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"It's been six months, Nabiki! You always say you can find anyone, but you haven't managed to track either one of them down so far." The aggrieved female voice echoed through the yard of the large house complex, coming from an upstairs window. Several neighbours grumbled and closed their own windows, trying to keep the noise down. Those Tendo sisters were weird, loud, and annoying. The nice one had disappeared some time ago, leaving the loud one and the scary one. The father, known to the neighbourhood as 'The Fountain' behind his back due to his habit of bursting into tears when emotionally stressed, was fairly inoffensive, although his choice of house guests had raised eyebrows.

The two long-term guests currently staying were odd. One, a good-looking auburn-haired woman who appeared younger than many suspected she was, had seemingly given up her habit of carrying a cloth-wrapped sword with her everywhere she went. This had made many people feel slightly relieved although she had never to anyone's knowledge threatened anyone with it, or even unsheathed it, outside the house. The other one, a bald male in his early forties, who gave the misleading appearance of being somewhat overweight due to a heavily muscled body type, was in some way associated with a large Giant Panda, which could fairly often be seen wandering the area. Strangely, the panda and the man were never seen together.

Some of the members of the community had a frankly unbelievable reason as to why that was, but most people from outside the Neriman area tended to think their stories were idiotic. That said, most people from outside Nerima thought the entire place was insane at best, and incredibly dangerous at worst, the Furinkan suburb being the centre of insanity. Those that had even heard of it at least. For various reasons other districts tended to pretend that Nerima didn't exist. One or two of the other wards of the Greater Tokyo area had a certain sympathy for Nerima, infested as they were by odd magical goings-on, intermittent attacks by unnatural creatures, and occasional flurries of magical girls, who were normally skimpily dressed in impractical uniforms, with a near-total disregard for collateral damage.

These wards were rather envious of Nerima, as all it seemed to have to deal with were outbreaks of martial artistry. No one from outside could really see what the fuss was about, demons and demon-hunters seemed like much more trouble. The one or two civic leaders who had gone on fact-finding measures to Nerima to work out whether they could trade one problem for another had come back pale and shaking, needing copious amounts of alcoholic beverages before they said that they preferred the demons. They were at least fairly predictable.

"I know! I don't know what's going on, damn it, I can't work out how the hell they could have vanished so effectively. And stop shouting at me for god's sake!" A different, smoother, but no quieter voice rang out, causing the neighbours to turn the TV up. Most of them were vaguely regretting whatever had happened to make the nice one and the teenaged boy leave half a year ago. The very pretty red-headed girl who was often around had also vanished. The three of them were beginning to be missed, the older sister had somehow managed to keep a lid on the household to a large extent, and the boy and his sister/cousin/friend/something unbelievable, depending on who you talked to, had kept a lid on most of the district. The nice one had a calming influence on everyone she met, but since she'd been gone the Tendo household had become a loud and argumentative place. Both remaining sisters seemed to spend most of the time shouting at each other, the younger one often making a lot of noise practising some form of either martial arts or demolition work, no-one could quite decide what. It certainly involved a large number of concrete blocks.

The three older people in the house also seemed to consider arguing late into the night on a regular basis an acceptable occupation. This annoyed everyone. When the other peculiar visitors were taken into account, all of whom had their own notable and normally loud voices to be added to the mix, everyone within earshot was missing the young people who seemed to have escaped the madness while at the same time rather envying them. The dark-haired young woman with the odious laugh was particularly unnerving.

Although, when the pig-tailed boy and the red-head had been in residence, some quite spectacular displays of martial artistry had broken out, often at inconvenient times of day, they'd normally been over fairly quickly. The accompanying damage to the civic infrastructure was occasionally impressive, even if not on the level one heard stories of from that ward on the other side of Tokyo with the demon problem. That said, it was also usually repaired quite fast. Since the night six months ago when, after some altercation that involved a truly remarkable effect that looked and sounded from a distance more like something out of a rather good science fiction movie, the two, or possibly three, young people had vanished, things had gone downhill.

All the lesser martial artists in the area seemed to be fighting amongst themselves almost daily, and with a total lack of thought for innocent bystanders. The pig-tailed boy, whatever his faults, had been a professional, never endangering anyone not directly involved. The other characters didn't suffer from the same reluctance, as a result of which a number of passers-by had found themselves in hospital, luckily so far not seriously injured. The police had been called a number of times, without much effect, as they were outclassed by the abilities of the miscreants in question. They had tried their best, giving a number of them a stern talking to, but to be honest that was about all they could do. No normal cell could hold any of the freakishly overpowered people involved, and frankly they were hoping that if they ignored it long enough it would solve itself as a problem.

One or two of the more experienced officers were quietly running their own search for either the pig-tailed boy or the red-headed girl, hoping that if they were located they could be asked, persuaded, or bribed to come back and deal with the problem. The overenthusiastic sergeant who had announced that he would personally force either or both of them back at gunpoint had been restrained for his own good until he came to his senses. As bad as the current crop of martial artists was, no one who had ever had even the slightest interaction with the boy, girl, or boy/girl Ranma wanted to make them angry. Enough was known or suspected about the abilities of the person or people in question to make it clear how terminally stupid that action was likely to be, especially if the rumours of what had happened that night were accurate.

The remainder of the police were kept busy trying to clamp down on the steady rise of mostly petty crime that had accompanied the loss of the young martial artist. He or she had, almost incidentally, had a profound effect on gang trouble and petty theft. Not overtly as far as the general public was concerned, but enough that the people who were prone to cause trouble, especially ones who harmed their victims, had become aware that they tended to wake up in a ditch severely beaten. Normally with no idea what had happened, other than a memory of blue eyes in the dark, and a voice telling them that it wasn't nice to attack the weak and defenceless. For the last six months, though, the crime rate had been going slowly up, crimes against the person making most of the rise.

The only good part was that the perennial problem of a diminutive underwear thief seemed to have resolved itself, as the perpetrator of the constant thefts had apparently vanished soon after the elder Tendo daughter and the boy had. Every female in Nerima had relaxed just a little bit since then.

A couple of weeks ago, though, a rather nasty crime had happened. A young school-girl had been attacked and raped, nearly losing her life in the process. The attacker had apparently been scared off by a passing policeman, who had never even seen him. This was the first time in over two years that any sexual assault had taken place in Nerima, since the last time it had happened the young man who had committed it had turned himself in, with a ruptured testicle, dislocated arm, broken jaw, broken wrist, several broken ribs, innumerable bruises, and an overwhelming terror of any female with red hair that he kept for the rest of his life.

The red-headed girl really didn't like rapists.

One bright spark in the Neriman police force called in a favour at a large national newspaper and got the crime reported Japan-wide. A few days later there was a lot of screaming in one of the local parks, which attracted official attention when the sound died down to the point that the responding officers were sure that the cause had left. They found a middle-aged man, who turned out to be known to colleagues elsewhere in Tokyo for a number of crimes of violence, including rape, lying on the ground, beaten nearly to death and missing his right hand and his genitals. The wounds were unlike anything they'd ever seen before, looking more like something incredibly sharp and at the same time immensely hot had made perfectly clean cuts, cauterising the wounds simultaneously. The missing body parts were never found, although a small glassy crater a few metres away hinted at what had happened to them.

Next to him was a camera, the film from which when developed had a number of unpleasant shots on it, documenting not only the rape of the Neriman schoolgirl but three more until now unsolved assaults, one of which had resulted in a murder. While officially the police were investigating the assault on the rapist, unofficially the entire affair had been swept into the drawer labelled 'He damn well deserved what he got, the bastard, and anyway do you want to try to arrest her?' There wasn't a hope in hell that whoever had done it would ever get charged as far as the Neriman police were concerned. No-one else in the ward cared much either, although a number of the more perceptive citizens had a shrewd idea about what had taken place in the park and were privately supportive.

The level of violent crime dropped like a stone immediately after that incident, and although it had been slowly rising again, a number of the more intelligent criminals had left the area. The collection of martial artists informally known as the Nerima Wrecking Crew had, of course, completely missed the entire sequence of events and what it implied. Nabiki Tendo would eventually work it out, being nobodies fool, but the discovery would come far too late for her to follow up on.

"Look, Akane, I've got every contact I have keeping an eye out for them. It's costing a fortune." Nabiki got up from her desk, leaning over to close the window against the chill late evening air, much to the relief of the neighbours. "No one has seen a sign of them since about two days after that night. There were a couple of sightings near the train station, and another one in the main business district of central Tokyo, but after that the trail goes dead." She sat again, swivelling around in her chair to look at her sister who was sitting on her bed scowling and grinding her teeth, apparently furious. Since that night, one she would never forget, the younger girl had been steadily getting more unstable in her sisters opinion.

Sighing, Nabiki leaned back in her chair and thought back to that night. Three days after the wedding disaster, three days of near constant arguing, shouting, and fighting. A large part of it coming from or due to the younger girl she was looking at. The night they nearly lost their eldest sister, only to have her almost miraculously saved, then lost her again. The only good thing to have come from that was that the loss was due to her leaving rather than dying, although it looked like the former state was likely to be as permanent as the latter would have been. At least Akane wasn't a murderer, mused Nabiki, watching her younger sister fume. 'Not for lack of trying,' she thought uncharitably, regretting the thought almost immediately.

She had been finding herself feeling slightly more sympathetic to Ranma's point of view recently. Without the pigtailed boy to buffer Akane's tendency to boil over and hit things, everyone in the area was walking on eggshells. She regularly exploded into rage, but lacking a convenient martial-artist-based target, resorted to beating the crap out of a steadily increasing number of concrete blocks. Nabiki was buying them in by the pallet-load at the moment at ruinous expense. The only good part was that she had negotiated a bulk discount due to the quantities involved. She'd also had a brainwave a few weeks ago and found a purchaser for crushed concrete to be used as hardcore for building purposes. That at least got a small amount of the money back.

The brunette was dreading the day they could no longer to afford to keep her sister in blocks to break. The effect on the immediate environment, not to mention the people, was apt to be unpleasant. She hoped that they could somehow get Ranma back before that happened. Momentarily she regretted the likely damage to the boy, but decided that it was better that it happen to him than, for example, her. A slight thought of the expression in the eyes of the, at the time female, Ranma as she'd walked out the gate gave her pause, it had been the expression of someone who wasn't going to take being pushed any further. Shaking her head, she dismissed the thought. It was Ranma, he never hit Akane back...

Two days after Ranma and Kasumi had walked through the gate, both of them wearing the weirdest smiles Nabiki had ever encountered, the trail had gone dead. The day after that, a group of worryingly professional appearing men with a large van had come to the house, apparently under instruction to box up and take away the majority of Kasumi's belongings. They'd had a very well itemised list, signed by the missing sister, and an attitude that suggested they wouldn't take no for an answer. Nabiki had looked at the one who had knocked politely at the door, evaluating him carefully, then at his three compatriots, before stepping out of the way. She knew when she was out of her depth. Akane had taken a certain amount of persuading to stay quiet, while their father had just cried. Nothing particularly unusual there.

The middle sister knew that Ranma was behind this somehow, torn between being curious how he'd managed to get people who looked more like high-level members of the Yakuza rather than normal removals men to do the work, and feeling that she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know. They'd filled the boxes quietly and efficiently, documenting everything, given her a receipt, and left. Although she'd tried to have them followed the trail had gone cold immediately, they were apparently professional even in counter surveillance techniques. Yet more proof that they weren't quite what they presented themselves as.

She had found out that more or less at the same time someone had turned up at Furinkan High School with a letter giving them the authority to collect Ranma's school records and transfer him away from the school. There was no indication where he was transferred to, unfortunately. It suggested that he intended to complete his schooling, not that this gave her much to go on.

After that, there had been nothing. Happosai had disappeared sometime around then although they hadn't realised until considerably later that he wasn't coming back. The first few weeks had been very loud and quite hard on the immediate surroundings. Both Kunos had taken to walking in day or night, demanding to know where Ranma or the pig-tailed girl were, more or less interchangeably. Neither one of them having been present the night it all came to a head they didn't believe anything they were told. Eventually Ukyo and Ryoga, with some interference from Akane in the guise of 'help' had beaten them senseless, after which they tended to stay away. Nabiki knew from her contacts that both of the crazy siblings had been using their considerable resources to do much what she was doing, with a similar lack of results. In fact she knew rather more about their results than they did, due to her having arranged to intercept the information before it was given to them. In effect the Kuno family was paying for a lot of her searching, not that it was doing much good.

Cologne and the two Amazon teenagers were also looking using more non-standard methods. The brunette girl had at one point, exasperated, talked to the Amazon elder, finding her at least as frustrated as she was. In an unusually garrulous mood, mainly due to being furious, she'd let slip that she'd been attempting to trace either Ranma or Kasumi via mystical means. What had been driving her around the bend was that all her attempts had met with failure, which according to the wizened elder, meant that somehow the magical surveillance was being blocked. When she'd learned that Happosai had not been seen for a couple of months she had immediately exploded with rage, suspecting him of being the reason she was having no luck.

Nabiki had thought it was quite likely the old woman was correct, although she'd also thought it wasn't impossible that Ranma himself had learned or acquired methods of his own to deal with such tracking. He'd certainly had sufficient reason to do so even before the big blow up, as the Amazons had been a constant thorn in his side with their magic long before that day. She was under no illusions as to how effectively the martial artist could learn new techniques and methods when he had a reason to do so. She wouldn't have put it past him to learn some form of magic as a backup plan.

Whatever the truth of it, none of the considerable resources brought to bear on the problem of the missing martial artist or Tendo sister had produced any result other than large bills and huge frustration. The result had been chaos, even by the standards of the various members of the NWC. Everyone seemed to be at everyone's throats. Ryoga and Mousse had nearly killed each other for some reason neither one of them was clear on. Shampoo and Ukyo likewise. Akane was crushing blocks at a rate high enough to pave most of Nerima with the rubble produced, while the Kunos kept popping up in the background annoying everyone. Her father almost flooded the house for the first two weeks before, dehydrated and cried out, he'd gone on a massive bender, only to be slapped back into a slightly more sensible frame of mind by an unlikely saviour in the form of Genma.

Nodoka had spent a month walking around with her sword in her hand ready to use it on anyone who even looked at her oddly, before one day suddenly putting it under her bed and apparently forgetting about it. This was still puzzling Nabiki, but for various reasons she didn't feel like asking why. All three parents now spent most evenings getting morose and melancholy about all the good times, most of which were misremembered, and loudly wondering where they'd gone wrong. It was left to the younger members of the household to do the bulk of the practical work. In essence this mostly meant Nabiki, which annoyed her no end. Akane would occasionally help out, but the one thing she actively wanted to do, cook the meals, had been firmly taken over by Nodoka after the first couple of days.

The older woman had argued fiercely with the youngest sister, matters only being resolved when Akane was pushed far enough to try her own food. She'd had to beat it into submission first, which to a normal person would have been warning enough not to put any of it into her mouth. In her case the three days of projectile vomiting that followed such an ill-advised move had pretty much cured her of the desire to try again.

As a result of the loss of Kasumi the household was eating food that, while good, wasn't up to the previous standard, in a house that was much less neat and tidy. It was only since she had gone that the remaining people had realised what an extraordinary amount of work looking after a houseful of people really was, and how well she'd done it for all those years. Nabiki at least was feeling somewhat ashamed over how much they'd taken their older sister for granted. Akane had occasionally espoused a similar opinion, but normally then followed it with a rant about how it was all Ranma's fault for kidnapping the woman. She didn't appear to remember that it was Kasumi's decision to leave, and why.

Turning back to her computer, Nabiki dismissed her sister for the moment, brought back to today by the sound of an email registering in her inbox. Quickly opening it she read it, then slumped. "Damn. Another dead end."

"What was it?"

"A contact at a small university in Osaka claimed to have seen someone who looked a lot like Ranma in female form, only with blonde hair. She investigated and found it was definitely not her." The middle sister crossed another line off a very long list of dead leads.

"Are you completely sure? Maybe we should go and check ourselves." Glancing over her shoulder, Nabiki scowled.

"Yes, I'm sure. My contact was very thorough, she even got the girl's birth certificate. She's three years too old, five centimetres too tall, and her breasts aren't big enough. What more do you want? Anyway, we can't afford to go to Osaka right now." Glowering, Akane crossed her arms and stared back.

"Some intelligence genius you are. Outwitted by a dumb martial artist jock."

"Oh, for god's sake, sis. I've told you over and over, he's not dumb. That's been evident for a while now. I don't know how he's covered their tracks so well, he probably had help, but the one thing I am damn sure of is that he's a hell of a lot smarter than he let on all this time. I'd have found him for sure otherwise."

The other girl snorted. "Yeah, right. Him, smart? So why didn't he do better at school?" Nabiki shrugged.

"I have no idea. I'm pretty sure he could have, but for some reason he decided not to. I managed to get a copy of his transcripts and he was doing a lot better than we thought he was. Apparently he had some sort of deal with several of the teachers to downplay his marks in public. Again, I don't know why." Her sister looked unconvinced but dropped the subject. There was quiet for a while, only broken by the intermittent sound of grinding teeth, both sisters lost in their own thoughts. Eventually Akane spoke.

"So what's the next step?" she asked. Her sister looked pensive.

"I'm not sure. I have a few contacts that haven't checked back, so there might be something from one of them, but I'm not hopeful. I even talked to a couple of people I know in the police. They'd like Ranma back as well, they seem to think he was a positive influence on the neighbourhood as far as reducing crime went." Akane snorted disbelievingly but kept quiet otherwise. Her sister favoured her with a raised eyebrow, then continued after a few seconds. "They don't have any idea where he is either. My contact said they were actually quite impressed over how efficiently he's vanished. Again, it points to him having some sort of help. Who from is the mystery."

"OK, so he's got help. That doesn't help us, though, does it. We need to find him." Spinning her chair around Nabiki studied her sister for a while.

"I'm beginning to wonder why we need to find him," she said slowly. Akane looked at her in amazement.

"What do you mean?"

Scratching her forehead, the older sister thought about it for a moment. "Well, aside from the expense and frustration, what is all this searching managing to do? We're no closer to finding him now than we were six months ago. Even if we do track him down, what then? Ask nicely if he'll come back? After what happened, I'd be a little surprised if he didn't basically shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. It wasn't like she and Kasumi left under the best of terms." She shuddered a little at the memory. "The look in her eyes when she stood up from under all that rubble... I really thought for a moment she was going to kill everyone in the garden without mercy. I've never seen so much anger and pain in someone's eyes before."

Rubbing her eyes for a moment, she glanced at her sister. "And that attack she used on your mallet, the one she saved Kasumi with? It was like something out of a sci-fi movie. I don't think you saw it properly, you were too close, but it was like a solid beam of light that came from the rubble. The noise was incredible. I had no idea she was able to do anything like that and neither did anyone else." This was indeed true. When she'd mentioned it to Cologne, the old woman had gone very quiet for some time, then refused to discuss it. She'd got the impression that the elder was genuinely shocked and scared by what she'd seen that night. None of the younger people had paid a lot of attention to the implications of the surprise new attack, but Nabiki thought this was a serious mistake.

She'd examined the rubble pile closely the next day, finding the large piece of stone the ki beam had passed through on it's way to intercept Akane's mallet. There was a fifteen centimetre diameter hole piercing entirely through it, the edges of which were glass-smooth and parallel. It looked like it had been polished, or perhaps exposed to extreme heat. Even after passing through over thirty centimetres of granite, the beam had continued on through the ki mallet wielded by her sister, disrupting it very loudly, and when she traced it's path, she had noticed a semicircular notch in the tiles on the peak of the roof some forty metres away. Climbing up by way of a ladder she'd found this was also completely smooth and glassy. Curious, she'd measured both the hole in the stone block and the notch in the roof, finding that they were basically the same diameter, implying the beam had very little spread to it.

The possible implications of all this were very disturbing. Leaving aside how on earth the red-head had been able to aim the attack so precisely from under tons of detritus, or for that matter had even known what was happening and when to use it, how had she learned to produce such an attack? No one had ever seen her use anything like it before. It was devastatingly powerful, of that Nabiki was certain, to a level that made her extremely worried. She was aware that the martial artist had a remarkable respect for life, and also that he held back a lot of his more dangerous attacks in the encounters he had with his peers, but she had developed a sneaking suspicion that nobody realised quite how much he was holding back. The look on the girl's face as she'd risen from the ground like an avenging demon still made her wake up in a cold sweat on occasion. It was the face of someone who had reached their breaking point.

"I'm kind of starting to think that maybe we should let him go," the brunette said reluctantly. Akane glared, appalled.

"I don't care if you're chicken or not, but we're going to get him back. He kidnapped Kasumi, don't forget, and we have to rescue her." Nabiki sighed heavily.

"He didn't 'kidnap' Kasumi. You know damn well what happened. Our sister went with her willingly. You did nearly kill her. If it hadn't been for Ranma..." The middle Tendo was still haunted by the memory of the shock, fear, and betrayal in their elder sister's eyes, and the sudden simple joy that she'd glimpsed as the woman turned away from them and left. Akane looked away at the mention of her near-disastrous inadvertent attack on their sister, refusing to meet Nabiki's gaze. Memories of those few seconds when she knew beyond doubt that she'd killed her sister filled her until she pushed them down, yet again, by blaming it all on Ranma. If he hadn't hidden under all that debris for three days instead of coming out and taking his punishment like a man, she wouldn't have nearly hit Kasumi.

Wondering what was going through her sister's head, Nabiki watched her face, in fact coming quite close to what the other girl was thinking. After a little while she could see that the younger woman had dismissed whatever doubt she'd been feeling as her face once more filled with anger. "We're going to get him back," she repeated, abruptly standing. "He's got responsibilities to us, to me." Glaring at her sister she paced back and forth on the carpet. Nabiki sighed a little, yet again.

"Easier said than done," she muttered, turning back to her computer. More loudly, she commented, "We also need to figure out how to get more money in. In six months we've barely started repairing the Dojo, and the household budget is straining. We're likely to be eating rice and pickles again pretty soon unless we can start either making some heavy cuts, or earning more money." Casting a jaundiced eye at her sister, still wearing a hole in her carpet, she saw that the girl was pretty much ignoring her. "Akane? Are you paying attention?"

"Yes, yes, money, pickles, I heard you. What are you going to do about it?" the blue-haired girl snapped.

"Me? What about you? You could, I don't know, perhaps get a job or something? You've graduated now, you don't have to go to school any more, and you don't have any university plans at the moment. Use some of that free time and earn your keep!" Nabiki was losing patience again.

Stopping in the middle of the room and raising her voice, Akane retorted, "Well, you're the one who's always selling information and photos and blackmailing people. Can't you just do more of that?" Nabiki glared back.

"Unlike you, I do have university plans, which start quite soon. I'm having enough trouble earning money for that, never mind paying for a lot of the household as well. Father brings in something from his council job, Nodoka has contributed a fair amount, and even Genma has kicked in a little now and then. Although he probably stole it, the indolent bastard. You're just a net drain on the finances. You're eighteen now, time you started to help." The younger girl went dark red about the face and neck.

Even with the window shut the shouting annoyed the neighbours for hours.

"Damn and blast!" the voice shouted, accompanied by a crash of breaking ceramic. Shampoo looked up from her work in the kitchen, wincing at the yell. Wiping her hands she walked further into the private part of the building, peering cautiously into Cologne's work room, unwilling to enter without permission. Not after what had happened to Mousse that time...

"Great Grandmother? Are you all right?" she asked politely in Mandarin. The elder looked over her shoulder, glowering, then reluctantly nodded.

"Yes, child. I'm sorry, I'm getting frustrated. Every time I think I might have figured out a method to track that pig-tailed menace, I find that someone, somehow, has already thought of it and blocked it. I'm running out of ideas." Turning back to the remains of what had been her best scrying bowl she ruefully poked through the shiny fragments, glad it had had simply shattered rather than exploding. The backlash from the spell she'd tried could easily have caused much more serious damage. "I wish I knew who was helping him. Whoever it is has a serious amount of power. That spell should have punched through pretty much any anti-scrying countermeasure, instead it just bounced. It's got to be Happosai. That little pervert, despite his disgusting ways, knows a hell of a lot about all sorts of things he shouldn't." Shampoo stepped just inside the doorway, looking curiously at the wreckage.

"Are you sure it wasn't husband?" Cologne shook her head.

"How could he possibly have learned to work magic? It takes a certain mindset which I don't think he has." Shampoo wasn't convinced.

"You know what he's like when he decides to learn something. Nothing stops him." This was indeed true and the elder considered the idea carefully for a while.

"I'll admit that future son-in-law does have an impressive ability to adapt and learn when he is up against a threat, but... It still seems very unlikely to me. I think it's Happosai." She muttered to herself, not intending Shampoo to overhear, "I should have killed the little shit decades ago." The young woman heard, but suppressed the smile that threatened to come on as she didn't think her great grandmother was in the sort of mood that would appreciate it.

"Have you managed to learn anything?" she asked instead. "It's been over a year since he and the nice sister vanished." Sweeping the debris into a bag, Cologne dropped it into a waste bin, sat down, and sighed.

"Nothing. Nearly fourteen months, I've lost track of how many spells, every contact I have anywhere, and nothing. Not one verifiable sighting or even decent rumour of him being sighted, or the Tendo girl for that matter. I don't even know if they're still in Japan. Hell, for all I know they're not even in this reality or time any more." The girl with the long lilac hair looked askance at the old woman at this, which made her grin a little. "Come on, you've seen enough over the last few years to know that where that boy is concerned, almost nothing is impossible. But yes, you're right, it's unlikely that he's jumped through a portal to hell or anything like that."

Leaning against the wall, Shampoo gazed unseeingly at the floor. Eventually, she looked up. "Do you think we'll ever find him?" she asked softly. Cologne shrugged.

"I hope so. He'd be an incredible asset for the tribe. And... by now I'm actually getting worried. I hope he's all right." They looked at each other for a moment, sharing a genuine concern for the boy, difficult as he was.

"Has the mercenary girl had any more luck?" Shampoo asked after a few seconds. Cologne shook her head.

"No, not that I am aware. Not that she'd tell me if she did, but I'd have found out by now anyway. She's still trying although the last I heard they were running out of money to pay for the search. I believe that she's somehow managed to subvert most of the investigators working for the Kuno children, very sneaky, she's getting the rich idiots to pay for the bulk of her search. But, just like us, she's found nothing."

There was silence for a moment, then Shampoo nodded, turning to go back to work. As she left the elder reached for yet another scroll, opening it and looking for a spell she hadn't tried yet.