A/N: The second part of Shippo's Christmas. Enjoy!

"You're all welcome to spend the night here," Kazuo told them after a while, "We have more than enough space."

Inuyasha was tempted right then and there to tell them that they had other things to do and that they need to leave now – and take Shippo with them. But he caught Kagome's warning glance, and said nothing at all. The young miko smiled gratefully at Kazuo.

"We'd be grateful for the shelter, thank you."

"Shippo, Shippo! Let me show you my secret place!" Akira suddenly piped up, grasping Shippo's paws, a glint of excitement in her eye, "Come on!"

Shippo was only too happy to accept, allowing the young vixen to drag him towards the mouth of the cave. Akira looked back at the others, a warning challenge in her eyes.

"No humans allowed," she stated, then smiled brightly and pulled Shippo out of the cave.

Kagome smiled vaguely, a little put out by that 'no humans' remark, and yet pleased to see Shippo having fun with another demon his age. At least it took his mind off things.

"Akira never shows anyone her secret place," Kazuo chuckled, "I am glad she and Shippo can finally play together. She has wanted a friend for so long, but now she and her cousin are together again."

Inuyasha refrained from glaring at Kazuo and instead glared at the wall, 'Together again, huh? For how long, huh? You expect him to be here forever, don't you? Why doesn't Kagome realise that?'

Akira's secret place turned out to be a hollow tree where she went whenever she wanted to hide from someone. There was a tiny hole in the trunk that nothing bigger than she or Shippo could fit through, and it was rather cosy inside. Akira bounced up and down inside the tree hollow, which she had lined with moss to soften the floor.

"This is great, Shippo! I've never had anyone to share my secret place with! Just think of all the things we could do together! And this can be our secret meeting place! No one will ever find us here!"

Though Shippo heartily agreed, even he didn't realise that Akira intended him to stay with her and her family forever. They returned at dusk to find Miroku helping clean up after the meal.

"A lady as fair as you should not exhaust yourself caring for mere travellers such as us. Allow me to assist."

But though Kazuo insisted that she was fine, Miroku would not let it be. Until, that is, Sango grabbed him by the ear and dragged him forcefully away. She wasn't the only one giving the monk death glares; Miwa wasn't at all pleased with the way the monk was flirting with his wife.

"Can't you give your lechery a rest for once?" Sango snapped, with even more venom in her voice than usual. Miroku noticed that her eyes were unusually bright, and shrank away from her furious gaze.

The demon slayer turned away from him suddenly and strode quickly towards the mouth of the cave were she sat down and hugged her knees to her chest. Miroku stared for a moment and was sure he saw her wipe her hand across her eyes, as though to sweep away tears. Feeling abashed, the monk was about to get up and go over to her, but Kagome beat him to it.

"Sango?" the young miko sat down next to her friend, but Sango quickly turned her face away, "Is everything ok?"

"Yes," Sango insisted, but her voice cracked and she suddenly whispered, "No!"

Her shoulders shaking, Sango turned her eyes back to Kagome, who saw that the demon slayer was close to tears. Kagome wasn't sure what was wrong, but she had a feeling.

"It's just…" Sango took a deep breath and stared out at the dusk sky, "Shippo had to suffer the loss of his family, just…just like me. And now, well, now he's found the other half of his family – a family that is still alive, that still cares about him and cherishes him. But I…I don't have anyone left. M-My whole village was destroyed, my father and his comrades slaughtered! There's no one left to c-care about me! All I have is…Kohaku…"

As she whispered her brother's name, the tears finally broke and rolled unchecked down her cheeks. Kagome felt her heart wrench in pity, and a part of her wished she could understand Sango's pain, if only to make her feel better. Kirara had trotted over to them and began to rub herself against Sango's leg, purring almost reassuringly. Absentmindedly, the demon slayer reached down to pat the twin-tailed cat.

"If only Kohaku was back with me…" she whispered, and Kagome reached an arm around her friend's shoulders.

"We'll get him back, Sango, you'll see. And, even though your family may be gone, there are still people who care about you – we care about you."

A smile tugged at Sango's mouth, "thank you, Kagome."

"I think it's time we all turned in for the night," Kazuo suggested, several moments later, "Shippo, Akira, I have made up beds for both of you."

But Shippo hesitated, "Oh, thank you, but I usually sleep with Kagome."

Kazuo blinked, "Oh? A demon like you should not be sleeping with a human. Come, I made up this bed just for you."

But Shippo shook his head, "No thanks, Kagome might get cold without me, and I can't have that."

With that, the young fox demon turned and clambered into Kagome's lap. Kazuo was stunned, too stunned to say anything else. Why would the young fox refuse her offer like that? Akira just gave Shippo a confused look and went to go curl up in her own bed, a nest of moss and grass. It didn't take long for Kagome to lay out her sleeping bag and clamber into it. Shippo curled up in her arms, while Kirara and Sango slept together near the mouth of the cave.

Within minutes, the inhabitants of the cave were all fast asleep, Miroku and Inuyasha both leaning against the wall. However, not everyone was asleep. Kazuo sat for a while, troubled, staring at the sleeping Shippo curled up in the human girl's arms. Miwa noticed there was something amiss, simply by the way his wife stared almost sadly at the young fox.

"Something wrong, Kazuo?" he asked gruffly, in a low voice as to not wake Akira and the others.

"Oh…" Kazuo sighed quietly, "I just do not understand. Why does Shippo insist on sleeping with that human girl? It is not right for a full demon like him, no matter how young he is. I thought for sure he would accept my offer and sleep in the bed I made him. After all, he must do so eventually. These humans cannot stay forever, and when they are gone, Shippo will not be able to sleep with the girl."

"Don't let it worry you," Miwa grunted, leaning back against the wall, "Like you said, the humans with leave eventually. Let him sleep with the girl while she is still here. It won't be for long."

"Yes…yes, you are right," Kazuo sighed, but didn't take her eyes off Shippo and Kagome.

Near the mouth of the cave, Inuyasha cracked an eye open. He had been listening to everything they had said, and was now certain that they intended Shippo to stay with them long after he and everyone else had left.

'No way in hell is that going to happen,' Inuyasha thought briefly, before closing his eyes again and trying to sleep.

A slight popping sound told him that the two fox demons had transformed back into their true forms, and he relaxed as he heard their breathing slow to an even pace. Now he was the only one left awake in the cave, and that suited him just fine. But, seconds later, he too was lost to the realm of dreams.

The next few days were spent in the company of the fox family, which suited Shippo just fine, but left others on the edge. Inuyasha wanted to leave as quickly as possible, and get away from these demons who threatened to take Shippo away. Sango, on the other hand, was extremely strained by Miroku's frequent attempts to flirt with Kazuo. By now she didn't even trust him looking at her, and he'd already suffered several strikes to the head from Hiraikotsu. Kagome knew that it was hard for Sango to see how much the fox family cared about Shippo – all it did was remind her of her own lost family, and her last remaining family member.

But still Kagome, Miroku and Shippo remained completely oblivious to Kazuo's intentions. Only Inuyasha and Sango saw that the motherly fox expected Shippo to stay with them forever, and for Inuyasha that was unacceptable. On the evening of the second day, Kagome had had quite enough of Inuyasha's constant growling and glaring at Kazuo.

"I think Shippo likes it here," Kazuo smiled as she and Kagome watched the two young foxes play together, "He must be happy to finally be back with his own kind after so long."

Kagome was about to agree, when she heard a faint growling coming from somewhere near her. She glanced quickly to her right, only to see that the noise was coming from Inuyasha, and he was glaring yet again at Kazuo. Anger boiled up in Kagome's gut. How dare he act like this? Just what was he thinking?

"Excuse me," she said politely to Kazuo, stood up, and marched over to Inuyasha. He stared at her and, wordlessly, she grabbed his arm and dragged him outside.

Once out of earshot of the cave, the young miko suddenly exploded into a torrent of angry words, "Just what do you think you're doing? Who do you think you are, Inuyasha? You're always growling and glaring at Kazuo like she's done something wrong, when she hasn't been anything but kind to us! She's taken us into her home, given us food and shelter, and the least you could do is show her some gratitude! The way you're acting makes it seem like you're going to attack her at any time, like she's some sort of enemy! Well, she's not! She's sweet and kind, and she cares about Shippo! It seems to me that whenever she mentions how happy Shippo is, you just get mad! So what – is – your – PROBLEM?"

Inuyasha shrank away from Kagome's furious outburst, shocked and stunned by what she was screaming at him. So she truly hadn't realized it? She truly didn't realise that Kazuo expected Shippo to stay? Well, she had no right to yell at him like that!

"Open your eyes, Kagome!" Inuyasha yelled back with equal ferocity, much to Kagome's shock, "Don't you realise what's going on, what Kazuo expects from Shippo?"

Kagome glared at him, a little unsure of herself now, "I don't understand what you mean, Inuyasha."

The half-demon gave a frustrated growl and clenched his fists, "Haven't you noticed the way she talks about him, like he's never going to leave? I can't believe you haven't noticed it yet; are you really that blind? Well it's about time you opened your eyes and realise what Kazuo intends!"

"What are you saying?" Kagome yelled back, beginning to understand but not wanting to believe it.

"I'm saying that Kazuo expects Shippo to stay with them, dammit! Forever!" Inuyasha yelled, "She expects him to stay even after we leave! She expects us to leave him behind!"

Kagome was struck dumb for several moments, staring in horror at Inuyasha as she realized that he was right. How could she have been so blind? How could she not have noticed this?

"N-no…Shippo wouldn't…" she stuttered, shaking her head, gazing desperately at the half-demon, "He wouldn't leave us! …Would he?"

Inuyasha felt all his anger melt away in the face of Kagome's desperation, and he regretted telling her. But it had to be said, and she had to know before Shippo made his final decision.

"I don't know," the half-demon sighed, turning his face away from the teary miko, "but the way things are going…it seems likely that he will stay here."

"B-but," Kagome's eyes had filled with tears, "h-he can't…"

Without warning she flung herself at Inuyasha, clenching her fists in his robe and burying her face in his chest. He didn't have the heart to push her away, and could only place a comforting hand on her back as she sobbed.

"H-he can't leave us!"

But she knew as well as Inuyasha that they didn't have a choice in the matter. There was nothing they could do but wait for Shippo to make his choice – to stay or to go. But what would his choice be?

Another night passed with Shippo sleeping in Kagome's arms, and Kazuo wondering why he insisted on doing so. She had even offered that he sleep with her instead, but Shippo insisted that he had to sleep with Kagome – to keep her warm if nothing else. But for Kagome, it was difficult to sleep. She lay awake for hours, staring at the young fox demon in her arms and wondering what it would be like to wake up in the morning and realise he was no longer there. The thought brought tears to her eyes, and when she finally drifted into slumber, those tears remained glistening on her pale cheeks.

The third day dawned into a fine morning, not a cloud in the pale blue sky. But there were many clouds in Kagome's eyes as she stared glumly into space. She wanted to hide it from Shippo, didn't want him to see that the thought of him leaving had left her feeling as though there was something missing in her heart. But she could barely shake herself out of this stupor of depression long enough to put a smile on her face.

"You seem a little sad today, Kagome," Kazuo said, concerned, "Is something the matter?"

"Oh!" Kagome quickly blinked and put a smile on her face, "Of course not, I was just…just thinking of things."

"Of course," Kazuo smiled and left the miko to herself.

But Shippo was not so easily fooled. Despite being young, the fox demon was very inept at reading other people's emotions. He kept an eye on Kagome the instant he noticed her acting differently, and it wasn't long before he confronted her about it. She was sitting on a fallen tree outside the cave when he approached her.

"There's something bothering you, isn't there, Kagome?" Shippo asked, hopping up onto the log next to her, "Is it Inuyasha again?"

Kagome opened her mouth to argue, to tell him that there was nothing wrong, but realized she couldn't lie to the young fox demon. She had to know – what would his decision be; had he already made it?

"No, Shippo, it's not Inuyasha," she sighed, staring at her hands, "I want to know something, Shippo…"

"What is it?" the fox demon asked, staring up at her with his big green eyes.

Kagome stared solemnly back at him, "When we leave here, will you come with us, or will you stay here?"

Shippo was stunned. He had not expected a question like that, and he hadn't even thought about it. He'd been playing with Akira so much, enjoying himself, that he hadn't realized eventually they'd have to part ways and continue their search for the final shard. Would he leave, though? Or would he stay? Shippo didn't know what to say.

"I-I…" he stuttered, his eyes full of confusion.

Kagome had turned her eyes away from him, "It's…it's ok if you choose to stay. They are your family, after all. And we could never replace your family…"

But Shippo was now more confused than ever. He jumped down off the log and backed away, much to Kagome's surprise.

"I-I don't know," he stuttered, "I need some time to think!"

And with that he turned on his heel and dashed away, disappearing into the undergrowth towards the one place he could hide – Akira's secret place. Kagome watched him go, her eyes full of sadness, now feeling worse than ever.

Shippo was feeling very confused. He played with Akira only half-heartedly and his tail dragged perpetually on the sandy cave floor. He loved his cousin and her family – he had since they had first met – but he loved Kagome, Kirara, Sango, Miroku and even Inuyasha just as much, if not more. They felt more like family to him than his demon relatives did. They had been there for him when his life was hardest, when he needed someone to watch out for him most.

Kagome and Inuyasha had helped him avenge his dad when they had barely known them, even though they had met with Shippo's feeble attempt to steal the jewel surrogate 'family' all had their quirks, and a lot of them to, but he loved them none the less.

'Inuyasha is such a bonehead when it comes to females – when I, a seven year old demon, can see that Kagome likes him and he can't, ya gotta know something's wrong. Miroku's curse, and being raised by his sensei, has left him a complete pervert – even now, when he's engaged! Sango has lost everything - her family, her village, everyone – and all she has left is Kohaku! But no one even knows where he's gone to now. And that's only skimming the surface,'Shippo thought, 'They've all been through so much, and sometimes I find their idiocy unbearable, but…'

"Helllooo? I asked if you wanted to go to our secret place," Akira asked irritably, breaking through his thoughts.

"Oh…yeah, okay," Shippo replied, a little dejectedly.

Once they had gone and the cave was empty, Kazuo eyed Kagome. They were alone in the cave – Miroku had left on some pointless task in an attempt to win over the already married fox demoness, Sango had gone with him to keep him in check, and Inuyasha had left a while ago, most likely looking for a fight to vent his anger. Where Miwa had left to was a mystery to the young miko. But she supposed the gruff fox demon had his own things to attend to.

"Kagome?" the motherly demon asked, with the faintest hint of concern in her voice.

Kagome looked up at the fox mother, "yes?"

"Why is Shippo so upset? I noticed you were acting odd before, and now Shippo is acting strange. He seems…depressed," Kazuo gestured at where the fox cub had last been, her eyes sad.

Kagome sighed and let her eyes drop back to the floor. Perhaps it was time she talked to Kazuo about Shippo – about what would happen when it was time for them to leave. The thought of losing Shippo weighed heavily on her heart, but she knew it was not her choice to make. And Kazuo needed to see that it was not hers either.

"Listen, Kazuo…" Kagome raised her eyes to meet Kazuo's, "We need to talk about Shippo…about what's going to happen to him."

"Whatever do you mean?" the motherly fox asked, completely bemused by these words.

Kagome hesitated briefly before continuing, "Soon we're going to have to leave you and your family and continue on our way. But, the question is, what will Shippo do? Will he leave with us or…will he stay with you?"

As she expected, Kazuo looked quite shocked at this question, "Why, Shippo will stay of course! He belongs here, with his family – his own kind! I thought you realised he was to stay with us once you had left."

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Kagome looked away as she felt her eyes sting with tears. Kazuo needed to understand.

"But is that what Shippo wants?" she asked softly, not meeting Kazuo's eyes.

Kazuo stared, "he…he…well, of course, it must be! We are his family; we are all he has left! Why would he not want to stay with us?"

Kagome felt something hot rise in her chest, a feeling she was not unused to. It could only be described as jealousy, and in her frustration she couldn't help but blurt out, "Because we're his family too!"

Hot tears spilled down Kagome's cheeks and she quickly looked away from Kazuo's stunned face, not wanting to see her expression. The fox demoness did not speak for a while, and only Kagome's broken sobs kept the silence at bay. Her tears dripped onto the sandy floor, darkening small circular patches between her knees.

"We may be humans," Kagome sniffed, when Kazuo hadn't answered, "but that doesn't mean we care any less about Shippo than you do! He's our friend; he's one of us, and we care about him like he is part of our own family! Shippo is precious to us, can't you see that?"

Kazuo stared at the young human girl, seeing her in a way she had never seen her before. She truly did care about Shippo, she saw that now, and her heart wrenched with guilt for not noticing sooner. These humans were far more than just travelling partners – they were Shippo's family, no matter how mismatched they appeared.

"I-I never realised," Kazuo admitted, her own eyes filling with tears, "I'm so sorry, Kagome, I never thought…I never thought that Shippo could mean this much to you. It's just…I've never seen a human care so much about a demon, I thought…"

"I-it's ok," Kagome replied, dashing the tears from her eyes, "I understand. But, please, don't force Shippo to stay here, just as I will not force him to stay with us. He must choose whether to stay with you or continue with us; he must make that choice himself! And neither you nor I can make that choice for him. Please, Kazuo, promise me you'll let him decide on his own. Promise me that."

Kazuo nodded slowly, a single tear rolling down her face, "I promise, Kagome. I promise."

Morning gave way to afternoon, as the third day they had spent with the fox family drew to a close. Shippo sat alone outside the cave, watching the sky as the afternoon sun spread streaks of orange across the horizon. His mind was in turmoil – should he stay with his family, or his friends? It was not a decision he could make easily.

He thought about staying, about spending the rest of his childhood, and maybe even longer, with Akira and his aunt and uncle. He thought about living with those of his own kind once more – how happy it should make him. He could become a strong demon in his own right, no more worrying about jewel shards or Naraku.

But then he thought about his friends, all they had lost, and all they had done for him. He thought about leaving them and realised the thought caused a physical pain in his chest, as though his heart was being torn in two. They were his family as well as his friends. How would they feel if he just deserted them? How was he supposed to know what was the right thing to do?

"Stupid, stupid," Shippo muttered, striking his own forehead in frustration, "What am I supposed to do?"

His body trembled as his eyes threatened to start spilling tears, but a voice suddenly startled him from his thoughts.

"Hey."

Shippo looked up in surprise at the familiar voice to see Inuyasha standing over him, his arms folded into the sleeves of his fire-rat robe. He wore the usual scowl, but there was something different in his eyes, something Shippo had never seen before. Was it understanding? Or maybe even sadness.

"I-Inuyasha…" the young fox demon murmured, staring up at the white-haired half-demon.

"I want to talk to you," Inuyasha replied, turning away, "Come on."

Curious, and perhaps a little nervous, Shippo hurried after him. Inuyasha led him deep into the forest, away from the cave, as though he was afraid that someone would overhear whatever he was about to say. At last he stopped, in front of a hollowed out tree that was familiar to Shippo, but not to the half-demon. Despite standing right in front of it, Inuyasha still had no idea about Akira's secret place. But that was the least on his mind.

"I know what you've been thinking, Shippo," Inuyasha stated seriously, and Shippo gulped on his nervousness, "You've got a big decision to make. So, what's it gonna be?"

The young fox demon trembled, "I…I don't know…"

"Don't give me that," the half-demon scowled, "You have to make a decision sooner or later. We can't stay here forever, and it's up to you whether you do or not! So, what'll it be?"

But Shippo screwed his eyes shut and shook his head frantically, crying, "I don't know! Just stop it! I don't know what to do!"

A sob escaped his lips and suddenly the fox demon found himself crying, his paws over his eyes in an attempt to hide his tears from the half-demon. But it was useless, and he dreaded what Inuyasha thought of him now. But he needn't have worried.

"Shippo," Inuyasha sighed, his voice more gentle than usual, "Just stop crying. I've told you before – men never show their tears."

"B-but I d-don't know what I'm s'posed t-to do!" Shippo sobbed, still hiding his face behind his tiny paws, "H-how can I ch-choose between m-my friends and my fa-family?"

Inuyasha sighed, "Crying isn't going to help you make that choice. Just listen to me. It won't hurt us if you decide to stay – hell, I'm sure we can get on just fine without you. What I'm trying to say is that you need to do what makes you happy. You got that?"

Shippo stared at him through his tears, hardly able to believe the half-demon's words, "y-you mean that?"

"Of course. You need to do what's best for you, not us. So quite crying and make up your mind!" Inuyasha scowl had suddenly returned, as though embarrassed by what he'd said.

Though still crying, Shippo tried to smile, "Thanks, Inuyasha…"

A tinge of red touched the half-demon's cheeks as he quickly averted his eyes, "Feh. Not like I really care what you decide. I just need you to make up your mind so we can get a move on and get out of here!"

With that he left Shippo to himself and strode back towards the cave. He paused for a moment just before he disappeared out of sight and yelled back, "I want an answer tomorrow! You got that?"

When Shippo nodded, Inuyasha disappeared into the trees and the young fox demon was left alone again. Though Inuyasha's words had helped, the decision was still the hardest the young fox had ever had to make. He sat for a long time in the secret place, thinking it over and wishing that it didn't have to be so hard. But he knew, sooner or later, that he had to make a choice. Friends…or family?

'But is there such a vast difference?' Shippo wondered, 'Kagome's like a mom to me; she reminds so much of my mom.'

Though, thankfully, his parents hadn't gotten into fights as often as Kagome and Inuyasha did. His dad had looked like Miwa, but not gruff or aloof like Miwa was. He had always managed to make Shippo laugh when he was down. His mom, however, had been so full of life. However sickly or sore she was, she would always try her best to spend time with him. But it was Kagome who acted as a mom to him now. She was always there.

Shippo continued to ponder through the night, while the others anxiously for his decision. Only Miroku, who was still busy with his vain attempts at wooing Kazuo, was not staring anxiously into space. Only he had no idea that the biggest decision of Shippo's life was about to be made.

Time passes quickly when you are anxious about what is to come. As did this night; as did this time. Shippo spent the night in the secret place, curled up inside the hollow tree on a bed of moss. He wished he was back in Kagome's arms, but couldn't bring himself to face her yet. Not until he had made his decision.

Everyone else was awake early, waiting anxiously for the young fox demon to return. Kagome sat near the entrance of the cave, her knees hugged to her chest, while Inuyasha paced backwards and forwards behind her. Kazuo was unusually silent, and Miwa hadn't said a word, while Akira was tracing patterns in the sand. Suddenly, Kagome's voice broke the silence.

"He's here," she murmured, and every stopped to look.

Sure enough, Shippo appeared through the trees, walking towards the cave. He stopped in the cave mouth, quite aware that everyone was staring at him. He noticed Inuyasha glaring at him and recalled his words from only the afternoon before. I want an answer tomorrow. Well, tomorrow was today, but was Shippo really ready to make his decision?

"So, have you made up your mind?" the half-demon asked gruffly.

Shippo twisted his hands nervously, "I…I…"

But he couldn't bring himself to make a decision and shook his head frantically, howling, "I don't know! I just don't know!"

Before he knew it, Shippo was suddenly jerked upwards as Inuyasha grabbed him by his tail. He stared fearfully into the angry golden eyes of the half-demon and waited for him to speak.

"I told you to make a decision, Shippo!" Inuyasha snarled, "Is it that hard? Quit dawdling and make up your mind already so we can leave! I'm sick of you wasting our time!"

Angry tears welled up in Shippo's eyes, "You don't understand, Inuyasha! You don't understand how hard it is!"

"I don't care how hard it is!" Inuyasha snapped, fully on the end his tether, "You've wasted enough of our time, Shippo! So make up your damn mind before I make it up for you!"

"Inuyasha!" Kagome cried, shocked by his words.

"You're so stupid!" Shippo howled, struggling in Inuyasha's grip, "I can't believe you're so heartless! Let me go! Let me go!"

He fished inside his top and pulled something out of his sleeve, throwing it at Inuyasha's head. It turned out to be his spinning top, and it struck the half-demon's head painfully, leaving a tiny red mark. Surprised, Inuyasha dropped the fox demon and held a hand to his head. Shippo struggled to his feet and glared tearfully at the half-demon.

"Y-you're such an idiot, Inuyasha," he sniffled, wiping a hand across his eyes, "I-if you think I'm wasting s-so much of your time, then leave! And I'm not coming with you!"

A shocked silence followed these words. Kagome stared at the young fox, but he refused to meet her eyes. Kazuo had pressed her hands over her mouth as she watched the argument, but now she lowered them and whispered, "Shippo, do you mean…?"

"Y-yes," Shippo sniffled, not daring to look at any of his human friends, "I-I'm staying. I-I wouldn't want to w-waste any more of Inuyasha's time a-anyway!"

"Shippo…" Kagome could barely believe her ears. She reached out towards him, but he evaded her hand, shaking his head.

"I'm sorry, Kagome," he whispered, before breaking into sobs and fleeing from the cave once more. Kagome stared after him, feeling as though something had just been torn from her chest, leaving a hollow space where it had once been.

She didn't even try to halt the tears that flowed down her cheeks.

"Thankyou, Kazuo," Kagome told the motherly fox not long afterward, "for giving us food and shelter and being so kind. I hate to leave, but there are a lot of things we need to do."

"It has been a pleasure to have you and your friends here, Kagome," Kazuo smiled, taking Kagome's hands in her own, "Perhaps one day we will meet again."

Kagome nodded, her eyes still puffy from crying, "I hope so. Please…take care of Shippo. I'm sure he will… he will be very happy here."

"I will treat him like he is my own son," Kazuo assured the young miko, "I promise. Thankyou for bringing him to us, and for caring for him for so long. Thankyou, Kagome, and farewell."

"Goodbye, Kazuo," Kagome replied, and then waved to Miwa and Akira, "Goodbye Akira! Goodbye Miwa!"

Akira waved cheerily back, but Miwa merely nodded his head in acknowledgement. Shippo hadn't come to say goodbye. Only Akira knew where he was. Saying goodbye would be too hard for him, Kagome realized that. But she wished she could have seen him again, at least one more time.

"Goodbye Inuyasha, Sango, Miroku and Kirara!" Kazuo called, waving, "I hope we meet again!"

"I too hope we meet again!" Miroku called back, before Sango grabbed his ear and dragged him away.

"Let's go, Kagome," Inuyasha muttered, "Before we waste any more time."

Reluctantly, Kagome waved goodbye to the fox demon family and turned away. She tried not to think that she was leaving Shippo behind, but his tiny face kept flashing before her mind's eye. Dashing unshed tears from her eyes, she hurried to catch up with Inuyasha. Together, but not entirely whole, they headed back for the Bone-Eaters Well, for soon it would be Christmas Eve and Kagome was due home.

"I'll be back tomorrow morning," was what Kagome had told her friends before she leapt into the well.

Now she lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking of the small fox demon that had somehow wormed his way into her heart. With him gone, it felt like part of her heart was missing, as though it had drifted away upon the winds. She couldn't cry any more, there were no more tears to do so, so she merely stared into nothingness and imagined Shippo's laughing face.

She had come home to see the presents she had bought for Inuyasha and the others all wrapped neatly in a pile. She had left her mother a note stating what present was for whom, and her mother had even gone to the trouble of labelling all the wrapped gifts. Kagome had picked out Shippo's present from the pile and almost burst into tears. But she'd held those tears back and now she just wondered what was to be done with the present. What now, that he was no longer there to give it to? She had been so looking forward to seeing the look on his face when he opened it. But now, would that ever happen?

Christmas was meant to be a cheerful affair, but all through the marvellous dinner her mother had cooked up, Kagome remained dismally silent. Her mother worried about her, but knew better than to ask. The night passed with Kagome receiving several gifts and placing others under the Christmas tree for her family. Sota begged to be allowed to open his but was told he had to wait until morning.

Though Kagome thanked for family for the gifts she had received, and for the dinner her mother had prepared, they could still see that something heavy was weighing on her mind. It was late night, when Kagome was laying sleepless on her bed, that Mrs Higurashi came into her daughter's room.

"Kagome?"

Kagome sat up quickly, surprised to see her mother in her room so late at night, "Mamma! What is it?"

"You seem troubled," her mother replied, sitting down on the edge of Kagome's bed, "and as your mother I think it is my duty to find out what is wrong and fix it!"

"Oh mamma," Kagome sighed, her shoulders slumping, "I don't think it can be fixed. I feel liked I've…lost a friend. And I don't know what to do about it."

"Come here," her mother coaxed, spreading her arms invitingly. Kagome sank into her mother's arms, finding relief in her comforting embrace, and sighed.

"I know that sometimes life is hard and things don't always happen the way we want them to," Mrs Higurashi murmured gently into her daughter's ear, "But if you just face every day with a smile on your face and a hopeful heart, I know things will turn out for the best. Whatever happens, you know that we will always love you. And so will your friends."

Kagome smiled despite the lone tear that was rolling down her cheek, "thanks, mamma."

"Now get some rest. And Merry Christmas, my dear Kagome."

"Merry Christmas, Mamma."

It was harder than usual to haul her bag out of the well when she returned to the feudal era the next morning, probably due to all the presents. So she was glad that Sango and Miroku were there to help.

"I see you came back, just as you promised," Miroku smiled, taking the large yellow bag off her hands, "This is rather heavy! What have you got in here?"

"Your presents," Kagome replied, with the ghost of a smile, "and…Shippo's…"

Sango put a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder, "perhaps we can go visit him and give it to him."

Kirara mewled in agreement, and the small group headed towards the sacred tree, where Inuyasha was sitting waiting for them. He stood up when he saw them emerge from the bushes, and strode over to Kagome.

"Good, you're back," he said gruffly, "The sooner we get this Christmas thing over with, the sooner we can keep looking for the final shard."

Kagome smiled vaguely, "You can't rush Christmas."

Several minutes later, the group was sitting in a small circle beneath the sacred tree as Kagome fished inside her bag for the presents. She pulled them all out and placed them in a pile, reading the name tag on each one. When she came to Shippo's present, she paused. Inuyasha stared.

"Is that…?"

"Shippo's present," Kagome sighed, "I bought it before…"

Her voice trailed off and she looked away, still holding the present in her hands. Inuyasha, Miroku and Sango exchanged glances. They knew, out of all of them, Shippo's departure was the hardest for Kagome. And they knew they had no way of comforting her.

"Listen…" Inuyasha began awkwardly, trying to think of a way to make Kagome feel better. But suddenly a familiar voice called from the bushes.

"Don't begin without me!"

Hardly daring to believe her ears, Kagome jumped to her feet and whirled around. The bushes rustled as though disturbed by a small animal, and suddenly a little demon popped out into the clearing – a little demon with a fluffy, fox-like tail. Kagome stared, her eyes shining with tears, not believing what she was seeing. But there was no mistaking him, from his little blue shirt to his startling green eyes and his fluffy fox tail – Shippo had returned.

"I-is there a present for me?" Shippo asked hesitantly, a little nervous with everyone staring at him.

"Y-you're back," Kagome whispered, her legs trembling. Suddenly, with a howl like a wounded dog, she dashed towards the young fox demon and smothered him in a hug.

"Oh, Shippo, I thought you'd left us!" Kagome cried, hugging him to her chest as tears rolled unchecked down her cheeks, "How…why are you here?"

Shippo patted her back awkwardly with his tiny paws and looked up at her tearful face, "I had a lot of time to think about it and…I realised I made the wrong choice. I want to stay with you, Kagome. You're not just my friends…you're my family too! A-and, like you said, Christmas is a time for family and friends! So I came back! I-is that…ok?"

Kagome stared at him in silence for a few moments before smiling through her tears and hugging him once more, "Of course that's ok, Shippo. I'm so glad you're back."

"We all are," Sango agreed, kneeling down next to them and hugging them both. Kirara meowed softly and pushed her way into the hug. Miroku stood up and strode over to join in, wrapping his arms around the two girls and the two small demons. Only Inuyasha remained sitting on the outskirts, and he made no move to join the group hug. As everyone separated and strode back to the half-demon, Shippo and Inuyasha met each other's eyes. The fox demon sighed and pulled something out of his robe, holding it out to the half-demon.

"Listen, Inuyasha, I want you to have this. As a thankyou for helping me make up my mind," Shippo stated, holding out a tiny statue of a fox, "It's a special heirloom from my father."

Inuyasha held his hand out, surprised by the gift, "you didn't have to do that, Shippo…"

Shippo placed the statue in Inuyasha outstretched hand and stepped back, "yes I did."

Suddenly a cloud of smoke obscured the half-demon, who yelled in surprise and started coughing. When the smoke had cleared, they found themselves staring at the amusing sight of the half-demon with his hand pinned to the ground thanks to the, now much larger, statue. Shippo snickered.

"That's what you get for yelling at me!" he giggled, and Inuyasha snarled as he attempted to shift the trick statue. But it wouldn't budge.

"Damn…you…Shippo!"

Kagome couldn't help but chuckle, "alright, Shippo, you can release him now."

Shippo sighed with mock-relent and waved a paw, "only because I'm so merciful…"

The statue turned back to its original size with a pop, and Inuyasha was freed. The first thing he did, of course, was clobber Shippo over the head. The young fox demon howled as a red lump rose out of his hair, and Kagome quickly scooped him into her arms.

"Inuyasha!" she yelled, her eyes glowing with fury, "SIT!"

And once more Inuyasha found himself face-first in the ground, uttering curse words under his breath. As he struggled to push himself back up he muttered, "Maybe it would have been better if you didn't come back!"

But everyone knew he didn't really mean it. Smiling, Kagome set the young fox demon down and clapped her hands, gathering the attention of her friends.

"Present time!" she cried, and Shippo could have jumped for joy.

As it was, Shippo was very pleased with his present of joke toys and spinning tops. Miroku flicked through the history book, intrigued by what the people in Kagome's time thought of monks like him. Sango admired the comb she had received, while Kirara was looking very cute in her new collar. At last, Kagome handed the last present to Inuyasha, who blushed upon taking it from her.

"Y-you didn't have to get me anything," he mumbled, not meeting her eyes.

"Kagome," Shippo said, tugging on her sleeve, "Can I talk to you?"

"Of course, Shippo!" Kagome stood up and strode away, leaving Inuyasha the open the present himself.

She sat down on a fallen tree, and Shippo hopped up onto her lap. He looked up at her with his big green eyes, his expression unusually serious.

"I just wanted you to know that…" Shippo mumbled, "…that you remind me of my mom. You're kind and sweet, just like she was, and you're always there for me. We might be a strange group, but we're more than just friends, aren't we? We're family."

Kagome smiled gently, her heart warmed by these simple words, "Thankyou, Shippo. That means a lot to me. And I am glad to be a part of your family."

Shippo blushed, "I-I didn't manage to get you a present for Christmas…"

But Kagome just laughed and hugged him, "You've already given me a present! You came back – and that's the best present I could ever ask for. I'm just so glad everything is back to normal."

But their moment was interrupted by a furious shout from Inuyasha. Kagome couldn't say she hadn't been expecting that, though.

"Kagome!" The half-demon roared, angrily, no doubt having discovered the collar she'd bought him.

Kagome giggled softly, happy that their mismatched family was back together once more. She winked at Shippo.

"Oops! I guess he didn't like his present!"

A/N: Enjoyed the short story? :) If you feel so inclined, reviews would be much appreciated. Thanks for reading!

~RiverGriffinX