Chapter 1

A little bell over the door rang as Kaoru shouldered it open and stepped into the modest restaurant. The well-lit, well-heated diner was a welcome contrast to the pitch black of the city's icy winter nights. Kaoru shook herself as she peeled off her gloves and loosened her scarf. Though the Akabeko wasn't far from the Dojo, on a night like that it was far enough to make you forget what warmth felt like.

Kaoru quickly scanned the deserted room until she came to a face she recognised.
"Hey, Megumi." she said, having walked over to slide into the seat next to her friend, a beautiful woman of twenty-eight.

"Hey." she replied unenthusiastically. Megumi continued to focus on the papers spread out in front of her, rifling through them every now and again.

"I hate the winter." said Kaoru, unfastening her coat as the diner's central-heating became too much for her.

"So do I. It wreaks havoc with my skin." said Megumi, finally tearing her eyes away from her work. Kaoru looked uncertain,

"I just meant it makes me cold." she said. Just then Tae, the owner of the Akabeko wandered over, pen and pad poised for an order.

"Can I get you anything, Kaoru?" she asked with a smile.

"A coffee would be great, Tae, thanks." answered Kaoru, smiling back.

"And you, Megumi?" Megumi lifted her still full cup without saying anything.

"Right you are. Tsubame!" she called to a young girl behind the counter, "Coffee, table three!" The girl nodded and reached for a cup under the counter. Tae went off to deal with another customer, a trucker, eager to get back to the road.

"Another all-nighter?" asked Megumi as Kaoru rubbed her tired eyes. Kaoru laughed,

"'Another' implies something out of the ordinary. I'm almost as nocturnal as they are." she said.

"You shouldn't work so hard, let someone else cover your shift once in a while. You have almost no social life." said Megumi.

"Thank you for that little bit of sympathy, Megumi, even if it did end up as snide as ever." Megumi just shrugged,

"I'm just saying it would do you good to get out and have some fun. You're never going to meet a man if you carry on like this."

"I don't see a ring on your finger." replied Kaoru, tired of having this same conversation over and over again. Sometimes Megumi could act more like her mother than her friend, just because she was a couple of years older than her. Well okay, seven years older, but even so. It wasn't like Kaoru wasn't already painfully aware of her current hermit-hood.

"Yes, but that's by choice. I don't need some lazy, smelly, good-for-nothing following me around spending my money." replied Megumi haughtily.

"Oh, and you think I do? Thanks a lot." said Kaoru, starting to get indignant.

"That's not what I meant…" sighed Megumi, but she was interrupted by Tsubame bringing Kaoru's coffee.

"Your coffee, Miss Kaoru." she said in her tiny, mouse-like voice.

"Thank you Tsubame." said Kaoru, wrapping her chilled fingers around the hot mug as the girl returned to her post at the counter. She inhaled the full, warm aroma of the steaming ambrosia gratefully, closing her eyes. The Akabeko had the best cup o'joe in town. She heard the bell over the door chime again and felt a blast of biting wind on her face. She opened her eyes reluctantly,

"Speaking of lazy, smelly, good-for-nothings," said Kaoru to Megumi, "look who it is." Megumi groaned as she spotted the almost too-tall street-fighter weave his way towards them through the other tables.

"Hello, Sano." said Kaoru and the man folded himself onto the plastic, red bench opposite them.

"Hey, Jou-chan, Megumi." he replied, nodding to each of them in turn and running a hand through his gravity-immune hair. Megumi ignored him, bent over her papers once more.

"Aren't you cold?" asked Kaoru, eyeing his customary white shirt and bandages that even the sub-zero temperature hadn't forced him to change out of.

"Huh? Oh, no. Weather resistance kinda comes with the territory." he answered, leaning closer secretively.

"I see." said Kaoru, feeling slightly better. He caught her eye and grinned. Kaoru had known Sano long enough to recognise when he was trying to appeal to her better nature and braced herself for the inevitable entreaty.

"So," he began, bouncing a little, like a child. "Do I get my free meal now?"

"No." answered Megumi.

"Aw, c'mon, Kitsune, I've been working the streets for days. They don't serve food in those bars, you know." he argued, looking hurt.

"And if they did it wouldn't make a difference because you haven't got any money." replied Megumi, leaning forward towards him. He dropped his elbow on the table, index finger pointing accusingly at her,

"That's besides the point." he said, "We have a deal."

"He's right, you know." said Kaoru, causing them both to look at her. "We do have a deal." Sano nodded, holding his hands out in vindication. "Sano gets a free meal,"

"Thanks, Jou-chan, I knew I could count on you." he said mock-glaring at Megumi.

"- if he has any information for us." finished Kaoru. Sano's jaw dropped. "Do you, Sano?"

Sano looked uncomfortable, "Well, I mean, it's not my fault if there's nothing going on, is it? And it doesn't mean I wasn't trying…."

"Ha, I knew it." said Megumi cruelly.

"Well, wait just a minute, Kitsune, I didn't say I had nothing." The two women looked at him expectantly, but Megumi looked at him slightly less forgivingly. "Er, there's been some talk of some big cheese vampire going to see the alphas. And a wolf went missing last week down in Kyoto….."

"I don't think that warrants a free meal, do you, Kaoru?"

"Oh, come on, guys! They don't wanna talk to me anymore! They're getting suspicious, and it's not like they ever liked me in the first place! Do you know what they'd do to me if they ever found out I was working for you guys?"

"He is putting himself in danger for us." said Kaoru to Megumi who still looked sceptical.

"Yeah, and remember how useful I've been in the past." Sano put his arms on the table in front of Megumi and slid forward on them until his eyes were lower than hers, which was no small feat. He pouted and gave her puppy-dog eyes, while whimpering a little too realistically.

"Oh alright" sighed Megumi, looking away. Sano punched the air in victory, then signalled Tae. Kaoru watched in awe as he ordered an endless list of anything and everything that was fried, grilled or roasted, the only condition being that it was formerly alive. Satisfied, he leant back against the chair, watching Tae walk away, re-reading his order and shaking her head in amazement.

"It's not like you could fight your way out of danger, anyway." murmured Megumi. Sano's head shot to look at her.

"What did you say?" he asked, his voice lined with menace for the first time.

"Megumi, you know why we don't take Sano with us. He's too useful as a spy to be recognized." said Kaoru, silently entreating Sano not to over-react while cursing Megumi in her head for being so callous. She knew that was one of Sano's sore-spots.

There was a moment of silence while Sano looked daggers at Megumi and she looked down her nose at him.

"Fine." spat Megumi at last, and they looked away from each other. There was another silence and the air sang with the tension, then Sano said,

"So Jou-chan, you seeing anybody?"

"Oh, for Heavens sake!" cried Kaoru. She knew it wasn't a come-on, it was just that her non-existent love-life seemed to be everybody's business nowadays.

"What? You don't want to be alone forever." Sano continued with his usual level of tact.

"Right that's it, I'm leaving." Kaoru announced dramatically. She slid out of her seat just as Tae appeared with her arms laden with food. Sano, catching sight of the steaming feast, straightened himself out and rubbed his hands together excitedly. Tae carefully put the plates down in front of him, then rubbed her aching arms.

"What do you say?" said Megumi, rather dejectedly.

"Fank 'ou, Me'umi." Sano sang, already stuffing his face, and flashed her a smile of chewed steak and pancakes. She looked away in disgust,

"Ugh, don't bother." she said, putting her hand to her mouth as if she was about to be sick. "You're disgusting, you know that?" Sano, thankfully, kept his mouth shut and instead he shrugged and batted his eyelashes at her.

"I trust you two will be able to handle anything that comes along by yourselves?" asked Kaoru. Megumi didn't reply but Sano gave her a thumbs-up then waved her away, so she wrapped her scarf around her neck, did up her coat and headed for the door.

Bracing herself, she pushed open the door, making the little bell jingle again. The cold wind hit her in the face as if it had been waiting for her. She jammed her hands in her pockets as it pulled her hair away from her, freezing her ears and chilling her neck. It was always worse than she remembered it, the winter, and she was soon longing for the warm diner. But she just bent her head and carried on, thinking God, I hate winter.

She was about a block away now and walking faster. She cursed her numbed legs for being so slow and keeping her out in the cold for longer than was absolutely necessary. Up in a tree next to her a raven cawed loudly. Kaoru hardly even noticed, but then a second one cawed at her a few steps ahead.

Oh, come on, not you too. Can't a girl get a break? she thought eyeing the raven. A third fluttered down ahead of her and suddenly they were all cawing loudly and insistently. Kaoru slowed down and looked closer at the birds.

She had only ran a few feet when she felt an iron grip on her arms and her world turned black. Well, blacker.