him to the idea of bearing such a title. She had come into his life quite unexpectedly and he had resisted her greatly at first. He had argued against Rin's wish for her to remain with them; he had been unable to see past the blood that flowed through her veins … hanyou blood, blood that was of no relation to him and, instead, had been shared by one of his most despised enemies.

But, somehow, this little hanyou child who was of no true relation to him had become just as securely his as her new brother. Physically, she could not have looked less like him, but she had grown to be nearly astonishingly similar to him in many ways. It had been Ashitera who had formed the idea in his head that perhaps blood was not all of what determined someone's worth.

One day, she had simply started referring to him as "otousan" … and he had never bothered to correct her. If she felt secure enough to place him in that role, he would fulfill it.

"What have you done to Jaken?" Sesshoumaru questioned calmly, following up on his instincts, and knew immediately that he had hit on something when the two little girls traded conspiratorial sideways looks. It was impossible to discern which of them was the instigator of all of their mischief, as he had a sneaking suspicion that that title was equally attributable to both of them.

"Ah …. ," Ashitera looked as though she was trying to think of a good response when Miya interjected.

"He called her a bratty hanyou," Miya said archly, looking thoroughly offended on behalf of her cousin.

He could have called her worse, Sesshoumaru thought, but Jaken had long-since learned the hard way that all references to "half-breeds" and "mutts" had been banished from the home. "She is a hanyou," Sesshoumaru patiently reminded Miya.

"But I don't have to hear it from him!" Ashitera insisted, causing Sesshoumaru to turn to her with expressionless amusement.

"Then you retaliated in some fashion, I assume?" Of course, she had done so. Jaken often claimed that Ashitera was far more horribly behaved than Rin had ever been. Sesshoumaru had considered the idea that the toad's mind was failing because he could still distinctly remember Jaken complaining of Rin when she had been a similar age, that she was a "bratty human" and "a nuisance". Sesshoumaru supposed Rin would order the girls to go apologize to Jaken, but he felt the punishment had fit the offense, and so decided to leave it alone. Ashitera was terribly proud … and he knew well where she had acquired such a character trait.

Besides, Jaken really had nothing to complain about. It was often his own mouth that got him into trouble with the girl, and Ashitera was very much like Rin in the way she related to the retainer. One moment she was treating him like an additional kid brother, and the next she was respectfully calling him "Jaken-sama" as she pushed him into the pond.

"Yes, sir," Ashitera admitted to his inquiry, though she did not look apologetic in the least.

"Go let him out of whatever you've locked him into," Sesshoumaru ordered, watching as the two girls hurried off to retrieve the hapless Jaken.

Peace descended once more around him. He moved to look out the window, silently cursing the blanket of cold, frozen weather that was forcing the children to remain indoors, captives to their seemingly endless sources of energy. His ears suddenly picked up on the distant sounds of Jaken's squalling voice reprimanding the girls and a cackling, evil laugh from Inuyasha.

More footsteps were approaching, but these were far more welcome as they were attached to a person who always seemed to find a way to stave off the chaos that was often created by those little girls. As he listened more intently, he found that, as usual, a calming quiet had descended over his home once more. Just how he liked it. He looked up as Rin halted her progress in the doorway, looking slightly exasperated. "The girls … "

"Yes, I am already aware," he replied. He knew that she would not try to defend Jaken's case to him, as he was hardly the toad's benefactor. He enjoyed irritating Jaken much more than either of those children, and had been doing so for far longer.

"Jaken is very offended," Rin explained.

"Good. If I had been there, he would have experienced more than just 'offense'."

Rin shook her head lightly in unexpressed amusement. It was amazing, the changes that had been wrought on him in such a relatively small amount of time, simply by the entry or exit of an individual in his life. It had been a slow conclusion for him to come to, that not all humans or half-demons were so beneath his notice. He was now surrounded by them, these beings he had held in utter contempt for most of his life, and they had taught him more than he would ever admit to. It was heart-warming, watching as, over the years, he had slowly extended himself to each individual. He had found that it was not such a bad thing, this love and adoration he received in exchange for his efforts.

"Are you going to keep hiding in here?" she asked him playfully.

"It is not 'hiding'," he was quick to defensively reply, then admitted, "but I had considered it, yes."

"Inuyasha mentioned something about teaching Ashitera 'Sankontessou'," Rin told him, eyebrows raised as she awaited the response she knew would come from that revelation.

His head turned sharply toward her then, and she knew she had just successfully struck on something that would draw him from the solitude of this room. "He is appallingly stupid. She is of a different bloodline entirely. Not all dog youkai have the same abilities."

"Then perhaps that is something you should take care of," she suggested lightly, then put up a restraining hand. "With a minimum amount of violence?"

He walked toward her, halting in the doorway with a dark look, but his expression swiftly morphed into something kinder. His lips quickly brushed against hers as he moved past her with the issued complaint, "I think I indulge you far too often."

This was tough to write, because it deals with a time several years past the main part of the story. It's also probably a bit confusing in some places, because it makes reference to a character that will not appear until the sequel. I am going to deal with where Ashitera came from in the next story. That story is going to deal more with Sesshoumaru's problems with Eizan, which is going to build up into a big, nasty conflict. I'll also get to advance Rin and Sesshoumaru's relationship, which will be very fun!! :D So, essentially, I'm going to have to back up from this epilogue and fill in more of how they got to that point. But it was difficult resolving the Midoriko situation as I intended without explaining more of his life at the point where Miya comes in.

So … anyway, yep, I reincarnated Midoriko as Miya, Kagome and Inuyasha's daughter. I thought that would be kind of neat, considering how closely linked Kagome and the Shikon no Tama have always been, even back when her soul belonged to Kikyou. I liked the idea of "tying" them together like that. Plus, it was nice to sort of give Midoriko a second chance at a decent life, though, Miya is not actually Midoriko, just as Kagome is certainly not Kikyou.

And Inushiro … lol…I had a hard time coming up with a name for him. I liked the idea of keeping "Inu" … and looked up some random words in a Japanese dictionary until I came across "shiro" which means "white". White Dog. ;)

To the reviewers!

D-Chan3: Hmm … actually, I don't really consider this story a "romance", exactly. It has some moments like that, but it was intended to be just a random action/adventure type thing, which is why I placed it in that category first. When I first started this story, I wasn't even entirely sure I'd put Sesshoumaru and Rin together. I think I spent like 5 or 6 chapters debating about that. ;) But I've warned several times that this would not end with a big "I Love You!" scene. I spent too much time building up Sesshoumaru's whole conflict with taking a human mate to just throw them together at the end like that. It would have been way too rushed. In fact, I'd say I went out of my way to avoid the mated-for-life-happy-ending type thing. I think it's much better to make them work to get to that point. But their relationship was not the main focus of this story … the main focus was the conflict with Ashrem and how it impacted people that were important to Sesshoumaru, which was resolved.

New Fan: Actually, Eizan had nothing to do with Ashrem … but he's still going to pay for that little inadvertent "diversion" a few chapters back. ;) The next story will dive into that conflict and it'll kind of expose Rin and Sesshoumaru's real relationship, which will lead to more trouble. Basically, Japan's just not big enough for both Eizan and Sesshoumaru and they're going to try to tear each other down. But Sesshoumaru is going to find out he has more friends than he thinks he does. And whether he wants them or not … lol.

It's me!: Hi, you! Well, I was kind of subtle about it at the end of Chapter 20 but they were "together". They were as together as he could let them be, because, as I mentioned in an earlier chapter, he is concerned about what the repercussions will be when everyone figures out just how "together" they really are. He'll be trying to keep some sort of distance between them in the next story, but that's going to dissolve pretty quickly … as you can see from the Epilogue on this story. ;) Rotfl …  don't worry, I'm a college student, so I don't live with my parents anymore. I promise I have quite an extensive life outside of this fic. ;)

SessRinFan: Actually, I will be starting a new fic … and this epilogue probably ruined part of it, but … *shrug*. ;) Fofl … if they became neighbors, no one else would want to live near them. They're way too loud when they get near each other. ;)

Noir12: Of course they never wanted to stop fighting! ;) How else are they to possibly relate to each other except through violence? ;) And, yes, Ashrem is very, very, very dead. No return for him. He is fertilizer.

Sashlea: LOL … yeah, wasn't that strange? I figured it was something they would both work on, since they both accidentally helped create the mess. Sesshoumaru didn't give Inuyasha all of the details, and Inuyasha wasn't paying terribly close attention. ;) Besides, I figure Inuyasha probably gets bored easily …

Ghost140: Sorry about that … Midoriko didn't have a body to return to. It got blown away when Rin found the sword. Besides, I wanted to keep Sesshoumaru's relationship with her on the "friendship" level. It never really got beyond that. I had a good idea at that point that I'd be reincarnating her as Inuyasha's daughter, which is why I didn't proceed with a full-blown romance. It would have been too weird … even though, like I said earlier, Miya and Midoriko are too fully separate people. But I know what you mean. It's very cool when a girl can kick ass. I think Rin may become more useful in that regard in the next story. ;)

Silvermuse89: Nope, sorry to say "Midoriko" is finished, although I'm considering having Miya's birth at the end of the sequel so that it can tie in more with the epilogue. Thank you! Yes, he is very, very difficult to write in a situation like that. It's just tough figuring out how far you can go. I tend to shy away from creating too much of a romantic scene with him, but that's something I'm going to have to work past for the next one. :D He'll never be "cutesy" in my stories, but I'd like to maybe lighten him up a little … poor repressed guy. ;)

The Inimitable DA: My God … now there's an intimidating name. ;) I know exactly what you're talking about with fanfics. You just dive into them knowing that things are going to be "stretched" as you said. That's why I hesitate to call this a "romance" fic, because I have a hard time writing that with him. Some awesome fic writers out there manage to do it and I bow to their greatness. ;) To be honest, I couldn't think of any way for them to wind up romantically together unless they were separated for a while. Any other way is usually just too weird for my brain to wrap around it. Because, in my opinion, if she had stayed with him all those years he would have, in effect, raised her. That starts getting a little strange for me. ;) Oh, and my condolences on the "evil research". I absolutely feel your pain on that one.

Cyhiraeth: Maybe I thought something was missing because I've spent 6 months writing this story and it's suddenly over. ;) And you have a break from school now? I cannot express the jealousy in my heart … I am literally X-ing off days on a calendar until Spring Break. LOL … I love Inuyasha. He acts so tough, but he's really such a sweetie sometimes. I think those two are developing their own code for speaking: "Hell tossed your butt back out?" = "Hmm … I'm not exactly your fan, nor, shockingly enough, am I entirely opposed to your taking up space on this planet again." That was as much of a "Nice to see you" as Sesshoumaru was going to get. ;) Ahhhh … Ashrem's death. Yes, quite graphic and deservedly so! I've been waiting to do that to him forever. :D