Second place winner for Live Journal's iyfic contest, Week #45, "Missed Opportunity" theme. My thanks go out to the talented, exacting, and gracious leian for serving as my BETA editor. As always, reviews and critiques are welcomed and appreciated (Please feed the author!)

A Road Well Traveled

His Father, Sesshoumaru often thought, could have been the greatest youkai in all Japan.

A hundred demons could not have challenged the Inu no Taishou in his prime. Father's enemies quaked beneath the leagues of his shadow, his roar in the heavens shook the earth, and men and demons alike trembled with fear. Sesshoumaru had stood behind him, and felt the tremulous thrill of fear himself—fear, awe, and superior pride to be the son of one who was destined to walk the narrow path of ultimate conquest, one of the few who was worthy to command over land and sky.

If only Chichi-ue hadn't strayed from his path. If only he hadn't met the human princess Izayoi. If only he hadn't fathered Inuyasha. If only a fondness for mortals hadn't distracted him.

If, if, if...

Sesshoumaru's little girl is older now, and he observes coolly as she blushes in his presence. She avoids him, looks away in embarrassment when she accidentally stumbles into his back, steals glances at him at night when she thinks he doesn't notice. All that she believes carefully concealed he perceives clearly, perceives with annoyance that even his servant and his dragon are aware and feigning ignorance. He sees her unhappiness, her divided heart and growing shame. He knows that she is miserable, he knows the cause, and he is angry.

This was never what he wanted, though he concedes to himself that he should have foreseen the eventuality.

Rin is past the age at which girls marry, and he has always been her guardian, her hero, her daily protector and companion. The development of her feelings was only natural. But he cannot play the role she wants of him now. It is not the stage in his life for this, in any case; for ties, for lovers, for the possibility of children. There is too much he must establish first, too much to conquer and subdue, decades of struggles ahead. The latter will come, in time and in his plan, and his heirs will be fully youkai, not offspring of a human woman, however precious. And Rin is precious to him, his little girl who followed him, whom he would protect at the risk of his own safety. He has always received her adulation, her loyalty and concern. The child's devotion is accepted, nothing more is sought or required.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, do you want me to leave you?" She finally asks him.

He is surprised by the question. "You're always free to go where you like."

It has always been the truth, and so he says it and means it, and sees in her quick, tear-brimmed nod that this time she will go, and suddenly knows that while she is free to part, he is not. He cannot. He is more than just accustomed to her, she's slipped into his daily being. She is his. HIS. The word throbs in his temples, fires through his pulse.

But if she is his, why does he feel so helpless? So bound?

He doesn't want to lose her, but he doesn't want the love she's offering. Vestiges of the little girl are all around the woman's body, and the thought of touching her uncomfortable.

"You want me to be your lover." He says it, and feels the sorrow of things lost forever.

She's dumbfounded, and he's irritated, as if this hasn't been the source of tension for weeks, or years.

"My husband," Rin says, unsure if she is answering or asking a question.

And so--with her discomfort and his fumbling caresses—their new relationship is sealed, and there can be no turning back. Nights gradually tumble into discovery, a growing familiarity, flesh hard and eager and trembling. It amuses him that he is only Sesshoumaru to her now, and during days she leads him confidently by the hand through thickets of bamboo and flowers. With unsettling swiftness he learns to accept the memory of the child's smile in the young woman's gasp, the once-child's hands on his thighs and abdomen. How quickly it becomes a habit—a deeply pleasurable and accustomed habit, indulged and reveled in. The weight of her body atop his, the shift when he covers her. His former protectiveness becomes a possessiveness that is almost predatory, the circle of his arm strong as iron around her waist when they sleep at night.

It had been a miscalculation to resign himself reluctantly to sensations unforeseen.

Sesshoumaru decides there is no harm in it. In her new-found company he forgets about other demons and increasing power—for the space of this summer, this autumn, this spring. Rin is in her youth, and he is well aware her human life will pass as fleetingly as blossoms in spring, red leaves in autumn. He can accept all this. He will have her now, enjoy her now, and experience these unexpected emotions while they last. His demon blood is so much stronger than hers—he will outlive her by ages, and there will be time enough for conquest and battle when she has gone. He has paused along his path for a passing sweetness, but his feet have not left it. Destiny is deferred, not denied.

One morning she is pregnant, and the world halts.

And although Sesshoumaru has known all along, from the beginning this was likely, it's now a fact. There will be a child, another hanyou, a half-breed. Not what he wanted, never what he wanted. Months pass and again he observes Rin's poorly concealed anxiety as she waits to see what form her hanyou will take. He doesn't miss her fearful glances at him, at his sword and claws, and he listens to Jaken's soothing mutterings as he pretends not to overhear. Sesshoumaru vows not to resent decisions freely made.

"Everything will be well," he tells her curtly one afternoon.

She looks up, startled. "But if—" she begins to ask, and stops. She nods, and he smells the tears forming in her gladdened eyes as she supports her extended belly.

On a night with a full moon overhead, his little girl, the companion of his flesh, becomes a mother. Watching in the firelight as she hushes and nurses a half-breed child, he realizes, with something like shock, that it is he who has made her so. He who is now a father. He is responsible, and all that stands between a weak infant, its mother, and a world filled with grasping scavengers.

He no longer seeks battles of dominance with other youkai. He fights only when it is necessary, unavoidable, when there are interests that must be protected. When compelled to fight, his rage is intense. His body sometimes battered, and battered and torn he fights again. Threats are warily guarded against and eliminated, whether by sword, or his own thrashing jaws.

With loathing and disgust, he makes peace with war lords that in his youth he would have confronted for the sheer challenge of the thing. He makes his treaties and is left alone by the wisest, but he knows the snorts of derision made outside his presence, the weakness to which they believe the eldest son of the fallen Dog General has succumbed.

Thinking of it his claws crick, he draws the toxins through his blood, allowing them to pool beneath his fingertips. Even now he could strike the patchwork clans of cowards and backstabbers, he could take back the mantle of Western Lord. If he chose, no mincing, weak demon would ever question his strength or resolve again. He can almost smell the blood and smoke, almost taste the carnage on the tip of his tongue. Carnage like he would have wrought in his youth, when vainglory and foolishness might only have cost him his own life--

When there had been nothing more precious to be risked.

Slowly, the poison recedes.

One hanyou is followed by another, and a third.

His children are thin, lithe, and strong—two sons, a dark-haired daughter with his mother's features. And they must be ready, they must be strong, they must learn everything that he can teach them, and damn it, he should track down Toutousai and see about getting them proper weapons.

He fills their days with training, instruction, so unsure of how much time he has. He knows he won't be with them long. Still he must fight, and the next day, the next battle, may be the battle from which he does not return.

They will lose him sooner if he falls in combat, but soon enough if he does not. Rin's hands are still smooth, but already he notices the creases around her eyes when she laughs. She hardly thinks of her own mortality. She lies beside him, bathes his forehead, and whispers stories of their children's passing days. It astonishes him, that he feels the passage of time more in twenty years than he has in two hundred. Maybe she will live another twenty, maybe twenty after that, but no more. Now, with a heavy certainty in his chest, he grasps the truth that he will never be free, and when she leaves him to travel the road that has been mapped out for her since birth, he will not wait long before he follows.

At night, Sesshoumaru stands guard outside of the cave, overlooking the valley from a cliff above. Occasionally, he watches the passage of other demons, streams of monsters and warriors flooding the night sky, youkai traveling to battle other youkai. Battles in which some will win renown, battles in which future leaders and legends will claw their way above the throng. His youngest child sits at his feet and clings to his trousers; together they stare at the moon and Sesshoumaru thinks—

I could have been the greatest youkai in all Japan.

"Chichi-ue..." his child breathes softly, staring at him with golden eyes.

It's a statement, not a question.